Castro's health looms at summit of US foes

Cuban President Fidel Castro’s state of health loomed over a summit of non-aligned nations on Friday at which Iran and other prominent opponents of United States policy sought to forge a united front.

The 80-year-old communist leader who fell ill in late July has three opportunities on Friday to appear before delegates: at a group photograph, the opening of the formal presidential session of the six-day summit, and later at a state dinner.

State television showed Castro standing up briefly to greet friend and ally Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan President, on Thursday. Chavez said later Castro was walking and singing.

The description will appear optimistic if Castro, who since 1959 has embodied opposition to the United States, does not make his first public appearance since he temporarily ceded power to his brother Raul Castro on July 31.

Chavez himself played down the importance of Castro’s presence. “Even if he is not physically among us today or tomorrow [Friday], that doesn’t matter. He is running all this,” he said.

To some, the summit could appear a rogue’s gallery of US foes, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and leaders from North Korea, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Bolivia, all gathering on an island under a US embargo since 1962.

Washington was eager to play down such associations, pointing out the summit also included countries such as Pakistan, India, the Philippines and Indonesia that have forged closer alliances with the United States since the September 11 attacks.

Senior leaders from Iraq and Afghanistan, both recent U.S. allies, were also due to attend.

Friends of America

“We have a lot of friends who are represented at this meeting—Indonesia, India among them,” State Department spokesperson Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington.

“It’s a gathering that has its origins in another era. ... And I think it’s really up to the participants and the member states to see what it is that they make of this gathering.”

The conference’s final document was still under negotiation and included sharp criticism of Israel over its recent war in Lebanon and a separate document supporting Iran’s right to pursue nuclear energy.

The non-aligned movement, established by states to assert independence from Washington and Moscow during the Cold War, now includes 116 nations and a wide range of agendas.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf were due to hold talks in Havana on Saturday, hoping to ease tensions after a year of recriminations over terror attacks and Kashmir.

The two leaders last met a year ago at the United Nations, but expectations for the talks were modest given political pressure both faced at home, the officials said. - Reuters



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