Tue, Sep 12, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Fidel Castro's presence at Nonaligned Movement summit remains uncertain

FIGUREHEAD The bearded leader has long been a major mover in the 116-nation group, but officials said that they could not confirm his attendance this year

AP , HAVANA

A meeting of the Nonaligned Movement was scheduled to begin yesterday amid uncertainty about the role ailing Cuban President Fidel Castro will play, if any, in hosting the leaders of developing countries from Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.

Cuba's Foreign Minister said on Sunday he could not confirm whether Castro would host a dinner for visiting leaders as noted in a schedule released earlier in the day, raising new doubts over Castro's participation in the summit.

If Castro did host the dinner on Friday as listed in the schedule, it would mark his first public appearance since he underwent intestinal surgery more than a month ago.

Representatives of most of the 116 members of the Nonaligned Movement are expected at the meeting in Havana, which culminates on Friday and Saturday in a summit of more than 50 heads of state and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Formed in 1961, the Nonaligned Movement was originally comprised of nations trying to form a third global force through a policy of nonalignment with the US and the Soviet Union.

But heading into the meeting, Cuban officials have said the movement is still relevant despite the end of the Cold War, with smaller, developing countries banding together to resist the intervention and aggression of more powerful nations.

Castro has long been a major player in the movement and a schedule sent to the media on Sunday morning listing him as hosting a dinner for visiting dignitaries, which seemed to end speculation over whether he would make any appearance at this week's gathering.

But Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque's refusal to confirm that -- and his subsequent comments -- cast new doubts about whether Castro would participate.

"Fidel is recovering satisfactorily, the worst has been left behind," Perez Roque told a news conference.

"I cannot yet confirm his presence at the dinner," he said.

"I can confirm that the head of the Cuban delegation at that moment will be offering those dignitaries that dinner," he said.

"If Fidel is not there, then Raul will act as host at the dinner," Perez Roque added, referring to the 80-year-old leader's brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro, 75, who is acting as Cuba's provisional leader.

"Logically, the physical absence of Fidel in all of the summit work constitutes a notable loss," Perez Roque said.

"All of us would like him to head the delegation and be there all the time. If that does not occur, we have made great preparations under his personal direction," he said.

After the news conference, a different version of the Nonaligned Movement's meeting schedule was sent to international journalists permanently accredited in Cuba with a note saying it was the "valid" version. Although the dinner on Friday night was still listed, any mention of Castro hosting it had been removed.

Fidel Castro announced July 31 that he had undergone emergency surgery for an undisclosed intestinal ailment and provisionally handed over power as president to his brother Raul.

The nature of Fidel Castro's surgery and his specific ailment have been treated as a state secret although photos and statements from him have been released.

Earlier in the week, Castro said in a statement published in state media he would be able to meet with some visiting dignitaries but gave the sense that those meetings would be small and private.

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