Castro tricks ever-present death squads

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WHEN FIDEL CASTRO arrived in the Dominican Republic for a Caribbean summit last weekend he flew in, as always, on one of two identical Tupolev airliners. That way, anyone trying to blow him up would have only a 50- 50 chance of doing so. Two Dominican fighter planes escorted the Tupolevs.

The Cuban leader drove into Santo Domingo in one of three identical black limousines, for the same reason. A helicopter followed and a patrol boat steamed alongside the coastal road. As Mr Castro put it in a speech on Monday, he probably holds the world record for assassination attempts against him. But he has survived to celebrate his 72nd birthday this month and looks likely to celebrate 40 years in power on New Year's Day. It used to be the CIA that tried to eliminate him, with everything from an exploding cigar to a spiked milkshake. More recently, he has been targeted by Miami-based Cuban exiles.

The Jaragua hotel in Santo Domingo, where Mr Castro stayed, surrounded by 100 of his security men on one floor, reported receiving dozens of calls or faxes threatening to kill its most famous guest. Most appeared to come from Miami.

The Dominican Republic took the calls with a pinch of salt, but there were other reports that it took more seriously. Visitors of Cuban origin were screened before Mr Castro arrived. A Cuban-born man with a Spanish passport was arrested after being found with a notebook containing details of Mr Castro's travel plans. Police said they did not have enough evidence to suggest he was plotting to kill Mr Castro, but the man would be deported.

This month The Miami Herald said a well-known Cuban exile, Luis Posada Carriles, was planning to kill Mr Castro during his visit to the Dominican Republic. Mr Posada, 68, was accused of being behind the explosion of a Cuban airliner near Barbados in 1976 in which 73 people died. He spent 10 years in jail. He also led a team of Cuban exiles who planned to kill Mr Castro on a visit to Colombia four years ago, and tried to blow up a Cuban freighter in Honduras in 1993.

Mr Posada said he had masterminded bombings around Havana last year aimed at scaring off tourists. He said he used Guatemalan tourists to smuggle in plastic explosives in nappies, shampoo bottles and shoes. Initially, Mr Posada told The New York Times, the most influential Cuban exile lobby group, the Miami-based Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) had financed the Havana bombings. Later, however, he said he had deliberately "disinformed" the newspaper to protect the identities of his real backers.

Two CANF leaders are expected to be indicted this week in connection with another alleged plot to kill Mr Castro, while the Cuban leader attended a summit on the Venezuelan island of Margarita last November. Before the summit, a US Coast Guard vessel stopped a cabin cruiser off Puerto Rico and found two sniper rifles, ammunition, uniforms and military equipment. One of the four Miami-based Cuban exiles on board said they were planning to kill Mr Castro on Margarita.

Investigations disclosed that one of the rifles belonged to Francisco "Pepe" Hernandez, the CANF president, and that the cruiser was registered to another CANF executive, Jose Antonio Llama. Their lawyers say they are likely to be indicted this week in Puerto Rico, that they acknowledge ownership of the rifle and boat but were not involved in any plot to kill Mr Castro.

As for the bearded leader himself, he proved he was very much alive in the speech on Monday to students in Santo Domingo that lasted almost as long as four football matches. Joking, to applause, about the assassination plots, he said: "Men die but people are immortal. There are often reports that Castro's time is running out. But the fools and idiots don't realise that's not what's important. What value would the revolution have if it depended only on a Castro?"