Castro 'looking good' in first public outing for four years

Fidel Castro has made his first public appearance since falling ill in 2006 and relinquishing the leadership of Cuba, the country's state-controlled media has reported.

Castro, 83, remains the head of Cuba's Communist Party and its talismanic revolutionary leader, despite having handed the reins of government to his 79-year-old brother, Raul. His emergence coincides with the decision of his brother's regime to begin the biggest release of political dissidents in years.

Photographs taken by Fidel Castro's son Alex were released to the government website Cubadebate, after snatched pictures from a cameraphone were posted on blogs run by state-supporting journalists. Looking thin, but healthy, and in smiling and animated poses, Castro was shown talking with directors of the National Centre of Scientific Investigations at a ceremony to celebrate the institution's 45th anniversary last Wednesday.

News of the visit first came out on a pro-government blog, which posted pictures of the former dictator waving to admirers. The blogger, Rosa Baez, wrote that Castro was spotted making a "surprise visit" to the centre on Wednesday and stopped to greet and "throw kisses" to the group that waited for a chance to see him.

"He is thin, but looked good and, according to our director, is very good mentally," wrote Ms Baez, whose work appears on a website called Bloggers and Correspondents of the Revolution.

In the photos, the white-bearded Castro is dressed in a sports jacket, as he has in virtually all photographs published since he went into seclusion. Until now, official pictures have shown him meeting visiting dignitaries in his rooms, rather than making public appearances. Last year, the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez said that Castro had been going for walks near his Havana home, but no photos were released to confirm that.

Castro fell ill in July 2006, handing power to his brother on a temporary basis and then, in early 2008, relinquishing the presidency for good. He has continued to wield influence by writing opinion columns in state-run media and through his behind-the-scenes power.

After leading a revolution that toppled a US-backed dictator, Castro ruled Cuba for 49 years and, with his many televised speeches and numerous public appearances, dominated Cuban life.

His first public appearance in years comes as Cuba prepares to release 52 political prisoners, all jailed in a crackdown on the opposition in 2003 while Castro was still in power. The deal was brokered last week by Catholic Church leaders and is the largest release of dissidents since 1998.

The released prisoners will be flown into exile in Spain. Over the weekend, families waited excitedly for news.

Irene Viera, the wife of one prisoner, Julio Cesar Galvez, said she and her son, who live in Havana, had been called in for medical examinations yesterday ahead of the trip to Spain. "I'm already saying goodbye to friends," she said.

Families of other prisoners said state security agents had advised them to be ready for departure at any time. Moralinda Paneque, the mother of Jose Luis Garcia Paneque, told the news agency Reuters that she had been informed her son had left a prison near the city of Las Tunas and was being driven the 410 miles to Havana by state security agents.

She said the government's plan was to gather the family in the Cuban capital, where they would take a flight together to Madrid.