Cuba breaks Panama links over death plot

Cuba severed diplomatic relations with Panama on Thursday over a decision by the Panamanian President, Mireya Moscoso, to pardon four Cuban exiles who had been convicted for their part in an assassination attempt on the Cuban President, Fidel Castro.

Cuba severed diplomatic relations with Panama on Thursday over a decision by the Panamanian President, Mireya Moscoso, to pardon four Cuban exiles who had been convicted for their part in an assassination attempt on the Cuban President, Fidel Castro.

The Cuban government reacted within hours, issuing a statement saying: "The Revolutionary Government announces that beginning this minute, 4.15pm, diplomatic relations are broken for an indefinite period between the Republic of Cuba and the Republic of Panama."

According to the statement, President Moscoso's action "constitutes an affront to the victims of terrorism and their families, and transforms the President of Panama into an accomplice of terrorism and a responsible party in the impunity of the four assassins".

Citing "humanitarian reasons," Ms Moscoso pardoned the men in the waning days of her presidency despite warnings from Cuban authorities that such a move would provoke a break in relations with Panama. The Panamanian president-elect, Martin Torrijos, the son of the former dictator General Omar Torrijos, will take office on 1 September.

Mr Torrijos attributed the decision entirely to Ms Moscoso, and said he would try to re-establish relations with Cuba when he assumes the presidency.

In a news conference on Thursday, Ms Moscoso said she had received death threats.

"We know that if they stay, they would face the possibility of being extradited to Venezuela or Cuba, where I am sure they would have been killed," Ms Moscoso told reporters.

In April, a Panamanian court sentenced Luis Posada Carriles and Gaspar Jimenez Escobedo to eight years in prison and Guillermo Novo Sampoll and Pedro Remon Rodriguez to seven years for endangering public safety and falsifying documents. The court ruled there was not enough evidence to convict them for attempted murder in a failed bomb attempt at a University of Panama auditorium where Mr Castro was intending to speak at the Ibero-American Summit in November 2000.

The four men were arrested that month. Cuba has been requesting the extradition of the men since 2001, and Venezuela has attempted to extradite Posada Carriles, who escaped from a jail there in 1985 while awaiting a retrial for allegedly blowing up a Cuban Aviation plane in 1976.

Cuban authorities have accused Posada Carriles of several times attempting to assassinate President Castro.

Cuba has charged Novo Sampoll with numerous attempted bombings, in addition to participating in the assassination of the former Chilean defence minister Orlando Letelier, who was killed in a car bombing in Washington DC in 1976.

Cuban authorities accuse Remon Rodriguez of the murders of a Cuban diplomat and a Cuban émigré.

Jimenez Escobedo, Novo Sampoll and Remon Rodriguez received a hero's welcome in Opa-locka Airport in Miami on Thursday amid cheering relatives and anti-Castro activists. All three are US citizens and have houses in Miami. The whereabouts of Posada Carriles, a 76-year-old former CIA operative, are not known.

The Cuban government has accused exiles of lobbying Ms Moscoso at the behest of the US government. However, Adam Ereli, a US State Department spokesman, insisted that Washington did not pressure Ms Moscoso into granting the pardons. "This was a decision made by the government of Panama," he said.

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