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Cuban dissidents arrive in Spain hailing 'new era'

Journalists freed as Castro issues warning over nuclear war threat

Roughly 24 hours before, the seven men were locked in a Cuban prison cell, just a small sampling of the 75 dissidents that Fidel Castro incarcerated during his 2003 crackdown.

But now, after an overnight flight from Havana, they sat in a row inside a Madrid airport press room, thin but clean-shaven, sporting clean suits and ties and staring blankly into the television cameras.

They made silent victory signs. A few attempted a weak smile. One of them delivered a subdued joint statement of gratitude, and hope.

"This is going to be brief because we have spent many hours without sleep," one of the freed dissidents, Julio Cesar Galvez Rodriguez, began. "We are the first wave of a group of prisoners of conscience who have spent seven years in captivity. We have left 45 brothers behind, as well as many other political prisoners in jails and hospitals, and we have the hope that those who remain will have the liberty that we now enjoy."

He then paid tribute to the "martyrdom" of political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo, who died in February after an 85-day hunger strike, and said: "This is a new stage for the future of Cuba."

The seven men are the first of 52 political prisoners that Cuban authorities have agreed to set free in the next four months on condition that Spain accepts them. The release agreement followed negotiations with the Catholic Church and the Spanish foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, who is pressing the EU to relax its hard-line policy toward Cuba.

Hours before the political prisoners left Havana, Cuba's 83-year-old revolutionary leader, Fidel Castro, appeared on national television in a taped interview, his most extensive since falling ill in 2006. As Cuban exiles around the world held their breath, Mr Castro sat behind a small desk wearing a plaid shirt and windbreaker and chatted about everything – except the prisoner release. He did, however, manage to muster up 75 minutes worth of conversation about heavy US military spending and the threat of nuclear war if the US enforces international sanctions against Iran.

"I believe the danger of war is growing a lot. They are playing with fire," he told the country as family members of the dissidents rushed through last-minute visa applications at the Spanish consul in Havana.

A first flight, operated by Air Europa, left on Monday night and landed on Spanish soil early yesterday afternoon with dissidents Lester Gonzalez, Omar Ruiz, Antonio Villarreal, Julio Cesar Galvez Rodriguez, Jose Luis Garcia Paneque and Pablo Pacheco Avila. A second flight, operated by Iberia, carried the most well-known of the group, 60-year-old journalist Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso, a correspondent for Reporters without Borders.

The seven men were accompanied by 30 family members. Under the agreement, the families will be allowed to return to Cuba, and their possessions are supposedly safe. Spanish officials say they will help the former prisoners find housing in Spain, but they are free to move to a third country, such as the United States.

Prominent members of the Cuban community in Europe went to the Spanish airport to meet the group, including the Cuban writer Zoe Valdes, who flew in from Paris for the occasion, and Blanca Reyes, European representative of the Ladies in White, a group of wives and mothers of political prisoners who stage weekly protests in Havana.

"I feel a mixture of joy and pain," said Ms Reyes, whose husband was released from a solitary Cuban cell, "too small to spread your arms," after negotiations with Spain five years ago. "It is sad that to gain their freedom, they must abandon their homeland."

Ms Reyes and other members of the Cuban community in Spain doubt that the release signifies a new era of openness – but rather a politically expedient act driven by economic crisis and the street protests over Orlando Zapata Tamayo's death.

"The Castro brothers are specialists in liberating prisoners for the benefit of friendly politicians, and then in a few months they replenish their jail quota with new prisoners," said Guillermo Gortazar, president of the Hispano-Cuban Foundation in Madrid. "They treat them like merchandise."

But dissident Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso sounded less gloomy as he fielded a reporter's question – one of only two allowed in a tightly-controlled arrival. Does he feel like a pawn?

"No, we do not feel manipulated," he said. "We are on a path that could be the beginning of change in the country." He then offered lighthearted "congratulations" to the Spanish for its World Cup victory.

Castro's TV address: 'The US does not play fairly'

"The US does not play fairly and never says the truth. US foreign policy is better described as the policy of total impunity."

"The US is activating the machinery to destroy Iran. When they launch war, they're going to launch it there. It cannot help but be nuclear... I believe the danger of war is growing a lot. "

"To do this on the basis of a calculation that the Iranians are going to come running out to ask the Yankees for forgiveness is absurd... The worst [for America] is the resistance they will face there, which they didn't face in Iraq. When Bush attacked Iraq, Iraq was a divided country. Iran is not."

Free at last:

Lester Gonzalez

Independent journalist from Santa Clara, and the youngest of the 75 opposition members arrested in Cuba in March 2003. Also a member of Reason, Truth and Freedom Human Rights Movement. Sentenced to 20 years. He reportedly had a number of health problems in prison and suffered anxiety from being separated from his daughter.

Antonio Villarreal

Signature collector from Santa Clara for the Varela Project democracy drive, which gathered thousands of signatures from Cuban voters seeking a referendum on civil rights. He was sentenced to 15 years in prison.

Pablo Pacheco Avila

Independent journalist from Ciego de Avila, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

Jose Luis Garcia Paneque

A plastic surgeon from Las Tunas who received a 24-year sentence. He was a member of the unofficial Cuban Independent Medical Association and also involved in independent journalism.

Julio Cesar Galvez Rodriguez

A journalist from Havana, he was allegedly fired in 2001 from two official radio stations for collaborating with Cuba Free Press. He was sentenced to 15 years.

Omar Ruiz

An independent journalist from Santa Clara working for a group not recognised by Cuba's government. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison. More than 60 years old, this son of an evangelical pastor reportedly has prostate problem and high blood pressure.

Ricardo Gonzalez Alfonso

An independent journalist from Havana who did work for Reporters Without Borders, and maintained a private library at his home. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.