US fugitive held in Cuba after 22 years

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Latin America Correspondent

Robert Vesco, the multi-millionaire American financier who has been a fugitive from US justice for more than 20 years, has reportedly been arrested in Cuba and may be extradited to the US for trial.

White House officials said Cuba had confirmed the detention of Mr Vesco, 59, who fled the US in 1973 after being indicted for allegedly siphoning $224m (pounds 141m) from a Geneva-based mutual fund company, Investors Overseas Services, which he bought from the British financier Bernard Cornfeld. If extradited, however, he will first face trial in Jacksonville, Florida, on charges that he helped Colombia's Medellin cartel smuggle cocaine via the Bahamas - and Cuban airspace - to the US, after settling in Cuba with the blessing of President Fidel Castro in the early Eighties.

The 1989 Jacksonville indictment charges him with helping a Colombian drug lord, Carlos Lehder, set up a cocaine waystation at Norman's Cay in the Bahamas and with arranging unchallenged passage over Cuba for Lehder's shipments. Lehder was caught and is serving a life sentence in the US.

It was not clear why President Castro has decided to turn Mr Vesco in after allowing him to live in luxury in Cuba for 13 years; one of his three villas is close to Mr Castro's own residence and he owns two aircraft and a yacht. US officials denied the detention was a quid pro quo for last month's US agreement to send any future Cuban boat people back to the island.

Western diplomats in Havana suggested the move was part of Mr Castro's attempts to improve relations with the US and to encourage an easing of the economic embargo. After Mr Castro cracked down on drug smugglers in the late Eighties, Mr Vesco's presence and alleged illicit activities may have become embarrassing to the Cuban leader, they said.