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MONROVIA (Reuters) - A team of Cuban doctors and nurses arrived in Liberia on Wednesday to help to fight the worst outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus on record alongside a U.S. military mission deploying in the West Africa country.
A jet from the national airline Cubana carrying the 51 medical personnel touched down at 6.45 a.m. EDT at the Roberts International Airport outside Monrovia, a stone's throw from a new Ebola clinic built by U.S. forces.
The doctors and nurses, dressed in white uniforms, disembarked from the aircraft waving Cuban flags.
The United States is gradually deploying troops to Liberia as part of a 3,000-strong mission to help overwhelmed West African nations cope with the epidemic by building Ebola Treatment Units and training local medical staff.
Washington's relations with Havana have remained frosty since the Cold War, when the United States broke diplomatic ties and imposed a comprehensive trade embargo on the communist-run Caribbean island.
"We are ready 100 percent to collaborate with the Americans," Cuba's Ambassador to Liberia Jorge Lefebre Nicolas told Reuters at the airport. "We should fight against Ebola and anything else should be put aside."
"We cannot see our brothers from Africa in difficult times and we are there folding our arms in Cuba," he said.
Cuban and U.S. personnel have worked together before, notably after the Haitian earthquake in 2010. Some Cuban officials have voiced hope that collaboration in fighting Ebola could help mend relations between the long-time adversaries.
The Ebola epidemic has killed more than 4,500 people since it was detected in March, most of them in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). While outbreaks in Senegal and Nigeria have been declared over, there have been a few cases in Spain and the United States.
Cuba is sending the largest medical contingent to West Africa from any country in the world. The first group of 165 doctors and nurses deployed to Sierra Leone at the start of October and another group of around 40 medical staff was due to arrive in neighbouring Guinea on Wednesday.
Cuban authorities have trained 461 doctors and nurses but so far only 256 have been sent on missions scheduled to last six months. The others remain in Cuba awaiting an assignment that depends on funding from the United Nations, an invitation from the host countries and suitable infrastructure on the ground.
Liberia, which is still struggling to recover from a devastating 1989-2003 civil war, has seen its healthcare system buckle. It had only around 50 trained doctors before the outbreak, several of whom have since died from the virus, and it has desperately appealed for foreign health workers.
Liberia's deputy minister of health told the Cubans their arrival meant that newly built Ebola Treatment Units (ETUs) in the dilapidated ocean-front capital could be put to work.
"Given that you are here in Liberia now, we will be going to the jungles and towns to make sure that all sick people will be brought to the ETU so you can assist to treat them," Matthew Flomo said.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry singled out the Cuban effort in West Africa for praise last week. The New York Times in an editorial also urged President Barack Obama to move towards restoring diplomatic ties and ending the five-decade old trade embargo.
The Caribbean island has sent medical brigades to disaster sites around the world since the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power.
Besides medical diplomacy, Cuba sends doctors overseas in exchange for money or goods, notably Venezuelan oil, making professional services a top export earner. More than 50,000 Cuban medical personnel are posted in 66 countries.
Nicknamed the "army of white robes", and citing a long history of Cuban medical missions, the doctors told Reuters in Havana before deploying they felt a sense of duty to fight Ebola and were willing to take the risk.
Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in Havana; Writing by Daniel Flynn; Editing by David Lewis and Tom Heneghan