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Ladies in White march on Cuba crackdown anniversary

HAVANA (Reuters) - With tourists looking on, hundreds of pro-government protesters shouted down 40 members of the Cuban opposition group “Ladies in White” in Old Havana on the anniversary Thursday of a 2003 crackdown on dissidents.

The Ladies in White, a group made up of family members of imprisoned dissidents, shout slogans during a march in Havana, March 17, 2010. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

State security agents kept the two sides separated during a loud verbal showdown in the Cuban capital’s historic center and principal tourist attraction.

It was the fourth of seven days of marches scheduled to protest Cuba’s jailing of 75 opponents and the third in a row in which the women have been confronted by government supporters. On Wednesday, Cuban police grabbed the dissidents by their hair, dragged them into a bus and drove them away.

The Ladies in White, whose members wore their traditional white clothes and marched with flowers in hand, is made up of wives and mothers of the 75 jailed dissidents, most of whom remain behind bars.

“Today marks the seventh anniversary of the unjust imprisonment of our family members,” said Ladies in White leader Laura Pollan, whose husband, Hector Maseda, is serving a 20-year jail sentence.

The commemoration of what is known as Havana’s 2003 “Black Spring” comes amid international condemnation of the Cuban government for the February 23 death of jailed dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo after an 85-day hunger strike protesting prison conditions.

Police did not intervene as Thursday’s dueling marchers passed through Old Havana’s narrow streets, their numbers at times forcing tourists along popular Calle Obispo to press against buildings to let them pass.

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“I don’t know if they are for or against. I don’t know who they are,” said German tourist Torstin Gesche as he waited for the marchers to pass.

Throughout the protest march, government supporters danced along the streets, shouting “Vive Fidel! Viva Raul! This street belongs to Fidel.”

The Ladies in White shouted “Freedom!” and “Zapata lives.”

Fidel Castro, 83, ruled Cuba for 49 years after leading Cuba’s 1959 revolution and ceded power to his brother Raul Castro two years ago due to age and ill health.

The United States and Europe have condemned communist-led Cuba for Zapata’s death and also for its handling of another hunger striker, dissident Guillermo Farinas, who is demanding the Cuban government release 26 ailing political prisoners.

He has not eaten since February 24 and for the last week has been in a hospital in his home town of Santa Clara, where he is receiving liquids intravenously.

Another former political prisoner, Orlando Fundora, began a hunger strike last week and was said to be in a Havana hospital.

The Ladies in White were on their way to his home on Wednesday when police broke up their march. They have said they will march for seven days to mark the Black Spring anniversary.

Cuba’s government has described Zapata and Farinas as common criminals who became dissidents because of material benefits they received from its enemies.

It routinely portrays government opponents as “mercenaries” working for the United States and other foes.

Editing by Jeff Franks, Pascal Fletcher, Doina