Castro, McCain spar over Cuban torture in Vietnam

HAVANA, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro took on front-running U.S. Republican presidential candidate John McCain on Monday, accusing him of lying about Cubans torturing American prisoners of war in Vietnam.

At a campaign stop in Miami last month, the Arizona senator told anti-Castro exiles that American POWs held with him in Hanoi were tortured by "a couple of Cubans."

"His accusation against the Cuban revolutionaries ... are completely unethical," Castro wrote in an article published by the ruling Communist Party newspaper Granma.

"The commandments of the religion you practice prohibit lying," he said of McCain, who was raised an Episcopalian and calls himself a Christian.

McCain, a Navy pilot when he was shot down over North Vietnam in 1967, says he was tortured by his Vietnamese captors over more than five years in captivity. Cuba and North Vietnam were Cold War allies of the Soviet Union at the time.

McCain has vowed to keep up decades-old U.S. pressure for political change in Cuba's one-party state. That has included a travel ban and trade and financial sanctions enforced a few years after Castro's 1959 revolution on the Caribbean island, which lies just 90 miles (135 km) from the U.S. coast.

Castro's criticism brought a sharp retort from McCain as he campaigned in Annapolis, Maryland.

"For me to respond to Fidel Castro, who has oppressed and repressed his people and who is one of the most brutal dictators on Earth, for me to dignify any comments he might make is certainly beneath me," he said at a press conference.

"It's a matter of record and you can ask several of the POWs who had direct contact with some, some thug that came to Hanoi with an underling assistant."

In Miami on Jan. 25, McCain had said: "There's a person I want you to help me find when Cuba is free, and that's that Cuban that came to the prison camps of North Vietnam and tortured and killed my friends. We'll get him and bring him to justice, too."

Castro, in Monday's article "The republican candidate," said he ordered the translation of McCain's 1999 book "Faith of My Fathers" into Spanish and rejected its account of a Cuban nicknamed "Fidel" who could "torture a prisoner until death."

Castro, 81, has not appeared in public since emergency stomach surgery forced him to hand over power to his brother Raul more than 18 months ago. But he has kept himself in the minds of Cubans with a prolific flow of articles.

Castro visited North Vietnam in 1973 to show his support for the communist-led country in the midst of its war with the United States. Cuba provided doctors and military engineers who took part in the widening of the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

Castro said the Vietnam War ended in a disastrous withdrawal by the United States.

"All they achieved was a candidate for the Republican Party 41 years later," he wrote. (Reporting by Anthony Boadle and Andy Sullivan in Annapolis; Editing by John O'Callaghan)