World News

Cuba backs Cold War ally Russia on Georgia actions

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba sided with its old Cold War ally Russia on Sunday when President Raul Castro issued an official statement supporting Russia’s military actions in Georgia’s breakaway enclave of South Ossetia.

He backed a Russian demand that Georgia unconditionally withdraw its troops from the pro-Russian area that Georgia tried to reclaim militarily on Thursday.

“It’s false that Georgia is defending its national sovereignty,” Castro said in the statement that appeared to reflect recent steps toward renewing Cuba-Russia relations.

“The request for a previous withdrawal of the invaders is just and our government supports it.”

The conflict began on Thursday when Georgia sent troops into South Ossetia, and Russia, which had peacekeepers in the province, responded by sending in tanks and heavy armour to drive back the Georgians. Russia previously had provided support to the separatists.

On Sunday, Russia took control of the province’s capital, Tskhinvali, while Georgia offered a cease-fire and peace talks after pulling back its troops.

Castro said South Ossetia shared neither nationality nor culture with Georgia and had maintained its status as “an autonomous republic.”

“The Autonomous Republic of South Ossetia historically formed part of the Russian Federation,” he said.

Castro charged that Georgia had launched its action on South Ossetia “in complicity with the United States,” Cuba’s long-time enemy.

The U.S. has heavily criticized Russia, saying its actions in Georgia were “disproportionate and dangerous.”

Castro’s statement follows a visit to Cuba last week by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin in which the publicly-stated aim was to “reactivate” old ties between the former Communist allies.

Before that, news reports said Russia, angry at a U.S. plan to put a missile defence system in eastern Europe, may use Cuba as a refuelling stop for nuclear-capable bombers.

Such a move, said a top U.S. Air Force general, would cross a “red line.”

The report has since been denied but the dust-up brought back memories of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, when the U.S. and Soviet Union nearly went to war when Soviet missiles were placed on the island 90 miles (144 km) from the U.S.

Russia, then the Soviet Union, was Cuba’s benefactor during the Cold War, giving it billions of dollars in aid before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

A large Russian embassy looms over western Havana, a reminder of the years of Russian dominance here.

Reporting by Jeff Franks; editing by Philip Barbara