HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba angrily rejected on Friday U.S. accusations that it supports terrorist groups and demanded its removal from a U.S. list of “state sponsors of terrorism.”
In the communist-led island’s latest public criticism of the Obama administration, Cuba’s government issued a statement disputing U.S. charges that it backs Basque and Colombian groups engaged in terrorist activities and that it illegally harbors fugitives from U.S. justice.
Cuba demanded its “immediate exclusion” from the U.S. terrorism list, calling it an “unjust, arbitrary and politically motivated designation that contradicts the exemplary conduct of our country in confronting terrorism.”
It accused the United States of harboring “hundreds of criminals, murderers and terrorists” it said had acted against the Cuban government since Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution. Fidel Castro, 83, handed over the Cuban presidency to his younger brother Raul Castro, 78, in early 2008.
Cuba has long chafed at being on the U.S. “state sponsors of terrorism” list, where it was placed in 1982 during the administration of President Ronald Reagan.
But its latest reaction signaled growing anger and frustration in Havana with U.S. President Barack Obama, who had raised expectations for an improvement in U.S.-Cuban relations when he said early in his administration last year that he wanted to “recast” long-hostile ties.
Cuba reacted angrily earlier this week when Washington said U.S.-bound air passengers from 14 nations including Cuba would receive extra security checks, including a pat-down search.
The new measures followed the botched bombing attempt of a Northwest Airlines flight into Detroit on Christmas Day by a Nigerian believed to be an operative for al Qaeda.
The 14 countries include the four on the State Department’s terrorism list - Cuba, Iran, Syria and Sudan — and 10 “countries of interest”: Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen.
On Tuesday, the Cuban government summoned the United States’ top diplomat in Havana to protest its presence on the list, which it called a “hostile action” aimed at justifying the U.S. trade embargo imposed against the island since 1962.
Obama has slightly eased the embargo by lifting curbs on Cuban-American travel and on sending of remittances to Cuba and he has initiated talks on migration and postal service.
But in recent weeks, Cuban leaders have bitterly criticized Obama for failing to do more to change U.S. policy toward Cuba, including refusing to take Cuba off the terrorism list.
Obama has said Cuba must improve human rights and release political prisoners if it wants relations with the U.S. to move forward, but Cuban leaders say these are internal matters.
The U.S. has justified Cuba’s characterization as a state sponsor of terrorism on grounds that it harbors members of ETA, the Basque separatist movement in Spain, and supports violent Colombian leftist rebels.
Cuba said a small number of ETA members had lived in Cuba for years under an accord with the Spanish government and that they had conducted no terrorist activity while on the island.
It said it had been requested by all sides in Colombia to take part in a formal peace process there and had done so, with Cuba at times serving as host for negotiations.
Washington also accused Cuba of providing refuge for airline hijackers and U.S. criminals seeking to escape prosecution for crimes including murder of police officers.
Cuba countered that the hijackers had been tried in Cuban courts and served jail sentences. The accused criminals, it said, were receiving “political asylum on the island as “fighters for North American civil rights.”
Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Eric Walsh