September 16, 1999
By Andrew Cawthorne
HAVANA, Sept 15 (Reuters) - President Fidel Castro has poured scorn on claims in U.S. media that one of his senior officials led a small Cuban security unit responsible for torturing American soldiers captured in the Vietnam War.
In comments shown on state television on Wednesday, Castro mocked the accusation against Higher Education Minister Fernando Vecino Alegret as a ridiculous lie, saying he had never even set foot in Vietnam.
``I take advantage of the moment to vindicate Vecino and swear that he has never been a torturer, nor does he have the face of a torturer...rather he has the face of a noble, decent, respectable man,'' Castro said during a Tuesday session of the National Assembly broadcast on Wednesday.
The allegations of Cuban involvement in the torture of U.S. servicemen in Vietnam more than three decades ago surfaced recently in U.S. daily, The Miami Herald, and its Spanish- language sister newspaper, El Nuevo Herald.
The dailies, known for their opposition to Castro, have quoted former U.S. troops to allege Havana sent up to four security agents to run an interrogation unit responsible for torturing 19 Americans between August 1967 and August 1968. One died of his injuries, the Herald said.
The reports cited a survivor, retired air force Col. Ed Hubbard, as identifying Alegret as the leader of the alleged torturers whom the prisoners nicknamed ``Fidel.''
Alegret, a U.S.- and Soviet-educated general who fought in Castro's rebel army before the 1959 Cuban Revolution, has already denied the claims earlier in the week.
But Castro also sprang to his minister's defence, labeling
the accusation ``the most recent invention by those vagabonds who don't have anything better to do.''
The veteran communist leader said many Cubans visited the South-East Asian nation but ``Vecino has never been in Vietnam.''
Hubbard's story sounded ``like a novel,'' and it was ludicrous that Vecino had to make a public denial after being so ``vilely and outrageously defamed,'' Castro added.
``It's as if an honourable woman has to stand in the middle of a park and shout 'I swear by my honour that I have never been a prostitute in this neighbourhood, I swear by my honour that I have never been a thief,''' added Castro sarcastically.
As the Cuban president spoke, the face of Vecino, present at the assembly, was shown on a giant screen next to the stage. ``Who can say that this man I am seeing is a torturer of prisoners in the Vietnam War?'' asked a laughing Castro.
Vecino started studying chemical engineering at the University of Alabama in the 1950s, and completed further training in the Soviet Union, before taking up senior posts in the Cuban military and government.
In an interview for a 1996 book, ``Generals' Secrets,'' by pro-government, local journalist Luis Baez, Vecino actually hails Cuba's policy with prisoners of war, citing his own experience during the 1970s in Angola where Castro sent troops.
``In Angola, we practiced the same policy as in our war of liberation: all prisoners were treated with respect, all wounded were treated,'' he said. ``That policy proclaimed by the head of our revolution (Castro), of protecting prisoners' lives, is not common in wars.''
Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited
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