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Castro's illness not terminal, Cuban officials tell US delegates

Say leader will eventually return to public life

Representative Jeff Flake of Arizona (fifth from left), the head of the US delegation to Havana this weekend, was flanked by two Massachusetts congressmen, Bill Delahunt on the left and Jim McGovern on the right, during a news conference in the Cuban capital. (CLAUDIA DAUT/REUTERS)

HAVANA -- Cuban officials told a group of visiting US legislators that Fidel Castro does not have cancer or a terminal illness.

It was the most comprehensive denial yet of rampant rumors about the ailing leader's health, the head of the US delegation said yesterday.

Representative Jeff Flake, a Republican from Arizona, said Cuban officials did not provide further details on the 80-year-old leader's health, but they did say that he would eventually return to public life.

"All the officials have told us that his illness is not cancer, nor is it terminal, and he will be back," Flake said in a telephone interview.

Castro's medical condition has been a state secret since he had surgery for intestinal bleeding in late July and temporarily ceded power to his younger brother Raúl Castro. He has not been seen publicly since July 26.

Cuban officials have repeatedly insisted the elder Castro is recovering, and Vice President Carlos Lage had dismissed reports that the leader was suffering from stomach cancer. But officials have not publicly denied rumors that he could have another type of cancer or other terminal illness.

US officials have said they believe Castro has an inoperable cancer and will not live through 2007.

Some US doctors have speculated he could have a colon condition called diverticulosis, common among the elderly.

Castro did not appear at his birthday celebrations this month, prompting new speculation that he was on his deathbed.

Raúl Castro has appeared increasingly confident in his new role, but officials have been cautious when it comes to talking about a post-Fidel era.

"They were more guarded than I expected about any suggestion that there might be any substantive change economically and politically," Flake, who supports lifting the US embargo and travel ban on Cuba, said of Cuban officials.

The group of 10 lawmakers arrived Friday and has met with Foreign Minister Felipe Pérez Roque, Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcón, and Basic Industries Minister Yadira García. They had not met with Raúl Castro as of yesterday afternoon, and no longer expected to have a meeting.

Bush administration officials have twice rejected offers to talk with Cuban officials since Fidel Castro fell ill, saying the country must first hold free and competitive elections and release all political prisoners.

On Friday, Fidel Castro telephoned a meeting of provincial legislative leaders, the Communist Party daily said Saturday in a report that was apparently aimed at quelling rumors about the leader's health.

That call and another to President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela the same day constituted the first news in 11 days about the convalescing Cuban leader.

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