February 4, 2001

Czech official fails to free detainees in Cuba

                  HAVANA, Cuba (Reuters) -- A senior Czech official headed home early Sunday
                  after lengthy talks with President Fidel Castro failed to win the release of two
                  prominent Czechs arrested for meeting with Cuban dissidents.

                  Czech Senate President Petr Pithart told reporters he believed his six hours of
                  frank talks with the Cuban leader in Havana had made a "useful" contribution to
                  ongoing efforts to resolve the sensitive case, however.

                  Pithart had been in communist-ruled Cuba since Monday on a mission to seek
                  the release of former Czech Finance Minister Ivan Pilip and ex-student leader Jan
                  Bubenik, who were arrested January 12 on charges of holding "subversive
                  contacts" with Cuban opposition activists.

                  "We have concluded that my mission has been useful and has helped towards
                  resolving the case," Pithart said. "I am convinced that both sides are interested in
                  solving the case as soon as possible."

                  Havana has accused the Czechs of being "agents" of U.S. interests, and of
                  following the directives of the U.S.-based Freedom House organization -- known
                  for its opposition to Castro -- in meeting and seeking to help local dissidents.

                  Pilip and Bubenik were arrested after meeting dissident journalist Antonio
                  Femenias and rights activist Roberto Valdivia. Czech President Vaclav Havel,
                  himself a former anti-communist dissident, and other Czech leaders have ruled
                  out an apology and have condemned the arrests as a human rights abuse.

                  Pithart said that in his talks with Castro and Cuban National Assembly President
                  Ricardo Alarcon, both sides had committed themselves to "continuing to do
                  everything possible to find a solution in a reasonable time." He declined to answer
                  reporters' questions.

                  His meeting with Castro took place hours after the Cuban leader insisted that
                  Cuba wanted a Czech apology over the incident, which has soured already
                  strained ties between the erstwhile Socialist-era allies. Pilip's wife, Lucie Pilipova,
                  looked disappointed after Pithart's statement.

                  "The only thing we can do is to carry on working with our lawyer to defend the
                  two so they can be released," she said.

                  She had earlier visited her husband at the Villa Marista state security headquarters
                  in Havana where he and Bubenik were being held.

                  Pithart said that in his talks with Castro he had explained his own past as an
                  anti-government dissident under communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia,
                  and how he had often received foreign visitors and clandestine literature.

                  During a six-hour speech on Friday night, Castro said the two Czechs had been
                  detained after being caught trying to promote "subversion and destabilization" and
                  were guilty of "serious violations of our laws," Castro said.

                  "Let the reality be admitted with our proofs, and let there be an apology made to
                  our country," Castro added in his first public comments on the case. He did not
                  mention any detailed charges in his speech, but he said Cuba could clearly prove
                  wrongdoing by the pair.

                     Copyright 2001 Reuters.