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. Ahmadinejad in Havana as NAM backs Iran in nuclear row
HAVANA, Sept 14 (AFP) Sep 15, 2006
Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad held talks with developing country leaders at a summit in Havana Thursday, where he drew firm backing for Tehran in the tense standoff over its nuclear program.

His trip to Cuba came as the United States pushed for sanctions against Iran, which has ignored an August 31 UN deadline to stop enriching uranium.

As his delegation lobbied for further support from the 118 NAM member states, Ahmadinejad held meetings with several of his counterparts on the sidelines of the September 11-17 Non-Aligned Movement meeting.

He drew strong backing from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez during a summit of 18 developing countries (G-15) held in parallel to the NAM gathering Thursday. "I don't want to leave here until there is decisive support for Iran," the South American leader said.

Earlier in the day, Chavez visited his convalescing ally and mentor Fidel Castro, 80, who hasn't been seen in public since he underwent surgery and temporarily ceded power to his brother Raul in July.

"Fidel is more alive than ever," Chavez said after the visit.

It was not immediately clear whether Cuba's communist strongman would also receive Ahmadinejad, but his government has expressed strong support for Iran, and Raul Castro, 75, attended Thursday's summit.

Leaders of the NAM countries were expected to adopt a statement which stresses Iran's right to acquire and use nuclear energy and technology for peaceful means.

Ahmadinejad told his counterparts that "some countries are putting hurdles" in the way of progress in order to keep developing countries dependent and "exert political pressure" -- a thinly-veiled reference to US-led efforts to get Iran to stop producing enriched uranium.

In Washington the White House dismissed Iran's calls for unconditional negotiations. "We can't be any more clear about this; suspend enrichment and reprocessing activities and we'll talk," said White House spokesman Tony Snow.

Nuclear powers India and Pakistan were also expected to play a key role during the NAM's meeting of national leaders on Friday and Saturday.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who both arrived on Thursday, planned to meet on the sidelines of the summit in a bid to restart negotiations on the decades-old conflict over Kashmir, a Himalayan territory shared by the two countries but claimed in its entirety by both.

The negotiations have been stalled since bomb attacks in Mumbai killed 183 people in July. New Delhi had pointed the finger at Islamabad and a Pakistan-backed Islamic rebel group for the blasts.

Several of the speakers at ministerial meetings ahead of the full summit insisted that the NAM, created at the height of the Cold War, remained relevant as a tool for developing nations to counter US global might.

Israel also came under sharp attack for what a draft statement called "excessive and indiscriminate force, targeted attacks and extrajudicial executions" in the Palestinian territories and for its recent military offensive in southern Lebanon.

Meanwhile, the summit was abuzz with speculation that Castro, who cherishes the international spotlight, might show up despite his ill health, though Cuban authorities remained mum on the subject.

"He is more alive than ever, he walks, he sings and he is even ready to play baseball," Chavez joked after meeting Castro at an undisclosed location where the Cuban leader is convalescing.

"He looks better every time," said Chavez, who has visited the ailing 80-year-old on several occasions in recent weeks.

Raul Castro, who has kept a very low profile for weeks, took part Thursday in the G-15 summit as an official guest.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was scheduled to address NAM leaders on Friday, when the summit of heads and state and government gets under way after four days of lower-level meetings.

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