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Cuba Cuts Panama Ties Over Exiles

Cuba broke diplomatic ties with Panama Thursday after Panama pardoned four Cuban exiles the communist government accuses of trying to kill President Fidel Castro and other violent acts against the island.

"The Revolutionary Government announces that as of this minute, 4:15 p.m., diplomatic relations between the Republic of Cuba and the Republic of Panama are broken for an indefinite time," the government said in a statement delivered to international journalists by e-mail two hours later.

Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso pardoned the four Cuban men on Thursday, just a few days before she is to leave office, despite Havana's threat to cut diplomatic ties over such a move. Pardoned were Luis Posada Carriles, Gaspar Jimenez, Guillermo Novo and Pedro Remon.

Moscoso said she wanted to prevent a future government from extraditing the four when they finish their terms.

Posada, a 76-year-old former CIA operative, faces criminal charges in Venezuela as well as Cuba.

"The president of Panama, accomplice and protector of terrorism, will carry the historic responsibility of this repugnant and treacherous action, and will also be responsible for the new crimes these assassins could commit in the future," the statement read.

"Cuba reiterates that the pardons granted by President Moscoso not only violate Panamanian law, but also international treaties against terrorism signed by Panama," the statement said. "It constitutes an affront to the victims of terrorism and their families, and converts the President of Panama into an accomplice of terrorism and responsible for the impunity of the court assassins."

On Sunday, Cuba threatened to immediately break off relations with Panama if Moscoso pardoned the four exiles. Expressing anger at the tone of Cuba's complaints, Moscoso withdrew her country's ambassador from the island this week and ordered the Cuban ambassador here to leave.

Castro himself publicly accused Posada of leading a plan to kill him at a summit in Panama in November 2000. Havana also accuses Posada of helping blow up a civilian Cuban airliner in 1976, killing 73 people, and of overseeing the bombings of hotels in Cuba in 1997.

Posada has denied involvement in that airliner explosion, but once acknowledged overseeing the hotel bombings, including one that killed an Italian tourist.

The diplomatic clash erupted just days before Moscoso was to hand over the presidency on Sept. 1 to Martin Torrijos.

Panama and Cuba have had relatively friendly relations since restoring ties in the early 1970s. The incoming president is son of populist military strongman Omar Torrijos, who had friendly relations with Castro.

Panamanian courts sentenced Posada and Jimenez to eight years for endangering public safety and falsifying documents, while Novo and Remon got seven years for endangering public safety.

Cuba had protested the sentences, saying they were not tough enough. But Panamanian courts ruled there was not enough evidence to accuse the men of attempted murder or other serious charges such as possession of explosives, which were found near Panama City's airport on the day the men were arrested.

The defendants maintained they were in Panama to help a Cuban general who supposedly had planned to seek political asylum.

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