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Cuba blasts US leaders for meeting with dissidents

HAVANA — Cuba scolded a top U.S. delegation Saturday for meeting with political opposition leaders following high-level immigration discussions, saying it proves Washington is out to topple the country's communist government.

A senior American official defended the meeting, saying U.S. policy is to reach out to all sectors of Cuban society — not just the communist government.

American officials "called together dozens of their mercenaries" hours after concluding highly anticipated talks on migration issues with Cuban leaders in an undisclosed Havana location, Cuba's Foreign Ministry said.

Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights and National Reconciliation, confirmed that a group of Cuban dissident leaders met with the U.S. delegation late Friday at the residence of the head of the U.S. Interests Section, which Washington keeps in Havana because it has no diplomatic relations with the island.

Such a meeting is not unusual when U.S. diplomats visit. But enraged Cuban leaders say the dissidents are not pro-democracy activists, independent journalists and organizers of political opposition groups, but paid agents of Washington planted to destabilize the island's political system.

In a statement published in the Communist Party newspaper Granma, the Foreign Ministry said U.S. leaders' meeting with dissidents was "contrary to the spirit of cooperation and understanding showed on Cuba's part" during the immigration talks and "demonstrated anew that (U.S.) priorities are more related to supporting the counterrevolution and the promotion of subversion to destabilize the Cuban revolution than with the creation of a climate conducive to real solutions to bilateral problems."

"From the very day he arrived in the country, the head of the North American delegation was warned" that a visit with dissidents would not be tolerated. The Ministry claimed that Washington funnels more than $20 million to groups that openly oppose its government, many based in southern Florida.

When asked why the meeting with dissidents went ahead despite Cuba's explicit request that it not, a senior State Department official said the outreach is part of U.S. government policy around the world, not just Cuba.

"We believe in reaching out to broad sectors of society in all countries that we deal with ... and we don't make exceptions in particular countries," the official said.

The official, who was not authorized to talk publicly about the meeting, spoke on condition of anonymity.

The official said Washington thanked Cuba for allowing American relief planes destined for Haiti to overfly Cuban territory, and also expressed a willingness to work with Cuban doctors on the ground in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.

The U.S. delegation was headed by Craig Kelly, deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs and the highest-ranking American official to visit Cuba in years.

While meeting with their Cuban counterparts earlier Friday, delegation officials strayed from the topic of immigration and called for the immediate release of an American held in a maximum-security prison without charge for nearly three months.

Cuba alleges Alan P. Gross, who came to the island as an American government contractor, is a spy whose arrest is more evidence Washington is working to topple its political system. Relatives of the 60-year-old Maryland resident maintain he is a veteran development worker who was distributing communications equipment to Cuban Jewish groups.

The State Department official said the U.S. delegation called for Gross's "immediate release" and categorically denied he was spying.

"We made very clear our position," the official said, adding that the Cuban side "took it on board."

The official said the U.S. asked Cubans to share any evidence against Gross but did not say whether they complied.

Except for Gross' case and the subsequent American meeting with dissidents, both sides had offered restrained praise for the immigration discussions, which lasted about five hours. The Cubans said the talks were positive and respectful, while the U.S. called them part of a larger, constructive process.

The State Department official said that some members of the delegation were staying on in Cuba for several more days, but that the lower-level meetings would be limited to immigration. Kelly, the delegation head, left Cuba on Saturday.

The Cuban Foreign Ministry said in its Saturday statement that its delegation also talked about subjects not related to immigration, including the release of five Cuban agents imprisoned in Miami since the 1990s after being convicted of spying. Cuba considers them anti-terrorist fighters who were trying to shut down a bombing campaign by anti-Castro Cuban-Americans.

Sanchez, the Cuban dissident, told The Associated Press that about 40 opposition figures took part in the meeting with Kelly on Friday night.

He said the American diplomat expressed the "good will" of President Barack Obama's administration to improve Washington's icy relationship with Cuba.

"I told him I was skeptical that Cuba would respond to Obama's gestures," Sanchez said.

Editor's Note: Associated Press Writers Will Weissert and Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this report.