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Sunday, 12 May, 2002, 16:39 GMT 17:39 UK
Carter 'can check' Cuba's biotech sites
President Fidel Castro welcomes former US leader Jimmy Carter
Mr Castro praised Mr Carter's efforts whilst in office
Cuba's President Fidel Castro has offered former US President Jimmy Carter "free and complete access" to personally inspect scientific research centres.

We come here as friends of the Cuban people and we hope to meet many Cubans of all walks of life

Jimmy Carter
The invite comes in response to last week's accusations from the US Government that Cuba is producing biological weapons.

Mr Castro made the offer as Mr Carter arrived in Cuba for a six-day visit designed to help bridge the huge gap between two neighbours that have been arguing for more than 40 years.

The former US leader is the highest profile American politician to visit Cuba since President Castro came to power 43 years ago.

Axis of evil

A smiling Mr Castro, dressed in a grey business suit, met Mr Carter with a handshake, before turning to greet his wife Rosalynn.

Mr Castro then led the couple down a red carpet to a podium draped with Cuban and American flags and the country's two national anthems were played.

US Under Secretary of State, John Bolton
Bolton identified Cuba as part of America's 'axis of evil'
In his welcome speech, Mr Castro said that the former president was welcome to meet with anyone in Cuba "even if they do not share our endeavours" - a reference to the human rights activists Mr Carter is expected to meet.

He praised his guest for his efforts over the years to normalise relations between Cuba and the US.

"It is no secret that for almost a century there have not been optimal relations between our two states," he said.

"However, in the four years as president you had the courage to make efforts to change the course of those relations."

Common points

After he left office in 1981, Mr Carter set up an organisation designed to advance peace and understanding around the world.

In his remarks, in Spanish, Mr Carter said he was delighted to return to Cuba for the first time in 47 years.

"We come here as friends of the Cuban people and we hope to meet many Cubans of all walks of life," he said.

Former US President Jimmy Carter
Carter is the highest profile visitor since Castro came to power
"We realise that on some of these issues we have differences, but welcome the opportunity to find points in common," he added.

On 6 May the US Under Secretary of State, John Bolton, placed Cuba firmly in what Washington calls its axis of evil, accusing Cuba of trying to develop biological weapons.

Five days later President Castro responded live on Cuban television, calling Mr Bolton a liar and challenging the US to provide some proof to support its allegations.

Cuban journalist Moises Saab says despite the friendly welcome Mr Carter will have a tough job in Havana.

"The Cuban Government is not really interested in having a normal relationship with the Government of the United States," he said.

"And from the same point of view of the Americans, I don't see any possibility in the near future of any wish to accept the Cuban Government or the Cuban regime as it is right now," he added.

The BBC's Ian Pannell reports from Havana
"No one can remember the US anthem being played publicly before here"
William Leogrande of Washington's American Uni
"I think Mr Carter will be very forthright"
Analyst on Latin America, Nick Caistor
"President Bush is never going to show any softness to states like Cuba"
See also:

11 May 02 | Americas
Castro hits back at US 'lies'
06 May 02 | Americas
US expands 'axis of evil'
09 Apr 02 | Americas
Carter set for historic Cuba trip
09 May 02 | Americas
US and Cuba's complex relations
16 Dec 01 | Americas
US food arrives in Cuba
24 May 01 | Americas
Cuba blasts Bush over dissidents
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