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Russian ships enter Cuban waters

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The Russian ships sailed into Havana harbour

Russian warships have entered Cuban waters for the first time since the end of the Cold War.

A Russian destroyer and two support ships sailed into Havana Bay on their way home from joint exercises with the Venezuelan navy.

It is the latest sign of improved ties between Moscow and communist-run Cuba, which were allies during Soviet days.

Correspondents say it is also a reflection of strained relations between Moscow and Washington.

Russia has been angered by US plans for a missile defence system in Europe, and its support for Georgia in the recent conflict with Russia.

Correspondents at the scene say the destroyer Admiral Chabanenko released black plumes of smoke as it sailed into Havana Bay at 1000 local time (1500 GMT), flanked by the two smaller boats.

Welcoming shots were fired from the colonial fortress, San Carlos de la Cabana, followed by a ceremony with music, presided over by officers of the Cuban navy.

The Russian embassy in Cuba told the AFP news agency that the ships were on a friendly, working visit designed to "develop" relations and "co-operation" between the two countries.

Joint manoeuvres

The warship recently took part in joint manoeuvres with Venezuela, which coincided with a tour of Latin America by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

The Admiral Chabanenko then became the first Russian vessel to navigate the Panama Canal since World War II.

Panama said the canal is "open to all the world's ships" and the Russian vessel's passage had no political significance.

But analysts say Moscow is sending a symbolic message to the US about the consequences of Washington's activity in regions that Russia regards as its sphere of influence.

Cuba's communist leadership was closely allied to Moscow during the Cold War, but relations have weakened since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

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