HAVANA -- Fidel Castro appeared relaxed and lucid in his most prominent television interview in years Monday, though he spoke slowly and with a raspy voice in an appearance that thrust him back in the limelight after a long time spent out of public view.
The 83-year-old former president talked about the conflict between North and South Korea at the start of the broadcast of "Mesa Redondo" -- or "Round Table" -- a daily Cuban talk show on current events.
The revolutionary leader wore a dark blue track suit top over a plaid shirt as he took questions at a desk in a sparsely decorated office at an undisclosed location. It was not immediately clear if the broadcast was live, but Castro referred to a July 5 article as having been published six days ago, which would mean the show was taped on Sunday.
Castro spent the early moments of the interview reading from writings by U.S. linguist Noam Chomsky and others, explaining why he thinks tension in Korea could ultimately trigger a world war. At times he showed flashes of his prowess as a powerful speaker, at others he paused for lengthy periods and read from notes.
Castro has shunned the spotlight since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. The illness forced him to step down -- first temporarily, and later permanently -- and cede power to his younger brother Raul. His recovery has been a closely held state secret, and his health has been the subject of persistent rumors among exiles in Florida.
Castro's sudden reemergence comes after the dramatic announcement last week that Cuba will free 52 political prisoners in the next few months under a deal with the Roman Catholic Church. The former Cuban leader made no mention of the deal in the early part of his interview, focusing instead on international events.
While Cubans have become accustomed to reading Castro's writings on world affairs in the local press, he has stayed largely out of the public eye since ceding power, helping Raul Castro solidify his place as the country's leader after a lifetime spent in his more famous brother's shadow.
Monday's highly-anticipated interview was announced in a front-page story in the Communist-party daily Granma earlier in the day. Castro has appeared in videotaped interviews with Cuban television in June and September 2007.
Photos of the elder Castro greeting workers at a science center were published in pro-government blogs and on state media over the weekend, the first time he has been photographed in public since his illness.
Cubans reacted with surprise to word of Castro's relative media blitz.
"I think it will have a positive effect on people," 21-year-old student David Suarez told AP. "It will give hope that once again he will help to solve our problems."
Magaly Delgado Rojo, a 72-year-old retiree in Havana's Playa neighborhood, said the appearances must have been carefully thought out by Cuban leadership.
"The photos (published over the weekend) and now the Round Table are meant to send a message: 'I am here and I am on top of everything ... I am a part of every decision that is being made,"' she said. "This is not casual at all. This is calculated."
Castro remains head of Cuba's Communist Party and continues to publish his thoughts on world events in frequent opinion pieces, called Reflections. Recently, he has voiced alarm about America's standoff with Iran over nuclear issues, as well as a deadly Israeli raid on an aid convoy headed to Gaza.
Castro has warned in several Reflections over the past few weeks that a nuclear conflagration involving Iran, Israel and the United States is imminent, going so far as to say that the World Cup was a distraction keeping people from focusing on potential global destruction.
"Amid game after game of the World Cup, the diabolical news trickles out little by little, so that nobody worries about it," Castro wrote on June 24.
The two Castros have ruled Cuba since overthrowing dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Fidel's health has for years been the subject of frequent rumors -- particularly among exiles in Florida, and his television appearance will undoubtedly be scrutinized for signs of his aging.
The photographs of Fidel published this weekend were taken on Wednesday at a scientific think tank in Havana. He is shown smiling and waving at workers, appearing relaxed and happy, but somewhat stooped. Granma republished the photographs on Monday under the story about his upcoming television appearance.
Cuba has occasionally released pictures showing Castro in private meetings with dignitaries, most recently during a visit in February by Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. But he had not been photographed in a public setting since 2006.
Castro appeared in a 50-minute taped interview with the host of the Mesa Redonda, Randy Alonso, in June 2007, and discussed Vietnam and other topics. That appearance was announced more than a day before it aired.
He also appeared on Cuban television for an hour-long interview in September of that year, knocking down a slew of rumors of his death. That appearance was announced only minutes before it was broadcast.
A month later, he phoned in to a live broadcast featuring Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a close Castro ally who was visiting Cuba. Castro sounded healthy and in good humor, but he was not seen.
Castro has also appeared in video clips and photographs with visiting presidents and other dignitaries.