Castro Shows Up in Syria Almost Unannounced

Cuban leader Fidel Castro arrived in Syria on a virtually unannounced visit Tuesday, making Damascus the latest destination on a tour aimed at strengthening ties with new and old allies in the Middle East and Asia.

Castro flew in from Qatar after visiting Algeria, Iran and Malaysia in a tour that began May 6. He was greeted at the airport by President Bashar Assad and driven to a presidential guest house along a road festooned with Syrian and Cuban flags.

The Cuban leader's plan for his first trip to Syria were not announced, but he was expected to meet later Tuesday with Assad — who, at 35, is less than half the age of the 74-year-old Castro.

Castro and Assad's father, the late President Hafez Assad, met several times on the sidelines of international gatherings before the elder Assad's death 10 months ago.

News of Castro's two-day visit was on the front page in Syria's three state-run dailies, along with pictures of the Syrian and Cuban leaders. But Castro's travel schedule rarely is announced in advance because of security concerns, and neither country announced the visit earlier.

One of the newspapers, Tishrin, lavishly praised the Cuban leader, using the kind of rhetoric that has been a hallmark of Castro's own speeches throughout his 42 years in power.

"President Castro does not need introductions — he is the leader of a revolution that shook Latin America and destroyed the might of imperialism and restored to the people their independence, dignity and charted for them the path to social and economic recovery," the newspaper said.

Like communist Cuba, Syria is on the U.S. State Department list of countries sponsoring terrorism, and both countries are harsh critics of U.S. policies.

Castro left Doha, Qatar's capital, early Tuesday after criticizing American statesmen as "demagogues," although he praised U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell as a good communicator.