Cuba, Russia working on case of Cubans recruited for Russian army - ambassador

By Nelson Acosta

HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba and Russia are working together on the case of Cubans recruited to fight in the Russian military, Russia's ambassador to Cuba told reporters on Wednesday, as evidence grows of a large-scale recruiting effort on the Caribbean island.

The Cuban government this month said young Cuban men had enlisted in the Kremlin's military in recent months as mercenaries and victims in alleged human trafficking schemes, as Russia continues its war in Ukraine.

In initial reports, Cuban authorities said they were working to "neutralize and dismantle" the network, which they said operated both on Cuban soil and in Russia.

Russian ambassador Victor Koronelli, in his first public comments on the issue, said his "embassy was informed about the Cubans that had gone to Russia to prepare for the military."

"Both the Russian and Cuban sides are in contact," he said.

Koronelli said he did not know how many Cubans had left for Russia to join his country's military and provided no further detail on the matter.

But a Ukrainian hacking group leaked photographs of the passports of nearly 200 alleged Cuban mercenaries earlier this month, according to digital media outlet The Intercept, providing a partial glimpse into the scale of the recruiting effort in Cuba.

The group said it had obtained the passport photos after hacking the personal email account of a Russian military officer involved in the recruitment of Cubans.

Cuba has denied any involvement in the war in Ukraine and its authorities say those fighting for hire as mercenaries or involved in trafficking could face long prison sentences or even the death penalty.

Koronelli's comments on Wednesday came during a ceremony marking the donation of 650 tonnes of vegetable oil, worth $3 million, one of a series of donations, ranging from wheat to medical supplies, provided recently to Cuba by ally Russia.

"Our bilateral relations are today in a particularly special moment, in accordance with the consensus reached by Presidents Vladimir Putin and [Cuban president] Miguel Diaz-Canel," said Ana Teresita Gonzalez, Vice Minister of Foreign Trade of Cuba, at the ceremony.

The longtime political allies - both subject to U.S. sanctions - have sharply increased economic ties in recent months, facilitating trade and investment to circumvent those restrictions.

(Reporting by Nelson Acosta, editing by Dave Sherwood and Josie Kao)