Cuba issues conflicting statements on use of its citizens in Ukraine war

Protest against the U.S. economic embargo in Cuba, in Madrid

(Reuters) -Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said on Thursday his country rejects the participation of its citizens as mercenaries in war, contradicting a statement by Cuba's ambassador in Moscow hours earlier saying his government did not oppose the legal participation of its citizens in Russia´s war in Ukraine.

The apparently conflicting statements follow Cuban state-run and foreign media reports suggesting that young Cuban men have enlisted in the Kremlin´s military in recent months as mercenaries and victims in alleged human trafficking schemes.

"The unequivocal and unswerving position of the Cuban government, in accordance with its national legislation, is contrary to the participation of Cuban citizens in conflicts of any sort and against mercenarism and trafficking in persons," Rodriguez said on social media.

Last week Cuban authorities said they had arrested 17 people on charges related to a ring of human traffickers that allegedly had lured young Cuban men to serve in the Russian military amid the Ukraine conflict.

Cuban authorities said those fighting for hire as mercenaries or involved in trafficking could face long prison sentences or even the death penalty, depending on the severity of the crime.

Cuba´s top diplomat in Moscow, Julio Antonio Garmendia Pena, told Russia´s state-run RIA news agency hours earlier on Thursday that those arrested in Cuba, all Cuban citizens, had been engaged in illegal activities and had broken the law.

"We have nothing against Cubans who just want to sign a contract and legally take part with the Russian army in this operation. But we are against illegality and these operations that have nothing to do with the legal field," RIA quoted the ambassador as saying.

Cuba did not respond to Reuters inquiry regarding the apparently contradictory statements.

Cuba's foreign ministry said last week the human trafficking network that authorities were now working to "neutralise and dismantle" had operated from Russia "to incorporate Cuban citizens living there, and even some from Cuba, into the military forces participating in war operations in Ukraine".

Russia's defence ministry did not respond to a Reuters request for comment on the matter.

Russia, which has strong political ties with communist-run Cuba, has long been an important destination for Cuban migrants seeking to escape economic stagnation at home.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last year signed a decree allowing foreigners signing up for service in the Russian army to receive citizenship via a fast-track procedure.

Cuba has denied any involvement in the war in Ukraine.

(Reporting by Maxim Rodionov; additional reporting by Dave Sherwood in HavanaEditing by Gareth Jones and Leslie Adler)