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France's Hollande meets Fidel Castro, urges end to US embargo on Cuba

French President Francois Hollande has been received by ex-Cuban President Fidel Castro for a closed-door meeting. Earlier, Hollande called for an end to the US embargo during a historic trip to Havana.

Castro and Hollande met at the former Cuban president's residence in the afternoon, the Elysée Palace confirmed. There were no further details as the two met behind closed doors. Fidel Castro has rarely received international visitors since stepping down from political office in 2008.

Speaking at the University of Havana earlier on Monday, Hollande said France would do whatever it could to lift "the measures that have so badly harmed Cuba's development." He said his trip came "at a particularly important but also uncertain" time, as both the US and the EU seek to restore ties with the Caribbean island.

Since the US announced it would start renewing ties with Cuba after nearly half a century, US President Barack Obama has used his executive powers to relax some aspects of the trade embargo, such as restrictions on travel and money transfers.

A Republican-dominated Congress, however, is unlikely to agree to fully lifting the embargo that has been in place since 1962. Cuba says the embargo has cost its economy more than $100 billion (90 billion euros).

Hollande also encouraged Cuba to "expand" its ties with France and the rest of Europe and "open up" its economy.

Kuba Frankreich Francois Hollande & Jaime Ortega

Ortega was a key figure in Cuba's rapprochement with the West

France is seeking to "be the first among European nations, and the first among Western nations, to be able to say to the Cubans that we will be at their side if they decide themselves to take needed steps towards opening up," he told reporters before arriving in Havana late Sunday.

When he arrived on the island he said that it filled him with "great emotion" to be the first French leader to visit Cuba since it gained independence in 1898. The last European leader to visit Cuba was Spain's then-Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez in 1986.

Hollande also bestowed France's highest honor on the head of the Catholic Church in Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Ortega, a key figure in the island's growing rapprochement with the West. "You continue to stand for the opening of Cuba," he said, praising Ortega's role in mediating during the US rapprochement talks and negotiations for the release of some 130 political prisoners in 2010.

Hollande was accompanied by a delegation of executives from major French companies like Accor and Orange. Several deals are expected to be signed, but no further details have been given so far.

Hollande will end his five-day Caribbean tour in Haiti Tuesday.

ng/bw (AFP, Reuters)

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