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Portrait of the Week: US flag is raised in Cuba for first time in 54 years


The Stars and Stripes is raised at the US embassy in Havana

The Stars and Stripes is raised at the US embassy in Havana

The Stars and Stripes is raised at the US embassy in Havana

US marines hoisted the American flag at the US embassy in Cuba for the first time in 54 years last Friday, at a ceremony led by US Secretary of State John Kerry to mark the restoration of diplomatic relations between Washington and Havana.

Three retired marines who last lowered the flag in 1961 participated in the ceremony, handing a new one to the Marine Colour Guard, who raised it on the grounds outside the embassy on the Havana seafront.

Kerry, the first US secretary of state to visit Cuba in 70 years, told the ceremony it was obvious that "the road of mutual isolation and estrangement that the US and Cuba have been travelling is not the right one, and the time has come for us to move in a more promising direction".

The symbolic event took place eight months after Havana and Washington agreed to restore ties, and nearly four weeks after the US and Cuba formally renewed diplomatic relations and upgraded their diplomatic missions to embassies.

Kerry made plain that despite the historic opening, Washington has not set aside criticism of Communist- run Cuba's human rights record.

"We remain convinced the people of Cuba would be best served by a genuine democracy, where people are free to choose their leaders," he said.

Retired Cuban president Fidel Castro, meanwhile, celebrated his 89th birthday on Thursday with two of his country's closest leftist allies from Latin America, a day ahead of Kerry's historic visit.

Castro, who handed power to his brother, Raul, in 2008 because of failing health, met Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro and Bolivian president Evo Morales, both supporters of Havana's Communist government.

Castro earlier marked his birthday with a newspaper column in which he castigated the US for disrupting the world economy in its favour by abandoning the gold standard, and mentioned one of the differences still outstanding between Havana and Washington despite the two countries' rapprochement.

Castro repeated Cuba's demand for reparations worth "many millions of dollars" from the US for past aggressions against Cuba, such as the US economic embargo imposed in 1962.

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Russia urged the US on Friday to scrap plans to station parts of a missile shield system in Europe now that Iran has reached an agreement with world powers to limit its nuclear programme.

Moscow has long opposed the plan, which it sees as a threat to its nuclear deterrence, and vowed to retaliate if it goes ahead. Washington has assured Moscow that the shield was meant as protection from "rogue" states such as Iran, and was not directed against Russia.

Since the July agreement under which Tehran agreed to curb its nuclear programme in exchange for an easing of UN, US and EU sanctions, Moscow has stepped up its rhetoric against the missile shield.

A Ghanaian refugee who has been granted asylum in Germany named her newborn daughter after Chancellor Angela Merkel in gratitude for being allowed to stay in the country.

Ophelya Ade (26), who comes from a small town near the Ghanaian capital Accra, called the child Angela Merkel Ade, the registry office in Hanover said.

Nadine Heese, a spokeswoman for Germany's Red Cross, which runs the shelter where Ade lives, told Reuters that the young mother wanted to express her gratitude to Merkel, who she considers to be a "great woman".

The child was born in the central German city on February 2, but German news media reported it only last week.

Last month, Merkel was confronted on a television show by a young Palestinian girl who politely explained that her family might be sent back to Lebanon after four years in Germany. After the girl started crying, Merkel stroked her back, but told her that Germany could not admit everyone who wanted to live there. That family has not yet been deported.

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe on Friday expressed "utmost grief" for the "immeasurable damage and suffering" the country inflicted in World War Two, but said that future generations of Japanese should not have to keep apologising for the mistakes of the past.

Marking the 70th anniversary of the end of the war, Abe also said he upheld past official apologies, including a landmark 1995 statement by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama, but the conservative leader offered no new apology of his own.

The legacy of the war still haunts relations with China and South Korea, which suffered under Japan's sometimes brutal occupation and colonial rule before Tokyo's defeat in 1945.

Beijing and Seoul had made clear they wanted Abe to stick to the 1995 "deep remorse" and "heartfelt apology" for Japanese "colonial rule and aggression".

"Upon the innocent people did our country inflict immeasurable damage and suffering," Abe said in a statement.

"When I squarely contemplate this obvious fact, even now, I find myself speechless and my heart is rent with the utmost grief."

The remarks by Abe, who is seen by critics as a revisionist who wants to play down the dark side of Japan's wartime past, will be analysed not only in China and South Korea but by its ally the US, which wants to see regional tension ease.

In an initial reaction, a commentary by China's official Xinhua news agency said the "tuned-down apology is not of much help in eliminating Tokyo's trust deficit".

It added: "Instead of offering an unambiguous apology, Abe's statement is rife with rhetorical twists like 'maintain our position of apology', dead giveaways of his deep-rooted historical revisionism, which has haunted Japan's neighbourhood relations."

China, meanwhile, defended firefighters who initially hosed water on a blaze in a warehouse storing volatile chemicals, a response foreign experts said could have contributed to two huge blasts that killed 56 people.

At least 21 firefighters were among the victims of the explosions at the port in the north eastern city of Tianjin on Wednesday night, Xinhua said, calling it possibly the highest death toll among fire crews since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949.

Around 720 people were injured, 25 critically and 33 in serious condition, in a nation all too familiar with industrial disasters.

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