Cuba accuses Bill Richardson over Alan Gross visit

Bill Richardson talks to the media in Havana  on 13 September Mr Richardson previously said he would not leave Cuba without seeing Gross

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Cuba has accused former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson of slander and denied he was invited to Havana for talks about jailed American Alan Gross.

Cuban officials said they rejected Mr Richardson's request to see Gross after he described him as a "hostage".

Mr Richardson, now back in the US, told CNN he was stunned by Cuba's "dramatic snub", which seemed to suggest Havana was not seeking improved US ties.

Mr Gross is serving 15 years for bringing internet equipment into Cuba.

The case has frozen US-Cuba relations, after a brief warming under Barack Obama's presidency.

Cuban officials said Mr Richardson had visited the island on his own initiative.

"His request to see the prisoner... became impossible due to his slanderous statements to the press in which he described Gross as a 'hostage' of the Cuban government," said a statement from Josefina Vidal, head of North American Affairs at Cuba's Foreign Ministry.

The issue of Gross' release was never on the table, the statement said.

"Mr Richardson was reminded that Cuba is a sovereign country that does not accept blackmail, pressure or arrogance."

'Hardline elements'

Mr Richardson, who sometimes acts as a diplomatic troubleshooter, returned to the US on Wednesday.

Alan Gross in a file photo with his wife Judy The fate of Alan Gross, seen here with his wife Judy, is key to US-Cuba ties

He insisted that he had been invited by the Cubans to come to the island in a personal capacity.

In an interview with CNN, he said was stunned by the "dramatic snub" which came after a lunch with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez.

"He said three things - 'One, you will not take Alan Gross back. Two, you will not see President Raul Castro. And three, we're not even going to let you see him (Gross)'," Mr Richardson said.

"What I think is there are some hardline elements in the Cuban government that basically don't want to improve the relationship with the United States."

Alan Gross, 62, was arrested in December 2009 for distributing illegal communications equipment in Havana.

Last March he was convicted of crimes against the communist state.

He says he was just trying to help Cuba's small Jewish community get access to the internet.

Gross was in Cuba working as a contractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAID) on a secretive programme aimed at promoting democracy in Cuba.

Last month, Cuba's Supreme Court upheld his sentence, saying he was part of a programme aimed at "subverting" and "destabilising" the communist system.

The US has made clear that there can be no further improvement in relations with Cuba until Gross is released.

The prisoner's family members say his health has suffered in captivity, and both his mother and one of his daughters have cancer.

The Cuban authorities say Gross is getting medical attention.

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