Vietnam, China lament loss of 'comrade' Castro

HANOI (AFP) - Communist heavyweights China and Vietnam were swift Saturday (Nov 26) to lament the death of Fidel Castro, with Hanoi's state media leading tributes to the loss of a "great friend and comrade".

Under the stewardship of Castro, the cigar-chomping socialist figurehead who died Saturday aged 90, Cuba showed solidarity with communist Vietnam in its war against US invaders.

State-controlled media in the Southeast Asian nation was awash with tributes to Castro, who led his country from 1959 to 2008 when he handed over power to his younger brother Raul.

Mourning Castro's death the Vietnam News Agency said "for all Vietnamese, Fidel was a great friend, a comrade and a very close brother".

It added that he had been "a pure symbol of true internationalism in the fight for independence of nations."

Bearded Castro, a thorn in America's side, first visited Vietnam in 1973 as a sign of communist kinship two years before the north drove out the US army.

As a sign of those enduring ties, Vietnam's President Tran Dai Quang was among the last heads of state to visit the firebrand Cuban revolutionary, meeting Castro on November 16.

The adoration extends to the Vietnamese public.

Pham Tran Van, an army colonel during the Vietnam war, told AFP of his admiration for Castro as a "true communist."

"Fidel Castro was like our President Ho Chi Minh. He was the symbol of the endless struggle for .... freedom," the 78-year-old added.

Ties between communist China and Cuba warmed especially following the collapse of Soviet Russia, the Castro government's biggest sponsor.

China Central Television (CCTV) ran a commentary, explaining that Cuba was "the first country in the Western hemisphere" to establish diplomatic ties with Beijing.

"Fidel Castro admired Mao Zedong and... regretted not being able to get to know him," added the commentary, describing the two nations as "good comrades".

Castro visited China for the first time in 1995.

China's president Xi Jinping hailed Castro in a message read out on state television: "The Chinese people have lost a good and true comrade. "Comrade Castro will live forever."

Other reactions to the passing of the 90-year-old Cold War icon:

Vladimir Putin - "The name of this distinguished statesman is rightly considered the symbol of an era in modern world history," the Russian president said in a telegram to Cuban President Raul Castro, Fidel's brother, cited by the Kremlin. "Fidel Castro was a sincere and reliable friend of Russia."

Mikhail Gorbachev - "Fidel stood up and strengthened his country during the harshest American blockade, when there was colossal pressure on him and he still took his country out of this blockade to a path of independent development," Interfax news agency quoted former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as saying. "In the past years, even when Fidel Castro was not formally in power, his role in strengthening the country was huge."

Jacob Zuma - "President Castro identified with our struggle against apartheid. He inspired the Cuban people to join us in our own struggle. As a way of paying homage to the memory of President Castro, the strong bonds of solidarity, cooperation and friendship that exist between South Africa and Cuba must be maintained and nurtured," Zuma said.

Justin Trudeau - "It is with great sadness that I have just heard of the death of Fidel Castro. A longtime friend of Canada and my family," Trudeau.

Francois Hollande - Fidel Castro embodied Cuba's revolution in both its "hopes" and its later "disappointments", the French President said in a statement. "An actor of the Cold War... he represented, for Cubans, pride in rejecting external domination," Hollande added, alluding to Castro's opposition to the United States.