HAVANA (AFP) - Cuba's retired leader Fidel Castro has been seen in photographs for the first time in five months, meeting with a student leader in an apparent bid to scotch rumours about his health.
The pictures published late Monday by state media showed Castro, 88, with his grey hair and beard, wearing a blue tracksuit and checkered shirt as he sat on a chair in his house along with his wife, Dalia Soto del Valle.
Castro, who stepped down after falling ill in 2006, is seen reading a newspaper, watching television and talking with Randy Perdomo Garcia, head of the pro-government University Students Federation.
The daily Granma ran the pictures with the headline "Fidel Is Extraordinary". An accompanying article written by Perdomo says the meeting took place on Jan 23.
Speculation about Castro's health ran wild online after he initially remained quiet when his brother, President Raul Castro, and US President Barack Obama announced in December that they would restore diplomatic relations after a half-century of enmity.
Fidel Castro finally broke his silence about the thaw in relations on Jan 26, writing a letter that suggested that he did not oppose his brother's decision even though he does not trust the United States.
The last time he was seen in public was January 8, 2014, when he attended an art gallery opening near his home. The last pictures of Castro were published in mid-August 2014.
Rumours of Castro's demise have cropped up often since he stepped down from office during his 2006 health crisis and handed power to Raul, the longtime armed forces chief.
Perdomo wrote that his meeting with Castro unfolded as if he were talking to an old friend.
He said he got a call the night before from Castro and was moved when he finally heard a voice he had often heard from afar.
"How are you, Randy,?" said Castro, according to Perdomo.
He said they talked about the articles that Castro has published in Granma, and about astronomy and the importance of science in human advancement.
In the streets of Havana, Cubans expressed relief at seeing Castro again.
"The 'comandante' is still alive, which many people didn't believe, and he has a clear head, speaking with a young student," said Fidel Moran, 67, who cares for cars in Old Havana.
Eduard Green, a 32-year-old who restores monuments for a living, said Castro appeared "gaunt, but I am happy to see him".
Last week, the communist leader met with a Brazilian theologian, Frei Betto, who advocates liberation theology - the idea that it is the Catholic church's responsibility to help the poor.
"The commander is in good health and in good spirits," Betto said the next day. But no photos of the meeting were published.
Castro took notes on what Betto said, according to the Brazilian.
Betto said he found the former Cuban leader "in good health, thin but lucid".
In mid-January, Argentina football legend Diego Maradona showed a letter he had received from his old friend Fidel Castro, the communist icon's first sign of life in a while.