Cuba uncovers human trafficking of Cubans to fight for Russia in Ukraine

By Dave Sherwood and Marc Frank

HAVANA (Reuters) -Cuba has uncovered a human trafficking ring that coerced its citizens to fight for Russia in the war in Ukraine, its foreign ministry said, adding that Cuban authorities were working to "neutralize and dismantle" the network.

The statement from Cuba's foreign ministry late on Monday gave few details, but noted the trafficking ring was operating both within the Caribbean island nation, thousands of miles from Moscow, and in Russia.

"The Ministry of the Interior... is working on the neutralization and dismantling of a human trafficking network that operates from Russia to incorporate Cuban citizens living there, and even some from Cuba, into the military forces participating in war operations in Ukraine," the Cuban government statement said.

Russia's defence ministry did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

Russia last year announced a plan to boost the size of its armed forces by more than 30% to 1.5 million combat personnel, a lofty goal made harder by its heavy but undisclosed casualties in the war.

In late May, a Russia newspaper in Ryazan city reported that several Cuban citizens had signed contracts with Russia's armed forces and had been shipped to Ukraine in return for Russian citizenship.

It was not immediately clear if the Cuban foreign ministry statement was associated with the Ryazan report.

Russia, which has strong political ties with communist-run Cuba, has long been an important destination for Cuban migrants seeking to escape economic stagnation at home.

The defense ministers of Cuba and Russia earlier this year discussed the development of joint "technical military" projects at a meeting in Moscow. But the administration of Cuban president Miguel Diaz-Canel denies any involvement in the Ukraine conflict.

"Cuba is not part of the war in Ukraine," the foreign ministry said late on Monday. "(Cuba) is acting and will act energetically against anyone... who participates in any form of human trafficking for the purpose of recruitment of Cuban citizens as mercenaries to use arms against any country."

Cuba said it had already begun prosecuting cases in which its citizens had been coerced into fighting in Ukraine.

"Attempts of this nature have been neutralized and criminal proceedings have been initiated against people involved in these activities," the statement read.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood and Marc Frank in Havana; additional reporting by Felix Light in Tbilisi, Editing by Michael Perry and Bill Berkrot)