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VATICAN BLASTS HELMS-BURTON LAW PRIOR TO CUBA MISSION

Just days before sending its foreign minister to Havana, the Vatican issued its first public attack Friday on the latest U.S. law intended to isolate Cuba.

Cardinal Roger Etchegaray called some provisions of the Helms-Burton law "legally questionable" and noted that the Cuban Roman Catholic bishops have spoken out against the legislation.

The law, which President Clinton signed in March after Cuba's Communist government shot down two U.S. civilian planes, allows Americans to sue foreign firms for using property seized from them after Cuba's 1959 revolution.

It also bans executives of suspect companies from entering the United States.

There was no immediate comment from the U.S. mission to the Vatican.

Cardinal Etchegaray's comments had the support of top Vatican officials and seemed designed to ease talks in Havana next week between Fidel Castro and Archbishop Jean-Louis Tauran.

Archbishop Tauran will be the highest-ranking Vatican visitor to Cuba in 22 years when he arrives in Havana late next week. His mission is to prepare a meeting between Castro and Pope John Paul II in Rome next month.

The talks could lead to a papal visit to Cuba next year.

Castro is one of the few world leaders Pope John Paul has never met, and Cuba is the only Latin American nation the much-traveled pope has not visited.

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