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By Barry Schweid. Associated Press . Published Tuesday, May 2, 2000, in the Miami Herald

WASHINGTON -- Three countries courted by the United States for a better relationship -- Iran, Syria and North Korea -- were again branded as sponsors of terrorism by the State Department on Monday along with Cuba, Iraq, Libya and Sudan.

A yearly report showed a shift in concern from the Middle East to South Asia, where Afghanistan is a favorite haven for terrorists and Pakistan has backed groups that engage in violence in Kashmir, a territory contested with India.

Michael Sheehan, who runs the department's counterterrorism office, said the Taliban, which controls most of Afghanistan, professes to want good relations with the United States.

But numerous terrorist groups operate on territory Taliban controls, he said at a news conference that coincided with release of the 107-page report.

Among them is the loosely linked al-Qaida organization, headed by Saudi Osama bin Laden.

He is accused of masterminding the bombings last year of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. A total of 230 people died.

Meanwhile, the Pakistan government has tolerated terrorists living and moving freely within its territory and supported groups in Kashmir that engage in violence, the report said.

Pakistan is not branded a sponsor of terrorism, though. Under law, that would prohibit all but humanitarian assistance from the United States.

Cuba, however, is listed again. In 85 words, the government of Fidel Castro is charged with providing sanctuary to several terrorists and U.S. fugitives.

``Cuba continued to provide safe haven to several terrorists and U.S. fugitives in 1999,'' the report said.

``A number of Basque ETA terrorists who gained sanctuary in Cuba some years ago continued to live on the island, as did several U.S. terrorist fugitives.

``Havana also maintained ties to other state sponsors of terrorism and Latin American insurgents. Colombia's two largest terrorist organizations, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the National Liberation Army (ELN) both maintained a permanent presence on the island. In late 1999, Cuba hosted a series of meetings between Colombian Government officials and ELN leaders,''

Special correspondent Ana Radelat in Washington contributed to this report.

Copyright 2000 Miami Herald