Cubans line streets as Fidel Castro's ashes begin final journey

Fidel Castro's ashes have begun a four-day journey across Cuba from Havana to their final resting place in the eastern city of Santiago.

The remains of the 90-year-old leader were taken out of Cuba's Defence Ministry and placed in a small coffin covered by a Cuban flag to begin the 500-mile procession.

His ashes will be interred on Sunday, ending the nine-day mourning period for the man who ruled the country for nearly 50 years.

The route traces in reverse the victory tour Mr Castro and his bearded rebels took after overthrowing the forces of strongman Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

The caravan will pass through rural communities significantly changed by social and economic reforms he adopted.

Many residents now have access to health care and education. But many of those towns are also in a prolonged economic collapse, the country's once-dominant sugar industry decimated, the sugar mills and plantations gone.

Thousands of Cubans lined the streets of Havana, some sleeping on pavements overnight, to bid goodbye to Mr Castro.

Many had attended a massive rally on Tuesday night at Havana's Revolution Plaza, where the presidents of Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and South Africa, along with leaders of a host of smaller nations, offered speeches paying tribute to Mr Castro, who died Friday night.

The crowds at the rally and along Wednesday's procession route were a mix of people attending on their own and groups of Cubans organised by government workplaces, where attendance was not strictly obligatory but with strong pressure to attend.

Some groups of government workers slept on the streets because all public transport had been commandeered to move people to Castro-related activities.

"We love the comandante and I think it's our obligation to be here and see him out," said Mercedes Antunez, 59, who was bused in by the state athletics organisation from her home in east Havana along with fellow employees.

Tuesday's rally began with black-and-white revolution-era footage of Mr Castro and other guerrillas on a big screen and the playing of the Cuban national anthem.

Raul Castro closed the rally with a speech thanking world leaders for their words of praise for his brother, whom he called the leader of a revolution "for the humble, and by the humble".

South African President Jacob Zuma praised Cuba under Mr Castro for its record on education and health care and its support for African independence struggles.

Mr Castro will be remembered as "a great fighter for the idea that the poor have a right to live with dignity", Mr Zuma told the crowd.

For two days, lines stretched for hours outside the Plaza of the Revolution, the heart of government power.

In Havana and across the island, people signed condolence books and an oath of loyalty to Mr Castro's sweeping May 2000 proclamation of the Cuban revolution as an unending battle for socialism, nationalism and an outsize role for the island on the world stage.

Inside the memorial, thousands walked through three rooms with near-identical displays featuring the 1962 Alberto Korda photograph of the young Castro in the Sierra Maestra mountains, bouquets of white flowers and an array of Castro's medals against a black backdrop, framed by honour guards of soldiers and children in school uniforms. The ashes did not appear to be on display.

Signs read: "The Cuban Communist Party is the only legitimate heir of the legacy and authority of the commander in chief of the Cuban Revolution, comrade Fidel Castro."

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