updated 2/11/2008 3:13:58 PM ET 2008-02-11T20:13:58

Ailing leader Fidel Castro on Monday denied U.S. presidential hopeful John McCain's claim that Cuban agents helped torture American prisoners of war in Vietnam in the 1960s, calling the assertion "a strange legend."

"Let me remind you, Mr. McCain: the commandments of the religion you practice prohibit lying," Castro wrote in an essay published by the Communist Party newspaper Granma. "The years in prison and the wounds received because of the attacks on Hanoi do not excuse you from the moral obligation of the truth," the essay added.

McCain, the Republican front-runner for the November presidential contest, was a military pilot taken prisoner in 1967 and held for five years in communist North Vietnam.

McCain has said that while he was held in Hanoi, a Cuban agent came to show his Vietnamese captors "some new interrogation techniques." While he has said that Cubans helped torture other American prisoners, they were not among those who tortured him.

McCain declined to respond directly to the Cuban leader's denial.

"Look, for me to respond to Fidel Castro, who has oppressed and repressed his people and is one of the most brutal dictators on earth, for me to dignify any charges or comments he might make is beneath me," McCain told reporters Monday in Annapolis, Md.

Many Cuban-American veterans of the disastrous CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961 consider McCain a hero for his time as a prisoner of war. During campaign appearances before Cuban exiles, McCain referred to his years in captivity and asserted that Cuban agents helped Vietnamese torture American military prisoners.

Castro wrote that when he first heard of McCain's claim several years ago, "I wanted to know where such a strange legend came from" and found the source in the U.S. senator's book "Faith of My Fathers," published in 1999.

"His accusation against internationalist Cuban revolutionaries, using the nickname Fidel to identify one who was capable of 'torturing a prisoner until they died' lacks even a minimum of ethics," Castro wrote.

"You accuse revolutionary Cubans of being torturers," Castro wrote, maintaining that Cuban authorities did not torture the hundreds of exiles it took prisoner during the invasion at the Bay of Pigs, which the Cubans refer to as Playa Giron. "I seriously exhort you to prove that even one of the more than 1,000 prisoners captured in combat at Playa Giron was tortured."

The 81-year-old Castro, who has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery more than 18 months ago, regularly publishes essays in state media. His brother Raul has headed a caretaker government in his absence.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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