By Andrew Cawthorne
HAVANA, Nov 8 (Reuters) - Cuban boxing idol Teofilo Stevenson, accused of headbutting a U.S. airline employee in Miami, insisted on Monday he was provoked by insults against President Fidel Castro from an unidentified agitator.
``I don't let anyone insult my Revolution, nor my people, nor, above all, the 'commandante'. I've never been a coward,'' Stevenson, 48, told state daily Trabajadores in his first public comments on last month's incident in Miami airport.
Castro supporters generally refer to the Cuban president as ``commandante en jefe'' (''commander-in-chief''), and most local sports' stars are staunchly pro-government.
Stevenson, who won gold medals in the 1972, 1976 and 1980 Olympics, admitted the alleged provocation infuriated him, but suggested the injury caused was accidental as he raised his head from bending down to pick up an air ticket.
U.S. police briefly detained the boxer after accusing him of roughing up a United Airlines employee as he allegedly tried to force his way past an airport checkpoint.
According to Stevenson's version, a male ``agitator,'' not necessarily working for the airline, approached him as he was at the ticket counter. ``As he didn't identify himself, I suspected he wasn't an employee and refused to give it (the ticket) to him. Then he started to shout insults against
the commander-in-chief, against our government, against us,'' he said.
``First I tried to ignore him, but when he started against Fidel, I had to say to him 'don't fuck with me, or I'll kill you right here', and straight away he replied 'Well, you can't leave' and started to call the police.''
Stevenson said he then continued ``quietly'' to collect his ticket from the airline counter, when the alleged agitator and an airport supervisor began shouting that he could not leave.
``I dropped the ticket, and while trying to pick it up, I hit him hard with my head on his forehead, which apparently left him dazed,'' added Stevenson in the Trabajadores interview, implying the injury was caused involuntarily.
The boxer said at least 10 policemen appeared ``from all sides'' seconds later. ``They fell upon me, and I resisted.''
Stevenson was then handcuffed, briefly jailed, and charged with aggravated battery and resisting arrest with violence.
According to U.S. police, the injured man had chipped front teeth and cuts in his mouth after the incident. Stevenson, who won his last world super heavyweight championship in 1986 and is now vice president of Cuba's Boxing Federation, posted $12,500 bail and caught a flight to Cuba afterward.
Cuba has said it would not object to a trial of Stevenson in the United States, provided there were firm guarantees of a ``fair and respectful'' legal process.
In comments with the Stevenson interview, Trabajadores suggested the incident was another example of anti-Castro groups in the United States trying to stain the reputation of a Cuban sporting hero.
``Full of arrogance and impotence, the anti-patriots of the counter-revolutionary mafia in Miami try again to ruin a Cuban sports' star, as they have attempted to do with all those who have rejected their schemes and reaped triumphs for our fatherland,'' began the Trabajadores article signed by
local journalist Julio Cesar Mejias Cardenas.
The newspaper, the official publication of Cuba's state-affiliated labour movement, also alleged the Miami-based, anti-Castro group, the Cuban American National Foundation, organised a public gathering to abuse Stevenson when he returned to Miami airport after his arrest en route to Havana.
Cuba's state supervisory body INDER has avoided comment on the incident, and Stevenson has been unavailable for independent interviews with foreign media.
Led by Castro, the Cuban government has been denouncing all year abuses and plots against local sportsmen, most notably in the case of champion high-jumper Javier Sotomayor, who tested positive for cocaine at the recent Pan-American Games in Canada.
Copyright 1999 Reuters Limited.