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HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba is making preparations to protect its coast as the BP oil spill continues spreading through the Gulf of Mexico, Cuban officials said Tuesday.

They offered few specifics about the preparations, but said Venezuela, Cuba's oil-rich ally, has sent a team of spill-fighting experts to help the island.

Millions of gallons of oil have gushed into the gulf in the 57-day-old spill and fouled 120 miles of U.S. coastline.

Patches of oil reportedly have been seen as close as 100 miles northwest of Cuba and some forecasts have said gulf currents will inevitably carry the oil to Cuba, which is 90 miles south of Key West, Florida.

International scientists say Cuba's waters and coastline are relatively pristine because of the lack of development common in many other countries.

Its northwest coast is a feeding and breeding ground for many species, including migratory sea turtles, sharks and manatees in danger of extinction.

"We are preparing to do everything we can, and of course to receive the help of those who have experience in confronting (oil spills)," Vice Minister of Defense Gen. Ramon Espinosa told reporters at a conference on disaster preparedness.

He said Cuba has suffered small spills from oil tankers, but nothing of the magnitude of the BP spill.

Cuba does not have any offshore oil production, but Spanish oil giant Repsol YPF has contracted for a rig to drill exploration wells off of Cuba's coast later this year or early in 2011.

Cuba's Civil Defense director, Gen. Ramon Pardo Guerra, speaking at the same conference, said authorities were keeping a close eye on the spill and preparing the coastal population for its arrival.

He did not say what Venezuela had provided for Cuba, but said the South American country has long experience in dealing with oil.

"They are specialists who have produced oil for 100 years," Pardo said.

U.S. officials say they met with Cuban authorities in May to discuss the spill and are providing them regular information about its direction.

But Cuba's Deputy Foreign Minister Dagoberto Rodriguez told a visiting delegation of Texas legislators recently that no talks had been held.

Despite 50 years of hostilities between Washington and Havana, he said Cuba was ready to cooperate with its longtime foe in the fight against the spill, said former U.S. diplomat Wayne Smith, who led the delegation to the island. (Reporting by Nelson Acosta, editing by Jeff Franks)

By Nelson Acosta


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