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US says Cuba move to release prisoners is a 'positive sign'

Cuba's decision to release 52 political prisoners is overdue but still a positive sign from the island's communist government, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said yesterday.

"We were were encouraged by the apparent agreement between the Roman Catholic Church and the authorities in Cuba for the release of 52 political prisoners," Mrs Clinton said after a meeting with Jordan's visiting Foreign Minister. "We think that's a positive sign. It's something that is overdue but nevertheless very welcome."

Cuba's Catholic Church said on Wednesday that Havana had agreed to the release, which appeared to be a major concession to international pressure on human rights. The church said five of the prisoners would be freed on Wednesday and allowed to go to Spain, while the remaining 47 would be released over the next few months.

Mrs Clinton said she spoke to the Spanish foreign minister Miguel Angel Moratinos, who was in Havana for talks involving church officials and the government. But she did not directly address whether the reported prisoner release would influence the Obama administration's decision on whether to end the 48-year-old US economic embargo on Cuba.

President Obama has made modest efforts to improve relations with Cuba, including a slight easing of the embargo, and has said there would be further progress when the island released political prisoners. But Mrs Clinton said in April that she believed both the former president, Fidel Castro, and his brother Raul, who became President in 2008, had no interest in truly improving ties with the United States.