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US: Cuba Has Released Some of 53 'Political' Prisoners

Cuban flags fly beside the United States Interests Section in Havana (USINT), Dec. 30, 2014.

Cuba has freed some of 53 people the United States regards as political prisoners as agreed under last month's U.S.-Cuban rapprochement, the U.S. government said on Tuesday in its first acknowledgement that some detainees have been released.

The lack of information about the fate of the detainees, who President Barack Obama's administration has refused to identify by name, has provided ammunition for congressional critics of Obama's restoration of ties to Havana.

"They have already released some of the prisoners, we would like to see this completed in the near future," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters, saying she would not provide a specific number.

The United States wants the rest released soon, she added.

Elizardo Sanchez, leader of the dissident Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation which monitors such detentions, said his organization was not aware of any releases.

"We don't have any information up to now," Sanchez said in a telephone interview in Havana. "No names... We'll wait and see."

White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters one reason the prisoners were not being identified was because "we don't want to put an even bigger target on their back as political dissidents."

Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Republican who is a leading congressional opponent of Obama's policy shift, urged Obama to cancel upcoming talks with Havana at least until all the prisoners are released.

The release of all 53 is not a pre-condition for holding talks on migration and on the eventual normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba that are scheduled to take place later this month, Psaki said.

The State spokeswoman said she was unable to say exactly when those talks, to be led by Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson on the U.S. side, would take place, adding "we hope to have that locked down in the coming days."

On Monday, Psaki had said she was unable to say whether any of the 53 had yet been freed. Their promised release was part of Obama's Dec. 17 announcement that he planned to normalize relations with Cuba after five decades of hostile relations with the island.

On Tuesday, Obama discussed Cuba with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto during a White House meeting. Pena Nieto pledged that his country would be a "tireless supporter" of the move to normalize relations.