The Cuban government, in an apparently unprecedented move, has accepted in principle a U.S. offer of emergency aid following hurricane Wilma. A U.S. damage assessment team will visit the Caribbean nation.

Officials here are not suggesting that the development has major political significance. But they do say that for the first time in memory, Cuba has responded positively to a U.S. offer of disaster assistance.

The United States said earlier this week it was prepared to provide emergency aid to Cuba, after the island was raked by Hurricane Wilma.

The storm, which caused major damage in Mexico and later in Florida, forced the evacuation of some seven hundred thousand Cubans and caused flood damage to historic buildings in downtown Havana.

State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States sent a diplomatic note to Cuba Tuesday formalizing the offer and that Cuba accepted the offer in a message the following day.

The spokesman said a three-member team from the U.S. Agency for International Development is preparing to go to Cuba to assess needs and make recommendations to the U.S. aid agency about what material help the United States might provide:

"These teams, typically, what they do is they provide assessments of a country's needs and if necessary recommend assistance that the United States can effectively provide," said Sean McCormack. "In the case of Cuba, any assistance would be provided through independent, non-governmental organizations.

In early September, Cuba offered to send 1,600 doctors to the southern United States to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. The State Department said the Cuban help was not needed because an ample number of U.S. health workers had offered their services.

After Hurricane Dennis struck Cuba in July, causing a number of deaths and more than $1 billion in property damage, Cuban leader Fidel Castro rejected a U.S. government offer of $50,000 in immediate disaster aid.

He said Cuba was grateful for the offer, but said his government would not accept American assistance as long as the 40-year-old U.S. economic embargo of Cuba remained in place.

The Bush administration has been a persistent critic of the Castro government's human rights record.

The State Department Thursday congratulated the Cuban rights-advocacy group "Damas de Blanco" for winning the European parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought.

The group of wives and mothers of political detainees has held peaceful, silent protests every Sunday since the March 2003 crackdown on dissidents by the Castro government.

A written statement from Spokesman McCormack said the group has braved regular harassment and abuse by Cuban security forces. He reiterated the U.S. call for the release of all Cuba prisoners of conscience.