HAVANA - Cuba will release 2,900 prisoners in the coming days for humanitarian reasons in a sweeping amnesty ahead of a visit next spring by Pope Benedict XVI, the Cuban government said on Friday.

Those to be pardoned do not include Jewish American Alan Gross, serving 15 years in prison for setting up Internet equipment on the island under a secretive US program in a case that stalled progress in US-Cuba relations, a government spokesman said.

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Cuban President Raul Castro said the ruling Council of State that granted the amnesty had "taken into account" the upcoming papal visit and requests by, among others, top Roman Catholic Church officials in Cuba and family members of the prisoners.

The US State Department declined to comment on the amnesty and its failure to include Gross, but has repeatedly said in the past that he was only providing Internet access for Jewish groups in Cuba and should be released immediately.


Gross was working as a subcontractor in a US-funded program promoting political change in Cuba. The Cuban government considered it subversive. His arrest halted a brief warming in US-Cuba relations that have been hostile since Fidel Castro embraced Soviet Communism after his 1959 revolution.

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