Cuba released three political prisoners Saturday at the request of a visiting U.S. congressman who later escorted them to Miami and to a joyous reunion with relatives.
The United States welcomed the move and called on Havana to free all political detainees.
The prisoners, who had been jailed in 1992 for sentences of between nine and 13 years, flew to the United States with Rep. Bill Richardson. He had secured their release after talks Friday with President Fidel Castro and during an earlier visit to Communist-ruled Cuba last month.
Richardson, a Democrat from New Mexico, left Havana airport for Miami with the three ex-prisoners in a small U.S. Air Force jet shortly after midday. On their arrival in Miami, the three were greeted with hugs, kisses and cheers from relatives and friends.
There was no comment on Richardson's mission or the prisoner releases by Foreign Ministry officials in Havana.
In Washington, a U.S. State Department statement said: "We welcome the release of any political prisoners."
It added that the State Department continued "to call on the Cuban government to release the more than 1,000 persons who remain imprisoned for their political beliefs."
Cuba should also "eliminate the provisions of the penal code under which Cuban citizens continue to be arrested merely for peacefully expressing their disagreement with government policy," said the statement, issued in Washington and also made available to journalists by U.S. officials in Havana.
In Cuba for just one day on his latest trip, Richardson told reporters at Havana airport that he had a two-hour meeting with Castro on Friday evening.
The State Department, while saying it appreciated Richardson's efforts, stressed he had acted on his own initiative and was not prompted by the U.S. administration.
The freed prisoners were Carmen Julia Arias Iglesias, serving a nine-year term for "revealing state secrets," Luis Grave de Peralta, serving a 13-year term for "rebellion," and Eduardo Ramon Prida, serving a 10-year term for "rebellion."
"I'm very thankful for the efforts that got us out of prison," Peralta said in Spanish after his arrival in Miami.
Among those greeting the three former prisoners was Republican Rep. Robert Torricelli of New Jersey. "Thank you for your courage," Torricelli told Iglesias as she stepped off the plane.
Torricelli, a New Jersey Democrat who has spearheaded legislation to tighten the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, said the release of the three was a small step. "While we are grateful for your release," he said, "there will be no celebrations because there are hundreds more (prisoners)."
There was no reason given for the unusual decision by Cuban authorities to grant a request from a foreign visitor to free political prisoners.
"Hopefully this will start a discussion of humanitarian issues across the board," Richardson said in Miami. He added that he had presented Castro with a list of 17 other political prisoners who should be released.
In the most recent release following a personal intervention by a visiting foreign delegation, Cuba freed six political prisoners last May after an appeal by a French human rights organization headed by Danielle Mitterrand, wife of the late French President Francois Mitterrand.