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Castro meets US lawmakers in Cuba

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

President Raul Castro on Tuesday welcomed a delegation of US lawmakers, the first to come to Communist Cuba since US President Barack Obama's re-election, state media reported.

"Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla took part in the meeting, and issues of interest to both countries were addressed," a statement read out on the government news broadcast said.

The US legislators were in Havana to meet with Cuban officials and hope to visit an American contractor jailed for distributing laptops and satellite phones, diplomatic sources said earlier.

The US lawmakers also met with Rodriguez Parrilla and Ricardo Alarcon, a former Cuban ambassador to the United Nations and assembly speaker, the Cuban report said.

Sources at the US Interests Section -- the countries do not have full diplomatic ties -- said the delegation arrived Monday and is led by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

He visited Cuba last year and met with Castro at the time.

In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland confirmed the trip earlier.

"Our understanding from the (delegation) is that they have been told that they will have an opportunity to see (jailed US contractor) Alan Gross," Nuland told reporters.

Nuland said that the State Department expected the lawmakers to call for Gross' "immediate release."

"We will look forward to the results of their diplomacy on his behalf and, more broadly, with regard to all of our concerns about Cuba" on human rights and other issues, she said.

Gross was arrested in December 2009 for illegally distributing laptops and communications equipment to members of Cuba's small Jewish community under a State Department contract.

He is serving a 15-year jail term for "acts against the independence or territorial integrity" of the communist-ruled island.

His case has heightened tensions between the two countries, with Washington making his release a condition for improved ties.

Cuba has made it clear it is ready to negotiate Gross's release in exchange for the release of five captured Cuban spies held in the United States. But Washington has ruled this out.

And the Cuban news bulletin did not say if the Americans were able to meet with Gross.

After visiting Cuba, the American lawmakers will head to Haiti on Wednesday.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130219/castro-meets-us-lawmakers-cuba