By Rosa Tania Valdés
HAVANA (Reuters) - More than 2,500 Cuban prisoners have been released in recent days under a New Year's amnesty announced before a visit next spring by Pope Benedict XVI, a local human rights group said on Tuesday.
Cuban President Raul Castro said last Friday that the ruling Council of State had granted amnesty to more than 2,900 common prisoners.
Castro said the amnesty was a "humanitarian gesture" and had also "taken into account" an upcoming papal visit and requests by, among others, top Roman Catholic Church officials in Cuba and relatives of the prisoners.
"We estimate that more than 2,500 prisoners have been released in all the provinces, and the process continues," Elizardo Sanchez, head of the independent Cuban Commission on Human Rights, told Reuters.
The government and official media have not commented on the releases.
"The Cuban Commission on Human Rights applauds these releases, but really it is a limited gesture as we calculate there are between 70,000 and 80,000 Cubans in prison," Sanchez said.
Sanchez said those freed so far included five political prisoners.
Cuba released 130 political prisoners in a deal brokered by the Catholic Church in 2010. Cuban dissidents have said there are still at least 60 people behind bars for political reasons, including some convicted of boat and plane hijackings and spying.
Castro said on Friday the amnesty covered people more than 60 years of age, prisoners who are ill, women and some young prisoners who had no previous criminal history, as well as a few prisoners who had been convicted for crimes against "the security of the state."
The Cuban president said 86 foreigners from 25 countries convicted of committing crimes in Cuba were also on the amnesty list.
A number of Western diplomats said on Tuesday they were waiting to be contacted by Cuban authorities about their nationals in Cuban jails.
U.S. contractor Alan Gross, who began serving a 15-year prison term this year after being convicted of participating in a semi-covert U.S. democracy-building program to establish a clandestine Internet platform inside Cuba, was not on the amnesty list, Cuban officials said.
The U.S. government and Gross family insist the contractor was simply helping Jewish groups connect with each other and Jews around the world.
Gross' imprisonment threw cold water on a warming trend in relations between the decades-old-ideological foes.
"If this is correct, we are deeply disappointed and deplore the fact that the Cuban government has decided not to take this opportunity to extend this humanitarian release to Mr. Gross this holiday season, especially in light of his deteriorating health, and to put an end to the Gross family's long plight," Mark Toner, a State Department spokesman, said on Saturday.
(Additional reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Tom Brown and Peter Cooney)