By Marc Frank
HAVANA, March 18 - Cuban authorities detained about 70 members of the dissident group Ladies in White over the weekend, including 18 who staged its weekly Sunday march in the Cuban capital.
The 18 women, dressed in their customary white clothing, were rounded up and taken away in buses after they left their permitted route through Havana's Miramar neighborhood, said a Reuters cameraman on the scene.
Ladies in White member Magaly Norvis Otero Suarez told Reuters that 16 of the women were arrested Saturday evening when they attempted to stage a march in central Havana and another 36 were detained Sunday morning as they prepared to go to mass at Santa Rita Catholic Church, then stage their silent march along 5th Avenue, Miramar's main boulevard.
They had gathered at the home of their deceased leader Laura Pollan over the weekend to commemorate the anniversary of the arrest of 75 government opponents in March 2003 that gave rise to the organization, Otero said.
Human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez told Reuters that along with the estimated 70 women detained in Havana, another 12 dissidents were arrested in other provinces.
"The Ladies in White, or "Damas de Blanco" in Spanish, were the wives and mothers of the 75, who received lengthy sentences but have all been freed, most as part of a 2010 agreement brokered by the Roman Catholic Church that resulted in the release of 130 political prisoners.
The group has continued its weekly marches, which are the only public protests allowed in Cuba, saying there are still more political prisoners to be freed.
They are allowed to walk along a 12-block stretch of 5th Avenue, but are quickly detained when they vary from the prescribed route. On Sunday, they continued toward the Malecon, Havana's famed seaside boulevard, before police swooped in.
In numerous similar incidents in the past, the women have been released within hours without charges.
By early evening on Sunday some of the women had been freed.
"They released us an hour ago and have begun releasing the others, though many have yet to report in," Otero, one of the 18 women picked up at noon on Sunday, said by telephone. The detentions followed a controversial incident last week when 13 dissidents occupied a Havana Catholic church demanding that Pope Benedict mediate an end to Communist rule.
After two days, they were ousted by police at the Church's request, which raised the hackles of Cuba's small dissident community.
After a three-day visit to Mexico, the German pontiff is scheduled to come to Cuba March 26-28 in a trip viewed as a show of improved church-state relations after decades of hostilities.
Sanchez said the arrests are "creating a not very favorable climate for the pope's visit."
"The fault lies first with the government for its excessive repression as always, and the Catholic authorities' error for allowing the violent expulsion of dissidents from the church," he said.
Ladies in White leader Berta Soler has said her group would like to meet briefly with the pope to discuss human rights in Cuba. She was not at the Sunday march because she was among those detained beforehand.
Church authorities said last week a visit with dissidents was not on the pope's program.
The Cuban government views dissidents as "mercenaries" in the pay of the United States, its longtime ideological foe.
(Editing by Jeff Franks and Eric Walsh)