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U.S., Cuba restart migration talks after two-year break

The flags of the United States and Cuba are seen flying in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, Florida January 26, 2012. REUTERS/Shanno
The flags of the United States and Cuba are seen flying in the Little Havana neighborhood of Miami, Florida January 26, 2012. REUTERS/Shanno

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States and Cuba resumed immigration talks in Washington on Wednesday after a two-year hiatus and U.S. officials said they had again pressed for the release of jailed American contractor Alan Gross.

The last migration roundtable between the United States and Cuba was in January 2011 when officials met in Havana.

The talks were led by Alex Lee, acting U.S. deputy assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, and Josefina Vidal Ferreiro, Cuba's foreign ministry director general for U.S. affairs.

The State Department said the U.S. delegation reiterated a call for the release of Gross, who is serving a 15-year sentence in Cuba for installing Internet networks for Cuban Jews as part of a U.S. program that Cuba considers subversive.

Gross' arrest in late 2009 and sentencing in March 2011 halted a brief thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations after Obama took office in January 2009.

The department said Lee made it clear that Gross was "trying to facilitate communications between Cuba's citizens and the rest of the world."

The sides also discussed the application of U.S.-Cuba Migration Accords, which seek to promote safe, legal and orderly migrations between the two countries.

Over the past half century, thousands of Cubans have died trying to cross the treacherous Florida Straits in flimsy boats and homemade rafts.

The United States accepts about 200,000 Cubans annually via legal immigration and also takes in those who manage to reach U.S. shores. But under the "wet foot, dry foot policy" it turns back Cubans picked up at sea.

In a statement, the Cuban delegation said the meeting had taken place in a "climate of respect" but noted that legal, safe and orderly migration could not be achieved as long as the "wet foot, dry foot" policy remained in place.

The meeting comes as the United States and Cuba explore the possibility of resuming direct mail services, which U.S. diplomats insist does not mean a change in American policy toward Cuba.

Earlier, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said the United States would not raise during Wednesday's meeting the issue of a North Korean ship caught in Panama last week smuggling arms from Cuba in contravention of U.N. sanctions.

She said, however, that Washington would talk to Cuba "very soon" about the ship.

Panama stopped the ship and seized the cargo, which included missile equipment and arms on board that Cuba said were obsolete Soviet-era weapons being send to North Korea for repair.

(Reporting by Lesley Wroughton; Editing by Xavier Briand)

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