HAVANA, Feb 23 (Reuters) - The European Union welcomed on Monday the release of nearly 300 prisoners in Cuba in response to a clemency appeal from Pope John Paul and urged the government to free all those jailed for the "peaceful expression of their political views.''
The call was contained in an EU statement handed to Deputy Cuban Foreign Minister Isabel Allende in Havana by a "troika'' of EU ambassadors headed by Philip McLean from Britain, which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency.
The statement specifically called for the release of four detained political dissidents, leaders of a group known as the Internal Dissidence Working Group which had called for changes in Cuba's one-party communist system.
The four, Vladimiro Roca, Felix Bonne, Rene Gomez and Marta Beatriz Roque, have been in custody without being formally charged since July 16. They do not appear to be among the 299 prisoners the Cuban government said last week it had released between Feb. 13 and 14.
Before Monday's public statement, the EU had made a number of discreet diplomatic efforts to obtain the release of the four without success.
Cuba's Foreign Ministry said last Thursday it had freed 299 prisoners, including more than 70 political detainees, in direct response to an appeal for clemency made by the Pope during his historic visit to the island in January.
But a ministry spokesman refused to name those released.
In its statement, the EU urged the Cuban authorities to "liberate and fully integrate into society all who have been imprisoned because of peaceful expression of their political views.'' The Pope made a similar public call for the release of "prisoners of conscience'' during his visit.
The European Union said it "considers both the visit and the release of prisoners as positive steps toward greater religious and civic freedom in Cuba, and looks for this process to continue.''
However, Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina said in announcing the releases that they were not intended to encourage what he called "internal dissidence,'' which the government says is actively supported by the United States to try to overthrow communist rule in Cuba. REUTERS