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Cuba says migrants aboard US ship to be let back in country

This undated handout photo provided by the US Coast Guard shows US Coast Guard Cutter Vigilant. Thirty-eight Cuban migrants caught trying to sail to the U.S. are stranded aboard a U.S. Coast Guard vessel, waiting for permission from the Cuban government to return home, The Associated Press has learned. The migrants were among about 96 Cubans who were intercepted at sea and taken aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Vigilant. The Cuban government allowed the return of the other 58 people. (Coast Guard via AP)

HAVANA (AP) — A group of migrants from Cuba who had been stuck in a legal limbo aboard a U.S. Coast Guard ship after they were detained at sea are being allowed to return to their homeland, the Cuban government said Saturday.

The 38 migrants were among nearly 100 detained by the Coast Guard in April and who would ordinarily have been quickly repatriated under an agreement between the U.S. and Cuba intended to discourage risky sea journeys by people seeking to reach the United States.

But a U.S. official said Cuban authorities had balked at accepting the 38 migrants, arguing they did not qualify as migrants in transit who should be immediately repatriated because they had legally left their country and obtained tourist visas from the Caribbean nation of St. Lucia. The migrants were held on board the Coast Guard cutter Vigilant until the situation could be resolved.

A resolution apparently came Saturday. A statement issued by the Cuban Interests Section in Washington said Cuba’s government notified the U.S. it would allow the migrants to return even though they do not qualify for repatriation under the terms of the 1995 agreement.

The Cuban government faulted U.S. immigration policy, which allows migrants from Cuba to quickly become legal residents, and eventually citizens, if they make it to U.S. soil but turns back those caught at sea. The policy prompts many to try to reach third countries and find alternate routes to avoid Coast Guard patrols.

The U.S. should end this “preferential policy,” the Cuban government said. “It is the principal stimulus to illegal migration from Cuba to the United States and to the irregular entries of Cubans to U.S. territories through third countries, undermining the commitment made by both countries to promote legal, safe and orderly migration.”

It was not immediately clear when the migrants on board the Vigilant would be repatriated. A Coast Guard spokesman, Petty Officer Mark Barney, declined to comment, citing the “open nature of the case.”

The United States and Cuba are trying to wrap up an agreement in the coming days for re-establishing embassies and posting ambassadors to each other’s capitals after a half-century interruption.

The biggest obstacle to restoring full diplomatic relations is almost gone: the U.S. designation of Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism. President Barack Obama announced his intention last month to delist Cuba, and the change will become effective May 29.

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Associated Press writer Michele Salcedo in Washington contributed to this report.

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