updated 10/4/2010 7:39:01 PM ET 2010-10-04T23:39:01

Washington is working on a plan to bring the vast majority of exiled Cuban political prisoners from Spain to the United States and has already processed the first case, a senior State Department official told The Associated Press on Monday.

Nearly all of some 39 former prisoners who are already in Spain, along with more than 100 family members, are likely to accept the offer, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the program publicly.

"The majority of those prisoners and family have expressed an interest in the program," said the official.

State Department spokesman Charles Luoma-Overstreet confirmed the broad outline of the anonymous official's account.

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"We welcome the unconditional release of political prisoners by the government of Cuba, and continue to call for the release of all political prisoners," Luoma-Overstreet said.

The plan gets around a Catch-22 whereby Cubans who left the island were no longer considered in harm's way, and thus not eligible for traditional asylum requests.

Some 39 prisoners have been released from Cuban jails after agreeing to leave the island with their families. Another 13 remain behind bars, reportedly because they have so far refused to leave Cuba.

Cuba agreed in July to free all 52 remaining political prisoners jailed in a 2003 crackdown on dissent, after an accord ironed out with the help of the Roman Catholic Church and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos.

The prisoners have been leaving for Spain in drips and drabs ever since. Some have complained that Spanish officials did not properly inform them of how their departure would effect a U.S. asylum request or their eventual return to Cuba. They have also said the emergency accommodations found for them in Spain were unpleasant.

Luoma-Overstreet said that "the U.S. Embassy in Madrid is actively reaching out to the released political prisoners to inform them of this possibility and share information about eligibility."

The senior official said the process began three weeks ago and the vast majority expressed interest in going to the United States, where many have family. One family's case has already been processed, and more interviews are expected to take place later this week in the Spanish capital, Madrid.

He said the program — called the Significant Public Benefit Parole program — has been in effect in other parts of the world, but had not yet applied to Cuba. He said officials at the State Department and Homeland Security worked together to make the transfer happen.

Under the plan, each applicant will have to apply for entry, a process that could take up to a month. Homeland Security officials will make the final determination on who gets accepted.

The Cubans will enter the United States without formal residency status, but will be able to apply for residency once there. They will also be issued work permits almost immediately.

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The official said he did not believe consular staff at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana had yet informed the families of remaining prisoners of the offer, but he hoped they would hear about it now that the program is public. America maintains the Interests Section in Havana instead of an embassy because it has no diplomatic relations with Cuba.

While many of those still in jail have refused to go to Spain because they do not want to abandon their homeland, the possibility of settling in the United States might entice some to agree to leave, using Spain as a transit point.

Despite the releases, Cuba has long denied holding any political prisoners. It says those in jail are mercenaries paid by Washington to destabilize the government.

The senior State Department official also commented on the detention of Alan Gross, an American subcontractor jailed in Havana without charge since December and accused of spying. He said the man's continued detention makes it hard to move forward on improving relations, locked in a half-century long feud since shortly after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.

Over the weekend, Sen. Chris Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who has long criticized U.S. policy toward Cuba, traveled to Havana and was meeting with Cuban government officials, discussing ways to improve relations between both countries.

After the release of the 52 inmates, Cuba will hold just one person considered a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International.

The government is holding about 100 other people who are not on Amnesty's list, many because they have been convicted of murder, hijacking and other violent crimes. Some human rights organizations believe the convictions and lengthy sentences were politically motivated.

A leading Cuban human rights official, Elizardo Sanchez, said Monday that the Cuban government had begun contacting nine prisoners not on the Amnesty list, offering them early release in exchange for accepting exile.

They included three men serving life sentences for hijacking a plane, and others convicted of violent crimes including piracy, assault and terrorism.

Word of the expected releases — which first came out over the weekend — is the latest sign that Cuba's surprise decision to empty its jail of many political prisoners will not be limited to the "prisoners of conscience."

"This massive release is good news," Sanchez said in a written statement.

In Madrid on Monday, the Spanish Foreign Ministry said it has no immediate plans to take in any freed Cuban prisoners outside of the 52 whose release was negotiated by the Catholic Church. The ministry said it was not aware of any of the nine on Sanchez's list having asked to go to Spain, or of Spain having been contacted with regard to taking them.

The State Department official said it was not clear if the offer of a new life in America would be extended to any of those prisoners. He said each applicant would be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, and violent crimes could be a factor against approval.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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