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Cuba To Free 4 Opposition Prisoners

HAVANA (AP) - Cuba's government has agreed to free four men convicted of trying to flee the island by hijacking boats, and will send them into exile in Spain, a Roman Catholic Church official said Wednesday. None are among a group of 11 peaceful dissidents jailed since a 2003 crackdown on dissent.

Church spokesman Orlando Marquez said Wednesday that Alexis Borges, Victor Jesus Hechavarria, Osmel Arevalos Nunez and Rodrigo Gelacio Santos are all to be let go in coming days.

Borges is serving a 15-year-sentence for the bloody 1999 hijacking of a tourist boat in an effort to flee the country. He was intercepted by the Cuban Coast Guard and arrested.

Borges is on a list of about 100 political prisoners maintained by Elizardo Sanchez, a well-known Cuban human rights leader. The list contains both violent and nonviolent prisoners jailed for crimes against state security.

Sanchez told The Associated Press that the other three men whose release was announced Wednesday hijacked a boat together in 2005 and took it into American waters. They were stopped by the U.S. Coast Guard and eventually returned to Cuba, where they were arrested.

Under a deal announced in July by Havana Cardinal Jaime Ortega, Cuba was to free 52 peaceful activists and social commentators detained in the 2003 roundup.

Authorities quickly released 41 of the men, sending all but one of them into exile along with their families. But the process has ground to a halt in recent months, as those who remain behind bars have refused to leave Cuban soil.

"It's interesting that they are using the wide-open door provided by Spain to rid themselves of prisoners implicated in violence - people who wouldn't be accepted in any other country - while at the same time keeping the 11 peaceful prisoners locked up," Sanchez said.

Alejandrina Garcia, the wife of one of those 11 prisoners, began a hunger strike on Friday to demand her husband's release.

Garcia's husband, Diosdado Gonzalez, and another dissident prisoner, Pedro Arguelles, joined the hunger strike on Tuesday. Gonzalez is being held at a maximum security prison in Matanzas, while Arguelles is in jail in the central province of Ciego de Avila.

Alexander Aguilar, a spokesman for Garcia, said she has already lost five pounds since she stopped eating. He said she was only drinking water.

The Cuban government had no immediate comment on the hunger strikes, and it was impossible to independently verify the authenticity of the protests. Cuban authorities consider all of the dissidents to be mercenaries paid by Washington to destabilize the government.

Garcia is one of the founding members of the Ladies in White, an opposition group comprised of the wives and mothers of jailed dissidents. Another of the group's leaders, Laura Pollan, visited her Wednesday to see how she was holding up.

"She is in good spirits," Pollan said. "But we are very worried about her."

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Associated Press reporter Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this report.