They have been serving sentences ranging from 13 to 24 years for violations of Cuban laws aimed at curbing opposition, and what the government views as subversive activities.

Imminent release

While there has been no word on when exactly the men will be freed, there are growing signs that a release could be imminent.

Moralinda Paneque, the mother of prisoner Jose Luis Garcia Paneque, told Reuters news agency she had received word her son had left a prison near the city of Las Tunas and was being driven to Havana.

She said the government's plan was to gather the family in the Cuban capital, where they would take a flight together to Spain, although she did not think they would leave on Saturday.

Irene Viera, wife of prisoner Julio Cesar Galvez, said she and her son, who live in Havana, had been called in for medical examinations on Sunday ahead of the trip to Spain.

"I'm already saying goodbye to friends," she said.

The Catholic church has taken an increasingly public role in relations between the government and the opposition since the death of a jailed dissident hunger striker in February.

Asylum

On Thursday church officials announced the names of the first five prisoners to be released, and said all had accepted asylum in Spain, as did those on the list announced on Saturday.

Neither the church nor the Cuban government has said whether agreeing to exile is a requirement of release, with Ortega describing exile as an "option.''

The meeting was brokered by Miguel Angel Moratinos, the Spanish foreign minister.

While the government's promise to release prisoners has raised hopes on the island, praise from outside has been grudging, particularly from human rights groups and the US.

Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, praised the development on Thursday, but described the releases as "overdue.''

Human rights campaigners, Amnesty International, said it would continue to campaign for all of the island's prisoners of conscience to be freed and sent home immediately.