|Pope Benedict XVI has asked for prayers for his upcoming trip to Mexico and Cuba [Reuters]
Cuban authorities have released members of a banned dissident women's group who were detained over the weekend, according to a member of the group, days before a visit to the island by Pope Benedict XVI.
About 70 members of Ladies in White had been in custody, including 18 who staged a weekly Sunday march in the country's capital after they left their permitted route through Havana's Miramar neighbourhood.
The women, dressed in their customary white clothing, were rounded up and taken away in buses by police.
But Berta Soler, the leader of the group, and most of those also detained had been released overnight, Magaly Norvis Otero Suarez, a Ladies in White member, told the AFP news agency.
Suarez told Reuters that 16 of the women had been arrested on Saturday evening when they attempted to stage a march in central Havana and another 36 were detained on Sunday morning as they prepared to go to Mass at Santa Rita Catholic Church, then stage their silent march along 5th Avenue, Miramar's main boulevard.
They had gathered at the home of their deceased leader, Laura Pollan, over the weekend to commemorate the anniversary of the 2003 arrest of 75 government opponents that gave rise to the organisation, Otero said.
Human rights activist Elizardo Sanchez said that along with the estimated 70 women detained in Havana, another 12 dissidents were arrested in other provinces.
"The Ladies in White, or "Damas de Blanco" in Spanish, are the wives and mothers of political prisoners who were mostly released as part of a 2010 agreement brokered by the Roman Catholic Church.
The group has continued its weekly marches, which are the only public protests allowed in Cuba, saying there are still more political prisoners to be freed. They are allowed to walk along a 12-block stretch of 5th Avenue, but are quickly detained when they vary from the prescribed route.
The detentions followed a controversial incident last week when 13 dissidents occupied a Havana Catholic Church demanding that Pope Benedict mediate an end to Communist rule.
After two days, they were removed by police at the Church's request, which raised the heckles of Cuba's small dissident community.
After a three-day visit to Mexico, the German pontiff is scheduled to visit Cuba between March 26-28 in a trip viewed as a show of improved church-state relations after decades of hostilities.
Sanchez said the arrests were "creating a not very favourable climate for the pope's visit."
"The fault lies first with the government for its excessive repression as always, and the Catholic authorities' error for allowing the violent expulsion of dissidents from the church," he said.
Soler has said her group would like to meet briefly with the pope to discuss human rights in Cuba. Church authorities said last week a visit with dissidents was not on the pope's programme.
The Cuban government views dissidents as "mercenaries" in the pay of the United States, which has maintained an economic blockade against the country since the country's revolution in 1959.