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LUXEMBOURG (Reuters) - European Union foreign ministers postponed a decision on whether to lift sanctions on Cuba on Monday, leaving it to a summit of the 27-nation bloc later in the week.
Foreign Minister of Spain Miguel Angel Moratinos said Germany and other countries asked for more time to decide on the sensitive move, which would put the EU at odds with Washington's calls for a release of political prisoners.
The EU measures were imposed after a crackdown on dissent in 2003 and include a freeze on visits by high-level officials. However unlike the 1962 U.S. embargo, they do not prevent trade and investment.
The sanctions were formally suspended in 2005 but abolition would be seen as encouragement by the EU for a more reforms by Cuban President Raul Castro, who took over after the February 24 retirement of his brother Fidel.
Former colonial power Spain has long led calls for an end to the EU sanctions. Moratinos said he was hopeful the bloc would lift the sanctions this week and Finland's Foreign Minister Alexander Stubb saw "a clear majority" for such a move.
"The most likely is that Thursday we'll be able to ... lift definitively the 2003 sanctions and launch a dialogue on human rights, including with the Cuban authorities," Moratinos said.
But the move would require all EU states to agree. It has met resistance from the bloc's ex-communist members, led by the Czech Republic.
"For us, in the question of human rights, Cuba has to move too," Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg told reporters of Czech demands for the release of political prisoners.
Earlier on, a Czech diplomat had signalled a compromise may be possible later this week by suggesting it was open to lifting sanctions under certain conditions.
"We can lift the sanctions if delegations (travelling to Cuba) meet with the democratic opposition and if they discuss democracy and human rights with government authorities," the diplomat said in Luxembourg.
Changes in Cuba include new rules allowing Cubans to buy cell phones and an increase in public debate. Critics dismiss the changes as merely cosmetic.
Lifting EU sanctions would put the bloc at odds with Washington over Cuba policy. President George W. Bush told an EU-U.S. summit in Slovenia last week the communist island needed to free political prisoners before relations could go forward.
Between them, EU capitals struck different notes on Cuba. Whereas France's Bernard Kouchner said he was personally in favour of lifting the sanctions, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini insisted Cuba must improve its human rights record.
"What is very important is to reaffirm the full respect of human rights in Cuba," said. "We cannot accept the idea that we'll lift the sanctions and they don't liberate prisoners."
Additional reporting by Mark John and Paul Taylor; Editing by Paul Taylor