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U.S. TO ASK CUBA ABOUT PRISONERS

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The Clinton administration intends to discuss with Cuban authorities whether Cuba has released prisoners to join the boat people fleeing the island.

U.S. officials, declining to be identified by name, said Tuesday the matter will be discussed Thursday when delegations from the United States and Cuba meet in New York.The total number of Cubans being picked up at sea by the Coast Guard is rising after the initial surge subsided because of bad weather and repeated U.S. warnings refugees would be held at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo, Cuba.

The Coast Guard picked up 1,582 Cuban refugees on Tuesday, after rescuing 295 on Monday and 84 on Sunday. As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, 398 had been picked up, the Coast Guard said, an indication the daily totals could soon repeat last week's surge when as many as 3,000 were picked up in a day.

Among the more than 15,000 Cubans being detained at Guantanamo, there are about "100 suspect cases," one official said.

However, the official said all appear to involve prisoners serving time for such minor offenses as trying to flee the island or stealing food.

The officials said it is not clear whether the administration will try to have these Cubans repatriated.

The spokesman at the Cuban diplomatic mission here was not available for comment on the U.S. allegations.

Cuban prisoners are routinely tattooed between the thumb and forefinger, making them easily identifiable by U.S. officials.

Cuban authorities angered U.S. officials 14 years ago when they allowed thousands of prisoners and mental patients to join the Mariel boatlift.

Former Foreign Minister Ricardo Alarcon will represent Cuba at the talks, the first phase of which will be held at the U.S. mission to the United Nations.

Alarcon was President Fidel Castro's most trusted foreign policy adviser until he left diplomatic life last year to become president of the National Assembly.

Career diplomat Michael Skol, who will head the American delegation, said the U.S. goal in the talks is to "end the rafter outflow and to increase the possibility for legal, safe migration."