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US senators meet Cuba President Raul Castro, discuss detained American Alan Gross

Geovani Fernandez / AP

In this photo released by Cuba's state-run Granma newspaper, Cuba's President Raul Castro, right, speaks with U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, left, a Democrat from Vermont, as U.S. Senator Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, behind right, watches in Havana, Cuba, on Feb. 24, 2012.

Updated 1:38 p.m. ET: HAVANA, Cuba -- A senior U.S. senator met with imprisoned American Alan Gross and discussed the man's case in a long sit-down with Cuban President Raul Castro, but said Friday that he doesn't expect Gross to be released any time soon.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont, said he saw Gross on Thursday afternoon at a Havana military prison. He and Sen. Richard Shelby, a Republican from Alabama, later met for 2 1/2 hours with Castro and offered to take Gross back to the United States on their plane.

"You can imagine how far that went," Leahy said in a phone interview Friday with The Associated Press. He added that "we have a long way to go" to win Gross's release.

Judy Gross, whose husband Alan has been in a jail in Cuba for two years, talks about his conviction and the struggle to bring him home.

The 62-year-old Maryland native is serving a 15-year jail term for spiriting satellite and other communications equipment onto the island while on a USAID-funded democracy-building program. Cuba considers the programs an attempt to destabilize the government, and Gross was convicted of crimes against the state, not espionage.

The Gross affair has chilled relations between the U.S. and Cuba and short-circuited any chance of rapprochement since President Barack Obama took office.

The Gross family wants Castro to pardon him on humanitarian grounds because his mother and adult daughter both have cancer, a call backed by the Obama administration, which insists Gross is innocent.

Leahy said Castro agreed that Gross "was no spy." Gross spoke virtually no Spanish and traveled to Cuba five times under his own name before his arrest in December 2009.

The talks with Castro and the senators was the first high-level meeting between the Cold War enemies since former President Jimmy Carter dined with Castro during a visit to the island in April 2010. Leahy said the late-night meeting was cordial and open.

The meeting took place as the Cuban diplomatic mission in Washington announced plans to host what it called the "1st National Encounter" with Cubans living in the United States. The meeting will bring together Cuban-Americans "who have respectful links to their country," in order to discuss "the normalization of relations" between Cuba and the exile community in the United States, the statement said.

Leahy said Castro brought up the case of five Cuban agents sentenced to long jail terms in the United States, including one who was released last year but has not been allowed to return to Cuba while he serves out three years probation.

Leahy said Castro never explicitly linked Gross' fate with that of the agents, who were jailed in 1998, but "he made it very clear that while we may be concerned for Mr. Gross and have humanitarian reasons to be, they are very concerned about the five (agents) and have humanitarian and family reasons too."

While the agents' case is largely forgotten in the United States, it remains a cause celebre in Cuba, where the government hails the "Cuban Five" as heroes who were only trying to detect and prevent violent attacks against their country by exile groups.

Cuban officials have stopped short of linking the cases, but have said no one should expect the island to free the 62-year-old American in a "unilateral gesture."

Gross's legal appeals have been exhausted, but his family has asked Castro to consider a pardon on humanitarian grounds. Gross, who was portly when arrested in December 2009, has lost about 100 pounds and is now rail thin. His elderly mother and adult daughter are both battling cancer.

Leahy said Gross appeared in reasonably good spirits during the visit, but that he also indicated his two years of detention had taken a toll on his health.

"He obviously wants to leave. He feels that his health has been endangered," Leahy said, adding that he snapped several pictures of Gross to bring back to his wife, Judy.

Cuban state-run media carried images of the meeting between Castro and the senators, though they gave no details of what was discussed. Cuban media said Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez was also present.

The senators are part of an American congressional delegation touring Cuba, Haiti and Colombia. The other members of the delegation, all Democrats, were Sens. Christopher Coons of Delaware and Kent Conrad of North Dakota and Reps. Peter Welch of Vermont and Xavier Becerra of California.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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