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U.S. government contractor jailed in Cuba ends hunger strike

Jailed U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross, (R), poses for a picture during a visit with Cuban Jewish Co
Jailed U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contractor Alan Gross, (R), poses for a picture during a visit with Cuban Jewish Co

MIAMI (Reuters) - A U.S. contractor imprisoned in Cuba ended a hunger strike on Friday after eight days of protesting his treatment by the Cuban and U.S. governments while serving a 15-year term for illegally attempting to establish Internet service on the island.

"My protest fast is suspended as of today, although there will be further protests to come," Alan Gross said in a statement. His 91-year-old mother urged Gross, 64, to resume eating, according to a statement released through representatives of his lawyer and family.

"There will be no cause for further intense protest when both governments show more concern for human beings and less malice and derision toward each other," the statement said.

Gross was arrested in 2009 while trying to establish an online network for Jews in Havana as a subcontractor for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). It was his fifth trip to Cuba.

In 2011, a Cuban court sentenced him to 15 years in prison for illegally providing Internet equipment and service to Cuban Jewish groups under a U.S. program promoting political change that the Cuban government considers subversive.

Gross launched his hunger strike on April 3 after The Associated Press reported that USAID established a secretive "Cuban Twitter," called ZunZuneo following his arrest. Havana viewed the project as an attempt to subvert the communist government.

ZunZuneo was funded by USAID, a foreign aid agency that has also received funds from Congress to promote democracy in Cuba. The United States has tried to use social media to break through Cuba's state monopoly on newspapers, radio and television.

ZunZuneo and at least two other social networks financed by the U.S. government have mostly targeted the roughly 2 million mobile phone users on the island via text messaging, as Cuba has the lowest Internet density in the Western Hemisphere.

Cuba has blamed the United States for Gross's incarceration and repeatedly offered to enter into talks that would also take up the cases of three Cuban agents serving long prison terms in the United States for spying on Cuban exile groups in Florida.

The United States has rejected any trade of the Cuban agents for Gross, and no formal talks have taken place.

(Reporting By David Adams; Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by David Gregorio)

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