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US to ease Cuba travel restrictions

President Barack Obama plans to loosen Cuban travel policy to allow students and church groups to go to the communist country, the administration has announced.

Students seeking academic credit and churches travelling for religious purposes will be able to go to Cuba.

The plan will also let any American send as much as 500 dollars (£315) every three months to Cuban citizens who are not part of the Castro administration and are not members of the Communist Party.

Also, more airports will be allowed to offer charter service. Right now, only three airports - in Miami, Los Angeles and New York City - can offer authorised charters to Cuba. That will be expanded to any international airport with proper customs and immigration facilities as long as licensed travel agencies ask to run charters from the airport.

One Florida airport is already taking steps to offer service to Cuba.

"This is great news from an international air service development standpoint," Tampa International Airport CEO Joe Lopano said. "We will begin meeting with air charter companies and working with the Federal Authorities to make sure we meet all requirements for these Cuba flights."

The White House press office sent out a release saying Mr Obama had directed the changes, which do not need congressional approval. They will be put in place within two weeks.

Changes that Mr Obama made last year have already increased Cuban-Americans' ability to visit family and send money to relatives. The changes are similar to travel policies under President Bill Clinton. Critics said they will not improve the lives of Cubans.

"Loosening these regulations will not help foster a pro-democracy environment in Cuba. These changes will not aid in ushering in respect for human rights. And they certainly will not help the Cuban people free themselves from the tyranny that engulfs them," said Republican Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida, the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee chair.

"These changes undermine US foreign policy and security objectives and will bring economic benefits to the Cuban regime," she added.

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