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Obama, Castro speak on phone ahead of Americas Summit

The US and Cuban presidents have spoken by phone for only the second time in over 50 years. The call paves the way for US President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro to meet at a regional summit in Panama.

US President Barack Obama spoke with his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro earlier this week, a White House official said Friday, ahead of the two-day Summit of the Americas conference in Panama City.

"I can confirm that President Obama spoke with President Castro on Wednesday, before President Obama departed Washington," the official said on condition of anonymity.

The deputy director of Cuba's state-run National Information Agency, Jorge Leganoa, posted to his personal Facebook account on Thursday (local time) that Obama and Castro had spoken by phone, but provided no further details.

Wednesday's conversation is the second known call between leaders of the US and Cuba in more than 50 years.

The first was last December, days before Castro and Obama announced plans to restore diplomatic relations.

Apart from several informal meetings, US and Cuban leaders have not had any significant encounters since Castro's older brother, Fidel, deposed US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Historic meeting of foreign ministers

Meanwhile,

US Secretary of State John Kerry and his Cuban counterpart, Bruno Rodriguez, held a closed-door meeting in Panama City

late Thursday in the highest-level talks between the former adversaries in over five decades.

The last time the chief diplomats from Cuba and the United States met was in 1958, one year before Fidel Castro's revolutionaries came to power. The two met on the sidelines of the Summit of the Americas, which Cuba is participating in for the first time.

Obama urged to remove Cuba from terror list

As the US moves towards a

thaw in relations with Cuba

, an American senator indicated that the

State Department had recommended removing Havana from a list of state sponsors of terrorism,

taking down another diplomatic hurdle.

Democratic Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland, a member of the foreign relations committee, said the removal was "an important step forward in our efforts to forge a more fruitful relationship with Cuba." On a stopover in Jamaica ahead of the Panama summit, President Obama confirmed that the State Department had conducted a review of Cuba's status on the list, but declined to give details on their recommendation.

Having Cuba's name on the list, which also includes Syria, Sudan, and Iran, means that the island nation is subject to a ban on economic aid as well as financial sanctions that make it difficult to get World Bank and other loans.

Obama said the overall talks on re-establishing diplomatic relations were progressing as he expected, saying it wasn't going to happen "immediately overnight," but that he did think "we'll be in a position to move forward on the opening of embassies in respective countries."

jlw/kms (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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