Troops eat lunch near a nativity scene at the Guantanamo Bay naval base on December 18, 2013. Picture: Ben Fox

Montevideo - Uruguay's President Jose Mujica reaffirmed Monday his government's decision to take in five detainees from Guantanamo, saying it was not conditioned on the US release of imprisoned Cuban spies.

Mujica had said he would be asking Washington to help obtain the release of the three Cubans, but clarified his position in a radio interview.

“What did I mean to say? The decision was taken, not conditioned. But at some moment we can say to the North American government, from a moral position: 'Please try to improve relations with Cuba,'“ he said.

The leftist leader said that would imply freeing the Cubans and also lifting the US embargo on the communist-ruled island.

The three Cubans were convicted in 1998 of passing information that led to the shoot-down by Havana of two small airplanes belonging to a Cuban exile group. Four people were killed in the attack.

The case has been a major thorn in US-Cuban relations.

Mujica said the US request to take the Guatanamo detainees was made three months ago.

“We reached the decision that it was worth doing because of what was a stake,” he said.

On taking office in 2009, US President Barack Obama's pledged to close the military prison at a US naval base in Guantanamo, Cuba, but he has so far has failed to do so.

Recently, however, US authorities have stepped up transfers of prisoners deemed no longer a threat, sending them to their homeland or to third countries.

Some 154 inmates remain at the prison, which was erected after the September 11, 2001 attacks to house suspects captured by US forces and spies in anti-terror operations around the world.