Ten Cuban former political prisoners protesting their "total abandonment" in Spain have launched a hunger strike to press their demands for government assistance, one of the participants in the fast told Efe Friday.

"It's the only alternative we have," said Ernesto Durán Rodríguez, who along with his fellow Cubans has camped out in recent days in front of the Foreign Ministry building in this capital.

The Cuban exiles are part of a group of 115 former political prisoners and 647 of their relatives released to Spain between July 2010 and April 2011 under an agreement between Cuba's Communist regime and the previous Spanish government headed by Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

Of them, 32 have since left Spain and currently live in the United States, while the rest remained in the country and received an 18-month stipend channeled through the Red Cross and other non-governmental organizations.

Facing the expiration of that aid program and without employment prospects in a country with sky-high joblessness, the Cubans are demanding urgent action from the Spanish authorities.

Durán Rodríguez said one former political prisoner launched a hunger strike Thursday and nine more joined him on Friday, with others expected to take part in the escalating protest.

"It's a way to press for our rights. We feel abandoned here and we're responsible for our families that we brought from Cuba. We have to assume our responsibility," he said.

He said some 30 people who had camped out Thursday night outside the Foreign Ministry were "brutally" removed from the premises by police but returned Friday at dawn.

Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel García-Margallo said Wednesday the government will help the former prisoners find employment and is seeking ways to continue providing them with financial assistance after the current aid program expires.

Among other measures, the government is studying ways to validate their academic and professional credentials.

Dozens of dissidents were jailed in March 2003 amid Cuba's harshest crackdown in decades on the political opposition.

The move to suppress internal dissent included prison sentences averaging 20 years for 75 peaceful dissidents - all of whom were adopted as prisoners of conscience by Amnesty International - and the execution of three men who hijacked a ferry in an attempt to reach the United States.

Amid an international outcry over the February 2010 death of one of those dissidents, Orlando Zapata, following a lengthy hunger strike, Cuban President Raúl Castro launched a Spanish-backed dialogue with the island's Catholic hierarchy that led to the release of more than 100 political prisoners, including all of the remaining Group of 75 members.

Most were sent to Spain although some refused exile in the Iberian nation.

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