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US Pulls Diplomatic Personnel From Cuba Following 'Health Attacks'

  • Cindy Saine

A view of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba on Sept. 18, 2017.

The U.S. State Department has announced it is pulling all of its non-essential diplomatic personnel out of Cuba in response to "health attacks" on 21 American diplomats in Havana.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson released a statement Friday saying the United States is maintaining diplomatic relations with Cuba, but must put the health and safety of American diplomats first.

"Until the Government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel in order to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm," Tillerson said.

Attacks unexplained

The secretary noted the nature of the attacks on U.S. diplomats remains unexplained.

"The affected individualshave exhibited a range of physical symptoms, including ear complaints, hearing loss, dizziness, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues, and difficulty sleeping," Tillerson said in the statement. "Investigators have been unable to determine who is responsible or what is causing these attacks."

President Donald Trump expressed outrage on Friday, while speaking to reporters on the White House South Lawn. "They did some bad things in Cuba," Trump said.

In a conference call Friday, two senior State Department officials said the U.S. is also issuing a warning advising Americans not to travel to Cuba, because some of the attacks on U.S. employees happened at hotels in Havana. Other attacks reportedly occurred at diplomatic residences.

The officials said until Cuba can guarantee the safety of Americans, the State Department has a travel warning in place.

Reporters on the call repeatedly inquired on the cause of the attacks, but the senior officials declined to comment, saying an investigation is ongoing.

Asked if a third country might be behind the attacks, the officials said they could neither confirm nor rule it out.State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert told reporters during a briefing Thursday the Federal Bureau of Investigation has taken the lead in the probe.

FILE - U.S. President Barack Obama attends a meeting with Cuban dissidents at the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, March 22, 2016. On the wall behind Obama is a painting, "My New Friend," donated to the embassy by Michel Mirabal, a Cuban artist.
FILE - U.S. President Barack Obama attends a meeting with Cuban dissidents at the U.S. embassy in Havana, Cuba, March 22, 2016. On the wall behind Obama is a painting, "My New Friend," donated to the embassy by Michel Mirabal, a Cuban artist.

The decision to pull all non-essential American diplomatic personnel from Cuba comes two years after then-President Barack Obama restored full diplomatic relations with the island nation in 2015.

Obama was the first American president to travel to Havana in more than 50 years. U.S. airlines also resumed commercial flights to Cuba and tourism began to flourish.Earlier this year, President Donald Trump traveled to Little Havana in Miami to announce that he is reversing Obama's opening toCuba.

"I am canceling the last administration's completely one-sided deal with Cuba," Trump said in June. "It's hard to think of a policy that makes less sense than the prior administration's terrible and misguided deal with the Castro regime."

US Sanctions

The U.S. Treasury Department has not yet reinstated sanctions against Cuba. Not not much actually changed in U.S.-Cuban relations, until Friday's announcement of the travel warning and reduction of U.S. embassy staff.

Cuba says the decision is "hasty" and will affect bilateral ties.

Cuba had mounted a last-minutediplomatic push to try to avert any punitive action, saying Havana has no idea who is behind the attacks and offering to cooperate with the U.S. to investigate them.

Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez,requested and held an urgent meeting with Secretary Tillerson at the State Department on Tuesday to try to avoid any U.S. actions.

Experts are puzzled as to what sort ofdevice could have caused such an array of health symptoms without detection.Initial reports speculated about "sonic attacks" because some of the affected diplomats reported hearing loud noises.

The U.S. has thus far not blamed Cuba for carrying out the attacks, and has not announced any new expulsions of Cuban diplomats from the United States.

U.S. Republican Senator Marco Rubio said on Twitter that the U.S. decision was "shameful." He said it allows Cuba to keep as many of its diplomats in the United States as it wants.

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