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A file photo of secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Photo: AP
A file photo of secretary of state Rex Tillerson. Photo: AP

US cuts diplomatic staff in Cuba over health ‘attacks’

The US orders more than half its diplomats in Cuba to leave and warns Americans against travelling to the Caribbean nation after a series of health 'attacks' on its officials injured 21 people

Washington: The US State Department ordered more than half its diplomats in Cuba to leave the island and warned Americans against travelling to the Caribbean nation after a series of health “attacks" on its officials injured 21 people.

US and Cuban investigators still haven’t determined the source of the attacks, which left some staff with injuries from hearing loss and cognitive issues to difficulty sleeping, secretary of state Rex Tillerson said in a statement on Friday. While no private US citizens are known to have been attacked, the incidents continued as recently as late August, according to two state department officials who spoke to reporters condition of anonymity.

“Because our personnel’s safety is at risk, and we are unable to identify the source of the attacks, we believe US citizens may also be at risk and warn them not to travel to Cuba," the state department said in a statement. “Attacks have occurred in US diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by US citizens."

The decision doesn’t mean the US is ending diplomatic relations with Cuba, which were restored in late 2014 after more than half a century following Fidel Castro’s rise to power. The US move will, however, result in many routine functions at the embassy in Havana being suspended. That includes visa processing for Cubans seeking to visit the US, the officials said. Emergency services for Americans will continue to be provided, they added.

The US officials acknowledged Cuba’s efforts to investigate the attacks, but stressed that under the Vienna Convention, the government has an obligation to protect foreign diplomats on its territory.

“Cuba has told us it will continue to investigate these attacks, and we will continue to cooperate with them in this effort," Tillerson said.

Russia, North Korea, Iran

Just 90 miles (145 kilometers) from the Florida Keys, Cuba was historically a strategic outpost of the Soviet Union and other countries opposed to the US, and it remains a country where American allies and enemies operate in close proximity. Along with a large embassy, Russia maintains eavesdropping operations targeting the US from Cuban territory, while North Korea, Iran and Syria also have diplomatic compounds in Havana.

Tillerson met on 26 September with Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodriguez in Washington in what was described by the US as a “firm and frank" conversation. The FBI is leading the US probe into the attacks, state department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Thursday.

“We don’t know who has done it," Nauert said. “We made it very clear Cuba has a responsibility, as does every country that hosts US and other officials where we have posts, they have a responsibility to ensure that our embassy personnel are kept safe. That obviously was not done."

Airlines, cruise lines

The warning against US citizens visiting Cuba could crimp efforts by companies including Carnival Corp.’s cruise line and American Airlines Group Inc. to expand tourism to the island nation. They were among US companies that have taken advantage of President Barack Obama’s decision to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba.

Southwest Airlines Co., United Continental Holdings Inc. and American Airlines aren’t changing their Cuba service, according to spokesmen for the carriers. In response to the US alert, JetBlue Airways Corp. is waiving fees to cancel or change travel to Cuba that was booked on or before Friday, the carrier said in a statement. Changes can be made through 1 November.

Delta Air Lines Inc.’s Latin America region spokeswoman Sarah Lora said it was too soon to comment about the situation in Cuba. Officials with Carnival and Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. declined to comment.

Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd said its cruises to Cuba continue to operate as scheduled, adding in a statement that “there have been no reported incidents involving tourists or other cruise ship passengers."

Obama’s move toward normalization of relations with Cuba also loosened other restrictions, including allowing imports of Cuban cigars and rum to the US.

“Whoever is doing this obviously is trying to disrupt the normalisation process between the United States and Cuba," Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, a long-time advocate of improved relations with Cuba, said in a statement. “Someone or some government is trying to reverse that process."

In June, President Donald Trump announced new restrictions, including a ban on Americans doing business with the military and intelligence-affiliated companies that control large swaths of the Cuban economy. Bloomberg

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