Em­bassy staff yanked from Cuba for safety

Baltimore Sun - - NATION & WORLD - By Brian Ben­nett brian.ben­nett@la­times.com

WASH­ING­TON – The State De­part­ment said Fri­day it had or­dered more than half the U.S. Em­bassy staff and all diplo­matic fam­ily mem­bers to leave Cuba be­cause of a mys­te­ri­ous series of what it called “spe­cific at­tacks” that have caused myr­iad health prob­lems to 21 U.S. di­plo­mats.

Only those who carry out the main U.S. diplo­matic and con­sular du­ties, in­clud­ing pro­vid­ing emer­gency as­sis­tance to Amer­i­can trav­el­ers in Cuba, will stay at the em­bassy in Ha­vana, of­fi­cials said.

The State De­part­ment is­sued an ad­vi­sory for Amer­i­cans not to visit Cuba, although no tourists or other trav­el­ers have been af­fected by the still-un­ex­plained at­tacks. The em­bassy, an iconic build­ing on Ha­vana’s wa­ter­front, also will sus­pend pro­cess­ing U.S. visa ap­pli­ca­tions.

Sec­re­tary of State Rex Tiller­son said he had de­cided to trim staff and warn Amer­i­cans in re­sponse to what he called “at­tacks of an un­known na­ture.” He em­pha­sized that the moves were in­tended to en­sure the health and safety of per­son­nel, not to pun­ish Cuba.

“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.

Still, the dra­matic moves were a blow to Wash­ing­ton’s del­i­cate re­la­tions with Ha­vana, which were re­stored in 2015, more than half a cen­tury af­ter they were bro­ken in the Cold War.

Tiller­son is­sued the state­ment in Bei­jing, where he is meet­ing Chi­nese of­fi­cials to dis­cuss ef­forts to re­strain North Korea and to help set up Trump’s visit in Novem­ber.

Aides said he made the de­ci­sion on the flight from Wash­ing­ton, af­ter con­sid­er­ing op­tions that in­cluded tem­po­rar­ily clos­ing the em­bassy.

In all, 21 U.S. di­plo­mats in Cuba have ex­hib­ited a wide range of phys­i­cal symp­toms, in­clud­ing ear com­plaints, hear­ing loss, dizzi­ness, headache, fa­tigue, cog­ni­tive is­sues and dif­fi­culty sleep­ing. Sev­eral Cana­dian di­plo­mats also have re­ported un­usual phys­i­cal ail­ments.

“In­ves­ti­ga­tors have been un­able to de­ter­mine who is re­spon­si­ble or what is caus­ing these at­tacks,” Tiller­son said. More­over, he said, the State De­part­ment “is un­able to rec­om­mend a means to mit­i­gate ex­po­sure.”

U.S. of­fi­cials said the at­tacks oc­curred in the di­plo­mats’ res­i­dences and in lo­cal ho­tels they fre­quent. The at­tacks be­gan in mid-2016, and the most re­cent was in Au­gust.

The gov­ern­ment mostly has re­ferred to “in­ci­dents” rather than at­tacks in the past. But of­fi­cials said Fri­day the U.S. now be­lieves “spe­cific at­tacks” tar­geted the di­plo­mats in Cuba.

Tiller­son em­pha­sized that the U.S. is not break­ing diplo­matic re­la­tions with Cuba, not­ing that Ha­vana “has told us it will con­tinue to in­ves­ti­gate these at­tacks and we will con­tinue to co­op­er­ate with them in this ef­fort.”

Cuba has al­lowed FBI agents in to help in­ves­ti­gate the rash of health prob­lems. And the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has stopped short of blam­ing Cuba for the at­tacks, leav­ing open the pos­si­bil­ity that an­other coun­try or group is re­spon­si­ble.

Ex­perts have the­o­rized that the at­tacks have been car­ried out by a ma­chine that Tiller­son sends high-pow­ered sound waves at a per­son, vi­brat­ing brain tis­sue and parts of the ear

Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence agents have been known to use au­dio weapons, but the U.S. has not defini­tively de­ter­mined who is re­spon­si­ble for the at­tacks in Cuba.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors have strug­gled to un­ravel the mys­tery. FBI agents and other agen­cies have found de­vices in or near the homes and ho­tels that were af­fected.

In a tele­phone brief­ing, a State De­part­ment of­fi­cial said the de­ci­sion was aimed at re­duc­ing “the num­ber of Amer­i­cans who are vul­ner­a­ble to ex­po­sure” from pos­si­ble at­tacks.

The State De­part­ment no­ti­fied Cuba of the moves early Fri­day via its em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton. Cuba’s em­bassy had no im­me­di­ate com­ment.

Tiller­son’s de­ci­sion fol­lowed the high­est-level diplo­matic con­tacts be­tween Wash­ing­ton and Ha­vana since Trump took of­fice in Jan­uary.

The Cuban of­fi­cial who helped lead the diplo­matic open­ing with the U.S., Jose­fina Vi­dal, came to the State De­part­ment last week to press for more time to in­ves­ti­gate the at­tacks.

But when con­cerns grew about a pos­si­ble em­bassy shut­down, Cuba re­quested an ur­gent meet­ing Tues­day be­tween Cuban For­eign Min­is­ter Bruno Ro­driguez and Tiller­son at the State De­part­ment.

Ro­driguez in­sisted his gov­ern­ment was not be­hind the at­tacks and that Ha­vana was try­ing to find the cause. He also said Cuba would not per­mit a third coun­try to use Cuban soil to at­tack di­plo­mats, ac­cord­ing to a state­ment from the Cuban gov­ern­ment.

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