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State Department to expel 15 Cuban diplomats over health attacks on U.S. Embassy personnel in Havana

 (European Pressphoto Agency)
(European Pressphoto Agency)

The Trump administration has ordered the expulsion of 15 Cuban diplomats from Washington over the next week in response to unexplained "attacks" that have sickened 22 American officials posted in Havana.

The expulsions are the latest development in a mysterious series of incidents that have affected U.S. diplomats in Cuba, including hearing loss and minor brain damage.

Neither U.S. nor Cuban officials have been able to explain the cause of the illnesses, and the FBI and Cuban law enforcement agencies are cooperating in an investigation.

"The decision was made due to Cuba’s failure to take appropriate steps to protect our diplomats in accordance with its obligations under the Vienna Convention," Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said in a statement. "This order will ensure equity in our respective diplomatic operations."

Tillerson and other State Department officials insisted the action did not reduce diplomatic relations between the two countries, which were only restored in 2015.

Expelling Cuban diplomats does not reflect an assignment of blame, a senior State Department official told reporters ahead of the announcement.

But, the official said, Cuba must be held accountable for protecting American diplomats.

The U.S. "needs full assurances from the Cuban government that these attacks will not continue," the official said.

The expulsions bring the level of Cuban diplomatic staff in Washington closer to the number of personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, the official said.

Last week, the Trump administration ordered more than half of the U.S. Embassy staff and family members to depart Cuba because of the mysterious ailments. The staff already was reduced because of hurricane warnings, and officials did not say how many people subsequently left the country. 

Tillerson said last week that 21 Americans were suffering symptoms, but the official who briefed reporters Tuesday said another American who fell ill in January was reexamined and added to the group.

Washington and Havana reestablished full diplomatic ties just two years ago after half a century of hostilities. Speculation on the cause of the attacks has focused on a rogue operation by Cuban operatives or the work of a third nation.

President Raul Castro has reportedly expressed alarm at the series of incidents, and Cuba's foreign minister told Tillerson in a meeting last last week that his country was not involved in the attacks and was trying to find the culprits.

The State Department official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity, said the 15 Cuban diplomats had seven days to leave. The State Department presented Cuban authorities with a list of names Tuesday.

Cuba "must take more action" in response to the attacks, the official said, without specifying what actions he had in mind. 

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

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