Wed, Oct 04, 2017 - Page 7 News List

US to ask Cuba to cut embassy staff

UNEXPLAINED ATTACKS:It was not until spies in Cuba reported hearing bizarre sounds and experiencing even stranger physical effects that it was realized something was wrong

AP, WASHINGTON

The US government is preparing to ask Cuba to withdraw 60 percent of its diplomats from Washington, officials said on Monday, in response to last week’s US move to cut its own embassy staff in Havana by a similar amount.

The request marks yet another major setback for relations between the US and Cuba, two nations that only recently renewed diplomatic relations after half a century of hostility.

It comes as the US seeks to protect its own diplomats from unexplained attacks that have harmed at least 21 Americans in Havana with ailments that affected their hearing, cognition, balance and vision.

The US Department of State was expected to announce the decision yesterday, officials said, though they cautioned no decision was formalized until publicly announced. The officials were not authorized to discuss the plan publicly and requested anonymity.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Monday discussed the plan with US President Donald Trump, one of the officials said.

Cuba has denied involvement in the attacks on the diplomats.

Though Havana is likely to view the move as unwarranted retaliation, US officials said the goal is not to punish communist-run Cuba, but to ensure both nations have a similar number of diplomats in each other’s capitals.

The US is to formally ask Cuba to pull the diplomats, but will not expel them forcefully unless Havana refuses, the officials said.

Tensions between the two neighbors have been escalating amid serious US concern about the unexplained attacks on Americans in Havana.

On Monday, The Associated Press reported that US spies were among the first and most severely affected victims. Though bona fide diplomats have also been affected, it was not until US spies, working out of the embassy under diplomatic cover, reported hearing bizarre sounds and experiencing even stranger physical effects that the US realized something was wrong, several individuals familiar with the situation said.

The mysterious “health attacks” started within days of Trump’s election in November last year, but it was not until Friday last week that the US ordered more than half its embassy staff to return home.

Delivering a one-two punch to US-Cuba relations, the US last week also delivered an ominous warning to Americans to stay away from Cuba, a move that could have profound implications for the nation’s tourism industry.

The US said that since some workers had been attacked in Havana hotels, it could not assure Americans who visit Cuba that they would not suffer attacks if they stay in hotels there.

Cuba had blasted the US move as “hasty” and lamented that it was being taken without conclusive investigation results, but several US lawmakers had said that move by Washington did not go far enough, because Cuban President Raul Castro’s government was being permitted to keep all of its diplomats in the US.

Senator Marco Rubio called the one-sided action “an insult” in an interview.

There was no immediate reaction from Cuba’s embassy in Washington late on Monday after word emerged that the US planned to ask Cuban diplomats to leave. Yet the move will bring the two nations closer to the chilly state of relations they endured for decades until 2015, when they restored formal ties, and reopened embassies in Havana and Washington.

The US previously had about 50 American workers at its embassy in Havana, so the 60 percent reduction would bring the figure down to about 20.

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