Updated at 11:50 a.m. ET
The State Department has ordered more than half its staff in Cuba to leave after at least 21 Americans were victims of what senior officials call “specific attacks.” The order applies to all nonessential U.S. Embassy personnel and their families.
The department also was expected to issue a warning on Friday advising Americans not to travel to Cuba, senior officials said in a background briefing.
In August, the State Department revealed that a number of U.S. diplomats in Cuba had been the target of what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described as “health attacks” — but details have been sketchy at best. The mysterious attacks reportedly began in late 2016 and were thought to have involved a “sonic” weapon.
The attacks have led to “hearing loss, dizziness, tinnitus, balance problems, visual complaints, headache, fatigue, cognitive issues and difficulty sleeping,” according to a senior State Department official.
The official said the attacks have occurred at Cuban hotels, though tourists were not known to have been targets. The U.S. has been “unable to identify the source of the attack,” the official said.
“Until the government of Cuba can assure the United States of the safety of U.S. government personnel in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel so as to minimize the number of U.S. government personnel at risk of exposure,” the official told reporters.
The embassy would lose about 60 percent of its staff as a result of the order, the official said. The Associated Press reports that roughly 50 Americans are stationed at the Havana embassy.
“The U.S. will maintain diplomatic relations with Cuba, but won’t send officials there for meetings,” NPR’s Michele Kelemen reports, adding that the State Department is suspending visa services at the embassy in Havana indefinitely.
When news of the attacks went public in August, the State Department ordered the expulsion of two Cuban diplomats. At the time, Cuba fired back, saying it had never allowed its soil to be used for actions against diplomats and called the U.S. decision “unjustified and baseless.”