The US State Department is pulling out all families of employees and non-essential personnel from Cuba, after a string of mysterious attacks against US diplomats.
More than half of the American staff has been pulled out from its embassy in Havana following mysterious sonic attacks that have caused several health problems to over 21 diplomats, officials in Washington announced on Friday.
Several US officials told CNN that 21 US diplomats and family members became ill after apparent sonic attacks. The American embassy will continue to operate with a 60-per cent reduction in staff.
One of the ramifications of the withdrawal is a halt to the issuance of visas for Cubans in the United States seeking to have relatives join them from the island, el Nuevo Herald reported. It was not known how long the suspension of the family reunification program will last.
Beyond the family reunification program, all other visas - immigrant and non-immigrant - also will be ''suspended indefinitely''.
The US embassy said on its website,"The Governments of the United States and Cuba have not yet identified the responsible party, but the Government of Cuba is responsible for taking all appropriate steps to prevent attacks on our diplomatic personnel and US citizens in Cuba.
"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. Attacks have occurred in US diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by US citizens. On September 29, the Department ordered the departure of nonemergency US government employees and their family members to protect the safety of our personnel."
The decision is not described as a retaliatory measure. Officials say there will still be consular officials in the embassy available to assist US citizens in Cuba.
''Until the Cuban government can provide assurances of the safety of our diplomatic personnel, the embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel so we can provide basic services to American citizens,'' a high-ranking State Department official said in a conference call with media on Friday.
The measures, first reported by the Associated Press, seek to protect diplomats and their families from what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson called ''attacks on the health'' of diplomatic staff in Havana.
Hearing loss, brain damage
Various symptoms, from hearing loss to brain damage, as well as a diversity of descriptions about the sounds the diplomats say they have heard, have left experts confused. Authorities said they have not yet determined how the attacks were carried out nor who is behind them, and the investigation is ongoing.
The official acknowledged the cooperation of the Cuban government in the investigation but said he could not rule out that the attacks continue. Nor did he rule out the involvement of a third country in these attacks.
Another State Department source said that the attacks did not occur at the US embassy but at diplomats' homes - all leased from Cuban government - and in the Hotel Capri in Havana.
One senior US official said they expect the United States to ask Cuba to further draw down their personnel in Washington to voice US displeasure over the issue, but no decisions have been made.
From the outset, the Cuban government has denied responsibility in the attacks and allowed entry to the FBI on the island to investigate.
In a meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday, Cuban foreign minister Bruno Rodríguez denied that Cuba was involved in attacks on diplomats and said the United States was politicising the incidents. He said his government would continue to work with US authorities investigating the attacks.
According to a previous statement by the Cuban ministry of foreign relations, Rodríguez told Tillerson that ''according to the preliminary results obtained by the Cuban authorities in their investigation, which has taken into account data provided by the US authorities, there is as yet no evidence of the causes and origin of health conditions reported by US diplomats.''
Despite the harassment, some US diplomats told CNN they did not want to depart, saying the reductions likely played into the hands of whoever was behind the attacks and would leave the embassy understaffed during a crucial period where Raul Castro is expected to step down as president of Cuba.
Barbara Stephenson, president of the American Foreign Service Association, said the organisation that represents diplomats is against the drawdown.
"Our view is that American diplomats need to remain on the field and in the game," Stephenson told CNN. "We have a mission to do and we're used to operating around the globe with serious health risks. We are not saying there aren't health hazards there. But there are health hazards everywhere and we want the same choice. "
US officials told CNN they are convinced someone has targeted American diplomats in Havana with a sophisticated device never deployed before, at least not against US personnel.
Canadian diplomats have suffered similar health problems, according to US and Canadian officials.
But seven months after complaints to Cuban officials and assurances from Castro that the incidents would be investigated, US officials are frustrated by the lack of progress.
The removal of the diplomats is a setback to US-Cuban relations following the "new beginning" heralded by former President Barack Obama when he and Castro agreed to restore full diplomatic relations and to try to move past decades of Cold War tensions and mistrust.
It comes at a crucial moment as Castro prepares to step down as President in February and Washington needs eyes and ears on the ground.