More than half of the people working for the US embassy in Cuba have been withdrawn in response to mysterious attacks which left its diplomats unwell.
Washington is also warning Americans not to visit Cuba because some attacks occurred in hotels.
At least 21 embassy staff reported health problems ranging from mild brain trauma and deafness to dizziness and nausea.
Describing the US decision as “hasty”, Cuba said it would affect bilateral ties but co-operation would continue.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the two countries would continue to co-operate in investigating the attacks and said diplomatic ties would be maintained.
Earlier reports suggested that sonic attacks were to blame, but Cuba denies any involvement.
At least two Canadians were also affected.
The US is ordering all non-essential staff in the embassy in Havana to leave, along with all family members. Only “emergency personnel” will remain.
The US has suspended visa processing in Cuba indefinitely.
Image source Wikimedia
A US state department official said:
“Until the government of Cuba can ensure safety of our people, we will be reduced to emergency personnel.”
“At least 21 employees have been targeted in specific attacks,” the official said.
Despite an investigation involving the FBI, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Cuban authorities, there is still no full explanation as to the cause of the incidents since late 2016.
Earlier reports suggested there were sonic attacks in which staff in Havana were targeted by audio waves, leaving several with chronic hearing issues.
Using an inaudible sound device for a stealth attack “is quite plausible from a technical point of view”, Denis Bedat, a specialist in bio-electromagnetics, told AFP this week.
“Ultrasonic waves, beyond the acoustic capacity of humans, can be broadcast with an amplifier, and the device does not need to be large, or used inside or outside a house.”
He gave as an example the Active Denial System (ADS), an anti-riot gun used by US police forces that emits electromagnetic waves which produce a sudden unbearable burning sensation.
The US has not blamed Cuba for the suspected attacks.
According to the state department official, both the US and Cuban governments “have not yet identified the guilty party”.
“We have not ruled out the possibility of a third country as a part of the investigation but that investigation continues,” he added.
Cuban President Raul Castro had reportedly given his personal assurance to the then-US charge d’affaires in Havana that Cuba was not behind the attacks.
The US reopened its embassy in Havana in 2015 following decades of frozen relations.
VIDEO President Barack Obama and his Cuban counterpart Raul Castro have held a historic joint news conference in Havana, discussing human rights and lifting the trade embargo.
Both presidents agreed to work together, despite wrangling over human rights.
Raul Castro said more needed to be done to lift the US embargo on trade with Cuba and that the Guantanamo Bay detention camp must close.
Barack Obama, the first sitting US president to visit Cuba since 1959, said the trade embargo would be fully lifted.
Raul Castro took questions from reporters – a rarity for him.
“Cuba’s destiny will not be decided by the United States or any other nation… The future of Cuba will be decided by Cubans not by anybody else,” Barack Obama said.
Asked about political prisoners in Cuba, Raul Castro denied it, telling journalists to “give him a list” and then they would be released “tonight”.
The Cuban president also defended his country’s record on human rights and pointed to problems in the US.
“We defend human rights, in our view civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights are indivisible, inter-dependent and universal,” Raul Castro said.
Raul Castro is not usually subject to any aggressive questioning from reporters and called the prisoners question “not polite”, later ending the news conference by saying:
“I think this is enough.”
“Actually we find it inconceivable that a government does not defend and ensure the right to healthcare, education, social security, food provision and development,” he said.
Barack Obama could not say exactly when the trade embargo would be lifted, but recognized it was necessary.
“The reason is what we did for 50 years did not serve our interests or the interests of the Cuban people,” he said.
His administration has done what it can on lifting trade restrictions, Barack Obama said, but further action will require Congress which is “not as productive in an election year”.
Barack Obama also said further easing of the trade embargo will depend on actions Cuba takes on human rights.
He said it is not just Cuba that the US has “deep disagreements” about human rights with – it also has disagreements with China and Vietnam.
“I believe if I engage frankly, clearly, stating our beliefs but I can’t force change on any country – it ultimately has to come from within – that is a more useful strategy,” he said.
“I have faith in people.”
Reporters described the press conference as “tense” and “remarkable”.
Before the speech, it was announced that Google was opening an online technology center for free Internet access at much higher speeds than what is available in Cuba now.
Google hopes the center will be part of a larger effort to improve Internet access in Cuba.
The United States and Cuba have reached an understanding on resuming regular commercial flights between the two countries, Cuban and American officials said on December 16.
It is unclear when the flights would start because negotiations between the Cuban government and the US airlines could take months.
The move is a significant step nearly a year after the US and Cuba began restoring diplomatic relations.
The US reopened its embassy in Havana in August after a 54-year absence.
A State department spokesperson said the two countries “are making progress but still negotiating” on resuming flights.
The understanding is a key development as Cuba and the US continue to negotiate over a number of issues which could ultimately see the US trade embargo lifted.
The news comes as travel between the US and Cuba surged by an estimated 50% this year.
Thousands of Americans are already visiting Cuba and hotels and hostels are booked for months.
However, those traveling have to do so using difficult to book charter flights or via third countries.
A formal agreement could mean more than a dozen flights arriving into Cuba from the US a day, officials said.