The U.S. flag flaps in the stiff breeze off the Florida Straits at the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, on March 22, 2016, as President Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry meet inside with members of Cuban civil society. Photo by U.S. Department of State/UPI | License Photo
Sept. 29 (UPI) -- The United States pulled all non-emergency staff from its embassy in Havana, Cuba, in connection to a mysterious incident on the island earlier this year, the State Department announced Friday.
Only essential personnel will be left.
The departures of staff and family come after at least 21 people associated with the embassy developed mysterious health issues. The American Foreign Service Association reported in early September that symptoms include mild traumatic brain injury, permanent hearing loss, loss of balance, headaches and brain swelling.
"Until the government of Cuba can ensure the safety of our diplomats in Cuba, our embassy will be reduced to emergency personnel in order to minimize the number of diplomats at risk of exposure to harm," the State Department said in a news release.
Cuban officials have denied any involvement in the incidents. In a statement earlier, The Cuban Foreign Ministry said, "The Cuban government has never perpetrated nor will it ever perpetrate attacks of any kind against diplomats."
"The Cuban government has never permitted nor will it ever permit the use of its territory by third parties for this purpose. There is no evidence so far of the cause or the origin of the health disorders reported by the U.S. diplomats."
The statement came after U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Eduardo Rodriguez Parrilla in Washington.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said that the conversation between Tillerson and Rodriguez Parilla was "firm and frank and reflected the United States' profound concern for the safety and security of its diplomatic personnel."
Tillerson considered closing the embassy but was persuaded to leave it open by the growing belief of U.S. officials that Cuba is not responsible for the health problems, The New York Times reported Friday. It added that a senior U.S. official said the Cuban government is concerned over the circumstances and is eager to help solve the mystery.
Along with the departure of embassy staff, the State Department issued a travel warning advising U.S. citizens to avoid traveling to Cuba.
"We have no reports that private U.S. citizens have been affected, but the attacks are known to have occurred in U.S. diplomatic residences and hotels frequented by U.S. citizens," the release said.