Cases of 'Havana syndrome' reported at US embassy in Colombia

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) – The State Department is investigating new complaints of brain injuries linked to the so-called Havana syndrome at the United States Embassy in Colombia, a senior administration official said Tuesday (Oct 12), a week before Secretary of State Antony Blinken is scheduled to visit the country.

It was not clear how many people at the embassy in Bogota, the Colombian capital, might have been afflicted by the mysterious illness and its symptoms of headaches, nausea, dizziness and memory loss.

State Department spokesman Ned Price said officials would ensure that employees “get the prompt care they need, in whatever form that takes”, but he did not describe the complaints in Colombia during a briefing in Washington.

The senior administration official confirmed the complaints, which were reported earlier by The Wall Street Journal, and said that it appeared that at least two embassy employees had reported the symptoms.

President Ivan Duque of Colombia said his country was aware of the reports. In an interview with The New York Times on Tuesday, Duque said while the US was taking the lead, Colombia’s intelligence service was also investigating.

More than 200 US government officials – spies, diplomats, military troops and others – have been afflicted by the illness over the past five years in diplomatic missions in several countries, including Cuba. Reports of an outbreak in Hanoi, Vietnam, delayed vice-president Kamala Harris’ visit in August by a few hours.

Although the origins of Havana syndrome remain unknown, its symptoms are similar to those caused by surveillance equipment used by Russia during the Cold War. As recently as this summer, however, US intelligence officials were struggling to find evidence that the condition was a result of microwave attacks by Russian agents – a theory put forward in a study by the National Academy of Sciences in December.

More than half the victims have been Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) employees, and Congress has approved more support for US officials who have been affected by the illness. Last month, the House Intelligence Committee also demanded more resources to help find the cause of the illnesses and to review the CIA’s handling of cases.

The National Security Council and the State Department have created task forces to investigate the reported injuries, which were a top concern for Mr Blinken even before he took office. He is not expected to cancel or delay his trip to Colombia, during which he is likely to address the issue of migrants and the political and humanitarian crisis in neighbouring Venezuela.

Mr Price said the State Department had sought to be more open with employees about reported attacks at diplomatic posts, aggressively tried to identify their cause and provided care to people who complained of symptoms.

“We have taken a number of steps, including in terms of communication, in terms of care, in terms of detection, in terms of protection for our workforce,” he said. “And that is something that will continue to be a priority for the secretary.”

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