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  1. HAVANA -- A Cuban-operated airliner with at least 110 people on board crashed into a cassava field just after takeoff from Havana's international airport on Friday. There appeared to be mass casualties as Cuban officials said three people had survived, but had yet to give an official toll. Authorities said there were 104 passengers and nine foreign crew members on the flight that was headed to the eastern city of Holguin. Witnesses said they saw a thick column of smoke near the airport. Witnesses said they saw a thick column of smoke near the airport. "A column of black smoke rose up in the sky," resident Ana Gonzalez told the Reuters news agency. The screams of high school kids could be heard inside a nearby school as they ran to safety, CBS News' Manuel Bojorquez reports. The plane lay in a field of yuca-root plants and appeared heavily damaged and burnt. Firefighters were trying to extinguish its smoldering remains. Government officials including President Miguel Diaz-Canel rushed to the site, along with a large number of emergency medical workers. Residents of the rural area said they had seen some survivors being taken away in ambulances. Read more:
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  2. Cuba Embassy Attacks on U.S Diplomats State Department officials testified about the attacks on U.S. diplomats in Cuba before a Foreign Relations subcommittee chaired by Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL). Several questions to the witnesses focused on the timeliness of the State Department’s response to the attacks, the health and medical treatment of personnel affected, the possibility of the involvement of a third party, and future relations with the Cuban government. Several committee members determined that a future classified briefing would be needed to address more sensitive questions about the attacks. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, Transnational Crime, Civilian Security, Democracy, Human Rights and Global Women's Issues
  3. Mysterious sonic weapons reportedly caused brain injuries in US diplomats in Cuba — here's what we know  Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images Mysterious "sonic weapons" have been blamed for symptoms affecting American and Canadian diplomats in Cuba. Victims reported hearing loss, mild traumatic brain injury, nervous system damage, and balance issues. Sound-based weapons exist, but experts aren't sure whether any were actually used in this case. More than 10 US diplomats and their family members in Cuba have experienced strange symptoms including hearing loss, mild traumatic brain injury, and central nervous system damage after being exposed to some kind of mysterious sonic weapon, according to a review of medical records by CBS News. The Associated Press reported: "After months of investigation, U.S. officials concluded that the diplomats had been exposed to an advanced device that operated outside the range of audible sound and had been deployed either inside or outside their residences. It was not immediately clear if the device was a weapon used in a deliberate attack, or had some other purpose." But a number of experts aren't sure whether such a device exists. "There isn't an acoustic phenomenon in the world that would cause those type of symptoms," Seth Horowitz, a neuroscientist and author of the book "The Universal Sense: How Hearing Shapes the Mind," told Business Insider via email. Horowitz explained that no known inaudible - and seemingly undetectable - device could have the properties attributed to these strange sonic weapons. Would someone target diplomats with mysterious devices? Starting in late 2016, a number of diplomats and their family members sought medical attention for mysterious nausea, hearing problems, and balance issues. At least five Canadians have experienced similar symptoms, according to CNN. The attacks - if that's what they were - appear to have stopped. But it remains unknown what sort of device could have caused these medical issues and who was behind these attacks. Thomson Reuters Diplomats have experienced other forms of harassment, like break-ins and surveillance, since the US formally restored diplomatic relations with Cuba in 2015. But a physical attack is unprecedented, and many experts say Cuba has no interest in damaging relations with the US. Some experts have said that the fact Canadians experienced similar symptoms make the possibility of an intentional "attack" even less likely, since Cuba and Canada have a strong relationship. Because of these factors, experts wonder whether the symptoms could be the result of a third party (potentially from another government) trying to sabotage US-Cuban relations. Others have mused that this could be some sort of eavesdropping device gone haywire. It "sounds like a science experiment," James Carson, former head of the US Interests Section in Havana, told The New York Times. For the most part, it seems victims didn't hear anything, which implies the device operates outside the audible range of sound. But CNN's report said two officials also described "a deafeningly loud sound similar to the buzzing created by insects or metal scraping across a floor," though no one knew where that sound came from. Toby Heys, the leader of Manchester Metropolitan University's Future Technology research center told New Scientist that it's possible for something emitting infrasound - vibrations at a frequency below what humans can hear - to cause hearing loss. But Heys said that would require large subwoofers, making covert deployment unlikely. Ultrasound devices, which operate above the range of human hearing, exist and could damage the ears, Heys said. But these would need to be directly targeted into the ear. "Overall, I would be pretty circumspect about the claims to be honest - it is all very Philip K. Dick territory," Heys said. "That said, we are living in a fairly surreal world right now." Horowitz said via email that without more evidence of these weapons, this incident should be considered a non-story, and that other possible explanations for these medical problems should be considered. Sonic weapons have been used to repel Somali pirates. AP The use of sonic weaponry Sonic weapons do exist, but for the most part they are "highly visible and easy to avoid," according to Horowitz. Such weapons include long range acoustic devices, or LRADs, which emit a shill, loud, disabling sound that can damage the hearing of people more than 900 feet away. These devices have been used by US troops in Iraq, for crowd control in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and by cruise ships to repel Somali pirates. Similar "sound cannons" were also used by police against protestors at the G-20 meetings in Pittsburgh in 2009. But those devices are large and emit obvious sounds. A mystery machine that emits harmful, silent waves defies any immediate explanation. Business Insider has reached out to other experts on non-lethal weaponry and will update this post if a plausible explanation emerges. Â
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  4. The last direct flight carrying Cuban migrants out of Costa Rica arrived in Mexico on Tuesday, ending an effort to transport Cubans who have been stranded in Central America since mid-November. Nearly 8,000 Cuban migrants had been stuck in Costa Rica after Nicaragua, a Cuban ally, began denying them entry. As the flow of migrants began to bottleneck at the border of Nicaragua, Costa Rica in turn closed its border to new arrivals, forcing additional migrants to seek shelter in neighboring Panama. Panama and Costa Rica agreed on a solution to fly the migrants over Nicaragua to various cities in Mexico and El Salvador starting in January, from where they could continue north until they reached their destination: the U.S. border. “This has been a successful operation, which included organizing nine flights in a period of three weeks and which was made possible thanks to exceptional measures of support and collaboration on the part of Mexico, Panama and governments of the Latin American region for humanitarian reasons and from a viewpoint of shared responsibility,” Panamanian Vice President and Foreign Minister Isabel De Saint Malo de Alvarado said Friday in a statement. Although most migrants were able to continue on their journey, all arrivals from Cuba after the end of the flight operation on March 8 have been left to comply with Panama’s standard immigration laws, according to the Latin American Herald. A small number of Cubans are still in Costa Rica as well, said Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís, unable to make the journey north for various reasons, according to Agence France-Presse. The process has undeniably had its share of challenges, from lost passports to missing information and logistical setbacks. Tired of waiting in the shelters, approximately 2,985 migrants chose to take their chances with immigrant smugglers (although some reportsestimate the number is closer to 4,000). According to Costa Rican news source Tico Times, the Solís administration has sought to highlight Costa Rica’s respect for human rights after having helped cause the migration crisis in the first place. The country’s handling of the situation has been praised, and with good reason; Costa Rica issued 7,800 temporary transit visas to the Cubans in just four months, and sheltered 5,500 migrants in 44 locations across the country. These efforts were aided by dozens of families, community groups and religious organizations that helped provide both shelter and food. “We’ve never had such a large number of migrants together at one time,” President Solís told Tico Times on Friday morning, as one of the last planes carrying Cuban migrants left for Mexico. “Look how they’re leaving – they’re leaving happy and tranquil, thanking the people of Costa Rica.” The migration of Cubans to the United States has gathered speed in the past few years, with the renewal of diplomatic ties between the two countries. Many Cubans fear that the 1961 Cuban Adjustment Act will be eliminated, and with it, the opportunity to obtain residency in the U.S. Source:
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  5. An unprecedented crackdown on churches across the denominational spectrum in Cuba in 2015 has fuelled a spike in reported violations of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), according to a new report by CSW. Figures compiled by CSW, which are not exhaustive but which serve as an indicator of the level of FoRB violations, reveal a tenfold increase - with 2,300 separate violations recorded in 2015 compared to 220 in 2014. Many incidents involve involved entire churches or, in the case of arrests, dozens of victims. A digital illustration by CSW highlights the crackdown on churches in Cuba. The spike in cases was largely due to the government declaring 2,000 Assemblies of God (AoG) churches illegal, ordering the closure or demolition of 100 AoG churches in three provinces, and expropriating the properties of a number of other denominations, including the Methodist and Baptist Conventions. Legally registered and unregistered religious groups across the denominational spectrum reported varying degrees of hostility from the government. According to the report, “the consistently antagonistic relationship” between Caridad del Rosario Diego Bello, director of the Office of Religious Affairs (ORA), an arm of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party which oversees religious affairs on the island, and the leadership of many religious groups, “is evidence that the office exists solely to monitor, hinder and restrict the activities of religious groups.” In 2015, the ORA continued to deny authorisation for a number of religious activities and in cooperation with other government agencies, issued fines and threats of confiscation to dozens of churches and religious organizations. The ORA also sanctioned the arbitrary expropriation of historic, registered church properties and the actions against the AoG churches. CSW’s report also highlights “more brutal and public tactics” being employed by government agents than were witnessed in the first decade of the millennium: “Week after week, state security agents physically and violently dragged scores of women away from Sunday morning services. Most were arbitrarily detained until after the conclusion of religious services. The government continued to employ a strategy of frequent, temporary arbitrary detention to target those it views as political dissidents. This tactic is also applied to religious leaders who are viewed as problematic, for whatever reason, by the authorities…for the first time in four years a church leader was sentenced to and served six months in prison for holding unauthorised religious services.” In the face of intense pressure, many Christians are engaging in peaceful protest, as seen in the case of the attempted demolition of an AoG church in Santiago de Cuba in November 2015 which was thwarted after local Christians held a peaceful sit-in at the church building. On 8 January 2016, a large-scale government operation led to the mass arrests of several church leaders and the blocking of their communications devices while two churches were demolished, possibly to pre-empt a similar protest. Both churches belonged to the Apostolic Movement, an unregistered network of Protestant churches. CSW’s analysis suggests that the Cuban government is trying to eliminate the potential for social upheaval by cracking down on any and all groups that are calling, or could call, for social and political reforms alongside the limited economic reforms the government has enacted. CSW’s Chief Executive Mervyn Thomas said, “CSW doesn’t use the word ‘unprecedented’ lightly to refer to violations of freedom of religion or belief in Cuba in 2015. Following an upward trend in violations in recent years, 2015 witnessed a spike as the authorities deployed ever more public and brutal tactics to target churches across the denominational spectrum, regardless of their legal status. It is clear that despite promises of reform, the government is determined to maintain a tight grip on civil society, including churches. We commend the courage of religious groups who have spoken out publicly to denounce these violations and to call for the right to freedom of religion or belief to be upheld. We urge the international community to stand with them and to hold Cuba to account for these human rights violations.” CubaCrackdown

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