The United States expelled 14 Cuban diplomats, seven based at the United Nations and seven from the Cuban Interests Section in Washington, for spying, the State Department said.
The expulsions, which came as tensions between the Cold War foes have mounted after a Cuban crackdown on dissidents, were ordered after a lengthy espionage investigation, officials said.
"In response to certain inappropriate and unacceptable activities, the United States has decided to take strong action," deputy State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said.
He said seven diplomats from the Cuban Interest Section had been declared persona non grata and seven diplomats from the Cuban Mission to the United Nations had been given 10 days to leave the United States after being informed of the decision earlier Tuesday.
Reeker did not directly link the expulsions to espionage but strongly implied a link by telling reporters that Cuba had a "long record" of spying against the United States.
And he used the usual diplomatic parlance for spying in explaining the decision, accusing the Cuban diplomats, whom he refused to identify, of "activities deemed to be harmful to the United States outside of their official capacity."
Other department officials, speaking to AFP on condition of anonymity, were more candid, directly accusing the Cuban diplomats of espionage.
"They were engaged in intelligence activities incompatible with their diplomatic status," one official said, adding that the expulsions were the "result of an ongoing investigation that has occurred over a number of years."
"The activities of these people have been a source of concern to us for some time," the official said.
The official later added that some had attempted to recruit US citizens, some had ties to known criminals and others had been observed in suspicious surveillance activity.
A spokesman for the Cuban Interests Section, which operates out of the Swiss Embassy in Washington, said he had not been informed of the expulsions.
Cuba is authorized to employ 26 diplomats at its interests section and 37 diplomats at its UN mission, Reeker said, adding that he did not know if Havana had retaliated for the expulsions with similar orders, as is general practice.
The United States is entitled to employ 51 diplomats at its Interests Section in Havana, he said.
In November, the State Department expelled four Cuban diplomats for similar espionage-related reasons, including two in retaliation for the case of Ana Belen Montes, one of the incidents Reeker mentioned specifically.
Belen Montes, a former senior analyst for Cuban affairs for the Defense Intelligence Agency, had been sentenced to 25 years in prison a month earlier for spying for Cuba.
However, tensions between the United States and Cuba have mounted since then, particularly after a harsh crackdown in which some 75 Cuban dissidents were recently sentenced to jail terms of up to 28 years.
The jailing of the dissidents and the execution of three men just days after they tried to hijack a small ferry to the United States caused an international outcry that Reeker said had prompted an overall review of US policy toward Cuba.
"We are reviewing all of our policies and our approach to Cuba in light of the significant deterioration in their human rights situation there," he said.
As part of that review, US officials told AFP on Monday that Washington was weighing new restrictions on US-based Cuban diplomats, moves that Reeker confirmed were under consideration but not yet decided upon.
"We've long been frustrated by the lack of parity between how US diplomats are treated by their Cuban hosts ... and the privileges extended to Cuban diplomats in the United States," he said.
"The issue of reciprocity is one such area that's under review," he said.
US officials said on Monday that the results of the review, ordered by President George W. Bush after Fidel Castro's recent crackdown on dissidents, will likely be released May 20, the anniversary of Cuban independence.
Washington has for years used the anniversary as a day to announce changes in Cuba policy. In 2002, Bush used the occasion to launch a new bid to support democracy and human rights advocates on the communist-ruled island.
Copyright 2003 AFP