Rescuers search rubble at Cuba hotel

·2-min read

Rescuers in Cuba's capital are searching rubble through the night to find more victims of an explosion that killed at least 22 people and injured dozens at a luxury hotel.

A natural gas leak was the apparent cause of a blast at Havana's 96-room Hotel Saratoga. The 19th-century structure in the city's Old Havana neighbourhood did not have any guests at the time because it was undergoing renovations ahead of a planned Tuesday reopening.

Relatives of missing people remained at the site late on Friday night as rescuers sifted through rubble. Others gathered at hospitals where the injured were being treated.

Although no tourists were reported injured, the explosion is the latest blow to the country's crucial tourism industry.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic kept tourists away from Cuba, the country was struggling with the sanctions imposed by former US President Donald Trump and kept in place by the Biden administration. The sanctions limited visits by US tourists to the islands and restricted remittances from Cubans in the US to their families in Cuba.

Tourism had started to revive somewhat early this year, but the war in Ukraine crimped a boom of Russian visitors, who accounted for almost a third of the tourists arriving in Cuba last year.

The hotel's first floors appeared to have suffered most of the damage from Friday's blast. Missing walls made it possible to distinguish mattresses, pieces of furniture, hanging glass, tattered curtains and cushions covered in dust.

Dr. Julio Guerra Izquierdo, chief of hospital services at the Ministry of Health, said at least 74 people had been injured. Among them were 14 children, according to a tweet from the office of President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

The shattered hotel remained cordoned off as workers operated heavy machinery to lift huge pieces of wall and masonry and trucks left the site loaded with rubble. Firefighters and rescue workers toiled inside the wreckage.

The emblematic hotel is about 100 metres from Cuba's Capitol building, which had broken glass and damaged masonry after the explosion.

The Hotel Saratoga has been used by visiting VIPs and political figures, including high-ranking US government delegations. Beyonce and Jay-Z stayed there in 2013.

Adjacent structures were being evaluated, including two badly damaged apartment buildings. Diaz-Canel said families in affected buildings had been transferred to safer locations.

Worried relatives of people who had been working at the hotel showed up at a hospital to look for loved ones.

Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is scheduled to arrive in Havana for a visit late Saturday and Mexican Foreign Relations Secretary Marcelo Ebrard said the visit would still take place.

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