Death toll rises to 22 in Havana hotel blast, gas leak suspected – Reuters

Rescuers pulled four newly discovered bodies from the rubble in the early evening as they scoured what remained of the prestigious Saratoga Hotel in search of survivors.

At least one woman rescuers came into contact with was alive in the rubble, officials said, adding they believe others alive were still trapped and a canine team was searching for them, AFP reported. .

The latest death toll of 22, including at least one child, was announced on TV news after a day in which ambulances took the injured to hospital and paramedics treated those with less serious illnesses at the scene .

The Ministry of Health and the Cuban presidency said dozens of people were injured in the blast, but cited different figures in the range of around 50 to 65 people.

The first four floors of the establishment, which was empty of guests during the renovation, were ravaged by the late morning explosion which sent a cloud of dust and smoke into the air.

The blast ripped off large sections of the facade, blew out windows and destroyed cars parked outside the hotel, known for hosting celebrities including Madonna, Beyonce, Mick Jagger and Rihanna.

The dome of a nearby Baptist church also collapsed.

Inside the hotel at the time were staff preparing for its reopening after renovation, scheduled for next Tuesday.

President Miguel Diaz-Canel visited the site of the explosion and the victims in the hospital.

Miguel Hernan Estevez, director of Hermanos Almejeiras Hospital, said a two-year-old boy underwent surgery for a fractured skull.

“So far we have no information that a foreigner has been injured or killed, but (…) this is preliminary information,” added Tourism Minister Juan Carlos Garcia Granda.

Roberto Calzadilla of state-owned Gaviota, which owns the hotel, said the blast happened as a petrol tank was being filled.

“It was neither a bomb nor an attack, it was an unfortunate accident,” said Diaz-Canel, who arrived at the scene an hour after the explosion accompanied by the Prime Minister and the President of the National Assembly.

Cuba was hit by a wave of anti-communist hotel bombings in 1997, in which an Italian tourist was killed and six people were injured.

Ambulances and fire engines rushed to the scene on Friday and police cordoned off the area, dispersing people who flocked to the hotel near Havana’s iconic National Capitol building which housed Congress before the revolution Cuban.

It also adjoins a school, but no students were injured, according to the presidency.

Rogelio Garcia, a bicycle taxi driver who was passing by the hotel at the time of the explosion said that “we felt a huge explosion and (saw) a cloud of dust…a lot of people ran away”.

“There was a terrible explosion and everything fell apart,” said a woman, her face covered in dust, who declined to be named.

According to the Saratoga Hotel website, it’s an upscale property with 96 rooms, two restaurants, a spa, and a gym.

It was built in 1880 to house shops and turned into a hotel in 1933.

“The United States sends its deepest condolences to all those affected by the tragic explosion this morning,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said on Twitter.

Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard, meanwhile, said President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador would not cancel a trip to Cuba scheduled for Sunday.

Condolences also poured in from Bolivia, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell and Nicolas Maduro, the president of Cuba’s close ally Venezuela, who said “the Cuban people have solidarity and the support of all the peoples of the world” and in particular of Venezuelans.

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