At least 22 people were killed and more than 50 injured Friday after the strong explosion, probably due to a gas leak, which partially destroyed the Saratoga hotel, in the center of Havana in Cuba.

Four corpses were taken out of the rubble in the early evening, the television news said, an hour after the announcement of an official toll reporting 18 deaths, including a child, and more than 50 injured.

Survivors searched for among the rubble

Authorities said survivors were under the rubble and sent a canine squad to search for them, including a woman that rescuers had contact with.

Earlier, Miguel Garcia, director of the Calixto Garcia hospital where some of the injured are being treated, had reported that eleven of them were “in extremely serious condition”. “A two-year-old child is undergoing surgery for a fractured skull,” said Miguel Hernan Estévez, director of the Hermanos Almejeiras hospital.

For his part, the first secretary of the Communist Party in Havana, Luis Antonio Torres Iribar, had specified at midday that “13 people (were) missing” and considered “possible that other people are stuck” under the rubble. No foreigners are believed to be among the victims, authorities said.

A symbolic hotel in the Cuban capital

Emblematic establishment of Old Havana with its green facade, the hotel, under construction, had been closed to tourists for two years. Only workers and employees were inside preparing for its reopening, scheduled for May 10.

“According to the first findings, the explosion was caused by a gas leak”, is it specified on the Twitter account of the Cuban presidency.

According to the head of the historic district of the Cuban capital Alexis Costa Silva, quoted by the state media Cubadebate, a cylinder of liquid gas was being changed in the hotel. The cook smelled gas and discovered a crack in the pipe which caused the explosion.

“It was neither a bomb nor an attack, it was a regrettable accident,” said President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

He arrived there soon after, wanting to put an end to rumors on social networks that evoked the bombings that took place in several hotels in the 1990s, ordered by Cuban exiles.

“Sincere condolences” from Washington

Washington, through State Department spokesman Ned Price, conveyed its “sincere condolences to everyone affected by the tragic explosion.”

The head of European diplomacy Josep Borrell said on Twitter that he had spoken with Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez “to take an interest in the situation after the explosion in Havana and to convey to him my condolences and my solidarity with the Cuban people”.

Nicolas Maduro, President of Venezuela, a close ally of Cuba, called his Cuban counterpart to express his condolences: “The Cuban people receive the solidarity and support of all the peoples of the world and in particular the Bolivarian people of Venezuela”.

“Everything fell apart”

The first four floors of the Saratoga hotel, classified 5 stars with its 96 rooms, its two restaurants and its swimming pool on the roof, were blown up in the explosion, which occurred around 11 a.m. (5 p.m. Paris time) and the ground was strewn debris and pieces of glass, noted AFP journalists.

A few minutes after the explosion, a thick cloud of smoke and dust spread over the avenue du Prado, where this establishment is located, a stone’s throw from the famous Capitol.

There was “a huge” explosion and “a cloud of dust that reached the park (in front of the hotel, editor’s note), many people ran out”, testified to Agence France- Press Rogelio Garcia, driver of a pedicab which passed in front of the Saratoga at the time of the tragedy.

“There was a terrible explosion and everything collapsed,” said a woman, her face covered in dust, who did not want to give her name.

A dozen ambulances and five fire engines were mobilized, AFP noted. At the end of the afternoon, the tanker was evacuated while a machine gradually cleared the rubble. Several vehicles were destroyed near this hotel known to have hosted several celebrities in recent years including Mick Jagger, Beyoncé and Madonna.

Built in 1880 to house shops, the building was transformed into a hotel in 1933 and renovated to make it a luxury establishment in 2005.

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