An already struggling and chaotic Haiti stumbled into an uncertain future Thursday after the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, followed by a shootout in which authorities said police killed seven suspects, detained six others and released three officers held hostage.
Authorities have pledged to track down all those responsible for the pre-dawn search of Moïse’s home early Wednesday in which the president was shot and his wife, Martine, seriously injured. She was flown to Miami for treatment.
“The pursuit of the mercenaries continues”, declared Wednesday evening Léon Charles, director of the National Police of Haiti, while announcing the arrest of suspects. “Their fate is fixed: they will fall in battle or be arrested.”
Charles told reporters on Thursday that six suspects had been arrested and seven killed and that police were still looking for more.
Witnesses said two of the suspects were discovered Thursday in bushes in Port-au-Prince by a crowd, some of whom grabbed the men by their shirts and pants, pushing them and occasionally slapping them.
Police arrived shortly after to arrest the men, who were sweating profusely and wearing clothes that appeared to be stained with mud, an Associated Press reporter said at the scene. Officers put them in the back of a van and drove off as the crowd chased them to the nearby police station.
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Once there, some in the crowd chanted: “They killed the president!” Give them to us. We will burn them!
One man was heard saying it was unacceptable for foreigners to come to Haiti to kill the country’s leader, referring to reports from officials that the perpetrators spoke Spanish or English.
The crowd then set fire to several abandoned cars riddled with bullet holes which they said belonged to the suspects, who were white men. The cars did not have license plates, and inside one was an empty box of bullets and water.
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At a press conference Thursday, Charles, the chief of police, called on people to stay calm, return home and let the police do their job as he warns authorities need proof that ‘they destroyed, including burnt cars.
Authorities have not provided any details about the suspects, including their nationality, nor have they given any reason or what led the police to join them. They only said that the attack condemned by Haiti’s main opposition parties and the international community was carried out by “a highly trained and heavily armed group.”
Prime Minister Claude Joseph took over the leadership of Haiti with the support of the police and the military and on Thursday asked people to reopen businesses and return to work as he ordered the reopening of the international airport .
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Joseph declared a two-week state of siege on Wednesday over the murder of Moses, which stunned a nation struggling with some of the western hemisphere’s highest levels of poverty, violence and political instability.
Inflation and gang violence have increased as food and fuel have become scarce in a country where 60% of Haitians earn less than $ 2 a day. The increasingly dire situation comes as Haiti still struggles to recover from the devastating earthquake of 2010 and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, following a history of dictatorship and political upheaval.
“There is this void now, and they are afraid of what will happen to their loved ones,” said Marlene Bastien, executive director of the Family Action Network Movement, a group that helps people in Miami’s Little Haiti community.
She said it was important for the administration of US President Joe Biden to play a much more active role in supporting attempts at national dialogue in Haiti with the goal of holding free, fair and credible elections.
Bastien said she also wanted to see the participation of the vast Haitian diaspora: “No more bandages. The Haitian people have been crying and suffering for too long.
Haiti had become increasingly unstable under Moïse, who had ruled by decree for more than a year and faced violent protests as critics accused him of trying to accumulate more power as the opposition demanded that he resigns.
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According to Haiti’s constitution, Moïse should be replaced by the president of the Supreme Court of Haiti, but the chief justice has died in recent days of COVID-19, leaving open the question of who could legitimately succeed the office.
Joseph, meanwhile, was supposed to be replaced by Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon who had been appointed prime minister by Moses the day before the assassination.
Henry told the PA in a brief interview that he was the prime minister, calling it an exceptional and confusing situation. In another interview with Radio Zenith, he said he had no dispute with Joseph. “I do not agree that people have made hasty decisions (…) when the moment calls for a little more serenity and maturity,” he said.
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Moses had faced large protests in recent months that turned violent as opposition leaders and their supporters rejected his plan to hold a constitutional referendum with proposals that would strengthen the presidency.
On Thursday, public transport and street vendors were scarce, an unusual sight for the normally busy streets of Port-au-Prince.
Marco Destin, 39, was walking to see his family as no bus, called a tap-tap, was available. He carried a loaf of bread for them because they had not left their home since the president’s assassination out of fear for their lives.
“Everyone at home sleeps with one eye open and one eye closed,” he said. “If the head of state is not protected, I have no protection at all.”
Destin said Haiti has always been a complicated country and he is not sure what the days to come will bring. “Haiti does not know in which direction it is headed now,” he said. “To be honest, I don’t know what the solution is. There has always been a power struggle.”
Gunshots rang out intermittently throughout the city hours after the murder, a grim reminder of the growing power of the gangs who displaced more than 14,700 people just last month as they torched and ransacked homes in a battle for the territory.
Robert Fatton, a Haitian political expert at the University of Virginia, said gangs are a force to be fought and that it is uncertain whether Haitian security forces can impose a state of siege.
“It’s a really explosive situation,” he said, adding that foreign intervention with a UN-type military presence is a possibility. “The question of whether Claude Joseph manages to stay in power is a huge question. It will be very difficult to do if he does not create a government of national unity.”
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Joseph told the PA he supports an international investigation into the assassination and believes elections slated for later this year should take place, as he pledged to work with allies and opponents of Moses.
“Everything is under control,” he said.
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