Haiti | Government declares state of emergency after prison attack

(Port-Au-Prince) The Haitian government declared a state of emergency and imposed a nighttime curfew Sunday evening in a bid to regain control of the streets after an outbreak of violence by armed gang members who took stormed the country’s two largest prisons.




The 72-hour state of emergency came into effect as soon as the government announced it was searching for killers, kidnappers and other violent criminals who had escaped from prison.

“The police have been ordered to use all legal means at their disposal to enforce the curfew and apprehend all offenders,” said in a press release the Minister of Finance, Patrick Boivert, who exercises the functions of interim prime minister.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry traveled abroad last week to try to build support for the intervention of a United Nations-backed security force to stabilize the country mired in conflict with increasingly powerful criminal groups.

The decree ended a deadly weekend that led to a new peak of violence in Haiti. At least nine people have been killed since Thursday – including four police officers – as gangs intensified their coordinated attacks on state institutions in Port-au-Prince. Targets included police stations, the country’s international airport and even the national football stadium.

The assault on the National Penitentiary

PHOTO RALPH TEDY EROL, REUTERS

The National Penitentiary, seen from the air.

But Saturday night’s siege of the National Penitentiary was a shock even for Haitians accustomed to living under the constant threat of violence.

Nearly all of the roughly 4,000 inmates fled during the breakout, leaving the normally overcrowded facility eerily empty Sunday, with no guard in sight, with plastic sandals, clothing and furniture strewn across the concrete patio. Three bodies with gunshot wounds lay at the entrance to the prison.

In another neighborhood, the bloodied corpses of two men, their hands tied behind their backs, lay face down as residents drove past roadblocks set up with burning tires.

Among the few dozen who have chosen to remain in prison are 18 former Colombian soldiers accused of working as mercenaries during the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse in July 2021. Amid Saturday night’s clashes, several Colombians shared a video pleading for their lives.

PHOTO ODELYN JOSEPH, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Colombian detainees suspected of having participated in the assassination of former President Jovenel Moïse.

“Please, please help us,” said one of the men, Francisco Uribe, in the message widely shared on social media. “They massacre people indiscriminately inside the cells. »

On Sunday, Uribe admitted to reporters casually entering the normally highly guarded facility that he had not fled because he was “innocent.”

The Colombian Foreign Ministry called on Haiti to provide “special protection” to the men.

In the absence of official information, families of detainees rushed to the prison to check on their loved ones.

“I don’t know if my son is alive or not,” Alexandre Jean said as she scanned the cells for signs of him. ” I do not know what to do. »

Coordinated attacks

The violence on Saturday evening appeared widespread, with several neighborhoods reporting gunshots.

A second prison in Port-au-Prince containing around 1,400 inmates was also stormed. Armed gangs also occupied and vandalized the country’s largest football stadium, taking an employee hostage for hours, the Haitian football federation said in a statement. Internet service for many residents was down, with Haiti’s main mobile network saying a fiber-optic cable connection was cut during the rampage.

In less than two weeks, several state institutions have been attacked by gangs, who are increasingly coordinating their actions and choosing previously unthinkable targets like the Central Bank. As part of coordinated gang attacks, four police officers were killed on Thursday.

After gangs opened fire at Haiti’s international airport last week, the U.S. Embassy announced it was suspending all official travel to the country and on Sunday evening urged all U.S. citizens to leave as soon as possible. as early as possible. The embassy announced that it would also cancel all consular appointments until Thursday.

PHOTO ODELYN JOSEPH, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Police officers take part in an anti-gang operation on March 1.

The Biden administration, which has consistently refused to commit troops to any multinational force, instead offering money and logistical support, said it was monitoring the rapidly deteriorating security situation with great concern. security.

A National Security Council official argued that violence only served to delay a democratic transition while destroying the lives of thousands. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, reiterated that the United States supports the holding of elections, inclusive governance and the restoration of democracy in Haiti.

The epicenter of the latest violence Saturday evening was the Haitian National Penitentiary, which held several gang leaders. Amid the exchange of gunfire, police called for help.

“They need help,” a union representing police wrote in a social media post accompanied by the “SOS” emoji repeated eight times. “Let’s mobilize the army and the police to prevent bandits from breaking into the prison. »

The clashes follow violent protests that became even deadlier in recent days when the prime minister traveled to Kenya to try to advance a UN-backed security mission in Haiti led by that country. East Africa.

PHOTO ODELYN JOSEPH, ASSOCIATED PRESS

A protester waves a Haitian flag.

Henry took over as prime minister after Moïse’s assassination and repeatedly postponed plans for parliamentary and presidential elections, which have not taken place for nearly a decade.

The Haitian National Police has around 9,000 officers to ensure the safety of more than 11 million people, according to the UN. It is regularly overwhelmed and overtaken by gangs, who are estimated to control up to 80% of Port-au-Prince.

Jimmy Chérizier, a former elite police officer known as “Barbecue”, now the head of a gang federation, has claimed responsibility for the increase in attacks. He said the goal was to capture the Haitian police chief and government ministers and prevent Henry’s return.

The prime minister, a neurosurgeon, ignored calls for him to resign and did not comment when asked if he thought it was safe for him to return home.

Associated Press writers Joshua Goodman in Miami, Seung Min Kim in Washington and Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.


reference: www.lapresse.ca

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