Haiti state of emergency in effect after police killings, massive prison break

Haiti state of emergency in effect after police killings, massive prison break

Authorities have ordered a nighttime curfew in an attempt to regain control of Haiti's streets after an explosion of violence during the weekend, including gunmen from gangs overrunning the country's two biggest prisons and freeing their inmates.

A 72-hour state of emergency began Sunday night, and the government said it would set out to find the killers, kidnappers and other violent criminals that it reported escaped from prison.

"The police were ordered to use all legal means at their disposal to enforce the curfew and apprehend all offenders," said a statement from Finance Minister Patrick Boivert, who is serving as acting prime minister.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry travelled abroad last week to try to salvage support for bringing in a United Nations-backed security force to help stabilize Haiti in its conflict with increasingly powerful crime groups.

The emergency decree was issued after a deadly weekend that marked a new low in Haiti's downward spiral of violence. At least nine people had been killed since Thursday — four of them police officers — as gangs stepped up co-ordinated attacks on state institutions in Port-au-Prince, including the country's international airport and the national soccer stadium.

But the attack on the National Penitentiary late Saturday was a big shock to Haitians, even though they are accustomed to living under the constant threat of violence.

A man in baseball cap and mask over his mouth bends over to help a shirtless older man who is lying on the ground.
An inmate helps another prisoner inside the National Penitentiary after the prison was attacked by armed gangs on Saturday in Port-au-Prince. (Odelyn Joseph/The Associated Press)

Almost all of the estimated 4,000 inmates escaped, leaving the normally overcrowded prison eerily empty Sunday with no guards in sight and plastic sandals, clothing and furniture strewn across the concrete patio. Three bodies with gunshot wounds lay at the prison entrance.

A second Port-au-Prince prison containing around 1,400 inmates was also overrun.

The Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince is closed on Monday, Foreign Affairs Canada said, due to the unpredictable security situation. Consular services will be proved remotely.

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

Among the few dozen that chose to stay in the prison are 18 former Colombian soldiers accused of working as mercenaries in the July 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. Amid the fighting Saturday night, several of the Colombians shared a video pleading for their lives.

"Please, please help us," one of the men, Francisco Uribe, said in the message widely shared on social media. "They are massacring people indiscriminately inside the cells."

Two women crouch down in a covered area in an urban setting.
Women take cover during a gun battle between police and gang members in Port-au-Prince on Friday. (Odelyn Joseph/The Associated Press)

On Sunday, Uribe told journalists who walked into the normally highly guarded facility, "I didn't flee because I'm innocent."

Colombia's foreign ministry called on Haiti to provide "special protection" for the men.

Gang gunmen also occupied and vandalized the nation's top soccer stadium, holding one employee hostage for hours, Haiti's soccer federation said.

Gunfire was reported in several neighbourhoods in the capital. Internet service for many residents was down as Haiti's top mobile network said a fibre optic cable connection was slashed during the rampage.

In the space of less than two weeks, several state institutions have been attacked by the gangs, which are increasingly co-ordinating their actions and choosing once-unthinkable targets like the Central Bank. As part of co-ordinated attacks by gangs, four police officers were killed Thursday.

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After gangs opened fire at Haiti's international airport last week, the U.S. Embassy said it was halting all official travel to the country and on Sunday night urged all American citizens to depart as soon as possible. The embassy said it would also cancel all consular appointments until Thursday.

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

Piles of garbage and debris are shown in the alleway toward a building.
A view of the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince on Sunday, hours after the prison break. (Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters)

The surge in attacks follows violent protests that turned deadlier in recent days as the prime minister went to Kenya seeking to move ahead on a proposed UN-backed security mission in Haiti to be led by that East African country.

Canada has sanctioned a number of economic and political actors it believes have enabled gang violence and corruption, but balked at leading an armed international stabilizing force. Canada has been a part of such Haiti missions before 2004.

Last week, Ottawa announced it would provide $80 million to support the multinational force to be led by Kenya, including police personal protective equipment and vehicles, as well as communications equipment for the police.

Haiti's National Police has roughly 9,000 officers to provide security for more than 11 million people, according to the UN They are routinely overwhelmed and outgunned by gangs, which are estimated to control up to 80 per cent of Port-au-Prince.

Henry took over as prime minister following Moïse's assassination and has repeatedly postponed plans to hold parliamentary and presidential elections, which haven't happened in almost a decade.