Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry was forced to flee the northern city of Gonaïves, where he and other government officials were attending a New Year’s Day Mass to mark the country’s independence from France, after a shootout that left one person dead and that his office cast as an attempt on his life.
Henry’s office said Monday that “bandits and terrorists” put soldiers behind walls to shoot at his convoy and also threatened the bishop by surrounding the Cathedral of St. Charles Borromeo, where the Mass was taking place. It said arrest warrants had been issued and called the situation “intolerable.”
In a tweet, Henry thanked the bishop of Gonaïves and other church officials for doing their duty “despite the tense situation that reigned in the city.” Le Nouvelliste, a Haitian newspaper, reported that one person was killed and at least two people were wounded in the gunfire, which prevented Henry from delivering a planned speech.
The shootout underscored the threat posed by violent gangs that control large swaths of the beleaguered Caribbean nation and that have been responsible for a surge in mass abductions for ransom targeting Haitians of all walks of life, including buses full of passengers and preachers delivering sermons.
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The gangs have tightened their grip amid a security and political vacuum worsened by the still-unsolved assassination in July of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, which has left the country’s interim government weak and divided.
Police, including some who analysts say have been co-opted by gangs, have struggled to respond.
Henry has vowed to crack down on the gangs that have in the past year blocked aid convoys bound for victims of a 7.2-magnitude earthquake in August, as well as fuel trucks and fuel distribution terminals, causing fuel shortages that have hit hospitals and triggered paralyzing nationwide strikes.
The gangs have also targeted foreigners, including a group of 17 Christian missionaries from an Ohio-based charity. The 16 Americans and one Canadian with Christian Aid Missionaries said they escaped last month after being abducted by the 400 Mawozo gang while they were returning from an orphanage outside Port-au-Prince. Haitian officials have said that the missionaries were released. The gang demanded a ransom of $1 million per person.
Gangs in Gonaïves, including one called Nou se Revolisyonè, had said in advance of New Year’s Day that they opposed Henry’s attendance at the Mass. John-Becker Jean, a Gonaïves resident, told The Washington Post that gang violence in the days before Henry’s arrival had disrupted the construction of a podium in a square near the cathedral where the prime minister was slated to speak. On the day before the Mass, local authorities exchanged gunfire with armed bandits who were trying to take control of the square.
Jean, who attended the service, said that “a concert of automatic guns” greeted Henry’s convoy as it approached.
“During the Mass, the gunfire never stopped,” Jean said. He said bullets “coming from all directions” hit poles near government officials as they exited the service.
The incident was poised to raise questions about why Henry attended the event despite the warnings against it. Daniel Foote, who resigned as U.S. special envoy to Haiti in September and has been a critic of Biden administration policy toward Haiti, said in a tweet that only Henry “could try to spin the story this way,” adding that it was “a fake assassination attempt on a fake prime minister.”
A spokesman for Henry’s office could not comment.
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Henry’s attendance marked the first time a leading political official had attended the Mass in four years, Le Nouvelliste reported.
“Today, our enemies, the enemies of the Haitian people, are the terrorists who do not hesitate to use violence to kill people with all their might, or to kidnap, take away their freedom, to rape them,” Henry said in a tweet in Haitian Creole on Sunday. “And do everything for money.”
The Biden administration held a virtual meeting with 14 countries, several international organizations and the Haitian foreign minister last month in an effort to respond to the deepening security, political and economic challenges facing the country and the risks they pose to regional stability.
Brian Nichols, the assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, told reporters that all parties agreed that the Haitian National Police need additional support. He said that the United States has provided more than $350 million to the police since 2010 and recently pledged an additional $15 million, including $12 million earmarked to bolster efforts to respond to gang violence.
“The reality is that whatever investments we provide specifically for the Haitian National Police need to be accompanied by gains in governance, transparency and anti-corruption efforts,” Nichols told reporters after the meeting.
Merancourt reported from San Salvador. Coletta reported from Toronto.
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