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Haiti declares a curfew as it tries to restore order after weekend jailbreaks

Inmates gather inside the National Penitentiary in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, March 3, 2024.
Odelyn Joseph
/
AP
Inmates gather inside the National Penitentiary in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, March 3, 2024.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Authorities have ordered a nighttime curfew trying 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 traveled 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 coordinated 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 Haitians, even though they are accustomed to living under the constant threat of violence.

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.

In another neighborhood, 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."

Colombian inmates accused of participating in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise walk inside the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, March 3, 2024.
Odelyn Joseph / AP
/
AP
Colombian inmates accused of participating in the assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise walk inside the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, March 3, 2024.

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.

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

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 neighborhoods in the capital. Internet service for many residents was down as Haiti's top mobile network said a fiber 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 coordinating their actions and choosing once unthinkable targets like the Central Bank. As part of coordinated attacks by gangs, four police officers were killed Thursday.

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 until Thursday all consular appointments.

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.

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 U.N.-backed security mission in Haiti to be led by that East African country.

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

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

Jimmy Chérizier, a former elite police officer known as Barbecue who now runs a gang federation, has claimed responsibility for the surge in attacks. He said the goal is to capture Haiti's police chief and government ministers and prevent Henry's return.

The prime minister, a neurosurgeon, has shrugged off calls for him to resgn and didn't comment when asked if he felt it was safe to come home.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press