A group of Canadian and US missionaries kidnapped in October by a gang in Haiti has been released, local police said on Thursday, after weeks of negotiations.
“We confirm the release of the 12 people who remained”, Haitian police spokesman Gary Desrosiers told the AFP news agency. “We cannot give more details at the moment.”
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The missionaries and their family members, a group of 16 Americans and one Canadian, were abducted on October 16 while returning from an orphanage in an area east of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.
They had travelled to the Caribbean nation on a trip organised by Christian Aid Ministries, a church group based in the US state of Ohio, which also confirmed news of the remaining abductees’ release on Thursday.
There were five children in the group, including an eight-month-old infant. Their Haitian driver also was abducted, according to a local human rights organisation.
“We glorify God for answered prayer – the remaining twelve hostages are free!” Christian Aid Ministries said in a statement on its website on Thursday.
“Join us in praising God that all 17 of our loved ones are now safe,” the group said, adding that it hopes to provide more information later.
Congressman Bill Huizenga, a Michigan Republican, welcomed the release of the hostages, calling it a “great day for families in Michigan and across the nation”. Four of the remaining abductees were from the Midwestern state.
“Today is the day we have been hoping for, praying for, and working so hard to achieve. I want to thank members of the hostage negotiation team for their diligence in securing the safe release of all the hostages,” Huizenga wrote on Twitter.
Congressman Andy Levin, co-chair of the House Haiti Caucus, also expressed gratitude to the officials who worked to help release the hostages.
He added that nearly 800 people have been abducted this year in Haiti, urging the US to support Haitian-led efforts to restores peace and security in the country.
Al Jazeera’s Shihab Rattansi, reporting from Washington, DC, said it remains unclear what condition the abductees are in or where they are.
“It appears that they were found around 10am GMT in a mountainous area about two hours south of Port-au-Prince,” Rattansi said. “They were just found wandering by locals, who then alerted the authorities.”
The kidnappers had originally demanded a ransom of $1m per hostage.
FBI agents, Haitian authorities and the anti-kidnapping unit of the national police had been negotiating with the gang.
The kidnappings came amid a surge in gang violence in Haiti, which has seen heightened political instability following the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in July.
Since December last year, Haitian police have sought 400 Mawozo leader Wilson Joseph for crimes including assassination, kidnapping, vehicle theft and hijacking of cargo trucks.
Hundreds of people have been kidnapped for ransom since January in Haiti, according to the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights (CARDH).
The gangs also have erected blockades of fuel terminals in and around Port-au-Prince in recent months, prompting a fuel shortage and spiralling gas prices.
Earlier this week, at least 75 people were killed when a fuel truck crashed in the northern coastal city of Cap-Haitien. A local official said fuel had spilled onto the road and pedestrians rushed to collect it.