Security forces in Haiti have shot dead four suspected killers of President Jovenel Moise and captured two others, the country’s police chief said on Wednesday, as the brazen assassination threatened to plunge the already impoverished, crisis-hit Caribbean nation deeper into chaos.
Police General Director Leon Charles described the four people killed as “mercenaries” and said that security forces were locked in a fierce gun battle with the men who assassinated the president at his home overnight.
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“We blocked them en route as they left the scene of the crime,” Charles said in televised comments. “Since then, we have been battling with them.”
“They will be killed or apprehended.”
Moise, a 53-year-old former businessman who took office in 2017, was shot dead and his wife, Martine Moise, was seriously wounded when heavily armed assassins stormed the couple’s home in the hills above Port-au-Prince at around 1am local time on Wednesday (05:00 GMT).
Bocchit Edmond, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, said the gunmen were well-trained “foreign mercenaries” and said they had masqueraded as US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents as they entered Moise’s guarded home under cover of darkness.
The DEA has an office in the Haitian capital to assist the government in counternarcotics programs, according to the US Embassy.
Moise’s wife, Martine, was in a stable but critical condition and had been evacuated to Miami for treatment, the ambassador added.
The assassination, which drew condemnation from Washington and neighbouring Latin American countries, came amid political unrest, a surge in gang violence, and a growing humanitarian crisis in the poorest nation in the Americas.
Joseph Claude, the interim prime minister who has assumed leadership of the country, said the assassins spoke English and Spanish – the majority in Haiti either speak French and Haitian Creole.
“I am calling for calm. Everything is under control,” Joseph said on television alongside Charles. “This barbaric act will not remain unpunished.”
The Haitian government has declared a two-week state of emergency to help it find the assassins.
In an earlier interview with The Associated Press news agency, Joseph called for an international investigation into the assassination and said elections scheduled for later this year should be held. He also pledged to work with Moise’s allies and opponents alike.
“We need every single one to move the country forward,” Joseph said, describing the president as “a man of courage” who had opposed “some oligarchs in the country”. “We believe those things are not without consequences,” he added.
Haiti, a country of about 11 million people, has struggled to achieve stability since the fall of the Duvalier dynastic dictatorship in 1986, and has grappled with a series of coups and foreign interventions. During the past year, Moise had been governing by decree after failing to hold elections, and in recent months, the opposition demanded he step down, saying he was leading it toward yet another grim period of authoritarianism.
Ever since he took over in 2017, Moise has faced calls to resign and mass protests – first for corruption allegations and his management of the economy, then for his increasing grip on power.
Lately, he presided over a worsening state of gang violence that rights activists said is linked to politics and business leaders using armed groups for their own ends.
In the US, President Joe Biden condemned Moise’s killing as “heinous” and called the situation in Haiti – which lies some 700 miles (1,125km) off the Florida coast – worrisome. “We stand ready to assist as we continue to work for a safe and secure Haiti,” he said.
The Dominican Republic said it was closing the border and reinforcing security in the area, but described the frontier as ″completely calm”.
“This crime is an attack against the democratic order of Haiti and the region,” Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader said.
Antonio Guterres, the secretary-general of the United Nations, also condemned the assassination and stressed that “the perpetrators of this crime must be brought to justice,” according to a spokesman.
The UN Security Council meanwhile expressed deep shock and sympathy over Moise’s death before a closed-door meeting on Thursday, requested by the US and Mexico, to evaluate the situation.
According to Al Jazeera’s James Bays, reporting New York, the session will also be used to discuss whether “Haiti, given its current security situation, has the capacity to investigate the crime or if there should be an international investigation”.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) expressed concern on Wednesday that the violence could deal a setback to efforts to fight COVID-19 in Haiti – one of only a handful of countries worldwide that has yet to administer a single shot of coronavirus vaccine.
In Port-au-Prince, the usually bustling streets were mostly deserted on Wednesday and the airport was closed although gunshots rang through the air.
A caravan of vehicles including the ambulance carrying Moise’s corpse to the morgue had to change route because of gunfire and roadblocks, according to local reports.
With Haiti politically polarised and facing growing hunger, fears of a breakdown in order are spreading – particularly as Moise’s murder took place amid a power vacuum.
Just this week, he nominated a prime minister to replace Joseph – who was only meant to be an interim leader – but the official, Ariel Henry, has yet to be sworn in. And the Supreme Court’s chief justice, who might be expected to help provide stability in a crisis, died recently of COVID-19.
In the AP interview, Joseph said he had spoken three times with Henry and that there was agreement that he was in charge for now.
“He was actually designated but never took office,” Joseph said of Henry. “I was the one who was a prime minister, who was in office. This is what the law and the constitution says.”
However, in a separate AP interview, Henry appeared to contradict Joseph. “It’s an exceptional situation. There is a bit of confusion,” he said. “I am the prime minister in office.”
Late on Wednesday, an extraordinary issue of the official gazette said the prime minister and his cabinet – meaning Joseph’s government – would assume executive powers until a new president could be elected, as per Haiti’s constitution.
Presidential, legislative and local elections are due to be held in September, alongside a controversial referendum on a new constitution that Moise had said would help finally bring political stability to the country.
Alex Dupuy, a Haiti-born sociologist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, said the best scenario would be for the acting prime minister and opposition parties to come together and hold elections.
“But, in Haiti, nothing can be taken for granted. It depends how the current balance of forces in Haiti plays out,” he said, describing the situation as dangerous and volatile.
The main opposition parties said they were greatly dismayed about the killing.
“In this painful circumstance, the political forces of the opposition condemn with utmost rigor this heinous crime that is at odds with democratic principles,” their statement said.
The parties added that they hope the National Police will take all necessary measures to protect lives and property, and they called on Haitians to be “extremely vigilant.”