Gangs in Haiti try to seize control of main airport as thousands escape prisons: “Massacring people indiscriminately”

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Heavily armed gangs tried to seize control of Haiti’s main international airport on Monday, exchanging gunfire with police and soldiers in the latest attack on key government sites in an explosion of violence that includes a mass escape from the country’s two biggest prisons. Hours after the airport assault, officials said Haiti’s police academy came under attack by an armed gang.

The Toussaint Louverture International Airport was closed when the attack occurred, with no planes operating and no passengers on site. Associated Press journalists saw an armored truck on the tarmac shooting at gangs to try and prevent them from entering airport grounds as scores of employees and other workers fled from whizzing bullets.

The attack on the police academy, where more than 800 cadets are training, was repelled Tuesday after the arrival of reinforcements, said Lionel Lazarre of the Haitian police union.

Last week, the airport was struck briefly by bullets amid ongoing gang attacks, but gangs did not enter the airport nor seize control of it.

The attack occurred just hours after authorities in Haiti ordered a nighttime curfew following violence in which armed gang members overran the two biggest prisons and freed thousands of inmates over the weekend.

“The secretary-general is deeply concerned by the rapidly deteriorating security situation in Port-au-Prince, where armed gangs have intensified their attacks on critical infrastructure over the weekend,” said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.  

Fire burns outside a prison in Haiti following a gang attack
Tires burn near the main prison of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on March 3, 2024, after a breakout by several thousand inmates. At least a dozen people died as gang members attacked the main prison in Haiti’s capital.LUCKENSON JEAN/AFPTV/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Meanwhile, Haiti’s prime minister landed in Puerto Rico on Tuesday. The embattled Ariel Henry, who assumed power following the 2021 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, has been notably absent since the country’s latest and most serious outbreak of violence started last week.

Henry has stayed silent as he crisscrosses the world, from South America to Africa, with no announced date of return.

Even a decree declaring a state of emergency and curfew to restore order lacked Henry’s imprint. It was signed by his finance minister, who is serving as acting prime minister.

By Tuesday afternoon, the mystery seemed to ease after officials said Henry landed in Puerto Rico. He arrived late in the afternoon to San Juan on a chartered flight that originated in New Jersey. Tracking data showed the flight was heading toward the Dominican Republic, which shares with Haiti the island of Hispaniola, but circled mid-flight before diverting to Puerto Rico.

Hours before he arrived in Puerto Rico, the Dominican government announced that it was immediately suspending all air traffic with Haiti.

When asked Tuesday by CBS News’ senior White House and political correspondent Ed O’Keefe if the U.S. knew where Henry was, White House national security spokesman John Kirby said, “I’m not aware that we have any keen sense of what his whereabouts are.”

72-hour state of emergency began Sunday night. The government said it would try to track down the escaped inmates, including from a penitentiary were the vast majority were in pre-trial detention, with some accused of slayings, kidnappings and other crimes.

“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, the acting prime minister.

Gangs already were estimated to control up to 80% of Port-au-Prince, the capital. They are increasingly coordinating their actions and choosing once unthinkable targets like the Central Bank.

Dujarric said the secretary-general stressed the need for urgent action, especially in providing financial support for the mission, “to address the pressing security requirements of the Haitian people and prevent the country from plunging further into chaos.”

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.

Ulrika Richardson, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Haiti, reported that last year saw “a very steep increase” in murders, lynchings, rape and other violence committed by gang members. This trend has continued into 2024, with January being the most violent month in two years, she added, echoing recent findings by the UN human rights office.

The United Nations’ immigration office said at least 15,000 people had been displaced due to violence.

“Armed gangs forced us to leave our homes. They destroyed our houses, and we’re on the streets,” a man named Nicolas told the Reuters news agency.

“Please, please help us”

The deadly weekend 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 international airport and national soccer stadium.

But the attack on the National Penitentiary late Saturday shocked Haitians. All but 98 of the 3,798 inmates being held at the penitentiary escaped, according to the Office of Citizen Protection. Meanwhile, at the Croix-des-Bouquets prison, 1,033 escaped, including 298 convicts.

The office said late Monday that it was seriously concerned about the safety of judges, prosecutors, victims, attorneys and others following the mass escape.

It added that it “deplored and condemned the policy of nonchalance” demonstrated by government officials amid the attacks.

Following the raid at the penitentiary, three bodies with gunshot wounds lay at the prison entrance Sunday.

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 people who chose to stay in prison are 18 former Colombian soldiers accused of working as mercenaries in the July 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse.

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

Aftermath of a prison break at the National Penitentiary, in Port-au-Prince
A view of an empty cell block at the National Penitentiary following violent clashes that led to a prison break, as a major gang leader seeks to oust Prime Minister Ariel Henry, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, March 3, 2024.RALPH TEDY EROL / REUTERS

Colombia’s foreign ministry has called on Haiti to provide “special protection” for the men.

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

Gunfire was reported in several neighborhoods in the capital. Internet service for many residents was down on Sunday as Haiti’s top mobile network said a fiber optic cable connection was slashed during the rampage.

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. On Sunday night, it urged all American citizens to depart as soon as possible.

The Biden administration, which has refused to commit troops to any multinational force for Haiti while offering 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 the proposed U.N.-backed security mission to be led by that East African country.

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

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 has shrugged off calls for him to resign and didn’t comment when asked if he felt it was safe to come home.

Haitian Americans are stuck in Haiti

The U.S. State Department has issued multiple travel warnings urging Americans and State Department employees to stay put and be careful while on the island.

At Miami and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airports, all flights in and out of Haiti’s two airports are canceled, CBS Miami reported. Despite many warnings, countless Haitian Americans are still on the island. For them, Haiti is home and leaving is complicated.

The sister of CBS News Miami’s Tania Francois is one of those people.

“I’ve been stuck in my city where I’m living now for about two months,” she said. “Trying to make it into Port Au Prince so I can fly to the States, and I just can’t leave.”

Kareen Ulysse  who operates Centre Hospitalier de Fontaine, a hospital and orphanage in Cite Soleil, a suburb of Port au Prince, is also a Haitian American working in Haiti, CBS Miami reported.

“We work literally in the ghettos for the most vulnerable people and there’s no help, there’s no one really standing in line to help people like them,” she said.

Last August, the U.S. Embassy in Haiti closed due to gunfire nearby, after months of ceaseless violence at the hands of gangs drove thousands of Haitians onto the streets to demand security.

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