Haitian police have killed four “mercenaries” they said were behind the assassination of President Jovenel Moise on Wednesday and taken two more into custody.
Police chief Leon Charles said a fierce gun battle broke out as the impoverished Caribbean nation was pitched into uncertainty by the head of state’s murder.
Police did not identify the suspects or say what their motives were for the attack on Moise and his wife, Martine – who survived and was airlifted to Florida for treatment – at their private residence in the capital Port-au-Prince.
Mr Charles said more members of the hit squad were still at large.
“We blocked them en route as they left the scene of the crime,” he said before the fight was over.
“Four mercenaries were killed, two were intercepted under our control,” he later said. “Three policemen who had been taken hostage have been recovered.”
Bocchit Edmond, Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, told Reuters the gunmen, whom he described as well-trained “foreign mercenaries”, were masquerading as US Drug Enforcement Administration agents. Officials said the suspects spoke Spanish and English – Haiti is a majority French or Creole-speaking nation.
Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph declared a national “state of siege” and said he was now in charge.
“I am calling for calm. Everything is under control,” he said. “This barbaric act will not remain unpunished.”
At the UN Security Council, members called unanimously “for the perpetrators of this abhorrent crime to be swiftly brought to justice” and for “all parties to remain calm, exercise restraint” and avoid “any act that could contribute to further instability”.
An emergency meeting on the crisis was set for midday on Thursday.
The killing drew condemnation from world leaders, including US President Joe Biden and Pope Francis.
Haiti, a country of 11.2 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.
How was the Haitian president assassinated?
Police were still piecing together the details of the attack, while shell casings could still be seen on the street outside the house later on Wednesday as forensics experts combed the scene for evidence.
A nearby car was peppered with bullet holes.
The attack on Moise’s home began at around 1am on Wednesday with gunmen pulling up to the house.
Magistrate Carl Henry Destin told the Nouvelliste newspaper that the commandos shouted “DEA operation” as they burst in and that a maid and a domestic staff member were tied up.
He said the president’s body was found with twelve bullet holes, from large calibre rifles and smaller 9-millimetre weapons, to the forehead, chest, hips and abdomen.
“The president’s office and bedroom were ransacked. We found him lying on his back, blue pants, a white shirt smeared with blood,” he said.
Martine was first treated at a local hospital then rushed by air ambulance to the Ryder Trauma Centre in Miami.
Mr Joseph said she was “out of danger” and later that “her situation is stable”.
Their daughter, Jomarlie, was in the home during the attack but hid in a bedroom, Mr Destin said.
The suspects tried to leave the scene, leading to the gun battle with police that left four dead and two in custody.
The streets of the usually bustling capital 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 to the morgue had to change route because of gunfire and roadblocks, it was reported.
Why was the Haitian president killed?
There is no word yet on why the gunmen targeted the president.
What is the security situation in Haiti?
Criminal gangs this year have driven thousands of people from their homes. Much of the economy is shut down and the country has yet to begin vaccinating its 11 million people against the coronavirus, which is surging.
Bruno Maes, Haiti’s representative for the UN’s children agency, last month compared the gang situation to guerrilla warfare, “with thousands of children and women caught in the crossfire”.
Pierre Esperance, executive director of the Haitian National Human Rights Defence Network, said gangs controlled about 60 per cent of the country’s territory.
Police and the military have been targeted by criminal gangs.
Masked officers who said they belonged to a disgruntled faction stormed several police stations in March to free comrades who were accused of participating in a coup attempt. The army was restored in 2017 after being disbanded in 1995 following the fall of a dictatorship.
What was the political situation in Haiti?
A UN peacekeeping mission – meant to restore order after a rebellion toppled then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 – ended in 2019 with the country still in disarray. In recent years, Haiti has been buffeted by a series of natural disasters and still bears the scars of a major earthquake in 2010.
Moise, a successful businessman, burst on to the political stage in 2017 and campaigned as a populist. He was sworn in February 2017.
The end date of his mandate, however, became the source of a stand-off as Moise maintained that his term of office ran until February 7, 2022, but others said it ended on February 7 this year.
The disagreement is because Moise was elected in a 2015 vote that was cancelled due to fraud and then re-elected in November 2016.
Without a parliament, the country fell further into crisis in 2020.
The unpopular Moise ruled Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, by decree after legislative elections due in 2018 were delayed.
In addition to the political chaos, kidnappings for ransom have surged in recent months.
As well as presidential, legislative and local elections, Haiti was due to hold a constitutional referendum in September after it was twice postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Joseph has been in his post of interim prime minister for only three months and was due to step down within days after Moise named his replacement on Monday.
What happens in Haiti now?
With Haiti politically polarised and its people facing growing hunger, fears of a breakdown in order are spreading.
Under the Haitian Constitution, the president of the Supreme Court would temporarily take over. But he recently died of Covid-19.
The National Assembly would then select a new leader, but that is not possible because there is effectively no current legislature – the terms of the lower house members have all expired as well as two thirds of those in the Senate.
That leaves the acting prime minister, Mr Joseph, in charge, along with his fellow government ministers, according to Haitian attorney Salim Succar, once chief of staff to former prime minister Laurent Lamothe.
But Mr Joseph had only an interim role. Moise was killed a day after he nominated Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon, as Haiti’s new prime minister, although this was not confirmed.
Mr Henry, 71, is close to the opposition but his appointment was not welcomed by the majority of opposition parties.
The uncertainty could create more volatility ahead of general elections later this year.
“How much worse can hell get?” said Haiti expert Irwin Stotzky of the University of Miami.
“Haiti faces even more violence and death and failure as a democratic nation than ever before, which is hard to imagine given its recent and chaotic history.”
Washington has called for Haiti to proceed with the elections, with the State Department spokesman saying a fair vote would “facilitate a peaceful transfer of power to a newly elected president”.
On the streets, many are in shock.
“We didn’t expect it. This is another earthquake in Haiti,” said a mother of two who gave her name only as Bernadette, referring to the deadly 2010 quake.
“I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it,” said Jacquelyn, 50.
Haiti will observe two weeks of national mourning from Thursday.
What have people said about the killing?
US President Joe Biden condemned the killing as “horrific” and said Washington was ready to assist in any way.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called on Haitians to “remain united” and “reject all violence”.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned of the “risk of instability and a spiral of violence”.
The UN Security Council also condemned the assassination and called on all parties to “remain calm, exercise restraint and to avoid any act that could contribute to further instability”.
In a statement, the 15-member council “made an emphatic call on all political stakeholders in Haiti to refrain from any acts of violence and any incitement to violence”, and called for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.
Pope Francis on Thursday expressed his sadness at the “odious” assassination. “He wishes for the dear people of Haiti a future of fraternal harmony, of solidarity and prosperity,” Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said.
The Dominican Republic closed the border it shares with Haiti on the island of Hispaniola, except to returning citizens, and beefed up security.
“This crime is an attack against the democratic order of Haiti and the region,” Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader said.