Photo by Markus Spiske
Authorities are racing against time to secure the release of 17 missionaries who have been kidnapped by a gang in Haiti.
According to reports, members of the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries were on a trip to visit an orphanage in Ganthier, a commune east of the capital Port-au-Prince, when they were taken.
Christian Aid said that the group consisted of 16 US citizens and one Canadian, and includes a total of five children, seven women, and five men.
This year has seen a significant increase in the incidence of kidnappings in Haiti. It marks another in what has been more than 600 kidnappings recorded between January and October this year, compared to 231 for the same period of 2020, according to a local civil society group.
Officials have identified the group responsible as the 400
Mawozo gang, which was also blamed for kidnapping five priests and two nuns earlier this year. The gang controls the area where the missionaries were abducted in the suburbs of Port-au-Prince. The BBC reports that they have been involved in armed combat with rival
gangs, and kidnapping businessmen and police officers over the last several months.
In the days after the kidnapping, the emergence of a ransom demand has created a heightened sense of urgency. The purported leader of the 400 Mawozo gang, Wilson Joseph, has issued a ransom demand of US$1mn per person, and has threatened to execute the hostages if the US$17mn ransom is not paid.
“I swear by thunder that if I don’t get what I’m asking for, I will put a bullet in the heads of these Americans,” he declared in a video message being circulated on the internet.
Justice Minister Liszt Quitel said that the demand might signal the start of a long negotiation. “Often these gangs know these demands cannot be met,” he said, “and they will consider a counter-offer from the families. And the negotiations can take a couple of days sometimes, or a couple of weeks”. Quitel said that the gang had yet to issue a deadline for payment.
The Washington Post reported that one of those abducted posted a WhatsApp message calling for help. “Please pray for us!! We are being held hostage, they kidnapped our driver. Pray pray pray. We don’t know where they are taking us,” the message said.
The White House has confirmed that FBI agents and US Department of State officials are helping Haitian authorities with the investigation. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that the kidnappings were “also indicative of a larger problem, and that is a security situation that is, quite simply, unsustainable.”
In an interview with CNN, Illinois Republican Congressman, Adam Kinzinger, said that he believes the US should negotiate with the kidnappers, but not pay ransom. “We need to track down where they are and see if negotiations – without paying ransom – are possible…Or do whatever we need to do, on a military front or police front”, he said.
In Michigan, hundreds turned up for a vigil praying for the safe release of a local family who are among those kidnapped. According to their pastor, Ron Marks, the four family members arrived in Haiti earlier this month to render humanitarian assistance.
A spokesperson for Christian Aid Ministries said the families of those kidnapped are from Amish, Mennonite, and other conservative Anabaptist communities in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Ontario, Canada.
Meanwhile, unrest has broken out in Haiti as workers with local unions staged protests against rising levels of crime. The strikes closed businesses in Port-au-Prince and other cities, as public transportation employees did not show up for work.
“We are calling on authorities to take action,” said Jean-Louis Abaki, a taxi driver involved in the strike. Abaki said that if Prime Minister Ariel Henry and the police chief want to stay in power, “they have to give the population a chance at security”.
Prime Minister Ariel Henry last week confirmed the appointment of the Inspector General, Frantz Elbé, as the Director General of the National Police of Haiti (PNH), following the resignation of embattled former chief Léon Charles. Henry urged Elbé to restore peace in the country.
“We would like public peace to be restored, that we return to normal life, and that we find the way to democracy. Finally, we would like to organise elections,” the Prime Minister said.
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