In a fierce gun battle, Haitian police have apprehended or killed the men they suspect assassinated President Jovenel Moïse, and have begun hunting the masterminds of the plot.
- Police say six suspects were taken into custody and three corpses retrieved after a fierce firefight
- A presidential vote and a constitutional referendum slated for September 26 are expected to go ahead as planned
- Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph is expected to run the country until then
Two of the men arrested are believed to be Haitian-Americans and one of them is purportedly a former bodyguard at the Canadian embassy in Port au Prince.
Mr Moïse, 53, was shot dead early on Wednesday at his home by what officials said was a squad of trained killers, pitching the poorest country in the Americas deeper into turmoil.
Police chief Leon Charles said in a televised briefing on Thursday that authorities had tracked the suspected assassins to a house near the scene of the crime in Petionville, a northern suburb of the capital Port-au-Prince.
The firefight lasted late into the night and six suspects were taken in custody, while three corpses were retrieved, he said.
Other reports said seven people were killed while photos showed seven men in custody.
“We have the physical authors, now we are looking for the intellectual authors,” Chief Charles said.
A Haitian judge involved in the investigation said Mr Moïse was shot a dozen times and his office and bedroom were ransacked, according to the Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste.
It quoted Judge Carl Henry Destin as saying investigators found 5.56mm and 7.62mm cartridges between the gatehouse and inside the house.
Mr Moïses’s daughter, Jomarlie Jovenel, hid in her brother’s bedroom during the attack, he said, and a maid and another worker were tied up by the attackers.
Mr Moïse’s wife was reportedly injured in the attack.
Officials have not given a motive for the killing.
Two Haitian-Americans were among those detained, said Haiti’s Minister of Elections and Interparty Relations, Mathias Pierre.
He identified one of them as James Solages, a US citizen of Haitian descent, but did not name the other.
Mr Pierre would not provide additional details about Mr Solages’s background.
Mr Solages described himself as a “certified diplomatic agent”, an advocate for children and budding politician on a website for a charity he established in 2019 in south Florida.
On his bio page for the charity, Mr Solages said he previously worked as a bodyguard at the Canadian embassy in Haiti.
The Canadian embassy did not immediately comment. Calls to the foundation and Mr Solages’s associates at the charity either did not go through or were not answered.
The US State Department said it was in regular contact with Haitian officials, including investigative authorities, to discuss how the US could provide assistance.
A State Department spokesman, however, could not confirm if any US citizens were among those detained.
Officials in mostly French and Creole-speaking Haiti said on Wednesday that the assassins appeared to have spoken in English and Spanish.
A crowd of locals gathered on Thursday morning to watch the police operation unfold, with some setting fire to the suspects’ cars and to the house where they had bunkered down. Bullets were strewn in the street.
“Burn them,” shouted hundreds of locals gathered outside the police station where the suspects were being held.
Chief Charles said locals helped police track down the suspects but he implored citizens not to take justice into their own hands.
Earlier on Thursday, locals brought two corpses of suspected assassins to the Petionville police station.
A 15-day state of emergency was declared on Wednesday to help authorities apprehend the killers.
But interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph said on Thursday it was time for the economy to reopen and said he had given instructions for the airport to restart operations.
Since he took office in 2017, Mr Moïse had faced mass protests against his rule — first over corruption allegations and his management of the economy, then over his increasing grip on power.
The assassination has generated confusion about who is the legitimate leader of the country of 11 million people, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.
That does not bode well in a nation that has struggled to achieve stability since the fall of the Duvalier dynastic dictatorship in 1986, grappling with a series of coups and foreign interventions.
Mr Joseph on Wednesday took charge of the situation, running the government response to the assassination, appealing to foreign governments for support, and declaring a state of emergency.
A presidential vote as well as a constitutional referendum that had been slated for September 26 would go ahead as planned, Mr Pierre said.
“It [the vote] was not for Jovenel Moïse as president: it was a requirement to get a more stable country, a more stable political system, so I think we will continue with that,” said Mr Pierre, who added that preparations had long been underway and millions of dollars disbursed to carry out the votes.
He said Mr Joseph would lead the country until then.
The United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti on Thursday said Mr Joseph would remain the leader until the election was held, urging all parties to set aside their differences.
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.
“There are many unknowns about what happens next,” said Jake Johnston, a senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
“But it is important to remember that that was also the case before the assassination of Moïse.”