Haiti declares state of emergency as thousands of inmates escape after armed gangs storm prison

At least five people have been killed and thousands of inmates have fled Haiti’s main prison after armed gangs stormed the facility overnight

Haiti police unions plead for help as armed gangs storm main prison

The Haitian government announced a state of emergency in response to severe unrest in the capital which disrupted communication networks and resulted in two jailbreaks, all amid efforts by a prominent gang leader to remove prime minister Ariel Henry from power.

In order to restore order, the government has imposed with immediate effect a curfew throughout the West territory for a “renewable period of seventy-two hours”, the statement from the authorities said.

The curfew will apply “between six in the evening and five in the morning on Monday 4, Tuesday 5, Wednesday 6 and this Sunday, March 3 2024”.

At least five people have been killed and thousands of inmates have fled Haiti's main prison after armed gangs stormed the facility overnight.

The jailbreak marks a new low in Haiti's downward spiral of violence and comes as gangs assert greater control on the capital while the embattled prime minister Ariel Henry is abroad trying to win support for a United Nations-backed security force to stabilise the country.

On Sunday morning, the bodies of three people with gunshot wounds could be seen lying on the ground at the prison's entrance, which was wide open, with no guards in sight. Officers inside a single police car stationed outside the facility would not say what happened.

In a different district, residents walked by roadblocks made of flaming tyres, passing by the blood-stained bodies of two men, their hands bound behind them, lying face down.

Arnel Remy, a human rights attorney who heads a non-profit that works inside the prisons, said on X, formerly Twitter, that fewer than 100 of the facility's nearly 4,000 inmates remain behind bars.

Those choosing to stay include 18 former Colombian soldiers accused of working as mercenaries in the July 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. On Saturday night, amid the disturbances, several of the Colombians shared a video urgently pleading for their lives.

“Please, please help us,” one of the men, Francisco Uribe, said in the 30-second video message widely shared on social media. "They are massacring people indiscriminately inside the cells.”

A man climbs the fence of an office of Haiti’s power company set on fire during a protest (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

During the chaos, police also appealed for help.

“They need help,” a union representing Haitian police said in a message posted on social media bearing an “SOS” emoji repeated eight times. “Let’s mobilize the army and the police to prevent the bandits from breaking into the prison.”

The armed clashes follow a string of violent protests that have been building for some time but turned deadlier in recent days as Henry, the prime minister, went to Kenya to salvage a proposed security mission in Haiti to be led by that East African country. Henry took over as prime minister following Moise's assassination and has repeatedly postponed plans to hold parliamentary and presidential elections, which haven’t taken place in almost a decade.

As part of coordinated attacks by gangs, four police officers were killed Thursday in the capital when gunmen opened fire on targets including Haiti’s international airport. Gang members also seized control of two police stations, prompting civilians to flee in fear and forcing businesses and schools to close.

As a result of the violence at the airport, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince said it was temporarily halting all official travel to Haiti.

Police take cover during an anti-gang operation in Port-au-Prince (Copyright 2024 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Haiti’s National Police has roughly 9,000 officers to provide security for more than 11 million people, according to the UN The officers are routinely overwhelmed and outgunned by powerful gangs, which are estimated to control up to 80% of Port-au-Prince.

Jimmy Chérizier, a former elite police officer known as Barbecue who now runs a gang federation, claimed responsibility for the surge in attacks. He said the goal was to capture Haiti’s police chief and government ministers and prevent Henry’s return.

The prime minister, a neurosurgeon, has shrugged off calls for his resignation and didn’t comment when asked if he felt it was safe to return home.

He signed reciprocal agreements Friday with Kenyan President William Ruto to try and salvage the plan to deploy Kenyan police to Haiti. Kenya’s High Court had ruled in January that the proposed deployment was unconstitutional, in part because the original deal lacked reciprocal agreements between the two countries.

The violence has complicated efforts to stabilize Haiti and pave the way for elections. Caribbean leaders said Wednesday that Henry had agreed to schedule a vote by mid-2025 — a far-off date likely to further enrage Henry’s opponents.

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