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Haiti police unions call for help after attack on prison

March 3, 2024

Police in Haiti on Saturday struggled against gangs storming a major prison as they launch what one gang leader has called a bid to oust the government. Gangs have controlled much of Port-au-Prince for years.

Police officers run holding their guns while confronting a gang during a protest against Prime Minister Ariel Henry's government and insecurity, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti March 1, 2024.
Police have been engaged in pitched battles in parts of Port-au-Prince for several days nowImage: Ralph Tedy Erol/REUTERS

Police in Haiti issued a call for help on Saturday night as they struggled to hold back armed groups closing in on the country's largest prison amid what one gang leader called a bid to oust the country's government.

Two of Haiti's main police unions have appealed for assistance to stop prisoners — many of them high-profile criminals — from escaping the National Penitentiary in the capital Port-Au-Prince. "They need help," one of the union's representing Haitian police said in a message published on social media with an "SOS" emoji repeated eight times. "Let's mobilize the army and the police to prevent the bandits from breaking into the prison."

Police officers deployed at the prison had vacated its premises on Saturday, local news outlet AyiboPost reported. Reports said that it was not clear how many inmates had fled the prison.

Gang boss seeking to prevent PM's return

Gang leader Jimmy Cherizier on Friday called on gangs in the Haitian capital to unite to overthrow the government of Prime Minister Ariel Henry.

The government of Haiti has not commented on Saturday's situation, after Henry shared a statement expressing "indignation" during a trip to Kenya, where he was trying to shore up support for an international policing mission.

The armed clashes between gangs and police come on the heels of a flurry of violent protests that were simmering for sometime but ramped up in the last few days as Henry visited Kenya.

On Thursday, four police officers were killed in coordinated attacks by gangs, when gunmen opened fire on several targets in the capital, including Haiti's international airport.

Gang members also seized control of two police stations as civilians fled in fear and businesses and schools closed.

No elections since 2016 in Haiti

Gang lord Jimmy Cherizier, also known as Barbecue, has called for criminal groups to unite and overthrow Henry. He told civilians to keep their children at home.

Henry, who came to power after the country's last president, Jovenel Moise, was assassinated in 2021, had previously said that he would step down by early February.

He said later that security must first be re-established to ensure free and fair elections.

According to the UN, Haiti's National Police has roughly 9,000 officers to provide security for the country's more than 11 million inhabitants.

The Kenyan policing mission followed months of failed efforts to find a country willing to lead the operation, with UN and Western-led deployments viewed skeptically in Haiti following past cases of child sexual abuse and a 2010 cholera outbreak that was traced back to a barracks in a country that had previously eradicated the disease. 

UN chief: Multinational force needed in Haiti

dvv/msh  (AP, Reuters)