Haitian Americans held over Moise slaying

·3-min read

A heavily armed commando unit that assassinated Haitian President Jovenel Moise was composed of 26 Colombians and two Haitian Americans, authorities say, as the hunt goes on for the masterminds of the killing.

Moise, 53, was fatally shot early on Wednesday at his home by what officials said was a group of foreign, trained killers, pitching the poorest country in the Americas deeper into turmoil amid political divisions, hunger and widespread gang violence.

Authorities tracked the suspected assassins on Wednesday to a house near the scene of the crime in Petionville, a northern, hillside suburb of the capital, Port-au-Prince. A firefight lasted late into the night and authorities detained a number of suspects on Thursday.

Police Chief Charles Leon paraded 17 men before journalists at a news conference late on Thursday, showing a number of Colombian passports, plus assault rifles, machetes, walkie-talkies and materials including bolt cutters and hammers.

"Foreigners came to our country to kill the president," Charles said. "There were ... 26 Colombians, identified by their passports ... and two Haitian Americans as well."

He said 15 Colombians were captured, as well as two Haitian Americans. Three of the assailants were killed and eight remained on the run, Charles said.

Colombian Defence Minister Diego Molano said preliminary information indicated that Colombians involved in the attack were retired members of the country's military. He said Bogota would co-operate in the investigation.

Haiti's minister of elections and inter-party relations, Mathias Pierre, identified the Haitian-American suspects as James Solages, 35, and Joseph Vincent, 55.

A State Department spokesman could not confirm if any US citizens were among those detained, but US authorities were in regular contact with Haitian officials to discuss how the United States could help.

Officials in the mostly French- and Creole-speaking Caribbean nation had said on Wednesday the assassins appeared to have spoken in English and Spanish.

"It was a full, well-equipped commando, with more than six cars and a lot of equipment," Pierre said.

Officials have not yet given a motive for the killing. Since taking office in 2017, Moise had faced mass protests against his rule - first over corruption allegations and his management of the economy, then over his increasing grip on power.

An angry crowd 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 hunkered down. Charles implored residents not to take justice into their own hands.

A 15-day state of emergency was declared on Wednesday, but interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph said on Thursday it was time for the economy to reopen and he had ordered the airport to restart operations.

Moise's death has generated confusion about who is the legitimate leader of the country of 11 million people.

Haiti has struggled to achieve stability since the fall of the Duvalier family dictatorship in 1986, grappling with a series of coups and foreign interventions.

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.

According to Haiti's constitution, Moise should be replaced by the president of Haiti's Supreme Court, but the chief justice died in recent days from COVID-19, leaving open the question of who might rightfully succeed to the office.

Joseph, meanwhile, was supposed to be replaced by Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon who had been named prime minister by Moise a day before the assassination.

The United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti said on Thursday Joseph would remain leader until an election was held, urging all parties to set aside their differences.

Moise had been pushing to hold both elections and a constitutional referendum in September, efforts that were vehemently opposed by Haitian civil society, which had called first for a transitional government to guide the country to a vote.

Pierre told Reuters the cabinet intended to guide the country to elections as planned.

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