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Haiti gang releases all 12 Christian missionaries held captive for 2 months

Christian Aid Ministries in Haiti. (Ricardo Arduengo/AFP via Getty Images/TNS)

A Haitian gang has released all of the remaining hostages that were kidnapped on Oct. 16 outside the capital of Port-au-Prince, the State Department and Haiti National Police confirmed Thursday, ending a two-month hostage crisis that gripped the Caribbean nation.

Of the original 17 Christian missionaries and their family members that had been abducted in October, 12 remained in custody until Thursday.

“We welcome the news that the remaining 12 individuals, including 11 U.S. citizens and one Canadian citizen, are free and will soon be reunited with their loved ones,” a State Department official told the Miami Herald and McClatchy Washington Bureau on Thursday. “The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is the highest priority of the Department of State.

“We continue to provide all appropriate assistance to them and their families,” the official said. “We express our deepest appreciation to our Haitian, and international partners as well as the U.S. interagency for their assistance in facilitating their safe release.”

The hostages were abducted just east of Port-au-Prince by a notorious gang, 400 Mawozo, and were among a group of 12 adults and five children, including an 8-month-old.

“Today, there is a feeling of contentment, not just for the hostages and the American and Canadian people but for Haiti,” said Gédéon Jean, director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince, which monitors kidnappings.

Jean, however, noted that the last of the hostages were held for two months. That is highly unusual and calls for the United States, which helps fund the Haitian National Police, to “provide effective support going forward,” Jean said.

“There are so many Haitians terrorized by kidnappings and extreme levels of violence, even as the humanitarian and security crisis in Haiti continues to worsen,” said U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Mich., founder and chair of the House Haiti Caucus. “This year alone, nearly 800 people in Haiti have been kidnapped. I reiterate my fervent belief that the United States and our international partners must work urgently to support Haitian-led efforts to bring about a real and accountable democracy that can bring peace and security to the Haitian people.”

In a statement, the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries that ran the missionary trip thanked the public for its “fervent prayers” over the past two months.

“We glorify God for answered prayer — the remaining twelve hostages are FREE!” the group said in a statement. “Join us in praising God that all seventeen of our loved ones are now safe.”

Initial reports out of Haiti suggest that the group was released in the vicinity of Morne a Cabrit, a summit at the edge of the commune of Croix-des-Bouquets leading to the Central Plateau. What remains unclear is whether a ransom was paid to free the 12 hostages and, if so, how much.

FBI agents have been in Haiti since the day after the abduction, offering guidance to Haitian authorities as the gang negotiated with relatives of those held captive and the charity. U.S. officials also reported that President Joe Biden was regularly being briefed on the hostages.

On Thursday, deputy White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre thanked U.S. law enforcement and the State Department for its work.

As she addressed the press, the freed hostages were in the diplomatic lounge at the Toussaint Louverture International Airport in Port-au-Prince awaiting a charter flight back to the U.S.

“We welcome reports that they are free and getting the care that they need after their ordeal,” she said. “The U.S. government has been working tirelessly over the past two months to get them freed.”

The missionaries and their relatives are part of the Mennonite community. They were kidnapped in the area of La Tremblay in Ganthier on Oct. 16 after visiting an orphanage and were the longest-held hostages in the country, where kidnappings for ransom have continued unabated.

After the abduction, Christian Aid Ministries asked supporters to pray and to fast “to intercede for those who are still being held as well as those who have been released.”

The first two of the hostages, a married couple, were released in late November on humanitarian grounds after the gentleman became ill, followed by three more missionaries on Dec. 5. After they were freed, U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said the U.S. was continuing to work at the highest levels with the Haitian government and Canada “to do everything we can to see to it that the remaining hostages are released as soon as possible.”

The gang had asked for $17 million, or $1 million per person, to release the hostages. One of its leaders had threatened to kill the hostages if the ransom was not paid.

Haiti is seeing an unprecedented spike in gang violence and kidnapping, following the July 7 assassination of its president, Jovenel Moïse, which was later followed by a magnitude 7.2 earthquake on Aug. 14 in the southern region of the country.

Gangs have hijacked fuel tankers and blocked the main road connecting the capital of Port-au-Prince with the southern peninsula, as well as other regions. Since June, violent clashes between warring armed groups have led to the displacement of more than 19,000 Haitians living in the Martissant neighborhood.

The release of the hostages came as the State Department was finalizing plans to ask foreign partners on Friday to make “commitments to prevent further deterioration” in Haiti as the country’s security crisis deepens, the State Department said. The widening insecurity amid the country’s deepening social, economic and political turmoil is affecting every aspect of Haitian life.

As the crisis deepened and pressure grew on the Biden administration, which also was confronted with an increasing number of Haitian migrants at its southwestern border, Vice President Kamala Harris began bringing up Haiti last month in her discussions with the foreign leaders.

“The vice president did raise Haiti with President Macron in Paris,” a White House official said. Harris also raised the matter in her discussions with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and Prime Minister Boris Johnson of the United Kingdom.

France and the U.K. were among those who supported the 2017 withdrawal of the United Nations peacekeeping mission from Haiti, along with Samantha Power, then-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, despite warnings it was too early.

With the United Nations Security Council not addressing the security concerns in Haiti, some are now raising the possibility of Haiti’s foreign partners coming together to assist the Haiti National Police with training. The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti and has been invited to participate, has called for even stronger intervention, stopping short of saying a United Nations peacekeeping force should return.

Sources say security will be a top concern, along with economics and governance, among the U.S., the United Nations and the Organization of American States. Partners could also weigh in on elections ahead of Feb. 7, 2022, when the current government will have even less legitimacy. Despite assertions that Moïse’s term expired on Feb. 7, 2021, the U.S., U.N. and OAS all asserted that his presidential mandate ends on Feb. 7, 2022.

Though the international community has stopped publicly pressuring Haiti to hold elections, interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry, appointed by Moïse before his July 7 assassination, has discussed balloting for a new president, parliament and local elections next year as well as voting on a new constitution. Meanwhile, members of civil society continue to push for a two-year transition.

On Sunday, the civic-society coalition, which has its own political accord, installed a National Transitional Council, the first step toward mounting a government with a president to run the country. With both sides at an impasse, and Haiti’s political landscape deteriorating daily and 4.2 million Haitians facing hunger, the country’s foreign partners face a huge challenge — and so far have been reluctant to step into the fray following criticism of their previous involvement in Haiti’s affairs.

Brian Nichols, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, will chair the virtual meeting with international aid organizations and foreign governments.


© 2021 Miami Herald
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