Haitian President Jovenel Moïse assassinated overnight in his home by gunmen, says acting prime minister

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse assassinated at homeHaitian President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated overnight in an attack at his private residence, Haiti’s interim prime minister said on July 7.

A group of gunmen wielding assault weapons assassinated Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and wounded his wife in their home in the hills of the capital overnight, plunging the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation deeper into a crisis that has nudged it toward the status of a failed state.Support our journalism. Subscribe today.

The assassination came amid escalating political instability, as Moïse, 53, resisted calls from the opposition to step down and armed gangs with hazy allegiances seized control over greater portions of a Caribbean nation terrorized by waves of kidnappings, rapes and killings.

Haitian interim prime minister Claude Joseph said in a short statement Wednesday that Moïse was killed by unidentified assailants, some of whom spoke in Spanish and English in a Creole- and French-speaking country, raising the specter of an operation involving foreign mercenaries.Story continues below advertisement

Joseph called the attack “odious, inhuman and barbaric” and said Haiti’s security situation was under the control of the country’s armed forces and police.

Coup allegations and rival claims to the presidency deepen Haiti’s crisis

Neighbors heard the outbreak of heavy machine-gun fire shortly after 1 a.m., with intense fighting coming in spurts of 10 to 15 minutes for over an hour.

“This was heavy machine-gun fire. The weapons I heard I had never heard in Haiti before,” said Ralph Chevry, a board member of the Haiti Center for Socio Economic Policy in the capital, Port-au-Prince. He lives just over a mile away from the president’s residence and said he clearly heard the fighting.

Chevry said neighbors heard the assailants speaking in Spanish. In audio recordings purportedly made during the attack, which could not be confirmed by The Washington Post, at least one man with a Southern American accent speaks in English, claiming to be from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.Story continues below advertisement

“DEA operation. Everybody stand down,” the man is heard to say.

“It sounded like a ruse, a tactic,” Chevry said.

Compounding the crisis is a lack of clarity over who now leads the country. Joseph, the interim prime minister, was poised to step down following the appointment of Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon, as the new prime minister on Monday. His appointment came as gang violence and the coronavirus outbreak were both worsening. Last week, a shooting rampage in the streets of Port-au-Prince left at least 15 people dead; this year, at least 278 Haitians have been killed in gang violence that has forced some citizens to flee the capital and travel by boat and planes to avoid dangerous, gang-controlled roads.Story continues below advertisement

“The president was assassinated in his own house!” said Pierre Espérance, director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network. “Do you see our situation? It is terrible! We are not safe.”

White House press secretary Jen Psaki called the attack “horrific” and “tragic” during an interview Wednesday on MSNBC. She said President Biden’s national security team would brief him later in the day on the attack, adding that the White House was still gathering information about it.

In a statement, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince said it was restricting U.S. citizen staff to the embassy compound until further notice. The embassy said it would shut down and recommended avoidance of unnecessary travel.Story continues below advertisement

The Haitian Embassy in Canada confirmed the assassination in a statement and described the attackers as “mercenaries.” The neighboring Dominican Republic, meanwhile, announced the closure of border crossings between the two countries.

Moïse was elected to a five-year presidential term in 2016. But a dispute over the election results delayed the start of his term by a year — which he insisted in February entitled him to remain president for an additional year. His opponents disagreed, and in February, when they say his term ended, they declared Supreme Court Judge Joseph Mécène Jean-Louis as interim president. Moïse condemned the move as a coup attempt, and 23 opponents were arrested.

The dispute sparked a constitutional crisis in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation, where prices for basic necessities are surging alongside growing gang violence in Port-au-Prince. In recent weeks, fighting between rival gangs and police has displaced thousands of people in the capital,according to the United Nations.Story continues below advertisement

“The unprecedented level of violence and subsequent displacements is creating a host of secondary issues, such as the disruption of community-level social functioning, family separation, increased financial burdens on host families, forced school closures, loss of livelihoods and a general fear among the affected populations,” the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a report last month.

Human rights activists have accused Moïse’s government of having ties to some of these street gangs. His critics have also accused him of seeking to subvert Haiti’s teetering democracy to hold on to power. In January 2020, Moïse dissolved the country’s parliament and began ruling by decree.

But Moïse gained the backing of the Trump and Biden administrations, in part because of his willingness to take on Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.Story continues below advertisement

In late June, Moïse’s government announced a new date for a constitutional referendum, which it had previously postponed twice, citing the coronavirus pandemic.

Under Moïse’s plan, Haiti is to hold the referendum on Sept. 26, along with previously scheduled presidential and legislative elections.

For decades, Haitians have battled dehumanizing poverty preceded by years of military rule and dictatorship.

In recent years, the country has continued struggling to recover from a 2010 earthquake, which killed more than 200,000 Haitians and left 1.5 million homeless. The natural disaster unleashed an influx of international aid and humanitarian groups. But many Haitians say they have seen little resulting improvements in their quality of life, leaving many feeling hopeless and disillusioned by international interventions and claims of assistance.

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