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U.S. citizens, former Colombian soldiers among suspects arrested in Haiti president's killing

Two men believed to be Haitian-Americans — one of them purportedly a former bodyguard at the Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince — have been arrested in connection with the assassination of Haiti's president, a senior Haitian official said Thursday.

One of the men purportedly an ex-bodyguard at Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince

Suspects in the assassination of Haiti's President Jovenel Moïse are seen in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Thursday. (Joseph Odelyn/The Associated Press)

Two men believed to be Haitian Americans — one of them purportedly a former bodyguard at the Canadian Embassy in Port-au-Prince — have been arrested in connection with the assassination of Haiti's president, Haitian officials said Thursday.

James Solages and Joseph Vincent were among 17 suspects detained in the brazen killing of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse by gunmen at his home in the pre-dawn hours Wednesday. Fifteen of them are from Colombia, according to Leon Charles, chief of Haiti's National Police.

He added that three other suspects were killed by police and eight others are on the run. Charles had earlier said seven were killed.

"We are going to bring them to justice," he said during a news conference Thursday night, as the 17 suspects sat handcuffed on the floor.

Late Thursday, Colombia's government said six of the suspects in Haiti, including two of those killed, were retired members of Colombia's army, though it didn't release their identities.

Of the 17 suspects detained, 15 of them are from Colombia, according to Leon Charles, chief of Haiti's National Police. (Joseph Odelyn/The Associated Press)

The head of the Colombian national police, Gen. Jorge Luis Vargas Valencia, said President Ivan Duque had instructed the high command of Colombia's army and police to cooperate in the investigation.

"A team was formed with the best investigators … they are going to send dates, flight times, financial information that is already being collected to be sent to Port-au-Prince," he said.

The oldest suspect is 55 and the youngest, Solages, is 35, according to a document shared by Haiti's minister of elections.

Officials would not provide additional details about Solages' background, nor provide the name of the second Haitian American.

The U.S. State Department said it was aware of reports that Haitian Americans were in custody but could not confirm or comment.

Weapons, mobile phones, passports and other items are shown to the media on Thursday. (Estailove St-Val/Reuters)

Solages described himself as a "certified diplomatic agent," an advocate for children and budding politician on a website for a charity he established in 2019 in south Florida to assist residents.

On his bio page for the charity, Solages said he previously worked as a bodyguard at the Canadian Embassy in Haiti. Calls to the foundation and Solages' associates at the charity either did not go through or were not answered.

Angry crowds

Witnesses said two suspects were discovered Thursday hiding in bushes in Port-au-Prince by a crowd, some of whom grabbed the men by their shirts and pants, pushing them and occasionally slapping them.

Police arrested the men, who were sweating heavily and wearing clothes that seemed to be smeared with mud, an Associated Press journalist said. Officers put them in the back of a pickup truck and drove away as the crowd ran after them to the nearby police station.

Once there, some in the crowd began to chant: "They killed the president! Give them to us. We're going to burn them!"

A police truck takes two detainees to the police station of Petion Ville in Port-au-Prince on Thursday. (Joseph Odelyn/The Associated Press)

One man was overheard saying that it was unacceptable for foreigners to come to Haiti to kill the country's leader, referring to reports from officials that the perpetrators spoke Spanish or English.

The crowd later set fire to several abandoned cars riddled with bullet holes that they believed belonged to the suspects, who were white men. The cars didn't have license plates, and inside one of them was an empty box of bullets and some water.

At a news conference Thursday, Charles urged people to stay calm and let police do their work as he warned that authorities needed evidence they were destroying, including the burned cars.

Officials did not address a motive for the slaying, saying only that the attack, condemned by Haiti's main opposition parties and the international community, was carried out by "a highly trained and heavily armed group."

Leon Charles, chief of Haiti's National Police, speaks to the press in Port-au-Prince on Thursday. (Richard Pierrin/Getty Images)

Not everyone was buying the government's description of the attack.

When Haitian journalist Robenson Geffrard tweeted a report on the police chief's comments, he drew a flood of responses expressing skepticism.

Many wondered how the sophisticated attackers described by police could penetrate Moïse's home, security detail and panic room and escape unharmed, but were then caught without planning a successful getaway.

Questions over leadership

Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who assumed leadership of Haiti with the backing of police and the military, asked people to reopen businesses and go back to work as he ordered the reopening of the international airport.

On Wednesday, Joseph decreed a two-week state of siege following Moïse's killing, which stunned a nation grappling with some of the Western Hemisphere's highest poverty, violence and political instability.

Inflation and gang violence are spiralling upward as food and fuel become scarcer; 60 per cent of Haitians earn less than $2 US a day. The increasingly dire situation comes as Haiti is still trying to recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 following a history of dictatorship and political upheaval.

Haiti's interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph speaks in Port-au-Prince on Thursday. (Estailove St-Val/Reuters)

"There is this void now, and they are scared about what will happen to their loved ones," said Marlene Bastien, executive director of Family Action Network Movement, a group that helps people in Miami's Little Haiti community.

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council met Thursday to talk about the situation in Haiti, and UN special envoy Helen La Lime, speaking to reporters from Port-Au-Prince, said Haiti made a request for additional security assistance.

Haiti had grown increasingly unstable under Moïse, who had been ruling by decree for more than a year and faced violent protests as critics accused him of trying to amass more power while the opposition demanded he step down.

WATCH | Hunt continues for more suspects in Haitian president's assassination:

Hunt continues for more suspects in Haitian president's assassination

3 months ago
2:09
Haitian officials say at least six suspects have been arrested a day after the assassination of President Jovenal Moïse and the hunt for more suspects continues. 2:09

Moïse had faced large protests in recent months that turned violent as opposition leaders and their supporters rejected his plans to hold a constitutional referendum with proposals that would strengthen the presidency.

According to Haiti's constitution, Moïse 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 Moïse a day before the assassination.

Henry told the Associated Press that he is the prime minister, calling it an exceptional and confusing situation. "I am the prime minister in office," he said.

'Really explosive situation'

People living in Haiti, and their family and friends living abroad, including in Canada, worried about what comes next.

On Thursday, public transportation and street vendors remained scarce, an unusual sight for the normally bustling streets of Port-au-Prince.

Marco Destin, 39, was walking to see his family since no buses, known as tap-taps, were available. He was carrying a loaf of bread for them because they had not left their house since the president's killing out of fear for their lives.

People move past a burning truck outside the police station of Petion Ville during a protest in Port-au-Prince on Thursday. (Joseph Odelyn/The Associated Press)

"Everyone at home is sleeping with one eye open and one eye closed," he said.

"If the head of state is not protected, I don't have any protection whatsoever."

Gunfire rang out intermittently across the city hours after the killing, a grim reminder of the growing power of gangs that displaced more than 14,700 people last month alone as they torched and ransacked homes in a fight over territory.

Robert Fatton, a Haitian politics expert at the University of Virginia, said gangs were a force to contend with and it isn't certain Haiti's security forces can enforce a state of siege.

"It's a really explosive situation," he said, noting that foreign intervention with a United Nations-type military presence is a possibility. 

Global Affairs Canada said Canadians in need of emergency consular assistance in Haiti should contact the Embassy of Canada there at 011 (509) 2-812-9000 or at prnce@international.gc.ca. Canadians with families and loved ones in Haiti can contact a response centre in Ottawa at 613-996-8885,  014-800-2326-6831 or by email at sos@international.gc.ca.

With files from CBC News

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