Arrests reported in wake of assassination of Haitian president

A squad of gunmen assassinated Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and wounded his wife in an overnight raid on their home Wednesday, with police killing four suspects and arresting two others hours later amid growing chaos in a country already enduring gang violence and protests of his increasingly authoritarian rule.

Overnight attack that killed Jovenel Moïse occurred amid rising wave of politically linked violence in country

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, seen here in a photo taken in December 2017, was shot dead in his home last night. (Ludovic Marin/Reuters)

A squad of gunmen assassinated Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and wounded his wife in an overnight raid on their home Wednesday, with police killing four suspects and arresting two others hours later amid growing chaos in a country already enduring gang violence and protests of his increasingly authoritarian rule.

Three police officers held hostage by the suspected gunmen were freed late Wednesday, said Leon Charles, chief of Haiti's national police.

Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph said the police and military were in control of security in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, where a history of dictatorship and political upheaval have long stymied the consolidation of democratic rule.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Joseph called for an international investigation into the assassination, said that elections scheduled for later this year should be held and pledged to work with Moïse's allies and opponents alike.

"We need every single one to move the country forward," Joseph said. He alluded to enemies of the president, describing him as "a man of courage" who had opposed "some oligarchs in the country, and we believe those things are not without consequences."

'State of siege' 

Despite Joseph's assurances that order would prevail, there was confusion about who should take control and widespread anxiety among Haitians. Authorities declared a "state of siege" in the country and closed the international airport.

The normally bustling streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince, were empty Wednesday. Sporadic gunshots were heard in the distance, public transportation was scarce and some people searched for businesses that were open for food and water.

Presidential guards patrol the entrance to Moïse's Port-au-Prince residence Wednesday after the early-morning attack. (Joseph Odelyn/The Associated Press)

Bocchit Edmond, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, said the attack on the 53-year-old Moïse "was carried out by foreign mercenaries and professional killers — well-orchestrated," and that they were masquerading as agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA has an office in the Haitian capital to assist the government in counternarcotics programs, according to the U.S. Embassy.

Joseph said the heavily armed gunmen spoke Spanish or English, but gave no further details.

Slain president's wife in critical condition

Moïse's wife, Martine, was in stable but critical condition and was being moved to Miami for treatment, Edmond said.

Haiti has asked the U.S. government for assistance with the investigation, he said.

Members of the Dominican Republic's National Army guard the bridge between the Dominican Republic and Haiti after the shared border was closed following Moïse's death. (Ricardo Rojas/Reuters)

The Dominican Republic said it was closing the border and reinforcing security in the area, describing the frontier as "completely calm."

Haiti appeared to be heading for fresh volatility ahead of general elections later this year. Moïse had been ruling by decree for more than a year after failing to hold elections, and the opposition demanded he step down in recent months, saying he was leading it toward yet another grim period of authoritarianism.

It was a testament to Haiti's fragile political situation that Joseph, a protégé of Moïse who was only supposed to be prime minister temporarily, found himself in charge.

But Haiti appears to have few other options. The Supreme Court's chief justice, who might be expected to help provide stability in a crisis, died recently of COVID-19.

People walk past a mural depicting Moïse after he was shot dead by unidentified attackers on Wednesday. (Robenson Sanon/Reuters)

The main opposition parties said they were greatly dismayed about the killing.

"In this painful circumstance, the political forces of the opposition condemn with utmost rigour this heinous crime that is at odds with democratic principles," their statement said.

The parties added that they hope the Haitian National Police will take all necessary measures to protect lives and property, and they called on Haitians to be "extremely vigilant."

'Nothing can be taken for granted'

Joseph is likely to lead Haiti for now, though that could change in a nation where constitutional provisions have been erratically observed, said Alex Dupuy, a Haiti-born sociologist at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

The best scenario would be for the acting prime minister and opposition parties to come together and hold elections, Dupuy said.

Security forces investigate the perimeters of the presidential residence after Wednesday's attack, which also injured Moïse's wife, Martine, who is in critical condition. (Joseph Odelyn/The Associated Press)

"But, in Haiti, nothing can be taken for granted. It depends how the current balance of forces in Haiti plays out," he said, describing the situation as dangerous and volatile. Haiti's police force is already grappling with a recent spike in violence in Port-au-Prince that has displaced more than 14,700 people, he said.

Former Haitian president Michel Martelly, whom Moïse succeeded, called the assassination "a hard blow for our country and for Haitian democracy, which is struggling to find its way."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed his condemnation of the "appalling assassination."

U.S. President Joe Biden said he was "shocked and saddened to hear of the horrific assassination," and condemned "this heinous act."

"The United States offers condolences to the people of Haiti, and we stand ready to assist as we continue to work for a safe and secure Haiti," Biden said in a statement.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres also condemned the assassination and stressed that "the perpetrators of this crime must be brought to justice," UN spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said. The Security Council scheduled an emergency closed meeting on Haiti for Thursday.

Governments in Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and elsewhere also expressed their concern at Haiti's plight.