Haiti PM flees under gunfire as violence continues to grip nation

Ariel Henry was marking Haitian independence day on Saturday when gunfire erupted in northern city of Gonaives.

Haitian Prime Minister Ariel Henry speaking at ceremony for new cabinet ministers
Henry says he knew he was at risk before the gun attack happened on Saturday [File: Ralph Tedy Erol/Reuters]

Gunfire has broken out in the northern Haitian city of Gonaives, forcing the country’s prime minister to cancel a speech to mark the Caribbean nation’s independence day.

Clashes between police and armed groups erupted on Saturday during official celebrations in the city of Gonaives, some 150km (90 miles) in the north of the capital Port-au-Prince, where Haiti’s declaration of independence was signed over 200 years ago.

Local media reported that one person died and two were injured in the gunfire that forced Henry and others to duck and seek shelter as they walked out of a cathedral, where Henry was attending a mass.

“I knew I was taking a risk,” Henry told the AFP news agency in a telephone interview on Monday.

“We cannot let bandits from any background, driven by the lowest financial interests, blackmail the state,” said Henry, who has been de-facto running the country since the July assassination of President Jovenel Moise.

‘Bandits and terrorists’

Reached by The Associated Press news agency, the prime minister’s office said on Monday that “bandits and terrorists” made an attempt on Henry’s life and accused the group of hiding behind walls to attack the convoy and of threatening the bishop by surrounding the church.

“That is intolerable,” the office said, adding that it has issued arrest warrants.

A spokesperson for Haiti’s National Police also told AP on Monday that police had secured the area.

Haiti has been gripped by surging gang violence and kidnappings for ransom, especially in and around the capital, Port-au-Prince, as the country sinks into deeper political instability following the assassination of President Moise in July.

Henry, who took office less than two weeks after Moise was killed, has also struggled with legitimacy, with leading Haitian rights activists rejecting the prime minister’s push to hold elections despite the uncertainty plaguing the nation.

Powerful armed gangs have also called on Henry to step down.

On January 1, the streets of Gonaives were largely empty, as was its cathedral, for the traditional independence day celebrations.

Henry told AFP that so far he has not asked for foreign troops, although although adding that the international community should support the country’s police in training “and possibly equipment.”

“With our men, with the police, we are going to get there, we have to get there,” he said.

In 2020, Moise skipped the trip to Gonaives amid threats of violent protests – and local newspaper Le Nouvelliste said Henry’s attendance at the mass was “an act that no political authority was able to make in the last four years”.

In a statement in Haitian Creole shared on Sunday on Twitter, Henry had said: “Today, our enemies, the enemies of the Haitian people, are the terrorists who do not hesitate to use violence to kill people with all their might, or to kidnap, take away their freedom, to rape them. And do everything for money.”

Henry has pledged to crack down on gangs that authorities have blamed for a spike in kidnappings and for blocking gas distribution terminals in a move that caused a severe fuel shortage in recent months.

The worsening security situation prompted the United States and Canadian governments in November to urge their citizens to leave Haiti.

In addition to the gang violence, the country has struggled to rebuild in the aftermath of a devastating, magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck in August. Dozens of people also were killed in a recent fuel tanker explosion in the northern city of Cap-Haitien.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies