A group of gunmen wielding assault weapons assassinated Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and wounded his wife at their home in the hills overlooking Port-au-Prince early Wednesday, plunging the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation deeper into a destabilizing crisis.
The attack by assailants that Haitian authorities described as “commandos” comes amid months of escalating political instability and gang violence that have critically eroded the rule of law in the Caribbean nation of 11 million.
Moïse, 53, dissolved parliament in January 2020 and ruled by decree as opponents and protesters demanded that he step down.
Armed gangs with unclear allegiances have seized control of growing portions of the country, terrorizing the population with kidnappings, rapes and killings.
President Joe Biden condemned the assassination as a “heinous act” and said that the United States is prepared to assist in the aftermath of the attack to bring security and safety to the country.
“We are shocked and saddened to hear of the horrific assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and the attack on First Lady Martine Moïse of Haiti,” said Biden. “We condemn this heinous act, and I am sending my sincere wishes for First Lady Moïse’s recovery. 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.”
The Haitian first lady was airlifted to South Florida Wednesday afternoon to receive treatment at Jackson Health System’s Ryder Trauma Center for gunshot wounds sustained during the attack at the couple’s home.
Léon Charles, head of the Haitian National Police, said that his forces had detained two of the assailants and killed four others, liberating three police officers being held hostage in the process.
He said police had been engaging the attackers since the early hours of Wednesday, after blocking roads they had intended to use to escape the city.
“As I am talking to you, the fight is ongoing with the assailants,” Charles said. “We will hunt them. They can be killed in an exchange of bullets, or arrested.”
Haitian authorities did not identify the assailants killed or in custody. But Communications Minister Pradel Henriquez said the men were “foreigners.”
Haitian authorities, eyewitnesses and videos that circulated on social media indicated the assailants were speaking Spanish and English in the Creole- and French-speaking country, and apparently claimed to be with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to sow confusion during the audacious operation.
There were no immediate reports of injuries among the president’s security detail, prompting questions about why the attackers apparently met little resistance.
Interim prime minister Claude Joseph, who said he was now the head of Haiti’s government, denounced the “odious, inhuman and barbaric” attack.
Haiti’s Ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, said the government had requested assistance from the United States in boosting its police and armed forces. He said a manhunt was underway to chase down what he called “well-trained professional killers, commandos.”
No group immediately claimed responsibility for the attack.
Joseph announced a nationwide state of siege with security under the control of the country’s armed forces and police. He appealed to Haitians to remain calm, and called on “all the forces of the nation to accompany us in this battle, in the continuity of the state because democracy and the republic must win.”