Haitian police have killed four suspects in the assassination of President Jovenel Moise and arrested six more including two Haitian Americans, a minister says, as authorities seek the masterminds behind the killing that stunned the impoverished Caribbean nation.
Mr Moise, 53, was shot dead early on Wednesday (local time) at his home by what officials said was a commando of apparently foreign, trained killers, pitching the poorest country in the Americas deeper into turmoil amidst political divisions, hunger, and widespread gang violence.
Police Chief Leon Charles said in a televised briefing on Thursday that authorities had tracked down the suspected assassins to a house near the scene of the crime in Petionville, a northern, hillside suburb of the capital Port-au-Prince.
A fierce firefight lasted late into the night on Wednesday and six suspects were taken in custody, while four corpses were retrieved, authorities said. Officers were heavily patrolling the area from early on Thursday.
“We have the physical authors, now we are looking for the intellectual authors,” Mr Charles said.
Two Haitian Americans were among those detained, Haiti’s minister of elections and inter-party relations, Mathias Pierre, said. He identified one of them as James Solages, a US citizen of Haitian descent, but did not name the other.
The US State Department said it was in regular contact with Haitian officials to discuss how the United States could provide assistance. A State Department spokesman, however, could not confirm if a US citizen was among those detained.
Officials in mostly French and Creole-speaking Haiti had said on Wednesday that the assassins appeared to have spoken in English and Spanish.
A crowd of locals gathered on Thursday morning to watch the police operation unfold, with some setting fire to the suspects’ cars and to the house where they had bunkered down. Bullets were strewn in the street.
Mr Charles said the local population had helped police track down the suspects but he implored residents not to take justice into their own hands.
A 15-day state of emergency was declared on Wednesday but interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph said on Thursday it was time for the economy to reopen and said he had ordered the airport to restart operations.
Officials have not given a motive for the killing. Since he took office in 2017, Moise had faced mass protests against his rule – first over corruption allegations and his management of the economy, then over his increasing grip on power.
Mr Moise’s death has generated confusion about who is the legitimate leader of the country of 11 million people.
That does not bode well in a nation that has struggled to achieve stability since the fall of the Duvalier dynastic dictatorship in 1986, grappling with a series of coups and foreign interventions.
A UN peacekeeping mission – meant to restore order after a rebellion toppled then-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 – ended in 2019 with the country still in disarray.
Haiti’s 1987 constitution stipulates the head of the supreme court should take over. But amendments that are not unanimously recognised state that it be the prime minister, or, in the last year of a president’s term – as in the case of Mr Moise – the parliament should elect a president.
Brian Concannon, an executive director at Project Blueprint, a collaboration of human rights experts, said Mr Moise’s government had weakened Haiti’s democratic institutions.
“There has been no parliament for 17 months, the judiciary is effectively neutralised, the police force is politicised and divided, all local elected positions are vacant, journalists and civil society actors feel intimidated,” he said.
Adding further complications: the head of the supreme court died last month due to COVID-19 amid a surge in infections.
There is no sitting parliament as legislative elections scheduled for late 2019 were postponed amid political unrest.
And Mr Moise had just this week appointed a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, to take over from Mr Joseph, although he had yet to be sworn in when the president was killed.
The United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti said Mr Joseph would remain leader until an election was held, urging all parties to set aside their differences.