Gunshots ring out as gang crisis brings Haiti to 'standstill'

March 09, 2024 11:02 pm | Updated 11:03 pm IST - Port-au-Prince

Haitians seek shelter amid a recent explosion of gang violence in Port-au-Prince. File

Haitians seek shelter amid a recent explosion of gang violence in Port-au-Prince. File | Photo Credit: AFP

Sporadic gunfire rang out in Port-au-Prince on Friday night, as residents desperately sought shelter amid the recent explosion of gang violence in the Haitian capital.

Humanitarian conditions continued to deteriorate, and aid groups and NGOs have warned of a shortage of medical resources and food supplies after armed groups unleashed widespread chaos on the long-troubled Caribbean nation last week.

Gunshots were heard throughout the capital late on Friday, especially concentrated in the southwestern districts of Turgeau, Pacot, Lalue and Canape-Vert.

Fearful residents scrambled to take shelter, with witnesses telling AFP they had seen clashes "between police officers and bandits" as gangs apparently tried to commandeer police stations in the city center.

Criminal groups, which already control much of Port-au-Prince as well as roads leading to the rest of the country, have attacked key infrastructure in recent days, including two prisons, allowing the majority of their 3,800 inmates to escape.

The gangs, along with some ordinary Haitians, are seeking the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who was due to leave office in February but instead agreed to a power-sharing deal with the opposition until new elections are held.

Calls for 'urgent' reform

On Thursday, the government issued a month-long state of emergency for the western region, which includes the capital, and decreed a nighttime curfew until Monday.

Port-au-Prince resident Fabiola Sanon said that her 32-year-old husband James was killed in the unrest. He used to wake up early to earn money for their son's breakfast before taking him to school, she said.

"James has never been in conflict with anyone," Ms. Sanon said. "He's a simple cigarette salesman."

Haiti's airport remained closed on Friday, while the main port — a key source for food imports — cited instances of looting since it suspended services on Thursday, despite efforts to set up a security perimeter.

"If we cannot access those containers (full of food), Haiti will go hungry soon," the NGO Mercy Corps warned in a statement.

An alliance of Caribbean nations, CARICOM, on Friday summoned envoys from the United States, France, Canada and the United Nations to a meeting on Monday in Jamaica to discuss the outbreak of violence.

Guyana's President Irfaan Ali said the meeting will take up "critical issues for the stabilization of security and the provision of urgent humanitarian assistance."

The crisis has drawn concern from the United States, which has told the absent Henry to enact "urgent" political reform to prevent further escalation.

Henry was in Kenya when the violence broke out and has since been unable to return to Haiti. He is reportedly stranded in Puerto Rico.

Pregnant women at risk

The UN warned on Friday that thousands of people, especially pregnant women, are in danger of losing vital health care as the crisis drags on.

"If greater Port-au-Prince remains at a standstill in the coming weeks, almost 3,000 pregnant women could be denied access to essential health care, and almost 450 could face life-threatening obstetric complications if they do not receive medical assistance," the UN's office in Haiti said in a statement.

The body also warned that more than 500 sexual violence survivors could be without medical care by the end of March if conditions do not improve.

"Today, too many women and girls in Haiti are victims of indiscriminate violence committed by armed gangs. The United Nations stands by them and is committed to continuing to provide the assistance they need," said the UN's Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator Ulrika Richardson.

In addition, hundreds of thousands of students could see their records destroyed, as schools and ministry of education offices were vandalized.

Such "irreparable damage" could make it impossible for pupils to receive their transcripts or diplomas in the future, a statement from the Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training said, calling for the protection of schools as a "public good."

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