By Andre Paultre, Robenson Sanon
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) -Haitian police killed four suspects in the assassination of President Jovenel Moise and arrested six more including two Haitian Americans, a minister said on Thursday, as authorities sought the masterminds behind the killing that stunned the impoverished Caribbean nation.
Moise, 53, was shot dead early on Wednesday 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,” Charles said.
Two Haitian Americans were among those detained, Haiti’s minister of elections and interparty relations, Mathias Pierre, told Reuters. He identified one of them as James Solages, a U.S. citizen of Haitian descent, but did not name the other.
The U.S. State Department said it was in regular contact with Haitian officials, including investigative authorities, to discuss how the United States could provide assistance. A State Department spokesman, however, could not confirm if a U.S. 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.
“Burn them!” shouted some of the hundreds of people who gathered outside the police station where the suspects were being held.
Charles said the local population had helped police track down the suspects but he implored residents in the sprawling seafront city of 1 million people not to take justice into their own hands.
A 15-day state of emergency was declared on Wednesday to help authorities apprehend the killers. But interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph said on Thursday it was time for the economy to reopen and said he had given instructions for the airport to restart operations.
Officials have not given a motive for the killing so far. 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.
VACUUM OF POWER
Moise’s death has generated confusion about who is the legitimate leader of the country of 11 million people, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the Dominican Republic.
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 U.N. 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.
“I can picture a scenario under which there are issues regarding to whom the armed forces and national police are loyal, in the case there are rival claims to being placeholder president of the country,” said Ryan Berg, an analyst with the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Haiti’s 1987 constitution stipulates the head of the supreme court should take over. But amendments that are not unanimously recognized state that it be the prime minister, or, in the last year of a president’s mandate – like in the case of Moise – the parliament should elect a president.
Brian Concannon, an executive director at Project Blueprint, a collaboration of human rights experts, said Moise’s government had left Haiti’s democratic institutions weakened before the current crisis struck.
“There has been no parliament for 17 months, the judiciary is effectively neutralized, the police force is politicized 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 in one of the few countries yet to start a vaccination campaign.
There is no sitting parliament as legislative elections scheduled for late 2019 were postponed amid political unrest.
And Moise had just this week appointed a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, to take over from Joseph, although he had yet to be sworn in when the president was killed.
Joseph appeared on Wednesday to take charge of the situation, running the government response to the assassination, appealing to foreign governments for support, and declaring a state of emergency.
Henry – who is considered more favorably by the opposition – told Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste that he did not consider Joseph the legitimate prime minister any more and he should revert to the role of foreign minister.
“I think we need to speak. Claude was supposed to stay in the government I was going to have,” Henry was quoted as saying.
The United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti on Thursday said Joseph would remain leader until an election was held, urging all parties to set aside their differences.
Moise, backed by the international community, had been pushing to hold both elections and a constitutional referendum in September, efforts that were vehemently opposed by Haitian civil society.
Civil society actors said elections under his one-man rule, amid so much gang violence, could not be free and fair. They had pushed instead for a transitional government, and denounced Moise’s constitutional reform as part of a power grab.
“There are many unknowns about what happens next,” said Jake Johnston, a senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington. “But it is important to remember that that was also the case before the assassination of Moise.”
Reporting by Andre Paultre and Robenson Sanon in Port-au-Prince; Additional Reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher in Mexico City; Writing by Sarah Marsh; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Mark Heinrich, Rosalba O’Brien and Daniel Wallis