Haiti was engulfed in chaos Thursday, a day after President Jovenel Moise was assassinated, with authorities vowing to hunt down more alleged mercenaries responsible for shooting him to death in the bedroom of his home.
Police said Thursday that seven suspects had been killed and six others arrested – among them two American citizens. Three officers being held hostage were freed Thursday, while the hunt for any other responsible gunmen continued.
"The pursuit of the mercenaries continues," said Léon Charles, director of Haiti's National Police. "Their fate is fixed: They will fall in the fighting or will be arrested."
Mathias Pierre, Haiti’s minister of elections, told the Associated Press that one U.S. citizen in custody was Haitian American James Solages. Pierre would not name the second Haitian American he said was arrested or provide any information on Solages.
The U.S. State Department has not confirmed the reports that two of its citizens are in detention.
Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph placed the country under a "state of siege" — in effect, martial law.
“This death will not go unpunished,” Joseph told the impoverished nation of 11 million people in an address Wednesday.
Brian Concannon, a human rights lawyer, a former United Nations human rights officer, and the founder of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, told VOA that the state of siege allows police to do "anything necessary" in pursuit of the killers.
"Although almost everybody wants the police to pursue the killers effectively, there's great concern that this can be abused to round up political opponents," he explained.
"There really is nothing — no structures to stop the government from arresting its political opponents under this decree."
Officials did not provide much further detail about the detained suspects, those killed in the gun battle or what led police to them. They said only that the attack was carried out by "a highly trained and heavily armed group," with the assailants speaking Spanish or English.
The motivation for the assassination remained unclear, but Haiti has long endured poverty and political turmoil.
Carl Henry Destin, a Haitian judge, told the Nouvelliste newspaper that the attackers had posed as agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, but both U.S. and Haitian officials said the gunmen had no links to the agency.
Destin told the newspaper the attackers tied up a maid and another household staff worker as they headed to the president’s bedroom, where they shot Moise at least 12 times.
“The offices and the president’s bedroom were ransacked,” Destin said. “We found him lying on his back, blue pants, white shirt stained with blood, mouth open, left eye blown out.”
Moise’s wife, Martine Moïse, was injured in the attack and was airlifted more 1,100 kilometers to a trauma center in Miami, Florida, in the United States. Joseph said she was “out of danger” and in stable condition.
While Joseph claimed leadership of Haiti on the Caribbean Island of Hispaniola it shares with the Dominican Republic, his tenure may be short-lived.
Haiti's constitution says Moise should be replaced by the president of the country’s Supreme Court, but the chief justice died recently from COVID-19. In addition, a day before his assassination, Moise had named Ariel Henry, a Haitian politician and neurosurgeon, to replace Joseph as prime minister.
In a brief interview with the Associated Press, Henry claimed he is the prime minister, but he acknowledged it was an unusual situation.
The United Nations Security Council called an emergency meeting for Thursday afternoon to discuss Haiti’s crisis. In a statement, its members called for “all parties to remain calm, exercise restraint” and avoid “any act that could contribute to further instability.”
U.S. President Joe Biden said he was “shocked and saddened” by the assassination.
“We condemn this heinous act,” Biden said in a statement. “I am sending my sincere wishes for First Lady Moise’s recovery.”
VOA's Cindy Saine contributed to this report, which also includes information from the Associated Press and Reuters.