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Gang attacks at Haiti airport damages jetliners; airlines cancel flights from South Florida

Jacqueline Charles, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

Gang attacks near Haiti’s international and domestic airports in the capital left a police officer wounded and jetliners shot up on the tarmac Thursday, prompting two U.S.-based airlines to cancel flights out of Miami and Fort Lauderdale.

The violence, which also targeted police facilities and an auto dealership housing the Jamaican consulate, started early in the morning with an armed gang knocking down the perimeter wall of the Haiti National Police Academy not far from the U.S. embassy in metropolitan Port-au-Prince. By mid-morning, the attacks had spread and shots were fired just north of the airports.

At least one person, a Haiti National Police officer, was shot during an exchange of gunfire between gang members and police trying to quell the violence. The officer was taken to the hospital, an airport employee told the Miami Herald.

At the time of the shooting, a New York-bound JetBlue Airways flight was preparing to take off from Toussaint Louverture International Airport. Though the airliner managed to depart unscathed, both Spirit Airlines and American Airlines canceled their flights out of Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport and Miami International Airports into Port-au-Prince.

American “suspended daily service” between MIA and Port-au-Prince “as a result of civil unrest,” spokeswoman Laura Masvidal told the Miami Herald. “We will continue to monitor the situation with safety and security top of mind and will adjust our operation as needed.”

Spirit Airlines did not respond to the Herald’s request for comment. A carrier based in Haiti, Sunrise Airways, confirmed that it too had canceled flights after “some of our airplanes were hit by stray bullets,” spokeswoman Stéphanie Armand said in an email.

One of those planes was a Havana-bound Sunrise Airways Airbus 320, which was hit while parked at the international terminal. A video showed a worker inspecting the damage on the belly near the jet’s tail.

“Following exchanges of fire which took place today near the Rita crossroads, endangering users of the Guy Malary terminal and causing damage to some aircraft, Sunrise Airways has decided to suspend all flights until further notice, to ensure the safety of passengers, ground crews, and aircraft,” Sunrise Airways said in a statement.

A bullet also pierced a window and a chair at the Guy Malary domestic airport, leading to flights being held back until the shooting stopped. Both domestic flights and U.N. helicopter flights take off from that airport.

The Sun Auto Car Dealership, where the Jamaican consulate is located east of the capital, in an area controlled by gang leader Vitel’homme Innocent, was also hit. Last June, an attack on the dealership forced the Jamaican government to suspend consular services in Haiti. The amount of damage this time remains unknown because police still not get to the facility Thursday afternoon. The gangs also attacked a police substation at Portal Léogâne, at the southern edge of the capital, where several vehicles were torched.

A Haiti National Police spokesman did not respond to a Herald request for comment and the police commissioner in charge of the airport could not be reached for comment.

 

The armed attacks sent airport workers, school children and others running to safety. The assaults coincided with the 20th anniversary of the bloody Feb. 29, 2004, coup that forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power, which ushered in a United Nations peacekeeping mission to stabilize the country.

Gang leader Jimmy Chérizier, a former cop who has been sanctioned by the U.N. and the U.S., claimed responsibility for the attacks in a video posted online. Chérizier, nicknamed Barbecue,” said the assaults were meant to seek out government ministers and Haiti National Police Chief Frantz Elbe and to keep Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who is on a trip to Kenya, from returning to the country.

“Find (Elbe) where he is and tie him up with all of the ministers and send them to Ariel Henry so that Ariel Henry can’t reenter the country,” Chérizier said. “This population needs to be freed. With our guns and with the Haitian people, we will free the country.”

The violence erupted as Henry arrived in Nairobi for a state visit and hours after Caribbean Community leaders announced late Wednesday that the prime minister had committed to holding elections no later than Aug. 31, 2025. Henry reportedly made the commitment after engaging for hours in discussions with leaders of the 15-member regional bloc and representatives of the U.S., Canada, France, the U.N. and United Kingdom about the ongoing political stalemate in Haiti. The announcement by the Caribbean Community, known as CARICOM, immediately led to worries that Haiti may be headed into a new crisis.

The U.N. Security Council and several nations have been calling on Haiti’s leaders to reach a broad political agreement leading to elections. But Henry and his detractors have not been able to agree on a power-sharing arrangement that could end the political stalemate that has also fueled the surge in armed gang violence.

Earlier in February, after Henry failed to keep another promised deadline — to step down from office on Feb. 7, 2024 — thousands of Haitians took to the streets calling for his departure from office. The date was contingent on Haiti being safe enough to hold general elections.

In October, the U.N. Security Council approved the deployment of an armed Multinational Security Support mission led by Kenya to help the Haiti National Police defeat the gangs. But the mission has been stalled by legal hurdles in Kenya after the Nairobi High Court blocked President William Ruto from deploying 1,000 of his police officers to the Caribbean nation to help combat gangs. During his visit to Nairobi, Henry is hoping to address some of the legal hurdles but it’s still uncertain if and when the mission will be able to move ahead.

On Thursday, the U.N. said that it had received an official announcement from the West African nation of Benin intends to contribute personnel to the multinational mission. Stéphane Dujarric, the spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, said the. U.N has now received notifications from The Bahamas, Bangladesh, Barbados, Benin and Chad of their commitments to provide security forces to the armed mission.

A U.N. trust fund set up to pay for the mission has received $78 million in pledges.

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©2024 Miami Herald. Visit at miamiherald.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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