By EVENS SANON and DÁNICA COTO
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — An already struggling and chaotic Haiti stumbled into an uncertain future Thursday, reeling from the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse followed by a reported gunbattle in which authorities said police killed four suspects in the murder, detained two others and freed three officers being held hostage.
Officials pledged to find all those responsible for the predawn raid on Moïse’s house early Wednesday that left the president shot to death and his wife, Martine Moïse, critically wounded. She was flown to Miami for treatment.
“The pursuit of the mercenaries continues,” Léon Charles, director of Haiti’s National Police, said Wednesday night in announcing the arrests of suspects. “Their fate is fixed: They will fall in the fighting or will be arrested.”
Officials did not provide any details on the suspects, including their ages, names or nationalities, nor did they address a motive or what led police to the suspects. They said only that the attack condemned by Haiti’s main opposition parties and the international community was carried out by “a highly trained and heavily armed group” whose members spoke Spanish or English.
Prime Minister Claude Joseph assumed leadership of Haiti with help of police and the military and decreed a two-week state of siege following Moïse’s killing, which stunned a nation grappling with some of the Western Hemisphere’s highest poverty, violence and political instability.
Inflation and gang violence are spiraling upward as food and fuel becomes scarcer, while 60% of Haitian workers earn less than $2 a day. The increasingly dire situation comes as Haiti is still trying to recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 following a history of dictatorship and political upheaval.
Those in Haiti and family and friends living abroad wondered what is next.
“There is this void now, and they are scared about what will happen to their loved ones,” said Marlene Bastien, executive director of Family Action Network Movement, a group that helps people in Miami’s Little Haiti community.
She said it was important for the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden to take a much more active role in supporting attempts at national dialogue in Haiti with the aim of holding free, fair and credible elections.
Bastien said she also wants to see participation of the extensive Haitian diaspora: “No more band-aids. The Haitian people have been crying and suffering for too long.”
Haiti had grown increasingly unstable under Moïse, who had been ruling by decree for more than a year and faced violent protests as critics accused him of trying to amass more power while the opposition demanded he step down.
According to Haiti’s constitution, Moïse should be replaced by the president of Haiti’s Supreme Court, but the chief justice died in recent days from COVID-19, leaving open the question of who might rightfully succeed to the office.
Joseph, meanwhile, was supposed to be replaced by Ariel Henry, who had been named prime minister by Moïse a day before the assassination.
Henry told The Associated Press in a brief interview that he is the prime minister, calling it an exceptional and confusing situation. In another interview with Radio Zenith, he said there was no fight between him and Joseph: “I only disagree with the fact that people have taken hasty decisions … when the moment demands a little more serenity and maturity.”
Moïse had faced large protests in recent months that turned violent as opposition leaders and their supporters rejected his plans to hold a constitutional referendum with proposals that would strengthen the presidency.
Hours after the assassination, public transportation and street vendors remained largely scarce, an unusual sight for the normally bustling streets of Port-au-Prince. Gunfire rang out intermittently across the city, a grim reminder of the growing power of gangs that displaced more than 14,700 people last month alone as they torched and ransacked homes in a fight over territory.
Robert Fatton, a Haitian politics expert at the University of Virginia, said gangs were a force to contend with and it isn’t certain Haiti’s security forces can enforce a state of siege.
“It’s a really explosive situation,” he said, adding that foreign intervention with a U.N.-type military presence is a possibility. “Whether Claude Joseph manages to stay in power is a huge question. It will be very difficult to do so if he doesn’t create a government of national unity.”
Joseph told The Associated Press that he supports an international investigation into the assassination and believes elections scheduled for later this year should be held as he promised to work with Moïse’s allies and opponents alike.
“Everything is under control,” he said.
Associated Press writer Evens Sanon reported this story in Port-au-Prince and AP writer Danica Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. AP writer Joshua Goodman in Miami contributed to this report.