Authorities claimed on Thursday that the heavily armed commando team that murdered Haitian President Jovenel Mossé this week included 26 Colombians and two Haitian Americans, as the hunt for the assassins continued.
Moïse, 53, was fatally shot early on Wednesday (local time) at his home by what officials said was a group of foreign, trained killers, pitching the poorest country in the Americas deeper into turmoil amid political divisions, hunger and widespread gang violence.
Colombian Defence Minister Diego Molano said initial findings indicated that Colombians suspected of taking part in the assassination were ex-members of his country’s armed forces, and pledged to support the investigations in Haiti.
Police tracked the suspected assassins on Wednesday to a house near the scene of the crime in Petionville, a northern, hillside suburb of the capital Port-au-Prince.
A firefight lasted late into the night and authorities detained a number of suspects on Thursday.
Police Chief Leon Charles paraded 17 men before journalists at a news conference showing a number of Colombian passports, plus assault rifles, machetes, walkie-talkies and materials including bolt cutters and hammers.
“Foreigners came to our country to kill the president,” Charles said, noting there were 26 Colombians and two Haitian Americans.
He revealed that 15 of the Colombians were captured, as were the Haitian Americans. Three of the assailants were killed and eight were still on the run, Charles said.
Colombia’s national police director Jorge Luis Vargas said he had received information requests from Haiti on six suspects, two of whom had apparently been killed in an exchange with Haitian police. The other four were under arrest.
The foreign ministry in Taiwan, which maintains formal diplomatic ties with Haiti, said 11 of the suspects were captured at its embassy after they broke in.
Haiti’s minister of elections and interparty relations Mathias Pierre identified the Haitian-American suspects as James Solages, 35, and Joseph Vincent, 55.
A State Department spokesman could not confirm if any US citizens were among those detained, but US authorities were in contact with Haitian officials, including investigators, to discuss how the United States could assist.
Officials in the mostly French- and Creole-speaking Caribbean nation said the assassins appeared to have spoken in English and Spanish.
“It was a full, well-equipped commando (raid), with more than six cars and a lot of equipment,” Pierre said.
Officials have not yet given a motive for the killing. Since taking 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.
An angry crowd 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 hunkered down. Bullet casings were strewn in the street.
“Burn them!” shouted some of the hundreds of people outside the police station where the suspects were being held.
Charles said the public had helped police find the suspects, but he implored residents of the sprawling seafront city of one 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.
Still, interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph said on Thursday it was time for the economy to reopen and he had given instructions for the airport to restart operations.
Moïse’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.
Haiti has struggled to achieve stability since the fall of the Duvalier family dictatorship in 1986, grappling with a series of coups and foreign interventions.
A UN 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 Center for Strategic International Studies analyst Ryan Berg.
Haiti’s 1987 constitution stipulates the head of the Supreme Court should take over. But amendments that are not unanimously recognised state that it be the prime minister, or, in the last year of a president’s mandate – the case with Moise – that parliament should elect a president.
The Supreme Court’s chief justice died of Covid-19 last month, amid a spike in cases in one of the only nations that has yet to launch a vaccine programme.
Legislative elections were postponed in late 2019 due to political turmoil, therefore there is no sitting parliament.
Mose had just selected a new prime minister, Ariel Henry, to succeed Joseph, but he had yet to be sworn in when the president was assassinated.
On Wednesday, Joseph seemed to assume command of the crisis, directing the government’s response to the killing, appealing to Washington for assistance, and proclaiming a state of emergency.
Henry, who is seen more positively by the opposition, told the Haitian publication Le Nouvelliste that he did not believe Joseph to be the real prime minister and that he should return to his previous post as foreign minister.
“I believe we should talk. Claude was meant to remain in the government that I was going to form “Henry was said to have said.