Thousands of prisoners on the loose in Haiti after armed men storm major Prison leaving at least 12 dead

4 March 2024, 08:01

  • A state of emergency has been declared in Haiti
A state of emergency has been declared in Haiti
A state of emergency has been declared in Haiti. Picture: Alamy

By Asher McShane

A state of emergency has been declared in Haiti and a curfew has been enforced after a mass jailbreak of the country's two biggest prisons with 4,000 inmates freed.

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Armed gangsters stormed the country's two biggest prisons, resulting in a mass jailbreak that left at least 12 people dead.

A 72-hour state of emergency went into immediate effect as the government said it would set out to find the killers, kidnappers and other violent criminals that it reported escaped from the prison.

Gang leaders say they want to force the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry.

The two prisons - one in the capital and the other in nearby Croix des Bouquets - were stormed over the weekend.

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Police take cover during an anti-gang operation in Port-au-Prince
Police take cover during an anti-gang operation in Port-au-Prince. Picture: Alamy

"The police were ordered to use all legal means at their disposal to enforce the curfew and apprehend all offenders," said finance minister Patrick Boisvert, who is serving as acting prime minister.

Prime minister Ariel Henry travelled abroad last week to try to salvage support for bringing in a United Nations-backed security force to stabilise the country in its conflict with increasingly powerful crime groups.

At least 12 people had been killed since Thursday - four of them police officers - as gangs stepped up coordinated attacks on state institutions in Port-au-Prince.

A demonstrator holds up an Haitian flag during protests demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry
A demonstrator holds up an Haitian flag during protests demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Ariel Henry. Picture: Alamy

Targets included police stations, the country's international airport, and even the national soccer stadium.

But the siege on Saturday night of the National Penitentiary came as a shock even to Haitians accustomed to living under the constant threat of violence.

Almost all of the estimated 4,000 inmates fled during the jailbreak, leaving the ordinarily overcrowded facility eerily empty on Sunday with no guards in sight and plastic sandals, clothing and furniture strewn across the concrete patio.

Three bodies with gunshot wounds lay at the prison entrance.

A man climbs the fence of an office of Haiti's power company
A man climbs the fence of an office of Haiti's power company. Picture: Alamy

In another neighbourhood, the bloodied corpses of two men with their hands tied behind their backs lay face down as residents walked past roadblocks set up with burning tyres.

Among the few dozen who chose to stay in prison are 18 former Colombian soldiers accused of working as mercenaries in the July 2021 assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moise.

Amid the clashes on Saturday night, several Colombians shared a video pleading for their lives.

"Please, please help us," one of the men, Francisco Uribe, said in the message widely shared on social media.

"They are massacring people indiscriminately inside the cells."

A police officer aims his weapon during clashes with gang members in Port-au-Prince
A police officer aims his weapon during clashes with gang members in Port-au-Prince. Picture: Alamy

On Sunday, Mr Uribe told journalists who walked breezily into the usually highly guarded facility: "I didn't flee because I'm innocent."

Colombia's foreign ministry called on Haiti to provide "special protection" for the men.

In the absence of official information, inmates' family members rushed to the prison to check on loved ones.

"I don't know whether my son is alive or not," said Alexandre Jean as she roamed around the cells looking for any sign of him.

"I don't know what to do."

The violence on Saturday night appeared to be widespread, with several neighbourhoods reporting gunfire.

A second Port-au-Prince prison containing around 1,400 inmates was also overrun.

Gang gunmen also occupied and vandalised the nation's top soccer stadium, taking one employee hostage for hours, Haiti's soccer federation said in a statement.

Internet service for many residents was down as Haiti's top mobile network said a fibre optic cable connection was slashed during the rampage.

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