Haiti was in turmoil Thursday as police hunted for the suspects behind the assassination of its president and questions swirled over who would take charge of the impoverished Caribbean nation.
Four suspects connected to Wednesday’s killing of President Jovenel Moise were killed by police overnight, and another two were detained, officials said.
Haiti’s ambassador to the United States, Bocchit Edmond, described the suspects as foreign “mercenaries” and said he believed they had received assistance from Haitian nationals, but officials have divulged few public details on the attack.
Moise’s death takes place against a background of extreme violence in the capital Port-au-Prince which has claimed the lives of many citizens in recent weeks. Haiti was already dealing with political turmoil, a growing humanitarian crisis, and a worsening Covid-19 epidemic.
The assassination also leaves a huge power vacuum in Haiti. Its parliament is effectively defunct and two men are simultaneously claiming to be the country’s rightful prime minister.
The supreme court president would normally be next in line to take over on an interim basis, but he recently died of Covid-19, judge Jean Wilner Morin, president of the national association of Haitian judges, told CNN.
Acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph declared a “state of siege” in Haiti on Wednesday, closing the country’s borders and imposing martial law.
But Joseph has not been confirmed by parliament — which has not sat since 2020 — and he was in the process of being replaced by Ariel Henry, whom the president appointed shortly before his death. Henry told the Haitian newspaper le Nouvelliste that “Claude Joseph is not prime minister, he is part of my government.”
Moise was killed during an attack on his private residence in Petion-Ville, a suburb of Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, early on Wednesday. The attackers stormed Moise’s home at around 1 a.m. and fatally wounded the head of state.
Haiti’s first lady, Martine Moise, was shot in the attack and was evacuated to a hospital in Miami for treatment, according to Edmond, who said her condition is stable but critical. Images showed the first lady on a stretcher arriving at Jackson Health System’s Ryder Trauma Center in Miami.
Ambassador Edmond said he believed the suspects, whom he referred to as “well-trained killers,” received assistance from Haitian nationals due to vehicles they used to get to the presidential residence where the President was killed. Edmond said Haitian National Police were in the process of determining their nationalities.
“We are trying to move forward and see how we can identify more of those who participated in this horrible act,” he said.
Video from the scene showed suspects speaking Spanish and they presented themselves as Drug and Enforcement Administration (DEA) Agents, Edmond said. “I believe they are fake DEA agents,” he told reporters Wednesday. CNN has viewed the video and cannot independently confirm the authenticity of the audio or video.
“We don’t know how they came in,” Edmond said, adding that they did not know if the attackers were still in the country. He said if they have left, it would be via a land border with the Dominican Republic because Haiti would have detected a plane leaving and the airport has been closed since the attack. He said the airport would reopen “once we have this situation under control.”
The Dominican Republic’s flight authority has suspended air operations to and from the Republic of Haiti, the country’s civil aviation board said in a statement.
Addressing the nation after the assassination, Joseph, the acting Prime Minister, declared the state of siege and pleaded with citizens to remain calm.
The state of siege in the middle of three levels of emergency under Haitian law, alongside the lower “state of emergency” and the highest level referred to as the “state of war.”
Under the state of siege regime, national borders are closed and martial law temporarily is imposed, with Haiti’s military and national police empowered to enforce the law.
Moise, 53, was a former banana exporter and divisive figure in Haitian politics. He spent most of the past year waging a political war with the opposition over the terms of his presidency.
For now, it isn’t immediately clear who will replace him. Judge Jean Wilner Morin, President of the National Association of Haitian Judges, told CNN the line of presidential succession in the country is now murky.
Throughout his presidency, Moise had repeatedly failed to hold elections at local and national levels, leaving much of the country’s governing infrastructure empty. A constitutional referendum is set to be held in September, alongside the presidential and legislative elections. Municipal and local elections have been scheduled for January 16, 2022, the official electoral calendar also showed.
Many in the country had disputed Moise’s right to continue serving in the presidency this year.
While the US, United Nations and Organization of American States supported his claim to the fifth year in office, critics say he should have stepped down on February 7, citing a constitutional provision that starts the clock once a president is elected, rather than when he takes office.
Moise, however, claimed his five-year term should end in 2022 because he wasn’t sworn in until February
2017.His inauguration was delayed over allegations of voter fraud during the 2015 election, which led to a presidential runoff that was postponed twice over what authorities called threats and “security concerns.”