Haitian President Jovenel Moise was assassinated on Wednesday in a night-time assault on his home, threatening to plunge the impoverished, gang-ridden nation deeper into chaos as rival factions jockey for power.
Moise, 53, was murdered by “highly trained and heavily armed” killers who stormed his residence in the capital Port-Au-Prince at around 1.00am local time, according to the nation’s interim prime minister Claude Joseph.
Mr Joseph called the killing a "heinous, inhuman and barbaric act" and asked the population to remain calm.
First lady Martine Moise was injured in the crossfire and is being treated at a hospital.
Video of the incident appears to show the attackers speaking English and Spanish, and presenting themselves as agents of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, said Haiti’s ambassador to the US, Bocchit Edmond. Their real identity is still unclear, he added, but said he believed they were professional mercenaries.
"We have a video and we believe that those are mercenaries," he said.
They overtook the president's security guards and entered the compound, the Haiti Press Network reported. Gunshots were heard during the exchange.
“The country’s security situation is under the control of the National Police of Haiti and the Armed Forces of Haiti,” Mr Joseph said from his office. "All measures are being taken to guarantee the continuity of the state and to protect the nation."
Under the constitution, Mr Joseph must now take the helm, Mr Edmond said.
Haiti is close to being a failed state, with large parts of its territory in the grip of armed bandits who make a living through extortion and kidnapping.
On top of the pandemic and a faltering economy, the country was undergoing a constitutional power struggle stemming from a chaotic election which saw Moise only sworn in 15 months after a first-round vote.
Dominican Republic President Luis Abinader ordered the borders with neighbouring Haiti to be sealed following the assassination, local news outlet El Nuevo Diario reported. Soon after the death was announced, Mr Abinader began to draw up plans to reinforce the border checkpoints.
Condemnation of the killing poured in from leaders around the world, including US President Joe Biden, who called it "horrific" and said Washington was ready to assist in any way.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said he was "shocked" by the assassination and warned it could further destabilise the Caribbean nation.
"This crime poses a risk of instability and a spiral of violence. The perpetrators of this assassination must be found and brought to justice," he said.
Moise had been ruling Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, by decree, after legislative elections due in 2018 were delayed and after disputes arose on when his term ended.
In recent months, opposition leaders had demanded he step down, arguing that his term legally ended in February 2021. Moise and his supporters maintained that his term began when he took office in early 2017, following a chaotic election that forced the appointment of a provisional president to serve during a year-long gap.
In addition to presidential, legislative and local elections, Haiti was due to have a constitutional referendum in September after it was twice postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Supported by Moise, the text of the constitutional reform, aimed at strengthening the executive branch, has been overwhelmingly rejected by the opposition and many civil society organisations.
In addition to the political crisis, Haiti also faces chronic poverty, with 60 per cent of the population making less than $2 a day, as well as recurrent natural disasters.
The president had been accused of inaction in the face of crises and faced steep opposition from much of the population.
Though the streets were deserted in the hours after the assassination, many feared Haiti could tip further into violence.
"How much worse can hell get?" asked Haiti expert Irwin Stotzky, a professor at University of Miami law school, referring to the impact of Moise's assassination.
"Haiti faces even more violence and death and failure as a democratic nation than ever before, which is hard to imagine given its recent and chaotic history."
The killing comes days after Moise appointed Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon who studied in France, as Haiti's new prime minister.
Mr Henry, 71, has been part of Haiti's coronavirus response and previously held posts in the government as interior minister, and social affairs and labour minister.
The new prime minister is close to the opposition, but his appointment was not welcomed by the majority of opposition parties, who had continued to demand the president step down.
Agencies contributed to this report