A Haitian gang that kidnapped a group of 17 American and Canadian missionaries has demanded $17 million for their return, the country's justice minister said on Tuesday.
The group, named 400 Mawozo, abducted the 16 Americans and one Canadian from Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries outside of the capital Port-au-Prince at the weekend. Five children are among the hostages.
Justice Minister Liszt Quitel told The Wall Street Journal that the FBI and Haitian police are in contact with the kidnappers and are seeking the release of the missionaries, but negotiations could take weeks.
Ransoms have been paid for kidnapped missionaries in the past.
Five priests and two nuns, including two French citizens, were abducted in April in Croix-des-Bouquets and were released later that month. Mr Quitel told the Journal that a ransom was paid for the release of two of those priests.
A man who claimed to be 400 Mawozo's leader had told a local radio station that the gang was responsible for those abductions.
The missing missionaries have highlighted a problem that has plagued Haiti — the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation — for years.
Kidnappings have become more brash and commonplace in recent months amid a growing political and economic crisis, with at least 628 incidents in the first nine months of 2021 alone, a report by the Haitian non-profit Centre for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, or CARDH, showed.
This is compared with 234 kidnappings for all of last year.
Compounding the country's economic woes, protest strikes have shut businesses, schools and public transport in Haiti and unions and other groups have vowed to continue the shutdown in response to worsening crime.
FBI agents and other US officials are helping local authorities hunt for the 17 abductees, who were kidnapped on Saturday during a trip to an orphanage in the largest reported kidnapping in years.
Gangs have been accused of kidnapping schoolchildren, doctors, police officers, bus passengers and others as they grow more powerful and demand ransoms ranging from a couple of hundred to millions of dollars.
On Monday, the usually chaotic streets of the capital Port-au-Prince remained quiet and largely empty.
“We are calling on authorities to take action,” said Jean-Louis Abaki, a moto taxi driver who joined the strike to decry killings and kidnappings.
Mr Abaki said if Prime Minister Ariel Henry and National Police Chief Leon Charles want to stay in power, “they have to give the population a chance at security”.