US officials are working with Haitian authorities to try to secure the release of 12 adults and five children with a US-based missionary group who were abducted at the weekend by a gang notorious for killings, kidnappings and extortion.
Christian Aid Ministries, based in Ohio, on Sunday said the hostages include five men, seven women and the five children. The organisation said they were taken while on a trip to visit an orphanage.
The FBI will assist in efforts to locate and free the group, Reuters reported on Monday.
The group was kidnapped by the 400 Mawozo gang, which controls the Croix-des-Bouquets area east of the capital of Port-au-Prince, police inspector Frantz Champagne told the Associated Press on Sunday.
The gang was blamed for the kidnapping of five priests and two nuns this year.
As authorities sought the release of the missionaries, local unions and other organisations launched a strike on Monday in protest at Haiti’s worsening lack of security.
The streets of Port-au-Prince and other cities were largely empty as public transportation drivers stayed home. Businesses and schools also closed to join the strike.
“The population cannot take it any more,” said Holin Alexis, a moto taxi driver who joined the strike.
The western hemisphere's poorest nation is again struggling with a surge in gang-related kidnappings that had diminished in recent months, after President Jovenel Moise was fatally shot at his private residence on July 7 and a magnitude 7.2 earthquake killed more than 2,200 people in August.
“Everyone is concerned. They’re kidnapping from all social classes,” Mehu Changeux, president of Haiti’s Association of Owners and Drivers, told Magik9 radio station.
The strike would continue until the government was able to guarantee people’s safety, he said.
The kidnapping of the missionaries came days after high-level US officials visited Haiti and promised more resources for Haiti’s National Police, including another $15 million to help reduce gang violence, which this year has displaced thousands of Haitians who now live in temporary shelters in increasingly unhygienic conditions.
The US State Department on Sunday said that it was in regular contact with senior Haitian authorities and would continue to work with them and inter-agency partners.
“The welfare and safety of US citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State,” the agency said in a statement.
An annual report issued last year by Christian Aid Ministries said its American staffers had returned to their base in Haiti after a nine-month absence “due to political unrest” and noted the “uncertainty and difficulties” that arise from such instability.
About a year ago, Haitian police issued a wanted poster for the reported leader of the 400 Mawozo gang, Wilson Joseph, on charges including murder, attempted murder, kidnapping, auto theft and the hijacking of lorries carrying goods.
Amid the spike in kidnappings, gangs have demanded ransom ranging from a couple of hundred dollars to more than $1m, sometimes killing those they have abducted, authorities said.
At least 328 kidnappings were reported to Haiti’s National Police in the first eight months of 2021, compared to a total of 234 for all of 2020, a report last month by the UN Integrated Office in Haiti showed.
Agencies contributed to this report