Haitian police spokesman says new gang attacks overwhelmed officers: 'The city center was at war'

EDS NOTE: GRAPHIC CONTENT - Residents walk past a the body of a man during clashes between police and gang members at the Portail neighborhood in Port-au-Prince in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024. Gunmen shot at the international airport and other targets in a wave of violence that forced businesses, government agencies and schools to close early. (AP Photo/Odelyn Joseph)

By EVENS SANON Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Haitian police were overwhelmed by a series of coordinated violent attacks by gang members across the capital in which four officers were killed, a national police spokesman said Friday.

The attacks Thursday in Port-au-Prince were led by gunmen who opened fire on targets including Haiti’s international airport and seized control of two police stations, prompting people to flee dozens of communities in fear as schools and businesses closed.

“The situation yesterday was horrible,” spokesman Garry Desrosiers said in an interview with Radio Caraibes. “The city center was at war.”

Jimmy Chérizier, a former elite police officer known as Barbecue who now runs a gang federation known as G9 and Family and Allies, claimed responsibility for the attacks.

He said the objective was to capture Haiti’s police chief and government ministers and prevent the return of Prime Minister Ariel Henry, who was in Kenya to push for the U.N.-backed deployment of police from the East African nation to fight gangs in Haiti.

Neither the police chief nor government ministers were injured or captured during Thursday’s attacks.

As of late Friday morning, most of Port-au-Prince remained peaceful as people timidly resumed their routines. The main international airport reopened, although the downtown area was largely deserted as most schools and businesses remained closed.

A police union announced it was organizing a demonstration later Friday following the killings of two policewomen and two policemen at a station near the community of Canaan.

Desrosiers said the young officers stood up and fought “to guarantee the security of the population,” adding that authorities could not reach the station in time to repel the attack.

He said police faced a lack of logistics and equipment to properly fight the gangs on Thursday, as well as road blocks that remained in place Friday in dozens of communities preventing officers from responding to attacks.

“Despite everything we had to deal with, the will was there,” Desrosiers said.

Haiti’s National Police has roughly 9,000 officers on duty at a time for a country of more than 11 million people, according to the U.N. The officers are routinely overwhelmed and outgunned by powerful gangs estimated to control up to 80% of Port-au-Prince.

“The police are in need of more equipment to be able face the situation,” Desrosiers said.

Henry, the prime minister, has not publicly commented on the situation and simply shrugged when asked if he felt it was safe to return to Haiti from Kenya.

He signed reciprocal agreements Friday with Kenyan President William Ruto to try and salvage the plan to deploy Kenyan police to Haiti. Kenya’s High Court in January ruled that the deployment was unconstitutional, in part because the original deal lacked reciprocal agreements between the two countries.