Thousands of inmates escape prison amid deepening Haiti violence

At least 12 people reported dead as gangs pushing for prime minister’s removal attack two prisons.

At least 12 people have been killed as thousands of inmates escaped the main prison in Port-au-Prince in deepening gang violence designed to remove Prime Minister Ariel Henry from power.

Gangs led by Jimmy Cherizier, a former police officer known as Barbecue, attacked the jail in the country’s capital overnight on Saturday.

Pierre Esperance of the National Network for Defense of Human Rights said only about 100 of the National Penitentiary’s estimated 3,800 inmates remained inside after the assault.

“We counted many prisoners’ bodies,” he added.

A reporter from the AFP news agency who visited the prison on Sunday said they saw about a dozen bodies outside it. The gate was open and there was “hardly anyone” left inside, they added.

The Reuters news agency reported that there were no signs of police officers at the prison and its main door was open.

“I’m the only one left in my cell,” one unidentified inmate told Reuters. “We were asleep when we heard the sound of bullets. The cell barriers are broken.”

In a statement, the Haitian government said police tried to repel the gang attack against that prison and at another facility called Croix des Bouquets. Esperance said it was not immediately clear how many inmates escaped from the second prison, which he said held 1,450 inmates.

The government said the attacks left “several wounded” among prison staff and inmates.

In a statement, it thanked “the population for their calm, despite these very difficult times.”

Violence in Haiti has spiralled in recent days after calls by Cherizier for criminal groups to unite and overthrow Henry. Cherizier heads an alliance of gangs and faces sanctions from the United Nations and the United States.

One voluntary prison worker on Sunday said that 99 prisoners had opted to remain in their cells in the main jail for fear of being killed in the crossfire. These included several retired Colombian soldiers who were jailed for their alleged involvement in the assassination of former President Jovenel Moise.

Authorities warned people to be careful and “to continue to support the National Police who will do everything possible to track down fleeing prisoners and arrest those responsible for these acts”, the statement read.

The prime minister’s exact whereabouts remained unclear on Sunday. Henry had been due to return from a visit to Kenya, where he signed a security deal to tackle gang violence.

Nearly 15,000 people have been forced to leave their homes in recent days, with 10 sites hosting internally displaced people emptied over the weekend, according to the United Nations’s International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Henry, who became prime minister in 2021 after Moise’s assassination, was supposed to step down by early February, but told a regional summit in Guyana before travelling to Kenya that he would only hold elections by August 2025 once the situation was more stable.

The last elections took place in 2016.

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