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Haiti gang seeks millions in ransom for kidnapped missionaries

A protester holds a sign reading "Free the Americans" near the missionaries' headquarters in Haiti.
People protest for the release of kidnapped missionaries near the missionaries’ headquarters in Titanyen, north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Oct. 19, 2021.
(Joseph Odelyn / Associated Press)

A gang that kidnapped 17 members of a U.S.-based missionary group is demanding $1-million ransom per person, although authorities are not clear whether that includes the five children being held, a top Haitian official told the Associated Press on Tuesday.

The official, who wasn’t authorized to speak to the press, said someone from the 400 Mawozo gang called a ministry leader shortly after kidnapping the missionaries Saturday and demanded the ransom. A person in contact with the organization, Christian Aid Ministries, also confirmed the $1 million per person demand, which was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. That source spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.

The ages of the adults being held captive range from 18 to 48; the children are 8 months, 3 years, 6 years, 13 years and 15 years old, according to a statement from the organization Tuesday. Sixteen of the abductees are Americans and one is Canadian.

“This group of workers has been committed to minister throughout poverty-stricken Haiti,” the Ohio-based ministry said, adding that the missionaries were most recently working on a rebuilding project to help those who lost their homes in the magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck Aug. 14.

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The group was returning from visiting an orphanage when the 17 were abducted, the organization said.

In response to a recent wave of kidnappings, workers staged a protest strike that shuttered businesses, schools and public transportation starting Monday. The work stoppage was a new blow to Haiti’s anemic economy. Unions and other groups vowed to continue the shutdown indefinitely.

Meanwhile, an ongoing fuel shortage worsened, and businesses blamed gangs for blocking roads and gas distribution terminals.

On Tuesday, hundreds of motorcycles zoomed through the streets of Port-au-Prince as the drivers yelled, “If there’s no fuel, we’re going to burn it all down!”

One protest took place near the prime minister’s residence, where police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd demanding fuel.

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that the FBI was “part of a coordinated U.S. government effort” to free the missionaries. The American Embassy in Port-au-Prince was coordinating with local officials and the hostages’ families.

From the Philippines to El Salvador, there is a long history of American missionaries facing violence while trying to spread their religions abroad.

“We know these groups target U.S. citizens who they assume have the resources and finances to pay ransoms, even if that is not the case,” she added, noting that the government has urged citizens not to visit Haiti.

It is long-standing U.S. policy not to negotiate with hostage takers, and Psaki declined to discuss details of the operation.

The kidnapping was the largest reported kidnapping of its kind in recent years, with Haitian gangs growing more brazen and abductions spiking as the country tries to recover from the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and the earthquake that struck southern Haiti and killed more than 2,200 people.

Jean-Louis Abaki, a moto taxi driver who joined the strike Monday, urged authorities in Haiti to act. He said if Prime Minister Ariel Henry and Leon Charles, the national police chief, want to stay in power, “they have to give the population a chance at security.”

Since Haitian President Jovenel Moïse was killed two months ago, the country has suffered a devastating earthquake and a drenching tropical storm.

At least 328 kidnappings were reported to Haiti’s national police in the first eight months of 2021, compared with a total of 234 for all of 2020, said a report last month by the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti.

Gangs have been accused of kidnapping schoolchildren, doctors, police officers, bus passengers and others. Ransom demands range from a couple of hundred to millions of dollars.

The escalation of gang violence in Haiti threatens to complicate efforts to recover from last week’s brazen slaying of President Jovenel Moise.

U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price said U.S. officials have been in constant contact with Haiti’s national police, the missionary group and the victims’ relatives.

“This is something that we have treated with the utmost priority since Saturday,” he said, adding that officials are doing “all we can to seek a quick resolution to this.”

Christian Aid Ministries said the kidnapped group included six women, six men and five children. A sign on the door at the organization’s headquarters in Berlin, Ohio, said it was closed because of the kidnapping situation.

News of the kidnappings spread swiftly in and around Holmes County, Ohio, hub of one of the nation’s largest populations of Amish and conservative Mennonites, said Marcus Yoder, executive director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center in nearby Millersburg.

Christian Aid Ministries is supported by conservative Mennonite, Amish and related groups in the Anabaptist tradition.

The organization was founded in the early 1980s and began working in Haiti later that decade, said Steven Nolt, professor of history and Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. The group has year-round mission staff in Haiti and several countries, he said, and it ships religious, school and medical supplies throughout the world.

Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Smith from Pittsburgh. Associated Press journalists Pierre-Richard Luxama in Port-au-Prince, Eric Tucker and Matthew Lee in Washington, Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations, John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, and Julie Carr Smyth in Berlin, Ohio, contributed to this report.


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