By Steve Holland and Andre Paultre
WASHINGTON/PORT-AU-PRINCE -The United States on Friday rebuffed Haiti’s request for troops to help secure key infrastructure after the assassination of President Jovenel Moise by suspected foreign mercenaries, even as it pledged to help with the investigation.
The killing of Moise by a squad of gunmen in the early hours of Wednesday morning at his home in Port-au-Prince pitched Haiti deeper into a political crisis https://www.reuters.com/article/us-haiti-politics-timeline-idAFKCN2ED1F6 which may worsen growing hunger, gang violence and a COVID-19 outbreak.
Haitian Elections Minister Mathias Pierre said a request for U.S. security assistance was raised in a conversation between interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday. Haiti also made a request for forces to the United Nations Security Council, Pierre said.
But a senior U.S. administration official said there were “no plans to provide U.S. military assistance at this time.”
A letter from Joseph’s office to the U.S. embassy in Haiti, dated Wednesday and reviewed by Reuters, requested the dispatch of troops to support the national police in reestablishing security and protecting key infrastructure across the country following Moise’s assassination.
A similar letter, also dated Wednesday and seen by Reuters, was sent to the U.N. office in Haiti.
“We were in a situation where we believed that infrastructure of the country – the port, airport and energy infrastructure – might be a target,” Pierre told Reuters.
Another aim of the request for security reinforcements would be to make it possible to go ahead with scheduled presidential and legislative elections on Sept. 26, Pierre said.
The U.N. political mission in Haiti received the letter and it was being examined, said Jose Luis Diaz, spokesman for the U.N. Department of Political and Peacebuilding Affairs.
“The dispatch of troops under any circumstances would be a matter for the (15-member) Security Council to decide,” he said.
The United States and Colombia said they would send law enforcement and intelligence officials to assist Haiti after a number of their nationals were arrested for Moise’s murder.
Police in Haiti said the assassination was carried out by a commando unit of 26 Colombian and two Haitian-American mercenaries. The two Haitian-Americans were identified as James Solages, 35, and Joseph Vincent, 55, both from Florida.
Seventeen of the men were captured – including Solages and Vincent – after a gun battle with Haitian authorities in Petionville, the hillside suburb of the capital Port-au-Prince where Moise resided.
Three others were killed and eight remain at large, according to Haitian police. Authorities are hunting for the masterminds of the operation, they said.
A judge investigating the case told Reuters that Moise was found lying on his back on the floor of his bedroom. The front door of the residence had been forced open, while other rooms were ransacked.
“His body was riddled with bullets,” Petionville tribunal judge Carl Henry Destin said. “There was a lot of blood around the corpse and on the staircase.”
Haitian officials have not given a motive for Moise’s killing or explained how the assassins got past his security detail. He had faced mass protests against his rule since taking office in 2017 – first over corruption allegations and his management of the economy, then over his increasing grip on power.
Moise himself had talked of dark forces at play behind the unrest: fellow politicians and corrupt oligarchs who felt his attempts to clean up government contracts and to reform Haitian politics were against their interests.
The United States on Thursday pledged to send senior officials from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and Department of Homeland Security to Haiti as soon as possible to assess the situation and see how best they can assist, the White House said.
A State Department spokesperson said: “We are aware of the arrest of two U.S. citizens in Haiti and are monitoring the situation closely.”
The head of Colombia’s national intelligence directorate and the intelligence director for the national police will travel to Haiti with Interpol to help with investigations, Colombian President Ivan Duque said on Friday.
Investigators in Colombia discovered that 17 of the suspects had retired from Colombia’s army between 2018 and 2020, armed forces commander General Luis Fernando Navarro told journalists on Friday.
Jorge Luis Vargas, director of Colombia’s national police, said initial investigations had shown that 11 Colombian suspects had traveled to Haiti via the resort city of Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.
Two others traveled by air to Panama, before flying to Dominican capital Santo Domingo and then Port-au-Prince, Vargas said.
The Haitian government declared a 15-day state of emergency on Wednesday to help authorities apprehend the killers but has since urged businesses to reopen.
Stores, gasoline stations and commercial banks reopened on Friday. The streets were quiet, although some supermarkets bustled with people stocking up amid the uncertainty.
Moise’s killing has sparked confusion about who is the legitimate leader of the country of 11 million people, the poorest in the Americas, miring it deeper into a political crisis.
Even before Moise’s death, the country only had 11 elected officials – himself and 10 senators – given it had postponed legislative elections in 2019 amid violent unrest.
Swaths of the opposition and civil society no longer recognized him as president due to a disagreement over the length of his mandate.
Joseph has taken over the reins of power so far. Pierre, the elections minister, said he would keep that role until presidential and legislative elections are held on Sept. 26.
But Joseph’s authority is in dispute by multiple political factions. In the latest move, the remaining third of the Senate on Friday nominated its head, Joseph Lambert, to be interim president.
The senators also urged Joseph to hand over his office as prime minister to Ariel Henry, a physician seen as more of a consensus candidate. Moise had tapped him earlier this week to form a unity government but he had yet been sworn in.
“The Senate secretariat will write to national and international entities as well as to the general director of the Police and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs so that the embassies accredited in Haiti are informed,” Lambert told Reuters.
Henry this week told Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste he did not consider Joseph the legitimate prime minister.
“The assassination… has provoked a political and institutional vacuum at the highest level of state,” said Haitian opposition politician Andre Michel. “There is no constitutional provision for this exceptional situation.”