The president of Haiti was riddled with 12 bullet holes and had an eye gouged out when assassins with high-powered rifles raided his mansion, leaving his wife seriously wounded, in the early hours of Wednesday.
Jovenel Moise’s terrified adult daughter Jomarlie hid in a bedroom as the ‘foreigners’ ransacked his office and rooms, firing machine guns and leaving the 53-year-old to die an horrific death, lying in a pool of a blood at the private residence in the hills above Port-au-Prince.
A maid and another servant were tied up by the gunmen who shouted ‘DEA operation’ as they burst in, pretending they were officers of the US Drugs Enforcement Administration, speaking in English and Spanish.
First Lady Martine, 47, was shot through the legs, arm, torso and hand, and was later airlifted in a ‘critical condition’ to a hospital in Miami.
Martine was last night described as ‘out of danger’ and in a ‘stable condition’ by Prime Minister Joseph Claude, who has assumed sole power of the country, declaring a ‘state of siege’ granting him absolute authority.
Police chief Leon Charles said four ‘mercenaries’ were shot dead as they tried flee the scene of the attack, while another two were in custody. He said cops were ‘battling’ with commandos throughout Wednesday, with some of his officers at one point being taken hostage before being freed.
Charles said an unspecified number of attackers remained at large but vowed they ‘will be killed or arrested.’
PM Joseph claims he has the situation in hand but the international community fears that the country will fall into utter chaos after months of protests against Moise, who was accused of turning the country into a dictatorship and allowing armed gangsters to roam the streets to prevent new elections.
The raid took place just after 1am local time. Shell casings could be seen on the street outside as forensics experts combed the scene for evidence. A nearby car was peppered with bullet holes.
Magistrate Carl Henry Destin told the Nouvelliste newspaper that the president’s body had been ripped apart by 12 bullets from large caliber rifles and smaller 9mm weapons, to the forehead, chest, hips and abdomen.
‘The president’s office and bedroom were ransacked. We found him lying on his back, blue pants, a white shirt smeared with blood, his mouth open, his left eye gouged out,’ he said.
Moise’s wife was first treated at a local hospital then rushed by air ambulance to the Ryder Trauma Center in Miami.
Their daughter Jomarlie was in the home during the attack but hid in a bedroom, Destin, the magistrate, said.
He said a maid and another domestic staff member had been tied up by the commandos who allegedly shouted ‘DEA operation’ as they burst in.
Video taken over the city on Wednesday evening showed smoke rising from several locations and captured the sound of gunfire – thought it was unclear whether the shooting was related to the police operation or signaled that the impoverished, violence-wracked nation was plunging deeper into chaos.
The assassination came amid political turmoil in Haiti with opponents of Mr Moise trying to force him from office, claiming his five-year term has expired. Mr Moise said back in February that he survived another assassination attempt, describing it as ‘a coup’. At least 23 people, including a top judge and police official, were arrested.
Mr Joseph has now declared a two-week ‘state of siege’ imposing martial law, halting all flights out of Port-Au-Prince and sealing the country’s borders, while neighboring Dominican Republic mobilized its military to guard Haiti’s only land border.
Bocchit Edmond, the Haitian ambassador to the United States, described the assassins as ‘foreign mercenaries and professional killers,’ and Joseph said some of the gang are believed to be from Columbia and Venezuela.
Haiti’s Police Chief Léon Charles said late Wednesday that three police officers had been taken hostage by the suspected assassins, but were safely rescued after a police shootout with the suspects.
It followed a tense day of uncertainty and chaos for millions of Haitians, with no presidential succession plan in place, and the fraught security situation leaving the streets of Port-Au-Prince deserted as millions sheltered in their homes and waited for any news updates.
First Lady Martine was pictured arriving at Fort Lauderdale Executive Airport, where she arrived at 3.30pm on Wednesday.
She was then transported to Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami for medical treatment. Officials said her vital signs were stable but her condition was still critical.
Mrs Moise sustained gunshot wounds to her arms and thigh, along with unspecified but severe injuries to her abdomen and hand, the ABC affiliate reported.
President Joe Biden said he was ‘shocked’ by the assassination and that ‘a lot’ more information is needed.
‘We are shocked and saddened to hear of the horrific assassination of President Jovenel Moise and the attack on First Lady Martine Moise,’ the US President said in a statement. ‘We condemn this heinous act and I am sending my sincere wishes for First Lady Moise’s recovery.’
Speaking to reporters as he left for a trip to Chicago, Biden called the incident ‘very worrisome’.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke to Haiti’s interim prime minister on Wednesday and voiced commitment to work with the Haitian government for peace and security, the State Department said.
In the call, Blinken ‘reiterated the United States’ continued commitment to work with the Government of Haiti in support of the Haitian people and democratic governance, peace, and security,’ the State Department said in a statement.
The UN Security Council is holding an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the situation, and issued a statement expressing ‘deep concern regarding deteriorating political, security and humanitarian conditions in Haiti.’
Haiti’s Interim Prime Minister Joseph described the attack on the president and first lady as a ‘hateful, inhumane and barbaric act.’
‘My compatriots – remain calm because the situation is under control,’ Joseph said in a televised address to the nation, backed by a row of somber-faced officials. ‘This blow has wounded this country, this nation, but it will not go unpunished.’
The prime minister identified the assassins as ‘mercenaries’ believed to include Haitians and natives of Colombia and Venezuela, according to local reporter Alexander Gálvez, who spoke to Colombian radio station Blu Radio.
Joseph has seized control of the country for the time being with the backing of the police and military, but Haiti has no legal framework for presidential succession, and the future of the country’s leadership remained unclear.
The normally bustling streets of Port-au-Prince were deserted on Wednesday as police and military plunged the capital into lockdown. Public transportation was scarce, and scattered bands of people searched for businesses that were open to buy food and water.
Gunfire rang out intermittently across the city, a grim reminder of the growing power of gangs that displaced more than 14,700 people last month alone as they torched and ransacked homes in a fight over territory.
Robert Fatton, a Haitian politics expert at the University of Virginia, said gangs were a force to contend with and it isn’t certain Haiti’s security forces can enforce a state of siege.
‘It’s a really explosive situation,’ he said, adding that foreign intervention with a U.N.-type military presence is a possibility. ‘Whether Claude Joseph manages to stay in power is a huge question. It will be very difficult to do so if he doesn´t create a government of national unity.’
The increasingly dire situation comes as Haiti is still trying to recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in 2016 following a history of dictatorship and political upheaval.
Haiti had grown increasingly unstable under Moïse, who had been ruling by decree for more than a year and faced violent protests as critics accused him of trying to amass more power while the opposition demanded he step down.
According to Haiti’s constitution, Moïse should be replaced by the president of Haiti’s Supreme Court, but the chief justice died in recent days from COVID-19, leaving open the question of who might rightfully succeed to the office.
Joseph, meanwhile, was supposed to be replaced by Ariel Henry, who had been named prime minister by Moïse a day before the assassination.
Henry told The Associated Press in a brief interview that he is the rightful prime minister, calling it an exceptional and confusing situation.
In another interview with Radio Zenith, he said there was no fight between him and Interim PM Joseph, saying: ‘I only disagree with the fact that people have taken hasty decisions … when the moment demands a little more serenity and maturity.’
The attack on President Moise unfolded at around 1am on Wednesday, when a group of ‘foreigners’, some of whom spoke English and Spanish, broke into his home in the hills above Port-au-Prince, according to a statement by the French-speaking country’s prime minister.
In footage purportedly recorded by a witness, someone with an American accent shouts into a megaphone: ‘DEA operation. Everybody stand down. DEA operation. Everybody back up, stand down.’
Gunfire then erupts in the video which was uploaded to Instagram by someone who says they were in the Pelerin 5 neighborhood, where the president’s house is located.
The assailants were pretending to be from the US Drugs Enforcement Agency (DEA) and were ‘mercenaries,’ a government source told The Miami Herald.
Officials in both Haiti and the US have dismissed any notion that the killers were actual DEA agents. US State Department spokesperson Ned Price said those claims were ‘absolutely false.’
‘I believe they are fake DEA agents,’ Haitian ambassador Edmond agreed in remarks to reporters, calling the assassins ‘mercenaries’ and ‘well-trained killers.’
Mr Moise had been accused of turning Haiti into a dictatorship, refusing to relinquish the presidency after his term ended earlier this year, using armed thugs to spread fear and trying to change the constitution to consolidate power – including installing an intelligence agency that answered directly to him.
He was killed a day after he nominated Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon, as the new prime minister. Mr Henry, the eighth PM in the last four years, was due to take over later this week from Mr Joseph, who had been named as interim in April.
Residents last night reported hearing high-powered rounds and saw men dressed in black sprinting through the neighborhood. There were also claims of a grenade going off and drones being deployed.
Further videos purportedly taken by a neighbour show men with rifles arriving outside the president’s house. It is not clear whether they are from the country’s security forces or if they are the assassins.
PM Joseph, who earlier said he had taken charge of the country, declared a ‘state of siege’ on Wednesday which grants him additional powers.
‘I have just chaired an extraordinary council of ministers meeting and we have decided to declare a state of siege throughout the country,’ the prime minister said.
He said that the police and armed forces were taking ‘all measures to guarantee the continuity of the State and protect the Nation.’
Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, a Democrat from South Florida, released a statement that read in part: ‘I was shocked by the news about the assassination of Haiti’s president Jovenel Moïse and to learn that his wife, Martine, also was shot during the attack. My thoughts are with the people of Haiti and I pray that this will not lead to more havoc in an already extremely troubled nation.’