Haiti’s President Jovenel Moise was killed during an attack on his private residence early on Wednesday, according to the country’s acting Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who has declared a state of seige in the country.
The attackers stormed Moise’s home at around 1 a.m. and fatally wounded the head of state, according to the acting prime minister, who described the assassination as a “heinous, inhumane and barbaric act.”
Haiti’s first lady, Martine Moise, was shot in the attack and is being evacuated to a hospital in Miami for treatment, said Haiti’s ambassador to the US.
Her condition is stable but critical, Ambassador Bocchit Edmond said in a press briefing.
Haitian National Police have detained two suspects and killed four others connected to the assassination, Edmond told CNN en Español late Wednesday.
“We are trying to move forward and see how we can identify more of those who participated in this horrible act,” he said.
Edmond added that the suspects who were arrested and killed were foreigners, and police are in the process of determining their nationalities.
He believes the suspects received assistance from Haitian nationals due to vehicles they used to get to the presidential residence where Moise was killed.
Earlier, Edmond said in the press briefing that the attackers are believed to be “mercenaries” and referred to them as “well-trained killers.”
Video from the scene showed them speaking Spanish and they presented themselves as Drug and Enforcement Administration (DEA) Agents, he said.
“I believe they are fake DEA agents,” he told reporters Wednesday.
“We don’t know how they came in,” Edmond said, adding that they did not know if the attackers were still in the country. He said if they have left, it would be via a land border with the Dominican Republic because Haiti would have detected a plane leaving and the airport has been closed since the attack. He said the airport would reopen “once we have this situation under control.”
The country has been reeling from violence for weeks. Addressing the nation in a televised statement, the acting prime minister Joseph declared a “state of siege” in Haiti and pleaded with citizens to remain calm.
“Me and all the ministers have been working since the news broke and we want to assure you we will bring the killers of the president to justice,” he added. “Please stay calm and let the authorities do their work. We don’t want the country to plunge into chaos. This is a very sad day for our nation and for our people.”
The state of siege is the middle of three levels of emergency under Haitian law, alongside the lower “state of emergency” and the highest level referred to as the “state of war.”
Under the state of siege regime, national borders are closed and martial law temporarily is imposed, with Haiti’s military and national police empowered to enforce the law.
Moise, 53, was a former banana exporter and divisive figure in Haitian politics. He spent most of the past year waging a political war with the opposition over the terms of his presidency.
For now, it isn’t immediately clear who will replace him. Judge Jean Wilner Morin, President of the National Association of Haitian Judges, told CNN that the line of presidential succession in the country is now murky.
Haiti’s President of the Supreme Court would normally be next in line, but he recently died of Covid-19. For the acting Prime Minister Joseph to formally replace the President, he would have to be approved by Haiti’s parliament, said Morin. But without recent elections, the parliament is effectively defunct.
Throughout his presidency, Moise had repeatedly failed to hold elections at local and national levels, leaving much of the country’s governing infrastructure empty. A constitutional referendum is set to be held in September, alongside the presidential and legislative elections. Municipal and local elections have been scheduled for January 16, 2022, the official electoral calendar also showed.
Many in the country had disputed Moise’ right to continue serving in the presidency this year.
While the United States, United Nations and Organization of American States supported his claim to a fifth year in office, critics say he should have stepped down in February 7, 2021, citing a constitutional provision that starts the clock once a president is elected, rather than when he takes office.
Moise however claimed his five-year term should end in 2022 because he wasn’t sworn in until February 2017. His inauguration was delayed over allegations of voter fraud during the 2015 election, which led to a presidential runoff that was postponed twice over what authorities called threats and “security concerns.”
Nou Pap Dòmi, one of Haiti’s main opposition groups, has condemned the assassination. The group, which has previously been extremely critical of Moise and corruption in the country, said in a statement it was shocked by the news and called for unity and de-escalation.
“We cannot continue to count corpses on a daily basis … all of the victims of massacres and assassinations must find justice and those responsible for these acts must be brought to justice,” the group said.
Moise’s death takes place against a background of extreme violence in Haitian capital Port-au-Prince that has claimed the lives of many citizens and escalated notably in June.
Rival groups have battled with one another or the police for control of the streets, displacing tens of thousands of people and worsening the country’s humanitarian crisis. Infamous ex-police officer Jimmy Cherizier last week vowed before local media to carry out a “revolution” in the city.
Moise’s private residence is in Petion-Ville, in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince.
Meanwhile, the coronavirus pandemic has been worsening in Haiti in recent weeks. The country is one of only a handful across the world that have not yet started vaccinating against the virus.
Last month, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) warned that the response in the country must be scaled up dramatically to cope with sharply escalating cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
PAHO Director Dr. Carissa Etienne said it would step up efforts to help Haiti with the vaccination program. “I am hopeful that the arrival of vaccines in the country can start to turn the tide of the pandemic and bring some relief to the Haitian people during these very difficult times,” Etienne told reporters during the organization’s weekly briefing on Wednesday.
Haiti has reported more than 19,000 Covid-19 cases and 462 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally.
At the same time, the impoverished Caribbean nation is facing a dire economic situation. Its economy had been contracting even before the pandemic and shrunk further 3.8% in 2020, with about 60% of the population now living in poverty, according to the World Bank.
UNICEF, the United Nations’ children’s agency, said in May that severe acute childhood malnutrition is expected to more than double in Haiti this year as it deals with rising violence, Covid-19 and a lack of access to essential services.
Global figures condemn assassination
World leaders have denounced the attack, while expressing condolences and solidarity with the Haitian people.
The United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres condemned the assassination “in the strongest terms,” saying the “perpetrators of this crime must be brought to justice.”
In a statement released by the White House, US President Joe Biden said: “We are shocked and saddened to hear of the horrific assassination … and the attack on First Lady Martine Moïse of Haiti. We condemn this heinous act, and I am sending my sincere wishes for First Lady Moïse’s recovery.”
Speaking to reporters later, Biden said: “We need a lot more information – but it’s – it’s just – it’s been very worrisome about the state of Haiti,” he told reporters.
Chilean President Sebastian Piñera called “for unity and peace to strengthen democracy and find a way out of the serious crisis that Haiti is going through,” while Colombia’s President Ivan Duque condemned the “cowardly and barbaric” killing.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has called for calm, saying he was “shocked and saddened” at Moise’s death. And Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez tweeted a statement saying: “Spain strongly condemns the assassination of the President of Haiti … We call for the unity of the political forces to find a way out of the serious crisis that the country experiences.”
CNN’s Kiarinna Parisi, Mitchell McCluskey, Sharon Braithwaite, Claudia Rebaza, Jennifer Hansler, Emmet Lyons, Melissa Bell and Stephanie Halasz contributed reporting.