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Two dead after armed Haitian police fire at army headquarters in protest over work conditions

Protesting Haitian police officers shot up the army headquarters killing two servicemen and wounding a dozen more during a protest over pay.

Armed men, some in police uniform, take cover during clashes near the Presidential Palace, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, yesterday
Armed men, some in police uniform, take cover during clashes near the Presidential Palace, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, yesterday

The off-duty cops opened fire during a nearly two-hour running gun battle in clashes near the Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince yesterday.

Media reports said six people were wounded in the attack in the capital by who the Defense Ministry said were gunmen wearing masks.

Officers are demanding better working conditions and pay, with the violence prompting the government to cancel an upcoming carnival, the ministry said.

The clashes were the most violent since police, this time heavily armed, started protesting at the end of last year as the impoverished Caribbean island nation struggles with a prolonged economic and political crisis.

It was not immediately clear who fired the shots or the tear gas during the protest, which led to the suspension of Carnival, a multi-day music and dance festival that culminates in a colorful procession.

A boy tries to get out of the way as a man in a Haitian National Police uniform aims a gun during a shooting in Champ de Mars, Port-au-Prince
A boy tries to get out of the way as a man in a Haitian National Police uniform aims a gun during a shooting in Champ de Mars, Port-au-Prince
Off-duty police officers and their supporters exchanged fire for nearly two hours with members of the newly reconstituted Haitian army in front of the national palace
Off-duty police officers and their supporters exchanged fire for nearly two hours with members of the newly reconstituted Haitian army in front of the national palace
A man rolling a flaming tire during clashes in the Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti
A man rolling a flaming tire during clashes in the Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Some protesters wore cream and blue police uniforms and carried guns, but had their faces covered, when they marched from the upscale Delmas neighborhood toward the large Champ de Mars public square.

As the afternoon wore on, uniformed officers joined their colleagues in the street outside the palace, firing at the military base with semi-automatic pistols and rifles. Many wore masks along with their uniforms to hide their identities.

Other armed men spotted a drone that appeared to be taking images of the violence and followed it to the offices of Radio Caraibes, then began shooting at the broadcaster’s building. There were no immediate reports of casualties in the attack.

In a statement issued on Sunday evening, the government said it had observed ‘with concern and dismay that terror has reigned in certain arteries of the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area’.

In order to avoid a ‘bloodbath… it has been decided to cancel the carnival,’ which was scheduled to take place Tuesday, the statement said.

‘We are under siege. We are coming under fire with all kinds of weapons – assault rifles, Molotov cocktails, tear gas,’ General Jodel Lessage said earlier.

He said soldiers had returned fire but did not give an injury toll, nor could he say how many people were at the army headquarters, near the presidential palace, at the time of the attack.

The situation remained tense as night fell in the city.

Off-duty police officers run towards an armed clash with army soldiers during a protest over police pay and working conditions
Off-duty police officers run towards an armed clash with army soldiers during a protest over police pay and working conditions
Armed off-duty police officers protest over police pay and working conditions, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Sunday
Armed off-duty police officers protest over police pay and working conditions, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Sunday
Armed off-duty police officers take cover during and exchange of gunfire with army soldiers
Armed off-duty police officers take cover during and exchange of gunfire with army soldiers

A uniformed police officer in a black-and-white clown mask told reporters outside the palace that officers were demanding the reinstatement of their fired colleagues as well as a pay raise for all officers.

‘Until this is done we will not sit and talk,’ said the officer, who declined to provide his name. ‘The president has proven that he does not care about our demands.’

For months, Haitian police have been demanding better working conditions, in particular the right to form a union so as to ensure transparency in talks with the police hierarchy.

Last week, some officers took to the street, blocking them and setting fire to cars.

On Saturday, President Jovenel Moise announced measures designed to ease the crisis, including the creation of a compensation fund for families of police who die in the line of duty and a fund to provide officers with insurance.

Haiti has witnessed a spike in kidnappings for ransom since the beginning of the year and fighting between rival crime gangs, which regularly set up roadblocks on Haitian highways.

Police officers gesture for all sides to cease fire during a clash with army soldiers yesterday
Police officers gesture for all sides to cease fire during a clash with army soldiers yesterday
An off-duty police officer who was shot in the arm running during the protest over police pay and working conditions in Haiti on Sunday
An off-duty police officer who was shot in the arm running during the protest over police pay and working conditions in Haiti on Sunday
An armed hooded man running during clashes near the Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince
An armed hooded man running during clashes near the Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince

The destitute Caribbean country has also been gripped by a political crisis for more than a year as people demand the resignation of Moise.

Since coming to power in February 2017, Moise has faced the anger of an opposition movement that refuses to recognize his victory in an election widely seen as dubious. Moise is also accused of corruption.

The president said at a news conference on Saturday that he recognized the legitimacy of many police complaints and would increase some collateral benefits for officers, but police said on Sunday that the concessions were not enough.

The Haitian army had been disbanded in 1995 after the fall of a dictatorship that used soldiers to repress domestic opponents. Moise reformed the army in 2017, promising that the military would patrol Haiti’s borders, assist in natural disasters and avoid domestic affairs.

Moise has been ruling by decree since January, after the country failed to hold elections and the mandates of lower house deputies and most senators expired in October.

The political situation has cut Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, off from some international funding.

This has further hindered its ability to respond to the worsening economic crisis, including food shortages.

One in three Haitians, around 3.7 million people, needs urgent food assistance, up from 2.6 million people at the end of 2018.

Haiti ranks 111 out of 117 countries on the Global Hunger Index, near poor sub-Saharan African countries. AFP

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