US, Germany and EU embassies begin evacuating staff as violence spirals in gang-plagued Haiti

ByCaitlin Stephen Hu, Collin McCullough and Helen Regan, CNN, CNNWire
Monday, March 11, 2024
US beefs up security at embassy in gang-plagued Haiti
The US State Department arranged for the evacuation overnight due to heightened gang violence.

Dajabon, Dominican Republic -- The United States and other diplomatic missions have begun evacuating personnel from Haiti, as gang violence in the Caribbean nation's capital Port-au-Prince continues to spiral.

One evacuation operation carrying staffers from the German and European missions was forced to turn down requests to help evacuate others on Sunday, a source involved told CNN, as some in the diplomatic community in Port-au-Prince worry about where gang attacks could turn next.

The US military said on Sunday it conducted an operation to airlift non-essential personnel from the US embassy and to bolster the security of its mission in the capital. Port-au-Prince has seen a wave of highly coordinated gang attacks on law enforcement and state institutions that threatens to topple the government and which has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.

The US State Department arranged for the evacuation overnight due to "heightened gang violence in the neighborhood near US embassy compounds and near the airport," the embassy said in a post on X early Sunday.

US Southern Command said the move was consistent with "standard practice for Embassy security augmentation worldwide." No Haitians were on board the military aircraft, it added.

"Our Embassy remains focused on advancing US government efforts to support the Haitian people," US Southern Command said in a statement Sunday, adding that the evacuation helps to "allow our Embassy mission operations to continue."

President Joe Biden approved the operation, according to a National Security Council spokesperson, and remains "deeply concerned" about the situation.

Helicopter evacuation

The German and European Union missions in Port-au-Prince have also evacuated diplomatic staff, including their ambassadors, according to two sources with knowledge of the situation. CNN has reached out to both for comment.

Among the passengers onboard an evacuation flight Sunday was German ambassador Peter Sauer and European Union ambassador Stefano Gatto in an operation led by the EU that took several days of intensive planning and coordination on both sides of the Dominican-Haitian border, according to the source, who was involved in the operation.

Haiti's international airport is closed due to the insecurity and its main container port terminal, run by Caribbean Port Services, was attacked and looted on March 8.

The Dominican Republic's airspace is closed to Haiti, however Dominican authorities made a rare exception to allow a small commercial helicopter to cross from their territory into Port-au-Prince and back, making at least two swift trips in a row, the source said.

The trip made use of a dirt landing strip at a military base on the Dominican side of the border, rather than helipads further away in Santo Domingo, in order to be as fast as possible, they said.

As others seeking to leave Haiti caught wind of the plan, the trip's organizers had to turn down a number of requests to join the flights due to the small size of the aircraft. In total around a dozen people were moved out of Haiti, the source said.

The decision to leave was motivated by the escalation of violence seen in Port-au-Prince in recent days, with the source saying credible intelligence had emerged suggesting gangs - which have so far been attacking Haitian government institutions and police - might move toward Petionville, a hilly well-to-do area where several luxury hotels and embassies are located.

The escape of several thousand prisoners from Haiti's National Penitentiary - which prompted the Haitian government to declare a state of emergency last Sunday - was also a factor, they said.

The source emphasized that many diplomatic missions in Port-au-Prince do not have the kind of defensive military muscle that the US embassy boasts.

In addition to the possibility of danger, working amid the current chaos had become untenable, with shops running out of food and only intermittent electricity and communications, the source added.

Another source with knowledge of the operations told CNN there have been at least 12 helicopter evacuation flights into Port-au-Prince over the past three days, all evacuating diplomatic and humanitarian staff. Those flights were commercial charter, not military.

On Saturday, at least one flight was carrying US, Canadian and French nationals.

However, shots fired nearby after the last flight's take off on Sunday have called into question the viability of continuing the evacuation flights, the source said.

A statement from the EU delegation in Haiti on Sunday said it has temporarily closed its offices and reduced its presence in the country. "We will return as soon as security conditions permit," the statement said.

Gang leader's threats

Haitian gang leader Jimmy Cherizier has said he will continue in his effort to try to oust Prime Minister Ariel Henry, warning of "a civil war that will end in genocide" if the prime minister does not step down.

Cherizier, a former police officer who heads an alliance of gangs, has faced sanctions from both the United Nations and the US Department of Treasury.

The chaos has forced tens of thousands to flee their homes in the past few days, adding to the more than 300,000 already displaced by gang violence.

It is also affecting the distribution of essential supplies by aid organizations. The World Food Programme suspended its maritime transport services in Port-au-Prince from distributing aid across Haiti due to the instability.

The country's health care system is "near collapse," and many medical centers have been forced to reduce their operations due to violence and lack of personnel and medicine, according to Stephane Dujarric, spokesperson for UN Secretary-General and OCHA. Doctors in Haiti are desperate for help amid a lack of oxygen and a shortage of water.

Public frustration, which had been building against Henry over his inability to curb the unrest, boiled over after he failed to step down last month, citing the escalating violence.

The prime minister has had difficulty returning to the country since leaving for Kenya two weeks ago to sign an agreement for a Kenyan-led multinational mission to restore security back home.

He is now believed to be in Puerto Rico, two sources with knowledge of Henry's movements in the Caribbean island told CNN, after the Dominican Republic refused to let his flight land.

CARICOM (the Caribbean Community and Common Market), a regional bloc of 25 countries that works on economic integration, security and social development, is to hold a meeting on Haiti in the Jamaican capital of Kingston on Monday, according to the UN.

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