PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti welcomed the new year with violence as Prime Minister Ariel Henry fled the northern city of Gonaïves following a shootout between his security forces and an armed group that had warned the leader not to set foot in the city.
Local media reported that one person died and two were injured in the gunfire that forced Henry and others to duck and seek shelter as they walked out of a cathedral Saturday after attending a mass to celebrate Haiti’s independence from France.
The prime minister’s office, when reached by The Associated Press, said Monday that “bandits and terrorists” made an attempt on Henry’s life and accused the group of hiding behind walls to attack the convoy and of threatening the bishop by surrounding the church.
“That is intolerable,” the office said, adding that it has issued arrest warrants.
A spokesperson for Haiti’s National Police told the AP on Monday that police had secured the area.
The incident is a fresh blow to Henry’s fragile interim regime that is struggling with deepening poverty and a surge in gang violence as he seeks to create a coalition to help run the country after the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, with general elections scheduled for mid-2022.
Henry referred to the incident in a tweet by thanking the bishop of Gonaïves for having held the mass “despite the tense situation that was prevailing in the city.”
The streets of Gonaïves were largely empty and so was its cathedral, Saint-Charles-de-Boromé, for the traditional independence day celebrations. Henry was unable to deliver his speech as planned after gunfire forced him out of the city. In 2020, Moïse skipped the trip to Gonaïves amid threats of violent protests.
In a statement in Haitian Creole shared Sunday on Twitter, Henry said, “Today, our enemies, the enemies of the Haitian people, are the terrorists who do not hesitate to use violence to kill people with all their might, or to kidnap, take away their freedom, to rape them. And do everything for money.”
Henry has pledged to crack down on gangs that authorities have blamed for a spike in kidnappings and for blocking gas distribution terminals in a move that caused a severe fuel shortage in recent months and prompted the U.S. and Canada to urge its citizens to leave Haiti.