France activates crisis center after clergy kidnapped in Haiti

Port-au-Prince (AFP) –


France has activated its foreign ministry crisis center after seven Catholic clergy, five of them Haitian and two French, were abducted in the restive island nation of Haiti, the ministry said Monday after the kidnappers demanded a million dollar ransom.

The Quai d'Orsay's "crisis and support center... as well as our embassy in Haiti are fully mobilized in close relationship with local authorities," it said, without giving further details "for reasons of efficiency and security."

The statement came as the French Bishops' Conference and other French clergy expressed "their deep concern" and urged "the kidnappers to free the men and women of peace they have kidnapped and not to add more hatred where there is already poverty and insecurity."

The five priests and two nuns were abducted on Sunday morning in Croix-des-Bouquets, a town northeast of the capital Port-au-Prince, while they were "on their way to the installation of a new parish priest," Father Loudger Mazile, the spokesman of the Bishop's Conference for the island nation, told AFP.

The kidnappers had demanded a $1 million ransom for the group, which includes one French priest and one French nun, he added.

The Haitian Conference of Religious (CHR) said in a statement three other people had also been kidnapped at same time.

Authorities suspect an armed gang called "400 Mawozo" -- which is active in kidnappings -- is behind the abduction, according to a police source.

The French embassy in Haiti did not respond to AFP's request for comment.

Kidnappings for ransom have surged in recent months in Port-au-Prince and other provinces, reflecting the growing influence of armed gangs in the Caribbean nation.

- Gangs on the rise -

"The CHR expresses its deep sorrow, but also its anger at the subhuman situation through which we have been wading for more than a decade," the religious group said in its statement.

"Not a day goes by without weeping and gnashing of teeth, yet the so-called leaders of this country, while clinging to power, are increasingly powerless."

"This is too much. The time has come for these inhuman acts to stop," said Bishop Pierre-Andre Dumas of Miragoane in southwestern Haiti. "The Church prays and stands in solidarity with all the victims of this heinous act," he added.

In March, the Haitian government declared a month-long state of emergency to restore state authority in gang-controlled areas, including in the capital.

The measure was motivated by the actions of armed gangs who "kidnap people for ransom, openly declaring it, steal and loot public and private property, and openly confront the public security forces," according to the presidential decree.

The rise in gang violence and political instability have recently drawn protesters onto the streets of Port-au-Prince.

A week ago, hundreds of female protesters rallied in the city against the growing power of gangs, which has led to a spike in kidnappings for ransom.

Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, has also been in a months-long political crisis.

President Jovenel Moise maintains that his term of office runs until February 7, 2022, but others claim it ended on February 7, 2021.

The disagreement stems from the fact that Moise was elected in a vote that was cancelled for fraud, and then re-elected a year later.

Without a parliament, the country fell further into crisis in 2020, and Moise is governing by decree, fuelling growing mistrust of him.

Amid the instability, Moise has said he plans to hold a constitutional referendum in June.