Gang members siege neighborhood in Haiti

The gangs already control around 80% of Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti.

A four-day siege by gang members has left residents of a key neighbourhood in Haiti’s capital isolated and terrified, amid raging fires and gunfire.

On Thursday, Solino was engulfed in smoke and noise, as desperate residents pleaded for help on radio stations.

“We are dying today if the police don’t come!” said one anonymous caller.

According to Pierre Esperance, from Human Rights Network RNDDH, the neighbourhood has seen around 24 deaths since the weekend.

He said that the police and the public security forces were nowhere to be seen, and that people in other areas had blocked the streets to show solidarity with Solino.

Lita Saintil, a street vendor aged 52, said she had witnessed at least six corpses on the streets as she escaped Solino on Thursday with her nephew, who is a teenager.

She said that gangs had set fire to the houses around hers, and that she had been stuck in her home for hours due to the continuous shooting.

“I’m very afraid now,” she said. “I don’t know where to go.”

The attackers’ identity was still unknown. The neighbourhood, which has a population of thousands, was once overrun by gangs until a UN peacekeeping mission expelled them in the mid-2000s.

But this attack could signal a turning point for the gangs, which are believed to control up to 80% of Port-au-Prince and to have killed almost 4,000 people and abducted another 3,000 last year, overwhelming the police in the country of nearly 12 million people.

If Solino is taken over by the gangs, they would have easy access to areas such as Canapé Vert, which have remained relatively safe and calm.

“Port-au-Prince has become extremely chaotic,” Saintil said. “I never imagined Port-au-Prince would end up like this.”

On Thursday night, Haiti’s national police issued a statement saying that they had sent officers to Solino “with the objective of locating and arresting armed individuals who want to create panic among the civilian population”. They also released a video of almost three minutes, showing partly how the officers on a rooftop in Solino exchanged fire with unidentified gunmen.

On Thursday, neighbouring communities started to build barricades using rocks, trucks, tyres and even banana trees to stop the gangs from entering.

One man near a barricade in Canapé Vert said he had been following the protests that were organized earlier this week by supporters of former rebel leader Guy Philippe, who has promised a revolution to get rid of the gangs.

“It’s more suffering,” the man, who did not want to reveal his name, said about Haiti’s crisis. “We are in pain. The country is ruled by gangsters.”

As the violence in Solino threatened to spread to other areas, parents hurried to schools across Port-au-Prince to collect their children.

“I don’t know if we can make it back home,” said one mother who did not want to give her name out of fear. “There is no public transport, and there are burning tyres everywhere. We don’t know what to do.”

Haiti is waiting for the arrival of a foreign armed force led by Kenya to help stop the gang violence that was approved by the UN security council in October.

A judge in Kenya is expected to make a decision on 26 January about an order that is currently preventing the deployment.

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