PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Criminal violence in Haiti worsened this week. with fighting among gangs in part of the capital chasing thousands from their homes and killing at least 20 people, including children.
Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency said the fighting began Sunday in four neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince, north of the international airport. At least a dozen homes were burned downand many of those who fled initially took shelter in the yard of a local mayor’s office.
The eruption comes amid a spike in violence and kidnappings as gangs grow more powerful and seek to control more territory amid the power vacuum following the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse.
The situation has angered and frustrated Haitians, who are demanding action from Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s administration, which is receiving international help to boost an underfunded and understaffed police force.
A family of eight, including six children, was among those killed since Sunday, authorities said Wednesday. Schools and businesses in the area remain closed as thousands of families with children are camping in a park near a local mayor’s office.
“They need water, food, supplies,” said Jean Raymond Dorcely, who runs a small grassroots community organization. “They had to leave with nothing in their hands.”
He said that the neighborhood is usually quiet and that his child often plays in the park now turned into a makeshift outdoor shelter.
“I can see kids crying because they’re hungry and families don’t have anything to provide to them,” he said, adding that needs were growing as the fighting continued. “I don’t know what it’s going to be like tomorrow.”
Authorities said that along with the dead, two dozen people had been injured in the violence, and that one bullet hit an empty United Nations Humanitarian Air Service helicopter stationed near the airport.
“The conflict is likely to escalate in the coming days, leading to further casualties and new population migrations,” the Civil Protection Agency said.
Officials warned that main roads leading to Haiti’s northern region could be cut off as a result of the fighting.
Gang violence in the Martissant community in southern Port-au-Prince already has cut off access to the country’s southern region, which is trying to recover from last year’s deadly earthquake.
The Martissant violence displaced thousands of families last year that have spent months in overcrowded, unhygienic government shelters in Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. It wasn’t immediately clear where the newly displaced families would be staying.
The Civil Protection Agency blamed this week’s violence on a fight between the Chen Mechan gang and the rival 400 Mawozo gang. which was involved in the kidnapping of 17 U.S. missionaries last year.
Haiti’s ombudsman-like Citizen Protection Office released a statement condemning the violence. It criticized political leaders, saying their inaction and silence has brought “a form of cynicism or contempt for human rights, particular the right to life and security.”
The office also questioned whether the area known as Plaine du Cul de Sac was becoming another Martissant and called on authorities to assume their responsibility to protect citizens.
Associated Press writer Dánica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report.