A squad of gunmen assassinated Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and wounded his wife in an overnight raid on their home Wednesday, inflicting growing chaos in a country already enduring gang violence and political protests. Police said they killed four suspects and arrested two others hours later.
Three police officers held hostage by the suspected gunmen were freed late Wednesday, said Léon Charles, chief of Haiti's National Police.
Many details about the attack remain unclear. Haiti's Embassy in Washington, D.C., released a statement on behalf of the government Wednesday morning, saying Moïse had been killed in a "well-coordinated attack by a highly trained and heavily armed group."
Interim Prime Minister Claude Joseph, who confirmed the killing, said the police and military were in control of security in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas where a history of dictatorship and political upheaval have long stymied the consolidation of democratic rule.
"An unidentified group of individuals, some of whom were speaking in Spanish, attacked the private residence of the President of the Republic and mortally wounded him," Joseph said in a statement. "The First Lady was wounded by a bullet and the necessary measures are being taken."
Despite Joseph's assurances that order would prevail, there was confusion about who should take control and widespread anxiety among Haitians. Authorities declared a "state of siege" in the country and closed the international airport.
The normally bustling streets of the capital, Port-au-Prince, were empty and quiet Wednesday. Sporadic gunshots were heard in the distance, public transportation was scarce, and some people searched for businesses that were open for food and water. Businesses had been ransacked in one area earlier.
Bocchit Edmond, the Haitian ambassador to the U.S., said the attack on the 53-year-old Moïse was carried out by "well-trained professional commandos" and "foreign mercenaries" who were masquerading as agents of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. The DEA has an office in the Haitian capital to assist the government in counter-narcotics programs, according to the U.S. Embassy.
The assassination will only further complicate the situation for a country that was already grappling with a deteriorating economic and political crisis, CBS News' Pamela Falk reported.remain high in Haiti, where few have been vaccinated against the disease. Food and fuel prices are high thanks to inflation, and more than half of the population lives in poverty.
Haiti appeared to be heading for fresh volatility ahead of general elections later this year. Moïse had been ruling by decree for more than a year after failing to hold elections, and the opposition demanded he step down in recent months, saying he was leading it toward yet another grim period of authoritarianism.
The main opposition parties said they were greatly dismayed about the killing.
"In this painful circumstance, the political forces of the opposition condemn with utmost rigor this heinous crime that is at odds with democratic principles," their statement said.
Joseph is likely to lead Haiti for now, though that could change in a nation where constitutional provisions have been erratically observed, said Alex Dupuy, a Haiti-born sociologist who teaches at Wesleyan University in the United States.
Joseph condemned the president's killing as a "hateful, inhumane and barbaric act."
"The country's security situation is under the control of the National Police of Haiti and the Armed Forces of Haiti," Joseph said in a statement from his office. "Democracy and the republic will win."
U.S. President Joe Biden said he was "shocked and saddened to hear of the horrific assassination," and condemned "this heinous act." The U.S. Embassy in Haiti said it was restricting U.S. staff to its compounds and that the embassy would be closed Wednesday.
A resident who lives near the president's home said she heard the attack.
"I thought there was an earthquake, there was so much shooting," said the woman who spoke on condition of anonymity because she fears for her life. "The president had problems with many people, but this is not how we expected him to die. This is something I wouldn't wish on any Haitian."
It's too early to know exactly what will happen next, said Jonathan Katz, who previously covered Haiti for The Associated Press. Katz noted that a majority of Haitian presidents have been forced out of office, although it's been more than a century since a sitting one was killed.
Moïse was killed a day after he nominated Ariel Henry, a neurosurgeon, as Haiti's new prime minister. Joseph took over the job of interim prime minister in April following the resignation of the previous premier, Joseph Jouthe — the latest in a revolving door of prime ministers.
In recent months, opposition leaders demanded that Moïse step down, arguing that his term legally ended in February 2021. Moïse and supporters maintained that his term began when he took office in early 2017, following a chaotic election that forced the appointment of a provisional president to serve during a year-long gap.
Moïse had been ruling by decree for more than a year after the country failed to hold elections, which led to Parliament being dissolved. Opposition leaders have accused him of seeking to increase his power, including approving a decree that limited the powers of a court that audits government contracts and another that created an intelligence agency that answers only to the president.
Haiti was scheduled to hold general elections later this year.
Fin Gomez contributed to this report.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct that Moïse ruled by decree for more than a year.