PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Efforts to win the return of 17 members of a U.S.-based missionary group and a local driver stretched into a fourth day Wednesday, with a violent gang demanding $1 million ransom per person.
The group seized includes five children aged from 8 months to 15 years, although authorities were not clear whether the ransom demand included them, a top Haitian official said Tuesday. Sixteen of the abductees are Americans and one Canadian.
The Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries said it would hold a day of fasting and prayer for its missionaries Thursday.
“We, along with government authorities, continue to work hard to bring them home safely,” the group said. “This time of difficulty reminds us of the ongoing suffering of millions of Haitians. While our workers chose to serve in Haiti, our Haitian friends endure crisis after crisis, continual violence, and economic hardship.”
The FBI and other U.S. agencies were “part of a coordinated U.S. government effort” to free the missionaries, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday, though officials from Haiti, the U.S. and the church group involved were silent about sensitive details.
A wave of kidnappings has added to the other miseries besetting the Caribbean nation. At least 119 people were kidnapped in Haiti for the first half of October, according to the Center of Analysis and Research of Human Rights, a local nonprofit group.
It said that in addition to the 17 members of the missionary group, a Haitian driver was abducted along with them, bringing the total to 18.
The Haitian official, who was not authorized to speak to the press, told The Associated Press that someone from the 400 Mawozo gang made the ransom demand Saturday in a call to a leader of the Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries shortly after the abduction.
“This group of workers has been committed to minister throughout poverty-stricken Haiti,” the Ohio group said Tuesday, adding that the missionaries worked most recently on a project to help rebuild homes lost in a magnitude 7.2 earthquake that struck southwestern Haiti on Aug. 14.
The group was returning from visiting an orphanage when it was abducted, the organization said.
The rash of kidnappings led to a strike Monday that shuttered businesses, schools and public transportation — a new blow to Haiti’s anemic economy.
Life was largely back to normal on Wednesday, but unions and other groups vowed to organize another strike next week, and sporadic protests erupted Wednesday in Port-au-Prince over the lack of fuel, with gangs blamed for blocking gas distribution terminals.
Dozens of moto taxi drivers zoomed around one Delmas neighborhood, setting barricades of tires on fire and throwing rocks across roads to block them.
“We want gas for work! If we don't find gas, we’re going to shut down the country completely!” they yelled. “(Prime Minister) Ariel Henry, if he cannot run the country, he must go!”
Similar protests erupted the day before.
In a more peaceful demonstration Tuesday north of Port-au-Prince, dozens of people walked through the streets of Titanyen demanding the release of the missionaries. Some carried signs that read “Free the Americans” and “No to Kidnapping!” and explained that the missionaries helped pay bills and build roads and schools.
“They do a lot for us,” said Beatrice Jean.
One protest took place near the prime minister’s residence, where police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd demanding fuel.
The kidnapping was the largest of its kind reported in recent years. Haitian gangs have grown more brazen as the country tries to recover from the July 7 assassination of President Jovenel Moïse and the earthquake that killed more than 2,200 people.
Christian Aid Ministries said the kidnapped group included six women, six men and five children. A sign on the door at the organization’s headquarters in Berlin, Ohio, said it was closed due to the kidnapping situation.
News of the kidnappings spread swiftly in and around Holmes County, Ohio, hub of one of the largest populations of Amish and conservative Mennonites in the United States, said Marcus Yoder, executive director of the Amish & Mennonite Heritage Center in nearby Millersburg, Ohio.
Christian Aid Ministries, is supported by conservative Mennonite, Amish and related groups that are part of the Anabaptist tradition.
The organization was founded in the early 1980s and began working in Haiti later that decade, said Steven Nolt, professor of history and Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania. The group has year-round mission staff in Haiti and several countries, he said, and it ships religious, school and medical supplies throughout the world.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Associated Press journalists Matías Delacroix in Port-au-Prince, Matthew Lee in Washington, Pete Smith in Pittsburgh, John Seewer in Toledo, Ohio, and Julie Carr Smyth in Berlin, Ohio, contributed to this report.