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Remaining U.S., Canadian missionaries kidnapped in Haiti are released

The Christian Aid Ministries base in Titanyen, north of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Joseph Odelyn/AP)
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The remaining members of a U.S.-based Christian missionary group who were kidnapped in Haiti in October have been released, authorities said.

The 17 hostages, who included 16 Americans and one Canadian, were seized by the notorious street gang 400 Mawozo outside Port-au-Prince on Oct. 16 as they were returning from a visit to an orphanage some 90 minutes from their base — an abduction that drew international attention to a surge in kidnappings in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.

The group from Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries included women and five children, one of whom was 8 months old at the time. Two of the hostages were released in November, and three more were released this month.

Haitian national police spokesman Gary Desrosiers confirmed the release of the 12 remaining captives. Haitian media reported that they were released in Morne à Cabrit, a remote neighborhood on the outskirts of the capital. Human rights groups said the whereabouts of the group’s Haitian driver, who was also believed to have been kidnapped, were unknown.

Christian Aid Ministries thanked supporters for their “fervent prayers” over the past two months and said they would provide more information “as we are able.” The group has provided few details about the identities of the hostages or their conditions.

“We glorify God for answered prayer — the remaining twelve hostages are FREE,” Christian Aid Ministries said in a statement. “Join us in praising God that all 17 of our loved ones are now safe.”

400 Mawozo had demanded $1 million for the return of each victim; its leader had threatened to “put a bullet” in them if the demand wasn’t met. It’s unclear whether a ransom was paid for any of the hostages. The U.S. and Canadian governments have said that they typically do not pay ransoms.

Officials from the State Department and the FBI have been on the ground in Haiti to help secure the release of the hostages — a task State Department spokesman Ned Price told reporters this month the government was pursuing “with the utmost priority.”

“We welcome reports that they are free and getting the care that they need after their ordeal,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the principal deputy White House press secretary, told reporters on Thursday. “The U.S. government has been working tirelessly over the past two months to get them released.”

Canadian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jason Kung said officials were “aware of reports” that the hostages were released and that “consular officials stand ready to provide consular assistance to the Canadian involved.” He declined to provide further information, citing “privacy considerations.”

Pierre Espérance, director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network, said the 17 hostages were split up and held in at least four separate locations, complicating efforts to negotiate for their release.

“400 Mawozo is a very well-organized gang,” Espérance said. He said that they rarely hold hostages for longer than a month. “One of the reasons they didn’t release them is because it was a huge group and … they want money.”

Haiti has been seized by a terrifying wave of mass abductions by the armed gangs that have tightened their grip on the beleaguered Caribbean nation. The gangs have targeted Haitians of all ages and all walks of life, including doctors, busloads of passengers and even police, holding them for ransom.

They’ve hijacked fuel trucks and taken their drivers hostage, causing fuel shortages that have affected hospitals and triggered nationwide strikes that have paralyzed the country. When a 7.2-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti in August, gangs temporarily blocked aid convoys from reaching victims.

Police, including some who analysts say have been co-opted by the gangs, have struggled to respond as gangs have grown more powerful and gained control of more territory. Haiti now has the world’s highest kidnapping rate per capita. U.S. and Canadian officials have urged their nationals to leave the country.

Homegrown film on Haiti’s challenges stirs national pride

400 Mawozo, whose name loosely translates to “400 simpletons” in Haitian Creole, controls parts of Ganthier, the town east of Port-au-Prince where the missionaries were seized. The gang has grown notorious for raping victims and targeting religious groups and members of the clergy, who were long considered off-limits. In recent months, it has engaged in mass kidnappings of buses and cars. In April, it kidnapped several priests and nuns, including some French nationals, prompting Catholic schools and universities to close in protest.

The release of the hostages is one piece of bright news in an otherwise difficult year for Haiti, which has been slammed by a convergence of calamities. In July, President Jovenel Moïse was assassinated in a brazen attack at his home that remains unsolved, plunging the nation into turmoil. The earthquake in southern Haiti the next month killed more than 2,200 people. On Monday, a tanker truck carrying gasoline overturned and exploded in the country’s second-largest city, killing at least 73 people and injuring scores more.

The kidnapped missionaries were from Amish, Anabaptist and Mennonite communities in Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Ontario.

“Today is the day we have been hoping for, praying for and working so hard to achieve,” Rep. Bill Huizenga (R-Mich.) tweeted. “This is a great day for families in Michigan and across the nation who have been worried about the safety of their loved ones.”

The Biden administration’s policy on Haiti has drawn criticism. Daniel Foote, who resigned as U.S. special envoy to Haiti in September, told a House panel that the administration’s decision to support interim prime minister Ariel Henry after Moïse’s assassination was one of the “root causes” of instability in the country.

The State Department said Thursday it would convene a meeting with international partners Friday “to address the security, political and economic challenges in Haiti” and seek commitments to prevent worsening insecurity and economic malaise.

Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.

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