By Andre Paultre
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) — Haitian president Jovenel Moïse was shot dead by unidentified attackers in his private residence overnight in a "barbaric act," the government said on Wednesday, stirring fears of escalating turmoil in the impoverished Caribbean nation.
The assassination, which drew condemnation from Washington and neighboring Latin American countries, coincided with a spate of gang violence in Port-au-Prince in recent months fueled by a growing humanitarian crisis and political unrest. The disorder has turned many districts of the capital into no-go zones.
Interim prime minister Claude Joseph said in televised remarks after chairing a cabinet meeting that the government had declared a state of emergency amid confusion over who would take over the reins of the country. "My compatriots, remain calm because the situation is under control," he said.
The 53-year-old president's wife, Martine Moïse, was also shot in the attack at around 1 a.m. local time (0500 GMT) at the couple's home in the hills above Port-au-Prince, Joseph said in a statement. She was receiving medical treatment.
"A group of unidentified individuals, some of them speaking Spanish, attacked the private residence of the president of the republic and thus fatally wounded the head of state," he said.
Joseph said the police and army had the security situation under control. The streets of the usually bustling capital of one million people were quiet and empty on Wednesday morning after the attack and intermittent gunfire overnight.
"All measures are being taken to guarantee the continuity of the state and to protect the nation," Joseph said.
But with Haiti politically polarized and facing growing hunger, fears of a breakdown in order are spreading. The Dominican Republic said it was closing the border it shares with Haiti on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola.
"This crime is an attack against the democratic order of Haiti and the region," Dominican Republic president Luis Abinader said.
Leaders worldwide condemned the attack and appealed for calm. The United States described it as a "horrific crime," while Colombian president Iván Duque called upon the Organization of American States to dispatch a mission to Haiti to "guarantee democratic order."
It was unclear who would succeed Moïse as president. He had appointed a new prime minister this week who has yet to be sworn in. The head of the Supreme Court of Justice—another contender for the job, according to the constitution—died last month of COVID-19 and has yet to be replaced.
Haiti, a country of about 11 million people and the poorest in the western hemisphere, has struggled to achieve stability since the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship in 1986 and has grappled with a series of coups and foreign interventions.
A U.N. peacekeeping mission—meant to restore order after a rebellion toppled then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004—ended in 2019 with the country still in disarray. In recent years, Haiti has been buffeted by a series of natural disasters and still bears the scars of a major earthquake in 2010.
Moïse, a banana exporter-turned-politician, faced fierce protests after taking office as president in 2017. This year, opposition leaders accused him of seeking to install a dictatorship by overstaying his mandate and becoming more authoritarian. He denied those accusations.
Moïse had ruled by decree for more than a year after the country failed to hold legislative elections, and he sought to push through a controversial constitutional reform.
The U.S. Embassy said in a statement it would be closed on Wednesday due to the "ongoing security situation."
The United States is assessing the "tragic attack," and President Joe Biden was to be briefed on the assassination, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said in Washington.
"We stand ready and stand by them to provide any assistance that's needed," she said. "Of course our embassy and State Department will be in close touch but it's a tragedy. We stand with them and it's important that people of Haiti know that."
The United States, Haiti's top aid donor, had on June 30 condemned what it described as a systematic violation of human rights, fundamental freedoms, and attacks on the press in Haiti. The Biden administration urged the Haitian government to counter a proliferation of gangs and violence.
(Reporting by Andre Paultre in Port-au-Prince, with additional reporting by Ezequiel Abiu Lopez in Santo Domingo, Susan Heavey, and Doina Chiacu in Washington. Writing by Sarah Marsh. Editing by Daniel Flynn and Mark Heinrich)