Three more Christian missionaries who have been held hostage in Haiti for more than seven weeks have been released, Christian Aid Ministries said Monday.
The group, released Sunday evening, were among 17 U.S. and Canadian missionaries who were kidnapped in Haiti on Oct. 16. Two other hostages, an American husband and wife, were freed on Nov. 22 due to illness without a ransom being paid, a source told the Miami Herald at the time.
“Those who were released are safe and seem to be in good spirits,” the organization said in a statement. “As with the previous release, we are not able to provide the names of the people released, the circumstances of the release, or any other details.”
Haiti National Police Spokesman Garry Desrosiers confirmed the latest release but told the Herald he had no details of the circumstances. A dozen other missionaries and their relatives remain in captivity.
All 17 were abducted at gunpoint by the gang 400 Mawozo in Ganthier, a rural community in Croix-des-Bouquets, a sprawling suburb east of Port-au-Prince. They were kidnapped while on their way back from visiting an orphanage sponsored by Christian Aid Ministries, based in Ohio.
“Our staff valued opportunities like this to visit Haitian homes, clinics, schools and orphanages that we help to support,” the charity said in a statement ahead of the latest release. “Little did they know that, on this beautiful day, they would begin a difficult journey of being held hostage by a Haitian gang.”
The 400 Mawozo gang, known for its brazen kidnappings and for targeting religious groups, demanded $17 million — $1 million a hostage. One of its leaders, Wilson Joseph, threatened to “put a bullet” in the heads of the hostages if the ransom was not paid.
Among those kidnapped were five children, including an 8-month-old baby. After marking their 41st day in captivity on Thanksgiving Day, Christian Aid Ministries said in a statement: “We long for the day the remaining 15 hostages will be released, if God so wills. Until then, we commit ourselves to “rejoicing in hope,” and to being “patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer” (Romans 12:12).”
The missionaries were the longest-held publicly known hostages in the country. The last person in a group of Catholic clergy abducted by the same gang in April was freed after 21 days.
As the U.S. missionaries marked 46th days in captivity, Brian Nichols, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that the matter was “one of deep concern” and that the U.S. embassy and the country team were working with the Haitian national police for a resolution.
Nichols said there had been 41 cases of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents kidnapped for ransom in Haiti this year and the issue of for-ransom abductions in Haiti “is a grave one.”
He said he was personally involved in the case of the remaining hostages and was in contact with the embassy in Port-au-Prince everyday.
Haiti is seeing unprecedented levels of violence and for-ransom kidnappings by armed gangs that have forced more than 19,000 Haitians to leave their homes since June. Gangs have also hijacked fuel trucks, which led both the U.S. and Canada to warn their citizens “to strongly” consider leaving Haiti amid the deteriorating security climate.
Though insecurity in Haiti has been a concern for several years now, it has gotten worse in the wake of the July 7 assassination of the country’s president, Jovenel Moïse, and the deepening political turmoil that has ensued.
From January to October, at least 803 people have been abducted — including 54 foreigners — according to the Port-au-Prince-based Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, which monitors kidnappings. It noted that collective abductions account for less than 10% of the cases.
The 400 Mawozo gang is known for grabbing individuals by the busloads and demanding ransom. The gang also controls one of the largest territories in the country, along a well-traveled road connecting Port-au-Prince to the border with the Dominican Republic and the central region of the country.
FBI agents flew to Haiti the day after the kidnapping of the missionaries. They were later joined by other other agents, who were unable to get hostages freed until now.