17 US missionaries kidnapped in Haiti, religious group says

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A group of U.S. missionaries and their family members was kidnapped in Haiti on Saturday as they were leaving an orphanage, according to Haitian officials.

The group of up to 17 people were abducted by gang members while on a bus headed to the airport, The New York Times reported, citing local officials.

A voice message sent to multiple religious missions by an organization with direct knowledge of the incident said the missionaries were on their way home from building an orphanage, according to a message from Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries.

“This is a special prayer alert,” the one-minute message said. “Pray that the gang members … come to repentance.”

The message, obtained by the Associated Press, says the mission’s field director is working with the U.S. Embassy. The field director’s family and one other unidentified man stayed at the ministry’s base while everyone else visited the orphanage, which the group had built.

Few details were immediately available.

A U.S. State Department spokesperson said officials were aware of reports on the kidnapping.

“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State,” the spokesperson said, declining further comment.

The kidnapping of the missionaries comes just days after an entourage of U.S. officials led by Uzra Zeya, U.S. under secretary of state for civilian security, democracy, and human rights, held talks with leading Haiti's police chief and other top Haitian officials.

The U.S. pledged $15 million to help reduce gang violence.

“The U.S. supports inclusive, Haitian-led solutions to Haitian challenges,” Zeya tweeted last week. “I was heartened to meet w/ Haitian civil society leaders and learn about their vision for their nation’s future. We’re listening to Haitian voices, & civil society is essential for every nation to thrive.”

Haiti, by most markers, is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. Political instability has heightened in recent months with the assassination of President Jovenel Moïse in July. In August, a 7.2-magnitude earthquake killed more than 2,200 people and destroyed more than 130,000 homes, along with roads and other infrastructure, according to the United Nations. Days later Tropical Storm Grace rolled across the country, dumping up to 10 inches of rain and causing widespread flooding.

His successor, Prime Minister Ariel Henry, has become embroiled in the investigation into Moïse's murder. And Henry's government is struggling to meet the needs of disaster victims.

Kidnappings have been on the rise, with gangs demanding ransoms that in some cases exceed $1 million, according to authorities.

Haitians trying to flee the battered country have found a mixed reaction from President Joe Biden's administration, which has struggled to respond to the arrival of thousands of Haitian migrants at the U.S. southern border. White House officials have warned Haitians not to try to come to the U.S. illegally. And Biden's advisers have relied on a Trump administration policy, adopted during the pandemic, to send Haitians back to their country without allowing them to make an asylum claim.

The U.S. special envoy for Haiti, Daniel Foote, resigned his post last month over what he called the Biden administration's “inhumane” decision to repatriate thousands of Haitian migrants seeking asylum in the U.S.

At least 328 kidnapping victims were reported to Haiti’s National Police in the first eight months of 2021, compared with a total of 234 for all of 2020, according to a report issued last month by the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti known as BINUH.

Contributing: Marc Sony Ricot and Deirdre Shesgreen, USA TODAY; The Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 17 US missionaries, including children, kidnapped in Haiti

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