Gang members in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince have raided a key community that is home to numerous police officers and has been under siege for four days in a continuing attack, with residents fearful of the violence spreading throughout the city.
The sound of automatic weapons echoed throughout Solino on Thursday as thick columns of black smoke rose above the once peaceful neighbourhood where frantic residents kept calling radio stations asking for help.
“If police don’t come, we are dying today!” said one unidentified caller.
Lita Saintil, a 52-year-old street vendor, said that she fled Solino on Thursday with her teenage nephew after being trapped in her house for hours by incessant gunfire.
The homes around hers were torched by gangs, and she recalled seeing at least six bodies as she fled.
“It’s very scary now,” she said. “I don’t know where I’m going.”
It was not immediately clear who organised and was participating in the attack on Solino. The community, which is home to thousands of people, was once full of gangs before a United Nations peacekeeping mission drove them out in the mid-2000s.
Analysts say violence has been escalating for months as gangs jockey for power and seek to put pressure on interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry, ahead of the February 7 expiry of a political accord that consolidated his power.
The latest attack could mark a turning point for gangs, which are now estimated to control up to 80 percent of Port-au-Prince and have been suspected of killing nearly 4,000 people and kidnapping another 3,000 last year, the Associated Press news agency reported.
If Solino falls, gangs would have easy access to neighbourhoods such as Canape Vert which have so far remained peaceful and largely safe.
On Thursday evening, the Haitian National Police released a statement saying officers were deployed to Solino “with the aim of tracking down and arresting armed individuals seeking to sow panic among the civilian population”. Police also released a nearly three-minute video showing officers on a rooftop in Solino exchanging fire with unidentified gunmen who did not appear on screen.
Nearby communities spooked by the violence in Solino began erecting barricades on Thursday using rocks, trucks, tyres and even banana trees to prevent gangs from entering.
Haiti is awaiting the deployment of a foreign armed force led by Kenya to help quell gang violence that was approved by the UN Security Council in October.
A judge in Kenya is expected to issue a ruling on January 26 regarding an order currently blocking the deployment.
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