Haiti police probe killings of parishioners who were led by a pastor into gang territory

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — The director of Haiti’s National Police vowed Monday to hold accountable those who encouraged hundreds of parishioners to take up machetes and sticks over the weekend to try and rid a community of gang members, only to be fatally shot by them.

Police Chief Frantz Elbé said the group’s religious leader, identified as Marcorel Zidor, participated in the protest Saturday and was accompanied by unidentified people clad in olive green carrying assault rifles as they and the parishioners marched toward the community of Canaan.

Elbé said the group drew gunfire from gang members, and that “multiple” people were killed and several kidnapped, though he did not provide numbers.

He said police were trying to recover the bodies of those killed in Canaan, a community established north of the capital by survivors of the country's devastating 2010 earthquake. The community is controlled by a powerful gang whose leader goes only by “Jeff,” and who is an ally of another gang known as “Five Seconds.”

Police said in a statement that they had tried to convince the religious group to stop their plan “to avoid a carnage by criminals who have an arsenal of war.” Elbé noted that the group had not notified police about the protest as required, and that officers were unable to halt the crowd partly because it had split up into two groups.

“Police did everything to stop them,” he said at a news conference, calling the event a “tragedy.”

Zidor, the pastor, could not be immediately reached for comment. An Associated Press team visited the church on Monday, but its big metal gates were closed, and no one responded to requests for entry.

Tranquil Florant, a 32-year-old homeopathic doctor who is a member of the church, told the AP that the pastor announced plans for the weekend march on Thursday during an all-night prayer.

“This was really a crazy idea,” Florant said, adding that he didn’t participate. “People have to make good judgements.”

He arrived Monday at the church after hearing that families of victims were going to gather there, but he found no such gatherings. Shooting broke out shortly afterward, scattering people in the area.

Elbé stressed that police are trying to “neutralize” gangs, which are estimated to control up to 80% of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

“These gangs are burning people’s houses … and creating panic. But we are fighting night and day to stop them and push them back,” he said.

From Jan. 1 until Aug. 15, more than 2,400 people in Haiti were reported killed, more than 950 kidnapped and another 902 injured, according to the United Nations.

In addition, more than 300 people have been killed by a violent civilian movement known as “bwa kale” that began in April and targets suspected gang members.