PORT-au-Prince, Haiti — A gang accused of kidnapping five priests and two nuns in Haiti earlier this year is now accused of kidnapping 17 missionaries, including a two-year-old child, from a US-based organization. The police gave this information on Sunday.

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The 400 Mavozo gang kidnapped the group – including some elders – in Ganthier, a commune located east of the capital of Port-au-Prince, Haitian police inspector Frantz Champagne told the Associated Press.

The gang, whose name roughly translates to 400 “inexperienced men”, controls the Croix-des-Bouquets region which includes Ganthier, where they commit kidnappings and carjackings and expel business owners, according to officials.

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Haiti is once again struggling with a spike in gang-related kidnappings that subsided in recent months, when President Jovenel Mois was fatally shot at his private residence on July 7 and in August More than 2,200 people were killed in the 7.2-magnitude earthquake.

Missionaries were on their way home from an orphanage on Saturday, according to a message from Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries sent to various religious missions.

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

The message said the mission’s field director was working with the US embassy, ​​and that the field director’s family and another unidentified person stayed at the ministry base while everyone else went to the orphanage.

No other details were immediately available.

A US government spokesman said officials were aware of reports of abductions.

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

Meanwhile, a senior US official said on condition of anonymity that the United States is in contact with Haitian authorities to try to resolve the matter.

According to officials, the gang has demanded ransom ranging from a few hundred dollars to a million dollars.

Last month, a deaf man was murdered and his wife kidnapped in front of a church in the capital of Port-au-Prince, one of dozens who have been kidnapped in recent months.

According to a report released last month by the United Nations Unified Office in Haiti, at least 328 victims of kidnappings were reported to Haiti’s national police in the first eight months of 2021, compared to a total of 234 for 2020.

The gang has been accused of kidnapping school children, doctors, police officers, busloads of passengers and others as they grow more powerful.

In April, a man claiming to be the leader of a gang of 400 mawjo told a radio station that they were responsible for the kidnapping of five priests, two nuns and three relatives of a priest that month. They were later released.

A protest is scheduled for Monday to address the lack of security in the country.

“Political turmoil, an increase in gang violence, worsening socioeconomic conditions – including food insecurity and malnutrition – all contribute to the worsening of the human condition,” BINUH said in its report. “An over-stretched and under-resourced police force alone cannot solve Haiti’s security problems.”

On Friday, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously to expand the UN political mission to Haiti.

The kidnapping of the missionaries comes days after high-level US officials visited Haiti and promised more resources for Haiti’s national police, including another US$15 million to help reduce gang violence. This year has displaced thousands of Haitians who now live in temporary shelters. in increasingly unhygienic conditions.

Among those who met with Haiti’s police chief was Uzra Zeya, the US Under Secretary of State for Civil Defense, Democracy and Human Rights.

“Eliminating violent gangs is critical to Haitian stability and civil security,” he tweeted recently.

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Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.