PORT-AU-Prince, Haiti – A gang that kidnapped 17 members of a US missionary group, including a Canadian, is demanding a US$1 million ransom per person, although it is not clear to authorities whether five children were involved. or not, a top Haitian official told The Associated Press on Tuesday.

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The official, who was not authorized to speak to the press, said someone from the 400 Mawzo gang called a ministry leader shortly after kidnapping the missionaries on Saturday and demanding a ransom. A person in contact with the organization, Christian Aid Ministries, also confirmed the demand for $1 million per person, first reported by The Wall Street Journal. That source spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the situation.

According to a statement by the organization on Tuesday, the adults are between 18 and 48 years old, while the children are 8 months, 3 years, 6 years, 13 years and 15 years old. Among the kidnappers are 16 Americans and one Canadian.

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“This group of workers is committed to becoming ministers in poverty-stricken Haiti,” the Ohio-based ministry said. on 14 august

The organization said the group was returning from an orphanage when they were abducted.

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A recent wave of kidnappings prompted a protest strike that began Monday dealing a fresh blow to Haiti’s anemic economy that shut down businesses, schools and public transport. Unions and other groups vowed to continue the shutdown indefinitely as ongoing fuel shortages worsened, with businesses blaming gangs for blocking roads and gas distribution terminals.

On Tuesday, hundreds of motorcycles lined the streets of Port-au-Prince as drivers shouted, “If there’s no fuel, we’ll burn it!”

A protest took place near the prime minister’s residence, where police fired tear gas to disperse a crowd demanding fuel.

In Washington, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday that “the FBI is part of a coordinated US government effort to engage US citizens in security,” the US embassy in Port au Prince said to local officials and those in need. Coordinating with families. confiscated.

“The kidnapping is widespread and victims regularly include US citizens. We know that these groups target US citizens who have the resources and finances to pay the ransom, even if it is not,” she said. Given that the government has urged citizens not to go to Haiti.

She confirmed that it is US policy not to negotiate with hostage-takers, but declined to describe the details of the operation.

The kidnappings were the largest reported of their kind in recent years, with Haitian gangs increasing more brazenness and kidnappings as the country recovers from the July 7 assassination of President Jovanel Moise and the earthquake that struck southern Haiti and killed more than 2,200 people. was trying to. .

“We are calling on the authorities to take action,” said Jean-Louis Abaki, a moto taxi driver who joined the strike on Monday to stop the killings and kidnappings in the poorest country in the hemisphere.

With the usually chaotic streets of Haiti’s capital quiet and largely empty, Abaki said that if Prime Minister Ariel Henry and National Police Chief Leon Charles want to remain in power, “they have to give the population a chance of safety.” “

Haitian police told The Associated Press that the kidnapping was carried out by the 400 Mawzo gang, which has a long record of murders, kidnappings and extortion. In April, a man claiming to be the gang leader told a radio station that he was responsible for the kidnapping of five priests, two nuns and three relatives of a priest that month. They were later released.

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

The gang has been accused of kidnapping schoolchildren, doctors, police officers, bus passengers and others as they become more powerful and demanding ransoms ranging from a few hundred dollars to millions of dollars.

US State Department spokesman Ned Price said US officials are in constant contact with Haiti’s national police, missionary groups and relatives of the victims.

“This is something that we have considered with the highest priority since Saturday,” he said, adding that officials are “doing everything possible to find a quick solution.”

UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the escalation in mass violence affected relief efforts in Haiti. He said the UN resident and humanitarian coordinator pointed out that “violence, looting, road blockades and the frequent presence of armed gangs hinder human access. The situation is further complicated by very serious fuel shortages and short supplies of goods.” Has been.”

Dujarric said Haiti’s government should redouble efforts to reform and strengthen the police department to address public safety and investigate all crimes.

Christian aid ministries said the kidnapped group included six women, six men and five children. A sign on the door of the organization’s headquarters in Berlin, Ohio, said it was closed due to a kidnapping situation.

Among those abducted were four children from a Michigan family and one of their parents, their pastor told The Detroit News. The youngest in the family is under the age of 10, said Minister Ron Marks, who declined to be identified. They arrived in Haiti earlier this month, he said.

A couple of traveling Christians were stopped by the organization’s headquarters on Monday to drop off packages for poor countries with two young children. Tirtaja Rarik, originally from California, said she and a friend prayed on Sunday with people who had relatives among those abducted.

“While it is painful and it drives us to tears that our friends and relatives, our dear brothers and sisters, are suffering in very real physical, mental and emotional ways right now, it is comforting to us that we are in these heavy May bring burdens to the God we worship,” she said.

Marcus Yoder, executive director of the Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center in nearby Millersburg, Ohio, said news of the kidnapping spread quickly in and around Holmes County, Ohio, which is home to the nation’s largest population of Amish and Orthodox Mennonites. .

Christian aid ministries are supported by Orthodox Mennonites, Amish and related groups in the Anabaptist tradition.

Steven Nolt, professor of history and Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania, said the organization was founded in the early 1980s and began operating in Haiti after that decade. The group has year-round mission staff in Haiti and several countries, he said, and it supplies religious, school and medical supplies around the world.

Conservative Anabaptists, despite disagreeing on technology and other issues, share traditions such as normal, plain clothing, isolation from mainstream society, closely disciplined congregations and a belief in non-resistance to violence.

The Amish and Mennonite communities in Holmes County have close links with missionary organizations serving Haiti.

Every September, handmade furniture, quilts, firewood and tools are sold at the Ohio Haiti Benefit Auction, and barbecue chicken and Haitian beans and rice are prepared. One of the organisers, Aaron Miller, said the event typically brings in about $600,000 which is divided among 18 missionary groups.

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Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico and Smith from Pittsburgh. Associated Press journalists Matias Delacroix and Pierre-Richard Luxma in Port-au-Prince, Eric Tucker and Matthew Lee in Washington, Edith M. John Seaver in Lederer, Toledo, Ohio, and Julie Carr Smith in Berlin, Ohio. contributed to this report.