SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A group of 17 American missionaries, including children, were kidnapped by a gang in Haiti on Saturday, according to a voice message sent to various religious missions by an organization with direct knowledge of the incident.

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According to a message from Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, missionaries were on their way home from building an orphanage.

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

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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.

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A US government spokesman said they 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.

Haiti is once again struggling with a spike in gang-related kidnappings, which was reduced by the fatal shooting of President Jovenel Moise at his private residence on July 7, and in southwest Haiti in August. A 7.2-magnitude earthquake followed and more than 2,200 people were killed. .

According to officials, the gang has demanded ransom ranging from a few hundred dollars to a million US 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 gang kidnapped five priests and two nuns, a move that prompted three days of protests, with another protest scheduled for Monday to address the lack of security in the Haitian now poor country is preparing.

“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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AP journalists Evans Sanon in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.