PORT-AU-PRINCE: A nationwide general strike emptied the streets of Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince on Monday (Oct 18) with organisers denouncing the rapidly disintegrating security situation highlighted by the kidnapping of American and Canadian missionaries at the weekend.
The kidnapping of 17 adults and children by one of Haiti's brazen criminal gangs underlined the country's troubles following the assassination of president Jovenel Mose in July and amid mounting lawlessness in the Western hemisphere's poorest nation.
"It has been months since we appealed for help, and since we have had no security against kidnappings we have called for the population to suspend all activity," the president of Haiti's Association of Owners and Drivers, Changeux Mehu, told AFP.
"The bandits are going too far. They kidnap, they rape women, they do whatever they want," he said. "Enough."
Launched last week by business and professional groups in Port-au-Prince, the call for a strike took on additional resonance after the kidnapping Saturday by an armed gang of 16 Americans and one Canadian.
The missionaries work for US-based Christian Aid Ministries, which said in a statement that the group, which includes five children, was abducted east of the capital while returning from visiting an orphanage.
"The kidnapping of the Americans shows that no one is safe in the country," Mehu said. "We pay our taxes to the state. In return what we ask is to have security, so that the country can function."
Armed gangs, which have controlled the poorer neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince for years, have tightened their grip on the city and the surrounding areas, where kidnappings have surged.
"Nature abhors a vacuum, so gangs take advantage of it to gain strength," said Gedeon Jean, director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights.
The United States in August issued a red alert on Haiti, urging Americans not to travel to the Caribbean nation because of rampant kidnapping, crime and civil unrest.
The State Department has publicly provided no details on the search for the kidnap victims, but it stated Sunday that the welfare and safety of Americans abroad is "one of the highest priorities" of the department.