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Haiti's capital a 'city under siege' amid violence


Residents of Haiti's capital scrambled for safety on Saturday following the latest spasm of gang violence, with a UN group warning of a "city under siege" after armed attackers targeted the presidential palace and police headquarters.

Criminal groups, which already control much of Port-au-Prince as well as roads leading to the rest of the country, have unleashed havoc in recent days as they try to oust Prime Minister Ariel Henry as leader of the Western hemisphere's poorest country. On Saturday, dozens of residents were seeking safety in public buildings, with some successfully breaking into one facility, according to an AFP correspondent.

The unrest has seen 362,000 Haitians internally displaced -- more than half of them children and some forced to move multiple times, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said Saturday. "Haitians are unable to lead a decent life. They are living in fear, and every day, every hour this situation carries on, the trauma gets worse," Philippe Branchat, IOM's chief in Haiti, said in a statement. "People living in the capital are locked in, they have nowhere to go," he said. "The capital is surrounded by armed groups and danger. It is a city under siege."

Police on Friday night repelled gang attacks, including on the presidential palace, and several "bandits" were killed, Lionel Lazarre of the Haitian police union said. No police were among the victims. The violence left burned-out vehicles, still smoldering, outside the Interior Ministry and on nearby streets, an AFP correspondent said. Gunshots rang out late Friday throughout Port-au-Prince and witnesses recounted clashes "between police officers and bandits" as gangs tried to commandeer police stations in the city center. Lazarre on Saturday pleaded for "means and equipment" to protect police buildings and other key facilities. - State of emergency - The well-armed gangs have attacked key infrastructure in recent days, including two prisons, allowing the majority of their 3,800 inmates to escape. Along with some ordinary Haitians, the gangs are seeking the resignation of Prime Minister Henry, who was due to leave office in February but instead agreed to a power-sharing deal with the opposition until new elections are held. The United States has asked Henry to enact urgent political reform to prevent further escalation. But he was in Kenya when the violence broke out and is now reportedly stranded in the US territory of Puerto Rico. After months of delays, the UN Security Council finally gave its green light in October for a multinational policing mission led by Kenya, but that deployment has been stalled by Kenyan courts. Port-au-Prince and western Haiti have been placed under a month-long state of emergency and a nighttime curfew was in effect until Monday, though it was unlikely overstretched police could enforce it.

- 'Running away' - In Port-au-Prince, Filienne Setoute told AFP how she had worked for the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor for more than 20 years. That job, she said, meant she "was able to build my own house. But now here I am, homeless. I'm fleeing without knowing where to go, it's an abuse." "We haven't been able to sleep since last night," she added. "We're running away." Haiti's airport remained closed while the main port -- a key point for food imports -- reported looting since suspending services on Thursday, despite efforts to set up a security perimeter.

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