Hunger Deepens as Relentless Gang Violence Targets Haiti's Capital

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- Gangs have intensified their rampage in the downtown area of Haiti's capital, setting fire to a school and looting pharmacies across the road from the country's largest public hospital.

The attacks that began Monday and continued into early Tuesday mark nearly a month since gunmen began targeting key infrastructure across Port-au-Prince including police stations, the main international airport that remains closed and Haiti's two biggest prisons, releasing more than 4,000 inmates.

"The violence and instability in Haiti have consequences far beyond the risk of the violence itself," Catherine Russell, UNICEF's executive director, said in a statement Tuesday. "The situation is creating a child health and nutrition crisis that could cost the lives of countless of children."

The number of children in Haiti estimated to suffer from severe acute malnutrition has increased by 19% this year, according to UNICEF. In addition, some 1.64 million people are on the precipice of famine. "This malnutrition crisis is entirely human made," Russell said.

Violence has forced the closure of roads and certain hospitals and prevented aid groups from delivering critical supplies at a time they are needed the most.

Only two of five hospitals in Haiti are operational across the country, according to UNICEF. In addition, the violence in Port-au-Prince has prevented the distribution of health and nutrition supplies for at least 58,000 children who are severely wasted, the agency said.

Scores of people have been killed in the ongoing attacks, and some 17,000 have been left homeless as Haiti's National Police continues to be overwhelmed by heavily armed gangs that control 80% of the capital.

On Tuesday, U.S. President Joe Biden approved up to $10 million in emergency assistance for Haitian security forces to "protect civilians and critical infrastructure against organized and targeted gang attacks," White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said.

Jean-Pierre said the funding comes from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security budget and can be used for materials including weapons, ammunition, bullet-proof vests and helmets.

Meanwhile, members of a regional trade bloc known as Caricom have pushed to accelerate the formation of a transitional presidential council in hopes it could soon help quell the ongoing violence.

Haiti's criminal gangs have long opposed the current Prime Minister Ariel Henry, blaming him for deepening poverty, but critics of gangs accuse them of trying to seize power for themselves or for unidentified Haitian politicians.

The transition council would be responsible for choosing a new prime minister and a council of ministers. Henry, who was locked out of Haiti when the attacks began, has said he would resign once the council is created.

However, multiple setbacks continue to delay formation of the council, which will be composed of nine members, seven of them with voting powers.

On Monday, René Jean Jumeau, who was nominated to represent Haiti's religious sector in a non-voting position, resigned.

"The need for concrete action is too strong to remain helpless in the posture of spectator," he said in a letter addressed to the council.

Meanwhile, Col. Himmler Rébu, a former colonel of Haiti's army and president of the Grand Rally for the Revolution of Haiti, a party that obtained a seat on the council, told Radio RFM 104.9 on Tuesday that he believes the council will fail.

Rébu said officials should just move quickly to Plan B, which he said should involve granting powers to a judge from Haiti's Supreme Court to select the country's new leaders.

Supporters of that plan include the Protestant Federation of Haiti. It issued a statement on Monday backing the selection of a Supreme Court judge who would serve as interim president and help choose a prime minister.

Caribbean officials said no additional meetings with nominated council members are planned for the week since they have asked for more time to work through various unidentified internal issues.