The FBI, the State Department, and other U.S. agencies have dispatched a team to assist Haitian authorities in their efforts to negotiate the safe release of a group of missionaries kidnapped by a gang in the troubled country, according to U.S. officials.
Seventeen people, including 16 U.S. citizens, were abducted by a gang at a checkpoint in Haiti during an airport run on Saturday, sources told ABC News.
The kidnappings have put Haiti in the spotlight again after a turbulent few months, including a devastating earthquake and a presidential assassination -- although gangs' violence and use of kidnapping for ransom have plagued the Haitian people for years.
President Joe Biden has been briefed on the kidnappings and "what the State Department and the FBI are doing to bring these individuals home safely," White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Monday.
The team of U.S. officials is on the ground working with Haitian national police, while the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince has been in "constant contact" with Haitian authorities, the missionary group Christian Aid Ministries and the victims' family members, according to State Department spokesperson Ned Price.
The Haitian government suspects the gang known as 400 Mawozo to be responsible for the abductions, according to a source at the Haitian presidential office. Price declined to say whether U.S. officials had been in touch with the group.
The Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries confirmed in a statement that a group of 17 people, including five children, were "abducted" while on a trip to an orphanage on Saturday. In addition to the Americans, the group includes one Canadian.
"Civil authorities in Haiti and the United States are aware of what has happened and are offering assistance. We continue to monitor the situation closely and are in earnest prayer," the missionary group said in a statement Monday.
"The kidnappers, like all people, are created in the image of God and can be changed if they turn to Him. While we desire the safe release of our workers, we also desire that the kidnappers be transformed by the love of Jesus, the only true source of peace, joy, and forgiveness," they added.
Haiti has seen a spike in gang violence in recent years amid political unrest and turmoil in its government, especially after July's assassination of President Jovenel Moïse -- the controversial leader accused of creating a constitutional crisis. Just weeks after a successor was sworn in -- the U.S.-backed Ariel Henry -- Haiti experienced a massive 7.2-magnitude earthquake in August that killed over 2,200 people.
"You put the poverty on top of repeated 7.0 plus magnitude earthquakes over the years, and it's just been brutal for the Haitian people and very difficult for them to establish not just the rule of law, but basic functions of society," said retired Col. Stephen Ganyard, an ABC News contributor and former assistant secretary of state.
Haiti leads the world with the highest kidnapping rate per capita. According to Haiti's Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, there have been at least 628 kidnappings this year, including 29 foreigners, and nearly 800 in 2020. Ganyard said westerners like Americans increasingly make for easier targets because there's a "sense that they can probably afford to pay."
The group 400 Mawozo is responsible for the most abductions, the center's director Gédéon Jean told the Washington Post, including allegedly kidnapping two French priests earlier the same day. The group is notorious for its violent tactics and for brazenly targeting clergy and churches -- particularly controversial in Catholic-majority Haiti.
With that rise in kidnappings, the Biden administration announced an additional $15 million for Haitian national police in recent weeks, $12 million of which went to anti-gang violence efforts, according to Price.
ABC News's Ben Gittleson and Aicha el Hammar contributed to this report.