Haitian gang leader vows to 'fight' prime minister, violence surges

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PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haitian gang leader Jimmy Cherizier, also known as Barbecue, warned on Friday he would keep trying to oust Prime Minister Ariel Henry, and asked families to keep children from going to school to "avoid collateral damages" as violence surges in parts of the capital.

Heavy gunfire and traffic disruptions were seen in some areas of Haiti's capital, where more people fled homes close to the fighting as burnt buses lay on the streets and burning barricades filled the air with thick, gray smoke.

"The battle will last as long as it needs to. We will keep fighting Ariel Henry. To avoid collateral damage, keep the kids at home," the gang leader said at a press conference.

Cherizier is a former police officer who heads an alliance of gangs and disrupted the country when he blocked its biggest oil terminal in 2022. He has faced sanctions from both the United Nations and the United States Department of Treasury.

By late Friday, there were reports armed men had attempted to take control of the capital's main container port, as gangs threatened to attack more of the city's police stations. Reuters was unable to immediately verify these reports.

A video, meanwhile, went viral on social media appearing to show two murdered policemen, which SYNAPOHA police union leader Lionel Lazare told Reuters depicted the killing of some of the four officers who were slain on Thursday.

Members of another police union, the SPNH, gathered outside the force headquarters earlier in the day calling for the recovery of the bodies.

In a statement, Prime Minister Henry's office said it was "outraged by the acts of violence and terror orchestrated by armed bandits," and expressed condolences to victims' families, saying the government would continue to work to resolve the conflict.

Violence ramped up during Henry's visit to Kenya this week. The two countries signed earlier in the day a security deal that Nairobi hopes will satisfy a domestic court's objections to its plan to send 1,000 police officers to lead a U.N.-approved mission aimed at tackling gang violence in Haiti.

Henry had previously been in Guyana for a regional Caribbean summit, during which he told leaders he would hold elections by August 2025, after postponing an earlier pledge due to the insecurity.

Henry came to power after the 2021 assassination of the country's last president. Haiti last held elections in 2016 and ensuring a transition of power is a goal of the international mission alongside securing routes for humanitarian aid.

The United Nations estimates some 300,000 people in Haiti have fled their homes.

(Reporting by Harold Isaac, Steven Aristil and Ralph Tedy Erol; Writing by Sarah Morland; Editing by Brendan O'Boyle and Himani Sarkar)