(Reuters) -A Haitian gang that kidnapped a group of American and Canadian missionaries is asking for $17 million — or $1 million each — to release them, according to a top Haitian official.
Justice Minister Liszt Quitel told Reuters that talks were underway with kidnappers to seek the release of the missionaries abducted over the weekend outside the capital Port-au-Prince by a gang called 400 Mawozo.
The minister confirmed the hefty ransom fee, telling Reuters “they asked for $1 million per person.” The fee was first reported by the Wall Street Journal earlier in the day.
CNN reported earlier on Tuesday the kidnappers first called Christian Aid Ministries – the group to which the victims belonged – on Saturday and immediately conveyed the price tag for the missionaries release. The FBI and Haitian police were advising the group in negotiations, the minister said.
Several calls between the kidnappers and the missionary group have taken place since their disappearance, the minister told CNN.
The Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries called for prayers for the “Haitian and American civil authorities who are working to resolve this situation” in a statement.
The group of 16 Americans and 1 Canadian includes six women and five children, including an eight-month old baby, the missionary organization said. They were abducted in an area called Croix-des-Bouquets, about 8 miles (13 km) outside the capital, which is dominated by the 400 Mawozo gang.
Five priests and two nuns, including two French citizens, were abducted in April in Croix-des-Bouquets and were released later that month.
Quitel told the Wall Street Journal that a ransom was paid for the release of two of those priests.
Kidnappings have become more brazen and commonplace in Haiti amid a growing political and economic crisis, with at least 628 incidents in the first nine months of 2021 alone, according to a report by the Haitian nonprofit Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, or CARDH.
Haitians on Monday mounted a nationwide strike to protest gang crime and kidnappings, which have been on the rise for years and have worsened since the July assassination of President Jovenel Moise.
Shops were open again on Tuesday in Port-au-Prince and public transportation had starting circulating again. Transport sector leaders had pushed for the strike, in part because transport workers are frequent targets of gang kidnappings.
The FBI said in a statement on Monday that it is part of a U.S. government effort to get the Americans involved to safety.
Kidnappings in Haiti rarely involved foreigners.
The victims are usually middle-class Haitians who cannot afford bodyguards but can nonetheless put together a ransom by borrowing money from family or selling property.
The growing crisis in Haiti has also become a major issue for the United States. A wave of thousands of Haitian migrants arrived at the U.S.-Mexico border last month, but many were deported to their home country shortly after.
(Reporting by Daniel Flynn, Brian Ellsworth and Gessika Thomas; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Alistair Bell)