Domestic and charter airline operators have temporarily halted local flight service in Haiti after protesters in the southwestern city of Les Cayes on Tuesday tore apart and then burned a plane used by a Florida-based charity.
The eight-seat Piper Navajo Chieftain aircraft belonged to Agape Flights, which is based in Venice, Florida, a spokeswoman for Agape Flights told the Miami Herald.
“For 42 years we’ve been flying to Haiti and we have weekly mission flights carrying cargo, mail and humanitarian aid to missionary families throughout Haiti,” she said. “It is devastating but we are just thankful that the team is safe.”
On its web page the group announced that for the safety of its affiliated missionaries and staff, this week’s flight has been canceled.
The violence unfolded during a day of protests in Haiti against rising insecurity with demonstrators calling for an end to kidnappings. While mostly peaceful in the capital, they turned violent in Les Cayes, where protesters gained access to the airport and attacked the plane, which had arrived Sunday with a team of humanitarian aid workers helping in the region’s recovery from last August’s devastating magnitude 7.2 earthquake that left over 2,000 dead.
Haiti police said that at least one protester died and five others were injured, including four police officers who were attacked with rocks. Police spokesman Garry Desrosiers confirmed that a plane in the southeastern city of Jacmel was also burned Tuesday, but it was “not the same situation as Les Cayes.” The plane had crash-landed in November under mysterious circumstances and was abandoned.
“It had already been vandalized and a group of people threw something in it,” he said.
In response to the incident, the country’s leading domestic carrier, Sunrise Airways, temporarily halted all flights to Les Cayes. Soon after, Mission Aviation Fellowship announced it was grounding all charter flights throughout Haiti for Wednesday.
Sunrise Airways Director Philippe Bayard told the Miami Herald that for now only flights to Les Cayes will be canceled.
“We’ve stopped the flights and are seeing what kind of security they are implementing at the airport because we cannot put at risk the people who are working with us, the passengers or the airplane,” Bayard said. “I know they are doing an evaluation to see how much damage they did at the airport and after that, we will make a decision.”
He called Tuesday’s violence in Les Cayes “sad” and “unacceptable.”
“It’s a missionary group that has come to do good in a country and they burned the airplane. Is this something that is acceptable?” Bayard said. “Regardless of the reasons why people were protesting, is the destruction they did here justifiable? It’s something that is lamentable.”
Tuesday marked the 35th anniversary of Haiti’s 1987 Constitution. Amid growing discontent about a surge in kidnappings and gang crime, Haitians have taken to circulating a petition demanding that Prime Minister Ariel Henry do something to address the problems. Condemning the incident in Les Cayes, Henry said in a tweet that he has ordered authorities to track down those behind the violence.
Les Cayes now becomes the latest big city to be without scheduled air service in Haiti, where armed gangs have made traveling the country’s national roads to large cities outside of the capital a dangerous undertaking.
Since June, more than 20,000 Haitians have been forced from their homes in the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Martissant at the southern entrance of the capital, which serves as the gateway to five different regional areas including those struck by the August 14 earthquake. Gangs are attacking public buses and carjacking motorists and holding them for ransom.
The violence on the roads has led to full domestic flights and an increased demand for private charters. In Les Cayes, demonstrators have accused airline owners and the government of profiteering from the insecurity in Martissant.
“A business cannot exist on a road that is closed and an area that is isolated,” Bayard said. “Insecurity with chaos and disorder has never been good for anyone.”
Bayard said Les Cayes has long been in need of regular air service, and after starting it a year ago, demand began to increase after the earthquake. The air service also allowed aid to pour in quickly after the earthquake. While customers come for air travel because of the insecurity in Martissant, he said, there are also fewer people traveling because they don’t want to go to Port-au-Prince because of the security issues.
Richard Hervé Fourcand, a former senator who lives in Les Cayes and provided his personal aircraft to take injured earthquake victims to safety, said “activists went too far” on Tuesday.
He called the protesters’ argument against the local air carriers “exaggerated.” He acknowledged that the situation in Martissant is increasingly becoming unbearable and affecting the recovery of the south. “Everything is expensive,” he said. “You have to pay four gangs just to get one container through.”
Agape Flights, the spokeswoman said, is focused on getting their team members safely back home rather than future plans.
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