The killing of six police officers in an armed attack against a police substation in Haiti's Artibonite Valley sent parts of the country reeling Thursday as armed men claiming to be cops revolted in the streets, scouring the premises of Port-au-Prince's international airport and the police headquarters searching for the country's prime minister.
The demonstrations were tied to the arrival of Prime Minister Ariel Henry from Argentina, where he and a small delegation attended an international conference and Henry once more made a plea for foreign forces to assist his beleaguered government to take on heavily armed gangs.
As Henry's American Airlines flight out of Miami landed at Toussaint Louverture International Airport, billows of dark smoke from burning tires could be seen outside the windows. An angry mob of protesters claiming to be police officers, but armed and dressed in plain clothes, with their faces covered with scarfs and ski masks, made their way into several areas of the airport.
Video shared on social media also showed passengers inside the airport terminal skirmishing while workers on the tarmac went running, seeking cover from the mob. At police headquarters, shots were fired as some of the protesters breached the area.
The group made several attempts to breach the entrance to the airport. At a departure area they pulled down blue metal gates used to separate vehicles dropping off passengers, and at a separate VIP lounge they pushed their way through the fence before getting into a skirmish with other police officers trying to secure the lounge entrance.
As the violence unfolded, Henry was elsewhere in the airport meeting with a visiting delegation, far out of harm's way.
The source of the anger was the death of six police officers in the community of Liancourt in the Artibonite Valley, when a police substation suffered three attacks on Thursday.
In an interview with radio station Magik 9, the police chief for the Artibonite region, Jean Bruce Myrtil, said that "this was an attack that happened on all fronts."
"The first attack was at 7 a.m., the second at 10 a.m. and the third shortly before noon," Myrtil said.
Four of the officers, he said, were killed while getting treated for their injuries inside a local clinic.
The killings came a week after three other police officers were killed in a gang ambush and a fourth went missing. He is presumed to be dead. That attack in the Pernier neighborhood of Petionville came during what a government official told the Miami Herald was an "authorized mission" to avenge the death of a fallen gang leader.
However, some officers believed their fellow cops died during an operation in which they asked for reinforcements and never got them.
Though the officers protesting Thursday did not claim any affiliation to any group, their tactics were similar to those used by a rogue group of police officers known as Phantom 509, including using vehicles to block roads to the airport.
The National Human Rights Defense Network of Haiti said at least 18 police officers have been "victims of acts detrimental to their lives" since the start of the year. This includes 14 cops who were assassinated and two others who were wounded during raids by armed bandits. Two other officers are missing.
The events were being closely monitored in Washington, D.C. Despite a request by Henry for a multinational force to help the struggling Haitian national police, he has had no takers. The recently confirmed U.S. ambassador to the Organization of American States, Frank Mora, told the Miami Herald that talks in the United Nations continue regarding a "police multinational force" that could help Haiti deal with the gang violence ravaging the country.
"We at the OAS are having another conversation as to how we can support the political process, the political agreement that was reached last month," Mora said. "But right now I don't have much more to say about those talks other than several countries are participating in that conversation. But I hope that within a month we will have more details on that decision."
Miami Herald reporter Nora Gámez Torres contributed to this story.