Some local missionaries stuck in Haiti during riots return home

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A local missionary group is on the way home from Haiti as riots continue to erupt over skyrocketing gas prices.

More than a dozen missionaries from Cornerstone Covenant Church in Hudson are expected to arrive in Charlotte Monday night after being in the middle of the dangerous situation.

“They built barricades out of metal, and they were setting tires on fire in the middle of the road,” missionary Bekah Soots told Channel 9.

Soots said the team was concerned about safety and unable to pass the roadblocks.

They missed their initial flight and spent hours at a church, before they were finally able to get to the airport.

Meanwhile, members of a mission team from Richmond County told Channel 9 reporter Stephanie Tinoco they are terrified for their lives.

"We hear a loud knocking. We look over and there's 10 men trying to break in,” Savannah Peek said. “I, 100 percent thought I was going to die, and so was my sister and my fiance."

Church groups and volunteers from several states are grounded in Haiti after violent protests over fuel price hikes have led to canceled flights.

Volunteers from churches in North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia, and Alabama are among those who can't leave, according to newspaper and television reports.

"The gas prices went up to $5 a liter, which is like $20 a gallon, and they only make about $2 a day,” said Jonathan Thames, with the Richmond County missions team.

Missionaries sent Channel 9 video of boulders and tires engulfed in flames. They said Saturday night was by far the worst.

"We heard gunshots start and they were very close,” Peek said. “At this point, we all dropped immediately to the ground. We're all on our hands and knees. Everyone's screaming, everyone's crying."

Peek said guns were handed out to civilians for protection.

"People started passing out guns to civilians because we thought the 10 were about to break in and rob us, kill us, start a fire. We had no idea."

The local missionaries said the Haitian people they are staying with are risking their lives to protect them.

"The people here where we're staying having been nothing short of amazing,” Peek said.

'I really love Haiti, but I'm scared for my life'

Church officials at North Albemarle Baptist in Stanly County told Channel 9 they are keeping in touch with families still in Haiti.

The church took a team of 10 adults and two minors to Haiti, about 45 minutes from Port-au-Prince.

They are stuck because of canceled flights due to violent protests.

Brad Lynch, the church’s pastor, said the group is safe and hopeful to return home by the end of the week. They were supposed to fly back to the States on Saturday.

Lynch said multiple missionaries and groups are stranded due to the civil unrest in Haiti.

He said his team is running low on food, clean water and fuel for their generator. The church is working with locals to get supplies to them.

Lynch said his team is safe in an orphanage, but the conditions nearby are horrifying.

“There have been rampant protests in the street, and with that, they have set up barricades in the roads with burning tires,” Lynch said. “There are also civilians who have armed themselves and are standing guard at those barricades charging money for people to pass by, so there's a real concern about safety."

A missionary group, Cornerstone Covenant Church, from Caldwell County, is also stranded.

The Haitian airport is open, but it's unlikely the team will get on their Tuesday flight.

"They literally have tires surrounding the perimeter of the airport currently on fire,” Peek said. “I really love Haiti, but I'm scared for my life."

American Airlines, JetBlue and Spirit Airlines have canceled flights to Haiti.

More local groups stuck in Haiti

Chapin United Methodist Church in South Carolina posted online that its mission team is safe but stranded. Marcy Kenny is assimilation minister for the church and told The State newspaper that the group is hoping the unrest will abate enough for them to safely make it to the airport.

A North Carolina doctor and his son were part of another medical mission group that's unable to leave. Shelley Collins tells WRAL-TV that her husband, James, and their son made it to an airport but can't fly out.

The U.S. Embassy in the country is urging Americans to stay put and not try to reach the airport unless they know their flight is leaving.

Looters are pillaging burned and vandalized shops in Haiti's capital following two days of violent protests over the government's attempt to raise fuel prices.

Journalists have seen young men stripping shelves bare in some supermarkets that are charred from the protests. Several bodies lay among the debris scattered in the streets.

With the situation still chaotic, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince is warning U.S. citizens on the island to shelter in place.

It notes that many flights have been canceled and also says telecommunications services have been affected.

The Haitian government suspended a fuel price hike Saturday after widespread violence broke out across the capital and in the northern city of Cap-Haitien.

Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant had originally said the country needed to raise prices to balance the budget and gave no indication he would back down.

But his administration bowed to pressure after demonstrators took to the streets in protest.

A journalist from The Associated Press reported seeing several hundred people on Saturday attack a Best Western Premiere hotel in Petion-Ville, one of the capital's wealthiest neighborhoods. Guests were forced to remain inside as rocks were hurled through windows around 10 a.m. local time.

Security manned the building, but rioters shattered the main entrance before moving to another hotel.

No injuries or deaths were reported during the day's incidents, but at least three people were killed Friday as protesters used burning tires and barricades to block major streets. At one point they attempted to set a gas station on fire but were held off by police.

The demonstrations began after the Commerce Ministry and Economic Ministry issued a joint statement announcing an increase of 38 percent to 51 percent for gasoline, diesel and kerosene.

Government officials agreed to reduce subsidies for fuel in February as part of an assistance package with the International Monetary Fund. The agreement also included increased spending on social services and infrastructure and improved tax collection in an effort to modernize the economy of one of the poorest nations in the Western Hemisphere.

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