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Haitian officials say US travel advisory unwarranted

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- A recent advisory by the Obama administration warning that Americans were victims of murder and kidnappings in Haiti could unfairly hurt efforts to get the earthquake-crippled nation back on its feet, Haiti's government officials said on Monday.

"Haiti is one of the safest destinations, not only in the Caribbean, but in all of Latin America," Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said in a press conference, flanked by several other cabinet members.

The State Department advisory issued on December 28 said: "U.S. citizens have been victims of violent crime, including murder and kidnapping, predominantly in the Port-au-Prince area. No one is safe from kidnapping, regardless of occupation, nationality, race, gender or age."

This stern warning came at a time when violent crime for the year, especially murder and kidnapping, had in fact begun to decline, Haitian officials said.

The most violent month in Haiti last year was July, when 136 murders were reported by the Haitian National Police. That number sharply declined in the following months. The highest number of kidnappings for 2012 came in October, with 21 reported cases, but it fell to only 9 cases in December.

The U.S. State Department travel advisory undermined Haiti's attempts to rebuild its tourism industry and lure foreign investment in the wake of the January 2010 earthquake that decimated the capital city, Lamothe complained.

"With the meager resources that the state has, we're investing in tourism," he said, suggesting that Haiti had been unfairly singled out by the Obama administration. "Other countries have problems, too," he said.

Though it has long endured a reputation as a dangerous, lawless place, Haiti is in fact safer than its neighbor, the Dominican Republic, in terms of homicide. Haiti's murder rate in 2011 of 6.9 per 100,000 residents was dwarfed by that of neighboring Dominican Republic, which had a rate of 24.9 for the same period. Jamaica had a murder rate of 40.9 for 2011.

Arnaldo Arbesu, a spokesperson for the U.S. Embassy in Haiti, said that the State Department's travel warning was not meant to discourage visitors and was part of a periodic series of updates.

"We do want people to come, but it's the Embassy's job to tell people to take precautions," said Arbesu.

In a statement issued last week, the U.S. Embassy noted that crime rates had fallen over the course of the year, and that "the government is on the right track and serious about addressing these issues," he noted.

Haiti does have the highest number of kidnappings in the region. Some 162 cases of kidnapping were reported in 2012, three fewer than the previous year, according to Haiti's police.

This past December, which usually sees a heightened number of abduction cases, only nine kidnappings were reported. When kidnapping was at its peak in 2005, more than 240 cases were reported that December alone.

Members of the Haitian diaspora, including those with American citizenship, have been targeted in the past by kidnappers. At least eight foreign nationals were briefly taken in a series of abductions in mid-2012, but no further abductions of foreign nationals have been reported since then.

Canada's ambassador to Haiti, Henri-Paul Normandin, dismissed rumors on Monday that his embassy had upped their warning to travelers as well.

"We haven't substantially changed our advisory in several months," Normandin said on a leading Haitian radio station.

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