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Kidnappers in Haiti release U.S. missionary

Gunmen released an American missionary Friday, a day after he was shot in the arm and seized while driving on the outskirts of the Haitian capital. Fourteen schoolkids and their bus driver who were kidnapped in a separate incident were also released.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Gunmen released an American missionary Friday, a day after he was shot in the arm and seized while driving on the outskirts of the Haitian capital.

Phillip Snyder was released after the kidnappers were paid an unspecified ransom, said police Commissioner Francois Henri Doussous, head of Haiti's anti-kidnapping unit.

"The American was released a few minutes ago," Doussous told The Associated Press. "He is alive and well."

Doussous would not specify how much ransom was paid but said it was "much less" than the $300,000 the kidnappers had sought for his release.

It was not immediately clear who paid the ransom. The police commander said the kidnappers were members of criminal gangs based in Cite Soleil, a sprawling seaside slum that is a base for heavily armed gangs blamed for kidnappings that have terrorized the capital in recent months.

Snyder, 48, was treated for a gunshot wound to his shoulder and released from a U.N. military hospital, police said. The president of Zeeland, Mich.-based Glow Ministries International was abducted Thursday on the main road leading north from the Haitian capital.

Payment of ransom for schoolchildren denied
In a separate incident, gunmen kidnapped 14 children and their bus driver as they rode to school Thursday but they were all released unharmed hours later, police said. Doussous denied reports that a ransom was paid for their release.

The kidnapping spree highlights the chaos and violence engulfing Haiti as the country prepares for a return to democracy, with elections scheduled for Jan. 8.

Gangs allegedly close to ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide frequently skirmish with U.N. peacekeepers striving to take control of the volatile Cite Soleil slum in the capital.

“My father is fine,” Chad Snyder, the kidnapped missionary’s son, said in a brief telephone interview in Port-au-Prince.

The missionary’s wife, Amber Snyder, said before his release that she and her husband were aware of the dangers in Haiti but kept it in the back of their minds. She said her husband’s family has worked in Haiti for more than three decades helping the poor.

“He’s a foreigner. They assume every foreigner has money or has resources,” Amber Snyder, who met her husband on a Christian mission trip in Haiti when she was 17, told The Associated Press before hearing of her husband’s release.

A young boy kidnapped along with Snyder was freed and in good condition. The missionary had been helping the boy obtain a medical visa so he could have eye surgery, Amber Snyder said.

“There’s a tremendous sense of relief,” Amber Snyder’s uncle, Denny Bull, said from Zeeland after Snyder was freed. “We had confidence that this would happen. We just did not know when.”

It was on a main road near Cite Soleil that Snyder was ambushed by gangs who fired at least two rounds through the windshield of his car.

Police had feared that the 14 children and their school bus driver would also be brought to Cite Soleil after they were kidnapped. But officers erected roadblocks to prevent this, Doussous said.

"Mercifully, the gangs didn't manage to bring them to Cite Soleil," police spokesman Frantz Lerebours said.

Doussous denied local radio reports that a ransom of about $50,000 was paid for the release of the children and their driver, and said intense public attention on the case had pushed the kidnappers to release the children, aged 5-17. No arrests were made, he said.

Negotiations on ransom for missionary
Doussous had said he was negotiating with the gangs on the ransom.

"These are people who can barely count. We're trying to establish a professional conversation with them," Doussous told The Associated Press.

Doussous said police favored negotiating with the gangs, fearing that a raid on Cite Soleil would ignite a large-scale gun battle, endangering innocent bystanders.

A U.N. peacekeeper was killed by gangs in October during a raid in Cite Soleil to release a kidnap victim.

Many foreign governments and the United Nations have voiced high hopes that the Jan. 8 presidential and legislative elections will help end a long history of political violence in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country.

But many observers say Cite Soleil must first be made secure so gangs lose the capacity to disrupt the vote. U.N. special envoy to Haiti Juan Gabriel Valdes said peacekeepers in armored vehicles have begun reclaiming the slum. The gangs confront U.N. peacekeepers in daily gun battles.

Doussous said gangs were kidnapping people to raise money to buy more ammunition, but that the kidnappings were not politically motivated.

"This is purely criminal activity," said Doussous. "The gangs need money."

About 1,600 people have been killed since a bloody February 2004 revolt pushed Aristide from power and into exile in South Africa, the Geneva-based Small Arms Survey organization said.