Armed smugglers partially thwarted a U.S. Coast Guard operation to remove illegal Haitian migrants from an overloaded boat, holding more than 60 passengers at gunpoint as they fled, the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince said Thursday.
The U.S. Coast Guard cutter Venturous intercepted the smugglers' boat Wednesday near the Haitian barrier island of La Tortue and took on board 35 of its approximately 100 illegal passengers, the Embassy said in a statement. The 26 men and nine women were taken to the nearby northern port city of Cap-Haitien.
But six smugglers armed with pistols threatened other passengers and prevented them from getting aboard the Coast Guard ship, the Embassy said. They then fled in shallow water with 60 migrants still aboard the vessel.
Officials have not said where the migrant-laden boat may be or where it was likely headed.
U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mari Tolliver referred further questions to Haiti's national police, who did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Since October, the Coast Guard has stopped about 1,400 Haitian migrants fleeing the storm-wrecked, impoverished country for the United States.
At least nine people, including a pregnant woman, died earlier this month when an overloaded boat carrying Haitians headed for the U.S. capsized off the Florida coast. The suspected pilot of that boat has been charged in U.S. federal court and could face the death penalty.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said during an April visit to Haiti that Washington is considering requests to grant Temporary Protective Status to an estimated 30,000 Haitians who now live illegally in the United States.
The designation blocks deportations to countries that have suffered natural disasters or conflicts and currently applies to six countries including Somalia, Sudan and El Salvador.
But Clinton said it would likely apply only to those who had already arrived in the United States before President Barack Obama took office, saying "we don't want to encourage other Haitians to make the dangerous journey across the water."
The news comes as Haitians and Haitian-Americans are mourning the death of Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste, a 62-year-old Haitian Roman Catholic priest noted for his advocacy on behalf of migrants. He died Wednesday in Miami from stroke complications and a lung problem.
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