VENICE, Fla. — Authorities are trying to rescue 17 kidnapped members of a U.S.-based missionary group.
FBI agents and other U.S. officials are helping Haitian authorities find 12 adults, one of them Canadian, and five children linked to Christian Aid Ministries in Ohio.
The group was kidnapped Saturday during a trip to visit an orphanage.
The gang, known as '400 Mawozo', has claimed responsibility for the kidnapping and is now seeking a $17 million ransom for the release of the abducted missionaries, according to reports citing the FBI and Haitian authorities.
The group has worked with Venice-based charity flight charter, Agape Flights. Agape Flights is known for flying a charter plane loaded with personnel and supplies into Haiti during natural disasters and crises.
Many missionary groups work with them not only to transport donations but to also transport their teams to some of the more remote regions.
"Hundreds of mission partners rely on Agape Flights to transport the mail and supplies they need while living and working on the mission field in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and the Bahamas," reads a statement on the organization's website.
"They’re trying to feed hungry, they’re trying to share the Gospel, the Good News with folks there. They’re trying to equip the people to have sustainability and help them get jobs," said Allen Speer, CEO, Agape Flights.
This recent kidnapping is the largest reported incident of its kind in recent years in the country. Local media have reported that the Haitian gangs have grown more brazen.
The gangs have been accused of kidnapping schoolchildren, doctors, police officers, bus passengers and others as they grow more powerful.
"This particular gang has been noted for targeting expats, targeting missionaries who are in-country, targeting even nationals like pastors," Speer said.
"They could be on the way to preach a sermon, on the way to church and they would abduct a pastor or a doctor or a local business owner. So they are pretty ruthless and they are watching people that they think have some sort of substance sort or money," he said.
The U.S. has a policy of not paying ransoms because the money likely funds gangs and terrorist groups and encourages copy-cats. The White House has not released details about the victims due to privacy regulations.