US military vet recounts arrests in Haiti to AP

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — An American security contractor at the center of a mysterious case roiling Haitian politics says that he and a group of fellow veterans were sent to Haiti on a mission to protect a businessman signing a more than $50 million contract at the country's central bank.

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Chris Osman, a 44-year-old retired Navy SEAL, told The Associated Press that he and six fellow contractors were arrested by Haitian police during what was supposed to be a simple Sunday afternoon reconnaissance of the route their client would take to the bank the following day, Feb. 18.

"It went bad for us," he said in the first on-the-record interview by any of the arrested men. "I don't know what the real truth is."

Osman said he and his fellow contractors — carrying a dozen semi-automatic rifles and pistols, along with satellite phones and other gear — had pulled away from the bank when they were stopped by police and detained for three days before they were set free by Haiti's Justice Ministry and allowed to fly home to the U.S., where they were released without charges.

The contractors' unexplained release and the still-murky nature of their mission have helped fuel political chaos in Haiti, where President Jovenel Moise has faced months of protests over his government's failure to prosecute the theft and mismanagement of $2 billion in subsidized oil aid from Venezuela under the administration of his predecessor and political patron, Michel Martelly.

Neither Moise's administration nor the American ambassador in Haiti, Michele Sison, has offered any explanation of the U.S. contractors' mission in Haiti or the reason for their release, which appeared to violate Haitian criminal procedure. Moise's allies in the lower house of Parliament dissolved the Haitian government by dismissing Prime Minister Jean-Henry Ceant on Monday hours before he was due to testify in the Senate about the American contractors' case.

Communications Minister Jean-Michel Lapin was being named interim prime minister Thursday, but there seemed little likelihood that the government would be able to bring stability to a country gripped by rising inflation, energy shortages and popular discontent. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio flew to Haiti Wednesday for meetings with the president and opposition in which, the senator said on Twitter, he discussed the formation of a new government and the need for "good faith dialogue" and parliamentary elections scheduled for October.

News site The Intercept reported Wednesday, citing anonymous sources, that one of the contractors, 52-year-old Marine veteran Kent Kroeker, had been told the mission was to escort presidential aide Fritz Jean-Louis to the Haitian central bank, who would electronically transfer $80 million from the government's Venezuela oil fund to a second account controlled solely by the president in order to give Moise greater power over the government's limited funds.

Osman said that report did not match his experience in several key ways.

Osman said he received a call from Hawkstorm Global, a security company based in Dallas, Texas, about a job in Haiti to provide private security for a client of the Bank of the Republic of Haiti for $1,000 a day. He said he didn't know the client until he arrived in Haiti on a commercial flight on Feb. 16 and was introduced to Josue Leconte, a Haitian-American businessman with ties to the Moise administration.

Leconte's civil engineering firm, Preble-Rish, has done millions of dollars of business with the Haitian government over the years, according to Jake Johnston, a research associate at the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research who recently published a three-week investigation into the contractors' case. Leconte's partner is related by marriage to former president Martelly.

"These are not just acquaintances, but people who for decades are basically family," Johnston said. The only Haitian arrested in the case, Michael Estera, is a driver who has worked for Preble-Rish for many years, according to his lawyer.

Leconte told the AP when reached by phone that he could not talk about the case and had no comment before hanging up. Meanwhile, spokesman Jean Baden Dubois said the governor of Haiti's central bank was on a business trip in Qatar and unavailable for comment.

The contractors were told that they would be escorting Leconte from his Port-au-Prince home to the central bank to sign an infrastructure deal with Moise's administration, Osman said, adding that the deal required the signature of at least one high-ranking central bank official, hence the location.

"We were all told that it was a huge contract with (Leconte's) company ... and that his company provides engineering contracts for the government of Haiti and that they were really close friends with the president and that the money was for infrastructure and rebuilding Haiti," Osman said.

On the day they were arrested, the group of four Americans, two Serbian nationals and two Haitian drivers got into two cars owned by Jean-Louis for a reconnaissance mission and to swing by the bank so some team members could talk to people there and let them know what they were doing, he said.

"The actual job didn't even start until the next day," Osman said, adding that he never met or saw Jean-Louis during his time in Haiti, and that the only time he heard the name was when police asked if he knew Jean-Louis while he was in jail.

He said team members Dustin Porte and Talon Ray Burton got out of the car to speak with bank officials or security while the rest of the group stayed inside with weapons nearby. Porte and Burton could not be reached for comment, and Burton's brother did not return a message for comment.

As they pulled away from the bank, Osman said a group of Haitian police officers stopped them and called their superiors. At that moment, Leconte and another man whom Osman identified as team leader and retired Navy SEAL Mike Phillips showed up in one car, and then Kroeker showed up in another car. Osman said police told Leconte and Phillips they could leave, and that Kroeker, a former KC-130 pilot, stayed with the group.

"They literally abandoned us," Osman said of Leconte and Phillips.

Phillips declined to comment and referred requests for interviews to Kroeker, who did not respond to a request for comment.

The group was released Feb. 20. Osman said a police officer simply opened the cell doors, led them to diplomatic vehicles that took them to the airport. He said he didn't know who ordered their release or authorized it. Once they arrived in Miami, he said the FBI and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security interviewed everyone separately for several hours.

"We asked what was going on," Osman said. "They said, 'Nothing, man, you're not going to be charged with anything. ... Welcome home.'"

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Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: https://twitter.com/mweissenstein