By Harold Isaac
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) -Haiti's police chief, Frantz Elbe, said on Monday he would launch an operation to recover the bodies of followers of an evangelical minister who led a deadly protest against a heavily armed gang controlling a suburb of the capital.
At least seven people were killed when gang members opened fire using machine guns in the northern suburb of Canaan on Saturday, according to local rights group CARDH, which said the death toll may be as high as 20, though investigations are ongoing and the area is not currently accessible.
Haiti's national police - which has struggled to battle the country's powerful gangs - said in a statement it condemned the protest of several hundred people led by Marcorel Zidor, known as Pastor Marco, of the Evangelical Piscine de Bethesda church.
Many Haitians since April have joined civilian self-defense groups known as "Bwa Kale," to protect communities against violent gangs that now control large parts of the country and whose frequent turf wars have driven a devastating humanitarian crisis.
The movement has inspired hope but also sparked retaliation against civilians and stirred fears that the groups are spurring on the violence.
Police had tried to stop Saturday's protest, but demonstrators managed to get around the security detail, the PNH said in a statement, adding that some of that organizers wore olive-green uniforms and carried assault rifles and machetes.
The gang, led by a man known as Jeff, was armed with an "arsenal of war," the PNH said.
Videos circulated on social media showed some protesters carrying sticks or machetes, though many were unarmed.
Zidor defended the protest in an interview with Mega Radio on Monday, saying those who were shot at had lost faith.
"Those who died are those who went to hide in the houses," said Zidor. "Ninety-five percent of my parishioners were being shot at, none of them got hit," he said.
CARDH said Zidor's lawyers had requested a meeting with the local prosecutor be delayed due to health reasons, while the prosecutor called on victims' families to lodge reports.
"I'll do it again," Zidor said," when asked if he would do so despite the death toll.
'TIME TO ENFORCE THE LAW'
Unverified videos on social media showed people being shot at in the street, bodies lying on the ground and people who appear to be hostages saying they thought the march was peaceful and had no idea it was about taking on the gang.
Some of the bodies seen in the videos were lying outside dressed in yellow and white shirts with "Pastor Marco" logos.
In a statement on Sunday, rights group FJKL said that encouraging violence in pastoral speeches is punishable by three to 15 years imprisonment under Haitian law.
"Those who provoked this massacre as well as those who acted it must answer for their actions," the group said. "It is time to enforce the law."
The organization pointed to another protest on Sunday by followers of a religious leader known as Pastor Edrice, which had looked to confront the gang led by Vitel'Homme Innocent, though they were prevented by police.
(Reporting by Harold Isaac in Port-au-Prince and Sarah Morland in Mexico CityEditing by Matthew Lewis and Leslie Adler)