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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Up to 17 Christian missionaries from the United States and Canada and their family members were kidnapped on Saturday in Haiti, officials said.

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Officials said the missionaries were abducted by a gang as they were leaving an orphanage in Port-au-Prince, The New York Times reported. The kidnapped people included children, the newspaper reported.

Update 3:11 p.m. EDT Oct. 17: The missionaries, 16 Americans and a Canadian citizen, including several children, were kidnapped Saturday in the community of Ganthier, the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights, which monitors kidnapping, told the Miami Herald. The group was reportedly taken in the area of La Tremblay after returning from visiting an orphanage.

Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries said on its website that seven women, five men and five children were abducted.

Update 1:35 p.m. EDT Oct. 17: Haitian police inspector Frantz Champagne confirmed to The Associated Press an earlier report by the Miami Herald that the gang blamed for Saturday’s abduction was the 400 Mawozo group. It is the same gang blamed for kidnapping five priests and two nuns earlier this year in Haiti, Champagne said.

Original report: The missionaries were traveling by vehicle Saturday to Titanyen, north of Port-au-Prince, CNN reported.

An audio recording described as a “prayer alert” from Ohio-based Christian Aid Ministries, which was obtained by The Washington Post, stated that “men, women and children” associated with the group were being held by an armed gang.

“The mission field director and the American embassy are working to see what can be done,” the voice on the recording stated. “Pray that the gang members will come to repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.”

The gang believed to be behind the kidnapping is known as 400 Mawozo, according to the Miami Herald. The group operates in the area and is known for attacking vehicles and kidnapping people from cars and buses, the newspaper reported.

“This is the type of kidnapping that 400 Mawozo do; we call it a collective kidnapping where they kidnap any entire bus or car,” Gedeon Jean, who runs the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights in Port-au-Prince, told the Herald. His group monitors kidnapping in the country. Jean said the gang is responsible for about 80% of the kidnappings in Haiti.

Haiti has been in a state of political upheaval for several years, and kidnappings are common, regardless of economic status, the Times reported. However, Saturday’s actions shocked officials because of the number of people abducted, the newspaper reported.

On Monday, gangs shot at a school bus in Port-au-Prince, injuring at least five people, including students, while another public bus was hijacked by a gang, the Times reported.

Details about the kidnappings remain sketchy.

Several Haitian government officials acknowledged reports were “circulating,” but could not immediately confirm the abductions, the Post reported. Pierre Espérance, director of Haiti’s National Human Rights Defense Network, said he had been told by Haitian officials that an unknown number of American missionaries had been kidnapped, the newspaper reported.

Kidnappings have surged in Haiti during 2021 and have increased by nearly 300% since July, CNN reported.

At least 628 kidnappings have occurred since January, with 29 of them foreigners, according to data released earlier this month by the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights.

A U.S. government spokesperson said they were aware of the reports on the kidnapping.

“The welfare and safety of U.S. citizens abroad is one of the highest priorities of the Department of State,” the spokesperson told The Associated Press. The spokesperson declined further comment.