President Jovenel Moïse of Haiti was assassinated in an attack in the early hours of Wednesday at his home on the outskirts of the capital, Port-au-Prince, the prime minister said.
Mr. Moïse’s wife, Martine Moïse, was also shot in the attack, Prime Minister Claude Joseph said in a statement. Her condition was not immediately clear.
“A group of unidentified individuals, some of them speaking Spanish, attacked the private residence of the president of the republic and thus fatally wounded the head of state,” the prime minister said.
“The country’s security situation is under the control of the Haitian police and the armed forces of Haiti,” he added, saying that all measures were being taken to protect the nation.
The news rocked the impoverished Caribbean island nation 675 miles southeast of Miami. Haiti has a long history of dictatorships and coups, and democracy has never fully taken root. The country has been rocked recently by protests against the president’s rule, and has also has seen a surge in gang activity.
Didier le Bret, the former French ambassador to Haiti, told France 24 that an already volatile political situation threatened to spin further out of control. A new prime minister, Dr. Ariel Henry, was scheduled to be sworn into office on Wednesday. Because that had not happened, it was not clear who was running the country, he said.
“It is a big question mark,” he said, warning that the situation could lead to wider violence.
Mr. Moïse had been struggling to quell growing public anger over his attempt to hold onto power despite the opposition’s insistence that his term had expired.
He has been ruling by decree for more than a year. Many, including jurists, contend that his term ended in February.
The opposition said that Mr. Moïse’s five-year term should have ended on Feb. 7, five years to the day since his predecessor, Michel Martelly, stepped down. When Mr. Moïse refused to leave office, thousands of Haitians took to the streets, setting trash and tires on fire as they demanded his resignation.
In response, the government announced the arrest of 23 people, including a top judge and a senior police officer, who the president said had tried to kill him and overthrow the government.
“The goal of these people was to make an attempt on my life,” President Moïse said at the time. “That plan was aborted.”
Mr. Moïse insisted that he had one more year to serve, because his term did not begin until a year after the vote that brought him to the top office. He argued that accusations of electoral fraud had led to that delay.
Even before the unrest, the president did not have a wide public mandate. He won the 2016 election with just under 600,000 votes in a country of 11 million. Critics accused him of becoming more autocratic as he pressed ahead with an aggressive agenda that included rewriting the country’s Constitution.
Among the provisions he was pushing for was one that would grant Haiti’s leader immunity for any actions while in office.
“We need a system that works,” Mr. Moïse said in a telephone interview with The New York Times in March. “The system now doesn’t work. The president cannot work to deliver.”
The United States, whose support is critical for Haiti, had called on the country to hold presidential and legislative elections as soon as technically feasible. It also opposed the effort to draft a new constitution along the lines Mr. Moïse proposed.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken outlined the Biden administration’s tougher stance during a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in June.
Haiti won its independence in 1804, after Haitians rose up against colonial France. The country held its first free and fair election in 1990.
The protests this year were part of broader unrest, with heavily armed gangs clashing on the streets and attacking police stations.
“While exact numbers are still unclear, preliminary estimates suggest that thousands of people have fled their homes and sought shelter with host families or settled in informal shelters,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said last month in a report on the situation.
Harold Isaac, Elian Peltier and Constant Méheut contributed reporting.