Authorities in Haiti have ordered a night-time curfew after an explosion of violence when gang gunmen overran the two biggest prisons and freed thousands of inmates over the weekend.

A 72-hour state of emergency began on Sunday night. The government said it would set out to find the killers, kidnappers and other criminals who fled.

“The police were ordered to use all legal means at their disposal to enforce the curfew and apprehend all offenders,” said a statement from finance minister Patrick Boivert, the acting prime minister.

Gangs already were estimated to control up to 80% of the capital Port-au-Prince. They are increasingly co-ordinating their actions and choosing once unthinkable targets such as the Central Bank.

Prime Minister Ariel Henry travelled abroad last week to try to salvage support for a United Nations-backed security force to help stabilise Haiti in its conflict with the increasingly powerful crime groups.

Haiti’s National Police has roughly 9,000 officers to provide security for more than 11 million people, according to the UN. They are routinely overwhelmed and outgunned.

The deadly weekend marked a new low in Haiti’s downward spiral of violence. At least nine people had been killed since Thursday – four of them police officers – as gangs stepped up co-ordinated attacks on state institutions in Port-au-Prince, including the international airport and national football stadium.

But the attack on the National Penitentiary late Saturday shocked Haitians who are accustomed to living under the constant threat of violence.

Almost all of the estimated 4,000 inmates escaped. Three bodies with gunshot wounds lay at the prison entrance on Sunday.

Haiti Protest
A motorcyclist rides past burning tyres (Odelyn Joseph/AP)

Among the few dozen people who chose to stay in prison are 18 former Colombian soldiers accused of working as mercenaries in the July 2021 assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moise.

“Please, please help us,” one of the men, Francisco Uribe, said in a message widely shared on social media. “They are massacring people indiscriminately inside the cells.”

Colombia’s foreign ministry has called on Haiti to provide “special protection” for the men.

A second Port-au-Prince prison containing around 1,400 inmates was also overrun.

Gunfire was reported in several neighbourhoods in the capital. Internet service for many residents was down as Haiti’s top mobile network said a cable connection was slashed during the rampage.

After gangs opened fire at Haiti’s international airport last week, the US embassy said it was halting all official travel to the country. On Sunday night, it urged all American citizens to depart as soon as possible.

Haiti Prison Break
An inmate stands at the National Penitentiary in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Sunday (Odelyn Joseph/AP)

The Biden administration, which has refused to commit troops to any multinational force for Haiti while offering money and logistical support, said it was monitoring the rapidly deteriorating security situation with grave concern.

The surge in attacks follows violent protests that turned deadlier in recent days as the prime minister went to Kenya seeking to move ahead on the proposed UN-backed security mission to be led by that East African country.

Mr Henry took over as prime minister following Mr Moise’s assassination and has postponed plans to hold parliamentary and presidential elections, which have not happened in almost a decade.

Jimmy Cherizier, a former elite police officer known as Barbecue who now runs a gang federation, has claimed responsibility for the surge in attacks. He said the goal is to capture Haiti’s police chief and government ministers and prevent Mr Henry’s return.

The prime minister, a neurosurgeon, has shrugged off calls for him to resign and did not comment when asked if he felt it was safe to come home.