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American Diplomacy
Foreign Service Life

April 1999

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PRESENT AT THE FOOTNOTE
 

 

Port-au-Prince, Haiti
Jan. 27, 1973

Dear Everyone,

Well folks, for a change we had some excitement around here last week. Ambassador [Clinton E.] Knox and Ward Christensen, the chief of the consular section, were kidnapped and held some 20 hours at the residence by terrorists -- as you well know from news reports. They were finally released unharmed, of course, but it was a harrowing, nervous period.

I thought you might be interested in some of the details -- and my own intrepid role in the affair. It began late Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 23, when the Ambassador’s car was waylaid by three assailants in a small Honda auto on the winding road that leads up to the residence and the Petionville Club. The Ambassador was forced at gunpoint to accompany the kidnappers to the residence in the Honda, the Ambassador’s chauffeur taking off like a scared rabbit to sound the alarm. Christensen shortly thereafter was called to the residence by the Ambassador and he too was taken prisoner.

Then commenced prolonged negotiations between the Ambassador and his uninvited guests, the National Palace downtown, the Department of State in Washington and the Embassy, also downtown. The French ambassador, Dorin,and the Canadian Charge, Wood, acted as personal go-betweens. Innumerable extended telephone calls beck and forth to Washington were

Excitement Around Here Last Week!

Continuing a series that we at American Diplomacy hope will attract more contributors from the ranks of our readers, the editor shares a letter he sent to several of his family members from one of his posts in the Foreign Service.

The episode, concerning a diplomatic kidnapping now perhaps nearly forgotten, is recounted exactly as remembered shortly after the incident occurred—nothing is changed.

Let us know by email
if you have such a story you can share with us.

~Ed

 

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made, going on all night and all the next day. In fact, there was an open long-distance line between the Presidential Palace end the Department of State all night, and between the Embassy and the Department all night and all the next day.


Finally, about 2:00 am Wednesday, after various things had been straightened out with the Mexican and Haitian governments, agreement was reached for release of the hostages and departure of the kidnappers, along with 12 prisoners to be released from jail, by Haitian plane to Mexico. A ransom of $70,OOO also was to be paid by the Haitian government. By that time, 2:OO am, a high powered team was on its way from Washington by special jet to oversee all this and to continue negotiations.

All very well so far, but it was still a very dicey situation and it was yet to be hours before it was all resolved and the Ambassador and Christensen were safe. At 6:00 am Wednesday the team from Washington, including Deputy Under Secretary [William B.] Macomber [Jr], arrived at Port-au-Prince and went straight to the Palace. The Ambassador and Christensen, of course, were still being held at gunpoint; in fact, Christensen was tied up all night. Where was I when all this was going on? Well you might ask. As a matter of fact, I was sound asleep at home in Bourdon, about a mile away. Our phone

  
 

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was (and is) out of order and I had not been notified. As the night wore on this came to be a deliberate decision because the officers then involved knew that that they were going to be exhausted and someone fresh would be needed to carry on.

Anyway, about 6:00 am I was sent for urgently and went in to the Embassy unshaven, without coffee, and dressed very very quickly in sport clothes. There I was to remain for the next 16 hours, including 11 hours straight on an open line to the Department of State passing on all available information as the drama drew to a climax. My dulcet tones, I am told, were broadcast all this time over a loudspeaker system in the Operations Center of the Department for the benefit of a large group, including the Secretary, gathered there to see the thing through. This, I fear, is my only claim to fame in the famous affair.

By about ll:30 am our people, the hostages, had been taken to the airport by the abductors and all was set for the transfer. The 12 prisoners had also been transferred there, and a Haitian DC-6 drawn up on the runway in front of the terminal. The Ambassador and Christensen were then, finally, led away from their captors by the French and Mexican ambassadors -- just as a PanAm jet arrived with a great roar, scaring us all to death because of the racket and our inability to interpret over the radio just what it was and what was going on. (All of this I was

 
  

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reporting second by second to Washington as information came in to me from various sources of varying reliability.) When it was definitely confirmed that our people were safe and unhurt, there was a tremendous sense of relief here and in Washington. There was another delay of about three hours before the Air Haiti plane left for Mexico, but as far as we were concerned, the traumatic period was over.

I stayed on the phone until late in the afternoon and had to call Washington again a few times in the evening. Eventually we closed up our emergency status and things gradually returned to normal. The Ambassador left the next day for Washington and a medical check and rest, but Christensen is still here holding forth at the same old stand. Port-au-Prince again is just as quiet as ever. The scene is tranquil, the sky is blue, everything is normal. I suppose we will have to institute some security measures here, as is the case in many Latin American countries, but that is yet to be decided and arranged. It will be a pain in the neck, and a chore. But meanwhile, believe me, there is no need to worry.

Henry

 


 

A postscript: The Department of State decided that Ambassador Knox should not return to the post. He retired not long afterward, meanwhile being replaced temporarily as chargé d'affaires by Tom Corcoran. Ward Christensen was soon sent to Salzburg, Austria, as consul and principal officer. The last I heard (and this quite some time ago), the Mexican government bundled the three kidnappers off to Cuba.  

~ Ed.

 



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