PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The 10 U.S. missionaries charged with kidnapping for trying to take a busload of children out of Haiti should be released from jail while an investigation continues, a Haitian judge said Thursday, giving the Americans their best news since their arrests nearly two weeks ago.
Judge Bernard Saint-Vil has the final word on whether to free the missionaries, though he gave the prosecutor-general the opportunity to raise objections. He said he was accepting defense attorneys' request to provisionally free the Americans while an investigation of the case continues.
It is unclear when the missionaries, most from a Baptist church group from Idaho, might be released, and Saint-Vil said it was too early to say whether they would be able to leave Haiti if granted provisional freedom.
It is also unclear what bearing releasing the missionaries might have on whether they go to trial.
Saint-Vil on Thursday privately questioned the last of a group of parents who said they willingly gave their children to the Baptist missionaries, believing the Americans would educate and care for them.
"After listening to the families, I see the possibility that they can all be released," Saint-Vil said. "I am recommending that all 10 Americans be released."
Saint-Vil said he delivered his recommendation to prosecutor Josephe Mannes Louis on Thursday. Louis said he would respond with his own recommendation next week. Haitian government offices are closed today for a national day of mourning.
The Americans were charged last week with child kidnapping and criminal association after being arrested Jan. 29 while trying to take 33 children, ages 2 to 12, across the border to an orphanage they were trying to set up in the Dominican Republic.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Thursday that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had not personally intervened in the case, as the U.S.-based legal team for one of the missionaries, Jim Allen of Amarillo, Texas, requested in a Tuesday letter.
Haitian government officials view the case both as a distraction to the greater issues of earthquake relief and as a matter of national sovereignty. Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive has lamented the fact that journalists are paying more attention to 10 Americans than the 3 million Haitians in need of help.
police, troops offered: Sixteen countries, including Bangladesh and Rwanda, have offered to provide the 3,500 extra troops and police officers that the United Nations requested to beef up security and ensure aid is delivered to earthquake victims, the U.N. peacekeeping chief said Thursday.
Stopped at sea: In the first major interdiction at sea since Haiti's earthquake, nearly 80 Haitian nationals found last Saturday aboard an overloaded freighter west of the Bahamas were stopped and returned to Haiti, the Coast Guard reported Thursday.
Shelter's urgency: A predawn rain soaked tens of thousands living in rudimentary shelters in Haiti's capital Thursday, an alarming taste of the havoc a sustained tropical downpour could wreak on this earthquake-ravaged country. Most of the estimated 1.2 million people that the U.N. says are living in temporary camps across Haiti dwell in simple structures made of bed sheets and plastic sheeting. Officials warn that more permanent shelter is needed before the rainy season begins within weeks.