Hundreds of Kenyan police officers have arrived in Haiti as part of a US-backed security intervention aiming to rescue the Caribbean country from a criminal insurrection that toppled the prime minister and brought death and chaos to the streets.

About 400 members of the Kenya-led multinational police operation stepped off a Kenyan Airways plane at Port-au-Prince’s international airport on Tuesday. The US president, Joe Biden, hailed their arrival as the start of “an effort that will bring much-needed relief to Haitians”.

“Rampant gang violence has killed or harmed thousands of children, women, and men. Over half a million people have been displaced … The people of Haiti deserve to feel safe in their homes, build better lives for their families and enjoy democratic freedoms,” Biden said in a statement.

It is not clear what the officers’ first task will be but their objective is to steer Haiti out of a security crisis that has been intensifying since the president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in 2021. Kenyan news reports suggest they will be responsible for defending key infrastructure including the airport, the port, the presidential palace, and the gang-controlled highways connecting the besieged capital with the rest of Haiti.

Biden said the eventual 2,500-strong force would also count on personnel and financial support from Benin, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Belize, Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, Bangladesh, Algeria, Canada, France, Germany, Trinidad and Tobago, Turkey, the UK and Spain.

Kenyan police forces disembarking in Port-au-Prince on 25 June. Photograph: Clarens Siffroy/AFP/Getty Images

In recent months, Haiti’s crisis has reached new extremes, even for a country that has suffered devastating natural disasters such as the 2010 earthquake, and centuries of foreign exploitation and dictatorial rule. The UN says more than 2,500 people have been killed or wounded this year as increasingly powerful gangs launched a coordinated uprising that paralysed the capital and forced the prime minister, Ariel Henry, to resign.

Henry’s replacement, a former Unicef official, Garry Conille, was appointed earlier in June and is tasked with leading the country towards its first elections since 2016.

The international mission will be led by Noor Gabow, a senior Kenyan officer who studied criminology at Bramshill police college in the UK and has experience in peacekeeping operations in Sierra Leone and Rwanda.

There were mixed feelings in Port-au-Prince as rifle-carrying Kenyans in combat gear touched down in a passenger jet emblazoned with the slogan The Pride of Africa.

Many Haitians resent relentless foreign meddling in their affairs, particularly after the 2004-2017 UN stabilisation force, Minustah, was accused of human rights violations, sexual abuse and causing a devastating cholera outbreak.

“The last UN mission ended disastrously,” said Isaïe Delson, 33, a barber forced to abandon his business in downtown Port-au-Prince by this year’s bloodshed. “Will [the Kenyan force] create more injustices?”.

Delson believed the mere announcement of the deployment had already had some effect, with shootings decreasing in recent days. “Some schools have reopened around here, too,” he added.

President William Ruto of Kenya greets a contingent of Kenyan police officers bound for Haiti in Nairobi on 24 June. Photograph: Rebecca Nduku/Presidential Communication Service/EPA

But he felt conflicted about seeing foreign boots on the ground, even if they had come to fight the gangsters who had destroyed his business. “[The gangsters] are also Haitians like me. I’m torn,” he said.

Evelyne Jean, 56, a vendor also displaced by the insurrection and who now sleeps in a temporary camp, was more optimistic. “Oh Jesus Lord! They’re here!” she exclaimed, looking up at the sky, as the Kenyan forces landed. “For me, they should have been here ages ago.”

The 2024 mission will be the fourth large-scale foreign intervention in Haiti since the US president Woodrow Wilson sent marines there after the assassination of the president Jean Vilbrun Guillaume Sam in 1915. The next big intervention, Operation Uphold Democracy, was in 1994, when the US president Bill Clinton ordered troops to return Jean-Bertrand Aristide to the presidency after a military coup.

Clinton claimed that marked “the beginning of a new era of hope for the people of Haiti”. Three decades later, politicians in Nairobi and Washington are using more cautious words.

Kenya’s president, William Ruto, told officers they would “bring hope and relief to communities torn apart by violence and ravaged by disorder”.

Biden said Haitians deserved “what people everywhere deserve: security, opportunity, and freedom”. He acknowledged “these goals may not be accomplished overnight” but said the current US-backed mission provided “the best chance of achieving them”.

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