East Timor president wounded in rebel attack

Rebel soldiers shot East Timor President and Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta in the stomach at his home in Dili on Monday, while Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao escaped injury in another attack, officials said.

The shootings of East Timor’s two most famous independence figures, in which a key rebel leader was killed, prompted analysts to warn the tiny Southeast Asian nation could suffer renewed violence and political chaos.

Ramos-Horta was in a stable condition following the assassination attempt, Foreign Minister Zacarias da Costa said, while in Dili, residents reported the capital appeared calm.

The president, who shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with compatriot Bishop Carolos Belo for their nonviolent struggle for East Timor’s independence from Indonesian occupation, was being operated on by an Australian military medical team in Dili.

”I was in the heliport and yes, he’s in a stable condition, his life is not endangered,” da Costa told CNN television, referring to a heliport at an Australian military base in Dili where Ramos-Horta was taken.

The East Timor President will be flown to an Australian hospital in the city of Darwin for treatment, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd told reporters.

James Dunn, a former adviser to Ramos-Horta and former Australian consul in Dili, told Australian radio the president had been shot twice. One shot had passed through Ramos-Horta’s back and into his stomach, he said.

”He was able to talk and we don’t know how far is the damage,” Ramos-Horta’s sister-in-law, Maria Gabriella Carrascalao, told Australian radio.

Rebel leader Alfredo Reinado was killed in the assault and an East Timor soldier was also seriously wounded, military spokesperson Domingos da Camara said.

A Reuters reporter saw the bodies of the two dead attackers and identified one of them as Reinado.

The military said attackers in two cars were involved in the early morning raid on the president’s isolated home.

International security forces placed a cordon around the house and were patrolling Dili’s streets to prevent further violence.

Gusmao also attacked

Prime Minister Gusmao was also attacked on Monday morning, said Alfredo de Araujo, a member of Gusmao’s security team.

”No one was wounded but Gusmao’s car was damaged by bullets,” said the official, adding that Gusmao’s family had been taken to a military compound for protection.

The United Nations said Gusmao was coordinating with the United Nations mission in the country and international forces.

Aid worker Mauricio Borges told Reuters Dili appeared calm.

”Dili is safe. There are no riots in the capital. But there is heavy patrolling by the police and military police,” Borges said, adding many helicopters were flying over the capital.

Borges said Gusmao had spoken on national radio and appealed to East Timorese to stay indoors and not spread rumours.

”The attack against the state has failed,” the aid worker quoted Gusmao as saying. The prime minister said his driver was wounded and his car badly damaged in the attack against him.

East Timor has been struggling to get back on its feet after the army tore apart along regional lines in 2006.

The factional bloodshed two years ago killed 37 people and drove 150 000 from their homes, with foreign troops needed to restore order between warring neighbourhoods.

Reinado had led a revolt against the government and was charged with murder during the 2006 factional violence. Rebels loyal to Reinado fired on Australian troops patrolling near Dili earlier this month, an Australian commander said at the time.

Some analysts warned the attack on Ramos-Horta and killing of Reinado could spark another outbreak of violence and lead to a collapse of the government, if supporters of rebel leader Reinado pulled out of the coalition.

”Prime Minister Xanana is going to have to work very hard to ensure the government retains its cohesion. It’s a crisis now,” said Damien Kingsbury, associate professor at Australia’s Deakin University

Security analyst Alan Dupont, from Sydney think tank the Lowy Institute, said the shooting was grim news for East Timor.

”It is seriously going to destabilise East Timor further at a time when they looked to be recovering from the problems of the last 12 to 18 months,” said Dupont.

Australia, which has around 800 troops in East Timor, will reinforce that contingent, Rudd said.

The former Portuguese colony of almost one million people gained independence in 2002 in a UN sponsored referendum after more than two decades of brutal Indonesian occupation. – Reuters

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