Rebels shoot East Timor president

Monday, February 11, 2008

José Ramos-Horta in 2006.

José Ramos-Horta, President of East Timor, has been shot by rebel soldiers in an attack on his home near the capital of Dili. He is now undergoing treatment at the Royal Darwin Hospital's intensive care unit in Darwin, Australia.

The military is blaming the shooting on rebel leader Alfredo Reinado, who, along with another attacker, was shot and killed by the president's guards. "The attack was carried out by Alfredo's group," said military spokesman Domingos da Camara. Reinado, a former major, was charged with murder after leading rebel soldiers in the 2006 East Timor crisis.

Camara said the shooting took place at 4:30 am local time, when two cars passed the president's residence in Areia Branca, two kilometers outside of the capital. According to Camara, the group "assaulted him, but after rapid reaction by security, his attackers fled". One of the president's guards was killed in the attack, Camara said.

This wasn't a coincidence, this was a deliberate assassination attempt to take out the Prime Minister and the President.

—Steven Smith, Australian foreign minister

Ramos-Horta's current condition is serious, but stable, according to doctors at the Royal Darwin Hospital. "This is a very traumatic and a nasty event - high-velocity, high-powered weapons shooting somebody in the chest in the abdomen are nasty injuries, but we would be very hopeful and cognoscente of a good recovery," said Len Notaras, the hospital superintendent. Notaras says he has found three bullet wounds, two in the stomach and one in the back.

The president was initially taken to a hospital at an Australian military base in Dili. He was then flown by airplane to Darwin and driven to the hospital under police escort. His sister and mother are in Darwin with him. Ramos-Horta is currently in an induced coma, and it is unclear when the doctors will begin operating.

Januario Freitas, a neighbor of the president, said his wound looked "serious". Maria Gabriela Carrascalao, the president's sister-in-law, said, "He was able to talk. We don't know how far is the damage, let's hope that he's not very, very serious."

Australian and East Timorean troops stepped up sercurity around the capital, while United Nations police sealed off the road leading to Ramos-Horta's house. "UNPol is in a high state of alert in Dili," UN spokeswoman Allison Cooper said.

Local media reported that the home of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao had also come under attack, but a statement released by the United Nations said Gusmao was safe in his office and working with international forces.

"The prime minister is in control of the situation," said East Timor foreign minister Zacarias da Costa. "I think the country is safe. We have the support of the Australian and New Zealand military here ... and I believe our own defenses are capable of handling those problems."

Australia agreed to send 120 more soldiers and up to 70 police to Dili. Australian foreign minister Steven Smith says the troops could be used to capture the other members of Reinado's group, who he believes attempted a coordinated assassination. "This wasn't a coincidence, this was a deliberate assassination attempt to take out the Prime Minister and the President - the two key figures in the duly elected East Timorese Government, and that's why the events of the day are effectively so shocking," Smith said.

This story has updates
See State of emergency declared in East Timor