President wounded in attack on East Timor's leadership

Eds: UPDATES with more details on Australia's role, prez sent to Darwin.

AP Photo EKW101, EKW104, EKW105, EKW106


Associated Press Writer

DILI, East Timor (AP) -- Rebel soldiers shot and seriously wounded East Timor's president and opened fire on the prime minister Monday as part of a failed coup attempt in the recently independent nation, officials said. A top rebel leader was killed during one of the attacks.

President Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace laureate, was injured in the stomach and was in serious but stable condition, while Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao escaped the attack on his motorcade unhurt.

Army spokesman Maj. Domingos da Camara said notorious rebel leader Alfredo Reinado and one of his men were killed in the attack against the home of Ramos-Horta, while one of the president's guards also died.

"I consider this incident a coup attempt against the state by Reinado and it failed," Gusmao said. He called it a well-planned operation intended to "paralyze the government and create instability."

"This government won't fall because of this," he said.

The attacks plunged the tiny country into fresh uncertainty after the firing of 600 mutinous soldiers in 2006 triggered unrest that killed 37 people, displaced more than 150,000 others and led to the collapse of the government.

Australia announced it would send scores more soldiers to the international peacekeeping force it heads in the country.

Reinado was one of several army commanders who joined the mutiny. While most have returned to their homes, Reinado and an unknown number of armed supporters had remained in hiding, refusing pleas to surrender.

Ramos-Horta underwent surgery in an Australian army hospital in East Timor, officials said. He was then flown to the northern Australian city of Darwin for further treatment, said Ian Badham, a spokesman for medical evacuation service CareFlight International. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Ramos-Horta was in "very serious but stable," condition.

Gusmao urged the country to stay calm. "I also appeal to the people not to spread any false rumors and information," he said.

Two cars carrying rebel soldiers passed Ramos-Horta's house on the outskirts of the capital, Dili, at around 7 a.m. local time and began shooting, da Camara said. The guards returned fire, he said. Reinado, former head of the military police, took part in the attack and was killed.

Reinado was due to go on trial in absentia for his alleged role in several deadly shootings between police and military units during the violence in 2006. He was briefly arrested but escaped from jail later in 2006 and had since evaded capture.

Despite the outstanding charges, Ramos-Horta had met on several occasions with Reinado in recent months to persuade him to give himself up.

The attack on Gusmao's car was led by another of the rebel commanders, Gustao Salsinha, said one of Gusmao's bodyguards, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to address the media.

Australian-led troops restored calm after the 2006 turmoil and peaceful elections were held in which Ramos-Horta was elected president and Gusmao prime minister. Low-level violence had continued in the country of 1 million people since then.

Australia said Monday it would send extra help, including a "company strength" deployment of troops. Australia has almost 800 troops and dozens of police in the country. Troop numbers in East Timor would total about 1,000 after the new deployment, Rudd said. The neighboring nation also pledged more police officers to the 1,400 strong U.N.-led force already there.

"Someone out there tried to assassinate the political leadership of our friend, partner and neighbor," Rudd said. "They have asked for some help, and we are about to provide it."

Deposed Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has maintained Ramos-Horta's government was illegitimate. His political party immediately condemned Monday's attacks in a statement released to the media.

East Timor, a former Portuguese colony, gained independence in 2002 after voting to break free from more than two decades of brutal Indonesian occupation in a U.N.-sponsored ballot.

Gusmao, who led the armed struggle against the occupation, has vowed along with Ramos-Horta to tackle rampant poverty and restore damaged relations between the country's police and army.

The Brussels-based International Crisis Group warned last month that East Timor risked lapsing back into unrest if lingering resentment following the 2006 violence was not addressed by the government and the United Nations.

Ramos-Horta shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with countryman Bishop Carlos Belo for leading a nonviolent struggle against the occupation.