East Timor's president in critical condition after attack on tiny nation's leadership

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AP Photo EKW101, EKW104, EKW105, EKW106


Associated Press Writer

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

President Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Peace laureate, was injured in the stomach. He was flown to a hospital in Australia in an induced coma, breathing through a ventilator, a spokesman for the company that airlifted him out of East Timor said.

Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao escaped an attack on his motorcade unhurt.

Army spokesman Maj. Domingos da Camara said rebel leader Alfredo Reinado and one of his men were killed in the attack on 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.

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

Australia announced it would send scores more soldiers to the international peacekeeping force it currently heads in the country, bringing total troop levels to around 1,000. 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," Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said. "They have asked for some help, and we are about to provide it."

Ramos-Horta underwent surgery at an Australian army hospital in East Timor before being flown to the northern Australian city of Darwin for further treatment, said Ian Badham, a spokesman for medical evacuation service CareFlight International. Badham said Ramos-Horta was in critical condition, on a ventilator and "in an induced coma."

Earlier, Gusmao urged the volatile 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. 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 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 broke out of jail later the same year and had since evaded capture.

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

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

Australian-led troops restored calm following the 2006 turmoil and Ramos-Horta was elected president in peaceful elections held in May 2007. Low-level violence has continued in the country of 1 million people since then.

Deposed Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri has maintained that Ramos-Horta's government is 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.

Analysts predicted Reinado's supporters may riot in the coming days, but said his death had removed one of the major obstacles to peace in the country. The streets of Dili were calm Monday, witnesses said.

"I've always thought that Major Reinado was a pretty dangerous person, very unstable, (but he) has only had a small amount of support in East Timor," Former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. "Not to wish anyone their death, but the fact he is off the scene altogether will be a good thing for the stability of East Timor."

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