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East Timor leader in hospital after rebel attack

East Timor's president was treated for serious chest wounds in an Australian hospital Monday after rebel soldiers shot him and attacked the prime minister during a failed coup attempt.
/ Source: The Associated Press

East Timor's president was treated for serious chest wounds in an Australian hospital Monday after rebel soldiers shot him and attacked the prime minister during a failed coup attempt. The country's top fugitive was killed in one of the attacks.

The strikes against the two independence icons were a striking reminder of the bitter rivalries beneath the surface in Asia's newest nation and could trigger more unrest and political turmoil.

Neighboring Australia immediately announced it would send more police and troops to help keep peace in East Timor, a desperately poor country that won independence from Indonesia in 2002 after a U.N.-sponsored ballot but has struggled to emerge as a stable nation.

President Jose Ramos-Horta, who won the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize for his nonviolent resistance to the decades-long Indonesian occupation, was shot in the chest and stomach by gunmen who passed by his house in two cars around dawn, officials said.

Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao escaped unhurt after a separate rebel attack on his motorcade an hour after the president was targeted.

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

Ramos-Horta, 58, underwent surgery at an Australian army hospital in East Timor before being sedated, attached to a ventilator and airlifted to a hospital in the northern Australian city of Darwin.

Next few days critical
Dr. Len Notaros, the general manager of Royal Darwin Hospital, said Ramos-Horta had serious chest wounds and an abdominal injury and medics were concerned the president still had bullet fragments in his body.

Notaros said the next two or three days would be crucial, but that "we would be hopeful of a very good recovery."

Gusmao called the attacks a well-planned operation intended to "paralyze the government and create instability."

"I consider this incident a coup attempt against the state by Reinado and it failed," Gusmao said. "This government won't fall because of this." Reinado was among 600 mutinous soldiers dismissed by the government in 2006 — a move that triggered gunbattles between security forces that later spilled over into gang fighting and ethnic unrest.

At least 37 people were killed and more than 150,000 people forced from their homes in the unrest, which also led to the resignation of the country's first post-independence prime minister.

Reinado was arrested but escaped from prison after several months.

He was charged with murder in connection with the 2006 violence, but had remained in hiding and had threatened armed insurrection against the government.

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

Damien Kingsbury, an Australian academic and expert on East Timor, predicted the slain rebel leader's supporters might stage demonstrations, but said the heavy presence of international soldiers and police should be sufficient to maintain order.

Obstacle to peace removed?
Former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer said Reinado's death removed an obstacle to peace in the country.

"The fact he is off the scene altogether will be a good thing for the stability of East Timor," Downer told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

But the U.S. consulting firm Global Insight said other challenges remain, including ongoing political disputes between the government and opposition Fretilin, as well as the simmering rivalry between the military and police forces.

The streets of Dili were calm after the attacks, and Gusmao said an overnight curfew was in place. The United Nations, which controls security in the country, said checkpoints had been set up on main roads.

"I appeal for Reinado's supporters to remain calm and reflect on his death," Gusmao said in a televised address to the nation. "This is not the time for people to kill each other."

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon decried the "brutal and unspeakable attack" on Ramos-Horta and the Security Council scheduled a meeting later Monday to approve a statement condemning it.