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22 June 2024

Timor president shot as rebels attack leadership

By Agencies



Rebel soldiers opened fire on the homes of East Timor's two top leaders Monday in coordinated attacks that wounded president and Nobel peace laureate Jose Ramos-Horta, the government said.

Rebel boss Alfredo Reinado was killed in the attack at Ramos-Horta's house, the deputy premier said, as the fledgling nation was plunged into fresh turmoil following 2006 unrest that saw international peacekeepers deployed to restore calm.

Reinado was a key figure in the unrest and was arrested on charges of illegal weapons distribution, desertion and attempted murder. He had however escaped from jail and eluded security forces since then.

Deputy prime minister Jose Luis Guterres said Ramos-Horta, 58, had been injured by gunmen in the pre-dawn attack at his residence on the outskirts of the seaside capital of Dili, but his condition was not life-threatening.

"He will survive, and this country will survive", Guterres told reporters.

Guterres said that two carloads of people went to the president's house at around 6am (2100 GMT) and "assaulted him, but after rapid reaction by security his attackers fled away."

Neighbour Luis Vieira said he was awakened at 6:50 am by an intense exchange of fire coming from the president's residence, which lasted around 20 minutes.

Timorese Foreign Minister Zacarias da Costa said Ramos-Horta had undergone exploratory surgery at an Australian military hospital in Dili. Da Costa described the president's condition as "stable".

"He underwent surgery to locate bullets. One had hit him in the back and passed through to the stomach," he said.

Ramos-Horta was to be evacuated to the Australian city of Darwin for treatment accompanied by his sister, the minister added.

Gunmen attacked the house of Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao shortly after Ramos-Horta came under assault, Guterres also told CNN.

"The attack was on the president's residence around 6:00 (2100 GMT Sunday) and at around 7:30 they ambushed the prime minister," he said.

A neighbour of Gusmao, Leandro Isa'ac said "rounds of automatic fire were fired against Xanana's residence".

Gusmao and his Australian wife Kirsty Sword live at Balibar, in the foothills south of Dili.

Addressing a press briefing, Gusmao said that the situation was under control.

"Even though the state has been attacked by an armed group and the president was wounded, the state is in control of stability... The current situation is proceeding normally and is under control," Gusmao said.

East Timor rebel leader Reinado was shot dead at Ramos-Horta's residence, Guterres said. "Major Reinado was killed and at the same time one of the presidential guards was injured," Guterres said.

"They attacked the head of state and the supreme commander of this country and the reaction of the security guards provoked his death," he said, adding that security forces were hunting for more of the attackers.

The attack came amid heightening tension in East Timor after Reinado and his gang fired warning shots on a UN police patrol last week when the patrol stumbled on the rebels.

Unrest two years ago was initially triggered when the government sacked about 600 soldiers who had deserted, complaining of discrimination.

Factions within the security forces clashed on Dili's streets, leading to at least 37 deaths and forcing East Timor's government to call for international peacekeepers to be deployed to restore stability.

More than 150,000 people were forced from their homes and the majority remain in camps at night, still too concerned about the fragile security situation to return home, or with no homes to return to.

Ramos-Horta was elected president in peaceful elections last year after serving as foreign minister and prime minister, while Gusmao was elected as prime minister after serving as president.

A statement from the UN said that UN police "are on a high state of alert and coordinating with the International Security Forces (ISF)... The United Nations Integrated Mission regrets that such incidents have taken place." (AFP)