President Jose Ramos Horta was induced into a coma and flown to the northern Australian city of Darwin after being shot at his home in the East Timorese capital of Dili.
Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, 61, escaped an attack on his motorcade unhurt.
Shortly after the attacks, Indonesia tightened security at its border with tiny East Timor to prevent rebels escaping into the Indonesian-controlled half of the island.
Army spokesman Maj. Domingos da Camara told news organizations 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.
The manager of the Royal Darwin Hospital said Ramos Horta, 58, had been transfused with 16 units of blood, but doctors were “hopeful of a very good recovery.”
“He has wounds to the abdomen and lower chest. They are very serious wounds, particularly the chest injury is extremely serious,” Dr. Len Notaras told Reuters.
“The next 24 to 48 hours will tell us about his progress. We are optimistic that the good surgical skills here … will mean he will have a good chance of recovery,” Notaras said.
East Timor, a nation of 1 million people, is a former Portugese colony that borders Indonesia and is off the northern coast of Australia. It gained independence in 2002, after years of Indonesian occupation.
“I consider this incident a coup attempt against the state by Reinado and it failed,” Gusmao said, according to the Associated Press. 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.
Gusmao urged the country to stay calm and asked the acting president, deputy speaker of parliament Vicente Guterres, to impose a curfew in the capital until Wednesday.
“I also appeal to the people not to spread any false rumors and information,” he said.
The attacks plunged the 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.
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 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.
Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said he would visit East Timor later in the week to inspect security after a request from Gusmao. Australia plans to send around 200 quick reaction troops to the country immediately, bringing total troop levels to around 1,000. The neighboring nation also pledged 50 to 70 more police officers to the 1,400 strong U.N.-led force already there.
New Zealand, which has more than 200 soldiers and police in East Timor, was putting additional troops on standby, New Zealand Foreign Minister Phil Goff said.
The streets of Dili were calm Monday, witnesses told various news organizations.
“So far there has been no big public reaction, but there are rumors of unrest and things could become unstable quite quickly,” one diplomat told The New York Times.
Diplomats in Dili told the Times that Ramos Horta was returning from his customary early-morning walk, along the beach below his house on a hillside east of the capital, when he walked into the middle of an escalating argument between his guards and two cars full of Reinado’s men, who began shooting.
The guards returned fire, da Camara 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.
Reinado was arrested, but he broke out of jail along with 56 other prisoners. Despite a major manhunt, he remained free, hiding in East Timor’s heavily wooded mountains.
Despite the outstanding charges, Ramos Horta had met with Reinado on several occasions in recent months to try to persuade him to surrender.
Ramos Horta shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with countryman Bishop Carlos Belo for leading a nonviolent struggle against the Indonesian occupation.
Greg Bearup wrote in the Sydney Morning Herald about his experience spending a week with Ramos Horta to research an article, calling him an easy target “for anyone with a little determination.”
“The only attention he paid to his security staff was to try to get rid of them – he hated their presence and thought it unnecessary,” Bearup wrote. “He would send them home early, or leave
his compound without them, sometimes stopping in the countryside to walk among his people.”