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Failed Timor assassination may lessen rebels' sway

The bold attack on President Ramos-Horta raises key concerns about efforts to rebuild security forces.

By Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor, Correspondents of The Christian Science Monitor / February 12, 2008

Unscathed: Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao spoke Monday after escaping injury in a separate attack the same day.

Lirio Da Fonseca/Reuters


BANGKOK, THAILAND; and Sydney, Australia

A foiled dawn attack Monday by rebel soldiers on East Timor's President Jose Ramos-Horta, who was shot and seriously wounded, has roiled this fledgling Southeast Asian country. But it may also signal the end of a rebel movement that had plagued efforts to restore stability.

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Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who survived a separate ambush shortly after as he drove to his office, appealed for calm as Timorese security forces, backed by Australian-led peacekeepers, patrolled the capital, Dili. Mr. Ramos-Horta was evacuated Monday to Australia for further treatment after emergency care. At press time, doctors said he was in critical condition but were hopeful of a good recovery.

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said Monday he was sending 200 extra soldiers and police to East Timor, raising Australia's deployment to around 1,000 personnel. "Deeply shocked" by the violence, he also said he had agreed to an invitation from Gusmao to visit the country later this week in a show of support.

"For there to be a coordinated attempt to assassinate the democratically elected leadership of a close friend and neighbor of Australia's is a deeply disturbing development," Mr. Rudd told a news conference in Canberra, Australia.

Gusmao said the attacks were organized by Alfredo Reinado, an Army major who deserted in 2006 during a mutiny that plunged the country into turmoil and prompted the arrival of international peacekeepers. Mr. Reinado died in Monday's assault on the president's house, along with one of his soldiers, Gusmao said. "I consider this incident a coup attempt against the state by Reinado and it failed," he told a press conference.

The involvement of Reinado came as little surprise, say analysts, as he had recently threatened to confront the government, which has tried but failed to negotiate his surrender and disarm his men. His death could weaken the cohesion of his faction, while rallying popular sympathy for Ramos-Horta and Gusmao, allowing the country to move on.

But the boldness of Monday's attack on the country's two most powerful figures may undermine confidence in East Timor's security forces, which foreign trainers have tried to rebuild after their meltdown two years ago.

It also pointed up the complexities of reconciliation in Asia's poorest country, where tens of thousands are still living in shelters after fleeing that fighting, and where criminal gangs recruit idle youth left adrift in a stricken economy.

The 2006 unrest led to a realignment among Timor's political elite, whose divisions were shaped by a bitter independence struggle against Indonesian occupation, which ended in 1999. Ramos-Horta and Gusmao forced out former Prime Minister Mari Alkatiri, who was blamed for the Army mutiny, paving the way for largely peaceful elections last year that put the longtime allies in charge of the shaky government.