Failed Timor assassination may lessen rebels' sway

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

Lirio Da Fonseca/Reuters
Unscathed: Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao spoke Monday after escaping injury in a separate attack the same day.

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.

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.

But various initiatives to bring Reinado back into the fold failed to jell, to the mounting frustration of Gusmao – a former resistance leader and independence hero. Reinado, who was wanted on murder charges, was blamed for a recent spate of nonlethal attacks on Australia troops. Yesterday's apparent assassination plots may have been a sign of desperation by a rebel whose popularity was waning.

"In the short-term there will be a lot of fearfulness because some of his supporters are still running around with guns, but for the long-term one of the government's major headaches is now out of the way," says Helen Hill, an East Timor expert at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia.

Sophia Cason, an analyst for the International Crisis Group, says other renegade factions had tired of hiding out and sought a settlement without Reinado and other hold-outs.

"His support was definitely dwindling. Some of the other [ex-soldiers] had already come for dialogue with Xanana Gusmao. [Reinado] may have been feeling that he had fewer options available," she says.

Other observers warned, however, that Reinado loyalists may stage reprisals and seize on his death as a form of martyrdom, further destabilizing the country.

"There's a sense among people in the security sector that we've been in the eye of the storm for the last few weeks and it's going to get more turbulent," says a US aid worker in Dili.

That status as a martyr may be burnished by rumors that Reinado was betrayed by Gusmao and other negotiators. One story circulated Monday by Reinado supporters claimed that he had died before the attacks took place. Perhaps to debunk such rumor, Gusmao has pledged that a full autopsy will be carried out.

East Timor is part of what military strategists call an "arc of instability" to Australia's north, including states such as Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Its modern history has been marked by violence, upheaval, and internal strife. Ramos-Horta and Gusmao were key players in much of the drama.

After Indonesia seized the former Portuguese colony in 1974, former journalist Ramos-Horta became a roving diplomat for Timorese independence. He campaigned in exile to keep his nation's occupied status on the agenda and highlight Indonesia's military rule. In 1996, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Bishop Carlos Belo for his work. Meanwhile, Gusmao led a ragged resistance to Indonesia's rule until his capture in 1992 and detention in a Jakarta jail.

Gusmao and Ramos-Horta returned to their homeland in 1999, after Timorese voted overwhelmingly to secede from Indonesia in a UN-sponsored referendum. The result of the ballot triggered widespread violence by Indonesian-backed militia and a scorched-earth retreat by Indonesian troops. East Timor declared independence in 2002, after three years of United Nations rule, the first new nation-state of the 21st century.

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