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Coup Bid Injures E. Timor's Leader

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

The president of the world's newest nations, East Timor, is fighting for his life today. Nobel laureate Jose Ramos-Horta is in critical condition after an apparent assassination attempt in the capital, Dili. He's been airlifted to an Australian hospital in an induced coma. The country's prime minister has declared a 48-hour state of emergency after he survived a separate attack. Rebel soldiers fired at the prime minister in what officials are calling a well-coordinated coup attempt.

The tiny nation won its independence from Indonesia six years ago. NPR's Southeast Asia correspondent Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: Officials say Ramos-Horta was wounded at around 7:00 a.m. local time when two car loads of rebel soldiers arrived at his home on the outskirts of the capital and opened fire. One of his guards was killed in the attack, and so was a top rebel leader, former Major Alfredo Reinado. Reinado was a leader of the 2006 rebellion that helped spark widespread violence in and around the capital, violence that left 37 dead and caused at least 100,000 more to flee their homes.

Alan Dupont directs the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Sydney. He says the issues that prompted that rebellion and the violence that followed are still unresolved.

Mr. ALAN DUPONT (Director, Center for International Security Studies): The root cause of it is in the grievances by people from the west who felt that after independence, that the easterners had come to dominate the island's affairs at the expense of those in the west.

So Reinado represented those groups of disaffected people. So even with his demise this morning, those grievances haven't been addressed and are likely to fester on unless there's some attempt by the government to bring about conciliation with them.

SULLIVAN: Long time Timor watcher Damien Kingsbury of Deakin University in Melbourne agrees. He expects some trouble in the next few days, but doesn't expect today's attacks to affect the overall security situation in the long run.

Dr. DAMIEN KINGSBURY (Deakin University, Australia): I think there's a big difference in having a lot of disgruntled people getting out and protesting and making a fuss about it and actually staging an up rise and such. And you have to keep in mind that the international stabilization force is still in place in East Timor, and it has, I think, a quite sufficient capacity to control the environment there should things boil over as we would expect.

SULLIVAN: Edward Reese, a former consultant with the International Crisis Group who has just returned from East Timor's capital Dili, agrees.

Mr. EDWARD REESE (Former consultant, International Crisis Group): I would imagine Dili will be a difficult place, certainly for the coming days and maybe weeks. But I think we'll see it peter out in the short term, and in the medium term, the chronic problems will resurface again.

SULLIVAN: Deakin University's Damien Kingsbury says, in the long run, if President Ramos-Horta recovers, he may be in a better position to deal with those chronic problems of poverty, corruption and political instability.

Dr. KINGSBURY: Sometimes, to survive an assassination attempt is a blessing in disguise. He is going to be seen as a hero, suffering for the cause, trying to do the right thing. He tried to negotiate with Reinado and got shot for his trouble. So really, assuming that Ramos-Horta comes out of this reasonably physically intact, it is actually going to strengthen his political position.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News, Hanoi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.