Asia's newest nation reeling after coup attempt on president and prime minister

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The President of East Timor was in a serious but stable condition in hospital last night after rebel soldiers launched a coup attempt that targeted the political leadership of the tiny Asian country.

Jose Ramos-Horta, a Nobel Prize laureate, was flown to Darwin in Australia after being hit in the stomach and chest by bullets when would-be assassins opened fire at his home in the city of Dili. Just an hour later, the motorcade of the Prime Minister, Xanana Gusmao, was also attacked, but he escaped unhurt.

"I consider this incident a coup attempt against the state ... and it failed," said Mr Gusmao, who for years led the armed struggle for East Timor's independence from Indonesia. "This government won't fall because of this."

Officials said the attack on Mr Ramos-Horta was plotted by the rebel leader, Alfredo Reinada, who was killed with one of his men in the assault on the President's house. Another rebel leader, Gustao Salsinha, is said to have committed the attack on Mr Gusmao.

East Timor is Asia's newest nation, having gained independence only in 2002 after years of brutal occupation by the Indonesian authorities that was at least tacitly supported by some in the West. Despite opposition by campaigners, Britain sold Hawk jets to the Indonesian military that were reportedly used against civilians during this time.

But the half-dozen years of independence have not been easy. In 2006, more than 600 mutinous soldiers were sacked, triggering unrest that killed 37 people and led to the displacement of more than 150,000. While most of the soldiers eventually returned home, Mr Reinado did not, remaining in hiding. He was wanted for several alleged attacks on police, and Mr Ramos-Horta had met him several times, urging him to give himself up.

Doctors treating Mr Ramos-Horta in Darwin said they hoped he would make a "very good recovery" after surgery. Dr Len Notaras, manager of the Royal Darwin Hospital, told the Associated Press: "The abdominal injury is very straightforward, I understand, but there is some concern about his chest injuries. His vital signs are all very stable and I understand, before he was sedated, he was speaking in a very clear frame of mind."

The attack on Mr Ramos-Horta, who did much to bring the suffering of East Timor to the attention of the outside world when it was occupied by Indonesia, came at about 7am when two cars carrying rebel soldiers passed his house on the outskirts of the city and began shooting. Guards returned fire and one of them was killed in the exchange, said a military spokesman.

In the short-term, Mr Gusmao last night ordered a curfew in Dili in an effort to secure stability, although reports said that the city was calm. But in the longer term, East Timor's problems are not going to disappear. Experts say bad feeling remains in the aftermath of the 2006 violence and that there is a need for more inclusive politics.

"Although the new government has sought to establish a broad political consensus after Gusmao was appointed by President Ramos-Horta ... high-level political disputes persist between the government and the opposition Fretilin, which won a majority in [last July's] elections and feels that victory was snatched from them," said Tanja Vestergaard, an analyst with Global Insight. "Such tension is not conducive to establishing a positive peace involving all parties."

Australia, which has considerable energy interests in the oceans off Timor's coast, said it would sent more troops to the international peacekeeping force it currently heads, bringing the total to about 1,000. It also promised to send more police officers. The Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, said: "Someone out there tried to assassinate the political leadership of our friend, partner and neighbour. They have asked for some help, and we are about to provide it."

Mr Gusmao was appointed prime minister last summer by Mr Ramos-Horta, who succeeded him as president. The appointment was controversial because Mr Gusmao's CNRT party was able to form a government only by creating a coalition. The political opposition Fretelin, of which he was once a member, claimed it should have formed the government. That controversy has not been settled.

The struggle for freedom

* A Portuguese colony until 1975, the people of East Timor suffered decades of suppression after their country was invaded by neighbouring Indonesia that same year, a move that was given the green light by the West.

* Until it was granted autonomous status in 1999, and full independence three years later, East Timorese rebels fought Indonesian troops, launching classic guerrilla attacks from their mountain hideaways. One of the most important, and certainly the most famous independence fighter was, Xanana Gusmao, who went on to serve as the new country's first president and is now its Prime Minister.

* Estimates of how many people were killed during those years of occupation range from 60,000 to 200,000. The Commission for Reception, Truth and Reconciliation in East Timor, established under an interim UN administration in the country, placed the death toll at 100,000 for the period 1974-99. Of those, 18,600 were killed and a further 84,200 "excess" deaths were caused by hunger and illness.

* A key turning-point in drawing international attention and condemnation to the illegal occupation of the country by Indonesian forces was the Santa Cruz massacre of 1991. It is believed that several hundred civilian demonstrators were killed, mown down by government troops. Some video footage of the atrocity was smuggled out by Western journalists. The date of the killings – November 12 – is now marked by a public holiday in East Timor.