East Timor president wounded in rebel attack

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East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta was shot and critically wounded at his home in Dili today in an assassination attempt by rebel soldiers that analysts said could spark renewed violence and political chaos in the tiny nation.

Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao escaped injury in another shooting also today, officials said, but the exact motives for the attacks and details of what happened remained unclear.

Australia, which was invited to send in forces to maintain security following fresh violence in 2006, pledged to send more troops to Asia's youngest nation after the apparently coordinated attack on East Timor's two most famous independence figures.

Canberra has played a key role in helping with East Timor's security, fearing a civil war in its immediate backyard and disruption to vital energy interests in the area.

Residents in Dili reported the capital appeared calm and Gusmao said Ramos-Horta was in a stable condition after the attack in which a key rebel leader, Alfredo Reinado, was killed.

The president, who shared the 1996 Nobel Peace Prize with compatriot Bishop Carlos Belo for their nonviolent struggle for East Timor's independence from Indonesian occupation, was operated on by an Australian military medical team in Dili before being flown to Darwin in northern Australia for treatment.

"This is a serious attempt on a democratic state," Gusmao told a news conference. He later said that he had asked the acting president, deputy speaker of parliament Vicente Guterres, to impose a curfew in the capital until Wednesday.

An Australian medical official said Ramos-Horta, who was flown to Darwin on life support and in an induced coma, was stable but would undergo further surgery for two bullet wounds.

"He has wounds to the abdomen and lower chest. They are very serious wounds, particularly the chest injury is extremely serious," Dr Len Notaras, general manager of Royal Darwin Hospital, 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.

Australia plans to send around 200 quick reaction troops immediately to the fledgling nation, along with 50 to 70 police.

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.

International security forces in East Timor, led by around 800 Australian soldiers, had secured key buildings in Dili and increased patrols in the capital and across the country.

East Timor has been struggling to get back on its feet after the army tore apart along regional lines in 2006. The factional bloodshed killed 37 people and drove 150,000 from their homes, with foreign troops needed to restore order between warring neighbourhoods.