Taiwan's President and deputy survive murder bid

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Supporters of President Chen Shui-bian took to the streets of Taipei yesterday to show their support after he and his vice-president Annette Lu narrowly survived an assassination attempt.

Supporters of President Chen Shui-bian took to the streets of Taipei yesterday to show their support after he and his vice-president Annette Lu narrowly survived an assassination attempt.

Mr Chen, the leader of the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), and his running mate were travelling in an open-top jeep through his home town of Tainan in southern Taiwan at midday yesterday when shots rang out.

Police believe at least two shots were fired, one which grazed Ms Lu's leg and another which brushed Mr Chen's stomach. Mr Chen, 54, was given 14 stitches.

Lien Chan, the presidential candidate of the Kuomintang (KMT), the Nationalist Party, said: "We have to condemn such behaviour and stay calm and stand together. At this critical moment we have to show we are rational people."

One supporter, Chen Lirun, who travelled from Los Angeles to vote in the election, said: "This could turn the election. It was very close but now people will come out and show they are not going to be intimidated."

Although relations between Mr Chen and China have been strained since he came to power four years ago - China did not report the assassination attempt for eight hours - the Taiwanese do not think that the Chinese are involved. During Taiwan's first open presidential elections in 1996, China fired missiles at Taiwan's coast to intimidate voters. Mr Chen narrowly won because the KMT vote was split between Lien Chan, 67, a career politician and former diplomat and his younger and more charismatic rival James Soong.

This time they are running on a single ticket but have moved closer to the DPP's position. Mr Chan says Taiwan "would never merge, be taken over or united with the People's Republic of China". If he wins, Mr Chan has offered to go on "a journey of peace" to Beijing to improve cross-Strait relations.

Mr Soong has been more conciliatory towards China but says Beijing cannot stifle democracy by threatening war. He said: "Taiwan's democracy and Hong Kong's freedom is a potent combination for China's future development. Taiwan's democratic development illustrates to all Chinese that democracy works in a Chinese society and that if Western countries can have democracy, China can too."

The Chinese premier Wen Jiabao said: "The Taiwan authorities have been trying to push for a referendum aimed at Taiwan independence under the pretext of democracy. They have undermined the one-China policy universally recognised and posed a threat to stability in the Taiwan Straits area." In the late 1980s, the KMT ended the state of emergency imposed by the former leader Chiang Kai-shek. But talks between the Communists and the Nationalists failed when the KMT lost power and the Taiwan nationalists won parliamentary and presidential elections.

China has started an arms race by doubling its military budget each year. It is acquiring new ships and aircraft and increasing the size of its arsenal of missiles. Some 500 missiles are aimed at Taiwan which has, in turn, stepped up its military purchases from the US.

Ms Lu described China as a "giant state of terror" and criticised France for supporting China instead of a democracy. This week France became the first European power to hold joint naval exercises with China. France sold weapons to Taiwan after 1989 but wants to lift the EU arms embargo on China. It hopes to win military contracts as well as sell high-speed trains and nuclear power stations.

EU leaders, including Romano Prodi, say China is a vital ally in a "multi-polar world", diplomatic code for opposing the US. Mr Prodi has ensured that China has access to key technology such as Europe's satellite geo-positioning technology so that Beijing can target its missiles more accurately.

Mr Chen has tried to counter threats of an invasion by warning that he will hold a referendum and declare independence. In November last year, Taiwan passed a referendum law allowing a "defensive referendum" if Taiwan's sovereignty is under external threat.

A referendum to be held today, the same day as the elections, will ask voters whether they support a "peace and stability" framework for cross-Strait relations and whether Taiwan should acquire more missiles to defend potential Chinese aggression.

The referendum will be rendered void if fewer than 50 percent of voters collect a referendum ballot paper and approved if more than 50 percent of those who take part cast yes votes.