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East Timor President Stable, Needs More Surgery

East Timor President Jose Ramos-Horta was in a serious but stable condition on Tuesday in an Australian hospital, but medics were planning more surgery for up to three gunshot wounds, a senior doctor said.

Jose Ramos-Horta
Jordao Henrique
Jose Ramos-Horta

Ramos-Horta was critically wounded at his home in Dili on Monday in an assassination attempt by rebel soldiers and was airlifted to Darwin on life support after treatment at an Australian military hospital.

"We'll have to go back to theatre, probably in the next 24 to 36 hours for some staged surgery, but at this stage we're looking at quite stable," Len Notaras, general manager of Royal Darwin Hospital, told Australian radio.

"He will be in an induced coma until at least Thursday, intensive care until Sunday or Monday of next week," he said.

Notaras said doctors performed three hours of surgery, including reconstruction of Ramos-Horta's right lung, removing shell and bullet fragments. One fragment remained in his body.

The president could also need a skin graft, with the major fear now being an infection, he said.

"His condition is quite good from the perspective that if he needed to breathe by himself, he would be capable of doing that," Notaras said.

In Dili, East Timor's interim president Vicente Guterres declared a state of emergency and appealed for calm.

"Because our situation is very difficult, I, as interim president of the republic declare a state of emergency for 48 hours" until 10 p.m. on Feb. 13, he said, speaking at the presidential palace.

Guterres said that meetings and protests were banned, and that all citizens must stay at home from between the hours of 8 p.m. and 6 a.m.

About 200 fast-reaction troops from Australia and more police began arriving in Dili on Tuesday to back up international forces policing a state of emergency declared after the attack, in which rebel leader Alfredo Reinado was killed.

An Australian warship also arrived off the coast.

The former Portuguese colony of almost 1 million people gained full independence in 2002 after a U.N.-sponsored vote in 1999, marred by violence, ended more than two decades of brutal Indonesian occupation.

But East Timor has been unable to achieve stability. The army tore apart along regional lines in 2006, triggering factional violence that killed 37 people and drove 150,000 from their homes. Foreign troops were needed to restore order.

U.S. President George W. Bush condemned the assassination attempts against Ramos-Horta and Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao, who escaped injury, and said those responsible would be held accountable.

"I strongly condemn the violent attacks," Bush said in a statement. "Those who are responsible must know that they cannot derail democracy in Timor-Leste (East Timor), and they will be held accountable for their actions."

Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who will fly to Dili later this week after a request from Gusmao, said the capital was calm on Tuesday morning, with security forces braced for unrest and in control of the streets.

"The government of East Timor is in firm control," Rudd told Australian Broadcasting Corp. radio.

He said a decision on whether international troops would begin a hunt for the rebels involved in the attacks would be taken later by operational commanders.

About 1,600 international police from 40 nations provide security in Dili as part of a United Nations Police Force.

Police are backed by 1,000 Australian troops and 170 from New Zealand under a Security Council resolution extended in 2007.

Reports in Dili and Australian media, quoting Ramos-Horta's brother-in-law Joao Carrascalao, said the president might have been left bleeding in his residence for up to an hour by U.N. troops cordoning it off before Portuguese police arrived with medical help.

Former Ramos-Horta adviser and close friend James Dunn, once Australia's consul in Dili, said the United Nations had apparently failed in its security task, especially given text messages circulating for three days and warning of a coup plot.

"These vehicles ... actually had to drive right across Dili, past police points, checkpoints, and not even far from Australian military headquarters, and yet they did that in very early morning without being stopped or detected," Dunn said.

A United Nations spokeswoman in Dili said the accusation did "not make sense".

"We are currently going through all our police logging times to work out the response times," she told Reuters. "Those allegations are allegations and we are looking into it."

Rudd said the circumstances of the attack and its aftermath would be investigated by security forces.

"I want to establish the facts first and then we'll reach rapid judgments about how things can be done more effectively on the ground," Rudd said.