Slovakia’s PM in life-threatening condition after being shot in ‘politically motivated’ assassination attempt

Suspect detained following incident as European leaders condemn attack on Robert Fico in which he was shot five times

Slovak prime minister Robert Fico was in a life-threatening condition on Wednesday night after he was shot in a “politically motivated” assassination attempt when leaving a government meeting.

The gunman shot Mr Fico (59) five times, leaving the prime minister in critical condition and still undergoing surgery hours later, interior minister Matus Sutaj Estok told a news briefing.

“This assassination [attempt] was politically motivated and the perpetrator’s decision was born closely after the presidential election,” Sutaj Estok said, referring to an April election won by a Fico ally.

The shooting in the central Slovak town of Handlova, which Slovak media said was carried out by a 71-year-old man, stunned the small central European nation and drew international condemnation.

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Mr Fico was rushed to hospital in Handlova where he had been chairing a government meeting. He was then transported by helicopter to regional capital Banska Bystrica for urgent treatment, it said, adding that his condition was too serious for him to be taken to Bratislava.

“An assassination [attempt] on prime minister Robert Fico was carried out today at the government’s off-site meeting in Handlova,” the government office said in a statement.

A witness described hearing three or four shots as Mr Fico exited a building to shake hands with a crowd of people who had been waiting to greet him. Police then wrestled a man to the ground.

Slovak news media reported the suspect was a former security guard at a shopping mall, an author of three collections of poetry and a member of the Slovak Society of Writers. News outlet atkuality.sk cited his son as saying his father was the legal holder of a gun licence.

“I have absolutely no idea what my father intended, what he planned, what happened,” aktuality.sk quoted the suspect’s son as saying.

Broadcaster TA3 reported four shots had been fired, and that the leftist prime minister had been hit in the abdomen.

“I don’t think I will wake up from this,” Lubica Valkova, a 66-year-old resident told reporters. “This kind of thing just can’t happen in Slovakia.”

Mr Fico, who returned as prime minister last October for the fourth time, has drawn criticism in some quarters for taking a pro-Russian stance in the Ukraine war and initiating reforms of criminal law and the media which have raised concerns over the rule of law and prompted street protests.

Taoiseach Simon Harris joined Slovakia’s EU partners in expressing shock and condemnation of the shooting. He said in a statement on Wednesday afternoon: “I am deeply shocked by today’s attack on prime minister of Slovakia, Robert Fico.

“The attack on prime minister Fico is an attack on democracy, a fundamental value of the European Union and one we all share.”

President Michael D Higgins said: “The attempted assassination of a democratically elected head of government, following a government meeting, is deeply shocking and will be condemned by all of those who believe in democracy and the rule of law.

Describing the shooting as a “monstrous” crime, Russian president Vladimir Putin said in a telegram sent to Slovakia’s president Zuzana Caputova: “I know Robert Fico as a courageous and strong-minded man. I very much hope that these qualities will help him to survive this difficult situation.”

US president Joe Biden offered US help to Slovakia, saying in a statement: “We condemn this horrific act of violence.”

Mr Fico’s close ally Lubos Blaha, deputy parliament speaker and deputy chairman of the prime minister’s SMER-SSD party, blamed what he called the “liberal media” and opposition for creating an atmosphere that led to the shooting.

Slovakia’s biggest opposition party Progressive Slovakia called off a planned protest against government public broadcaster reforms set for Wednesday evening.

During a three-decade career, Mr Fico has moved between the pro-European mainstream and nationalistic positions opposed to EU and US policies. He has also shown a willingness to change course depending on public opinion or changed political realities.

An admirer of Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, Mr Fico has grown increasingly critical of western support for Ukraine in its war with invading Russian forces and has expressed opposition to allowing Kyiv to join Nato in the future.

Mr Fico was forced to resign as premier amid mass protests in 2018 triggered by the contract killing of Jan Kuciak, a journalist who had been invesgitating high-level corruption.

Those protests exacerbated divisions in Slovak society that still linger.

Slovakia’s president-elect Peter Pellegrini cut short a foreign trip and is returning to the country, a spokesperson for his HLAS party said.

Slovakia, a member of Nato as well as the European Union, has little history of political violence. – Reuters

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