The near-fatal shooting of East Timor's president, Jose Ramos-Horta, on 11 February 2008, by members of renegade Major Alfredo Reinado's gang, and the death of Reinado himself, broke a deadlock in East Timorese politics that had threatened to keep the country in a state of perpetual crisis. Prior to this incident, most observers had noted that the recently elected Parliamentary Majority Alliance government of Xanana Gusmao needed to address two critical issues. The first issue was returning the remaining tens of thousands of internally displaced persons to their homes. The second, which allowed the first to happen, was resolving the issue of the "petitioners", soldiers who had deserted the army in 2006, sparking an internal conflict that almost led to state collapse. Without having the "petitioners" problem resolved, the country's internally displaced persons (IDPs) claimed they felt too insecure to return to their homes.
Resolving Inherited Problems
At the beginning of 2008, East Timor remained unsettled, by Reinado's gang and the petitioners still on the loose, by the IDPs who were largely Fretilin supporters, and by Fretilin itself refusing to accept the legitimacy of the outcome of the 2007 elections, which saw its vote cut in half to just under 30 per cent and a coalition of parties led by Xanana Gusmao's Timorese Council for National Reconstruction (CNRT) form government. Fretilin embarked on a campaign of protest that continued well into 2008 which, set against the still fragile backdrop of IDPs and military mutineers, could have pushed the country back into chaos at any time. The presence of the Internal Stabilization Force and UN police helped ensure the country did not again divide, as it had two years previously.
All of this changed just after dawn on Monday 11 February 2008. As the sun was rising out of the Banda Sea behind the Indonesian-built Christo Rei statue on Fatucama Hill at the eastern point of Dili's sweeping harbour, East Timor's President Jose Ramos-Horta was out in the morning coolness for his daily walk along the Areia Branca with two members of the F-FDTL, not far from his home at Meti-hau. A few minutes after six a.m., a foreign diplomat driving by stopped and told the exercising Ramos-Horta that he had heard gunshots. The diplomat asked if Ramos-Horta wanted a lift. Ramos-Horta declined. Ramos-Horta also received a telephone call from the Senior Legal Advisor to the President, Paulo Dos Remedios who lived in the area, advising him of shootings at his home. A group of ten armed men in two cars, led by fugitive Major Alfreido Reinado, had occupied the president's home, and a few minutes later, the early arriving morning shift of the presidential guard confronted the invaders, shooting dead Reinado and another of his gang. Despite the shooting, Ramos-Horta pressed on but, approaching the gates of his home, was himself shot twice and critically wounded. Ramos-Horta dragged himself inside and telephoned for help. One of the East Timor Defence Force (F-FDTL) guards with him was also shot and critically wounded. 18 minutes later, members of the Portuguese paramilitary Republican National Guard (GNR) special operations sub-group Bravo arrived, calling an ambulance to take Ramos-Horta to the Australian army hospital.
A further telephone call was made from Ramos-Horta's home to the home of the prime minister, Xanana Gusmao, spurring him to leave his house at Balibar to go to Ramos-Horta's aid. However, at about 7:45 a.m., shortly after leaving his house, it was surrounded by a group of armed men, under Reinado's second in command, Lieutenant Gastao Salsinha. Gusmao's wife, Kirsty Sword Gusmao, telephoned Gusmao to let him know of the situation, just at the moment his two cars were also attacked. Gusmao's guard in a second car returned fire, and Gusmao and his guards escaped unharmed into the bushes, making their way into Dili on foot.1 Ramos-Horta, meanwhile, was treated for serious gunshot wounds and then evacuated to Darwin for further life-saving surgery, where he spent the next two months recuperating.
While on the...