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Slovak PM gravely injured in assassination attempt but 'will survive,' deputy says

Slovakia's populist Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot multiple times and gravely wounded Wednesday, but his deputy prime minister said he believed Fico would survive.

Robert Fico shot while attending a meeting of his government in the town of Handlova

Slovak PM Robert Fico in life-threatening condition after shooting

8 days ago
Duration 2:31
Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia has been hospitalized with life-threatening injuries after being shot in what his office described as an attempted assassination. A suspect has been detained, local reports said, as police sealed off the scene.

Slovakia's populist prime minister, Robert Fico, was shot multiple times and gravely wounded Wednesday, but his deputy prime minister said he believes Fico will survive.

The prime minister had been greeting supporters when the attempted assassination took place, shocking the small country and reverberating across Europe weeks before an election.

"I guess in the end he will survive," Tomas Taraba told BBC. "He's not in a life-threatening situation at this moment."

Doctors fought for Fico's life for several hours after the 59-year-old pro-Russia leader was hit in the abdomen, Defence Minister Robert Kaliňák told reporters at the hospital where Fico was being treated.

On Thursday morning, a hospital director said Fico's condition had stabilized but remains serious.

Five shots were fired outside a cultural centre in the town of Handlova, nearly 140 kilometres northeast of the capital, Bratislava, government officials said. Fico was shot while attending a meeting of his government in the town of 16,000 that was once a centre of coal mining.

A suspect was in custody, and an initial investigation found "a clear political motivation" behind the assassination attempt, Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok said as he briefed reporters alongside the defence minister.

A cleanshaven man in suit and tie is shown speaking in closeup.
Fico, 59, is shown in Berlin during a media conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Fico was undergoing surgery Wednesday at a hospital in Banska Bystrica after being shot 'multiple times' while greeting supporters in the nearby city of Handlová. (Nadja Wohlleben/Reuters)

Allies say shooting is 'attack on democracy'

Fico has long been a divisive figure in Slovakia and beyond, but his return to power last year on a pro-Russian, anti-American message led to even greater worries among fellow European Union members that he would lead his country further from the Western mainstream.

Kicking off his fourth term as prime minister, his government halted arms deliveries to Ukraine, and critics worry that he will lead Slovakia — a nation of 5.4 million that belongs to NATO — to abandon its pro-Western course and follow in the footsteps of Hungary under populist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán.

Thousands have repeatedly rallied in the capital and across Slovakia to protest Fico's policies.

A message posted to Fico's Facebook account said he was taken to a hospital in Banská Bystrica, 29 kilometres from Handlova, because it would have taken too long to get to the capital, Bratislava.

A man in a white dress shirt leads on a podium lined with microphones from multiple international media outlets.
Slovak Defence Minister Robert Kaliňák speaks during a press conference at F.D. Roosevelt University Hospital in Slovakia, where Fico was taken after the shooting on Wednesday. (Bernadett Szabo/Reuters)

The attack comes as political campaigning heats up three weeks ahead of Europe-wide elections to choose lawmakers for the European Parliament. Concern is mounting that populists and nationalists similar to Fico could make gains in the 27-member bloc.

"A physical attack on the prime minister is, first of all, an attack on a person, but it is also an attack on democracy," outgoing President Zuzana Caputova, a political rival of Fico, said in a televised statement.

"Any violence is unacceptable. The hateful rhetoric we've been witnessing in society leads to hateful actions. Please, let's stop it."

President-elect Peter Pellegrini, a Fico ally, called the shooting "an unprecedented threat to Slovak democracy."

"If we express other political opinions with pistols in squares, and not in polling stations, we are jeopardizing everything that we have built together over 31 years of Slovak sovereignty," he said.

Parliament adjourned

The recent elections that brought Fico and his allies to power have underlined deep social divisions, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, Slovakia's neighbour to the east.

Gábor Czímer, a political journalist at Slovak news outlet Ujszo.com, said the results showed that "Slovak society was strongly split into two camps": one that is friendly toward Russia and another that pushes for stronger connections with the European Union and the West.

"At the same time, I couldn't imagine that it would lead to physical violence."

Estok, the Slovak interior minister, told reporters outside the hospital that the country was "on the edge of a civil war" from the political tension.

"Such hateful comments are being made on social networks today, so please, let's stop this immediately," he said.

U.S. President Joe Biden said he was alarmed: "We condemn this horrific act of violence," he said in a statement.

A man with toussled hair and a ruffled collared shirt sits on the ground with his hands cuffed behind his back.
A person is detained after the shooting incident on Wednesday in Handlova. (Radovan Stoklasa/Reuters)

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg posted on the social media platform X that he was "shocked and appalled" by the news, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it a "vile attack."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denounced the violence against a neighbouring country's head of government.

"Every effort should be made to ensure that violence does not become the norm in any country, form or sphere," he said.

Fico, who is in his fourth term, and his party Smer, or Direction, won Slovakia's Sept. 30 parliamentary elections.

But on Wednesday, politics as usual were put aside as the nation faced the shock of the attempt on Fico's life.

Slovakia's Parliament was adjourned until further notice. The major opposition parties, Progressive Slovakia and Freedom and Solidarity, cancelled a planned protest against a controversial government plan to overhaul public broadcasting that they say would give the government full control of public radio and television.

Progressive Slovakia Leader Michal Simecka called on all politicians "to refrain from any expressions and steps which could contribute to further increasing the tension," Simecka said.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala wished Fico a swift recovery: "We cannot tolerate violence, there's no place for it in society."

With files from CBC News and Reuters