BANSKA BYSTRICA: Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was in a life-threatening condition after he was shot in a “politically motivated” assassination attempt when leaving a government meeting on Wednesday, the interior minister said.

The gunman shot Fico, 59, five times, leaving the prime minister in critical condition and still undergoing surgery hours later on Wednesday evening, 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.

Slovakia, a member of NATO and the European Union, has little history of political violence. Russian President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President Joe Biden joined Slovakia’s EU partners in expressing shock and condemnation of the shooting.

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.

A Reuters witness heard three or four shots as 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.

“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.

Slovak news media reported the shooter 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 Aktuality.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,” it quoted the 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,” 66-year-old Lubica Valkova told reporters on the scene. “This kind of thing just can’t happen in Slovakia.”

Veteran leader

Fico, who returned as prime minister last October for the fourth time, has drawn criticism in some quarters for taking a more 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.

Describing the shooting as a “monstrous” crime, 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.”

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

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.

“For SMER-SSD, I want to sharply condemn what happened today in Handlova and at the same time express heavy disgust over what you have committed here in the past years,” Blaha said. “You, liberal media and political opposition. What hatred you spread against Robert Fico.”

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

“We call on all politicians to refrain from any expressions and steps that could contribute to an escalation of tension,” said Michal Simecka, leader of Progressive Slovakia, a liberal pro-Western party.

During a three-decade career, Fico has moved between the pro-European mainstream and nationalistic positions opposed to EU and U.S. 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, 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.

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 investigating 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.

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