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Slovak PM speaking but serious after shooting, suspected gunman charged

Banska Bystrica, Slovakia | May 17, 2024, Friday @ 06:58 in World » GENERAL | By: AFP | Views: 2494
Slovak PM speaking but serious after shooting, suspected gunman charged

(FILES) Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico arrives for a Central Europe's 'Visegrad Four' group meeting in Brussels on December 14, 2017. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was on May 15, 2024 shot and hospitalised after a cabinet meeting in the central town of Handlova, local media said. (Photo by JOHN THYS / AFP)

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Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was able to speak but remained in serious condition on Thursday, officials said as police charged a suspect for the attack they called politically motivated.

President-elect Peter Pellegrini briefed journalists a day after the shooting, which has prompted fears of further violence in the politically polarised nation just weeks before European parliament elections.

"He is able to speak but only a few sentences and then he is really, really tired... The situation is very critical," Pellegrini said outside the hospital in the central city of Banska Bystrica.

"The doctors asked me to make a really very short visit," he added. "I told him that we stand behind him."

But he said that "very difficult hours and days" lay ahead for Fico.

On Wednesday, train conductor Richard Krajcik was hoping to get a selfie with Fico after a government meeting in the central town of Handlova when shots rang out.

"Everything happened so fast," Krajcik told AFP, gazing at the spot in the main square where Fico was struck.

Former police chief Stefan Hamran slammed the prime minister's bodyguards, telling AFP "they reacted late, they reacted badly".

"Instead of throwing themselves at the assailant... they moved in the opposite direction and tried to dodge the shots," he said.

Wednesday's attack has stoked fears in the deeply polarised nation, as officials drew a link between the political situation and the suspect's motives.

Police charged the suspect, identified as 71-year-old writer Juraj Cintula in local media, with attempted murder Thursday.

"This is a lone wolf whose actions were accelerated after the presidential election since he was dissatisfied with its outcome," Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok said.

The suspect's longtime neighbour, Ludovit Mile, said Cintula was "friendly, helpful".

"He must have gone crazy," he told AFP.

- 'Circle of hatred' -

Pellegrini, who won last month's presidential vote and is a political ally of Fico, called for calm and urged political parties to halt campaigning for the EU parliament election when far-right parties are expected to gain votes.

The biggest opposition party, centrist Progressive Slovakia, and others announced that they had already stopped their election lobbying.

Slovakia's political scene has been divided for years between pro-European and nationalist-leaning camps.

Disinformation and attacks on social media featured heavily during the latest election campaign.

Pellegrini, who takes office in June, said in a joint statement with outgoing President Zuzana Caputova that Slovakia should avoid "further confrontation".

The two politicians represent rival political camps but Caputova said they wanted "to send a signal of understanding" as she urged an end to "the vicious circle of hatred".

Surgeons spent hours operating on Fico to save the life of the 59-year-old.

Footage just after the shooting showed security agents grabbing a wounded Fico from the ground and bundling him into a car, while other officers handcuffed a man on the pavement.

Fico, whose party won the general election last September, is a four-time prime minister accused of swaying his country's foreign policy in favour of Russia.

- Unprecedented attack -

Outside the hospital, shock mixed with outrage among residents of Banska Bystrica.

"I'm certainly afraid that such attacks will be repeated," said Nina Stevulova, a 18-year-old student.

"There's no need to do such things. Feel free to throw a tomato or an egg at him or scold him that 'You are a thief or a murderer'," Karol Reichl, a former professional driver, told AFP.

"But don't come with a gun and shoot," the 69-year-old said.

Political analyst Miroslav Radek said the attack risked causing "further radicalisation of individuals and politicians in Slovakia".

"I am afraid that this attack may not have been the last," Radek told AFP.

- Ukraine weapons -

Fico also headed the government in 2006-10 and 2012-18. He was forced to resign in 2018 after an investigative journalist's murder exposed high-level corruption.

Since returning to office, Fico has made a string of remarks that have soured ties between Slovakia and neighbouring Ukraine after he questioned Ukraine's sovereignty.

After he was elected, Slovakia stopped sending weapons to Ukraine, invaded by Russia in 2022.

He also sparked protests with controversial changes, including a media law critics say will undermine the impartiality of public broadcasters.

Analyst Milan Nic said the shooting was a "turning point" for Slovakia.

"It's a moment that will shake society," he told AFP.

© Agence France-Presse

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