16 May 2024

Slovak PM Fico in life-threatening condition after being shot, government says

7:46 am on 16 May 2024

By Radovan Stoklasa and Boldizsar Gyori for Reuters

Picture taken on May 15, 2024 shows Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico being transported from a helicopter by medics to the hospital in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia where he is to be treated after he had been shot "multiple times" (Photo by AFP) / ALTERNATIVE CROP

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico being transported from a helicopter by medics to the hospital in Banska Bystrica, Slovakia for treatment. Photo: AFP

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico suffered life-threatening injuries when he was shot and wounded in a "politically motivated" assassination attempt on Wednesday, the government office said.

Slovak media said the shooter was a 71-year-old man but the motive was not immediately clear.

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.

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

Fico, 59, was rushed to hospital in the central Slovak town of 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.

This image taken from video footage obtained by AFPTV shows security personnel carrying Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico (C) towards a vehicle after he was shot in Handlova on May 15, 2024. Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico was battling life-threatening wounds after officials said he was shot multiple times in an assassination attempt condemned by European leaders. (Photo by RTVS / AFP)

This image taken from video footage obtained by AFPTV shows security personnel carrying Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico, centre, towards a vehicle after he was shot. Photo: AFP

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.

News outlet Aktuality.sk reported the shooter was a 71-year-old man and cited his son as saying his father was the legal holder of a gun licence. It did not name either of the men.

"I have absolutely no idea what my father intended, what he planned, what happened," it quoted the shooter's son as saying.

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.

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."

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.

(FILES) Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico speaks during a press conference with the German Chancellor at the Chancellery in Berlin on January 24, 2024. Slovakia's PM has been shot on May 15, 2024, after a government meeting and taken to hospital: according to local media reports. (Photo by JOHN MACDOUGALL / AFP)

Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico. Photo: AFP

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 US 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."

Following the shooting, 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.

Slovakia's acting speaker of parliament Peter Ziga condemned the shooting as an attack on the principle of democracy.

"Such a horrible act has never happened in Slovak history. I consider it to be the result of whipped-up passions and the division of Slovak society into two irreconcilable camps," he said.

Under Slovak law, a deputy prime minister will replace Fico while he is incapacitated.

During a three-decade career, 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.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen led international condemnation of the attack.

"Such acts of violence have no place in our society and undermine democracy, our most precious common good. My thoughts are with PM Fico, his family," she said.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz expressed shock on X, adding: "News of the cowardly assassination attempt on Slovakian Prime Minister Fico shocks me deeply. Violence must have no place in European politics."

Slovak President Zuzana Caputova wrote on X: "Utterly shocked by today's brutal attack on #Slovakia's Prime Minister Robert Fico, which I condemn in strongest possible terms.

"I wish him lot of strength in this critical moment and early recovery."

President-elect Peter Pellegrini cut short a foreign trip and is returning to Slovakia, a spokesperson for his HLAS party said.