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Bodyguards take Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico in a car from the scene after he was shot and injured following the cabinet’s away-from-home session in the town of Handlova, Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024.

Bodyguards take Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico in a car from the scene after he was shot and injured following the cabinet’s away-from-home session in the town of Handlova, Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Radovan Stoklasa/TASR via AP)

PRAGUE — Slovakia’s populist prime minister, Robert Fico, was shot multiple times and gravely wounded Wednesday after a political event in an attempted assassination that shocked the small country and reverberated across Europe.

The pro-Russian leader, 59, was reported to be fighting for his life after being hit in the stomach. At least four shots were fired outside a cultural center in the town of Handlova, nearly 85 miles northeast of the capital, where Fico was meeting with supporters, the government said.

A suspect was in custody, the country’s president said in a televised statement. Fico was taken by helicopter to a hospital.

The motive for the shooting was unclear.

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.

Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico speaks with people n in the town of Handlova, Slovakia, Wednesday, May, 15, 2024. Fico was shot and injured after a political event in the town.

Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico speaks with people n in the town of Handlova, Slovakia, Wednesday, May, 15, 2024. Fico was shot and injured after a political event in the town. (Radovan Stoklasa/TASR via AP)

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 kilometers (17 miles) from Handlova, because it would take too long to get to the capital, Bratislava.

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 populist 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, an ally of Fico, 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.”

Rescue workers wheel Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, to a hospital in the town of Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024.

Rescue workers wheel Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, to a hospital in the town of Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Jan Kroslak/TASR via AP)

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

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg posted on the social media platform X that he was “shocked and appalled” by the attempt on Fico’s life, while European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it a “vile attack.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denounced the violence against a neighboring 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, a third-time premier, and his leftist Smer, or Direction, party won Slovakia’s Sept. 30 parliamentary elections.

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

Police arrest a man after Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot and injured in the town of Handlova, Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024.

Police arrest a man after Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot and injured in the town of Handlova, Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. (Radovan Stoklasa/TASR via AP)

Slovakia’s Parliament was adjourned until further notice. The major opposition parties, Progressive Slovakia and Freedom and Solidarity, canceled 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 condemned the violence.

“At the same time, we call 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 the premier a swift recovery.

“We cannot tolerate violence, there’s no place for it in society.” The Czech Republic and Slovakia formed Czechoslovakia till 1992.

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