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Slovakia鈥檚 prime minister is expected to survive assassination attempt, deputy says

Slovakia鈥檚 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.

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BANSKA BYSTRICA, Slovakia (AP) 鈥 Slovakia鈥檚 populist Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot multiple times and gravely wounded Wednesday, but his deputy prime minister said he believed Fico would survive.

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

鈥淚 guess in the end he will survive,鈥 Tomas Taraba told the BBC, adding: 鈥淗e鈥檚 not in a life threatening situation at this moment.鈥

Doctors fought for Fico鈥檚 life several hours after the pro-Russian leader, 59, was hit in the abdomen, Defense Minister Robert Kalina told reporters at the hospital where Fico was being treated.

Five shots were fired outside a cultural center in the town of Handlova, nearly 140 kilometers (85 miles) northeast of the capital, government officials said. Fico was shot while attending a meeting of his government in the town of 16,000 that was once a center of coal mining.

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

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 鈥 a nation of 5.4 million that belongs to NATO 鈥 to abandon its pro-Western course and follow in the footsteps of Hungary under populist Prime Minister Viktor Orb谩n.

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

A message posted to Fico鈥檚 Facebook account said he was taken to a hospital in Bansk谩 Bystrica, 29 kilometers (17 miles) from Handlova, because it would take too long to get to the capital, Bratislava.

Slovakia's Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok pulls on his shirt collar after holding a press conference at the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. The shooting Wednesday of Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico in the town of Handlova following a political event sent shockwaves across Europe three weeks before EU parliament elections are scheduled to be held. (AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

Slovakia鈥檚 Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok pulls on his shirt collar after holding a press conference at the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. The shooting Wednesday of Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico in the town of Handlova following a political event sent shockwaves across Europe three weeks before EU parliament elections are scheduled to be held. (AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

Policemen stand outside the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)
Policemen stand outside the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)
Slovakia's Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok speaks during a joint press conference with Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister of Slovakia Robert Kalinak, left, at the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. The shooting Wednesday of Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico in the town of Handlova following a political event sent shockwaves across Europe three weeks before EU parliament elections are scheduled to be held. (AP Photo/Denes Erdos)
Slovakia's Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok speaks during a joint press conference with Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister of Slovakia Robert Kalinak, left, at the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. The shooting Wednesday of Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico in the town of Handlova following a political event sent shockwaves across Europe three weeks before EU parliament elections are scheduled to be held. (AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

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.

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

鈥淎 physical attack on the prime minister is, first of all, an attack on a person, but it is also an attack on democracy,鈥 outgoing President Zuzana Caputova, a political rival of Fico, said in a televised statement. 鈥淎ny violence is unacceptable. The hateful rhetoric we鈥檝e been witnessing in society leads to hateful actions. Please, let鈥檚 stop it.鈥

President-elect Peter Pellegrini, an ally of Fico, called the shooting 鈥渁n 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.鈥

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

G谩bor Cz铆mer, a political journalist at Slovakian news outlet Ujszo.com, said Fico鈥檚 return to power had uncovered signs that 鈥淪lovak society is strongly split into two camps鈥 鈥 one that is friendly toward Russia and another that pushes for stronger connections with the EU and the West.

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)

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)

Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister of Slovakia Robert Kalinak pauses during a press conference at the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)
Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister of Slovakia Robert Kalinak pauses during a press conference at the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)
Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister of Slovakia Robert Kalinak speaks during a joint press conference with Slovakia's Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok, right, at the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)
Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister of Slovakia Robert Kalinak speaks during a joint press conference with Slovakia's Interior Minister Matus Sutaj Estok, right, at the F. D. Roosevelt University Hospital, where Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, who was shot and injured, is treated in Banska Bystrica, central Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting after a political event Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile.(AP Photo/Denes Erdos)

鈥淎t the same time, I couldn鈥檛 imagine that it would lead to physical violence,鈥 Cz铆mer said.

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

鈥淪uch hateful comments are being made on social networks today, so please, let鈥檚 stop this immediately,鈥 he said.

U.S. President Joe Biden said he was alarmed by the assassination attempt. 鈥淲e condemn this horrific act of violence,鈥 he said in a statement.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg posted on the social media platform X that he was 鈥渟hocked and appalled鈥 by the attempt on Fico鈥檚 life. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it a 鈥渧ile attack.鈥

Rescue workers take 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. Slovakia鈥檚 populist Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile. (Jan Kroslak/TASR via AP)

Rescue workers take 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. Slovakia鈥檚 populist Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile. (Jan Kroslak/TASR via AP)

Police arrest a man after Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot and injured following the cabinet's away-from-home session in the town of Handlova, Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile. (Radovan Stoklasa/TASR via AP)
Police arrest a man after Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was shot and injured following the cabinet's away-from-home session in the town of Handlova, Slovakia, Wednesday, May 15, 2024. Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile. (Radovan Stoklasa/TASR via AP)
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. Slovakia's populist Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile. (Jan Kroslak/TASR via AP)
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. Slovakia's populist Prime Minister Robert Fico is in life-threatening condition after being wounded in a shooting Wednesday afternoon, according to his Facebook profile. (Jan Kroslak/TASR via AP)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy denounced the violence against a neighboring country鈥檚 head of government.

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

Slovakia鈥檚 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 called on all politicians 鈥渢o refrain from any expressions and steps which could contribute to further increasing the tension.鈥

Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala wished the premier a swift recovery. 鈥淲e cannot tolerate violence, there鈥檚 no place for it in society.鈥

The Czech Republic and Slovakia formed Czechoslovakia until 1992.

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Janicek reported from Prague. Associated Press Writer Justin Spike contributed from Budapest, Hungary.