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Assassination bid may help Chen in polls
By Laurence Eyton

TAIPEI - President Chen Shui-bian was wounded, but not critically, in an assassination attempt on the eve of the presidential election and controversial referendum Saturday on targeted Chinese missiles that has divided this island, provoked Beijing and prompted warnings from Washington. Taiwan was in shock; Chen might benefit from a sympathy vote.

Chen was released from the hospital, all campaigning was suspended, the polling will go ahead as planned on Saturday, and Chen - who leans toward independence and stresses a separate Taiwanese identity - might receive a sympathy vote. The election has been too close to call and a two-week blackout on polling results has made it impossible to predict the winner.

Political violence is virtually unknown on this island of 23 million people, including 16 million eligible voters, and shock and grief were widespread. The assassination attempt was considered likely to boost Chen's chances of reelection. Core supporters were expected to be more motivated to vote while floating voters were expected to see a vote for Chen as a vote against political violence.

Chen, 54, and his running mate Annette Lu, 59, were shot at 1:45pm Friday as they rode in an open vehicle in a motorcade in Chen's home town of Tainan in the south of the island. Chen was grazed by a bullet across the stomach. He did not lose consciousness, walked into the hospital for treatment and urged the population to remain calm. Lu was shot in the right knee; she also was treated and released. Chen had not been wearing a bulletproof vest, as had been reported earlier.

Chen's wound was 11 centimeters long and three centimeters deep, requiring 14 stitches.

TV viewers saw dramatic pictures of the president standing in a red open-top four-wheel-drive continuing to wave as a red blood stain spread across the front of his white windbreaker. He appeared not to notice that he had been wounded.

"They are both conscious and their lives are not in danger," Chen's chief of staff, Chiou I-jen, told a news conference.

All campaigning was suspended by all parties - Chen's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) and the rival Kuomintang (KMT) and People First Party (PFP), together forming the so-called pan-blue alliance that is considered sympathetic to Beijing and favored by the Chinese government.

Although campaigning was suspended, supporters of both sides continued to assemble in places designated as rally venues into the evening, and police were concerned that clashes might take place between the rival camps.

Several shots were fired, as Chen's supporters were setting off firecrackers, drowning the noise of the gunshots. At first Chen's security detail thought that he had been injured by flying debris from the firecrackers. The bullet hole through the jeep's windshield told a different story.

Police say two shots were fired from two different handguns and that two spent shell cases had been recovered from the scene.

They issued sketches of two men they wanted to interview, but declined to say anything more. A news blackout was imposed on the investigation.

Chen, head of the DPP, was facing off against his presidential rival Lien Chan of the KMT and his running mate James Soong of the PFP.

The election campaign has been extraordinarily tense, with the two camps running neck and neck for months and both sides suggesting that defeat would mean the end of Taiwan's current political status, in a manner abhorrent to their supporters - an apparent reference to either China's military intervention or increased influence on an island where Taiwanese prize their separate identity.

Chen's supporters believe that unification with China is inevitable if he loses while the opposition pan-blues believe a Chen victory would make Taiwan independence - and China's military intervention - inevitable. As a result the atmosphere has been one of desperation; some analysts think the shooting was the result of the febrile election atmosphere.

Chen was elected to the presidency in 2000 with only 39 percent of the vote. The election has been close and Chen has narrowed the distance between himself and Lien by emphasizing the importance of Taiwan's distinct identity, separate from China that regards the island as a breakaway province. China has vowed to reunify island and mainland at some point, even if military force is required - a conflict that would draw in the United States.

Chen also has won support by emphasizing that China is menacing the island - and as if to make his point, China and France conducted joint military exercises in the Taiwan Strait this week. Chen also succeeded in pushing through a "defensive" referendum - to be held on Saturday at the same time as the presidential vote.

Voters will be asked whether China should be requested to remove almost 500 missiles currently targeted at Taiwan and, if Beijing refuses, whether Taiwan should buy advanced military defense technology, such as anti-missile systems. Voters also will be asked whether they favor resumed dialogue with China on improving relations.

China supports the opposition ticket and US President George W Bush has warned Chen about holding a provocative referendum that could upset the delicate balance in the Taiwan Strait and among the US, China and Taiwan.

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Mar 20, 2004

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