- The Washington Times - Friday, March 19, 2004

TAIPEI, Taiwan — President Chen Shui-bian survived an assassination attempt and reassured voters about his health and Taiwan’s security last night, hours before polls opened for an election that focused on the military threat from the Chinese mainland.

Mr. Chen was grazed in the abdomen by a bullet and Vice President Annette Lu was shot in the right knee as they rode in an open-top red jeep along a packed street on the final day of campaigning in the president’s southern hometown of Tainan. Neither wound was serious.

In his first comment on the shootings, a weary-looking Mr. Chen appeared in a videotaped message last night to say he was fine.

“There’s no problem with A-bian,” Mr. Chen said, referring to himself by his nickname. “There’s no problem with Taiwan’s safety. Please feel at ease.”

Police said at least two shots were fired and there may have been more than one gunman.

In a separate taped message in which she appeared with a bandage on her knee, the vice president urged voters to go to the polls today.

Some analysts predicted the assassination attempt could boost Mr. Chen’s chances in what had been seen as a close race.

The shootings stunned Taiwan, and about 800 Chen supporters — some in tears — went to his Democratic Progressive Party headquarters last night for an orderly demonstration.

In addition to the presidential contest, an unprecedented referendum spearheaded by Mr. Chen asks voters whether the island should increase its defenses against hundreds of Chinese missiles pointed at it.

The United States has expressed its displeasure about the referendum, along with France, Germany, Japan and South Korea.

Mr. Chen has angered the Nationalist opposition and Beijing by championing a separate identity for Taiwan.

China, which claims Taiwan is part of its territory and insists the two should be unified, fears the referendum could lead to a vote on Taiwanese independence. Beijing has bitterly denounced Mr. Chen, although it toned down attacks recently.

Beijing waited more than six hours to publicly report the shootings, and then only in a two-sentence report on its official news agency.

Before the shootings, Soochow University political scientist Emile Sheng saw certain victory for Mr. Chen’s Nationalist Party opponent, Lien Chan. Now, he is not so sure.

“This will give supporters a sense of urgency and tragedy, and cause a higher turnout,” Mr. Sheng said.

The Nationalist Party condemned the attack.

“We were very, very shocked,” said Mr. Lien, who visited Mr. Chen late last night. His party even offered a $300,000 reward in the shootings.

Mr. Chen has accused the Nationalist Party of involvement in a 1985 incident in which his wife, Wu Shu-chen, was run over three times by a truck, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down. The truck driver and party insisted it was an accident, and the driver wasn’t charged.

Taiwanese officials refused to speculate about who fired the shots yesterday.

A “deranged individual” seemed the most likely suspect, said Steve Tsang, director of Asian Studies Center at St. Anthony’s College, Oxford University, adding that the referendum might have heightened tensions and pushed an emotional voter over the edge.

Mr. Tsang said it was “inconceivable” the opposition or the Chinese government could have been behind the attack.

Some TV commentators suggested Mr. Chen and Mrs. Lu might have staged the shooting to win sympathy votes, but ruling party official Su Chen-chang dismissed the conspiracy theories.

“The vehicle was moving too fast, and any lapses [by the shooters] could have had seriously injured the president,” Mr. Su said.

Mr. Chen enjoys street campaigning and frequently wades into big crowds. Security is relatively relaxed because there is no tradition of violence against leaders on the island. The weather was hot in Tainan, so neither Mr. Chen nor Mrs. Lu was wearing a bulletproof vest, said National Security Bureau officer Hsiu Tsung-nan.

As the motorcade drove by, people were setting off strings of celebratory fireworks.

“The vice president first felt pain in her knee and she thought it was caused by firecrackers,” said Chiou I-jen, secretary-general in the presidential office. “Then the president felt some wetness on his stomach area, and then they realized something was wrong.”

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