(Bloomberg) -- Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico was being treated for “life-threatening” injuries after being shot in the first assassination attempt on a European leader in more than two decades. 

Fico, 59, was attacked after a government meeting in the town of Handlova some 165 kilometers (100 miles) northeast of the capital Bratislava. The premier was transferred to a hospital in the nearby city of Banska Bystrica, the government said in a statement on Wednesday. 

The dominant political figure in the eastern European nation of 5.4 million since the fall of communism, Fico returned to power last year as a force of opposition to European Union institutions in Brussels. His Russia-friendly stance has put him at odds with partners, threatening to undermine EU unity in helping Ukraine.

The alleged attacker, identified by Sme newspaper as a 71-year-old man, was apprehended and taken into custody by police, President Zuzana Caputova told reporters in Bratislava. 

Fico was walking in a crowd of people when shots were fired at him, newspaper Dennik N reported. Eyewitnesses heard multiple shots ring out as the prime minister fell to the ground, after which he was lifted by security guards, loaded into a car and driven away, the newspaper said.

Hateful Rhetoric

Caputova, the outgoing head of state and one of Fico’s chief critics in the country, condemned what she described as a “brutal and reckless attack” on the prime minister. 

“I am shocked,” she wrote in a Facebook post. “I wish Robert Fico every strength to recover from the attack at this critical time.” Hateful rhetoric leads to “hateful actions,” she told reporters later. 

Read more: Who Is Robert Fico, Slovak Leader Hit in Shooting?: QuickTake

It was the first shooting of a European head of state or government since the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in March 2003. The pro-European reformer who took a stand against organized crime was killed after being gunned down in central Belgrade.

Slovakia’s parliament in Bratislava suspended its session as leaders across the political spectrum rebuked the assault, the first of its kind in the nation’s history. Fico’s allies seized on the attack to accuse the opposition of inflaming division in the country. 

A polarizing figure, Fico made a political comeback last year after resigning in disgrace in 2018 in response to mass demonstrations over the killing of an investigative reporter probing corruption in Slovakia. 

A close ally of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Fico has been accused of adopting Orban’s blueprint for eroding independent institutions to shore up his power. The Hungarian leader said he was “deeply shocked by the heinous attack against my friend,” according to a post on social media platform X. 

Since his return to power, Fico has drawn protests nationwide for rewriting the criminal code and scrapping a special prosecutor’s office. Last month, he lashed out at the country’s media for what he called hostility to the government as his cabinet proposed tighter controls over public television and radio. 

Still, Western leaders were united in their condemnation of political violence against a head of government in an EU member state. President Joe Biden condemned the “horrific act of violence.” Chancellor Olaf Scholz called it a “cowardly attack.  

“Such acts of violence have no place in our society and undermine democracy, our most precious common good,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said on X. 

Gun ownership isn’t common in Slovakia and restrictions on obtaining weapons are tight. Still, the country is no stranger to gun violence. In the 1990s, after the country emerged from the split up of Czechoslovakia, it grappled with a spate of mafia-style killings – including a 1999 shooting at a restaurant in which 10 men were killed. 

The investigative journalist, Jan Kuciak, was also gunned down at his home with his fiancee in 2018. 

In Handlova, Fico’s cabinet approved a plan to build a nuclear reactor, joining a push across the European Union’s east to expand atomic energy production.

(Updates with detail on attacker, reactions from leaders, gun violence in Slovakia, from second paragraph.)

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.