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Taiwanese go to polls after attack on leaders

TAIPEI -- Voters streamed to the polls today for a hotly contested election, hours after President Chen Shui-bian and his vice president were shot and slightly wounded in an assassination attempt as they waved to onlookers from an open vehicle during a last-minute campaign event.

Political leaders canceled all campaign activities and pleaded for calm yesterday after the assassination attempt plunged Taiwan into turmoil less than 24 hours before voting began in its presidential race.

Medical authorities in the southern city of Tainan where Chen had been campaigning said that Chun suffered a 6-inch flesh wound to the stomach from a single bullet, but that he never lost consciousness and his life was never in danger.

Chen looked pale and tired during a brief televised statement last night in which he tried to reassure the electorate that Taiwan remained safe and that he was in good health.

"I'm fine, thanks to the good medical care I have received," he said.

Vice President Annette Lu, who was riding with Chen in the same jeep at the time of the shooting, sustained a knee wound that was not life-threatening. Both leaders left Tainan's Chi Mei Hospital last night and returned to Taipei, the capital, on separate military aircraft.

A hospital team removed the bullet from Chen's stomach, and two shell casings were retrieved near the scene of the shooting. But by late last night, law enforcement officials had given no indication that they knew who had carried out the shooting or why.

The government quickly announced a $100,000 reward for information leading to the capture of those responsible, then tripled the sum later in the day.

Today's race between Chen and his Nationalist Party opponent, Lien Chan, was considered too close to call in the final days, although some observers said they had detected new support for Lien after an island-wide series of Nationalist rallies March 13 brought more than 2 million people into the streets. Several political analysts interviewed late yesterday said they thought the assassination attempt probably would win Chen some sympathy votes.

"This will work in Chen's favor," said Emile Sheng, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei. "His supporters will come out in larger numbers, and some of those who are undecided may now go to him." Sheng and others worried that the attack could tarnish the legitimacy of the result.

"No matter who wins, this election is now tainted," he said. "This will always be an election that was tainted by violence."

For a people who are extremely proud of Taiwan's journey from authoritarian rule to a truly open, multiparty democracy in only a decade and a half, yesterday's attack on Chen was a demoralizing development. Although bitterly fought, Taiwan's presidential election campaigns have been largely free of violence.

When Chen won the presidency in 2000, the Nationalists accepted their first defeat without bloodshed. In the last month, both Chen's Democratic Progressive Party and the Nationalists peacefully staged several major rallies.

The sight of Chen and Lu traveling side by side in an open vehicle through the crowded streets of a major city underscored the sense of safety that candidates in Taiwan had come to take for granted despite the divisive, emotional nature of the current campaign. Neither was wearing a protective vest.

The head of the National Security Bureau, Tsai Chou-ming, said security around the president and vice president would be tightened immediately.

"This incident will probably mark the end of innocence for Taiwan politics," said James Seymour, a scholar at Columbia University's East Asian Institute, who was in Taipei to observe the vote.

Lien condemned the assassination attempt, insisting that it would not weaken Taiwan's democracy or influence the election's outcome. He said he tried unsuccessfully to telephone Chen in Tainan after the attack, then failed to meet with him after traveling to the official presidential residence late yesterday in Taipei.

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