Slovakia’s populist prime minister, Robert Fico, was shot multiple times and gravely wounded on Wednesday in an attempted assassination that shocked the small country and reverberated across Europe.

The pro-Russian leader, 59, was reported to be fighting for his life after being hit in the stomach.

At least four shots were fired outside a cultural centre in the town of Handlova, nearly 85 miles north east of the capital, where Mr Fico was meeting with supporters, the government said.

A suspect was in custody, the country’s president said in a televised statement. Mr Fico was taken by helicopter to a hospital.

The motive for the shooting was unclear.

Mr 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.

His government halted arms deliveries to Ukraine, and critics worry that he will lead Slovakia – a nation of 5.4 million that belongs to Nato – to abandon its pro-Western course and follow in the footsteps of Hungary under populist prime minister, Viktor Orban.

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Robert Fico was in Handlova for a session of the country’s Cabinet (Radovan Stoklasa/TASR via AP)

Thousands have repeatedly rallied in the capital and across Slovakia to protest against Mr Fico’s policies.

A message posted to Mr Fico’s Facebook account said he was taken to a hospital in Banska Bystrica, 17 miles from Handlova, because it would take too long to get to the capital, Bratislava.

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.

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Police arrested a suspect soon after Robert Fico was shot (Radovan Stoklasa/TASR via AP)

“A physical attack on the prime minister is, first of all, an attack on a person, but it is also an attack on democracy,” outgoing President Zuzana Caputova, a political rival of Fico, said in a televised statement.

“Any violence is unacceptable. The hateful rhetoric we’ve been witnessing in society leads to hateful actions. Please, let’s stop it.”

President-elect Peter Pellegrini, an ally of Mr Fico, called the shooting “an unprecedented threat to Slovak democracy. If we express other political opinions with pistols in squares, and not in polling stations, we are jeopardising everything that we have built together over 31 years of Slovak sovereignty”.

US President Joe Biden said he was alarmed. “We condemn this horrific act of violence,” he said in a statement.

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Robert Fico, left, has expressed support for the Russian president, Vladimir Putin (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, pool, File)

Nato secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg posted on the social media platform X that he was “shocked and appalled” by the attempt on Mr Fico’s life.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen called it a “vile attack”.

“Such acts of violence have no place in our society and undermine democracy, our most precious common good,” Ms Von der Leyen said in a post on X.

Mr Fico, a third-time premier, and his leftist Smer, or Direction, party won Slovakia’s September 30 parliamentary elections.

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

Slovakia’s parliament was adjourned until further notice.