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Japan’s ex-PM Shinzo Abe in critical condition after campaign shooting

Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was in a critical condition on Friday after he was shot during a campaign speech in western Japan in what officials described as an attack on the country's democracy.

Kyodo news agency and national broadcaster NHK said Abe, 67, appeared to be in a state of cardiac arrest when airlifted to hospital, after having initially been conscious and responsive.

Japan's longest-serving PM was in a "very grave condition", Prime Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters, describing the shooting as "absolutely unforgivable".

"I am praying from my heart that Abe survives this ordeal," Kishida added.

Police said a 41-year-old man suspected of carrying out the shooting in the western city of Nara had been arrested.

NHK showed video of Abe making a campaign speech outside a train station when two shots rang out, after which the view was briefly obscured and then security officials were seen tackling a man on the ground. A puff of smoke behind Abe could be seen in another video shown in NHK.

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A Kyodo photograph showed Abe lying face-up on the street by a guardrail, blood on his white shirt. People were crowded around him, one administering heart massage.

TBS Television reported that Abe had been shot on the left side of his chest and apparently also in the neck.

"There was a loud bang and then smoke," businessman Makoto Ichikawa, who was at the scene, told Reuters, adding that the gun was the size of a television camera.

"The first shot, no one knew what was going on, but after the second shot, what looked like special police tackled him."

Political violence is rare in Japan, a country with strict gun regulations.

Police identified the suspected shooter as Tetsuya Yamagami, a resident of Nara. NHK quoted the suspect as telling police he was dissatisfied with Abe and wanted to kill him.

'Shocking news'

Abe served two terms as prime minister to become Japan's longest-serving premier before stepping down in 2020 citing ill health.

But he has remained a dominant presence over the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), controlling one of its major factions.

"Even without holding office, he remains an enormously influential figure in Japan," said FRANCE 24's Michael Penn, reporting from Tokyo.

Shinzo Abe remained a hugely influential figure even after his resignation. © Franck Robichon, Reuters

Abe's protege Kishida goes into Sunday's upper house election hoping, analysts say, to emerge from Abe's shadow and define his premiership.

Kishida suspended his election campaign after Abe's shooting and was returning to Tokyo where he was due to speak to media at 0530 GMT.

The government said there was no plan to postpone the election.

The ambassador of the United States, Rahm Emanuel, said he was saddened and shocked by the shooting of an outstanding leader and unwavering ally.

"The US government and American people are praying for the well-being of Abe-san, his family, and the people of Japan," he said in a statement.

French President Emmanuel Macron said he was "deeply shocked by this heinous attack".

"Shocking news from Japan that former PM Shinzo Abe has been shot – our thoughts are with his family and the people of Japan at this time," Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese wrote on Twitter.

Shocking news from Japan that former PM Shinzo Abe has been shot – our thoughts are with his family and the people of Japan at this time

— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) July 8, 2022

Youngest prime minister

Abe is best known for his signature “Abenomics” policy which featured bold monetary easing and fiscal spending.

He also bolstered defence spending after years of declines and expanded the military’s ability to project power abroad.

In a historic shift in 2014, his government reinterpreted the postwar, pacifist constitution to allow troops to fight overseas for the first time since World War Two.

The following year, legislation ended a ban on exercising the right of collective self-defence, or defending a friendly country under attack.

Abe, however, did not achieve his long-held goal of revising the US-drafted constitution by writing the Self-Defense Forces, as Japan’s military in known, into the pacifist Article 9.

He was instrumental in winning the 2020 Olympics for Tokyo, cherishing a wish to preside over the Games, which were postponed by a year to 2021 because of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Abe first took office in 2006 as Japan’s youngest prime minister since World War Two. After a year plagued by political scandals, voter outrage at lost pension records, and an election drubbing for his ruling party, Abe quit citing ill health.

He became prime minister again in 2012.

Abe hails from a wealthy political family that included a foreign minister father and a grandfather who served as premier.

First elected to parliament in 1993 after his father's death, Abe rose to national fame by adopting a tough stance toward unpredictable neighbour North Korea in a feud over Japanese citizens kidnapped by Pyongyang decades ago.

Though Abe also sought to improve ties with China and South Korea, where bitter wartime memories run deep, he riled both neighbours in 2013 by visiting Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, seen by Beijing and Seoul as a symbol of Japan's past militarism.

In later years in office, Abe refrained from visiting in person and instead sent ritual offerings.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, Reuters)

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