Events began before dawn when rebel soldiers led by Alfredo Reinado entered the residential compound of President José Ramos-Horta in the capital Dili. They disarmed the security detail on duty and entered the compound. Ramos-Horta was not there, being out jogging on the beach. The second security team, arriving to relieve the night team, saw Renaido in the house and opened fire, killing him with a shot to the head. Another rebel, Leopoldino Mendonça Exposto, was also killed.
Ramos-Horta was alerted of the gunfight but walked back up the hill to his home. Reinado's men opened fire on him as he approached his home. One of Ramos-Horta's guards pushed in front of him as a human shield. The guard was shot and taken to a hospital in serious condition. The surviving rebels fled the scene.
Prime Minister Xanana Gusmão was alerted to the attack on the presidential home and left his home by car for Dili. A group of rebel soldiers under the command of Lieutenant Gastão Salsinha invaded Gusmão's home, finding Gusmão's wife Kirsty and children but not Gusmão. Another party of rebels shot out the tires of Gusmão's car on its way to Dili, but the car continued for some distance before Gusmão, unhurt, abandoned it and ran into the bush to call for help.
Gusmão declared a 48-hour state of emergency, including a curfew and a ban on conducting meetings or rallies, and described the events as an attempted coup. Ramos-Horta was evacuated to Darwin, Australia, for emergency surgery.
Ramos-Horta had met Reinado several times in the months before the attacks, trying to persuade him to surrender. Their most recent meeting, on the preceding Sunday, was reported to have ended acrimoniously.