Coup attempt in Bolivia: General arrested, army flees palace

LA PAZ, Bolivia (AP) — Armored vehicles stormed the doors of Bolivia’s government palace on Wednesday in an apparent coup attempt, but President Luis Arce vowed to stand firm and appointed a new army chief who ordered troops to stand down.

The soldiers withdrew behind a line of military vehicles, while hundreds of Arce supporters rushed into the square outside the palace, waving Bolivian flags and chanting.

Arce, surrounded by ministers, waved to the crowd as they sang the national anthem. “Thank you to the Bolivian people,” he said. “Let democracy live.”

Hours later, the Bolivian general who appeared to be behind the rebellion, Juan Jose Zuniga, was arrested after the public prosecutor opened an investigation. It was not immediately clear what the charges were against him.

Armored vehicles stormed the doors of Bolivia’s government palace on Wednesday as President Luis Arce said the country was facing a coup attempt, insisted he stood firm and urged people to mobilize.

However, shortly before his arrest, Zuniga claimed that Arce asked him to storm the palace in a political move. The president told me: The situation is very complex and very critical. “It is necessary to prepare something to raise my popularity,” Zuniga told reporters.

Zuniga asked Arce if he should “take out the armored vehicles?” and Arce replied, “Take them out.”

Wednesday’s rebellion came after months of tensions, with economic hardship and protests increasingly mounting as two political titans – Arce and his former ally leftist ex-president Evo Morales – vie for control of the ruling party.

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However, the apparent attempt to unseat the incumbent appears to lack any real support, and even Arce’s rivals have joined forces to defend democracy and disavow the uprising.

The scene angered regional leaders and shocked Bolivians, who are no strangers to political turmoil; in 2019, Morales was ousted as president after an earlier political crisis.

As the crisis unfolded on Wednesday, military vehicles poured into the square. Before entering the government building, Zuniga, Commander-in-Chief of the Army, told reporters: “There will certainly soon be a new government; “Our country and our state cannot continue like this.” Zuniga said that “for the time being” he recognized Arce as commander-in-chief.

Zuniga did not explicitly say he was leading a coup, but he said in the palace that the army was trying to “restore democracy and release our political prisoners.”

Shortly after, Arce confronted Zuniga in the palace hallway, as seen in a video on Bolivian television. “I am your commander, I order you to withdraw your soldiers, and I will not allow this disobedience,” Arce said.

Surrounded by the ministers, he added: “Here we are, resolute in Casablanca, in the face of any coup attempt.” We need the Bolivian people to organize.

He added in a video message that he “will not allow coup attempts that claim the lives of Bolivians again.”

Less than an hour later, Arce announced new commanders of the army, navy and air force to roars of supporters, thanking the country’s police and regional allies for standing by him. Ars said that the forces that revolted against him were “staining the uniform” of the army.

“I ordered all conscripts to return to their units,” newly appointed army commander Jose Wilson Sanchez said. “No one wants the images we see on the streets.”

Shortly after, armored vehicles rolled out of the square, followed by hundreds of military personnel, while riot police set up barricades outside the government palace.

The incident was met with a wave of anger from other regional leaders, including the Organization of American States, Chilean President Gabriel Buric, the leader of Honduras, and former Bolivian leaders.

Bolivia, a country with a population of 12 million people, has witnessed intense protests in recent months due to the sharp decline of the economy from one of the fastest growing economies on the continent two decades ago to one of the economies most suffering from crises.

The country has also witnessed major disagreement at the highest levels of the ruling party. Arce and his former ally Morales are fighting for the future of the dissident Movement for Socialism in Bolivia, known by its Spanish acronym MAS, before elections scheduled for 2025.

In the wake of Wednesday’s chaos, reports in local media showed Bolivians stocking up on food and other necessities in supermarkets, worried about what would happen next.

But to his supporters outside the presidential palace, the country’s Vice President David Choquehuanca vowed: “The Bolivian people will never again allow coup attempts.”

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Janetsky reported from Mexico City.

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Janetsky reported from Mexico City.

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