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Military flees Bolivia government palace, general in custody after coup attempt fails

Supporters of President Luis Arce chase soldiers as they flee from Plaza Murillo, after a failed coup attempt in La Paz, Bolivia, Wednesday, June 26, 2024.
Juan Karita
/
AP
Supporters of President Luis Arce chase soldiers as they flee from Plaza Murillo, after a failed coup attempt in La Paz, Bolivia, Wednesday, June 26, 2024.

Updated June 26, 2024 at 21:53 PM ET

LA PAZ, Bolivia — Armored vehicles rammed the doors of Bolivia's government palace Wednesday in an apparent coup attempt, but President Luis Arce vowed to stand firm and named a new army commander who ordered troops to stand down.

Soon the soldiers pulled back, along with a line of military vehicles, as hundreds of Arce's supporters rushed the square outside the palace, waving Bolivian flags, singing the national anthem and cheering.

Arce, surrounded by ministers, waved at the crowd. "Thank you to the Bolivian people," he said. " Let democracy live on."

Hours later, the Bolivian general who appeared to be behind the rebellion, Juan José Zúñiga, was arrested after the attorney general opened an investigation. It wasn't immediately clear what the charges were against him.

However, in a twist, Zúñiga claimed in comments to journalists before his arrest that Arce himself told the general to storm the palace in a political move. "The president told me: 'The situation is very screwed up, very critical. It is necessary to prepare something to raise my popularity'," Zúñiga quoted the Bolivian leader as saying.

Zúñiga sajd he asked Arce if he should "take out the armored vehicles?" and Arce replied, "Take them out."

Justice Minister Iván Lima denied Zúñiga's claims, saying the general was lying and trying to justify his own actions for which he will face justice.

Prosecutors will seek the maximum sentence of 15 to 20 years in prison for Zúñiga, Lima said via the social media platform X, "for having attacked democracy and the Constitution."

Wednesday's rebellion followed months of tensions, with economic hardship and protests growing ever stronger as two political titans — Arce and his one-time ally, leftist former President Evo Morales — battled for control of the ruling party.

Still, the apparent attempt to depose the sitting president appeared to lack any meaningful support, and even Arce's rivals closed ranks to defend democracy and repudiate the uprising.

The spectacle shocked Bolivians, no stranger to political unrest; in 2019 Morales was ousted as president following an earlier political crisis.

As the crisis unfolded Wednesday, military vehicles flooded into the plaza. Before entering the government palace, Zúñiga told journalists: "Surely soon there will be a new Cabinet of ministers; our country, our state cannot go on like this." Zúñiga said that "for now," though, he recognized Arce as commander in chief.

Zúñiga did not explicitly say he was leading a coup, but said the army was trying to "restore democracy and free our political prisoners."

Shortly after, Arce confronted Zúñiga in the palace hallway, as shown on video on Bolivian television. "I am your captain, and I order you to withdraw your soldiers, and I will not allow this insubordination," Arce said.

Surrounded by ministers, he added: "Here we are, firm in Casa Grande, to confront any coup attempt. We need the Bolivian people to organize."

Less than an hour later, Arce announced new heads of the army, navy and air force amid the roar of supporters, and thanked the country's police and regional allies for standing by him. Arce said the troops who rose against him were "staining the uniform" of the military.

"I order all that are mobilized to return to their units," said the newly named army chief José Wilson Sánchez. "No one wants the images we're seeing in the streets."

Shortly after, the armored vehicles roared out of the plaza, tailed by hundreds of military fighters as police in riot gear set up blockades outside the government palace.

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

Bolivia, a country of 12 million people, has seen intensifying protests in recent months over the economy's precipitous decline from one of the continent's fastest-growing two decades ago to one of its most crisis-stricken.

The country also has seen a high-profile rift at the highest levels of the governing party. Arce and his one-time ally, Morales, have been battling for the future of Bolivia's splintering Movement for Socialism, known by its Spanish acronym MAS, ahead of elections in 2025.

Following Wednesday's chaos, reports on local media showed Bolivians stocking up on food and other essentials in supermarkets, concerned about what will come next.

Copyright 2024 NPR