Bolivia: Military flees government palace after coup attempt

Supporters of President Luis Arce chase soldiers as they flee from Plaza Murillo, after a failed coup attempt in La Paz, Bolivia, on Wednesday. JUAN KARITA — THE ASSOCIATED PRESS.

By PAOLA FLORES AND MEGAN JANETSKY | THE ASSOCIATED PRESS

LA PAZ, Bolivia >> Armored vehicles rammed into the doors of Bolivia’s government palace Wednesday in a coup attempt, but President Luis Arce named a new army commander who ordered troops to stand down.

The soldiers pulled back behind a line of military vehicles, as hundreds of Arce’s supporters rushed the square outside the palace.

Arce waved at the crowd as they sang the national anthem.

“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, shortly before his arrest Zúñiga claimed Arce asked him 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 told reporters.

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

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 outraged regional leaders and 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 building, Zúñiga, general commander of the army, 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 in the palace, he 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.

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