Bolivia president denies prior intelligence of coup planning

By Monica Machicao and Lucinda Elliott

LA PAZ (Reuters) -Bolivian President Luis Arce on Thursday denied any involvement or prior knowledge of a failed coup attempt led by the country's former top military commander who alleged the president had asked him to do something to boost his popularity.

"We were never informed about his intentions," Arce told reporters during a press conference at government headquarters. "We were surprised."

The mobilization of military units on Wednesday saw Juan Jose Zuniga gather troops in the main square of capital La Paz, ramming a palace door with an armored vehicle to allow soldiers to rush into the building.

Zuniga, who was soon arrested, told reporters that Arce had asked him to help boost popularity.

Local news agency Fides reported Zuniga told police Arce had three days earlier authorized him to mobilize the armored vehicles "with the objective of controlling the situation of conflicts in the country."

Earlier on Thursday, Interior Minister Eduardo del Castillo said in an interview that Arce had received reports of "destabilization attempts," though the government did not know more at the time.

Arce said Zuniga "acted on his own accord," and upon learning of what was happening, the leader called ex-President Evo Morales, his former ally turned political rival, to warn him.

"It was clear that they were coming for me," Arce said, "and after they were going for Evo Morales."

Zuniga was arrested along with former Navy commander Juan Arnez Salvador, Del Castillo said. He later said 17 people had been detained so far, but there were "many more who had participated."


The failed coup happened over just a few hours and provoked swift condemnations from world leaders, raising fears that democracy in the Andean nation remains at risk.

Arce, who quickly swore in new military chiefs, on Thursday evening sought to reassure the public, saying everything "had returned to normal".

Street stall seller Antonia, who witnessed Wednesday's events in the plaza near where she works, said the area had been calm on Thursday.

"Things went along like any normal day. There were a few people who came to protest earlier," she told Reuters while packing up the games and puzzles she sells.

Calls grew louder on Thursday for accountability for the attempted coup, in which around 200 military officers took part, according to Bolivia's ambassador.

"I urge the authorities to conduct a thorough and impartial investigation into allegations of violence and reports of injuries," said U.N. Human Rights Chief Volker Turk. "Those responsible must be held to account."

Zuniga had recently said Morales should not be able to run again for president and threatened to block him if he attempted to do so.

The commander had been told on Tuesday evening he would be stripped of his position as his conduct "was not in line with the Constitution," according to Del Castillo.

The minister recalled that Zuniga reacted calmly to the news.

"But no one could have imagined that the next day, before the official handover in posts, there would be a failed coup in our country," he said.

(Reporting by Monica Machicao and Daniel Ramos in La Paz; Additional reporting by Kylie Madry and Aida Pelaez-Fernandez in Mexico City; Writing by Brendan O'Boyle; Editing by David Alire Garcia, Rod Nickel and Lincoln Feast.)