Bolivia’s government on Thursday announced that a total of 17 people have been arrested over their alleged involvement in the attempted coup that shook the economically troubled country the day before.

The South American nation of 12 million watched in shock and bewilderment Wednesday as military forces appeared to turn on the government of President Luis Arce, seizing control of the capital’s main square with armored vehicles, crashing a tank into the presidential palace and unleashing tear gas on protesters. In the following hours, the army general who led the attempted coup, Juan José Zúñiga, and an alleged co-conspirator, former navy Vice Adm. Juan Arnez Salvador, were both arrested and remain in custody.

Senior Cabinet member Eduardo del Castillo did not elaborate on the other 15 people who have been arrested. He said one was a civilian identified as Aníbal Aguilar Gómez, whom he called the “mastermind” of the thwarted coup. Del Castillo said the government was pursuing more suspects and that the alleged conspirators began plotting in May.

Supporters of Bolivia’s president rallied outside his palace on Thursday, giving some political breathing room to the embattled leader as they chanted pro-democracy slogans. Riot police guarded the palace doors and Arce − who has struggled to manage the country’s shortages of foreign currency and fuel − condemned Zúñiga.

Analysts say that the surge of public support for Arce, even if fleeting, provides him with a much-needed reprieve from the country’s economic quagmire and political turmoil. The president is locked in a deepening rivalry with the popular former President Evo Morales, his erstwhile ally who has threatened to challenge Arce in 2025 primaries.

“The president’s management has been very bad, there are no dollars, there is no petrol,” said La Paz-based political analyst Paul Coca. “Yesterday’s military move is going to help his image a bit, but it’s no solution.”

Some protesters gathered outside the police station where the former army general was being detained, shouting that he should go to jail. “It’s a shame what Zúñiga did,” said 47-year-old Dora Quispe, one of the demonstrators. “We are in a democracy, not a dictatorship.”

Before his arrest late Wednesday, Zúñiga alleged without providing evidence that Arce had ordered the general to carry out the coup attempt in a ruse to boost the president’s popularity. That fueled a frenzy of speculation about what really happened, and opposition senators and government critics echoed the accusations, calling the mutiny a “self-coup” − a claim strongly denied by Arce’s government.

In La Paz’s main Plaza Murillo, supporters addressed Arce, yelling “Lucho, you are not alone!” as fireworks exploded overhead. Lucho, a common nickname for Luis, also means “fight” in Spanish. Some Bolivians said they believed Gen. Zúñiga’s allegations on national TV that the coup attempt was a hoax.

“They are playing with the intelligence of the people, because nobody believes that it was a real coup,” said 48-year-old lawyer Evaristo Mamani.

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Lawmakers and former officials also bolstered the allegations. “This has been a setup,” said Carlos Romero, a former official in the Morales government. “Zúñiga followed the script as he was ordered.”

Soon after the military action was underway, it became clear that any attempted takeover had no meaningful political support. The rebellion ended bloodlessly by the end of the business day. Arce named a new army commander, who immediately ordered troops to retreat. Hundreds of the president’s supporters surged into streets surrounding the palace Wednesday night, singing the national anthem and cheering for Arce. Authorities swiftly arrested Zúñiga as his soldiers retreated from central La Paz.

Zúñiga told reporters that Arce had asked him directly to storm the palace and bring armored vehicles into downtown La Paz.

“The president told me: ‘The situation is very screwed up, very critical. It is necessary to prepare something to raise my popularity,'” Zúñiga alleged the Bolivian leader told him.

Bolivian officials have denied Zúñiga’s claims, insisting the general was lying to justify his actions. Prosecutors said they’d seek the maximum sentence of 15 to 20 years in prison for Zúñiga on charges of “attacking the constitution.”

Political experts are struggling to comprehend the reasons behind Wednesday’s turmoil.

“This is the weirdest coup attempt I have ever seen,” said Kathryn Ledebur, director of the Andean Information Network, a Bolivia-based research group. “Bolivia’s democracy remains very fragile, and definitely a great deal more fragile today than it was yesterday.”

Le Monde with AP

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