LA PAZ, BOLIVIA (AP) - Bolivian police foiled an alleged plot to assassinate President Evo Morales, killing three men in a 30-minute gunbattle with a mysterious group that included suspects from Hungary, Ireland and possibly Croatia, government officials said Thursday.
Police had attempted to arrest the men in the center of Santa Cruz, an eastern Bolivian city and hub of anti-Morales sentiment, but they fled to a hotel where an intense shootout took place around 4 a.m., witnesses and police said.
The alleged assassins detonated a grenade inside the hotel, blowing out its windows amid the gunfight, according to police. Three of the suspects, identified by state media as Hungarian, Irish and Bolivian, were killed.
A second Hungarian was arrested, along with a retired Bolivian soldier who had fought in conflicts in Yugoslavia in the 1990s, state prosecutor Jorge Gutierrez said.
Police raided a storage facility in a nearby park, confiscating explosives, high-caliber telescopic weapons and what appeared to be travel plans for Morales’ motorcade, Police Commander Victor Hugo Escobar told reporters.
The group is also responsible for a failed dynamite attack on the home of Santa Cruz’s Roman Catholic Cardinal Julio Terrazas on Wednesday, police said.
It was unclear, though, why a group of alleged anti-Morales assassins would attack Terrazas, who is known to support the president’s opponents who control much of Bolivia’s farm and natural gas wealth in the lowland east around Santa Cruz.
Morales said he learned of the plot against him and Vice President Alvaro Garcia in recent days and ordered the men’s arrest on Wednesday.
“I gave the vice president and the commander of the national police instructions to stage an operation and detain those mercenaries,” Morales told journalists Thursday in Venezuela, where he is attending a conference.
A statement from his office said the suspected assassins included men of Croatian and Irish nationality, along with members of Bolivia’s “far right.” He warned that other cells of the same group still exist in Bolivia and said police would continue to seek them out.
Santa Cruz Gov. Ruben Costas told reporters that local police were not involved in the arrests and suggested the alleged assassination plot was staged to discredit his government. Costas is one of four governors who have sought autonomy for their provinces.
Morales has accused Costas of fomenting anti-government violence after rioters seized state buildings to block a vote on a new constitution last September. Eleven people died in the skirmishes and a U.N. report found the president’s political opponents responsible.
Morales ejected the U.S. ambassador and Drug Enforcement Administration officials over accusations that American diplomats had supported the opposition. He also claimed that the U.S. organized groups to assassinate him. Washington denies those charges.