Alleged Irish link to Bolivia plot

 

A senior official from the Irish embassy in Argentina is to travel to Bolivia this afternoon in an attempt to clarify reports that an Irishman was killed in during a police operation yesterday.

Three men belonging to a group that allegedly included gunmen from Ireland, Hungary and Croatia died in a 30-minute gun battle with police who foiled an alleged plot to assassinate president Evo Morales, Bolivian government officials said yesterday.

Police had attempted to arrest the men in the centre of Santa Cruz, an eastern Bolivian city and hub of anti-Morales sentiment, but they fled to a hotel where a shootout took place about 4am, witnesses and police said.

The men 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 Irish, Hungarian, and Bolivian, were killed.

The Department of Foreign Affairs told The Irish Timesthis afternoon that a diplomat attached to the Irish Embassy in Argentina will travel to Bolivia this afternoon to establish the truth behind the reports.

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-calibre telescopic weapons and what appeared to be travel plans for Mr Morales's 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 Cardinal 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.

Mr 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," Mr Morales told journalists yesterday in Venezuela, where he was 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.

However, the Governor of Santa Cruz Ruben Costas, an opponent of Mr Morales, told reporters that local police were not involved in the arrests and suggested the alleged assassination plot was staged to discredit his administration. Mr Costas is one of four governors who have sought autonomy for their provinces.

Mr Morales has accused Mr 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 UN report found the president's political opponents responsible.

Mr Morales ejected the US ambassador and Drug Enforcement Administration officials over accusations that American diplomats had supported the opposition. He also claimed that the US organised groups to assassinate him. Washington denies those charges.

Additional reporting: AP