Bolivia's former acting president Jeanine Áñez was arrested Saturday on terrorism and sedition charges linked to the ousting of her predecessor and political rival Evo Morales.
Police were also rounding up former ministers who backed the conservative politician's caretaker government, which was in place for a year after Morales fled the country in November 2019 amid disputed elections, media reports said.
The arrests came months after Morales returned to Bolivia from exile on the back of a fresh election victory in October 2020 for the leftist Movement for Socialism (MAS) party he founded.
The Presidency and Congress are now under the control of MAS.
"I inform the Bolivian people that Mrs. Jeanine Áñez has already been apprehended and is currently in the hands of the police," government minister Carlos Eduardo del Castillo wrote on Twitter and Facebook.
From a police barracks in La Paz, Áñez sent letters to the European Union and the Organization of American States asking them to send observer missions to follow the case.
She asked them to "objectively and impartially evaluate the illegal apprehension of which myself and my two former ministers have been victims, on Friday and at dawn this Saturday," Áñez wrote in the letters, a copy of which was obtained by AFP.
Morales, for his part, showed support for the arrests in a tweet demanding punishment for the "authors and accomplices" of what he described as a coup against him.
Áñez tweeted a copy of the warrant issued Friday by Bolivia's public prosecutor with the response: "The political persecution has begun."
She added the government was accusing her "of having participated in a coup d'état that never happened."
In the early hours of Saturday, Bolivian television showed images of Áñez, not handcuffed, arriving at La Paz's El Alto airport, accompanied by Del Castillo and several police officers.
She denounced her arrest as "illegal" in brief remarks to the press, before being taken to a government ministry building to be questioned.
Áñez's former energy minister Rodrigo Guzmán and his justice counterpart Álvaro Coimbra, both listed on the prosecutor's warrant, were detained on Friday.
Coimbra protested the "illegal and abusive" arrest of his former colleague Guzmán, before he, too, was brought in.
"We have said that we will always make ourselves available to the law," Coimbra told Bolivian TV as he was placed into a police vehicle.
Áñez, a former senator, took over as caretaker president after Morales left Bolivia. He had lost the support of the armed forces amid violent protests against his re-election to an unconstitutional fourth term.
Several Morales allies who held senior posts also fled, leaving Áñez the most senior Senate official still standing.
Morales was himself the target of sedition and terrorism charges in an investigation opened shortly after Áñez took power.
But he returned from exile last November after his MAS romped to victory in an October 2020 general election that saw the party's Luis Arce win the presidency.
Morales has since taken over the leadership of the party.
Last month, Congress voted to give amnesty to those prosecuted during Áñez's presidency for acts of violence during the chaos that followed Morales' resignation.
MAS party member Lidia Patty filed a complaint against Áñez last December, claiming she, several of her former ministers, ex-military and police members, and others had promoted the overthrow of Morales, who had been in power for 14 years.
"The MAS has decided to return to the style of dictatorship. It is a shame because Bolivia does not need dictators, it needs freedom and solutions," Anez tweeted Friday.
In a statement, UN Secretary-General António Guterres stressed "the importance of upholding due process guarantees and full transparency in all legal proceedings" against former government officials in Bolivia.
He also recalled "the important steps taken by all Bolivian actors towards the consolidation of peace" and reiterated the UN's commitment to support these efforts.
EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell tweeted Saturday that he was following the situation in Bolivia, calling for a resolution "within the framework of transparent justice and without political pressure."
Áñez, a former lawyer, is a longtime critic of leftist Morales, who has branded her "a coup-mongering right-wing senator."
He has said that Áñez "declared herself... interim president without a legislative quorum, surrounded by a group of accomplices."
Ex-presidents Jorge Quiroga and Carlos Mesa separately condemned the arrests.
"We are in a process of political persecution worse than in dictatorships. It is executed against those who defended democracy and freedom in 2019," Mesa said on Twitter.
Quiroga accused Arce of being "a tyrant's apprentice."
But Justice Minister Iván Lima insisted the system was independent from government.
"We cannot interfere in cases brought by the prosecutor and by justice. These cases must be pursued within the framework of objectivity and independence," said Lima.
by José Arturo Cárdenas, AFP