A number of police units in Bolivia’s main city La Paz defected and joined anti-government protests on Saturday, presenting a serious new threat to attempts by President Evo Morales to hold on to power after last month’s disputed elections.
Local media reported that the defections had spread to at least four other cities and state television broadcast images of police marching with protesters in at least one of those cities. The BBC reported that the government had lost control of a regional capital, and that protesters and rebellious police officers had taken it over.
Mr. Morales, speaking in a news conference on Saturday, called on the police to respect the law, his strongest direct acknowledgment yet of the spreading rebellion.
“A coup is underway,” Mr. Morales said from his traditional stronghold in the city of El Alto outside La Paz.
He invited the country’s four main political parties to hold “urgent, immediate” talks. His call appeared to exclude the civic opposition leaders who have been spearheading the protests.
“We hope tonight to find peaceful solutions through dialogue,” Mr. Morales said.
The government has so far not confronted the spreading police rebellion, attempting instead to minimize its scale and importance. On Friday, the country’s defense minister said the Armed Forces will remain in their barracks and no military action will be taken against the mutinied policeman.
Isabel Mercado, the director of Página Siete, one of the country’s main newspapers, said Saturday that Mr. Morales’s hold on power appeared to be slipping as the police mutiny grew and the leaders of the armed forces remained out of sight.
“Without the police and the armed forces, I think it’s very hard for him to hold on,” she said.
On Saturday, uniformed police mixed with anti-government protesters outside the Presidential Palace in La Paz. Some police guards have abandoned their posts at several ministerial buildings and mutinied officers took over the old presidential palace, hanging national flags from its walls.
Bolivia erupted in violent protests after Mr. Morales claimed to have won an unprecedented fourth term in office last month, despite concerns from electoral observers over the validity of the results. The head of the vote auditing company contracted by the Bolivian government said Friday that the ballot counting process presented serious irregularities which prevented him from certifying the results.
The mutinies marked an escalation of Bolivia’s postelection unrest, which so far has claimed the lives of three people. Protesters have clashed with security forces across the country and burned public buildings.
A pro-government mayor in a small city in central Bolivia was kidnapped and marched through the streets barefoot and drenched with red paint in the past week.
In a statement posted late Friday on Twitter, Mr. Morales sought to mobilize his supporters, warning that “our democracy is in peril” as a result of a “coup that was set in motion by violent groups that are threatening the constitutional order.”
Carlos Mesa, the former president who came second in the Oct. 20 election, said Mr. Morales is to blame for the unrest that has rattled the country in recent weeks.
“The government is condemning itself to a disastrous exit,” Mr. Mesa told reporters on Saturday. “That’s what they deserve for not listening to the people.”
The opposition claims the vote on October 20 was rigged. When initial vote tallies showed Mr. Morales had to face an uncertain second round of elections, the ballot count suddenly stopped.
Election officials didn’t provide updates for nearly 24 hours without giving an explanation. When the results were finally updated, the initial trends were reversed, giving Mr. Morales just enough of a lead to avoid a runoff and spurring the opposition to take to the streets.
“We want President Evo Morales to go,” the leader of Bolivia’s civic opposition, Luis Fernando Camacho, told reporters in La Paz on Friday. “We need him to go because we have decided so, because he has laughed at all of us.”
Ernesto Londoño contributed reporting from Rio de Janeiro.