Brazil to replace armed forces chiefs after Bolsonaro fires defense minister

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FILE PHOTO: Brazil's President Jair Bolsonaro is seen after a meeting with Brazil's Lower House Arthur Lira at the Planalto Palace, in Brasilia

BRASILIA (Reuters) - The three commanders of Brazil's armed forces will be replaced, the Defense Ministry said on Tuesday, a day after President Jair Bolsonaro made wholesale changes to his Cabinet that included the surprise axing of his defense minister.

The ministry said in a statement that the heads of the army, navy and air force will be replaced, without providing additional details. Their departures underline a stark shift in relations between Bolsonaro, a far-right former army captain, and the career soldiers of the armed forces that has grown more pronounced over his handling of the country's COVID-19 pandemic.

Since taking office in 2019, Bolsonaro has placed current and former military officials throughout all levels of his government, leading to concerns that the military's reputation may be tarnished by its affiliations with his administration.

The ministry said the decision to remove the three military chiefs was made in a meeting earlier in the day with the participation of incoming Defense Minister Walter Braga Netto and his predecessor, Fernando Azevedo e Silva, whose surprise replacement was announced on Monday.

Under mounting pressure to slow a pandemic that has killed over 300,000 Brazilians, Bolsonaro made six Cabinet changes on Monday in the biggest ministerial reshuffle to date.

Three ministers left the government, including Foreign Minister Ernesto Araujo, a China hawk whose departure followed mounting criticism from lawmakers of his failure to guarantee additional COVID-19 vaccine supplies from Beijing and Washington.

Bolsonaro seized on the loss of one of his most loyal allies to shore up support in his Cabinet, putting his chief of staff in charge of the Defense Ministry and placing a federal police officer close to his family in charge of the Justice Ministry.

(Reporting by Lisandra Paraguassu; Writing by Ana Mano; Editing by Brad Haynes and Jonathan Oatis)