Resurgent unrest challenges Argentina's latest president

Saturday, January 26th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ Citizen anger over a government banking freeze erupted into fresh unrest early Saturday as President Eduardo Duhalde confronted the first nationwide protest against his rule.

The banking curbs, imposed Dec. 1 by the previous president, were tightened by Duhalde after he said drastic steps were needed to keep the teetering financial system afloat. Argentines are angry because government limits on how much they can withdraw from their bank accounts has put their savings in limbo while the Duhalde administration tries to stave off financial collapse.

Riot police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of peaceful demonstrators and rock-throwing youths on the fringes of a rally winding down late Friday night.

Demonstrators lingered in the streets for hours early Saturday before crowds began melting away before dawn.

``Get out! Get out!'' people chanted, venting their anger at Duhalde's 3-week-old caretaker government.

Others complained of corruption by officials.

``They're all thieves!'' some shouted.

At least 13 people were reported injured in clashes outside the government palace, known as the Casa Rosada, beginning around midnight.

Dozens of people reportedly were detained. The violence began late Friday amid a driving rain as some 10,000 people entered the streets to bang pots and pans in what, for hours, was a peaceful nighttime protest.

Adolfo Valotta, a 29-year-old lawyer demonstrating in the streets early Saturday, said Argentines are rightly angry with their government for the economic mess.

``We are fed up with the politicians. People want their money, and solutions that will end this crisis,'' Valotta said. ``The government isn't moving fast enough.''

Since taking office Jan. 2, Duhalde has devalued the peso by more than 30 percent and further tightened a widely despised banking freeze that has locked most Argentines' savings into bank accounts.

Duhalde likened the stringent banking curbs to a ``time bomb you have to dismantle very carefully.''

He had no immediate comment Saturday on the violence outside the government palace, in which sparking tear gas canisters scattered panicked people.

Large-scale riots outside the same palace in late December toppled the last elected president, Fernando De la Rua, amid rioting and looting nationwide that claimed 26 lives.

For weeks, Argentines have waited on block-long lines outside banks trying to take out their savings. There has been some violence, including the shattering of bank windows and the firebombing of a politician's home.

Tens of thousands of Argentines participated Friday in peaceful pot-banging demonstrations in major cities _ including Mar del Plata, Cordoba, Mendoza, Rosario and Salta _ after being summoned by grass-roots groups through e-mails and word of mouth.

The violence appeared to be concentrated in Buenos Aires, although there were reports of bank windows being shattered elsewhere.

At the height of the Buenos Aires clashes, youths threw Molotov cocktails and paving stones at motorcycle police, who then fired rubber bullets into crowds.

At one point, a reporter for The Associated Press saw police unleash a barrage of rubber bullets and tear gas at demonstrators sitting on the steps of the downtown cathedral.

Ten police officers and at least three demonstrators were reported injured, including a man who collapsed with rubber bullet wounds to his back.

Volley after volley of tear gas exploded over the downtown Plaza de Mayo, fronting the government palace, as scores of riot police moved in and cleared mostly peaceful demonstrators from the square.

``This shouldn't have to happen in Argentina,'' said Norma Francomano, a 52-year-old school teacher.

She said Duhalde, a Peronist Party member appointed by Congress in January as the country's fifth president in a month, should be replaced.

``We want a popularly elected government, not a populist,'' she said.