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Argentine president resigns amid widespread unrest, collapsing economy

by BILL CORMIER, Associated Press Writer

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) — President Fernando De la Rua resigned Thursday after two turbulent years in power, his government crumbling as demonstrators across Argentina battled police to protest a lengthy economic crisis.

De la Rua’s decision to step down midway through his four-year term followed two days of the worst rioting in a decade, leaving at least 21 people dead and more than 200 injured. Police battled protesters in Argentina’s capital, while looters ransacked homes and supermarkets in other large cities.

The president declared a state of siege late Wednesday, assuming increased powers to quell the unrest. But the move failed as violence raged. Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo quit earlier Thursday, followed by reports that the entire Cabinet offered to resign.

After a last-ditch effort to build a new coalition failed, de la Rua submitted his resignation to Congress Thursday afternoon, government officials said. Because the vice president resigned last year in a falling out with De la Rua, Senate President Ramon Puerta is in line to assume the interim presidency.

The resignation triggered cheers by protesters who danced in the streets. But hundreds of people still milled about downtown Buenos Aires amid reports of some minor, scattered clashes though the violence appeared to be subsiding.

“I’m delight that he’s finally gone. Thank God!” said Maria Teresa Andrejuk, a 52-year-old capital resident among those celebrating.

As the sun set amid billowing tear gas haze, the president’s helicopter lifted off from the government palace rooftop, taking him to his suburban residence. The heliport hadn’t been used by a departing leader since Isabel Peron was pushed out in a 1976 coup that ushered in a 7-year military dictatorship.

Though De la Rua technically remained president, media reports said Puerta was already at work on a caretaker government and that Congress would accept de la Rua’s resignation and appoint Puerta interim president in a session Friday morning.

An aide to De la Rua, who spoke with The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said the 64-year-old leader was surrounded by advisers as he submitted his resignation letter.

He said De la Rua declared he was departing because “a government of national unity was rejected by parliamentary leaders.”

“I trust my decision will contribute to the peace and to the institutional continuity of the republic,” De la Rua concluded.

A transitional government will now face the daunting challenge of restoring well-being to a country struggling with a four-year recession that has left it on the verge of economic collapse.

After taking office Dec. 11, 1999 with a popularity rating above 70 percent, De la Rua was stepping down with his image tarnished and his ratings in single digits.

The popular outrage against the president was sparked by four years of bitter recession that exhausted the country and left it staring at a possible default on its $132 billion public debt. Unemployment last month reached over 18 percent and industrial production has plummeted.

The government has enacted eight austerity plans and is seeking even further cuts in public spending. It has already faced an equal number of general strikes.

Outside the ornate government palace earlier Thursday, protesters chanting “Come out! Come out!” called for De la Rua to step onto the balcony and face the people. But the shutters remained closed, the palace surrounded by iron barricades and scores of riot police.

Black-clad officers swung truncheons, fired rubber bullets and aimed water cannons on the seething crowds of demonstrators. Many shirtless youths hurled sticks and cobblestones back at police lines on a sweltering day at the onset of the South American summer.

Cavalary offers on horseback charged repeatedly as helmeted colleagues fired round after round of tear gas whistling overhead. Water cannons roared across the main Plaza de Mayo, directing their jets against demonstrators calling for De la Rua’s head.

It was bloody: one man was dragged by his hair, others carried kicking and shouting to police vans. Scores of people, weeping from acrid tear gas, fled with rubber bullet wounds.

All day, the street battles raged as white clouds of tear gas wafted over the palm-lined plaza of the elegant European-style capital whose central boulevards turned grimy, littered by rocks and burning debris.

Elsewhere, the unrest spread across the nation of 37 million people, with looters attacking supermarkets in major cities and ransacking homes. Fourteen people died Thursday and six others were killed on Wednesday — eight of them in outlying provinces. Many died of gunshot wounds.

Miguel Aguilera, a 24-year-old laborer, said many people joined the protests because they were hungry and jobless. “I haven’t had a job in four years,” said Aguilera, who complained riot police fired on him from six feet away when he and companions were trapped against a wall.

“I thought they were going to kill me,” said Aguilera, bleeding from five rubber bullet wounds, two of them to the head.

Political analyst James Nielson said De la Rua’s political demise doesn’t signal the end of the immediate crisis in a country now staring at a possible default on the debt and deep-seated popular anger with politicians in general.

“This is an extremely unstable situation,” he said, warning a new government with broad popular support would be a challenge.


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