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Angry Argentines protest corruption, economic crisis

Argentines took to the streets by the thousands banging pots and pans in a noisy but so far peaceful protest at government corruption and the collapse of the economy.
Protestors in main cities throughout the country were specifically angered by government-imposed restrictions on access to bank accounts and demanded that Supreme Court justices step down.

Several thousand people gathered near the presidential palace in the center of the capital for protests that were organized at the local neighbourhood level without political or labor union leadership.

"We are not Peronists, nor radicals, nor socialists. We are just the hungry people who for the first time have organized themselves and know their own strength," said Ruben Saboulard, leader of the residents' association of the San Telmo district of Buenos Aires.

The clanging, high-decibel mode of protest has become the soundtrack of discontent in Argentina since the country defaulted on its international debt last month and President Eduardo Duhalde froze some 65 billion dollars (75 billion euros) in savings accounts to prevent a run on banks that could worsen the country's dire financial straits.

The Supreme Court -- already unpopular among many Argentines for having freed former president Carlos Menem from house arrest in November when he was being investigated for illegal arms sales -- has lost more popularity points by approving the wildly unpopular financial restrictions.

Now demonstrators want the nine justices to pack their briefcases and go.

The protests officially began at 2300 GMT as demonstrators gathered in squares in bustling Buenos Aires and cities across Argentina's 23 provinces.

The fact that the protests are spontaneous and not led by political parties or unions was underlined by celebrated Argentine historian Felix Luna.

"The demonstrations are a collective display of bad temper against political corruption, the Supreme Court and all those who the demonstrators feel have led the country into crisis," he said.

The government has vowed to respond harshly if the protests turn violent. Similar protests in December brought down the government and forced then-president Fernando de la Rua to step down. Within days his successor, Adolfo Rodriguez Saa, was also driven out of office by street unrest.

As downtown banks boarded up their windows in anticipation of violence, presidential spokesman Eduardo Amadeo warned the government would crack down on law breakers.

"The government's obligation is to ensure that nothing gets out of line in terms of lives or people's property, and that is why there will be a large security structure in place," Amadeo told Radio Mitre.

In three massive national protests in which thousands of men and women have marched since last month, 30 people have been killed nationwide as demonstrators clashed with police, at times looting and destroying bank branches and foreign-owned businesses.

For 11 years Argentina's peso was tied at par with the dollar and Argentines have seen their currency lose almost 50 percent of its value since that peg was lifted earlier this month.

Duhalde originally said savings made in dollars would be returned in that currency, but eventually admitted this was impossible as there are simply not enough greenbacks in the banking system.

The announcement that the government was preparing to wean Argentines off the US currency was generally welcomed by banks, but depositors were far less happy.



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