- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 1, 2002

BUENOS AIRES A congressional leader took over as the fourth president in two weeks yesterday as Argentina struggled with a deep economic and political crisis. Tempers flared earlier as angry Argentines lined up at banks and riot police cordoned off Government Palace.

House leader Eduardo Camano who was likely to head the executive branch only for a matter of hours became next in line of succession after Adolfo Rodriguez Saa ditched his week-old caretaker presidency on Sunday, complaining that powerful members of his Peronist Party had let his government crumble as he tried to confront a devastating financial crisis.

A Peronist political leader, Buenos Aires provincial Sen. Eduardo Duhalde, was heavily favored by lawmakers to take over as interim president in a congressional session set to begin this afternoon.

Lawmakers also signaled they wanted to scrap a scheduled March election and let Mr. Duhalde complete former President Fernando De la Rua's term ending in 2003.

Hundreds of elderly pensioners lined up at banks around the country while others queued up at ATMs after the government allowed a one-time withdrawal of $500 from each bank account for the New Year's holiday. Except for that exception, a banking freeze limits cash withdrawals to $250 a week, a move that has provoked public anger.

In an angry departure speech Sunday night, Mr. Rodriguez Saa said he was left out in the cold by fellow political bosses, but wouldn't be the one to defy an angry public that has rioted over the banking freeze and failed austerity measures.

"I'm not going to be a president of repression who serves the privileged sectors in power," said Mr. Rodriguez Saa, whose fleeting presidency uncorked a power struggle among the left-leaning Peronists, Argentina's dominant force.

Mr. Rodriguez Saa became interim president Dec. 23, two days after Mr. de la Rua was forced out amid protests and looting over the government's inability to contain an economic crisis and unemployment now topping 18 percent.

Meanwhile, authorities bolstered security in advance of New Year's celebrations.

A handful of rifle-toting soldiers in camouflage uniforms patrolled the Government Palace, while riot police blocked traffic from circulating around the grassy square Plaza de Mayo, the scene of recent rioting.

Elsewhere, authorities said some 45,000 security forces had been placed on alert in and around the capital as a precaution against any flare-up of the unrest that saw widescale supermarket lootings and rioting that ushered in Mr. de la Rua's downfall in December.

Interior Minister Rodolfo Gabrielli, one of the last aides to Mr. Rodriguez Saa still working, told reporters that banks had complied with the president's last orders to more than double the hours they were open yesterday to the public. The step was taken to avoid a repeat of long lines by Argentines anxious to withdraw what cash they could.

Still, Enrique Ledesma, a 70-year-old pensioner, stood for hours in a line that stretched blocks in Buenos Aires province and complained that ordinary Argentines were being treated badly. He was trying to get access to his pension, with hundreds ahead of him in line.

"This is bad, really bad. The truth is, we need to get rid of everyone in power and start over again with a clean, honest government," Mr. Ledesma said.


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