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Banking Protests Fester in Argentina

January 25, 2002

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina (AP) _ Angry Argentines banged pots and pans outside banks on Thursday, demanding access to their frozen accounts as the deteriorating economy fueled calls for a nationwide protest.

``We want our money! We want our money!″ hundreds of demonstrators shouted, complaining that a slight loosening of tight banking restrictions had not gone far enough to give citizens access to their cash.

The street protests over a banking freeze imposed last month highlight one of the biggest challenges facing the new president, Eduardo Duhalde, as he tries to pull Argentina from its worst economic crisis in decades.

The government says the removal of the banking curbs could lead to a collapse of the financial system, but Argentines are furious at a freeze that denies some full access to their savings until 2005.

The near-collapse of South America’s second-largest economy stems from a four-year recession that left one out of five Argentines jobless and forced thousands of businesses to close.

With state coffers nearly dry, the lower house of Congress approved a law Thursday allowing the Central Bank to print nearly $13 billion in new money. Much of that money will help the cash-strapped government pay salaries and bills, but analysts warn it could spark inflation.

The new pesos will nearly double the amount already in circulation.

But the near daily protests continued, many led by middle-class Argentines and business owners who complain the banking curbs have stalled the economy.

The partial banking freeze was imposed Dec. 1 by then-President Fernando de la Rua to halt a stampede on the banks by fearful Argentines who pulled $2 billion out in a single day. De la Rua was forced out amid violent protests in late December.

Duhalde’s government relaxed the banking restrictions slightly Wednesday, but depositors still do not have unfettered access to their savings _ and they can withdraw money only in the rapidly devaluing pesos, even though many hold U.S. dollar accounts.

Protests over the banking freeze have swollen, alongside demonstrations by unemployed workers.

In Mar Del Plata, a popular Atlantic beach resort, some 2,500 unemployed and retired people marched peacefully Thursday.

A protest turned violent Late Wednesday in the city of Junin, about 190 miles south of Buenos Aires.

About 600 people banged pots and pans in front of the house of a congresswoman, Mirta Rubini. The crowd grew and some protesters threw rocks at the house and set it on fire. One man was reported seriously injured when a shot was fired, reportedly from the house.

The government is bracing for the possibility of nationwide protests Friday, fearing a repeat of the December unrest that toppled de la Rua and killed 26 people.

Through e-mails, Web sites and word of mouth, neighborhood associations and labor groups were calling on Argentines to take to the streets late Friday to protest against the banking freeze.

``It is the only way we can show the government that we’re here,″ said a message posted on a Web site, El Calerolazo.com, adding: ``Let’s unite to fight for a better life for our kids, grandkids, and ourselves.″

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