Mon, Dec 22, 2003 - Page 6 News List

At least 23 hurt in Argentine blast

TENSIONS The explosion took place during a march to commemorate the anniversary of deadly riots two years ago, but no one was seriously injured

REUTERS , BUENOS AIRES

Demonstrators watch the bin where an explosive device detonated and injured at least 23 people in Plaza de Mayo, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on Saturday.

PHOTO: AFP

At least 23 Argentines were injured when a small blast marred a largely peaceful mass march by tens of thousands of jobless people to mark the second anniversary of riots that ousted an elected government.

The cause of the blast, which came in the middle of a rally near the presidential palace, was unclear. Municipal health spokeswoman Adriana Ghitia said most of the 23 people were slightly injured. A health worker at the scene told local TV three people were badly burned after a device exploded, apparently in a garbage bin near the palace.

Some protesters said it was a homemade bomb. Others said a small gas canister exploded accidentally. Police had no comment.

The blast came as demonstrators wound up the biggest protest since Argentine President Nestor Kirchner came to power in May. Columns of banner-waving unemployed clapping their hands in unison streamed around the presidential palace.

Widespread looting in 2001 and the deaths of at least 27 people, ending in the ouster of President Fernando de la Rua, shocked this once-wealthy South American nation to the core.

Two years later, there were few police on the streets and Kirchner's left-of-center government said it would do nothing to provoke the protesters. City center storefronts were barricaded and the presidential palace cordoned off.

"Ours is a call for social justice and a job," said Juan Carlos Alderete, a leader of a militant unemployed group, as protesters marched with red flags under a fierce summer sun.

Kirchner is hugely popular in polls but unemployed protests have proved one of the most difficult issues he has faced. Many Argentines, tired of traffic chaos, have called on Kirchner to end what they say is a lenient stance to road blockades.

Protests by groups of the unemployed -- known as piqueteros -- have become a near daily event since Latin America's No. 3 economy suffered a crash last year that rivaled that of the US' Great Depression.

As the economy slowly recovers, Argentina's unemployment rate has fallen over three percentage points in the last year to just over 14 percent. But many say it is much higher because the government counts welfare recipients as employed.

Groups of unemployed, including mothers with children, were joined by human rights groups and leftist parties on Saturday.

Echoing the growing impatience with free market reforms in Latin America, protesters criticized the International Monetary Fund and a proposed free trade accord with the US as doing nothing to alleviate the poverty that affects more than half of all Argentines.

Despite pressure to stop the protests, Kirchner is wary that a crackdown could result in violence or even deaths, as happened as recently as last year when two piqueteros were shot to death during clashes with police.

Polls in recent months show some two-thirds of voters disapprove of Kirchner's stance. But his position is praised by many politicians for ensuring the food riots of two years ago do not resurface.

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