Argentina looks for another leader as third president in 10 days quits

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The Independent US

Riot police cordoned off the Government Palace in Buenos Aires and angry Argentinians lined up at banks as the country grappled with its worst political crisis in decades after the departure of Argentina's third president in 10 days.

Adolfo Rodriguez Saa quit after complaining that his Peronist party had abandoned him, leaving him unable to confront the mounting crises plaguing the South American country saddled with a $132bn (£90bn) public debt.

"The wolves and political lobbies running wild don't understand the spirit of the new times," he said, lashing out at some of his party's top leaders. "They've asked me to do in seven days what hasn't been done in the last 30 years."

The swift departure of Mr Rodriguez Saa, Argentina's third president in less than two weeks, leaves the presidency in the hands of the House majority leader, Eduardo Camano. Ramon Puerta, the Senate leader who served briefly as president after Fernando de la Rua's resignation, quit his post on Sunday to avoid inheriting the presidency again.

Mr Rodriguez Saa technically remains president until his resignation is formally accepted at a joint assembly of the House and Senate, scheduled to take place this afternoon.

Mr Rodriguez Saa became interim president on 23 December, 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. The violence left 28 people dead.

Yesterday, riot police barred traffic from circulating outside the Government House, or Casa Rosada, erecting metal barricades as they increased security in the adjoining Plaza de Mayo square, which has been the scene of recent riots that forced the current crisis.

Police also increased patrols at shopping malls, bus stations, airports and other government buildings with the approach of the New Year holiday, which is normally met with raucous street parties.

On Monday, long lines of Argentinians seeking to withdraw cash or collect pensions formed in towns and cities across the nation. Many expressed fears about the country's future.

"All of these government changes, why what a shame," said Maria Isabel Girard, a retired woman waiting with hundreds of others. "I am ashamed of our political leaders and ashamed for all that's happening in our country right now."

Mr Camano called a special legislative assembly today to find a way out of the worst crisis in Argentina since a 1976-83 dictatorship interrupted democracy. He said: "We want the quickest possible solution so we can have a president who can bring the country forward."

Local reports said Peronists, who control the Senate, were far from agreement yesterday on whether the next caretaker government should call elections in March or serve out Mr De la Rua's term until 2003.

Mr Rodriguez Saa was chosen by Congress to lead Argentina until a new presidential election planned for March. His resignation left Argentina without a consensus on how to resolve the crisis.

Nestor Kirchner, an influential Peronist leader, said: "The situation in this country is at the breaking point."

Mr Rodriguez Saa's presidency began to unravel on Friday night as thousands of people flooded the capital to demand that he lift a month-old banking freeze that limits cash withdrawals to an equivalent of $250 a week and remove politicians accused of corruption from his cabinet. The protests left 12 police officers injured.

Mr De la Rua imposed the capital controls on 1 December to stem a run on the country's banks that threatened the currency, the peso, which is now tied one-to-one with the dollar.

Announcing his resignation, he said several powerful Peronist provincial governments had withdrawn support for his presidency, singling out Jose Manuel de la Sota, who has made known his ambitions to run for the presidency. (AP)