Police clash with demonstrators in austerity protest in Buenos Aires

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Riot police fired barrages of tear gas and rubber bullets early today at rock-throwing demonstrators in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires, as a large protest against government austerity measures degenerated into violence.

As acrid clouds of tear gas wafted over the Government House, shirtless youths counter-attacked police, throwing sticks and stones, as street battles raged. It marked a second week of unrest after riots toppled President Fernando de la Rua before Christmas.

After the demonstrators were pushed out of the Plaza de Mayo, a group of them made their way up one of Argentina's main avenues, looting a fast-food restaurant and smashing up several banks, to the Congress building a mile away.

There, they smashed windows and broke down the doors at the main entrance, before setting light to curtains, sending smoke spilling out of the ornate century-old legislative building. Several people entered the building and grabbed sofas and chairs, which they threw down the steps leading up to the main entrance.

Dozens of riot police responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Argentine television station TN reported that seven police officers were injured.

The violence began on the fringes of what was for hours a largely peaceful, but raucous pot-banging protest by middle-class Argentines fed up with government attempts to end a deep economic crisis.

Police intervened when some demonstrators climbed on the front gates of the Government House, an ornate pink palace also known as the Casa Rosada, and appeared to try to force their way in.

The protests marked the second week of anger by Argentines struggling in the face of a four-year-old economic crisis that saw a caretaker government led by President Adolfo Rodriguez Saa default on the $132 billion national debt.

The protest began after Argentines flooded the banks yesterday, forming long lines and shouting for their money after the government eased a five-day banking holiday that had halted most routine financial transactions.

As the raucous pan-beating protest spread from barrio to barrio, thousands of people entered the Plaza de Mayo square fronting the Government Palace, scene of deadly riots last week. Hundreds more gathered outside Congress nearby.

"Give us back our money!" people chanted, while others voiced complaints about corruption in government. "Out with the thieves!"