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Argentine defends banking freeze

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Facing new street protests, President Eduardo Duhalde defended a banking freeze Tuesday as the only way to protect Argentine savings but promised he was trying to find ways to ease the hated clampdown.

Thousands of demonstrators marched through the capital to demand public works jobs to help blunt the effects of an 18.3 percent jobless rate brought on by the most destructive recession in memory.

"We want 100,000 jobs now!" the protesters chanted, recalling a government pledge to create tens of thousands of jobs cleaning highways, parks and performing other mostly menial work as a way to reactivate an economy in a four-year tailspin.

Duhalde, in his first encounter with foreign journalists since taking power Jan. 2, did not say what steps he was considering to open up access to the frozen savings accounts, but acknowledged that Argentina's teetering financial system was near paralysis.

"This time bomb will explode if we don't carefully dismantle it," said Duhalde in a 90-minute news conference at the government palace. He added the stakes are high "and millions of depositors will lose their savings" if the crisis is not handled carefully.

Imposed Dec. 1 to squelch a run on the banks after panicky Argentines pulled $2 billion from the banking system in a day, the draconian financial freeze sharply restricts cash withdrawals and has shut off access to dollar accounts where Argentines hold $46 billion, or 72 percent of all deposits.

But the freeze triggered deadly street riots that forced Duhalde's predecessor, Fernando de la Rua, to resign last month. Duhalde has further tightened the restrictions and also devalued the Argentine peso from its 11-year peg of one-to-one parity with the dollar.

The government has set an official rate of 1.40 pesos to the dollar, mainly for foreign trade. For ordinary Argentines, the peso on the open market free floats, hovering at 1.70 to the dollar.

On Tuesday, more than 2,000 unemployed demonstrators and their families marched to the Labor Ministry, where they blocked traffic for hours as men on bullhorns shouted out demands for jobs. Traffic was snarled for blocks around downtown Buenos Aires and at a similar march elsewhere in the city's center.

"There is no work. I'm a house painter and I've been out of work for five years," complained Luis Benitez, who came with the throng from the poor district of La Matanza, west of Buenos Aires, where hungry jobless people clashed with workers at a local market over demands for free food.

Mariano Varela, a 36-year-old office worker passing by the protest, said he worried for his country's future.

"Easing the banking freeze isn't going to solve anything in and of itself," he said. "The poverty and unemployment are years in the making and are not going to be fixed overnight."

On Monday, Duhalde called for a national dialogue on the economic crisis in a bid to build support in a country where waves of austerity measures have left many fed up with politicians of all stripes.

Duhalde rolls out his budget plan in coming days, and is expected to demand new sacrifices from a recession-weary nation.

"The opening of this dialogue is a historic event," Duhalde said. "We will work together without flagging and with renewed hope."

But political analyst James Neilson said Duhalde lacked a clear road map, adding that dialogue "is what politicians usually do when they don't know what to do."

"He's saying rally around me because there is nobody else and we have to take an upbeat view of the future," Neilson said. "Yet he hasn't come out with a clear program."

Argentina is trying to recover from financial collapse after devaluing the peso, releasing it from an 11-year peg at one-to-one with the dollar and defaulting on its massive $141 billion foreign debt.