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Argentine chief urges calm after protest

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BUENOS AIRES, Argentina — Argentina's new president pleaded for calm — and time — after a nationwide protest over his handling of a deep economic crisis turned violent early Saturday when police clashed with demonstrators outside the government palace.

"We can't solve all of the country's problems in three weeks," President Eduardo Duhalde, who took office Jan. 2, said in a radio address hours after police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators and at least 13 people were injured in downtown Buenos Aires.

Beset by swelling protests over a banking freeze and his decision to devalue the peso by more than 30 percent, Duhalde vowed his government would present a new economic program to end four years of recession.

"I only ask of all Argentines one thing: Keep up the hope," he said. "I'm only here for two years, and my promise is that at the end of my term, I'll leave the country back on track."

But he made no mention of the restrictions that have locked most Argentines' savings into bank accounts and left the president with the major challenge of unfreezing deposits without prompting an all-out collapse of the financial system.

After weeks of scattered demonstrations, crowds of thousands gathered in cities across Argentina on Friday night in an organized protest led by labor and neighborhood groups that urged people to take to the streets via e-mail, Web sites and word of mouth.

Under a driving rain, more than 10,000 people banged pots and pans in the Plaza de Mayo in downtown Buenos Aires, shouting insults blaming political leaders, the Supreme Court and the banks for plunging the country into its worst economic crisis in decades.

The protest turned violent as riot police riding on motorcycles used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse hundreds of peaceful demonstrators and rock-throwing youths on the fringes as the rally wound down.

At least 13 people were injured in clashes outside the government palace, known as the Casa Rosada.

and dozens were detained, Argentine media reported. Demonstrators lingered in the streets for hours, shouting "Get out! Get out!" before crowds began melting away before dawn.

Crowds of thousands gathered in downtown streets and neighborhoods corners in several other cities in the largest outpouring of anger since protests and rioting in December drove President Fernando de la Rua out of office and left at least 26 people dead.

De la Rua installed the banking restrictions Dec. 1 to halt a run on banks. But after the devaluation of the peso, many banks say they simply don't have the money to return to depositors, and Duhalde has tightened the restrictions on access to accounts.

Duhalde did not say when the new economic plan would be ready. The government is struggling to devise one that would calm public anger and satisfy calls by the International Monetary Fund for steep cutbacks in spending.

Argentina is considering asking for some $15 billion in IMF bailout aid, but the agency is first demanding Duhalde present a "sustainable" economic plan.

Last month, Argentina halted payments on its $141 billion public debt and the IMF withheld a new $1.23 billion loan saying the country had no viable economic program.

On the radio, Duhalde said the country is in a delicate position and called for patience. "We have very small margin of error," he said.