Friday, May 30th 2003 - 21:00 UTC

Kirchner overhauls top brass.

Argentina's new president Nestor Kirchner who shocked the Armed Forces by a drastic overhaul of the high command warned the military on Thursday to steer clear of politics. Speaking at an event to mark the 193rd anniversary of the creation of the country's army, President Kirchner - in his fifth day on the job - said it was not the military's duty to judge the actions of an elected government.

"I will demand that everyone fulfils his role, especially those who are under my command," Kirchner said, stressing his authority as commander in chief of Argentina's armed forces.

Kirchner gave a tough speech on the role of the military a day after outgoing army chief Gen. Ricardo Brinzoni criticized the new president's decision to replace the high command.

"It appears that political intrigue is returning to the barracks," said the ousted general, referring to Kirchner's decision to name fresh commanders in the three services that forced 52 senior officers into retirement.

"This dismissal hurts, not personally, but because of the unexplained circumstances surrounding it," Brinzoni said as he bade farewell to the army Wednesday at a base in Buenos Aires.

"It's surprising that someone believes society should thank him for respecting the constitution," said Kirchner in his address Thursday, in clear reference to Brinzoni's complaints.

"No one should be surprised or ask for explanations or call a situation "inexplicable" when constitutional and legally regulated faculties have been exercised," said president Kirchner.

"Analysing and characterizing the behaviour of the government is not the function of a soldier," he said.

Kirchner shared centre stage at Thursday's event with the new army commander, Gen. Roberto Bendini, who pledged military support for the president's "national project" within the framework of the constitution.

The new president's shake-up involves the retirement of 39 army and air force generals and 13 admirals, representing roughly three-quarters of Argentina's top brass, the major shake-up in twenty years. A number of military officers privately criticized the administration's decision Wednesday during the event to bid Brinzoni farewell.

The newly appointed Defence Minister Jose Pampuro defended the move saying "this is neither a purge nor a persecution".

In his speech before Congress on taking office last Sunday May 25, Mr. Kirchner said he expected the military to reflect "a commitment to the future and not to the past".

General Roberto Bendini the new Army chief comes from Mr. Kirchner's Santa Cruz province and is a personal friend.

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