Wednesday, October 18th 2006 - 21:00 UTC

Argentine : Violence mars Perón coffin transfer

Violence between union activists yesterday wounded more than 40 people and marred the transfer of Juan Domingo Perón's remains to a mausoleum, evoking scenes of the Ezeiza massacre in 1973 when scores were killed in a gun battle between the right and left wings of the Justicialist Party that the three-time president founded.

The incidents involving militants hurling rocks and wielding clubs ? and even guns ? prompted centre-left President Néstor Kirchner, who has been eagerly seeking to distance himself from the party's machinery, to cancel his planned participation in the ceremony.

Riots broke out around and inside the San Vicente villa, in Greater Buenos Aires, where Perón's coffin was taken from the Buenos Aires City cemetery of Chacarita. It had lain at the cemetery following his death in office in 1974 at the age of 78.

There is widespread consensus that the Ezeiza massacre in 1973 was the result of violence between state terrorism and leftwing rebels such as Montoneros, ultimately leading to the overthrow in 1976 of Perón's successor, his widow María Estela Martínez by the military who imposed a seven-year dictatorship over the country, during which between 14,000 and 30,000 people were killed or made to disappear.

Yesterday also marked the first public appearance in a long time of former president Eduardo Duhalde, who helped Kirchner come to office in 2003 but who is now in fierce confrontation with the President. But Duhalde chose not to attend the ceremony at the villa which had belonged to Peron.

Deputy Carlos Kunkel, a supporter of Kirchner, blamed the incidents on followers of Duhalde. "Duhalde and his wife have come back to protagonism and with them methods that we thought had definitively disappeared from Argentina."

Ex-president Carlos Menem, a neoconservative who is also a staunch rival of Kirchner, lambasted "those who manipulate the remains of Peron... those (Montoneros) who Peron expelled from Plaza de Mayo in 1974."

Buenos Aires province Governor Felipe Solá ? a close ally of Kirchner ? also cancelled his participation at the villa ceremony.

The provincial government dismissed hospital reports that four people had been taken to hospital with gunshot wounds.

Dozens of union activists from the teamsters union headed by Hugo Moyano and the UOCRA construction workers union led by Gerardo Martínez hurled stones at each other and television images showed at least one man firing a gun in brawls apparently over the best locations from which to watch the ceremony at Perón's former weekend retreat.

Helmeted riot police with shields stood guard at the wooden gate leading to the estate, and to judge by TV images, for a long time remained in line, or shielding themselves from the stones being hurled at them. They later fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the rioters.

Perón's coffin eventually arrived under heavy security as officials continued with the planned festivities. There were no immediate official reports of the number of wounded.

Hundreds of Argentines had abandoned the grounds near the new 1.3-million-dollar mausoleum before the arrival of the coffin.

The violence added more drama to the saga involving Perón's corpse, which in 1987 was mutilated by thieves who robbed its hands, and is now the focus of a lengthy battle by a woman claiming to be his daughter.

Worried about feverish support among his followers, Argentina's military leaders ordered that Perón's coffin be removed in the 1970s from the presidential grounds and taken to his family's more modest crypt.

Officials had said they want to relocate his remains to a place they say better befits one of the country's leading figures.

The burial was to cap a day of ceremonies infused with political symbolism ahead of next year's presidential elections. Decades after Perón's death, the Peronist party remains Argentina's biggest and most influential.

A former army colonel, Peron was first elected in 1946, a year after he was jailed for leading a military coup. Mass protests by his supporters on October 17, 1945, helped him win freedom.

With his flamboyant wife Eva Duarte, popularly known as "Evita," at his side, Peron nationalized railroads and utilities and expanded worker benefits that made him a hero to working-class Argentines.

But he was also criticized as authoritarian, and amid economic turmoil, he was toppled in a military coup in 1955, three years after his wife died of cancer at the age of 33.

After spending 18 years in exile in Spain, Peron returned to Argentina in 1971 and was elected president two years later

By Guillermo Háskel Buenos Aires Herald

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