7 dead in riots as as Argentina celebrates democracy

Police strikes sowed chaos across many of Argentina's cities on Tuesday even as the nation celebrated 30 years of uninterrupted democracy. Politicians from left and right appealed for calm as looters kept stealing merchandise and business owners fought with roving mobs.

Hospital and political authorities said at least seven people have been killed in a week of disturbances set off by a wave of police strikes demanding pay increases. They included a police officer in northern Chaco province who was struck by a bullet below his protective vest Tuesday, and a store owner whose burned body was found in the remains of his looted market in Buenos Aires province last week.

The others allegedly died while looting. One young man was electrocuted while stealing from an appliance store in a rainstorm. Another fell off a motorcycle while carting off a television. A third died in a fistfight inside a ruined store.

Hundreds of other people have been injured and thousands of businesses damaged in the scattered violence, which continued Tuesday in many of Argentina's 23 provinces. In some cities, public transportation was shut down and even public hospitals were turning away non-emergency patients for fear of being looted.

The demands of striking police went far beyond pay hikes: The deal Buenos Aires Gov. Daniel Scioli reached with rebellious officers Monday night includes an amnesty that would wipe out sanctions for many rule-breaking officers and make them eligible for 14,000 promised promotions this month. It also enables officers who retired on 90 percent pay to return to work, effectively doubling their old salaries.

President Cristina Fernandez hasn't commented about the weeklong violence, leaving Jorge Capitanich, who took leave as Chaco's governor to become her Cabinet chief, to publicly shoulder the responsibility. Initially he blamed one of her political rivals, Cordoba Gov. Jose de la Sota, for failing to contain it.

But as the officer died in Capitanich's home city Tuesday, it was clear that no Argentine politician is immune. Capitanich joined de la Sota for a news conference condemning what they called treasonous acts by a minority of officers.

To help finance the pay raises, Capitanich announced a three-month delay in the debt payments most Argentine provinces would have to otherwise make by month's end.

"The Argentine people want peace and harmony. Demands of this nature go beyond any expected limits," Capitanich said. "To be a police officer means carrying weapons to protect the citizens, not to generate anxiety among the people and use extortion against their elected leaders."

Tuesday marked three decades since the swearing-in of President Raul Alfonsin ended Argentina's 1976-1983 dictatorship, and a huge stage was constructed in front of the government palace in Buenos Aires. Fernandez invited all political parties to join her in a long night of speeches and music to celebrate the consolidation of Argentina's democracy.

Police strikes and looting were souring the program.

The late president's son, legislator Ricardo Alfonsin, suggested that the party be postponed while try to find a way to restore peace.

Federal security forces were deployed to hot spots and officers were warned that instigators of violence would face stiff penalties.

Entre Rios provincial Gov. Sergio Urribarri blamed the violence in his city of Concordia on a small group of 50 officers, "most of them with bad records," and vowed to have them prosecuted for "sedition, a crime against the democratic system."

But in province after province, even governors who restored momentary calm by agreeing to steep police pay raises seemed wary of declaring victory. With consumer prices rising at more than 25 percent this year, strikes by public health workers also were spreading, and still other public employees were aiming to get raises, too.

Gov. de la Sota, who effectively doubled police salaries to 12,000 pesos a month, or about $1,915 at the official exchange rate, said Argentina's 23 governors and Buenos Aires mayor should agree on a unified salary scale for security forces nationwide to avoid more trouble.

"This didn't happen because of hunger. There were criminal gangs involved and later there was pillaging" even by middle-class people, de la Sota said. "We need to reflect on this. There were people who didn't steal milk, but cans of beer and televisions that they carried off in trucks."