BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Driven from power by a devastating economic crisis and deadly riots, Argentina's outgoing President Fernando de la Rua returned to his offices for a last time Friday, lifting a state of emergency as he awaited the handover to a caretaker government.
After two days of anti-government unrest around the country left 22 people dead, supermarkets and homes ransacked and De la Rua's government in chaos, Argentina was relatively calm Friday. Protests had largely subsided the night before, but more looting was reported Friday.
In one of his last acts as president, the 64-year-old departing leader signed an order revoking the emergency powers he took up Wednesday night to control spiraling social unrest. He had originally announced that the state of emergency would be in place for 30 days.
As Congress geared up to formally approve De la Rua's resignation, as required by law, a temporary leader waited in the wings: Senate Leader Ramon Puerta was getting set to take over Friday as provisional president.
Speaking to reporters, Puerta said Friday he wished only to hold the presidency temporarily while Congress decides whether to call new elections that could be held in two to three months.
"I've never held a post for which I have not been elected," Puerta told reporters. "But I will fulfill my duties to the republic in these very difficult moments."
De la Rua was departing as one of the most unpopular leaders in Argentina's history. He took office in December 1999 with a popularity rating above 70 percent, a no-nonsense image and a pledge to improve the economy. But he soon became seen as indecisive, and left with ratings in single digits.
Speaking at the Casa Rosada, or Government House, Friday morning, De la Rua lashed out at the opposition Peronists for failing to join him in a national unity government -- a decision that hastened his political downfall.
"The Peronists made a mistake," he said. The opposition rejected his request Thursday as angry and hungry Argentines around the country protested and looted.
Wearing a dark suit, De la Rua returned to the Casa Rosada hours after signing his resignation late Thursday and flying from the government palace in a helicopter. In his final hours in office he shook the hands of close aides after signing the order declaring the state of emergency over.
The 30-day state of emergency, or state of siege, gave authorities the right to make arrests without court order and prohibited unauthorized public gatherings. It was the first time in 11 years that an Argentine president has enforced such a decree.
The rioting and looting prompted by Argentina's economic troubles was the worst unrest in a decade.
Though streets were mostly quiet Friday, a Radical Party office was set ablaze overnight, and more looting was reported in the capital and in the southern Buenos Aires suburb of Quilmes. More lootings were reported Friday in the major cities of Cordoba and Rosario.
It was a different scene from the day before, when the streets of Buenos Aires looked like a battleground. Fires smoldered and smoke curled over the Plaza de Mayo outside the ornate pink government palace, where thousands gathered to vent anger over the economy and call for De la Rua's ouster.
Screeching tear gas canisters arced across the capital and police fired rubber bullets at protesters. Rioters tore through houses and stores in other cities, and more than 200 people were injured nationwide.
With joblessness at near-record levels topping 18 percent, the next government will face a tough challenge in reviving plummeting growth, production and consumer confidence.
Many analysts now predict the new government will likely end the Argentine peso's one-to-one peg with the dollar, in place since 1991. While it helped Argentina vanquish hyperinflation more than a decade ago, today it is blamed for making Argentine exports uncompetitive abroad.
Any devaluation of the peso could mean instant bankruptcy for thousands of Argentines, along with many of the country's largest businesses. More than 80 percent of contracts and debts are denominated in the dollar.
Before De la Rua's resignation, a senior White House official said the Bush administration would wait for the dust to settle before deciding what, if any, action to take to help Argentina recover.
The official said limited direct financial assistance has not been completely ruled out, although the administration still wants Argentina to resolve its problems through the International Monetary Fund.
Earlier, Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill said the Bush administration, the IMF and the World Bank would continue working with Argentina to pull it back from the brink of economic collapse.
But he said the initiative to put Argentina on solid financial footing "has to come from the leadership of the country. It's not something that can be imposed from outside."
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