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Friday, 21 December, 2001, 15:50 GMT
Witness to Argentina's days of drama
Policeman in central Buenos Aires
Police used rubber bullets to clear the streets
By BBC News Online's Julian Ingle

The streets of Buenos Aires seemed subdued by Thursday evening - a far cry from the mass protests I have witnessed which have left more than 20 people dead.

It was on Wednesday that widespread rioting and looting began.

Stores were ransacked. People took what they could, from food to electrical goods. Many shop-keepers were left with nothing.

De la Rua entering government building
President de la Rua responded to protests by resigning

Meanwhile, thousands of protesters gathered outside the government buildings in the Plaza de Mayo in the centre of Buenos Aires - calling for President de la Rua's resignation.

On Wednesday night, after the state of siege was declared, I went to the Recoleta district of the city.

Here the streets were quiet - but as normal the police were out in force.

Under arrest

As I was admiring a statue of Eva Peron, a policeman arrested me for being on the streets at night without possessing the correct documentation.

Protester throwing a stone in Buenos  Aires
More than 20 people have died in the violence
I was threatened with two days in jail and a $400 fine. After much negotiation, I was allowed to go free.

But taking a taxi ride through the city afterwards, I could see the change in the mood of the people for myself.

My taxi was forced to take a large detour because thousands of people took to the streets.

For the first time, I felt scared. A mass of people were marching through the main streets of Buenos Aires with their pots and pans, and cars were sounding their horns.

This lasted all night, all across the city.

From where I was staying, the sounds of the demonstrations and shots could be heard as police fired rubber bullets in an attempt to disperse the crowds.

Shops and businesses which normally stay open until the early hours were forced to shut very suddenly with customers being forced to leave, managers fearful of looters.

Deceptive calm

Thursday morning seemed calm as I made my way through the city.

The buses and subway system were full of the normal commuters travelling to their offices, and the banks had the normal queues of people waiting to get at their savings.

But things quickly changed for the worse.

By early afternoon thousands of protesters outside the presidential palace and the Congress were once again demanding the resignation of Mr de la Rua.

Rocks were thrown, cars were burned, roads were blocked.

Protester with Argentine flag
Protesters want more government help

Shops, businesses and schools quickly shut up shop - all of them rolling down the steel shutters in case of looting. Many office workers were sent home early.

Meanwhile, the police were again firing tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets at protesters, as well as charging them on horseback.

I saw office workers running through the streets with handkerchiefs around their faces. Tears were streaming down their faces, and many were having difficulty breathing.

The air in the centre of Buenos Aires was full of tear gas.

'Peaceful revolution'

Television news stations here in Buenos Aires have been rolling with the events continuously, showing live pictures of what has been described to me by one taxi driver as a ´peaceful revolution´.

On Thursday evening, almost immediately after President de la Rua offered his resignation, there was another change in the mood.

The streets were quiet, shops, cafe and bars opened again.

Gone were the protesters with their pots and pans - just a few people in the street dancing and celebrating.

The city slept on Thursday night as normal.

See also:

21 Dec 01 | Americas
Profile: Ramon Puerta
21 Dec 01 | Business
IMF 'blamed' for Argentine crisis
20 Dec 01 | Business
Q&A: Argentina's economic crisis
13 Dec 01 | Americas
Argentina delays pension payments
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