Juan Peron's body interred at new mausoleum after violence in Argentina

Thursday, October 19, 2006

SAN VICENTE, Argentina -- Rocking-throwing brawls by groups with competing claims on Juan Peron's legacy overshadowed the third reburial of Argentina's former strongman, whose body was hastily laid in a new mausoleum after a long-planned ceremony went awry.

Riot police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at club-wielding groups of men on the fringes of a mostly peaceful crowd of thousands. At least 40 people were injured in fighting that underscored deep fissures within the movement that bears Peron's name.

The violence was apparently sparked by members of rival labor factions of the Peronist party angry about not being able to gain entrance to the ceremony, according to local TV and newspapers. Authorities had no immediate comment and labor leaders denounced the violence.

The party is sharply split between a conservative wing and leftists led by current President Nestor Kirchner.

Riot police tightly ringed the flag-draped coffin, which was topped by a military cap and saber, as it neared a $1.1 million mausoleum built to house Peron's remains on his former estate in San Vicente, a farming community 30 miles southwest of the capital.

Peron died in 1974 at age 78. His supporters felt he deserved a more dignified resting place than the crowded urban cemetery where grave robbers broke in and stole his hands in 1987. Some supporters hope one day to put his wife Eva Peron's remains by his side in the gleaming, cement-and-marble crypt.

Peron was elected president three times and reshaped Argentina by redirecting farm wealth to poor urban workers. He and his glamorous, blonde wife, known as Evita, were Argentina's dominant political figures in the 20th century, and still inspire passionate responses from Argentines.

The hastily re-scripted ceremony came 11 hours after Peron's remains were removed from the crypt in a humble Buenos Aires cemetery. Throngs of people fought to touch his coffin as bugles sounded and pallbearers loaded it onto a motorized caravan.

As Peron's body was laid into the mausoleum, hundreds of supporters clapped and yelled "Viva! Long live Peron!"

Before Peron's body arrived, rival labor groups appeared to begin competing for viewing positions for the ceremony. Scuffles escalated into barrages of rocks, flying bottles, sticks and bricks, and the rival bands drifted to one of the compound's entrances.

Televised footage also showed one man who appeared to fire a black handgun four times, the barrel smoking.

Scores of police, firing tear gas and rubber bullets, restored a tense calm for nearly three hours until a second bout of violence erupted just after Peron's coffin arrived.

Reflecting the divisions among their Peronist party, former presidents Carlos Menem and Eduardo Duhalde, rivals of Kirchner, said they would not take part in the ceremony.

Kirchner canceled plans to attend after the violence broke out.

An authoritarian leader who also had enemies, Peron nationalized railroads and other industries to bankroll state programs for the working classes.

The young Evita became a national icon, and after her death from cancer at age 33 in 1952, her body lay in state in Congress for weeks as hundreds of thousands of mourners thronged to her coffin's open viewing.

When military leaders overthrew Juan Peron in 1955, they were apparently so worried about a death cult that they secretly moved Evita's body to an unmarked grave in Italy. In 1971, it was delivered to Juan Peron's home in exile in Spain.

Peron returned to Argentina soon after and ruled briefly until his death. He was succeeded by his third wife, Isabel, who brought Evita's body to rest by his in the presidential residence in Buenos Aires. But after Isabel was ousted in a 1976 coup, the military quietly dispatched both bodies to their families' respective crypts.

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