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Scuffles, planes grounded in Argentina strike

© AFP / by Paula Bustamante | An Argentina general strike protesting job and pay cuts disrupted 800 flights, impacting some 60,000 passengers

BUENOS AIRES (AFP) - 

Airlines in Argentina grounded international flights and riot police scuffled with protesters Thursday as workers staged a general strike to protest job and pay cuts.

Conservative President Mauricio Macri condemned the call to strike in Latin America's third-biggest economy, where he faces midterm legislative elections in October.

The strike shut down schools, banks and public transport and demonstrators blocked streets as Macri hosted international leaders and businesspeople at an economic forum.

The National Civil Aviation Administration said the strike disrupted 800 flights, affecting some 60,000 passengers. Buenos Aires Ezeiza international airport was effectively shut down.

Police and demonstrators clashed during a rally near one of the roads into Buenos Aires.

Judicial sources said five people were injured and six arrested, lowering an earlier toll of arrests.

- Widespread strike -

Unions and officials said participation in the strike was high, in a country where official data show a third of the people are living in poverty.

Pablo Micheli, leader of the Argentina Workers' Headquarters union, estimated participation at 90 percent.

"The stoppage is a success," said Carlos Acuna, leader of the General Labor Confederation, a major union.

"It has demonstrated across the country the discontent with the government's economic policies."

Labor Minister Jorge Triaca said there was "a high level of participation" in the stoppage.

But he echoed Macri's criticism of the unions, accusing them of using the strike to apply political pressure ahead of October elections.

The strike coincided with the World Economic Forum on Latin America, which draws business and political leaders to Buenos Aires.

Civil groups planned a major protest march toward the Hilton hotel where the forum was being held under tight security.

- Job cuts -

Macri took office in December 2015 vowing to rescue the flagging economy, open up trade and draw investment after 12 years of leftist government.

The economy remains bogged down, having shrunk 2.3 percent last year, though it ticked upwards in January.

Inflation is high in the double digits, according to various estimates, while jobs and salaries have been cut in Macri's efforts to stabilize the public finances.

"There is enormous discontent because the economic policy has not yielded results," said Juan Carlos Schmid, leader of the General Labor Federation, another major union, controlled by the opposition.

- Macri defends record -

Macri complained during a speech Wednesday that the strike "does not help workers at all," accusing unions of "mafia-like behavior."

He hardened his line after tens of thousands people demonstrated in his support on Saturday, in response to several previous mass protests against him.

The wealthy businessman-turned-president has been hit in recent months by allegations of financial conflicts of interest, which the courts are investigating.

His vice president, Gabriela Michetti, said the strike was "an extreme measure which will cost the country a billion dollars."

Macri defended his record at the forum, recalling he had settled a major dispute with foreign debtors and lifted currency controls which distorted the value of the peso.

"It is clear that what started 15 months ago in our country goes much deeper than just economic change," he said.

by Paula Bustamante

© 2017 AFP