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An army general from President Nestor Kirchner's native Patagonia took over as Argentina's top commander Wednesday, completing one of the biggest reorganizations of the armed forces since the end of military rule in 1983.

Gen. Roberto Bendini was named army chief of staff as part of the president's surprise decision to force about 50 army generals and air force and navy commanders into early retirement.

Kirchner, a three-term governor from southern Santa Cruz province, announced the restructuring of the military high command as one of his first acts, after taking office Sunday for a four-year term.

Bendini, who has been a general for a little over a year leading a brigade in Santa Cruz, replaces Gen. Ricardo Brinzoni in a shake-up that reshuffled nearly 75 percent of the military leadership.

Kirchner vowed in his inaugural address to take steps to ensure Argentina's military reflected "a commitment to the future and not the past" -- a veiled reference to the military dictatorship that ruled Argentina from 1978 to 1983.

Peru declares emergency
as protests spread

LIMA, Peru (AP) -- Army troops backed by armored personnel carriers began clearing blocked highways Wednesday after President Alejandro Toledo declared a national state of emergency to control spreading protests.

By nightfall, security forces reopened the country's 1,500-mile Pan American Highway, which had been blocked in dozens of places by rocks and smoldering tires placed by angry farmers.

Thousands of travelers, including children and ill people, have been stranded since Monday as farmers sought to stop farm produce from getting to Lima and other cities.

The 30-day state of emergency gives police and the military the authority to use force to clear the highways, restore order, detain strikers and enter homes without warrants. It also limits freedom of movement and prohibits public assembly.

The farmers are demanding lower taxes on their crops and protection from imports. The other groups are seeking wage increases.

The state of emergency placed Lima and 11 of 24 other regions under military control.

British North Pole explorer
denies he was reckless

LONDON (AP) -- A British explorer who trekked alone to the North Pole defended his actions Wednesday, denying that he started recklessly late in the year and endangered the plane crew that retrieved him from an ice floe.

Pen Hadow also took issue with the characterization that he had been rescued.

A plane picked up Hadow, 41, on Tuesday after he became stranded on a drifting ice floe near the North Pole with rations running low. Two earlier attempts to reach him failed because of breaking ice and dense clouds.

A spokesman for Kenn Borek Airlines, which fetched Hadow, criticized him for staging his expedition in late spring when the ice was melting.

Hadow began his 480-mile trek March 17 from Ward Hunt Island in northern Canada, and 63 days later became the first person to reach the North Pole alone.

Russian upper house
OKs N-arms deal with U.S.

MOSCOW (AP) -- Russia's landmark nuclear arms deal with the United States cleared its final hurdle Wednesday, winning overwhelming support from the upper house of parliament and opening the way for big cuts in both nations' nuclear arsenals.

The Federation Council ratified the accord, known as the Treaty of Moscow, in a 140-5 vote, with two abstentions, in a meeting held behind closed doors.

The vote was considered a mere formality, coming after the State Duma, the lower house of parliament, ratified the treaty earlier this month and the U.S. Senate approved it in March, but its timing was significant.

President Vladimir V. Putin and President Bush are expected to exchange ratification documents in St. Petersburg on Sunday, bringing the accord into immediate force.

Putin, who negotiated the treaty with Bush last year, lobbied hard for its ratification.

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