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Argentina averts uprising of young military officers

This much-shaken country has just squeezed through yet another ''crisis.'' Argentina's military chiefs defused a political time bomb Feb. 14 by issuing a statement that signals they intend to wrap up an investigation of the Falklands war and to move against corruption in government.

The statement is believed to have come in the nick of time to block a ''palace coup'' by young military officers who were agitated about what they saw as a lack of action in the war investigation and against corruption - and lack of control by the government.

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The statement, issued after a meeting between the Army, Navy, and Air Force chiefs and Argentine President Reynaldo Bignone, does not explicitly say action will be taken on these issues, but it leaves little doubt that some action will be taken.

The actions to be taken are viewed as the result of a compromise. If a settlement had not been reached, it is believed President Bignone might have been forced to resign, next year's scheduled elections indefinitely postponed, or the current junta overthrown. The junior- and middle-rank officers reportedly had gained the backing of sections of the Air Force and the Navy. Army chief Gen. Cristino Nicolaides is believed to have informed President Bignone that the young officers were growing dangerously restless and that it was time the government adopted some firm measures to show it still held the initiative.

The officers are believed to have been provoked by a number of related issues:

* The increasingly outspoken criticism voiced by politicians of the military's conduct in the Falkands war. Many young officers - some of whom fought competently and bravely - are angry at the way the government's investigation into the war has left some guilty generals untouched. The criticism is that such selective investigation plays into the hands of civilians bent on slandering the armed forces in general.

* Increasingly outspoken reports in the local news media questioning the military's human-rights record. About 2,000 young officers reportedly took part in the kidnapping, torture, and execution of political suspects following the 1976 coup. These officers are said to fear that a return to civilian rule will make them scapegoats for actions they took ''under orders.'' They are bitter, too, over the way the alleged financial corruption of their superiors has further damaged armed forces prestige.

* Argentina's continuing economic problems. The young officers' standard of living has dropped drastically since the coup. They say that some of the government's economic policies are misguided and they were angry when consumer prices increased in January by 16 percent, five points above the target set by civilian Economy Minister Jorge Wehbe.

In addition, the country has an enormous foreign debt of $38.7 billion - 49 percent of which is due for repayment this year.

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In a series of meetings leading up to the Feb. 14 agreement, a number of actions reportedly were considered. Brig. Gen. Augusto Hughes, chief of the Air Force - many of whose young pilots were sacrificed during the war - is said to have argued strongly for a major clampdown on the press and the sacking of the economy minister. The ouster of President Bignone was also contemplated.

Bignone himself appears to have argued that he should not be dismissed - that he is the symbol of ''moderation'' without which Argentine politics would be chaotic.

The details of the agreement between the President and junta members had not been publicly revealed at time of writing. But the government is believed to have settled on a prompt conclusion to the ongoing Falklands investigation, the full findings of which may be published in April. That timing would coincide with the first anniversary of the Argentine military advance on the islands. Economy Minister Wehbe is expected to be allowed to keep his post - as long as he makes progress with the economy.

The junta has agreed to give its backing to civilian judges now investigating allegations of corruption. But it is not clear at this stage whether the courts will be allowed to deal with generals in the same way as with government-employed civilians.

Nor is it clear whether the junta will allow the courts to fully litigate human-rights violations. At the moment it appears to feel more threatened by young officers civilians.

Civilian leaders were warned they risk forsaking elections if they slander the armed forces. The generals hope the politicians will be quiet in order to get to power, and that the silence will satisfy young officers.

Last Friday the junta ordered President Bignone to call elections for Oct. 30 , military sources say.

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