The Argentine nation is bitterly divided over President Carlos Menem's weekend pardon of key figures in the 1970s military dictatorship that conducted a "dirty war" on leftists.

A key figure in the leftist terrorism of the era, Mario Firmenich, the 42-year-old co-founder of the Montonero movement, was also pardoned by Menem.But the outcry Sunday was over the military figures freed.

About 40,000 people - a broad cross-section of ages, income levels, political parties, unions, professionals, students - gathered outside Menem's office Sunday afternoon, waving banners and shouting derisory chants.

Menem, himself jailed without charge during the period, told reporters: "They can have all the marches they want. . . . That doesn't bother me. I believe it was best for my country. Period."

Human-rights groups called for national mourning and protest marches.

But there was joy in a group representing families of victims of leftist killings at the release of six ex-generals, including former presidents Jorge Videla 65, and Roberto Viola, 66, and five other former officials.