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Panama Nullifies Vote; Opposition Leaders Beaten Up

May 11, 1989|KENNETH FREED | Times Staff Writer

PANAMA CITY — The Panamanian electoral tribunal Wednesday night annulled last Sunday's election, claiming that interference from the United States and fraud by the coalition opposed to the regime of Gen. Manuel A. Noriega "made it impossible to determine winners."

The decision, announced in a national broadcast just after 11 p.m. local time, came less than 10 hours after the leaders of the anti-Noriega coalition were attacked and beaten by government security forces during a protest demonstration.

Guillermo Endara, the opposition presidential candidate who was widely regarded as the winner amid evidence of massive government fraud, was badly beaten with steel pipes by members of a paramilitary force called Battalions of Dignity.

'North Americans' Blamed

Although foreign journalists and international observers including former President Jimmy Carter had uncovered compelling evidence of government fraud in conducting the voting as well as counting the results, electoral tribunal president Yolanda Pulice de Rodriguez blamed "the unconstitutional and illegal" tactics of "North Americans supporting national (opposition) parties" for annulment of the election.

After trying to count the ballots for three days, she said, it was decided at 5 p.m. Wednesday that "obstruction by foreigners" and disinformation by North American journalists designed to discredit the government "made it absolutely impossible to complete the process."

"We received reports from responsible officials of such substantial interference with ballots and missing tally sheets to make it impossible to determine winners," she said.

Later in the evening a government broadcast said the annulment also was aimed at reducing the tension and confrontations which have developed since Sunday. The broadcast said the electoral crisis was the fault of "incredible North American aggression." The announcer told his audience to be on guard against further foreign interference.

Neither the broadcast nor Pulice de Rodriguez mentioned rescheduling the elections or what would happen on Sept. 1 when a new president is scheduled to take office.

Annuling the vote was one of the options considered open to Noriega after it became clear that his effort to cover up his overwhelming electoral loss had backfired. However, given the sudden increase in government violence Wednesday, including the attacks on Endara and other opposition leaders, diplomats and other experts think that Noriega and his military supporters have decided to punish his foes and intimidate the people rather than leave hope that a new election would be called.

Endara, 53, was originally sent to the hospital with a concussion and head wounds requiring six stitches. However, after a brief return to his headquarters, Endara returned to the hospital Wednesday night because his injuries appeared more serious than first thought.

Candidate Badly Hurt

One of his vice presidential running mates, Guillermo (Billy) Ford, was also badly hurt. After his assailants had beaten him into a bloody heap, Ford was arrested by police and had not been located by early today.

It was announced Wednesday night that one of Ford's bodyguards, Manuel Alexis Guerra, 22, was shot and killed by security forces, while another bodyguard, Umberto Montenegro, was seriously wounded.

Endara's other vice presidential running mate, Ricardo Arias Calderon, was beaten in the same attack. However, he was only slightly hurt and sought refuge in a private home.

Human rights organizations and the opposition said that at least four people were killed during the day, 23 wounded and about 100 detained.

The brutalizing of Endara, whose claim to an overwhelming victory in the election has been legitimized by the Roman Catholic Church and independent foreign observers here, marked a day of accelerating violence by the Noriega regime.

The attack on the leaders of the Democratic Alliance of Civic Opposition was followed by a raid on Endara's office, which his aides said was ransacked and burned.

Also, according to an eyewitness, a key aide to the presidential candidate, businessman Luis Martins, was kidnaped by four armed men.

The witness, who asked not to be identified, said that Martins was standing outside his office building waiting to join the demonstration when a vehicle carrying four men stopped and demanded that he get in. When he refused, they leaped from the vehicle and pushed him inside. The car, which carried no license plates but flew a Panamanian flag, then sped away with Martins' legs extending from an open door.

The attacks and a general atmosphere of chaos, including roving bands of armed men firing randomly in the air and military units facing demonstrators, journalists and ordinary bystanders alike with water cannons, led the headquarters of the U.S. Southern Command here to restrict the movement of all American personnel in the region.

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