PANAMA CITY — A former senior Panamanian police official was arrested Wednesday after he escaped from prison and took over national police headquarters.
About 50 armed supporters of former Col. Eduardo Herrera gave up after several shots were fired. One police officer was reportedly killed and three civilians injured.
It was the first challenge to the government of Guillermo Endara, who was installed after the United States invaded Panama a year ago and toppled strongman Manuel A. Noriega.
Herrera, a former Noriega associate, said he did not want to overthrow the government but only to gain more respect and better pay and benefits for police. Endara said it was a coup attempt.
Herrera was awaiting trial on conspiracy charges when he escaped Tuesday afternoon from prison on the Pacific island of Nao aboard a private helicopter.
He and his backers then took over police headquarters in Panama City early Wednesday.
Panamanian troops surrounded the building and were joined by U.S. soldiers.
Southern Command officials said that about 500 U.S. troops were involved. They said that U.S. forces were responding to a request of the Panamanian government.
Herrera walked out of the headquarters at midday, surrounded by armed supporters and journalists who were trying to ask him questions. In the confusion, he slipped past a barricade. But U.S. troops captured him and his supporters at a building nearby.
Herrera was a member of Noriega's Panama Defense Forces. But he had been on the outs with Noriega, who forced him into exile before the U.S. invasion.
Herrera returned to Panama after Noriega was jailed in Miami on drug charges, and he became deputy police chief in January. He was fired in August and jailed in October.
A prime aim of the Endara government has been the demilitarization of the old Panama Defense Forces and its reorganization as a national police force free from politics, First Vice President Ricardo Arias Calderon told reporters during a visit to Washington last week.