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.
Late in the afternoon, after Endara was beaten, Noriega ordered the mobilization of the Battalions of Dignity, paramilitary groups ostensibly organized by the regime to defend the country against an "American invasion."
However, the battalions have been used frequently to intimidate Noriega's opponents and have threatened to raid wealthy neighborhoods where many of Endara's supporters live.
Tactic to Keep Power
The day's activities appeared to answer questions about how Noriega, who has been the object of determined but unsuccessful efforts to oust him from power, would deal with the apparent electoral defeat of his handpicked presidential candidate, Carlos Duque. In spite of a massive effort to steal the election by fraud, the regime failed to cast serious doubt on Endara's apparent victory.
There had been speculation that Noriega, who has not been seen or heard from publicly in days, was under pressure from his political allies and some elements of the Panama Defense Forces to seek some sort of accommodation that would ease growing international condemnation.
Noriega is Panama's de facto ruler from his base as commander of the Defense Forces, this country's sole military and police organization.
The attack on Endara came as he, Ford and Arias Calderon were leading a caravan of cars and demonstrators on foot demanding recognition of an opposition electoral victory. "It is a celebration, not a protest," Endara said in an interview just before the parade began at noon. Ironically, he said there was no reason to fear government intervention.
"They won't hurt us," he said.
As the demonstration moved through various areas of downtown Panama City, security forces--known as Dobermans because they were insignia depicting that breed of dog--fired tear gas and blocked the protesters' movements. But there were no serious incidents until the caravan reached Santa Ana Park in Old Panama, a run-down section of narrow streets and shabby wooden buildings.
At that point, Endara and the others got out of their cars to talk with a group of riot troops blocking the streets, Endara told reporters in the hospital after he was treated.
With an aide standing behind waving the extra-large, bloodstained white shirt that his boss had been wearing, Endara sat in a wheelchair and related the incident.
"We wanted to turn right (into the park), but the lieutenant told us we had to wait while he got authorization. Suddenly somebody began to fight with me. He broke my glasses and hit me several times."
A more complete account came from Julio Harris, secretary general of the Authentic Liberal Party, one of the three parties making up the Democratic Alliance.
"I was standing just behind Endara," he told reporters. "Endara asked if we could move to our right into the park. A lieutenant told us we should wait because he had no authorization.
"After about half an hour and while we were standing there, we noticed men in civilian clothes coming at us from the sides." Harris said they were carrying steel pipes wrapped with tape and wearing red T-shirts with writing identifying them as members of the Dignity Battalions.
"Then suddenly they began firing in the air," Harris continued, "and I looked in that direction. When I looked back the dignity battalions were beating Endara with steel pipes."
Hit in the Forehead
Harris, who also was bloodied in the fighting, said that Endara was hit in the forehead and was knocked to the ground unconscious. The leader was dragged by his followers to a taxi and taken first to the executive hotel where the alliance has its offices and then to the hospital.
Endara told National Public Radio that "the soldiers did nothing to interfere" with the attackers. "They were protecting the others," he said in reference to the dignity battalion members.
Shortly after the attack, reporters saw a man who had been shot to death on a nearby side street. Four other men were wounded in the area, while three people were hurt during confrontations in the city of Colon, at the Caribbean entrance to the Panama Canal.