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Armed Men Attack Church In Panama City With AM-Panama Crisis, Bjt

March 14, 1988

PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ Men in civilian clothes fired guns outside a church service Sunday and attacked two TV cameramen after roughing up a woman who was selling an anti- government newsletter. No one was injured.

The attack came at the Roman Catholic Church of El Cristo Rey, long a center of government opposition activity, just as its pastor, the Rev. Xavier Villanueva, was beginning a late-morning Mass.

An Associated Press reporter and photographer said eight to 10 men first attacked a woman selling pamphlets at the entrance of the church, in a middle- class neighborhood near the city’s center.

When several parishoners ran to her aid, the attackers began firing handguns in the air and using large rocks to break car windows.

Marcello Zanini, an Italian camerman for the Worldwide Television Network, said two of the gunman struck him and stole his video camera as he was shooting the scene.

″When they started shooting, I crouched behind a tree and when I looked up, I saw those two men coming at me,″ said Zanini, who is based in El Salvador. ″They hit me and took my camera away.″

The attackers also ripped a cable from the television camera of a CBS crewman and tried to seize the camera of Juana Anderson, a Reuters news agency photographer, but only managed to rip off the flash device.

The men threw rocks at other reporters on the scene.

At least one of the attackers was jumped on by a group of churchgoers, but he managed to break free and join the other attackers as they ran for their parked cars about two blocks away, firing as they fled.

A policeman watched the attack from a street corner half a block away, but made no effort to halt it. Asked by a woman why he had not intevened, he replied: ″Lady, I have nine children who must eat every day.″

The pamphlet vendor, displaying cuts and bruises on her face and chest, said she had been shoved and struck several times. She would not give her name to reporters.

″There are people here who would like to have names,″ she said in an apparent reference to undercover government agents.

The government’s opponents have frequently accused it of using hired thugs or plainclothed state security agents to break up its demonstrations.

Two people were killed in separate protest marches last year when attackers in civilian clothes fired into the crowd.

Anti-government activists have been waging a campaign since June to oust Panama’s military strongman, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, who is under indictment in the United States on drug trafficking charges.

His government has closed all opposition newspapers, radio and television stations. His foes spread their messages through handbills, mimeographed newsletters and photo copies of articles appearing in foreign publications.

The opposition campaign is led by the National Civic Crusade, a coalition of about 200 professional, business, labor, political and other groups that was formed last June. Many of the El Cristo Rey parishoners are Crusade members.

Villanueva, a Spanish priest who is a well-known government critic, restored order inside the church by leading the congregation in a hymn. In his homily, he spoke of King David uniting the people of Israel.

″The people had to suffer,″ the priest said. ″But out of that suffering came unity. ... Thus it will be for Panama. Panamanians have had it too easy. Almost everything has been given to them. Now we are seeing the sense of nationality being forged under suffering. We are forging a new, united Panama.″

As the congregation cheered and clapped, the priest then read a recent communique of the Panamanian Conference of Bishops that called for a return to civilian authority and the restoration of full civil liberties.

″This is the season of Lent,″ the pastor said. ″Panama will rise this Easter.″

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