San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Looters rampage in Panama over controversial law

PANAMA CITY – Looters ransacked shops and stoned vehicles in Panama City on Friday following protests outside the Congress against a law that permits the sale of public lands in a duty free zone.

Dozens of hooded assailants stormed through the streets around the capitol building, attacking congressional guards and smashing store windows and parked vehicles with stones.

Local television showed images of looters making off with television sets, stereo equipment, appliances and alcoholic beverages.

The eruption of violence followed a protest by members of a construction union against the new law, which President Ricardo Martinelli has promised to rescind.

Heavily armed police intervened after a half hour of chaos, making mass arrests to restore order.

“We are concerned by the turn that this situation is taking,” Irving Hallman, head of Panama’s Chamber of Commerce, said in a television interview. “There is no justification for vandalism by those who are trying to take advantage of the situation.”

Protests have flared since Oct. 19, when Martinelli signed a law allowing the sale of public lands in the free trade area in the city of Colón.

Three people were killed in the first eruption of violent protests in Colón immediately after the law was signed, and the city has been paralyzed by strikes since then.

Protests also have spread to Panama City and the border area with Costa Rica.

Martinelli, who was flying home from a trip to Asia, promised in a Twitter message Friday to introduce a bill repealing the land sale law in its entirety.

“The law sought the best for Colón but it had little acceptance. We will proceed with its definitive repeal. We want peace and tranquility for all,” he wrote.

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