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Cuban Refugees Injure U.S. Soldiers during Two Days of Riots in Panama

By Richard A. Serrano
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON

About 160 U.S. soldiers suffered mostly minor injuries in two days of riots by rock-throwing Cuban refugees who are growing increasingly frustrated by their detention in Panama camps, Pentagon officials said here Thursday.

The soldiers, most of whom suffered cuts and bruises, were hurt Wednesday night and Thursday when more than a thousand refugees broke out of three chain-link campsites and commandeered military vehicles in an attempt to flee the area near the Panama Canal. By Thursday evening, authorities said, most of the refugees had returned to the camps.

Only 17 of the injured soldiers required hospital care, the most serious being treatment for a fractured sternum. Among the Cubans, three were injured slightly.

U.S. military officials said, ironically, the disturbances began just hours before it was announced that some of the refugees would be granted asylum in Spain and that others would be given temporary asylum in the United States.

"This is a very serious demonstration," Brig. Gen. James Wilson, commander of the U.S. refugee operation in Panama, told reporters there early Thursday. "The seriousness of this clearly indicates the frustration these people have with the uncertainty over their future."

Wilson said he ordered increased security at the camps, and U.S. officials now are checking the refugees to see how quickly some of them can qualify for asylum elsewhere.

The protests mark the most serious disturbances at the Panama camps since the United States transferred nearly 9,000 Cuban boat people there this summer.

Army Maj. Rick Scott, a Pentagon spokesman, said the disturbances began about 4 p.m. Wednesday when 100 Cubans shook their chain-link fence, threw rocks and bottles and broke through the main gate before U.S. military police were able to stop them 50 feet outside the camp perimeter and move them back inside.

"Reports indicate that about 40 U.S. military personnel and one Cuban received minor injuries," Scott said.

Later Wednesday night, he said, another 200 Cubans at another camp broke down a gate, commandeered a military truck and used it to knock down some of the chain-link fencing.

"There did not seem to be any intent to leave and stay gone," Scott said. "They simply wanted their concerns voiced."

Then, around 9:30 a.m. Thursday, a third disturbance erupted that left 120 U.S. military personnel injured with cuts and bruises when about 1,000 refugees broke out of a third camp and attempted to flee.

But officials in Panama said the refugees soon began returning peacefully to the camp when they realized there was nowhere to run.

"Some of them hung out and a large number of them moved down the road, but eventually they decided to turn around and come back," Air Force 1st Lt. John Thomas said in a telephone interview from Panama.