Invasion Took Its Toll in Deaths, Human Suffering

MAXAIA TRUJILLO stood at the side of a mass grave on outskirts of the capital Wednesday, waiting for the black plastic body bags to arrive. She believed her husband would be in one of them.

Her husband Ernesto, 31, was on his way home from shopping for food Tuesday when he was shot by US soldiers after he failed to stop at a checkpoint.

``I still don't know if he's dead. I'm just waiting to see if they bring him here.''

What Mrs. Trujillo was unsure of was whether her husband had already been buried with the 100 bodies covered over Tuesday in a mass grave.

The mass grave at Garden of Peace Cemetery now holds 275, according to several men Wednesday who had been unloading trucks carrying the dead.

As many as 1,000 Panamanian civilians may have died in the United States invasion and the fighting afterward. About 600 died in the capital, according to sources at hospitals, morgues, and funeral homes contacted by several journalists. An estimated 400 more are reported to have died in the countryside, including 200 in the Atlantic coast city of Col'on, say diplomats and relief workers there.

The US Southern Command has been very vague on civilian casualty figures since the invasion began, despite being able to provide precise daily figures on US and Panamanian Army dead and wounded.

For the first time in a press briefing Wednesday, the US Army spokesman, Lt. Col. Jerry Murgia, gave reporters a figure: 250 dead civilians.

One European diplomat described the estimate as ``intentionally'' underestimated.

The new Panamanian government said earlier this week that civilian dead in the ``low hundreds'' would be an acceptable price for having the US depose Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega. Residents of El Chorrillo barrio, the site of General Noriega's former headquarters, say 55 died in the fighting Dec. 20.

Almost three city blocks burned to the ground as a result of the attack on the headquarters. Residents say there was no way to know how many died in the fire as it burned so hot bodies were reduced mostly to ash. They also say many residents died when Panamanian troops and paramilitary ``Dignity Battalions'' opened fire on them as they fled after US warnings to do so.

Most of the dead seem to be from poor and working class areas where Noriega's Dignity Battalions were strongest and several of his bases were located.

Still, most Panamanians spoken to Wednesday showed little or no rancor toward the US. Mrs. Trujillo expressed anger only at the idea her loved one would be buried anonymously. But mourners at another gravesite uttered epitaphs and a mother ``damned'' the gringos as her son was lowered into the ground.

Almost 300 Panamanian soldiers and paramilitary troops have been killed, most come from poor barrios.

Most Panamanians of all classes have been visibly supportive of the invasion, even in neighborhoods where they suffered the worst combat.

They are equally magnanimous about accepting back the old PDF as the new Public Forces of Panama. Many of them say they understand the old PDF were poor boys just doing a job.

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