PANAMA CITY, Panama -- The U.S.-backed Panamanian defense chief has been fired because he acquiesced in or backed a series of small-bomb attacks against senior government officials, according to well-placed sources here.
The attacks were aimed at showing the administration of President Guillermo Endara that the country needs a regular military force capable of dealing with such bombings, not just a police force as advocated by the government.
According to these sources, Lt. Col. Eduardo Herrera Hassan was fired Aug. 22 after a police investigation uncovered his role.
Capt. Leslie Loaiza, the head of the Technical Judicial Police, who conducted the investigation, said the bombing group had been "penetrated" by undercover agents, but he refused to say whether Colonel Herrera Hassan was involved.
According to the sources, the group included many of the 126 officers and 16 non-commissioned officers who were abruptly "retired" last month.
Forty more are expected to retire in the next few weeks, leaving an officer corps of about 500, most of them lieutenants and sub-lieutenants with little or no experience in the deposed military force of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.
The Endara administration also was disturbed by the discovery that Colonel Herrera Hassan had allowed the heavily armed police SWAT team to more than double in size without civilian authorization and that there "were scores" of military men at his headquarters who had no administrative functions.
Ebrahim Asvat, the new civilian head of the 11,000-member Public Force, said he did not believe that Colonel Herrera Hassan was attempting a coup, given the nearby presence of 12,000 U.S. troops.
"I think he was simply power-building, and that meant that they shared his view that the Public Force needed to have a military role," Mr. Asvat said. "He was against the idea of a force with nothing but police functions."
Colonel Herrera Hassan could not be reached for comment. But Luis Ferreira, his brother-in-law, said the bombing allegation was "a fabrication" made up by the civilian authorities who took away control of the Public Force from the professional officers.
Colonel Herrera Hassan was known to have had serious personality clashes with his boss, Ricardo Arias Calderon, the first vice president and head of the Ministry of Government and Justice.
The possibility that Colonel Herrera Hassan might have been involved in the bombings came as a shock to U.S. officials here who had viewed him as the most capable officer in the Noriega force.
Colonel Herrera Hassan went into exile after quitting as General Noriega's ambassador to Israel in April 1988. He was given a key role in various clandestine plans by the Reagan and Bush administrations to overthrow General Noriega before the invasion of Panama Dec. 20.
But at one point the United States cut all his funds after he told the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence that he needed four or five helicopters to conduct a raid against General Noriega's command post.
"What disturbed the committee was his request for a flame thrower" to burn General Noriega to death in the raid, said a Panamanian who was acting as liaison between the opposition forces in Panama and the Bush administration.
Senior government and police officials here refused to comment on the investigation into Colonel Herrera Hassan's role in the bombing attacks.
But all admitted that the bombings at the homes of two Cabinet members and in Chiriqui province were related to a single group of military men then in the Public Force or cashiered officers who served under General Noriega.
None of the bombings caused injuries or deaths.