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'Tense calm' reported in Panama city where protests left 1 dead

By Arthur Brice, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: 105 reported wounded in Thursday clashes
  • NEW: Curfew lifted Friday morning to be reinstated Friday night
  • NEW: Negotiations between government and protesters continued
  • Protesters say they don't like new law they believe limits protests

(CNN) -- A "tense calm" prevailed Friday evening in Panama's Bocas del Toro province, one day after violent confrontations between striking banana plantation workers and federal troops left one protester dead and more than 100 people injured, the president's spokeswoman told CNN.

But despite the relative calm, authorities still will impose a curfew Friday at 9 p.m. for the second night in a row, spokeswoman Judy Meana said.

Protesters burned down a bank and sacked several businesses Thursday night and authorities want to avoid that from happening again, Meana said.

The demonstrations broke out Thursday over a new government measure to limit the right of workers to protest and strike.

Passions had already been inflamed because the workers from the Bocas Fruit Company had not been paid in two weeks, Meana said.

Efforts to secure a peace settlement continued into Friday evening, with presidential chief of staff Jimmy Papadimitriu meeting with the protesting workers and company representatives, Meana said.

Meana confirmed one protester had died but said the cause remained unknown.

Labor leader Rafael Chavarria disputed the government version, saying four people were killed, CNN affiliate Telemetro TV reported Friday.

The confrontations left 105 people wounded, 35 of whom were transferred to hospitals in the capital, Panama City, due to the seriousness of their injuries, Meana said.

Bocas del Toro is about 300 miles (500 km) from Panama City.

Authorities arrested 80 protesters, Meana said, noting that number could increase.

Protesters, in turn, abducted four police officers and were still holding them Friday evening, the spokeswoman said.

The violence seemed to abate Friday when the two sides sat down to talk.

Streets had remained blocked earlier Friday in the coastal city of Changuinola, near the border with Costa Rica, but those blockades had been removed by Friday night, Meana said.

The bridge over the Changuinola River also had been blocked, CNN affiliate TVN said.

Supermarkets were closed and residents were shopping at small neighborhood grocery stores, which were running out of food, TVN said.

The workers went on strike July 2 and have paralyzed much of the city with roadblocks and other measures.

The strike began, Meana said, because 5,000 workers at the Bocas Fruit Company had not been paid for two weeks. The government, she said, is working to have the employees paid.

"The ministry of labor is going to apply sanctions against the company," Meana said.

According to some news accounts, Thursday's confrontations started when government troops moved in to clear roadblocks.

Video from Thursday's demonstrations shows crowds of protesters hurling rocks at troops and clouds of tear gas rising from the streets.

A video broadcast on TVN shows a few protesters crouched behind a barricade made mostly of wooden pallets while eight helmet-clad soldiers holding see-through shields stand about 100 feet way.

The protesters are armed with sticks, rocks and Molotov cocktails, news reports said.

Presidential envoy Papadimitriu arrived in Bocas del Toro on Thursday and asked for calm and dialogue.

"Let's leave the rocks, the weapons," he was quoted as saying on the president's Web page. "We should sit down and reach a solution because this is not helping Bocas del Toro or the nation."

Bocas del Toro, a popular seaside tourist destination, also is home to numerous banana plantations.

CNN's Arthur Brice contributed to this report.