(re-ledes with withdrawal of bills)


President Ricardo Martinelli announced Tuesday that he is withdrawing two controversial bills that spurred disturbances in Panama's National Assembly and protests on the streets.

The supermarket magnate attributed opposition to the measures - one authorizing sale of the government's stakes in utility companies and the other a ratification of three Supreme Court appointments - to a lack of information.

"To impel a broad discussion and a consensus on these matters, I will withdraw them today from the National Assembly and send them to the National Coordination," Martinelli told reporters at the presidential palace.

The National Coordination is a consultative body that includes representatives of business, labor, academia and other elements of society.

Martinelli invited "all sectors" to take part in the discussion and said he will ask the Catholic Church to mediate the talks.

Minutes after the president spoke, the National Assembly leadership suspended the special session convened by Martinelli to address the two bills.

An opposition lawmaker was pepper-sprayed earlier Tuesday amid protests outside the assembly.

Union members and other government foes burned tires and tussled with the police who surrounded the legislature on the second day of debate on the bills.

Cops also roughed up opposition legislators, one of whom required first aid after nearly choking on pepper spray.

The security perimeter was imposed after Monday's discussion inside the chamber saw scuffles among government and opposition lawmakers and visitors in the gallery.

Martinelli called the special session in a bid to push through legislation authorizing the sale of the government's large minority stakes in the dominant telephone and electricity companies.

Once inside the capitol on Tuesday, opposition lawmakers demanded the debate be suspended until authorities disclose who ordered the massive police deployment.

The Martinelli administration says it wants to sell stakes in Cable & Wireless and electric utility Union Fenosa to raise revenue for infrastructure projects.

Critics, however, contend the government's approach will leave Panama with unsustainable debt.

The government and opposition are also at odds over the confirmation of three new judges for the 12-member Panamanian Supreme Court, which Martinelli's adversaries see as an attempt to pack the tribunal.

If approved, the three latest nominations would bring to seven the number of high court judges named by Martinelli.

Some in the opposition say the president wants to control the Supreme Court as part of a plan to change Panama's constitution so he can seek a second consecutive term in 2014. EFE