FORT BRAGG, N.C., AUG. 31 -- A veteran paratrooper today was acquitted of charges that he executed an unarmed man at a roadblock during last year's U.S. invasion of Panama.

"I knew I was innocent from the beginning," Sgt. Roberto Bryan said after the verdict. "I just had to wait for that day to come."

Bryan said he never should have been charged but that he had no hard feelings toward 1st Lt. Brandon Thomas, the chief prosecution witness, or the Army. He plans to return to active duty Tuesday.

Bryan, a 19-year Army veteran and member of Fort Bragg's 82nd Airborne Division, had been charged with unpremeditated murder. A conviction would have carried a life sentence. The court-martial started Monday.

In the Dec. 23, 1989, episode, Bryan's unit stopped a carload of five Panamanians at a roadblock. A grenade was tossed, and the soldiers opened fire, killing four of the men; 10 American soldiers were injured by the grenade.

The fifth Panamanian man was injured. Bryan shot and killed him a short time later; the circumstances were the issue in the trial.

The eight-member military jury deliberated 1 hour 55 minutes before returning the verdict, which was greeted by applause from other soldiers in the tiny courtroom.

The defense maintained Bryan shot the man because he was moving in a way that indicated he was a threat to Bryan's men. Two soldiers testified Thursday that they also drew guns on the Panamanian.

Several soldiers testified that Bryan did not get along with Thomas, who testified Tuesday that he was stationed elsewhere when the gun battle broke out and drove to the area in time to see Bryan shoot the injured Panamanian. Thomas acknowledged during his testimony that he had shot an unarmed Panamanian in the back during the operation. He said he did not know the fleeing prisoner was unarmed.

At least three other U.S. soldiers have been prosecuted for actions during the Panama invasion. One was convicted of unpremeditated murder and two others were found guilty of lesser charges after a firefight that investigators said was staged to cover up a soldier's loss of his handgun at a bar.