The State Department on Friday condemned Panama's arrest of nine U.S. servicemen and an American civilian this week, charging that the government of President Eric A. Delvalle is waging a "disinformation and defamation campaign against the United States" that will further strain tense relations between the two countries.
Word of the arrests also brought renewed demands in Congress for a cut-off of all U.S. economic and military aid to Panama until the government restores political freedoms.
The Reagan Administration suspended aid to Panama in July, after a crowd apparently incited by anti-American statements from the government, attacked the American Embassy. The Senate passed a non-binding resolution last month calling for a permanent funding halt. It is part of the Senate defense authorization bill, which went to conference committee this week for reconciliation with a House version of the bill. The Administration had budgeted $13 million in aid to Panama.
Wednesday night, Panamanian Defense Forces detained six American airmen, three sailors and a civilian employed by the Panama Canal Commission in the wake of anti-government protests. The demonstrations apparently were sparked by Delvalle's announcement that two independent newspapers closed by the government would not be allowed to reopen without strict censorship.
The Americans were released Thursday morning, after being photographed and questioned. Three complained that they were struck with rubber hoses, U.S. officials said. Two government-controlled newspapers reported Thursday that the servicemen were engaging in vandalism, a charge that U.S. military authorities denied.
Also arrested was the son of a prominent U.S.-based opposition figure, Gabriel Lewis, a former Panamanian ambassador to the United States. Jose Guillermo Lewis was seized and sentenced to six months in prison. Lewis says that his son was not active in Panama's domestic opposition.
State Department spokesman Charles Redman said that the United States considers the arrests "an unprovoked attempt to harass U.S. military and civilian personnel in Panama."
'A Solemn Pledge'
In Congress, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), a co-sponsor of the Panama sanctions resolution, said that "we in the Senate have made a solemn pledge" to punish Panama unless human rights restrictions are lifted. "We stand by that pledge."
Kennedy said that Panamanian security forces "went out of their way to round up Americans," whom he called "totally innocent and totally uninvolved" in anti-government protests. "Such barbaric conduct . . . is pushing the limit," he said.
The United States has about 10,000 troops based in Panama, principally for the defense of the canal, a U.S. responsibility until the year 2000 under the Panama Canal treaties. Panama is also the headquarters of the U.S. Southern Command, which coordinates all U.S. military activity in Latin America.
Southern Command officials charged that the detentions may have violated the canal treaties, which guarantee U.S. access to 11 Panama bases until Dec. 31, 1999.
Relations between the United States and Panama have been strained by ongoing U.S. investigations of allegations that Panama's military chief, Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, has links to drug trafficking. Noriega, in turn, has accused the United States of inciting anti-government protests.