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U.S. Charges Bring Warning From Panama

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

In a strongly worded statement, the government of Panama rejected drug smuggling and other charges handed up Friday by two U.S. grand juries against military strongman Manuel A. Noriega and warned of “unforeseeable reactions” to the indictments.

The statement issued Friday evening by Foreign Minister Jorge Abadia Arias was the Panama government’s first direct comment on the actions against Gen. Noriega.

“The Republic of Panama has been subjected to a systematic campaign aimed at destabilizing the national government and debasing its leaders internationally,” the statement said. “The government of Panama warns that it is extremely dangerous to challenge the patience, tolerance and good faith of its people with campaigns that can engender unforeseeable reactions.”

The official reaction followed a relatively calm day in Panama City as Noriega’s opponents and supporters alike digested the news of the formal announcement of the indictments against him.

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Despite rumors that the announcement might set off violence, there were only small, brief midday demonstrations against the regime.

The government apparently cut telephone communications between the United States and a local radio station that was broadcasting a report about the indictments. But the station later broadcast a recording of the account with no interference.

Faint Echo

Friday’s public reaction was just a faint echo of the spontaneous uproar that greeted assertions of criminal behavior made against Noriega by his former top military aide last summer. Moreover, official reaction against the few protests that did take place Friday was relatively mild in this capital. This city has been unsettled since June by opposition efforts to get Noriega to step down as commander of the Panama Defense Forces, a post from which he effectively rules the country through a nominal civilian administration.

At noon Friday, clusters of white-collar workers gathered at a few spots in Panama City’s financial district to wave white handkerchiefs and call for the ouster of Noriega.

Armed riot police, stationed themselves at several street corners opposite the protesters and watched them quietly. No violence was reported throughout the day.

About two dozen police patrolled the plaza in front of the Panama Chamber of Commerce, which is home to the Civic Crusade, an organization of Noriega’s most persistent critics. The crusade, grouping about 200 professional and trade groups, had called for Friday’s noontime protests.

Administration Assailed

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Foreign Minister Abadia’s statement accused the Reagan Administration of turning against Noriega because Panama would not drop its role in the so-called Contadora process, a diplomatic effort by four Latin American nations, including Panama, to end Central American conflicts.

Abadia asserted that in 1986, Reagan’s national security adviser at the time, Rear. Adm. John M. Poindexter, asked Noriega to get Panama to abandon the Contadora initiative. The request was refused, the statement said, “setting off an uninterrupted campaign, with the lowest and most reproachable methods of slander,” against Noriega.

Abadia challenged the credibility of the witnesses on whose testimony he said the charges against Noriega were based. He asserted that there were two types of witnesses: convicts “without any credibility, who offer their testimony in exchange for a reduction of sentences,” and former associates of Noriega who, “resenting their having been cut off (by Noriega), have converted themselves into his detractors.”

Government newspapers earlier had repeated official contentions that assertions against Noriega are politically motivated.

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The U.S. attacks are meant to debase Noriega “with the object of establishing a puppet government,” the newspaper La Critica said. The purpose, the newspaper added, is to recover for the United States control of the Panama Canal.

In part, Friday’s relative calm in the streets was owed to seasonal factors. This is vacation time for many. Schools are out and families stream to beaches or mountains. Pre-Lenten festivities begin next weekend.

Opposition leaders were reluctant to interpret the lack of protests as a failure of popular indignation.

“People are afraid, that’s all. They will come out when they are ready,” said Lita Arias, a leader of the Civic Crusade.

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The crusade said it plans to call for a general protest strike soon, timing it to have a greater economic impact on the government than it would now.

Opposition leaders believe that the immediate effects of the indictments against Noriega will be felt in Panama’s foreign relations.

The actions, they said, will tend to isolate Panama, not only from the United States but from the European and Latin American nations as well.

Moreover, the U.S. government is seen as having to insist that Noriega step down as a condition of resuming full relations. Washington has cut both economic and military assistance to Panama as a result of its quarreling with Noriega.

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“These are uncharted waters,” said Ricardo Arias Calderon, a leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Party. “It is difficult to see how U.S. officials can possibly meet with Noriega.”

Range of Possibilities

As for repercussions inside Panama, Noriega’s opponents see a range of possibilities--not all of them favorable to their cause.

Some fear Noriega will seek an alliance with elements of the far left and try to tighten his already firm hold on the country. They worry that he may seek help from Cuba and the Soviet Union.

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Others foresee an attempt by the nominal civilian president, Eric A. Delvalle, to unseat Noriega. Such an effort now would undoubtedly bring about Delvalle’s overthrow, they said.

A third possibility is that elements of the military would move to oust Noriega from command of the Defense Forces, which is Panama’s sole military and police organization.

The charges in the Florida indictments came as no surprise to Panamanians. A multitude of assertions of wrongdoing against Noriega have been made since Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera, once the general’s chief assistant, accused him of complicity in political murder, drug trafficking and rigging elections.

Reports from both inside and outside the country have alternately painted Noriega as doing favors for, and sometimes getting paid by, the CIA, Cuban Intelligence, Colombian drug runners, Salvadoran rebels, the Nicaraguan government and the Nicaraguan rebels.

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The most recent assertions locally came from retired Gen. Ruben Dario Paredes, Noriega’s predecessor as commander of the Defense Forces.

During a radio interview from hiding earlier this week, Paredes said that he had “come to the conclusion” that Noriega was responsible for the death of his son, also named Ruben, who was found slain in Medellin, Colombia, in 1985.

The younger Ruben had traveled to Colombia with Cesar Rodriguez, a pilot and suspected drug smuggler who is said to have been a business partner of Noriega. Rodriguez was also killed in Colombia.

Paredes, who said he had no proof that Noriega ordered his son’s death, has publicly called for the defense chief to step down.

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Paredes’ stand was perhaps made more complicated by another revelation in the Florida indictments. Another son, Ahmed Paredes, was named in connection with drug smuggling along with Noriega. Paredes could not be reached for comment Friday.


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