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Noriega Move to End Panama Crisis Reported

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Times Staff Writer

Panama’s Gen. Manuel A. Noriega has sent a secret envoy to seek negotiations with his opposition as the Reagan Administration renews its pressure on the military dictator to step down, opposition officials said Thursday.

Noriega dispatched an intermediary last month to tell Eric A. Delvalle, the president he deposed in February, that he wanted to talk about a peaceful settlement of Panama’s year-old political crisis, the officials said.

Delvalle is willing to negotiate with Noriega, they said, but only if the general promises that a return to democracy will result from the talks.

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“This is a possible light at the end of the tunnel, but it isn’t clear yet,” said Juan B. Sosa, Delvalle’s ambassador in Washington. “The framework of the negotiations should be established first.”

Noriega’s secret approach to Delvalle came as the Reagan Administration was preparing a new plan for covert operations to support the opposition and weaken Noriega’s hold on power. At least one opposition figure believes the two events were linked.

“Noriega may be looking for a way out,” said Gabriel Lewis, a former Panamanian ambassador. “He may have been scared by the finding,” the secret directive for covert action that President Reagan approved last month.

Administration officials have refused to describe the covert action plan, although some reports said it centers both on “psychological operations” to destabilize Noriega’s rule and on aid to dissident military officers who might mount a coup.

“We support any effort to get Noriega out and move Panama to democracy,” Morris Jacobs, a State Department spokesman, said. “We hope the people of Panama can do it.”

Other officials confirmed that the Administration has quietly stepped up its measures against Noriega, but they refused to describe the actions.

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The United States has been demanding Noriega’s ouster since February, when two federal grand juries in Florida indicted the general on drug trafficking charges. The Administration has imposed financial sanctions on Panama that have brought the country’s economy to a virtual standstill.

Every Suggestion Rebuffed

Nevertheless, Noriega, who appears to enjoy the loyalty of Panama’s military forces, has thumbed his nose at the Administration’s efforts and rebuffed every suggestion that he retire.

His approach to Delvalle, reported in the Miami Herald on Thursday, was the first suggestion that the general might be seeking a dignified exit from office.

But both Panamanian opposition leaders and U.S. officials said they remain skeptical that Noriega is ready to meet their demands that the military withdraw from political life and return Panama to civilian democracy.

“We want to see deeds, not words,” Lewis said.

A State Department official said Noriega’s initiative already may have been endangered by the opposition’s penchant for talking about it. “If Noriega is serious, he wants these negotiations to be private,” he said.

Determination Stressed

Meanwhile, Reagan’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. Colin L. Powell, said the Administration remains determined to force Noriega from power. He added that the United States would not turn operating control and defense of the Panama Canal over to the government of Panama on schedule in 1999 if Noriega is still in power then.

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“We would not turn over the canal if Noriega was still in power,” Powell told a group of news media executives in a briefing at the White House on Wednesday, according to one of those present.

Powell told the executives that the Panama Canal treaties give the United States the right to delay the transfer if necessary to guarantee the neutrality and security of the canal, he said.

The treaties, ratified in 1979, require the United States to yield all operating control and defense of the strategic waterway on Dec. 31, 1999. But they also give the U.S. government an unlimited, permanent right to act “in order that the canal shall remain permanently neutral.”

A White House spokesman said Powell’s statement does not represent any change in policy, and added: “It’s something that’s 11 years away. . . . It’s pretty hypothetical.”

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