American Troops Confined to Bases : Personnel in Panama on Heightened Alert After Violence

Times Staff Writers

The Pentagon on Wednesday ordered all U.S. military personnel in Panama to remain on base or in their homes because of growing violence in the streets of Panama City and reports of harassment of U.S. service personnel there.

Acting within minutes of an attack by Panamanian security forces on presidential candidate Guillermo Endara and other opposition leaders during an anti-government demonstration, the Pentagon increased its alert status for the 20,000 U.S. troops and their dependents in Panama.

President Bush called the attack on Endara one of a series of "blatant attempts at intimidation" by the regime of Manuel A. Noriega, the Panamanian strongman.

Bush tried to reach Endara by telephone Wednesday afternoon but could not get through, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said. Bush asked Arthur H. Davis, the U.S. ambassador to Panama, to contact Endara "to commend him for his strength in standing up to the Noriega forces."

And Bush once again accused Noriega of conducting a "fraudulent election" designed to deny democratically won power to the general's opponents.

"He has now escalated this to include violence against opposition leaders, including Mr. Endara," Bush said. "This action underscores that Gen. Noriega does not have the interests of the Panamanian people at heart."

The attack increased the urgency with which senior U.S. policy-makers are weighing steps to react to Sunday's election in Panama. Officials have said that the Administration is considering a number of actions, from economic sanctions to military force, to back up demands that Noriega step down.

Bush contacted several Latin American leaders seeking their support for sanctions against Noriega, the White House said.

A State Department official said that the attack on Endara "makes clear, if it wasn't already, the brutality of the Noriega regime. This is truly ugly stuff."

But the official insisted that the Bush Administration will not be stampeded into acting until it has studied all available options for responding to what the United States considers blatant fraud in Panama's election.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, however, kept up the Administration's public criticism of the Panamanian regime. "Having failed to rig the election in advance, Noriega is now doing everything he can to steal it after the fact, despite the clear message from the people of Panama," he said. But Boucher refused to discuss actions that the United States might take.

No Immediate U.S. Action

Other Administration officials said Wednesday night, however, that no immediate steps will be taken in the wake of the attack on Endara.

American military personnel in Panama were advised Wednesday afternoon to stay out of all public areas except for essential business and to remain on U.S. military facilities until further notice. The warning--code-named "Personnel Movement Limitation Charlie"--is the second-highest alert status for U.S. military personnel overseas.

"We have reports of . . . servicemen being harassed, possibly taken into custody, but we don't know for how long and under what conditions or when these things occurred," an Administration official said.

(Ambassador Davis said that five U.S. personnel were arrested by Panamanian authorities during the day Wednesday, Reuters news agency reported from Panama City. Two embassy military attaches were arrested while they were observing the opposition and remained in detention but "I imagine they'll be released soon," the news agency quoted Davis as saying.

(Three military reservists were "arrested as spies" while taking pictures at the Panamanian military base at Amador Causeway but were later released, the ambassador added.)

Army Maj. Kathy Wood, a Pentagon spokesman, said that officials are particularly worried about the safety of 5,700 U.S. personnel and their dependents living away from U.S. bases near the Panama Canal, including the U.S. Southern Command headquarters compound at Quarry Heights, on the outskirts of Panama City.

All on-base housing is filled, and there is no place to shelter the off-base personnel, she said. But tents could be erected inside the base if the situation deteriorates further, Wood noted.

Peter Rodman, a key National Security Council official, said that outrage--both inside Panama and throughout the world--over Noriega's brazen action might be enough to bring down the general. He compared the election in Panama to the one in the Philippines that led to the downfall of President Ferdinand E. Marcos.

"In the Philippines, the election was stolen, but such a spotlight was shone on it that it became more than the dictatorship could survive," Rodman told a seminar sponsored by the World Freedom Foundation.

Unlike Noriega, however, Marcos was dependent on economic and political support from the United States. At the height of the Philippines' "people power" revolution, the United States withdrew its backing of Marcos, leaving him with no option but to resign. Washington has no similar leverage on Noriega.

Times staff writers James Gerstenzang and Don Shannon contributed to this story.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World