A U.S. Army officer used an unauthorized weapon when he shot a Panamanian military policeman Monday, a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday. He called the incident "very regrettable" but said it had to be considered in the context of a deteriorating situation.
"What you have is a very difficult atmosphere in Panama right now. It's very tense," spokesman Pete Williams told reporters.
He said people there are afraid for their lives amid the tension that has followed two shooting incidents in recent days.
Williams said that although the unidentified lieutenant was in an authorized area at the time of the shooting, he was in civilian clothes and was carrying a sidearm. Asked if the officer had been authorized to do so, Williams answered: "I don't believe he was authorized to have a weapon."
The lieutenant "says the Panamanian reached for a weapon," Williams said. He said the officer was still being questioned about the incident.
At the time, U.S. forces were on alert following the fatal Saturday shooting of Marine 1st Lt. Robert Paz, 25, of Dallas, and the reported beating of a naval officer and his wife who U.S. officials say witnessed the shooting.
In Panama City, Cesar Tejada, 19, the military policeman, said from his hospital bed that he had done nothing to provoke the shooting. Speaking to about 30 reporters and photographers from his bed at Santo Tomas Hospital, Tejada denied U.S. claims that he had threatened the officer or tried to draw his pistol.
"That's wrong," he said. "There was no exchange of words, there was nothing. I was on my normal police rounds."
Tejada, covered in a sheet with his bandaged left arm exposed, said he was approached by a white van. He said the driver shot at him twice and then sped away.
Asked if the shooting was an act of revenge for Saturday's slaying of Paz, Tejada said, "I suppose it must be that."
The Panamanian National Assembly formally named strongman Manuel A. Noriega as head of state last Friday and declared that Panama is in a "state of war" with the United States.