U.S. troops launched a major military operation in Panama early this morning intended to apprehend military strongman Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said.
At a press briefing at the White House, Fitzwater said President Bush “directed U.S. forces to execute at 1 a.m. (EST) a pre-planned mission in Panama to restore democracy.”
Fitzwater said that Guillermo Endara, elected president of Panama last May in a contest that Noriega refused to honor, was sworn in as president, and Guillermo Ford as vice president, at a secret location in Panama.
Fitzwater said he did not know where Noriega was, or whether there had been any casualties in the initial stage of the operation. Nor would he say how many troops were involved.
“The United States is committing forces that we believe are adequate to the task. It is a major undertaking,” he said.
“The situation on the ground is such that we are not likely to comment on any of the details. The operation is ongoing,” Fitzwater said.
In Panama City, wire services reported that bright red explosions, possibly from artillery shells, could be seen over Panama Bay, and gunfire reverberated sporadically in the area of Paitilla Airport.
But the major brunt of the fighting was near Noriega’s headquarters, where an area encompassing several city blocks appeared to be on fire, sending plumes of black and orange smoke billowing into the sky.
Government television, which had been showing the Panamanian flag without sound after the fighting broke out, suddenly displayed the emblem of the U.S. Defense Department about an hour after fighting broke out, broadcasting a warning to Panamanians not to attack Americans or American property.
A sustained glow lit the night sky over Noriega’s headquarters, and planes could be seen flying above the plumes of smoke. Fresh bursts of shooting continued from Paitilla.
Radio Nacional said American B-52s were bombing Panama City. “They are firing on the unarmed Panamanian people,” the broadcast said.
“U.S. troops, following instructions from the genocidal George Bush . . . are bombing the capital city right now. Invading U.S. troops are bombing Panama City,” the radio said.
American forces reportedly attacked the central headquarters of the Panama Defense Forces at the jointly operated Ft. Amador military base, where Noriega keeps his offices, and in downtown Panama City.
A U.S. soldier stood outside PDF headquarters and bellowed out in Spanish for the Panamanian troops inside to surrender and come out unarmed with their hands raised in the air, saying they would not be harmed, a witness told United Press International.
In the El Chorrillo neighborhood near PDF headquarters, houses were burning and an unspecified number of injured people were taken to hospitals for treatment, an El Chorrillo resident told UPI. It could not be determined whether the casualties were civilian or military.
U.S. troops with machine guns and in tanks opened fire in the residential Diablo Heights section, which abuts the U.S.-run Albrook Field military base, a neighborhood resident told UPI. Streets were blocked throughout the Diablo Heights area, the resident said.
Intense artillery fire could be heard across Panama City, and unidentified aircraft could be heard flying over the city. At times, the artillery explosions came as frequently as every 20 seconds.
Panama Defense Forces Maj. Edgardo Lopez, a spokesman for Noriega, told UPI that a Panamanian sergeant was reported killed by the U.S. forces in an area called Patacon Hill.
There were no other immediate reports of Panamanian or U.S. casualties.
NBC television quoted an eyewitness source named “Roger” at the Marriott Hotel in Panama City who said Panamanian soldiers were dragging several Americans from their rooms. The eyewitness said he did not know what had happened to the Americans.
The eyewitness said he heard sporadic machine-gun fire around the hotel.
Fitzwater’s news conference was broadcast live in English throughout Panama over U.S. Southern Command radio.
In addition to seizing Noriega, he said, the goals are the restoration of democracy in Panama and securing U.S. rights under the 10-year-old Panama Canal treaties.
For two years, the United States has attempted to remove Noriega from his grip on the Panamanian government and bring him to trial in the United States, where he is under indictment on drug-trafficking charges. He was indicted by grand juries in Florida in February, 1988.
The crisis in Panama appeared to reach new dimensions over the weekend. Last Friday, Noriega declared that a state of war existed with the United States.
The next day, a U.S. Marine was shot and killed in a confrontation with Panamanian troops in front of the headquarters of Panama’s Defense Forces. In addition, a U.S. naval officer and his wife were detained and beaten, and other Americans were harassed, Fitzwater said.
“Under these circumstances, the President decided he must act,” Fitzwater said.
Asked about the legal basis for the operation, Fitzwater said it was “the President’s responsibility to protect the lives of American citizens.”
Fitzwater said there were 35,000 Americans in Panama.
Asked the likelihood the operation would be successful, he replied, “The certainty of an undertaking like this is obviously something we have confidence in.”
However, he would not say whether the United States had reached agreement with dissident elements in the Defense Forces that would lead the Administration to expect their cooperation.
Since last spring, Bush has sought to encourage such dissidents, if there are any, to overthrow Noriega. He was sharply criticized for failing to lend more than limited support to an unsuccessful coup attempt aimed at Noriega on Oct. 3.
Asked whether there was a U.S. ultimatum for Noriega, the spokesman said, “We are there to apprehend him and bring him back to the United States of America for prosecution.”
Asked whether the orders of the troops were to avoid firing on Noriega, Fitzwater said: “The orders are to apprehend him. I wouldn’t go beyond that.”
Fitzwater said that Bush had notified senior Congressional leaders of the mission and that Vice President Dan Quayle was notifying world leaders.
He said Bush on Sunday afternoon had begun reviewing the question of a military operation and that, after options were presented and plans developed, “the President decided to proceed.”
Before the White House announcement, there were reports that the United States was airlifting troops into Panama.
Concentrations of U.S. military transport aircraft were seen at Howard Air Force Base in Panama on Tuesday night. In the United States, NBC News broadcast footage of giant C-141 aircraft coming in to land at Howard and said one was landing every 10 minutes.
Noriega’s government accused the U.S. military Tuesday of violating its airspace with “observation planes and helicopters” in preparation for military action.
Last Friday, Noriega’s rubber-stamp legislature passed a declaration saying that the two countries are in “a state of war.”
The United States has tried various diplomatic and economic methods to oust Noriega since he was indicted on federal drug-trafficking charges in February, 1988. The general, who has been his country’s military strongman since 1981, was named head of state by the legislature last Friday.
U.S. sanctions have depressed the economy but have not budged Noriega, and two coup attempts failed to unseat him.
Tuesday’s troop movements are the third such augmentation of American forces in Panama since relations with the Noriega regime deteriorated sharply early last year.
In April, 1988, the United States sent 1,300 troops to Panama to bolster security for U.S. service personnel and their dependents. In May of this year, after Noriega’s government was widely accused of fraud in national elections, 2,000 U.S. troops were sent to Panama to provide additional security for Americans.
Sen. Pete Wilson (R-Calif.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, contacted in San Diego, said he had not been notified of the military action in advance, “and I really didn’t expect to be informed because of the need for surprise.”
“It’s absolutely about time (for such a move),” Wilson said. “I fully support the action. . . . It was requested by the duly elected government of Endara and fully justified by the necessity to remove the threat to American lives, not only in the (former) Canal Zone but also the people who are victimized by the drug traffic in the continental U.S.”