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COMBAT IN PANAMA : Panamanian Military ‘Decapitated’ by Coordinated U.S. Strike

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Beginning at H-hour--1 a.m. Eastern time Wednesday--the U.S. military fanned across the narrow waist of Panama intent on dismembering the Panamanian military organization that Gen. Manuel A. Noriega has headed for more than six years.

By morning, the coordinated assault of more than 20,000 troops--including waves of U.S. paratroopers, helicopter-borne Green Berets and Navy commandos--had denied Noriega the strong arm of his Panama Defense Forces and “decapitated” Panama’s military, in the words of Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“They have no organization, since they are scattered,” said one senior officer, who noted that the long-planned military action was intended to divide and conquer Noriega and his troops. “There may be pockets of resistance, but they have no capability to reinforce each other. They’re neutralized.”

Thus isolated, Noriega is “a fugitive,” Powell declared. If he retreats into the jungle with his small band of bodyguards, “we will chase him, and we will find him,” he said.

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The U.S. invasion, christened Operation Just Cause, mounted a multi-pronged assault on PDF strongholds, concentrating on the headquarters and reinforcement routes of several units that have been key to Noriega’s hold on power in past coup attempts.

“Our original strategy was to attack the PDF and break their structure,” said Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Kelly, director of operations of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff.

Having largely accomplished that by Wednesday afternoon, Kelly said the United States was turning its primary focus to the safety of Americans in Panama. The Pentagon prepared to rush an additional 2,400 troops, including a brigade from the Army’s 7th Infantry Division based at Ft. Ord, Calif., to Panama to boost security around bases and at critical canal-related facilities such as the Madden Dam.

When the operation began early Wednesday, a battalion of Army Rangers--about 800 men specially trained in jungle warfare and low-intensity combat operations--parachuted into Rio Hato, a former U.S. airfield 75 miles west of Panama City. In addition to being the site of Noriega’s home, Rio Hato is the home base of the PDF’s 6th and 7th Infantry companies.

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In a coup attempt on Oct. 3, the 7th Infantry was the most important PDF unit to come to Noriega’s assistance, flying over the heads of U.S. troops blocking the Inter-American Highway and surrounding PDF headquarters, where Noriega was held briefly.

By Wednesday morning, the Ranger battalions had “neutralized” Rio Hato, taking “a number of prisoners” while some PDF members fled, Powell said.

Anticipating possible heavy resistance, the Pentagon sent some of the operation’s heaviest firepower to the PDF headquarters, known as the Comandancia, located at the Pacific mouth of the canal. Working under the flag of Task Force Bayonet, a mechanized U.S. Army battalion, supported by four light tanks and 600 to 700 infantrymen flown in from Ft. Ord, rolled into Noriega’s headquarters just before 1 a.m.

While the PDF mounted its fiercest resistance to U.S. forces at the Comandancia, officials said it was much lighter than the 300 troops they had expected. Many of the PDF soldiers had fled, melting into the surrounding civilian populations as a U.S. howitzer blasted gaping holes in the stucco structure and ignited fires that burned for three square blocks, according to local reports.

By Wednesday afternoon, Lt. Gen. Kelly declared the headquarters subdued and said 250 Panamanian prisoners had been taken.

While Kelly said that “we plan for the worst and hope for the best,” the absence of heavier Panamanian resistance perplexed American commanders, who were uncertain whether the fleeing PDF would try to regroup or “go off and get honest jobs,” in Kelly’s words.

Just a few miles north at Ft. Cimarron, other Army Ranger units, supported by Panama-based special forces troops already in place, were parachuting into position to block the road linking the PDF headquarters with another of Noriega’s most loyal units, Battalion 2000.

In operations that began at 1:55 a.m. and extended into the early morning, the 82nd Airborne Division’s Ready Brigade--about 4,500 men--began a parachute assault on Panama City’s international airport, and once on the ground, began moving toward Battalion 2000.

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Established by Noriega in 1983 as the military unit that would protect the Panama Canal when it is turned over to Panama, Battalion 2000 drove to Noriega’s aid during the October coup attempt in 2 1/2-ton trucks and surrounded the Comandancia.

Air Force gunships swooped in Wednesday and destroyed nine of those vehicles, which represented most of the unit’s transportation capability, said Kelly.

The armed resistance to the overwhelming U.S. force was sporadic and was quickly quashed Wednesday morning.

“Organized resistance in the east is pretty much a thing of the past,” said Kelly, referring to operations conducted by the units of the 82nd Airborne and Army Rangers.

About midway on the isthmus, a battalion from the Ft. Ord-based 7th Infantry secured Madden Dam and an electrical distribution center at Cerra Tigre and liberated a prison at Gamboa that housed political prisoners, many of whom were involved in the October coup attempt.

“We now have 47, 48, very happy prisoners who have been released,” Powell said.

In a similarly unchallenged operation, a Marine rifle company and a light armored infantry company secured U.S. Army and Air Force bases across the canal from Panama City.

Meanwhile, U.S. special forces units attacked the PDF’s navy, immobilizing a small fleet of boats and aircraft that could have been used for Noriega’s escape.

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And at Ft. Amador near Panama City, U.S. infantrymen shelled Defense Forces barracks. But sniper fire kept the American troops from moving in, wire services reported.

By Wednesday night, less than 24 hours after Operation Just Cause began, the U.S. armed forces toll had reached 15 killed, more than 100 wounded and one serviceman missing. According to Kelly, four helicopters had been downed by gunfire.

One senior military commander said the death toll had been close to expected figures, adding that the U.S. forces’ roles as attackers had exposed American troops to unusual risk.

But with Noriega on the run and his military broken, Pentagon officials said that Panama’s entrenched leadership may have paid still more dearly.

“Right now, Mr. Noriega commands nothing,” Kelly said. “He has no payroll, he has no cronies. . . . He does not present us any more with a military problem.”


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