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Assassinations, Coup Plot Foiled, Panama Official Says

<i> From Staff and Wire Reports</i>

The Panamanian government said Wednesday that it had uncovered a plot by police and former military officers to assassinate President Ernesto Perez Balladares and his two vice presidents and to seize control of the country.

Interior Minister Raul Montenegro said intelligence officials had been following the plot for some time and learned the assassinations were to take place Friday, when Perez Balladares is scheduled to travel to his hometown of Boquete to inaugurate a flower festival.

“Our intelligence services have discovered a group of former military and civilian conspirators that intended to attack the life of the president and assume control of the country,” Montenegro said.

The alleged coup plot may be the work of disgruntled former officers who once belonged to the Panama Defense Forces, army and police agencies that were dismantled in the 1989 U.S. invasion to oust Gen. Manuel A. Noriega. Some former officers have made no secret of their fury at their loss of power.

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Late last year, that fall from grace was formalized when the Panamanian legislature, dominated by Perez Balladares’ party, voted to formally outlaw the army.

Such actions contain an ironic twist because Perez Balladares’ Democratic Revolutionary Party was the military’s political arm during the Noriega years.

But Perez Balladares, who took office in September, has tried to distance the party from Noriega and has repeatedly vowed that there will be no renewed militarization.

The alleged plot, however, suggests that pro-military forces remain active and expected a different policy.

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Panama’s civilian Panamanian Public Force, created after the invasion, recruited many of its members from the army, giving former officers a base from which to work, U.S. officials say.

Although the U.S. Justice Department attempted to train the new force, some Panamanians and U.S. military officers regard many on the police force as corrupt thugs awaiting a chance to regain power.

“There are sectors, still, that dream in the past,” former Vice President Ricardo Arias Calderon said. ". . . They might be disillusioned, having expected (Perez Balladares) to change public security policies” to restore their status.

Montenegro said 10 police officers had been arrested. Additional arrests of former military men and civilians are expected soon, he said.

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Montenegro said the same group had been responsible for a failed assassination plot against former President Guillermo Endara in April, 1993.


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