U.S. TROOPS MOVE IN PANAMA IN EFFORT TO SEIZE NORIEGA; GUNFIRE IS HEARD IN CAPITAL
ORDERED BY BUSH
Alternative Government Sworn -- Recognized by Washington
MICHAEL R. GORDON
Special to The New York Times
WASHINGTON, Wednesday, Dec. 20 -- The United States launched a military
operation in Panama early this morning designed to topple the Government of Gen.
Manuel Antonio Noriega.
Reports from Panama said that American troops and tanks were moving on
Noriega's headquarters, with mortar and machine gunfire echoing through the city.
American citizens were ordered by the American military command in Panama to stay
off the streets.
Administration officials said the military action was code-named Operation
United States maintains 12,000 troops, most combat forces, in Panama, and additional
units were flown into the country on Tuesday to assist in the operation.
First Strike Since Libya
The operation was the most dramatic foreign policy move of the Bush
Administration and the first time that United States military forces have
been sent into combat since the air strike against the Libyan leader, Col.
Muammar el-Qaddafi, in April 1986. The last large-scale engagement by
American ground forces took place during the invasion of Grenada in
Since taking office, Mr. Bush has been frustrated by failed efforts to
encourage the ouster of General Noriega, who is accused by the
Administration of being a major sponsor of illicit drug trafficking. The White
House was criticized in October for failing to take steps to support an effort
by elements of the Panama Defense Forces to remove General Noriega.
It was not clear whether the White House consulted with Congressional
leaders about the military action, or notified them in advance. Thomas S.
Foley, the Speaker of the House, said on Tuesday night that he had not been
alerted by the Administration.
Troops Flown In
The first indications that military action was imminent came during the
Tuesday when Washington added to its forces in Panama, flying troops and
equipment into American military bases.
American troop transport planes, apparently carrying members of the 82d
Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, N.C., landed in Panama. The exact
number of arriving troops was not known.
Administration officials refused on Tuesday to discuss the deployment of
troops but hinted to reporters that some kind of military action was imminent
by suggesting that they be prepared for further developments during the night.
Officially, the Pentagon confirmed only that the 82d Airborne was conducting
maneuvers, and officials suggested indirectly that they were related to the
situation in Panama.
On Tuesday, President Bush presented a business-as-usual image, joining
singers in Christmas carols at a holiday party at the White House. Brent
Scowcroft, the President's national security adviser, slipped away from the
party and joined his deputy, Robert M. Gates, in Mr. Scowcroft's White
House office late at night. There also were late-night meetings in the Pentagon.
Earlier in the day, Mr. Bush met in the Oval Office with top advisers, including
Defense Secretary Dick Cheney; Gen. Colin L. Powell, the Chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff; Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and Vice President
Dan Quayle. The White House described the meeting as a discussion of a
wider role for the military in combating drug trafficking. The meeting lasted
about half an hour longer than scheduled, an Administration official said.
Earlier this year, after tensions between the United States and Panama
President Bush dispatched reinforcements to Panama to augment the 12,000
American troops stationed there. No military action was taken at the time.
The latest troop movement came as the Administration described the situation
in Panama as deteriorating, and members of Congress urged the Government
to respond with caution to the killing of an American Marine lieutenant.
The State Department spokeswoman, Margaret D. Tutwiler, said the United
States was taking General Noriega's declaration of war last week more
seriously after the killing on Saturday night of the lieutenant and the wounding
of another officer at a roadblock.
''Noriega's irresponsible declaration of a state of war last week, followed
hours later by indiscriminate and unprovoked violence against Americans
clearly increases tension in Panama,'' Miss Tutwiler said. ''We find the
unwarranted use of violence against Americans by the Noriega regime
'Very Difficult Atmosphere'
She added that Panama's declaration of a state of war against the United
States last Friday has ''a little different meaning right now in light of events that
are going on down in Panama.''
The Pentagon spokesman, Pete Williams, described the situation as
''deteriorating,'' while the White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, said the
Bush Administration continued to leave open the possibility of military action.
''What you have is a very difficult atmosphere in Panama right now,'' said Mr.
Williams, adding: ''Things are very tense. People fear for their lives in Panama
Security in front of the Panamanian military headquarters appeared lighter
in recent days. A military vehicle on which a machine gun was mounted was
pulled back this evening. But nearby streets remained barricaded, and soldiers
were stationed along key roads behind sandbags and stacks of tires.
United States security officers briefly detained two reporters and a
photographer who entered the base to check rumors that United States
troops were massing in preparation for a strike. The officials seized the
journalists' notes and film and, ignoring repeated requests, insisted on reading
At several times, the man who appeared to be the commander of the group
promised to identify himself and his unit after finishing the search of the
journalists, but he then reneged. ''I guess I lied, didn't I,'' he said. Mr. Williams
said Tuesday that elements of the Army's 18th Airborne Corps were
conducting emergency deployment readiness exercises.
The 18th Airborne is the Army's fast-reaction force and includes paratroopers
of the 82d Airborne Division.
''We are not saying definitively whether the exercises are or are not related,''
said one Pentagon official. Another official said that while there were enough
American troops on the ground in Panama to defend American interests, it
was to the advantage of the United States in such a situation to have such an
exercise under way.
'It Is a War of Words'
''I certainly can't rule out psychological warfare,'' the official said
if the exercise was intended as a show of force. ''It is a war of words and a
war of nerves at this stage and one that is waged diplomatically and
psychologically and, if need be, militarily.''
In May, President Bush ordered about 1,800 soldiers and marines sent to
Panama to reinforce 10,300 American troops already there and to protect
The United States has also been conducting military exercises in Panama
year that American officials say have been held to exercise Washington's
rights to defend the canal under the 1979 Panama Canal Treaties, but which
some observers say are also intended to put psychological pressure on
The exercises include motorized patrols across the Bridge of the Americans
near Panama City, amphibious operations across the canal near the Pacific
Ocean entrance to the canal and flying troop reinforcements into Howard Air
Following the deployment of troops and the exercises, incidents of harassment
against American servicemen dropped significantly.
Some Urge Caution
On Capitol Hill, some lawmakers urged President Bush to use caution in
response to the shooting death of the marine officer, while others emphasized
the need for the President to send an unambiguous message to General
Noriega that a pattern of aggression against the United States would not be
Senator Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat who is the chairman
of the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the Senate Folreign Relations
Committee, said on the NBC News program ''Today'' that he hoped
President Bush would not act abruptly because of criticism in October for
failing to intervene during an abortive coup attempt in Panama. ''My concern
would be that some of the political advisers around him are reminding him of
those headlines and may cause him to act precipitously here,'' Senator Dodd
said. Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, a senior Republican member of
the Foreign Relations Committee, said that caution was important, but added
in a statement: ''We need to avoid the appearance of acquiescence that might
embolden Noriega and lead to future American and Panamanian casualties.
There are measured options, military and otherwise, that would inconvenience
Noriega and they ought to be considered promptly in the wake of
unnacceptable activities of the Panamanian Defense Forces.''
The Pentagon identified the marine who was killed as First Lieut. Robert
25 years old, of Dallas.
The White House said the killing of the American officer, the first by
Panamanian forces, was part of a coordinated campaign that began when the
National Assembly of Representatives declared the country at war with the
United States. His shooting death was one of several incidents of harassment
of American servicemen last weekend.
In one incident Saturday night, according to Pentagon officials, an American
officer and his wife were arrested by Panama's military. The officials said that
in four hours of interrogation, the naval officer was beaten and repeatedly
kicked in the head and groin and threatened with death as loaded pistols were
pointed at his head. His wife, the officials added, was slammed against a wall,
sexually threatened and required to stand with her arms over her head until
In another incident over the weekend, a Panamanian soldier loaded his assault
rifle and pointed it at the stomach of an American military policeman who was
The Pentagon said that a United States Army lieutenant who wounded a
Panamanian traffic officer Monday was apparently not authorized to carry a
sidearm, was in civilian clothes at the time of the shooting, and that the
incident was under investigation.