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Wednesday, Dec. 20, 1989

U.S. forces attack Panama military headquarters

PANAMA CITY, Panama, Dec. 20, 1989 (UPI) -- The United States attacked Panamanian installations with some 24,000 troops Wednesday in a bid to oust Gen. Manuel Noriega and install an elected civilian government, but Noriega escaped and urged his supporters to continue fighting.

The U.S. Southern Command said 17 U.S. military personnel and one female civilian Defense Department dependent were killed in the fighting, one soldier was missing and 61 were wounded. A Panama City hospital administrator said more than 100 Panamanians were killed and more than 1,000 wounded.

President Bush and Pentagon officials said the operation was successful, except for the fact that Noriega slipped into hiding. American forces were searching for Noriega so he can be tried on drug-smuggling charges in Florida, and the administration Wednesday evening offered a $1 million reward for his capture.

In a brief address broadcast shortly after 8 p.m. EST, about 19 hours after the attack began, Noriega thanked his supporters, urged them to fight on and asked for international aid.

''Greetings. We are going to keep up the resistance,'' Noriega said on National Radio, which remained under the control of the Panamanian Defense Forces. ''Our rallying cry is to overcome or die, not to step backwards, and to come forward the victors.''

Noriega's voice was even, without much of his usual exuberance, throughout the 52-second address. He did not indicate from where he was speaking.

Spokesmen for the Panamanian Defense Forces said shortly after Noriega's broadcast, U.S. troops blew up the National Radio's transmission tower, which had been used all day to broadcast messages from Noriega supporters.

Fighting continued into the evening Wednesday. More than 12 hours after the first attacks, witnesses in the Boca la Caja area of Panama City saw about 200 U.S. paratroopers dropping near the Panama Viejo barracks of the PDF.

Explosions were heard and flames could be seen in the area from nearby high-rise apartments. Helicopter gunships hovered over other parts of the city, and sporadic firing could be heard throughout the day. Panama City streets were mostly deserted.

Noriega's Panamanian Defense Forces claimed in radio broadcasts throughout the day that they were still in control of the country, but U.S. officials said they were satisfied Noriega was out of power.

The Pentagon said four U.S. helicopters were downed by Panamanian forces during the day, but said it appeared three could be repaired.

Lt. Gen. Tom Kelly said at a late afternoon briefing in Washington that most major PDF installations were secured by U.S. troops after many Panamanian soldiers fled and others were captured.

The headquarters of the PDF was burned and U.S. troops seized the military television station and Omar Torrijos Herrera International Airport as well as other major PDF bases.

''Right now, Mr. Noriega commands nothing. ... He is in deep trouble,'' Kelly said.

Kelly said U.S. troops were checking on reports of armed Panamanians -- apparently members of Noriega's ''Dignity Battalions'' militia -- taking American hostages. The PDF claimed in a morning broadcast to be holding 41 Americans, but that report could not be confirmed.

At least two separate groups of U.S. reporters were taken at gunpoint from the Marriott Hotel in Panama City Wednesday morning, but most if not all were reported released unharmed several hours later.

Two American women were held hostage at gunpoint at the international airport for more than six hours before U.S. troops convinced their captors to surrender after bluffing them into believed Noriega had been killed.

''We were terrified,'' said Tara King, 25, of Dallas. ''I thought I was going to die.''

The fighting began at 1 a.m. and raged into the morning hours. Willie Friar, a spokeswoman for the Panama Canal commission who lives near PDF headquarters, said the sound of shooting and shelling in that area stopped about 8:30 a.m.

The vital Panama Canal was temporarily closed because of the fighting, although it was expected to reopen Thursday.

Airline officials in neighboring Costa Rica said Panama air space was closed to both commercial and private flights, and reporters trying to reach Panama by road from Costa Rica were turned back at the border.

Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the United States airlifted 11,000 troops into Panama to back up the 13,000 U.S. troops already there. The new troops included a brigade from the 82nd Airborne Division from Fort Bragg, N.C., two Army Ranger battalions and elements of the 7th Infantry Division from Fort Ord, Calif.

Noriega was at large and his followers remained in defiance of the United States.

The PDF's chief spokesman, Maj. Edgardo Lopez Grimaldo, told Mexican television, ''The U.S. forces have destroyed the central headquarters because they thought Gen. Noriega was there, but he was not.''

''We want to say we have total control of the city,'' an unidentified PDF major said in a morning broadcast over National Radio, which continually broadcast denouncements of the U.S. action.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Panamanian opposition leader Guillermo Endara, who by independent accounts won a presidential election in May, was sworn in as the new leader of Panama just before the U.S. attack and officially was recognized by the United States.

U.S. Charge d'Affaires John Bushnell provided pool reporters flown from Washington to Panama with videotapes of the swearing in, which was witnessed by two members of Panama's human rights association because no government official would participate. He refused to disclose the whereabouts of the new leaders and said they were being kept in hiding because it was too risky for them to appear in public.

Fitzwater said the Endara government welcomed the U.S. military action and added Endara made a radio broadcast about 9 a.m. to encourage Panamanians to stay home.

''I come to ask you not to go to your jobs, don't send your children to school and don't open the banks and factories,'' Endara said. ''We ask this to show your support for the people and for the May 7 election and those who were elected.''

But Noriega-appointed Provisional President Francisco Rodriguez said at a news conference he was still the legitimate president of Panama.

''It is evident that the objective of this brutal attack is not the elimination of one man, Gen. Noriega ... (but) to impose a docile and submissive government in line and aligned with the interests of the United States,'' Rodriguez said.

Bush, in a televised address to explain why he sent troops after Noriega, said, ''Most organized resistance has been eliminated, but the operation is not over yet. Gen. Noriega is in hiding. But nonetheless, yesterday a dictator ruled Panama and today constitutionally elected leaders govern.''

Powell said Noriega had effectively been ''decapitated'' from his dictatorship. Seven hours after the fighting started, Powell said U.S. forces were ''mopping up'' and he vowed to hunt down Noriega.

Lopez Grimaldo said he had located Noriega, but would not say where he was.

''Noriega is somewhere in the country directing the strategy,'' Lopez Grimaldo said, speaking from his house in Panama City.

National Radio said in a broadcast shortly after 7 a.m. that ''Noriega is safe and sound and in the Republic of Panama."

Pro-government political parties and other organizations condemned the invasion in broadcasts over National Radio that lasted through the night and into the day.

''Alert Panamanians! The invaders are in our territory,'' the station said about midday. ''We ask that whatever suspicious movement you detect you report to this station.''

National Radio issued an urgent nationwide call for the Dignity Battalion militia to come out and battle the U.S. forces.

Unidentified combatants were firing automatic weapons in the streets of Panama City, said Julio Ortega, news director for the military's Channel 2 television.

After U.S. troops seized the studios of military-run television Channel 2, the U.S. Defense Department logo appeared on the air along with a broadcast saying, ''We're doing this to protect the lives of the American people in Panama. The time has come to act. We want to help the Panamanians establish a democratic system.

''Because of the violations of the dictator Noriega and his gang of criminals, we have been obliged to defend the canal to keep it open to maritime traffic,'' the broadcast said. ''This is a promise that we have with Panamanians and all the nations of the world.''

The fighting started about 1 a.m. EST, with artillery echoing as American forces attacked the central headquarters of the Panamanian Defense Forces in downtown Panama City and the jointly operated Fort Amador military base, where Noriega also keeps offices.

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.

Juan Valdez, hospital coordinator at Santo Tomas Hospital in downtown Panama City, said there were more than 100 Panamanians killed and more than 1,000 wounded. Ira de Rivera, director general of the health ministry, said most of the dead were civilians and some were soldiers.

Dr. Leonardo Diaz, director of Santo Tomas, told Spanish-language Galavision cable television in Los Angeles that supplies of medicine were running short. He urged all of Panama's doctors and nurses to report to their medical facilities.

Four U.S. tanks surrounded the U.S. Embassy, which Bushnell said was hit by one or two rounds from what was believed to be a rocket-propelled grenade launcher.

U.S. Southern Command radio ordered all American military personnel and dependents not involved in the operation to stay inside. ''Stay calm and be prepared for relocation to another military base,'' the U.S. broadcast said.

Repeated mortar bursts illuminated the sky across Panama City and helicopters and planes flew above the city during the attacks. At times, the mortar explosions came as frequently as every 20 seconds.

The closure of the Panama Canal marked the first time it has been closed in its 75-year history because of military intervention.

''It was closed for the safety of the employees as well as the ships,'' Friar said, and also because the U.S. military moved troops over a bridge at the canal's Miraflores Locks.

Fitzwater said Bush's orders to the military were to arrest Noriega, who is under indictment in the United States for allegedly helping the Colombian cocaine cartel.

''Our purpose is to return him to the United States to stand trial for drug trafficking,'' Fitzwater said in a news conference that was broadcast live in English to Panama over Southern Command radio.

The fighting comes after a ''state of war'' was declared last week by Noriega against the United States and two shooting incidents between U.S. military personnel and Panamanian soldiers in recent days, in which a U.S. Marine officer was shot dead and Panamanian soldier was slightly wounded.

Tensions in Panama have been high for months because of U.S. efforts to force Noriega from power and escalated with shooting of the Marine. The shootings and combat were the latest incidents that have caused relations to deteriorate and prompted the Southern Command and the Panama Defense Forces to place their soldiers on the highest possible states of alert.

The Panamanian National Assembly, after formally naming Noriega as head of government, declared last Friday that the nation was in a state of war with the United States.

The next day Marine Lt. Robert Paz of Dallas was killed in front of the Panamanian military headquarters. The Southern Command said Paz, 25, was one of four off-duty officers wearing civilian clothes who were stopped by about 40 Panamanian civilians and five or six Panamanian soldiers. The soldiers opened fire as the Americans tried to flee, fatally wounding Paz.

Cesar Tejada, 19, a military policeman, was shot Monday by a U.S. Army lieutenant in civilian clothes near a laundry in the Panama City suburb of Curundu, a former area of the U.S. Canal Zone that is now under the control of the Panamanian government.

About 12,000 U.S. military personnel and an estimated 10,000 American civilians live in Panama.

U.S. military involvement in the Central American nation dates back to 1903 when Panama granted use, occupation and control of the Canal Zone to the United States by treaty, which was ratified in 1904.

In 1978, a new treaty provided for a gradual takeover by Panama of the canal, which holds significant military and economic importance to the Western Hemisphere.

The 51-mile-long canal was built between 1904 and 1914 and the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone came into being May 4, 1904, under the terms of a U.S-Panama treaty.

Under another treaty signed in 1977, Panama assumes full control of the waterway itself in 2000.

According to a State Department background paper published at the time of treaty hearings in 1979, ''The Neutrality Treaty, the companion treaty to the Panama Canal Treaty, provides the United States with the necessary authority in time of war to defend and secure the canal.''

Copyright 2007 by United Press International.