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US Forces Strike Panama in Bid to Oust Strongman

Operation caps months of fruitless talks to end Noriega's rule and install elected officials

BY intervening in Panama with American armed forces George Bush has made the riskiest move of his still-young presidency. The overwhelming strength of the US military has apparently toppled Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel Noriega from power. But if Noriega remains at large, political peace in the country is far from assured, and the commitment of US troops to back up the new regime of president Guillermo Endara could become open-ended.

``If they can get Noriega within the next 24 hours if will be an unqualified success,'' David Scott Palmer, professor of international relations at Boston University. ``If they can't and it lingers on then it's going to be a real headache.''

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International reaction to the move is sure to be mixed. Latin American nations, however much they disliked the unsavory Noriega, are sensitive about the use of US force in the region. The Soviet Union has already condemned the operation, and could use it in an attempt to further boost Mikhail Gorbachev's image as a world peacemaker.

``I said we would fully support him in the action he was taking to bring an end to this rule of terror,'' said Britain's Margaret Thatcher. ``I believe he was right to do so... It was a courageous decision.'

A somber and obviously tired Bush said Wednesday the purpose of the intervention was to protect the lives of US citizens in Panama, promote democracy in the country, preserve the integrity of the Panama canal treaties, and apprehend General Noriega, an accused drug trafficker.

``Yesterday a dicatator ruled Panama. Today a constitutionally elected leader does,'' said Bush, referring to the swearing in of Guillermo Endara. Mr. Endara was reportedly sworn in by a Panamanian Justice aboutone hour prior to the military strike.

Bush mourned the loss of US lives - 9 servicemen had been reported killed at the time of his speech Wednesday morning - as well as the deaths of ``innocent Panamanians.''

Launched at 1:00 AM Washington time, the US assault was a multi-pronged operation that lit the skies of Panama with artillery and air support fire. It involved US tanks advancing on the country's urban areas and Army paratroopers floating down to take control of the airport and other key installations.

Though reminiscent of the US invasion of Grenada, it was a larger and more complex operation, as Panama is a larger military target with stiffer defenses. Resistance from units of the Noriega-controlled Panamanian Defense Forces was mixed, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin Powell said. ``Some fought hard. Some didn't fight hardly at all,'' said Powell.

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US forces captured key installations such as dams and power generators, while attempting to neutralize Panamanian forces in their bases. Heavy fighting occurred around PDF headquarters, which US firepower had apparently leveled by daybreak.

Powell said organized resistance to the US intervention had ended some 7 hours after it began, and only mopping up and stability operations remained. President Bush gave the go ahead to implement the long-prepared contingency plan on Sunday, Powell said.

Among the mopping up tasks was the capture of Noriega, who typically changes residences ``5 or 6 times a night'', according to Powell, and thus eluded US capture. The Pentagon admitted he was tough but discounted speculation that he would take to the hills and become the Che Guevara of Panama, necessitating a continuing US military presence.

In recent years Noriega has grown used to a luxury lifestyle, noted Powell, and thus he might not be able to take the discomforts of guerilla life. ``I'm not sure he's up to being chased around the countryside,'' Powell said.

There were reports of as many as 41 US hostages, including some reporters, broadcast on Noriega-controlled radio, but US officials as of press time had no word as to the accuracy of those accounts.

Some 13,000 US troops already at Southern Command bases in Panama were joined by an extra 9,500 flown from the US for the intervention. President Bush promised that these extra soldiers would be withdrawn from the country as soon as practical. But he gave no timetable as to when that would be.

In describing the events that led to the US intervention, US officials focused on the events of last week, in which an unarmed US serviceman was shot and killed by Panamanian Defense Forces, while others were threatened.

``It became clear there was a new environment'' in Panama, said Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney.

Though protecting the integrity of the Panama Canal Treaties, which call for the US surrendering control of the canal by the year 2000, was a stated reason for the US action, protecting the integrity of the canal itself against Noriega troops was not apparently not a concern. Powell said he had heard reports that Noriega was planning to move against the canal but that US defense already in place were adequate to protect the waterway.

Early comments from members of Congress on the operation were largely positive. Sen. Robert Dole (R) of Kansas said ``I would guess there would be widespread bipartisan support for the president.''

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