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Administration Greets News of Noriega Ouster with Caution

February 26, 1988

WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Reagan administration on Thursday night greeted with caution news that the president of Panama has ousted military strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said administration officials ″want to reiterate our unqualified support for civilian constitutional rule in Panama.″

″There is but one legitimate sovereign authority in Panama and that is the Panamanian people exercising their democratic right to vote and elect their leadership in a free society,″ Fitzwater said in a formal statement released not long reports surfaced from Panama City saying that President Eric Arturo Delvalle had dismissed Noriega.

There was no immediate comment from the White House or State Department early Friday after the Panama’s legislative assembly removed Delvalle and the vice president from office.

A senior U.S. official said that as of Thursday night, the major unanswered question was whether Noriega would attempt to fight his ouster.

Initial reports indicated that Noriega did not intend to go quietly, the official said, citing a television newscast in Panama in which a member of the Defense Forces said that if anyone is removed from power, it should be Delvalle.

The official, insisting on anonymity, said it was his understanding that Col. Marcos Justine, Noriega’s designated successor, is almost as tainted by corrupt activities as is Noriega.

Sen. Alphonse D’Amato, R-N.Y., who participated in a congressional investigation of Noreiga, said U.S. military intervention might be in order to support Panama’s civilian government if Noriega decides to cling to power or attempts a coup.

But he said he has no indication whether the Reagan administration might initiate military action against Noreiga or act on any request from Delvalle.

″We’re not without leverage,″ D’Amato said in an interview. ″There are 10,000 U.S. troops under arms in Panama″ guarding the Panama Canal.

″I am suggesting that there have been times in the past when we have been asked to intervene by a legitimate government,″ D’Amato said. ″I don’t think we should write off that possibility. That’s a very real option.″

At the Pentagon, a spokeswoman said the U.S. Southern Command in Panama had issued a ″personnel movement″ alert Thursday night as a precaution.

Capt. Nancy LaLuntas said the command had issued a ″Bravo″ alert, which orders American military personnel and dependents to ″decrease their visibility.″

A Bravo alert specifies that ″some civil disturbance activity is probable. Reduce the amount of time spent in public areas of Panama. If you do not live on a defense site or military area of coordination, stay around your residence unless traveling to and from work or conducting personal business in a non- affected area.″

LaLuntas said there are two higher levels of alert, one which orders travel to be confined to essential business and another which suspends travel.

She said the U.S. Southern Command in Panama had received reports of scattered demonstrations in and around Panama City.

″U.S. personnel ... are also being reminded that under the terms of the (Panama Canal) treaty, we are not to interfere in the internal affairs of Panama,″ she said.

Delvalle’s move was applauded on Capitol Hill, but with some reservation.

Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., head of the House Select Committee on Narcotics Abuse and Control, said he believed the Delvalle move was a direct result of Noriega’s indictment in the United States on drug charges.

″That was a foreign policy objective, but we used our Justice Department to do it,″ Rangel said. ″That’s not the normal way to do things. ... Are we going to conduct foreign policy by indictment?″

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., called Delvalle’s action ″courageous.″

″It is constitutional and it deserves the support of freedom-loving people throughout this hemisphere,″ Kennedy said. ″There is no doubt about the wishes of the Panamanian people: President Delvalle must be supported and Gen. Noreiga must go.″

″If Gen. Noreiga persists in power, he will become an outcast - now and for all time - in Panama and throughout the world,″ Kennedy said.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., called the announcement ″very important news″ and said the United States should be prepared to help Delvalle.

″I think we have a number of options,″ said Kerry, chairman of a Foreign Relations subcommittee which held hearings earlier this month on Noriega’s involvement in drug trafficking

″The first (option) for the Congress of the United States to immediately move to a full economic embargo of the country. ... Hopefully, the business community and others in Panama who recognize the impossibility of surviving in that situation and Noriega himself will find it impossible for him to govern.″

During a nationally broadcast news conference Wednesday night, President Reagan, when asked whether the United States would consider dropping the federal indictment if Noriega stepped aside, replied:

″No, and I’m not going to comment on something of this kind. This man has been indicted by a federal grand jury, and so I’m not going to make any comment of that kind. Nor have we made any advances or suggestions of that kind to the government of Panama.″

Reagan said that ″what we would like to see is a return to democracy and a civilian government in Panama, and not this domination by literally a military dictator.″

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