Panama Explodes after Year of Political Tension
PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega on Sunday blamed violent protests against his leadership on foreigners who he said do not want Panama to gain control of the Panama Canal from the United States.
″Traditional enemies of Panama that believe the Panama Canal is a colony ... are manipulating, supporting the destablization in Panama,″ Noriega, commander of the defense forces and the power behind the civilian government, said in an interview broadcast Sunday on state-run National Radio.
The Roman Catholic church, which has taken a leading role against Panama’s military leaders, called for the restoration of civil liberties lifted when a state of emergency was imposed Thursday.
Riots erupted Tuesday after Noriega’s former deputy, Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera made allegations against the general.
Diaz Herrera, 49, accused Noriega of involvement in the 1981 plane-crash death of Gen. Omar Torrijos, who seized power in a 1968 coup. On Friday, Diaz Herrera called Torrijos’ death a CIA plot, involving a bomb planted aboard the plane, and claimed the Reagan administration also was involved.
Diaz Harrera, the recently retired defens forces chief of staff, also said that Noriega, with the knowledge of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, was involved in drug sales.
The U.S. State Department denied the allegations.
Opposition leader Ricardo Arias Calderon of the Christian Democratic party said reports he received from nurses and doctors during the past week indicated 14 people were killed and dozens of others were injured in the violence. Residents reported troopers opened fire during a peak of the anti- government demonstration Friday.
Government hospitals have refused to give out any numbers on casualties.
Arias Calderon also said as many as 1,000 people may have been detained by authorities.
But Ovidio Diaz, president of the Legislative Assembly, said reports of violence had been exaggerated and there were no deaths. He said only 70 ″antisocial″ people were arrested after throwing stones during street protests.
He said civil liberties could be restored within 10 days if the disturbances die down. Eight articles of the constitution were suspended under the state of emergency, including those guaranteeing freedom of the press, expression and assembly.
Protests continued Sunday as crowds of people banged pots and pans at prearranged times, flew white banners and droved through the streets honking car horns.
To avoid the restriction on freedom of assembly, people have gathered at churches, where church and business leaders have passed out leaflets encouraging acts of civil disobedience.
Opposition newspapers failed to publish Sunday for the third day in a row rather than comply with government censorship.
Noriega, 49, previously blamed allegations that he was behind drug trafficking, arms dealing and election fraud on elements in the United States opposed to the 1977 Panama Canal treaties.
The agreements between the United States and Panama establish that full control of the 73-year-old, American-built canal and its defense will be turned over to Panama on Dec. 31, 1999.
Civilian President Eric Delvalle, who imposed last week’s state of emergency, also has blamed the disturbances on foreign forces opposed to handing over control of the canal.
Noriega said Panamanians also were bothered by U.S. statements last week.
The State Department on Thursday called on Panamanian authorities to undertake a series of reform measures, including withdrawal of the military from politics.
Arias Calderon praised the U.S. stand.
″I think they (U.S. officials) have in front of them evidence they cannot easily dismiss of very widespread national rejection of Gen. Noriega,″ he said in an interview. ″I think they realize democratization is inseparable from the security of Panama.″
But Ruben Carles, an editor of the opposition newspaper La Prensa, said the United States was wary of moving against Noriega because it claimed Diaz Herrera, while second in command, had close ties to the left and Cuba.
Noriega denied all charges against him and said he won’t step down.
Carles said Noreiga would step down only if there were a military insurrection, but that is not likely because of support for the general within the ranks of the Panamanian military.
The Catholic Church said in a statement Sunday, ″We insist that the proper authorities restore constitutional guarantees as soon as possible. ... We are against any type of violence, from whatever side.″
The statement said church representatives have been guarding Diaz Herrera ″to insist on the right to life, to avoid violence and to favor a normal trial of the accusations he has made.″
Diaz Herrera, who said he feared for his life, has sought political asylum in Spain. In Madrid, the Foreign Affairs Ministry said Sunday it would grant him asylum for ″humanitarian reasons.″
But Sunday, Diaz Herrera said he would leave Panama only if the government agreed to restore constitutional rights, ″stop the repression against the people,″ grant freedom of the press and transit, and permit him to explain to the public his reasons for seeking asylum.
During the riots last week, thousands of soldiers used rubber truncheons and tear gas to quell the disturbances.
U.S. military personnel continued to be prohibited from traveling to the capital city and the Atlantic coast city of Colon except on official business.