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Noriega Can’t Pay His Troops, Essentials In Shorter Supply

March 26, 1988

PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega has failed for the first time to pay the 15,000 troops supporting him as Panama’s economic crisis deepens and the opposition promises more confrontation.

Also Friday, the civilian government that acts for Noriega threatened to revoke stores’ licenses unless they stop observing a week-long general strike and open to sell such essentials as food, medicine and gasoline.

The strike has shut down more than 90 percent of the nation’s commerce. Cash and food are in short supply.

The opposition, meanwhile, said it was planning massive street anti-Noriega demonstrations for Monday that appeared likely to trigger a confrontation with troops loyal to the general.

Noriega, under indictment in the United States on drug trafficking charges, once again claimed the United States, in a desire to hold on to the Panama Canal, is behind his country’s troubles.

″A man is not the problem,″ Noriega said of himself on Friday. ″The problem is Panama’s canal and the presence of a foreign army in our territory.″

In an attempt to force Noriega into exile, the White House has had Panamanian deposits in U.S. banks frozen and payments for use of the Panama Canal withheld.

The former canal zone is headquarters to the U.S. military’s Southern Command. Under a 1977 treaty, the United States will cede control of the canal by the year 2000.

Noriega denied any connections with drug-trafficking pilots whose testimony led to his indictments last month, and joked about reports he wields a $200 million fortune: ″Bring it to me, bring it to me and I’ll pay off Panama’s foreign debt.″

He implied force might be used to make the nation’s banks re-open. On Thursday, they refused to hand over an estimated $70 million in their vaults so the government could pay the army on Friday, pensioners Monday, and 130,000 public employees over the next week.

Banks have refused to open, partly to support the general strike and partly because they fear a panic run on their deposits.

″Those who understand such things consider it necessary to open the banks,″ Noriega said.

Opposition leaders said they hoped Noriega’s soldiers would stop supporting him now that they have joined the 2.5 million Panamanians who have gone without pay for up to a month.

But the anti-Noriega umbrella group, The National Civic Crusade, suffered a surprising blow Friday when Roman Catholic Archbishop Marcos C. McGrath failed to issue an expected statement strongly condemning Noriega and supporting Monday’s planned demonstration.

McGrath, who had met with Noriega on Thursday, would only say on Friday that he planned to meet with again with the general, who heads Panamana’s Defense Forces.

Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-N.Y., ended a two-day fact-finding trip Friday saying he was ″still hopeful that at some time the Church will be able to make a statement that will bring a happier remedy than we have seen so far.″

Ackerman and Rep. Peter Kostmayer, D-Pa., issued a statement saying ″there is absolute unanimity that Gen. Noriega should go, and that his departure is only a function of time.″

That sentiment was echoed in Washington, where the Senate voted 92-0 to demand that President Reagan increase economic sanctions to force Noriega out.

In the former canal zone, wives of the mostly American ship pilots who guide vessels through the Panama Canal - and could shut the waterway down if they went on strike - demonstrated in front of the joint U.S.-Panamanian commission that runs the canal.

They complained they were being harassed by Panamanian troops who set up roadblocks at intersections across Panama City, questioning motorists and searching their cars.

″We feel like we are hostages within the political crisis because we feel unsafe going into town,″ said Gloria Olsson, wife of a canal pilot.

The problem was apparently resolved later Friday, but the Panama Canal Pilots Association and the commission refused to say what arrangements were made.

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