Foreign Minister Ridicules Intrusion Report
PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ Foreign Minister Jorge Ritter on Wednesday ridiculed a U.S. Southern Command report that Marine sentries exchanged gunfire with unidentified intruders at a fuel storage depot near an American air base.
″It’s absolutely beyond reality that there was an armed confrontation,″ Ritter said on national television.
″It seems unlikely that after two hours of shooting they weren’t able to find a trace of a person, or a man wounded, or a death, or a trace of munitions in the area.″
According to the command, sentries at Arraijan Tank Farm near Howard Air Base traded shots with intruders on-and-off for almost two hours Monday night. No one was hurt, the command said.
The gunfire began when ″11 Marines in listening posts heard movement, voices and visually confirmed the presence of armed intruders in the jungle,″ the Southern Command said. It said the incident was under investigation.
Panama’s Defense Forces are commanded by Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the country’s de facto leader. Noriega is under criminal indictment in the United States on drug trafficking charges. He denies the charges.
The Reagan administation unsuccessfully has sought Noreiga’s ouster through economic sanctions and negotiations.
Sentries have reported several intrusions at U.S. military facilities in Panama this year.
On April 11, a Marine sentry was accidentally shot and killed by fellow guards at the 807-acre tank farm as they investigated the first reported intrusion.
The fuel storage depot is in a hilly, jungle area about five miles west of Panama City.
The Southern Command, responsible for all U.S. military operations in Latin America, reported four intrusions in April at U.S. military installations in Panama by what one spokesman called ″highly trained professionals.″
In July, American soldiers exchanged gunfire with unidentified intruders on two occasions at Arraijan, the command said.
Panama’s military has said its troops were not involved in those incidents and suggested that nervous U.S. sentries imagined intruders.
Ritter claimed the latest report ″is part of that campaign of (U.S.) intimidation″ aimed at justifying an increased U.S. military presence here.
″It would appear that the United States not only periodically has elections but also dispenses absurdities with the same regularity,″ he said.
Referring to the U.S. presidential election, Ritter said: ″I don’t believe that one way or the other the situation with the United States is going to improve.″