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Hotel Guests Cheer Arrival of U.S. Troops With PM-Panama, Bjt

December 21, 1989

PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ Dozens of guests hiding in a seaside luxury hotel cheered when a battalion of elite U.S. airborne troops shot their way through a neighborhood to reach the building.

The troops’ arrival late Wednesday night ended a day of terror for 30 to 40 guests and staff, who had endured several raids and abductions by armed Panamanians after the U.S. assault to topple Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.

The gunmen seized 15 people, and all but two eventually were released. Jon Meyersohn of CBS and Daniel Sarria, the hotel’s resident manager, were apparently still being held hostage early today.

Lt. Col. Harry Axson, the battalion commander, said his unit, based several miles away in Old Panama, had received direct orders from Secretary of State James Baker III to secure the hotel within three hours. They did it, but not without several skirmishes with Panamanian forces.

Three American soldiers were wounded during the trek, Axson said.

He said he did not know if the combat was with members of the Panamanian Defense Forces but that he believed at least some were members of ″Dignity Battalions,″ bands of armed thugs loyal to Noriega.

Later today, State Department spokeswoman Margaret Tutwiler denied that Baker had ordered U.S. forces to secure the hotel.

She said Baker called Defense Secretary Dick Cheney twice to relay information on the situation at the hotel. But any contention Baker was issuing orders to the military is ″100 percent erroneous and false,″ she said.

Guests first heard the sound of American aircraft and helicopter gunships overhead Wednesday night, then the crack of small-arms fire getting louder by the minute. Then came the voices, but it wasn’t clear who they belonged to.

Finally, about 90 members of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division marched in.

It was 11:22 p.m. and the guests, huddled together in two rooms, cheered and applauded the troops.

The GIs took the guests to the hotel casino, handed out sodas, cookies and crackers, and settled in for the night as evacuation plans were made.

Roger Conners, a Marriott spokesman in Washington, D.C., said today that the Panama City hotel has been cleared of all guests and employees and that the only occupants are U.S. troops, who have set up a command post. He said an Army captain who telephoned him reported that shots were being exchanged with Panamanians, apparently members of the Dignity Battalions.

Axson, a veteran of the 1983 Grenada invasion, said his troops had not rested since early Monday morning but were in high spirits.

Officials of the Marriott Corp. said earlier Wednesday they were pressing the U.S. government to ensure the safety of guests at the 400-room hotel after the military assault to capture Noriega.

Roger Conner, a spokesman for Bethesda, Md.-based Marriott, said most of the guests were journalists and airline workers, along with a few business people.

At one point, some hotel guests were so fearful of giving away their position that they refused to let three reporters make telephone calls for about four hours during the afternoon.

The first raid on the hotel by Panamanians occurred shortly after the U.S. military assault began around midnight Tuesday.

Armed men entered the hotel again about 1 p.m. By then, a few guests had managed to flee, but drivers were difficult to come by. One driver fled when he learned his riders would be Americans.

The hotel is popular with Americans and is less than two miles from the U.S. Embassy.

Capt. Jay Skinner, a 23-year Eastern veteran, said he could not understand why federal officials in Miami said Tuesday it was safe to fly into Panama.

Skinner, who makes the Miami-Panama run twice every five days, said Eastern had been in contact with the Pentagon and the State Department in addition to the Federal Aviation Administration.

″Why did they allow an American flag carrier in?″ asked Skinner, 45, of Sunrise, Fla. His Boeing 727, with 117 passengers aboard, landed only a few hours before the fighting began, and he and his crew were virtual prisoners in the hotel for most of Wednesday.