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Troops Attack Rebel Colonel's Panama Home

July 28, 1987|From Reuters

PANAMA CITY — Government troops on Monday attacked the home of a renegade army colonel who has accused Panamanian strongman Gen. Manuel A. Noriega of murder and other crimes, witnesses said.

There were conflicting reports about the circumstances and outcome of the attack on the home of Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera, the military's former second-in-command.

Alvin Weeden, Diaz's lawyer, told reporters that Diaz was wounded in the attack, but said he had no way of knowing the extent of his injuries.

He said his client was taken to the attorney general's office, apparently to face criminal charges. Weeden said he has been denied access to Diaz and based his information solely on reports from the Roman Catholic Church.

The military announced late Monday that 45 people were arrested in the attack.

There were unconfirmed reports that as many as six people died in the shoot-out, but the military communique said "there were no deaths or injuries from gunshots."

Diaz, 49, a cousin of the late Panamanian leader, Gen. Omar Torrijos Herrera, had been holed up inside his palatial home surrounded by bodyguards ever since he unleashed his accusations against Noriega on June 7.

He has accused Noriega of the 1985 murder of opposition politician Hugo Spadafora and of rigging the 1984 presidential election.

A report read over government television by Maj. Edgardo Lopez, head of the military press office, said that an unspecified quantity of arms had been confiscated at Diaz's home after a brief shoot-out that lasted seven minutes and ended at 7:17 a.m. local time.

The report openly contradicted witnesses' accounts. They said the shooting outside Diaz's home in the exclusive Altos del Golf district of the capital had lasted more than four hours.

A university professor and ham radio operator said the siege ended at about 9:35 a.m., after a prolonged gun battle.

The professor, who asked not to be identified, said reports on military radio spoke of six confirmed dead, including two soldiers.

Journalists who tried to reach Diaz's home were turned back repeatedly Monday by machine-gun wielding soldiers and plainclothes security agents who blocked off the two streets leading to the house.

Wesley Bocxe, a free-lance photographer who managed to slip through roadblocks and get a view of the house, said the military used repeated rounds of rifle fire and tear gas to force their way inside.

Other witnesses said the attack on Diaz's home included bursts of fire from a .50-caliber machine gun mounted aboard a Huey helicopter that hovered over the house for about four minutes.

Helicopters were also used to bombard the house with tear gas, the witnesses said.

From the roadblocks near Diaz's home, journalists watched as the army helicopters clattered overhead, sometimes swooping down to near ground level in the area of the house.

Archbishop's Move Blocked

Panama's Roman Catholic prelate, Archbishop Marcos McGrath, tried to obtain permission to pass the roadblocks but was denied.

"I hope we can get in soon," McGrath told reporters before leaving.

Diaz has repeatedly told reporters that he would not surrender if police ever tried to arrest him.

His allegations against Noriega triggered a widespread anti-government protest movement that entered its eighth straight week here Monday with the start of a general strike called to press demands for Noriega's ouster.

The strike, and word of the attack on Diaz's home, kept most shops and businesses and many banks in the international financial center closed.

A senior Western diplomat said the strike was about 80% successful in the capital and shut down as much as much as 95% of all business and industry in Panama's second-largest city of Colon.

All but 15% of the sprawling free trade zone on the outskirts of Colon was paralyzed by the strike, the diplomat said.

The strategic Panama Canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific was not affected by the strike, informed sources said.

Despite the overall effectiveness of the strike, government backers poured into the streets here late Monday to voice support for Noriega and the military-dominated government.

About 800 cars, with cheering supporters waving the red, white and blue flags of the military-backed Democratic Revolutionary Party, joined in a caravan of horn-honking vehicles that wound its way through the city's otherwise deserted streets shortly before dusk.

The move against Diaz came about five hours after government troops shut down La Prensa, Panama's leading opposition newspaper. Two smaller opposition papers were also shut down in late night raids on their offices, news reports and witnesses said.

The military has ruled openly or behind-the-scenes here since a 1968 coup.

Noriega, who took over as chief of the 20,000-man police and military forces four years ago, has denied repeated allegations of wrongdoing and charged that they are part of a Washington-inspired plot to topple him and scuttle the 1977 treaties under which the Panama Canal is to revert from U.S. to Panamanian control in the year 2000.

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