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Rebel Panama Colonel Seized in Home Raid

July 28, 1987|WILLIAM BRANIGIN | The Washington Post

PANAMA CITY — Security forces armed with machine guns and tear gas and backed by helicopters Monday launched a dawn raid on the house of a leading critic of Panama's strongman, Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, and arrested him after a shoot-out that lasted more than two hours.

The attack on the house of retired Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera came in the opening hours of a two-day general strike that shut down most shops and offices in the capital and was reported as successful in other cities. The strike is aimed at forcing the ouster of Noriega, who rules Panama behind the scenes.

Noriega cracked down hard on the country's growing opposition movement as his troops closed three opposition newspapers Sunday night, then raided Diaz's house in a luxurious Panama City neighborhood where many of Noriega's leading opponents live. Members of the main opposition National Civic Crusade said that leaders of the organization went into hiding after the attack.

Diaz has been a thorn in Noriega's side since last month. After being forced to retire June 1 as Noriega's second-in-command, Diaz began publicly accusing his former boss of masterminding two political assassinations, rigging the 1984 presidential election and using his position to amass fabulous wealth.

Diaz Called Unstable

Government officials charge--and diplomatic sources agree--that Diaz is mentally unstable, but his charges triggered anti- and pro-Noriega demonstrations, sometimes violent, that have wracked the country since June 9.

Troops reportedly launched Monday's raid about 6:30 a.m., assisted by helicopters that hovered over the house firing tear gas. Diaz and a group of armed supporters resisted, engaging the security forces in the shoot-out, according to residents of the neighborhood and foreign observers.

There were reports, denied by the military, that several people were killed or wounded in the battle. Diaz, one report said, was wounded in the leg before his arrest.

According to a statement issued by Maj. Edgardo Lopez, spokesman for the Panama Defense Forces, the troops assaulted the house because it had been "turned into an open center of sedition," stocked with arms, ammunition and subversive literature.

45 in House Arrested

He said 45 people who were inside the house were arrested and taken to Modelo prison. He also claimed that the shooting lasted only seven minutes and that no one was killed or injured.

Lopez's account conflicted with the accounts of neighbors, who said the assault started about 6:30 a.m. and that shooting was still going on close to 9 a.m. Witnesses, who declined to be identified, said they saw at least two helicopter gunships flying around the house at rooftop level and firing tear gas into the house.

According to a ham radio operator, police communications reported two bodies on the lawn outside the house and four inside after the assault by 40 to 60 heavily armed riot troops, known as "the Dobermans."

Moments before the assault, one neighborhood resident said, an officer shouted through a megaphone for Diaz to surrender. The colonel shouted back, "Tell Noriega to come get me himself!" the resident said.

Police sealed off all streets leading to the house, denying access to journalists.

One witness said he saw a carload of unidentified detainees with bloody faces being driven away by troops brandishing submachine guns. Another neighbor said Diaz appeared to be wounded as he was led away and driven toward a military barracks.

U.S. Actions

Amid the unrest, the Reagan Administration has quietly suspended military and economic aid to Panama and downgraded its contacts with Noriega.

The U.S. actions, none of which have been publicly announced but were reported last week, reflect a growing belief at high levels of the Administration that Noriega's domination of Panama is both unacceptable and under greater pressure than at any time since he took power as commander of the Defense Forces in August, 1983.

Although Diaz's charges have embarrassed Noriega and his lieutenants, diplomatic sources said the military leadership appears to be more concerned about the potential impact of an open letter from Noriega's predecessor calling on him to resign.

The public appeal by Gen. Ruben Dario Paredes, who retired in 1983 as Panama's military chief and de facto ruler, was published Friday in the opposition newspaper La Prensa. Paredes warned that unless Noriega steps down, the country will face "greater violence, destruction and bloodshed."

Late Sunday night, security forces went to the offices of La Prensa and two other newspapers, Extra and El Siglo, and ordered them not to publish Monday, citing a national security decree. It was not immediately known how long the ban would remain in force.

Apart from the attack on Diaz's house, the streets of this capital appeared quiet Monday as most Panamanians evidently obeyed a call by the crusade for a general strike.

Diplomatic sources said the strike appeared to be about 80% successful in Panama City and up to 95% successful in Colon. The Panama Canal was reported operating normally, although some administration personnel of the Panama Canal Commission joined the strike.

On Monday afternoon, supporters of Noriega and of the government of President Eric A. Delvalle, considered largely a figurehead, staged a horn-honking motorcade through the city in an effort to counter the opposition activities. More than 900 cars joined the motorcade.

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