PANAMA CITY — Rejecting out of hand a proposal by middle-ranking officers in Panama's army that U.S. troops be expelled from the Panama Canal, U.S. officials here and in Washington declared Tuesday that no pullout is planned and that the presence of U.S. forces at the canal is covered by a treaty in effect until the end of 1999.
The issue erupted Monday when officers read a statement to Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, the de facto military ruler of Panama, calling for the expulsion of the U.S. Southern Command. The command supervises American troops stationed at the Panama Canal and directs all U.S. military activity in Central and South America.
The call by officers of the Panama Defense Forces clearly had Noriega's backing: In a televised speech following their statement, the general said "we reject" the presence of the Southern Command, although he stopped short of saying U.S. troops must go home.
Response From Pentagon
At a Washington briefing, Pentagon spokesman Dan Howard said: "We have a treaty with the government of Panama, which, as you know, has the United States maintaining its forces in Panama until December 31, 1999. And even after that date, we are charged with maintaining the neutrality of the canal."
William Ormsbee, a spokesman for the Southern Command in Panama, commented, "The U.S. has primary responsibility to defend and protect the canal, and the Southern Command is related to that."
Despite the flap, U.S. forces at the canal have not been put on alert, and there are no plans to evacuate families of troops stationed there, Ormsbee said. There are 10,000 U.S. troops plus dependents in Panama.
The question over the continued presence of the American military here comes amid a spiraling feud between Washington and Noriega.
Pressure to Step Down
Last week, the general was charged by two Florida grand juries with drug smuggling, racketeering and money laundering. The United States has been pressuring him to step down to allow free presidential elections in Panama.
Charges against Noriega continued to emerge Tuesday as a one-time associate of Noriega told a Senate hearing that his former boss had converted the Panamanian military into an apparatus that made millions of dollars in illicit enterprises.
Noriega has responded to U.S. pressure and reports of corruption by criticizing the American presence at the Panama Canal and charging that Washington is trying to renege on the 1977 Panama Canal Treaties, which will give full control of the canal to Panama by the century's end.
Under treaty provisions, the United States and Panama are required to jointly defend the canal through the year 1999. Until then, American officials contend, the U.S. troop level at the canal is to be determined by Washington.
On Monday, Noriega's officers challenged that interpretation of the treaty, saying the document "does not contemplate" the presence of the Southern Command. Although read to Noriega, the call for expulsion was directed at Eric A. Delvalle, Panama's figurehead president. Delvalle has not publicly commented on the request.
'Point of Aggression'
Noriega responded with strong language. "We reject the Southern Command," he said. "The Southern Command constitutes another point of aggression against the Republic of Panama."
The call for the expulsion appears to be the beginning of a new surge of anti-U.S. rhetoric by the military strongman and his followers. Last summer, when domestic opponents of Noriega took to the streets to demonstrate against the government, Noriega blamed the outburst on Washington.
Demonstrators affiliated with the military-backed Revolutionary Democratic Party threw paint at the U.S. Embassy in Panama City. Washington subsequently cut off military and economic aid to Panama.
Since the drug-related charges became public last Friday, Noriega has begun to crack down on his opponents, shutting one newspaper and three radio stations. The latest closures occurred Monday, when Radio Exitosa in Panama City and Radio Chiriqui in far western Panama were taken off the air for broadcasting a call for a protest general strike.