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Noriega's Troops Seize Foes in Panama Raid : Opposition Figures Are Rounded Up, Clubbed; Several American Journalists Detained by Police

March 29, 1988|DAN WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

PANAMA CITY — Troops and plainclothes agents under the command of Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, staging a surprise raid Monday on a major hotel, detained and in some cases beat more than a dozen leaders and members of the anti-Noriega Civic Crusade as well as about 15 employees of U.S. news organizations.

After blocking the driveway entrances to the Marriott Cesar Park Hotel, troops in white police vans repeatedly struck many of those detained with rubber truncheons and wooden nightsticks, witnesses said.

Later, they cut telephone communications from the luxury hotel on the city's waterfront, where the crusade maintains an information office and where dozens of foreign journalists have stayed during the recent political crisis.

Among those seized were Roberto Aleman, Alberto Aleman and Carlos Gonzalez de la Lastra, all prominent leaders of the crusade, a coalition of about 200 business, professional and trade organizations that has spearheaded opposition to Noriega during the past nine months. Crusade members have led an 8-day strike that has shut most industry and commerce in Panama City.

As the soldiers and agents stormed the lobby of the 391-room hotel at sundown, panicked guests were ordered upstairs to their rooms. Some guests, frightened by the troops' sudden appearance, wept as they were herded into elevators.

Several crusade members were reported to be in hiding on various floors of the 15-story Marriott. Meanwhile, according to hotel personnel, plainclothes agents requested the master key to search through rooms of reporters.

Among the journalists detained were three Americans, one of whom was beaten and hospitalized, witnesses said.

They said CBS cameraman Ignacio Medrano, a U.S. citizen, was beaten on the back with a truncheon and later was X-rayed in the military wing of Santo Tomas Hospital. Medrano was reported able to walk but was having difficulty breathing. It was not clear when he would be released from the hospital.

CBS sound technician Alejandro Carbonell, a Panamanian, was detained, but employees at CBS said they had no information on his whereabouts.

Another television journalist, Carl Hersh of ABC, was also hospitalized with unspecified injuries. A Panamanian employed by ABC News was detained, as were two American photojournalists, J. B. Diedrich and Tom Hailey.

A total of seven Panamanians working for NBC News were detained and released. Two Mexican citizens with NBC were beaten; one of them, Domingo Rex, was hospitalized with a broken nose, while the other, Alfredo Gudino, was beaten, kicked, detained and released, witnesses said.

NBC spokesmen said plainclothes agents took from the network's suite on the 15th floor of the Marriott portable radios, flak jackets and gas masks used by NBC crew members to protect themselves during street demonstrations. The other networks reported tapes and written material seized from their offices at the hotel.

One eyewitness told The Times that a melee broke out as the plainclothesmen entered the hotel shortly before 6 p.m. The 20 plainclothes agents, some carrying Uzi submachine guns and others pistols and rubber hoses, fought off efforts of a single hotel security guard to block their way, said Raymundo Riva Palacios, a reporter with the influential Mexican newspaper Excelsior.

'Swinging a Metal Rod'

"Television cameramen came to the scene and plainclothesmen began swinging a metal rod at them," Riva said. Another scuffle broke out at the lobby elevators between television cameramen and the plainclothesmen, who had by then been joined by uniformed soldiers, Riva recalled. The plainclothesmen were making their way to the mezzanine floor, where the Civic Crusade maintains a small office containing a telephone and a copy machine.

The crusade was planning to hold a press conference when the raid began.

Crusade members on the mezzanine scurried about in confusion. Meanwhile, police rounded up several who had fled to the 14th floor, where some were renting rooms, Riva said.

At the driveway entrances, uniformed soldiers shoved detained crusade members into vans and whacked them on the lower legs to force them to their knees.

Plainclothes agents under military command are known here as "paramilitaries" and are generally part of the intelligence branch of the Panamanian Armed Forces.

The raid marked the first apparent roundup of Civic Crusade members this year. Last October, more than 30 crusade members were rounded up and later released. Some have gone into exile, while others have returned to Panama.

In the government-owned newspaper Monday, an anonymous editorial warned that under the law, anyone who takes the part of a foreign state in trying to threaten the independence of Panama "will be punished with 15 to 20 years in prison."

Government Accusations

It was not known whether crusade leaders elsewhere in the city were arrested. The government has accused them all of being tools of U.S. policy designed to bring down Noriega.

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