CLEARWATER, Fla. — President Bush on Thursday accused Panamanian strongman Manuel A. Noriega of "systematic fraud" in attempting to block free elections in that country.
Panama has scheduled elections May 7, but Bush said in a statement released before an appearance here that "the Noriega regime has taken steps to commit systematic fraud."
"Through violence and coercion, it threatens and intimidates Panamanian citizens who believe in democracy," he said, adding that the United States "will not recognize fraudulent election results engineered by Noriega."
For about a year, Washington has refused to recognize the Noriega-controlled regime in Panama. U.S. officials, instead, continue to recognize Eric A. Delvalle as Panama's president, although Delvalle, ousted by Noriega in February, 1988, is no longer in the country and exercises no authority.
While U.S. officials have tried repeatedly to undermine Noriega, who has been widely linked to drug trafficking, they concede that for now there is little that the American government can do to force the Panamanian general out of his position as head of Panama's armed forces and the nation's \o7 de facto \f7 ruler.
Bush charged that the Noriega government also has tried to restrict reporting on the election by journalists and other outside observers. A number of prominent Americans, including former President Jimmy Carter, have announced plans to travel to Panama to try to observe the elections.