WASHINGTON — President Bush ordered U.S. military forces into action in Panama early today to apprehend Panama's strongman, Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, and to protect American lives, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said.
"The President has made every effort to resolve the situation peacefully . . . Gen. Noriega has rejected all of these efforts," Fitzwater said.
The spokesman said "the situation in Panama has reached a crisis." Noting that Noriega was under indictment in the United States for drug trafficking offenses, Fitzwater said that opposition presidential and vice president candidates from last spring's Panamanian elections were "sworn in and assumed their rightful positions."
He said the United States had recognized their government.
Asked whether Noriega had been taken into custody, Fitzwater said, "the situation is such that we are not at liberty to comment" on the details of the military operation.
Fitzwater said the other reasons for moving against Noriega involved the safety of American lives in Panama and the integrity of the treaties under which the United States operates the Panamanian Canal.
Mortar, machine-gun and cannon fire were heard in the capital Tuesday night as U.S. tanks and truckloads of American troops headed toward Panama's military headquarters.
Planes and helicopters were flying over the city.
The movement indicated that U.S. forces were attempting to force Noriega out of power.
ABC-TV quoted Panamanian armed forces television as reporting that the U.S. military had been ordered into action against the Panama Defense Forces.
The broadcast said gunfire and explosions were heard in the vicinity of Defense Forces headquarters, where Noriega has offices. Gunfire was heard near the U.S. base Ft. Clayton, six miles away.
Three young Panamanian soldiers told an Associated Press reporter in the capital: "There is all kinds of hell loose out there."
The reporter saw 24 U.S. tanks and at least four trucks carrying American troops heading in the direction of Defense Forces headquarters.
Troops in olive uniforms ran through the luxury Marriott Hotel, and lights in the hotel went out.
Channel 8, the television station of the U.S. Southern Command, issued an "Echo-level" alert, its highest, and said movement by unauthorized U.S. personnel was prohibited.
Earlier in the evening, there were reports that the United States was airlifting troops into Panama in the heightened tension between Washington and the Noriega regime.
Concentrations of U.S. military transport aircraft were seen at Howard Air Force Base in Panama on Tuesday night. In the United States, NBC News broadcast footage of giant C-141 aircraft coming in to land at Howard and said one was landing every 10 minutes.
CBS News said military transport planes had left Ft. Bragg, N.C., home of the Army's elite 82nd Airborne Division.
At least 10 Hercules C-130 transports were seen parked on the runway at Howard. No unusual troop movement could be seen in the area, but heavy military vehicles could be seen on the roads around the base, and a number of helicopters were being serviced on the runway.
Noriega's government accused the U.S. military Tuesday of violating its airspace with "observation planes and helicopters" in preparation for military action.
Frequent movements of U.S. soldiers and equipment have been seen within U.S. military installations the past three days. About 12,000 American soldiers are stationed along the Panama Canal.
The Pentagon had said Monday that the 18th Airborne Corps, part of the 82nd Airborne, was involved in readiness exercises.
At Ft. Ord, Calif., an undetermined number of soldiers from the U.S. Rapid Deployment Force were mobilized in an emergency exercise Tuesday night involving transport to an unannounced location, the Associated Press quoted Army officials as saying.
Soldiers of the 7th Infantry Division (Light), which in some deployments includes artillery and aviation units, were ordered to report to the Ft. Ord Army base for an "emergency deployment readiness training exercise," said Jim Davis, public affairs officer for the Army.
Citing Army policy, Davis would give no specifics on destination, unit size or designation or times of departure.
The reported military moves followed two shooting incidents between Panamanian and American troops, one of which left a U.S. Marine officer dead. U.S. troops have been on maximum alert since the weekend.
Last Friday, Noriega's rubber-stamp legislature passed a declaration saying that the two countries are in "a state of war."
The United States has tried various diplomatic and economic methods to oust Noriega since he was indicted on federal drug-trafficking charges in February, 1988. The general, who has been his country's military strongman since 1981, was named head of state by the legislature last Friday.
U.S. sanctions have depressed the economy but have not budged Noriega, and two coup attempts failed to unseat him.