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Daring Raid Freed U.S. Operative : Rescue: Businessman reportedly was recruited by the CIA. The elite Delta Force struck before the invasion.


PANAMA CITY — Shortly before U.S. troops launched simultaneous attacks on the forces of Gen. Manuel A. Noriega, members of the Army's elite, highly secretive Delta Force freed an American operative from a heavily guarded prison near Noriega's headquarters, according to military sources.

The rescue of Kurt Frederick Muse, jailed since April in the Carcel Modelo (Model Jail), was one of the first actions taken by U.S. forces, taking place shortly after midnight on Dec. 20. The invasion came at 1 a.m.

"Clearly, his safety was a priority," said a U.S. officer familiar with the mission.

Muse, who grew up in Panama, reportedly suffered a broken bone during the rescue and was immediately flown to the United States. He joined his family at a home in Burke, Va., and reportedly is recovering from his ordeal. He has refused to discuss details of his release, saying by telephone Dec. 21 that he was "trying to keep a low profile."

Although the rescue mission remains cloaked in secrecy, senior U.S. military officials confirmed it. The lightning strike also freed a number of Panama Defense Forces officers jailed by Noriega for participation in previous attempts to topple him.

In a separate assault on a prison near the town of Gamboa on the banks of the Panama Canal, about 80 paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division freed 64 prisoners. They included seven PDF officers involved in a March, 1988, coup attempt and two Americans who had not been known to be in custody, U.S. military officers said.

That assault, in which six helicopters and a landing craft were used, left five PDF guards dead and 15 captured, commanders said. On the U.S. side, they said, five soldiers were wounded.

Muse, a businessman married to an American employee of the Defense Department, was recruited by the CIA to run a clandestine radio network as an alternative to the Noriega-controlled news media, U.S. sources said.

(A spokesman for the CIA reiterated its policy of refusing to confirm or deny that individuals are employed by the agency.)

Muse was arrested by the PDF in April on charges of violating state security after an intermittent series of broadcasts that U.S. officials described as "ineffective." Thousands of dollars worth of transmitting equipment was seized by the PDF from several apartments in Panama City, some of it still in boxes bearing the name of a mysterious U.S. government agency based on a U.S. military installation.

Muse said at the time that he was working for the State Department and that the broadcasts were intended to "get out the vote" for the opposition in the May 7 elections.

According to U.S. military sources who visited Muse in jail, he was held in solitary confinement, frequently threatened with death and kept under heavy psychological pressure by his captors. At one point, guards told him that the CIA had poisoned food being sent to him because he had become a liability, one U.S. source said.

The source said that Muse also was warned that if the United States attacked Noriega, Muse would be killed in reprisal.

"He was told point-blank that if anybody goes near Noriega, 'we are going to kill you,' " the source said. Knowing that prison authorities were eavesdropping, he added, U.S. officials told Muse that they could not assure him that he would not be harmed, "but we can guarantee that whatever happens to you will happen to every guard in the Carcel Modelo."

However, when the United States did not intervene decisively to topple Noriega during an Oct. 3 coup attempt by PDF officers, Muse "went into a depression," losing hope of U.S. action, the source said. He said Muse's despondency deepened as he lay awake nights listening to what were apparently the screams of captured coup plotters being tortured.

On Dec. 18, two days after a U.S. Marine lieutenant was shot to death by PDF soldiers near Noriega's headquarters, visiting American officers told Muse to be ready for a rescue attempt.

The following night, several armored personnel carriers rumbled toward the jail, carrying an unspecified number of Delta Force members wearing jump suits and black flak jackets. A helicopter bearing other members of the rescue team landed on the roof.

The attackers jumped out of the carriers and "ran in all pumped up," said a soldier who participated. "They do it for fun," he said. "They were yelling, 'We're finally getting to do it for real!"

Heavy fire came from PDF troops near the prison, killing a gunner in the lead personnel carrier, the soldier said.

But within minutes, an officer familiar with the rescue said, the Delta Force team penetrated the prison and whisked Muse to the helicopter. Then, however, the overloaded chopper came under fire and went down near the jail. The pilot reportedly suffered a broken leg, and Muse an unspecified fracture.

One of the armored personnel carriers came to the rescue, picking up Muse and taking him away. The time was around 12:45 a.m. Delta Force members occupied the prison for a time before withdrawing.

The Delta Force plan was "executed superbly," an officer at the U.S. Southern Command said. "They had things done in a matter of a few minutes." He said captured prison authorities told U.S. officers that "the Delta Force had made them real believers." The rescuers "were so quick, so lethal, that the guards made no effort to get their weapons."

Officially, U.S. Southern Command spokesmen refuse to discuss the rescue mission.

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