Tensions between the United States and Panama stood at higher levels Thursday as charges and countercharges flew of intimidation and human rights violations in the Central American country.
Ambassador Juan Sosa, recognized by the United States as his nation's official representative but disowned by Panama's Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, planned to discuss Thursday what he described as "human rights and security issues" in Panama.Sosa has called Noriega, the indicted de facto leader of Panama, "an expert in intimidation and extortion."
Tensions between the nations increased with acts of harassment and violence against American officials and their families in Panama. For the first time Wednesday, the State Department linked Noriega's government to the acts.
Noriega is under indictment in Florida on drug trafficking charges, and the Reagan administration has been trying since February to force him out of power.
"There has been a certain amount of harassment of U.S. citizens by the Noriega regime," said State Department spokeswoman Phyllis Oakley.
A Pentagon official said 1,550 of the 2,450 U.S. military families living in civilian residences in Panama had moved into safer quarters on U.S. bases as of Aug. 15. Pentagon spokeswoman Maj. Kathy Wood said the harassment by Noriega's Panamanian Defense Forces includes beatings, sexual assault and extortion.
Earlier this month, a U.S. serviceman and his father were detained for 24 hours by members of the Panamanian Defense Forces who apparently had been drinking, Wood said. The father was beaten and had $300 stolen from his wallet before the two were released without charges.
Wood said many of the incidents had been printed in the "Tropic Times," a newspaper published by the U.S. military in Panama because the Noriega government has stopped the importation of U.S. newspapers.
Because of the worsening relations, Rep. Phil Crane, R-Ill., has introduced a non-binding resolution calling for the abrogation of the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty, in which the United States would turn over control of the waterway to the Panamanian government by the turn of the century. The resolution has 41 co-sponsors.
Panama's government-controlled press and television have, in turn, accused U.S. servicemen in Panama of injuring local residents by their drunken behavior. A statement by the PDF accused American soldiers of "introducing drugs, cocaine and marijuana" and transmitting venereal diseases.
Panamanian Foreign Minister Jorge Ritter said in a television interview that the U.S. charges against the Noriega government "intensify the aggression against our country - which includes the use of force - and create the atmosphere for new and more aggressive measures against Panama."
"I believe we Panamanians must be prepared," Ritter said.
The State Department has put a travel advisory in effect for Panama, suggesting that U.S. citizens postpone non-essential travel to the country and that Americans in Panama exercise caution, particularly in the cities.
Besides the rising rhetoric, there has been a tactical diplomatic contest in which U.S. diplomats traveling to Panama have had their passports stamped with visas by the Panamanian consulate in Tampa, Fla.
Generally, diplomatic passports do not require visas, but the Panamanian officials have begun to demand them from American officials traveling to Panama.