The U.S. Department of Defense has completed a preliminary plan for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Panama before the year 2000 as stipulated by the Panama Canal Treaties, a military spokesman said Friday.

Col. Ronald Sconyers, spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, the U.S. regional military headquarters here, said the plan was an "initial blueprint for an orderly phased withdrawal from Panama."The announcement was the first specific declaration that planning for an eventual U.S. pullout was taking place.

"It basically says now is the time to start looking at things," Sconyers said of the 5-inch thick preliminary report. He said he did not see a real withdrawal of U.S. troops or an end to military operations in Panama before the 1990s.

The 1977 Canal Treaties, signed by then U.S. President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian military leader Gen. Omar Torrijos, stipulate that all U.S. troops must be out of Panama by noon on Dec. 31, 1999, when the Canal is turned over to Panama.

Until then, the treaties say, the United States is responsible for the defense and protection of the 50-mile-long waterway which links the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Currently there are around 11,000 U.S. troops based in 10 military installations along the banks of the canal.

Just over 1,000 of those troops are part of a special security force sent by the Pentagon in March amid unrest over U.S.-backed moves to oust Panama's current military leader Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.

Around 2,000 military police were initially brought in to increase security for U.S. personnel and property in response to widespread street protests. The number of security troops has subsequently been reduced.

Noriega, who was indicted in February by two U.S. grand juries on charges of drug trafficking, has said the indictments are part of a Washington plan to keep control over the canal after the year 2000.