Panama's foreign minister denied Friday that Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega is negotiating to have U.S. drug charges against him dropped in exchange for leaving the country, and a senator urged that Noriega be removed from Panama by force.
Reagan administration officials have said they were "plea bargaining" with the Panamanian military chief and de facto ruler over the possible dropping of the drug-smuggling indictment. This drew expressions of outrage Thursday from the two Democratic presidential candidates, members of Congress and law enforcement officials.White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater refused to answer reporters' questions about the Panamanian situation.
"We have nothing to comment on," he told reporters at the daily briefing. "Negotiations are in progress and we're not going to say anything one way or the other that will prejudice it."
Panamanian Foreign Minister Jorge Ritter, interviewed on ABC-TV's "Good Morning America," said no deal involving Noriega was imminent and the drug indictment "isn't really part of the negotiations." He did not elaborate on what was being discussed.
Ritter said the indictment was politically motivated and "we have not made an issue of it because we think that is something for the U.S. to decide."
Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., appearing on the same program, said the United States should request Noriega's extradition from Eric Arturo Delvalle, whom U.S. officials recognize as Panama's legal president despite his ouster by the pro-Noriega national congress.
Once Delvalle issues the order, D'Amato said, the United States should use force if necessary to remove Noriega.
"We ought to go in and get him and take him out," said D'Amato. "Let me suggest that if we need to use force, then so be it."
D'Amato said Noriega has been bringing Cuban personnel and weapons into the country and has surrounded himself with Cuban bodyguards.
Ritter denied this, saying the "Cubanization" issue was a U.S. lie.
Fitzwater acknowledged Thursday that U.S. officials were engaged in "plea bargaining" with Noriega, but he stopped short of saying that dismissal of the indictments was under negotiation.
A top State Department official, Michael Kozak, has been engaged in secret negotiations with Noriega in Panama, and administration sources said Wednesday the military chieftain was told that if he left Panama for a year, perhaps in August, the indictments would be dropped.
The Washington Times, citing unidentified Panamanian government officials and sources close to Noriega, reported that Noriega is demanding to be allowed to run for president in May1989 as part of any deal.
The newspaper also said Noriega wants the United States to recognize the pro-Noriega government of Manuel Solis Palma, who replaced Eric Arturo Delvalle as president in February when Delvalle tried to fire Noriega. The administration considers Delvalle, who is in hiding, to be the legal head of state.