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Noriega vows to fight U.S. efforts to oust him

May 1, 1988 GMT

PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, waving a machete that he called a symbol of the valor of the Panamanian people, vowed Saturday to keep fighting U.S. efforts to oust him as Panama’s strongman.

″This machete says, ’Not one step back 3/8‴ Noriega told a ″solidarity meeting″ of about 300 Latin American labor leaders.

Noriega brandished the machete several times and people in the crowd cheered and waved machetes they had been given by the government as they entered the conference hall for the closing ceremony. The meeting was organized by pro-government groups.

″This is the machete of Panamanian dignity, of Panamanian valor,″ Noriega shouted and the audience chanted, ″Not one step back 3/8″

″There can be no national or international dialogue, unless the popular forces negotate their own security. This commander is willing to accept a dialogue for the benefit of the popular forces,″ Noriega said.

He claimed the United States is using Panama ″as an experimental field″ to develop methods to subjugate other Latin American governments.

The steel machetes, engraved with the Panamanian seal, are sold as souvenirs and are very popular.

Before entering the hall, the general told reporters he has ″no commitments with the United States″ to quit as chief of the Defense Forces.

Washington officials said Friday that Noriega had agreed during recent negotiations with U.S. envoy Michael Kozak to step down as the military commander but rejected American insistence that he leave the country immediately after resigning.

″Yes, I had talks with Kozak but I have no committments of any kind, no commitments with the United States,″ Noriega told the reporters. ″If they (the United States) want to be irresponsible, I will not.″ He did not elaborate.

Noriega’s opponents said they were dismayed by the reports that the United States had agreed to a plan that would allow Noreiga to stay in Panama if he resigned as head of the 15,000-member Defense Forces, the key to his political power.

″It would be a serious mistake if Noriega is allowed to stay in Panama,″ said Ricardo Arias Calderon, president of the Christian Democrat Party. ″He will continue to be a focus of controversy.″

Panamanian officials had earlier acknowledged that Noriega met with Kozak, an aide to Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, but denied that any deal was made.

The United States has been trying since February to oust the general, who is under indictment in Florida on drug-trafficking charges. But he has clung to power despite U.S. economic sanctions that have paralyzed the Panamanian economy.

The Reagan administration announced Saturday that it was relaxing some restrictions and would allow Americans to pay utility bills and sales and excise taxes to the government. Payments on corporate and personal income taxes, import duties, port fees and corporate social security payments still are prohibited.

″Noriega will go out on his terms, when he is ready,″ said a Christian Democrat Party leader who spoke on condition of anonymity.

″The Americans are negotiating now from a position of weakness, but they cannot back down after publicly demanding that Noriega step down and leave the country.″

The Christian Democrat and Authentic Panamanian parties are the largest opposition political parties in Panama.

The Authentic Panamanian Party called for a massive rally next Friday, the anniversary of the 1984 elections it feels were stolen from party leader Arnulfo Arias Madrid with the approval of the United States, which then backed Noriega’s candidate, Nicolas Ardito Barletta.

Ardito Barletta later was deposed by Noriega. Vice President Eric Arturo Delvalle replaced him, then was ousted by Noriega on Feb. 26 after Delvalle tried to fire the general.

The U.S. government recognizes Delvalle as the legitimate president, but some of the opposiion forces do not.

″There will be no peace or progress in Panama until the government the people elected (in 1984) is reestablished ... and the police clique that oppresses the country leaves the barracks and yields to the young officers who understand that civil power belongs only to the people,″ the Authentic Panamanian Party communique said.