Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Panama Probes US Troop Conduct

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Panama Probes US Troop Conduct

Article excerpt

PANAMA CITY car salesman Gilberto Arosemena says memories of what happened on Dec. 22 still jolt him from sleep some nights.

When three US armored troop carriers suddenly pulled into his Altos del Chase neighborhood two nights after the United States invasion, he cheered their arrival. His neighbors had earlier set barricades against looters with US Military Police help, and they applauded the US forces.

But suddenly, the arriving US troops showered residents with rifle and .50 caliber machine-gun fire, apparently believing they were resistance forces. The three-minute assault stopped only after troops heeded pleas to "stop killing innocent civilians" from resident Victor Cruz, an American Vietnam veteran also under fire. When it was over, two Panamanians lay dead, four wounded.

Eight months after the incident, Mr. Arosemena, whose wife is an American working for the US Army in Panama, can understand the bitterness felt by hundreds of nonresisting Panamanian civilians who were caught up in the fight. Many of them lost relatives, or were injured in the battle. Many also were angered by the conduct of some troops and the lack of US compensation for damages they caused. And, in a sign the Panamanian government is also losing patience with Washington, President Guillermo Endara Galimany on Sept. 1 ordered an inventory of invasion damages as a step toward demanding US compensation. A model of discipline

"I think (US officials) are just trying to cover this whole thing and bury it. And that's not the way to do it," says Arosemena, who was shot in the leg, but supports the invasion anyway. "Two boys died there and there was no need for that."

The Army generally praises the December invasion as a model of discipline in which 24,000 US troops took care to minimize civilian casualties. The Army also prides itself on rigorously investigating charges of soldier misconduct. The Southern Command says 202 noncombatants were killed. Human rights groups say the figure is 300 or more.

Col. William Mulvey, an Army spokesman, says 24 serious allegations of US troop misconduct were dismissed, five are still open and most of the rest relate to two cases that went to trial. Earlier this month a US Army sergeant was acquitted of charges he murdered a Panamanian at a roadblock on Dec. 23. Uncomfortable questions

"The few number of allegations indicate a well-disciplined and well-led operation in Panama," says Colonel Mulvey, adding that US troops reported many of the cases. An Army review found US troops answered what they thought was hostile fire at Altos del Chase. It noted guns were found nearby - which residents say were to fend off looters.

Mr. Cruz says Army investigators asked him what happened at Altos del Chase, but some questions made him uncomfortable.

"This colonel said, `Do you know what a traitor is. …

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