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The National Assembly declared Panama in a "state of war" with the United States on Friday and named leader Gen. Manuel Noriega as head of government, formalizing the power he has wielded over the nation.

"The state of war decreed by the present resolution will cease only when this Assembly decides so by formal act, after proving that the acts of external and internal aggression against the country have effectively terminated," said the resolution passed unanimously by the lawmakers.The legislature, which was established Oct. 11 and met for its first session Thursday, said the state of war would continue "while aggression against the Panamanian people by the government of the United States of America continues."

It was not immediately clear what the "state of war" would entail. While the term appeared to be an escalation in the long-running war of nerves between the United States and Noriega, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater shrugged it off as meaningless and said the phrase appeared to be "kind of a mind-set more than any kind of legal action."

"Today's action is another hollow step in an attempt to force his rule on the Panamanian people," Fitzwater said. "The actions of the National Assembly will not detract the focus from the fact that Noriega has thwarted the desires of the Panamanian people for democratic rule."

A U.S. State Department spokesman said that since the U.S. government does not recognize the Noriega regime, it regards the actions - naming Noriega as leader and the resolution on a state of war - as irrelevant.

"It doesn't mean anything," the spokesman said.

Noriega is wanted in the United States on drug charges, and the Reagan and Bush administrations have imposed a series of economic sanctions against Panama in an effort to force him from power.


(Additional information)

Action called `hollow'

The administration dismissed the latest actions Friday of the Panamanian National Assembly and Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega as "another hollow step in an attempt to force his rule on the Panamanian people."

White House press secretary Marlin Fitzwater said the "state of war" declared by the National Assembly and its naming of Noriega as head of government would have no effect on an already hostile U.S. attitude toward Noriega.