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IS U.S. THREATENING TO INVADE?

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Panamanian officials said Monday the commanding general of U.S. troops here has threatened to invade unless Panama explains the killing of an American officer near Panamanian defense headquarters.

American soldiers were put on maximum alert after the officer was fatally shot and a Navy couple arrested and beaten Saturday night not far from the military headquarters of the Panamanian leader, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.U.S. troopers in battle gear patrolled perimeter fences at their bases and Panamanian troops blocked the street in front of the military headquarters, but life was normal in the rest of the city despite tension over the killing.

U.S. and Panamanian forces were holding a "dialogue" on the incident by messenger, Lt. Col. Arnulfo Castrejon said at a news conference. He said that U.S. Army South commander Gen. Marc Cisneros had threatened an invasion.

"He demanded an explanation. If not, they would invade," Castrejon summarized one message as saying. When asked why the United States had not already invaded, Castrejon said, "You'll have to ask them. It could be they realize they went through the checkpoint."

A spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, which controls all U.S. forces in Panama including U.S. Army South, said he could not comment immediately on Castrejon's statements.

The United States said Panamanian troops were solely responsible for the violence and that the U.S. officer and three companions took a wrong turn and were lost.

The Panamanian Defense Forces accused U.S. officers of provocation and said that they ran through a Panamanian Defense Forces checkpoint.

In Washington, the White House deplored the violence, terming it a "consequence" of Panama's being run by Noriega. President Bush, in an Oval Office interview, refused to rule out military action.

Foreign Minister Leonardo Kam told reporters the encounter Saturday was a "hostile act . . . an act of aggression perpetrated by the U.S. armed forces. I consider it a grave escalation of the U.S. permanent policy of harassment."

President Bush described the killing of the American as "an enormous outrage." He said the United States was reviewing options for response, and he did not rule out military action.