Defense Secretary William Perry, wrapping up a two-day visit to Panama Saturday, said the United States might leave forces in the Canal Zone if asked by the Panamanian government.
The United States is poised to begin pulling out about 40 percent of the 10,000 troops stationed there in the next 18 months. Under the Panama Canal treaties, Washington has agreed to remove all forces and turn over all military installations to Panama by the end of 1999."We will meet our treaty commitments, which call for us to leave in the year 2000," Perry said. "If the Panamanian government requests us to stay on, for reasons of, for example, regional stability, that's something we would certainly consider."
Washington's top concerns in the Central American region are still stability and a reduction in drug activities in the area, Perry said. If satisfied with Panama's policies on those issues, Perry said, the United States would be "in a positive position to come forward and consider such negotiations." But he added that such developments are "ahead of us by a good many years."
Perry made the remarks in an interview with ABC News released on Saturday.
Just before departing for an hourlong visit with U.S. troops stationed at this base in Honduras, Perry paid a courtesy call Saturday on Panamanian Vice President Guillermo Ford and said afterward that the withdrawal is proceeding on schedule.