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U.S. yields police role to Panama

Marking the final stage of the military occupation that followed the American invasion here, the United States plans to end the last joint patrols of American and Panamanian police teams throughout the country by late November, officials say. A senior officer of the United States Military Support Group, Col. Jack Pryor, said American officials were pleased with the progress of the restructured Panamanian Public Force and with its new civilian commander, Ebrahim Asvat. He said the American military police who have supervised all security operations since the invasion on Dec. 20 are no longer considered essential to preserve public order.

"We have been withdrawing out of the police business," Pryor said in an interview at his office in a former Panamanian intelligence headquarters. "By Nov. 11, we will have all our troops out of the city, with the exception of Chorrillo and Colon, and those will be withdrawn by Nov. 28."

Chorrillo is a poor area of Panama City that was largely destroyed by combat and fire during the invasion. Colon, the country's main Atlantic port, was also a scene of heavy fighting and has suffered from high unemployment. Both are considered high-crime areas.

The withdrawal of the American police advisers, who for 10 months have ridden with Panamanian officers, comes after months of screening intended to rid the Public Force of officers considered ineffective or unreliable holdovers from the government of Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.

The change also follows a period of turmoil that has included the recent replacement of two successive police commanders, the retirement of 142 senior officers, and unsubstantiated rumors of a coup plot by disgruntled officers in an outlying province.

Those events, together with persistent problems of street crime, have been frequently cited by Panamanian politicians and editorial writers as evidence that the Public Force is neither effective nor mature enough to be left unsupervised.

But American officials described the incidents as minor distractions from the larger evolution of the restructured Panamanian force, which has been stripped of its military character and sharply reduced in size. They expressed confidence that the force could assume full responsibility for maintaining public order without posing a threat to the democratically elected government of President Guillermo Endara.

The ending of joint patrols also corresponds with the Bush administration's strategy of reducing the broader American military presence in Panama. A spokesman for the United States Southern Command, Col. Joseph S. Panvini, said the total number of American troops here had fallen to about 10,000, the lowest level since tensions between the United States and the Noriega government began to rise in May 1989, and far below the peak of 25,000 or so during the invasion.

The new Public Force has about 10,000 men, who work in eight-hour shifts and return to their homes when off duty rather than remaining with their units in military barracks, as they did under Noriega.

Most are armed with only sidearms or shotguns, but some special-duty units have now been equipped with Taiwanese-made assault rifles modeled after the American M-16 to give the force greater firepower against drug traffickers or other organized criminals, American officers said.

Criticism of the new force's performance thus far has centered on the rapid growth of street crime in Panama City and other urban areas, including daring holdups like the robbery of more than 40 guests at a well-known Panama City restaurant recently. The victims at the restaurant, which is less than a block from the U.S. Embassy, included several embassy officials.