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1989: US forces oust General Noriega

VIDEO : US soldiers search for General Noriega

American troops have invaded Panama in a bid to oust dictator Manuel Noriega.

Around 200 civilians, 19 US soldiers and 59 Panamanian troops are believed to have died in the fighting after President George Bush sent forces into the Central American country at 0100 local time (0600 BST).

Bush ordered five task forces into the area, all of which encountered heavy resistance.

Up to 9,500 US troops joined more than 12,000 soldiers already based in Panama for the mission, entitled Operation Just Cause.

They destroyed General Noriega's headquarters but failed to capture the dictator.

There are unconfirmed reports that Noriega's forces have also taken several Americans hostage.

The US government is offering a $1m (600,000) reward for information leading to the general's capture.

President Bush wants him to stand trial in America on charges of drug trafficking.

He ordered the invasion after a series of recent attacks which culminated in the murder of an American soldier.

"General Noriega's reckless threats and attacks upon Americans in Panama created an imminent danger to the 35,000 American citizens in Panama. As President, I have no higher obligation than to safeguard the lives of American citizens," President Bush added.

"And that is why I directed our armed forces .. to bring General Noriega to justice in the United States. I contacted the bipartisan leadership of Congress last night and informed them of this decision."

A new government has been installed and Guillermo Endara, who won last May's election by a three to one margin but was later ousted by General Noriega, has been sworn in as president.

It is believed the dictator is hiding out in the Cuban or Nicaraguan embassy in Panama City.

Colin Powell, Chairman of the US joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon, said: "We will chase him and we will find him.

"He's demonstrated an incredible ability to survive catastrophe, but we shall see over time whether he survives this one."

International reaction to the invasion has been mixed.

It has drawn swift support from the British government with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declaring: "The rule of democracy should be upheld."

But the Soviet Union condemned the action and accused Washington of gunboat politics.

In Context
General Noriega was caught within a week after he was tracked down by US troops at a Vatican embassy.

He was brought to trial in Florida the following month where he was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

This was later reduced to 30 years by a US judge.

He has failed twice in attempts to secure an early release.

His most recent parole attempt was turned down back in 2000 after concerns were raised over the security risk his release could pose to the former US President, George Bush.

General Noriega is still wanted in Panama on charges of executing army officers in 1989.

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