PANAMA CITY, OCT. 23 -- Government officials close to military strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega closed the offices of Panama's vice president, Roderick Esquivel, and fired his staff, politicians and a family member said today.
Word of the action against Esquivel unleashed rumors of a coup.
When the 10 employes on Esquivel's staff went to work yesterday morning at his offices in the Banco Nacional de Panama, the government bank, they were stripped of their official credentials and turned away by presidential security guards, according to Juan Esquivel, the vice president's son.
A spokesman for President Eric Arturo Delvalle, Jose Hernandez, said he had no information about Esquivel's bank offices. But he said the vice president voluntarily vacated other offices assigned to him in the presidential Palace of the Herons three months ago, and the suites were reassigned to save money.
Esquivel, who is away on a four-day trip to Nicaragua, is president of the Liberal Party, a small centrist group in the alliance that won the 1984 national elections. During a five-month political crisis, Esquivel has differed publicly with his government by calling for an independent investigation into opposition allegations against Noriega.
The current turmoil began in June when a former Noriega aide, Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera, accused the general of having his political opponents murdered and tampering with election results. Noriega denied the claims and said Diaz Herrera, in prison since July 27, was mentally unbalanced.
Esquivel, who stands next in line to succeed Delvalle, has been viewed by the opposition as an obstacle to any attempt by the Noriega-controlled Panamanian Defense Forces to form a new government directly under military control.
Delvalle is widely viewed as a Noriega figurehead, but in August he distanced himself briefly from the general when he said he had not ordered, and did not agree with, the closing of three opposition newspapers. His comments gave rise to speculation the Defense Forces would seek to oust him, but there has been no evidence of any coup effort.
Juan Esquivel said his father's staff was instructed not to return to work by officials from the office of the minister of the presidency, Nander Pitty.
"They're just setting him aside," Juan Esquivel said, adding that his father does not intend to resign.
Police and power company officials said a nationwide electrical blackout last night was caused by an attack on a high-tension tower on the outskirts of the capital. It was the first reported sabotage during the unrest.