WASHINGTON, Dec. 20, 1989 (UPI) -- During the last two years, the options available to oust Gen. Manuel Noriega as Panama's absolute ruler disappeared as the tenacious dictator clung on.
The last peaceful option -- using tense economic pressure and waiting him out -- disappeared late Saturday night when Panamanian troops shot and killed Marine Lt. Robert Paz of Dallas at a checkpoint.
Only hours earlier, President Bush, at a news conference on the Caribbean island of St. Martin, where he met French President Francois Mitterrand, had shrugged off Noriega's declaration of a ''state of war'' as inconsequential.
Noriega, in turning his troops loose to harass and arrest Americans at will, had also named himself head of state in an attempt to head off further coups and to give himself legal immunity from drug and corruption charges in other countries.
But the killing of Paz convinced American officials that Noriega was out of control and that the 35,000 Americans in Panama faced imminent danger. Some 12 hours after Paz was shot, Bush made the decision to move militarily.
The Noriega declaration of the ''state of war'' was the final straw, but events began moving inexorably in that direction in June 1987, when Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera, ousted chief of staff of the Panamanian Defense Forces, publicly accused Noriega of corruption, election rigging, and complicity in the killing of Panama's former president, Omar Torrijos.
In February 1988, Noriega's hand-picked president, Eric Arturo Delvalle, tried to fire Noriega but was himself sacked by Noriega, who dropped any pretense of civilian democratic rule. In that same month, Noriega was indicted by two grand juries in southern Florida on charges of drug trafficking.
The timing of the public announcement of the indictments could not have been worse and caused Noriega to drop negotiations with American officials who were trying to convince him to drop the reins of power. Fearing extradition and a prison term in the United States, he dug deeper into the trench of absolute power, purging the armed forces of anybody who was potentially disloyal and taking control of the country's main broadcasting stations.
In the summer of 1988, a lengthy secret bargaining process with the U.S. government collapsed at the last minute when Noriega refused a deal proposed by Secretary of State George Shultz. Under that deal, the drug charges would have been effectively dropped if Noriega agreed to give up power and leave Panamanian territory.
Meanwhile, the country's economy, straining under a series of economic sanctions, was near collapse.
In May 1989, Noriega permitted elections to take place under the erroneous belief that he could win.
The voting went against him despite his ''dignity battalions'' intimidating voters, beating up candidates and stealing ballot boxes. Noriega's election commissioners declared the voting null and void.
When the Bush administration took over, the Organization of American States pleaded with Secretary of State James Baker to give multilateral diplomacy a chance. The OAS condemned Noriega's suppression of political opposition and named a three-man commission to try to negotiate with Noriega, but he used the diplomatic effort as a device with which to buy more time.
By late August, the OAS approach had collapsed and another option was closed to the U.S. administration.
A Panamanian Defense Forces attempted coup in October, mishandled by its mid-level officers, failed and some 40 of the plotters were tortured and killed.
Noriega closed the last option -- further economic and political pressure, including the barring of Panamanian flag ships from U.S. ports -- last Saturday night with the shooting of Paz.
Only the military option remained -- and within 48 hours, his military headquarters were in flames and Noriega was in hiding.