IT seemed as though Panamanians were waiting for Godot. For more than two years, as the United States rattled its sabers at Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, Panamanians of all social classes often turned the tables on reporters to ask: ``When will the US stop making empty threats and send in troops to get rid of Noriega?''
On Wednesday morning, shortly before 1 a.m., their question was at least partially answered.
A burst of machine-gun fire rang out near General Noriega's headquarters in an old, decrepit section of Panama City, according to witnesses from high-rise apartment buildings located across the bay.
US airplanes - invisible with their lights turned off - droned through the night sky, dropping flares and shooting rockets at several military compounds with units loyal to Noriega. Hours later, smoke billowed over the city, illuminated by 50-foot flames.
But when the sound and fury had quieted somewhat by mid-morning, it became clear that the long-awaited US invasion had - for the time being, at least - brought more disorder than peace and democracy.
The principal target of the military strike, the elusive Noriega had apparently been pushed from power - but he was still on the loose at press time yesterday.
In a radio message delivered Wednesday evening, Noriega said: ``We ask the world for its help today. Panama needs it. Our rallying cry is to overcome or die.''
It was unclear whether the statement was broadcast live or whether it had been taped.
The US government, after airlifting about 10,000 crack troops overnight into Panama to aid the 13,000 US servicemen based in Panama, offered $1 million to anyone with information leading to the capture of Noriega, a one-time US Central Intelligence Agency employee now wanted in the US on drug-trafficking charges.
On the first day of Operation ``Just Cause,'' US Defense Department officials said 15 US soldiers were killed and 104 US troops wounded - the most Americans killed in combat on foreign soil since the US invasion of Grenada.
The Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) announced that it had taken 61 American hostages, though it was unclear how many of those had been released.
Hundreds of Panamanians killed
The Panamanians, however, experienced the brunt of the fighting. Reports from city hospitals suggest that hundreds of Panamanians - both civilians and PDF members - were killed on Wednesday. It is estimated that more than 1,000 were wounded.
As most residents holed up in their homes and the heavy shelling focused on a few military compounds, chaos reigned in the streets downtown.
Noriega's civilian followers, formed in militant groups known as Dignity Battalions, roamed the streets with heavy weapons, looting stores, robbing cars, and harassing Americans. To cut down on looting and establish order in the city, the US supplemented its fighting force by flying in several thousand military police.
The US attack took most Panamanians by surprise. Not only did it come less than three months after the US decided not to give full military support to an internal coup on Oct. 3. But it took place after two years of economic sanctions, political isolation, and militaristic rhetoric that only seemed to make Noriega stronger - and fiercer.
``In a sense, we never expected it,'' says Juan Luis Moreno, a former top government adviser.
``But looking back, you could see it was coming. Things were only getting worse and worse,'' Mr. Moreno adds.
Ever since the latest coup attempt, Noriega has been brutally efficient at strengthening his stranglehold on power in this country of 1 million people. According to US officials, 70 soldiers involved in the coup attempt were put to death by Noriega. Another 47 were imprisoned in Gamboa until US forces freed them on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, tensions began to mount in anticipation of the Jan. 1 deadline, stipulated by the 1979 Panama Canal Treaty, for naming the first Panamanian administrator of the Canal Commission. This is a key step for the US in relinquishing control over the canal by the year 2000.
Noriega has repeatedly accused the US of using him as a pretext to avoid complying with the treaty.
President Bush planned to name Fernando Manfredo, the vice administrator who has tried to avoid politics. Noriega, however, wanted to put in his own candidate.
Military sources suggested that on Jan. 1 Noriega would march with troops to commission headquarters to install a candidate of his own choice.
Last Friday, amid such rising tension, the Noriega-controlled National Assembly installed the general as the head of government, and declared that a state of war existed with the US.
``Noriega hurt himself,'' Moreno says. ``No one understands why he did these things.''
The next day, at an Army checkpoint near PDF headquarters, US officials say Panamanian troops shot and killed a US army officer, beat up three witnesses, and sexually intimidated an American woman.
``That was enough,'' Mr. Bush said Wednesday, explaining that he launched the attack to protect the other 23,000 civilians living in Panama.
One Panamanian student, refusing to choose sides in the polarized battle, summed up the people's reaction: ``Let's hope the price being paid will be for the good of the country. Let's hope something is achieved by it.''