Panamanian Troops Turn in Guns

In northern province, support for the new government

A THRONG of civilians gathered outside the military garrison here, where Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega learned the art of blackmail and intimidation over 20 years ago. But this was no protest.

It was a spontaneous weekend fiesta for hundreds of Panamanian troops who yielded peacefully to the United States' invasion, turning in weapons and turning from General Noriega in what is supposed to be his principal stronghold, Chiriqui Province.

``There couldn't be a better Christmas gift than this,'' said Jaime Betia, a government worker, as onlookers applauded wildly for a group of arriving American journalists.

The scene in David, a remote city of about 80,000 near Panama's western border, is a stark contrast to the continued fighting along the canal in Panama City and in Col'on. But it offers a glimpse of one approach to one of the country's prickliest problems: how the tenuous new civilian government can come to terms with the post-Noriega Panamanian Defense Forces (PDF) in a way that brings the country together.

In Panama City, an estimated 1,800 Noriega loyalists - far more than the Pentagon anticipated - have resisted US troops and thwarted hopes that the ``mop-up'' operation would be over before Christmas. The US is sendingan additional 2,000 troops to back the 24,000 already in the country. Casualties for both sides reach into the hundreds, while civilians caught in the crossfire bear the brunt of the attacks.

The tight network of resistance fighters, thought to be directed by Noriega himself, raises the prospect of a protracted guerrilla war.

Many of Noriega's strongest supporters - and perhaps the general himself - are thought to have sought refuge here in Chiriqu'i. From this mountainous, sub-tropical zone, defense specialists note, a guerrilla force could launch occasional attacks and still remain fairly protected.

It would be a logical retreat.

Noriega, after all, created the province's first intelligence service in David back in 1967, when he served under a garrison commander named Omar Torrijos. Two years later, soon after General Torrijos had taken power in Panama, Noriega gave the populist leader the logistical support he needed in Chiriqu'i to crush a coup attempt against him. The incident so impressed Torrijos that he promoted Noriega to chief of intelligence.

US ground troops were making their way slowly toward David over the weekend, fending off attacks while scouring the countryside for Noriega, who has a $1 million bounty hanging over him. But with a single, US-launched rocket that exploded in the garrison around midnight last Thursday, the US dramatically shifted the balance of the conflict here.

A white flag soon flew over the garrison. Shaken by the explosion, and reportedly worried about an eventual encounter with advancing US troops, local PDF commander Lt. Col. Luis del Cid began negotiating with top officials at the US Southern Command, informed townspeople say.

Using a new civilian commission headed by the local bishop, the two sides arrived at an agreement in which the PDF would accept the new government ofGuillermo Endara - the unacknowledged victor in last May's election, who was installed as president hours before the Dec. 19 invasion started. In return, the PDF would remain intact and help maintain order and stop looting in the city.

As a result, hundreds of PDF troops and members of the infamous Dignity Battalions have turned in their weapons, hoping also to pick up the $150 the US government promised for every relinquished rifle.

``Hundreds of guys have handed in their guns,'' said Marcos Garc'ia, a crew-cut 19-year-old who turned in his rifle earlier in the day, friends say. ``This regime had to end somehow'' he said. ``Now instead of Noriega, we have the gringos.''

If Panama - virtually created by the US in 1903 when declaring independence from Colombia - is ever to escape its history of dependence, such a substitution of powers is unwelcome.

``It's a predicament,'' says Luis Guillermo Solis, a top aide to the Costa Rican foreign minister. ``If the US leaves now, the government would tumble. But if the US stays too long, how could the government ever develop, with 30,000 US troops there?''

At the outset of Panama's transition toward a self-governing nation, the US is vital both for giving monetary assistance and physical security. But political analysts - and even Noriega critics on the streets of David - insist that the PDF cannot be completely dissolved - at least not yet.

``The change is now irreversible,'' says Mario Candenedo, an elderly man who lives a block away from the military headquarters here. ``But it would be imprudent to have everything change overnight. That would create instability.''

Antonio Serrano, a PDF corporal with 18 years of service, seemed unperturbed as he walked toward the crowd near the garrison. No tension, no shouts of anger. ``Everybody has handed in their weapons,'' Mr. Serrano says, ``My job now is just to maintain order.''

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