Panama's `Dignity Batallions'

`BETRAYED' BY NORIEGA. Disgruntled members feel tricked by their leader - and US psychological warfare

AS hordes of euphoric Panamanians here celebrated a Christmas Eve without Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, a 20-year-old member of the ruler's Dignity Battalions pedaled his bicycle around the darkened city streets, solemnly weaving ``figure 8s'' in the middle of the road. ``I feel cheated by the general,'' say Pablo (not his real name), who fought for a day against invading United States troops before fleeing to the mountains. ``We thought he [Mr. Noriega] would confront the North American invasion, but he hid himself and left us here as cannon fodder.''

During last Wednesday's invasion, US helicopters and troops stormed the Rio Hato military school and base, 17 miles from this small town (125 miles from Panama City), forcing dozens of frightened, pajama-clad cadets from their dormitories, said friends of several cadets.

Pablo, who says he lost a friend in the attack, responded with guerrilla-style warfare. He and other armed civilians of the ``Dignity Battalions'' snuck up on the base, squeezed off a few rounds, then fled to attack any US troops they could find.

``We had a free rein,'' he says, explaining nobody - especially not Noriega - gave them instructions about how to organize the resistance. ``We had civilians going out with weapons for the first time. General Noriega made this big deal announcing us, but he didn't give us any training.''

Looking away, he adds: ``It was hypocrisy.''

Pablo says he didn't feel that way in March 1988, when he and 150 other residents here were recruited for the Dignity Battalions, which Noriega formed to fend off a ``a Yanqui invasion.''

At the time, people laughed at the idea. In stark contrast to the 10,000 US troops then based here, they began their initial training exercises with a few hundred out-of-shape recruits - housewives, government employees, jobless men, and old codgers - all drilling with sticks shaped like rifles, quickly gaining nicknames such as ``dingbats'' or ``indignity battalions.'' The brigades seemed to specialize in harassing opposition politicians and showing the world that Noriega had some supporters willing to die for him.

When the invasion came last week, the battalions showed that they had a core of well-trained commandos who had become the front line of resistance against the US invasion.

On Friday morning, Pablo fled to the mountains of Cocl'e with other Dignity Battalions and defense force units.

Scattered across a mountainside in groups of nine to 12, Pablo says about 250 fighters hid out in bunkers covered with branches. They talked about forming a guerrilla army with other units in the mountains further west in Chiriqu'i. They persuaded the peasants, at gunpoint, to fix them food. They waited for instructions from their commander in chief, Noriega.

One day passed, then two, but no word came. Pablo became anxious to be on the move. On Friday evening, a Panama Defense Forces' lieutenant said Noriega had committed suicide. The resistance was over.

The defeated fighters turned themselves in Saturday morning. More than 420 PDF troops and Dignity Battalion members were taken prisoner, but Pablo - a relative newcomer - was let go.

It wasn't until later that day that he realized the lieutenant had tricked them into turning in their weapons. Thinking back, Pablo is almost certain that the lieutenant was carrying out a psychological operation directed by the US Southern Command.

``We were deceived,'' says Pablo, noting that it is too late to reignite the resistance now that Noriega has taken sanctuary in the Papal Nuncio, the Vatican embassy. But like the other 1 million Panamanians, Pablo knows that it will be hard to forget Dec. 24, the day Noriega stopped ruling Panama.

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