PANAMA CITY — The beleaguered government of Panama, faced with persistent street protests, late Tuesday night banned all forms of public demonstrations.
The move came as a surprise because the government had scheduled a rally of its own supporters for Thursday. Government officials said they expected 275,000 backers to fill a plaza here and cheer on military strongman Gen. Manuel A. Noriega as he delivered a speech from a giant stage especially set up for the occasion.
Noriega, the power behind Panama's nominally civilian government, has been publicly accused of a range of crimes, including drug trafficking, ordering the murder of a top political opponent and rigging elections to put civilian cronies in power.
Citing a "threat to public order," the government ordered an end to all public demonstrations. The announcement was made on national television.
It was not immediately clear what prompted the government to prohibit the demonstrations which have been going on for several weeks. Some violence broke out Tuesday night when a horn-honking caravan of anti-government demonstrators came under fire from gunmen in the streets of the capital. The protesters believe the shots were fired by government supporters. In response, the angry demonstrators set two bonfires on a busy Panama City street.
Protests against the Panamanian government began last month when a military colleague of Noriega's charged him with, among other things, involvement in the 1981 death of Gen. Omar Torrijos, Noriega's predecessor as head of Panama's Defense Forces, and the 1985 murder of Hugo Spadafora, a prominent critic of the government.
The accusations set off demands from a coalition of business and civic groups for investigations and the ouster of Noriega. Some of the early protests turned violent.
The government responded with arrests and organized its own demonstrations directed at the U.S. government, which it accused of inciting the opposition. Rocks and paint were thrown at the U.S. Embassy here.
U.S. officials have long charged Noriega with aiding drug smugglers.
The Panamanian government also imitated the opposition's protest style by sending its own supporters out in caravans to honk car horns for support. The strategy was considered risky because the move increased the possibility that opposing caravans might meet on Panama City streets in a violent confrontation.
"The biggest danger for the government is that something gets out of hand and martyrs are created," a Western diplomat said this week.
The government has been confident that it will overcome the protests and stay in power. "The beep-beep-beep of car horns doesn't bring down a government," said Maj. Edgardo Lopez, Noriega's spokesman.
Noriega, widely charged with putting his own candidate for president into office by fraud into the 1984 elections, has offered to discuss electoral reform with the opposition. But his status as head of the military is not negotiable, his aides say.
The Panamanian government has recently moved to try to patch up relations with the United States, sending a special envoy to Washington for consultations. "We don't think the U.S. wants chaos here," said Maj. Lopez.
Stakes in the conflict are high for the United States which is committed to turning over the Panama Canal to full Panamanian control by the year 2000 under terms of the 1977 Panama Canal treaty. The U.S. wants a friendly government in control of the strategic waterway. However, officials of the Reagan Administration have been increasingly critical of Noriega and all but aligned themselves with the budding opposition.