PANAMA CITY — Panamanian opposition leaders said Thursday that they would join in a short-term provisional government with members of the country's current military regime, but only if strongman Gen. Manuel A. Noriega agreed to step down and acknowledge that his foes won Sunday's presidential election.
"The Democratic Alliance for Civic Opposition is willing to negotiate with the military regime a provisional government," said Ricardo Arias Calderon, a vice presidential candidate for the anti-Noriega coalition known as ADOC. He told a news conference, however, that any talks would have many conditions. As a beginning, Arias Calderon said, Wednesday's decision by the government to nullify Sunday's voting must be reversed.
Arias Calderon, who still bore the face wounds he suffered a day earlier when beaten by government forces, made his defiant declaration just before President Bush said in Washington that nearly 2,000 U.S. combat troops are being sent to Panama.
Although the opposition has said repeatedly that American military intervention is unwanted and would be counterproductive, the coalition's leaders did not condemn Bush's move. "It keeps the pressure on Noriega and keeps him from consolidating his position," said one opposition analyst.
But Arias Calderon's coalition intends to use the weight of public and international opinion as well as the threat of new street demonstrations to pressure the government.
"We have won," he said of the election, "and we want the government to abide by the will of the people." This echoes the statements of many governments which have condemned Noriega's efforts to fix the voting results.
Late Wednesday, the government declared the election null and void on grounds that opposition fraud had made it impossible to determine a winner. However, the Roman Catholic Church, many diplomats and hundreds of international observers and journalists saw overwhelming evidence of a massive effort by Noriega to defraud the opposition coalition and its presidential candidate, Guillermo Endara, of victory.
If the government acknowledges the opposition victory and agrees to turn over power on Sept. 1 as legally required, the coalition "is willing to negotiate with the Panama Defense Forces (now headed by Noriega) as long as he (Noriega) leaves," Arias Calderon said.
But opposition sources, along with American and European diplomats, saw little chance that Noriega would be willing to quit, although he might buy time by making overtures to the opposition.
"Buying time is a game that Noriega is an expert at playing," one European diplomat said, noting that the military leader successfully frustrated American efforts to remove him last year by proposing and then abandoning negotiations.
"There is no sign that Noriega (and his military supporters) have any will to step down," he said. "The only arrangement Noriega wants (out of talks with the opposition) is to stay in power."
When asked about speculation that Noriega might suspend the constitution and declare martial law, thus taking official control of the government, some diplomats said that such an action could be even worse than declaring his handpicked candidate, Carlos Duque, the winner of the elections or calling for a new vote that might also be rigged.
"That would give the military a clear and easy control," the European diplomat said.
Even though they knew the election was going to be nullified, Duque and his followers are still trying to convince diplomats, particularly from Latin America, that they won or that the opposition was guilty of fraud.
Arias Calderon was the only opposition leader to appear in public Thursday. Endara and Guillermo (Billy) Ford, the coalition's other vice presidential candidate, were in hospitals recovering from the beatings they received Wednesday, reportedly from government military and security forces.
Ford, who was arrested by police after he was beaten almost senseless during an opposition street march, was dumped at his home by police at 5:30 a.m. Thursday. He was then hospitalized for treatment of extensive cuts and possible internal injuries.
Endara, who had left a hospital for a few hours after the Wednesday attack, returned for observation after he lost some motor control. A doctor said the presidential candidate will be kept for treatment until the weekend.
Bush said the additional troops sent to Panama are to ensure the safety of American military and government personnel and their families, but there were no indications of imminent danger here.
In fact, Col. Ron Sconyers, spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command based in Panama, said after the presidential announcement that "there is no present threat to the U.S. community."
However, the military and other American government dependents living in Panama were being moved onto U.S. bases.
"This is not an evacuation--simply a measure to keep family members as safe as possible," Sconyers said.