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Panama opposition tries new tack in anti-Noriega campaign. But government's intimidation limits impact

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The young, middle-class woman slips into the downtown Chamber of Commerce building to pick up a pile of papers. She folds and stuffs them into her small leather purse, then nervously says she hopes the police will not catch her with them on the way home.

``Far from breaking our conviction and scaring off our capacity to fight, each act of violence carried out by the armed forces fortifies our spirit and swells our numbers [of backers],'' the papers read.

The woman is one of a growing number of Panamanians who support the National Civic Crusade, a citizens' coalition started in June by Panama's business leaders to push for democratic reforms.

Panama elected a civilian government in 1984, but its actions are effectively controlled by military strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the head of the 15,000-strong armed forces. Opposition to General Noriega's regime has increased dramatically since last June, when a former military officer accused him of helping to rig the 1984 elections, of involvement in a political assassination, and of laundering drug trafficking money.

The charges, made by former second-in-command Col. Roberto D'iaz Herrera, now in jail, were supported last month by former commander Gen. Ruben Dario Paredes, who said all of Mr. D'iaz Herrera's accusations ``appeared to be true.''

Unlike D'iaz Herrera's declarations, which spurred protests throughout this nation of 2.2 million, Mr. Paredes's comments, published in a US newspaper, received no attention in the press here.

The opposition news media was closed by the government last summer and thousands of troops have been called out to quell sporadic street protests - now forbidden by decree.

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