PANAMA CITY, JUNE 13 -- Five days of strikes and rioting against the government controlled by top military commander Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega did not appear today to have come close to toppling him, as adherence to a general strike began to slacken.

But the cause unexpectedly has brought together disparate elements of Panamanian society. A breakaway military officer, a number of slum dwellers and the Roman Catholic Church have all participated in the protests against Noriega in some degree.

A general strike called by a coalition of middle-class business, civic and student groups on Wednesday dissipated as many smaller shops left their doors ajar to allow in customers.

However, a din rose once again at noon as residents banged pots and drove the streets honking and waving white flags. The opposition coalition, the National Civic Crusade, has called for noisemaking every three hours.

Heavily armed troops and riot police patrolled the streets. Military helicopters buzzed the financial district. In several areas, troops arrested honkers. Among dozens detained in the capital and outlying cities were prominent business executives and a leader of the opposition Christian Democratic Party, Raul Ossa.

Two children were severely injured by police with buckshot pellets last night, their relatives said, and a lawyer died of complications from tear-gas inhalation, the second death in the rioting, a Civic Crusade spokesman said. For many Panamanians the central issue is democracy in their country, which has not had an untarnished election in at least two decades.

Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera, former second in command to Noriega, sparked the riots by accusing Noriega of having assassinated rivals, including former Panamanian strongman Omar Torrijos, who died in a 1981 plane crash, and Hugo Spadafora, an opponent found beheaded in 1985. Diaz also said Noriega arranged a 1984 electoral fraud.

Diaz, who was forced into retirement June 1, has claimed to be in psychic communication with Torrijos.

For a week, Diaz has held court at his house, decorated with gold-leaf fixtures and marble floors. He has repeated his charges against Noriega while surrounded by opposition activists who only last week viewed him as their number two enemy, after Noriega. Most persistent were the relatives of the murdered Spadafora.

Diaz appeared to be caught in a shattering nervous crisis. One moment he was lucid, according to reporters who saw him on several occasions. The next moment he would launch into incoherent spiritual rants. However, many Panamanians reinforced their own impressions with his ramblings because he drew details from his long service at the pinnacle of the 20,000 troops in the Defense Forces, the center of power in Panama.

Less sensational but more revealing were insights by Diaz on Noriega's style of rule.

Noriega, who has been commander almost four years, did not confide in him or other officers, Diaz said, but personally handled matters ranging from foreign affairs to local wiretapping.

"He kept our information compartmentalized," Diaz said. "He names the important ambassadors and decides the key issues. President {Eric Arturo} Delvalle has nothing to do with it."

Diaz described how Noriega had been skillful at balancing contacts with leftist Cuba and Libya, while satisfying Washington by allowing the U.S. military to train troops from Central American allies in Panama.

"He's a tightrope walker," Diaz said.

Besides Diaz's charges, Noriega had to cope with the outbreak of rioting in impoverished, mainly black communities where the Defense Forces had been strong. In San Miguelito, a tough slum on the outskirts of the capital, bonfires, rock-throwing and car bashing continued through Friday night despite the presence of troops.

The Catholic Church leader, Archbishop Marcos Gregorio McGrath, took the lead in negotiations between Diaz and Noriega. He stationed priests in Diaz's house for his protection, but forced Diaz to give up his weapons. The church pressed Diaz to go into exile.

At a mass Friday, which congregated the cream of the opposition in a gracious financial district church, Vicar Fernando Guardia said, "From now on the church is going to be more active as a Christian inspiration to the {opposition} crusade."

Guardia said the church would continue to push for an investigation of the Torrijos and Spadafora deaths. "No one believes in the justice system in Panama as it stands now," he said.

Conspicuous at the mass was former president Nicolas Ardito Barletta, who admitted that Noriega had forced him from office in September 1985 when Ardito Barletta pressed for an investigation of Spadafora's murder.

Twice the U.S. Embassy released communiques calling for the state of emergency to be "short-lived" and stressing the need for an "apolitical, professional military institution." It was unusual for the embassy to break its silence, and many Panamanians commented that the statements added to the momentum of the protest.

But other western diplomats saw Washington continuing its careful fence-sitting, seeking peaceful rule in the country due to take full control of the Panama Canal in 2000. Up to now, Noriega has kept the lid on, and no alternative leader has emerged who can guarantee such control.

Panamanian observers point out that U.S. officials used to say privately that Noriega was a better choice than the officer who would succeed him: Diaz Herrera. The most active opposition retains an elitist image.

Its leaders, mainly businessmen, are mostly white, while the Defense Forces officers are largely black and from poor families.