DAVID, PANAMA, JUNE 14 -- Panama's top military commander, Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, said today that the country's past week of turmoil has not sparked any confrontation between him and Washington.
Noriega's statement came after several actions by U.S. Ambassador Arthur Davis, together with the flight to Costa Rica of a prominent Panamanian businessman, prompted rumors of rising tension between the United States and the general, who in practice controls the government.
Washington has had uneasy relations with Noriega during his four years as commander of the 20,000-troop defense forces. Noriega has kept a tight grip on this nation of 2 million, which surrounds the Panama Canal and hosts the largest U.S. military base in Latin America. But he has faced repeated charges of corruption, and rioting broke out six days ago after Col. Roberto Diaz Herrera, former second in command, accused Noriega of masterminding two murders and a 1984 electoral fraud.
The rioting ended when the government declared a state of emergency. A general strike called by a coalition of middle-class business, civic and student groups on Wednesday dissipated yesterday.
During the past week, Davis made public visits to several opposition figures. Christian Democratic leader Ricardo Arias Calderon thanked Davis publicly Thursday for persuading President Eric Arturo Delvalle to remove troops who had Arias under house arrest.
The U.S. Embassy received many requests from relatives to help free opposition activists arrested during the past three days for protesting by honking horns or parading in the streets with white handkerchiefs.
According to businessmen familiar with the events, Davis also talked Thursday with banker Gabriel Lewis Galindo, a former Panamanian ambassador to Washington who fled Saturday.
Lewis told businessmen here before he left that he tried unsuccessfully last week to mediate between the opposition and the defense forces. He admitted that he told several high-ranking military officers that Noriega had lost much support among the business community and should resign.
In an interview Sunday morning in Costa Rica, Lewis told the Spanish news agency EFE: "Noriega is a repressive man. . . . For the good of Panama and its professional military officers, it was necessary for the chief commander of the defense forces, Noriega, to step down from his post."
Lewis said he feared for his life if he remained in Panama, and would now stay in Costa Rica as a spokesman for the opposition.
His sudden departure with his family stunned many Panamanians. Lewis, one of Panama's wealthiest men, was a close associate of the late charismatic general Omar Torrijos and one-time owner of the stylish Contadora island resort, where the Shah Reza Pahlevi of Iran sought exile in his last days.
For many years, Lewis helped lead a business community outspokenly loyal to the defense forces. But his business, the Banco del Isthmo, was raided Thursday morning by soldiers who beat some employes.
This morning the capital was rife with rumors that Davis had cooperated with Lewis' mediation. A U.S. Embassy spokeswoman would not confirm or deny Davis' conversations with Lewis.
"The ambassador is meeting with as many people as possible in this situation," she said. There was no confirmation that Davis' discussions with Lewis touched on Noriega.
At a press conference this afternoon Noriega praised Davis for "acting with great discretion and tact." The general rejected opposition efforts which he said have "tried to portray Davis as waving the flag of their movement." About Lewis' departure, Noriega said, "he doesn't have any problem with us here -- officially, at least."
Noriega denied he had differences with the United States during the disturbances. But he dodged a reporter who asked whether he still has the confidence of Washington.
"I have the confidence of the Panamanian people," he said.
Noriega spoke in this steamy rural city, 215 miles southwest of the capital, in the farming province of Chiriqui, which heavily favors opposition parties. Dressed in a civilian suit, he flew three-dozen reporters here on a tour designed to show his control is unperturbed even in a region where he is unpopular.
However, in an interview Saturday with American television networks, Noriega expressed irritation about a U.S. Embassy communique calling for an investigation of several unsolved deaths, following Diaz' accusation that Noriega had had political opponents killed. Said Noriega said of the U.S. message: "That's a direct intervention by a neighbor in our house."
He charged that American conservative groups were directly involved in an opposition conspiracy to impose a provisional junta in Panama last week. He claimed the conservatives' goal was to discredit Panama to stop the United States from turning over the canal in the year 2000.
He denied there are any divisions in the defense forces, and scoffed at a report by Diaz that more than a dozen military officers had been forcibly exiled from Panama Saturday.
Reuters reported from Panama City that Diaz had been granted asylum by Spain. But he said he would not leave Panama until a four-day old state of emergecy is lifted.
Meanwhile, peaceful street protests with horn-honking and pot-banging continued every three hours in the capital. But the banks announced they will reopen Monday, after remaining closed during two days of a general strike last week.