Opposition leaders stepped up their campaign to oust strongman Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega by calling on Panamanians to stage a protest march in the capital, despite a state of emergency.
The march, scheduled for Monday afternoon, comes at the start of the second week of a general strike that has shut down an estimated 90 percent of the nation's industry and commerce, further aggravating a critical cash shortage.As the opposition planned the march Palm Sunday, Catholic church leaders said government authorities "fear this explosion of sentiments" and appealed to both sides to show restraint. The church leaders said in a statement they would send observers to Monday's march in Panama City to try to keep the peace.
Police and soldiers, under Noriega who heads the 15,000-member Defense Forces, have suppressed recent demonstrations with tear gas and shotguns.
Also Sunday, the Social Security Institute said it will pay its 55,000 retirees up to $150 of their semimonthly pension benefits this week. They had threatened to join Monday's march if they didn't receive their payments.
In another development, Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, predicted in Washington on Sunday that many of the marchers will be "members of the families of the Defense Forces."
The government on Sunday expelled a reporter for the French news agency Agence France Press because his visa had been issued a Panamanian consular official in Washington loyal to deposed President Eric Arturo Delvalle.
Leaders of the National Civic Crusade, the main opposition alliance, said they would defy any ban on the march that the government might issue under an 11-day-old state of emergency. The government had no immediate response.
The emergency suspended civil liberties and gave the state powers to reopen banks and stores closed by the cash crisis.