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MOMENTS OF VIOLENCE - THEN LIFE AS USUAL

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I was in an apartment building overlooking the Defense Forces headquarters, trying to get a telephone line to report on the coup attempt against Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega.

After waiting half an hour, I finally got a line, but then there was a loud explosion. People began screaming and throwing themselves onto the floor. An old woman hugged her poodle. The telephone line went dead.About 100 yards away, troops loyal to Noriega had reached Defense Forces headquarters, captured five hours earlier by dissident troops trying to oust him.

At 12:30 p.m. Tuesday, they began exchanging fire with machine guns, bazookas and mortars.

Some loyalist troops were behind roadblocks along the normally busy street in front of the bayside barracks. Others advanced through a graveyard on one side of the barracks, hiding behind the tombstones.

The shooting went on for half an hour, and the sky filled with gunsmoke.

The sound of the battle was punctuated by a religious fanatic who kept crying: "Sin no more! Christ is salvation!"

Residents who had not evacuated the crowded slum apartment buildings in the El Chorrillo neighborhood screamed in panic. Some officers ordered them out, but others told them not to go outside. They didn't know what to do.

About 10 minutes after the battle began, I looked out the window and saw a rocket crash into a nearby building. Shrieking people were running down the sidewalk.

Then the shooting stopped. One soldier was captured by loyalist troops on the street outside the long, low wall that surrounds the Defense Headquarters compound.

They took away his weapon and stripped him almost naked before taking him inside, hands on his head.

Life slowly returned to the Avenue of the Martyrs.

"Chicha, chichime," cried a soft drink vendor, peddling fruit drinks only an hour after the heavy firing had ended.

I looked to where the roadblocks had stood. They had disappeared as if by magic. There was still some shooting in the neighborhood, however.

A few hours later, Noriega strolled down the bullet-pocked steps of Defense Forces headquarters. He raised his right hand, smiled and waved.