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While saying that the United States made tactical errors that left rebellious officers stranded in a failed attempt to overthrow Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, a Noriega loyalist claimed Friday that it was the foxy general himself, using guile and psychology, who saved the day.

In a detailed discussion of the abortive uprising on Tuesday, a key member of Noriega's inner circle said that it was apparent that Maj. Moises Giroldi, the coup leader, had planned to kill the general as he drove to work for a general staffing meeting.But according to the version of events reported by Noriega confidant Benjamin Colamarco, the general outfoxed Giroldi by switching cars, even though the major was responsible for all such security measures at the general headquarters in downtown Panama City. Later, Colamarco said, Noriega, who by then had been taken prisoner, dared Giroldi to kill him face to face.

"It's one thing to fire at a car and another thing to see the man face to face," he said, in an interview. "He wasn't brave enough and Gen. Noriega dominated Giroldi psychologically. The general has a strong personality."

Noriega, sources said, laughed off Giroldi's attempt to control him and was able to make key phone calls to summon reinforcements from the loyalist Machos de Monte and Battalion 2000 units, who easily circumvented U.S. roadblocks, marched into the city and retook the general headquarters in a hail of gun and mortar fire.

Colamarco, head of the Dignity Battalions, a civilian paramilitary force that complements the military, said he was present when the shooting started at the military command. His version of events was identical in many points to other versions supplied by other sources.

"The idea of the rebels was to kill the general in his vehicle," said Colamarco, who said the general's convoy - four vehicles, including two identical Mercedes Benzes with tinted glass - arrived at headquarters two or three minutes before 8 a.m.

While Noriega was expected to be traveling in the second of the four cars, he was traveling in the first instead. The second car, carrying bodyguards whose fate was not revealed, was heavily damaged. But Noriega, accompanied by two aides, escaped the gunfire and entered the building, which was already under attack by about 200 members of Giroldi's Urraca Battalion.

Noriega and other members of his staff have been varying their schedules and travel routes, sleeping in differing locations on different evenings, in what is acknowledged by officials here as an effort to foil kidnapping attempts and attacks.

Noriega was detained by Giroldi and his company in the command headquarters for several hours, Colamarco and other Noriega supporters said. At one point, according to reports circulating in the capital, Noriega, laughing and refusing to surrender, unbuttoned his shirt and said to Giroldi, "Kill me, if you're so tough, but we'll die here together."

"It was something like that," Colamarco said, adding that few people surviving were present during the confrontation, probably only Noriega and two aides. Officials said Giroldi died in the counterattack mounted by troops loyal to Noriega, denying a report from Washington that Noriega himself killed the dissident major, who had helped save Noriega during a March, 1988, uprising that Noriega backers also blamed on the United States.

"There was artillery fire all around, it's easy to see how people would die in the middle of all that," said Rigoberto Paredes, another Noriega loyalist.

Colamarco said he believed that he had been set up by traitorous officers to join Noriega at the command headquarters.

At first, he said, he thought the gunfire was part of an anti-U.S. training exercise since he noted that U.S. planes overhead, as they often are.

"But there was too much shooting and I suddenly realized that this was no exercise," he said, "especially when I saw an Urraca Battalion officer with his eyes burning fire."

He retreated to his operations base at Fort Amador, several minutes away, which is in territory where both U.S. and Panamanian forces have operational centers. Within 45 minutes, waves of U.S. troop helicopters from Howard Air Force Base landed in the area, blocking escape routes.

"If we had wanted to go to the aid of the general headquarters, we would first have to face the American troops," he said.

Colamarco and other Noriega backers said that the rebels and the United States both committed errors that led to the failure of the coup.