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ASYLUM OFFER AIMS TO AVERT U.S. INVASION

Panama's President Ernesto Perez Bal-la-dares said Friday he will grant asylum to Haitian military strongman Raoul Cedras if that will avoid a U.S. invasion of Haiti.

"If Mr. Cedras, for example, wants to take asylum in Panama to avoid an invasion, then we would gladly give him asylum," Perez Balladares told Panama radio.But he said the offer would not stand if Cedras held out and an invasion took place. "It is only under those conditions - an asylum to avoid an invasion, not after one," Perez Balladares explained in the radio interview.

He did not say whether the offer of asylum extended to any other top members of Haiti's military leadership and a government spokes-man told Reuters he did not know if the asylum offer applied to others.

President Clinton has said the United States will lead a multinational invasion of Haiti unless Cedras and his fellow leaders step down immediately and allow the return of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Perez Balladares, who was inaugurated Sept. 1, has previously offered to help the United States by taking in up to 10,000 Cuban boat people. His gestures appear designed to ease U.S. concerns over the return to power in Panama of the political party once led by ousted strongman Manuel Noriega.

Perez Balladares has also criticized the U.S. invasion of Panama, but he stressed in his election campaign that he would not tolerate corruption.