PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- As the country celebrated, Lt. Gen. Raoul Cedras hunkered down in his hilltop house yesterday awaiting Panama's permission to begin his exile there, and Emile Jonassaint, the army-appointed president, formally resigned.
With the former dictator reduced to near irrelevancy, the focus for most Haitians turned sharply yesterday from his departure to Saturday's arrival of democratically elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Reflecting the new order of priorities, U.S. officials dubbed yesterday "Arrival Minus Three."
Behind the scenes, the Clinton administration sought to speed General Cedras' exit. He was expected to go to Panama yesterday morning, but Panamanian officials wavered in the face of growing public dissent.
After several hours, a Panamanian Foreign Ministry source told the Associated Press that President Ernesto Perez Balladares had granted the asylum after receiving a letter from Father Aristide expressing appreciation for such a move.
Mr. Perez Balladares had been seeking a formal request from Father Aristide.
Former Panamanian President Guillermo Endara was quoted as saying: "Our country must not be converted into a sanctuary for guerrillas or dictators."
A Boeing 757 jetliner called the Spirit of Indianapolis waited all day on the airport tarmac to carry General Cedras and his family away. Another plane waited to take away Brig. Gen. Philippe Biamby, the army's No. 2 man.
In addition to the delay with Panama, Aristide adviser Michael D. Barnes, the former Democratic congressman from Maryland, said that he had been told on good authority yesterday that General Cedras was insisting that the United States buy his homes.
The purchase could pose a problem for the United States, since Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher had pledged on Sept. 18: "When they leave, they will not take any American money with them."
The United States assumed responsibility for relocating Haiti's three top military leaders several weeks ago, when it pledged to help ease them into exile.
The third member, Lt. Col. Michel Francois, the former chief of police, went on his own to the Dominican Republic last week. Generals Cedras and Biamby agreed last weekend to retire and to leave the country to pave the way for Father Aristide's return.
Mr. Jonassaint, the figurehead president installed in May by the junta and the last pillar of Haiti's military regime, announced his resignation and that of his government yesterday. "Because of the exceptional circumstances and the situation imposed on our country, from this day on the government ceases to run the administration of state," said a statement by Mr. Jonassaint broadcast yesterday.
Mr. Jonassaint, an 81-year-old jurist, thanked Haitians for helping their country "through the most tragic period of its history."
The formal resignation followed the takeover Tuesday by U.S. troops of the National Palace, 13 government ministries and the Central Bank. Members of Father Aristide's government have been trickling back to their offices since then.
"I see this as the end of a period where a local government can be overthrown with impunity," said U.S. Ambassador William L. Swing, referring to the 1991 overthrow of Father Aristide.
"We are in a period when democracy and market economies are the coin of the realm. It is one of the defining moments in this new world order," Mr. Swing said.
The ambassador was at the airport for another sign of the accelerating return to normality -- the first commercial flight to touch down here since air traffic was banned under the international embargo.
American Airlines Flight 1291, with 125 passengers, mostly journalists, on board landed at the airfield. Also arriving was Telor Henry, a Haitian-born businessman who lives in Miami.
"I'm going home to celebrate my victory," he said.
A pro-Aristide organizer, Mr. Henry said that he would participate in demonstrations here for a week before returning to Miami.
Some on the flight, such as kindergarten teacher Solanges Carre, found themselves completing extended vacations after being trapped in the United States by the international travel ban.
"I am so happy to be home," Ms. Carre said. "When I came to Miami in June, I didn't know I would be staying so long."
"I am hopeful," said the Rev. Leroy Landry, a Roman Catholic priest who has worked in Haiti for 29 years. "I know that things could turn sour."
In a reminder that this remains a potentially explosive situation, three pro-military men were found dead in the city yesterday. It was hours before an ambulance picked up the bodies.
The threat of violence will prompt tight security for Father Aristide's return. Officials herald the celebrations as an expression of political freedom, but they do not hide their anxiety that violence could erupt.
The twin dangers:
* Desperate and deserted supporters of the fallen junta could disrupt the celebrations with an attack on the crowd or the U.S. military.
* Pro-Aristide groups seeking revenge for years of terror and repression could go on a rampage through wealthy areas.
In what U.S. officials would like to see repeated on a large scale Saturday, demonstrators bearing homemade musical instruments marched from General Cedras' home to the airport where Father Aristide will arrive.
"I'm going to sleep at the airport Friday night," said Andrelle Vorbe.