Banks Reopen, Canal Resumes Full Operations
PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) _ Banks reopened today, the Panama Canal resumed 24-hour operations, and a U.S. spokesman said nearly $6 million in confiscated funds had been turned over to the new government of President Guillermo Endara.
The former strongman, Manuel Antonio Noriega, remained inside the Vatican Embassy. Panama’s archbishop, the Rev. Marcos McGrath, said several of Noriega’s associates left the embassy voluntarily.
″In general, the number has been getting lower and it will continue to do so,″ McGrath told reporters outside the Vatican Embassy. He said some were leaving because there were no charges against them, and others were negotiating with the new Panamanian government.
A U.S. Justice Department spokesman in Washington, when asked about the report that some had surrendered, said, ″I don’t believe so.″
But the spokesman, David Runkel, said it’s possible ″there may have been one or more people who have left ... that may include children.″
Army Lt. Col. Jerry Murguia, a spokesman for the U.S. Southern Command, said $5.82 million belonging to Noriega had been confiscated and released to the Panamanian government.
Officials said the Panama Canal had returned to its regular 24-hour schedule and worked through the night. The Panama Canal Commission said 21 ships passed through Wednesday, 35 were scheduled to go through today and another 150 were waiting for transit.
The canal was closed for 48 hours after the United States invaded Dec. 20, and has been gradually increasing the hours of operation since then.
Murguia also said Panama City’s international airport should be reopened by Saturday. It has been closed to commercial aviation since the invasion.
Banks in this international financial center reopened throughout the nation, with First Vice President Ricardo Arias Calderon appearing at a ceremony at the Central Bank.
Endara, in a news conference Wednesday, had appealed again to the Vatican Embassy to surrender Noriega for trial on drug trafficking charges, but the Vatican today said it had received no formal request from the Panamanian government and would not simply push Noriega out and hand him over to U.S. authorities.
″We have not received any letter,″ said Joaquin Navarro, the Vatican’s chief spokesman.
In Texas, President Bush said his administration was determined to bring Noriega to the United States to stand trial, but admitted that the Vatican’s stand ″complicated things.″
The U.S. invasion began Dec. 20 and Noriega was on the run until appearing at the Vatican Embassy on Sunday.
U.S. troops, armored cars and helicopters have stood watch outside around the clock to ensure he doesn’t escape or get spirited away.
Navarro said the Vatican still hoped to resolve the crisis within days but he gave no details about negotiations.
He also declined to comment about a story in today’s Los Angeles Times in which the Vatican Embassy in Panama reportedly authorized U.S. forces to take necessary measures in the event that Noriega or his associates take the Vatican envoy or any other staff hostage.
The newspaper said the authorization has been interpreted by some U.S. officials as an invitation to the United States to seize the ousted Panamanian dictator from the embassy, while others have said that isn’t the case.
Navarro said he couldn’t comment on the report because he didn’t know the source of information for the report.
Panama’s new government hustled to restore order, screening members of Noriega’s disbanded Defense Forces and incorporating a growing number of them into a new armed force that includes police.
Murguia told reporters today that Lt. Col. Arnulfo Castrejon left the embassy and was detained by U.S. forces. Castrejon was the officer on duty at Defense Forces headquarters when Panamanian forces fatally shot a U.S. Marine officer Dec. 16 in one of the principal incidents leading to the U.S. invasion.
The U.S. Southern Command said all but a few hundred of the 15,000 members of the Defense Forces had surrendered or been arrested.
The U.S. Justice Department asked France, Switzerland, Luxembourg and Britain to freeze bank accounts in which Noriega is believed to have stashed more than $10 million in ″illegal drug money.″
France froze accounts in two banks holding $3.3 million and Swiss officials placed a ″precautionary″ freeze on two accounts.
The United States and the Endara government, which was elected in May balloting that Noriega nullified, renewed their pleas to the Vatican to turn over the ousted military ruler.
U.S. troops cannot go after Noriega, who was thought to be trying to negotiate safe passage to a third country, because embassies are inviolable under international law.
Noriega was indicted by two federal grand juries in Florida in February 1988 on charges of trafficking in Colombian cocaine and money laundering.
The Southern Command said Wednesday 23 American servicemen and two dependents have been killed and 322 Americans wounded since the United States invaded. It said 297 Panamanians troops were killed and 123 wounded.
Murguia cited an army surgeon as saying at least 250 civilians were killed. That figure did not include others who were quickly buried in the first days of the invasion, Murguia said.