The Vatican today called the United States an "occupying power" in Panama and angrily rejected demands that the Holy See's embassy in Panama City hand over ousted dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega.
But chief Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Holy See is trying to persuade Noriega, wanted in the United States on drug charges, to leave the embassy of his own free will.
Navarro said the United States has no right to demand the delivery of Noriega and also slammed psychological warfare by U.S. invasion troops who have been blasting the embassy with loud rock music. He said this is a "very serious matter" unacceptable under international law.
The White House sought to play down the harsh rhetoric, asserting that the Roman Catholic Church is "doing a fine job" in its deliberations over Noriega's fate.
It also said talks with church officials "continue in a positive vein" and that no deadline has been set for resolving the deadlock over Noriega's refuge.
Presidential Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater brushed aside the Vatican's assertion that it has "no obligation to turn over this man to an occupying force" and instead lavished praise on papal authorities.
"It's a very difficult situation, very tense circumstances. They are managing a difficult situation," Fitzwater told reporters as President Bush continued to enjoy a hunting vacation on a ranch near the south Texas community of Beeville.
Briefing journalists in the Vatican on the case which has caused a deep crisis between Rome and Washington, Navarro said:
"An occupying power cannot interfere with the work of a diplomatic mission or demand that a person who is seeking asylum there be handed over to it."
Noriega sought sanctuary in the embassy from U.S. troops on Christmas Eve.
Navarro said the papal nuncio, or ambassador, in Panama City, Jose Sebastian Laboa, is "doing his best to convince Gen. Noriega to leave the apostolic nunciature (embassy) of his own free will. But he cannot force Gen. Noriega to leave the embassy."
He added: "Nor for reasons we have already discussed . . . can he hand him directly to American military authorities. This would be a decision counter to the principles of international law."
It was the second time that Navarro had ruled out handing Noriega over to the United States, but his language today was considerably stronger than his first statement Wednesday and was the first time the Vatican had labeled the United States an occupying power.
Navarro said he did not know how Noriega responded to the request that he leave the embassy.
But he said only the new Panamanian government of Guillermo Endara could take custody of Noriega if he left. So far neither the Vatican nor the embassy has received any request from Endara for the ousted strongman to be handed over.
"If a person who seeks asylum is considered guilty of common crimes, it is up to the government to which that diplomatic representation is accredited to ask that this person is handed over to that government," Navarro said.
Asked about harassment by U.S. troops surrounding the embassy, including loud radio broadcasts, Navarro said: "This is a very serious matter; there is the convention of Vienna . . . in which it is very clear that you cannot interfere with the diplomatic activity of a diplomatic representation."
"If this is going to continue, something should be done about that," he said in the Vatican's strongest statement so far on the case.
Asked how long the situation can continue, Navarro said "Certainly Gen. Noriega is not living in a hotel. One day or another he must leave."
U.S. soldiers, who invaded Panama Dec. 20 to oust Noriega, have surrounded the general's refuge with tanks and barbed wire. They set up loudspeakers outside the embassy and are playing rock music and news reports at top volume.
The music also seems intended to grate on Noriega's nerves. The play list has included "You're No Good," "Nowhere to Run, Nowhere to Hide" and "Voodoo Child."
The soldiers kept up the music barrage all night and journalists monitoring the standoff from a nearby hotel said they got no sleep.
Searchlights have been set up behind the embassy, and visitors, including priests, are being searched.
U.S. Army spokesman Col. Gerry Murguia said the activities are part of a tactical decision.
"It's done, I think, in full understanding of all the repercussions that might come with it. It is deemed to be an appropriate way of handling it by the commander," he said.
U.S. officials have suggested the loud music is being played to stop anyone overhearing army communications.