WASHINGTON — Former Panama strongman Manuel A. Noriega walked out of his sanctuary in the Vatican embassy in Panama City on Wednesday night and was quickly arrested by U.S. drug agents, President Bush announced.
Ending a stalemate that began when he sought refuge in the embassy on Christmas Eve, Noriega was whisked out of his country aboard a U.S. Air Force C-130 transport bound for Homestead Air Force Base in south Florida.
"At about 8:50 this evening, Gen. Noriega turned himself in to U.S. authorities in Panama with the full knowledge of the Panamanian government," Bush said.
The President said that Noriega will be arraigned in U.S. District Court in Miami this morning. He faces drug-trafficking and money-laundering charges in courts in Miami and Tampa. Noriega could receive as much as 145 years in prison if convicted on all counts.
Word of Noriega's departure spread rapidly through Panama City as tens of thousands of people took to the streets, cheering, applauding and waving U.S. and Panamanian flags. Drivers blared their cars' horns as they careened down boulevards, fireworks were set off and Panamanians hugged U.S. soldiers and toasted the announcement with beer and rum.
Vice President Guillermo (Billy) Ford walked down one major Panama City thoroughfare, where members of the cheering throng kissed him and chanted "Billy! Billy!"
"Thank God. Panama can now feel like a free country. I feel free now," 20-year-old Moises Rios told the Associated Press.
Noriega had defied first President Ronald Reagan and then President Bush since his indictments in February, 1988. And while his capture ends a nearly two-year effort to bring him within reach of the U.S. justice system, sources familiar with the charges concede that bringing him to trial will be a lengthy and difficult process.
Noriega left the embassy building at 5:48 p.m. PST, accompanied by the papal nuncio, Jose Sebastian Laboa, and two priests, Father Joseph Spitari and Father Javier Villanueva. He strolled up to the front gate of the Vatican's property.
He was met by Gen. Marc Cisneros, commander of U.S. Army Forces in Panama, and Gen. Maxwell Thurman, commander of the U.S. Southern Command.
"He looked vigorous and confident. He looked fine," Thurman said at a news conference. "He left of his own will. Certainly he did. Walked out the gate. He walked out of the door. So the decision was his and his alone."
The embassy had been surrounded by U.S. troops since Noriega showed up there on Dec. 24, four days after a massive U.S. invasion overthrew his regime and forced its leadership into hiding.
At 5:51 p.m. PST, Noriega was in the custody of the United States. And within six minutes, he was aboard a waiting U.S. Army Blackhawk helicopter.
The helicopter delivered him to Howard Air Base near Panama City at 6:03 p.m., where he was placed in the custody of U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration agents. Five minutes later, he was aboard the C-130, which departed at 6:31 p.m. for Florida.
He arrived at 11:45 p.m. PST on Wednesday at Homestead Air Force Base, 25 miles south of Miami, and was flown off in a Lear jet six minutes later to a location that Air Force Maj. Bob Barca refused to disclose.
There were conflicting reports late Wednesday about the conditions under which Noriega agreed to turn himself over to U.S. officials.
White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater said that there were "no deals on the terms of his treatment, or trial, or charges, or extradition."
He said that before Noriega would agree to leave the embassy, however, the general asked for a fresh uniform and permission to make several telephone calls. Both requests were granted, the White House spokesman said.
But there also were reports that Noriega had sought assurance that he would not face the death penalty in the United States. The charges he faces do not carry the risk of capital punishment.
A Western European diplomat who spoke to Laboa later said the papal nuncio persuaded Noriega to leave by threatening to move the Vatican embassy officially to another location. Such a move would have left the former dictator in a building that no longer carried diplomatic immunity and thus open to arrest by Panamanians or seizure by U.S. forces.
In a hastily arranged visit to the White House press room, Bush said that "the United States is committed to providing Gen. Noriega a fair trial."
"Nevertheless, his apprehension and return to the United States should send a clear signal that the United States is serious in its determination that those charged with promoting the distributing of drugs cannot escape the scrutiny of justice," Bush said.
Bush said he had launched the invasion to protect American lives in Panama, to restore democracy, to protect the Panama Canal Treaties, under which the 75-year-old canal will be turned over to Panama by the end of 1999, and to bring Noriega to justice.
"All of these objectives have now been achieved," he said.