PANAMA CITY — For 10 days after being overthrown in a U.S. military invasion and taking refuge in the Vatican embassy, Manuel A. Noriega lived a secluded, Spartan life, sealed off from the outside world by the reluctant host of his diplomatic sanctuary.
Three times a day, the deposed dictator of Panama opened the door to his sweltering second-floor room in the Vatican nunciature, accepted a meal on a tray and shut himself in again, according to visitors to the embassy compound.
"He looks tired, pale and depressed," a Roman Catholic Church official said before Noriega surrendered himself to U.S. authorities late Wednesday. "He hardly speaks."
For those 10 days, however, as the Vatican, the Bush Administration and the U.S.-installed Panamanian government negotiated his fate, the 54-year-old Noriega apparently remained as stubborn and secretive in captivity as he was during the seven years he ruled Panama as military commander.
After narrowly escaping capture by American troops who invaded Panama on Dec. 20 and put a $1-million bounty on his head, an exhausted Noriega slipped into the nunciature on Christmas Eve and surrendered an Uzi submachine gun.
"He looked like a hunted fox," one diplomat said.
Noriega slept through three days of ear-splitting rock music blared toward the embassy from loudspeakers by American troops surrounding the place--harassment that kept awake his host, Archbishop Jose Sebastian Laboa, and was shut off only after Laboa's repeated complaints.
Until Wednesday night, Noriega resisted Laboa's own campaign to pressure him to leave voluntarily by shutting off the air conditioning in his quarters, thus allowing the room temperature to rise into the 80s.
Obviously missing from the life of Panama's former self-proclaimed "maximum leader" in this period were the pornographic photos and large quantities of cocaine that American officials say they found in his many homes. The nuns at the nunciature even took care to remove the wine from the guest wing where Noriega was left free to roam.
Throughout his stay, Noriega had no access to radio or newspapers. Everything he learned from the outside was filtered through brief daily conversations with Laboa, a 66-year-old Spanish Basque who, as Vatican nuncio since 1982, is the dean of Panama's foreign diplomatic corps.
"Laboa has been trying to get him to see that he cannot stay there for the rest of his life," said a European diplomat before the surrender.
But each time Laboa asked him to go, said a church official, Noriega gave the same answer: "I am not ready."
From his window in the three-story embassy, in the seaside Punta Paitilla neighborhood, Noriega looked out on rolls of concertina wire, U.S. tanks, armored vehicles and elite Delta Force troops surrounding the place, waiting for him to step outside. He could hear U.S. army helicopters hovering overhead or landing in a nearby field.
The Vatican, following diplomatic precedent, agreed to give Noriega temporary refuge while it determined whether he was being pursued for criminal or political activity. He was indicted in the United States on drug charges, and Panama said last week that it planned to charge him with murder in connection with a failed coup against him last October.
Even before Noriega decided to leave the nunciature voluntarily, church officials said the Vatican had classified him as an accused criminal and was therefore willing to end his sanctuary.
However, diplomatic precedent inhibited the Vatican from handing Noriega directly over to the Americans as a foreign occupying power. And the Panamanian government said it did not want such a problem prisoner in its own disorganized legal system. The new Panamanian government also pointed out that the Panamanian constitution bars the extradition of one of its own citizens to another country for trial.
As pro-Noriega resistance to the American invasion died out, Panamanians who struggled for years against the dictator turned their ire against the Vatican for harboring Noriega.
About 5,000 citizens signed a letter urging Pope John Paul II to end his "ambivalent attitude" and turn Noriega over to "authorities with immediate capacity to bring him to justice" for "horrendous crimes."
Within earshot of Noriega, about 10,000 Panamanians gathered Wednesday afternoon, in the first major demonstration since his downfall, to demand his arrest.
On Wednesday, as diplomatic cars and light armored vehicles moved back and forth between the nunciature and the high school across the street where the American, Vatican and Panamanian negotiators were meeting, Noriega became "very nervous," according to a church official who saw him.