Vatican Planned To Lift Noriega's Immunity

Posted: January 05, 1990

PANAMA CITY, Panama — The Vatican embassy pressured Manuel Noriega to surrender to U.S. troops by threatening to ask Panamanian authorities to come in after the "highly dangerous criminal," a spokesman said.

"We would have lifted the diplomatic immunity," said the Rev. Javier Villanueva, assisant to the papal nuncio.

He made the disclosure yesterday as Panamanians assessed the cost of the two-year struggle over Noriega's ouster, which was completed Wednesday when he left the Vatican embassy and was whisked off by U.S. troops to Florida to face

drug-trafficking charges.

"I will pray for you every day," Villanueva told the ousted dictator as they walked Wednesday night to the black iron gates of the Vatican Embassy.

"Gracias," answered a visibly moved Noriega, according to the parish priest who was a key player in talks to get Noriega out of the mission.

Villanueva said embassy officials didn't give Noriega a deadline to leave, but made his choices clear.

"If he would not have given himself up, the Panamanian government, not the U.S. government, would have been invited to send in forces to take him out," Villanueva said in a telephone interview.

In Washington, however, a senior Bush adminstration official said the papal nuncio, Monsignor Sebastian Laboa, gave Noriega a Thursday noon deadline to get out, "meaning he would no longer be a welcome guest."

Even the priests who granted him asylum on Christmas Eve reminded Noriega he was an unwelcome guest. The hospitality was minimal.

"He could not ask for anything special," said embassy spokesman Jose Cubillas. "He was a vegetarian but he did not get vegetarian meals."

Noriega lived in a small room on the second floor of the white-stucco building. It had a bathroom, a broken TV set and a Bible.

Vatican and U.S. military officials said Noriega kept a submachine gun under his bed the whole time he was in the embassy.

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