Esteban Felix, Associated Press
PARIS — Former military strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega was flown home to Panama on Sunday to be punished once again for crimes he committed during a career that saw him transformed from a close Cold War ally of Washington to the vilified target of a U.S. invasion.
Noriega left Orly airport, south of Paris, on a flight of Spain's Iberia airlines, delivered directly to the aircraft by a four-car convoy and motorcycles that escorted him from the French capital's walked La Sante prison. The flight, which stops in Madrid, left at 8:08 a.m. (0708 GMT), about a half-hour behind schedule.
The French Justice Ministry, in a one-line statement, said France turned Noriega over to Panamanian officials on Sunday in accordance with extradition proceedings. It was the only official remark.
Noriega's return comes after more than 20 years in U.S. and French prisons for drug trafficking and money laundering. Panama convicted him during his captivity overseas for the slayings of two political opponents in the 1980s.
He was sentenced to 20 years in each case, and Panamanian officials say he will be sent straight to a jail cell when he lands. The ex-general, whose pockmarked face earned him the nickname "Pineapple Face," could eventually leave prison under a law allowing prisoners over 70 to serve out their time under house arrest.
A doctor was reported to be among the team of Panamanian officials escorting the 77-year-old ex-dictator back to Panama.
"He was very impatient, very happy. He's going home," one of his French lawyers, Antonin Levy, said by telephone Saturday night, a day after his last visit with Noriega.
But many Panamanians still want to see the man who stole elections and dispatched squads of thugs to beat opponents bloody in the streets to pay his debt at home.
"Noriega was responsible for the invasion and those who died in the operation. He dishonored his uniform, there was barely a shot and he went off to hide. He must pay," said Hatuey Castro, 82, a member of the anti-Noriega opposition who was detained and beaten by the strongman's thugs in 1989.
Though other U.S. conflicts have long since pushed him from the spotlight, the 1989 invasion that ousted Noriega was one of the most bitterly debated events of the Cold War's waning years.
Noriega began working with U.S. intelligence when he was a student at a military academy in Peru, said Everett Ellis Briggs, the United States ambassador to Panama from 1982 to 1986.
As he rose in the Panamanian military during the 1970s and 1980s, Noriega cooperated closely with the CIA, helping the U.S. combat leftist movements in Latin America by providing information and logistical help. He also acted as a back channel for U.S. communications with unfriendly governments such as Cuba's.
But Noriega was playing a double game. He also began working with Colombia's Medellin drug cartel, and made millions moving cocaine to the United States.
"He was for rent to a lot of people," Briggs said. The U.S. avoided taking action because of concerns about the security of the Panama Canal and overall stability in Central America, he added.
"There was just a feeling that now is not the time to take the lid off this particular mess," Briggs said.
As the Cold War waned, and the U.S. war on drugs gained prominence, Noriega's drug ties became a source of increasing tension. After a U.S. grand jury indicted him on drug charges in 1988, tensions escalated between his forces and U.S. troops stationed around the Panama Canal. A U.S. Marine was killed in one clash. President George H.W. Bush also accused Noriega's men of abusing a U.S. Navy serviceman and his wife.
On Dec. 20, 1989, more than 26,000 U.S. troops began moving into Panama City, clashing with Noriega loyalists in fighting that left sections of the city devastated.
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