A controversial government witness in the trial of two co-defendants of Manuel Noriega has died in an automobile accident, officials said Thursday.

Testimony by the witness, Ramon Navarro, allegedly tied the ousted Panamanian dictator and the co-defendants directly to the drug-smuggling voyage of the luxury yacht Krill, the central issue in the case.Navarro was paid $170,000 and given immunity to hundreds of drug crimes in exchange for his testimony against Noriega co-defendant William Saldarriaga.

Richard Sharpstein, co-defendant Brian Davidow's attorney, said Thursday that Navarro's "testimony is central to this case, but I think his death is a total, bizarre coincidence."

A Metro Dade police report said Navarro's car crashed late Wednesday night in southwest Dade County, only a few miles from the federal Metropolitan Correctional Center where Noriega and Saldarriaga are housed.

The accident is still under investigation, according to the report, which gave no further details.

That startling development came just as the prosecution was presenting initial witnesses in the case Thursday, including a Colombian police colonel who traced the route of the Krill.

In opening arguments Wednesday, defense attorneys charged that pressures to convict Noriega subjected the two co-defendants to a barrage of false testimony bought from drug dealers with government favors.

But prosecutors said in opening statements Wednesday that the two defendants are nothing more than drug dealers themselves.