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BUSH GETS TOUGH WITH VATICAN ON CUSTODY OF NORIEGA

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The Bush administration is talking in "tough terms" in its bid to convince the Vatican to turn over deposed Panamanian dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega to face trial on drug charges in the United States, a source says.

But the Vatican has ruled out simply turning over Noriega, who is holed up in the Vatican Embassy in Panama City, said spokesman Joaquin Navarro in Rome, noting the Holy See does not have an extradition treaty with the United States.Noriega sought asylum at the Papal Nunciature on Sunday afternoon.

The U.S. demand for custody of Noriega was delivered on Monday to the Vatican "in extraordinarily tough terms," said a State Department source.

Papal representatives have contacted several Latin American and European countries in hopes one will agree to accept Noriega, said the U.S. official. He described the situation as "a Mexican standoff."

"He has no place to go yet," the official said. "Nobody wants him."

The Washington Post Tuesday quoted an official, whom it did not identify, as saying that President Bush spoke by telephone Monday with the papal nuncio in Panama, Monsignor Juan Sebastian Laboa. The paper did not give details on the conversation.

The Post also said Cuba indicated it would be willing to give political asylum to Noriega.

Spain, Cuba and the Dominican Republic were mentioned in the past as possible exile sites when Noriega's representatives were negotiating with the United States in 1988 and again this year about the possibility of Noriega stepping down.

But Spain might not be acceptable to Noriega because it has an extradition treaty with the United States. And Cuba might not be palatable to the United States because it does not have diplomatic ties with Washington and would put Noriega beyond American reach.

The State Department official said most of the discussions have been carried out between the State Department and church officials at the Vatican.

Despite the Christmas holiday, lawyers and diplomats at the State Department and National Security Council kept up a hectic day of discussions and contacts Monday about Noriega's fate.

Bush was kept abreast of the developments by his National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft, who joined Bush and his family at Camp David in the Catoctin Mountains of Maryland for several hours on Christmas Day.

The White House said Secretary of State James A. Baker III was keeping in touch by telephone from Houston where he spent the holiday.

"It is U.S. policy that we would like to have Mr. Noriega in order to return him to the United States to stand trial," said Defense Secretary Dick Cheney in Panama City, where he spent Christmas Day with U.S. troops.

Federal drug agents flew an indicted associate of Noriega's to the United States on Monday to be arraigned.

Lt. Col. Luis del Cid, who gave himself in to U.S. officials on Saturday, was indicted with Noriega in Miami on drug-related charges last year.

The turbulent diplomatic activity around Noriega was offset by a return of calm to the streets of Panama City and the countryside.

"It's clear to me that it is considerably calmer than it was just two or three days ago," Cheney said after touring the country and meeting with some of the estimated 26,000 U.S. troops there.

Cheney told reporters at the Southern Command headquarters that he had met with newly installed President Guillermo Endara and his two vice presidents.

"I was tremendously impressed with their determination to get the government back on its feet," he said.

Still, he declined to place a deadline for the pullout of the 13,000 troops airlifted to Panama last week. "We'd like to be able to let them go home as quickly as possible, but they will stay as long as they're needed," he said.

"We don't want to leave too soon before the task is accomplished," Cheney added.

The major task before U.S. forces is helping the Endara government "rebuild the damage" wrought by five days of heavy fighting against Noriega loyalists, Cheney said.

The Pentagon issued revised casualty figures, putting the death toll of U.S. troops at 23, revised downward by one from Sunday because one victim was counted by two different units.

There were 303 U.S. wounded, none missing and two civilian dependents killed. The Panamanian Defense Forces suffered 290 dead, 121 wounded, and 3,780 captured or detained.