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WHAT TO DO WITH NORIEGA?

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While Gen. Manuel Noriega hides out in the Vatican embassy in Panama City, the Bush administration is asking "in the strongest terms" that the deposed dictator be handed over to stand trial in the United States on drug charges.

That would be a satisfactory conclusion, but it is unlikely the demand will be met. Yet Americans should try to understand some of the reasons behind the Vatican's dilemma.First, the tradition of asylum or refuge is an old and very strong one in Latin America. It has been used by Latin political officials of all kinds to escape with their lives after being overthrown. Some of Noriega foes have used the same route to safety, including the current president.

The concept of sanctuary in churches is one of the deeply held ideals in a part of the world where other kinds of security may often be missing as violent revolutions topple governments with unsettling frequency.

Second, letting Noriega into the Vatican embassy does not amount to approval of his actions by the Catholic Church. Noriega has been antagonistic toward the church, has been a cruel despot, has been linked with drug trafficking, and apparently has been involved with Satanic rituals, if evidence from Panama is to be believed.

So why did the Vatican take him in? One reason is the historic propensity to granting asylum. And as Noriega begged for asylum, the Vatican agreed only as a means toward ending the fighting in Panama. With Noriega safely out of the picture, it was felt that his followers might lay down their arms.

One has to have a certain amount of sympathy with the Vatican's subsequent dilemma. It has good relations with the United States and does not want those to be ruined. At the same time, it cannot easily reject the asylum tradition that stretches back for centuries. But it has never had a dictator seek asylum in modern times.

The Vatican embassy in Panama City clearly would like to get rid of Noriega as a house guest, preferably by sending him to a country other than the United States. That would require the approval of Washington and the new government of Panama, since troops surrounding the embassy could intercept any attempt by Noriega to leave.

Even if safe passage could be worked out, the number of countries willing to take Noriega is small. Cuba appears willing, but that would be a mistake. Safely in Cuba, Noriega could continue to make trouble for Panama, with the ready help of his host, Fidel Castro.

Panama itself does not have an extradition treaty with the United States, so Noriega could surrender to Panamanian authorities, but that seems a risky proposition for Noriega himself.

No easy answers are apparent when it comes to Noriega's future, but at least he cannot cause more trouble while Panama's legitimate government tries to put the country back together again.