PANAMA CITY, Panama -- Former military strongman Manuel Antonio Noriega was flown home to Panama yesterday 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, 77, left Orly airport, south of Paris, on a flight operated by Spain's Iberia airlines. He was delivered directly to the aircraft in a four-car convoy and motorcycles that escorted him from the French capital's La Santé prison.
The French Justice Ministry, in a one-line statement, said France turned Noriega over to Panamanian officials yesterday 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, and in a third case involving the death of troops who aided one of the opponents in a rebellion.
He was sentenced to 20 years for each of the three cases, and Panamanian officials say he will be sent straight to a jail cell when he lands. The ex-general, whose pockmarked visage earned him the nickname "Pineapple Face," could eventually leave prison under a law allowing prisoners older than 70 to serve out their time under house arrest.
Noriega is returning to a greatly changed nation.
While some Panamanians insist on punishment for the man who stole elections and dispatched squads of thugs to beat opponents bloody in the streets, others believe his return means little.
Panama is plagued by rising street crime, and has become a center for money laundering. The country also is struggling with an ambitious plan to expand the canal, and to balance foreign investment in tourism and mining against concerns they could harm the environment.