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U.S. Chemical Weapons tests in Panama

14 Aug 1999

PANAMA-US: Chemical Weapons In Canal Zone Sour Relations

By Silvio Hernandez

PANAMA CITY, Aug 9 (IPS) - Chemical weapons introduced into Panama by the United States since the 1930s are the source of an increasingly heated dispute between the two countries, with just five months to go until the Dec 31 handover of the canal.

Public opinion and local officials in Panama were largely unaware of the issue until late last year, when two non- governmental organisations (NGOs) reported that the United States carried out tests with chemical weapons on 16 sites in Panama from 1930 to 1968.

Information on where the tests were held, and where the weapons may have been left, were obtained in Washington by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a California-based pacifist organisation.

FOR and the Centro de Estudios y Accion Social de Panama (Centre for Social Research and Action - Ceaspa) went public with the data obtained from the Department of Defence through a Freedom of Information Act petition for the declassification of documents, filed by the two NGOs.

But "when we sought a detailed amplification on the fate of the chemical weapons that were not used, we ran into flat refusal this year," Ceaspa researcher Jesus Alemancia told IPS.

Panama's Foreign Ministry also requested details last year on what happened to the weapons. But the U.S. Embassy in Panama provided incomplete and incongruous data, according to Ligia Castro, director of the Health Ministry's Centre of Studies on Environmental Health.

Detailed information on the number and type of chemical weapons brought to Panama, the sites were they were tested, and the fate of unused weapons is crucial in order for Panama to be able to demand their removal by the United States, in accordance with the Convention on Chemical Weapons approved in 1993 in Paris, she added.

Panama and the United States have both ratified the Convention, which obligates signatory states to remove and destroy chemical weapons dumped in third party countries.

The Panamanian Health Ministry is responsible for investigating and filing claims before the Convention on Chemical Weapons, demanding that the United States remove the weapons.

But Castro said that until the United States provides information on the sites where the unused chemical weapons are located, Panama cannot file any such claim, because one of the requisites set forth by the Convention is that the denouncing party "present the exact location" of the weapons.

Alemancia said the refusal by U.S. authorities to declassify the rest of the documents feeds "the suspicion that there is something they want to hide."

FOR recently revealed that at least three tonnes of the lethal nervous gas VX, an agent of mass destruction, were shipped by the United States to Panama in 1964, according to records that fail to confirm that most of the material left the country.

According to the declassified documents acquired by FOR and Ceaspa, in the early 1940s the United States had at its disposal in Panama 84 tonnes of mustard gas, 10 tonnes of phosgene, a lethal agent used in World War II, 800 phosgene projectiles, 647 chemical cylinders, 2,377 4.2-inch mortars loaded with mustard gas and 900 livens projectiles.

Former bomb-expert Rick Stauber, commissioned by the U.S. Department of Defence (DOD) to conduct a study into contamination of the U.S. bases and firing ranges in the Panama canal zone, found that in the 1930s a number of chemical weapons were buried at the France Fiel airport in the city of Colon, located at the Caribbean end of the canal.

Stauber said there was no evidence that the weapons had been removed from the airport, currently used by Panama for civil aviation purposes.

Formerly one of the top environmental auditors for DOD base- cleanup studies, Stauber's contract was not renewed after he objected to omissions in the final report, released in 1996. References to usage of chemical weapons and evidence of uranium depleted projectiles were omitted from the final draft, said Stauber.

According to the expert, Panama was never informed of tests using uranium depleted anti-tank projectiles carried out from 1990 to 1993 at a training centre in Chivo Chivo, near the capital.

The main site of the first tests carried out in the 1930s and 1940s was the San Jose Island off Panama's Pacific coast, where 4,000 to 5,000 chemical weapons buried by the United States when it pulled out of the island still remain, Panamanian researcher Julio Yao denounced last week.

Besides testing mustard gas, phosgene and VX nerve gas, the United States reportedly experimented with the neurotoxic agent sarin (GB), chloride cyanogen (CK) and hydrogen cyanide (AC) on San Jose Island and 15 other test sites, most of them located in the canal zone.

The United States has also left around 120,000 unexploded medium and large calibre munitions like mines and mortars on several firing ranges which recently reverted to Panamanian jurisdiction in accordance with the 1977 canal treaties.

On Dec 31, the United States is to hand over the waterway and the military installations in the area free of risks to human health.

But Panamanian Foreign Minister Jorge Ritter protested to the Organisation of American States last week that "the United States has failed to live up to its obligation of cleaning up the military bases" in accordance with what was agreed in the 1977 canal treaties and international conventions. (END/IPS/tra-so/sh/ag/sw/99)

*** NOTICE: In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. ***

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