Panama Hopes US Will Finally Clean Up Chemical Weapons


[. . .] The new expectations from Panama come as the US has pressured Syria to eradicate its chemical munitions in the wake of what the superpower alleges was a sarin attack carried out by the Assad regime on civilians near Damascus on Aug. 21. Yet the Obama administration itself is less clear on any agreement to clean up thousands of pounds of bombs on San Jose Island, 60 miles southeast from Panama City in the Pacific Ocean.

The World War II ordnance was left on the island following a two-year term, from 1945 to 1947, when about 200 US soldiers used the then-deserted island to test chemical weapons that included phosgene, cyanogen chloride and mustard gas. Other reports maintain the soldiers also tested VX nerve gas and sarin, the lethal agent the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons found had been used in Syria on Aug. 21.

A Panamanian survey in 2002 found at least eight unexploded 500- to 1000-pound bombs remain on the 17-square-mile island with an abundance of deer and wild pigs and surrounded by rugged shoreline.  “The expert feeling is that whatever is in those bombs is probably not dangerous,” said Tomas A. Cabal, the head of the anti-terrorism analysis unit at the Foreign Ministry. Yet he added remaining canisters hold explosive detonators that are less stable. In 2003, the US offered to train Panamanians to deal with such munitions as long as Panama waived any United States liability. Panama declined, demanding the Pentagon fulfill its obligation to dispose of the toxic ordnance.

Panama is hopeful based on the Pentagon’s pledge to send a team to survey the munitions on the island later this year, Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez Fabrega told McClatchy. “I have a firm commitment from the United States,” Nunez Fabrega said.

In May, Panama appealed to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – the body based in The Hague, Netherlands, that is leading the destruction of Syrian munitions – for the US to remove the unexploded bombs. Cabal, who was a part of the clean-up negotiations at The Hague, said US delegates only requested Panama change one aspect of its petition for the recovery to happen. “They requested that we change the wording to read that they had not ‘abandoned’ but that they had ‘forgotten’” the weapons, he said.

[. . .] The United States has had a large footprint in the country over the last century, helping it sever ties with Colombia in 1903 only to be put under US sovereignty. Thousands of American soldiers were stationed there to develop the Panama Canal. In 1999, the US ceded control of the canal to Panama and many military bases set up around the country.

Yet Panama complained that the bases were littered with over 120,000 rounds of medium- and large-caliber munitions, such as mortar rounds. Watchdog groups have said the US may have tested chemical weapons in as many as 16 sites throughout Panama.

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