Panama expressed hope that the United States will finally clean up toxic munitions it left behind during chemical weapons testing conducted by the U.S. military on a Panamanian island more than 60 years ago. Panama's renewed expectations come as the U.S. has been one of the main parties behind a plan to eliminate Syria's chemical stockpiles, which include sarin, a deadly nerve agent that the U.S. reportedly tested on the deserted Panamanian island.
"I have a firm commitment from the United States," Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez Fabrega told McClatchy.
The Pentagon will send a team later this year to survey the part of the island where the toxic munitions are known to exist, according to Nunez. Another team will be dispatched to dispose of the canisters next year.
The Obama administration declined to confirm whether an agreement had been reached, according to McClatchy.
"The U.S. government is reviewing Panama's request concerning the munitions on San Jose Island and is committed to resolving this issue in a timely manner," said Jennifer D. Elzea, a Pentagon spokeswoman.
Referred to as the San Jose Project, the U.S. military leased the island from Panama in 1944 in order to assess "chemical warfare weapons under tropical conditions," according to a 1988 U.S. Army book.
From 1945 to 1947, the U.S. military tested more than 31,000 chemical munitions during at least 128 chemical weapons tests. It left behind at least eight unexploded 500- and 1,000-pound bombs, according to a 2002 Panamanian survey of the island.
The chemical munitions that were tested included phosgene, cyanogen chloride and mustard gas. Other reports include VX nerve gas and sarin, the same lethal nerve agent that Syria is accused of having used in the suburbs of Damascus in August.
In May, Panama petitioned the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) — the U.N. body charged with overseeing the destruction of Syrian munitions — for the U.S. to remove the eight chemical bombs that were uncovered in the 2002 survery.
"The expert feeling is that whatever is in those bombs is probably not dangerous," Tomas A. Cabal, the head of the anti-terrorism analysis unit at the Foreign Ministry, told McClatchy. But he added that the canisters hold explosive detonators, which may be less stable and a greater threat.
U.S. delegates had requested that Panama make one change to its petition during negotiations held earlier this year at the Hague, according to Cabal.
"They requested that we change the wording to read that they had not 'abandoned' but that they had 'forgotten'" about the munitions, said Cabal, who partcipated in the negotiations process.
In 2003, the U.S. government had offered to train Panamanians to clean up the mess as long as Panama released it from liability. Panama rejected the offer, demanding that the Pentagon itself remove the toxic munitions from the island.
Populated by deer and and wild pigs, the nearly empty San Jose Island has been the setting for several episodes of the CBS reality show "Survivor."