Panama City (AFP) – The United States has started destroying a stock of old, World War II-era chemical weapons it left in Panama decades ago, the foreign ministry said.
“The operation started in mid-September to destroy the chemical munitions located on San Jose island” off Panama’s southern coast, the ministry’s director for legal affairs, Farah Urrutia, said late Wednesday.
US specialists were working with Panamanian counterparts to carry out the task, she added.
The project is supported by the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).
The eight bombs being disposed of were uncovered on the island in 2002 during an OPCW inspection.
US tests of mustard gas, phosgene and other chemical weapons for possible use in WWII and the Vietnam War were alleged to have been carried out on the island. The United States maintained military bases in Panama from the time it completed the Panama Canal in 1914 until its withdrawal in 1999.
The United States and Panama had discussed for years what to do with the weapons. The clean-up was initially scheduled for 2013 but never carried out because the Americans failed to set aside money for the procedure.
Urrutia said the OPCW had submitted a preliminary report confirming the destruction of four of the eight bombs. She added that no indications of health hazards from the munitions had been detected among people on the island or in the environment.
Juan Mendez, a former foreign ministry official who had been involved in the OPCW’s 2002 inspection, told AFP he had recently visited San Jose island and seen a large US military contingent at work there, including explosives experts, with six helicopters and a large supply ship. “It was a huge team,” he said.
Carlos Guevara Mann, a professor in international relations, said that, under international law, the United States “has an obligation to destroy chemical weapons it abandoned.”
Panamanian advocacy groups say the United States abandoned a lot of ordnance in Panama.
Some estimates say that more than 10 hectares of land along the canal are littered with unexploded conventional bombs.