PANAMA CITY, Panama -- Capt. Asuncion Gaitan, the right-hand man to deposed Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega, was reported missing yesterday from the Vatican Embassy here, where he had been granted asylum in December.
The captain, among the most wanted men from the Noriega regime, became the object of a massive manhunt last night that included U.S. helicopters. Beefed-up security patrols were assigned to watch all airports and border crossings.
How Captain Gaitan left the embassy was unknown.
Ebrahim Asvat, the head of 11,000-member Public Force, Panama's police agency, said that embassy authorities reported the captain missing after they found his room was empty yesterday morning.
Captain Gaitan and General Noriega sought shelter in the embassy Christmas Eve, four days after the U.S. forces overwhelmed Panama's army.
U.S. military debriefings of captured Noriega officers reveal that the captain played a major role in running the military toward the end of the Noriega regime.
The captured officers told U.S. interrogators that General Noriega became increasingly paranoid about the loyalty of the Panama Defense Forces during the last days of his rule and relied heavily on Captain Gaitan.
In one debriefing, a top Noriega aide said that General Noriega was drunk during the U.S. invasion and that it was Captain Gaitan who "gave the orders" that ultimately led to General Noriega's surrender to U.S. forces surrounding the Vatican Embassy.
Captain Gaitan won asylum at the Vatican Embassy largely because of his role in persuading General Noriega to surrender.
The deposed general is awaiting a trial on federal drug charges in Miami.