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Biden Likely to Discuss U.S. Chemical Arms During Panama Trip

By Rachel Oswald

Global Security Newswire

Corroded chemical-warfare material is shown in this undated photo after it was unearthed by the U.S. Army. Vice President Joe Biden is expected to discuss the disposal of several U.S. chemical munitions that were abandoned in Panama decades ago when he visits the country next week (U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency photo). Corroded chemical-warfare material is shown in this undated photo after it was unearthed by the U.S. Army. Vice President Joe Biden is expected to discuss the disposal of several U.S. chemical munitions that were abandoned in Panama decades ago when he visits the country next week (U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency photo).

WASHINGTON -- How to dispose of U.S. chemical weapons moldering in Panama -- and who should do it -- is a matter Vice President Joe Biden is expected to address when he visits the country on Monday.

Panama City for years has been trying to convince Washington to take responsibility for the eight undetonated munitions the U.S. Army abandoned on San Jose Island after ending its chemical-weapons testing program there in 1947. Panama's foreign minister recently told McClatchy Newspapers a cleanup agreement had been reached with the United States, though no official announcement on the matter has been made by the Obama administration.

"We think this probably will be part of the discussions" Biden and the U.S. delegation will have with top officials in Panama, a senior administration official told reporters on Friday during a conference call.

Washington has been discussing disposal of the chemical munitions with Panama City since May, said the official, who asked to not be identified when speaking about Biden's trip to Panama.

"This is something we're reviewing right now and have committed to resolving in a timely manner," the official said, without specifying when an announcement on the issue might come.

Biden will be in Panama on Monday and Tuesday for a quick trip that is anticipated to largely focus on the expansion of the Panama Canal and its hoped-for positive impact on the U.S. economy.

Panamanian Foreign Minister Fernando Nunez Fabrega in an October interview with McClatchy said: "I have a firm commitment from the United States" on the plans for U.S. military personnel to survey an area of privately owned San Jose Island where the chemical arms are located and to destroy the munitions in 2014.

Paul Walker, director of environmental security and sustainability at Green Cross International, last month told Global Security Newswire Panama City for years has been quietly pressing the issue with Washington of cleaning up the chemical arms. However, he said, the desire by the island's private owners to dramatically increase development of their tropical paradise likely pushed the matter higher on the Panamanian government's agenda.

The well-known chemical arms expert said the corroding munitions pose a danger to public safety.

"People will get killed if they're not careful" with how they approach the unexploded weapons, which contain mustard agent and phosgene, Walker said.

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NTI Analysis

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    This CNS issue brief examines the lessons learned from dismantling Libya and Iraq's chemical weapons programs and what these two cases presage for disarmament in Syria. In particular, this article explores the challenges relating to ensuring material and physical security for both inspectors and the chemical weapons stockpile itself; verifying the accuracy and completeness of disclosed inventories; and developing effective monitoring and verification regimes for the long-term. The conclusion examines recommendations stemming from this analysis.