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Panama begins exhumation of victims from 1989 US invasion

A woman places flowers on the grave of a person who died during the 1989 U.S. military invasion that ousted Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega, on the 30th anniversary of the invasion in Panama City, on Dec. 20, 2019. (AP Photo/Arnulfo Franco)

PANAMA CITY (AP) -- Forensic workers took preliminary steps Monday for digging up the remains of some victims of the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama, an effort that has lifted the hopes of Panamanians who had relatives die or disappear and have lived with unanswered questions about their fate for 30 years.

Authorities gave the approval for exhumation of the 19 bodies buried in a Panama City cemetery after a truth commission set up three years ago documented about 20 disappearances from the U.S. military action to topple strongman Manuel Noriega.

Prosecutor Maribel Caballero told reporters the remains will be compared to a database of DNA from relatives in 14 cases.

Work began with the placing of yellow tape where the forensic experts would begin digging, though no soil had yet been turned by afternoon.

On hand to witness the process were relatives of missing and dead Panamanians, including the wife of a lieutenant in Noriega's military who along with her daughters is asking for the opening of a coffin that they contend was mistakenly identified as containing his remains.

"I am going to demand they open that coffin for me because they put my father's name there," said Brigitte Bethancourt, 60, daughter of Braulio Bethancort. "It is a lack of respect to put the name knowing that three times I told prosecutors it was not my father."

The cemetery contains more than 100 people killed during the invasion that were first exhumed months after the event because they had been buried in common graves.

DNA testing is expected to take months.

"For me this is a celebration of being able to know where my father will be," said Bethancourt, who lives in California. "We are already past the mourning."

About 514 Panamanians including soldiers and civilians were killed in the invasion, according to official estimates, while the U.S. military reported 23 troop casualties.

Human rights groups believe the number of Panamanian dead could be higher.

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