The White House said that former Panamanian leader Manuel Antonio Noriega's decision yesterday to seek sanctuary with the papal nuncio in Panama City means Noriega's "reign of terror is over." U.S. forces have been searching for Noriega since deposing him in an invasion last Wednesday, and White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Bush administration officials would meet into the night to consider "an appropriate course of action for bringing" Gen. Noriega to trial here on drug charges. But Central American specialists said Noriega's decision to go to the papal legation could mean that negotiations over his future are just beginning. Under international law, a foreign embassy is considered the sovereign territory of the country it represents, and cannot be entered legally by force. Under several centuries of Roman Catholic tradition, the church will not expel anyone who seeks its sanctuary. A spokesman for the State Department's Panama Task Force, Richard Sanders, declined to speculate on what steps the U.S. government might take to bring Noriega to the United States. Fitzwater said the United States "will continue to pursue avenues for bringing General Noriega, now located, to justice." However, his decision to seek asylum in an embassy, particularly a Vatican embassy, may give Noriega a strong hand in any negotiations over his future. "If he wants to stay there forever and ever, he could do it," said Margaret Crahan, a professor of religion and a board member of the Interamerican Institute of Human Rights of the Organization of American States. "It is highly unlikely they {the Vatican} would cooperate to remove him. It is too risky for them to violate the principle of sanctuary." Ironically, the papal nuncio in Panama City has been highly critical of Noriega, and the Vatican legation has provided refuge for Noriega opponents. Guillermo Endara, Panama's newly sworn-in president, sought sanctuary there just two months ago after he was beaten by Noriega's soldiers. Endara told a news conference -- held yesterday before it was known that Noriega had turned himself in -- that if the general fell into Panamanian hands, Panamanian law would prohibit him from sending Noriega to the United States. Noriega was indicted in 1988 in Florida for alleged links to international drug traffickers. "We may not extradite any Panamanian citizen," Endara said. Carlos Rodriguez, Endara's ambassador to the United States, called Noriega's decision to enter the papal nunciature "a smart move" because it gives him an opportunity to seek refuge in more than one country. U.S. troops had kept watch at the embassies of Nicaragua and Cuba, two countries that U.S. officials thought would welcome Noriega, but other countries such as Spain also have been mentioned as possible final destinations for the deposed leader. The prospect of protracted negotiations over Noriega's future, and the likelihood that he will escape U.S. prosecution, did not dampen U.S. enthusiasm that he had given up. "I am pleased that the general is now under the control of diplomatic authorities. His reign of terror is over," President Bush said in a statement released by Fitzwater. "As we work to help return law and order to Panama City, and as the government of President Endara begins its work, the demise of General Noriega sends a strong signal that freedom and democracy in Panama are on the rise." Bush has long said that the top U.S. priority was to get Noriega out of power, not necessarily to prosecute him in the United States. Over several months, the administration has offered Noriega several deals involving his taking sanctuary in another country with a promise that the United States would not seek to extradite him. Fitzwater said "the most significant aspect" of Noriega's decision to seek sanctuary is that it demonstrates he no longer has any power. "It does clearly show he has been separated from his power base . . . . He is a lone fugitive." Over the years, several prominent figures and thousands of ordinary citizens have sought asylum in foreign embassies. One of the most famous, and one of the longest, was the 15-year asylum of Cardinal Josef Mindszenty of Hungary in the U.S. Embassy in Budapest. He lived there until the Vatican arranged for his transfer to the West in 1971. The most recent example is the ongoing asylum in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing of dissident Fang Lizhi. Fang escaped to the embassy in June during the govern- ment crackdown on demonstrators seek- ing a change in the Chinese government. The wife and children of President Salvador Allende of Chile sought refuge in the Mexican Embassy in Santiago after Allende died in a 1973 coup. However, most cases of asylum do not involve prominent leaders, but ordinary citizens. In one spectacular case, an estimated 10,000 Cubans sought asylum on the grounds of the Peruvian Embassy in Havana in April 1980. Seven Pentacostals, claiming religious persecution, lived for five years in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, leaving in 1983. In recent months, foreign embassies have played a key role in the upheaval in Eastern Europe. Thousands of East Germans sought refuge in West German and other embassies in the early flow of refugees that led to eased East German travel restrictions. In a related development, Secretary of State James A. Baker III was critical of the Organization of American States for failing in its diplomatic efforts to remove Noriega. The OAS censured the United States for the invasion. "You know, one of the biggest disappointments that I've seen in the 11 months that I've been in this job was the inability of the Organization of American States to move effectively on this problem of Noriega and Panama," Baker said on NBC News's "Meet the Press." "The United States worked very hard, diplomatically and in both a bilateral and multilateral way -- multilaterally through the OAS -- to try and take care of this problem. And I think if the OAS had been able to generate a greater support for some of the things that the United States suggested, political sanctions, economic sanctions, and things like that, maybe we wouldn't find ourselves in this situation today," Baker said.