Noriega, whose US jail term ended in 2007, is serving a seven-year sentence in France for money laundering [EPA]

Panama's government says the long-awaited extradition of the former ruler, Manuel Noriega, is one step closer to reality after a French court said it received US approval to send him home to face a 20-year prison sentence.

The foreign ministry said in a statement that US approval was needed to return Noriega to Panama because the US originally extradited him to France, where he was sentenced to seven years for money laundering.

The statement said the French court announced that it had received the US approval.

Noriega's lawyer said he could be sent to Panama by Christmas.

But Julio Berrios, a lawyer, said a November 23 hearing could find that France must reissue the extradition decree it originally issued in July and that could delay the extradition beyond Christmas.

During his 1983-89 turn as Panama's president, Noriega ruled with an iron fist, ordering the deaths of those who opposed him.

The then US president, George Bush, ordered an invasion in December 1989 to remove Noriega. He was captured and taken to Miami to face drug-trafficking charges.

US prosecutors said Noriega helped Colombia's Medellin cartel sent tonnes of cocaine into the US. Jurors convicted him in April 1992 of eight of 10 charges, and he was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

After his US sentence ended in 2007, Noriega was extradited to France, where he was sentenced to seven years in prison for money laundering.

Panama wants Noriega returned to serve two prison terms of 20 years handed down after convictions in absentia.

He was convicted of embezzlement, corruption and murdering opponents, including Moises Giroldi, a military commander who led a failed rebellion two months before the US intervention, and Hugo Spadafora, an opponent whose decapitated body was found on the border with Costa Rica in 1985.

Noriega still faces murder charges in the killing of an opposition leader in the 1970s, but France denied an extradition request on that count.

Source: Agencies