Former Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega was taken from his prison cell to a public hospital for treatment following a possible stroke, officials said.

The 77-year-old Noriega was taken to the Hospital Santo Tomas after suffering "hypertension with a possibility of a stroke," national police said in a statement that did not elaborate on his condition.

"He had symptoms that indicated a stroke," Health Minister Franklin Vergara said later, adding that Noriega would be kept under observation in the intensive care unit for 24 hours and would undergo further tests.

The ex-military ruler spent 22 years behind bars in the United States and France on drug trafficking and money laundering charges before being extradited to Panama on December 11.

He returned home in a wheelchair, having difficulty walking and speaking due to strokes suffered in the past.

A military dictator from 1983 to 1989, Noriega is serving three separate sentences after being convicted in absentia for crimes committed in Panama, including the murder of critics.

He also faces a series of other complaints for human rights abuses.

News of his hospitalization spread quickly in the Central American nation and the rumor mill was turning fast.

"I'm glad he is getting the medical attention he denied me," said Roberto Diaz Herrera, a former aide to Noriega who was later imprisoned and nearly died from illness.

"I want him to recover and face the law," said Diaz.

But former protest leader Aurelio Barria said he found it "suspicious" that Noriega's condition had come to light on the same day that riot police broke up a protest of indigenous activists.

Barria feared it could all be part of an effort by Noriega's family to bring him home and said that if he is ill he should be treated "and when he is cured, he should return to his cell."

There has been some speculation that Noriega may be allowed to leave prison as Panama allows certain convicts aged 70 years and older to serve their time at home.

He has been housed until now in a cell measuring some 12 square meters (130 square feet) that has two windows, a metal door, a bed and a toilet.

When he arrived home, Noriega's lawyers said they expected the Panamanian justice system to take into account their client's advanced age and weak health.

Noriega spent two decades in a Miami prison on drug charges after his overthrow, and was then extradited to France, where he was sentenced to six years in prison for laundering money for the Medellin drug cartel. He spent nearly two years behind bars in France before he was extradited.

A truth commission in Panama found 110 cases of murders and forced disappearances of Noriega opponents during his dictatorship.

The return of Noriega, who was on the CIA's payroll from 1968 to 1986 before he became an enemy of Washington, sparked speculation that he could reveal secrets about political figures and wealth amassed under his regime.

Noriega's rule came to an end when then US president George H.W. Bush ordered US troops to invade Panama on December 20, 1989, claiming it was necessary to safeguard US citizens, secure the US-built canal, battle drug trafficking and defend democracy.

Noriega, who will turn 78 in the coming week, is serving three 20-year jail terms for the abduction and murder of three opponents: Hugo Spadafora, a doctor and former deputy health minister, in 1985; Moises Giroldi, a military commander, in 1989; and union activist Heliodoro Portugal in 1970.