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Saturday, May 1, 1999 Published at 23:20 GMT 00:20 UK

World: Americas

Panama prepares for elections

Mireya Moscoso in confident mood as camapaign ends

Panama goes to the polls on Sunday in elections that are being seen as the dawn of a new era in the country's relationship with the US.

Peter Greste: Very little separates the main candidates
Opinion polls have suggested the presidential race is very close between opposition candidate, Mireya Moscoso, and Martin Torrijos, the son of Panama's former leader, General Omar Torrijos.

[ image: Martin Torrijos: son of one of Panama's strongmen]
Martin Torrijos: son of one of Panama's strongmen
Mrs Moscoso is the widow of Arnulfo Arias, a three-time president of Panama, who was exiled with her husband in 1968, when his last government was overthrown by General Torrijos.

The winner will oversee the handover of the Panama Canal in December, following an agreement between General Torrijos and President Carter in 1977.

US forces have been preparing for the withdrawal by flying aircraft from the Howard air force base this week.

Final lift off

BBC Central America correspondent Peter Greste saw the last C-130 Hercules lift off on its way to its new base in Puerto Rico.

The US Air Force kept six C-130s and four F-16 fighters at the Howard base.

Peter Greste: The loss of US strategic power in the region
He says that between them, the Hercules and the fighters projected American military power across central and south America during some of the region's most turbulent years.

The fighters have played a major role in counter-narcotics operations. Over the past two years alone, they have shot down more than 30 aircraft smuggling drugs.

[ image: The last C-130 left Panama this week]
The last C-130 left Panama this week
The Hercules have helped move and support US troops participating in everything from the region's wars to its natural disasters.

Most recently, the Howard base was instrumental in running the relief operations for Hurricane Mitch last December, and the Colombian earthquake earlier this year.

The only US presence left is a small administrative team, which will formally hand the base to the Panamanian government in September.

Panama's canal

Both Presidential front runners have put the handover of the Panama Canal by the US at the top of the country's agenda.

Mr Torrijos has said "what in the past was a source of conflict" with the US will be eliminated, establishing a new relationship of equality.

"You can be sure that the canal in Panamanian hands will be an efficient canal," he said.

His opponent Mrs Moscoso said: "We must tell the whole world we are prepared to administer the canal as the US has for many years."

There are also elections on Sunday for the 72-seat Legislative Assembly, and a team of 35 observers will monitor the poll for the Organisation of American States.

Outgoing President Ernesto Perez Balladares tried to change a constitutional restriction, which bans presidents from standing for re-election, but failed to gain popular support in a referendum last August.

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