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The BBC's Jeremy Cooke
"It is a remarkable sight"
 real 28k

The BBC's Peter Greste in Panama
"It was a poignant reminder of the tremendous cost of building the Panama Canal"
 real 28k

Tuesday, 14 December, 1999, 22:43 GMT
End of an era at Panama Canal

President Moscoso and Mr Carter President Moscoso and Mr Carter exchange documents

The United States has handed over control of the Panama Canal to the Panamanian people - ending more than 80 years of US occupation of the canal zone.

At a ceremony on the banks of the waterway, former American President Jimmy Carter signed over control of the canal and the 10-mile-wide enclave surrounding it. The signing completed a process he began in 1977.

He acknowledged that the handover to Panama was not popular in the United States but insisted it was inevitable.

We regret very much that President Clinton did not come
President Moscoso
Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso, King Juan Carlos of Spain, and various Latin American leaders joined Mr Carter at the celebrations, which started shortly after 1100 local time (1600 GMT) on Tuesday.

US President Bill Clinton, who turned away invitations to attend the ceremony, said he was confident that the canal would be safe under Panamanian control.

Before the signing ceremony, delegates laid wreaths in two cemeteries containing the remains of workers who died building the canal. More than 400 people died for each of the canal's 50 miles.

Mr Carter began the transfer process more than 20 years ago when he signed a treaty with the then Panamanian leader, General Omar Torrijos, to end American occupation of the Panama Canal Zone at noon on 31 December 1999.

The ceremonial turnover was brought forward to avoid conflict with millennium celebrations.

Perceived snub

The decision by Mr Clinton, his deputy Al Gore, and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright not to attend was regarded as a snub by the Panamanians.

President Moscoso said: "We regret very much that President Clinton should not have come to this ceremony, which is a unique, historic ceremony for Panama with the United States.

President Moscoso and Mr Carter President Moscoso, left, and Mr Carter at the Miraflores Locks
"It represents our struggle over many years for sovereignty and to have control over the Panama Canal."

Correspondents said conservatives in the US have numerous concerns about the transfer, including security guarantees. These are likely to have increased following an assault by Colombian guerrillas on a naval base at Jurado, close to Panama's border, on Sunday, which left 45 marines dead.

Another fear was that the Hong Kong-based shipping company that won the contract to operate the port facilities had close ties to Beijing.

President Clinton said the US would continue to work with Panama to safeguard the canal's security.

"Today's ceremony underscores our confidence in the government of Panama and the Panamanian people's ability to manage this vital artery of commerce."

Significant waterway

The relationship between the US and Panama dates back to 1903, when Panama gained independence from Colombia.

Line handler A canal line handler takes a nap
French engineers had started the canal project in 1880, but gave up after a decade. The Americans took over the project in 1904 in return for backing Panama's independence movement, and the waterway opened 10 years later.

The canal cuts thousands of miles off sea journeys between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, raising ships from one ocean and depositing them in the other through a system of water locks and a man-made lake.

Some 14,000 ships pass through the canal every year, and pay $540m in tolls.

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See also:
13 Dec 99 |  Americas
Panama prepares for Canal takeover
08 Dec 99 |  Americas
Panama Canal : America's strategic artery
14 Dec 99 |  Americas
In pictures: Canal handover
08 Dec 99 |  Americas
In pictures: Canal in the jungle

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