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The BBC's correspondent James Reynolds reports:
"The US lowered its flag in front of rows of empty seats"
 real 28k

Friday, 31 December, 1999, 07:25 GMT
US relinquishes Panama Canal

US flag End of an era: The Stars and Stripes is lowered for the last time


Panama is due to assume full control over the Panama Canal on Friday in a ceremony expected to draw cheering crowds of thousands.

The United States was due to take part in the ceremony, but unexpectedly asked for their flag-lowering to be brought forward to sunset on Thursday.

The change in plan was not due to any specific threat, according to a US State Department spokesman.

"Officials from both countries agreed that it was a prudent decision and in keeping with the dignity of the event," Philip Reeker said.



This is a day for all Panamanians
President Moscoso

Panamanian officials said the change was to avoid any potentially embarrassing scenes, possibly with anti-US protesters.

The flag-lowering ceremony was carried out outside the headquarters of the Panama Canal in front of rows of empty seats.

It was attended by Panama's President Mireya Moscoso, her cabinet and a small US delegation led by Ambassador Simon Ferro.

Panamanian Foreign Minister Jorge Ritter said he could not understand the decision to bring the ceremony forward:

"I think it would have been nobler to lower the flag at Friday's ceremony" he said.

Celebrations

The official handover of the Canal will still happen at midday on Friday, but now the centrepiece of the revised ceremony will be the raising of the Panamanian flag.

Afterwards there will be a 21-gun salute and ships' sirens will sound out across the Canal.

There has been great excitement among people here in the run-up to the handover.

Many have bought flags printed with the words: "At last the Canal belongs to us".

"It is a day for all Panamanians," President Moscoso said, "we are going out on the streets to celebrate".

Slogans painted on a number of walls read: "Finally we've achieved sovereignty."

It will be the first time since the country's independence in 1903 that Panama has had control over its entire territory.

Transfer treaty

The 80km (50 mile) Canal has been run by the US Defence Department since it opened in August 1914.

Nearly 22,000 people died building it from malaria and work accidents.

The transfer of sovereignty to Panama was agreed in the Torrijos-Carter treaty of 1977, and former US president Jimmy Carter attended a ceremonial handover on 14 December this year.

The new operators of the waterway, which handles 14,000 ships a year, will pass to the Panama Canal Authority a few hours before the changeover to the year 2,000 to avoid any possible computer problems.

Panama's ambassador to Washington hailed the transfer as "the start of a new relationship with the US apart from the Canal."

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See also:
08 Dec 99 |  Americas
Panama Canal : America's strategic artery
08 Dec 99 |  Americas
Building the Canal: Old world failure
08 Dec 99 |  Americas
Building the canal: New world success

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