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The BBC's James Reynolds
''People sang, 'We're not an American colony.'.''
 real 28k

Saturday, 1 January, 2000, 03:49 GMT
Thousands celebrate Panama Canal handover

The Panama Canal The US lets go of one of the world's most strategic waterways


The United States has handed over the Panama Canal to Panama, ending nearly a century of American jurisdiction over one of the world's most strategic waterways.

In a festive ceremony outside the canal's headquarters, US officials signed away their authority over the canal, formally handing it over to the government of President Mireya Moscoso.

About 8,000 students marched from the capital, Panama City, to Balboa High School, a former US Defense Department school run mainly for Americans in Panama, where they raised the Panamanian flag.

'Complete sovereignty'


The US flag is lowered The US flag is lowered for the last time
They were led by six students who had marched the same route in 1964, only to witness 23 of their fellow marchers killed by US Marines who opened fire.

Diplomatic relations between the two countries were suspended after the incident, which helped spark the negotiations that eventually led to the transfer treaties.

"This is the culmination of a pending account," said Alcibiades Picota, a 17-year-old student marching with a Panamanian flag. "This is the achievement of complete sovereignty."

Potential embarrassment

The US stars and stripes flag had been lowered for the last time at sunset on Thursday, after the US unexpectedly asked for the ceremony to be brought forward.

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

The US Ambassador to Panama, Simon Ferro, described the ceremony as "a solemn and dignified act".

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

It was attended by President Moscoso, her cabinet and a small US delegation led by Mr 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

There has been great excitement among people in Panama 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 Defense Department since it opened in August 1914.

Nearly 22,000 people died from malaria and work accidents while building the canal.

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:
31 Dec 99 |  Americas
Eyewitness: Panama celebrates new era
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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