Page last updated at 21:46 GMT, Saturday, 6 December 2008

Russian ship sails through Panama

The Admiral Chabanenko in the Panama Canal
The Admiral Chabanenko took several hours to sail along the canal

A Russian warship has sailed through the Panama Canal for the first time since World War II.

The Admiral Chabanenko had earlier completed manoeuvres with Venezuela's navy, coinciding with a Latin American tour by the Russian president.

The 50-mile (80km) canal linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans was shut to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Correspondents say the Russian ship is sending a symbolic message in what the US sees as its sphere of influence.

Ties between the two superpowers have become strained because of Washington's plan for a missile defence system in Poland and the Czech Republic - something Moscow is firmly opposed to.

Panama said the passage of the ship had no political significance, as the canal is "open to all the world's ships".

First since 1944

The warship entered the canal on Friday night and docked at Rodman, once the base for all US naval activities in South America, on Saturday.

It will stay in Rodman for five days.

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The canal journey, the naval exercises and President Dmitry Medvedev's visit to the region have been seen as aimed at strengthening Russia's influence in the region.

In the naval exercises, about 1,600 Russian and 700 Venezuelan sailors on four Russian ships and 12 Venezuelan vessels took part in the VenRus 2008 joint exercise.

They had originally been scheduled to last three days, but both Venezuelan and Russian officials said the manoeuvres had been successfully completed in one day.

The first and only time Soviet warships used the Panama Canal was in 1944, when the USSR and US were fighting as allies against Hitler, the Russian embassy in Panama told AFP news agency.

Four Soviet submarines crossed the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific after undergoing repairs, it said.

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