U.S. hands over base amid criticism from Panama
(
Reuters )

 FORT SHERMAN, Panama, July 30 (Reuters) - The United States handed 
over a military base on Wednesday in a major step toward ending its 
presence in the Panama Canal, but Panama's president chided the Americans 
for failing to remove all unexploded ammunition from a nearby firing 
range.


 Entering the final stages of its century-old military role in the 
canal, the United States officially turned over Fort Sherman, at the 
Caribbean entrance to the canal, to Panama.


 U.S. ambassador Simon Ferro presented Panamanian President Ernesto 
Perez Balladares with an oversized key, and the American flag was 
lowered for the last time.


 ``Today's ceremony is especially significant. With the transfer of 
these properties the withdrawal of United States Forces from the Caribbean 
side of the Panama Canal is complete,'' Ferro said in a speech at 
the ceremony.


 Under the 1977 Torrijos-Carter treaties, the United States must pull 
out troops and hand over control of the Panama Canal and other territories 
to Panama by Dec. 31.


 But Perez Balladares chilled the tone of an otherwise warm ceremony 
by rapping the United States for failing to remove unexploded ammunition 
buried in a 7,400 acre (3,000 hectare) jungle firing range used by 
generations of U.S. soldiers and also handed over on Wednesday.


 ``All of the areas used for a long time for the practice of shooting 
and bombing ... need to be cleaned,'' he said. ``The act of receiving 
these areas does not imply recognition whatsoever that the United 
States has complied with the responsibilities established in the treaties.'
'


 Many of the unexploded bombs are buried under tons of mud and vegetation.


 The United States maintains that any effort to clean the dense jungle 
areas of La Pina, Empire and other ranges would result in severe defoliation 
that could seriously damage the watershed of the Panama Canal.


 Not far from the handover ceremony, a lone protester carrying a Panamanian 
flag and dressed in a traditional costume chanted the traditional 
protest cry against American military presence in Panama: ``Only one 
flag, only one country.''


 Fort Sherman, founded by the U.S. military in 1911 at the Atlantic 
mouth of the Panama Canal, was one of 12 major military bases that 
housed as many as 65,000 American soldiers at the height of the American 
military presence.


 The 23,000 acre (9,300 hectare) area -- most of which is virgin multiple-
canopy rain forest -- served to train U.S. troops for jungle warfare 
since 1953.


 Now Panama's government plans to preserve Fort Sherman with an eco-
tourism complex that will allow visitors to experience the area's 
vast biodiversity, including monkeys, parrots and other tropical wildlife.



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report may not be republished or redistributed, in whole or in part,
 without the prior written consent of Reuters Ltd.

Michael Winfrey, U.S. hands over base amid criticism from Panama. , Reuters, 06-30-1999.