U.S. hands over base amid criticism from Panama
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. Copyright 1999 Reuters Ltd. All rights reserved. The above news 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.