Closing of U.S. Army headquarters in Panama an end of an era
FORT CLAYTON, Panama (AP) --A color guard marched out the gates
of Fort Clayton in a ceremony marking the formal departure of the regional
U.S. Army headquarters from Panama -- and signaling the approach of the
Panama Canal's handover at year's end.
The closing of the headquarters Friday leaves only a few hundred soldiers
behind until Dec. 31, when the United States turns the canal over to Panama,
ending a relationship between the two countries that began with Panama's
birth as a nation in 1903.
Maj. Gen. Philip R. Kensinger Jr., the commander of U.S. Army South, said
the troops were saying goodbye to Panama -- "and in doing so, holding our
heads high with the knowledge that Panama and the region have been better
for our presence."
The regional Army headquarters moves to Fort Buchanan in Puerto Rico.
The Southern Command, the administrative head for all branches of the U.S.
military in the region, moved out of Panama in 1997.
"Your 88-year mission here is done," said Marine Gen. Charles E. Wilhelm,
the head of the U.S. Southern Command, at the ceremony at a Fort Clayton
parade ground. "You can report with pride: Mission accomplished."
As Panamanian President Ernesto Perez Balladares looked on and a
bagpiper played "Auld Lang Syne," a color guard dressed in tan, 1910-style
U.S. uniforms and bearing Springfield rifles turned over flags to another color
guard dressed in modern camouflage uniforms and carrying M-16 rifles. The
modern guard then marched out past U.S. and Panamanian flags.
Thick gray clouds and a brisk rain began to fall soon after the ceremony
a reminder of the tropical downpours that helped the Army train millions of soldiers
in tropical jungle warfare over the years.
The first U.S. soldiers permanently assigned came in 1911 to guard
construction efforts of the Panama Canal, which was opened in 1914.
Today, fewer than 1,000 U.S. military personnel remain in Panama, largely
based at Corozal, just south of Clayton, near the Pacific entrance of the
canal. They are steadily departing week by week.
Until the mid 1990s, more than 10,000 U.S. troops were based in Panama.
At the height of the U.S. presence, during World War II, about 65,000 U.S.
troops were based in Panama.
Since the 1977 treaty signed by President Jimmy Carter and Panamanian
leader Omar Torrijos, the United States has gradually been turning over its
453,000 acres of holdings in the Canal Zone and military bases.
U.S. negotiations to maintain an anti-drug base in Panama fell through,
Perez Balladares said he expected the United States and Panama to
continue cooperating against drug traffickers.
"We have many objectives in common to complete," he said. "Especially
those that unite us, like the fight against drug trafficking and crime."