January 1, 2000
Canal passes first test in Panamanian hands

                  PANAMA CITY, Panama (AP) -- Ships crossed the isthmus of Panama
                  without problems Saturday, the nation's first full day as sole administrator
                  of the canal. Popular concern about the canal's security, however, remained.

                  The transfer of the waterway and surrounding property from the United States
                  to Panamanian hands was finalized at noon Friday, ending 85 years of
                  American control. Panamanians celebrated what they described as the start
                  of full sovereignty.

                  There were no reports of problems stemming from the feared Y2K
                  computer glitch. Canal authorities had stressed that operations would go
                  smoothly since the technology used to run the canal is largely the same as it
                  was when it opened in 1914.

                  Authorities had closely watched electricity and water generators for any trouble.

                  "Everything has come out well. ... All is normal without any problems,"
                  a Canal Authority spokeswoman said, speaking on condition of
                  customary anonymity.

                  Thirteen ships traversed the 50-mile-long canal in the first hours of the
                   new year, the department of maritime traffic control reported.

                 A refrigerated cargo ship, the Balboa Reefer, was the first to cross the
                 canal in 2000, passing the Miraflores locks on the Pacific side at 3:06
                 a.m. A Greek ship, Chios Beauty, entered the Atlantic side locks at
                 Gatun at 3:48 a.m.

                  The greatest popular concern about the canal is whether Panama is
                  ready to defend it against a potential attack.

                  The nation's army was dissolved following the 1989 U.S. invasion to
                  unseat military strongman Manuel Noriega. The country since has
                  relied on a national police force, currently 18,000 strong.

                  A poll of 1,200 Panamanians by the La Prensa newspaper showed 70
                  percent believe Panama is not capable of defending the strategic
                  waterway. More than 72 percent said Panama needs the United States to
                  protect the canal and 68 percent opposed the withdrawal of U.S. troops.

                  The poll, published Thursday, was taken Dec. 10-12 and had a margin of
                  error of 3 percentage points.

                  Authorities, however, have insisted that Panama is ready to defend the canal
                  without the U.S. military, which had maintained a presence here since 1903
                  when the country became independent of Colombia.

                    Copyright 2000 The Associated Press.