August 24, 2006

Global forces train to prevent Panama Canal attack

PANAMA CITY (Reuters) - Eighteen nations are preparing for
a weeklong series of maneuvers off Panama's coast designed to
safeguard the country's famous canal from terror attacks, a
U.S. military chief said on Thursday.

"All nations of the Western Hemisphere have a vested
interest in safeguarding this vital waterway," said Cmdr. Bruce
Erickson of the U.S. Southern Command in Panama City on the eve
of the official start to "Panamax 2006," an annual event
sponsored by the United States since 2003.

The Southern Command is responsible for U.S. military
activities in most of Latin America and the Caribbean.

"Global threats have emerged in the 20th century that
affect all nations and that have a transnational impact, so a
coordinated approach is required to effectively neutralize
those threats," Erickson told Reuters.

During last year's exercises, three members of Panama's
National Maritime Service drowned when they became entangled in
submerged weeds while carrying heavy packs and weapons.

The Panama Canal is a vital strategic waterway that carries
4 percent of world trade.

It runs across the slender isthmus of Panama and connects
the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, saving shippers weeks of
costly steaming around the tip of Latin America.

This year, Panama's government has proposed an expansion of
the waterway as many shippers deem it too small for bigger,
modern vessels. The $5.25 billion project will be voted on in a
national referendum on October 22.

The countries taking part in the exercises are Argentina,
Brazil, Britain, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador,
El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua,
Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the United States and Uruguay.