First Russian warship to cross Panama Canal since WWII

For the first time since the Second World War, a Russian warship has crossed the Panama Canal, once owned by the US. The "Admiral Chabanenko" was taking part in joint naval exercises with a Venezuelan fleet in the Caribbean Sea.


AFP - A Russian warship was moving early Saturday through the Panama Canal for the first time since World War II, after participating in maneuvers with the Venezuelan fleet symbolizing Moscow's growing military presence in the region.

An official with the Panama Canal Authority said the destroyer "Admiral Chabanenko" reached the Caribbean port city of Colon late Friday, after taking part earlier this week in the joint naval maneuvers that posed a symbolic challenge to US influence in the region.

The warship and its crew of 451 entered the canal at about 0200 GMT Saturday, the official said.

The Chabanenko will take several hours to sail through the 77-kilometer (48-mile) long canal before reaching the former US naval base of Rodman, on Panama's Pacific coast, where it will stay at anchor for five days.

It was the first time a Russian warship entered the canal since 1944, when the waterway was under US control and Russia and the United States were allied in the anti-Nazi coalition.

"The only time a similar event took place was 60 years ago, in 1944, during the Second World War, when four Soviet submarines, after repairs, crossed the Panama Canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific," the Russian Embassy said in a statement.

The passage through the canal comes after Russian warships on Tuesday wrapped up two days of joint exercises with Venezuelan navy vessels.

The arrival of the Russian ships at the invitation of Venezuela's fiercely anti-US President Hugo Chavez has been seen as a challenge to US power in Latin America, often described as America's "backyard."

Russia has denied the exercises were aimed at any "third countries."

Moscow announced the maneuvers after US President George W. Bush sent navy vessels to Georgia during the Russian-Georgia conflict in August, angering the Kremlin. Washington said the warships were delivering humanitarian aid.

"The main purpose (of the visit to Panama) is for the soldiers to rest and to replenish (ship) supplies," said the Russian Embassy.

During its stay the Russian crew will also take part in soccer and volleyball competitions with the Panamanian navy.

"The Russian vessel's friendly visit further raises Panama's international prestige as a great naval power and the Panama Canal as a truly neutral waterway," said the embassy.

Panama's foreign minister Samuel Lewis Navarro said Thursday that "as we all know, the Panama Canal is open to all ships in the world," noting the canal's permanent Neutrality Treaty.

The 169-meter (554-foot) Admiral Chabanenko, which carries out operations against piracy and international terrorism, belongs to Russia's Northern Fleet.

It was part a flotilla of Russian warships, based in the Arctic port of Murmansk, that participated in joint exercises with the Venezuelan Navy that concluded on Tuesday.

Located at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, Chabanenko's temporary home the Rodman Naval Base hosted US military personnel until 1999 when it was given to Panama under a treaty negotiated in 1977 by then-US President Jimmy Carter.

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