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DATE=12/14/1999 TYPE=CORRESPONDENT REPORT TITLE=PANAMA - COLOMBIA (L-ONLY) NUMBER=2-257163 BYLINE=GREG FLAKUS DATELINE=PANAMA CITY CONTENT= VOICED AT: INTRO: On the day that Panama celebrated gaining control of the Panama canal from the United States (Tuesday), new concerns have arisen over the security of the waterway. As V-O-A's Greg Flakus reports from Panama City, an attack on a Colombian military base near the Panamanian border has underscored the need for vigilance. TEXT: Panamanian President Mireya Moscoso says the fighting in Colombia is of concern to Panama, especially when the action occurs close to the border. /// MOSCOSO ACT (SPANISH) FADES UNDER /// She says she would like the Colombian government to take measures to ensure that guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, do not enter Panamanian territory. She says Panama has security forces in the area but not in all areas. She says her government is studying other plans to defend the border region. Fighting broke out Sunday in Colombia's Choco province, on the Pacific coast, some 30 kilometers south of the Panamanian border, when FARC guerrillas stormed a Colombian marine base. There have also been numerous incidents in which the Colombian insurgents have crossed into Panamanian territory. For his part, Colombian President Andres Pastrana says the FARC actions represent a setback to the peace process in his country. /// PASTRANA ACT (SPANISH) FADES UNDER /// He says the peace process was moving forward but that the guerrilla actions in the past few days have undermined confidence in the process. Panama's border region with Colombia is a remote, mostly undeveloped area where guerrillas can cross back and forth between the two nations with ease. Panama abolished its armed forces after the U-S invasion of December, 1989, which ended the dictatorship of Manuel Antonio Noriega. Some U-S critics of the canal transfer argue that Panama's current national police force is incapable of defending the canal or even Panamanian territory from the battle-hardened Colombian guerrillas. Such critics, including some former U-S military leaders, have expressed alarm over the fact that the United States has closed down all its bases in Panama and failed to negotiate an agreement through which at least a token force might have remained. Panamanian officials say they have no intention of discussing any plan through which the United States would bring any forces back to Panama. But, in the 1977 Panama Canal Treaties, there is a clause that would allow the United States to intervene if there were a threat to the canal's security. But U-S forces are now located far from the scene, at bases in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. Some security experts also note that the threat to the canal may not come in the form of a military action, but as terrorist sabotage. Panamanian officials, however, downplay that concern, noting that the canal is an international operation and that closing it down would serve no nation's interests. They say the waterway's best protection is its neutrality and its utility for international commerce. (Signed) NEB/GF/TVM/gm 14-Dec-1999 20:29 PM EDT (15-Dec-1999 0129 UTC) NNNN Source: Voice of America .

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