A Russian warship used the Panama Canal for the first time since World War II, after taking part in joint Russian-Venezuelan maneuvers reflecting Moscow’s growing military presence in the region. The anti-submarine ship "Admiral Chabanenko" entered the canal at the Caribbean port city of Colon late Friday, and docked at the former US naval base of Rodman in Panama’s capital on Saturday afternoon, a Russian diplomatic source said.
The warship, which earlier this week took part in the joint Russian-Venezuelan naval maneuvers that posed a symbolic challenge to US influence in the region, is expected to stay at Rodman for five days.
It was the first time a Russian warship had 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 howevwe denies the exercises were aimed at any "third countries."
Russia’s Ambassdor to Panama Yevgeny Voronin told reporters that the visit was a "gesture of friendship" and "not show of force toward any country."
Voronin said the Russian ship was on a tour for friendly maneuvers, aimed at honing its role in fighting terrorism and drug trafficking.
"It is very important because it means that Russia is ready to cooperate in any region (of the world) on major international problems such as priacy, drug trafficking and terrorism," Voronin stressed.
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," the embassy said. During its stay the Russian crew will also take part in soccer and volleyball competitions with the Panamanian navy.
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.