PANAMA CITY, Panama – Panama said its canal is open to all, including a Russian warship sailing through the transoceanic waterway on Friday.
The destroyer Admiral Chabanenko is the first Soviet or Russian military ship to traverse the 50-mile waterway since World War II.
The U.S. government has shown little concern about the destroyer's trip through a canal that was off limits to the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
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The destroyer's journey to the Western Hemisphere, however, reflects Russia's growing influence and anger with the U.S. for using warships to deliver aid to Georgia after its August war with Russia.
Panamanian Foreign Minister Samuel Lewis portrayed the Russian canal crossing as business as usual.
"Here there is no other message than that the canal is open to all of the world's ships," he said.
The warship is part of a fleet that is the first Russian navy deployment to the Western Hemisphere since the Cold War. Before arriving at the canal, it took part in joint exercises with Venezuela's navy.
Also on Friday, Russia said it was sending its sole aircraft carrier and several accompanying ships for combat training in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
The destroyer entered the canal Friday night and was expected to take eight hours to reach the Pacific. Following its passage, the Admiral Chabanenko will dock at what was once the base for all U.S. naval activities in South America.
The U.S. government handed over the Rodman Naval Station and the canal to Panama nearly a decade ago, and the waterway has since become a symbol of Panama's true independence.
When it opened in 1914, the canal was a symbol of America's growing global reach and became a major U.S. military outpost for generations. The 10-mile-wide (16-kilometer-wide), 50-mile-long strip along the canal was considered U.S. territory -- a fact that allowed Canal Zone native John McCain to run for the U.S. presidency.
Lewis said the canal maintains a neutral policy in world politics. He pointed out that the ship's passage came just a few days before U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is scheduled to visit Panama.