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Panama Canal reopens after 20 years

PANAMA: The Panama Canal reopened Thursday, one day after after heavy rains forced its first closure in over two decades, officials said..The 17-hour suspension had been ordered after heavy rains swelled nearby lakes flowing into the key transport route that handles five percent of global trade.

“The canal is now operating; the suspension was the result of inclement weather around the canal basin,” said canal administrator Alberto Aleman Zubieta.

The Panama Canal Authority on Wednesday said downpours had filled the Gatun and Alhajuela lakes to historic levels, forcing it to suspend traffic for the first time since 1989.

Passage through sections of the canal have been temporarily blocked on other occasions as a result of accidents, but not operations along the entire length of the canal, as was the case Wednesday.

The last time the canal was closed was during the 1989 US invasion of the Central American nation.

Each year, around five percent of all international trade passes through the 80-kilometer (50-mile) man-made artery linking the Atlantic to the Pacific, with around 40 ships passing through the canal each day.

Recent floods from heavy rains here have collapsed bridges, destroyed homes and caused disruptions to electrical and water supply.

At least eight people have died across Panama including two girls who drowned in a river as a result of the heaviest rains to strafe the country in the 73 years that records have been kept. Panamanian officials also said that at least 1,500 people have been left homeless by the floods, caused by downpours which have afflicted all of Latin America, after the La Nina weather phenomenon which carried cooler-than-normal water to the region.

The Panama Canal long considered an engineering marvel was built between 1904 and 1914 by the United States after an initial French attempt failed. It was returned to Panama’s control 11 years ago.

Last year, work got underway on a 5.2-billion-dollar project to enlarge the canal by constructing a third set of locks to ensure that today’s super-size container ships, cruise liners and oil tankers many of which are too wide for the canal will be able to navigate the waterway in the future. The construction should be completed by August 2014, one century after the canal’s 1914 inauguration.

PANAMA CITY, Friday, AFP

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