The government of Panama announced two days of celebrations ahead of next month's official U.S. transfer of control over the Panama Canal
. The canal is due officially to pass from American to Panamanian control at noon on Dec. 31, ending a U.S. presence dating back to the nation's independence from Colombia in 1903. But celebrations have been brought forward by about two weeks - to Dec. 13-14 -- to avoid clashing with millennium celebrations, Foreign Minister Miguel Aleman said
. The celebrations have been scheduled, officials said.
The list of foreign dignitaries who will attend has yet to be finalized, Foreign Ministry sources said, adding that leaders from member countries of the Organization of American States had been invited, along with delegations from Japan, France, Egypt and Spain. U.S. President Bill Clinton's attendance has not been confirmed and "high functionaries" of the U.S. government will attend in his absence, the sources added.
Commemorative celebrations on Dec. 14 will begin with a wreath-laying ceremony to mark the lives of French, Panamanian and American workers who died excavating the strategic waterway, which opened to maritime traffic in August 1914.
Dignitaries are scheduled to gather at Miraflores Locks at the canal's Pacific entrance to witness the signing of a joint a bilateral declaration marking the closure of the stormy, century-long relationship. Canal ceremonies will be relayed to giant television screens at three locations in Panama City's historic and commercial centers, officials said. They added that there will be evening street parties featuring musical acts, as well as fireworks and laser displays. A $1.5 million budget has been set aside for the celebrations, Aleman said.