PANAMA CITY, Panama, Dec. 20, 1989 (UPI) -- The Panama Canal was closed to shipping Wednesday following the U.S. attack in Panama, the first combat-related halt in shipping between the world's two great oceans in the 75-year history of the canal.
A spokeswoman for the commission that oversees the 51-mile canal said several ships that were in the canal when the fighting began would be allowed to move out of the canal later Wednesday and that the canal would be opened by Thursday.
''It was closed for the safety of the employees as well as the ships,'' Panama Canal Commission spokeswoman Willie Friar said.
The canal, jointly operated by Panama and the United States, passes only about a half-mile from the headquarters of Panamanian Defense Forces, where one of the main U.S. attacks aimed at ousting Panamanian leader Gen. Manuel Noriega was centered. During the battles, U.S. troops were moved across a bridge at the canal's Miraflores Locks.
''The canal is expected today to be clear of vessels that were in the process of transiting at the time transit service at the canal was suspended,'' Canal Commission spokeswoman Willie Friar said. ''A schedule of daylight transits is being planned for tomorrow (Thursday).''
A spokesman for the worldwide shipping authority Lloyd's of London said the company's insurers received an urgent message early Wednesday from their agents in Panama saying that ''due to military intervention in Panama, all canal transit has been suspended.''
Dozens of ships normally pass each day through the canal that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. More than 13,000 vessels use the canal each year.
''If there's a prolonged closure, it means that a lot of shipping will have to be rerouted,'' said John Landells, shipping correspondent for Lloyd's List, the authoritative shipping daily.
The bulk of the traffic through the canal moves between the Far East and the East Coast of the United States.
Particularly hard hit, Landells said, would be banana producers in Colombia and Equador, who rely on the canal to get produce to the East Coast. They would have to go around Cape Horn at the tip of South America or by land if the canal remained closed.
World oil prices also might be affected, experts said.
''If the political situation resolves itself within a few days, then business and trade would get back to normal very quickly,'' Landells said.
In Copenhagen, Denmark, a source at the Baltic and Maritime Council, the largest transworld shipping organization, said his organization received an urgent message from members in Panama stating:
''Areas that include Cristobal, Balboa and canal installations are closed now to shipping and the canal has been declared a war zone. The transit of the canal by international and other ships in and out of canal waters has been stopped.''
U.S. military involvement in Panama dates back to 1903 when Panama granted use, occupation and control of the Canal Zone to the United States by treaty, which was ratified in 1904.
In 1978, a new treaty provided for a gradual takeover by Panama of the canal, which holds significant military and economic importance to the Western Hemisphere.
The canal was built between 1904 and 1914 and the U.S.-controlled Canal Zone came into being May 4, 1904, under the terms of a U.S.- Panama treaty.
Under another treaty signed in 1977, Panama assumes full control of the waterway in 2000.
According to a State Department background paper published at the time of treaty hearings in 1979, ''The Neutrality Treaty, the companion treaty to the Panama Canal Treaty, provides the United States with the necessary authority in time of war to defend and secure the canal.