Hoon, Tvrdik discuss cooperation in Iraq and possible air-defence pact

Britský ministr obrany Geoff Hoon se svým českým protějškem, Jaroslavem Tvrdíkem, foto: ČTK

The British Secretary of State for Defence, Geoff Hoon, visited the Czech Republic earlier this week. During his brief stay Mr Hoon met President Vaclav Klaus, Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla and Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda. Secretary Hoon also met his Czech counterpart, Defence Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik, to discuss further Czech involvement in Iraq but also a possible British-Czech air-defence pact.

Geoff Hoon and Jaroslav Tvrdik,  photo: CTK
Summing up his visit, Geoff Hoon said the discussions primarily concentrated on further cooperation on the efforts both the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom can make in the reconstruction of Iraq. Mr Hoon noted Czech military units now in the region - a weapons detection unit in Kuwait and a hospital unit in southern Iraq - were working closely with British forces, and that the British would welcome additional participation by the Czech army in rebuilding Iraq.

"We know that the Czech Republic has excellent expertise in this area. Work is already underway amongst coalition forces to identify and locate weapons of mass destruction and certainly, we will welcome the contribution the Czech Republic can make."

Defence Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik made a list of military experts the Czech Republic is able to offer its allies to take part in the upcoming process of stabilisation of Iraq.

"At the moment the Czech Republic has two contingents in the Gulf, an anti-chemical unit and a field hospital. We want to coordinate our involvement in the region with the United Kingdom and with our NATO and EU partners. It is clear that the anti-chemical unit will be withdrawn sooner or later, and only our experts on detection of weapons of mass destruction will be left in the region. Further we are prepared to offer our medical personnel, engineers operating water treatment facilities and also military police and specialists on the renewal of civilian infrastructure."

Geoff Hoon,  photo: CTK
Apart from Iraq, the issues discussed also included a proposal for the Czech Republic to obtain used fighter jets from Britain to replace the ageing fleet of Russian-made MiG-21 jets by 2005. Last year the Czech government rejected a plan to buy two dozen new Gripen fighter jets from a British-Swedish consortium. The Czech Air Force currently has 34 MiG-21 and four MiG-23 jets due for retirement in 2005. Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik said his ultimate goal was to have 24 new, supersonic jets in the air force in 2005 but in the meantime the Czech government was eyeing three provisional alternatives involving British cooperation, including a "non-commercial" deal between the two governments. Last month Czech officials said they would acquire several used Tornado jets from the British. But Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon refused to be drawn on the matter.

"As the minister set out, there is a requirement the Czech Republic has, there is a working group identifying the precise way in which this requirement can be fulfilled. We had some very useful discussions and I am confident that the United Kingdom can make a helpful offer, but ultimately, obviously, that is a matter for the Czech Republic to decide on what it needs and when that requirement arises."