News Saturday, FEBRUARY 27th, 1999

Those are the headlines - now the news in more detail.

President Vaclav Havel has signed the ratification accords, under which the Czech Republic becomes a fully-fledged member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The membership will become valid in exactly two weeks time at a ceremony in Independence, Missouri. In a live televised ceremony, Havel said the document he had just signed was of historical importance - and that after hundreds of years Czechs were at last part of a firm security framework. As well as hope, NATO membership also gives Czechs a share of the responsibility for peace, human rights and democracy, he added. On a personal note, Havel also said he was grateful to the fate which had allowed him to progress in just ten years from a prison cell to taking part in such a historic moment. Poland's President Aleksandr Kwasniewski also signed his country's accession accords in a simultaneous ceremony in Warsaw, while Hungarian President Arpad Gonz had already put his signature to the document.

An opinion poll carried out for Czech Television shows Czechs remain divided about joining NATO. The poll showed support for NATO membership just under 50 percent - and that around a third of people were against joining the alliance.

Meanwhile, security verification for officials who are to have access to confidential NATO documents are continuing apace. Defence Ministry spokesman Milan Repka told the CTK news agency that by the end of February 236 officials will be fully authorised, a figure that will more than double by the end of March. The question of security verification has sometimes been controversial here in Prague, with opposition parties criticising the government for moving too slowly. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Ales Pospisil said NATO officials had stated that the Czech Republic met the minimum military requirements for membership - including security checks.

Two of the Czech Republic's most important banks have announced large year-end losses for 1998. Ceska sporitelna, the biggest Czech savings bank, recorded a loss of seven billion crowns - compared to a pre-tax profit of 1.2 billion crowns in 1997. Komercni banka lost nine and a half billion crowns - compared to a profit of 500 million the year before.

Eexpansion of the European Union may not take place until the year 2005 - according to Jose Maria Gil-Robles, the head of the European Parliament. He said that while optimists were earmarking 2003 for EU enlargement, pesimists predicted the later date - and also warned that the process of enlargement could lead to a fall in the value of the Euro on international money markets. Meanwhile, the Czech deputy premier for EU affairs, Egon Lansky, has complained about what he called the "lax approach" of most Czech ministers towards the government's special commission for EU integration. This could hamper Czech efforts to meet membership requirements, Lansky said.

A 24-year-old man involved in last February's killing of a Romany woman, who drowned in an ice-cold river, has had his sentence reduced from six-and-a-half years to fifteen months. The court ruled that he was guilty of hooliganism - but not of extortion resulting in death. The other man involved in the incident was convicted on both counts and received a sentence of eight and a half years. The case has been very controversial and attracted a lot of media attention, but police attempts to qualify the killing as racially motivated murder failed due to lack of evidence - the only direct witnesses were the accused. This revised court verdict is not subject to further appeal.

The main opposition Civic Democratic Party, or ODS, has rejected claims made by Belgian newspaper La Libre Belgique that the Slovak secret service helped it in its election campaign last year. A statement issued by the ODS leadership said the party could "only laugh" at what it called "this completely mad story." La Libre Belgique alleged that Slovakia's intelligence service, the SIS, played a key role in the ODS recovering from a damaging financial scandal which brought down its government in 1997 and subsequently gaining 27 percent of the vote.

Syphillis is on the increase in the Czech Republic - according to Czech hygiene officials. Last year there was a rise in cases of over ten percent, they said at a press conference in Brno. The main source of the disease is, apparently, sex workers from the former Soviet Union. Anna Privorova from the regional hygiene institute in Brno said this fact led hygiene officials to support growing calls for the legalisation of prostitution, especially because many protitutes had no health insurance and were not getting regular check-ups.