News Thursday, FEBRUARY 01th, 2001

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By David Vaughan

Signs of progress in Czech-Cuban crisis

The chairman of the Czech upper house, Petr Pithart, is still waiting to meet the Cuban President Fidel Castro. Mr Pithart is in Cuba to negotiate the release of two Czech citizens who have been held in Cuba on spying charges for the last three weeks. Mr Pithart's delegation has said that it will only give a statement once the meeting has occurred. The wife of one of the men detained, member of parliament Ivan Pilip, has said that the Cuban authorities are beginning to show a greater willingness to solve the crisis. Lucie Pilipova said that Mr Pithart was proving to be a negotiator par excellence. A German member of parliament, Martina Krogmann, who is currently in Prague, has also expressed optimism. Without giving further details, she said that a break in the deadlock over the detention of Mr Pilip and another Czech citizen in Cuba would be quite likely within the next few hours.

Police behaviour at IMF meeting

A Czech police spokeswoman has confirmed that one police officer broke the law during clashes with demonstrators at last September's International Monetary Fund meeting in Prague. She added that investigators had not yet succeeded in finding the culprit. She said that so far five further cases had been uncovered where police officers appeared to break the law, but that in four of them the offences were only minor. Police have received nearly four hundred complaints of brutality by officers during the demonstrations, connected with seventy alleged incidents, but investigations have been closed in all but a handful of cases.

Special unit member says no evidence found for depleted uranium

A member of the Czech special chemical unit sent to Kosovo to investigate possible radiation on sites where Czech troops have been taking part in KFOR operations, has said that the team found no evidence for the presence of depleted uranium. Otakar Neruda said that there was some natural radiation in the area, but that levels were lower than those found here in the Czech Republic. The team will be presenting its findings to the Czech Army's General Staff on Friday. Mr Neruda also questioned the existence of the so-called Balkan Syndrome.

Havel on Europe's future

The Czech President Vaclav Havel has said that sooner or later the European Union will need a constitution, based on the charter for basic rights declared at the EU summit in Nice last December. He expressed the view in an interview with the former EU Commission president, Jacques Delors, published in the French paper, Le Monde and the German Die Zeit. He added that the constitution should be simple and comprehensible to ordinary citizens as well as bureaucrats. In response Mr Delors was more cautious, saying that a well-phrased treaty between the member countries would be more effective than a badly written constitution.

Sabatova officially takes up office

The human rights campaigner and former dissident, Anna Sabatova, has officially taken up her post as deputy to the Czech Republic's first ombudsman. The institution of ombudsman was established at the end of last year, as a guarantor of human rights. Mrs Sabatova said that her first task will be to get the office up and running. At the same time, her husband, Petr Uhl has resigned from his post as government commissioner for human rights, to avoid a possible conflict of interests.

Canadians will need a visa

The Czech government has announced that Canadian citizens will need a visa to visit the Czech Republic from the first of April. The government spokesman said that talks with Canadian officials on scrapping all visa requirements had failed. Canada introduced visa requirements for Czechs four years ago, following a sharp increase in the number of Czech Romanies applying for asylum in the country.

Drug ring broken

Police and customs officials have succeeded in breaking a large-scale drugs ring working in the west of the Czech Republic and Germany. In the culmination of what police have nicknamed "Operation Twister" fourteen people were arrested in the Czech Republic and a further nine in Germany. They were involved in distributing the Czech-made synthetic drug pervitin. The ringleader is thought to have been a twenty-five-year-old man based in the town of Cheb.

EU asks for information about migration

The European Union has officially asked the Czech Republic for information on the possible scale of migration to EU countries once Prague joins the Union. EU Commission officials have confirmed that the Union will be adopting its official strategy on the free movement of citizens in the spring. The issue is sensitive because some EU countries have expressed fears of a flood of cheap labour from countries like the Czech Republic and Poland after they join.

Russian minister to visit

The Czech foreign ministry has said that Friday's visit to Prague by the Russian foreign minister, Igor Ivanov, marks a return to a much-needed top-level dialogue between the two countries. During his one-day visit, Mr Ivanov is meeting both the Czech president and the prime minister. He will also hold talks with his Czech counterpart, Jan Kavan, covering trade and the sensitive issue of the Czech Republic's membership in NATO. This is the first visit by a Russian foreign minister for seven years.

Mixed signals from Czech steel industry

The number of people working in the Czech steel industry fell by nearly twenty percent last year, to just over forty-three thousand. However, statistics show that in the same period steel production increased by ten percent. Over 6200 million tonnes of steel were produced in the year 2000, reflecting a significant increase in productivity.

Bank robber gets 10-year sentence

A man charged with the armed robbery of a Prague bank eighteen months ago, in which he shot and seriously wounded an employee, has been given a ten-year prison sentence. The man was part of a Czech-Ukrainian gang involved in a number of violent bank raids. Jail sentences have been imposed on a further ten men. In recent months there has been a spate of such raids, and two weeks ago a man was shot dead during an attack on another Prague bank.

Weather forecast

And finally, a quick look at the weather. Today will be cold with snow showers and temperatures between minus four degrees Celsius and freezing point. We can expect more of the same on Friday and Saturday.