RFE: no plans to move, even if Afghanistan broadcasts go ahead

Armoured vehicle on top of Prague's Wenceslas Square

Security at the Prague headquarters of the U.S.-funded Radio Free Europe was already high before the events of September 11th - now you'd be mistaken for thinking you'd wandered into a military zone. Tourists reaching the top of Prague's Wenceslas Square are clearly bemused to find armoured vehicles and paratroopers standing guard outside the large steel and glass building, just a stone's throw from the National Museum. But as Rob Cameron reports, Czech officials are now seriously examining the possibility of moving Radio Free Europe out of the city centre, in a bid to reduce the risk of a potential terrorist attack.

I'm standing just across the street from the Radio Free Europe building right in the centre of Prague - and that noise you can hear behind me is the roar of traffic from the main north-south highway that runs either side of the imposing steel and glass building. The new security measures have reduced traffic to two lanes, and a wall of concrete barriers has been erected around Radio Free Europe to give it greater protection. On top of that four armoured personnel vehicles stand guard outside the building, and the walkways around it are patrolled by edgy-looking paratroopers with assault rifles slung over their shoulders. It's a high-profile and costly security operation, but what it can't provide is 100 percent protection from a terrorist attack.

"There is no building in the world that can be called totally safe against any kind of terrorist attack."

Sonia Winter is the spokeswoman for Radio Free Europe. She says the station has no immediate plans to move from its current location.

"This building is in the heart of Prague, and it's vulnerable just because of its location. However, discussions about moving Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty have not taken any concrete form between us and the Czech government. I know there's been a lot of discussion about it among the various ministers, but I think all this came up over a month ago within the context of the general discussion about security. We have not asked to be moved, and nobody has asked us to move."

Soldier of the Afghan opposition
On Wednesday the U.S. House of Representatives approved the creation of Radio Free Afghanistan, which - if the plan is approved by the Senate and President George Bush - would begin broadcasting in the country's two main languages, Pashtu and Dari. Sonia Winter says Radio Free Afghanistan is still very much in its early stages, but she did confirm to me that if it does go ahead, the programmes would almost certainly be made in Prague. However she denies that broadcasts to Afghanistan would force Radio Free Europe out of the city centre.

"I don't see any reason why, it would simply be another language service. I don't think terrorists think in that sort of logic. But I don't believe it would affect the security of this building in any way."

Pressure is certainly mounting to move Radio Free Europe from its armoured fortress in the centre of Prague. Czech intelligence officials announced recently that Iraqi agents had developed a close interest in the RFE building, confirming that an Iraqi diplomat named Ahmed Khalil Ibrahim al-Ani was seen taking photographs of the glass and steel structure. Al-Ani was expelled from the Czech Republic in the spring for "activities inconsistent with his diplomatic status" - diplomatic shorthand for spying. Czech officials recently claimed that al-Ani met the suspected ringleader of the suicide attacks on the World Trade Centre - Mohammed Atta - in Prague several weeks before he was expelled. Iraq denies the meeting.

The Czech government has reportedly found several suitable locations for Radio Free Europe. But the Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman - currently on an official visit to the United States - reiterated on Wednesday that plans to move the station would only begin in earnest once a request came from Washington. If Czech intelligence is right, however, it's clear that the threat of a terrorist attack against the U.S.-funded radio station cannot be taken lightly.