Zeman criticised for "careless" Atta comments in CNN interview

Prime Minister Milos Zeman and President George W. Bush, photo: CTK

Prime Minister Milos Zeman returned to the Czech Republic on Sunday after a week-long visit to the United States. The visit was uneventful and largely symbolic - promotion of Czech exports, standard talks with senior American officials plus a 15-minute chat with President George W. Bush. But there was one minor note of controversy, which came in an interview between the Prime Minister and the U.S. TV station CNN. Rob Cameron has more.

Prime Minister Milos Zeman and President George W. Bush,  photo: CTK
Mr Zeman has certainly made a career out of speaking his mind - critics say his tendency to speak first and think later has led to a string of embarrassing diplomatic incidents. So Friday's interview with the U.S. TV station CNN was immediately seized upon by the prime minister's opponents. In the interview Mr Zeman said that Mohammed Atta, suspected ringleader of the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, had originally planned to attack the Prague headquarters of the U.S. funded Radio Free Europe instead. The Czech Prime Minister said Mr Atta had asked an Iraqi secret agent to start laying the groundwork for the attack, before the plans were changed.

There is some evidence that Iraqi agents were indeed planning an attack on the building, and Czech intelligence officials have confirmed that Mr Atta did meet at least one of those agents in Prague. But the evidence is still slim, and there are a number of different hypotheses for what Mr Atta really wanted. The Prime Minister's spokesman Libor Roucek told me Mr Zeman was merely listing one of those hypotheses:

"Mr Prime Minister had an interview with CNN, and he also had interviews with other stations, and he indicated that one of the explanations for what Mr Atta was doing in Prague was that he was planning an attack on the Radio Free Europe building."

That of course is not how Mr Zeman's critics see it - they say his comments were nothing but irresponsible speculation. Commentator Vaclav Pinkava says Mr Zeman might also have been trying to justify the costly high-profile security operation currently in place at Radio Free Europe.

"Because measures have been taken in Prague to protect the building, you need a cause for those measure to have been taken. So it would be a silly not to have some evidence, however speculative, that that was a target. But it also makes a rather interesting point - I don't think intentionally - that since nothing has happened to the building in Prague that the Czech security measures are all the more effective and here's the proof. That's where I believe that one ought to take his comments with very large amounts of salt."

Others say Mr Zeman was even trying to justify calls for Radio Free Europe to be moved out of the centre of Prague altogether - something which the Czech authorities seem decidedly keener on than the station itself. Who knows. And as government spokesman Libor Roucek told me, any decision to relocate Radio Free Europe has to be taken jointly with the United States, before the station can even start packing its bags.