Around 130 visitors from around the Czech Republic and abroad gathered in the town of Vsetaty, near Melnik, north of Prague on Saturday, to remember Jan Palach, the 20-year-old student of philosophy who set himself on fire in 1969 in protest of the occupation of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops. Vsetaty was Mr Palach's home town. Saturday's gathering saw several speakers honour Jan Palach's sacrifice, including doctor Tomas Roith, who took part in the very first commemoration of the drastic suicide in 1969. Describing Jan Palach's act, Mr Roith said the suicide had been a warning against encroaching "normalisation" - the period that choked all remnants of political and cultural reforms known as the Prague Spring. Another speaker Antonin Vrba meanwhile said Mr Palach's act was misunderstood even today: in his words Mr Palach's suicide was "not only a protest against the Soviet-led invasion but foremost a protest against the loss of Prague Spring ideals".
Representatives from the Freedom Union, a junior member of the country's ruling coalition, have indicated they could imagine better candidates to represent the Czech Republic in the EU than current Social Democrat candidate Milos Kuzvart. Although the Freedom Union put forward no concrete nominees on Saturday, Freedom Union leader Petr Mares said his party favoured individuals with international experience, like former diplomat to the U.S. Alexandr Vondra, or current Ambassador to the European Union Pavel Telicka. Mr Mares said he imagined three names could be put forward for the post. Originally, it has been expected that the government, made up of the ruling Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats, and the Freedom Union, would only put forward a single candidate.
The editor-in-chief of the independent weekly Respekt Tomas Nemecek is in hospital after being attacked by unknown assailants on Saturday morning. The attack took place outside Mr Nemecek's home in Prague. Two men estimated to be in their early twenties assaulted the journalist by first spraying tear gas in his face and kicking him repeatedly in the head. The assailants then escaped the scene, leaving passers-by to take Mr Nemecek to hospital. There he was treated for cuts and bruises and a mild concussion. Police have begun investigating whether the assault was a chance happening or a motivated attack against Mr Nemecek's paper, currently involved in lawsuits with several businesses and political groups.
According to the Czech news agency CTK Health Minister Marie Souckova has pledged she will resign if upcoming reforms in the healthcare sector failed to pass in Parliament. Mrs Souckova told the agency she made the promise at both a Friday meeting of the Social Democratic Party's national leadership and a regional conference in south Moravia on Saturday. Reacting to his health minister's words, Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said Mrs Souckova's pledge was nothing unusual in political life, indicating crucial decisions required full conviction. Mrs Souckova is confident her planned reforms can help stabilise financial problems in the healthcare sector. She has stressed that despite problems Czech healthcare is still highly regarded abroad, known for its well-trained and highly experienced professionals.
Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, on a tour of the Middle East, has met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. On Saturday the Foreign Minister accompanied Mr Arafat to view the leader's former headquarters in Ramallah, destroyed by Israeli forces. During their meeting Mr Svoboda said the Czech Republic recognised the Palestinians' right to a sovereign state. However, he stressed the need for the Palestinian leadership to clamp down on terrorist groups. For his part Mr Arafat urged the Czech Republic - a future EU member - to take advantage of good relations with Israel to encourage the state to honour its requirements in the proposed peace plan. Mr Arafat contended these were not being met at the current time. Finally, Mr Arafat was not the only Palestinian leader the Czech Foreign Minister met with on Saturday: Mr Svoboda also had the chance to talk with Palestinian counterpart Nabil Shaath, as well as Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei.
The Czech government has approved the sending of up to 150 troops to join the U.S.-led peace-keeping operation in Afghanistan. NATO officials have been urging allies to strengthen peacekeeping and other operations in Afghanistan, where nearly 500 people have been killed since August in attacks by the ousted Taliban militia. Under the Czech plan, which must still be approved by parliament, 120 elite reconnaissance specialists will join forces attempting to destroy pockets of resistance loyal to the Taliban and al Qaeda. A further 30 Czech soldiers will be sent to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), under NATO command, in Kabul.
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla confirmed speculation on Wednesday that the Social Democratic Party, the senior ruling coalition partner, wants to see Milos Kuzvart in the European Commission. Mr Kuzvart, a current MP and former environment minister is therefore most likely to become the Czech Republic's EC representative. According to Mr Spidla, the 43-year old candidate is most suitable for the post as he speaks English and is already an active member of the environment and agriculture committees in the Council of Europe. However, not all parliamentary parties share Mr Spidla's view. Bedrich Moldan, the opposition right-of-centre Civic Democrats' shadow environment minister, and Ivana Janu, a judge at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia have also been named.
During its session on Wednesday, the government also approved an accession protocol by which the Czech Police Force will become part of the Europol Convention (the EU's police office), when the Czech Republic joins the European Union along with Cyprus, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia, in May.
The ten countries set to join the European Union in May this year will receive a little under six billion Euros (about 7.8 billion US dollars) from the European Union to serve as rural development aid. Out of the ten future member states, the Czech Republic is to be one of the main beneficiaries, promised 542 million euros. The money compensates the low aid in the form of direct payments to farmers. A spokesman for the European Commission said on Wednesday, the sum is to cover the 2004-2006 periods and is meant for "targeted and tailor-made rural development programmes".
The Czech government on Wednesday approved a defence ministry proposal to send 150 soldiers to Afghanistan. According to Defence Minister Miroslav Kostelka, a 120-member special-force unit will take part in the US-led Enduring Freedom operation and thirty soldiers will be part of the ISAF operation at Kabul airport. The Czech Republic was asked to deploy the soldiers by NATO.
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