Fire-fighters around the Czech Republic were called to a record number of fires on the night of April 30th - known as "witch-burning" night. The ancient ritual of burning witches on a bonfire on Walpurgis night is extremely popular in the Czech Republic and, despite warnings that people should adhere to basic safety rules, some of the fires got out of control. Fire-fighters were called to 210 fires in the course of the night, which is four times higher than at any other time of year. There were also a high number of false alarms when people - alerted to the danger - reported a fire in the vicinity that turned out to be a regular bonfire under control. Doctors likewise treated a higher-than-usual number of patients in emergency - mainly young boys with burns acquired by jumping over a small bonfire to "prove their daring" another ancient tradition on witch-burning night.
Interior Minister Ivan Langer has promised to draft an amendment to the controversial new civil service law. Addressing police officers and firemen who staged a protest against the law outside the Interior Ministry on Monday, Minister Langer said he was aware of the complications that the new law had caused and promised that the ministry would start working on a proposed amendment as soon as possible. The new bill could be presented to Parliament by the end of the year and could take affect in 2008, the minister said. The law has slashed the salaries of police officers, firemen, prison guards and customs officers by making them work 150 hours overtime for free and scrapping bonuses for night-shifts, holidays and weekends. Hundreds of officers have left the ranks of the police since it went into effect at the beginning of this year. Minister Langer said that he would try to compensate the decrease in wages and would discuss the proposed amendment with experts.
Meanwhile, left-wing supporters filled Prague's Vystaviste exhibition grounds on Tuesday where the opposition Social Democrats and the Communist Party hosted separate Labor Day rallies. Traditionally both are highly politicized and this year's Communist Party rally was moreover organized as a protest against the deployment of a US radar base on Czech territory. The CTK news agency reports that there was a brief skirmish between communist party supporters and anti-communist activists, but no serious injuries were reported.
Communist party leader Vojtech Filip has suggested that the Czech government should complain to the European Commission about the repeated blockades of Czech-Austrian borders by Austrian anti-nuclear activists. Filip said that by blocking border crossings critics of the Temelin nuclear power plant violate one of the basic European rights - that of free movement. Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek immediately rejected the suggestion, saying that lodging a complaint would only escalate tension between the Czech Republic and Austria. "If we thought that this was a solution, we would have lodged it long ago," Topolanek told journalists.
The mood was entirely different on Prague's Petrin Hill, where couples in love traditionally lay flowers at the statue of the country's romantic poet Karel Hynek Macha. This year the governing Civic Democratic Party held a May Day rally at the foot of Petrin Hill under the motto "stick with us - we'll take you to the top of the hill". Thousands of Czechs visited Petrin Hill in the course of the day, to enjoy the sunny weather and celebrate the Czech version of Valentine's Day.
May Day is a state holiday in the Czech Republic and public events and rallies are being held in towns and cities across the country. Several hundred people gathered on Prague's Letna Plain, formerly the site of communist May Day parades, to attend an open air anti-communist gathering organized by the Confederation of Political Prisoners. The all-day event included debates with former political prisoners, photo exhibitions documenting the crimes of communism and a concert featuring, among others, the Plastic People of the Universe. The event is being held under the motto "No more communism, no more fascism, no more dictatorship". Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek made a brief appearance at the gathering.
The Tesco Stores retail chain will open its first two low-energy stores in the Czech Republic this year, the company spokesman said on Tuesday. The first will be in Zatec in northern Bohemia, due to open in June, and the second in Ricany near Prague later in the year. Tesco's new distribution centre in Postrizin in the vicinity of Prague will be equipped with alternative sources of energy including a small wind power plant. Tesco would not disclose the size of investment. Energy consumption in the low energy stores will be at least a third lower compared with traditional shops. Tesco entered the Czech market in 1996, and now operates 84 hypermarkets, supermarkets and department stores in the country.
Washington has said it is firmly committed to securing the extradition of Czech born financier Viktor Kozeny who is wanted on corruption charges both in the Czech Republic and the United States. Kozeny, who now has Irish citizenship, was released on bail from Nassau's Fox Hill Prison in the Bahamas last Friday after US lawyers missed the date of a hearing that would have sealed his extradition to the United States. Kozeny is accused of being the driving force behind a multi-million dollar bribery scheme in Azerbaijan in which US investors lost huge sums of money. He is charged with conspiracy to violate the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and could face a 25 year prison term in the United States if convicted. The Czech born financier also faces criminal charges in the Czech Republic where he is suspected of financial fraud involving 16 billion crowns. Prague has also requested his extradition.
Elsewhere in Prague, anarchists clashed with right-wing extremists while the police, out in force for the day, struggled to maintain law and order. Around two hundred anarchists marched along the banks of the Vltava to Strelecky Island where ultra-right supporters were congregating. The two groups came face to face at Legionaries Bridge, separated by two lines of police in riot gear. Isolated skirmishes were quickly brought under control and several dozen people were detained. The situation is reported to have been rather more serious in the Moravian city of Brno where some 500 neo-Nazis clashed with police in the centre of town, throwing stones and bottles. Several people are reported injured, among them two policemen and one journalist.
The first division of the Czech football league could be set for a dramatic finish, after Sparta Prague failed to beat Banik Ostrava on Monday evening. With that game ending 2:2, Sparta are now in second with 49 points, behind Liberec on 50. Slavia Prague are third on 48, with Mlada Boleslav one point behind them. There are five more rounds between now and the end of the season.
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