The coalition government's health care commission has come up with two options of possible assistance to indebted regional hospitals. After a meeting that ended late Wednesday night, Health Minister Marie Souckova did not specify the alternatives, saying only that they would depend on the financial results of the hospitals, their liabilities and obligations. She added that the leaders of the governing parties should receive the proposals next week. The government commission was set up to find ways of stabilising the financial situation in the health care sector by the end of 2003. This means shortening the payment schedule of health insurance companies and resolving the debts of hospitals, which were transferred to the regions by the government in January.
Czech police said on Thursday they were holding three men who had attempted to smuggle 2.5 kg of the plastic explosive Semtex, a gun and other items into neighbouring Austria. Experts said the amount of Semtex - a powerful Czech-made explosive with a record of being used by terrorist groups - was enough to bring down an aircraft. A police spokeswoman said the group tried to cross the border in a car late on Wednesday evening. All were carrying Czech passports.
The Senate has decided that the salaries of senior officials should be frozen for the next three years at 46,500 crowns. The bill was submitted by the coalition government as part of a package of public finance reforms. Initially, the Senate's constitutional law committee had proposed the pay should increase to close to 60,000 crowns per month on the grounds of lowering the difference between politicians' salaries and those in the civil service. The law on freezing the pay of elected representatives was passed in the Senate by 40 out of 69 senators present, after a heated debate between supporters of the government proposal and opponents of the present payment system.
After nine years of participation in the Senate, Senators for the Communist Party have formed their own senators' group. The group also includes two independent senators: the former director of the commercial TV station Nova Vladimir Zelezny and Jaroslav Kubin. Mr Zelezny and Mr Kubin, like the three Communist senators, have so far acted outside the group structure as non-affiliated. Their group, the sixth senators' group, bears the same name - Non-affiliated. The five senators say they are seeking to have the same advantageous conditions as other senators. For example, each club receives a monthly allowance of almost 32,000 crowns from the Senate budget and in addition, an allowance of over 4,000 crowns per member a month and the group head has an office car at his or her disposal.
The European Commission has published its annual progress report on 10 EU candidate countries, the last before they are due to join the union in May of 2004. The report says that although the "newcomers" have made great progress in implementing EU norms and regulations there are serious concerns in 39 specific sectors relating to movement of people, farm payments and health and sanitation standards. The Czech Republic has been urged to speed up the approval of laws relating to recognition of diplomas, road transport and farm aid systems. The EC is also unhappy with the steep deficit in public finances and the high level of corruption in the Czech Republic.
Liechtenstein has said it will sign the agreement on an expanded European Economic Area despite its earlier refusal to do so because of open disputes with the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Lichtenstein threw a damper on hopes of creating a large area of free trade, finance and travel in Europe, when it walked away from the agreement a few weeks ago. Norway and Iceland also refused to sign in a show of solidarity. The refusal came after the Czech Republic and Liechtenstein crossed swords over sensitive SWW issues. Liechtenstein demanded that the Czech Republic open the door to property claims by its citizens relating to past confiscation of land and property - a demand that Prague refused to comply with. Liechtenstein said on Wednesday that it did not want to block progress on European integration and would sign the agreement, along with Norway and Iceland. Its officials have stressed however that this does not signify any change in position regarding the unresolved SWW issues.
The response from Prague to the EC's report has been generally optimistic. Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said the report had been more or less what the Cabinet expected. He said that the government was aware of the country's shortcomings and that everything was being done to resolve the outlined problems before the country's joins the EU next May. Czech Foreign ministry officials have likewise stated that the Czech Republic is ready to meet its remaining obligations within the set time limit.
The police say they have detained a blackmailer who threatened to explode a shopping centre in Prague if he did not receive 50 million crowns from the state. The money was to be placed in a bag and tossed from an express train going from the West Bohemian town of Cheb to the Czech-German border. The police say they are confident they have the right man and will be pressing charges. No further details have been released. The police have had to deal with a growing number of extortionist cases this year, with blackmailers threatening to blow up rail tracks, hospitals or shopping centres.
Speaking at a meeting of Czech Army commanders at the Ministry of Defence, President Vaclav Klaus said reform of the country's defence forces should be carried out as soon as possible. Mr Klaus, who as president is the army's supreme commander, said it was necessary to find a balance between being able to defend the country and fulfilling the obligations that went with membership of NATO and other international organisations. The Czech Army is due to become fully professional by the beginning of 2005.
Scientists are to conduct tests to ascertain whether the Temelin nuclear power station in south Bohemia is to blame for a drought in the region. Local farmers say clouds of hot steam rising from Temelin's cooling towers are effectively chasing away rain clouds, leaving their land dry. The director of the Czech Hydrometeorological Institute told the daily Pravo Tuesday they would compare data currently being gathered near the plant with long-term climate records.
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