The Czech cabinet decided late on Wednesday to take up Sweden's offer for 14 new JAS-39 Gripen fighter jets to replace the Czech Republic's aging fleet of Mig-21s to be retired at the end of next year. The government followed an earlier recommendation by a commission of experts that had ranked Sweden's offer first among five offers in a government tender. Those included proposals from Belgium, Holland, and the United States, offering modernised F-16 fighter jets which are used by most NATO countries. Following Hungary, the Czech Republic becomes the second NATO country to select Gripens, manufactured by BAE Systems/Saab. A spokesman for the Swedish defence material command said that the financial terms of the contract would depend on whether the Czech government decided to lease the fighter planes for five or 10 years. The first Gripens are expected to be operational in April 2005, with deliveries to the Czech Republic to be concluded by late August of the same year.
The senate has approved the continuing operation of Czech military missions in both Iraq and the Balkans. 500 Czech soldiers will continue to serve in the Balkans next year as well as 150 military police in Iraq. Both missions were supported by 49 out of 58 senators present on Wednesday, while three senators from the Communist Party and one member of the government senior Social Democratic Party voted against. The chamber of deputies will now vote on the issue on Thursday. In Iraq, Czech military police will mainly be in charge of training local police officers, while in the Balkans, Czech soldiers will continue operating within the Czech-Slovak KFOR battalion in north-east Kosovo. Their mission includes monitoring the 104 km long border between Kosovo and Serbia.
The Spolana chemical plant near Prague suffered a chemical leak on Wednesday during which a corrosive solution known as oleum escaped during routine cleaning measures, letting sulphuric oxide into the air. The plant treated the accident as a first degree chemical emergency; in the end no one was hurt and the leak did not reach beyond factory walls. Fire-fighters were called in at around noon to help in the clean-up.
The Czech cabinet, in the midst of deciding amongst five proposals to replace the country's aging fleet of MiG-21 fighter jets, has indicated more time may be needed to reach a final decision. Earlier, it was expected the government would reach a decision on the purchase this Wednesday. However, some government officials have revealed an extraordinary government session may be needed to decide on the purchase later, Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla saying the matter was "too serious to decide in haste". In the government tender the Czech Republic received five offers on new fighter jets from countries including Sweden, Belgium, the U.S., and the Netherlands, with a commission of experts recommending in November that the Czech Air Force opt for Sweden's offer for 14 Gripen fighter jets, manufactured by Saab/BAE Systems. Since then, Belgium, the U.S., and the Netherlands have all expressed the desire to put forward what they called new and final bids, a possibility the Defence Ministry has rejected thus far.
The senate has passed a bill that should make public tenders more transparent in the Czech Republic. 42 out of 64 senators voted in favour with just 10 voting against; the bill will now move to the chamber of deputies. The bill on public tenders brings Czech legislation on tenders in line with EU regulations; its passing will open the door to over 70 billion crowns in European funds from Brussels over the next two years.
Petr Mach, the former president of Prague's first division football club Sparta Prague, has been granted an early release from prison. Mr Mach began serving a five year sentence for tax fraud in June 2001, after Mr Mach had failed to declare a luxury BMW automobile bought in Germany. His failure to declare the vehicle divested the state of more than 1.3 million crowns. Mr Mach's release decided by a Prague court must now be confirmed by a state attorney.
The deputy prime ministers of Slovakia and the Czech Republic have admitted the influx of Slovak Romanies to the Czech Republic is a problem, but not a critical one. Czech Prime Minster Petr Mares and his Slovak counterpart Pal Csaky agreed at a meeting in Bratislava that a special commission would be set up to address the issue. So far this year more than 1,000 Roma families from Slovakia have sought asylum in the Czech Republic. Mr Mares said what he described as "social tourism" was unacceptable under European law. He said none of the 1,000 Slovak families would be granted asylum in his country.
The European Commissioner for Enlargement, Guenter Verheugen, has said everyone in Europe should pay a visit to the former Nazi concentration camp at Terezin, north of Prague. Mr Verheugen, speaking during a visit to the camp, said the people of Europe must be reminded that peace and democracy cannot be taken for granted. More than 150,000 Jews from throughout Europe were interned at Terezin, known in German as Theresienstadt, before being transported to death camps such as Auschwitz. Today the camp, which also housed Czech political prisoners, is a museum.
Speaking to Radio Prague the Czech foreign minister, Cyril Svoboda,
said that the Czech Republic's key demands as regards the constitution
had not changed.
"The three main points are the commission, the qualified majority voting system and the weight of the votes. All the three problems are still on the table and it is up to all the delegations, up to all the states, to go very carefully through the three points."
Former foreign minister Jan Kavan, who is a member of the Social Democrats, has declined an offer to stand for the Communist Party in elections next year to the European Parliament. Speaking on TV Nova on Sunday, he also said he had turned down a low position on the Social Democrats' list of candidates. The Communists offered Mr Kavan a high place on their list, which would have given him a relatively good chance of being elected. Jan Kavan, who last year was president of the United Nations General Assembly, has been involved in several controversies since the early 1990s.
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