Importer RWE Transgas has reported a five percent drop in natural gas supplies to the Czech Republic from Russia. According to the firm, the drop is related to an ongoing dispute between Russia and Ukraine. A spokesman called the development the “first signal of the Russia-Ukraine crisis in the Czech Republic”, adding there would be no effect on Czech customers thanks to reserves and alternative supplies from Norway. Russia cut off shipments to Ukraine on January 1 in a dispute over prices and on Saturday energy giant Gazprom charged that Ukraine was illegally siphoning off supplies intended for EU countries. Others who have seen a drop in supplies include Hungary and Poland.
In an official statement on behalf of the EU presidency, the Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg has stressed that the right to defend one’s nation does not allow for actions largely affecting civilians. At the same time, the foreign minister stated that Israel’s decision to send in ground forces was “not surprising”. Along with negotiations towards a ceasefire, the Czech EU presidency is urging for humanitarian aide to be made available to Gaza Strip inhabitants. Mr Schwarzenberg left for the Middle East on Sunday, heading an EU mission focused on the current conflict. Other officials on the mission include EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner. Prior to the team’s departure on Sunday, she stressed that the violence on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides needed to stop.
For the first time Czech betting firms on Monday will launch online internet gambling: five of the largest gambling firms in the Czech Republic have been allowed by the Finance Ministry to operate the service. Gamblers who wish to bet on-line will first have to register in person at bricks and mortar betting shops. The service is expected to raise the amount spent on betting in the country, currently at around 12 billion crowns per year (the equivalent of around 622 million US dollars).
Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said on Sunday that a spokesman for the EU presidency, currently held by Prague, had blundered in describing Israel's ground assault in Gaza as "defensive." "It was his personal mistake," he told Czech TV, adding it was a "serious one." On Saturday Jiří Potužník, Prime Minister Mirek Topolánek's EU presidency spokesman, initially described the Israeli operation as "more defensive than offensive." and told AFP this was the position of the Czech prime minister for the European presidency. The Czech Foreign Ministry later changed tack, while Mr Potužník himself said his words had been misunderstood. The statement on Saturday was denounced by an aide close to the Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as well by the radical movement Hamas.
The Czech EU presidency has called for the negotiation of a ceasefire in reaction to Israel’s launch of ground operations in the Gaza Strip. Israel sent troops and tanks into Gaza after a week of air strikes, intensifying operations to try and stop rocket attacks by militants. Earlier, an emergency UN Security Council meeting failed to see agreement on a united approach to the conflict in Gaza. More than 400 Palestinians were killed in air strikes in the preceding days: ground clashes have seen dozens of additional casualties on both sides, sources have reported.
On Friday rescue workers were called out in separate cases to save eight people who had fallen through thin ice on local ponds, TV Nova reported. Four incidents took place near Mělník, north of Prague, four in south Bohemia. As well, officials on Friday recovered the body of a 40-year-old man who drowned after having fallen through ice while skating a day earlier. Officials are warning skaters to avoid frozen ponds for the time being, until the country sees colder weather. Skaters should check that the ice is at least 25 centimetres thick, TV Nova said.
On Saturday Mr Medvedev met with Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs Alexandr Vondra who stressed the EU had alternative means for gas supplies if Russia and Ukraine did not reach an agreement soon. These include the potential use of different suppliers from Asia or the Middle East. At the same time Mr Vondra expressed optimism that Russia and the Ukraine would resolve their differences quickly.
Five regional hospitals in central Bohemia are offering patients a chance to sign up for subsidies countering mandatory health fees introduced by the government last year. In January 2008, the government introduced controversial fees aimed at reforming the health care system, requiring patients to pay 30 crowns per visit to the doctor’s and 60 crowns per day spent in hospital. The region of central Bohemia is the first to provide the subsidies on patients’ behalf – in keeping with a pre-election promise by the Social Democrats last year. Other regions with local Social Democrat-led governments are now expected to follow suit. While many have welcomed the development, TV Nova and other sources have reported that dozens of hospital visitors on Friday turned down the offer of subsidies, opting to pay the government’s health fees “on principle”.
In related news, Gazprom export head Alexander Medvedev told journalists in Prague on Saturday that responsibility for problems in gas supplies to some EU countries lay with Ukraine; he said the state had failed as a transit country. He accused the Ukrainian state-owned Naftogaz of not having paid for supplies and of “stealing gas”. He stressed that EU commitments had to be honoured.
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