These are the main Czech stories at this hour, I am Libor Kubik in Studio 20.
NATO's Secretary General Javier Solana said on Thursday that the Czech Republic should not delay its entry to the alliance. He said in a speech to a group of Czech deputies and senators that the Czech parliament should speedily continue the ratification process.
Mr Solana also met with the lower house speaker and Social Democrat leader Milos Zeman, who stressed his party will hold a referendum on NATO accession if it wins the early general elections in June.
In a recent poll, 59 percent of respondents voiced support for accession to NATO.
Mr Solana said that, considering bad experiences with military alliances in the past, Czech scepticism was understandable. But he stressed that unlike the Warsaw Pact, NATO is a community of democratic states.
Solana praised the Czech Republic's participation in international peace missions, stressing that Czech armed forces would have to be modernised, and troops' living conditions improved.
The parliamentary defence and constitutional committees on Thursday recommended that the Lower House endorse the Czech Republic's NATO entry, scheduled for next year. The Communists and the far-right Republicans, who are opposed to Czech membership in the alliance, voted against.
Czech Foreign Minister Jaroslav Sedivy said on Thursday his country was working to analyze the situation in the neighbouring Slovakia in the wake of that country's deepening political crisis.
Minister Sedivy was speaking after consultations with President Vaclav Havel. He said they had discussed movements on the Slovak political scene. But he stressed the Czech side's commitment to fostering good relations with all neighbouring countries, and refused to comment on Slovak topics.
Slovakia's parliament failed on Thursday in a second round of voting to elect a president. A first ballot in the second round, as was widely expected, ended in deadlock, when neither of the two candidates obtained the three-fifths majority required to produce a winner.
An estimated 15,000 people on Thursday staged a public protest in Bratislava against Premier Vladimir Meciar and his centre- left ruling party, the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia.
Prime Minister Josef Tosovsky and trade union leader Richard Falbr failed to reach an agreement on Thursday on this year's planned increases of housing rents and energy prices.
Falbr told correspondents after meeting Tosovsky that the premier had a sympathy for alternative views, but he described the proposed price control lifting as extreme. The union boss admitted he would accept a measure of price deregulation but he did not elaborate.
The Japanese Nomura Bank formally announced on Thursday it was buying a major share of the Czech Investment and Post Bank, the IPB.
Nomura officials confirmed the Japanese bank is buying almost 37 percent of the IPB's shares for the price of 3.03 billion Czech crowns. The contract is to be signed before the shareholders' general meeting, scheduled for next Monday.
Radio Prague's economics correspondent says Nomura has undertaken to increase the IPB's basic assets by six billion crowns.
The Czech Foreign Ministry confirmed on Thursday that this country's ambassador to Sweden is being stripped of his post because of his undiplomatic remarks last year, which sparked off a major domestic political controversy.
Ambassador Petr Kolar said last autumn that senior officials of ex-premier Vaclav Klaus's Civic Democratic Party had known but kept silence about the party's financial irregularities. Premier Klaus stepped down in late November, sparking off a major government crisis.
Foreign Minister Jaroslav Sedivy said the ambassador had now tendered his resignation to President Vaclav Havel.
Four Czech Army officers have begun exploring possibilities in Kuwait of deploying a Czech field hospital in the event the international community launches military operations against Iraq. Czech defence ministry sources say the group left for Kuwait on Wednesday.
Our diplomatic correspondent says any Czech participation in such operations requires endorsement by the full parliament.
Football -- and Slavia Prague drew one goal to one with Germany's VfB Stuttgart in their European Cup Winners' Cup quarter-final in Prague on Thursday evening.
A quick look at the weather -- we expect a wet and cold Friday with some scatted snow showers and maximum daytime temperatures between two and six degrees Celsius above zero.
And that's the end of the news.
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