Prague bracing itself for autumn NATO summit

31-07-2002

The new Czech foreign minister, Cyril Svoboda, has held his first meeting with the Task Force set up to plan the November NATO summit in Prague. Memories of the violent clashes at the World Bank gathering in the city two years ago are still fresh, and the events of September 11th have added to the nervousness. The Czech government and Prague's City Hall are trying to make sure they will be prepared for all eventualities, including terrorist attack.

Mrs Matejova has a small grocery store, in the residential area just opposite the huge 1970s congress hall, where many of the world's statesmen will be gathering. She told me that she won't be taking any risks and will be shutting up shop for the two days of the summit. She has vivid memories of the barricades and looting of two years ago. With top representatives of 46 states set to converge on the city from the 20th to the 22nd November, the Prague Summit is a security nightmare. Foreign Minsiter Cyril Svoboda and the summit's chief organizer, Alexandr Vondra have both gone out of their way to give the impression that everything is well under control, and that the summit will be a feather in the Czech Republic's cap in raising its international prestige. The world press will be watching as the alliance contemplates admitting up to seven new members.

Memories of September 11th make the danger of terrorist attack a real fear, although on Tuesday Mr Vondra stressed that so far there were no signs that an attack could be on the cards. The Czech Republic has taken the unprecedented step of consulting with its NATO allies possible help is defending the country's airspace. NATO military officials say this is nothing to be ashamed of, but it has led to some ironic quips in the Czech press about the country's ability to defend itself. With Czech airspace currently defended by an aging fleet of Soviet MiGs, the Americans are to give the air force 150 air-to-air Sidewinder missiles prior to the summit.

Back down to earth, Prague's City Hall has been unveiling its plans for the city. The deputy mayor, Jiri Paroubek, said that he expected violent protests on the same scale as two years ago, and that the City Hall was planning tight controls on movement within the city centre. This will include completely sealing off the area around the Congress Centre and limiting traffic and public transport. Surveillance cameras will be set up throughout the city centre.

For its part Prague's police force has invested no less than 400 million crowns in new riot gear, but is so far keeping quiet about its precise strategy for the two days of the summit.

At least some of Prague's citizens will be looking forward to the summit. On Tuesday Mr Vondra recommended that all schools near the Congress Centre be closed for the duration of the talks.

31-07-2002