And now the news in more detail.
Both houses of the Czech Parliament have approved the government's proposal to send a military field hospital and an unarmed military aircraft to the Balkans, in the framework of humanitarian aid for Kosovo refugees. They also approved the government's provision that they only be used outside the territory of Yugoslavia itself. The vote in favour of the motion was overwhelming, with only Communist members voting against in both houses. But while parties are united on the humanitarian aspects of the Kosovo conflict, parliament remains deeply divided over NATO's action in Yugoslavia, and on Wednesday both houses rejected a resolution that would have expressed full Czech support for Nato air-strikes.
The Prime Minister Milos Zeman has said that the government is willing to provide 784 million crowns in humanitarian aid to refugees. He told parliament that this money would have to be raised by increasing the state budget deficit. Members of parliament from opposition right-of-centre parties have said that they would prefer alternative ways of raising the money that would not affect the deficit. A further two hundred million crowns is to be provided from existing reserves.
Meanwhile Czech charities, local authorities and private companies are continuing to raise money for refugees. The city council in Brno has agreed to send a million crowns in aid, and on Thursday a further humanitarian convoy is to leave for Albania, thanks to the People in Need Foundation and the Czech Catholic Charity.
The Czech cabinet has given the green-light to its long-awaited programme to revitalize Czech industry. The programme, which has been the subject of intense debate both within and outside the government, aims to build a framework for helping to restructure ailing Czech companies and to rebuild the dwindling reserves of Czech banks. Only larger firms will be entitled to support through the programme, and even if they do fulfil the criteria, help will not be guaranteed. The document states that stress will be placed on each individual company's real chances of survival. The compiling of the programme has been dogged by differences between its two authors, trade and industry minister, Miroslav Gregr, and deputy premier Pavel Mertlik, and these were evident even at the press conference to present the document.
Prime Minister Milos Zeman has left for a three-day visit to Moscow aimed at reviving trade between the two countries. He will be accompanied by several ministers, and a number of specific trade agreements are to be signed. The Czech delegation also hopes to discuss Russia's 3.6 billion dollar debt to the Czech Republic, dating from the days before the fall of communism. Mr Zeman has expressed hopes that the Yugoslav conflict will not cast a shadow over the visit, but talks are widely expected to touch on the subject.
The Czech National Bank has published figures that reveal losses of over fifty billion crowns last year. This follows profits for 1997 of over ten billion crowns. The bank's annual report attributes the losses partly to a decline in the value of the crown and to the costs of consolidating the struggling banking sector.
On a more positive note the Czech car-manufacturers Skoda have reported an increase in sales of over thirty percent for the last calendar year. Despite traditionally being the butt of many jokes, Skoda sales have increased most dramatically in Western Europe. In Britain sales were up by two-fifths and in Spain they more than doubled. Domestic sales have been rather weaker due to the continuing recession in the Czech Republic.
Czech survivors of Second World War concentration camps have been offered humanitarian assistance by the Swiss-based Fund for the Needs of Holocaust Victims. Over twelve hundred survivors - most of whom were held by the Nazis as political prisoners - will each receive a single payment of a thousand dollars. So far the money will not be going to Romani and Jewish Holocaust survivors, who are to be paid from separate funds. The Swiss-based fund was set up two years ago after a long debate over the fate of Swiss bank accounts held by people who perished in the Holocaust.
The head of the Czech Prison Service, Jiri Maly, has pointed to serious problems within Czech jails. On Wednesday he told journalists that prisons are stretched far beyond capacity, and that the number of prisoners overall is increasing too fast for the service to be able to keep up. So far this year the figure has increased by a thousand, more than the increase for the whole of 1998. The problem is further compounded by a serious shortfall in the number of people employed by the service, although Maly said that the government has recently approved a proposal to take on more staff.
An OECD report has praised the Czech Republic for improvements to the environment over the last ten years. The cleaner environment is partly the result of a decline in industry and agriculture, but the report also points to successful changes in Czech legislation and institutions. But it warns that pollution levels are still far higher than the average for OECD member countries. The report calls on the Czech Republic to increase its efforts to include environmental issues in economic decisions. // It also calls on the country to adopt a new ecological political strategy as soon as possible, that will take into consideration European Union requirements and lay down concrete goals and timetables. It concludes that energy prices are still relatively low in the Czech Republic, and that this discourages people from using energy efficiently.
Exactly a year after President Havel underwent an emergency operation in Austria during which part of his intestine was removed, his doctors have reported that he has made almost a full recovery. They added that they see no need for further surgery, although the president is still suffering from a minor hernia, which does cause him some pain.
And a quick look at the weather in the Czech Republic. We can can expect it to remain overcast for the rest of the day with showers and temperatures between 10 and 14 degrees Celsius. It will remain unsettled on Friday, but we can expect it to brighten up by the weekend.
And that's the end of the news.
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