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Czechs Brace for Threats to Radio Liberty

Media: Officials in Prague see a post-Sept. 11 risk of an attack against the U.S.-funded station and have placed armored personnel carriers to provide protection.


PRAGUE, Czech Republic — In the global war against terrorism, a skirmish is being fought on the streets of this charming old capital, where armored personnel carriers have been strategically placed to protect Radio Free Europe against truck bombs.

The station, formally called Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has been considered a potential target since 1998, when it began broadcasting an Iraqi service aimed at undermining the regime of President Saddam Hussein. But after the Sept. 11 attacks on New York and near Washington, Czech officials warned of fresh risks to the U.S.-funded operation.

The officials also reported that an Iraqi diplomat had been expelled as a spy in April in part because he was suspected of planning an attack on the station, which moved here from Munich in 1995.

A few weeks before the expulsion of Ahmad Khalil Ibrahim Samir Ani, Czech intelligence agents also observed him meeting with suspected hijacker Mohamed Atta, who allegedly flew one of the two planes that crashed into the World Trade Center, Czech Interior Minister Stanislav Gross said recently.

Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman told CNN during a visit to Washington last week that he believes Atta and Ani discussed plans for a bomb attack on the radio station in Prague.

"Atta contacted some Iraq agent, not to prepare the terrorist attack on [the World Trade Center twin towers] but to prepare a terrorist attack on just the building of Radio Free Europe," Zeman said. "There were some plans to use the truck standard explosives to destroy the building."

The fears that terrorists might target the station, which broadcasts in 27 languages, also have increased with its plans to launch a new Afghan service early next year.

The broadcasts will be in Pashto and Dari, key languages of Afghanistan, and will provide alternative information to counter statements by that country's Taliban regime.

Czech security officials responded to the increased sense of danger by dispatching not just soldiers but also four armored personnel carriers to block streets that approach the station, located near Wenceslas Square in downtown Prague.

The heavy equipment is positioned to slow any vehicle trying to crash into columns that support the upper floors of the structure, which once housed Czechoslovakia's Communist federal Parliament.

The visible risk of a terrorist incident in an area of Prague frequented by pedestrians and tourists has triggered debate among politicians and the public over whether the station should move to a more secure and less central location.

Proponents of a move generally stress safety concerns, while opponents say it would be a capitulation to terrorism.

"It's nonsense to put Radio Free Europe in the middle of town, at the top of Wenceslas Square," said Gabriela Marikova, a young woman who passed by the building with her 6-year-old daughter. "If there really were terrorist attacks like they're talking about, it would be right in the center of the city. And it's limiting our freedom of movement, the movement of traffic."

But Peter Wonka, 22, a Prague university student, said the station "has to stay here. It's a symbol of the battle against terrorism. . . . For nations that are not so free, where there are dictators, it gives them true information from all the world and from their own country."

The debate on the streets reflects similar arguments among Czech politicians, and even in the minds of some U.S. officials. Everyone wants people to be safe, but no one likes the idea of yielding to a threat.

"My first reaction is never budge when threatened," said Thomas A. Dine, the radio's president. "That just is a principle of mine. . . . But since Sept. 11, the threat is ongoing, and I have to be cognizant of that."

Dine said he might be willing to move the station if the Czech government can provide a location that is more secure, still convenient for employees and big enough for the station to have room to grow.

The station, which does not have an English service, sees its role as "an alternative in the local media market" of the countries to which it broadcasts, Dine said.

"When it comes to Iraq, it's Saddam Hussein's voice versus ours," he said. "It's important that Iraqis know what's going on in their own country. It's traditional--that's what we did when there was a Soviet Union and the Eastern European countries were Communist-controlled."

Dine added that "the supreme leader in Iran hates our guts and denounces us every so often. . . . We're driving the militant conservative clerics crazy."

This policy of reaching out to the people of authoritarian countries enjoys deep support among Czech citizens.

"For those people [under dictatorship] it's good," said Andrea Fialova, 26, who passed by one of the armored personnel carriers with her baby in a carriage. "It was good for my father in Communist times."

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