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Christian Science Monitor
October 16, 2001
In Prague, a symbol of America comes under threat
A recent bomb plot against Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty's headquarters may force the stations to relocate.

By Arie Farnam
Special to The Christian Science Monitor

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC - In the heart of this stately city, just a few yards from the statue of the Czech patron Saint Wensceslas, stands the hulking former home of the Communist-controlled federal assembly, which for 40 years gripped the Czech and Slovak republics in an iron fist. Today, it houses the headquarters of the US-funded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. But recent events may force this powerful symbol of American influence in the Czech Republic to move.

Czech Chief of Staff Jiri Sedivy recently made public a warning passed on by Western intelligence agencies that RFE/RL was the target of a planned truck-bomb attack.

Speculation in the media here has focused on a possible connection with one of the Sept. 11 hijackers, Mohamed Atta, believed to have met several times in Prague with an Iraqi intelligence agent. Czech authorities have said, however, that evidence of the meetings, including one in June 2000, does not prove any involvement by Iraq in either the Sept. 11 attack or the bomb threat against RFE/RL.

With the radio stations now on high alert, the building is now surrounded by several lines of concrete defenses and guarded by Czech troops.

The Czech government says it is dangerous to keep such an obvious terrorist target in the busiest part of Prague. Earlier this month, US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan discussed moving the radios to a safer place outside the city.

The Czech Communist Party, which is still a significant political force, has hinted that it would prefer that RFE/RL were shipped out of the country entirely. President Vaclav Havel, who was a political prisoner under the Communist regime, called the idea of moving RFE/RL anywhere "absurd," although he later acknowledged the possibility that the government will have to relocate the radio stations.

Former anticommunist dissidents such as Jan Urban worry that a retreat from Prague would have powerful psychological impact. "If they were moved, I would regard it as a cowardly defeat and capitulation," he says. "We really feel that this is the place we fought for. This is the line in the sand that nobody is allowed to cross, and we have to defend it."

Mr. Urban spent decades trying to subvert the Communist regime within a network of dissidents friendly to the West. Although it meant risking a stint in prison, he listened to RFE, then based in Munich, whenever it wasn't jammed by the authorities, and says it gave him a rare and cherished connection with the outside world.

In 1988 he became an RFE stringer. Sometimes calling in stories on pay phones while on the run, Urban reported news for the radios for two years, despite repeated interrogations by the secret police. Now that the Czech Republic is considered a democratic ally of the West, RFE/RL has no direct Czech service, but Urban says the worldwide struggle against totalitarianism continues.

RFE now broadcasts in 27 languages. "We are an instrument of US foreign policy," says spokeswoman Sonia Winter. "We advocate American values and democratic values, not through propaganda, but through the dissemination of accurate, objective and balanced information."

In 1998, the station began broadcasting to Iran and Iraq, both of which consider the broadcasts "a hostile act." Since then, Prague has become a knot of Iraqi intelligence activity.

Congress is now considering renewing RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan service and analysts say this would probably move the radios up on the hit list of those plotting retaliation for the bombing of Afghanistan.

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