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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 22:52 GMT
Austrians fight Czech nuclear plant
Temelin plant
The Temelin plant will be operational later this year
The far-right Austrian Freedom Party has won resounding support for its petition against a Czech nuclear power station bordering Austria that has caused a bitter row between the two neighbours.

Chancellor Schuessel
Schuessel had already agreed to the plant
More than 900,000 people - nearly a sixth of Austrian voters - signed the petition, which demands that their country should veto Czech membership of the European Union unless the power station is closed.

The petition is not legally binding and will do little more than force a vote in Austria's parliament.

But the BBC's Bethany Bell in Vienna says it is likely to further strain Austria's fragile ruling coalition, and could eventually force early elections.

Deal already signed

Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel, whose party shares leadership with the Freedom Party, insists Austria will not veto Czech EU membership.

Last November he made a deal with Prague that the Temelin plant could go ahead. A series of technical hitches have delayed its start-up but it is expected to be fully operational later this year.

The Czechs stress the power station - a Soviet-built nuclear plant in southern Bohemia, just 60 km (35 miles) from the Austrian border - is safe and say the petition is simply an attempt to prevent them from joining the EU.

But the Freedom Party's Joerg Haider, responding to the vote in a statement, said the result - 915,220 names - showed the current talks with Prague had been insufficient and the petition must now be acted on.

Earlier Mr Haider had said the petition would be considered a success if it got more than 400,000 signatures.

Flying insults

Our correspondent says the trade of insults between the two sides in recent days is likely to have boosted the turn-out for the vote.

Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman
Zeman called Haider 'a pro-Nazi'
Austrian President Thomas Klestil complained to his Czech counterpart, Vaclav Havel, when the Czech Prime Minister, Milos Zeman, told an Austrian magazine that Mr Haider was a "populist pro-Nazi politician who understands nothing but talks about everything".

Last week Mr Haider accused Mr Zeman of clinging to Communism.

"A spectre is haunting Europe, the spectre of Communism," he wrote. "Only this time the threat is much more serious because it does not show its true face."

Mr Zeman replied by calling Mr Haider and his party "post-fascist" and accusing it openly of seeking to veto Prague's EU membership application.

The Freedom Party's parliamentary chief, Peter Westenthaler, then said Mr Zeman was "mentally disturbed" and "more at home in the jungle than in the European Union".

A Czech foreign ministry spokesman, Ales Pospisil, called on "diplomats in both countries to bring calm to the currently tense situation."

He said that it would be in Austria's interest for the Czech Republic to enter the EU.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
Heather Grabbe from the Centre for European Reform
"The majority of Austrians are against nuclear power"
See also:

31 May 01 | Europe
Leak at Czech nuclear plant
18 Jan 01 | Europe
Temelin shuts down for repairs
13 Dec 00 | Europe
Czech nuclear plant safety deal
10 Oct 00 | Europe
Anger as nuclear reactor starts
15 Jun 00 | Business
Nuclear power nightmare
15 Jun 00 | Europe
Nuclear doubts gnaw deeper
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