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Tuesday, 19 February, 2002, 19:21 GMT
'Hitler' comment sparks Arab fury
Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman with Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres
Mr Zeman denied making the comparison
Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman has sailed into a diplomatic storm after reportedly comparing Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler.

The Arab world reacted with anger, and Egypt asked Mr Zeman to postpone a visit scheduled for next week.

Because of our commitments, we have asked the Czech prime minister to postpone his visit to Egypt

Egyptian Foreign Minister
Mr Zeman has issued a statement insisting that he has been misquoted. However, the BBC has obtained a recording of Mr Zeman giving an interview with Israeli television, in which he does liken the Palestinian Authority to Hitler's Third Reich.

As the row deepened, Egypt said it was asking Mr Zeman to delay a trip scheduled for 28 February.

"Because of our commitments, we have asked the Czech prime minister to postpone his visit to Egypt," Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher told reporters in Cairo.

An official at the ministry told the French news agency AFP that the postponement was a protest against Mr Zeman's reported remarks.

'Awkward remarks'

The comparison to Hitler was made in an interview with the leading Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, on Monday.

Yasser Arafat
Arafat: Israel should not negotiate, said Mr Zeman

Mr Zeman was quoted as saying that Israel should not have to negotiate with Mr Arafat, just as world leaders should not have negotiated with the Nazis before World War II.

He was asked if he was comparing Arafat to Hitler. "Of course," the paper quoted him as replying.

He was also quoted describing Palestinians as "terrorists" and saying they should be expelled from the West Bank and Gaza Strip if they did not accept Israeli peace proposals.

Palestinian Culture Minister Yasser Abd-Rabbuh described Zeman's statements as "awkward remarks marked by ignorance and stupidity".

The severity of the Israeli occupation matches only that of Nazi Germany, one of the victims of which was Czechoslovakia itself

Palestinian Culture Minister
"The severity of the Israeli occupation matches only that of Nazi Germany, one of the victims of which was Czechoslovakia itself," he said.

The secretary-general of the Arab League also reacted with anger.

"This is illogical and unacceptable and hostile to all Arab countries," said Amr Moussa.

The European Union, which the Czech Republic is hoping to become a member of, joined the criticism. Spokesman Jean-Christophe Filori said it was not the sort of language expected from a future member state, and the comments were "not particularly helpful" to the EU's efforts to find peace.

Czech President Vaclav Havel also condemned the comments.

Mr Zeman, in a statement issued in Prague, insisted he had been misquoted.

"I would like to stress that I never compared Arafat to Hitler," the statement said.

Interview exchange

However, in the recording obtained by the BBC, Mr Zeman tells Israeli television he has come to offer solidarity to Israel, because the Czechs have also suffered from terrorism from Adolf Hitler.

The interviewer then explicitly asks if Mr Zeman is making a comparison with the Palestinians, asking: "Do you imply that there are similarities between Hitler's Third Reich to Arafat's Palestinian Authority?"

"Of course it is," Mr Zeman replies. "First of all let us define the terrorism. The terrorism I think is the political movement which uses the civic victim as a tool for political tasks."

The Czech newspaper Lidove Noviny pointed out in its Tuesday edition that Mr Zeman had previously drawn a comparison between Hitler and Austrian far-right politician Joerg Haider.

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