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Thursday, 28 February, 2002, 15:23 GMT
Schroeder snubs Prague
Milos Zeman questioned by journalists on his comments
Zeman's comments caused a diplomatic row
The German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, has cancelled a planned trip to the Czech capital, Prague.

No explanation was given for the indefinite postponement of the mid-March visit, and no new date was set.

However, officials in Berlin denied that the decision was a result of strained relations between the two countries after the Czech Prime Minister, Milos Zeman, referred to ethnic Germans expelled from post-war Czechoslovakia as "Hitler's fifth column".

The remarks caused widespread offence in Germany, and were seen as implying collective guilt for the crimes of the Nazis.

Election issue

The news came only a matter of hours after a German Government spokesman said any misunderstanding between the two countries had been cleared up during a recent visit by the Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer to Prague.

German officials say Chancellor Schroeder wants to avoid the matter becoming an issue in his re-election campaign and the forthcoming Czech elections.

But Mr Schroeder's opponent in September elections, Bavarian Prime Minister Edmund Stoiber, has demanded that Mr Zeman retract his comments.

Bavaria adjoins the former Sudetenland once inhabited by more than 2.5 million ethnic Germans who were expelled after 1945 as "enemies".

In 1997, the previous German and Czech leaders signed a declaration aimed at reconciling the two neighbours.

However, neither the Czech Republic nor Slovakia have repealed the Benes decrees that resulted in confiscation of properties and loss of citizenship for the Sudeten Germans and also about 600,000 ethnic Hungarians.

Diplomatic gaffes

This is not Mr Zeman's first diplomatic gaffe.

Recently he has been quoted as comparing Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to Adolf Hitler, which has drawn fury from the Arab world as well as from the European Union.

Mr Zeman later tried to stamp out the scandal by pinning the blame for the controversy on his "awkward English".

And earlier this year Mr Zeman soured the already poor relations with Austria by calling Joerg Haider, the former leader of the far-right Freedom Party, a "populist pro-Nazi politician".

See also:

20 Feb 02 | Europe
Czech row dominates German visit
19 Feb 02 | Europe
'Hitler' comment sparks Arab fury
14 Jan 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Germany
27 Feb 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: Czech Republic
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