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Last Updated: Monday, 19 April, 2004, 09:21 GMT 10:21 UK
European press review

Spanish dailies are divided over their new prime minister's decision to pull their country's troops out of Iraq. In central Europe several papers agree that "the lesser of two evils" prevailed in Slovakia's presidential election. And Israel's killing of the leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas draws condemnation in editorial columns across Europe.

Spanish to leave Iraq

The Madrid papers are dominated by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero's order on Sunday for Spanish troops to return from Iraq "as soon as possible".

El Mundo welcomes Mr Zapatero's announcement and carries a message of reconciliation towards the former governing Popular Party (PP), which had sent the troops.

Spain must work to ensure that the international presence in Iraq is not perceived by Iraqis as a colonial occupation
El Pais

"The joy of a large sector of the population on hearing the good news is understandable, but it would be irresponsible to encourage... hostility towards the PP which has already paid politically for the mistake of sending troops to Iraq," it says.

El Pais backs the new prime minister's pledge to seek constructive solutions to the problems in Iraq.

"Spain, preferably in a European framework, must work to ensure that the international presence in Iraq is not perceived by a large sector of its population as a colonial occupation that must be resisted."

Spain is again absent from a great historical crossroads for the West
La Razon

The paper endorses Mr Zapatero's promise to support the stability, territorial integrity and reconstruction of Iraq.

However, La Razon believes that by withdrawing Spain's troops the Socialist leader is missing a great opportunity to help put the Iraqi nation back on its feet.

"The prime minister has fulfilled a promise on which he unnecessarily staked his honour, and our country is once again absent from a great historical crossroads for the West," it notes.

ABC also voices concern about the broader implications of Mr Zapatero's decision to bring the troops back.

"This repatriation will mean a new foreign policy which, instead of being conducted... with the cooperation of allies and the international institutions to which Spain belongs, will have to be improvised according to the reactions it generates, taking our country backwards into a diplomatic instability that it had overcome in recent years," the paper warns.

Slovakia's choice

Several papers in central Europe react to the surprise victory of Ivan Gasparovic, a former parliamentary leader, in Slovakia's presidential election on Saturday.

Germany's Berliner Zeitung says Ivan Gasparovic's victory is the lesser of two evils.

It recalls that Mr Gasparovic and his rival, former Prime Minister Vladimir Meciar, led the country to independence in 1993 but were soon suspected of "questionable, undemocratic methods in office" and "corruption".

Post-election Slovakia indicates that grass has started to grow on the grave of Vladimir Meciar's political career

However, according to the paper, Mr Gasparovic's election is the lesser of two evils because hardly anybody believes he can turn the ceremonial office of president into a centre of power.

"But one question remains: how was it possible for those two men to get into the final round of voting in the first place?"

Austria's Der Standard describes Mr Gasparovic as "a nationalist with a tendency towards populist rhetoric", but it adds that the main thing is that Mr Meciar's bid for the presidency failed.

"The tough choice between two evils has thus turned into... a signal for sensible policies," the paper concludes.

'More a rejection of Meciar'

The Czech Pravo also welcomes the defeat of Mr Meciar.

"Post-election Slovakia indicates that grass has started to grow on the grave of Vladimir Meciar's political career."

Mr Gasparovic is not assuming his post as a highly-thought-of moral authority
Narodna Obroda

But, given that fewer than 44% of people bothered to vote, it was, the paper says, "not only Meciar's funeral, but also a funeral for the people's trust in politics".

Another commentary in Pravo says that "Gasparovic seconded every one of Meciar's controversial political moves".

Yet, it notes, he now enjoys a reputation as "a more responsible and more trustworthy man, and a politician who will be perceived as a lesser evil, above all abroad".

According to Slovakia's Narodna Obroda, "the main reason for the triumph of a person [Gasparovic] who for years lived in the shadow of his rival [Meciar] was the wish not to have Meciar as president".

Mr Gasparovic "is not assuming his post as a highly-thought-of moral authority".

The majority of the Slovak electorate did not wish to decide who should be the country's third president

Another commentary in the same paper notes that Mr Meciar's defeat proves again that "the anti-Meciar part of society continues to play a decisive role in elections".

"A sigh of relief is heard from abroad, but they cannot rejoice as yet," the Slovak paper Pravda says.

"The EU and Nato have only now started to check who Ivan Gasparovic is," it says.

"Gasparovic will not be a strong head of the state and it will take him a rather long time to gain international authority," the paper predicts.

Hungary's Nepszabadsag echoes the view that voters faced a dilemma.

"The majority of the Slovak electorate did not wish to decide who should be the country's third president."

"Apart from voter apathy, fear about the return of Meciar decided the Slovak election", the paper believes.

Anxiety over the Middle East

Israel's assassination of Abdel Aziz al-Rantissi, the leader of the militant Palestinian movement Hamas, attracts editorial comment in several European countries.

According to France's Liberation, the killing of Mr Rantissi "is no surprise".

"Combatants who declare themselves at war with an enemy whom they call on people to annihilate are in no position to be outraged when they're targeted by that enemy," it argues.

Weaker and more ignored than ever, the Palestinians have been collectively transformed into a nation of 3.5 million ghosts
Le Temps

But the paper still condemns such actions, saying they violate international law and are of dubious effectiveness.

"There is no purely armed response to a problem that is not solely military."

Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung argues that the killing of Mr Rantissi is an example of "the irresponsible way in which the Israeli premier [Ariel Sharon] uses his freedom and his strength".

Mr Sharon's confidence has grown because Hamas has failed to carry out any suicide attacks since the killing of its founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin by Israel last month, it says.

The Swiss Le Temps says the assassination reflects the refusal of Israel's current leaders to accept the Palestinians as a people, let alone as interlocutors.

"Weaker and more ignored than ever, in the context of the global fight against terrorism, they have been collectively transformed into a nation of 3.5 million ghosts."

And a commentary in Russia's Nezavisimaya Gazeta fears that the assassination may trigger "a new outbreak of violence in Iraq as happened at the end of March after the killing of the Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin".

Pandering to "the pro-Israeli lobby may turn out to be counter-productive for the current US president", it warns.

The European press review is compiled by BBC Monitoring from internet editions of the main European newspapers and some early printed editions.

The press in Germany
23 Mar 04  |  Europe
The press in Russia
01 Apr 04  |  Europe
The press in Spain
06 Apr 04  |  Europe
The press in France
12 Apr 04  |  Europe
The press in Hungary
12 Apr 04  |  Europe

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