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Monday, October 18, 1999 Published at 23:47 GMT 00:47 UK

World: Europe

Czech pledge to tear down wall

The gypsy poster reads: "We do not want to live in a ghetto"

Czech Foreign Minister Jan Kavan has said a controversial wall that was built to separate gypsies from other residents in a northern town will come down.

But speaking in Helsinki, where he was discussing the Czech Republic's accession to the European Union, Mr Kavan said the legal steps were complex because of the extensive rights of local authorities.

The Czech Government has now appointed Deputy Interior Minister Pavel Zarecky to negotiate the removal of the wall with the local authorities in the town of of Usti nad Labem.

The wall is just under two metres high and was built in a small side street in the town after complaints by residents of noise and bad hygiene on the part of the gypsies.

But i's construction was met with criticism from gypsies and human rights groups who say it amounts to racial segregation.

EU problem

And as a symbol of the racial disharmony in Czech society it has become an international problem.

Finnish Foreign Minister Tarja Halonen, whose country currently holds the EU presidency, said the wall was not acceptable in today's Europe.

And Romano Prodi, the chief of the European Commission, has sharply criticised it.

With human rights a key criteria for entry to the European Union, Mr Kavan has warned that it could damage his country's hopes of joining the EU.

The government has long opposed the wall and the Czech parliament last week voted to block its construction, but the wall still stands.

Meanwhile, gypsy activists who knocked the wall down when it was first built, have said they will leave it where it stands but have announced a series of protest actions in major towns to bring attention to racism throughout Czech society.

BBC correspondent Ray Furlong says the issue has become something of a nightmare for the Czech Government, a minority administration already struggling with tough economic problems and threats by the main opposition party to unseat it.

Whether the issue will be resolved easily is as yet unclear. The town authorities in Usti nad Labem have so far defied all attempts by the government to bring them to heel.

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