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Wednesday, 24 November, 1999, 13:58 GMT
Czechs pull down Gypsy wall
The EU had demanded the wall come down

By Ray Furlong in Prague

Workers in the Czech town of Usti Nad Labem have dismantled a controversial wall dividing Gypsies from other local residents.

The wall was built after complaints by locals that the Gypsies were noisy and unhygienic, but criticised by human rights groups and the European Union as a case of racial segregation.

On Wednesday morning, shortly before dawn, everyone was woken up by the sound of workmen arriving to dismantle the wall which stands in a small side street of a provincial Czech town.

Sparks flew as the workmen unwelded concrete slabs from steel supports and pneumatic drills were used to unearth the concrete posts driven into the ground just over a month ago.

The Gypsies, or Roma, as they're also known, have mixed feelings. Some are celebrating, drinking rum, but they also say that the town council's plans to buy the houses of other local residents, enabling them to move away, basically amounts to the creation of a Gypsy ghetto in the street.

The Czech government, which opposed the wall from the start, is providing the local authorities with state money for social welfare programmes in the town, but much of the money will be used for buying up residents' houses and for removing the wall.

Nevertheless, this is still a kind of victory for the Czech government, which had reacted to European Union pressure by promising the wall would be down by the EU summit in Helsinki next month.

Refugees

Leading European Union officials had warned the wall could harm the country's chances of membership.

Removing the wall will rid the Czech government of that danger, but it will not help the country's efforts to integrate the Roma minority, which forms an underclass, separated from the rest of society by poor education, enormous levels of unemployment and racism.

Meanwhile, top Czech government officials are in Britain today to discuss the problems faced by the Roma community, as a steady stream of Czech Roma continues to flow to Britain seeking political asylum.

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See also:
18 Oct 99 |  Europe
Czech pledge to tear down wall
26 Feb 99 |  Europe
Hiding gypsies behind a wall
09 Jun 99 |  Europe
Czech gypsies in school row
05 Jul 99 |  Europe
Analysis: Gypsies 'caught in the middle'

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