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Investigating the cause of the biggest military aircraft disaster in Slovakia's history
3.2.2006 - Katarina Richterova

January 19th 2006 will be a dark date in Slovak history. A military plane traveling from Pristina in Kosovo to the Slovak city of Kosice crashed just near the Slovak-Hungarian border, claiming the lives of 42 Slovaks. They were members of a NATO peacekeeping mission. It was the most serious air crash in Slovakia's history and investigators have recently recovered the aircraft's flight recorder.

A siren marks the beginning of a 24-hour period of national mourning. All state institutions lowered their flags to half-mast and theatres, cinemas, television and radio changed their programs. A week after the tragic accident the nation said its last farewell to the 42 people who died, at a large military ceremony. Thousands of people gathered at Presov's sports hall to pay their respects. Defense Minister Juraj Liska:

"I will always remember the pride on your faces and the resolve with which you address this challenge."

NATO General Secretary Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was also at the farewell ceremony:

"Today is a very, very sad day for all of us. We all lost, through this terrible accident, men and women who did their duty in the name of peace and progress, who were protecting other people's lives and who paid the ultimate price in doing so."

The crashed aircraft was carrying 28 soldiers returning home as part of a troop rotation, plus seven rotation-support staff and eight crew members. Of the 43 people on board only one, almost miraculously, survived. A special commission has been set up to investigate the causes of the accident.

According to Slovak Air Force Chief, Juraj Baranek: "the AN-24 military plane did not stray from its flight path, although it did begin its descent earlier than usual". In Slovakia speculation has been rife about the cause of the crash. It is a matter of time before the black box will reveal whether it was bad weather, human or technical failure that led to the tragedy.

Questions are already being asked about the safety of the plane. The Antonov AN-24, was built in Ukraine in 1969. Similar aircraft are no longer in operation in the Czech Republic and Hungary. Various specialists and ex-pilots have told the press that the planes were old and should have been replaced. Defense ministry spokesman, Milan Vanga, disagrees:

"30 years old for an aircraft, especially a military plane, is not very high, because Army aircraft undergo regular repairs that prolong their life by 5 years. These planes offer maximum safety to the passengers and cargo."

However the defense ministry spokesman confirmed to us that they have been planning to replace the Anton-24 aircraft with new machines:

"In the future we were planning to replace the aircraft - not because of safety or their age, but to react to current trends worldwide, where major tenders for modern aircraft are under way. But several armies, including NATO members, still regularly use the AN-24."

The modernisation of the Antonov aircraft began in 2001. Currently Slovakia has 3 further AN-24 aircraft in operation, although they have been grounded until the cause of the crash is determined. According to the latest information, the AN-24 was not equipped with a device that would have indicated it was getting too close to the the ground. The defense ministry says that such devices are not prescribed by law.

Rather than wait for political criticism or the findings of the black box, Defense Minister Juraj Liska resigned from his post last Friday, just a day after the last farewell to the 42 members of the peacekeeping mission. Some call it a pre-election tactic, others a morally mature gesture and a sign of a more cultivated political atmosphere in Slovakia. Whichever it may be, one thing is for sure. There was a tragic irony in the January 19th disaster. Having survived a difficult peace-keeping mission, 42 men and women died on their way home.

Poland comes to terms with Katowice tragedy
3.2.2006 - Michal Kubicki

This past week Poland has been in mourning, remembering the victims of the country's worst tragedy in twenty years: the collapse of a trade fair centre in the southern city of Katowice. The roof of the packed building where a trade show was underway caved in, apparently under the weight of uncleared snow. 64 people were killed including eight foreigners. Czechs and Slovaks were among them.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK
Three days of national mourning were observed to honour the victims of the disaster. Most of theatre performances, film shows and entertainment events were cancelled. A week after Poles take in the extent of the disaster that killed over sixty people and left one hundred and fifty with injuries. They all attended a carrier pigeon exhibition in Katowice when the disaster struck. Religious services in memory of the victims have been held in churches across Poland. For ordinary Polish citizens the period of mourning declared by the authorities was a time for contemplation.

'I was terrified because it was a huge tragedy.'

'It was a big tragedy for me, and I think, for all the people in Poland. I was really shocked.'

'I felt very terrible when I heard about this tragedy. I don't know, maybe we will think more about our safety in Poland - like in these days that so much snow has fallen in Poland. I think it's good that Poles can feel together and try to think about the tragedy of those people who lost their friends or families. And I think it's a good time to think about it.'

Rescue workers described scenes of horror when they had to brave not just freezing temperatures, but also live wires exposed when the building collapsed. Some of those who suffered minor injuries risked their lives to help others.

'I was there inside the exhibition centre when the roof collapsed.. My leg was bleeding, but I didn't feel any pain at the time. I dragged a child from under the fallen roof. I don't know if she survived but I do hope she did.'

A team of psychologists has been working round-the-clock with the families of the victims, the people in hospital and the rescuers who had to pull out dismembered bodies, smashed by falling metal bars, from under the rubble. Polish authorities moved swiftly to offer help to those who needed it.

Polish President Lech Kaczynski said he was united in mourning with those who suffered personal loss. He said the state will do its best to provide assistance to all those who had lost their family members. The children of the victims are to receive lifelong pensions.

Now that the initial shock is over, questions are being asked about the causes of the disaster. Poles hope the authorities will draw the necessary lesson.

Photo: CTKPhoto: CTK
It is too early to determine what caused the roof to collapse but the owners of the hall have already been accused of 'serious negligence' and 'flouting safety regulations'. According to Professor Marian Gizejowski of Warsaw's University of Technology, the weight of snow was most probably not the sole cause of the tragedy.

'It is very difficult at this stage to talk about the definite reasons for the collapse. I do not neglect the reason resulting from design and execution errors. As far as I know this might not be the only factor contributing to this disaster.'

It could take weeks to dismantle the hall and piece together evidence. The Interior Minister ordered mandatory inspection and clearing of all large-surface flat roofs on supermarkets, shopping centers and sports facilities in Poland.

Slovenia sets its sights on a motorway ...on the sea
3.2.2006 - Linda Maštalíř

Europe's already congested land routes are expected to see a 70% increase in traffic by 2020. For this reason, shifting more of the burden to the sea has become important for both landlocked as well as coastal nations in Europe. The European Commission conducted feasibility studies about sea motorways last year, and has allocated funds for their construction in the 2007 to 2013 budget. Plans are now underway for their realization.

In Ljubljana, delegates from all 25 EU members, as well as from candidates Bulgaria and Romania, arrived to open the first conference on the subject. Addressing the delegates, Slovenia's transportation minister emphasized the need for careful and reasoned decisions about how these sea motorways should be laid out. Sea ports should be chosen carefully, there should be suitable links between ports and land, and administrative procedures should be as simple as possible. Slovenia's Prime Minister, Janez Jansa, stressed that logistics in cooperation was currently the single biggest problem:

"The biggest problem we have encountered so far is the lack of connections from the sea to railway networks."

Current EU president Austria was represented at the conference by State Secretary at the Austrian Transportation Ministry Helmut Kucka, who stressed the European applicability of the problem:

"Although Austria is a classical example of a land-locked country, the European dimension of short-distance sea transportation is clear to us. In our opinion, it represents an economical, ecological and critical supplement to land transportation. We should not forget that short-distance sea transportation currently almost moves the same amount of tons per kilometre as land transportation."

Increased reliance on sea transportation is also seen by many as a necessary measure for Europe to fulfil its obligations in the Kyoto Protocol. Slovenia, in many respects, is a microcosm of Europe's current transportation concerns. The country is rapidly working towards connecting its primary port of Koper with rail and road links. And like many EU newcomers, it has also been busy constructing new motorways that traverse the country and fit into existing pan-European corridors. As trade and transport between EU members grow, members are counting on sea transportation to help take the burden off of Europe's busy streets.

The Budapest-Bamako rally
3.2.2006 - Agi Varga

If you have a lot of money and want to compete in a car race then you might enter the Dakar Rally. But if you are less well of and still looking for real adventure, you might choose the Budapest-Bamako rally, a new low cost and - we're told - wacky race through the Sahara. In two weeks, they pass through Hungary, Slovenia, Italy, France, Spain, Morocco and Mauritania, before they finish in the capital of Mali, Bamako.

The race is pure adventure, challenge and charity, says the main organiser, Andras Szabo Gaal:

"It was one of the greatest challenges for all who took part in this incredible race. It started from Budapest on December 27 and went all the way to the capital of Mali. It started off as a nice little ride on European highways in the cold December sun and it got increasingly harder and more difficult as we reached the heart of Africa. Towards the last couple of days it was pure hell because the participants had to drive on a really unpredictable dirt road and some really rough terrain. Thankfully, the locals were all very nice and very friendly. It was a very hospitable group of people in Mali and Mauritania."

How would you describe this race? Some people say it's an alternative to the Dakar rally...

"Yes. It is absolutely an alternative. I like to call it a low-budget Dakar. The race was created for those people who have always dreamt of going on the Dakar, who have dreamt of driving in Africa, who have fantasised about experiencing those cultures in these parts of the world. But it doesn't cost as much as the Dakar."

Apart from the costs, what are the other differences?

"In many ways the Budapest-Bamako is harder than the Dakar. I'm not afraid to say that. I saw the Dakar, I visited the camps of the Dakar a couple of times and the Dakar people have a tremendous advantage. They have an assistance vehicle, there are medical helicopters, if your car breaks down there is a trash collector truck at the end of the race that picks up the broken-down vehicles. There is someone always there to help you. The Budapest-Bamako is a minimal or zero-assistance race, where everybody has to rely on his own resources. So, if your car breaks down in the middle of the road or in the middle of the desert, you're on your own. Solve your problems, get out of trouble alone or find your own resources. So, in that respect it's harder.

"In other respects it's easier because in the Budapest-Bamako you don't have to race against time. There are two categories. There is a racing category and there is a touring category. In the touring category, all you have to do is just get to Bamako. Your time doesn't matter. If you miss a stage or a finish one day, then you're not out of the race. So, in some ways it's easier and in others it's harder."

How long does it take to get to the end of the race?

"On the way there it took us 15 days, on the way back the fastest team made it in 5 days, which is unbelievable, considering it is 8,000 kilometres."

You gave out special awards?

"Correct. The most important special award in the touring category was the Mother Theresa charity award. It went to the team, which did the most outstanding in the field of charity in Africa. This year it was the No.39 team, sponsored by Hungary's TV2. They did some really fabulous charity work such as distributing medicine in remote villages and bringing soccer balls to street kids in Mauritania. But everybody did well in the area of charity, so it was a very hard choice to award the Mother Theresa Award."

Open Arms 2006 - National Theatre's festival for and by minorities
3.2.2006 - Dita Asiedu

The Czech theatre group Vlastenecka Omladina, or Patriotic Youth, was founded 120 years ago in Vienna. It performs two productions annually for the Czech-speaking minority in Austria. But this week audiences in Prague also have the chance to enjoy its work, as the group takes part in a mini-festival entitled Open Arms 2006.

Organised by Prague's National Theatre, this is the third year that it is being held. Daniel Dvorak is the theatre's director:

"The Open Arms festival is part of a National Theatre programme that we call the 'director's' programme. That includes all the performances that cannot be categorised in our usual programme schedule. What's unusual about Open Arms is that it focuses on minorities - but in the broadest sense of the word: not only social or ethnic minorities, but also those who are minorities because of a health problem, for example. And we want them to play an important part on stage as well as in the audience."

One example is a performance of William Saroyan's Tracy's Tiger by the theatre group Divadlo Na Blizko - the first theatre group in Europe especially aimed at people with hearing disabilities. Adriana Svetlikova is the group's manager:

"This theatre performance is a new version of Tracy's Tiger created through so-called 'shadow interpreting' that presents the play to people with hearing disabilities. The performance is interesting because every actor moves around the stage with a 'shadow', which acts and presents the performance in sign language."

The other two groups featured at Open Arms 2006 are the Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan and France's LoCor de la Plana, brought to the Czech Republic by music journalist Petr Doruzka:

"The Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan originally come from the Indian state of Rajasthan. They are dancers, musicians, acrobats, and fakirs - everything you're interested in - and they are actually based in Europe. It's a very colourful and spectacular performance. I would recommend it. The other group is from Marseille and is called LoCor de la Plana. They sing in the Occitan language, which is the ancient troubadour language of old poetry. They are all men who use percussions and Arabian drums to accompany their song. The repertoire is from the Middle Ages, church songs, from the liturgy, and also contemporary folk songs."

LoCor de la Plana - Friday, February 3, Estates Theatre, 19:00
Vlastenecka Omladina - Saturday, February 4, Estates Theatre, 19:00
Divadlo Na Blizko - Sunday, February 5, Kolowrat Theatre, 19:00
Dhoad Gypsies of Rajasthan - Wednesday, February 8, National Theatre, 19:00

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