THE DEATHS of four Slovak soldiers on June 8, three of which came after the sudden explosion of a military vehicle in Iraq has opened discussion of a possible withdrawal of the Slovak unit from Iraq.
Soldiers Peter Dinga, Vladimír Simonides, and Miroslav Frkáň died when their truck, loaded with ammunition designated for disposal accidentally detonated while clearing a minefield around 150 kilometres of off the unit's Al Hilláh base. Three other soldiers from Poland and Latvia also lost their lives.
Investigators reported that mortar shells fired by unknown attackers caused the blast.
Shortly after the reports on the deaths came, several local politicians blamed the Slovak cabinet for the loss of life. Among them, the opposition Communist Party argued that, "the soldiers would not have died if Slovakia had not sent them to Iraq."
In addition to the three morning deaths in Iraq, Slovak Defence Minister Juraj Liška announced that Miroslav Hruška, a soldier participating in the UN peacekeeping mission in Cyprus, died only few hours later after a propeller hit him as he was disembarking from a helicopter.
Local media labelled June 8 a "black day for the Slovak army in foreign missions".
Top state officials offered their condolences to the families of the dead soldiers.
"Our soldiers contributed to creating a more peaceful life for the Iraqi people. They are heroes because they sacrificed their lives for others," said Speaker of Parliament Pavol Hrušovský.
PM Mikuláš Dzurinda said at a press conference that the Slovak republic "was not, is not, and will not be sending soldiers on missions to kill. We are sending them to protect lives", before expressing his sympathy and condolences to the soldiers' relatives.
Ronald Weiser, the US ambassador to Slovakia, sent a letter of condolences to Slovak President Rudolf Schuster stating that, "the US mourns [the soldiers'] death and honours the sacrifice the soldiers made in service to their country and world peace".
Reactions in Slovakia linked the deaths to the larger issue of national security, blaming the cabinet's decision to deploy troops in Iraq for the tragic deaths.
"The representatives of the Slovak cabinet and parliament, who irresponsibly and with the awareness of the possible losses, sent the Slovak mission to a risky area of war carry the political and moral responsibility for the deaths of the three soldiers," the top representatives of the Slovak National Party, Ján Slota and Anna Malíková, said in a statement.
They demanded the immediate withdrawal of the Slovak troops from Iraq.
Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, as well as PM Dzurinda and Defence Minister Liška, however, agreed that withdrawal would not help the situation.
"Withdrawing soldiers from Iraq would be very unfortunate and a disaster for the Iraqi people," said Dzurinda.
Deputy Speaker of Slovak Parliament Béla Bugár, who is also the chairman of the ruling Hungarian Coalition Party, agreed, saying that, although the tragedy was very unfortunate, "it does not change anything about the fact that Slovak soldiers are there to help the Iraqi people".
According to Bugár, a similar event could take place by accident in the local army barracks.
Opposition MP Tibor Mikuš from the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia told the state run news agency TASR that "such tragedies need to be expected in military operations of this type".
He added that Slovakia should coordinate its further participation in the Iraq mission with the European states and the United Nations.
Representatives of one of the state's four ruling parties, the New Citizen's Alliance, however, said that the possibility of withdrawing Slovak troops from Iraq should be discussed.
The Communist Party and the opposition party Smer are in favour of withdrawal. Smer also demanded that the cabinet first present a report on the situation in Iraq in the Slovak parliament.
Although the report will most likely be prepared through media reports, Kukan said that the fatalities in Iraq should not have an impact on the Slovak mission in Iraq.
14. Jun 2004 at 0:00 | Martina Jurinová