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article imagePrague Spring: AFP reports on the Soviet invasion

By AFP     Aug 9, 2018 in World

At dawn on August 21, 1968, residents of Prague were shocked to find their city occupied by Soviet tanks.

During the night, around 30 Soviet divisions -- backed by units from Bulgaria, East Germany, Hungary and Poland -- had invaded to pull their fellow communist bloc country Czechoslovakia back into line after a seven-month drift.

In just days, they had put an end to the Prague Spring -- the political, economic and cultural reforms under way since Alexander Dubcek took charge of the ruling Communist Party in January.

On that day, AFP special envoy Jean Leclerc du Sablon was reporting from outside Radio Prague, a symbol of the shift towards freedom of expression, and also from the city's emblematic Wenceslas Square.

Here are extracts from two of his reports.

- Tensions around Radio Prague -

PRAGUE, Aug 21 1968 (AFP) - Tension remains high at 0730 GMT outside the Radio Prague building, surrounded -- like the offices of the Central Committee and the Prague Castle -- by Soviet tanks.

Soldiers unleashed volleys of machine-gun fire five or six times at the walls and windows of the building and neighbouring houses.

But the deafening rounds have not yet succeeded in dispersing the hundreds of people massed in front of the building, behind barriers of trucks and bulldozers.


Only the gunfire could drown out the whistles and shouted insults like "Gestapo", or cries of "Long Live Dubcek".


The pavements around the building... are strewn with chunks of plaster and cement. Tramway wires have been sliced by bullets and trail on the ground. But the people of Prague are still there, and do not seem afraid.

The streets of the capital are animated, with people grouped at every intersection discussing the situation. No one understands this intervention; every face displays shock.

Passersby gathering on Wenceslas Avenue -- like people queueing outside shops and even the chefs of fancy hotels standing on their doorsteps, some wearing their tall hats -- are impressively calm.

But on many faces, tears flow.

At Wenceslas Square, the Champs Elysees of Prague where special editions of newspapers are handed out for free, hundreds of people are gathered when, at 0745 GMT, more gunfire erupts nearby on the street where the Radio Prague building is located.


Only the youngsters don't seem resigned to the situation. They criss-cross the capital's main roads on trucks, waving the blue, white and red (Czechoslovakian) flag, shouting insults at every convoy of foreign tanks.


Other youngsters, wearing badges reading "Make Love, Not War" or "Freedom", mill around the Soviet tanks and armoured vehicles, whose troops have faces smeared with black dust and sweat.

Some offer the soldiers cigarettes to try to get them to talk, but they stay silent.


- Demonstrations in Prague -

Prague residents hold a Czechoslovakian national flag covered with blood  in August 1968
Prague residents hold a Czechoslovakian national flag covered with blood in August 1968
-, AFP/File

PRAGUE, August 21 1968 (AFP) - Five Prague youths in tears holding up a bloodstained Czechoslovak flag... This is the tragic close to the incidents that erupted soon after 1000 GMT outside the Radio Prague building, during which two people were injured.


Several others were wounded on Wenceslas Avenue, where people hid behind anything they could find to protect themselves from bullets or debris falling off buildings.


The tanks pass to the whistles and insults of a crowd that regroups as soon as the column is gone.

Youths make up the clear majority, appearing not in the least defeated.

Some minutes earlier, the crowd on Wenceslas Square was clustered around a Soviet tank covered by a group of youngsters.

For a while there was a deep silence, which was then broken by the strains of the Czechoslovak national anthem. An elderly resident, overwhelmed, could only stammer the words: "occupation, occupation".


Three men -- looking more like chimneysweeps than occupying soldiers -- emerged from the tank in the midst of the crowd, their almost childlike faces blackened with dust.

The little men in charcoal-grey jumpsuits, astounded to find themselves in the heart of old Prague, can only respond to the insults hurled at them by saying they had been called to respond to a "fascist threat".

The young demonstrators have drawn swastikas in chalk on their vehicles. Adults try to rein them in.

But already one group, brandishing a flag, is running towards flaming tanks outside the Radio Prague building.

The first shots since the morning ring out.

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