Czech government opts for interim spymaster amid political row

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Czech Republic's Prime Minister Andrej Babis arrives to attend a face-to-face EU summit amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown in Brussels, Belgium December 10, 2020. REUTERS/Yves Herman/Pool

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PRAGUE, Aug 9 (Reuters) - The Czech government delayed appointing a new head of its BIS counterintelligence agency on Monday in a move seen as allowing Prime Minister Andrej Babis to keep the country's president on his side going into an October election.

President Milos Zeman has attacked the BIS's work on numerous occasions, berating it for warning about the intelligence activities of his Chinese and Russian allies in the country.

Zeman's support is crucial for Babis, whose ANO party is leading in opinion polls ahead of the Oct. 8-9 election, as only the president has the power to appoint a new prime minister.

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"The one thing Andrej Babis cannot afford is to lose the favour of president Zeman," political analyst Jan Kvetina told Czech Television.

The government on Monday approved outgoing chief Michal Koudelka as temporary director until a permanent chief is appointed. Respected by western allies, Koudelka, whose tenure expires on Aug. 15, has led the agency since 2016.

The issue in sensitive in Prague. Pro-Russia and pro-China Zeman is no friend of Koudelka, while the prime minister is anxious not to alienate Western allies, who value the spy chief.

Appointing a new BIS chief could take months as tough negotiations to form a government are expected after the election.

"We think that such an important job should be decided by a new government, which wins the confidence of the people and the parliament," Babis said.

The biggest row involving the BIS erupted in April, when Czech officials accused Russian military intelligence officers of causing an explosion at an army depot which killed two people in 2014.

Prague expelled dozens of diplomats and other staff from the Russian embassy, while Moscow described the Czech Republic as an "unfriendly" nation. read more

Zeman claimed there were more avenues to be investigated, but the government and police disagreed.

He has previously claimed that the nerve agent novichok, used in an assassination attempt in the English city of Salisbury, was made in the Czech Republic, a move seen as attempting to deflect criticism of Moscow.

He also opposed extradition to the United States of a hacker with Russian roots accused of breaching the data of major U.S. companies.

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Reporting by Robert Muller; Editing by Giles Elgood

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