Czechs protest handling of energy crisis, membership of EU and NATO

PRAGUE (Reuters) -Tens of thousands of Czechs gathered in Prague on Wednesday to protest against the government's handling of soaring energy prices and the country's membership of NATO and the European Union.

The demonstration on a national holiday in Prague's main square, organised by far-right and fringe groups and parties including the Communists, was estimated at "lower tens of thousands" by the police, compared to 70,000 on Sept. 3.

The organising group "Czech Republic First!" opposes the European Union and NATO and calls for the central European nation of 10.7 million to be militarily neutral.

Protesters held banners like "End the comedy" and many waved Czech flags as the sun appeared after morning rain.

"This government is absolutely anti-Czech. It only serves Brussels (EU centre), American power and NATO. It has no regard for Czech citizens' interests," said Pavel Nebel, 53.

The organisers, whose programme also demands an end to "planned dilution of the nation", opened the protest with the national anthem performed by a far-right singer, after which speakers took to the stage denouncing the government.

"A government has two duties: to ensure our security and economic prosperity. This government does not fulfil either of these duties," one speaker said.

Hundreds of people gathered in other cities, where they could watch online streaming of the protest held in Prague, media reported.

High energy prices, fuelled by the war in Ukraine, have piled pressure on governments across Europe to cushion the blow of mounting energy costs for consumers and businesses.

The Czech government has signed up to EU sanctions against Russia and taken a tough stance over the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Miroslav Sevcik, a dean at Prague University of Economics and Business and the first speaker at the Prague protest, called for scrapping of the sanctions.

The centre-right government of Prime Minister Petr Fiala this month adopted a string of measures, including financial aid for companies and price caps on electricity for households.

(Reporting by Robert Muller and Jiri Skacel, Editing by Michael Kahn and Nick Macfie)