Czech President Milos Zeman says he has "closed" the door of the Prague Castle, the seat of the presidency, to the U.S. ambassador because of comments made about Zeman's planned trip to Moscow.
U.S. Ambassador Andrew Schapiro told Czech television last week it would be "awkward" if Zeman were the only EU head of state to attend a May 9 ceremony in Moscow marking the 70th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
The centerpiece of the celebrations in Moscow will be a military parade, presided over by Russian President Vladimir Putin, on Red Square outside the Kremlin.
Many Western leaders are staying away in a show of opposition to Russia's annexation of Crimea and its support for armed separatists who have seized territory in eastern Ukraine -- actions that have revived memories of the wartime bloodshed and Moscow's postwar domination of eastern Europe.
Zeman told the news site Parlamentni Listy that he "can't imagine" the Czech ambassador in Washington giving advice to an American president about "where to travel."
Zeman said that because of Andrew Schapiro's critical comments about Zeman's trip, "the door to the castle [is] closed" for him.
Schapiro said April 6 he regretted that Zeman felt offended by his statement but the U.S. ambassador did not retract it.
Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka told Czech public television April 6 that he thought Zeman's reaction was "not adequate."
Sobotka added, "I would naturally welcome it if the attitude of Mr. President to foreign policy in general was a bit more professional."
The Czech presidency is largely a ceremonial post and the government is in charge of foreign policy.
Other Czech officials have also questioned Zeman's response and assured the U.S. ambassador would be free to perform his functions and visits government buildings as always.
Most EU leaders are boycotting the Moscow ceremony because of Russia's March 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and Moscow's role in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, where more than 6,000 people have been killed in a conflict between government forces and rebels since April 2014.
Zeman has criticized EU sanctions against Russia.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said she could not confirm that Schapiro has been "banned" from the Prague Castle and that the United States shares a "close and collaborative partnership" with its NATO ally.
"We've also said, broadly speaking, that this isn't the time for business as usual with Russia," Harf told an April 6 press briefing in Washington.
She said the United States has "stressed the importance of unity with our European allies and partners in pressing Russia to stop fueling the conflict in eastern Ukraine."
NATO and Kyiv say Russia has sent troops and weapons into eastern Ukraine to support the separatists, who hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk region. They dismiss Moscow's regular denials.
Meanwhile, Russia has stated its support for Zeman.
Konstantin Dolgov, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's human rights commission, said April 6, "The loyalty to the legacy of Soviet troops who died in their fight against fascism does credit to Zeman."
Aleksei Pushkov, head of the international affairs committee in the State Duma, Russia's lower parliament house, asserted that Schapiro had been seized by "hysteria" and said his comments showed "Washington is nervous over the trips of Western leaders to Moscow on May 9."
With reporting by Reuters, CTK, AP and ceskynoviny.cz