OTTAWA - Canadian and Czech government officials launched a battle in the media Thursday over the imposition of visa requirements on Czech nationals entering Canada.

And the Opposition Liberals warned that the dispute could harm talks currently underway between Canada and the European Union aimed at freer trade.

Czech Foreign Affairs Minister Jan Kohout told local media in Prague on Sunday that he had reached a breakthrough with Canada to defuse the visa issue, the Prague Post reported.

That was just one day before Immigration Minister Jason Kenney's announcement that Czech nationals would require visas to enter Canada.

But Kenney actually gave Czech officials more than a month's notice of the government's intention to impose the visa requirements, said a spokesman for Kenney.

"On June 11, Minister Kenney met with the Czech Republic's ambassador to Canada and gave him strong indications that Canada would be reimposing a visa (requirement) on the Czech Republic," Alykhan Velshi said in an email.

"On June 29, while in Prague, Minister Kenney personally informed the Czech prime minister, the Czech foreign minister, and the Czech interior minister that the government of Canada would be imposing a visa requirement on the Czech Republic in the coming days," Velshi added.

"He did so during separate meetings with each of them."

On Monday, Canada also announced visa restrictions on Mexican visitors, causing hundreds of people to camp outside the Canadian embassy in Mexico City this week to get first crack at submitting their visa applications.

Kenney said the visas are necessary to reduce the number of bogus refugee claims being made by nationals from both countries. The restrictions came into full effect Thursday, when Mexico announced it would demand visas for Canadian diplomats and officials.

However, visas would not be required of tourists from Canada wanting to visit Mexico.

Opposition critics said the Conservative government had not thought through the implications of imposing the visas, warning that in the case of the Czech Republic, the consequences could be widespread.

"By not consulting and seeing the broader picture, Mr. Kenney has invited the possibility of cutting off significant and important ties with Europe as a whole," said Liberal MP Dan McTeague.

"This kind of knee-jerk reaction may cost Canada dearly in the upcoming months."

Another Czech newspaper, the Prague Monitor, quoted Czech Prime Minister Jan Fischer saying he's worried the visa issue could help Czech extremists campaign against him ahead of elections in October.

"It cannot be ruled out that the visa introduction will be a good stimulus for extremist parties and their effort to be more visible," Fischer was quoted as saying.

The Czech government had also asked the European Union to consider imposing a blanket requirement for visas from Canadians planning travel to any European country.

Sweden, which currently heads the EU, has indicated support for the possible introduction of visas for Canadians travelling to EU.

But the proposal must be submitted by the European Commission, which wasn't expected to deal with the issue until September.

Canada is currently in talks with the European Union to reduce trade restrictions, talks that could now be hampered if other countries stand behind the Czech Republic in its calls for retaliation, said McTeague.

"It appears that, with one fell swoop, Mr. Kenney has pretty much assured that efforts made to bring economic and cultural ties much closer with Europe have been set back substantially," he said.

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