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Newsline - March 17, 2003


RUSSIA, FRANCE, GERMANY CALL FOR EMERGENCY SECURITY COUNCIL SESSION...
Russia, France, and Germany on 15 March issued a joint statement on Iraq in which they said that "under the present circumstances, there is no justification for stopping the inspections process and resorting to the use of force," the website of the Russian Foreign Ministry (http://www.mid.ru) reported. The three countries called for an emergency UN Security Council meeting at the foreign-ministers level to discuss "the set of priorities for Iraq's disarmament" and to define "a demanding and realistic schedule" for achieving it. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said on 16 March that there is no longer any point in holding emergency Security Council meetings, Western media reported. VY

...AS FOREIGN MINISTER EMPHASIZES U.S.-RUSSIAN PARTNERSHIP
Russia has irreversibly abandoned the Cold War philosophy that the worse things are for the United States, the better they are for Russia, Igor Ivanov wrote in a commentary published in "The Washington Post" on 15 March. He said that partners do not automatically agree with one another, but they search for solutions in keeping with their mutual interests. "Regardless of what happens with Iraq, Russia hopes that Moscow and Washington will allow their actions to be guided by the spirit of Russian-American cooperation," Ivanov wrote. VY

MOSCOW TURNS DOWN U.S. REQUEST TO EXPEL IRAQIS...
The Russian Foreign Ministry has turned down a U.S. request that it expel Iraqi diplomats and citizens who might be involved in hostile actions against U.S. interests, Interfax and the "Financial Times" reported on 14 March. At the beginning of the month, the United States asked the governments of more than 60 countries, including Russia, to expel any Iraqi citizens who might commit hostile or terrorist acts against U.S. interests in the event of a U.S.-led military action against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Washington provided lists of those Iraqis it wanted expelled. Several countries, including Australia and Sweden, complied with the U.S. request, but Russia stated that it is unacceptable, the "Financial Times" reported, citing an unidentified Foreign Ministry official. VY

...AND U.S. WILL NOT COORDINATE MILITARY ACTION WITH MOSCOW
Brigadier General Kevin Ryan, U.S. military attache to Russia, told journalists in Moscow that the United States does not intend to coordinate any military operation against Iraq with the Russian Defense Ministry, newsru.com reported on 15 March. The Russian government has stated that it will not participate in any military operations in Iraq and, therefore, coordination would not be appropriate, Ryan said. He added that Moscow has declined a U.S. invitation to send a staff representative to the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida, which is overseeing military operations in the Persian Gulf. However, a Russian liaison officer to the command of the antiterrorism operation in Afghanistan continues his work, Ryan said. VY

'EVERYTHING IS READY FOR WAR'
All Russia's national television networks have sent correspondents to cover the U.S. and British military forces amassed in northern Kuwait, and they are producing glowing daily reports on the troops' morale. On 14 March, ORT broadcast a short interview with a U.S. Navy seaman of Russian ancestry who said that he and his shipmates are merely waiting for U.S. President George W. Bush to give the word to disarm Hussein. On 16 March, RTR broadcast a report from the U.S. aircraft carrier "Harry Truman" that emphasized how well trained the crew is. The correspondent commented on "the lack of any censorship" and his "unrestricted access to everything except the ship's nuclear reactors." He contrasted these policies with the Iraqi government's strict control over foreign journalists in recent weeks. "Everything is ready for war," the correspondent said as he concluded his report. VY

MORE PEACE RALLIES HELD IN RUSSIA...
Rallies against a possible U.S.-led military action against Iraqi President Hussein were held in Moscow, Vladivostok, and Grozny on 14 March, Russian media reported. In Moscow, more than 1,000 people took part in rallies, according to ITAR-TASS. Greenpeace activists managed to hang large signs reading "Veto the War" and "Stop War" opposite the Kremlin in downtown Moscow. On the evening of 13 March, some unidentified young people threw red paint at the MacDonald's restaurant on Pushkin Square, newsru.com reported. On a building adjoining the restaurant, the slogan "Peace in Iraq, War with MacDonald's" appeared in red paint. In Vladivostok, about 100 students and environmentalists staged a picket outside the U.S. Consulate, ITAR-TASS reported. JAC

...AS 'YANKEES NOT WELCOME HERE' SIGNS APPEAR
In Chelyabinsk, the owners of a popular restaurant have stopped serving U.S. and British citizens to protest the policies of the governments of those countries vis-a-vis Iraq, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on 15 March. The owners have posted a sign explaining the new policy on the door of the restaurant and have declared they are willing to suffer the consequent financial losses. Earlier in the month, the owners of a cafe in Taganrog in Rostov Oblast also announced they will not serve citizens of the United States or Great Britain in response to these countries' "aggressive policies" and "attempts to violate the UN Charter" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March 2003).

AUDIT CHAMBER HEAD LAUDS CONSOLIDATION OF SECURITY SERVICES...
Sergei Stepashin, who now heads the State Duma's Audit Chamber and who in 1991 chaired the investigative commission of the Supreme Soviet whose work led to the breakup of the KGB, said on 16 March that President Vladimir Putin's recent reorganization of the country's security organs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 13 March 2003) is "a necessary measure" for Russian security, RTR reported. Stepashin said that the 1991 dismantling of the KGB was a purely political decision and now is the time to consolidate all security functions into a single center. He noted that integrating the Federal Agency for Government Communications and Information (FAPSI) and the Federal Border Guard Service (FPS) into the Federal Security Service (FSB) will lead to substantial savings as well. He said that the previous budget of the FPS was twice as large as that of the FSB and that it had three times as many employees and 10 times as many generals. VY

...AS DOES KGB VETERAN
Lieutenant General Nikolai Leonov, former head of the KGB Analytical Directorate, appeared on TV-Tsentr on 15 March and rejected the suggestion that President Putin's decision to consolidate the security services is connected with the December Duma elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March 2003). "It is just the correction of a historical mistake made in 1991 by the erroneous policy of [former President] Boris Yeltsin and [then-KGB Chairman] Vadim Bakatin, for which Russia paid a dear price," Leonov said. On 16 March, RTR broadcast footage from FSB headquarters on Lubyanka Square in Moscow that showed that the FSB was physically separated from the FPS only by a single door with a single guard. "The only thing we need to do to merge the FPS with the FSB is to take away the guard from the door," an unidentified FSB officer said. VY

WHY WAS DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER SENT NORTH?
During the same TV-Tsentr interview, Leonov refuted claims that President Putin has appointed former Deputy Prime Minister Valentina Matvienko to be his envoy to the Northwest Federal District because he would like her to become the next governor of St. Petersburg (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2003). If Putin really wanted to oust current St. Petersburg Governor Vladimir Yakovlev, he would not send Matvienko -- who was unable to successfully run against him in 2000 -- but would rely instead on the dynamic and ambitious Lyudmila Narusova, the widow of former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatolii Sobchak who is personally close to Putin, Leonov argued. The real reason for removing Matvienko was the failure of her social policies, especially her recent, largely symbolic raising of pensions. Her move to raise pensions by 30 rubles ($0.92) angered thousands of pensioners, who began sending their "increase" by mail to President Putin in protest. Those protests provoked Putin's wrath, Leonov said. VY

PROGRAM EXPERIENCES FUNDING SHORTFALL AFTER FEDERAL AUTHORITIES TRANSFER FUNDING RESPONSIBILITY
Doctors in Irkutsk Oblast say they do not have sufficient supplies to provide HIV tests to everyone who needs them, NTV reported on 15 March. According to the station, the oblast used to receive more than 10 million rubles ($303,000) a year from the Health Ministry, but the ministry has stopped such funding and transferred responsibility for it to the oblast budget. However, oblast authorities have been able to earmark funds sufficient for the purchase of only one-half of the required medicines. Doctors in the oblast describe the situation as an emergency and fear they will be unable to control the rapid spread of HIV infection, according to the station. For the past few years, Irkutsk has been among the Russian regions with the highest HIV-infection rates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 2000 and 4 April 2001). JAC

FORMER ADVISER TO SLAIN MAGADAN GOVERNOR ARRESTED IN FISHING SCANDAL
The corruption investigation within the State Fisheries Committee has led to the arrest of Viktoriya Tikhacheva, a former adviser to slain Magadan Oblast Governor Valentin Tsvetkov, on suspicion of embezzlement, Deputy Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kolesnikov told Interfax on 14 March. Tikhacheva was arrested two days ago and, according to Kolesnikov, is allegedly responsible for the theft from the government of fish products worth more than $16 million. Tsvetkov was killed in Moscow in October. According to Kolesnikov, Leonid Kholod and Yurii Moskaltsov, both deputy chairmen of the State Fisheries Committee, have also been implicated during the investigation. On 13 March, the month-long suspension of State Fisheries Chairman Yevgenii Nazdratenko was extended for another month, newsru.com reported. Previously, news media had reported that a decision about whether he would be dismissed had been expected on that date. JAC

ANOTHER SUSPECT IN GROZNY BOMBING DETAINED
The man believed to have organized the 27 December car-bomb attack on the Chechen government building in Grozny has been apprehended, Deputy Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinskii told journalists in Moscow on 14 March. Fridinskii added that the suspect might have been one of field commander Shamil Basaev's men. One man was arrested in January on suspicion of involvement in the attack, in which more than 70 people died (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2003). In late February, Basaev claimed that three members of a Chechen family perpetrated the bombing on his orders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February 2003). On 11 March, Fridinskii said no firm link has been established between Basaev and the bombing suspects, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

ADMINISTRATION HEAD WANTS SPECIAL ECONOMIC STATUS FOR CHECHNYA
Akhmed-Hadji Kadyrov said in Grozny on 14 March that Chechnya needs special economic status within the Russian Federation but will not demand any special political status, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. He said special economic status could expedite the reconstruction process, which otherwise would last for decades. Kadyrov also said that a treaty on the future distribution of powers between Chechnya and the federal center is being drafted, but he did not divulge any details. During talks with Kadyrov earlier on 14 March, presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin said Moscow does not as a rule favor such treaties, but that Chechnya is an exception and that the drafting of such a treaty with Chechnya should begin immediately after the 23 March referendum on a new Chechen constitution and election laws, Interfax reported. LF

NGO ACTIVIST ABDUCTED IN CHECHNYA
Imran Ezhiev, who heads a local branch of the Russian-Chechen Friendship Society and is also a coordinator in Chechnya for the Moscow Helsinki Group, was snatched from his car in Shali Raion by unknown armed men on the evening of 15 March, chechenpress.com reported the following day. Ezhiev was touring Chechnya to collect information for an annual report on the situation there. LF

DEFEATED ARMENIAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE ANTICIPATES PARLIAMENTARY-ELECTION VICTORY...
People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) Chairman Stepan Demirchian told some 30,000 supporters at a rally in Yerevan on 14 March that he believes the embryonic opposition election bloc will win a majority of seats in the 25 May parliamentary election, according to Arminfo, as cited by Groong (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 March 2003). In a joint statement read at the demonstration, the more than a dozen opposition parties supporting Demirchian again affirmed that they do not recognize the outcome of the 5 March presidential runoff, in which, according to official returns, incumbent President Robert Kocharian defeated Demirchian with 67.44 percent of the vote. The opposition group pledged to continue to struggle "for the restoration of constitutional order and the formation of a legitimate government," RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. At the same time, the group warned it will boycott the parliamentary elections if conditions are not created to ensure the vote is free and fair. LF

...AS DOES FORMER RULING PARTY
The Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) will field candidates in the 25 May parliamentary elections, but former President Levon Ter-Petrossian will not be among them, HHSh board Chairman Ararat Zurabian said in an interview published on 15 March in the pro-HHSh "Aravot" and reposted by Groong. Zurabian hinted that Ter-Petrossian might contest the presidential elections in 2007, in which Kocharian has said he will not seek a third term. LF

FORMER ARMENIAN PRIME MINISTERS' BROTHER ARRESTED
Armen Sargsian, brother of former prime ministers Vazgen and Aram Sargsian, was arrested late on 16 March on suspicion of involvement in the 28 December killing of Armenian National and Radio Director Tigran Naghdalian, ITAR-TASS reported the following day. Aram Sargsian said in a 12 March interview with the opposition newspaper "Orran," which was cited by Groong, that if two of his distant relatives arrested on suspicion of involvement in Naghdalian's murder are guilty, they should be punished. One of the two men is the grandson of Sargsian's mother's aunt, and the second is Armen Sargsian's godson. Aram Sargsian said he had no reason to wish Naghdalian dead, particularly as Naghdalian might have been in a position to shed light on the background to the October 1999 parliament shootings, of which Vazgen Sargsian was one of the eight victims. Albert Bazeyan, one of the leaders of Sargsian's Hanrapetutiun party, told a press conference in Yerevan on 13 March that Aram Sargsian had nothing to do with Naghdalian's murder, according to Arminfo, as cited by Groong. A third suspect in the murder was arrested on 14 March, and a fourth surrendered to police the following day, according to AP and Arminfo as cited by Groong. LF

ARMENIAN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT CONSIDERS ELECTION APPEAL
The Constitutional Court began hearings on 14 March on National Unity Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian's demand that both rounds of the Armenian presidential election be declared invalid and new elections be held, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Geghamian refuses to acknowledge the first-round results, according to which he polled third of the nine candidates with some 17 percent of the vote. A lawyer for the Central Election Commission (CEC) conceded on 14 March that the CEC violated the constitution by announcing on 20 February that a runoff ballot would be needed. The constitution stipulates that the CEC may not make such a decision before the final results are made public, which it did only on 25 February. Meanwhile, lawyers for Demirchian asked the Constitutional Court on 14 March for additional time to prepare documentation in support of Demirchian's formal appeal to invalidate the election results in view of perceived widespread violations and falsification, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Demirchian supporters, who erected a tent camp in front of the CEC building on 9 March, have since abandoned that protest picket, according to Arminfo, as cited by Groong. LF

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT RETURNS HOME
Heidar Aliev arrived in Baku late on 14 March, having made a one-day stopover in London on his return from the United States, Turan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March 2003). Aliev, who reportedly looked "very tired," told journalists that he is recuperating normally after a hernia operation. He refused to answer journalists' questions about Azerbaijan's possible contribution to a U.S.-led military operation against Iraq. LF

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION DEMANDS PRESIDENT'S RESIGNATION
Between 10,000 and 20,000 people attended a sanctioned march and demonstration in Baku on 16 March to demand President Aliev's resignation, Turan, Interfax, and Reuters reported. Opposition party leaders who addressed the demonstration argued that success in combating crime and corruption, in alleviating unemployment and social problems, and in ensuring that the presidential elections due this fall are free and fair is contingent on Aliev's departure from the political scene. They demanded that the draft election law currently under discussion be amended to ensure that the authorities and other political parties have equal representation on the Central Election Commission and local election commissions. Numerous police were deployed to monitor the rally, but no incidents were reported. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT, PARLIAMENT SPEAKER AT ODDS
Eduard Shevardnadze has rejected a request by parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze that he veto the controversial law on raising the minimum wage, Caucasus Press reported on 17 March. Instead, Shevardnadze has convened an emergency parliament session for 18 March to discuss an alternative draft bill on raising the minimum wage gradually. He argued that the fivefold wage increase envisaged by the law would endanger economic stability. The parliamentary committee on procedural issues ruled on 7 March that the original vote on the bill was invalid. That ruling triggered a four-day protest boycott by opposition factions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 11, and 13 March 2003). LF

GEORGIAN NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL CONCLUDES THAT COUP RUMORS WERE UNFOUNDED
After hearing a report by Prosecutor-General Nugzar Gabrichidze into his agency's investigations of opposition parliament deputies' allegations that senior officials were plotting to oust President Shevardnadze in a velvet coup (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report,"14 February 2003), Georgia's National Security Council concluded on 14 March that those allegations were without foundation, Caucasus Press reported. Intelligence department head Lieutenant General Avtandil Ioseliani told journalists after the council session that such rumors are likely to resurface unless Article 52 of the Georgian Constitution, which absolves parliament deputies from divulging the sources on which their statements are based, is amended, Caucasus Press reported. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT VISITS BAPTIST COMMUNITY
President Shevardnadze visited a Baptist congregation in Tbilisi on 14 March and called for Christians and Muslims to pray for world peace, Caucasus Press reported. Shevardnadze also expressed regret at violent reprisals by some Georgian Orthodox Christians against other denominations (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 19 July 2002) and pledged that those responsible for targeting religious minorities will be punished. LF

GEORGIAN REGIONAL GOVERNOR'S SON ABDUCTED
Zaza Djikia, whose father Bondo Djikia is governor of the western Georgian regions of Mingrelia and Upper Svaneti, was abducted in Tbilisi early on 15 March, Caucasus Press and ITAR-TASS reported. Bondo Djikia told Caucasus Press that the kidnappers have contacted him but denied that they demanded a $3 million for his 29-year-old son. Zaza Djikia is the Tbilisi representative of a German company that exports Georgian tea. Shevardnadze on 15 March ordered Georgian police to do all in their power to secure Djikia's release. LF

SOUTH OSSETIA APPEALS TO OSCE OVER GEORGIAN WEAPONS ALLEGATIONS
The leadership of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia has appealed to the head of the OSCE mission in Georgia to reject as untrue Georgian claims that the OSCE has registered the presence in South Ossetia of Russian heavy weaponry in excess of what Russia is allowed to deploy in the region under the limits imposed by the revised Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE), Interfax and Caucasus Press reported on 14 and 15 March, respectively (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4, 7, and 11 February 2003). South Ossetian Foreign Minister Murad Dzhioev said that an OSCE inspection found no weaponry that would substantiate the Georgian allegations. Meanwhile, Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin said in Moscow on 14 March following talks with Georgian deputy parliament speaker Vakhtang Rcheulishvili, who is Shevardnadze's special envoy for the South Ossetian conflict, that Moscow is ready to assist in any way to help resolve that conflict, ITAR-TASS reported. But Loshchinin added that progress will be possible only if Georgia and South Ossetia restore mutual trust and implement the agreements reached during earlier talks. LF

KAZAKHSTAN'S COMMUNIST PARTY HAS PROBLEMS WITH RE-REGISTRATION
Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry has stopped the re-registration procedure for the Communist Party of Kazakhstan because of questions about the number of party members, centrasia.ru reported on 17 March. Parliamentarian and party head Serikbolsyn Abdildin was quoted as saying his party submitted its re-registration documents on 20 January. Under a 2002 law, all political parties have to undergo the re-registration procedure, proving among other things that they have at least 50,000 members. According to Abdildin, the Communists, one of the larger opposition parties in the country, declared a membership of 60,000 but then discovered that 6,000 were not actually party members. Four small parties have already been refused re-registration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 March 2003). BB

OFFICIAL: DANGER OF EXTREMIST INCURSIONS INTO KYRGYZSTAN STILL EXISTS
Security Council Secretary Misir Ashyrkulov told akipress.org on 14 March that the danger of armed incursions by extremists into Kyrgyzstan still exists, and the Kyrgyz authorities are in the process of establishing close cooperation with their Tajik counterparts. Ashyrkulov said that a more rational distribution of border posts is in the works and that the United States has offered to help set up permanent communications between the Kyrgyz and Tajik sides so that if the Tajiks are unable to stop armed intruders, they can at least warn the Kyrgyz. During armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000 by militants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan who were reported to be trying to reach the Uzbek section of the Ferghana Valley, the Kyrgyz side complained that the Tajik authorities did not give them adequate warning of the militants' presence and intentions. Ashyrkulov also denied that the stationing of foreign troops in Kyrgyzstan is turning the country into one huge military base. BB

ESTABLISHMENT OF RUSSIAN AIR BASE UNDER WAY IN KYRGYZSTAN
General Vladimir Mikhailov, the commander of the Russian Air Force, arrived in Bishkek on 14 March for talks with Kyrgyzstan's Defense Ministry on establishing a Russian air base at the Kant Airfield near Bishkek, akipress.org and Interfax reported. Mikhailov said upon arrival that a contingent of some 200 Russian soldiers is to arrive at Kant in April. That number is expected to rise eventually to 500. The first military planes are to be stationed at Kant at the end of April. According to Mikhailov, the task of the Russian military presence at Kant will be maintaining peace in the Central Asian region. BB

RUSSIAN DRUG SEIZURES ON TAJIK-AFGHAN BORDER
A spokesman for the Russian border guard service told Interfax on 14 March that Russian border troops posted along the Tajik-Afghan frontier have seized more than 1,000 kilograms of narcotics so far this year. Some 660 kilograms was heroin, he said. More than 4 tons of illegal drugs were confiscated on the Tajik border in 2002, of which half was heroin. Tajik forces have made a number of significant seizures of drugs from Afghanistan in 2003. Officials involved in efforts to stop drug trafficking from Afghanistan are particularly alarmed at the increasing amounts of "precursor" chemicals, which are needed to process opium into heroin, that are being seized on their way to Afghanistan. BB

NEW FOREIGN MINISTER APPOINTED IN UZBEKISTAN
Sodyk Safaev, formerly Uzbekistan's ambassador to the United States and Germany, was appointed foreign minister on 14 March, uzreport.com and UzA reported on 15 March. Abdulaziz Komilov, who served as foreign minister for 10 years, was appointed state adviser to the president for foreign affairs. Safaev served as foreign minister briefly in 1993-94, prior to Komilov's appointment. Earlier, he studied at Harvard University and served as deputy minister of foreign economic relations. He was Uzbek ambassador to Germany from 1994-96, then briefly served as the presidential adviser on foreign affairs until he was sent to Washington. At the time of his appointment to head the Foreign Ministry, Safaev was serving as first deputy foreign minister. Safaev was born in 1954. BB

EBRD WARNS UZBEKISTAN
The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) warned Uzbekistan on 16 March that if there is no improvement in the country's political and economic situation in the next year, the lending agency will be unable continue its lending program, "The Guardian" reported on 17 March. Uzbekistan is scheduled to host the annual meeting of the EBRD in May. The latest EBRD report on Uzbekistan's performance draws attention to human rights abuses -- including arbitrary arrests and the use of torture -- and widespread corruption. The report also criticizes the extent of state control over the economy. The report acknowledges that there have been some improvements in Uzbekistan, including the official abolition of censorship, the registration of a human rights NGO, and the sentencing of officials found guilty of torture. The bank called for greater press freedom, a more open political process, improved guarantees of human rights, increased competition, the abolition of state subsidies, and financial-sector reforms. The bank's mandate requires evidence of progress in political and economic reform and the implementation of international human rights standards in order to continue its activities in a country. BB

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT SLAMS U.S. OVER IRAQ
Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka criticized the United States on 14 March for its threats of war against Iraq, AP reported. "America is trying to convince the whole world that Iraq today is the most powerful link in the 'axis of evil,'" Lukashenka, told Minsk university students. He said Washington claims "that [Iraqi President Saddam] Hussein's regime is bad and that all Iraq is filled with weapons of mass destruction," but said such accusations are "fraudulent." Lukashenka suggested the United States is motivated by a desire to control Iraqi oil. "Today the whole world understands that, and millions of people are speaking out in defense of Iraq," he said, adding that he doubts such awareness will stop Washington from going to war. AM

BELARUSIAN INTELLIGENTSIA HOLDS CONGRESS
An estimated 800 people from Belarus and abroad took part in an All-Belarusian Intelligentsia Congress held in Minsk on 16 March, the Charter-97 website (http://www.charter97.org) reported. Participants discussed the political, economic, and cultural situations in Belarus. A resolution adopted by the congress defined the situation as "a profound systemic crisis." "The authorities' strategic policy of state-controlled economy and suppression of democratic freedoms has driven the country to international isolation and its economy to the brink of collapse," the congress delegates asserted. They also expressed opposition to any attempts to eliminate Belarusian sovereignty and protested the idea of a referendum on extending President Lukashenka's term in office. AM

UKRAINIANS PROTEST IRAQ WAR
More than 100 representatives of Ukrainian organizations including the Communist Party, the Greens Party, and the Russian Bloc protested in Kyiv on 15 March against the U.S. campaign against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. The protesters called on the Verkhovna Rada to reject a resolution adopted by the Ukrainian Security Council and defense department to send a Ukrainian antichemical battalion to the Persian Gulf, the news agency reported. The protesters carried slogans like "Not a drop of blood in exchange for oil" and "No Ukrainian battalion to war zone." Protesters marched to the U.S. Embassy and burned an American flag. AM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SAYS HE WANTS POLITICAL REFORM DURING HIS TENURE
President Leonid Kuchma said on 14 March that amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution must be introduced before his current term is over, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 March 2003). "A new president, elected in 2004, should act within the framework of a reformed political system and thus with new authority," he said. In a reference to the bicameral parliament provided for in his draft proposal for political reform, Kuchma stressed such a structure would not signify the federalization of the country. "We need a two-chamber parliament, not to introduce elements of federative state structure, but to form the necessary balance in relations between the regions and to consider their specific character," he added. AM

UKRAINIAN CABINET APPROVES ACTION PLAN
The Ukrainian government on 15 March approved an action plan for 2003-04 titled "Openness, Activity, Effectiveness," UNIAN reported. The main goals of the government's stated policy are increasing living standards and ensuring civil rights and freedoms. The document predicts that gross domestic policy will increase by 5-6 percent in 2003 and by 8 percent the following year, export of commodities and services will increase by 5 percent, and real wages will grow by 12-15 percent. If the action plan is approved by the Verkhovna Rada, lawmakers have no right to seek the government's ouster for one year after its approval. AM

VOICE OF RUSSIA BEAMED ACROSS UKRAINE
Moscow-based state broadcaster Voice of Russia on 14 March launched programming on Ukraine's domestic radio channels, the company's director told ITAR-TASS. The "Welcome Ukraine" program will be broadcast in Russian during prime afternoon hours each Saturday on Ukrainian state radio's Channel 3, the news agency reported. Programming will highlight historical ties between Russia and Ukraine, as well as include reports on culture, science, and the economies in the two countries. AM

ESTONIAN CENTER PARTY HINTS AT MORE UNITED OPPOSITION
The extended board of the Center Party indirectly acknowledged on 15 March that the party will not be part of the ruling coalition despite winning the most votes in the 2 March parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2003), BNS reported. Chairman Edgar Savisaar said the same day that he hopes recent televised comments by Res Publica Chairman Juhan Parts, in which Parts pledged to take the opposition more into consideration than previous premiers, indicate that Parts will tone down the rhetoric and allow for improved relations. Savisaar expressed surprise that the Reform Party and the People's Union -- and not Res Publica, which won the most votes within the would-be coalition -- seemed to be deciding who should join the government. Savisaar also said Center Party cooperation with the Moderates and the People's Union in parliament should be possible, since those three parties' campaign platforms on economic and social policy were so similar. Working groups representing Res Publica, the Reform Party, and the People's Union were expected to present proposals for a coalition stance concerning 13 priority areas to those parties on 17 March. SG

LATVIAN PRIME MINISTER VISITS DENMARK
Einars Repse's talks with his Danish counterpart Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Copenhagen on 14 March focused on the Iraq situation, BNS reported. The two men reportedly agreed that Iraq should be disarmed but did not further characterize their positions. The premiers also discussed EU enlargement and NATO expansion. Rasmussen said Denmark wants to be among the first states to ratify Latvia's accession documents to those organizations. Repse thanked Confederation of Danish Industries Executive Director Jorgen Hansen for opening that group's Baltic regional office in Riga, LETA reported. Repse informed him about Latvia's tax system and the planned cutting of corporate income tax, and called for greater business contacts by facilitating mutual investment and exports. SG

MOODY'S UPGRADES LITHUANIA'S RATING OUTLOOK TO 'POSITIVE'
Moody's international rating agency raised the outlook on Lithuania's foreign-currency rating from "stable" to "positive" on 14 March, ELTA reported. "The administration of public finances continues to improve and is being underpinned by steady reforms in the tax system, municipal finances, and health care," Moody's reasoned. Moody's also pointed out that Lithuania's budget deficits have been declining and the enhanced business environment has contributed to stronger-than-expected growth that is likely to be sustained in the medium term. The country's expected EU membership in 2004 will promote the future growth of trade and production. SG

MINOR PARTY JOINS POLAND'S RULING BLOC
Poland's ruling parties, the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the Labor Union, on 14 March agreed to terms for a parliamentary coalition with the Peasant Democratic Party (PLD) that is led by Roman Jagielinski, PAP reported. The PLD has six lawmakers in the Sejm, bringing the total coalition figure to 218 in the lower house, 13 seats short of a majority. The coalition agreement was signed by Jagielinski and the heads of the SLD and Labor Union parliamentary caucuses, Jerzy Jaskiernia and Janusz Lisak, the news agency reported. The opposition noted that the new parliamentary alliance has no effect on the government's minority status. "This is just cosmetics without any political bearing at all -- a way of showing you are strong when you are not," Civic Platform leader Maciej Plazynski said. AM

POLISH PARLIAMENT REJECTS MOTION TO DISBAND
The Sejm on 13 March voted 268-151, with eight abstentions, to reject a motion by the League of Polish Families (LPR) to dissolve the parliament, PAP reported. A two-thirds majority is required to disband the Polish legislature. The LPR the same day filed a draft parliamentary declaration against a war on Iraq. LPR leader Roman Giertych said the declaration, if adopted, would officially place the Sejm against an attack on Iraq, forbidding the government to send Polish soldiers to the conflict zone. The LPR stresses in the declaration that Poland is an ally of the United States, but notes that "participation in wars unconnected with our alliance obligations run against the Polish nation's interests." AM

POLISH PRESIDENT INVITES PARTIES TO COOPERATE OVER EU VOTE...
President Aleksander Kwasniewski met on 14 March with the leaders of pro-EU parties in order to build a common "front for a 'yes'" in the run-up to the EU-accession referendum, PAP reported. Participants included: Premier Leszek Miller (Democratic Left Alliance), Donald Tusk (Civic Platform), Jaroslaw Kalinowski (Peasant Party), Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka (Labor Union), Artur Balazs (Conservative-Peasant Party-New Poland Movement), Roman Jagielinski (Peasant Democratic Party), Wladyslaw Frasyniuk (Freedom Union), Kazimierz Barczyk (Social Movement), and Jaroslaw Kaczynski (Law and Justice). LPR and Self-Defense representatives were not invited, the news agency reported. The president urged parties not to politicize the referendum campaign and, while maintaining differences, to seek a united goal -- a "yes" vote on Polish membership of the EU, Dariusz Szymczycha, secretary of state at the president's office, said after the meeting. AM

...AS SOME DOUBT CONSTITUTIONALITY OF ACCESSION TREATY
The Peasant Party (PSL) and Law and Justice (PiS) on 14 March appealed to President Kwasniewski to present Poland's EU accession treaty for screening by Poland's Constitutional Tribunal. "One of the basic conditions for preserving Poland's independence in the EU will be ensuring that constitutional law has priority over international law, particularly in the case of treaties that cede a part of our sovereignty to international organizations, in this case the EU," PiS deputy head Kazimierz Michal Ujazdowski said. According to both parties, leaving the issue unresolved could result in questions over the constitution's legal status after Poland's EU entry. PSL and PiS are seeking a tribunal verdict before the EU referendum, tentatively slated for 8 June. AM

CZECH PREMIER NAMES NEW TRADE AND INDUSTRY MINISTER
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla on 14 March named Milan Urban to succeed Jiri Rusnok as industry and trade minister, CTK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March 2003). Urban resigned as Social Democratic Party (CSSD) parliamentary group leader in the lower house after the election of opposition candidate Vaclav Klaus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 7 March 2003). The nomination was forwarded to President Klaus, who said he intends to comply with the request because a president does not have the constitutional right to reject it "irrespective of his feelings." After Klaus demanded to know whether further cabinet changes are planned, Spidla said through a spokeswoman that he will discuss the matter with the president in private. MS

CZECH DEFENSE MINISTRY CONCEDES ABUSES BY MILITARY SPIES
A Czech Defense Ministry report cited by Czech Television asserts that Czech military intelligence agents, who are supposed to work abroad, are instead operating in the Czech Republic and collecting information on Czech citizens, CTK reported on 14 March. Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik presented the report to a group of parliamentary deputies the same day, according to CTK. Earlier media reports indicated that military agents secretly copied Czech defense-intelligence documents and computer diskettes for their private use. Tvrdik acknowledged that he failed to realize the depth of the problem quickly enough. Tvrdik recently announced that all military intelligence agents who worked under the communist regime will have to leave the service (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2003). The Czech military intelligence came under increased scrutiny after one of its agents, Karel Srba, a former secretary-general at the Foreign Ministry, was arrested and accused of planning to assassinate a Czech journalist. MS

PRESIDENT PRAISES CZECH NBC UNIT IN KUWAIT
President Klaus on 16 March praised the performance of members of the Czech anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) unit deployed in Kuwait. In a letter addressed to members of the unit, the recently elected president wrote that he is proud of them, has confidence in their capabilities, and hopes to meet with them personally on their return. Also on 16 March, Klaus, who is commander in chief of the Czech Army, promoted the unit's chief, Dusan Lupuljev, to the rank of general on the recommendation of Defense Minister Tvrdik. MS

CZECH DEMONSTRATORS PROTEST POSSIBLE WAR IN IRAQ
About 1,000 people took part in a demonstration in Prague on 16 March to show their opposition to a possible war on Iraq, CTK reported. The demonstration started in Prague's Old Town Square and ended outside the British and U.S. embassies. MS

DEFENSE MINISTER DISMISSES CZECH DAILY'S REPORT OF OFFER TO HOST U.S. AIR BASE
Minister Tvrdik emphatically dismissed a Czech daily's 17 March report that the Czech government has made a secret, unofficial offer to host a U.S. air base currently stationed in neighboring Germany, CTK reported the same day. "We are not considering, negotiating about anything like this, nor are we sending out signals indicating our preparedness to negotiate," Tvrdik said, adding that his country however welcomes the presence of U.S. troops in Europe. The daily "Lidove noviny" cited anonymous sources in publishing the news. A source stressed that nothing has been decided, according to the paper, but said, "We have simply let the Americans know that if they wanted to leave Germany, the door is open to them." Recent reports in the Polish, Czech, and Hungarian media have suggested those countries are considering hosting U.S. bases (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 27 February and 10 March 2003). Such a move would mark the first-ever relocation of U.S. bases to postcommunist Europe. AH

CZECH PRESIDENT TO APPOINT NEW CONSTITUTIONAL COURT CHAIRMAN
President Klaus on 14 March told reporters that he will appoint Milos Holecek as chairman of the Czech Constitutional Court on 17 March, CTK reported. Holecek, a deputy chairman of the court, is to replace Zdenek Kessler, who resigned for health reasons in early February. Holecek was recommended for the post by Kessler, and Klaus made the decision after consulting Justice Minister Pavel Rychetsky and a number of judges. The mandates of eight of the court's 15 judges, including Holecek, will expire in July. The president, who selects and appoints the court's judges, said he expects its make-up to change considerably as a result. Political commentators have speculated that judiciary appointments were among the subjects of negotiation between Klaus and the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia, which supported his candidacy. MS

CZECH GOVERNMENT ORDERED TO COMPENSATE U.S. MEDIA COMPANY
A Stockholm-based arbitration panel on 15 March ruled that the Czech government must pay multimillionaire Ronald Lauder's Central European Media Enterprises (CME) some $353 million in compensation for failing to protect CME's business activities in the Czech Republic, CTK reported. Lauder filed a complaint in August 1999 alleging the Czech government breached an investment-protection treaty signed with the United States in 1991 by failing to adequately protect his investment in TV Nova, according to AP, which he established together with Vladimir Zelezny in 1994. Zelezny threw the investors out of the venture in 1999, despite CME's appeals to the Czech Radio and Television Broadcast Council. Zelezny subsequently lost arbitration proceedings to CME for breaching his employment contract, and charges of fraud, harming a creditor, and tax evasion are pending against him. Zelezny was elected to the Senate in 2002 but was stripped of his parliamentary immunity in January to allow police investigators to proceed with his prosecution. MS

OPPOSITION LEADER DEMANDS SLOVAKIA WITHDRAW NBC UNIT WITHOUT UN RESOLUTION...
Smer (Direction) Chairman Robert Fico on 14 March called on Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda to issue a statement on what will happen to the Slovak NBC unit deployed in Kuwait if the UN Security Council does not approve a resolution on the use of military force against Iraq, TASR reported. Fico said the government either must withdraw the unit or find itself in breach of both international law and parliament's 6 February resolution on the conditions for that unit's deployment. Leaving the NBC unit in the Persian Gulf, he said, would be "an expression of the deepest servility" toward the United States. MS

...AND CALLS FOR DISMISSING DEPUTY PREMIER CSAKY
Fico on 14 March demanded that Dzurinda dismiss Deputy Premier Pal Csaky on the grounds that he is not fulfilling his tasks of preparing the country for EU accession, TASR reported. Fico told journalists that Csaky is "either incapable" or "acting intentionally" to prevent accession, adding that he believes the latter to be the case. He said successful accession depends on how Slovakia uses EU funds to launch regional projects, charging that nothing is being done in that regard. A spokesman for Csaky dismissed Fico's call. The spokesman said neither European Commission representative Eric van der Linden nor Slovak President Rudolf Schuster raised any objections to Csaky's activities at a meeting of the governmental European Integration Committee held the previous day. Csaky on 15 March also rejected criticism by parliamentary Committee for European Integration Chairwoman Monika Benova, who said the government has not yet launched an information campaign ahead of the 16-17 May referendum on joining the EU. MS

HZDS OUTCASTS TO SET UP NEW SLOVAK PARTY
Eleven former deputies of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) who were forced out of the party earlier this year announced on 15 March they will to set up a new party called the Civic Union, TASR and CTK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 February 2003). The group's, leader, Vojtech Tkac, said the party will remain in opposition until the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2006 and will run in the 2004 elections for the European Parliament. Tkac said that the Civic Union's constituent conference will be held on 3 May. Tkac also said the Civic Union will remain open to new members who might join it from the HZDS after that party's conference, scheduled for June. The HZDS conference, he said, is again being prepared to make top positions in that party accessible only to people loyal to HZDS Chairman and former Premier Vladimir Meciar. MS

SLOVAK PRESIDENT CRITICIZES CONSTITUTIONAL COURT
President Schuster on 14 March told CTK that the Slovak Constitutional Court made a mistake when it threw out the re-election of Stefan Harabin by the Judicial Council as chairman of Slovakia's Supreme Court, ordering a new vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2003). Schuster said that decision is what prompted him to tell a special session of the Constitutional Court in Kosice on 14 March that he hopes the court will "never again interfere in the prerogatives of [other] constitutionally elected officials." By ordering the new vote, the court effectively was ordering Schuster not to appoint Harabin to the post, he said. Schuster told members of the court that he "would be glad if [judges] never made decisions under the pressure of political parties, the media, or any business circles," though he did not provide details of such interference. Speaking at a session also attended by Premier Dzurinda and parliamentary speaker Pavol Hrusovsky, he praised the achievements of the court, which on 14 March marked 10 years since its establishment. MS

SLOVAK GROUPS MARK ESTABLISHMENT OF PRO-NAZI PUPPET STATE
About 100 skinheads and elderly Slovaks on 14 March gathered in front of the presidential palace in Bratislava to mark the 64th anniversary of the establishment of the pro-Nazi puppet state headed by President Jozef Tiso, who was subsequently executed, TASR and CTK reported. The event was organized by the Slovak National Unity Party and addressed by that party's chairman, Stanislav Panis. Some participants gave the Nazi salute, while excerpts from Tiso's speeches were read aloud. One demonstrator was detained by police and charged with promoting a movement aimed at suppressing citizens' rights and freedoms. Some 150 people attended a gathering at Tiso's grave the same day. Earlier on 14 March, the civic initiative People Against Racism launched a nationwide campaign as part of European Week Against Racism. MS

HUNGARY AUTHORIZES USE OF AIRSPACE IN EVENT OF IRAQ CONFLICT...
Hungary's cabinet agreed on 16 March to allow British and U.S. aircraft bound for Iraq to use Hungarian airspace and designated airports, Hungarian media and international news agencies reported. Those two countries on 15 March requested rights for overflight and the use of airports. Ministers made their decision under the terms of a 1999 parliamentary resolution that allows the government to authorize the use of Hungarian airspace by foreign aircraft without seeking parliamentary approval. Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs announced the decision after consultations with deputies representing the ruling Socialists and the Free Democrats, along with the opposition Hungarian Democratic Forum. Representatives of the biggest opposition party, FIDESZ, were also invited, but parliamentary group leader Janos Ader said they did not attend the meeting because all of FIDESZ's experts in military affairs were out of the country. Kovacs said the government believes war is still not inevitable and force against Iraq should be used "only as a last resort," according to AP. He also stressed that the move does not make Hungary a belligerent in the war, adding that Hungary will not send troops to take part in any military action. MS

...AND EXPELS TWO IRAQI DIPLOMATS
Hungary on 14 March expelled two Iraqi diplomats for "engaging in activity incompatible with their status," Hungarian media and Reuters reported. Two other Iraqi diplomats remain at that country's Budapest Embassy. Several other countries -- including Romania (see Romania item below), Sweden, Australia, and the Philippines -- expelled Iraqi diplomats after a U.S. request to about 60 countries to do so. MS

HUNGARY'S EU ACCESSION IS MAIN THEME AT NATIONAL DAY CELEBRATIONS
Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy on 15 March called for a high turnout and a "yes" vote in the 12 April referendum on EU accession during a Budapest gathering to mark the 1848-49 Hungarian revolution and war of independence, Hungarian media and Reuters reported. At different celebration rallies across the country, all major parties supported accession, but opposition politicians criticized the cabinet for omitting to inform citizens of the risks and failing effectively to defend national interests. The far-right, extraparliamentary Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP), on the other hand, accused the coalition of luring voters into a union plagued by divisions and of sacrificing independence for the coalition's own political and economic ends. Erno Rozgonyi, interim chairman of the newly formed Hungarian National Front that recently split from the MIEP (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2003), told journalists in Budapest on 14 March that the new party will strictly oppose EU accession, dpa reported. MS

BELGRADE PAYS FINAL TRIBUTE TO ASSASSINATED PRIME MINISTER...
Hundreds of thousands of citizens on 15 March paid their final respects to assassinated Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic as the funeral procession passed through the streets of Belgrade, domestic and international media reported. Djindjic was buried with military and state honors in the "Alley of the Greats" at Belgrade's New Cemetery, Tanjug reported. At the memorial service, Greek Foreign Minister George Papandreou spoke for the EU: "Zoran, in this moment of grief, your vision of Serbia and Europe will go on living.... The world will continue to support democracy, freedom, peace, security, and progress," Tanjug quoted Papandreou as saying. Justice Minister Vladan Batic and Finance Minister Bozidar Djelic delivered orations for the Serbian government. Zoran Zivkovic, deputy chairman of Djindjic's Democratic Party, pledged to fulfill the slain prime minister's dream of a European, democratic, efficient, and prosperous Serbia, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Delegates from more than 70 countries attended the funeral of Djindjic, who was gunned down on 12 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2003). UB

...AS SUCCESSOR IS NOMINATED
The leadership of Djindjic's Democratic Party decided on 16 March to nominate Zivkovic to succeed Djindjic as Serbia's prime minister, Tanjug reported. Zivkovic was originally nominated to take over the joint Defense Ministry of Serbia and Montenegro, but the party decided instead to give that position to Boris Tadic, who headed the parliamentary commission exerting civilian and democratic control over the joint union's security forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January, 6 February, and 14 March 2003). In related news, Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) signaled on 16 March that it will not support Zivkovic's candidacy as prime minister, Tanjug reported. UB

SERBIAN MANHUNT CONTINUES...
The government announced on 15 March that more than 300 people have been detained in connection with Djindjic's assassination on 12 March, Beta reported. Most of those detained have been remanded to 30-day custody. According to the statement, authorities have granted witness protection to four of the detainees. Their testimonies suggest that the so-called Zemun clan was involved in political murders and the illegal drug trade, and that the group was supported by Milosevic-era security forces. Immediately after Djindjic's death, the government voiced the suspicion that the Zemun group was behind the assassination (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 March 2003). On 15 March, police arrested seven leading members of that underworld gang in the village of Smoljinac. The reputed head of the Zemun clan, former special-forces commander Milorad Lukovic remains at large, however. In related news, authorities have begun demolishing a shopping center and adjacent residences in Zemun owned by other leading members of the group, Beta reported. UB

...AND PRISON SECURITY IS STEPPED UP
Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic announced on 16 March that he has ordered authorities to step up security to the highest degree at correctional facilities, Tanjug reported. The measures include additional guarding of objects of particular importance, while inmates are not allowed to receive any visits as long as the state of emergency is in force. In related news, Prime Minister-designate Zivkovic said the same day that the state of emergency "should not last too long," Tanjug reported. The "duration of the state of emergency will be measured first of all by the results of the investigation. I do not think that it should last forever,... but I do believe that the end of next month is a deadline for lifting it," Zivkoviv said. UB

CROATIAN, BOSNIAN PRIME MINISTERS MEET
Prime Minister Ivica Racan met with his Bosnian counterpart Adnan Terzic in Zagreb on 14 March to discuss bilateral issues such as lingering disputes over the Adriatic port of Ploce and dual citizenship, Hina reported. After the meeting, Racan told journalists that Croatia is interested in resolving the Ploce problem soon. Currently, the port is managed by a mixed Croatian-Bosnian authority headed by an international mediator (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 April 2001, 21 June 2002, and 6 March 2003). Racan stressed that his government will begin regulating the entry of Bosnian citizens to Croatia with the new Bosnian ID card within days. Asked about Croatian reluctance to grant dual citizenship to Bosnian citizens, Terzic answered that reservations are greater toward citizens of other countries in the region, but he did not specify which countries he had in mind, the daily "Dnevni avaz" reported. UB

SLOVENIA, CROATIA SIGN MILITARY-COOPERATION AGREEMENT
Slovenian Defense Minister Anton Grizold and his Croatian counterpart Zeljka Antunovic signed an agreement on military cooperation in Ljubljana on 14 March, Hina reported. The two ministers also discussed cooperation in the defense industry, regional security, and their countries' efforts to join multilateral organizations. "Even though it was not formalized, cooperation between the two states in the defense sector existed before," Antunovic said. "Now it can be improved [and] maintained on the level of constant working meetings between experts, even those with political weight." Grizold pledged that Slovenia will support Croatia's bid for NATO membership. UB

MACEDONIA PLEDGES TO SUPPORT WASHINGTON OVER IRAQ
After meetings with U.S. Ambassador to Macedonia Lawrence Butler on 13 and 14 March, the Macedonian government agreed to support the United States in a possible operation against Iraq, "Dnevnik" reported on 15 March, citing unnamed government sources. According to local media reports, the government is ready to grant overflight rights to U.S. aircraft, the use of the Petrovec Airport near Skopje, and use of military-training facilities at Krivolak. Unlike President Boris Trajkovski, who reportedly tried to link military support to U.S. backing in the long-running dispute with Greece over the name "Macedonia" and economic aid to Macedonia, the government did not set any conditions. UB

ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION ON ELECTORAL REFORMS TAKES OFF IN ALBANIA
Lawmakers launched a roundtable discussion on electoral reforms on 14 March, the "Southeast European Times" reported. The talks were initiated by opposition Democratic Party Chairman Sali Berisha. A group of eight opposition parties has adopted a statement demanding the introduction of a system of proportional representation, instead of the current mixed system of proportional and majority votes. UB

IRAQ RECALLS AMBASSADOR TO ROMANIA
Iraq on 15 March announced it was recalling its ambassador to Romania, Saad Hamid Majid, in protest against what it said was a "shameful" attempt by Romania to persuade Majid to betray his country, Reuters reported. Iraq also said that Foreign Minister Naji Sabri has "sent a letter of protest to his Romanian counterpart and asked him for an explanation for this shameful behavior." Majid last week claimed that the Romanian Intelligence Service attempted to recruit him following the expulsion of five Iraqi diplomats (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 13 March 2003). The Romanian Foreign Ministry said it has not been informed that the ambassador is being recalled, having only been told that Majid was called to Baghdad "for consultations," RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Romanian Radio quoted Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana as saying that he believes the reason Majid was called for "consultations" is that the ambassador "has many things to discuss in Baghdad about the way Romania is perceived by the Saddam Hussein regime." MS

HUNDREDS MARCH IN BUCHAREST TO PROTEST POSSIBLE WAR IN IRAQ
Hundreds of mostly young people marched in Bucharest on 15 March, calling for U.S. troops stationed in Romania to leave the country and protesting against the government's pro-U.S. position in the Iraq conflict, AP reported. MS

BISHOP TOEKES' SUPPORTERS SET UP HUNGARIAN NATIONAL COUNCIL IN ROMANIA...
Meeting in Cluj on 14 March, supporters of Reformed Bishop Laszlo Toekes set up a Hungarian National Council comprising 19 Transylvanian personalities and said 12 others will be appointed to the council in the near future, Mediafax reported. Participants also approved 20 proposals for amending the Romanian Constitution. One of these envisages changing the country's definition as a "national and unitary state" to that of "a state based on the rule of the law -- sovereign, independent, social, and democratic." Another proposal grants national minorities the right of self-administration in economic, social, political, and cultural affairs. MS

...AND HISS HUNGARIAN FOREIGN MINISTER IN TARGU-MURES
Visiting Hungarian Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs was hissed in Targu-Mures on 15 March by members of the radical groups in the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania, Romanian media reported. Kovacs was in the town to attend celebrations of the Hungarian 1848-49 revolution and war of independence and met with his Romanian counterpart Mircea Geoana. The daily "Curierul" reported on 17 March that members of the newly established Reformist Movement hissed Kovacs and said it is "unacceptable to have a former member of the Hungarian Communist Party preach on liberty and democracy." In Cluj, where ceremony participants heard messages sent on the occasion by Prime Minister Adrian Nastase and his Hungarian counterpart Peter Medgyessy, nationalist Mayor Gheorghe Funar organized a counterdemonstration in memory of what he said were the 40,000 Romanian victims of 1848-49, and he ordered that hooks be removed from utility poles to prevent ethic Hungarians from hanging wreaths with the Hungarian national colors. MS

ROMANIAN RIGHTIST FORCES SPLIT OVER MERGER WITH LIBERALS
The Steering Committee of the extraparliamentary Union of Rightist Forces (UFD) announced on 16 March that it will sign an agreement this week to merge the party into the National Liberal Party (PNL), Romanian Radio reported. UFD Chairman Varujan Vosganian said the unification congresses of the two formations will take place on 19 April. At the same time, the gathering decided to suspend from UFD membership Deputy Chairmen Octavian Bot, Max Badin, and Nicolae Cirica. The three leaders oppose the merger with the PNL and organized a meeting of the UFD National Council in Sibiu on 14 March, at which 27 UFD branches were represented. That meeting rejected the proposed unification and participants opted for setting up a new center-right political party, as proposed by former President Emil Constantinescu's Popular Action. MS

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT CALLS ON TRANSDNIESTRIANS TO WORK FOR COUNTRY'S UNIFICATION
President Vladimir Voronin, in a statement released on 15 March, called on Transdniester residents to work for the unification of Moldova, ITAR-TASS reported. He said that "a divided country will benefit anyone but the people" and that "no matter how successfully the mediators work for the settlement of the Transdniester conflict or how big the interest of the international community is, the key to the unification of the country is in your hands only." Voronin said this is why he initiated the elaboration of a new constitution jointly with the Transdniester leadership, which should actively participate in the document's preparation. "I am convinced that this will not only be just a constitution of a united country, but also one [based on] mistakes that have been corrected and lessons that have been learned," he said. Voronin reiterated that his offer to the leadership in Tiraspol is "to move toward each other, not to unilaterally impose our will." In an apparent allusion to the opposition Popular Party Christian Democratic, Voronin also said that "the forces that dream of entering Tiraspol as conquerors have been pushed to the sidelines of political life, and their voice is not taken into consideration in modern Europe and in the world." MS

MOLDOVAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES NEW PENAL CODE
Parliament on 14 March approved a new Penal Code, Flux and BASA-press reported. The new code will take effect on 12 June, replacing the Soviet-era code. Moldova will thus abide by the deadline established for this purpose by the Council of Europe. The new code introduces the concepts of the right to due process, the presumption of innocence, the right to refuse to provide self-incriminating testimony, and offers protection against double jeopardy. Under its provisions, detention for investigative purposes cannot be longer than 12 months for adults and four months for those aged less than 18. MS

BULGARIAN GOVERNMENT TO BACK BRITISH PROPOSAL FOR UN SECURITY COUNCIL RESOLUTION
Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi, who is on an official visit to Japan, told Bulgarian National Radio on 14 March that he has instructed Bulgarian Ambassador to the UN Stefan Tafrov to support Britain's proposal for Iraqi disarmament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2003) if that proposal comes to a UN Security Council vote, mediapool.bg reported. According to Pasi, the British proposal offers a chance to reach a compromise in the council. Meanwhile, EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen on 13 March criticized Bulgaria's support for the U.S. position on Iraq, saying the EU was "disappointed," mediapool.bg reported. Foreign Ministry spokesman Lyubomir Todorov played down Verheugen's statement. "This statement gives absolutely no grounds for Bulgaria to worry about its future accession to the European Union," bnn quoted Todorov as saying on 14 March. UB

CONTROVERSIAL DIRECTOR OF BULGARIAN NEWS AGENCY ORDERS LOCKOUT
Following Bulgarian News Agency (BTA) Director Stoyan Cheshmedzhiev's dismissal of 16 colleagues, BTA journalists staged a strike on 14 March, mediapool.bg reported. A convention of employees demanded that Chezhmedzhiev resign. In reaction to the strike, Chezhmedzhiev on 16 March ordered police and private security guards to lock out journalists, mediapool.bg reported. He said the strike was orchestrated by some "outside political force," adding that about 30-40 journalists organized the strike. Leading lawmakers of the governing National Movement Simeon II (NDSV) announced on 16 March that a special meeting of the NDSV parliamentary group; its junior coalition partner, the ethnic Turkish Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS); and the Media Commission would be held on 17 March to discuss Chezhmedzhiev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 October 2002 and 20 February 2003). UB

FEW STATES HEED U.S. REQUEST TO EXPEL IRAQI DIPLOMATS
The U.S. State Department earlier this month called for the expulsion of some 300 Iraqis working in the embassies of 60 countries on the grounds that they are agents, but it appears that few countries have heeded the advice. The United States expelled two Iraqis on 4 March on the grounds that they were "engaged in activities outside the scope of their official function," AFP quoted State Department spokeswoman Tara Rigler as saying on 7 March. The incident marked the third U.S. expulsion of an Iraqi connected with that country's mission in the past 10 months.

The Romanian Foreign Ministry notified Iraqi Ambassador to Bucharest Saad Majid on 8 March that the presence of certain embassy employees on Romanian territory had become undesirable, Romania's Rompres reported on 10 March. "Some pieces of information have been confirmed recently regarding the activities of certain members of the Iraqi diplomatic mission in Bucharest, activities that are incompatible with their diplomatic and consular status, as stipulated in the Vienna Convention," Radio Romania Actualitati reported, citing Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana's announcement on that day. Geoana said the decision was based on information supplied by the Romanian security services and that five Iraqis had been asked to leave the country as of the 8-9 March weekend. Another 20 Iraqi citizens were also declared "undesirable" and ordered to leave Romania, Interior Minister Ioan Rus said, according to AFP on 10 March. Many of the 20 were Iraqi businessman who had lived in Romania for the past five to eight years with valid papers, AFP cited Antena One Television as reporting on 10 March.

An Iraqi diplomat was also expelled from Australia on 7 March, according to AFP on 10 March. The diplomat was reportedly an intelligence officer, who collected information on Iraqi dissidents living in Australia. Australian Prime Minister John Howard hinted that the expulsion was linked to fears of terrorism. "Well, it goes to questions of security and, for reasons that I'm sure you'll understand, we don't go into the detail of that. But I can assure you that it's been taken because we have formed a view that it's in Australia's national interest that it happen," Howard said during a trip to New Zealand, Radio Australia reported on 9 March.

A report on the website of Swedish radio Ekot on 13 March noted that Sweden would comply with a U.S. request to expel two Iraqi diplomats. According to Ekot, the Swedish news agency TT reported Prime Minister Goeran Persson as saying: "This decision has been taken following detailed preparations and a thorough investigation by the security police. The reason for it is links to refugee espionage." Ekot also quoted "sources" in the Swedish government as saying that one of the diplomats expelled was Iraq's charge d'affaires, Qassim Al-Zuhairi.

In Belgium, however, Foreign Ministry spokesman Patrick Herman stated on 11 March that the Belgian government would not comply with a U.S. request to expel an Iraqi diplomat. "The United States made such a request," Herman said, according to AFP. "There will be no expulsion, because we don't at this stage have elements which would lead us to think that such a measure is necessary." The Iraqi Foreign Ministry (http://www.uruklink.net/mofa/) released a statement on the same day, praising the Belgian decision, which it described as "an example to be followed by states that are proud of their independence and that respect their sovereignty and relations with other states."

The Russian Foreign Ministry has also reportedly rejected the U.S. request. According to Interfax, the ministry's Information and Press Department stated, "The Russian Foreign Ministry views this request as unacceptable and, of course, will not take this step." In Germany, the Foreign Ministry confirmed the U.S. request to expel diplomats, the ddp news agency quoted tagesschau.de as reporting on 7 March. However, there have been no reports of any action taken by the German government. The Bulgarian daily "Sega" reported on 7 March that the United States has asked Bulgaria to expel four diplomats, but no decision has been made.

In the Philippines, Foreign Secretary Blas Ople said on 11 March that the government was monitoring the activities of foreign residents following the U.S. request, Reuters reported the same day. "I asked the [Iraqi] ambassador [Ghazi Fayssal Hussein] to warn members of his staff...against being involved in any activities exceeding the scope of their diplomatic rights and obligations," Ople said, AP reported on 13 March. "We are hoping that we do not have to repeat the action of expelling an Iraqi diplomat." Ople was referring to the 12 February expulsion of Iraqi Second Secretary Husham Hussein for his alleged links to the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group.

The Iraqi government responded to the U.S. expulsion requests on 8 March by stating that the United States is attempting to disrupt the "cordial relations" between Iraq and those countries approached by the United States. "The CIA has launched a wide campaign against Iraqi diplomats using various means of pressure and temptation to make them betray their country, but the diplomats foiled U.S. endeavors and attempts, expressing their adherence to their homeland and brave leadership," a statement on the Iraqi Foreign Ministry's website (http://www.uruklink.net/mofa/) read. The Iraqi Foreign Ministry added that Iraqi diplomats "abide by international laws and conventions," and expressed hope that "every country...check the U.S. administration's demands" in order not to fall prey to such an "arrogant, evil, and isolated administration."

Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri also charged the United States with trying to recruit Iraqi mission personnel abroad to "betray" Iraq, Iraq Satellite Television reported on 11 March. "All those affiliated with our missions abroad come under severe acts of harassment from agents of the U.S. and British intelligence services every day. The aim is to push [the Iraqis] to betray their homeland and dignity.... Nonetheless, [they] have not thus far managed to win over the loyalty of a single person, be he an ambassador, a typist, or a driver," Sabri said.

Specifically, embassy employees have been approached in the Philippines, Kenya, and Canada, Sabri charged. In addition, the Iraqi Ambassador to Bucharest told a press conference that an officer of the Romanian Intelligence Service (SRI) approached him on 10 March and asked him to cooperate with the Romanian secret services, Rompres reported on 12 March. The Romanian Foreign Ministry denied the allegations.

For the time being, it seems that other states will remained tight-lipped over the matter. This could be for a number of reasons. They might be investigating the information provided by the United States, or they might be seeking a quieter diplomatic route to facilitate the exit of certain Iraqis from their countries. Or, perhaps, they want to avoid attention altogether, rather than drawing a volatile reaction from Iraq or individuals sympathetic to the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.

AFGHAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS WAR IN IRAQ WILL NOT SLOW AFGHANISTAN'S PROGRESS...
"If there is a war in Iraq, there will be another war in Asia, and this will surely impact everyone's situation," Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah was quoted as saying in the March issue of the Paris-based magazine "Arabies Trends." "Should a war be necessary, there will be consequences, but these will by no means stop the pace of change in Afghanistan or the move toward normalization and stabilization.... War on Iraq will not have that type of impact on our situation," Abdullah added. TG

...AND DOWNPLAYS HEKMATYAR'S INFLUENCE
Foreign Minister Abdullah in his interview with "Arabies Trends" dismissed the reemergence of radical Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. "There were periods when he was especially powerful," Abdullah said. "At these times, [Hekmatyar] was capable of doing the most harm, as he did. Now, he is less powerful and significant." Abdullah added that Hekmatyar currently is "a voice. He can rise up against stability and peace and developments in the country, but that is all." Abdullah also downplayed the "underground" residual presence of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network and the Taliban. The United States in February designated Hekmatyar, who has called for a jihad against U.S. forces in Afghanistan, a terrorist (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2003). TG/AT

UN SPECIAL REPRESENTATIVE FOR AFGHANISTAN EXPRESSES CONCERN OVER WAR IN IRAQ
Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN secretary-general's special representative for Afghanistan, said in Kabul on 17 March that he is concerned "over a possible U.S. attack on Iraq," Iranian state radio's Mashhad-based Dari service reported. Brahimi said the Afghan people are opposed to a war in Iraq and that such a war would be "a threat to Afghanistan and would cause insecurity in the region," Iranian state radio reported. A Kabul paper on 12 March quoted Brahimi as saying that "in postconflict situations, would-be promises tend to be forgotten as time goes [by]," and that Afghanistan would not be an exception to this trend (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2003). AT

AFGHAN DEFENSE MINISTER OPPOSES WAR IN IRAQ
Defense Minister Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim said at a news conference in Kabul on 17 March that Afghanistan is against a possible U.S. war on Iraq and only supports a peaceful settlement to the Iraq crisis, Iranian state radio's Mashhad-based Dari service reported. AT

AFGHANISTAN TO RELEASE REMAINING PAKISTANI POWS
The Afghan Transitional Administration has decided to release "all of those Pakistani prisoners who had been captured fighting for the Taliban regime," Radio Afghanistan reported on 16 March. Pakistan's Ambassador to Afghanistan Rostam Shah Mohmand said that the more than 900 remaining Pakistani prisoners who were captured in 2001 after the U.S.-led campaign against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban will be released at the order of President Hamid Karzai. Mohmand said this move "will further strengthen the economic and cultural relations of Pakistan and Afghanistan," the report added. Pakistani Foreign Office spokesman Aziz Ahmad Khan told PTV on 16 March that the "implementation of the decision will take some time due to logistics problems," but called the move a "positive step" in strengthening Kabul-Islamabad relations. Many Pakistanis fought alongside the Taliban regime in Afghanistan while Islamabad was the primary political and military backer of the Taliban. However, after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, Pakistan abandoned its former allies and sided with the United States. Many Afghans remain edgy over close ties with Pakistan and still believe that Islamabad is interfering in Afghanistan's domestic affairs. AT

SYRIAN, IRANIAN PRESIDENTS CALL ON U.S. TO RESPECT GLOBAL OPINION
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad paid an unannounced visit to Tehran on 16 March to meet with Iranian leaders to discuss the Iraq crisis, IRNA reported. During al-Assad's meeting with President Mohammad Khatami, the two leaders called on "U.S. statesmen to respect the world's public opinion demands and substitute the language of logic for their language of force." They also stressed the need to increase regional cooperation and to preserve Iraq's territorial integrity, saying, "democracy is not mandatory" and that "the fate of Iraq must be determined by its people and through participation of all tribes and groups." MES

SUPREME LEADER, SYRIAN PRESIDENT PREDICT DIRE CONSEQUENCES FOR U.S. IN EVENT OF WAR
Syrian President al-Assad met later on 16 March with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, international news agencies reported. Khamenei told al-Assad that "the U.S. may be able to inflict damage on the region in the short term, but resistance of the regional nations will finally inflict the biggest blow to the U.S. and will culminate in the fall of America's superpower image," AP reported, citing Iranian state radio. "The Americans want to appoint a military governor in Iraq, but Iraqi people will resist American occupation. In the long term, the U.S. is doomed to fail," al-Assad told Khamenei, according to the report. MES

UN SECURITY COUNCIL TO MEET AGAIN ON IRAQ
The UN Security Council was expected to meet on 17 March to discuss a joint declaration issued by France, Russia, and Germany on 15 March, the UN News Center (http://www.un.org/News/) announced on 16 March. The joint declaration states, "In the present circumstances nothing justifies abandoning the inspection process and resorting to the use of force," AFP reported on 15 March, citing the declaration. It further notes reports by the UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that demonstrate that the inspections are "producing results," adding, "The disarmament of Iraq has begun." The meeting will take place however, earlier than the date requested in the joint declaration. France, Germany, and Russia had requested a Security Council meeting after a scheduled 18 March meeting in which UNMOVIC is expected to present a detailed work program for inspections to the council. KR

U.S. PRESIDENT: 'MOMENT OF TRUTH' FOR IRAQ
U.S. President George W. Bush told a press conference in the Azores, Portugal, on 16 March that 17 March will be "a moment of truth for the world," according to the text version of the press conference available on the White House website (http://www.whitehouse.gov/news/releases/). Bush said states "must demonstrate [their] commitment to peace and security...by supporting the immediate and unconditional disarmament of [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein." Asked whether 17 March marked the last date for a resolution on Iraq to be voted on at the UN, Bush replied, "That's what I'm saying." However, Bush did not confirm whether the United States, Britain, and Spain would actually seek UN Security Council approval for a use of force in Iraq. He did state, though, that "should military force [be] required, we'll quickly seek new Security Council resolutions to encourage broad participation in the process of helping the Iraqi people to build a free Iraq." KR

BRITAIN, SPAIN REITERATE SUPPORT OF U.S.
Bush was joined at the 16 March press conference by his counterparts British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, and Portuguese Prime Minister Jose-Manuel Durao-Barroso. Blair told reporters that it is no longer constructive to "go back [to the Security Council] for endless discussion," stating: "Now, we have provided the right diplomatic way through this, which is to lay down a clear ultimatum to Saddam: Cooperate or face disarmament by force. And that is entirely within the logic, the letter, the spirit of [Resolution] 1441." Blair later added, "I think it is so important that even now, at this late stage we try to get the United Nations to be the root of resolving this." Referring again to Resolution 1441, Blair said: "Now is the moment when we decide whether we meant it and it was [Hussein's] final opportunity to disarm...or whether, alternatively, we're simply going to drag out the diplomatic process forever. And that's why I say it's the point of decision." Meanwhile, Aznar said, "I can assure all of you that we've made...enormous efforts, and we're going to continue making these efforts in order to reach an agreement, to reach a solution." KR

IRAQ DIVIDES COUNTRY INTO FOUR MILITARY COMMANDS
The Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council (RCC) issued a decree on 15 March stating that, henceforth, Iraq is to be divided into four military command regions, Iraq Satellite Channel Television reported the same day. According to the decree, each military commander will report directly to President Hussein. The northern region includes the "administrative borders of the governorates of Ninawa, Al-Ta'mim, Dahuk, Arbil, and Al-Sulaymaniyah" and is now under the command of Staff General Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of the RCC, and deputy commander in chief of the armed forces, the decree stated. The southern region includes the administrative borders of the governorates of Basra, Dhi Qar, and Maysan, and is commanded by Staff General Ali Hasan al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein who was commander during Iraq's chemical attack on Halabjah, which occurred 15 years ago yesterday, and killed thousands of Kurds. The "Central Euphrates" region is under the command of Mizban Khadr Hadi, a member of the Iraq Command and the RCC, and includes the governorates of Karbala, Al-Najaf, Al-Qadisiyah, and Al-Muthanna. The "Central Region" is under the command of Qusay Hussein, a son of the Iraqi president, and includes the governorates of Baghdad, Salah Al-Din, Al-Anbar, Babil, and Wasit. KR

IRAQ ISSUES INVITATION TO UNMOVIC, IAEA TO VISIT IRAQ
An adviser to Iraqi President Hussein, Amr Al-Sa'di, sent a letter to UNMOVIC Executive Chairman Hans Blix and IAEA Director-General Mohammad el-Baradei on 15 March inviting them to meet with Iraqi officials in Baghdad "at the earliest date" to discuss disarmament issues, Iraq Satellite Channel Television reported the same day. Issues proposed for discussion include possible methods for speeding up joint cooperation between Iraq and UNMOVIC/IAEA inspectors, particularly regarding the verification of outstanding issues. Al-Sa'di sent a second letter to Blix on 15 March "in which he appended an 82-page report containing the results of analysis of the [nerve gas] VX remnants in the soil" taken from the destruction site at Al-Muthanna, where Iraq claims to have destroyed its quantities of VX in 1991, Iraq Television reported on 16 March. KR

IRAQI PRESIDENT MEETS ARMED-FORCES COMMANDERS
President Hussein has met with military commanders from the armed forces, Defense Minister General Sultan Hashim Ahmad, and Hussein's son, Qusay, Iraq Television reported on 16 March. During the meeting, Hussein discussed the British draft compromise submitted to the Security Council on 12 March, stating, "The inspectors came and did not find anything. One of the reasons why [the United States and the United Kingdom] talk about the aggression, prepare for it, and perhaps will carry it out is to hide form the public the big lie in saying that there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq." "Give [Iraq] a deadline and give us supplies to produce for you the type of weapons you want and then we will ask you to come and destroy them," the Iraqi leader suggested, adding, "International politics has become a game." Hussein later took on a threatening tone, stating, "When [the enemy] starts a large-scale battle, he should realize that the battle will open wherever there is sky, land, and water throughout the entire globe." Hussein added that Iraqi troops will fight U.S.-led coalition forces with "daggers, swords, and clubs if the other weapons are not available." KR

UN BEGINNING PULLOUT?
The UN withdrew five helicopters from Iraq on 16 March, reportedly because a Western insurer refused to continue coverage on the aircraft, Saudi Press Agency reported the same day. The helicopters flew to Cyprus via Syria. A UNMOVIC field office operates out of Larnaca, Cyprus. UNMOVIC Spokesman Hiro Ueki has not commented on the decision, but the UN News Center (http://www.un.org/News/) confirmed on 16 March that the insurer "decided to withdraw coverage from the aircraft if they remained in Iraq," adding that three Russian-owned helicopters will continue operating in Iraq. Meanwhile, the UN Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission (UNIKOM) has put its observers on a heightened state of alert and withdrawn all UN employees from the Iraqi side of the demilitarized zone (DMZ), AP reported on 17 March. "We are still in the DMZ, but we have stopped our operations...patrolling and monitoring," UNIKOM spokesman Daljeet Bagga said. UNIKOM evacuated UN monitors from the Iraqi side of the DMZ on 13 March (see RFE/RL "Newsline," 13 March 2003). According to AP, the UN had 1,332 employees, including staff, observers, and troops stationed on the border until two weeks ago; now the number stands at around 800 personnel. Bagga said UNIKOM was awaiting a decision on 17 March from UN Headquarters in New York on whether UNIKOM was to completely evacuate its post. "Late last night...I was advised by the U.S. government to pull out our inspectors from Baghdad," IAEA Director-General el-Baradei told the IAEA's board of governors on 17 March, according to AP. KR

FRANCE 'CANNOT ACCEPT' ULTIMATUM
French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said on 17 March that France will not accept a UN resolution that calls for the use of force in Iraq, Reuters reported the same day. "France cannot accept the resolution that is on the table in New York...which poses an ultimatum and which envisages an automatic use of force," Reuters quoted Villepin as telling Europe 1 radio on 17 March. Villepin also voiced dismay at allegations of a link between Iraq and the Al-Qaeda organization, in an apparent reference to U.S. President Bush's latest statements on the existence of such a link, made during a press conference in Terceira, in the Azores, on 16 March. "There is no link today proving the link between Al-Qaeda and Iraq," Villepin said. French President Jacques Chirac said on 16 March that France would be willing to accept a timetable of 30 days for Iraqi disarmament, AP reported on 17 March. KR

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