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Newsline - December 9, 2003


EXPLOSION KILLS SIX IN CENTRAL MOSCOW
An explosion outside the National Hotel in downtown Moscow on 9 December killed six people and injured at least 13 others, Russian and Western media reported. Police did not confirm initial reports that the explosion was caused by one or two female suicide bombers, although Sergei Tsoi, a spokesman for Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, was quoted as saying, "We can say with certainty that this was a terrorist act." ITAR-TASS reported that police used a robot to neutralize a second explosive found in a suitcase at the scene. The agency further reported that the bomb had been packed with nails and metal fragments to increase its devastation. Interfax cited an unidentified Federal Security Service (FSB) source as saying that a "suspicious woman" entered the hotel shortly before the blast and asked how to find the State Duma building. "This terrorist act was linked to the [7 December] elections to the State Duma," Tsoi said, without elaborating. RC

UNIFIED RUSSIA MIGHT GET SIMPLE MAJORITY IN THE DUMA...
Russian media on 8 December cited Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov as saying that with 97.87 percent of the vote in the 7 December State Duma elections counted, the party-list results were: Unified Russia -- 37.1 percent; the Communist Party -- 12.7 percent; the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) -- 11.6 percent; the Motherland-Patriotic Union bloc -- 9.1 percent; Yabloko -- 4.32 percent; and Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) -- 4.0 percent. Of the 58 million voters who turned out, 4.8 percent voted "against all," "The Moscow Times" reported on 9 December. While the next Duma's exact breakdown it is not yet clear, Unified Russia officials predict they will have at least 222 seats -- 118 from their party list, plus 104 candidates elected in single-mandate districts -- and think this number could grow to 228 or 229 once the final tallies are in, Interfax reported. This would give Unified Russia a simple majority in the 450-seat lower house, sufficient to pass legislation not requiring a constitutional majority. (For complete coverage of the Duma and other elections in Russia, go to http://www.rferl.org/specials/russianelection/) JB

...WHILE YABLOKO, SPS WILL HAVE A TOTAL OF SIX DEPUTIES
The Communist Party predicted it will end up with 53-55 Duma seats, while Motherland-Patriotic Union co-Chairman Dmitrii Rogozin said his bloc will win up to 37 seats once the final tallies from the single-mandate districts are in, Interfax reported on 8 December. According to the TsIK, 19 candidates from Gennadii Raikov's People's Party won seats in single-mandate-district races. Yabloko will have four single-mandate-district representatives in the Duma, and the SPS will have only two: former Justice Minister Pavel Krasheninnikov and Boris Nadezhdin. The new Duma, which will also include 65 independent deputies, will hold its first session on 26 December, ITAR-TASS reported on 9 December. JB

OSCE, COUNCIL OF EUROPE CRITICIZE DUMA POLL...
The OSCE and the Council of Europe said on 8 December that the results of the State Duma election were "fundamentally distorted," "The Moscow Times" reported on 9 December. The two groups, which had about 500 observers monitoring the 7 December elections, cited abuses of administrative resources during the campaign, including preferential coverage by the state media and the fact that about one-third of the country's governors were on Unified Russia's party list. While the international observers praised the TsIK for conducting the election "highly professionally," they called the process as a whole "fundamentally unfair." The president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, Bruce George, said the contest "failed in meeting many OSCE and international standards" and was a "regression in the democratization process in Russia." In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the Bush administration shares the OSCE's concerns about the fairness of the election. JB

...WHILE UNIFIED RUSSIA, MOTHERLAND, AND THE CIS BEG TO DIFFER...
While neither President Vladimir Putin nor TsIK Chairman Veshnyakov responded directly to the criticisms by the OSCE, Council of Europe, and the White House, representatives of the pro-Kremlin parties took issue with them, Interfax reported on 8 December. Motherland-Patriotic Union co-leader Rogozin accused the OSCE and other international observers of "direct interference" in Russia's internal affairs and of acting as an "advocate" for the losing parties -- i.e., Yabloko and the SPS -- which would make Russian voters understand that "the West and, possibly, Western money always stood behind the losers." Unified Russia's Lyubov Sliska denied the election was held "undemocratically and with the massive abuse of administrative resources," adding that it is unfortunate that the international observers "did not notice that this election was the direct result of the mood existing in society." CIS Executive Secretary Yurii Yarov said on 8 December that a CIS team of observers had concluded that the election was free, open, and democratic, RIA-Novosti reported. While the CIS observers noticed "certain flaws" in organizing the election and conducting the voting, these flaws "did not have a significant impact on voters' free declaration of their will," Yarov said. (For complete coverage of the Duma and other elections in Russia, go to http://www.rferl.org/specials/russianelection/) JB

...AND ANALYST SAYS U.S. HAS NO RIGHT TO CRITICIZE
"The Moscow Times" on 9 December quoted Kremlin-connected political analyst Sergei Markov as admitting that the abuse of administrative resources did play a role in the 7 December elections. However, he said that the same thing happens in the West. "Strictly speaking, [U.S. President George W.] Bush was not elected democratically either. And in Italy, the prime minister [Silvio Berlusconi] controls 90 percent of television," Markov said. JB/RC

SINGER IS MOST POPULAR SINGLE-MANDATE DEPUTY
Noted crooner Iosef Kobzon polled the best among all candidates in single-mandate districts in the 7 December elections, garnering more than 82 percent of the vote in the Agin-Buryat Autonomous Okrug, strana.ru reported on 8 December. Motherland-Patriotic Union co-leader Rogozin polled 79 percent in his Voronezh Oblast district, while People's Party head Raikov won his district in Tyumen Oblast with almost 48 percent of the vote. Motherland co-leader Sergei Glazev won a single-mandate district in Moscow Oblast. Outgoing State Duma Speaker Gennadii Seleznev beat SPS co-leader Khakamada in the 209th district in St. Petersburg by a margin of 47 percent to 21 percent. Controversial nationalist and former journalist Aleksandr Nevzorov apparently won re-election from his Leningrad Oblast district with 19 percent of the vote, "The St. Petersburg Times" reported on 9 December. Former Vladivostok Mayor Viktor Cherepkov won a district in that city, while investigative journalist Aleksandr Khinshtein won a seat from a district in Nizhnii Novgorod Oblast. Liberal publicist Valeriya Novodvorskaya won a seat from a Moscow district. Businessman and former presidential candidate Vladimir Bryntsalov lost his bid for a seat from a Moscow Oblast district, strana.ru reported. (For complete coverage of the Duma and other elections in Russia, go to http://www.rferl.org/specials/russianelection/) RC

OBSERVERS PONDER WHAT PUTIN MIGHT DO WITH A CONSTITUTIONAL MAJORITY
The pro-Kremlin forces in the new Duma will probably be able to muster the two-thirds majority needed to amend the constitution, Russian media reported on 9 December. According to gazeta.ru, President Putin might have been alluding to the possibility of using this constitutional majority when he told an 8 December cabinet meeting: "Russia's constitutional basis is stable, and our task is to strengthen the constitutional system, the constitution, the basic law of the country." The website predicted the Kremlin will amend the constitution sooner rather than later and that the changes might include extending the presidential term from four to seven years, making governors appointed rather than elected, or giving the "parliamentary majority" the power to form the government. However, political scientist Mark Urnov told Ekho Moskvy he doubts such changes will take place sooner than 2007-08. "The atmosphere of political life is...starting to resemble the Soviet one, and I can't rule out that in such an atmosphere ideas might appear to secure the present elite in power for a long time," Urnov said. JB

PUTIN TRIES TO SOOTHE THE LOSERS...
President Putin hailed the results of the 7 December Duma elections, declaring during his 8 December cabinet session that they represent "one more step...toward the strengthening of democracy in the Russian Federation," Russian and Western media reported. "The people of Russia once again had the opportunity to elect the highest organs, and the state provided honest, free, and open elections," Putin said. He added that the results "reflect the real sympathies of the people, and what the Russian people think, and the realities of political life." He also told the losing parties that their ideas and "personnel potential" will be "drawn upon" to solve the country's problems. (For complete coverage of the Duma and other elections in Russia, go to http://www.rferl.org/specials/russianelection/) JB

...WHILE HIS DEPUTY SAYS THEY'RE HISTORY...
Deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov, the Kremlin's chief election strategist, suggested that the Communists, the SPS, and Yabloko will no longer play a significant role in Russian politics, Interfax reported on 8 December. "Today, after the elections, we are living in a new Russia," Surkov said. "Before the elections, it was not clear to many, but now the voters have shown that the old political system based on the Marxist dogmas about the 'left' and the 'right' flanks has exhausted itself.... A new political era is coming, and the parties that did not make it into the Duma should react calmly to that and understand that their historical mission is over." Asked specifically about the Communist Party, Surkov said, "The phenomenal collapse of the Communists this time finally proves to everyone that the Communist Party -- it is Russia's past." JB

...AND SPS LEADERS TENDER THEIR RESIGNATIONS
The SPS's 32-member political council will meet on 9 December to discuss the fate of party co-leaders Boris Nemtsov, Irina Khakamada, and Anatolii Chubais, who have tendered their resignations in the wake of the party's poor showing on 7 December, Interfax reported on 8 December. Nemtsov said that everyone on the SPS party list for the elections has offered to resign their party leadership posts. He added that the political council cannot make a final decision, but can make a recommendation to be discussed and voted on by a party congress. Leonid Gofman, an SPS member who is also an official with Unified Energy Systems (EES), the electricity monopoly headed by Chubais, said the main issue facing the SPS is not changing its leadership, but analyzing what went wrong in the Duma elections. Khakamada, meanwhile, told the BBC's Russian Service on 8 December that two days before the election, Chubais was told in the Kremlin that the party would lose because it supported jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii. (For complete coverage of the Duma and other elections in Russia, go to http://www.rferl.org/specials/russianelection/) JB

RUSSIA TO RELAX VISA RESTRICTIONS FOR ADJARIA
Russia announced simplified visa regulations for residents of Georgia's autonomous Republic of Adjaria as of 9 December, Russian media reported, citing an 8 December statement on the Foreign Ministry's website (http://www.mid.ru). The statement said Moscow plans to move toward "gradually easing the visa regime with Georgia, taking into consideration the humanitarian aspect of this problem." The decision to give residents of Adjaria special visa privileges could create new tensions between Russia and Georgia's transitional leadership, "The Moscow Times" reported on 9 December. BW

U.S. EMBASSY FINGERPRINTING VISA APPLICANTS
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow on 9 December began taking fingerprints from all visa applicants between the ages of 14 and 80, lenta.ru, Interfax, and other Russian media reported. The fingerprints are being used to help confirm the identities of applicants in order to combat the forgery of travel documents. The United States plans to introduce such measures at all embassies and consulates worldwide by 26 October 2004. The Foreign Ministry has protested the collection of fingerprints. "One must wonder how this fits into the presidential-summit agreements on expanding contacts between the Russian and the American peoples and the simplification of visa procedures in order to achieve this," a Foreign Ministry statement released on 9 December said. RC

POLICE GRENADE WOUNDS 16 CHILDREN
A police officer at the Varzi-Yatchi resort in Udmurtia on 7 December exploded a hand grenade at a disco, wounding 16 children, RIA-Novosti reported on 8 December. Local police said the officer's action was "driven by hooliganism" and that ''children between 8 and 15 years of age sustained injuries." None of the children's lives are in danger, RIA-Novosti reported, citing local police sources. BW

STAVROPOL TO GET FEDERAL AID TO COPE WITH BLAST INJURIES
Hospitals in Stavropol Krai will be receive an additional 25 million rubles ($846,018) in federal funds to cope with the effects of a 5 December suicide bombing aboard a commuter train that left 44 dead, Russian media reported on 8 December, citing Deputy Prime Minister Galina Karelova. Some 155 people, including 51 children, are being treated in Stavropol Krai hospitals as a result of the blast. The additional federal money will be provided by the Federal Compulsory and Medical Insurance Fund, Karelova said. BW

CHECHEN PRESIDENT CHAIRS WAR COUNCIL SESSION
Aslan Maskhadov has chaired a meeting in southeastern Chechnya of field commanders to discuss adapting tactics during the winter in response to an intensification of Russian military activity in southeastern Chechnya, according to a Chechenpress report of 8 December posted on chechenpress.info. Maskhadov characterized the 5 December bombing of a commuter train in Stavropol Krai as "recognizable a mile away as an FSB provocation." He again stressed his leadership's unconditional rejection of terrorism. Maskhadov also observed that the extremely low turnout in Chechnya in the 7 December Duma elections, which he estimated at between 2.5 and 3 percent, shows that both President Putin and the pro-Moscow Chechen leadership can count on only minimal support from the Chechen population. LF

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION LEADER CALLS FOR END TO PROTEST HUNGER STRIKE
Isa Qambar, Musavat party chairman and defeated presidential challenger, appealed on 8 December to participants to end the hunger strike they began on 1 December, Turan reported. The hunger strikers are demanding the release of some 100 opposition activists detained following clashes between police and opposition supporters in the wake of the disputed 15 October presidential ballot. Democratic Party of Azerbaijan Secretary-General Serdar Djalaloglu, who was arrested on 18 October for his imputed role in the unrest, ended his hunger strike on 8 December, Turan reported. Djalaloglu issued a statement that day urging the Azerbaijani people to campaign more actively for "democratic values," and for the invalidation of the official results of the 15 October presidential ballot, and the holding of a new presidential election. LF

ANOTHER AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION ACTIVIST ARRESTED
Police arrested Azer Huseynov, head of the Saatli district office of the opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP), on 7 December on charges of resisting authority, Turan reported the following day. Huseynov was detained when AMIP's Saatli office was stormed by police on 1 October, one day before a mass campaign rally in Saatli for AMIP Chairman and presidential candidate Etibar Mammedov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 October 2003). LF

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT'S UNCLE BRINGS LIBEL SUIT AGAINST INDEPENDENT PRESS
Academician and parliament deputy Djalal Aliyev, the brother of former President Heidar Aliyev, has brought libel suits against the newspapers "Ekho" and "Zerkalo," Turan reported on 8 December. Both papers allegedly quoted on 17 October a televised statement by Djalal Aliyev branding Ambassador Peter Eicher, who heads the international Election Observation Mission, "a fascist." Aliyev denies making the statement. LF

MORE GOVERNMENT APPOINTMENTS ANNOUNCED IN GEORGIA
Acting President Nino Burdjanadze named two deputy ministers of state on 8 December, Caucasus Press reported. They are Guram Absandze, who served as finance minister under deceased President Zviad Gamsakhurdia and will be responsible for promoting national accord, and Deputy Foreign Minister Tamar Beruchashvili, who will oversee integration with European bodies and EU assistance to Georgia. LF

NEW MOVEMENT FORMED TO SUPPORT GEORGIAN PRESIDENTIAL CHALLENGER
Members of the Georgian intelligentsia who support National Movement head Mikhail Saakashvili announced in Tbilisi on 8 December the creation of a new movement, named Decisive Struggle for Georgia, the objective of which is to support Saakashvili's candidacy in the presidential ballot scheduled for 4 January, Georgian media reported. The movement's founders warned that "the revolution in Georgia is not yet over," as "the danger of revanchism still exists." LF

GEORGIA'S ARMENIAN COMMUNITY PROPOSES TALKS ON STATUS
David Rstakian, head of the unregistered political party Virk that represents the interests of the predominantly Armenian population of Georgia's southern region of Djavakheti, wants talks with the new Georgian leadership on granting the region formal status, whether autonomy or as part of a federation or confederation, Caucasus Press reported on 9 December. Rstakian said that while autonomy "is the way to preserve everything that helps us feel Armenian: our language, culture, and traditions," autonomy "may not be enough" to satisfy the local Armenian population. Rstakian also said the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki, the swift closure of which the new Georgian leadership is demanding, serves "as the guarantor of the physical security" of Djavakheti's Armenian population. The base also employs some 2,000 local Armenians. LF

ABKHAZ LEADERS SEND MIXED SIGNALS OVER RESUMPTION OF TALKS
Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, who is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special envoy for Abkhazia, met in Sukhum on 8 December with Raul Khadjimba, prime minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, and Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, Caucasus Press reported. Tagliavini told journalists after the meeting that the Abkhaz leadership has confirmed its readiness to continue peace talks under the UN aegis, the next round of which will take place in Geneva in February. Two days earlier, Tagliavini and German Ambassador to Tbilisi Uwe Schramm met in Sukhum with Abkhaz Vice President Valerii Arshba, who reportedly said Abkhazia will agree to further talks with Georgia only after the election of a new president and the signing of a document on the non-resumption of hostilities, Caucasus Press reported on 8 December. Georgian presidential candidate Saakashvili has pledged to restore Georgian control over Abkhazia. Arshba also said that any further talks should focus on three documents: Abkhazia's Constitution and its Act of National Independence, and the April 1994 UN statement on Abkhazia that the Abkhaz construe as acknowledging the republic's independent status. The UN is urging Sukhum to take as a basis for future talks the UN-drafted "Basic Principles for the Distribution of Competencies between Tbilisi and Sukhumi." LF

KAZAKH FOREIGN MINISTER RULES OUT GEORGIAN SCENARIO FOR KAZAKHSTAN
Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev said in an interview published in the Almaty daily "Ekspress-K" on 6 December that events similar to those that led to the resignation of Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze are improbable in Kazakhstan because the country's head of state has been fairly successful in getting his priorities right. Specifically, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has emphasized liberal economic reform, and in doing so has created the necessary basis for political reform. Toqaev added that while Kazakhstan values the advice of international organizations and individual countries, it has to follow its own path according to its own national interests. For example, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry is drawing up a plan for cooperation with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), reserving for itself the right to criticize OSCE fieldwork if the Kazakh side deems it necessary. Speaking of the political situation in Kazakhstan, Toqaev noted that the next parliamentary elections must be seen to be free and transparent because they will be an important test for Kazakh democracy. BB

SPANISH AND BRITISH MILITARY DELEGATIONS VISIT KAZAKHSTAN
A delegation from Spain's Defense Ministry paid its first-ever official visit to Kazakhstan on 1-5 December, KazInform reported on 6 December. Discussions during the visit focused particularly on Spanish assistance to Kazakhstan in creating a Kazakh navy, in providing advanced training in Spain for Kazakh military officers, and on cooperation in the area of military technology. The Kazakh Defense Ministry has said it intends to have a fully functional naval base on the Caspian Sea within 10 years, and the visit of a British Royal Navy delegation focused on this issue, with the British side offering to help Kazakhstan develop a naval doctrine and a curriculum for Kazakhstan's naval institute. BB

U.S. AMBASSADOR IN BISHKEK DESCRIBES IMU AS MOST DANGEROUS TO U.S. INTERESTS
U.S. Ambassador to Kyrgyzstan Stephen Young told a press conference in Bishkek on 8 December that of all groups inimical to U.S. interests in Central Asia, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) poses the greatest threat, akipress.org reported the same day. The IMU, which staged armed incursions into Kyrgyzstan in 1999 and 2000, has been designated an international terrorist organization by U.S. authorities because of its ties to Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. Kyrgyz law-enforcement officials report that the group has renamed itself the Islamic Party of Turkestan. Young asserted that despite losses sustained in the fighting in Afghanistan in 2001, the IMU is regrouping for further action, but close cooperation between U.S. and Kyrgyz law enforcement should make it possible to counter the threat. Young also said that the U.S. lease on the air base near Bishkek being used by the international antiterrorism coalition will be extended as long as the antiterror struggle continues in Afghanistan. BB

TAJIK ROAD BUILDERS COMPLETE ALTERNATE NORTH-SOUTH ROUTE
The Tajik Transport Ministry has completed a route that permits communication by road between southern and northern Tajikistan in winter when the usual route over the Anzob Pass is closed by snow, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 8 December. Instead of using roads in Uzbekistan as was previously necessary, the new route crosses part of Kyrgyzstan's Osh Oblast. The new route will allow Tajik truckers and passenger-bus firms to avoid the type of problems with Uzbek border guards and customs officials that were recently reported by trucking firms in the west Tajik town of Pendzhikent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 2003). BB

IMPRISONED UZBEK JOURNALIST RECEIVES INTERNATIONAL JOURNALISM AWARD
Imprisoned Uzbek journalist Ruslan Sharipov has received the 2004 Golden Pen of Freedom award from the Paris-based World Association of Newspapers (WAN) for his promotion of press freedom in the face of physical attacks, torture, and constant harassment, fergana.ru reported on 5 December, citing WAN's website (http://www.wan-press.org). The award is to be presented at the World Newspaper Congress in Istanbul in May 2004. In its citation, WAN's board said that Sharipov has faced unspeakable hardships because he refused to stop criticizing the Uzbek government in his writings or end his human rights work. Sharipov was sentenced to five years in prison in August on charges of homosexuality and corruption of minors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 August 2003). The latter charge was later dropped and his sentence was reduced to four years; human rights activists inside Uzbekistan and in the international human rights community are demanding Sharipov's release, saying that the real reason for his arrest was his critical journalism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 November 2003). BB

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT DENIES HE PRAISED HITLER
In an interview with "Der Spiegel" on 8 December, Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka denied that he praised Adolf Hitler and the Nazi political system in a 1995 interview with the German newspaper "Handelsblatt." Lukashenka was quoted as telling a "Handelsblatt" journalist in November 1995: "Not everything that was connected to a certain Adolf Hitler in Germany was bad. Remember his rule in Germany. The German order had grown over centuries. Under Hitler, this process reached its culmination. This is perfectly in line with our understanding of a presidential republic and the role of its president" (see http://www.belarusguide.com/as/law_pol/politics.html). "Handelsblatt" chose not print the passage in question. But the interview, which was taped, was broadcast twice by Belarusian Radio. "If I had really said that, I would have been driven out of my post the next day," Lukashenka told "Der Spiegel" in the more recent interview. JM

UKRAINE TO SEND HELICOPTER UNIT TO IRAQ
Ukraine will send a squadron of six helicopters to Iraq in February to support its military contingent in that country, Interfax reported, quoting Petro Shulyak, commander of the Ukrainian Ground Troops. Shulyak said there is no need for the government to ask the Verkhovna Rada for approval of this military dispatch. Shulyak recalled that the parliament has already agreed to send 1,800 troops to assist the U.S.-led stabilization effort, while there are already 1,656 Ukrainian servicemen in Iraq. JM

KYIV REPORTS 15.5 PERCENT INDUSTRIAL GROWTH
The Ukrainian State Statistics Committee announced on 8 December that the country's industrial output increased by 15.5 percent year-on-year in January-November, Interfax reported. JM

LOW TURNOUT AMONG RUSSIAN VOTERS IN BALTIC STATES
Although polling stations for the Russian State Duma elections were open in 10 Baltic cities on 7 December, few Russian citizens residing in the Baltics participated, BNS reported the next day. Of the 105,000 eligible voters living in Estonia, just 16,581, or 15.5 percent, cast ballots in Tallinn, Tartu, and Narva. In Lithuania, 3,005 of the 16,595 eligible voters, or 18.1 percent, voted in Vilnius, Klaipeda, Visaginas, and Siauliai. In Latvia, there were 9,361 voters in Riga, Liepaja, and Daugavpils. The Motherland-Patriotic Union bloc and Unified Russia were the winners, receiving 32 and 30.2 percent in Latvia, 27.9 and 26.7 percent in Lithuania, and 28.8 and 29.6 percent in Estonia, respectively. The Communist Party was in third place in Lithuania and Latvia with 21.7 and 18.4 percent, and in fourth place in Estonia with 5.6 percent. The Liberal Democratic Party passed the 5-percent barrier in Estonia and Lithuania with 6.9 and 6.2 percent, but gained just 3.5 percent in Latvia. SG

ESTONIAN COALITION REACHES COMPROMISE ON COUNTY GOVERNORS
Representatives of the ruling coalition of Res Publica, Reform Party, and People's Union agreed at a meeting in Tallinn on 8 December that the government will begin appointing permanent county governors after the parliament approves amendments in January specifying the tasks of the governors, LETA reported the next day, citing the daily "Postimees." The meeting had been requested by the People's Union whose member, Regional Affairs Minister Jaan Ounapuu, was even threatening to resign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2003). The coalition's inability to reach a decision on the tasks and powers of county governors had led to an impasse in which acting governors, whom the law allows to be appointed for only three months, head 10 of the 15 counties. SG

LITHUANIAN CONSERVATIVES LEADER URGES SEARCH FOR NEW PRESIDENT
Chairman of the Homeland Union (Conservatives of Lithuania) Andrius Kubilius told a press conference in Vilnius on 8 December that he believes the ouster of President Rolandas Paksas is inevitable, "Kauno diena" reported the next day. Kubilius also called on the country's major parties to find a common candidate who would be a "wound-healing president." He said he is certain the 85 votes for impeaching Paksas will be obtained, but it would be better if Paksas resigned voluntarily. In either case, Kubilius said he expects Paksas to seek vindication by again running for president. Kubilius added that Lithuanian society would benefit by not having to face another heated presidential campaign. He called on the Social Democrats, Social Liberals, Liberal-Centrists to find a politically non-affiliated candidate who would be a capable president. Parliament Deputy Chairman Vytenis Andriukaitis, a Social Democrat, agreed that Paksas should resign voluntarily, but interpreted the offer by Kubilius as an indication that his party lacks a strong candidate for president. SG

POLISH PREMIER WELCOMES POSSIBLE RELOCATION OF U.S. MILITARY BASES...
Prime Minister Leszek Miller, who is still hospitalized following a helicopter crash last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2003), told Polish Radio on 9 December that he would support the relocation of some U.S. military bases from Germany to Poland. "If I were to express an opinion on this,... it's worth making such a decision; and if I were to take part in this decision, then, of course, I would say yes," Miller said. The same day, U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith held consultations in Warsaw with Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski on a possible relocation of some U.S. bases. "This project is not directed against Russia, this project is directed against those threats that occur in the modern world," Polish Television quoted Szmajdzinski as saying. JM

...AND HOPES TO PARTICIPATE IN CRUCIAL EU SUMMIT
Premier Miller also told Polish Radio on 8 December that he is planning to go to an EU summit in Brussels on 12-13 December where final decisions are expected on the EU's draft constitution. "I really cannot imagine not being there in those important hours for Poland. Therefore, I'm trying to convince doctors to do whatever they can to speed up the process of my convalescence," Miller said. Meanwhile, Polish Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz said the same day that a decision on the controversial issue of voting procedures in the EU Council should be delayed. "At present, the most rational way of solving the dispute over the system of voting in the European Council is by not solving it -- that is, by postponing the decision," Polish Television quoted Cimoszewicz as saying. JM

CZECHS WANT QUALIFIED-MAJORITY PROVISION IN EU CONSTITUTION CHANGED
Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda said on 8 December that the Czech government continues to oppose the double-majority voting system prescribed in the draft European constitution, under which EU decisions would be approved with the backing of more than half of the bloc's members representing 60 percent of the EU population, CTK reported. Instead, the Czech government wants the proposed decision-making process to require a 60 percent majority of states whose combined population represents at least 60 percent of the EU population. Svoboda, speaking after a cabinet meeting to discuss the proposed EU constitution, said increasing the qualified majority from 50 percent to 60 percent would put smaller states at a lesser disadvantage. He also said the Czech government continues to insist on the "one-member, one commissioner" principle for representation on the European Commission. President Vaclav Klaus said he welcomes the government's position but would personally prefer that there be no EU constitution at all. Klaus was speaking after an 8 December meeting at which Premier Vladimir Spidla informed him of the cabinet's position. MS

CHECKS ON U.K.-BOUND CZECHS TO END WITH EU ACCESSION
A spokesman for the British Embassy in Prague told CTK on 8 December that the checks carried out occasionally by British immigration authorities at Prague's Ruzyne international airport will stop once the Czech Republic accedes the EU in May. The checks were instituted in summer 2001 to discourage asylum seekers, many of whom were of Romany origin, from attempting to settle in the United Kingdom. MS

SLOVAKS GET VISA-FREE ENTRY TO U.K.
Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda told journalists on 9 December that holders of Slovak passports will be able to enter the United Kingdom without a visa within 10 days, CTK and TASR reported. The visa-free regime will enter into force on 18 December. The visa requirement was introduced five years ago to curb the exodus of Slovak Roma requesting asylum in Great Britain. A spokesman for the Irish Foreign Ministry cited by TASR said Ireland will follow the British example and cancel visa requirements later this month or in early January. Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan welcomed the decision. MS

OUSTED DEFENSE MINISTER QUITS RULING PARTY, POTENTIALLY CRIPPLING SLOVAK GOVERNMENT
Former Defense Minister Ivan Simko announced on 9 December that he is leaving the ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) to establish a new political party, CTK, TASR, and Reuters reported. The ruling center-right coalition now controls just 68 seats in the 150-member Slovak legislature as a result of the defections, down from 78 seats when the coalition was formed in September 2002. After being dismissed by Premier Dzurinda in September, Simko and six other SDKU parliamentary deputies established a faction within the SDKU and criticized Dzurinda's policies within the party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2003). Simko said he and his supporters "do not want the fall of the government, but demand stronger democratic controls over the concentration of power," according to CTK. Simko also pledged not to cooperate with the parliamentary opposition. Prominent politicians from the ruling coalition cited by TASR said Dzurinda will have to negotiate a new coalition agreement to include the seven SDKU defectors. MS

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT VISITS SLOVAKIA
Visiting Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev and his Slovak counterpart Rudolf Schuster discussed ways to strengthen bilateral economic cooperation and signed a mutual investment-protection agreement and a double taxation treaty, CTK and TASR reported. The two leaders agreed to intensify cooperation in the textile industry, the power-plant construction sector, agro-machinery manufacturing, and the construction of flood barriers. Akaev said he hopes Kyrgyzstan is able to establish closer contacts with the EU via Slovakia after the latter becomes an EU member in May. The two men also stressed the need to maintain the international antiterrorism effort. Akaev also met with Deputy Premier Pal Csaky and parliamentary speaker Pavol Hrusovsky. MS

HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENT STIFFENS HATE-SPEECH LEGISLATION
Parliament voted 184-180 on 8 December to amend the country's penal code, tightening legal clauses against hate speech, Hungarian dailies reported. Under the new legislation, public incitement against any nation, or any national, ethnic, racial, or religious group, is considered to be a crime punishable by up to three years in prison. Under the amended code, humiliation of someone's human dignity is a misdemeanor punishable by up to two years imprisonment. Deputies from the opposition FIDESZ and Democratic Forum unanimously rejected the amendment. Eight parliamentarians from the coalition member Free Democrats also voted against the legislation, saying it restricts freedom of opinion (see also "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 November 2003). MSZ

SERBIAN GOVERNMENT REJECTS INTERNATIONAL PLAN FOR KOSOVA
The Serbian government said in a statement on 8 December that it cannot accept the latest international proposal for a set of standards that Kosova must meet before its final status may be considered, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The statement stressed that the international experts who drafted the plan did not take any of Belgrade's "suggestions" into consideration. Both the plan and the Serbian response are scheduled to be presented to the continuing EU foreign ministers' meeting in Brussels. Many leading Serbian politicians have raised the level of nationalist rhetoric in the run-up to the 28 December general elections. Kosova's more than 90 percent ethnic Albanian majority wants independence and rejects any role for Belgrade in the province's future (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 8 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 1 August and 17 October 2003). PM

STILL MORE INDICTED WAR CRIMINALS FOR SERBIAN ELECTION SLATES
Serbian Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic, whose small Liberal Party is not expected to meet the 5 percent electoral threshold in the 28 December Serbian general elections, said in Belgrade on 8 December that his party will include indicted war criminal and police General Sreten Lukic on its slate, "Vesti" reported. Mihajlovic stressed that Lukic "was a hero in the antiterrorist struggle" in Kosova and helped carry out subsequent "reforms" in the police force. Mihajlovic added that he would have also included a second indicted war criminal, General Vladimir Lazarevic, had the latter not been in poor health. Lukic is the fourth indicted war criminal to feature on a Serbian election slate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 4 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 9 May and 3 October 2003). PM

SERBIAN PRIME MINISTER SUGGESTS HAGUE PROSECUTOR IS HELPING EXTREMISTS
Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic said in Nis on 5 December that Carla Del Ponte, who is the chief prosecutor at the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, is actively helping the election campaigns of indicted war criminal and former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) and of indicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj's Serbian Radical Party (SRS) through her recent public statements aimed at pressuring the Serbian government to support the tribunal, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Zivkovic added that he is not sure whether Del Ponte is helping the two parties on her own or because she has reached a deal with them, but argued that what she is doing is "very clear." PM

MYSTERIOUS GUNFIRE IN SOUTHERN SERBIA
Serbian police said in a statement on 8 December that unidentified gunmen fired tens of shots the previous day from an automatic weapon at a Serbian police checkpoint in Konculj near Bujanovac, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported from Belgrade. No one was injured in the incident, which has not been confirmed by independent sources. Local Albanians have previously accused the Serbian security forces of inventing or staging incidents to justify a huge security presence in the area. Some observers suggested that there might be additional Serbian police reports of violence in the Presevo region in the run-up to the 28 December Serbian elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 September 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 24 August 2003). PM

NEW OPPOSITION COALITION FORMED IN MACEDONIA
On 6 December, the small Democratic Alternative headed by former Foreign Minister Vasil Tupurkovski, the Democratic Union of former Interior Minister Pavle Trajanov, and the Socialist Party (SPM) formed a coalition called the Third Path, "Dnevnik" reported. Of these parties, only the SPM is represented in parliament, namely by its chairman, Ljubislav Ivanov-Dzingo. The new coalition pledges to combat corruption, speed up democratization, and attract foreign investment. UB

WILL CROATIA HAVE A GOVERNMENT BEFORE CHRISTMAS?
Ivo Sanader, whose Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) won the country's recent general elections, said after meeting with President Stipe Mesic in Zagreb on 8 December that the new parliament will meet for the first time on 22-23 December, at which time Sanader will present his cabinet, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 December 2003). On 9 December, Mesic named Sanader the prime-minister designate. PM

BALKAN STATES SIGN ENERGY-DEREGULATION AGREEMENT
Representatives of seven Balkan countries agreed in Athens on 8 December to begin deregulating their energy markets in mid-2004 and to allow mutual access to utilities infrastructure, AP reported. The agreement was signed by ministers from Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, and Turkey and is based on an EU model that allows competition in those state-dominated and highly regulated markets. European Energy Commissioner Loyola de Palacio called the step "momentous" and said EU member governments will soon begin discussing plans to link the Balkan energy grid with the main EU grid as a result. MS

EU EXPECTED TO CLARIFY ACCESSION DATES FOR ROMANIA, BULGARIA
European Union foreign ministers on 8 December approved a draft document containing more specific accession prospects for Romania and Bulgaria, an RFE/RL correspondent in Brussels and AFP reported. The ministers agreed on a text saying, "Over the past years, these countries have significantly brought forward their preparations for membership, which is reflected in the well-advanced state of their accession negotiations." Previous EU documents only expressed the hope that the two countries would be able to join in 2007. While the new text is still conditional, it states "welcoming Bulgaria and Romania in January 2007 as members of the union, if they are ready, is the common objective of the 25 [EU members after the expected May 2004 expansion]." At the same time, the foreign ministers encouraged, "Bulgaria and Romania to continue on the path of economic and structural reforms in order to take full advantage of the benefits offered by the accession process." MS

ROMANIAN OPPOSITION ALLIANCE RENEWS REGISTRATION PROCESS
Following the 5 December decision of the Bucharest Court of Appeals to reject the registration of the Truth and Justice opposition alliance under the initials "DA," the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Democratic Party decided on 8 December to reapply for registration using the initials "D.A." PNL-PD, Mediafax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2003). The two parties also have decided to notify the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg of the Romanian court's decision and begin the procedure for appealing it before the ECHR. MS

FORMER ROMANIAN AGRICULTURE MINISTER CHARGED WITH 'DEFLECTION OF FUNDS'
The National Anticorruption Prosecution (PNA) on 5 December announced it is charging former Agriculture Minister Ioan Muresan with "deflection of funds," Mediafax reported. The charges were changed from the previous indictment of corruption and "abuse of office." Muresan said after leaving the PNA Bucharest offices that he denies the charges, according to which he has channeled to a company in Cyprus some $8.5 million in aid granted by U.S. authorities for the privatization of two state-owned companies. Muresan said the funds were paid to the Cyprus company for consultation services (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 July, 20, and 26 November 2003). MS

MOLDOVAN POLITICIAN SAYS MISSILES OUTFITTED WITH 'DIRTY BOMB' MISSING FROM TRANSDNIESTER DEPOTS
Oazu Nantoi, chairman of the opposition Social Democratic Party, was quoted by AP on 9 December as saying dozens of missiles outfitted with warheads that can scatter radioactivity on impact appear to have gone missing after years of storage in Transdniester. "The Washington Post" also published a report on the missing missiles on 7 December. Nantoi, who is also a political analyst at the nongovernmental Institute for Policy Studies in Chisinau, said he has seen photocopies of documents produced by Russian military officials stating that the warheads -- modified into "dirty bombs" -- were stored at the Russian military depot in Kolbasna, near Tiraspol. He said the "dirty bombs" were apparently Alazan rockets, which were used in the former Soviet Union for weather experiments, fitted with warheads modified to carry radioactive materials. "The Washington Post" report said experts do not rule out the possibility that international terrorist organizations might have purchased the "dirty bombs." AP quoted OSCE spokesman Claus Neukirch as saying he is familiar with the reports and that OSCE military experts are investigating. MS

MOLDOVAN CAIC PROTESTS ACTIVISTS' 'PERSECUTION'
The Committee for the Defense of Independence and the Constitution (CAIC) dispatched a letter of protest to Moldovan leaders on 8 December while at the same time asking the OSCE and the European Council to intervene and ensure that basic human rights and liberties are respected in the country, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. The CAIC said in its protest that journalists and CAIC members have been visited by police, who called on them at night, charging them with participation in unauthorized demonstrations, such as last week's demonstration against censorship and the Teleradio Moldova management's political subservience to authorities. MS

CAIC NOT TO RUN UNIFIED IN 2005 PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
Our Moldova co-Chairman Dumitru Braghis said on 8 December that CAIC cannot transform itself into an electoral alliance ahead of the parliamentary elections slated for 2005, Flux reported. Braghis said the CAIC is likely to contest the 2005 ballots as two separate blocs, one representing center parties and the other rightist parties. MS

U.S. DIPLOMAT CRITICIZES BULGARIA OVER CRIME AND CORRUPTION
Speaking in Sofia on 8 December, U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria James Pardew said rule-of-law issues such as organized crime, corruption, and ineffective law enforcement, prosecutors, and courts "hinder investment and individual initiative," according to a press release on the U.S. Embassy website (http://www.usembassy.bg). "Today, organized crime dominates significant elements of the economy," Pardew's statement said. "Bulgaria presently interdicts more drugs and counterfeit money than any other country in Europe, but those responsible are never punished." He also commented on a recent wave of underworld-related killings: "This violence has produced no sustained arrests, much less court convictions. If this kind of violence continues, at some point innocent citizens are going to be injured" (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 September 2003). Pardew said the embassy will provide more than $9 million in assistance to law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges who are serious about bringing criminals to justice. UB

BULGARIA AND ITALY AGREE ON COOPERATION TO IMPROVE STATE ADMINISTRATION
On 8 December, State Administration Minister Dimitar Kalchev and Learco Saporito, the undersecretary in the Italian Department for Public Administration, signed a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in modernizing the Bulgarian state administration and improving the quality of the public services. UB

MACEDONIAN JOURNALISM: INDEPENDENT, BUT NOT NEUTRAL


In a lengthy interview with the Skopje bimonthly "Forum" of 21 November, Erol Rizaov, the editor in chief of the daily "Utrinski vesnik," talked about politics, freedom of speech, journalistic independence, and the economic situation of the media in Macedonia.

As an ethnic Turk, the 53-year-old Rizaov is one of the few prominent Macedonian journalists who speak Macedonian, Albanian, and Turkish. He began his career with the main state-owned daily "Nova Makedonija," where he worked for about 25 years before he joined "Utrinski vesnik."

As a long-term employee, Rizaov commented on the demise of the Nova Makedonija publishing house, which went into liquidation in October after a long agony and some failed attempts at privatization.

He believes the efforts to privatize the publishing house came too late and lacked a good strategy. Rizaov criticized the decision to privatize the company among the employees. Instead, he feels the management should have set up a holding consisting of the company's various departments, including its media outlets as well as the printing facilities and retail shops.

He also argued that the government of former Prime Minister Ljubco Georgievski launched "genocide" against the "Nova Makedonija" staff in 1998, when the management was replaced by persons close to Georgievski's Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE). Had this not been the case, Rizaov believes, "Nova Makedonija" could have survived even though the newspaper market is tight. It was also under Georgievski's government that the final effort to privatize the publishing house failed.

But economic difficulties were not a problem for "Nova Makedonija" alone. Its three major competitors -- the independent dailies "Dnevnik," "Utrinski vesnik," and "Vest" -- had problems, too. Their lack of capital prevented them from investing in modern equipment such as new printing machines. That is what finally drove those three dailies into the arms of the German WAZ media group, which bought them in July, Rizaov said.

He also defended the German media giant against allegations that a monopoly might be created -- and abused -- in Macedonia, saying WAZ was the first media group to ratify the OSCE's guidelines for editorial independence. "[Backed by] WAZ, you can have high-quality printing, distribute your publications easily, and raise journalistic standards," Rizaov noted.

Such standards are currently very low in Macedonia, Rizaov conceded. He finds it rather strange that a small country of 2 million inhabitants has hundreds of radio and TV stations, and dozens of daily and weekly newspapers in all of its major languages., Rizaov said, however, that this quantity is not reflected in a corresponding high degree of quality. "Poor quality, vulgarity, tastelessness, and primitivism abound," he complained.

Although he noted that there are some independent media, he added that in some cases independence is not necessarily linked to neutrality. "Macedonia has no neutral newspapers. All take...sides," Rizaov noted. He believes there should be more neutral reporting, as it is not only important what is reported but also how it is reported. "We have independent, but not neutral journalism."

For him, a major problem in Macedonia is the persistence of ethnic stereotypes and prejudices in the media of the different ethnic groups. "If you know Turkish, Albanian, and Macedonian...and if you read the newspapers in those languages, you will see huge differences in the reports and analyses," Rizaov said.

In his view, journalistic standards in all media outlets could be raised if the national TV station, MTV, became a trailblazer for such standards. To do so, MTV would have to shed its business interests and adopt the BBC's journalistic standards. Such professionalism could serve as a positive example for the other media.

The government could also play a positive role in raising journalistic standards, Rizaov believes. In his opinion, the government should adopt laws that ensure public access to information. He criticized the government for instead adopting a draft change to the Penal Code, raising fines for libel.

The Association of Journalists of Macedonia (ZNM) wants the government to follow the Council of Europe's recommendation and remove libel and slander from the Penal Code altogether. In some postcommunist countries -- including Croatia, Serbia, Albania, and Macedonia -- critical journalists are often sued for libel or slander and given stiff fines, which the Council of Europe has identified as a major obstacle to the freedom of the media.

An "Utrinski vesnik" journalist, Sonja Kramarska, was successfully sued for libel recently by former parliamentary speaker Stojan Andov. Rizaov termed this a classic case of abuse of the courts, arguing that Kramarska was in fact fined for her use of irony.

UN HEAD BACKS PLANS FOR SECOND BONN CONFERENCE ON FUTURE AFGHAN SUPPORT
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan backed emerging plans for a second international conference on Afghanistan to be held in Bonn, Germany, DPA reported on 8 December. In an annual report on Afghanistan to the UN General Assembly, Annan said a follow-up Bonn meeting would underscore Afghanistan's continued need for financial support from donor countries. "The conference should therefore serve to regenerate the political and financial support necessary for a full political and economic transition, as envisaged by the Bonn agreement," Annan said, referring to the initial meeting in December 2001 that shaped Afghanistan's sitting interim government. Annan's report reviewed progress toward the Bonn agreement in 2003. It said security in Afghanistan is still a "major concern" in light of terrorist activities conducted by neo-Taliban forces, remnants of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, and followers of renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The report also called for increased security measures to protect reconstruction efforts. MR

UN CALLS FOR INVESTIGATION OF CIVILIAN CASUALTIES IN AFGHANISTAN
The senior UN official in Afghanistan, Lakhdar Brahimi, has appealed for an investigation of the recent U.S. air strike that killed nine children (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2003), the "Los Angeles Times" reported on 8 December. "This incident, which follows similar incidents, adds to the sense of insecurity and fear in the country," said a statement issued in Kabul by Brahimi. Brahimi said he is "profoundly distressed" by the deaths and called on the U.S. military to make the results of any investigation public. "The protection of civilians is an obligation that must be observed by all," Brahimi said. The U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, said the 6 December air strike also killed the man being targeted, former Taliban commander Mullah Wazir. Afghan officials have claimed that Wazir escaped. A U.S. military spokesman at Bagram Air Base, north of Kabul, said Wazir's body was discovered near the attack site in Ghazni Province, 80 miles southwest of Kabul. But Jawaid Khan, a spokesman for the governor of Ghazni, said: "The Americans wanted to bomb Mullah Wazir, but they bombed a different house." Secretary-General Annan meanwhile voiced concern over the 6 December incident. "The fight against terrorism cannot be won at the expense of innocent lives," Annan spokesman Fred Eckhard said, according to AP. MR

U.S. RENEWS ATTACKS IN SOUTHERN, EASTERN AFGHANISTAN
The U.S. military has opened its biggest offensive against neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan since 2001, AP reported on 8 December, with 2,000 soldiers fanning out across southern and eastern areas of the country. U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty said the assault, called Operation Avalanche, "is the largest we have ever designed." Hilferty said the enemy "isn't going to know when we hit, he isn't going to know what we're doing." Hilferty said some Afghan National Army and militia forces are taking part in the operation but offered no details about when it started or what provinces are slated for attacks. MR

AFGHAN, PAKISTANI, AND TURKMEN OFFICIALS CONTINUE GAS-PIPELINE PLANNING
Oil ministers from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan continued talks on 8 December concerning a planned gas pipeline that would stretch through those three countries, Xinhua news agency reported the same day. The meetings in Islamabad, Pakistan, marked the seventh session of the steering committee for the initiative, called the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) project. Pakistani Minister for Petroleum and Natural Resources Nouraiz Shakoor opened the two-day meeting by renewing Pakistan's commitment to the project, which is expected to break ground in the early months of 2004. Representatives from the Asian Development Bank were also on hand for the Islamabad talks. The bank has already granted $1 million in funds for a technical feasibility study and remains a leading partner in the venture. The project calls for 1,600 kilometers of gas pipeline at a cost of roughly $2.5 billion. As planned, the pipeline would stretch from the Daulatabad gas fields in southeastern Turkmenistan across Afghanistan and into Pakistan, carrying up to 30 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually. MR

UN'S AFGHAN ENVOY MEETS WITH IRANIAN DIPLOMAT
Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Mohsen Aminzadeh met on 8 December in Kabul with UN Special Envoy to Afghanistan Brahimi, IRNA reported. Brahimi called for Iranian assistance in Afghanistan's upcoming Constitutional Loya Jirga. The two officials also discussed the drafting of the Afghan Constitution, the Afghan presidential election that is planned for June, and events in Afghanistan. Aminzadeh, who arrived in Kabul on 6 December, met in previous days with Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, Defense Minister Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, and National Security Council chief Zalmay Rasul. BS

IRANIAN DIPLOMAT MEETS WITH AFGHAN GOVERNOR
Aminzadeh arrived in the western Afghan city of Herat on 9 December and met with Herat Province Governor Islami Khan, IRNA reported. The two men discussed bilateral relations and the need to accelerate reconstruction activities. Aminzadeh also visited some of the projects in which Iran is involved, including a medical center, a power-distribution facility, and the Herat-Dogharun road. Aminzadeh departed for Iran following the meeting. BS

EUROPEAN TOURISTS KIDNAPPED IN SOUTHEASTERN IRAN
Qolam Reza Javdan, security chief in the Sistan va Baluchistan Province Governor-General's Office, said on 9 December that an unidentified individual has demanded a ransom of 5 million euros ($6.1 million) for three Europeans who were kidnapped the previous day, IRNA reported. Javdan said nothing is known about the kidnappers but the security institutions are on the case. The previous day, Iranian state radio reported that two Germans and an Irishman who were cycling from Kerman to Zahedan had been kidnapped. Similar cases occurred four years ago, with the kidnapping of three Italians in June; three Spaniards, an Italian, and an Iranian guide in August; and three Portuguese nationals in September (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 June, 6 September, and 1 November 1999). The first two cases were linked to the Shahbakhsh gang's attempt to secure the freedom of some of its members, while the other was connected with the Narui gang of drug traffickers. The hostages were freed unharmed in all those cases, but investigations were hampered by competition and a lack of coordination between police and the Ministry of Intelligence and Security. BS

ATTACK ON IRANIAN PARLIAMENTARIAN CAUSES OUTRAGE
Nasser Qavami, who heads the legislature's Legal and Judicial Committee, said in a 9 December speech that there should be a closed parliamentary session to discuss the phenomenon of hard-line vigilante attacks, ISNA reported. Qavami noted that the vigilantes' attacks on legal gatherings and on prominent personalities are organized and have been continuing for five years. Turning to the 5 December assault on parliamentarian Mohsen Mirdamadi during his speech at Yazd University, Qavami asked, "Do you mean the president and all his security apparatus in the Interior Ministry and Intelligence Ministry still do not know which organs or powerful figure are behind these groups who launch the attacks?" He continued: "If they know, why are they not letting the public realize and expose the powerful figures behind them? And if they do not know, it is regrettable." Yazd Province Governor-General Hamid Kalantari said on 8 December that the judiciary, police, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), and the Basij are determined to confront the attackers, IRNA reported. Provincial police reportedly arrested a number of the attackers on 6 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2003). Friday prayer leader Hojatoleslam Mohammad Ali Saduqi said on 8 December that the IRGC must arrest two of the assailants who remain at large, IRNA reported. BS

JAPAN APPROVES TROOP DISPATCH TO IRAQ
The Japanese cabinet on 9 December approved a plan to dispatch noncombat troops to Iraq, international media reported. The troops reportedly will be stationed in the southeastern Iraqi province of Al-Muthanna, and will provide medical and water services, and work to rebuild schools, AFP reported. According to the Japanese news service Jiji Press, Japanese Self-Defense Forces are granted a one-year mandate in Iraq until 15 December 2004. Some 600 ground troops will participate in the deployment. Jiji cites Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba as saying on 9 December that the Defense Ministry will draw up a detailed plan for the troops' activities in Iraq before the deployment goes into effect next week. The troops are expected to leave for Iraq early in 2004. KR

BOMB DETONATES INSIDE SUNNI MOSQUE...
A bomb was apparently detonated inside a Sunni mosque in Baghdad on 9 December, Reuters reported. U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Frank German told reporters that the explosion occurred shortly after dawn, and appears to have come from inside the Ahbab Al-Mustafa mosque in central Baghdad. "When we arrived the flames had been extinguished, and we set up a security zone and began the investigations," German said. "As far as we can tell there was an internal explosion inside the mosque." One witness told Reuters he heard more than one explosion, and local residents claimed several people had died. Reuters subsequently reported that three people had been killed in the blast. KR

...AND CAR BOMB TARGETS U.S. BARRACKS NEAR MOSUL
A military base used by the 3rd brigade of the 101st Airborne Division was the target of a car bomb on 9 December, international media reported. According to AP, a car approached the gate of the base, which is located in the town of Tal Afar, some 48 kilometers west of Mosul. Guards opened fire on the vehicle and it blew up, Spokesman Major Trey Cate said. "The vehicle did not stop, so soldiers fired on it. It then detonated," Reuters quoted Cate as saying. Forty-one soldiers were injured in the incident, mostly by flying glass and debris. None of the injuries are life-threatening. KR

IRAQI GOVERNING COUNCIL NAMES NEW MEMBER
AP reported on 9 December that the Iraqi Governing Council has chosen an Iraqi Shi'ite professor to replace Aqilah al-Hashimi, who was gunned down outside her home in September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 September 2003). Salama al-Khafaji, a professor of dentistry at Baghdad University, was picked by the Shi'ite members of the Governing Council to replace al-Hashimi, according to Adil Abd al-Mahdi of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). al-Khafaji is reportedly not affiliated with any political party and, according to alsabaah.com, she was one of four candidates for the position. KR

U.K.-SPONSORED CONFERENCE ON IRAQ OPENS IN JORDAN
A U.K.-sponsored conference on Iraqi reconstruction and the business environment in Iraq opens in Amman today, according to the British Department of International Development (http://www.dfid.gov.uk). The two-day conference is aimed at Jordanian and British companies seeking to do business in Iraq. U.K. Trade and Investment, the Confederation of British Industry, and the British Consultants and Contractors Bureau are conference sponsors. Senior British and Iraqi officials, as well as Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) representatives are expected to attend, dpa reported on 9 December. KR

UN SECURITY COUNCIL MEMBERS WANT IRAQ SURVEY-GROUP REPORT ON WMD
Members of the United Nations Security Council criticized the United States on 8 December for refusing to provide copies of a report by U.S. weapons inspectors, Reuters reported on the same day. The report by the Iraq survey group (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 9 October 2003) details the three-month findings of U.S. weapons inspectors in Iraq. UN inspectors withdrew from Iraq in March prior to the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom and have not been allowed by the United States to resume full-scale inspections in the country. UN inspectors were instead replaced by the U.S.-established Iraq Survey Group. Around a dozen countries meeting in an 8 December closed-door Security Council session to review a recent quarterly report by the UN Monitoring Verification and Inspections Commission (UNMOVIC) said the expertise of UN inspectors was being wasted after nearly 12 years of inspections in Iraq, Reuters reported. U.S. representative Josiah Rosenblatt reportedly responded to UN member states' requests for the report by saying that the United States was willing to share classified information "at an appropriate time," Reuters reported, quoting diplomats. KR

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