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Newsline - December 12, 2003


TOP OFFICIALS DEFEND CONSTITUTION...
Constitutional Court Chairman Valerii Zorkin said on 11 December that Russia's constitution provides "a basis for the country's development" and that it "is important to use its potential," ITAR-TASS reported. Speaking at a conference marking the 10th anniversary of the constitution's adoption, Zorkin recommended against amending the document, stating that any "global" changes would be a "shock for society." "The constitution should be changed where this is absolutely unavoidable," Zorkin said. "Is the country ready to change it to the point where it becomes a new constitution and where this results in the formation of a new power structure?" Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov said the constitution has not "exhausted its potential" and "should not be changed for now," even "with good intentions." The comments by Zorkin and Mironov came amid speculation that President Vladimir Putin could employee a possible two-thirds pro-Kremlin majority in the new State Duma to amend the constitution, possibly to extend his time in office. Putin has ruled out constitutional changes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2003). JB

...WHILE MOST PEOPLE CAN'T REMEMBER ITS PASSAGE
A poll conducted VTsIOM-A to coincide with the Constitution Day holiday found that 60 percent of those surveyed did not remember that the constitution was passed in a national referendum on 12 December 1993, and that 21 percent know nothing at all about the constitution, newsru.com reported on 12 December. Forty-two percent of those polled said the constitution "plays no special role, inasmuch as no one takes it into consideration." Only 30 percent said the constitution guarantees the rights and freedoms of Russian citizens and supports order in the country, while 11 percent said the constitution was a way for former President Boris Yeltsin to ensure he would have an obedient parliament. JB

PUTIN BIDS DUMA LEADERS FAREWELL
President Putin held a farewell meeting in the Kremlin on 11 December with the outgoing State Duma's faction leaders, ORT reported. Putin thanked them for their "efficient and professional activities" and their contributions toward the creation of a "state of stability" in the country. The third Duma, he said, achieved "a sort of breakthrough...in the development of Russian legislation." Still, Putin said the country had not been able to "surmount some problems" and that this was the fault of both the parliament -- because of "a certain state of chaos in the legislative process" -- and the executive branch, which "has not submitted necessary drafts on time and maybe it has not been quick enough to react to remarks made by the deputies." The newly elected Duma "should take this into account," Putin said. JB

POLICE RELEASE SKETCH OF BOMBING SUSPECT, SUGGEST INTERNATIONAL LINK...
Police investigating the 5 December explosion near the National Hotel in downtown Moscow have published a composite sketch of a woman whom they believe was an accomplice of the suicide bomber responsible for the attack, Russian media reported on 11 December. Federal Security Service (FSB) spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko said on 11 December that there are similarities between the Moscow explosion and recent bombings in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which have been blamed on Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network, gazeta.ru reported. "According to our assessment, these incidents have a common root, logic, and financial base," Ignatchenko said. Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov also accused the attackers of having links to international terrorist groups. "The only answer can be to intensify the war on terror and widen international cooperation in the war on terror," Ivanov told a news conference on 11 December during a visit to Berlin. BW

...AS 1999 APARTMENT-BOMB VICTIMS CALL FOR REINTRODUCTION OF DEATH PENALTY
Relatives of victims of the 1999 apartment-building bombings that terrorized Russia and were used by the Kremlin as a pretext to reinvade Chechnya plan to petition the State Duma to restore the death penalty, RIA-Novosti reported on 11 December. "The victims demand that the perpetrators of the terrorist acts, which claimed the lives of many people, should be shot," Igor Trunov, a lawyer for the victims of the 1999 blasts in Moscow and Volgodonsk said The Kremlin blamed the bombings on Chechen extremists, although some -- including exiled businessman Boris Berezovskii -- have accused Russia's security services of masterminding the explosions. Since 3 October, Adam Dekkushev and Yusuf Krymshmkhalov have been on trial in a Moscow court, charged with carrying out two of the blasts. BW

FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS RUSSIA TO PROTECT INTERESTS IN WTO TALKS
Although joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) remains one of Moscow's strategic goals, Russia is not willing to pay too high a price for membership, Foreign Minister Ivanov said on 11 December, Interfax reported. "We are not foregoing our strategic goal of joining the WTO, but not on terms that would damage our interests," Ivanov told a group of business and political leaders in Munich, echoing similar recent remarks by President Putin and presidential economic adviser Andrei Illarionov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 2003). Ivanov added that the European Union has included in negotiations for Russia joining the trade body "numerous issues as conditions for Russia's joining the WTO that are unduly harsh and outside the scope of the WTO," including fuel and gas prices. "While we are partners, we are also competitors in various fields and this is a normal situation," Ivanov said, adding that the negotiations will continue and "the situation need not be over-dramatized." BW

RUSSIA CALLS FOR MORE TALKS ON KYOTO ACCORD
Russia has called for more talks about technical and legal aspects of the Kyoto Protocol and warned that the outcome will determine whether it pushes ahead with ratification by the Russian parliament, Russian and international media reported on 11 December. The Kyoto Protocol was signed in 1997 and is intended to reduce emissions of the gases believed to cause global warming. "It's vital, we think, to continue negotiations," said Aleksandr Bedritskii, head of the Russian delegation negotiating the treaty. Moscow has been sending mixed signals recently about when or even if it will ratify the treaty, hinting it hopes to wring further concessions from the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 2003). BW

MOTHERLAND WILL PROBABLY BACK PUTIN'S RE-ELECTION
Motherland-Patriotic Union co-leader Dmitrii Rogozin reiterated on 11 December that the bloc will not put forward its own presidential candidate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 December 2003), Russian media reported. "My point of view is this: we in Motherland do not have a candidate who could compete with President Vladimir Putin," Rogozin told Interfax. At the same time, he said a significant number of people in the bloc "openly sympathize with Putin and have no plans to back any other candidate, even if he is rather strong." On 10 December, Rogozin said that if it were up to him, Motherland-Patriotic Union would back Putin's likely re-election bid. In his Interfax interview, Rogozin said that while Motherland-Patriotic Union does not like the current government's economic course, Putin "has done much to strengthen Russia's statehood, its security, and its prestige abroad." Rogozin said his bloc will concentrate on putting forward candidates for a new cabinet. Another leading Motherland member, Sergei Baburin, said the bloc should endorse Putin, given that he is carrying out many of Motherland's policies. JB

COMMUNIST LEADER REPORTEDLY READY TO FACE THE MUSIC
Gennadii Zyuganov has already reconciled himself to resigning as leader of the Communist Party, RBK reported on 11 December. Citing a source close to the party's leadership, the news agency reported that a party congress scheduled for 12 December has been postponed until the end of December or the beginning of January and that Zyuganov is using the "time out" to choose a successor. The sources said that if Zyuganov is unable to choose one or if his choice is challenged, the party could split, with its regional network under the leadership of Gennadii Semigin defecting to the Motherland-Patriotic Union bloc. The source said there is no obvious candidate to succeed Zyuganov, RBK reported. JB

TSIK CHAIRMAN SAYS THERE WERE NO COMPLAINTS...
Central Election Commission (TsIK) Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov said on 11 December that no complaints have been lodged with his commission concerning the 7 December State Duma elections, Prime-TASS reported. Speaking during the final session of the outgoing State Duma, Veshnyakov said that any "speculation" about vote rigging was groundless. He dismissed charges by Communist Party leader Zyuganov that local election commissions refused to provide Communist Party representatives with vote-count protocols from polling stations. "I would advise Zyuganov to work more efficiently," Veshnyakov said. The Communist Party is conducting its own parallel vote count (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2003). According to Prime-TASS, the official results from the 7 December election will be announced on 17-18 December. JB

...AS YABLOKO LODGES A BIG ONE
Yabloko deputy head Sergei Mitrokhin filed a complaint with the TsIK on 11 December concerning the results of the race for the State Duma seat representing Moscow's Babushkinskii Raion, in which Unified Russia candidate Sergei Shirokov was declared the winner, newsru.com reported. Yabloko alleged in a press release that there were serious violations in the vote count in the district, as well as in the capital's Yaroslavskii and Butyrskii raions. Yabloko also claimed to have evidence that vote counts in other districts were manipulated to benefit Unified Russia. The Yabloko press release alleges that ballots that had been cast were transported from voting stations to the territorial election commission in an "unpacked form," that vote-count protocols were improperly filled out, and that unused ballots were not properly accounted for. "Yabloko believes that the election results were falsified and must be nullified, after which a new election should be scheduled," the press release states, adding that the party will go to court if the TsIK rejects its complaint, newsru.com reported. JB

GORBACHEV CALLS FOR ROYAL FAMILY'S FORMAL REHABILITATION
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev has called for Tsar Nicholas II and his family, who were executed by Soviet authorities in 1918, to be rehabilitated, Interfax reported on 11 December. "I think we should do this now, when Russia marks the 10th anniversary of its constitution and the world marks the 55th anniversary of the signing of the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms," Gorbachev said. "This would be a highly moral act in full compliance with our legislation," he added. Gorbachev also praised a decision by the Archiepiscopal Assembly of the Russian Orthodox Church to canonize the royal family in August 2000, making them martyrs and confessors. BW

PUTIN ADVISER SAYS MERGER OF CHECHNYA, INGUSHETIA 'EXPEDIENT'
Speaking in Rostov-na-Donu on 9 December, Aslanbek Aslakhanov, who is President Putin's adviser on Chechen affairs, said he considers "possible and expedient" the creation of a single federation subject by combining Chechnya and Ingushetia, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 11 December. Pro-Moscow Chechen leader Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov first advocated such a merger shortly after his election in October. At that time, Aslakhanov expressed doubts whether Ingushetia would agree to such a merger, and Ingush President Murat Zyazikov said that a merger is unnecessary and not economically viable (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 October 2003). Zyazikov's predecessor, Ruslan Aushev, said in October he believes the idea originated in the Kremlin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 October 2003). "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 11 December quoted Aushev as saying the population of the two republics would reject a merger, and it would only exacerbate tensions in the North Caucasus. A Russian political scientist told the same paper that the Kremlin might push for such a merger if and when it decides to withdraw support for Kadyrov, who is lobbying for the right to retain all taxes raised in Chechnya together with profits from the republic's oil sector. In referendums on 7 December, the electorates of Perm Oblast and the Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug approved a proposed merger of those two entities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2003). LF

ARMENIAN GOVERNMENT PROPOSES AMENDING LAW ON POLITICAL PARTIES
At an 11 December government session, it was proposed to amend the new law on political parties to help parties that have been denied reregistration reapply for registration once they have amended their statutes to comply with the laws, Noyan Tapan reported. The amendments also stipulate that those parties that either fail to apply for reregistration or are denied it twice must be dissolved. Deputy Justice Minister Tigran Mukuchian told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 8 December that the original law did not specify that parties that are denied reregistration must disband. He noted that 50 of the 116 registered political parties have not applied for reregistration, and that of those that have done so, 45 have been reregistered and eight denied reregistration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 November and 1 December 2003). LF

ARMENIAN NUCLEAR-POWER PLANT SEEKS TO RAISE ELECTRICITY PRICES
The management of Armenia's Medzamor nuclear-power plant has asked the government's Commission on the Regulation of National Monopolies to approve an increase in tariffs charged for electricity generated by the plant from 7 to 12.8 drams ($0.02) per kilowatt-hour, plant Executive Director Gagik Markosian told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 11 December. Markosian argued that the plant needs additional funds to finance enhanced safety standards and to offset an anticipated increase in the cost of nuclear fuel, which the plant imports from Russia. He added that the increase in tariffs, if approved, would not necessarily push up retail prices paid by consumers of electricity. LF

ARMENIAN, AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENTS MEET
Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev met for 90 minutes in Geneva on 11 December on the sidelines of the World Information Summit to discuss the Karabakh conflict, Western media reported. The two presidents subsequently told journalists that their talks amounted to a frank exchange of views. Armenian Public Television quoted Kocharian as saying that he and Aliyev "analyzed the new situation," but did not discuss specific peace proposals. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev told journalists that the purpose of the meeting was to enable the two leaders "to get to know each other," according to AP as cited by Groong. Guliev said that earlier talks between Kocharian and Aliyev's father and predecessor as president, Heidar Aliyev, had yielded some progress toward resolving the conflict, but that no written agreements were ever concluded between the two, and that "we do not exclude starting from scratch." Guliev's Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian said in an interview published on 11 December in the Yerevan daily "Haykakan zhamanak" that "we expect...positive signals from Azerbaijan's president to continue negotiations on the existing basis," which would make it possible to reach a solution to the conflict next year, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

AZERBAIJANI COURT SENTENCES VOLUNTEERS FOR CHECHEN CAUSE
After a two-month trial, Azerbaijan's Court for Serious War Crimes passed sentence on four young men, including one citizen of Algeria and one of Mauritania, who under the guise of engaging in humanitarian activity recruited volunteers to fight with the Chechen resistance, Turan reported on 12 December. The two Arabs were sentenced on 11 December to nine years' imprisonment, while two Azerbaijanis found guilty of undergoing military training at a camp in neighboring Georgia were each jailed for three years. LF

ABKHAZ PRESIDENT SAYS HE IS NOT TOO ILL TO GOVERN
Vladislav Ardzinba has told journalists in Sukhum that his illness does not prevent him from addressing the problems facing his unrecognized republic or from taking decisions, Caucasus Press reported on 11 December. Ardzinba has undergone several lengthy periods of treatment over the past few years for an unknown disease (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 12 October 2001, 31 January 2002, and 3 July 2003). The opposition public movement Amtsakhara last month raised in parliament the question of devising a legal procedure to pressure Ardzinba to step down before the expiry of his second presidential term in October 2004 because of his physical incapacitation. LF

WORKING GROUP FORMED IN KAZAKHSTAN TO PREPARE PRISON MONITORING
A joint working group of Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry and the international NGO International Prison Reform held its first meeting on 11 December to begin preparations for public monitoring of the country's prisons and labor colonies, khabar.kz reported. The project, which is receiving financial support from the British Foreign Office, is intended to put a stop to the torture and mistreatment of convicts by giving experts from international and domestic human rights organizations access to detention facilities. The working group noted that in order to introduce the monitoring system existing legislation on the penal system will need to be changed and exactly who may engage in prison monitoring will need to be determined. BB

RUSSIAN PAPERS ATTACK KYRGYZ BAN ON FOREIGN MEDIA IN ELECTION CAMPAIGNS
The local editors of four major Russian-language newspapers in Kyrgyzstan said on 11 December in Bishkek that the recently adopted prohibition on foreign-owned media participating in Kyrgyz election campaigns was an anti-Russian act aimed specifically at the Russian media, akipress.org reported. The prohibition, which was proposed by the Central Election Commission (CEC), was adopted by the parliament on 9 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 December 2003). The editors of the four publications -- Argumenty i fakty-Kyrgyzstan," "Moskovskii komsomolets v Kyrgyzstane," "Komsomolskaya pravda v Kyrgyzstane," and "Rossiiskaya gazeta" -- said the new law gives Kyrgyz bureaucrats the right to excise from Russian newspapers or television broadcasts any material concerning politics in Kyrgyzstan. CEC Chairman Sulaiman Imanbaev told the parliament that foreign media will not be forbidden to report on election campaigns, but they will not be allowed to carry campaign materials for specific candidates or parties. BB

UZBEK AUTHORITIES APOLOGIZE FOR INCURSION INTO KYRGYZSTAN
Uzbek law enforcement authorities from Namangan Oblast apologized to their Kyrgyz colleagues in neighboring Djalal-Abad Oblast, thereby defusing a potentially unpleasant border incident that began when five Uzbek police officers and a prosecutor illegally crossed the Kyrgyz border to arrest a Kyrgyz citizen on 10 December, akipress.org reported on 11 December. The Uzbek officers forced the Kyrgyz into their car, but were chased to the border by the detainee's fellow villagers, who freed him and handed the Uzbeks over to the Kyrgyz police. Kyrgyz law enforcement officials said the man who had been seized by the Uzbeks was not involved in any criminal activity. The Djalal-Abad Oblast administration reported that the Uzbek side apologized for the incident and took the six captured officers away. BB

2010 TARGET DATE SET FOR TRANS-AFGHAN PIPELINE
Turkmen Deputy Prime Minister Yolly Gurbanmuradov, Pakistani Oil Minister Noriaz Shakur, and Afghan Mining and Energy Minister Mehfuz Nidai met in Islamabad on 9-10 December for their seventh session on the proposed Trans-Afghan pipeline, announcing after the meeting that they had agreed the pipeline will be completed by 2010, RIA-Novosti reported on 11 December. The three officials also chose the route for the pipeline -- from the Turkmen gas field at Dauletabad via Herat and Kandahar to Quetta and the Pakistani port of Multan. Financing for the $3.5 billion pipeline has not yet been determined, however, and the three countries promoting the project lack the necessary resources. Foreign investors have been reluctant to become involved in the project because of the security situation in Afghanistan. BB

TURKMEN FOREIGN MINISTRY DEMANDS HANDOVER OF EXILES
Turkmenistan's Foreign Ministry has accused countries harboring members of the Turkmen opposition-in-exile of double standards in the struggle against terrorism and demanded that the exiles be handed over, turkmenistan.ru and RIA-Novosti reported on 11 December. The ministry described as "especially dangerous criminals" former Foreign Minister Avdy Kuliev, who has lived in exile in Moscow for 10 years; former Ambassador to Turkey Nurmuhammed Hanamov; former Central Bank head Hudaiberdy Orazov; and former agricultural official Sapar Yklymov, alleging that all four were involved in the purported attempt to unseat or assassinate President Saparmurat Niyazov in November 2002, and that they committed various crimes while serving as government officials. The ministry's statement appears to be a belated response to the meeting of Turkmen exiles in Vienna in late November to coordinate their opposition to the Niyazov regime (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 November 2003). BB

NEW PRIME MINISTER NAMED IN UZBEKISTAN
On 11 December, the first day of its winter session, Uzbekistan's parliament confirmed President Islam Karimov's choice for the premiership, uza.uz, uzreport.com, and Russian media reported. The new Uzbek prime minister is Shavkat Mirziyoev, who has been governor of Karimov's native Samarkand Oblast since 2001. From 1996 to 2001, he served as governor of Jizzak Oblast. Karimov told the parliament that he had selected the 46-year-old Mirziyoev because of his experience in the agricultural sector, which needs particular attention because the development of the country's economy depends on it and 60 percent of the country's population lives in rural areas. Karimov added that the previous prime minister, Otkir Sultonov, who served in that post for eight years, is primarily an expert on industry, and his cabinet paid too little attention to agriculture. Sultonov was given the post of deputy prime minister responsible for engineering, metallurgy, oil and gas, electricity, the chemical industry, and mineral resources. BB

BELARUSIAN, RUSSIAN GAS COMPANIES SIGN DEAL ON DEBT RESTRUCTURING
Belarusian gas-supply monopolist Beltranshaz and Russia's Gazprom have signed an agreement pursuant to restructuring outstanding Belarusian debts for Russian gas, Belapan reported on 11 December, quoting a source at the Belarusian Energy Ministry. Under the agreement, Beltranshaz will repay some $78 million over three years in regular installments that begin in January. The source said Minsk and Gazprom are currently discussing the payment by Belarus of some $56 million in penalties for overdue gas bills. JM

MINSK MULLING SIMPLER VISA FOR EU CITIZENS
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry is planning to simplify the procedure for issuing visas to EU citizens, Belapan reported on 11 December, quoting ministry spokesman Andrey Savinykh. Specifically, the ministry is considering allowing EU citizens to obtain Belarusian visas without a formal invitation to Belarus. Such a move by the Belarusian authorities would be evidence of their intention to establish good-neighborly relations with the West, Savinykh said. JM

UKRAINIAN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT SAYS PARLIAMENT MAY ELECT PRESIDENT IN 2004...
Ukraine's Constitutional Court ruled on 11 December that a clutch of constitutional amendments providing for the election of a president in 2004 by the Verkhovna Rada and a one-year extension of the term of the current parliament until 2007 is in line with the Ukrainian Constitution, Interfax reported. The bill, drafted by a group of deputies from pro-presidential caucuses, proposes that the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada elect the president in 2004 with a majority vote of 300 and that elections to parliament in 2007 be held on a proportional basis from party lists in a single, nationwide constituency. In November, the Constitutional Court ruled that a separate constitutional-reform bill, prepared by the presidential administration, also does not contravene the constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November 2003). That earlier bill proposes that a new parliament, elected for five years under a fully proportional party-list system in 2006, elect a president. Changes to the Ukrainian Constitution require 300 votes in the Verkhovna Rada. JM

...AND RULES ON PRESIDENTIAL IMMUNITY, IMPEACHMENT
Also on 11 December, the Constitutional Court announced its ruling on a request by a group lawmakers for judicial interpretations of constitutional provisions that deal with presidential immunity and impeachment, Interfax reported. The court said the president of Ukraine enjoys immunity from prosecution, meaning that no criminal proceedings may be instigated against the president during his or her term in office. The court also concluded that impeachment, which is essentially a non-judicial procedure, is the only way the Ukrainian president may be held accountable for misdeeds. JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT ABOLISHES SOVIET-ERA SYSTEM OF RESIDENCY PERMITS
The Verkhovna Rada on 11 December passed a law "on the freedom of movement and free choice of residence" to replace the Soviet-era system of residency permits (propiska) with a more liberal residence-registration system, Interfax reported. Under the new regime, individuals are obliged to register a change of residence within 10 days following their arrival at a new address, requiring the submission to an appropriate registration office of a written statement, a passport, tax documents, and a certificate showing that the previous registration has been canceled. JM

LATVIA EXTENDS PEACEKEEPING MISSION IN AFGHANISTAN
Parliament voted 78 to zero with 12 abstentions on 11 December to prolong the participation of Latvian armed forces in the UN International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan's German contingent, LETA reported. The Latvian vote was a response to a UN Security Council resolution, passed on 13 October, that prolonged the ISAF's mission in Afghanistan by 12 months. The cost, roughly 260,000 lats ($480,000) for each six-month rotation, is paid from the Defense Ministry budget and thus does not require additional funding from parliament. SG

LITHUANIAN PARLIAMENT PASSES 2004 BUDGET
Lawmakers approved the state budget for 2004 by a vote of 85 to 24 with five abstentions on 11 December, ELTA and BNS reported. The budget sets expenditures at 13.66 billion litas ($4.7 billion), or 26 percent more than in 2003, and revenues of 11.8 billion litas, an increase of 24 percent. It includes 1.58 billion litas in EU assistance and contributions to the EU of 440 million litas. A member of the Lithuanian central bank's board and vice president of the Lithuanian Free Market Institute, Ruta Vainiene, called the budget "conspiratorial," since "few taxpayers know what they are paying their money for." She also noted that the budget is based on an optimistic forecast of 6.2 percent economic growth in 2004. SG

LITHUANIAN PRESIDENT'S OPPONENTS GATHER REQUIRED SIGNATURES FOR IMPEACHMENT
Political opponents of embattled President Rolandas Paksas gathered the 36 parliamentary signatures required to launch impeachment proceedings within less than half an hour after the parliamentary caucus leaders formally approved the text on 11 December, "Kauno diena" reported the next day. The text, which differed only slightly from the draft version presented the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 December 2003), was eventually signed by 46 deputies on its first day. Additional signatures may be gathered until 16 December. The impeachment motion is expected to be registered with the parliamentary secretariat after Chairman Arturas Paulauskas signs it on 15 December. Liberal and Center Union caucus leader Eligijus Masiulis predicted that there will be more than 70 signatures by that afternoon. SG

POLISH PARLIAMENT CALLS ON GOVERNMENT TO STAND FIRM AT EU SUMMIT
The Sejm voted 375-14 with 13 abstentions to pass a resolution on 11 December calling on the government to defend the Treaty of Nice at the European Council meeting in Brussels on 12-13 December, Polish media reported. "The system of qualified voting in the European Union Council established by the Treaty of Nice of 11 December 2000 remains the best guarantee of implementing the principle of solidarity inside the European Union. The Sejm of the Polish Republic calls on the [Polish] Council of Ministers to defend this system effectively," the resolution reads. Polish Television reported the same day that Prime Minister Leszek Miller will lead the Polish delegation to the summit despite his injuries from a helicopter crash last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2003). "We are resolved to seek solutions that could be accepted by every state participating in the conference," Miller said of the upcoming summit. "We are open to every rational and substantive discussion, to every rational argument." JM

CZECH CABINET APPROVES NATIONAL-SECURITY STRATEGY
The three-party, center-left coalition approved a new national-security strategy on 10 December with an emphasis on NATO's central role and Czech readiness to participate in joint European foreign- and security-policy efforts, CTK reported the next day, citing government spokeswoman Anna Veverkova. The concept, drafted at the Foreign Ministry, stipulates that the use of force may be taken into consideration if and when all other means have failed and if such action is in line with NATO and EU commitments, as well as with the UN Charter. The document stipulates that the Czech Republic would be ready to participate in coercive action undertaken by the international community under a UN Security Council mandate with the purpose of preventing massive violations of human rights or genocide. The new strategy also states that the Czech government is prepared to "create conditions for the possibility of joining projects or systems that can provide antimissile protection" for the country, while emphasizing that this should not be interpreted as amounting to a priori agreement for the deployment of antimissile systems on Czech territory. MS

OUTGOING U.S. AMBASSADOR TWISTS CZECH ARM OVER FIGHTERS PURCHASE...
Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic Craig Stapleton warned on Czech Radio on 11 December that the Czech Republic will have difficulties in integrating into NATO structures if it purchases Swedish-made JAS-39 Gripen supersonic fighters, CTK reported. Stapleton also suggested the purchase of Swedish aircraft would negatively impact Czech-U.S. relations on both a political and military level. He said countries offering used U.S.-made F-16s should be granted a chance to sweeten their bids to compete with the Swedish offer. A Czech commission of experts recently recommended that the government accept the Swedish offer, basing its finding on technical and economic considerations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 December 2003). Despite that commission finding, Stapleton said it is unclear whether Gripens are compatible with NATO's defense system. "The Czech Republic is a member of NATO, and NATO does not fly Gripens," Stapleton said in a "Prague Post" interview published on 10 December. A senior executive for F-16 manufacturer Lockheed Martin urged publicly on 11 December that the Czechs reopen the bidding, according to CTK. The government has pledged to make its selection by the end of December. A U.S. Embassy source cited by CTK confirmed Czech media reports that U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell recently called Czech Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla to discuss the fighter tender, but added that the two politicians discussed other issues as well. MS

...PROMPTING CZECH, SWEDISH REACTIONS
Czech President Vaclav Klaus declined to comment directly on Ambassador Stapleton's statements, but he urged the government to make its decision soon in order to avoid further pressure from bidders, CTK reported. Defense Ministry spokesman Ladislav Sticha said reopening the tender would be a clear violation of tender rules. Swedish Ambassador to the Czech Republic Harald Faelth said his country will not respond in kind to the U.S. tactics, according to CTK. The Swedish military attache in Prague, Carl Herbertsson, said something is amiss when competitors in a tender threaten political or economic consequences. MS

CZECH LOWER HOUSE OVERRIDES PRESIDENTIAL VETOES
The Chamber of Deputies on 11 December overrode presidential vetoes on two public-finance-reform bills -- one aimed at increasing health-insurance obligations for the self-employed and the other at tightening welfare procedures -- CTK reported. The bills are part of a package of legislation aimed at reducing the budget deficit. One hundred and two of 193 deputies voted in favor of overriding the vetoes -- one more than the required absolute majority of 101. The additional vote came from a deputy representing the opposition Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia. President Klaus vetoed the bills last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2003). Meanwhile on 11 December, Klaus granted the first five pardons of his tenure as head of state. Critics, including Klaus, accused former President Vaclav Havel of being too liberal with pardons. Before his swearing in as president in March, Klaus vowed to grant pardons only sparingly. Klaus refused to disclose the identities of those pardoned or the nature of their cases, vowing to do so at a later date. MS

SLOVAK GOVERNMENT APPROVES AGREEMENT WITH HUNGARY ON STATUS LAW'S IMPLEMENTATION
The Slovak cabinet approved the text on 11 December of a recently negotiated agreement with neighboring Hungary on the implementation in Slovakia of the Hungarian Status Law, CTK and TASR reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2003). Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda called the agreement "excellent" and emphasized that Slovakia has ceded neither its sovereignty nor its opposition to discrimination and extraterritorial provisions. The two countries' foreign ministers, Eduard Kukan and Laszlo Kovacs, are expected to sign the agreement in Brussels on 12 December. The Hungarian cabinet approved the agreement on 10 December. MS

HUNGARIAN PREMIER ACKNOWLEDGES COALITION DIVISION OVER SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC POLICY
In an interview with "Nepszabadsag" of 11 December, Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy acknowledged an ongoing dispute within the government on how to proceed with social and welfare reforms. Medgyessy also conceded that the failure to accurately inform the public of limited resources to cover cabinet-backed wage hikes in the public, health-care, and education sectors during the government's first 100-day program was a mistake. He said recent cuts in home subsidies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 December 2003) were aimed at sending a message to the market that the cabinet intends to maintain financial stability. MSZ

FORMER PREMIER SLAMS HUNGARIAN GOVERNMENT'S SPENDING CUTS
Opposition FIDESZ party Chairman Viktor Orban said on 11 December that the Socialist-led government has destroyed the country's mortgage system, "one of the greatest achievements of the past 15 years," "Magyar Nemzet" reported. Orban said the cabinet made an even greater mistake by submitting a draft budget that requires austerity measures at its very inception. FIDESZ deputy Peter Szijjarto announced on 11 December that his party will post a "loss calculator" on its website (http://www.fidesz.hu) with which pensioners, families, and those building their own homes can calculate how much they will lose in the new year as a result of the government's austerity measures, the MTI news agency reported. MSZ

HUNGARIAN ECONOMY PERFORMING POORLY
Data released by the Central Statistics Office (KSH) on 11 December show inflation in Hungary was 5.6 percent in November, the highest year-on-year figure in 18 months, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. The annual inflation rate one month earlier was 4.9 percent, while price growth in the January-November period was 4.6 percent. Statisticians said a dramatic increase in seasonal food prices and rises in the cost of services pushed inflation upward. The country's trade deficit also widened in the first 10 months of 2003, reaching 3.98 billion euros ($4.87 billion), up from 2.6 billion euros a year ago. MSZ

TUG-OF-WAR BETWEEN KOSOVA'S PARLIAMENT AND UN CHIEF
Kosova's legislature voted 90 to 30 on 11 December to repeal all legislation enacted by the government of former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic after he abolished the province's autonomy on 22 March 1989, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Seventy-three ethnic Albanian deputies and 17 of 22 legislators from the Serbian minority backed the repeal. Since the end of Serbian rule in 1999, the UN civilian administration for Kosova (UNMIK) has abrogated individual Milosevic-era laws deemed discriminatory against ethnic Albanians. Legislators backing the repeal of all Milosevic-era laws said the move was necessary in order to enable the recently stopped privatization process to resume. After the latest measure was passed, UNMIK chief Harri Holkeri declared it invalid, stressing that the legislature has no authority to act in such matters. In response, the government announced it will meet in a special session on 12 December to discuss the situation. PM

HAGUE TRIBUNAL BANS OUTSIDE CONTACTS FOR TWO LEADING SERBIAN INDICTED WAR CRIMINALS
The Hague-based war crimes tribunal said in a press release on 12 December that it has banned most contacts with the outside by former President Milosevic and Serbian Radical Party (SRS) leader Vojislav Seselj, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. The statement said that both men, whose names appear on slates in the 28 December Serbian parliamentary elections, have broken the detention unit's rules regarding "use of communications privileges for the purpose of political campaigning in the media" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003). Milosevic and Seselj will still be allowed to maintain contact with their respective immediate families and legal teams. PM

SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO'S DEFENSE MINISTER TAKES STOCK
Serbia and Montenegro's Defense Minister Boris Tadic, who heads the Democratic Party slate for the 28 December Serbian general elections, told the joint state's parliament on 11 December that much progress has been made in establishing civilian control over the military since the ouster of Milosevic, adding, however, that much remains to be done, "Vesti" reported. Tadic stressed that the parliament of Serbia and Montenegro must improve its supervisory role over the military after the elections. He also said that Belgrade cooperates better with NATO than do "70 percent of the members of the Partnership for Peace program," which Serbia and Montenegro wants to join (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2, 3, and 5 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 June and 12 December 2003). General Branko Krga, who heads the General Staff, told the legislature that the military understands and accepts the principle of democratic civilian control. PM

CROATIAN PRESIDENT STRESSES CONTINUITY IN FOREIGN POLICY
Croatian President Stipe Mesic said in Geneva on 11 December that there will be no change in the substance of Croatia's foreign policy, including its policy toward its immediate neighbors, when the new government of Prime Minister-designate Ivo Sanader takes office later in December, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He made his remarks after speaking with Serbian and Montenegro's President Svetozar Marovic. The Zagreb weekly "Globus" reported in its 12 December issue that former Croatian Ambassador to the United States Miomir Zuzul will be the new foreign minister, and that former Foreign Minister Mate Granic will be ambassador to the United States (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 December 2003). PM

NATO LOOKS FOR AL-QAEDA LINKS IN BOSNIA
Near Zenica on 11 December, an unspecified number of SFOR peacekeepers sealed off a village with helicopters and ground forces, searching houses for weapons and unspecified materials that might reveal a link between local people and Al-Qaeda, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 September 2003). It is unclear what, if anything, SFOR troops found. PM

MACEDONIAN GOVERNMENT AGREES ON NEW ADMINISTRATIVE DISTRICTS
On 11 December, Aleksandar Gestakovski, Macedonia's minister for local self-government, announced that the governing coalition agreed on a draft law on new administrative borders as part of ongoing decentralization efforts, RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters reported. Instead of the current 123 administrative districts, the country will be divided into 71, nine of which will be in Skopje, Gestakovski said. The new administrative structure has yet to be approved by the parliament, and minor adjustments are likely, Deputy Prime Minister Musa Xhaferi said. The mayors of two towns -- Struga and Kicevo -- said they will call for a referendum because the draft law would create ethnic Albanian majorities in these districts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 October and 13 November 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 21 February 2003). UB

ROMANIAN LOWER HOUSE APPROVES NEW TAX CODE
The Chamber of Deputies approved a draft tax code on 11 December that could take effect on 1 January, Romanian Radio reported. The Senate has already approved the legislation, but a mediation commission must still bridge differences between the versions approved by the respective chambers. The code introduces a unified 19 percent value-added tax (VAT) on all goods, and allows for annual deductions of up to 200 euros ($244) for private health insurance. It also exempts private donations to nongovernmental organizations of up to 1 percent of taxable income. The Romanian cabinet meanwhile approved a 6 percent increase in the monthly minimum wage, from 2.5 million leu ($74) to 2.8 million leu, effective from January. An additional 6 percent minimum-wage hike will then kick in on 1 October. MS

ROMANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SEEKS TO REASSURE RUSSIA OVER U.S. MILITARY BASES
Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said on 10 December that the possible relocation of U.S. military bases to Romanian territory should "under no circumstance" be interpreted as a step aimed against Russia or leading to a possible weakening of the NATO alliance, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported. Geoana said the deployment would be a move triggered primarily by the threat of international terrorism and of regional instability emanating from the Middle East. He also said the deployment would offer Romania the "chance of escaping from the periphery" of NATO and the EU and becoming a "central point" in a global context. This, Geoana said, would greatly enhance Romania's geostrategic role. MS

ROMANIA POSTPONES SCHENGEN GUIDELINES FOR MOLDOVAN CITIZENS
Foreign Minister Geoana told the parliament's European Integration Committee on 10 December that Romania will delay the introduction of Schengen regulations for Moldovan citizens visiting the country until 2007, when Romania hopes to accede to the EU, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau reported. Geoana said economic conditions will make Romania inaccessible for Moldovans, who would under the current regulations have to prove access to at least 50 euros ($61) for every day of their visit. He also said Bucharest will introduce Schengen regulations on cross-border movement for Serbian, Russian, Ukrainian, and Turkish citizens in 2004. MS

BULGARIAN POLICE HEAD PRODDED INTO RETIREMENT?
The cabinet decided in closed session on 11 December to request that President Georgi Parvanov sign an order forcing the retirement of National Police Service head General Vasil Vasilev, BTA reported. Interior Minister Georgi Petkanov said the move is part of a larger restructuring process within the ministry's services, although an ongoing row between the Interior Ministry and the judiciary over poor results in the fight against organized crime might have contributed to the move (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5, 9, and 10 December 2003). Vasilev will probably be replaced by Colonel Iliya Iliyev, who currently heads the ministry's regional directorate in Pleven. The opposition Socialist Party (BSP) has meanwhile demanded the dismissal of the head of the National Service for Combating Organized Crime (NSBOP), General Rumen Milanov, and that of border-police chief Colonel Valeri Grigorov, mediapool.bg reported. UB

BULGARIAN INTERIOR MINISTER BLAMES COLLEAGUES FOR DELAY IN ANTICRIME STRATEGY
On 11 December, Interior Minister Petkanov blamed his colleagues in the cabinet for delaying debate on a national strategy that was prepared by his ministry to fight organized crime, vsekiden.com reported. According to Petkanov, only four ministries have submitted their remarks on the strategy. The prime minister's Security Council on 28 November ordered the Interior Ministry to prepare the anticrime strategy and ministries to submit their comments by 11 December. UB

SLOVENIA PREPARES FOR EU INTEGRATION
The new Schengen-style border crossing that opened recently at Obrezje on Slovenia's border with Croatia brought distinctly different reactions from the respective sides of the border. Slovenian Prime Minister Anton Rop praised the new system as one that will link EU and non-EU countries rather than divide them, "Delo" reported on 4 December.

Meanwhile, some Croatian politicians -- such as Damir Kajin of the Istrian Democratic Party (IDS) -- condemned the development as a new "Iron Curtain" that will isolate Southeastern Europe from the rest of the continent. Despite such grumbling from the south, however, Slovenia's leaders are increasingly turning their attention to the north and sizing up opportunities for positioning Slovenia within the EU.

Concerns over Slovenia's future contributed to a series of high-profile meetings called by President Janez Drnovsek over the past two months. The first round in October focused on foreign policy and the position of Slovenia as a small state in the international community. The second meeting, held in late November, looked at identifying and preserving traditional values, while the third meeting on 10 December examined the roles of knowledge and science.

Despite all the talk in and around this "convention on the future of Slovenia," the public remains largely oblivious to the discussions. A "Delo" poll published on 29 November revealed that only 9 percent of Slovenes considered themselves knowledgeable about the meetings, and over half said they knew nothing at all.

Individual political parties are now dealing with the selection of candidates to run in elections to the European Parliament (EP), slated for 13 June 2004. Slovenia's population of 2 million entitles it to seven representatives. Although campaigning will not begin until 15 May, the tickets are already being drawn up.

In some parties, obvious jockeying for positions is betraying internal rivalries. France But -- minister of agriculture and former head of the junior member of the governing coalition, the Slovenian People's Party (SLS) -- announced in August that he would step down from both positions in exchange for top ranking on the SLS EP slate. But's subsequent hesitation and a three-way race to succeed him as party president, however, gave the impression of a free-for-all (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 21 November 2003).

The largest opposition party, the Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS), announced its lineup of seven candidates for the EP elections on 29 October. As expected, party Vice President Miha Brejc is heading the list, followed by Joze Jerovsek, a senior SDS deputy. Formal adoption of the list will take place in spring 2004, when the party will also make a final decision on whether or not to run a joint ticket with the New Slovenia (NSi) party.

Meanwhile, speculation is rife about whether the senior member of the governing coalition, the Liberal Democracy of Slovenia (LDS), may "invite" Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel to be on its list of EP candidates as a way of gently removing him from the domestic political scene.

Rupel has taken significant heat from the public over the past year, especially following the signing of the "Vilnius 10" statement expressing support for the U.S. position on Iraq. Moreover, there have been reports of friction between the minister and key coalition figures. Rupel's latest worries involve alleged misuse of his ministerial position to support a university training program for diplomats. However, Rop commented in "Delo" on 6 November that he supports Rupel and the work of the Foreign Ministry.

Plans to upgrade Slovenia's links with the EU suffered a setback in November, when a proposed second rail line from the port of Koper to Ljubljana failed to gain priority ranking for EU funding. Slovenia has been striving to win support for developing infrastructure along its section of the planned Trans-European Corridor V -- which will stretch from France to Ukraine -- in both rail and highway construction.

Slovenia particularly fears that the port of Koper may be sidelined in favor of Italy's facilities in Trieste. Accordingly, Transportation Minister Jakob Presecnik and Minister for European Affairs Janez Potocnik have been lobbying for development of the Koper-Divaca rail line as a link to the main Trieste-Ljubljana route. Slovenia will get a second chance for priority funding of the route at a summit slated for 12-13 December in Brussels, "Delo" reported on 6 December.

Slovenia is also looking to other current and future EU member states to find its own niche in the Union. Parliamentarians are examining plans for coordinating lawmaking at the national and EU levels, and many are looking to Finland as a model for Slovenia. At the same time, Slovenia took advantage of visits by Czech and Slovak leaders in October to stress its commitment to the rights of small and medium-sized states in the expanded EU.

Whatever the ups and downs of Slovenia's accession experience, one thing is certain. Croatia will be watching with interest, hoping to imitate its neighbor's successes and avoid any mistakes in the next round of EU expansion.

Donald Reindl is a freelance writer and Indiana University doctoral candidate in Ljubljana.

U.S. REPORTEDLY KILLS SIX AFGHAN FIGHTERS IN GUN BATTLE
U.S. soldiers killed six Afghan fighters in Jalalabad in an attempt to arrest a local military commander, Reuters reported 11 December. Witnesses who saw U.S. troops clash with Afghan fighters at a Jalalabad maternity ward said four of a commander identified as Esmatullah's bodyguards were killed along with two soldiers from the local Jalalabad militia. A Reuters correspondent reported seeing five bodies, three of them in military uniforms and two in civilian clothes, on the floor in a hospital where another Afghan apparently involved in the gunfight was being treated for wounds. Jalalabad police chief Haji Ajab Shah said some of Esmatullah's bodyguards died in the fight but could offer no details about possible deaths or injuries on the U.S. side. Shah said the incident erupted when U.S. forces tried to arrest Esmatullah, who leads forces in nearby Laghman Province. U.S. soldiers in Jalalabad refused to discuss the encounter, and the U.S. military headquarters outside Kabul offered no immediate comment. MR

1.5 MILLION AFGHAN GIRLS STILL NOT IN SCHOOL
Some 1.5 million girls in Afghanistan still have no access to school despite an increase in the number of girls attending classes nationwide, Xinhua news agency reported 11 December, citing UN officials. "Since March 2002 when the Back to School program started, the number of girl students has increased to 1.2 million, but 1.5 million others still have no access to school," said Wahid Hassan, an official with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF). Hassan addressed reporters in Kabul as UNICEF unveiled its an annual report on education access for children worldwide. "Far distance from school, lack of sanitation, shortage of woman teachers, and community attitude towards girl education are among potential barriers in the way of enrolling more girls to school," Hassan said. "Though the problems are still immense, the achievements in Afghanistan over the last two years have been remarkable," said the UNICEF report, titled "Girls, Education and Development." The report said 4.2 million Afghan children attend school today, 1.2 million of them girls. MR

UN REFUGEE AGENCY PUTS OFF RETURN TO BORDER AREA
Citing security concerns, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) ruled out an immediate return to work in areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan, AP reported 11 December. The agency pulled out 30 international staff and shuttered four of its border offices set up to aid refugees returning from Pakistan following the November slaying of a French UNHCR staffer in Ghazni city south of Kabul. UNHCR spokeswoman Maki Shinohara said the agency will resume operations only if the security situation improves and the agency is able to work in remote areas. "This is not foreseen in the near future unless measures are taken concretely to improve security at the border region," Shinohara said. Eleven aid workers have been killed in Afghanistan since March, with neo-Taliban forces and renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar issuing repeated threats that their forces will kill anyone caught working with the U.S.-backed government in Kabul. MR

U.S. ADMINISTRATION SEEKS INCREASE IN CIVILIAN AID TO AFGHANISTAN
The United States plans to up its civilian aid to Afghanistan by "robust numbers," according to Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, the "Financial Times" reported 11 December. "We'll have a very robust request [to Congress] that hasn't been made public yet," Armitage in an interview with the paper. "You've got $1.5 billion on the table now, which we are spending. And you'll have, in our terms, a very robust number for 2005." Armitage pointed to the slow arrival of bilateral aid to Afghanistan from other donor countries despite frequent pleas for financial support from the fledgling government in Kabul. "We are trying to get people to be more proactive," Armitage said. "For example, we've asked the Germans to pick up the pace with police training." The United States has faced criticism over the inequity of its spending on civilian aid in Afghanistan compared to military funding, which is roughly 10 times greater. MR

LATVIA EXTENDS PEACEKEEPING MISSION IN AFGHANISTAN
Parliament voted 78 to zero with 12 abstentions on 11 December to prolong the participation of Latvian armed forces in the UN International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan's German contingent, LETA reported. The Latvian vote was a response to a UN Security Council resolution, passed on 13 October, that prolonged the ISAF's mission in Afghanistan by 12 months. The cost, roughly 260,000 lats ($480,000) for each six-month rotation, is paid from the Defense Ministry budget and thus does not require additional funding from parliament. SG

IRAN REPORTS HOLDING 130 AL-QAEDA MEMBERS
President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said on 11 December that Iran has detained 130 members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, Al-Arabiyah television reported. He said those who have committed crimes in Iran will be tried there, and the rest will be sent to their home countries. Khatami made the statement during a news conference in Geneva, where he is attending the World Summit on the Information Society. BS

IRANIAN PRESIDENT CALLS FOR INFORMATION EXCHANGE
President Khatami said in his 10 December speech to the World Summit on the Information Society that the exchange of information is an opportunity for dialogue and the bridging of societal divisions, IRNA reported on 11 December. "We are worried about inequality in developing infrastructures and global access to information and communications," Khatami said. He added that cultural diversity must be considered the foundation of human coexistence. The Iranian government continues to block citizens' access to websites that it finds politically unacceptable (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 8 December 2003). BS

NOXIOUS GAS HITS IRANIAN CITY, ENVIRONS
Sixty percent of the population of Masjid-i Suleiman, a city of 150,000 in southern Iran, has been evacuated or left of its own accord due to gas leaks from deteriorating pipelines, "Gulf News" reported from Tehran on 11 December. Surrounding villages have also been affected, leaving some completely deserted after residents fled. Five children from Naft-i Khiz are reported near death. Shiraz, the provincial capital, sent a team of chemical experts to investigate the disaster and physicians to help the injured. There is just one hospital in the area. Seyyed Abdullah Musavi, managing director of the Oil and Gas Company of Masjid-i Suleiman, said that abandoned oil wells and rusted pipelines, some more than 50 years old, generated the noxious fumes. Musavi added that the gases and liquids were supposed to have been collected and transferred to a site in the city to be burned. He said it was the carelessness of the company in charge of the disposal and the condition of the pipelines that were responsible for the fumes. The problem has been corrected and the noxious sites blocked and sealed, he said. There are 93 oil and gas wells in the Masjid-i Suleiman area; the first was drilled more than 100 years ago. JLH

IRAN HOSTS MARITIME INDUSTRIES EXPO
The International Maritime Industries Exhibition opened on 11 December at the Kish Free Trade Zone and will continue until 15 December, Mowj News Agency reported. The exhibition is the first of its kind for Iran and will showcase it expertise in navigational systems, dredging, the building and maintaining of ports and ships, as well as a variety of other maritime and materials skills. Among the national exhibitors are every major European country and a large number of participants from Mediterranean, Asian and Gulf states. Mohammad Safavi, the executive manager of the exhibition, said 70 Iranian public and private-sector companies are displaying their products. Twenty-three foreign companies are participating. JLH

IRAQI ARMY RECRUITS RESIGN
More than 250 of the new Iraqi Army's recruits from the first 700-man battalion have resigned citing low pay, international media reported on 11 December. According to AP, recruits earn $50 per month, privates $60, and colonels $180 per month. Under the deposed Hussein regime, recruits were paid $2 per month. Coalition Provisional Authority spokesman Charles Heatley told the BBC: "That's fine if [a pay raise is] what they want, then they can go find another job. There are plenty of people queuing up to join the new Iraqi Army." But Pentagon officials said that they are looking into the issue, the BBC reported. An unidentified CPA official in Baghdad told Britain's "The Guardian," "We will review the salaries, but I think their remuneration package at the moment is at least very fair," the daily's website (http://www.guardian.co.uk) reported on 12 December. KR

THOUSANDS OF IRAQIS PROTEST TERRORISM
Thousands of Iraqis took to the streets on 10 December to protest against terrorism in their country, international media reported on 11 December. More than 5,000 Iraqis attended a Baghdad protest organized by Iraqi Brigadier General Tawfiq al-Yassiri, a member of the Reconstruction and Development Council, Knight-Ridder reported on 11 December. Al-Yassiri said that political parties, religious groups, trade unions, and schools participated in the event. Protesters carried banners that read, "No, no to terrorism" and "Yes, yes to Islam." Those interviewed by Knight-Ridder said that joblessness and shortages of goods and fuel are connected to terrorism inside Iraq. Iraq's Voice of the Mujahedin Radio reported on 11 December that thousands also demonstrated in Al-Najaf, condemning terrorism and calling for a greater Iraqi role in handling security. Protesters also chanted a slogan that said deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden are two sides of the same coin, the radio reported. KR

IRAQI POLICE RESCUE KIDNAPPED KUWAITI
Iraqi police have rescued a Kuwaiti national and arrested a gang that allegedly kidnapped foreigners for ransom in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah, alsabaah.com reported on 11 December. Director of Police Iraqi Brigadier General Muhammad Kadhim al-Ali said Nasir al-Najar was freed and repatriated to Kuwait after police cordoned off the gang's headquarters and arrested nine suspected members. Two alleged gang members escaped during the raid. The gang had demanded $80,000 in ransom from al-Najar's family. KR

UN LAUNCHES NEW IRAQ FUND FACILITY
The United Nations on 11 December launched the International Reconstruction Fund Facility for Iraq (IRFFI), UN News Center reported (http://www.un.org/news). The new facility holds money from two trust funds, through which governments can contribute to the rebuilding of Iraq. The first -- the World Bank Iraq Trust Fund -- will oversee technical assistance, infrastructure support, and feasibility studies. The second fund, managed by the United Nations Development Group (UNDG) and administered by the UN Development Program (UNDP), will be known as the UNDG Iraq Trust Fund. It will support short-term projects and activities related to Iraq's political and economic transition. According to the UN, two Iraqi agencies will oversee the spending of donor contributions. The Iraqi Strategic Review Board will direct donors as to needs and make the final decision on recommendations from the Finance Ministry and the Ministry of Planning and Development Cooperation (MOPDC). Meanwhile, the MOPDC will work as the Iraqi interim authority's primary link to IRFFI and guarantee that funds are equally distributed, the UN reported. KR

IRAQ TO BUILD TWO NEW REFINERIES
Iraq will build two new oil refineries next year in central Iraq and Mosul, alsabaah.com reported on 11 December. Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum said his ministry is also working to overcome fuel shortages through benzene contracts with Kuwait and Iran, under which supplies should begin arriving within a few days. Iraq is also looking to sign contracts with Jordan and Turkey to import oil products, Bahr al-Ulum said. KR

COALITION REPORTEDLY RELEASES SOME FORMER REGIME OFFICIALS
The U.S.-led coalition in Iraq has released more than 150 former regime officials and relatives of deposed Iraqi President Hussein from coalition custody, Baghdad's Al-Zaman reported on 10 December. Among those released from Abu Ghurayb Detention Center is former National Assembly Speaker Sa'dun Hammadi, who was reportedly released after being acquitted of any crimes against Iraqis or coalition forces. Hammadi was not on the list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis from the deposed Hussein regime. Former Iraqi Labor and Social Affairs Minister Lieutenant General Sa'di Tu'mah; former Interior Minister Samir Abd al-Wahhab al-Shaykhali; a former aide to Saddam Hussein, Colonel Rashid al-Tikriti; and other former senior officials were also reportedly released. KR

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