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Newsline - February 12, 2004


RUSSIAN, GEORGIAN PRESIDENTS HAVE A FRIENDLY MEETING...
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili met with President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin on 11 February, Russian and international media reported. At the start of the meeting, Saakashvili said he had come to "befriend" Putin, RFE/RL reported. Georgia, he said, has its "own interests, pride, and history," but its history is linked with that of "the great Russia." Putin, for his part, referred to statements Saakashvili has made in Georgia and abroad, as well as a lecture he delivered the previous day to students of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), saying these were "very positive signals oriented toward reviving relations between Georgia and Russia." Following his meeting with Putin, Saakashvili said Georgia will not allow "third countries" to have military bases on its territory once Russia removes its military bases. Saakashvili also said Georgia will take no actions contrary to Russia's interests, strana.ru reported on 11 February. JB

...AND TOUCH ON A FEW THORNY ISSUES...
Following the 11 February meeting between President Putin and Georgian President Saakashvili, presidential foreign-policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko told reporters the two leaders had agreed to resume talks about Abkhazia and that three working groups on that issue would soon meet, RIA-Novosti reported. Prikhodko said Putin and Saakashvili also agreed to renew the work of intergovernmental groups on energy supplies and the return of displaced persons, "The Moscow Times" reported on 12 February. Saakashvili also met on 11 February with Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who suggested setting up a body to coordinate relations in all areas. Saakashvili told Kasyanov that Georgia plans to move toward "nonconfrontational" relations with Russia, RIA-Novosti reported. Saakashvili also met with Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, who afterward said he told the Georgian president that Russia's military presence in Georgia will not be "stepped up," and that there is "no reason to increase the number of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia. They did not discuss a deadline for the withdrawal of Russian bases in Georgia, Ivanov said. JB

...BUT NOT EVERYONE SHARES IN THE COMITY
Commenting on the Georgian president's main meeting in Moscow, polit.ru wrote on 11 February: "As expected, the meeting between Mikheil Saakashvili and Vladimir Putin did not bring any significant breakthroughs, which is understandable: it was more of a get-acquainted session." By no means all of the Russian press commentary expressed the general conviviality surrounding Saakashvili's visit. "Rossiiskaya gazeta" quoted Saakashvili as telling MGIMO students on 10 February: "I am not a pro-Russian president, and God save me from being a pro-American president. I am a Georgian president." The newspaper also quoted him as saying in the same speech: "Give us your helicopters and weapons. Let us guard the border together. Let us patrol it together." "Rossiiskaya gazeta" called these statements "somewhat strange," asking rhetorically: "Is there even one country in the world that hands out left and right [its] most dangerous and expensive high-tech weapons?" Such "gifts," the newspaper stated, should go only to "allies, reliable partners, [or] friends" with "a pro-Russian leader or president." JB

DUMA CONSIDERS LIFE IMPRISONMENT FOR SOME TERRORIST ACTS...
Duma Security Committee Chairman Vladimir Vasilev (Unified Russia) said the lower house will consider amendments to the Criminal Code increasing the penalty for some terrorist acts to life imprisonment, RTR reported on 11 February. The amendments stipulate life imprisonment for terrorism resulting in the loss of life or having "grave consequences," such as creating a threat to nuclear facilities. Currently, the maximum punishment for such crimes is 25 years' imprisonment. JB

...WHILE OTHERS CALL FOR LIFTING THE DEATH-PENALTY MORATORIUM
Deputy Vladimir Katrenko, who is deputy chairman of the Unified Russia Duma faction, said it is possible that his faction's presidium will soon raise the idea of introducing the death penalty for terrorism, with the caveat that it could only be imposed after a jury trial, "Gazeta" reported on 12 February. Following the 6 February Moscow subway explosion that left at least 39 people dead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2004), Motherland co-leader Dmitrii Rogozin called for lifting the moratorium on the death penalty in relation to terrorists. Deputy Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Vyacheslav Ushakov told "Gazeta" on 11 February that he also supports the idea. However, Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov told Radio Mayak on 11 February that proposals to end the death-penalty moratorium must be treated "extremely cautiously" and "for the moment" the idea is not being put forward for consideration. The next day, however, deputies voted to consider amendments to the Criminal Code, including the introduction of the death penalty in certain terrorism-related cases, RTR reported. JB/JAC

SMALL LEADS IN KILLING OF 9-YEAR-OLD TAJIK GIRL...
Police in St. Petersburg report that they have some evidence concerning the killers of Khursheda Sultanova, a 9-year-old Tajik girl who was brutally slain on 9 February in what was apparently a racially motivated attack, newsru.com reported on 11 February. The website quoted an unnamed official in the St. Petersburg police's information department as saying that several people saw the attackers, but because the incident took place at night and on a dark street, their descriptions are "highly conditional." Still, newsru.com reported that investigators have established that the attackers were a group of 10-12 youths aged 14-17, one of whom was armed with a knife and the others with bats and chains, among other weapons. The official said that all of the St. Petersburg's law enforcement bodies are concentrating on finding the attackers and have been combing the city's traditional youth hangouts. The attackers also seriously injured Khursheda Sultanova's father and her 11-year-old cousin. JB

...WITH THE POLICE STILL NOT CERTAIN SKINHEADS ARE RESPONSIBLE
The St. Petersburg prosecutor's office said it is possible that members of "nationalist organizations" were involved in the attack on Sultanova, but added that it is too early to say so categorically, Russian media reported. A St. Petersburg police source also said it is premature to conclude that skinheads carried out the attack, Interfax reported on 11 February. The CIS Interparliamentary Assembly, however, released as statement expressing "deep indignation" over this "brutal expression of nationalist extremism in Petersburg," Interfax reported. JB

CANDIDATE RYBKIN RECONSIDERS BID
Presidential candidate and former State Duma Speaker Ivan Rybkin told Ekho Moskvy on 11 February that he intends to take a week off to decide whether to continue his bid for the presidency. The election, in which President Putin is widely expected to win a second term, will be held on 14 March. Asked about his recent mysterious five-day trip to Kyiv (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 11 February 2004), Rybkin said that he left Moscow suddenly and without warning his family and associates in order to avoid being followed. However, at the same time, he insisted that the special services were aware of his whereabouts at all times, since he was checked by Ukrainian border guards and customs officials. Writing in "Kommersant-Daily" on 12 February, political commentator Andrei Kolesnikov speculates that, based on the disjointed and odd interview Rybkin gave to Ekho Moskvy, perhaps Rybkin is suffering from some kind of psychological illness. In an interview with RFE/RL on 11 February, Democratic Union leader Valeria Novodvorskaya had a different theory about what had happened to Rybkin during the five days he was missing. "To change the position of someone is easy enough if they have no dissident past, no desire to die for their beliefs," she said. She noted that Rybkin does not have a reputation as a libertine, and judging from his gaunt countenance and illogical speech at the airport, it did not appear that he had just gotten back from a fun trip. "They scared the living daylights out of him," she concluded. JAC

DEPUTIES TURN BACK BID TO ENHANCE CONSTITUTIONAL COURT
The Duma rejected on 11 February a host of bills, including one that would have given extra powers to the Constitutional Court by empowering it to check the constitution for internal contradictions, Radio Rossii reported. The bill was proposed by members of the Communist and Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) factions. Deputies also rejected an appeal to President Putin to introduce changes to the law requiring drivers to carry automobile insurance, "Vremya novostei" reported on 12 February. JAC

PROCESS OF URBANIZATION IS OVER
The State Statistics Committee on 11 February presented the results of the 2002 census to the government, RIA-Novosti reported. According to the committee, the process of urbanization in Russia has practically stopped, according to grani.ru. The ratio of urban to rural dwellers did not change from the last census, and is roughly 73 percent urban to 27 percent rural. More than one-third of Russia's citizens live in 13 cities with populations of more than 1 million. The committee also found that for every 1,000 men there are 1,147 women. The total population of Russia in 2002 was 145.2 million, which represented a decline of 1.8 million from the 1989 census. JAC

POLLSTERS PREDICTING HIGH TURNOUT FOR PRESIDENTIAL RACE...
The Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) conducted a poll last month that found that 64 percent of respondents plan to vote in the 14 March presidential election, "Trud" reported on 11 February. A similar poll conducted by VTsIOM-A in January reported that some 75 percent of Russians intend to vote. Political analyst Avtandil Tsuladze told "Trud" he believes only 4-5 percent of voters will vote "against all" candidates. He added that he thinks President Putin will get the votes of those who otherwise would have supported former Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) faction leader Boris Nemtsov, Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii, Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov, or LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii. JAC

...AS REGIONAL FSB OFFICERS MOVE TO UNDERCUT LOCAL BOYCOTT EFFORT
Meanwhile, FSB officers in Voronezh have seized pamphlets calling on voters to boycott the 14 March election, gazeta.ru reported on 11 February. During a raid on a private apartment, officers also allegedly found campaign materials for the nationalist Russian National Unity movement. All the leaflets have been forwarded to the Central Election Commission (TsIK) to determine if they conform to election legislation. JAC

TOP YABLOKO OFFICIAL EXPECTED TO TAKE UP HUMAN RIGHTS POST...
President Putin on 11 February nominated former Russian Ambassador to the U.S. and former Yabloko Duma Deputy Vladimir Lukin to serve as Russia's new human rights ombudsman, replacing Oleg Mironov, gazeta.ru reported. According to the daily, Lukin has declined to comment on the nomination, which must be approved by 300 votes in the Duma. Mironov's term expired last year. Lukin's approval is not expected to be a problem, because the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party controls more than 300 votes. The website also reported that the previously reported appointment of another former Yabloko deputy, Igor Artemev, as deputy economic development and trade minister has not been officially confirmed. JAC

...AS FORMER SPS LEADER ENTERS THE BUSINESS WORLD
Neftyanoi oil company President Igor Linshits on 11 February confirmed media reports that former SPS faction leader Nemtsov will take a position with his company overseeing investment security, efficiency, and interaction with the government, Radio Rossii reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2003). According to Interfax, Nemtsov will become chairman of the company's board of directors. JAC

PRO-PRESIDENTIAL WING GAINS ASCENDANCE IN RIGHTIST PARTY
At a closed session of the SPS Political Council on 10 February, four new secretaries were elected, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 11 February. Former State Duma Deputies Nikolai Travkin and Boris Nadezhdin, Unified Energy Systems (EES) executive Leonid Gozman, and Federation Council representative for Kostroma Ivan Starikov will form the party's new leadership. The daily also reported that, according to its unidentified sources, presidential candidate Irina Khakamada -- a former SPS leader who is a member of the party's Political Council -- ignored the meeting, while former acting Prime Minister and former Duma Deputy Yegor Gaidar tendered his resignation from the council. The daily concluded that the pro-presidential wing of the party, which is headed by EES Chairman and SPS Political Council member Anatolii Chubais, has gained dominance within the party and in the near future the party's statements will become less critical of President Putin. JAC

KREMLIN AIDE SAYS TALKS WITH CHECHEN LEADER POINTLESS
Aslanbek Aslakhanov, who withdrew his candidacy for the Chechen presidential election in September to accept a position as President Putin's adviser on Chechnya, told journalists in Moscow on 11 February that Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected Chechen president in January 1997 in a ballot recognized by both the Russian leadership and the international community, no longer has any right to speak in the name of the Chechen people or to propose programs for resolving the Chechen conflict, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported. Aslakhanov said that the March 2003 referendum on a new Chechen Constitution stripped Maskhadov of his legitimacy. He argued that "never, under any circumstances," should Moscow agree to hold talks with "terrorists." Both before and after his election in August 2000 to represent Chechnya in the Russian State Duma, Aslakhanov repeatedly called on the Russian leadership to begin peace talks with Maskhadov's representative (see "RFE/RL Newsline,"31 August 2000, 3 and 12 July 2001, and 17 October 2002). LF

CHECHENS STAGE MASS PROTEST AGAINST ABDUCTION
Residents of the Chechen village of Assinovskaya blocked a main highway for three hours on 9 February to protest the abduction six days earlier in neighboring Ingushetia of a resident of the village, chechenpress.com reported on 11 February. Russian troops opened fire on the 25-year-old Chechen and then took him away. His relatives have been unable to ascertain his whereabouts, or whether he survived the attack. Representatives of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration have promised to open an investigation. LF

ATTEMPT TO DEFUSE ARMENIAN INTRAPARLIAMENTARY TENSIONS FAILS
An 11 February meeting between the Armenian parliament leadership and heads of the Ardarutiun and National Unity opposition factions failed to end the opposition boycott of parliament sessions, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Deputies representing those two factions staged a walkout in early February to protest the majority's refusal to debate proposed amendments to the law on referendums that would have paved the way for a nationwide referendum of confidence in President Robert Kocharian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3, 4, and 5 February 2004). LF

SUPREME COURT REJECTS AZERBAIJANI SECESSIONIST'S APPEAL
The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by Alikram Gumbatov -- who in June 1993 declared an independent Talysh-Mughan Republic in southeastern Azerbaijan -- against the life sentence handed down to him in July 2003 on charges of seizing power, abusing his official position, and creating an illegal armed formation, Turan reported on 11 February. That sentence was the culmination of a retrial demanded by the Council of Europe, which considers Gumbatov a political prisoner (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 July 2003). On 12 February, the online newspaper zerkalo.az quoted Gumbatov's lawyer Elman Osmanov as saying that the European Court of Human Rights will review Gumbatov's case as an urgent priority. On 6 February, zerkalo.az predicted that President Ilham Aliyev will formally pardon Gumbatov, who is seriously ill with tuberculosis. LF

AZERBAIJANI POLICE BREAK UP OPPOSITION JOURNALISTS' PICKET
Police forcibly prevented journalists from the opposition newspapers "Yeni Musavat" and "Hurriyet" from picketing the Prosecutor-General's Office on 11 February, Turan reported. The protesters were demanding the immediate release from detention of "Yeni Musavat" Editor Rauf Arifoglu and "Hurriyet" staffer Sadig Ismaylov, both of whom were arrested in connection with their purported roles in the 15-16 October clashes in Baku in the wake of the disputed presidential ballot; an end to reprisals against the media; and the opening of a criminal case against police who resorted to brutality against journalists during the 15-16 October clashes. A Baku district court on 11 February fined two journalists 110,000 manats ($22) each for participating in the picket and issued a formal warning to two others, including "Hurriyet" Editor Vugar Mamedov. LF

GEORGIA RAISES RAIL TARIFFS FOR AZERBAIJAN, BUT NOT ARMENIA
Georgian Railways has imposed a $6 tariff per ton of crude oil transported by rail across its territory from Azerbaijan, and an $8-per-ton tariff for other fuel transported to and from Azerbaijan via Georgia, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 11 February. Those fees do not apply to Armenia, which for years has been trying to persuade Tbilisi to reduce rail-transport tariffs. The newly appointed director of Georgian Railways, Levan Varshalomidze, was quoted as saying that the new charges are intended to boost the company's revenues and bring its tariffs closer to international standards. Varshalomidze has met with his Azerbaijani counterpart Mehti Mehtiev to discuss tariff policy, freightage, and unspecified ways of expanding cooperation, according to Caucasus Press of 12 February. LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES NEW GOVERNMENT STRUCTURE
Deputies voted in all three readings on 11 February to approve a bill on the revised structure and powers of the government proposed by Minister of State Zurab Zhvania, whom President Mikheil Saakashvili intends to name prime minister, Caucasus Press reported. The bill cuts the number of ministries from 18 to 15. It provides for reinstating the post of prime minister, who is appointed and dismissed by the president, and who has two deputies. The prime minister in turn proposes ministerial candidates, who must then be approved by the president; the president has the power to dismiss the defense, interior, and state-security ministers. Two of Zhvania's proposed ministerial candidates, Anna Akhalkatsi (infrastructure) and Mikheil Machavariani (agriculture), have declined those offers, Caucasus Press reported on 11 February. LF

GEORGIAN GUERRILLA FORMATION DISBANDS
David Shengelia announced on 11 February the self-liquidation of the Forest Brothers guerrilla formation of which he was commander, Georgian media and ITAR-TASS reported. He handed over to police a large quantity of armaments, including two grenade launchers, 17 antitank missiles, one antiaircraft system, and several hundred automatic rifles, together with a large amount of ammunition. Shengelia said the new Georgian leadership does not need the guerrillas, and that he will move to Tbilisi for his personal safety as he "made too many enemies" in western Georgia. Georgian police announced last month the arrest of several men allegedly sent from Abkhazia to murder Shengelia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2004). It is unclear whether the other guerrilla formation, the White Legion, similarly intends to disband. LF

GEORGIAN CENTRAL ELECTION COMMISSION EXTENDS REGISTRATION DEADLINE
Georgia's Central Election Commission on 11 February extended from 14 to 19 February the deadline for registration of blocs to contest the 28 March parliamentary elections, Caucasus Press reported. Last week, President Saakashvili's National Movement and Zhvania's Democrats, which had earlier announced their plans to merge and contest the ballot jointly, postponed that planned merger indefinitely (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 February 2004). LF

PRESS WATCHDOG CONCERNED OVER GEORGIAN DEVELOPMENTS
The Vienna-based International Press Institute wrote on 9 February to President Saakashvili to express concern at pressure and reprisals against several Georgian journalists since Saakashvili spearheaded the ouster of his predecessor Eduard Shevardnadze in late November. The letter, which is posted on the institute's website (http://www.freemedia.at/Protests%202004/Georgia09.02.04htm), appeals to Saakashvili to investigate those incidents and to take steps to ensure that journalists can perform their duties without fear of harassment or violence. On 10 February, the Georgian parliament decided to create a special commission to investigate pressure on the media, which has led to the suspension by the independent Mze, Imedi, and Rustavi-2 television stations of popular talk shows, Caucasus Press and the Rustavi-2 website (http://www.rustavi2.com) reported. LF

KAZAKH PARLIAMENT CALLS FOR END TO ABUSE OF CONVICTS
A debate on 11 February in the Kazakh parliament's lower house on television footage showing the beating of convicts in the Arkalyk Prison began with demands that Justice Minister Onalsyn Zhumabekov resign, but ended with just a call for an end to the abuse of prisoners, khabar.kz reported. The softening of the parliamentarians' reaction was apparently caused by uncertainty over whether the beatings shown on national television (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2004) were part of a systematic pattern of abuse. Zhumabekov insisted that the beatings were arranged by a prison official who has since been arrested, along with the warders who actually beat the inmates. In addition to recommending that the Justice Ministry put an end to the physical abuse of inmates, the parliamentarians ordered the Prosecutor-General's Office to investigate thoroughly the Arkalyk incident. BB

FOUR-COUNTRY WATER MEETING BEGINS WITH RECRIMINATIONS
A one-day meeting of deputy prime ministers and water-management officials from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan was held in Bishkek on 11 February to assess the implementation of measures agreed upon in January to control the flow of the Syrdarya River, gazeta.kz and akipress.org reported. According to akipress.org, the first part of the meeting was taken up with mutual recriminations among participants for failing to implement promised measures. Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Akhmedzhan Yesimov accused Kyrgyzstan of not reducing the outflow from the Toktogul Reservoir as promised. His Kyrgyz counterpart Bazarbai Mambetov rejected the charge, saying that electricity supplies to the Kyrgyz population had had to be reduced 20 percent and asking who would compensate Kyrgyzstan for lost electricity sales. Uzbek Deputy Prime Minister Otkir Sultanov said Uzbekistan has repeatedly warned Kyrgyzstan to reduce the winter outflow from its reservoirs, but has been ignored. However, by the end of the meeting, participants said they were largely satisfied with the outcome of the talks, and they signed a protocol on additional measures to alleviate the situation. BB

KYRGYZ POLICE FACE ABUSE CHARGES
Kyrgyzstan's Prosecutor-General's Office told Deutsche Welle on 11 February that for the first time police officers working in a pretrial-detention facility in Chui Oblast are being charged with torturing detainees. Complaints of widespread use of torture in such facilities have resulted the addition of an article on torture by law enforcement officers to the Criminal Code. Conviction carries a sentence of up to 10 years' imprisonment. Interior Ministry press secretary General Djoldoshbek Buzurmankulov told Deutsche Welle that only drug addicts, thieves, alcoholics, hooligans, and murderers complain of being beaten by police. He insisted there has never been torture in Kyrgyzstan, and that human rights activists who drew up reports on the issue did so to earn money. BB

TAJIKISTAN, AFGHANISTAN SIGN BRIDGE AGREEMENT
Senior Tajik and Afghan officials signed an intergovernmental agreement in Dushanbe on 10 February on the construction and use of a bridge linking the two countries across the Panj River, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 11 February. Tajik Transport Minister Abdujalol Salimov signed on behalf of Tajikistan, while Afghan Ambassador to Tajikistan Muhammad Dovud Panjsheri signed for Afghanistan. The United States, which signed an agreement to that effect with Tajikistan on 31 December, is funding the $30 million-$40 million bridge project. U.S. engineers and seismologists have already selected a site for the bridge, which is intended to promote the economic integration in the region. Construction is to begin in spring. BB

TURKMENISTAN TURNS DOWN INVITATION TO JOIN CIS POWER SYSTEM
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has turned down an invitation from CIS Energy Council head Anatolii Chubais to join the CIS power system, turkmenistan.ru reported on 11 February. In his reply to Chubais, Niyazov pointed out that Turkmenistan had to refuse to join the common CIS system once before, because other members of the system were unable to pay their debts and because of technical and accounting problems with the CIS system. In recent years, Turkmenistan has begun selling electricity to non-CIS states, including Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkey. BB

U.S. GIVES MORE VEHICLES, EQUIPMENT TO UZBEK CUSTOMS AND BORDER SERVICES
The U.S. government presented vehicles and equipment worth $1.19 million to Uzbekistan's Customs and Border services at a ceremony in Tashkent on 11 February, RIA-Novosti and Interfax reported. The assistance is part of the Export Control and Border Security Program, under which Uzbekistan has received more than $5 million worth of equipment and training since 2000. The program is financed by the U.S. State Department. Further substantial gifts to Uzbekistan are planned for this year and next, including two patrol boats for use on the Amu Darya River. BB

BELARUSIAN KGB DETAINS FORMER PRESIDENTIAL PROPERTY MANAGER
KGB officers detained Halina Zhuraukova just hours after she was sacked from her post as chief of the presidential administration's Property Management Department on 10 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2004), RFE/RL's Belarusian Service reported on 11 February. Zhuraukova was placed in a KGB investigative-detention center on suspicion that she abused her official power for personal gain. JM

BELARUS THROWS PUBLISHERS, PRINTING HOUSES FOR A LOOP
All Belarusian publishing and printing houses are required to apply to the Information Ministry for new licenses before 1 March, regardless of when their current licenses expire, Belapan quoted a ministry official as saying on 11 February. Under recently introduced guidelines on the publishing and printing industries, all printing houses must have an in-house expert who possesses a university degree in publishing, while companies using duplicating equipment to print small print runs no longer need licenses. JM

NEWSPAPER AGAIN ALLEGES UKRAINIAN INVOLVEMENT IN SALE OF NUCLEAR TECHNOLOGY TO AL-QAEDA
The London-based Arabic-language daily "Al-Hayat" on 11 February repeated its suggestion of 8 February that Ukrainian nationals were involved in the purported sale of tactical nuclear weapons, or "suitcase bombs," to members or operatives of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2004). The daily quoted "reliable sources in Islamabad" that said an unspecified Ukrainian nuclear scientist visited Kandahar in 1998 and mediated in the deal. "Al-Hayat" said the same sources believe that U.S. intelligence agents "learned about the affair and were able to immediately track the deal all the way to Ukraine." The "Al-Hayat" sources added, "The matter, however, remained secret, and its details were not revealed." The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry dismissed the initial "Al-Hayat" report and suggested it might sue the paper for libel. JM

ESTONIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES BILL TO EASE NATURALIZATION REQUIREMENTS
Parliament overwhelmingly approved in its final reading on 11 February a bill aimed at reducing the time required for individuals to become naturalized citizens, BNS reported. The bill, which was proposed by the opposition Center Party, cuts from one year to six months the required time an individual must legally reside in the country after applying for citizenship. The bill does not change the requirement that individuals must legally reside in the country for at least five years to be eligible for citizenship. The five opposing votes came from the opposition Pro Patria Union, which argued that shortening the process will hinder the authorities ability to screen applicants adequately. SG

THOUSANDS PROTEST LATVIAN EDUCATION REFORMS
An estimated 8,000 people staged a rally in front of the president's residence in Riga on 11 February to protest Latvia's recently passed school reforms, BNS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2004). The measures will require minority schools to teach a larger share of their curriculums in the Latvian language. The protesters, which BNS described as mostly students from Russian-language schools in Riga, Daugavpils, and Jelgava, as well as students from Ukrainian and Jewish schools, subsequently marched to the city's central square. The protest action passed peacefully, although three 13-year-old students were reportedly detained for holding posters bearing Nazi symbols, which are banned in Latvia. The Russian State Duma on 11 February approved a resolution calling for the imposition of economic and other sanctions against Latvia over its passage of the reforms, and Russian lawmakers are expected to discuss the issue further next week. SG

POLISH-BORN FORMER CIA SPYMASTER DIES AT 73
Colonel Ryszard Kuklinski was pronounced dead at a military hospital in Tampa, Florida, on 10 February following a stroke he suffered five days earlier, Polish and international media reported on 11 February. Kuklinski, who served as a liaison officer between the Polish General Staff and the Soviet Army in 1976-81, was widely regarded as one of the CIA's most important spies behind the Iron Curtain. During his career in espionage, Kuklinski provided thousands of secret military and intelligence documents revealing Moscow's plans in the event of war in Europe. Kuklinski asked the CIA to evacuate him and his family from Poland in 1981, shortly before the imposition of martial law, about which he also forewarned Washington. Kuklinski was "a passionate and courageous man who helped keep the Cold War from becoming hot," "The Washington Times" quoted CIA Director George Tenet as saying. Kuklinski was sentenced to death for treason in absentia in 1984, but was acquitted by a military court in 1997. Polish public opinion remains divided over whether Kuklinski was a hero or a traitor. Former Solidarity leader and Polish President (1990-95) Lech Walesa refused to pardon Kuklinski. JM

POLISH COMMANDOS GET NEW COMMANDER
Colonel Tadeusz Sapierzynski was appointed commander of the elite, top-secret GROM (Operational Maneuver Response Group) military unit on 11 February, Polish media reported. GROM's previous commander, Colonel Roman Polko, recently retired from the military at 41 years of age due to what he described as a differing vision for the special forces from that of his superiors. GROM commandos were involved and reportedly highly praised for their performance in the U.S.-led military intervention in Iraq in 2003. "Special-forces units in the United States have been considerably expanded," Sapierzynski told Polish Radio on 12 February. "The same thing is taking place in Great Britain, although on a smaller scale. I think that similar decisions might be made in our country." JM

CZECH COURT REJECTS INITIATIVE TO EASE RESTRICTIONS ON CLASSIFIED INFORMATION
The Czech Constitutional Court on 11 February rejected an initiative from Ombudsman Otakar Motejl that would have compelled the Foreign Ministry to publish information classified by the ministry as "sensitive political, security, and economic information concerning international relations," CTK reported. The presiding judge said approval of the initiative could threaten the Czech Republic's ability to protect sensitive information. The judge also said international organizations might hesitate to provide the Czech Republic with classified information. Motejl, acting on a proposal forwarded to the government by former Human Rights Commissioner Petr Uhl, argued that citizens should have access to all information that it is not strictly necessary to protect in a state based on the rule of law. While conceding that current regulations could "in theory" lead to abuse, the judge said citizens may appeal to the courts if they suspect such abuse. MS

FORMER CZECHOSLOVAK COMMUNIST PREMIER DIES
Jozef Lenart, who was Czechoslovakia's communist premier in 1963-68, died on 11 February, CTK reported, citing Czech Television. He was 81. Lenart and former Czechoslovak Communist Party leader Miklos Jakes were charged with treason for supporting the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact 1968 invasion but were acquitted for lack of evidence in 2001 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 September 2001). MS

SLOVAKIA PLANS INCREASED MILITARY PRESENCE IN AFGHANISTAN
A Slovak Defense Ministry spokeswoman said on 11 February that the ministry has proposed the deployment of a 16-strong mine-clearing unit to Afghanistan by the end of May, TASR and CTK reported. The unit would serve under the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). The spokeswoman said the plan must still be approved by the cabinet and parliament. A 40-strong Slovak engineering contingent has been deployed at Bagram Air Base near Kabul since August 2002 under the auspices of U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom. MS

SLOVAKIA REASSURES EU STATES OVER LABOR MIGRATION
Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan said on 10 February that imposing restrictions on the free movement of labor from Slovakia after its planned EU accession is an "unfair measure" based on unsubstantiated fears among current EU member states, CTK reported. Kukan was speaking after a meeting in Bratislava with ambassadors from the EU's 15 current members. He said Slovakia "wants to solve its unemployment problem at home" and is "interested in creating enough job opportunities in Slovakia itself." Kukan added that an expected boom in foreign investment after accession is likely to ease the country's unemployment problem. Kukan also said he has asked those ambassadors to urge their countries to reassess their positions. He declined to speculate over whether Bratislava might impose retaliatory measures. Kukan said that whereas Britain and Ireland are unlikely to impose restrictions on citizens of new members seeking jobs in the EU, Germany and Austria are unlikely to renounce their decision to impose "transition periods" during which free access to their labor markets would be banned. MS

HUNGARIAN GOVERNMENT HOPES TO ELIMINATE CONSCRIPTION WITHIN A YEAR
Cabinet ministers voted on 11 February to submit a draft resolution to parliament on planned military reforms over the next decade, including the phasing out of compulsory military service for young men, government spokesman Zoltan Gal told reporters after a regular government session. He said the cabinet proposes the establishment of a professional army before late 2005, which means that the last draft for compulsory military service will be in late 2004, the MTI news agency reported. MSZ

HUNGARIAN PROTEST TARGETS NATO RADAR PROJECT
About 50 demonstrators blocked a road leading to the planned construction site of a NATO radar on Zengo Hill in southern Hungary with tree trunks on 11 February, Hungarian media and AP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 July 2003). Police arrived at the scene but did not intervene, saying the nonviolent protest was not in a public area, according to Hungarian media reports. Demonstrators said they have written to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to inform him that they do not oppose the construction of a radar per se, but oppose it in one of Hungary's most beautiful natural landscapes. NATO is fully funding the project. A Defense Ministry spokesman told journalists that three radars have to be built in Hungary to defend its airspace and the Zengo Hill project is essential for that purpose. The spokesman also said radiation emissions from the planned radar will be less hazardous than those from the re-amplification towers of mobile-telephone networks. MS

HUNGARIAN POLICE EXONERATE RADIO ANNOUNCER OVER ON-AIR COMMENTS
Police announced on 11 February that they have concluded that no crime was committed by Tilos Radio announcer Zoltan Bajtai when he said on the air in late December that he would like to "exterminate all Christians" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 January 2004), Hungarian media reported. Bajtai, whose broadcast name is "Barango," was dismissed following the incident, which unleashed a flurry of protest. Police said they concluded his comment did not constitute incitement against a community, which is punishable under Hungarian law. MS

SERBIAN LEADERS SLAM HAGUE PROSECUTOR'S CHARGES
On 11 February, many Serbian leaders rejected remarks made earlier that day by Carla Del Ponte, who is the chief prosecutor at the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, that former Bosnian Serb leader and indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic is now living in Belgrade, international and regional media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 January 2004). Outgoing Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic said that Del Ponte frequently makes unfounded accusations regarding indicted war criminals allegedly living in Serbia. He stressed that the government would have arrested any suspects had they been in Serbia. The Interior Ministry said in a statement that "it has no information to confirm [her] claims." Serbian Radical Party leader Tomislav Nikolic argued that if Karadzic were in Belgrade, the outgoing "pro-American government would rush...to extradite him." Reuters reported that the general Serbian reaction to Del Ponte's remarks was to say, "Please tell us [Karadzic's] address." In related news, two Bosnian Serb police officers said they will sue SFOR for allegedly using them as "human shields" during an attempt to arrest Karadzic near Sarajevo in January. SFOR denies the charges. PM

DECISION ON POSSIBLE SERBIAN ELECTIONS EXPECTED SOON
Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) leader Vojislav Kostunica said in Belgrade on 11 February that "within the next few days, we will [know] whether Serbia will have a government, which is a far better solution, or [new] elections," Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 9 January 2004). Elections could be held in late March or early April for a president and local officials as well as legislators. Results would be widely expected to resemble those of the 28 December parliamentary ballot, except for the possible strengthening of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS). The SRS won the most votes in the last election but has been shunned by other parties as a possible coalition partner out of deference to the views of international aid donors and diplomatic supporters. PM

UN REPRESENTATIVE WARNS AGAINST 'FORGETTING' KOSOVA
Harri Holkeri, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova, told the "Financial Times" of 12 February that "we must keep Kosovo on the political map" despite the shift in international interest away from the Balkans to the Middle East in recent years. "The problems of Kosovo still remain. We have to compete with other headaches in the world. Do not forget, the pain is still here," he added. Holkeri has recently visited Washington, New York, and London to promote his "standards before status" program. His agenda seeks progress in eight areas of development: democratic institutions, the rule of law, freedom of movement, the return of [mainly Serbian] refugees, economic growth, property rights, improvements in the Kosova Protection Corps (TMK), and dialogue with Belgrade. Leaders of the ethnic Albanian majority generally accept the program while insisting that talks on Kosova's final status -- meaning independence -- must start by mid-2005. Leaders of the local Serbian minority tend to stress that the program does not go far enough in meeting their demands for refugee returns and freedom of movement (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 September, 17 October, and 19 December 2003). PM

DISPUTE OVER ISLAMIC HEAD SCARVES IN KOSOVA
Marek Nowicki, who is Kosova's ombudsman, wrote the Education Ministry to protest the recent ruling by the principal of the Sami Frasheri High School in Prishtina banning a pupil from wearing an Islamic head scarf in school, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported on 11 February. Nowicki called the ban a serious violation of human rights. The principal told reporters that she is simply enforcing the ministry's policy. Most of Kosova's ethnic Albanian majority is of Islamic heritage but highly secular in outlook, as is typical of much of former Yugoslavia. PM

ROW OVER MACEDONIAN REDISTRICTING CONTINUES
On 11 February, the Macedonian parliament continued discussing the politically charged government plan to reduce the number of administrative districts from the current 123 to 62, the private A 1 TV reported. Legislators of the opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) warned that the redistricting plans would affect the ethnic balance in some of the new districts. VMRO-DPMNE legislator Adnan Kahil demanded that a system of "double majorities" be adopted in order to protect groups finding themselves in the minority from being outvoted on the district level. The VMRO-DPMNE demands that the decentralization of the state administration be carried out now but redistricting delayed. Minister for Local Self-Government Aleksandar Gestakovski defended the government's plan, promising that the results of a series of local referendums against redistricting will be taken into account, thus abandoning his earlier rejection of the nonbinding referendums (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2003 and 7 and 8 January 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 21 February 2003). UB

BOSNIAN LEADERS AGREE ON ETHNICALLY BASED DIVISION OF TOP SECURITY POSTS
The three members of the Bosnian Presidency agreed in Banja Luka on 11 February that the new defense minister will be a Serb, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. A Muslim will head the Intelligence and Security Service (OSS), which is the equivalent of the U.S. CIA or the German BND. The top post in the Agency for Information and Protection (AIZ), which corresponds to the U.S. FBI or German BKA, will go to a Croat. Within the military, the General Staff will be headed by a Muslim, while a Croat will lead what is called the Operation Command. Nominees for each of those posts are expected to be announced shortly. Setting up a unified military command and intelligence agency structure are among the preconditions Bosnia must meet before it can join NATO's Partnership for Peace program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 February 2004). The practice of allocating sensitive posts on an ethnic basis in Bosnia and elsewhere in former Yugoslavia dates back to at least the era of Josip Broz "Tito," when it was known as "the nationality key." PM

BOSNIAN SERB POLICE INSIST THAT MAFIA THREATENS OFFICIALS
Radomir Njegus, who heads the Bosnian Serb police, told reporters in Banja Luka on 10 February that unidentified members of the "drug mafia" plan to assassinate Interior Minister Zoran Djeric and that their plans are well advanced, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. Djeric did not comment on Njegus's remarks but noted that he has received six death threats over an unspecified period of time. Republika Srpska President Dragan Cavic confirmed the threats against Djeric, adding that he himself has received serious death threats. The broadcast noted that it remains unclear how powerful the drug mafias actually are and to what extent they constitute a threat to ordinary citizens. The opposition has previously charged law enforcement officials with not fighting the drug barons hard enough. PM

ROMANIAN GOVERNMENT REVEALS BILL ON REORGANIZATION OF CABINET, PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION
A draft law to be submitted later this month for parliamentary approval provides for the appointment of two deputy premiers who will serve as ministers of state, Mediafax reported on 11 February. These deputy ministers would be tasked with coordinating specific areas of activity in the cabinet. Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said he will announce the names of the two ministers of state only after the bill is approved by the legislature. The bill also provides for the prime minister to appoint an unspecified number of "ministers with special tasks" who would work in a newly established "prime-ministerial chancellery," and stipulates that Romanian citizens who hold foreign citizenship can serve on the government staff provided they have no penal record. Only Romanian citizens whose permanent residence is in that country may hold ministerial positions. MS

FORMER COSMONAUT APPOINTED AS ROMANIA'S AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA
The bicameral parliament's two foreign-affairs committees on 11 February approved the appointment of Mihail Prunariu as Romania's new ambassador to the Russian Federation, Mediafax reported. In 1981, as a crewmember of the Soyuz 40, General Prunariu became the first (and only) Romanian to travel to outer space. Prunariu, who speaks fluent Russian, said boosting Romanian exports to Russia will be among his main tasks. He also said Romania is interested in seeing Russian forces stationed in Transdniester leave that region. MS

FORMER ROMANIAN PRIME MINISTER SETS UP NEW POLITICAL PARTY
In an interview with the daily "Jurnalul national" of 12 February, former Romanian Prime Minister Petre Roman announced that he is resigning from the Democratic Party and setting up a new formation called Democratic Force. Roman, who served as prime minister in 1990-91, founded and headed the Democratic Party in 1992. He lost the party's chairmanship to Traian Basescu in 2001. He is the 12th politician elected on the Democratic Party's lists in 2000 to leave the party, which now falls short of the minimum number of members required to have a separate parliamentary group in the upper house. MS

MOLDOVA TO FINGERPRINT CITIZENS WORKING ABROAD, GOVERNMENT EMPLOYEES
Moldova on 11 February announced plans to fingerprint most of the country's government employees and some citizens traveling abroad, dpa reported, citing Interfax. According to the news agency, all members of Moldova's armed services, police, and other security agencies with access to weapons or government-classified data will be fingerprinted. In addition, all Moldovan citizens officially departing for work abroad, including aircraft, train, and ship crews whose work takes them out of the country, will be subject to the new identification measure. Up to one-quarter of Moldova's population of approximately 1 million reportedly work abroad, primarily in low-paying jobs in Mediterranean countries. However, the great majority of them work as illegal laborers, and the new rule is not expected to affect them. MS

PPCD LEADERS ASK CONSTITUTIONAL COURT TO RULE ON MUNICIPAL-ADMINISTRATIVE LEGISLATION
Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD) Chairman Iurie Rosca and his deputy Vlad Cubreacov on 11 February asked the Constitutional Court to rule whether the municipal-administrative legislation banning unauthorized rallies is constitutional, Flux reported. The Prosecutor-General's Office recently asked parliament to lift Rosca's and Cubreacov's immunity, as well as the parliamentary immunity of two other PPCD lawmakers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2004). The plaintiffs said the legislation infringes the right to freedom of expression and encroaches on the right to free assembly. Meanwhile, the Judicial Committee meeting that on 11 February was to discuss the prosecutor-general's request has been postponed because the four PPCD members did not turn up, Flux reported on 11 February. MS

MOLDOVAN GOVERNMENT APPROVES LIQUIDATION OF TELERADIO MOLDOVA COMPANY
The cabinet approved on 11 February a decision to liquidate Teleradio Moldova as a state company, Flux reported. The decision follows the recommendations approved on 30 January by a special commission set up for this purpose. Teleradio Moldova Deputy Chairman Ion Verbeniuc is to report to the Chisinau Employment Agency on the impact the decision will have on the company's personnel. The government claims the dismissals are required to transform Teleradio Moldova into a public company. MS

GOVERNMENT REPORT SAYS BULGARIAN SOLDIERS IN IRAQ POORLY PREPARED
A report by an interdepartmental commission tasked with investigating the 27 December suicide attacks in Karbala states that the Bulgarian soldiers stationed in that Iraqi city at the time of the attacks were poorly prepared, mediapool.bg reported on 11 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December 2003 and 23 January 2004 and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2004). However, the report added that the Bulgarian contingent's inadequate preparedness was not a factor in the attacks, in which five Bulgarian and two Thai soldiers were killed. The commission recommended that all ministries work together to improve the preparation of Bulgarian contingents participating in foreign military missions. It also suggested that the Bulgarian Army's General Staff form a special operations center to coordinate military missions abroad. UB

TURKEY SUSPENDS BULGARIAN ELECTRICITY IMPORTS
Turkish Energy and Natural Resources Minister Hilmi Guler has told Turkey's parliament that electricity imports from Bulgaria have been suspended, turkishpress.com reported on 10 February. Guler said Bulgaria failed to fulfill contracts under which Turkish companies were to build highways and participate in the construction of hydroelectric-power plants in Bulgaria in exchange for the electricity deliveries (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 June 2004). UB

U.S. SAYS LETTER PROVIDES EVIDENCE OF AL-QAEDA/IRAQ LINK
The U.S. government doubled the reward for information leading to the location of alleged Al-Qaeda terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi to $10 million on 11 February, according to the State Department's "Rewards for Justice" website (http://www.rewardsforjustice.net). Al-Zarqawi is a Jordanian national who is suspected of leading terrorist attacks against Iraqi and coalition forces in recent months, including the August bombing of the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad. He is also believed to have been linked to the October 2002 killing of U.S. diplomat Lawrence Foley in Amman. Al-Zarqawi has reputed ties to the terrorist group Ansar Al-Islam, and on 11 February U.S. officials released a letter purportedly written by al-Zarqawi requesting support from Al-Qaeda to fund terrorist operations in Iraq. Excerpts from that letter have been reprinted widely in the international media.

In the letter, al-Zarqawi purportedly identifies four targets in Iraq: the Americans, the Kurds, Iraqi police and troops, and Shi'a Muslims. He also claims that his group has completed some 25 "martyrdom" operations in Iraq. Without support, al-Zarqawi contends, his fighters would not be able to continue their operations in Iraq. He says he believes that once power is transferred to Iraqis, terrorist attacks will be much more difficult to carry out. "The enemy is forming the police and army, which have begun to take over its duties. That enemy is made up of rejectionists [Shi'a] and augmented by Sunni collaborators and is the real danger we face. They are our cousins and they know our ins and outs, and they are more cunning than their crusader masters," AP reported al-Zarqawi as having written.

The letter continues, according to AP: "Our hope is for our work tempo to accelerate, to form brigades and battalions that have experience and perseverance, and to wait for zero hour when we begin to appear in public and control the land at night and, God willing, also during the day. This zero hour we hope to extend for about four months before the proposed government is formed. As you can see, we are in a race against time. If we can, as we hope, turn the tables against them and spoil their plans, that would be good. But if it goes the other way, God forbid, and the government controls the country, then there will be no choice but to pack our bags and move to another land where we can once again carry our banner, or become martyrs."

According to CNN, al-Zarqawi's appeal to the Al-Qaeda leadership pledges continued "suicide operations" and car bombings, saying that his goal is to provoke a civil war by bringing the Shi'a "into the battle...[as it] is the only way to prolong the duration of the fight between the infidels and us." "We are racing against time in order to create squads of mujahedin who seek refuge in secure places, spy on neighborhoods and work on hunting down the enemy," he contends, according to CNN.

So who is Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi? He is a known member of Al-Qaeda who reportedly fled Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion in 2001 and took refuge in northern Iraq with the militant group Ansar Al-Islam. Iraqi officials said in February 2003 that they had no record of al-Zarqawi entering Iraq, despite claims by Jordanian officials, but the same officials contended that he was in fact living in northern Iraq.

Coalition forces hit an Ansar Al-Islam stronghold close to the Iranian border in the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The group had controlled about 18 villages close to the Kurdish village of Halabjah on the Iranian border. That strike reportedly scattered Ansar militants, and many were believed to have fled over the border to Iran. Iran, however, denied reports of any relationship to the terrorist group.

In July, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) commander General John Abizaid told reporters, "There's some impression that [Ansar Al-Islam members] could be infiltrating from Iran," but he added: "There's also [a] possibility that there were people that instead of moving away from the center of Iraq after they were hit [earlier in the year], moved down into Baghdad. So, it's clear that Ansar Al-Islam is re-forming and is presenting a threat to coalition forces." Asked about the presence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, he told reporters: "I don't know that I would say that Osama bin Laden has made an order that has been conveyed to people that has caused them to move into Iraq to kill us, but I do know that there are those that would sympathize with him that have moved into Iraq and are trying to kill us."

The question remains however, to what extent Ansar Al-Islam is linked to Al-Qaeda, and whether the letter obtained by U.S. officials was ever delivered to the Al-Qaeda leadership. Ansar terrorist Qais Ibrahim -- serving time in an Al-Sulaymaniyah jail cell for the attempted assassination on Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) Prime Minister Barham Salih in 2002 -- told Italian daily "Corriere della Sera" in an interview published on 2 February that he personally received $10,000 from bin Laden two years ago to continue his armed struggle. "He gave me the money in three installments through one of our couriers whom we had sent to train among the ranks of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan," Ibrahim was quoted as saying.

Meanwhile, London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 3 February that Ansar Al-Islam has merged with other radical elements in Iraq into the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, which was formed last fall in Iraq. Ansar Al-Sunnah described itself in a statement to London-based "Al-Quds al-Arabi" published on 4 November as: "A group of mujahedin, people with knowledge, political shrewdness, and military expertise as well as those who have long experience and history in administering the Islamic ideological conflict against the infidels, brought several groups and various jihadist factions together." It claimed to have fighters throughout Iraq "implementing a practical non-imported program, based on a clear view of the arena and the instructions of the true sharia [Islamic law]."

Ansar Al-Sunnah has claimed responsibility for numerous attacks on the coalition and Iraqis in the past year, including last week's bombing of PUK and Kurdistan Democratic Party offices in Irbil, which left over 100 Iraqis dead, as well as the 14 October bombing of the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad and the 20 November bombing of the PUK office in Kirkuk.

SENIOR AFGHAN SECURITY OFFICIAL SLAIN...
An unidentified individual stopped a car carrying the deputy head of the Afghan National Security Department in the eastern province of Khost, Colonel Mohammad Isa, before fatally shooting Mohammad Isa and wounding a bodyguard, Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. The gunman fled but subsequently detonated explosives he was carrying in an apparent attempt to avoid being captured, killing himself. AT

...AND NEO-TALIBAN CLAIM RESPONSIBILITY
A statement faxed to several newspapers in Peshawar, Pakistan, and signed by Hamed Agha, who identifies himself as a spokesman for the Islamic Movement, claims responsibility for Mohammad Isa's killing, AIP reported on 11 February. The handwritten statement claims that Mohammad Isa, who is identified as Mohammad Yusof, "was a major spy for the Americans" and "was causing a lot of trouble for the pious and mujahed people of Khost Province, [he] was annihilated with the help of Almighty God." Saif al-Ardil, also purporting to speak for the Taliban, claimed in a telephone conversation that Hafiz Helal, a Taliban fighter from Khost, carried out the attack, "The New York Times" reported on 12 February, citing AP. Abdul Latif Hakimi, also claiming to speak on behalf of the Taliban, said in January that his forces have "hundreds" of fighters ready to carry out suicide missions across Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 5 February 2004). The Mohammad Isa killing is not the first case in which different individuals have claimed responsibility for the same attack in the name of the Taliban or the Islamic Movement. AT

NEO-TALIBAN 'SPOKESMAN' APPEARS TO DISMISS U.S. OVERTURE
Self-styled Islamic Movement spokesman Hamed Agha rejected a public appeal by a U.S. military spokesman for low-ranking militants to cooperate with Afghanistan's central government, the Pakistan-based "Wahdat" reported on 8 February, citing a faxed statement from Hamed Agha. "Taliban, or even a true Muslim and any upright Afghan, would never agree to holding talks with those who attacked Afghanistan," the statement reads in a presumed reference to the United States and its coalition partners. On 4 February, U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty was reported to have said that low-ranking militants who oppose the Afghan Transitional Administration should realize their mistake and begin cooperating with Kabul (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 12 February 2004). AT

GERMANY TO HOST INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON AFGHANISTAN
The German Foreign Ministry announced on 11 February that the country is planning to host an international conference on Afghanistan in March-April, ddp reported. The Berlin conference is expected to include a review of the political process in Afghanistan and address financial issues involved in the rebuilding of Afghanistan. Kabul is seeking $28.5 billion in aid and reconstruction funds over a seven-year period, AP reported on 11 February. Some $4.5 billion was pledged to rebuilding Afghanistan through 2004 at a donors' conference in Tokyo in January 2002. Most observers are skeptical of the planned Berlin conference's chances of raising the amount that Afghan officials are seeking. AT

TAJIKISTAN, AFGHANISTAN SIGN BRIDGE AGREEMENT
Senior Tajik and Afghan officials signed an intergovernmental agreement in Dushanbe on 10 February on the construction and use of a bridge linking the two countries across the Panj River, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 11 February. Tajik Transport Minister Abdujalol Salimov signed on behalf of Tajikistan, while Afghan Ambassador to Tajikistan Muhammad Dovud Panjsheri signed for Afghanistan. The United States, which signed an agreement to that effect with Tajikistan on 31 December, is funding the $30 million-$40 million bridge project. U.S. engineers and seismologists have already selected a site for the bridge, which is intended to promote the economic integration in the region. Construction is to begin in spring. BB

IRANIAN REFORMIST PARTY WARNS AGAINST DICTATORSHIP...
The reformist Mujahedin of the Islamic Revolution Organization has issued a statement marking the occasion of the 1979 Islamic revolution, "Yas-i No" reported on 9 February. The statement noted that even as the Iranian people celebrate "the most popular revolution in the world,... they are also witnessing a resurgence of dictatorship and authoritarianism in the name of religion." "This is an unwelcome movement with goals that defy republicanism and change the nature of the regime," the statement added. It went on to praise parliamentarians and warned "those who are thirsty for power and singular rule, who have dreams of presenting dictatorship covered in religious garb, that a nation that let the Islamic Revolution open the way and had [revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah] Khomeini as its guide toward freedom, will never bow down to dictatorship and authoritarianism." BS

...AND ANOTHER WARNS AGAINST DEVIATION
Ali Shakuri-Rad, head of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Party's election headquarters, announced on 11 February that it has stopped all its activities, ISNA reported. He explained that at a 2 February meeting the party concluded that the elections will not be competitive, fair, or legitimate. Shakuri-Rad added that his organization "will not present candidates in any of the electoral constituencies and will not be active in the elections." The party also issued a statement marking the occasion of the 1979 Islamic revolution, "Yas-i No" reported on 9 February. The party warned that the accomplishments of the revolution are being endangered by the actions of "deviated and reactionary people." "The destruction of the people's right to choose and fixing and arranging elections that are not free and not just (especially during this 25th anniversary of the Islamic revolution) is a deviation from the ideals of a regime that has its roots in the bravery of thousands of proud martyrs of this homeland." The statement concluded by saying that "the Participation Party cannot hide its concern over the deviation that is occurring today." BS

IRANIAN PRAGMATIST GROUP ANNOUNCES CANDIDATE LIST
Gholamali Dehqan, a spokesman for the Moderation and Development Party (Hizb-i Ettedal va Toseh), announced on 11 February that the party has compiled a list of candidates it backs in the 20 February parliamentary elections, ISNA reported. These candidates are drawn from the Islamic Society of University Staff, the Militant Clerics Association (Majma-ye Ruhaniyun-e Mubarez), and a coalition of independent groups, he said. Some of the better-known names on the list are parliamentarians Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, Gholamali Haddad-Adel, Hojatoleslam Majid Ansari, and Alireza Mahjoub, as well as Hojatoleslam Taha Hashemi, who runs the newspaper "Entekhab." BS

IAEA UNCOVERS UNDECLARED IRANIAN NUCLEAR EXPERIMENTS
Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have uncovered the existence of undeclared Iranian experiments including one purportedly involving a new design for a uranium-enrichment centrifuge, the "Financial Times" reported on 12 February. Tehran claimed in November that it submitted all information on its nuclear program (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 10 November 2003). The IAEA is also investigating Iran's links with a black-market network run by Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadir Khan, the daily reported. Tehran has denied any connection with Khan. BS

TEHRAN REJECTS WASHINGTON'S PROLIFERATION ALLEGATIONS
Iranian state radio on 12 February accused U.S. President George W. Bush of repeating "baseless allegations" against Iran. Bush said during an 11 February speech at the National Defense University in Washington that Pakistani nuclear scientist Khan provided Iran with uranium centrifuge designs, and he accused Iran of being "unwilling to abandon" its uranium-enrichment program, according to a copy of the speech posted on the White House website (http://www.whitehouse.gov). Bush said Iran is taking advantage of a loophole in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty to "produce nuclear material that can be used to build bombs under the cover of civilian nuclear programs." Bush said that permitting countries such as Iran, which are being investigated for violating their nonproliferation obligations, to serve on the IAEA board of governors is "an unacceptable barrier to effective action." Any state under investigation should not be on the board, Bush said, and should be suspended if it is on the board already. "Those actively breaking the rules should not be entrusted with enforcing the rules," he said. BS

UN ENVOY MEETS WITH AL-SISTANI ON IRAQI ELECTIONS
UN special adviser on Iraq Lakhdar Brahimi met with Iraqi Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on 12 February to hear the cleric's views on elections in Iraq, international media reported. Al-Sistani has advocated early direct national elections in lieu of an Iraqi Governing Council plan that calls for caucuses to elect an interim national assembly before the 30 June transfer of power from coalition forces to an interim Iraqi government. An Arab aide to Brahimi and Iraqi United Nations guards accompanied him to the meeting at al-Sistani's home in Al-Najaf, Reuters reported. Brahimi told reporters following the two-hour talks that al-Sistani "is insistent on holding the elections and we are with him on this 100 percent, because elections are the best means to enable any people to set up a state that serves their interest," Reuters reported. He did not mention when those elections might be held, but said: "These elections should be prepared well and should take place in the best possible conditions so that it would bring the results that [al-Sistani] wants." Reuters cited a UN official as saying that Brahimi will leave Iraq by 13 February. KR

IRAQ APPROVED AS WTO OBSERVER
Iraq was on 11 February formally approved observer status with the World Trade Organization (WTO), AP reported. Observer status is the first step toward gaining full membership of the organization, which determines international-trade rules. "After decades of isolation, Iraq is beginning to rejoin the international community and your decision today sends a positive signal to the people of Iraq that they are welcomed back and that the world really cares about their welfare," Ahmad al-Mukhtar, director-general of foreign economic relations at the Iraqi Trade Ministry, told the WTO. He added that the decision will facilitate Iraq's reentry to world markets. "It will assist us in adopting WTO-consistent laws and regulations and Iraqis who have been forced into isolation by the previous regime will get the chance to benefit from the vast resources available at the WTO," al-Mukhtar said. Iraq's request for observer status was supported by the European Union (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 30 January 2004). KR

IRAQI GOVERNING COUNCIL MEMBER BLAMES FOREIGN ELEMENTS FOR TERRORISM...
Iraqi Governing Council member Ibrahim al-Janabi, who serves as head of the council's National Security Committee, told Al-Arabiyah television that foreign fighters are behind the recent terrorist attacks in Iraq, the television network reported on 12 February. "All the information that we have indicates that foreign non-Iraqi members are directly responsible for such operations, including the attacks on the UN headquarters, the Jordanian Embassy, the Turkish Embassy, Baghdad Hotel, and the police centers," al-Janabi said. "A number of non-Iraqi foreign members who played a part in such operations were arrested. Also, the documents that were seized in the various locations indicate that foreign hands are directly responsible for this issue" (see End Note below). KR

...AS KURDISH NEWSPAPER DESCRIBES IRBIL SUICIDE BOMBERS
The Kurdish newspaper "Hawlati" on 11 February claimed to have obtained information on the identities of the two suicide bombers who carried out the 1 February attacks in Irbil on the offices of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), killing some 100 people during the Eid al-Adha celebrations. According to the report, the suicide bombers -- one an Arab, the other a Kurd -- were members of the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army. The Kurd, Abu Bakr Hawleri, was reportedly from the city of Irbil. He detonated explosives attached to his body at the PUK headquarters, while the Arab, identified as Kazim Juburi, aka Abu Turab, struck KDP headquarters. "Hawalti" reports that the group has turned Mosul into "a center for their activities and urban attacks." The report adds that statements posted on jihadist websites indicate that the group is targeting the KDP and PUK because of their cooperation with the coalition. KR

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