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Newsline - March 19, 2004

President Vladimir Putin met in the Kremlin on 18 March with Natural Resources Minister Yurii Trutnev and told him that the present system of issuing licenses for exploration and exploitation of natural resources must be completely revised, ITAR-TASS reported. Current legislation allows bureaucrats to sabotage government policies and to determine who gets a license and who does not, Putin said. Putin and Trutnev also discussed the new draft Forestry Code (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2004), which would allow entities to purchase forest lots after leasing them from the state for 15 years. Putin told Trutnev to continue working on the draft. Russia has about 25 percent of the world's timber resources, and 69 percent of its territory -- some 11.7 million square kilometers -- is classified as forest, ITAR-TASS reported. VY

The death toll from the 16 March explosion at an residential building in Arkhangelsk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2004) reached 58 as of 18 March, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. Oblast Deputy Prosecutor Yurii Shperling told reporters that investigators still believe the explosion was an accident caused by a natural-gas leak, since no explosive devices have been recovered from the site of the blast. However, reported on 18 March that local journalists and some law enforcement and gas-industry officials have not yet ruled out the possibility that the explosion was caused deliberately. An unidentified firefighter told the website that the kind of relatively deep crater that formed below the epicenter of the blast is not usually present following a gas explosion. In addition, Arkhangelskoblgaz Director Vadim Lokhov expressed doubt that the disaster occurred just because of a gas leak because gas "looks for escape routes" through windows and doors, leaving outer walls almost undamaged. Meanwhile, the oblast election commission announced on 18 March that a second round of the oblast's gubernatorial election will be held on 28 March, RosBalt reported. JAC

Investigators of the 16 March Arkhangelsk blast are increasingly considering the possibility that the incident might have been the result of deliberate sabotage, "Vremya novostei" reported on 18 March, citing unnamed sources within the Federal Security Service (FSB). NTV on 17 March rejected a theory previously circulated, according to which some homeless men removed fittings from the building gas-feeder pipe to sell for scrap metal. NTV journalists reportedly found that the missing fittings are not made of bronze, as was previously reported, and therefore would not have been accepted by scrap-metal centers. Some analysts believe that although several different law enforcement agencies have made public statements about the blast, only the FSB is legally responsible for investigations into explosions. VY

FSB investigators now believe the 14-15 March fire that destroyed Moscow's Manezh Exhibition Center (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 2004) did not start accidentally, and "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 18 March. Experts reportedly believe that such a large, intense fire could not have occurred without the help of pyrotechnics or flammable liquids. The daily expressed concern that the truth might never be known for certain because there is no party that suffered from the blaze and that is pushing for an investigation. The city-owned historical landmark was not insured, fuelling speculation that someone might have wanted to clear the site for commercial development. Immediately following the fire, Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov announced plans to rebuild the exhibition hall and to add a commercial parking lot, shopping center, and casino to the complex. VY

Moscow is concerned about the North Atlantic Council's 17 March decision to base NATO aircraft in Lithuania to patrol the airspace of the Baltic states upon their accession to NATO on 29 March, reported on 17 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2004). First Deputy Chief of the General Staff Colonel General Yurii Baluevskii said that Russia might respond if NATO proceeds with such plans, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 March. "I do not think NATO is interested in exacerbating the situation near our borders, as we would take adequate measures," Baluevskii said, without elaborating. VY

The Russian Northern Fleet nuclear submarine "Novomoskovsk" on 17 March successfully launched two ballistic missiles aimed at a target range in Kamchatka, RTR reported. The test came exactly one month after a similar drill on the same submarine was aborted in the presence of President Putin during a major military exercise (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 February 2004). Putin ordered Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to investigate the failed launch and to repeat the drill (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 March 2004). RTR reported on 18 March that the "Admiral Kuznetsov," the Northern Fleet's flagship and the Russian Navy's only aircraft carrier, has returned to service following a four-year refit. VY

Federal government officials are predicting that the work of the government will be slowed down for the next two-three months, as responsibilities are redistributed among various agencies, reported on 18 March. The majority of ministries and agencies that prepared draft legislation scheduled for consideration by the legislature are now being restructured. The website noted that various pieces of "priority" legislation that the Duma was supposed to consider last fall still have not had a hearing. Such bills include laws on bankruptcy, concession agreements, nationalization, and state and municipal enterprises, as well as amendments to the Tax Code. The website also reported that, according to its unidentified sources, consideration of amendments to the Land Code, which was scheduled for 31 March, will be postponed until June. JAC

Former State Duma Deputy Aleksandr Shokhin, who drafted his own administrative-reform plan for the federal government on behalf of the Russian Union of the Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP), told "Argumenty i fakty," No. 11, that the new structure is flawed because oversight bodies -- called "services" -- are subordinated to the ministries they oversee. He said the RSPP believes that oversight bodies should be subordinated only to the prime minister or the president. Otherwise the same people will develop policy, implement it, and oversee state officials. According the weekly, analysts have calculated that the number of federal executive-branch bodies has grown from 58 to 73. JAC

A jury on 18 March convicted Liberal Russia party splinter group leader Mikhail Kodanev of conspiring to murder State Duma Deputy and Liberal Russia co-Chairman Sergei Yushenkov in April 2003, Russian media reported. Kodanev headed the Liberal Russia group that supports self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii, while Yushenkov headed the faction of the party that ousted Berezovskii and successfully registered with the Justice Ministry. Kodanev's aide, Aleksandr Vinnik, testified that Kodanev gave him $50,000 to hire contract killers. Kodanev, Vinnik, and two other defendants were convicted, while two other defendants were acquitted. Sentencing is scheduled for 23 March, according to RIA-Novosti. Kodanev on 10 March categorically denied in court any involvement in the murder, insisting that he had no access to such large sums of money, "Izvestiya" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2004). Yushenkov's widow, Valentina Yushenkova, commented to REN-TV that she trusted the jury and that if jurors reached such a decision, "then that is how things really are." JAC

The Omsk Oblast legislature confirmed on 18 March Sibneft Vice President Valerii Oif as its representative in the Federation Council, Interfax reported. Oif replaces former Deputy Tax Minister Valerii Tikhomirov, who served in the upper legislative chamber for two years. Also on 18 March, Sibneft announced that in the future it will be registered in the city of Omsk, rather than in the Omsk Oblast town of Lyubino, ITAR-TASS reported. According to the agency, the company left the city five years ago following a dispute with the mayoral administration. Because the company is a key taxpayer, its departure considerably reduced the city's budget. JAC

The Duma Security Committee recommended on 18 March that the Duma reject a bill sponsored by Deputy Mikhail Yurevich (Unified Russia) that would amend the law on mass media, reported. The bill would require mass media to seek the permission of law enforcement officials before airing reports about terrorist acts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2004). According to the website, the committee said the bill would mean "a ban on mass media reports on any occurrence, which would baselessly limiting the rights of citizens to receive information." Although Yurevich is a member of the Unified Russia faction, the bill is supported by the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR). Unified Russia opposes it. JAC

Last year, raion-level courts in Tyumen Oblast ordered the payment of damages to plaintiffs in eight out of nine cases against media outlets, reported on 18 March. Of the 117,000 rubles ($4,000) awarded, more than 71,000 rubles were for moral harm. JAC

Former Natural Resources Minister Vitalii Artyukhov will be called as a witness in Smolensk in the criminal investigation of former Smolensk Oblast Governor Aleksandr Prokhurov on charges of swindling, reported on 18 March, citing Prokhurov's lawyer, Aleksandr Zhukov. Former LUKoil Vice President Sergei Kukura has also been called to testify. Natural Resources Minister Trutnev this week ordered an investigation of Artyukhov for reportedly signing two oil-exploration licenses on his last day in office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2004). JAC

Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov told government ministers in Grozny on 18 March that he is convinced a large portion of the funds earmarked by the federal budget for Chechnya is being stolen by various federal ministries and agencies, ITAR-TASS reported. He asked the Audit Chamber "to give an unbiased assessment" of what is happening. Audit Chamber Chairman Sergei Stepashin told Interfax on 16 March that his agency monitors the transfer of funds to Chechnya on a daily basis, and discovered an unspecified number of alleged cases of embezzlement of funds in 2003. LF

Speaking in Grozny on 18 March, Kadyrov again argued that Chechnya should be given exclusive control over oil production on its territory and the use of profits from oil sales, Interfax reported. He said the Chechen administration needs the proceeds from the sale of oil to rebuild the economy and to fund health care and education. Contrary to Kadyrov's hopes, the draft power-sharing treaty being negotiated between Chechnya and Moscow apparently will not grant Chechnya total control over the oil sector and the revenues it generates (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 31 March 2003 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 October 2003). LF

Robert Kocharian said on 18 March that the role and prestige of the Prosecutor-General's Office declined while it was headed by former Prosecutor-General Aram Tamazian, whom Kocharian dismissed the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2004). By contrast, Kocharian lauded Aghvan Hovsepian, whom he has named to succeed Tamazian. Kocharian described Hovsepian as a "professional, firm, and principled" person, noting that he was fired from the post of prosecutor-general in late 1999 for purely political reasons. Kocharian further recalled that prior to the collapse of the USSR, Hovsepian served for several years in Nagorno-Karabakh, which is Kocharian's home region. LF

On 13 March, the Baku Main Police Department summoned Azerbaijan Popular Front Party (reformist wing) Deputy Chairman Fuad Mustafaev and charged him with hooliganism with the use of weapons, Turan reported. Four days later, however, the criminal case against Mustafaev was closed, Turan reported on 18 March. The charge derived from a confrontation between Mustafaev and presidential candidate Hafiz Hadjiev during a televised debate on 6 September in the run-up to the 15 October presidential ballot. The two men exchanged insults, after which Mustafaev hurled a glass of water at his interlocutor (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 September 2003). On 16 March, the online daily quoted Mustafaev as saying that he acted "as any man representing the Turkish nation could and should have done" in reaction to what he termed an insult to national ethical norms. He termed the authorities' decision to bring criminal charges against him six months after the event a political reprisal against his party. LF

Nadir Nagiev, a former employee of the ombudsman's office, has brought a civil suit against Ombudsman Elmira Suleymanova claiming wrongful dismissal and demanding 250 million manats ($50,158) in compensation, according to "525 gazeti" on 19 March as cited by Turan. In March 2003, a group of former members of Suleymanova's staff wrote to then President Heidar Aliyev to complain about the way she had treated them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 March 2003). LF

During talks in Batumi on 18 March that lasted over three hours, Mikheil Saakashvili and Aslan Abashidze reached an agreement under which the latter will comply with key demands made by Saakashvili on 14 March, in return for which Saakashvili pledged that the "restrictions" imposed on transporting goods across Adjar territory will be lifted at midnight on 18 March, Georgian and Russian media reported. The most important of those demands is to ensure that voting in Adjaria in the 28 March national parliamentary election is free and fair. Abashidze also undertook to have weapons distributed to the population earlier this week collected. The two sides agreed to the appointment of a Georgian presidential official who will monitor revenues from customs and the transit of goods across Adjar territory. Both leaders sought to play down the tensions of recent days, which Saakashvili described as "a misunderstanding," adding that "conflict" between Tbilisi and Batumi is out of the question. LF

Bidding farewell at Batumi airport on 18 March to both Saakashvili and Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov, who traveled to Batumi on 16 March to offer moral support, Abashidze thanked Luzhkov and Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov for their respective roles in helping to defuse the standoff with the central Georgian government, Interfax reported. Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania likewise expressed appreciation of Russia's "tact," noting that its failure demonstratively to offer support to Abashidze contributed to the success of the talks between Abashidze and Saakashvili, Caucasus Press reported quoting the independent television station Rustavi-2. Luzhkov himself told journalists that his role was confined to persuading Abashidze to agree to talks with Saakashvili, ITAR-TASS reported. That agreement was reached during three-way talks on 17 March between Abashidze, Luzhkov and Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze. LF

Kazakhstan's Senate approved a parliamentary conciliatory commission's amendments to a new bill on media on 18 March, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Since the Majilis, or lower house, passed the amendments on 17 March, the bill has now cleared its last parliamentary hurdle and now awaits President Nursultan Nazarbaev's signature. The bill, which was drafted by Kazakhstan's Information Ministry, has drawn harsh criticism from free-speech advocates. As recently as 16 March, Yevgenii Zhovtis, director of the Kazakhstan office of the International Bureau for Human Rights, told Interfax-Kazakhstan that the draft law fails to meet international standards and will enable the authorities to extend their control over the media. DK

The price of bread has gone up in Aqtau in western Kazakhstan, Khabar Television reported on 17 March. A loaf now costs 40 tenges ($0.29), an increase of 5 tenges over the last two weeks. Bakers told the television station that the price of flour, which cost 32,000 tenges per ton last year, has risen by 16,000 tenges this year. The report quoted a local official as saying that bread prices in Aqtau are among the highest in the country, straining the limited budgets of such groups as pensioners and the disabled. DK

EU External Affairs Commissioner Christopher Patten met with Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev on 18 March, reported. Akaev noted that Kyrgyzstan welcomes the current round of EU expansion and hopes that it will strengthen existing relations between Kyrgyzstan and new EU members in Eastern Europe. For his part, Patten stressed that Kyrgyzstan's distance from Europe is not an obstacle to close relations. Patten also met with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov on 18 March, reported. Aitmatov expressed his satisfaction with the official opening of an EU representative office in Bishkek. According to Kyrgyzinfo, other topics of discussion between Aitmatov and Patten included terrorism, narcotics and human trafficking, Afghan reconstruction, and regional cooperation. DK

The leaders of Tajikistan's opposition Taraqqiyot Party announced at a news conference on 18 March that they are ending the hunger strike they began on 12 March, ITAR-TASS reported on 18 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2004). The four party members, two deputy chairman among them, initiated the hunger strike to protest the Justice Ministry's four-month-long delay in registering the party. The erstwhile hunger strikers told journalists in Dushanbe on 18 March that they "will continue to defend civil society's right to political pluralism and democratic values within a constitutional framework." Justice Minister Khalifabobo Homidov told the news agency that the registration procedure has indeed gone beyond the stipulated time frame, but his ministry will continue to review the party's documents for "as long as is necessary." DK

Uzbek President Islam Karimov received EU External Relations Commissioner Patten at the Oqsaroy presidential residence on 18 March, Uzbek Television reported. The two discussed prospects for cooperation between Uzbekistan and the EU in a conversation that Uzbek Television described as "frank." Patten also met with Uzbek Foreign Minister Sodiq Safaev to discuss economic and security issues, Uzbek Radio reported on 18 March. Patten said that the EU places a premium on its partnership with Uzbekistan. RIA-Novosti quoted the EU commissioner as saying, "We understand very well that unless the EU has good relations with Uzbekistan, it will not be able to develop an effective and constructive partnership with all of Central Asia." DK

United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service on 18 March that the criminal case that has been opened against him for allegedly slandering President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on a Russian television channel is of a "political" nature (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2004). Lyabedzka was commenting on his meeting with prosecutors in Minsk earlier the same day, where he was officially notified of the criminal proceedings against him. If convicted, Lyabedzka could face a prison sentence of up to five years. Lyabedzka stressed that he is planning neither to leave the country nor to resort to self-censorship in his public statements. JM

President Lukashenka has ordered all civil servants to transfer their stakes in private companies to state-controlled Belarusbank, which will act as a managing trustee for them during their service in the government, Belapan reported on 18 March. The decree also extends to shares bought in state-run companies on preferential terms. The decree has been officially touted as a move aimed at fighting corruption in the government. JM

The Verkhovna Rada voted 400 to three on 18 March to adopt a bill that makes procedural changes in Ukraine's presidential-election process, Interfax reported. The bill differs from the current law on presidential elections in several major respects. It reduces the presidential-campaign period from 180 to 120 days and lowers the signature threshold for registering a candidate from 1 million to 500,000. The bill also sets election day for the last Sunday in October; in the event that none of the candidates wins a majority in the first round, a runoff between the two top candidates is held two weeks later. JM

The Verkhovna Rada also passed a Code of Civil Procedures on 18 March that regulates the consideration of civil cases in Ukrainian courts and provides for the observance of rights and freedoms of citizens and legal entities participating in civil legal proceedings, Interfax reported. JM

Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko told journalists in Kyiv on 18 March that his block will resort to "all available means" -- including "staging appropriate protests, taking people to the street, and blocking the parliamentary rostrum" -- in order to prevent final adoption of the constitutional-reform bill that was preliminarily approved in December and amended in February (see "RFE/RK Belarus and Ukraine Report," 10 March 2004), Interfax reported. Yushchenko was commenting on a verdict by the Constitutional Court earlier the same day concluding that the bill does not contradict the constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2004). Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc believe the bill was approved in an illegal procedure. Lawmaker Oleksandr Turchynov from the Yuliya Tymoshenko Block announced the same day that his bloc will cooperate with Our Ukraine in staging "mass protest actions" during the upcoming parliamentary debate on the bill. JM

Tiit Tammsaar (People's Union) on 18 March said he will offer his resignation in the wake of the discovery that nearly one-third of the state grain reserve is missing, BNS reported. Tammsaar said he will offer his resignation to Prime Minister Juhan Parts upon the latter's return to Estonia on 20 March. Earlier this week the Agriculture Ministry announced that 14,000 tons of grain from the 40,000-ton state reserve is unaccounted for. Vladimir Semenov, the director of the Rakvere Granary from which the grain is missing, and Estonian Grain Board manager Ago Soots have submitted their resignations, and the Grain Board's supervisory board has been replaced with new appointees. Tammsaar suggested that the presumed grain theft might have taken place before the current government assumed office last March, but that he would offer his resignation regardless to allow the Agriculture Ministry to devote it full attention to preparing the laws needed for EU membership. SG

Indulis Emsis on 18 March ordered Education and Science Minister Juris Radzevics to assemble a group of negotiators to hold discussions regarding pending education reforms that will affect minority schools, BNS reported. He said the group "must arrange for consultations and dialogue with public organizations interested in the constructive solution of education problems, the key task being to identify the problems and offer solutions in implementation of the minority education reform." Emsis also asked Radzevics to consider the possibility of forming a separate department in his ministry for dealing with the education of minorities. The most controversial aspect of the reforms, which will go into effect as of 1 September, is the requirement that at least 60 percent of schools' curriculum be taught in the Latvian language. SG

President Aleksander Kwasniewski told a group of French journalists in Warsaw on 18 March that Poland was "misled" into believing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction ahead of military intervention in Iraq a year ago, Polish and international media reported. "It is true that, as regards weapons of mass destruction, we were misled. We were led into error," PAP quoted Kwasniewski as saying. Kwasniewski added nonetheless that the withdrawal of Polish troops from Iraq would be pointless. "We are in the middle of March, and I ask the question: If the withdrawal of forces were to signify the return of war, ethnic cleansing, and aggression against neighboring states, what would be the sense of such a withdrawal?" he said, according to PAP. JM

Kwasniewski's pronouncements on 18 March about military intervention in Iraq were reported in different wordings and with different comments, apparently prompting the presidential press service to issue a clarification on 19 March. The clarification, carried by PAP and other local media, does not include the word "misled." "The president recalled that Saddam Hussein was seeking to make an impression that he had weapons of mass destruction and could use them, which was an essential reason for launching the mission [intervention] in Iraq," the "Gazeta Wyborcza" website ( quoted from the document. JM

Polish bishops on 18 March elected Archbishop of Przemysl Jozef Michalik to be the new head of the Roman Catholic Church in that country, PAP reported. Michalik will replace Cardinal Jozef Glemp. JM

The Sejm lifted the parliamentary immunity on 18 March of Andrzej Lepper, leader of the radical, populist Self-Defense farmers union, PAP reported. A motion to deprive Lepper of his immunity has been lodged with the Sejm in connection with a June 2002 statement in which he accused a grain-processing company co-owned by a lawmaker from the Polish Peasant Party of storing grain that, according to Lepper, was unsuitable for consumption. JM

Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla said after a meeting with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in Prague on 18 March that the Czech Republic is likely to suspend a plan to reduce its peacekeeping contingent in Kosova in light of the current interethnic violence there (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 March 2004), CTK reported. Four hundred Czech troops serve alongside 100 Slovak soldiers in a unit of the international KFOR mission. The Czech Republic had planned to withdraw 100 of its troops by 1 May. "We will probably have to reconsider the idea of withdrawing 100 troops, as planned," Spidla said. "The Czech-Slovak battalion will probably operate there on a full scale." De Hoop Scheffer said, "As the recent tragic events have shown, the job in Kosovo is not yet done." AH

President Vaclav Klaus suggested on 18 March that his upcoming visit to China will include a discussion about Beijing's observance of human rights, about which he has a "very strong" opinion, CTK reported. Klaus's office recently announced his plans to visit China for 11 days in April accompanied by a business delegation that has yet to be determined. "It is...rational for the Czech Republic to have very intensive contacts with [China] at various levels, including economic and trade relations," Klaus said. "Without a doubt, the question of human rights naturally interests us, too." A former prime minister, Klaus consistently jousted with his predecessor, Vaclav Havel, over the respective emphasis that human rights and commercial relations should be given in shaping Czech foreign policy. Havel avoided visiting China during his 13-year presidency, and this week he published an open letter to Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing criticizing Beijing over repression in Tibet and the death sentence handed down against Tenzin Delek Rinpoche. AH

Eleven presidential hopefuls entered Slovakia's official campaign period on 19 March, two weeks ahead of the first round of direct presidential balloting on 3 April, TASR reported. The 13-day campaign -- the first in the country's history to allow political advertising on private broadcasters -- ends early on 1 April. Three front-runners have emerged. The most recent UVVM poll suggests that former Prime Minister and current People's Party-Movement for a Democratic Slovakia Chairman Vladimir Meciar leads the race with 27 percent support, ahead of Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan (25 percent) and incumbent President Rudolf Schuster (17 percent). If no candidate draws a majority in the first round of voting, the top two vote getters will proceed to a second round on 17 April. AH

Eight heads of government and two heads of state gathered in Bratislava on 19 March to attend a summit on Europe's "new agenda" amid heavy security. Participants were expected to discuss security issues, developments in the Balkans, international relations in the Black Sea and Caucasus regions, and an enlarged European Union. The prime ministers of Albania, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Romania, and Slovakia were joined by the Georgian and Azerbaijani presidents and senior officials from NATO, the EU, and the United States. AH

The daily "Pravda" reported on 19 March that Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda is suing it and a rival newspaper, "Sme," for libel over reports that accused him of lying in connection with the controversial dismissal last year of National Security Office (NBU) head Jan Mojzis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 October 2003). The suit seeks damages of 5 million crowns ($153,000) from each of those publications. The reports in question suggested that Dzurinda illegally possessed a security dossier on Mojzis, TASR reported. While Dzurinda insisted he did not possess the file, an inspection by the NBU reportedly uncovered it in a safe in the prime minister's office. Prosecutors have asserted that neither Dzurinda nor the Slovak Information Service broke the law by possessing the dossier. AH

Peter Medgyessy told his cabinet on 18 March that the four priority areas into which the government plans to "concentrate significant energies" are the construction of highways, reform of the health-care system, adult education, and the utilization of available European Union funds, "Nepszabadsag" reported the next day. Economy Minister Istvan Csillag reportedly pledged at the meeting that some 240 kilometers of highway will be built by the end of the electoral term in mid-2006. Maria Vojnik, political state secretary at the Health Ministry, said that modernizing the social-security network and freezing the prices of basic medications are top priorities for her ministry. Meanwhile, a recent public-opinion poll carried out by Media pollster suggested that Megyessy's popularity reached a record low in March, "Magyar Hirlap" reported. The prime minister's popularity index on a 100-point scale fell from 67 points in August 2002 to 41 points in March. MSZ

Thirty-one people died and hundreds more were injured in interethnic violence across Kosova on 17 and 18 March, regional and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 March 2004). Peacekeepers evacuated an unspecified number of Serbs from several cities and towns for their own safety. UN staff left Mitrovica, which was the center of the clashes. On 19 March, 300 heavily armed French KFOR peacekeepers stormed three apartment buildings in a small Albanian enclave on the Serbian side of Mitrovica after allegedly being attacked by snipers firing from the buildings, Reuters reported. A few hours later, a "loud blast" was heard from a high-rise building in the Serbian half of Mitrovica. KFOR troops evacuated the residents. The previous day, a number of Kosovar and international representatives signed a joint declaration demanding an end to the violence, including: U.S. Admiral Gregory Johnson, who commands NATO's forces in Southern Europe; Harry Holkeri, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK); German Lieutenant General Holger Kammerhoff, who commands KFOR; the five leading Western diplomats in Prishtina; Kosova's President Ibrahim Rugova; parliament speaker Nexhat Daci; Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi; and the leaders of the principal political parties. PM

German Defense Minister Peter Struck said in Berlin on 19 March that 600 additional German peacekeepers will begin deploying to Kosova on 20 March, in addition to the nearly 1,000 other NATO reinforcements recently sent or pledged. The contingent announced by Struck will bring the total number of German troops in Kosova to 3,800. In Paris, French Defense Ministry authorities said that 400 troops would leave for Kosova in the course of the day. In Rome, Italian authorities announced the imminent departure of 130 paratroops for Kosova. KFOR's total strength stood at approximately 18,500 troops prior to the recent clashes. Meanwhile in Prishtina, the airport was reopened after a two-day closure. PM

Serbian Orthodox Church officials told reporters in Prishtina by telephone on 18 March that a total of 17 Orthodox religious buildings were set on fire in the course of the recent unrest in Prishtina, Skenderaj, and elsewhere, Reuters reported. It is unclear to what extent these claims have been independently confirmed. There is perhaps no issue in the region that inflames passions on all sides like attacks on religious buildings. In Lipjan, Serbian leaders said ethnic Albanian rioters hurled grenades into the Serbian quarter and exchanged fire with Finnish peacekeepers guarding the local church. In Bugojno, Bosnia, unidentified individuals set fire to a Serbian Orthodox church, which was damaged before firefighters extinguished the blaze, dpa reported. Bugojno now has a majority Muslim and Croatian population, although some Serbs have returned to their homes in recent years. In Sarajevo, Bosnian authorities announced unspecified increases in security around religious buildings and diplomatic missions. In Belgrade, Mufti Hamdija Jusufspahic said outside the badly damaged Bajrakli mosque that the Serbian authorities must do more to protect the Islamic community, Hina reported. Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle called on Serbs to refrain from retaliation for the damage to Serbian religious sites caused by "evil and criminals." PM

Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, Patriarch Pavle, and Serbia and Montenegro's Defense Minister Boris Tadic are among the Serbian leaders expected to lead a protest march in Belgrade on 19 March, Deutsche Welle's Serbian Service reported. They want the international community do more to protect Kosova's Serbian minority. The previous day, Kostunica repeated his assertion that the violence in Kosova is aimed at driving the Serbs from the province and was carefully planned. He did not offer evidence for his claim but stressed that "we will not give up Kosovo." Elsewhere, several hundred high-school students marched in Belgrade and, during the course of the demonstration, a recently unveiled memorial plaque honoring the late Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic was destroyed, Hina reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 March 2004). Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic's Civic Alliance and Djindjic's Democratic Party condemned the "undemocratic and uncivilized behavior on the streets of Belgrade," demanding that the vandals be punished. PM

Serbia and Montenegro's Defense Minister Tadic said in Bratislava, Slovakia, on 18 March that the violence in Kosova was well planned, RFE/RL reported. He stressed that ethnic Albanian "troops" have long been training in "some camps, military camps, all around Kosovo" but did not provide specifics. Tadic argued that KFOR did nothing about the alleged military preparations. At the UN, Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Svilanovic blamed the ethnic Albanian elected authorities in Kosova for the unrest. "They cannot or do not want to go out on the streets and prevent this kind of mass violence from happening. They want authority -- and a lot of authority was transferred to them -- however, they ignore responsibilities that come with authority," he stressed. In Vienna, Wolfgang Petritsch, who is Austria's ambassador to the UN in Geneva and a former high representative in Bosnia, said the presence in Serbia of a government dependent on the support of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's Socialists has helped destabilize Kosova, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Petritsch called for quick action to resolve the uncertainty in Kosova by settling the province's final status. On 19 March, Kosovar Prime Minister Rexhepi said in Mitrovica that the UN should have done more to uproot Serbian "intelligence structures" in the province. PM

Lieutenant General Kammerhoff said in Prishtina on 18 March that his commanders have orders to use "proportional force" to ensure their troops' safety, Hina reported. He added that all people in Kosova, "primarily the thousands of Albanians who are attacking KFOR, police, Serbian enclaves, and Orthodox churches, should be aware of KFOR's determination." He appealed to leaders of all communities to condemn violence and work to defuse the situation. At the same press conference, Holkeri called on media and politicians not to use "inflammatory speech." PM

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said in Prague on 18 March that "KFOR is doing everything it can, including the bringing in of reserves, to see that the violence stops," RFE/RL reported. He noted that NATO ambassadors have "again called on all parties in Kosovo itself, but also in Belgrade, of course, to show the utmost restraint. I am not saying it is [one or] the other party's fault, but for both to show restraint." De Hoop Scheffer added that he has "called on the media, as well, to show restraint in reporting because this [violence] should stop.... KFOR is doing everything it can. I have been on the phone with all the relevant players, in Prishtina, in Belgrade, with the UN, with the European Union. This violence should stop." He stressed, however, that "it is, of course, the responsibility of the parties themselves, the ethnic communities themselves, to prevent further violence." PM

The UN Security Council met in a hastily arranged session on 18 March to condemn the recent unrest in Kosova, RFE/RL reported. "Allow me, in particular, to remind the leaders of the Kosovo-Albanian community, that as the largest ethnic group, they have a responsibility to protect and promote the rights of all people within Kosovo, particularly its minorities," UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who is chairing the Security Council during March, said: "There will be no impunity for the perpetrators [of the violence]. Now is the time for responsible Kosovo-Albanian and Kosovo-Serb leaders to appear together before the people of Kosovo and defend democratic values against anarchy and mayhem." PM

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said in London on 18 March that "we have known all along, when we committed ourselves to resolving the terrible ethnic conflict in the whole of the former...Yugoslavia, that it was going to take some time," RFE/RL reported. "There are deep historic divisions, going back centuries, right across the Balkans, and many of these historic pressures are represented in the divided communities in Kosovo. Building nations is not an easy issue," he added. Straw asked, "What would have happened if we, in our backyard, had allowed that kind of ethnic cleansing, brutal genocidal slaughter to go on unchecked? There was in practice no alternative to us intervening in Kosovo. We were right to do it, and we're right to stay there." PM

UN Secretary-General Annan said in New York on 18 March that "despite the progress that has been made since 1999, we have not come far enough," RFE/RL reported. "Mutual respect between different communities is still not the accepted norm that it should be. It is clear that we need to study very carefully the implications for Kosovo's future," he added. The dominant view in many European media is that Kosova was an accident waiting to happen. Some observers charged that the UN and international community could have done more to promote economic development in democracy in Kosova. In any event, most observers agreed that a poor economy and growing nationalist frustrations on both sides combined to produce an explosive mixture (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 and 19 December 2003 and 13 and 20 February 2004). Kosovar Prime Minister Rexhepi told Deutsche Welle's Albanian Service that one should not jump to conclusions about the violence, adding that careful investigation is necessary to determine how emotions came to be so intense. Mitrovica Mayor Faruk Spahija stressed that serious economic development would do much to bring long-term peace to his community. PM

During its 18 March session, the Macedonian Security Council concluded that there is no danger that the interethnic clashes in neighboring Kosova could spill over to Macedonia, "Vreme" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 March 2004). Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski said after the session that the government is closely monitoring the situation in Kosova. In related news, Biljana Vankovska, a professor at the Institute for Defense and Peace Studies, told "Vreme" that the recent tensions in Kosova could influence the mood and rhetoric in Macedonia's upcoming presidential-election campaign. Vankovska warned that the Kosova tensions could polarize the political debate among the candidates. UB

The Academia Catavencu media-monitoring agency's 2003 report on Romanian press freedom released on 17 March states that political pressure on the country's media outlets intensified as the 2004 election year approached, Mediafax reported. The report states that there is "strong economic and political control over private television stations, control that induces self-censorship among news editors." According to official data, on 1 October 2003 the most prominent private television stations had collectively accumulated a debt to the state budget of some $20 million. The report said that at the local level, businessmen and politicians often gain control of radio and television outlets. In addition, the report cites the "alarming growth" of cases of physical aggression against journalists. U.S. Ambassador Michael Guest told the press conference on 17 March that the issue of press freedom includes cases of journalists being paid to report on certain topics or that outlets are being bought just to report a certain or political point of view. EU Ambassador Jonathan Scheele said at the same conference that press freedom is a key aspect of democracy. ZsM

Moldova's new ambassador to Romania, Victor Zlacevschi, on 18 March presented his credentials to Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, Mediafax reported. Geoana said after the meeting that they discussed the countries' relations, including the "unusual elements" of late. Geoana expressed the hope that the appointment of the new ambassador will bring a new direction to the countries' bilateral relations, adding that Romania seeks to continue supporting Moldova's efforts toward EU accession. Geoana also invited Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin to participate in a Central European Summit in May at the Romanian seaside resort of Mamaia. ZsM

Foreign embassies and organizations in Chisinau issued a joint press release on 18 March calling on state-owned Moldtelecom to reconsider its decision to disconnect the country's main Internet service provider, Flux reported. Moldtelecom on 18 March cut off International on the basis that the provider's operating license is invalid, leaving approximately 3,000 domestic and international firms, thousands of individuals, embassies, and NGOs without Internet access, Reuters reported the same day. The joint statement issued by the embassies of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Poland, Hungary, and Romania, as well as the Council of Europe, the IMF, and the World Bank missions in Moldova expressed their concern over Moldtelecom's decision to cut off International. "Alleged contraventions of registration procedures do not appear to justify a decision to put a stop to the functioning of a commercial company," the statement read, according to Reuters. "We urge Moldtelecom and the relevant authorities to reconsider this question. This seems all the more important in view of the commitment of the public authorities of Moldova to European norms and values." ZsM

Bulgarian lawmakers ratified the North Atlantic Treaty on 18 March by a vote of 226 to four, bnn reported. President Georgi Parvanov signed the ratification into law after the vote, saying, "Today, no doubt, we are reaching a climax in our security." He added that "more security means more obligations. Bulgaria must be a generator not only of its own security but of that in the region." Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski said NATO membership will provide stability and prosperity. "Even before membership, our country has proved that it is an ally that can be relied on," Saxecoburggotski said. One of the four lawmakers of the Socialist-dominated opposition Coalition for Bulgaria who voted against the ratification, retired General Lyuben Petrov, a former army chief of General Staff, said, "NATO is a terrorist organization." Bulgaria is to formally join NATO on 2 April together with Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. UB

Minister for European Integration Meglena Kuneva said on 18 March that Bulgaria must reform its judiciary in keeping with EU recommendations, as the country cannot afford to exacerbate skepticism over its possible EU accession, Bulgarian media reported. Kuneva's comments came in response to EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen's warning on 17 March that Bulgaria and Romania must reform their judiciaries or face postponement of their EU memberships. Verheugen urged Bulgaria and Romania to speed up judicial reforms to keep their EU efforts on track, adding that while he does not expect them to have perfect administrative systems, they still must meet the Copenhagen criteria for EU accession. Kuneva also said she agrees with Verheugen's statement that talks over Bulgaria's budgetary framework might not be finalized by the end of this summer. UB

One year ago, Iraq was on the brink of war, still within the grip of Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime. Dissent was not tolerated, and even the slightest mumble of discontent could lead to arrest, torture, and worse. News and information was controlled by state-run media, save for a few illegal satellite dishes. The Ba'ath Party was the only sanctioned political party, and membership of it was required if one sought to rise through the ranks. Any movement opposed to the regime faced certain destruction. The country appeared crippled after nearly 13 years of economic sanctions, although we now know that the regime continued enrich itself from the illegal sale of oil and other corrupt practices.

The UN, which re-entered the country in November 2002 in search of weapons of mass destruction, had left Iraq by March 2003. Hussein appeared defiant and, by some accounts, optimistic, that war would be averted and he would continue his 35-year hold on power. And, should war come, Hussein seemed confident that his forces would be able to contain and even drive out coalition forces.

The Iraqi opposition, with the support of the United States, said it was prepared to help usher in a new era of democracy in Iraq. When war came in the early morning hours of 20 March 2003, opposition members gathered in the gulf region awaiting permission to enter the country and claim what they saw as their rightful places in the country's new leadership.

Where does Iraq stand one year after the U.S.-led invasion? Much can be said about the coalition's efforts to bring stability to a country wracked by decades of dictatorial rule. Soon after the fall of the Ba'athist regime, the coalition moved to disband the Iraqi military apparatus and to bar individuals belonging to Hussein's Ba'ath Party from holding positions in the new Iraqi government. This decision, originally applauded, was later criticized by Iraqi leaders for a host of reasons. Most notably, some Iraqis said the decision to disband the security apparatus -- the same apparatus that had carried out Hussein's oppression of the Kurds and Shi'a -- ultimately contributed to the lack of security in the country. The decision also left tens of thousands of Iraqis out of work, and arguably might have contributed to terrorist attacks in the country. Later moves by the coalition to remedy the situation pacified some, but not all critics.

The coalition also moved swiftly to install an all-Iraqi governing council, comprised of individuals from both inside and outside Iraq, but dominated by those personalities from the diaspora who had forged a decade-long relationship with the United States. By some accounts, those people had no standing or relationship with the Iraqi people. Iraqi Governing Council members by and large, however, have proven themselves committed to securing a democratic country for their people, most notably with the ratification this month of an interim constitution. The document has been called the most advanced document concerning individual and minority rights to be found in the Middle East.

The council has not entirely avoided criticism though. Its detractors say some council members are primarily driven by the desire to consolidate their meager hold on power. Regardless of the veracity of these claims, the council's performance has thus far been successful, particularly given the history of the former Iraqi opposition, which was known for its inability at times to agree on even the simplest matters.

The United States has also put enormous effort into rebuilding the Iraqi infrastructure. Millions of dollars have been poured into the economy, and, despite complaints that the repair work was not done quickly enough, electricity and water has by and large been restored to prewar levels, and has even surpassed those levels in some parts of the country. The dilapidated oil infrastructure, still in need of upgrading, has largely been restored, and oil production is nearing prewar levels. As of this week, Baghdad has exported $6.4 billion worth of crude oil since the fall of the Hussein regime.

The work of U.S. Major General David Petraeus' 101st Airborne Division in northern Iraq is noteworthy. In less than one year, the division has trained nearly 20,000 Iraqi civil-defense-corps units, facility-protection forces, and police. It has also completed more than 5,000 reconstruction projects, including the refurbishment of some 500 schools, in addition to combating enemy insurgents and seeking out weapons caches. The division was also responsible for killing in Mosul of Uday and Qusay Hussein, the sons of the former dictator.

There has been progress in virtually every community in Iraq. Local councils have been formed. NGOs are being established. Refugees are returning. And Iraq has a new currency. In Kurdistan, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), once bitter rivals, have taken steps toward forming a cohesive leadership. Women across the country have stepped forward to demand their rights, and media have flourished. More than 200 newspapers have been established since the fall of the regime. The Internet is now widely available.

But unemployment and insecurity remain the biggest obstacles to recovery. Sixty percent of the population was estimated to be unemployed at the end of the war. A recent survey by the Iraqi Planning Ministry set that figure at 48.7 percent. While thousands of Iraqis join the workforce each week, more needs to be done to alleviate the situation.

A survey released this week by Oxford Research International found that 85 percent of Iraqis feel that reestablishing public security is the biggest priority for the coming year. By contrast, only 30 percent said that holding national elections is a priority. The deteriorating security situation has clearly obstructed the return to normalcy in Iraq. Attacks by unknown militants -- identified as a nebulous combination of Ba'athist loyalists, foreign fighters, religious extremists, and common criminals -- have left the country vulnerable. The violence has struck every sectarian and religious group, with major bomb attacks targeting the UN headquarters in Baghdad on 19 August 2003, Shi'ites in Al-Najaf on 29 August 2003 and Karbala and Baghdad on 2 March, the International Committee of the Red Cross on 27 October 2003, and Kurdistan Democratic Party and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan offices on 1 February.

Countless Iraqi police stations have also been targeted. Improvised explosive devices have claimed dozens of victims, and assassinations of local leaders and former Ba'athists continue. Kidnapping and extortion are also on the rise.

Iraqi Governing Council members blame the coalition for failing to secure Iraq's borders for months, allowing the infiltration of foreign fighters, and for dismantling the security apparatus, which the council claims could have functioned once the Ba'athist leadership was removed. Nevertheless, the U.S.-led coalition continues to capture militants and to uncover cells linked to the Ansar Al-Islam and Al-Qaeda terrorist groups.

In less than one year, the coalition has captured or killed 46 of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis from the deposed Hussein regime, and built a 200,000 strong Iraqi security force.

There are also growing concerns that terrorist attacks could lead to sectarian violence or even civil war. Despite claims by some Iraqis that the country would never disintegrate in such a way, one only need look at the contested city of Kirkuk to see how volatile the situation remains. Kurds, Arabs, and Turkomans are vying for control of the northern, oil-rich city. Each group claims a historical link and a current majority in the city, and tensions have led to bloodshed on more than one occasion in the past year.

Even more troubling to some Iraqis is the growing influence of the Shi'a groups and their increasing need to kowtow to the wishes of Iraq's most powerful Shi'ite cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. The moderate cleric, who claims to have no desire to enter the political arena, has nonetheless voiced his opinion on many issues related to the future Iraqi state, and Shi'a groups have scrambled to appease him. This was especially evident in the surprising, 5 March refusal of Shi'a groups to sign off on the interim constitution because of al-Sistani's reservations about the document. After further talks, the groups agreed to sign on 8 March.

As the 30 June deadline for the transfer of power approaches, Iraqis should be optimistic about their future. Enormous progress has been achieved overt the past year. Problems continue and Iraq must still come to terms with the depth and breadth of the damage caused by 35 years of Ba'athist rule. The Hussein legacy is this: at least 290,000 people disappeared over two decades; some 270 mass graves have been discovered, which could contain as many as 400,000 bodies. Compared to the tyrannical future they faced under Hussein, the future of the Iraqi people now is bright.

The Karachi-based daily "Dawn" reported on 19 March that the Al-Qaeda terrorist network's suspected second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahiri, might be "holed up" in an area of the South Waziristan tribal agency bordering Afghanistan as some 7,000 Pakistani regular military forces and members of the paramilitary Frontier Corps continue an operation launched on 18 March. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf confirmed that a "high-value" Al-Qaeda target is surrounded, but he declined to be more specific. A senior unidentified Pakistani official said Islamabad has been "receiving intelligence and information from...[its] agents who are working in the tribal areas that al-Zawahiri could be among the people hiding," in South Waziristan, according to AP on 19 March. The Pakistani Frontier Corps launched an assault on Wana, South Waziristan's administrative capital, on 16 March and reportedly killed a number of suspected foreign militants and local sympathizers (see RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2004). AT

Abdul Samad, purporting to speak for the neo-Taliban, said on 19 March that al-Zawahiri is safe in Afghanistan, AFP reported. Abdul Samad, who reportedly was speaking from southern Afghanistan, said he is "100 percent" certain that al-Zawahiri is safe and described reports that he his surrounded by Pakistani forces as "propaganda by the U.S. coalition and by the Pakistani Army to weaken Taliban morale." Mullah Obaidullah Akhund, defense minister of the ousted Taliban regime, said on 19 March that he has information that al-Zawahiri is not in South Waziristan, Reuters reported. Obaidullah Akhund, speaking from an undisclosed location, added, "It would be speculation to say where senior Al-Qaeda leaders have taken shelter, because they keep changing their hideouts." The former Taliban minister suggested that if al-Zawahiri is indeed in the area, locals will help him to escape. Obaidullah Akhund added that if al-Zawahiri could not manage to flee, then he would "prefer to become a martyr." In February, the neo-Taliban named Hamed Agha as the movement's only authorized spokesman; but Abdul Samad has also been purporting to speak on behalf of the group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2004). AT

Two U.S. soldiers were killed and two others wounded in Tarin Kowt, the provincial capital of Oruzgan Province, on 18 March, AP reported. The U.S. soldiers and units of the Afghan National Army were attacked by "anticoalition" militia, U.S. military sources said according to the report. AT

Hakimullah has been appointed deputy governor of the troubled southern Afghan Zabul Province, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported on 18 March. Hakimullah replaces the outspoken Mawlawi Mohammad Omar, who reportedly is "known for giving interviews to the press and telling the truth about the situation in Zabul." Mohammad Omar claimed in July that neo-Taliban forces had named their own governor and other administrative officers in the province; and in November, he said that in the Ata Ghar, Naw Bahar, Shinkay, and Shamalzai districts, "either the Afghan government does not have control...or [the provinces] are abandoned or they are controlled by people connected with the Taliban" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 July and 10 November 2003). AT

U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice in an 18 March interview on CNN rejected the need for Washington and Tehran to enter a dialogue, Reuters reported. "The Iranians know very well, through all kinds of channels and public statements, what our problems are in the relationship," Rice said. "So I don't think anybody needs to have a conversation with the Iranians, because they know what the problem is." Rice described Washington's concerns as the belief that Iran is harboring senior Al-Qaeda personnel, interfering in Iraqi affairs, and trying to develop a nuclear-weapons capability. A report in the "Financial Times" that Tehran has sent messages to Washington about the resumption of relations and International Atomic Energy Agency Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei's suggestion during a recent trip to Washington that the United States and Iran discuss the nuclear issue has led to much speculation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 and 18 March 2004). Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi denied on 18 March that el-Baradei is an intermediary, ISNA reported. "Muhammad el-Baradei is not carrying any message from the Islamic Republic of Iran to the American authorities." BS

Residents of the Badrud district of the Natanz and Qamsar constituency in Isfahan Province responded to rumors about the annulment of election results in their constituency by staging a demonstration on 18 March, ISNA reported. The demonstration consisted of a sit-in outside the office of Badrud Friday Prayer leader Hojatoleslam Hassan Dehshiri, who told the gathering that local officials will convey their desires to Tehran. The sit-in concluded with a resolution calling on the Guardians Council not to undermine people's rights. The Guardians Council supervises elections, and its annulment of election results elsewhere has led to violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 March 2004). Local officials have denied that election results in Natanz are being changed (see "RFE/RL Iran report," 15 March 2004). BS

Tehran Prosecutor-General Hojatoleslam Abbas-Ali Alizadeh denied on 18 March that parliamentarians are receiving court summonses because they submitted their resignations, ISNA reported. Some 11 legislators have received summonses this month, and more than 100 legislators tendered their resignations to protest the Guardians Council's disqualification of incumbents ahead of the February elections (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 16 February 2004 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2004). Alizadeh did not explain the recent spate of court cases. BS

Islamic Republic of Iran Railways ( issued a communique on 18 March in response to the State Inspectorate Organization's earlier announcement about the main cause of the February train derailment in Nishabur, IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2004). The railways company, which is affiliated with the Roads and Transport Ministry, said that it has yet to receive the official report from the inspectorate but has seen copies of it on several websites. The communique said officials from the ministry and the railways company were on the scene immediately after the disaster to clean up the mess and make sure the trains ran on time. The communique responded to the inspectorate report's call for accountability on the parts of the Roads and Transport minister, as well as the railway's board of governors and managing director, as an inappropriate way of handling the issue. The railways company defended its safety record. BS

Zhuhai Zhenrong, a state-affiliated Chinese crude-oil importer, has signed a framework agreement to buy more than 110 million tons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) annually from Iran in 2008-33, the "China Daily" reported on 18 March. From 2008-13, Iran would provide 2.5 million tons of LNG a year, and from 2013 onward it would provide 5 million tons a year. The deal is worth an estimated $20 billion. Zheng Mai, a spokeswoman for Zhuhai Zhenrong, said this is still a preliminary agreement that requires the Chinese government's approval, AFP reported. BS

Kofi Annan said on 18 March that he is prepared to send a UN team back to Iraq "as soon as practicable," UN News Center announced the same day ( Annan told reporters at UN headquarters in New York that he has replied to an invitation from the Iraqi Governing Council to send a UN team to Iraq to help plan for nationwide elections. The Governing Council is also seeking UN assistance in establishing a broad national dialogue on the shape and scope of the interim government, the website announced. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer reportedly also sent a letter to the UN this week asking the world body to assist Iraq during the transition period. KR

The UN's auditing office is moving forward with an investigation into allegations of corruption in the oil-for-food program (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 12 February 2004), UN News Center reported on 17 March. UN spokesman Fred Eckhard said the same day that the UN Office for Internal Oversight Services is speaking with current UN employees, former oil-for-food personnel, and others outside the UN system as part of its investigation, but is waiting for "evidence" from Baghdad. "It isn't just that they're waiting for the Governing Council to provide copies of the documentary evidence that some members of the council indicated that they had," Eckhard said. "We don't yet know whether we will ever get this evidence from Baghdad." The oil-for-food program was established by the UN in 1996 and allowed the Iraqi government to sell oil for food and humanitarian goods, sustaining an estimated 60 percent of the population. The program was officially concluded in November (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 20 November 2003). KR

The U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) said on 18 March that the Hussein regime took in approximately $10.1 billion in illegal revenues through the oil-for-food program, a figure substantially higher than previous estimates, AP reported the same day. The GAO previously estimated the regime collected $6.5 billion in illegal revenues via the program. The GAO now believes the regime took in $5.7 billion for oil smuggled out of Iraq and $4.4 billion from illicit surcharges on oil sales and purchases of commodities. KR

The first Arab-Kurdish dialogue conference opened in Irbil on 18 March, KurdSat television reported. Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) head Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) leader Mas'ud Barzani participated in the conference alongside members of the Iraqi Governing Council, ministers, and political and national figures. Representatives from the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) also attended. The main theme of the conference focused on the need to establish firm relations based on mutual understanding and the importance of holding national dialogue among all Iraqis, KurdSat television reported. Kurds living above the 36th parallel in northern Iraq were protected by the coalition for 12 years. In that time, the Kurdish parties established their own regional governments and a revitalization of Kurdish culture took place. KR

Colin Powell traveled to Iraq on 19 March to mark the first anniversary of Operation Iraqi Freedom, international media reported. Speaking to U.S. soldiers and civilians in the Iraqi capital, Powell said the U.S.-led invasion eliminated a "horrible dictatorial regime," Reuters reported. KR