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Newsline - March 30, 2004


MOSCOW EXPRESSES CONCERN OVER NATO EXPANSION...
Russian officials and commentators reacted negatively on 29 March to the admission of seven new members to NATO, Russian media reported. Duma Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev (Unified Russia) noted that four of the new members -- the Baltic states and Slovenia -- have not signed the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) and that this failure could produce "a gray zone" that would worry Moscow, ITAR-TASS reported on 29 March. Duma Defense Committee Chairman General Viktor Zavarzin (Unified Russia) said Russia must rethink its defense posture now that the Baltic states have joined NATO. "Taking into account NATO actions, we can adjust our military-construction plans. Moreover, I believe outlays for national defense should be boosted," Zavarzin was quoted by ITAR-TASS as saying on 29 March. Before entering the Duma, Zavarzin served as a Russian liaison officer with NATO. RC

...AND ABOUT NATO AIR PATROLS OVER THE BALTICS...
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on 29 March that he will participate in a session of the Russia-NATO Council in Brussels on 2 April, at which he will voice Russia's concerns over NATO's admission of seven new members, Russian media reported. Moscow, Lavrov said, is particularly concerned by a NATO decision to base warplanes in Lithuania and to patrol the airspace of the Baltic states (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 24 March 2004). "NATO expansion certainly touches upon Russia's political, military, and, to a certain extent, economic interests," Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko said on 29 March, "Izvestiya" reported. "This compels us to consider it in the most serious way." According to the daily, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Duma Deputy Kosachev, Duma Deputy Dmitrii Rogozin and others have said that Russia might have to change its policy of unilaterally demilitarizing the zone around the Baltic states. "We must take the most decisive measures," former Russian Air Force commander General Anatolii Kornukov said, according to "Izvestiya." "And this includes in relation to the alliance's aircraft. If they violate our border, they should be shot down and that's it." RC

...AS DUMA PREPARES 'STERN' RESOLUTION
The State Duma on 31 March will consider a "fairly stern" resolution on NATO expansion, ORT and other Russian media reported on 30 March, citing Deputy Duma Speaker Lyubov Sliska (Unified Russia). The resolution was jointly prepared by the Duma's Defense, Foreign Relations, and Security committees, RosBalt reported. Sliska said deputies will ask Russia's representatives at the 2 April Russia-NATO Council meeting in Brussels to present the resolution to NATO. "If Russia is not the enemy, as [U.S. President George W.] Bush said, then [NATO expansion] should not be directed against Russia but against the general threat of terrorism," Sliska said. "And it is not to the Russian border that the Berlin Wall should be moved but in a completely different direction." Presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii was quoted in the government organ "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 30 March as saying: "We can accept NATO's presence in Bulgaria or Romania as part of the war on terrorism. But there is absolutely no reason for such a presence in the Baltic states." RC

ANALYST SEES NATO EXPANSION AS FAILURE OF RUSSIAN DIPLOMACY
Strategic Assessments Institute Director Sergei Oznobishchev told "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on 30 March that NATO expansion is a "diplomatic failure" for Russia, one that marks "a new stage in the development of events in Europe." Oznobishchev downplayed the possible military significance of the inclusion of the Baltic states in the alliance, saying that "on the military level, nothing has changed." He attributed the desire of the Baltic countries to enter NATO to a "virtually genetic fear of the Soviet Union, and now Russia." He added that it must be considered a failure of Russian diplomacy and politics that Russia was unable to counter that fear in any meaningful way. RC

YABLOKO LEADERS RESPOND TO OLIGARCH'S CRITIQUE OF LIBERALISM...
The Russian media on 30 March was full of commentary and speculation relating to the 29 March "Vedomosti" article by jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2004). Yabloko party deputy head Sergei Ivanenko told polit.ru, "We must have a discussion about liberalism, but it is improper to oppose a man in such a situation." Asked whether Yabloko plans to cooperate with Khodorkovskii, Ivanenko said, "It is best to put off that question until he gets out of prison." Fellow Yabloko deputy head Sergei Mitrokhin told RosBalt on 29 March that it is clear that Khodorkovskii has broken with the policies of former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar. "It is strange that he is doing this now, but better late than never," Mitrokhin said. He also welcomed Khodorkovskii's call for Russian business to be more responsible and to contribute more to social development. RC

...AS KHODORKOVSKII FACES ACCUSATIONS OF PLAGIARISM...
Khodorkovskii's 29 March "Vedomosti" article uses many phrases and formulations seemingly directly taken from an article posted on utro.ru on 18 March entitled "Russian Liberalism In The 21st Century" under the byline of "Yu. A. Stepanov," "Kommersant-Daily," pravda.ru, and Ekho Moskvy reported on 30 March. Utro.ru Editor Mikhail Gurevich confirmed to Ekho Moskvy that the name Stepanov was a pseudonym but declined to identify the author of the piece. The Internet information site "Vokrug novostei" (http://www.vokruginfo.ru) reported that Stepanov was a pseudonym for former National Strategy Council Director and Kremlin insider Stanislav Belkovskii, who is credited as being the ideologue of the recent anti-oligarch campaign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May, 30 July, and 28 October 2003, and 5 January 2004). Utro.ru in May 2003 was the first media outlet to publish the National Strategy Council report that warned of an impending "oligarchic coup," and is considered to have set off the chain of events leading to Khodorkovskii's arrest in October. RC

...AND KREMLIN INSIDER CALLS RUMORS AN ATTEMPT TO 'DISCREDIT' KHODORKOVSKII
Belkovskii on 30 March rejected speculation that he authored Khodorkovskii's article, calling it an effort "to discredit" Khodorkovskii, newsinfo.ru reported. He also denied writing the utro.ru article that appeared under the pseudonym Stepanov, "Kommersant-Daily" reported. However, Belkovskii said he agrees with many of the ideas in Khodorkovskii's article. "Vedomosti" declined to comment on the controversy, but Khodorkovskii's lawyer, Anton Drel, said that his client was indeed the author of the "Vedomosti" piece and that he worked on it for more than a month. RC

OFFICIAL: INTERIOR MINISTRY WORKING TO IMPROVE INVESTMENT CLIMATE
In an interview prompted by the 65th anniversary of the creation of the Interior Ministry's Main Economic Crime Directorate, directorate head Lieutenant General Aleksei Orlov said his unit investigated 204,000 felonies last year, including 9,500 that were committed by organized-crime structures, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 30 March. "The main goals of the Main Economic Crime Directorate are protecting the interests of property owners in all ways, creating a positive investment climate, rolling back the shadow economy, and combating organized crime," Orlov said. He added that the directorate is focusing on protecting intellectual property, having confiscated equipment and assets worth 920 million rubles ($31 million) from suspected copyright violators in 2003. He said that in February and March of this year, his directorate received 2,077 complaints from citizens regarding allegations of officials soliciting bribes. RC

METALS GIANT SEALS BILLION-DOLLAR DEAL IN SOUTH AFRICA
Norilsk Nickel, which is owned by oligarch Vladimir Potanin's Interros group, announced on 29 March that it has acquired for $1.16 billion in cash a 20 percent stake in the South African gold-mining company Gold Fields Limited, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and other Russian media reported. Gold Fields Limited is one of the world's leading gold producers, mining nearly 120 tons last year and controlling reserves estimated at 2,400 tons. According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," the deal is one of the largest acquisitions ever made by a Russian company outside of Russia, far eclipsing Norilsk Nickel's 2002 purchase of the Stillwater Mining Company for a reported $341 million (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 November 2002 and 18 June 2003). RC

DOES PUTIN WANT TO SEND YAVLINSKII TO EUROPE?
NTV reported on 29 March with reference to an unidentified source in the Russian government that Yabloko party leader Grigorii Yavlinskii has been offered the post of Russia's envoy to the EU. The party's press service confirmed that the offer has been made but did not offer information about Yavlinskii's decision. The post of envoy was previously held by the current prime minister, Mikhail Fradkov. Other senior Yabloko officials have recently entered the government. Last month, former State Duma Deputy Vladimir Lukin became human rights ombudsman, and this month former Duma Deputy Igor Artemev became director of the new Federal Antimonopoly Service (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February and 11 March 2004). JAC

FURTHER KREMLIN STRANGLEHOLD ON INFORMATION DISSEMINATION?
The presidential administration wants to subordinate each ministry's press service to the Kremlin's so that the government can pursue a "unified" information policy, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 29 March. According to the daily, in the past each ministry has had complete independence with regard to conducting its own information policy. Under the Kremlin's new plan, ministries and government information departments will require permission from the Kremlin press service to post documents on the Internet or to provide information to the media. The daily, citing unidentified Kremlin sources, said the new system should plug information leaks about things such as "how [Finance Minister] Aleksei Leonidovich [Kudrin] is fighting with [Economic Development and Trade Minister] German Oskarovich [Gref]." Former government spokesman and former deputy head of the government apparatus Aleksei Volin told the daily, "As we understand it, the cabinet of ministers has become so technical that there is not even a special need for a person who is occupied with public relations." JAC

COMMUNISTS ON THE VERGE OF A PURGE
Speaking at the Communist Party's Central Committee plenum in Moscow on 27 March, party deputy chairman Ivan Melnikov called for setting up a new structure within the party to oversee the work of Communist legislators across Russia and to test the reliability of candidates for posts on the Central Committee, gazeta.ru reported on 29 March. The website commented that Melnikov, who is a member of the wing of the party that supports party leader Gennadii Zyuganov, has apparently suggested setting up the new body in order to purge the party's governing bodies of "alien elements, installed by [Zyuganov rival] Gennadii Semigin and others." In remarks to reporters on 27 March, Zyuganov called for a renewal of party cadres. He told reporters that the party is "dying of old age." "We need a combination of experience and youthful fervor," Zyuganov said, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta." The party's next congress will be held in July. JAC

LOBBYING DECREASES IN NEW DUMA...
Duma officials have noticed a decline in the number of representatives of large companies and financial groups seeking meetings with committee chairpeople and other political leaders in the Duma, "Moskovskie novosti," No. 11, reported. Analysts have even begun talking about the "death" of lobbying in the Duma. According to the weekly, all decisions about legislation are now made in one office on the sixth floor -- that of deputy Unified Russia faction head Yurii Volkov, a Federal Security Service (FSB) reserve officer. JAC

...ALTHOUGH 'LOBBYISTS' REMAIN
At the same time, "Moskovskie novosti" concluded that it is possible to assert with a high degree of certainty that distinct lobbying groups are present in the Duma -- whether they are active or not. Energy Committee Chairman Valerii Yazev (Unified Russia) and Natural Resources Committee member Sergei Muravlenko (Communist) represent the interests of the oil-and-gas industry in the Duma, according to the weekly. Muravlenko is a former chairman of the board of directors of Yukos. Budget Committee Deputy Chairman Yevgenii Ivanov (Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, or LDPR) represents Oleg Deripaska's Base Element holding company. Ivanov is a former deputy general director of Deripaska's Russian Aluminum (Rusal). Credit Organizations and Financial Markets Committee Member Aleksandr Koval (Unified Russia), president of the All-Russia Union of Insurers, reportedly represents the interests of the insurance industry. Nikoil reportedly "delegated" deputies Vladimir Aseev (Unified Russia) and Mukharbek Aushev (Unified Russia) to the Duma. Aushev is a former LUKoil vice president. Sedmoi Kontinent General Director Vladimir Gruzdev (Unified Russia) reportedly looks out for the interests of large retail companies. JAC

INTERREGIONAL ORGANIZATIONS CALLED OBSOLETE
Chelyabinsk Governor Petr Sumin told reporters in Ufa on 26 March that the Greater Urals interregional association "has performed necessary, useful, and good work, but its time has passed," regions.ru reported on 29 March, citing the Electronic News Agency. Sumin was one of the initiators of the association in 1991. Sumin said that now it is more expedient for regions to pursue bilateral agreements, such as the one that is being put negotiated between Bashkortostan and Chelyabinsk. Sumin denied that this agreement duplicates some already signed among members of the Greater Urals association. JAC

KASYANOV HOLDOVER CANNED...
Prime Minister Fradkov signed a decree on 29 March dismissing Oleg Buklemishev as deputy head of the government apparatus, ITAR-TASS reported. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 30 March, Buklemishev's bureaucratic career has always been closely connected with that of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. JAC

...AS NEW FOREST CZAR NAMED
Prime Minister Fradkov appointed on 29 March Valerii Roshchupkin to head the Federal Forestry Agency, Russian media reported. Roshchupkin most recently served as first deputy natural resources minister, according to RosBalt. He is also a former mayor of Omsk and former deputy chairman of the State Construction Committee. JAC

PERM PICKS NEW SENATOR
The Perm Oblast administration of acting Governor Oleg Chirkunov has nominated Tatyana Popova to serve as its representative in the Federation Council, regions.ru reported on 29 March. Chirkunov was the oblast's representative before he was named acting governor earlier this month. Popova teaches economics at Perm State University and has worked as an assistant to a Federation Council member. In December 2005, Perm Oblast will become part of a new federation entity, Perm Krai, which will then elect a new governor. JAC

SOME NIZHNII RESIDENTS WANT TO RETURN ENVOY'S GIFT
For almost a year, residents of Nizhnii Novgorod have been treated to 10 hours a day of the sounds of a local commercial radio station, Na Pokrovke, on Bolshoi Pokrovka street, RFE/RL's Nizhnii Novgorod correspondent reported on 29 March. According to the report, the complaints of some residents who live near or on this major street are apparently falling on deaf ears. The broadcasts were reportedly a "gift" to the city from presidential envoy to the Volga Federal District Sergei Kirienko on the occasion of Russian Independence Day -- 12 June -- last year. The station frequently repeats the message: "With the support of Sergei Vladlenovich, we started broadcasting. Day and night, and in any weather, we are with you." The station plays popular music and commercials. One unidentified male resident told RFE/RL: "If I am at my home for no more than 40 minutes, maximum, then I can endure it. My wife gets a headache. Our 5-year-old has to be taken out, and his daily routine has been interrupted." JAC

CHECHEN FIELD COMMANDER SAYS RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH A LEGITIMATE TARGET
In a statement summarized by chechenpress.com on 29 March, field commander Shamil Basaev said he believes the Chechen resistance has the legitimate right to respond to Russian aggression using almost any means except bacteriological or nuclear weapons. He said his men are capable of striking against Russian nationals in practically any country, but will not target Russians outside the Russian Federation. Basaev said that within Russia, he will not target mosques, synagogues, monasteries, kindergartens, orphanages, or psychiatric hospitals. However, he reserved the right to attack Russian Orthodox churches, claiming that the church leadership is overwhelmingly composed of agents of the Federal Security Service and Russian Military Intelligence, both of which are, according to Basaev, agencies that "actively participate in the genocide of the Chechen people." LF

SUPREME COURT UPHOLDS SENTENCE AGAINST RUSSIAN OFFICER
The presidium of the Russian Supreme Court has rejected an appeal to annul the ruling of the Supreme Court's Military Collegium upholding a 10-year prison sentence handed down by the North Caucasus Military Court on Colonel Yurii Budanov, Interfax reported on 29 March. Budanov was found guilty in July on charges that he murdered a young Chechen woman in March 2000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 July and 7 October 2003). Budanov's lawyer told Interfax he will now appeal to Supreme Court Chief Justice Vyacheslav Lebedev. LF

MORE ARMENIAN OPPOSITION ACTIVISTS ARRESTED
Five more members of the opposition alliance Artarutiun were arrested early on 29 March in the wake of clashes the previous day at an opposition demonstration in Giumri between Artarutiun supporters and plainclothes police, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2004). The regional prosecutor told RFE/RL that the five, together with four men detained on 28 March, will be charged with hooliganism. The leaders of the political parties aligned in Artarutiun met in Yerevan on 29 March to discuss how to prevent further "provocations" by police. They again affirmed that they will launch mass protests in mid-April with the aim of forcing the present Armenian leadership to resign. LF

RUSSIAN STATE DUMA SPEAKER VISITS AZERBAIJAN
Boris Gryzlov met in Baku on 29 March with his Azerbaijani counterpart, parliament Chairman Murtuz Alesqerov, and with President Ilham Aliyev, ITAR-TASS and Turan reported. Stressing that there are no unresolved problems between the two countries, Aliyev predicted that the re-election of incumbent Russian President Vladimir Putin for a second term will contribute to the strengthening of bilateral relations. The two men discussed various aspects of such cooperation, including ways to increase bilateral annual trade turnover from $500 million to $1 billion. LF

AZERBAIJANI SECURITY ROUNDS UP DRUG TRAFFICKERS
The Azerbaijani National Security Ministry apprehended on 27 March a group of five people, including an Iranian citizen, who allegedly engaged in smuggling drugs from Iran through those territories of southern Azerbaijan currently under Armenian control, Turan reported on 29 March, citing a ministry press release. The ministry claimed that a preliminary investigation of the group's activities confirmed that its members engaged in cultivating drugs in Nagorno-Karabakh and other territories not under the control of the Azerbaijani central government. Armenian officials have systematically rejected Azerbaijani allegations that drugs are being produced in Karabakh. LF

OBSERVERS HAIL 'PROGRESS' IN GEORGIAN BALLOT
The International Election Observation Mission (IEOM) noted in a 29 March press release that the previous day's parliamentary election in Georgia "demonstrated commendable progress in relation to previous elections" and progress toward greater democratization. But at the same time, it registered "continued intimidation and physical abuse" against opposition supporters and journalists in Adjaria, and concluded that "a genuine level of political pluralism" still needs to be reestablished. In Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher concurred with the IEOM verdict, adding that while "I think we can say the parliamentary elections look to have been conducted well,... there are allegations of serious irregularities in a couple places," according to the independent Georgian television station Rustavi-2. By contrast, the British NGO Links in its preliminary report on the ballot focused on numerous perceived flaws in the election process, including parliament's refusal to lower the 7 percent threshold for proportional representation; the failure to compile new, accurate, updated voter lists; and President Mikheil Saakashvili's personal participation in election campaigning in direct violation of the constitution. LF

GEORGIAN RULING PARTY MAINTAINS CLEAR MAJORITY
With approximately two-thirds of the 1.5 million ballots counted as of midday on 30 March, the ruling National Movement-Democrats still has an overwhelming majority with 65.6 percent of the vote, Caucasus Press and rustavi2.com reported, quoting Central Election Commission Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili. In second place by virtue of the large number of votes it garnered in Adjaria is the Union for Democratic Revival headed by Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze. The New Rightists-Industrialists are in third place with 7.18 percent. According to official returns, no other party surmounted the minimum 7 percent of the vote required to win parliamentary representation under the proportional system, although the Labor Party continues to claim its own exit polls show it did so. The daily "Alia" on 30 March quoted Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, son of the late President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, as claiming that his Tavisupleba party also polled more than 7 percent of the vote but its total was illegally reduced to deny it parliament representation. LF

ADJAR OPPOSITION DEMANDS ANNULMENT OF VOTE IN ONE DISTRICT, PRETERM BALLOT FOR REPUBLICAN LEADER
The Adjar opposition movement Our Adjara called on 29 March for the annulment of voting in Khulo district on the grounds that the vote count was abandoned when unidentified people exerted pressure on local election officials, Caucasus Press reported. Our Adjara leader Eduard Surmanidze told journalists in Tbilisi on 29 March that when the new parliament convenes, it should amend the Georgian Constitution to specify the precise subordination of Adjaria to the central government and then schedule preterm elections for a successor to Abashidze, Caucasus Press reported. Abashidze's term expires in 2006. LF

NEIGHBORS SHORE UP BORDERS IN WAKE OF ATTACKS IN UZBEKISTAN
Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan all heightened border security after a series of attacks and bomb blasts in Uzbekistan on 28 and 29 March left 19 people dead (see Uzbek items below), regional media reported. Interfax-Kazakhstan quoted a source in Kazakhstan's border patrol as saying on 29 March that the Kazakh-Uzbek border was "effectively sealed off." Jusupbek Sharipov, governor of Kyrgyzstan's southwestern Jalalabad Province, met with law enforcement officials to coordinate a tighter security policy along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border, akipress.org reported on 29 March. Meanwhile, the deputy commander of the Tajik border troops, Major General Nuralisho Nazarov, told ITAR-TASS on 29 March that all Tajik border attachments had received "appropriate instructions,... and particularly the ones that are deployed in the northern Soghd Region, which is linked by transit roads with virtually all of Uzbekistan's regions." DK

TAJIK OPPOSITION PARTY'S REGISTRATION REJECTED
Tajikistan's Justice Ministry turned down the opposition Taraqqiyot Party's application for registration on 29 March, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. According to the Justice Ministry, 11 of the 1,173 people listed as party supporters have denied involvement with the party. Taraqqiyot Chairman Sulton Quvvatov told the Avesta website on 29 March that party members were "illegally detained and even tortured" to force them to renounce their party affiliation. Quvvotav vowed to file an appeal with Tajikistan's Supreme Court. If that is unsuccessful, he said, Taraqqiyot will take its case to the International Court of Justice in The Hague (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2, 5, and 15 March 2004). DK

RUSSIAN BANK TO HANDLE TURKMEN DEBT COLLECTION
Russia's privately owned National Reserve Bank (NRB) will represent Turkmenistan in the country's efforts to recover its international debts, RosBalt reported on 29 March. The agreement came in the course of a meeting between NRB President Yurii Kudimov and Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov. According to the report, Turkmenistan hopes to collect $500 million in debts from Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Kazakhstan, as well as $50 million from a number of Russian commercial banks. Turkmenistan.ru reported on 29 March that Russia owes Turkmenistan more than $100 million. In remarks delivered after his meeting with Niyazov, Kudimov stressed NRB's experience in the debt market. NRB is one of Russia's largest investment banks. DK

UZBEK POLICE CLOSE IN ON SUSPECTED BOMBERS...
Police surrounded a building on the northeastern outskirts of Tashkent on 30 March following an explosion that might have been intended to destroy a dam and flood the city, dpa reported. Two Interior Ministry special police were reportedly seriously injured in the ensuing 90-minute shootout. Reuters quoted Uzbek Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilhom Zakirov as saying the situation is under control, and that police "are eliminating the remains of a terrorist group." The Uzbek Interior Ministry has already detained 11 people in connection with a series of violent incidents in Uzbekistan on 28 and 29 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2004). LF

...AS DEATH TOLL CLIMBS
Uzbek Prosecutor-General Rashid Qodirov announced in a 29 March news conference in Tashkent that 19 people were killed and 26 wounded as a result of the bombings and attacks on 28 and 29 March, adding that four suspected suicide bombers were among those killed, AP reported. The first incident was a bomb blast in a home in Bukhara on 28 March that killed 10 people, according to the news agency. The blast allegedly occurred in the home of a militant or militant sympathizer. Three militiamen were killed in two separate attacks in Tashkent on the night of 28-29 March. Finally, three militiamen and one child were killed in two bombings in Tashkent on 29 March. At least one of the Tashkent bombings was the work of a female suicide bomber, according to Qodirov. Large quantities of ammonium nitrate, aluminum powder, and detonators were discovered in various locations in Tashkent and Bukhara, official news agency uza.uz reported on 29 March. LF/DK

UZBEK PRESIDENT BLAMES VIOLENCE ON INTERNATIONAL TERRORISTS
Addressing the nation on 29 March, Uzbek President Islam Karimov suggested that unnamed foreign forces were behind the violent incidents in Tashkent and Bukhara, the BBC reported. Karimov claimed terrorists originally intended to strike during the Norouz holiday on 21 March, but were compelled to postpone their plans by heightened security. A U.S. academic who was in Tashkent for Norouz told "RFE/RL Newsline" on 29 March that a planned ostentatious public celebration was cancelled at the last minute, and a smaller-scale event took place at an unpublicized location. Karimov said in his address that the terrorists' aim is "to destabilize the situation." Karimov's subordinates were more specific. Foreign Minister Sodiq Safoyev said on 29 March that "we can say today that there are attempts to break up the antiterrorism coalition. The targets were not selected by chance," Uzbek Television reported. Prosecutor-General Rashid Qodirov told RIA-Novosti that "there are serious reasons to believe that the religious-extremist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir and the Wahhabis are implicated in these crimes." The Russian Foreign Ministry, the U.S. State Department, and the Chinese Foreign Ministry have all released statements condemning the bomb attacks. LF/DK

HIZB UT-TAHRIR DENIES RESPONSIBILITY FOR UZBEK BOMBINGS
The underground Islamic movement Hizb ut-Tahrir in a 29 March press release issued by its London office denied any involvement in the 28-29 March attacks and bombings in Uzbekistan, fergana.ru reported on 29 March. The statement stressed that Hizb ut-Tahrir "does not engage in terrorism, violence, or armed struggle." Imran Waheed, the party's official representative in London, said that "the finger of blame for these explosions must point at the tyrannical Uzbek regime that has orchestrated such events in the past in order to suppress legitimate Islamic political opposition." Hizb ut-Tahrir is banned in Uzbekistan, where it is considered an extremist organization. DK

NATO EXPANDS INTO FORMER SOVIET TERRITORY
The prime ministers of seven new member states delivered accession documents to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell in Washington on 29 March, formalizing their membership of NATO and expanding the Atlantic military alliance into former Soviet territory and to the border with Russia, international news agencies reported. The move brings the number of NATO members to 26, all pledged to defend each other militarily if any member comes under attack. In a White House ceremony marking the historic expansion -- the fifth since NATO's founding in 1949 and the first since Poland, Czech Republic, and Hungary joined in 1999 -- U.S. President George W. Bush welcomed Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania Slovakia, and Slovenia into the alliance. "The people of these seven nations were captives to an empire. They endured bitter tyranny. They struggled for independence," Bush said. "They earned their freedom through courage and perseverance, and today they stand with us as full and equal partners in this great alliance." Bush stressed NATO's openness to further expansion. Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia are likely candidates for the next round of expansion. AH

BANNED BELARUSIAN NEWSPAPER SET TO RELAUNCH
The banned independent weekly "Svaboda" has reemerged in Minsk as an underground newspaper, Belapan reported on 30 March, quoting Editor in Chief Syarhey Dubavets. According to Dubavets, the renewed, 24-page "Svaboda" will appear as a monthly and will be distributed among pro-democracy organizations, especially during opposition demonstrations. He added that the newspaper will not seek state registration. "Under the current circumstances, it is impossible to register a pro-democracy publication. I have vainly attempted to do this in the past two years," Dubavets said. "Svaboda" was launched in 1990 and banned in 1997 following two official warnings for alleged violations of the country's media law. JM

OUR UKRAINE LAUNCHES ANTIGOVERNMENT PROTESTS...
Supporters of Viktor Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc pitched 10 tents in front of the government headquarters in Kyiv on 29 March, thus inaugurating a series of nationwide antigovernment protests, Interfax reported, quoting the Our Ukraine press service. The protests -- organized by Our Ukraine under the slogan "Stop Robbing the People!" -- will reportedly "inform citizens about the real results and consequences" of the performance of Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's cabinet. According to Our Ukraine, Yanukovych's government "is hiding in a budgetary shadow" some 10 billion hryvnyas ($1.9 billion) in budget revenues. "The growth rate of gross domestic product allows [the government] to increase the minimum wage as of 1 April, without waiting until September," Yushchenko said. "The current economic situation is also conducive to increasing social payments." Our Ukraine is reportedly planning to hold a "mass" protest rally outside the government offices on 31 March. JM

...AND ANNOUNCES FORMATION OF NEW, 'EUROPEAN-MODEL' PARTY
Our Ukraine leader Yushchenko has announced that his bloc has begun to create a new, "European-model" party, Interfax reported on 29 March, quoting the Our Ukraine press service. According to Yushchenko, taking part in a parliamentary election under a fully proportional party-list system is a key political task for Our Ukraine. "In order not to lose time, we should now formulate a response to this challenge," Yushchenko said. The "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www2.pravda.com.ua) quoted Borys Tarasyuk -- leader of the Ukrainian Popular Rukh, which is a constituent of Our Ukraine -- as saying on 30 March that the idea to set up a political party based on Our Ukraine before the 2004 presidential election is "political suicide." "This [idea] will divert organizational and human resources from the main goal -- preparing the victory of [Our Ukraine's presidential] candidate," Tarasyuk said. JM

NATO FIGHTER AIRCRAFT ARRIVE IN LITHUANIA...
Four Belgian F-16 fighter jets landed at Zokniai airport near the northern city of Siauliai on 29 March, shortly before NATO-accession ceremonies in Washington, D.C. (see above), "Lietuvos rytas" reported on 30 March. The aircraft will patrol the airspace over Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Lithuanian armed forces commander Major General Jonas Kronkaitis and Air Force commander Colonel Edvardas Mazeikis attended a ceremony at the airport to welcome the pilots. When asked by Russian reporters what enemies the NATO planes will be defending against, Kronkaitis explained that the planes are not a threat to anyone, noting that "every sovereign state has its air police to protect its airspace." Meanwhile, the defense ministers of the three Baltic states on 29 March issued a joint statement in Washington, D.C., in which they welcomed the beginning of NATO air patrols over their territories and gave assurances of their states' readiness to provide technical and legal support in implementing the airspace-surveillance system. SG

...AS BALTIC STATES JOIN NATO
Prime Ministers Juhan Parts (Estonia), Indulis Emsis (Latvia), and Algirdas Brazauskas (Lithuania) participated in the NATO-accession ceremonies in Washington on 29 March, international media reported. "Latvia's accession to the alliance is a great day for our nation," BNS quoted Emsis as saying as he deposited the country's accession documents with the U.S. State Department. "It is a day for celebration, a long-awaited moment and fulfillment of a long-cherished aspiration." Lithuanian parliamentary speaker Arturas Paulauskas, who was among parliamentarians and foreign dignitaries assembled at the parliament building to watch the event live on television, said: "When we heard NATO planes roaring today, while sitting at a radio station studio, we understood that NATO is a reality." On 30 March, a spokesperson for Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiberga said NATO membership gives the country unprecedented security guarantees that were lacking between the two world wars. The president also noted that preparations for NATO membership dealt not only with military matters, but included reforms to strengthen the country's democracy. SG

POLISH PRESIDENT CHOOSES PRIME MINISTER
Aleksander Kwasniewski on 29 March named former Finance Minister Marek Belka as his candidate to head a new cabinet, after Prime Minister Leszek Miller announced last week he was stepping down in May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2004), Polish media reported. Belka, Warsaw's top official in the U.S.-led civil administration in Iraq, is due to return to Poland on 31 March. He served as finance minister in 1997 and 2001-02. On 29 March, Kwasniewski held a series of consultations with the leaders of various parliamentary caucuses to discuss Belka's candidacy and the formation of a new cabinet. Polish Peasant Party leader Janusz Wojciechowski said Belka's candidacy would be very hard for his party to accept. All the other opposition parties, including the centrist Civic Platform, are reportedly calling for early parliamentary elections. If Belka fails to win parliamentary approval in May, the Sejm will have 14 days to choose another prime minister. JM

POLISH PARLIAMENTARY SPEAKER STEPS DOWN
Marek Borowski resigned his post of Sejm speaker on 29 March, Polish Radio reported. Borowski has recently left the ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and launched a new party, Social Democracy of Poland, along with more than 20 other former SLD lawmakers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2004). "Because the parliamentary caucus I represent is fairly small, the right to decide who should become the new speaker should be maintained by the biggest parliamentary caucus [SLD]," Borowski commented on his move. His resignation is awaiting confirmation by the Sejm. JM

CZECH PREMIER BLASTS EU MEMBERS' LABOR RESTRICTIONS
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla told a news conference in Helsinki on 30 March that restrictions on the free movement of labor within the EU are unjustified, CTK reported. Spidla was speaking after a meeting with Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen, who reiterated his country's plans to implement a two-year transition period before it opens its labor market to acceding states like the Czech Republic. "I agree that a common market -- and in fact market economics -- is conditioned on the free movement of capital, goods, and labor," Spidla said. "It's not a coincidence that the introduction of a market system has always been linked to the elimination of serfdom." AH

CZECH FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS NATO BELONGS IN IRAQ
Cyril Svoboda has said experience in Afghanistan demonstrates the stabilizing effect of NATO and that the Atlantic alliance should assume a presence in Iraq, CTK reported on 30 March, citing the foreign minister's interview with Germany's dpa news agency. Svoboda added that Iraq needs "an organization capable of action, and NATO demonstrated in Afghanistan that it knows how to act." He added that the Czech Republic "does not currently have any signals from Washington [suggesting] that [the United States] is interested in relocating its [military] units to the Czech Republic," according to dpa, as cited by CTK. AH

SLOVAK PREMIER HIGHLIGHTS CONTINUING MILITARY REFORMS AS NEW NATO MEMBER...
Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda on 29 March stressed the responsibility that accompanies the county's accession the same day to NATO (see above), TASR reported. Dzurinda described NATO membership as one of his country's most ambitious projects. "We are joining a part of the world that gives us a sense of security...and we are firmly aware of the responsibility this entails," he said, according to TASR. "We will be making joint decisions not just in European, but also in global terms." AH

...WHILE DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS SLOVAKIA WILL NOT HOST BASES
Defense Minister Juraj Liska said on 29 March that no NATO military bases will be located in Slovakia in conjunction with the country's membership of the Atlantic alliance, TASR reported. "We neither expect nor plan the construction of any military bases or other NATO military facilities on our territory," he said. However, he added that Slovakia might host a proposed NATO ground-reconnaissance agency. "We made it clear that we want to be an active, not passive, member of the alliance," Liska said. AH

SLOVAK FINANCE MINISTRY REJECTS GERMAN CHANCELLOR'S CRITICISM
A spokesman for the Slovak Finance Ministry dismissed a suggestion by German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on 29 March that postcommunist governments provide domestic businesses with unfair advantages through lower corporate-tax rates, TASR reported. Schroeder said "tougher competition in terms of both corporate expenditure and labor opportunities" are a drag on businesses in Western Europe, adding that average corporate-tax levels are above 30 percent in the West but under 20 percent among Central and Eastern European countries. "The question of direct taxes is fully within the authority of individual EU member countries...and the Slovak tax reform has strictly observed all relevant provisions of EU directives," the unidentified Slovak Foreign Ministry spokesman is quoted by TASR as saying. Prime Minister Dzurinda's Slovak government has successfully pushed through corporate-tax cuts in an attempt to spur foreign investment. AH

SLOVAK PRESIDENT'S TAX AND ELECTION-LAW VETOES DRAW POLITICAL FIRE
President Rudolf Schuster returned two bills to parliament on 29 March for further debate, citing objections to increased value-added tax (VAT) on food and other necessities and to a hike in the financial demands on political parties to compete in elections, TASR reported the same day. Schuster said a lower VAT rate should be introduced for basic foodstuffs, medicines, utilities, and children's clothing and books. His move drew immediate fire from Finance Minister Ivan Miklos, who claimed rejection of the VAT amendment could jeopardize Slovakia's accession to the European Union, scheduled for 1 May. Previously approved legislation set a unified VAT rate in the country, TASR reported, suggesting the new dispute's roots lie in the highly politicized atmosphere in the run-up to the first round of presidential elections on 3 April. Schuster criticized the amendment to the country's electoral law over clauses forcing parties to submit pre-election deposits to an Interior Ministry account and to raise state subsidies for political parties based on vote counts. AH

HUNGARIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES MEDIA-WATCHDOG CHAIRMAN
Lawmakers approved the appointment of Gyorgy Kovacs as the new chairman of the National Radio and Television Board (ORTT) on 29 March, Hungarian radio reported. Kovacs, who has been the office director of ORTT since 1999, was nominated to the post by President Ferenc Madl and Prime Minister Peter Medgyessy after lengthy negotiations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2004). The mandate for ORTT's interim president, Istvan Hajdu, expired on 1 March. Chairwoman Judit Kormendy-Ekes had resigned her post in December 2002 after the Socialist-led government took power following parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 December 2002). At his hearing before the parliament's Cultural Committee, Kovacs said changing the current media law in Hungary and creating a balance between political and professional expectations toward the media are the top priorities during his term, "Nepszabadsag" reported. MSZ

WESTERN DIPLOMATS PUT FORWARD IDEAS ABOUT KOSOVA...
The political directors of the French, German, and Italian Foreign ministries discussed Kosova with Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica on 29 March, dpa reported. U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Mark Grossman arrived in the Serbian capital from Prishtina and is expected to meet with Kostunica and other Belgrade officials on 30 March. In Kosova, Grossman said that he will soon announce a plan regarding the standards Kosova must meet before talks on its final status can begin in 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 13 November 2003, and 29 March 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 December 2003, and 19 and 26 March 2004). It is not clear what ideas Grossman has in mind that go beyond the proposals he made in November or what the agenda of the French, Germans, and Italians is. The United States, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and the United Kingdom make up the international Contact Group for the former Yugoslavia. Russia recently sought to reestablish a role for itself in the Balkans by launching a campaign on behalf of the Serbs of Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 26 March 2004). PM

...AS THE EU NAMES A SPECIAL ENVOY
In Brussels on 29 March, EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana appointed Italy's Fernando Gentilini as his personal representative and troubleshooter in Kosova, dpa reported. Gentilini heads the Balkan section of the Italian Foreign Ministry and worked in Prishtina when Bernard Kouchner headed the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK). It is not clear what he will be expected to achieve in his new post. The feeling is strong among Kosova's ethnic-Albanian majority that there are too many well-paid foreigners in positions of authority and that the time has come to move towards self-rule and independence. PM

SERBIA TO SCRAP WAR CRIMES COURTS?
Serbian Justice Minster Zoran Stojkovic of Prime Minister Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) said in Belgrade on 29 March that the recently established special courts dealing with war crimes and organized crime should be abolished, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He argued that district or other courts should be allowed to try war crimes cases (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2, 3, and 5 March 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report, 12 December 2003 and 20 February 2004). In response, Special Prosecutor Bruno Vejkaric called Stojkovic's ideas "counterproductive." The opposition Citizens' Alliance of Serbia (GSS) of Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Goran Svilanovic strongly criticized Stojkovic's proposal. Kostunica has said that Serbian courts should be allowed to try all Serbian citizens indicted by the Hague-based war crimes tribunal. His critics say that the Serbian judicial system has not proven itself sufficiently independent or professional to deal with such cases. The special courts were set up by the previous government to show that Serbia is serious about dealing with the darker side of its recent past. PM

CROAT LEADER CRITICIZES DESECRATION OF CEMETERY IN VOJVODINA
Josip Ivanovic, who heads the Croatian National Council based in Vojvodina, said in Subotica on 29 March that the recent vandalization of a Croatian cemetery there is intended to send Croats the message that they are unwelcome, Hina reported. "We can see that such things are also happening to other minorities, so we fear that someone in Vojvodina wants to impose intolerance and destroy everything that has taken long to produce through coexistence and mutual respect," he added. There have been several incidents directed against Vojvodina's ethnic minorities since the 29 December Serbian parliamentary elections, in which the ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) won the most seats (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 30 January 2004). PM

MACEDONIAN PREMIER VISITS WASHINGTON, FACES CRITICISM AT HOME
Macedonian Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski, who is a candidate in the 14 April presidential elections, attended the Washington reception for seven new NATO member states on 29 March, MIA reported. Crvenkovski and representatives of the two other member states of the U.S.-Adriatic Charter -- Albania and Croatia -- were also invited by U.S. President George W. Bush to the ceremony, even though they have not yet been given a date to join NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 25 November 2003, and 13 and 14 January 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 November 2002). Sasko Kedev, the presidential candidate of the opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE), said in Skopje that it was good that Crvenkovski attended the ceremony, but added that it was bad that he was invited as an observer only, "Dnevnik" reported. Kedev said this is implicit criticism from Macedonia's allies that the country is far from having achieved the standards for NATO membership because of the government's failure to institute wide-ranging reforms. UB

ROMANIAN PREMIER SAYS NATO MEMBERSHIP BRINGS COUNTRY IN FROM THE COLD
At the NATO accession ceremony on 29 March in Washington, Romanian Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said that it was a historic day for Romania and an important moment for national security, Romanian media reported. He admitted the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States sped up Romania's entry to NATO, but added, "Romania represents an important argument for a strategic alliance and is no longer a country on the margin of security systems." Speaking in Bucharest, President Ion Iliescu said joining NATO remains an example of Romanian "national solidarity and consensus." He underlined the "exemplary way" the Romanian Army undertook necessary reforms. The same day, opposition National Liberal Party Chairman Theodor Stolojan said Romania "has to fulfill its democratic destiny" by also joining the EU, and that step needs "political responsibility and lucidity." A Democratic Party press release called on political parties to act "with realism and responsibility" in order to transform Romania into a true democracy, with the rule of law. ZsM

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT: UNJUSTIFIED ASSETS SHOULD BE CONFISCATED
Replying to Prime Minister Nastase's recent remarks that unjustified assets should be taxed at 90 percent, Romanian President Iliescu on 29 March said unjustified assets should be confiscated and not taxed, Mediafax reported. In announcing a new program for combating corruption, Nastase on 27 March said all public officials and their relatives should publish a list of their assets and any assets unjustified by their income should be subjected to a 90 percent tax. Reacting to Iliescu's remarks, Social Democratic Party Executive Chairman Octav Cozmanca on 29 March said taxation seems to him a "much more reasonable" measure than confiscation. He warned, however, that illegally obtained wealth should be treated separately. He also said Nastase's proposal could be implemented this fall. ZsM

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT PROMISES SUPPORT FOR STATE-OWNED MEDIA
Meeting with directors of state-owned media on 29 March, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin said he is ready to discuss economic problems faced by the media outlets and find, together with journalists, the right solutions for those problems, the BBC reported. Voronin listed the Party of Moldovan Communist's (PCM) successes during the last three years and its objectives before parliamentary elections due in 2005. He added that "it would be better" if the PCM would "consolidate" its power together with a media "that fights for and is based on [Moldova's] statehood, integrity, and sovereignty." Voronin said the Penal Code is "too harsh" on crimes committed by journalists and promised to soften provisions providing jail sentences for libel. He added that his support only applies to media controlled by local and central authorities. ZsM

MOLDOVAN ISP EXECUTIVE FINED FOR ORGANIZING PROTEST
Megadat.com International Chairman Eduard Musuc was arrested on 29 March and released a few hours later, and fined 5,400 leis (over $400) for organizing a rally that disturbed public order, BASA-Press reported. Megadat.com employees rallied outside Moldtelecom, asking the state-owned telecom company to reconnect their company. Moldtelecom on 18 March disconnected the country's main Internet service provider (ISP) on the grounds that Megadat.com's operating license is invalid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2004). ZsM

BULGARIAN MILITARY OFFICIAL SAYS ARMY IS READY FOR NATO
Chief of General Staff General Nikola Kolev told BTA on 29 March that "the Bulgarian Army is ready to perform successfully its duties as a NATO member even though a lot of work remains to be done." Kolev said that for now the Bulgarian military can fulfill its duties as a NATO member with its current equipment, but added that it will soon be necessary to modernize that equipment. Kolev singled out the country's fleet of MiG-29 fighter jets, which were to be repaired and modernized by the Russian MiG aircraft manufacturer. "Our hope was to upgrade our MiG-29 fleet, but the talks on the contract are about to be abandoned and we are considering some alternative options," Kolev said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 August 2003 and 27 January 2004). Meanwhile, Finance Minister Milen Velchev said on 29 March that military expenditures from the state budget will remain at 2.6 percent of GDP for the next few years, mediapool.bg reported the same day. President Georgi Parvanov has advised the government to provide adequate funding for missions abroad, according to the news agency. UB

BULGARIA STEPS UP ANTITERRORISM FIGHT
Prosecutor-General Nikola Filchev on 29 March ordered the creation of a special antiterrorism division within the prosecutor's office at the Supreme Court of Appeals, vsekiden.com reported. The new division is tasked with preventing and prosecuting acts of terrorism. Filchev also ordered the district and military prosecutors' offices to form special task forces [dezhurstva] to coordinate the efforts of the prosecutors' offices with those of the police and other Interior Ministry services. Meanwhile, Interior Minister Georgi Petkanov has reportedly demanded that his ministry be granted some $3.1 million in order to improve its antiterrorism capacities. Petkanov plans to employ 300 additional police officers and 100 additional firefighters, according to vsekiden.com. UB

BULGARIAN MILITARY OFFICIAL SAYS ARMY IS PREPARED FOR NATO MEMBERSHIP
Chief of General Staff General Nikola Kolev told BTA on 29 March that "the Bulgarian Army is ready to perform successfully its duties as a NATO member even though a lot of work remains to be done." Kolev said that for now the Bulgarian military can fulfill its duties as a NATO member with its current equipment, but added that it will soon be necessary to modernize the equipment. Kolev singled out the country's fleet of MiG-29 fighter jets, which were to be repaired and modernized by the Russian MiG aircraft manufacturer. "Our hope was to upgrade our MiG-29 fleet, but the talks on the contract are about to be abandoned and we are considering some alternative options," Kolev said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 August 2003 and 27 January 2004). Meanwhile, Finance Minister Milen Velchev said on 29 March that military expenditures from the state budget will remain at 2.6 percent of GDP for the next few years, mediapool.bg reported the same day. President Georgi Parvanov has advised the government to provide adequate funding for missions abroad, according to the news agency. UB

BULGARIA STEPS UP ANTITERRORISM FIGHT
Prosecutor-General Nikola Filchev on 29 March ordered the creation of a special antiterrorism division within the prosecutor's office at the Supreme Court of Appeals, vsekiden.com reported. The new division is tasked with preventing and prosecuting acts of terrorism. Filchev also ordered the district and military prosecutors' offices to form special task forces [dezhurstva] to coordinate the efforts of the prosecutors' offices with those of the police and other Interior Ministry services. Meanwhile, Interior Minister Georgi Petkanov has reportedly demanded that his ministry be granted some $3.1 million in order to improve its antiterrorism capacities. Petkanov plans to employ 300 additional police officers and 100 additional firefighters, according to vsekiden.com. UB

TEHRAN SEES OFF AN OLD FRIEND
Iranian officials and institutions have strongly condemned the 22 March assassination by Israeli forces of Hamas founder and leader Shaykh Ahmad Yassin, and the Islamic Propagation Organization organized an anti-Israel rally to follow the 26 March Friday prayers in Tehran. Developments during Yassin's April-May 1998 visit to Iran and the U.S. State Department's designation of Hamas as a "foreign terrorist organization" that receives assistance from Iran beg the question of whether Tehran will limit itself to a verbal reaction.

Yassin toured Egypt, Iran, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen in mid-1998, arriving in Tehran on 28 April and leaving on 4 May. During that trip, according to dispatches from the official Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), Yassin met with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami. Khamenei stressed the importance of Yassin's activities, Tehran television reported on 2 May. "The Palestinian nation's jihad is a source of honor for Islam and Muslims, and Iran's Islamic system and nation will continue their decisive support for the Palestinian nation despite all the pressures and plots by Zionism and its supporters," he said.

Furthermore, Tehran signaled its solidarity by releasing four Palestinians who were captured during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War, according to IRNA on 12 May.

Yassin was impressed with the reception he got and with the prisoner release. He acknowledged that Hamas has a "strong relationship" with Tehran in which "there is material, moral, political, and social assistance for us," Radio Monte Carlo reported on 2 May. The most important results of the trip were, according to Yassin, "We opened channels of communication and submitted our problems and issues to them, including our Palestinian cause."

Yassin added that the relationship with Iran is good regardless of who is displeased, and he explained, "My brother, first of all we wish to state that the United States is the origin of arrogance and tyranny in the world," Radio Monte Carlo reported. "The United States believes that any party that rejects the Zionist option and program is terrorist. They accused Iran of terrorism and accused us of the same.... We are not afraid of those who say there is terrorism here and there.... We will cooperate with our kinfolk and brothers in the Arab and Islamic world, especially Iran, regardless of who is pleased or displeased with this. We mean by this the United States and Israel."

These statements and reports were essentially the boilerplate that inevitably accompanies such visits. A more interesting report on Yassin's trip to Iran appeared in the Paris-based Arabic-language "Al-Watan al-Arabi" on 22 May 1998. It stated that a large delegation from Supreme Leader Khamenei's office met Yassin at Tehran's Mehrabad airport, and the receiving line was headed by Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri, head of the Islamic Culture and Communications Organization. Yassin reportedly met later with Taskhiri and Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Qorban Ali Dori-Najafabadi, while his companions -- Hamas hard-liners Imad al-Alami, Mustafa Qannu, and Abu-Mohammad Mustafa -- met with leaders of the Qods Force, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' (IRGC) special-operations unit.

The purported outcome of these meetings was an agreement creating a "strategic alliance" between Tehran and Hamas, "Al-Watan al-Arabi" reported. The agreement gave Hamas a higher priority than Hizballah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad in terms of Iranian support. Hamas would receive $15 million a month, with the money coming from the Imam Relief Committee, the Foundation for the Oppressed and Disabled, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and the Islamic Culture and Communications Organization. Hamas would increase its presence in the occupied territories through the creation of charities, hospitals, schools, and mosques.

Other aspects of the alleged agreement, according to "Al-Watan al-Arabi," focused on military issues, including the creation of an entity distinct from the Izzidin al-Qasem Brigades and connected to Hizballah and the training of Hamas cadres at an IRGC facility.

In light of this apparent agreement, Yassin's comments after his trip to Iran are noteworthy. He suggested that the Iranians are more Palestinian than the Palestinians. "In my negotiations in Tehran, I realized that the Islamic Republic of Iran supports this ideal even more than the Palestinians themselves," Yassin said, according to Tehran radio on 26 May. In the 10 August issue of Beirut's "Al-Shira," he said that Iran is "prepared to extend all kinds of aid to the Palestinian people's struggle for liberation." And in the 26 July issue of "Al-Quds" from Jerusalem, he said, "I was not aware that the Iranians are so strongly enthusiastic about Palestine," adding, "I found that the Iranians have an intense desire to liberate Palestine and to endure all the U.S. harassment and difficulties in order to achieve this objective."

While it is difficult to gauge the exact nature of the relationship between Iran and Hamas, reactions from Tehran to the assassination of Yassin are instructive. Supreme Leader Khamenei said on 22 March that the assassination would encourage anti-Israel forces, state television reported. "The blood of Shaykh Ahmad Yassin watered the fecund tree of Islamic resistance, and it will also further fuel the fire created by the wrath of the self-sacrificing Palestinian nation." Khamenei said of Israel: "The Zionist regime is a usurper regime and its government is an artificial government.... They are doomed to extinction."

Hussein Shariatmadari, the supreme leader's representative at the Kayhan Institute and the managing editor of "Kayhan" newspaper, said, "The martyrdom of Shaykh Ahmad shows that the only way to deal with the Zionists is to wage armed struggle against them." Shariatmadari predicted, "Shaykh Ahmad's martyrdom will lead to the escalation of the armed struggle against the Zionists."

Tehran hosted a memorial ceremony in Yassin's honor on 28 March. Leading government officials, as well as foreign dignitaries, attended the event.

NEW PROVINCE ESTABLISHED IN CENTRAL AFGHANISTAN
Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said on 28 March that Daikondi Province has been established as the country's 33rd province, AFP reported the next day. The heavily populated Daikondi District, which is in Oruzgan Province, will have its own governor and security commanders and is expected to receive increased funds and services from Kabul as a result of the change. AT

PAKISTANI PUBLICATION CLAIMS TALIBAN LEADER IS INJURED...
An "Ausaf" report on 29 March asserted that the leader of the ousted Taliban regime in Afghanistan, Mullah Mohammad Omar, was critically injured in a recent attack by U.S. forces. According to unconfirmed reports in that Urdu-language newspaper, Jabbar Aziz, a doctor who is said to have treated Mullah Omar, said the Taliban leader received injuries to both of his legs and the left side of his body. But he said the injuries are not life-threatening. The elusive Taliban leader managed to escape from his stronghold of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan in early December 2001 -- two months after U.S.-led forces launched the military campaign to oust the regime and break up the Al-Qaeda network's bases in the country -- and is believed to have been hiding in either Afghanistan or neighboring Pakistan. AT

...AS PURPORTED NEO-TALIBAN SPOKESMAN DENIES REPORT
Mufti Latifullah Hakimi, purporting to speak on behalf of the resurgent Taliban militia, denied the "Ausaf" report suggesting that Taliban leader Mullah Omar is injured, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 29 March. Latifullah Hakimi appears to be a new name on the growing list of individuals claiming to speak on behalf of the neo-Taliban; an individual identifying himself as "Abdul Latif Hakimi" has purported to speak for the movement since January. However, in a statement in February, the ousted Taliban movement named Hamed Agha as its only authorized spokesman (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2004). AT

NEO-TALIBAN HAIL DELAY IN AFGHAN ELECTIONS AS VICTORY
Hamed Agha, purporting to speak on behalf of the resurgent Taliban, said the recently announced postponement of Afghan national elections is "a humiliation and defeat" for Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and his U.S. backers, the London-based daily "The Independent" reported on 29 March. Hamid Agha also claimed that the elections will be rigged. Karzai confirmed on 28 March that the general and presidential elections scheduled for June will be postponed until September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2004). AT

TALIBAN MILITANTS CLAIM TO HAVE KILLED 20 AFGHAN SOLDIERS
An unidentified individual claiming to speak on behalf of neo-Taliban militants said on 27 March that those insurgents have killed 20 soldiers loyal to Kabul in two separate attacks in central Afghanistan's Oruzgan Province, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported the next day. An unidentified official quoted by Reuters on 28 March confirmed that two Afghan soldiers were killed when suspected neo-Taliban sympathizers attacked a military post in Oruzgan. The official said another three soldiers are injured and 10 more are missing. AT

TEHRAN TO GET TOUGH WITH AFGHAN REFUGEES
Ahmad Husseini, the Iranian Interior Ministry official in charge of refugee affairs, said on 29 March that a plan for repatriating Afghan refugees will go into effect on 3 April, IRNA reported. He added that the Iranian government will curtail facilities it makes available to the refugees, and only the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry is authorized to issue work permits. Husseini said the government could expel, assimilate, or repatriate the Afghan refugees, adding, "The option for assimilation is fully rejected because all of the country's officials are against it." Husseini said the government has adopted a get-tough policy for refugees who break the law. (For more on the refugee situation in Iran, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 13 January and 22 December 2003; and 22 March 2004). BS

WASHINGTON REPORTEDLY UNCOVERED IRANIAN SPIES
As a reaction to the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers housing facility in Saudi Arabia that killed 19 U.S. service members, the U.S. government revealed the identities of Iranian intelligence officers around the world the following year, "USA Today" reported on 30 March, citing an anonymous "high-level U.S. official and a former top official who was serving at the time of the operation." Many Iranian spies were identified in Operation Sapphire in 1997, and some of them were expelled from the countries in which they were stationed. Iranian targeting of Americans subsequently ended. Iranian Ambassador to the UN Mohammad Javad Zarif told "USA Today" that "Iran has never been involved in any terrorism, including terrorism against the United States." Former U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director Louis Freeh and former FBI counterterrorism chief Dale Watson testified in a U.S. federal court in December that two Iranian government security agencies and senior Iranian officials were responsible for the Khobar Towers bombing, and Iran is referred to almost 40 times in the June 2001 indictment relating to the bombing (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 25 June 2001 and 8 December 2003). BS

CONSERVATIVES PREPARE FOR LEGISLATIVE TAKEOVER
The conservative Islamic Iran Developers Council (Etelaf-i Abadgaran-i Iran-i Islami), which dominated the Tehran voting in the February parliamentary elections, is already preparing for its first year in office, according to an anonymous source cited by the Baztab website (http://www.baztab.com) on 29 March. The source said the Developers Council has created eight working groups that are assessing public demands and creating their short-term and long-term plans. They view their first year in office as especially important because this is the period in which the public will form its impressions of the new legislators. Moreover, the presidential election will take place in the same timeframe, the source said. The source added that the council might discuss possible presidential candidates. It has not decided on the next speaker of parliament, either, according to the source. It could be a well-known figure, such as Gholam-Ali Hadad Adel, Ahmad Tavakoli, or Mohammad Reza Bahonar, or it could be somebody more obscure and therefore less controversial. BS

TEHRAN REVISES EARTHQUAKE CASUALTY FIGURES
The head of Iran's Statistics Center, Abbas Ali Zali, announced on 29 March that the final casualty figures for the 26 December earthquake in Bam have been revised, state television reported. Zali said 26,271 people from Bam and surrounding locales were killed, and the overall population before the earthquake was 142,376. Early reports put the number of dead at 20,000-50,000 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 5, 12, and 19 January 2004). BS

BRITISH SOLDIERS CLASH WITH IRAQI ISLAMISTS IN AL-BASRAH
British soldiers on 29 March reportedly wounded five members of the Islamist group Thaarallah (God's wrath) while attempting to evict the group from offices it illegally occupied in the southern city of Al-Basrah, middle-east-online.com reported. Thaarallah reportedly operates as a militia in Al-Basrah. "Ten days ago, we received an injunction from the governorate of Al-Basrah instructing us to vacate the premises," an unidentified member of the group told the website. "As we refused, British forces intervened this morning." AP reported on 29 March that dozens of anti-coalition Iraqis were involved in the scuffle with British troops. The incident was termed a "small public order incident" in a 29 March coalition press statement posted on the website of the Combined Joint Task Force-7 (http://www.cjtf7.com). KR

APPARENT SUICIDE ATTACK ON POLICE CHIEF IN IRAQ FAILS TO REACH TARGET
A suicide bomber on 30 March detonated his vehicle outside the home of a police chief in Al-Hillah, killing himself and wounding seven others, AP reported. Police Major Ali Jawad said the home of police chief Brigadier General Qais Hamza was the intended target of the attack. Guards at the scene reportedly opened fire on the vehicle before it detonated. Three neighbors were injured in the blast, as were four guards. Hamza and his family were home at the time of the attack, but escaped injury. On 23 March, at least five Iraqi police recruits were killed in Al-Hillah when militants opened fire on the bus in which the recruits were traveling to work. One day later, militants killed Al-Hillah police chief Colonel Yassin Khudayr in the nearby town of Al-Musayyab (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report, 26 March 2004). KR

AL-NAJAF DEMONSTRATORS CALL FOR DISSOLUTION OF GOVERNING COUNCIL
Hundreds of Iraqis assembled in the Shi'ite holy city of Al-Najaf on 29 March to demand that the Iraqi Governing Council be dissolved, Beirut's Al-Manar television reported the same day. An unidentified cleric who claimed to be one of the organizers of the demonstration said the protesters were also demanding the annulment of the Transitional Administration Law, Iraq's interim constitution. "As Muslims we took to the streets because Muslims do not tolerate injustice. The constitution is unfair," the cleric said, without elaborating. Meanwhile, a representative of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr claimed in Baghdad that by closing the cleric's "Al-Hawzah" newspaper (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2004) the coalition is attempting to prevent the Iraqi people from exercising real liberty. "Journalists would be left with two options only," "Al-Hawzah" Editor Sa'dun Muhsin told Al-Manar television, "turning a blind eye to injustice and concealing facts, or accepting prison, torture, and displacement." KR

UN SECRETARY-GENERAL FIRES SECURITY CHIEF
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan fired security coordinator Tun Myat after a report on the investigation into the 19 August bombing of the UN's Baghdad headquarters revealed major security failures, the UN News Center reported on 29 March (http://www.un.org/news). The report said that Myat and his team were blinded by the belief that neither the UN nor its personnel would be targeted in attacks in Iraq, despite warnings to the contrary. Ramiro Lopes da Silva of Portugal, who at one time was responsible for security and personnel in Iraq, was demoted from his current post of assistant secretary-general and transferred to the UN World Food Program to work in a non-security-related capacity. Da Silva was appointed the acting head of the mission in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 5 September 2003) following the 19 August bombing, which killed UN Special Representative Sergio Vieira de Mello and some 20 others. Deputy Secretary-General Louise Frechette tendered her resignation after the report was released, but Annan refused to accept it. Frechette chaired a steering committee that decided to return UN staff to Iraq after the U.S.-led war. KR

CZECH FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS NATO BELONGS IN IRAQ
Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda said experience in Afghanistan demonstrates the stabilizing effect of NATO and the Atlantic alliance should assume a presence in Iraq, CTK reported on 30 March, citing an interview with Germany's DPA news agency. Svoboda added that Iraq needs "an organization capable of action, and NATO demonstrated in Afghanistan that it knows how to act." He added that the Czech Republic "does not currently have any signals from Washington [suggesting] that [the United States] is interested in relocating its [military] units to the Czech Republic," according to DPA as cited by CTK. AH

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