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Newsline - August 4, 2004


DESPITE WEEKS OF PROTESTS, LEGISLATORS AGAIN APPROVE SOCIAL-BENEFITS REFORM...
State Duma deputies passed on 3 August in its second reading a controversial bill that would replace most in-kind social benefits with cash payments, Russian news agencies reported. The vote was 304 in favor with 120 against and one abstention, RIA-Novosti reported. Under the legislation, social benefits such as free public transportation enjoyed by pensioners and other categories of people, will be monetized. According to gazeta.ru, state guarantees of social benefits for Chornobyl survivors and residents of the Far North are retained in the current version of the bill. Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov told reporters that more than 1,000 amendments were made to the bill between its first and second reading, and the legislation is much improved as a result. The legislation's adoption in its second reading follows weeks of protests in Moscow and other cities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 and 30 July 2004 and 2 and 3 August 2004). The third reading is scheduled for 5 August. RosBalt reported that while deputies were considering the bill, they could dine for free at a buffet adjacent to the Duma's main hall. JAC

...AS ENVOY PROMISES FEDERAL GOVERNMENT SUPPORT FOR REGIONAL BUDGETS...
Konstantin Pulikovskii, the presidential envoy to the Far East Federal District, told reporters in Moscow on 3 August that he is convinced the federal government will help Far East regions maintain benefit payments, RIA-Novosti reported. Last week, several governors in the Far East Federal District sent a letter to President Vladimir Putin criticizing the bill for violating the constitution and undermining the "social character" of the state (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 July 2004). According to Pulikovskii, nearly all of the regions in his district face the prospect of shortfalls in funding. JAC

...AND ELIMINATION OF 'TWO-KEY PRINCIPLE' CLOSER TO REALIZATION
Legislators also approved on 3 August in their second reading amendments to the law on subsurface resources, RosBalt reported. The bill cancels the so-called "two-keys principle" under which control over the use of underground natural resources is shared between the federal and local levels. If the law is adopted, for example, federal authorities would then have the exclusive right to decide matters concerning the use of underwater and underground resources, according to Interfax. Writing in "Novaya gazeta," No. 54, Rostislav Turovskii of the Center for Political Technologies argued that "the forthcoming abolition of the so-called 'two keys' principle is not simply unjust but undermines the foundations of Russian federalism, according to which natural resources should be the common possession of the federal center and the regions." He added: "The distribution of resources according to the formula 'oil belongs to the center, while sand and gravel to regions' may be justified by law, but...will look like insolence and mockery." JAC

EXPERT SAYS IMPACT OF BENEFITS REFORM HAS YET TO HIT HOME
The Russian public does not yet fully understand the significance of the reform to replace in-kind social benefits with cash payments, Center for Socioeconomic Research Director Natalya Tikhonova told "Komsomolskaya pravda" on 3 August. "And they won't understand for another two or three years, not until a revolution of consciousness takes place," Tikhonova said. She commented that the public will not know what to do with the new choices presented by the monetarization of benefits. "When a retired woman sees that her granddaughter has nothing to wear to school, she isn't going to care that she herself has an ailing heart," Tikhonova said. "She will decide to use her last money to buy her granddaughter some shoes and won't have anything left to buy her medicine. Then she will understand that she is living in a whole new country." RC

RUSSIAN GOVERNMENT RELEASES ECONOMIC-PERFORMANCE STATISTICS
The Russian economy is growing faster than the global economy, ITAR-TASS reported on 3 August, citing the Economic Development and Trade Ministry. The ministry is projecting GDP growth of 6.7 percent this year. The report also said exports grew by 23.7 percent in the first half of this year, while imports grew by 24.5 percent. Polit.ru reported that about two-thirds of the growth in exports is attributable to high global energy prices, while one-third is due to an increased volume of exports. APN reported on 3 August that the ministry is predicting that inflation this year will be 6.1 percent (compared to 7.9 percent last year), and that industrial growth will be 7 percent. Real wages increased 14.1 percent in the first half of this year and are expected to show annual growth of 13.2 percent for the entire year. RC

REPORT: RUSSIANS HELPED NORTH KOREA DEVELOP LONG-RANGE MISSILE
Russian specialists have helped North Korea build a sea-launched missile with a range of 2,500-4,000 kilometers, "Jane's Defence Weekly" reported on 4 August. The journal added that some essential components of the missile's launch system could have been salvaged from Soviet submarines that were sold for scrap, including some that were sold to North Korea by Japanese middlemen. The missile, which is based on the Soviet R-27 (NATO classification SS-N-6), can be launched either from a submarine or from a medium-sized surface vessel and is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, the journal reported. A land-based version is also reportedly ready for deployment. According to the magazine, specialists from a Russian defense contractor in the Chelyabinsk Oblast town of Miass helped Pyongyang develop the missile. The missile could pose a threat to U.S. territory, newsru.com and other Russian media reported, citing "Jane's Defence Weekly." RC

LEGISLATORS CONCERNED ABOUT POLICE CONFISCATION OF COMPANY COMPUTERS
The State Duma intends to introduce legislation that would bar police and other law enforcement officials from confiscating computers that contain companies' shareholders registers, "Vedomosti" reported on 4 August, citing Duma Property Committee Chairman Viktor Pleskachevskii (Unified Russia). The initiative comes in the wake of a 27 July police raid at the Central Moscow Depository. After servers were confiscated, the depository's work was only restored on 30 July, causing a 5-10 percent drop in the share value of many blue-chip stocks, according to the daily. Pleskachevskii said that since under current legislation there is no way for investigators to secure the shareholder lists for individual companies, they instead resort to confiscating entire computer systems in order to obtain such information, "not understanding that by doing so they are harming millions of shareholders of other companies." An unidentified source at the Federal Financial Markets Service told the daily that companies should also develop reliable backup systems for their shareholder lists in case their computers are confiscated. RC

DUMA SUBCOMMITTEE PROPOSES BILLS TO SUPPORT MEDIA
An expert group of the Duma's Press Subcommittee of the Information Policy Committee will propose three new pieces of legislation intended to boost the independence of the mass media, "Vremya novostei" reported on 4 August. According to Deputy Boris Reznik (Unified Russia), the first bill is supposed to improve the financial independence of the media by granting media outlets certain tax breaks and by guaranteeing print-media outlets set prices for newsprint and printing services. The second bill will be aimed at preventing the monopolization of the media by limiting the size of stakes one party may own in different media outlets and barring one person or company from controlling multiple media outlets targeted at the same audience. The third bill, the daily reported, will create a public-television broadcaster that will be supported by subscription fees and be entirely independent of the state. Reznik estimated that such a broadcaster would cost about 16 rubles ($0.50) per person per month. RC

GOLD FOR THE GOLD
The Russian government will pay bonuses of $50,000 to athletes who win gold medals at the upcoming Olympic Games in Athens, Reuters reported on 3 August. Silver medalists will get $20,000, while bronze-medal winners will get $10,000. In addition, the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) will also pay bonuses to medalists, although the exact amount has not yet been determined, ROC Chairman Leonid Tyagachev told the news agency. Tyagachev said the ROC bonus will be at least $60,000 and as much as $100,000 for gold-medal winners. "We have several big companies that have already expressed interest in supporting our athletes," Tyagachev said. He estimated that Russia will win about 30 gold medals during the 11-29 August games. RC

JAPAN BIGGEST FOREIGN INVESTOR IN RUSSIAN FAR EAST
Presidential envoy to the Far Eastern Federal District Pulikovskii told reporters in Moscow on 3 August that industrial production in his district grew by 8 percent in the first half of the year compared with the same period the previous year, according to RosBalt. According to Pulikovskii, the district is attracting significant investment. Russians are the largest investors and, among foreign investors, Japan leads. South Korea is next, followed by the United States, the Philippines, and China. JAC

ST. PETERSBURG'S SMALL-BUSINESS SECTOR KEEPS GROWING IN THE SHADOWS...
Anatolii Golov, co-chairman of the Russian Consumer Society, told RFE/RL's St. Petersburg bureau in a 3 August interview that he wants small-business owners to lobby the government more actively for more stable regulations governing their operations, because each reform or revision of the regulations costs them more money than it does medium or large businesses. In her annual address on the state of the city last month, St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko declared that small businesses are alive and developing only because they largely reside in the shadow economy, RFE/RL's St. Petersburg bureau reported. She called this a strategic mistake by the authorities, who tend to consider the small-business sector like an "unloved stepson, about whom the less that is remembered the better." According to Matvienko, almost half of the working-age population of the city works in small businesses, which provide more than 22 percent of the city's budget revenues, fontanka.ru reported on 9 June. JAC

...AS GOVERNMENT ASKS BUSINESSES TO DEMONSTRATE SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
Governor Matvienko noted that some 20 million rubles ($685,000) are earmarked for the support of small businesses in the city's 2004 budget, but this money will be given out only to those entrepreneurs who pay taxes and do not pay wages under the table. RFE/RL's St. Petersburg bureau noted that the city government, specifically Deputy Governor Lyudmila Kostkina, was earlier asking small businesses for financial support for a project to buy televisions and refrigerators for needy World War II veterans. JAC

ACUTE CASES OF MENINGITIS SPREADING
Meningitis continues to spread in Russia, gazeta.ru reported on 3 August. In Moscow, 16 soccer players visiting from Tobolsk were hospitalized, but only one case of the illness has so far been confirmed. In Yekaterinburg, some 140 people are hospitalized with acute meningitis. In Krasnoyarsk, seven people are hospitalized with the disease, according to RIA-Novosti. In Khabarovsk Krai, more than 150 cases have appeared, 141 of these in Komsomolsk-na-Amure, according to gazeta.ru. The majority of those affected are children. The chief doctor in the krai told the website that this is the usual outbreak of meningitis cases that occurs every summer. However, according to the website, the outbreak this year could be a new strain: local doctors in Khabarovsk reported that they have not encountered such a seasonal outbreak in the past 12 years. Meanwhile, Novosibirsk has 279 cases, and Novosibirsk Oblast prosecutor Nikolai Snikkars announced on 3 August that he has launched a criminal investigation into the water pollution that he claims caused the outbreak of the disease, NTV reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 July 2004). Snikkars said that raw sewage was dumped into part of the city's reservoir system. JAC

NEW AMBASSADOR TO CAMBODIA NAMED
President Putin has named Valerii Tereshchenko as Russia's ambassador to Cambodia, RIA-Novosti and Interfax reported on 3 August. Tereshchenko replaces Viktor Samoilenko. JAC

RANSOM DEMANDED FOR ABDUCTED SLOVAK AID WORKER
Martin Rozumek, the head of the Prague-based Organization for Aid to Refugees (OPU), announced on 3 August that over the past month the OPU has received four telephone calls demanding a $1 million ransom for the release of one of its staffers who disappeared in the North Caucasus two months ago, Reuters and Interfax reported. Miriam Jevikova, a 28-year-old Slovak, left Pyatigorsk by car in late May for Nazran, where she planned to meet displaced persons from Chechnya, but never arrived (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 June 2004). The identity of her abductors remains unclear. LF

DISQUALIFICATION OF CHECHEN ELECTION CANDIDATE UPHELD
Russia's Central Election Commission (TsIK) upheld on 2 August the Chechen Central Election Commission's 23 July refusal to register Yaragi Mamodaev, an unemployed Grozny resident, as a candidate for the 29 August ballot to elect a successor to pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov, ITAR-TASS reported on 3 August. TsIK Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov said "it is absolutely obvious" that 93 percent of the 6,303 signatures Mamodaev submitted in support of his registration application were forged. In Grozny, Chechen Central Election Commission Chairman Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov said on 2 August that his commission has not registered any "major violations" during the election campaign, Interfax reported. He predicted that the ballot, in which seven candidates have been registered, will not require a second round of voting. Kadyrov was killed by a terrorist bomb in Grozny on 9 May. On 2 August, Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Sergei Fridinskii told Interfax that a Chechen militant suspected of involvement in the bombing has been detained in Daghestan and brought to Chechnya, where he is providing evidence. The unnamed Chechen is the third suspect arrested in connection with the bombing. LF

INTERIOR MINISTRY TO ACCREDIT JOURNALISTS IN CHECHNYA
As of 1 August, reporters seeking permission to work in Chechnya will have to apply to the Interior Ministry rather than to the office of presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii, as they did previously, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 2 August. A spokeswoman at the ministry told the daily that the new procedure will be much simpler than the old one and that the Interior Ministry documents will make it easier for journalists to pass through checkpoints in the republic. She added, however, that journalists must observe all ministry regulations and that the Interior Ministry will have the authority to eject journalists who fail to do so. The daily reported that the old permission system in Yastrzhembskii's office has been virtually idle for at least six months and that journalists have been working in Chechnya without official documentation. RC

VOLSKII CALLS FOR TALKS WITH CHECHEN LEADER
Arkadii Volskii, president of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP), argued during a 2 August interview with Ekho Moskvy that the Russian government should begin unofficial talks through a third party with Chechen leader Aslan Maskhadov, Interfax reported. As possible interlocutors Volskii suggested people who were involved in mediating an end to the first Chechen war but who are no longer members of the Russian government, including former Russian Interior Minister Anatolii Kulikov. He added that he, too, would be willing to participate in such informal talks. LF

ARMENIA'S SCIENCE AND EDUCATION MINISTER DOES NOT PLAN TO RESIGN
Sergo Yeritsian told journalists in Yerevan on 3 August that there is no truth to persistent rumors of his impending resignation, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Those rumors were triggered by the dismissal two months ago of one of Yeritsian's deputies, Soviet-era Armenian Komsomol First Secretary Aida Topuzian, on suspicion of turning a blind eye to bribery during university entrance examinations, and fuelled by President Robert Kocharian's recent instructions that this year's university admission exams be strictly monitored to preclude malpractice. Yeritsian said he is confident he will continue to work for "many years" in his post, adding that he enjoys the full trust of the Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) party of which he is a member. Orinats Yerkir is one of the two junior partners in the ruling three-party coalition government. He further claimed that he is the sole person capable of implementing the ongoing reform of the education sector, which is funded by the World Bank. LF

UN, RUSSIA WARN AGAINST NEW ABKHAZ-GEORGIAN STANDOFF...
Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative for the Abkhaz conflict, met in Sukhum on 2 August with Raul Khadjimba, prime minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, to discuss the implications of his announcement two days earlier that Abkhazia is suspending all talks with Georgia to protest an incident on 31 July in which a Georgian naval patrol boat opened fire on a Turkish freighter bound for Sukhum, Apsnipress reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2004). On 3 August, the UN Observer Mission in Georgia issued a statement calling on both Georgia and Abkhazia "to refrain from any unilateral actions which could negatively affect the peace process," and reaffirming that the differences between the two leaderships can be resolved only through negotiations. On 2 August, the Russian Foreign Ministry released a statement deploring the Georgian action and calling on both sides "to demonstrate restraint and a balanced approach," Interfax reported. The Russian statement further expressed regret at the mutual distrust between the two parties, which it termed the primary cause of the tensions between them. LF

...AS BOTH SIDES THREATEN FURTHER MILITARY ACTION
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili told journalists in Tbilisi on 3 August he has issued orders to open fire at any ships that enter Georgian territorial waters without prior permission from the Georgian authorities, Turan reported on 4 August. Also on 3 August, Abkhaz State Security Service head Mikheil Tarba told journalists in Sukhum that Abkhazia will deploy its navy and aircraft to defend its maritime boundaries and sink "pirates," Interfax and Caucasus Press reported. On 4 August, Abkhaz presidential aide Astamur Tania told Russian NTV television that "we hope that the Russian Federation, as a mediator in the peace process, and the UN will take immediate steps to put an end to Georgia's actions undermining the peace process," Caucasus Press reported. LF

DATE FOR TOP-LEVEL GEORGIAN-SOUTH OSSETIAN TALKS STILL UNCLEAR
Following the exchange of fire between Georgian and South Ossetian forces during the night of 29-30 July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 July 2004), Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov appealed on 31 July to the leaders of both Georgia and the unrecognized breakaway Republic of South Ossetia to meet as soon as possible to draft measures to defuse the crisis and resolve their mutual differences peacefully, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported, citing an interview Ivanov gave to "Izvestiya." On 2 August, Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze said she considers a meeting between Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity essential, adding that she too is prepared to meet with Kokoity, Georgian media reported. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava said on 2 August that he hopes the meeting will take place this week, ITAR-TASS reported. South Ossetian Minister without Portfolio Boris Chochiev told ITAR-TASS on 3 August that the meeting "is planned," and that he hopes it will take place within the next few days. But Alan Elbakiev, who heads Kokoity's analytical service, told Interfax on 3 August that Kokoity has not yet decided whether to meet with Zhvania, as Georgia has not yet complied with its commitment to withdraw superfluous military units from the conflict zone. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT SAYS PROTESTS OVER JOURNALIST'S ARREST UNWARRANTED
Giorgi Arveladze and Giga Bokeria , who are both leading members of the National Movement-Democrats parliament majority, expressed concern on 3 August over the arrest the previous day in Gori of Revaz Okruashvili, editor of the newspaper "Sakhalkho gazeti," Caucasus Press and Interfax reported. Arveladze and Bokeria told journalists that Okruashvili's arrest reflects negatively on the party, of which Interior Minister Irakli Okruashvili (no relation to the arrested) is also a member. Revaz Okruashvili is charged with possession of drugs, which police found during a search of his office, and faces a possible prison term of between six and 12 years. "Sakhalkho gazeti" staffers told fellow journalists they believe the drugs were planted in retaliation for articles Okruashvili authored criticizing local Governor Mikheil Kareli and other top officials. Interior Minister Okruashvili admitted to having ordered his namesake's arrest, adding that "many people" engage in drug-peddling under the guise of journalistic activities. President Saakashvili told journalists late on 3 August that Kareli is "a hero" and that all citizens of Georgia must obey the law, the Caucasus Press reported on 4 August. Saakashvili said Okruashvili's arrest can in no way be construed as pressure on the free press. LF

CHECHENS IN GEORGIA PROTEST ARRESTS
Chechens living in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge have complained to human-rights organizations and the UN High Commission for Refugees following the arrest by armed and masked Georgian State Security Ministry personnel on 3 August of at least 12 Chechens, Caucasus Press reported. Some of those arrested are displaced persons who fled the war in Chechnya; the others are Kists (Georgian-born Chechens). The Georgian State Security Ministry claims the aim of the operation was to identify and apprehend persons who entered Georgia illegally; a ministry spokesman said 11 persons were detained, of whom four were subsequently released. The Chechen website chechenpress.info claimed on 4 August that Russian security personnel also participated in the raid. LF

PRO-PRESIDENTIAL PARTY TOPS KAZAKH PUBLIC OPINION POLL
Results of a public opinion poll surveying the popularity of political parties released on 3 August indicated that the pro-presidential Otan party has emerged as the most popular political party in the run-up to the parliamentary elections set for 19 September, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The Otan party has the largest number of candidates, 43, registered for the election of a new lower house of parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline" 29 July 2004). The public opinion survey, conducted by the National Association of Sociologists and Political Scientists, is to be followed by a later poll to study whether the results reveal a one-time jump in popularity for the party or demonstrate a more lasting trend of support. Although earlier polling by the same group showed Asar, the other pro-presidential party, which is led by the Kazakh president's daughter, Darigha Nazarbaeva, as the most popular political party, it fell to second place and received only 16.4 percent in this survey. The opposition Ak Zhol party came in third, with 5.9 percent. RG

CIS ELECTION MONITORS ANNOUNCE PLANS FOR KAZAKH ELECTION
An association of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) from five CIS states held a press conference in Almaty on 3 August to announce the start of electoral monitoring ahead of the 19 September elections, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The association is comprised of leading NGOs from Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Ukraine, and is monitoring campaigning for seats in the lower house of the Kazakh parliament. One of the association's main goals is to work in partnership with local Kazakh groups in an attempt to strengthen civil society and to help ensure free and fair elections. The associations will field 140 monitors in the country by election day. The association will also monitor the presidential elections in Ukraine in October and the Kyrgyz parliamentary elections next February. According to a 20 July decision by the Kazakh Central Election Commission, the authorities pledged to assist the work of the international election monitors and will guarantee their "right to be present at all stages of the election campaign as well as receive any information about the election process from election commissions" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 July 2004). RG

JAILED KYRGYZ OPPOSITION LEADER DENIED EARLY RELEASE
An appeal for a conditional early release from prison by imprisoned Kyrgyz opposition leader Feliks Kulov was rejected by a court ruling on 31 July, Akipress reported on 3 August. Kulov, a former Kyrgyz vice president and national security service chief, is the leader of the opposition Ar-Namys party. He had earlier threatened to launch a hunger strike to draw attention to the authorities' "lawlessness and wanton disregard" for the rule of law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 July 2004). Kulov, currently serving a 10-year sentence for embezzlement that his supporters contend is politically motivated, is due to complete his prison term in November 2005. In a statement posted on its website on 3 August and cited by Interfax, Ar-Namys claimed that the prison authorities calculated incorrectly the length of time Kulov has already spent in prison. The Kulov case has also attracted the attention of Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu, who has also publicly called for his early release from prison. RG

KYRGYZSTAN TO OPEN NEW CONSULATE IN UZBEKISTAN
Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Askar Aytmatov announced plans on 3 August to open a new Kyrgyz consulate in Uzbekistan, the Kabar news agency reported. The foreign minister explained that the move stems from the Uzbek decision to impose a new visa regime for the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border. With a sizable number of ethnic Kyrgyz residing in Uzbekistan, the Kyrgyz government seeks to replicate the function of its consulate in the Tajik town of Khujand, which services its Kyrgyz population there. RG

TAJIKISTAN DOWNGRADES BORDER SECURITY AND ENDS ALERT...
The recent heightening of border security along the Tajik-Uzbek border ended on 3 August and the Tajik state of military alert expired, Asia-Plus reported. Strict border controls were eased and security checkpoints reduced early on 3 August and military units ended their special guard duty of the country's "vital facilities." The escalated security was in response to the 30 July bombings in the Uzbek capital Tashkent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2004). RG

...AS SITUATION IN UZBEKISTAN RETURNS TO NORMAL
Uzbek Interior Ministry forces relaxed their tightened security measures on 3 August as the country returned to normal after three suicide bombers carried out attacks in Tashkent on 30 July, ITAR-TASS reported. The gradual normalization of the country, with the reopening of the U.S. and Israeli embassies that were targeted in the attacks, follows a rise in the death toll to four after a policeman died on 2 August. Three other law-enforcement personnel were killed and eight others were injured in the three nearly simultaneous bombings. RG

BELARUSIAN AUTHORITIES CREATE LOCAL COMMISSIONS FOR LEGISLATIVE ELECTIONS
Central Election Commission Secretary Mikalay Lazavik told Belapan on 2 August that local authorities have completed the formation of 110 district election commissions for the 17 October elections to the Chamber of Representatives, Belarus's lower house. Lazavik said each of the district commissions has 13 members, the maximum number of members allowed by law. According to Lazavik, opposition political parties are represented on these commissions. JM

BELARUS'S FOREIGN DEBT SHRINKS TO $665 MILLION
The Belarusian Ministry of Statistics and Analysis has announced that the country's foreign debt fell by 11.1 percent to $655 million in the first half of 2004, Belapan reported on 3 August. The country's chief creditors are Russia, Germany, the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (the World Bank), Kuwait, and the United States. JM

BELARUSIAN, SYRIAN PARLIAMENTS SIGN COOPERATION ACCORD
The Belarusian National Assembly and the Syrian People's Assembly signed an agreement in Minsk on 3 August to facilitate contacts between legislators and the two countries in general, Belapan reported. Syrian People's Assembly speaker Mahmud al-Abrash said the document will help develop economic and political ties, establish closer contacts between lawmakers, and conclude new bilateral agreements. Trade turnover between Syria and Belarus was worth $15.6 million last year, with Belarusian exports amounting to $15.4 million. Belarus sells trucks, fiberboard, electronic and optical devices, and agricultural products to Syria. JM

OUR UKRAINE LEADER WANTS TV DEBATE WITH MAIN PRESIDENTIAL RIVAL
Our Ukraine head Viktor Yushchenko wants to hold a television debate with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, his main rival in the 31 October presidential election, Interfax reported on 3 August, citing Oleksandr Zinchenko, Yushchenko's election staff leader. Zinchenko specified that such a debate should be moderated by an "independent" journalist and broadcast live. Meanwhile, the Razumkov Center found in a poll conducted from 22-28 July that if a presidential election had been held "next Sunday," Yushchenko would have been backed by 27.9 percent of voters, Yanukovych by 21.1 percent, Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko by 9.8 percent, and Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz by 6.5 percent. In regional terms, Yushchenko is supported by 50.9 percent of voters in central Ukraine, 65.6 percent in the country's western regions, 19.9 percent in the south, and 15.3 percent in the east. Yanukovych is backed by 47.4 percent of voters in the east, 37.4 percent in the south, 17.2 percent in the center, and 12.2 percent in the west. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL RACE HAS 24 PARTICIPANTS
The Central Election Commission registered National Academy of Sciences Secretary Serhiy Komisarenko as the 24th presidential candidate on 3 August, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Komisarenko may close the list of presidential candidates for the 31 October election if the commission rejects by 6 August a complaint by a contender who was refused registration on 3 August. To take part in the 31 October ballot, each registered candidate needs to submit 500,000 signatures in support of his or her candidacy by 20 September. JM

UKRAINE WANTS TO SELL 43 PERCENT STAKE IN TELECOMMUNICATIONS GIANT BY OCTOBER
State Property Fund Chairman Mykhaylo Chechetov and Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Mykola Azarov announced on 3 August that the government is planning to sell by 30 September a 42.86 percent stake in Ukrtelecom, the largest national telecommunications operator in Ukraine, Interfax reported. "We could receive from $600 million to $800 million, judging by offers from those investors that have announced their desire to bid," Chechetov told journalists, adding that the government has not yet finalized terms for the tender to sell the Ukrtelecom stake. Following the sale, the government will retain a 50 percent plus one share in the company. JM

WAR CRIMES TRIBUNAL SUMMONS MACEDONIAN OFFICIALS
The Hague-based international war crimes tribunal has reportedly summoned several former Macedonian officials in connection with the killing of ethnic Albanian civilians in the village of Ljuboten during the 2001 interethnic conflict, "Utrinski vesnik" reported on 4 August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 13, and 28 August 2001, and 27 November 2002). It is not clear whether the tribunal is interested in the officials as suspects or witnesses. They include police General Goran Mitevski, who is the former public security chief in the Interior Ministry, and several high-ranking police officials. Hawkish former Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski, who fled to Croatia earlier this year, was not summoned (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6, 10, and 11 May 2004). He is also a Croatian citizen and believed to be operating a restaurant in Istria. UB

BOSNIAN MINISTER PLEDGES TO COOPERATE WITH THE HAGUE...
Barisa Colak, who is Bosnia-Herzegovina's interior minister and head of that republic's branch of the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), said in Mostar on 3 August that he will make available all documents requested by the Hague-based war-crimes tribunal, Hina reported. Colak stressed that there is no reason for anyone to hide anything from the tribunal, adding, however, that some requested materials might have been destroyed or sent out of Bosnia. He confirmed that Carla Del Ponte, who is the tribunal's chief prosecutor, wants documents dealing with the activities of the HDZ, the Croatian parastate known as Herceg-Bosna, and its military arm known as the Croatian Defense Council from 1 April 1992 to 31 December 1993. She has reportedly said that she will seek the sacking of unnamed top Croatian officials in Bosnia unless she receives the documents by 30 September. The Croatian news agency noted that many of the materials she wants are probably in Zagreb. PM

...AS THE UN MAKES AN APPEAL
The UN Security Council appealed on 3 August to Serbia and Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and especially to the Republika Srpska to cooperate with the tribunal and help arrest former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, and former Croatian General Ante Gotovina, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. PM

ANOTHER SUMMER OF LABOR PROTESTS IN SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO
Podgorica police arrested an unspecified number of workers from the Radoje Dakic factory on 3 August after they attempted to block the road to Cetinje to demand payment of back wages, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Union leaders said that the police used excessive violence to break up the protest and that the incident was a disgrace for all Montenegro, "Pobjeda" reported. Some labor protests have taken place in Serbia in recent weeks, primarily by farmers seeking better prices for their crops. PM

UN AND KOSOVA'S GOVERNMENT OFFER NO CONCESSIONS TO SERBS ON ELECTIONS
Officials of the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK) and the province's elected government said in Prishtina on 3 August that they will not make any concessions to the Serbian minority to persuade the Serbs not to boycott the 23 October parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 and 30 July and 2 August 2004). In Belgrade, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) said in a statement that the Serbian minority's leaders will not make a final decision on a possible boycott until after one more round of talks with Kostunica and Serbian President Boris Tadic. The "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" of 4 August noted that the Serbian and the Kosovar Serb leaderships have been sending out contradictory signals regarding a boycott. The daily added that the threat to boycott might be a tactic aimed at securing approval for Belgrade's plan for the "cantonization" of Kosova, which the Albanian political parties reject as they see it as a first step toward an ethnically-based partition of the province (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 16 April and 9 July 2004). The UN also opposes the proposal. The paper added that a concession might be possible, however, to meet Serbian demands for local control over security forces. PM

UNEMPLOYMENT IN KOSOVA TOPS 42 PERCENT
Kosova's Labor and Employment Ministry announced on 30 July that 282,247 people in the province were unemployed in 2003, an increase of 9.7 percent over the previous year, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported. The unemployment rate stands at 42.9 percent. It is not clear to what extent, if any, the "gray economy" was taken into account in preparing these statistics. Ethnic Albanian political leaders argue that the economic situation will improve only when Kosova's final political status is clarified. PM

U.S. AMBASSADOR SAYS FIGHTING CORRUPTION ESSENTIAL FOR ROMANIA'S GLOBAL COMPETITIVENESS
Jack Dyer Crouch II, who is the new U.S. ambassador to Romania, said on 3 August after talks with Senate speaker Nicolae Vacaroiu that in order for Romania to become competitive at the global level, it is essential to solve the country's corruption problem, Mediafax reported. Crouch said he discussed with Vacaroiu ways to boost foreign investment in Romania and that they agreed that eradicating corruption would both attract investors and help entrench democracy. Crouch said the legislation needed for this purpose has been approved but "the jury is still out" on its implementation. MS

TRANSDNIESTER EXTENDS RAIL BLOCKADE
The Transdniestrian separatist authorities extended on 2 August the blocking of rail links to Moldova, AP reported. The agency cited Ion Leahu, Moldova's representative on the Joint Control Commission, as saying separatist militiamen placed concrete blocks on the railway near the Tiraspol-controlled town of Bendery-Tighina. ITAR-TASS on 3 August quoted a Moldovan railway official as saying passenger trains bound from Chisinau to destinations in Russia, Ukraine, and other Commonwealth of Independent States countries had to be diverted to other routes and reached their destinations with considerable delays. Tiraspol has taken the measures in retaliation for Moldova's economic sanctions, which came into force on 1 August in response to the separatists' closure of schools teaching Moldovan (Romanian) with the Latin script (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2004). Infotag said the last time Tiraspol resorted to blocking the railway was during the armed conflict in the early 1990s. MS

MOSCOW CALLS FOR NEGOTIATIONS TO SEEK WAY OUT OF TRANSDNIESTER DEADLOCK...
The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 3 August urging Moldova and Transdniester to "hold urgent talks with the participation of the mediators in order to find a mutually acceptable way out of the dangerous dead-end situation" created by the separatists' school closures, an RFE/RL correspondent in Chisinau reported. Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Valerii Loshchinin said a meeting could be organized in Moscow or anywhere else by the end of the week. Also on 3 August, the French Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying Paris is deeply concerned over the recent deterioration of the situation, Infotag reported. France said it welcomes the efforts of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) to seek a peaceful resolution of the crisis and the EU decision to take "adequate measures" against the Transdniestrian officials responsible for the current situation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 July and 3 August 2004). MS

...BUT CHISINAU SAYS SCHOOLS MUST REOPEN FIRST
Moldovan Reintegration Minister Vasilii Sova said in reaction to the Russian appeal that the resumption of the five-sided negotiations is possible only after the issue of the closed schools is resolved, Infotag reported. He said the three mediators (OSCE, Russia, and Ukraine) made proposals that would make possible solving many contentious issues, including that of the closed schools. "Last week we agreed to the proposals and now Transdniester needs to do the same," Sova said. MS

OSCE WORRIED OVER EVENTS AT TELERADIO MOLDOVA
In a statement released on 3 August, the OSCE mission in Moldova said it is concerned over the "increasing polarization and politicization of the discussions around Teleradio Moldova's transformation into a public broadcaster," Infotag reported. The mission said that it regrets last week's use of force by police against peaceful protesters, and called on all sides to refrain from further polarizing acts and concentrate efforts on finding a solution to "the real questions" pertaining to the challenges involved in reforming Teleradio Moldova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 and 3 August 2004). MS

MACEDONIA MARKS 60TH ANNIVERSARY OF STATEHOOD
On 2 August, known locally as St. Elijah's Day or Ilinden, Macedonia marked the 60th anniversary of the first meeting of the World War II Antifascist Council for the National Liberation of Macedonia (ASNOM). ASNOM is widely regarded as the core institution of the first modern Macedonian state, the People's (later Socialist) Republic of Macedonia within communist Yugoslavia.

ASNOM was set up on the initiative of the Communist Party of Macedonia (KPM) and the communist-dominated Partisan movement, which was under the overall leadership of Josip Broz Tito. Representatives of the Communist Party of Yugoslavia (KPJ) and military envoys from Serbia, the United States, and the United Kingdom attended ASNOM's first session, which took place in the southern Serbian Prohor Pcinjski Monastery on 2 August 1944. During that session, the council declared itself the supreme legislative and executive body of the new state. As such, it laid the legal foundations of the Macedonian state.

The date itself was carefully chosen by the council's organizers, as it was a clear reference to the anti-Ottoman uprising of 2 August 1903, during which a short-lived republic was founded in the central Macedonian town of Krusevo. Accordingly, ASNOM declared 2 August the Macedonian national holiday.

However, celebrating this holiday has not always been easy, especially in recent years. In the postcommunist era, official Macedonian delegations have marked Ilinden in the Prohor Pcinjski Monastery, where a commemorative plaque recalled the historic ASNOM session.

But in 2003, the ongoing dispute between the Serbian Orthodox Church (SPC) on the one hand and the Macedonian Orthodox Church (MPC) on the other made this seemingly innocuous exercise impossible. Serbian monks from Prohor Pcinjski even removed the commemorative plaque and disobeyed orders from the Serbian government to return it.

The problem is deeply rooted in what historians call the Macedonian Question and interrelated issues involving the traditional Balkan tendency to equate one's nationality with one's religion. The Macedonian Question took shape in the 19th century and hinged on the issue as to whether speakers of Slavic dialects in that region were Bulgarians, Serbs, "Slavophone Greeks," or members of a distinct Macedonian nation.

In a move designed to win local support while curbing Bulgarian and Serbian aspirations, the KPJ and ASNOM firmly supported the idea of a Macedonian nation. In 1967, the authorities took the matter to what many regarded as its logical conclusion and recognized a Macedonian Orthodox Church separate from the Serbian Orthodox Church or even the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which has a much smaller number of Macedonian adherents.

The SPC does not recognize its Macedonian counterpart, regarding it as schismatic. Having gained what the SPC describes as a "far-reaching autonomy" in 1959, the MPC split from the SPC in 1967 without the consent of the Serbian Holy Synod. As a result, the MPC was never recognized by other Orthodox churches.

To avert future conflicts over the celebration at Prohor Pcinjski, the Macedonian government decided to build a new national commemorative center in the village of Pelince, which is close to the monastery but on Macedonian territory.

The new center includes a copy of the room of the monastery where the ASNOM first met. The museum's outside walls of are decorated with a large mosaic, displaying themes from Macedonian history laid out in a chronological order. Construction of the center started in only in May, and the most important parts of the complex were finished just in time for the 2 August celebrations.

But the Macedonian leadership did not want to give up the tradition of visiting Prohor Pcinjski, too. Accordingly, Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski wrote Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and Serbian Orthodox Patriarch Pavle, asking them to open the monastery to a Macedonian state delegation for this year's anniversary.

Crvenkovski's appeal was successful, at least in part. On 2 August, he led a delegation to Prohor Pcinjski to lay wreaths at a new memorial site outside the monastery. The Macedonian delegation also included Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski, parliamentary speaker Ljupco Jordanovski, and MPC head Gospodin Gospodin Stefan. They were met in Prohor Pcinjski by a Serbian state delegation headed by Prime Minister Kostunica and Serbia and Montenegro's Defense Minister Prvoslav Davinic.

But the visit to Prohor Pcinjski also provided an unpleasant surprise for the Macedonians, because the Serbian delegation included Bishop Jovan -- a former Macedonian bishop of Veles, who is shunned by the MPC for putting his bishopric back under the canonic jurisdiction of the SPC in July 2002. When the SPC set up an autonomous Archbishopric of Ohrid in May 2003 to underscore its claims to jurisdiction in Macedonia, it named Bishop Jovan its head.

Many Macedonians regarded Bishop Jovan's presence at the Ilinden ceremonies as a provocation. The Macedonian conservative opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) interpreted this -- presumably involuntary -- meeting between Crvenkovski and Bishop Jovan part of an alleged secret deal between the president and the SPC. VMRO-DPMNE Deputy Chairwoman Ganka Samoilovska-Cvetanova said on 2 August that her party boycotted the ceremony at Prohor Pcinjski because it does not want to be involved with any concessions to the SPC, which, she said, border on "high treason," to use a phrase that frequently surfaces in VMRO rhetoric these days.

Crvenkovski himself did not comment on the meeting with Bishop Jovan or on a letter he reportedly received from Serbian Patriarch Pavle. But in a statement he made in Bitola on Ilinden, he stressed that Macedonia is a secular state, and that the state and the various churches do not have the right to interfere in each other's affairs.

U.S. ENVOY TO KABUL WARNS OF TROUBLE DURING AFGHAN ELECTION PROCESS
U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said in an interview on 3 August with Radio Free Afghanistan that the Afghan presidential elections will not be without problems. "Some groups, such as the Taliban extremist group, have declared war on the elections," Khalilzad said (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 July 2004). However, he added, "just as they failed to disrupt the [Constitutional] Loya Jirga process [in December 2003] and just as they failed to disrupt the registration process, they will fail in disrupting the election process." According to Khalilzad, Afghans will choose their future leader and the United States will not have a direct role in the process. AT

AFGHAN LEADER SWAPS MINISTERS
As per a decree from Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, Urban Development and Housing Minister Gul Agha Sherzai has been appointed public works minister, Afghanistan Television reported on 3 August. The current public works minister, Abdullah Ali, has been appointed the new urban development and housing minister. Gul Agha Sherzai, who until August 2003 served as governor of Kandahar Province in the south, was reportedly dissatisfied with his position as a government minister. AT

NEW EDITOR NAMED FOR KABUL'S GOVERNMENT DAILY
Gholam Sakhi Monir has been appointed as the editor in chief of "Anis," Afghanistan Television reported on 2 August. The Dari-language, government-funded "Anis" is Afghanistan's oldest newspaper, founded in 1927. AT

KABUL DAILY LAUDS WORK OF AID GROUP AND URGES ITS RETURN
In a commentary on 1 August regarding the decision by the Brussels-based Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to halt all of its medical programs in Afghanistan after five of its staff members were killed in June, "The Kabul Times" praised MSF's work and urged it to return to Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 10 June 2004 and "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 July and 3 August 2004). According to the daily, the culprits arrested in connection with the attack on the doctors were "released as a result of wheeling and dealing by the local warlords who are increasingly exerting influence [over] unarmed officials." Calling MSF workers a "group of devoted humanitarian servants who have abandoned their comfortable life at home and save the lives" of Afghans, "The Kabul Times" urged the organization to return to Afghanistan "as soon as the security situation improves." The daily recommends that Karzai award medals to the MSF workers in Afghanistan for their service helping Afghans. AT

FORMER IRANIAN LEGISLATOR IN COURT, TEACHER BEATEN
Rajab-Ali Mazrui, a member of Iran's last, reformist-dominated parliament, was called to a Tehran court on 3 August to hear charges of calumny brought against him by an officer of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 4 August. Mazrui had at an unspecified date accused the officer of abusing his position and lacking "military competence," the daily reported. The court informed Mazrui he is charged with "publishing falsehoods and proffering insults," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported, without giving further details. Separately, Amnesty International has expressed concern that Mustafa Piran, a teacher detained in July while organizing a civil protest, has been tortured, Radio Farda reported on 3 August. Radio Farda quoted an unspecified family member as saying that he saw bruises on Piran's face and body when he visited him in prison. Piran's son, Peyman, is also in jail for protesting against a 1999 police attack on a Tehran student dormitory. Mustafa Piran was arrested after state security officials broke into his home, beat him, expelled his family from their government-owned apartment, and threw out their belongings, according to Radio Farda and Amnesty International. VS

SPOKESMAN DISTANCES IRAQ FROM MINISTER'S REMARKS ON IRAN
A spokesman for Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, Georges Sada, told IRNA on 3 August that anti-Iranian remarks by Iraqi Defense Minister Hazim Sha'lan al-Khuza'i (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 July 2004) "are not the position of Iraq's interim government," which is "stated only through the prime minister or a spokesman." Iranian officials have objected to charges that Iran is meddling in Iraqi affairs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 August 2004). "Whatever any Iraqi minister may say, the government intends to expand relations with its neighbors," Sada said. He said Allawi has not postponed a trip to Tehran and is to visit "at the arranged time," to discuss regulating the flow of Iranians in and out of Iraq, and "other important matters." Iranian pilgrims regularly visit Iraq's Shi'a shrines. "As...neighboring states, Iran and Iraq face a number of border problems, which that trip intends to resolve through friendly and diplomatic talks," Sada said. IRNA did not give a date for the visit. VS

IRAQI DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER CONFIRMS FRIENDLY TIES WITH IRAN...
Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Hamid al-Bayati told ISNA in Tehran on 3 August that Iran and Iraq currently have "good, deep and solid" relations and "Iraqis believe they must have good relations with Iran." He termed statements against Iran by Defense Minister al-Khuza'i and Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 July 2004) "their personal views," not "the official position of the Iraqi government." The official position is that "Iraq considers Iran a neighboring Muslim state, not an enemy," ISNA quoted him as saying. Al-Bayati said he is in Tehran to plan a visit "soon" by Prime Minister Allawi. A joint Iran-Iraq committee, he said, will at an unspecified date "examine all issues and problems between Iran and Iraq, including the war," ISNA reported. Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war after former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein invaded Iran in 1980. Iran is demanding reparations. VS

...AND SAYS IRANIAN REBELS BARRED FROM ALL ACTIVITIES
Al-Bayati said that the Iraqi government has decided that the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO), an Iranian opposition group currently confined to a camp in Iraq, "must not engage in any...political activities or other programs in Iraq," ISNA reported. Iran wants the group, designated a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department, expelled and its leaders sent to Iran for trial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 and 28 July 2004). "They are merely allowed to meet their basic human needs, including food and drink, and are barred from any and all activity," ISNA quoted al-Bayati as saying. So far, he said, the "Iraqi government has had no control over this group," which has been guarded by coalition forces. The MKO "are not permitted to remain in Iraq," al-Bayati said, and the International Committee of the Red Cross is interviewing members to "find them a place," or send them to Iran or a third country, if they wish. Separately, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said in a Tehran meeting on 3 August with Iraqi Finance Minister Adil Abd al-Mahdi that Iran wants the MKO expelled, following a previous Governing Council decision that "America is preventing from being implemented," IRNA reported the same day. VS

FOUR JORDANIAN, TWO TURKISH HOSTAGES RELEASED IN IRAQ
Four Jordanian truck drivers taken hostage in Iraq have been freed by their captors, international media reported on 4 August. The militant group Death Group said it took the men hostage in an effort to pressure Jordanian transport companies to stop transporting supplies to U.S. forces in Iraq. AP reported on 4 August that Al-Fallujah Sheikh Ibrahim Jassam helped free the men after learning of their whereabouts. "I called upon my brothers and tribesmen to free the hostages, so we raided the house last night," he told AP. Some Western media reported, however that Jassam negotiated the release of the men, making no mention of the apparent raid. Meanwhile, the Al-Tawhid wa Al-Jihad group has released two Turkish truck drivers it held captive, Al-Jazeera reported on 4 August. "Due to the Turkish firm's decision to stop sending supplies to U.S. forces in Iraq, the Al-Tawhid wa Al-Jihad group has decided to free the two Turkish hostages," the group said in a videotaped message obtained by the satellite news channel. KR

CAR BOMB KILLS THREE NATIONAL GUARDSMEN IN IRAQ
A car bomb detonated in the restive city of Ba'qubah on 3 August, killing three Iraqi national guardsmen and wounding six others, international media reported the same day. "A car drove up to the Sabtiyah checkpoint and, before the national guardsmen could search it, the driver blew up the vehicle," Al-Jazeera quoted Iraqi Captain Sabah Nasif Jasim as saying. Reuters reported that six people were killed in the blast and six injured. A car bomb targeting an Iraqi police station detonated in Ba'qubah on 28 July, killing some 70 Iraqis and wounded dozens more (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 30 July 2004). KR

MILITANT GROUP WARNS SAUDI ARABIA NOT TO SEND TROOPS TO IRAQ
The militant group Jama'at Al-Tawhid Al-Islamiyah -- Sheikh Yasin's Brigade issued a warning to Saudi Arabia on 3 August not to assist the United States by sending Arab and Muslim troops to Iraq, middle-east-online.com reported. In a message posted on a jihadist website (http://www.ansarnet.ws/vb), the group warned King Fahd bin Abd al-Aziz al-Sa'ud: "If you do not respond favorably to our call [to not send troops], we swear by God that you will not know security as long as our brothers in Iraq and in Afghanistan do not know it." "We do not want bloodshed. We do not want discord among Muslims," the group said, adding, "If Muslim troops are sent to Iraq, we will not remain idle." Saudi Arabia presented a plan to the United States that calls for an Islamic force to help provide security in Iraq. That plan has thus far garnered little support from Arab and Muslim countries. KR

MILITARY INVESTIGATOR TELLS COURT ABU GHURAYB ABUSE 'FOR FUN'
A military investigator testifying at the pretrial hearing for Private First Class Lynndie England told the court at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, on 3 August that U.S. troops abused Iraqi prisoners at Baghdad's Abu Ghurayb prison "just for fun," Reuters reported the same day. England was seen in a number of prisoner-abuse photographs, including one in which she held a leash attached to the neck of a naked prisoner. Chief Warrant Officer Paul Arthur, the lead investigator in the Abu Ghurayb case, also testified that England said in a sworn statement in January that a superior, Specialist Charles Graner, put the leash on the prisoner and told her to pose for the photograph. Six other military police reservists were charged in the case, including Graner. All have since claimed that they were ordered by higher-ups in military intelligence to stage the photographs. Another investigator, Special Agent Warren Worth, testified that he has found no evidence that orders came from higher in the chain of command than Graner and Staff Sergeant Ivan Frederick, another soldier charged in the case. KR

IRAQ'S ONCE-FAMOUS DATE INDUSTRY NOW IN RUINS
The first date harvest of the season has reportedly made its way to Baghdad's central market, middle-east-online.com reported on 2 August. Iraq was once known for its world-famous date industry, and exports were second only to oil, but the website reports that the effects of war and environmental damage have impacted the industry. "This year, the quality of the dates has suffered because of the consequences of war, sand storms, pollution, and a lack of pesticides," date wholesaler Abd al-Amir Abu Ala told the website. "Before the war, planes used to spray the palm trees with insecticides. That doesn't happen anymore. For three years, we have done nothing and the quality has suffered," he said. According to the website, Iraq had 33 million palm trees in 1958; the count today stands at around 13 million. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) has undertaken a project to purchase 40,000 date palms for orchards and offshoot nurseries in 13 Iraqi governorates, according to the agency's website (http://www.usaid.gov). There are 621 varieties of date palms in Iraq. The fruit has been cultivated there for more than 5,000 years, according to USAID. KR

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