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Newsline - February 9, 2005


UNIFIED RUSSIA SAYS IT WILL NOT BACK GOVERNMENT OUSTER
State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov (Unified Russia) said ahead of the 9 February no-confidence vote in the lower house that his faction will not back the measure to remove Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov's government, which was initiated by Communist and Motherland deputies, RIA-Novosti reported on 8 February. Gryzlov argued that the responsible ministers should be granted time to "correct the mistakes" made during the recent monetization of social benefits, which sparked the largest demonstrations since President Vladimir Putin took office at the beginning of 2000. Duma First Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska (Unified Russia) meanwhile suggested that Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov resign, as the public believes he is the minister who bears the greatest responsibility for the botched reform, polit.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2005). Sliska argued that Zurabov's resignation would "save the president, the government, and the Duma," RTR reported on 8 February. Zurabov vowed through his press service on 7 February that he will not resign, polit.ru reported. Sergei Markov, who heads the Institute of Political Studies in Moscow, a think tank with close ties to the Kremlin, pointed out on 8 February that under the Russian Constitution it is the president -- and not the legislature -- who has the power to dismiss governments or individual ministers, TV-Tsentr reported. Markov predicted that Putin would not make such a move before the government repairs any damage it might have inflicted through the benefits reform for fear of sparking negative economic effects. Simply put, Markov added, the Kremlin has no alternate team of reformers to fill the government's shoes. VY

BUSINESS MONTHLY PUBLISHES LIST OF RUSSIAN BILLIONAIRES
The "Finans" business monthly's website (http://www.finansmag.ru) published a list of Russian billionaires on 8 February that includes 450 individuals presumed to be ruble-billionaires, 39 of whom are also believed to qualify as billionaires in dollar terms. The list is headed by Chukotka Autonomous Okrug Governor and Sibneft shareholder Roman Abramovich, who is said to be worth an estimated $11.54 billion. He is followed by Base Element holding's Oleg Deripaska ($8.3 billion) and Alfa Group founder Mikhail Fridman ($8.1 billion). "Finans" estimated that the wealth of jailed former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii, whom "Forbes" listed as Russia's richest man one year ago, has plummeted to $240 million. Self-exiled magnate Boris Berezovskii is worth an estimated $1.6 billion, the publication asserted. Twenty-two of the ruble-billionaires named on the list are deputies in the State Duma, 10 are members of the Federation Council, and three head Russian regional governments. Pravda.ru noted on 8 February that many Russian billionaires and multi-millionaires made their money through the export of raw materials and metals, while many similarly wealthy Chinese made their fortunes in information technology, electronics, or the high-tech sectors. VY

KREMLIN SAID TO BE WORKING ON NEW CONSTITUTION...
National Strategy Institute Director Stanislav Belkovskii told a news conference in Moscow on 8 February that a group of Kremlin advisers is working to draft a new Russian constitution that would effectively assure the current Kremlin elite's access to power after the 2008 presidential election, AP and other media reported. There are "many people within Putin's entourage who believe it is necessary to keep him in power after 2008," AP quoted Belkovskii as saying. One of the authors of the country's 1993 constitution, Sergei Shakhrai, corroborated to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 8 February that such an effort is under way. Shakhrai said the document will be presented to the Duma in mid-2007 with an eye to a constitutional referendum. Belkovskii claimed that the cancellation of direct gubernatorial elections and the scrapping of the Constitution Day holiday are early moves to pave the way for a new constitution. VY

...AS THINK-TANK HEAD LAYS OUT POSSIBLE ALTERNATIVES
At the same 8 February news conference, Belkovskii suggested that the Russian Constitution adopted under Boris Yeltsin in 1993 "has exhausted itself and should be replaced," apn.ru reported. Belkovskii claimed the current basic law fails to address adequately the issue of succession, adding that his own preference would be for a constitution that "divides power from management" and transforms Russia from a "nation-state" into a "nation-civilization." Belkovskii's version would include the concept of "associate membership," he said, in preparation for the possible inclusion of the "self-proclaimed states of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniester." Belkovskii also suggested that "human rights" should be excluded from the document, "as it provides a mechanism for [foreign] intervention into Russia's internal affairs." Gleb Pavlovskii, director of the Effective Politics Foundation, blasted Belkovskii's suggestions as reminiscent of fascist states, according to "Novye izvestiya" on 8 February. VY

FOREIGN MINISTRY DISMISSES TALK OF NUCLEAR WEAPON IN CHECHEN MILITANTS' HANDS
The Foreign Ministry rejected self-exiled mogul Boris Berezovskii's recent suggestion that Chechen militants might possess a nuclear weapon (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2005), saying it views the comment as a "tactic of intimidation aimed at spreading a feeling of vulnerability and anxiety among the Russian public," RIA-Novosti reported. "We do not believe that Chechen militants possess such a weapon or, consequently, the possibility of terrorist acts aided by such devices," the ministry said in its statement. Meanwhile, Vladimir Denisov, the deputy secretary of National Security Council in 1996, told "Rossiiskaya gazeta" of 8 February that when he headed a special probe into the possible disappearance of portable nuclear devices, investigators found no evidence that any such device went missing. Lieutenant General Vladimir Dvorkin, who is responsible for the Defense Ministry's nuclear-weapons supervision, said such "nuclear suitcases" are made to remain useful for only a short period and subsequently require sophisticated maintenance (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 25 September and 1 October 1997 and 25 October 2001). VY

DEFENSE MINISTRY PERSONNEL PROTEST WAGES
An estimated 500 people representing associations of Defense Ministry employees and service personnel staged a picket near the government building in Moscow on 9 February, ITAR-TASS reported. The picketers demanded major salary increases for ministry personnel, and carried signs reading "For a Decent Salary," "Down With the Government of the Oligarchs," and "An Impoverished Army Is Our National Shame." Interfax reported that a similar demonstration will be held outside the Defense Ministry on 10 February. RC

PUTIN URGES REFORM OF TAX-ENFORCEMENT SYSTEM
President Putin has ordered the government to introduce new regulations to make tax organs more transparent and to simplify audit procedures, RBK reported on 8 February. Putin met in the Kremlin with Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov on 8 February to discuss tax enforcement. "Our legislation still retains provisions that permit ambiguous interpretation and result in a huge number of disputes between fiscal bodies and taxpayers," Zhukov told Putin, according to RTR. Zhukov proposed creating a special department that would investigate public complaints against the tax authorities, as well as introducing sharp restrictions on on-site audits. He added that laws must be revised to give companies more flexibility in paying tax arrears. Tax debt should not cause the bankruptcies of firms that could otherwise function, he said. The goal of the proposed reforms, Zhukov said, should be "to improve the investment climate and to boost mutual trust between business and the authorities." RC

DAILY REPORTS THAT FSB'S ECONOMICS UNIT WILL BE DISMANTLED
The Economic Security Service of the Federal Security Service (FSB) is to be disbanded, "Izvestiya" reported on 9 February. A new economic-crime structure will be created, either as an independent entity reporting to the prime minister or as part of the Interior Ministry, the daily said. An unnamed FSB spokesman denied the report and called it "all rumors." However, the daily reported that the FSB has been ordered to come up with a plan by 20 February for liquidating most functions of the Economic Security Service, retaining only oversight for the functioning of strategically important enterprises. The purpose of the reform, a former FSB official told the daily, is to prevent the FSB from unfairly influencing the economy. "The FSB must not create advantages for one company over others through its various structures and departments," Prime Minister Fradkov told a gathering of FSB officials last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2005). The FSB's Economic Security Service played a major role in the government's campaign in 2000 to dismantle the media empire of former oligarch Vladimir Gusinskii, the daily reported. RC

MINISTRY SAYS REFORMS MUST BE STEPPED UP TO ENSURE ECONOMIC GROWTH...
The Economic Development and Trade Ministry has presented the government with its revised medium-term economic-development plan for 2005-15, "Izvestiya" and other Russian media reported on 9 February. The ministry states in the plan that it will be virtually impossible to achieve President Putin's stated goal of doubling GDP by 2010 without major reforms that are proceeding very slowly. The daily described the plan as "the most liberal document to emerge from the authorities in recent times." It said that "the interference of government" in the economy is moving the country further from its goal of "building an effective economy." The report also states that the lack of an independent court system and business's lack of confidence in the law enforcement system are major development obstacles, and it criticizes the role of state-controlled monopolies such as Gazprom, Unified Energy Systems (EES), and Rostelekom. The plan predicts that the economy will develop in three phases: 2005-07 will be the "inertia period," characterized by oil-driven growth; 2008-11 will be an "economic pause," characterized by annual growth of less than 5 percent; and 2012-15 will be a period of accelerated economic growth. RC

...AND PLANS TO TRY AGAIN TO CREATE PUBLIC BROADCASTING
The Economic Development and Trade Ministry is preparing a plan to create a genuine public television channel in Russia, "Vedomosti" reported on 9 February. The project is included in the ministry's short-term economic plan for 2005-08, the daily reported, although Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref said he doubts such a channel will appear before 2008. A bill to turn the state media holding the All-Russia State Television and Radio Company (VGTRK) into a public broadcasting entity was submitted to the Duma in 2003, but it never made it to the floor for its first reading. The ministry's economic plan includes "the transformation of state mass media, including television and radio channels, into public media that are strictly obligated to strive for objectivity and pluralism in the presentation of information." According to the plan, the ministry is to draft new legislation for the project by September. RC

LOCAL COURT STRIKES DOWN EFFORT TO APPOINT MAYORS
A municipal court in the Kaluga Oblast city of Obninsk on 8 February upheld an appeal by oblast legislator Tatyana Kotlyar and city legislator Nina Illarionova against a recent oblast decision to end the direct election of city mayors, "Izvestiya" reported on 9 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2005). The court had not yet issued an explanation of its decision, but the plaintiffs told the daily that the decision to appoint mayors violates the constitutional right of citizens to participate in the formation of local-government structures. City legislature Chairman Vladimir Morozov said the legislature will wait until the court issues its full ruling before making a decision on filing an appeal. Former Obninsk Mayor Igor Mironov, who resigned in protest against the reform to appoint mayors, told that daily that he would likely run for office again if another direct election was held. RC

U.S. AMBASSADOR WARNS CHECHEN SECURITY FORCES
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow told Interfax on 8 February that while Washington will continue to assist Moscow in the struggle against terrorism in Chechnya, "it is important that Chechen security forces operating on the ground avoid steps that only drive members of the civilian population" to join the Chechen resistance. That statement is a clear allusion to the widely documented involvement by members of the so-called presidential security force subordinate to Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov in the abduction, torture, and murder of Chechen civilians. Vershbow added, "I was encouraged to hear that steps are being taken by law enforcement forces to investigate the disturbing reports of abductions of Chechen citizens." LF

CHECHEN PRESIDENT CALLS ON WEST TO MEDIATE SETTLEMENT...
In a 7 February statement posted on the chechenpress.info website, resistance commander Aslan Maskhadov, who was elected Chechen president in 1997 in a ballot recognized by Russia and the international community as free and fair, called on the UN, the European Union, and the Council of Europe to play a more active role in mediating a settlement of the Chechen conflict. Maskhadov called last month for a unilateral cease-fire, and on 7 February "Kommersant-Daily" published an interview with him in which he reiterated earlier calls for unconditional talks aimed at ending the ongoing conflict in Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3, 4, and 7 February 2005). On 9 February, chechenpress.info carried a statement by Maskhadov special envoy Akhmed Zakaev, who affirmed that Chechen resistance forces are complying with Maskhadov's command to desist from attacks on Russian forces. Zakaev said the Chechen forces would welcome an offer from unspecified international observers to monitor compliance with the ceasefire. LF

...AS PRO-MOSCOW CHECHEN LEADERS DEMAND HIS CAPITULATION
Members of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration said on 8 February that Maskhadov should surrender, Interfax reported. Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov repeated his earlier response to Maskhadov's call for peace talks, saying that a dialogue is only possible with "those whose hands are not stained with blood," while Chechen First Deputy Prime Minister Kadyrov said Maskhadov is simply trying to evade "responsibility for his crimes." Akhmar Zavgaev, who represents Chechnya in the Russian State Duma, told ITAR-TASS on 8 February that Maskhadov's cease-fire declaration is no more than "a propaganda ploy." LF

ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER MEETS WITH MINSK GROUP CO-CHAIRMEN...
Vartan Oskanian met on 8 February in Yerevan with the French and Russian co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group, who briefed him on the recently completed inspection mission undertaken by the OSCE in seven districts bordering on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) that are controlled by Karabakh Armenian forces, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2005). Russian co-Chairman Yurii Merzlyakov said Oskanian was told that "logistically the mission went very well." The parties also discussed the possibility of a further meeting in Prague between Oskanian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov to discuss the prospects for resolving the Karabakh conflict. Mammadyarov's deputy, Araz Azimov, said last month that meeting is scheduled for 2 March, but Merzlyakov said no firm date has been agreed. LF

...AS ARMENIAN OPPOSITION LAMBASTES GOVERNMENT'S KARABAKH POLICY
The opposition Harapetutiun (Republic) party headed by former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian has released a statement expressing concern that a "new phase" in the search for a solution to the Karabakh conflict has begun and that it poses unfavorable conditions for Armenia, according to Arminfo on 7 February as cited by Groong. The statement notes that as a result of what it terms the Armenian government's "shortsighted and irresponsible policy," international organizations such as the UN and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) are increasingly expressing support for Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, dismissing the right of the Karabakh Armenians to self-determination, and branding the NKR leadership as "criminals" and "separatists." On 8 February, Democratic Party of Armenia Chairman Aram Sarkisian made public a statement adopted by the opposition Artarutiun parliamentary bloc that criticized the exclusion of the NKR leadership from talks between Armenia and Azerbaijan on approaches to resolving the conflict, Noyan Tapan reported. Sarkisian called on other parliament factions to endorse that statement, but Armen Rustamian (Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun), who heads the parliamentary Foreign Relations Commission, was quoted by Arminfo on 8 February as saying that they are unlikely to do so. He said any opposition proposals for resolving the conflict should be "above party and political interests" and "should not contain accusations against anyone." LF

SIX SENTENCED ON TERRORISM CHARGES IN AZERBAIJAN
After a closed trial, Azerbaijan's Court for Serious Crimes passed sentence on 8 February on six men convicted of preparing a terrorist act, Turan and kavkazweb.net reported. Amiraslan Iskenderov and Alirza Babaev were sentenced to 14 years' imprisonment, Abdulla Magamedov and Zaur Aliev to 7 1/2 years, Khidayat Piriev to five years, and Rizvan Abdurezegov to three years. They had reportedly photographed buildings in Baku, according to Turan. All six pleaded not guilty. The six were also suspected of links with Al-Qaeda, but it is unclear whether any hard evidence was produced at the trial to substantiate those suspicions. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT NAMES NEW PREMIER...
Following consultations on 8 February with government officials and parliament, Mikheil Saakashvili named Finance Minister Zurab Nogaideli that evening to succeed the late Zurab Zhvania as prime minister, and tasked him with naming a new cabinet within two days, Georgian and Western agencies reported. Nogaideli, 40, was born in the then Adjar ASSR and studied physics at Moscow State University, graduating in 1988. He worked briefly in Batumi, and then in Tallinn, as a scientific researcher, returning to Tbilisi in 1992 to align himself with Zhvania's Green Party. Nogaideli was elected a parliamentary deputy in 1992, 1995, and 1999, and named finance minister in the spring of 2000, but he was fired two years later for budget non-fulfillment. He then worked for 18 months as an adviser to the U.S. company that runs Georgia's energy-distribution system. Following the ouster of President Eduard Shevardnadze in November 2003, he was again appointed finance minister. LF

...AND PRESERVES ' BALANCE OF POWER'
Caucasus Press on 9 February characterized Nogaideli as a strong negotiator and a principled person who enjoys good relations with international financial institutions. Nogaideli was also a close Zhvania associate, and his appointment preserves the balance within the top leadership between the Saakashvili and Zhvania camps. Caucasus Press quoted the independent television station Rustavi-2 as reporting that Zhvania's "team" had threatened to join the opposition to the present Georgian leadership if one of their number was not named as the new prime minister. On 8 February, U.S. Assistant Deputy Secretary of State Laura Kennedy, one of the U.S. officials who traveled to Georgia to attend Zhvania's funeral on 6 February, met with Georgian National Security Council Chairman Gela Bezhuashvili to discuss the circumstances of and political repercussions of Zhvania's death, ITAR-TASS reported. That agency quoted Kennedy as saying the question of Zhvania's successor was discussed but that she offered no recommendations. Caucasus Press, by contrast, quoted U.S. Ambassador Richard Miles as saying candidates for the post of prime minister were not discussed at the meeting with Bezhuashvili, and that Washington will cooperate with whomever Saakashvili chooses for that post. LF

NEW POLITICAL MOVEMENT FOUNDED IN ABKHAZIA
The Forum for National Unity held its constituent congress in Sukhum on 8 February, Apsnipress reported. The forum unites 12 political parties and movements, including the Apsny party of outgoing President Vladislav Ardzinba, Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba's Social Democratic Party of Abkhazia together with its youth wing, and several formations that supported then Prime Minister Raul Khadjimba in October's presidential election. The forum elected a collective leadership in the form of a 12-member coordinating council, of which Social-Democratic Party co-chairman Gennadii Alamia was elected chairman for a six-month period. Speaking at the congress, Vasilii Avidzba, who is director of the Abkhaz Institute of Humanitarian Research, stressed that the forum was not created as "opposition to anyone" and that it will support the incoming regime of President-elect Sergei Bagapsh to the extent that it serves the interests of the Abkhaz people. Avidzba denied that members of the forum intend to sabotage Bagapsh's inauguration, which is planned for 12 February. LF

TIME BOMB DISCOVERED, DEFUSED IN ABKHAZ CAPITAL
Also on 8 February, police in Sukhum discovered a time bomb placed near a hotel under construction that is owned by a Russian-Abkhaz company, abkhaziya.info reported. The bomb, which contained 700-800 grams of plastic explosive, was defused by experts from the Abkhaz Defense Ministry and the HALO Trust that is engaged in demining in Abkhazia. LF

EU TO ASSESS SITUATION ON GEORGIAN-RUSSIAN BORDER
Ambassador Heikki Talvitie, who is the EU special envoy for the South Caucasus, said in Tbilisi on 8 February that the EU will send experts to assess the situation on the Georgian-Russian border following the withdrawal of OSCE monitors, Caucasus Press reported. Moscow vetoed an extension of the mandate of the OSCE monitoring mission, which expired in December, and the Georgian authorities have since sought to persuade either the EU or NATO to send a replacement force (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 February 2005). Talvitie was quoted as saying that the EU will not necessarily do so, but it or the OSCE might finance special training for Georgian border guards. LF

KAZAKHSTAN, KYRGYZSTAN RESOLVE WATER CRISIS
Kyrgyzstan has agreed to reduce water outflow from its Toktogul Reservoir from 740 to 650 cubic meters a second, thus averting possible overflow from Kazakhstan's Shardara Reservoir, Kazakh TV1 reported on 8 February. The agreement was reached at bilateral meetings between a Kazakh delegation headed by Energy Minister Vladimir Shkolnik and Kyrgyz officials in Bishkek on 7 February. The report noted that Kazakhstan may now supply natural gas to Kyrgyzstan, which had increased outflow from Toktogul to boost power generation. But Kazakhstan's water worries are not over. Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov announced on 8 February that Kazakhstan needs to drain water from its Shardara Reservoir to Uzbekistan's Arnasai Reservoir, Kazinform reported. The prime minister charged Kazakh officials with negotiating a suitable water-diversion agreement with Uzbekistan. DK

KYRGYZ OPPOSITION DECRIES OFFICIAL HARASSMENT
Kurmanbek Bakiev, the leader of the People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan, has written to Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev and other top officials protesting alleged violations of the country's election law by Biimyrzy Bektenov, head of a district in the southern Jalal-Abad Province, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 8 February. According to Bakiev, Bektenov has mobilized local officials to interfere in election campaigning in his district. Also on 8 February, Marat Kazakbaev, deputy head of the NGO Civil Society Against Corruption, told a news conference in Bishkek that Kyrgyzstan's security services maintained close surveillance of participants in a 5 February conference in Osh called "Kyrgyzstan's Democracy Deficit," RFE/RL reported. DK

TAJIK POLITICAL PARTIES REJECT TV DEBATES
All six of Tajikistan's officially registered political parties have agreed to turn down the opportunity to hold 30-minute televised debates, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 8 February. Instead, each party will use its time to explain its program and air campaign commercials. Another reported factor in the parties' decision was the frequency of power outages in some parts of Tajikistan, which could have prevented many potential viewers from tuning in to the debates. DK

TAJIK JUSTICE MINISTRY DENIES FREEDOM HOUSE REGISTRATION
Tajikistan's Justice Ministry announced on 8 February that it has denied registration to the U.S.-based NGO Freedom House, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Noting that this is the second time the Justice Ministry has reviewed Freedom House's application, Davlat Sulaymonov, deputy head of the Ministry's registration department, told RFE/RL that Freedom House submitted incomplete documentation -- failing, for example, to note the Freedom House office in Dushanbe in its application. But Zvonko Zinrajh, Freedom House's project director for Tajikistan, said the ministry's rejection did not list any specific reason. Nevertheless, Zinrajh said he hopes a third attempt to obtain official registration will prove successful. Other international organizations currently experiencing registration-related difficulties are the National Democratic Institute and Internews (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 January 2005). DK

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT'S FORMER PROPERTY MANAGER SENTENCED TO FOUR YEARS
The Belarusian Supreme Court on 8 February sentenced Halina Zhuraukova, former head of the presidential administration's Property Management Department, to four years in prison, finding her guilty of large-scale embezzlement through abuse of office under Part 4 of Criminal Code Article 210, Belapan reported. Prosecutor Mikalay Korzun told journalists after the trial that he was satisfied with the verdict. Zhuraukova has reportedly repaid the misappropriated amount, $3.4 million, to the presidential administration. On 30 December, opposition politician Mikhail Marynich was sentenced to five years in prison on the same charge (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 4 January 2005). The court found him guilty of misappropriating several computers that the Business Initiative Association, of which he was chairman, had received from the U.S. Embassy in Minsk for temporary use. JM

LUKASHENKA PRAISED BY ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH HEAD IN BELARUS
Cardinal Kazimierz Swiatek, head of the Roman Catholic Church in Belarus, met with President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 8 February and passed him an undisclosed message from Pope John Paul II, Belarusian Television reported. Swiatek said that during his recent meeting with Pope John Paul II in the Vatican, the pontiff showed a keen interest in the life of Roman Catholic believers in Belarus. "I stressed the great role played by you, Mr. President, with regard to the [Roman] Catholic Church," Swiatek told Lukashenka. "You give us the possibility to strengthen ourselves even further." Swiatek added that relations between the Roman Catholic Church and the Belarusian state are "constructive." According to Belarusian Television, "one in seven believers" in Belarus belongs to the Roman Catholic Church, which has 40 parishes administrated by the country's four dioceses. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT PLEDGES TO FORM COMPETITIVE MEDIA ENVIRONMENT...
President Viktor Yushchenko told journalists in Zhytomyr on 8 February that the new Ukrainian government's policy will be oriented toward creating a competitive media environment in the country, Interfax reported. "We will not spare effort, time, or finances to create such an environment," Yushchenko said. The president said the government will support the recently announced project to create a "public television" channel in Ukraine, but he advised against the liquidation of the state-run UT-1 and UT-2 channels. "The main thing is that the project [of a public television channel] should not imply losing the first [UT-1] and second [UT-2] channels," Yushchenko said. "They should not become a sort of technical victims [of the public-television project]." JM

...AND SIGNALS READINESS FOR CAPITAL AMNESTY TO CUT SHADOW ECONOMY
President Yushchenko told journalists in Kyiv on 8 February that he is ready to legalize unofficial capital in order to reduce the shadow economy sector in Ukraine, Interfax reported. "We are ready to go for capital amnesty and fiscal amnesty, but in return we want to reduce the shadow economy," Yushchenko said. He said the government will do its best to make the national budget deficit-free and will revise its policy on free economic zones, which he described as "black holes" in the economy. JM

UKRAINE TO ANNOUNCE PULLOUT OF TROOPS FROM IRAQ 'IN THE NEAR FUTURE'
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk told journalists in Kyiv on 8 February that the government will announce the pullout of the Ukrainian military contingent from Iraq "in the near future," Interfax reported. Tarasyuk added that President Yushchenko will consult Washington as well as the authorities in Baghdad before the pullout starts. "Ukraine's military presence [in Iraq] is gradually to be reduced and to be replaced with instructors, diplomats, and businessmen," Reuters quoted Tarasyuk as saying. "I plan to visit Iraq in order to examine the situation." JM

SERBIA'S INTRODUCTION OF CUSTOMS DUTIES ON KOSOVA TRADE TRIGGERS PROTESTS
An unspecified number of representatives of Kosovar Serb businessmen and refugees blocked the main Nis-Prishtina road near Kursumlija in Serbia on 8 and 9 February to protest the recent decision by the Serbian Finance Ministry to impose customs duties on trade between Serbia and Kosova, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The ministry's decision has led to tensions in the governing coalition in Belgrade, a correspondent reported from the Serbian capital. Most Serbian politicians argue strongly in public that Kosova remains legally part of Serbia even though it is under a UN civilian administration (UNMIK). Speaking in Athens on 8 February, Serbian President Boris Tadic repeated his claim that independence for Kosova is "unacceptable" to Serbia (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 January and 4 February 2005). PM

IMF WARNS THAT KOSOVA MIGHT FACE BANKRUPTCY
IMF regional representative Mark Auboin said in Prishtina on 8 February that Kosova faces possible bankruptcy following heavy spending in December by the new government of Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj, dpa reported. Kosova's budget for 2005 is about $800 million, but the government entered January with reserves of only $75 million after spending just over $200 million in December. Auboin said that the government is aware of the seriousness of the situation. Most of the budget money comes from taxes, while 15 percent is provided by international financial institutions. PM

BLAST DAMAGES CAR OF MODERATE KOSOVAR SERB LEADER
An explosive device badly damaged the car of moderate Kosovar Serb leader Oliver Ivanovic in northern Mitrovica on 8 February not far from his apartment, also damaging some nearby kiosks, Reuters reported. Nobody was injured. Police sealed off the area pending an investigation, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Ivanovic's Serbian List for Kosovo took part in the 23 October 2004 parliamentary elections despite calls from Belgrade for a boycott (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 October 2004 and 4 February 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 11 February 2005). Ivanovic does not take part in Kosova's governmental institutions but does not rule out doing so in the future. PM

CROATIAN PRIME MINISTER CALLS EU CHARGES 'OPINIONATED'
Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said in Budapest on 8 February that the EU should open membership talks with his country in March as originally planned even though indicted war criminal and former General Ante Gotovina remains on the run, Reuters reported. Sanader called on the EU to substantiate its charges that Croatian authorities are not doing enough to catch the general, whom many Croats regard as a hero of the 1991-95 war. "Gotovina has to face the court.... There is no alternative to handing him over...and there's no compromise on that," Sanader told reporters. He added, however, that "the EU should present its evidence that Croatia is not doing everything [to catch him].... I think we are doing what we can, and accession talks should begin in March." Referring to recent criticism of Zagreb over the Gotovina affair by EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, Sanader said that "Rehn's comments were a bit opinionated...[and] may have reflected the opinion of some [EU] member states" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 and 7 February 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 24 September 2004). Sanader's host, Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany, said that Hungary considers Croatia's "efforts genuine.... As this [dispute] affects an entire nation and a region, we ask [the EU] to present their evidence" that Zagreb is not doing its part. PM

ROMANIA FORCED BY IMF TO TIGHTEN BUDGET...
Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu announced on 8 February after talks in Bucharest with the International Monetary Fund's chief negotiator for Romania, Emanuel van der Mensbrugghe, that his cabinet will introduce a set of fiscal measures aimed at curbing inflation and slashing the budget deficit, Mediafax, dpa, and AP reported. The measures are intended to cover losses to the state budget expected as a result of the 16 percent flat tax introduced on 1 January. The signing of an agreement for a two-year extension of a precautionary standby agreement signed last July was postponed until March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 July 2004). Popescu-Tariceanu and Deputy Prime Minister Adriean Videanu said these steps resulted from the failure of the previous Social Democratic (PSD) cabinet to abide by the reform calendar and from that government's overspending ahead of the November elections. MS

...AT CITIZENS' EXPENSE
A memorandum of understanding to be signed between Romania and the IMF in March stipulates steep price hikes for electricity and gas deliveries, which would be introduced three months earlier than planned. The memorandum stipulates a target 2005 budget deficit of 0.4-05 percent of GDP, with expected economic growth of 5.5 percent -- down from last year's 8.4 percent. The current account deficit, estimated at 7.8 percent of GDP in 2004, is to be brought down to 5.5 percent of GDP and the annual inflation rate is to be reduced from 9.2 percent to 7 percent. MS

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT SAYS CHISINAU CONSTRAINED TO COUNTER RUSSIAN SUPPORT FOR TRANSDNIESTER
President Vladimir Voronin said during an interview with RFE/RL on 8 February that the only major disagreement between Moldova and Russia concerns Transdniester and the means to bring about a solution to that conflict (see www.rferl.org, 8 February 2005). Voronin said that because of the pro-Transdniester Russian position in the current five-party negotiations, "we are simply forced to seek a solution with the assistance of the European Union and other European countries." He also said that he does not see why, in addition to including the United States and the EU in a new negotiations format, Romania, which is on track to join the EU, should not be included in those negotiations too. As regards Moldova-Romania relations, Voronin said that "since Romania is more advanced than us on its road toward EU membership, it is obvious that Romania's experience will be very useful to us." MS

PRESIDENT SAYS MOLDOVA'S VIEWS ON RIBBENTROP-MOLOTOV DIFFER FROM BALTS
President Voronin said during his 8 February interview with RFE/RL that the Baltic states' efforts to have Russia officially renounce the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov pact "do not affect Moldova." While insofar as the Baltic states are concerned the pact was "an Anschluss type of act," according to Voronin, current Moldovan territory then known as "Bessarabia was occupied [by Romania] between 1918 and 1940." Voronin said that Bessarabia "was occupied in 1918, when it was a component of the young Soviet Union.... In 1940, our territory was liberated, and not occupied, as was the case with the Baltic countries or some parts of Poland under the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact." MS

FORMER ROMANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER SAYS MOLDOVA IS ON U.S. 'STRATEGIC RADAR'
Returning from Washington, where he attended the annual National Prayer Breakfast at the White House on 3 February, former Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana said on 8 February that for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union, Moldova is "on the strategic radar of the U.S.," Mediafax reported. Geoana said Romania must not miss this opportunity and should "play a major role in organizing free and fair elections in the neighboring country." MS

MOLDOVAN AUTHORITIES 'SUSPEND' TRAVEL RESTRICTIONS ON FOREIGN DIPLOMATS
The Moldovan Foreign Ministry on 8 February said it has "suspended" a decision it made last month requiring diplomats to obtain permits from the ministry to travel to Transdniester, Infotag, Flux, and AP reported. The ministry did not specify how long the "suspension" will be in effect. It said that the reversal is aimed at allowing international monitoring ahead of the 6 March parliamentary elections throughout Moldova. Russia and Ukraine protested the permit requirement after their representatives were twice prevented from traveling to Tiraspol (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 25 January, 3 February 2005). Meanwhile, Tiraspol on 8 February rejected the Moldovan Electoral Bureau's request that it organize voting in Transdniester for Moldova's 6 March parliamentary elections, in full compliance with the stipulations of the Moldovan Constitution and electoral legislation, Infotag reported. The separatists dismissed the call as a "transparent but badly staged provocation." MS

23 PARTIES, BLOCS TO PARTICIPATE IN MOLDOVA'S PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
The Electoral Bureau announced on 8 February that it has finished registering competitors for the 6 March parliamentary elections, Infotag reported. Nine political parties, two voting blocs, and 12 independent candidates are to compete for seats in the 101-seat legislature. In order to gain parliamentary representation, independent candidates must garner at least 3 percent of the vote, political parties must garner at least 6 percent, voting blocs comprising two parties 9 percent, and blocs of three parties or more 12 percent of the vote. MS

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT PUTS TROUBLING CHECKS AND BALANCES ON TYMOSHENKO'S CABINET
The approval of Yuliya Tymoshenko as independent Ukraine's 13th prime minister in the Verkhovna Rada on 4 February was a remarkable political show because of several big surprises for political analysts and commentators. As well as for Tymoshenko herself.

The first surprise was the level of support Tymoshenko in particular and her cabinet in general obtained among the parliamentarians. Her nomination was endorsed by 373 votes, that is, by virtually all parliamentary factions aside from the Communist Party. The cabinet's program was approved by the equally astonishing number of 357 deputies. Nobody had predicted that a Tymoshenko-led government would obtain such an enthusiastic backing.

Most notably, Tymoshenko was even supported by deputies from the parliamentary caucus of the Party of Regions headed by former Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, President Viktor Yushchenko's embittered rival from the presidential race. What has become of Yanukovych's postelection pledge to switch to a "tough opposition" under the Yushchenko presidency?

Yosyp Vinskyy -- a leader of the Socialist Party, which joined the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko ruling coalition after reportedly tense, last-minute negotiations -- told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service on 4 February that the parliamentary support by erstwhile adherents of Yanukovych for the Tymoshenko cabinet testifies to their "complete moral downfall." Vinskyy suggested that this happened primarily because they represent in the legislature not so much the political programs or ideologies of their parties as the business interests of their leaders and sponsors.

"Business will not be in opposition, business will seek contacts with the new authorities, because our business sphere has been built on theft of state property and money," Vinskyy opined. "Evidently, they [dishonest businessmen] are now seeking contacts [with the new cabinet] in order to preserve [their possessions]." According to Vinskyy, the "disappearance" of the parliamentary opposition to the government, as testified by the 4 February approval vote, is a serious threat to the government itself, because such a situation weakens the public control over what the government does.

The second surprise was the composition of the cabinet. Taken as a whole, the cabinet is undoubtedly pro-reform and psychologically prepared to tackle the enormous task of revamping the authoritarian power system left by the 10-year rule of President Leonid Kuchma and reducing its endemic corruption. But some of Yushchenko's choices for the new cabinet have raised many eyebrows.

To start with, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the staunchest political ally of Yushchenko's Our Ukraine during the Orange Revolution, seems to be underrepresented in the cabinet. Apart from Yuliya Tymoshenko, the cabinet includes only one other politician from her party: Oleksandr Turchynov as head of the Ukrainian Security Service. Under a political deal signed between Tymoshenko and Yushchenko in July on their cooperation in the 2004 presidential campaign, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc was to obtain 23 percent of the posts in the executive branch. Even given that the political weight of the premiership may be equal to several ministerial portfolios, the assignment of just two posts to the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc out of some two dozen major cabinet jobs seems to be quite unfair.

On the other hand, the Socialist Party, which threw its support behind Yushchenko's presidential bid only following the first round of the presidential election on 31 October, was rewarded by Yushchenko with three cabinet prizes: Oleksandr Baranivskyy will head the Ministry for Agricultural Policy, Yuriy Lutsenko the Interior Ministry, and Stanislav Nikolayenko the Education Ministry. And Valentyna Semenyuk from the Socialist Party is reportedly expecting Yushchenko's nomination to head the extremely important State Property Fund, a body responsible for privatizations. Such lavish rewards have been promised even though the Socialists criticized Yushchenko's program as "liberal" and publicly asserted that the program is at grave variance with their programmatic goal of building a "socialist" Ukraine.

Why has Yushchenko apparently favored the Socialist Party, whose support was not crucial for the approval of a new cabinet (the Socialists have just 22 deputies in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada), and seemingly slighted his closest political ally, whose potential success or failure in the post of prime minister is expected to have an enormous influence on the public perception of his presidency? One possible answer is that Yushchenko is afraid that the charismatic, strong-willed, and vigorous Tymoshenko could assume too much authority in the executive branch and begin playing a political game of her own.

For the time being, that is at least until the 2006 parliamentary elections, such a development appears to be purely speculation. But it is already clear that Tymoshenko will have problems in making a single-minded and unanimous team of partners out of her current deputies and ministers. An apparently big surprise, and a nasty one for her, was the last-minute nomination of Roman Bezsmertnyy as deputy prime minister for administrative reform. In presenting the list of new ministers to the parliament, Tymoshenko said this post would remain vacant for some time. But Yushchenko, who was simultaneously signing decrees on cabinet appointments, appointed Bezsmertnyy at the end of this ceremony, thus provoking a startled and somewhat distressed shudder from Tymoshenko.

Bezsmertnyy, once a staunch supporter of President Kuchma, switched to the Yushchenko camp in 2001 and was given much credit for managing Yushchenko's parliamentary campaign in 2002 and presidential campaign in 2004. He surely deserved a political prize from Yushchenko, but his appointment to the current cabinet seems to be an ill-advised choice. Following the designation of Tymoshenko as prime minister last month, Bezsmertnyy reportedly opined that Tymoshenko is a "political blackmailer" and said he will not join her cabinet even if asked by Yushchenko.

Simultaneously, Bezsmertnyy publicly suggested that Tymoshenko may "surrender" Yushchenko -- as she "surrendered," he added, his erstwhile political ally, former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko -- either before the 2006 parliamentary election or the 2009 presidential election in order to make her own presidential bid. "Tymoshenko should realize that there should always be people beside her who will not leave her in peace," the "Ukrayinska pravda" website quoted Bezsmertnyy as saying. Could this be the task Yushchenko has given Bezsmertnyy in the new cabinet?

However, in the short term it should be expected that the Yushchenko-Tymoshenko alliance will remain strong and mutually loyal. As Yushchenko said in his address to the Verkhovna Rada on 4 February, the public expectations as regards the performance of the new government are "colossal." Meeting some of these expectations will be a hard test for political survival not only for Yushchenko but also for Tymoshenko, irrespective of whether she intends to sail in the same boat with Yushchenko beyond the 2006 parliamentary election or take an independent course in order to try her luck as a candidate in the 2009 presidential ballot.

AFGHAN INTERIOR MINISTRY INVESTIGATING CLAIMS OF AERIAL SPRAYING OF POPPIES...
Afghanistan's Interior Ministry said in an 8 February statement that it has launched an investigation into the "recent unconfirmed reports of aerial spraying" of opium-poppy fields in the country's southern Helmand Province. Deputy Interior Minister General Mohammad Daud, who is responsible for counternarcotics efforts, said that despite "some media reports, allegations of spraying have not been verified." According to Mohammad Daud, "it is the firm policy of the Afghan government to not use these methods for the eradication of poppies." On 6 February, Helmand Province Governor Sher Mohammad Akhondzada claimed that poppy fields in the province's Nawzad District had been sprayed with a "poisonous substance" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2005). AT

...AS U.S. EMBASSY IN KABUL DENIES INVOLVEMENT
The U.S. Embassy in Kabul in an 8 February statement denied any involvement in the alleged aerial spraying in Helmand Province. According to the statement there "is no credible evidence that aerial spraying has taken place in Helmand." Moreover, the statement added that no "agency, personnel, or contractors associated with the U.S. government have conducted or been involved in any such activity in Helmand or any other province of Afghanistan." After eyewitnesses reportedly saw U.S. aircraft spraying defoliants on poppy fields in Nangarhar Province in early November, the Afghan government said that it would not allow any country to carry out aerial spraying of poppy fields with herbicides. The United States denied having carried out the spraying (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 8 December 2004 and 31 January 2005). AT

RESCUE TEAMS FAIL TO REACH AFGHAN CRASH SITE
Teams of Afghan National Army soldiers and members of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were unable, due to bad weather, on 8 February to reach the site where a passenger plane crashed on 3 February, Pajhwak News Agency reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2005). The wreckage of the Kam Air flight, which had 104 passengers on board, lies strewn on a frozen mountain range 28 kilometers southeast of Kabul. An Afghan government statement issued on 8 February said that "the search-and-rescue operation is complete," and that a recovery operation will be conducted when possible, as "no one was left alive from the crash," AP reported. In addition to heavy snowfall, the crash site is also believed to have been mined by Soviet troops who had a military outpost in the area during Soviet-Afghan conflict. AT

SUSPECTS NAMED IN ATTACK ON AFGHAN WARLORD
Four suspects have been identified in connection with the failed 20 January assassination attempt on General Abdul Rashid Dostum, Pajhwak News Agency reported on 8 February. An Afghan government source told Pajhwak on condition of anonymity that two Afghans, an Arab, and a Pakistani organized the suicide attack against Dostum. According to the source, authorities are searching for the suspects. One suicide bomber was killed and 20 other people were injured as a result of the attack in Sheberghan, capital of Jowzjan Province, but Dostum escaped unharmed. Immediately after the attack, Dostum blamed Al-Qaeda, although the neo-Taliban subsequently claimed responsibility for the act. The official investigative team dispatched by Kabul has yet to comment on the case (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 January 2005). AT

SUPREME LEADER LEVELS TERRORISM ACCUSATIONS AT UNITED STATES
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told Iranian Air Force personnel on 7 February that foreign powers do not oppose dictatorships, Iranian state radio reported. He said the White House has organized terrorist acts, adding that the CIA "directly or indirectly created and supported" the individuals it now names as notorious terrorists. He accused the United Stated of training and arming the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan so they could weaken Iran. Khamenei said the United States is hostile to Iran because the Islamic Republic says "no" to Washington's demands. "They expect us to surrender to a global dictatorship," he added. Khamenei accused the United States of wanting to eliminate the Palestinian people and supporting a "mad dog" that attacks every Palestinian. Khamenei predicted that the United States' Middle East policy will fail. BS

TEHRAN REJECTS BRITISH TERRORISM ALLEGATIONS
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on 8 February dismissed British allegations of involvement in terrorism, IRNA reported. "It certainly does sponsor terrorism," Prime Minister Tony Blair told a parliamentary committee about Iran on 8 February, AFP reported. "There's no doubt about that at all." Blair said Iran has an obligation to help bring about Middle East peace. Assefi charged that Blair's comments reflect the influence of "the Zionist regime" (an Iranian reference to Israel). Assefi claimed that some Western states are terrorist safe-havens and that the United Kingdom supports Israel, which he claimed exemplifies state terrorism. Said Rajai-Khorasani, a former Iranian representative to the United Nations and currently a university professor in Tehran, told Radio Farda that Blair's comments were a mistake. "We have seen this sort of cooperation between Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush before, when they wanted to attack Iraq without any sort of legal remit from the United Nations or even the European Union. It was in such a political atmosphere that Mr. Blair told the British parliament that 'we cannot abandon our confederate.'" BS

TEHRAN CRITICAL OF WASHINGTON'S REGIONAL PLANS
Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani said in a 7 February interview with Iranian state television that the White House's Greater Middle East Peace Initiative represents an effort to destroy the region's Islamic traditions. The plan is also part of the effort to let Israel dominate the region politically and economically, Rohani claimed. The initiative, which encouraged Arab and South Asian governments to democratize, was introduced about one year ago and immediately caused controversy, according to the "Financial Times" of 27 February 2004. Arab observers reportedly criticized the initiative for diminishing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the face of regional resistance, the plan was scaled back by September 2004. BS

ARMENIAN DEFENSE MINISTER CONTINUES IRAN TRIP
Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian met with President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, and Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani on 8 February, IRNA reported. Khatami told the visitor that the two countries should work on developing economic cooperation, and he referred to the provision of natural gas. Sarkisian mentioned connection of the two countries' railways. Rohani said the provision of gas and electrical power is important for regional security and economic affairs. Rohani also promoted a direct dialogue between Baku and Yerevan to resolve the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. Sarkisian ruled out a phased settlement of the issue and called for a grand bargain that would settle all related disputes. Hashemi-Rafsanjani said Iran is willing to mediate in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute. BS

18 ALLEGED HIZBALLAH MEMBERS DETAINED IN IRAQ
Iraqi authorities have detained 18 members of the militant group Hizballah on charges of terrorism, AFP reported on 9 February, quoting Interior Minister Falah Hassan al-Naqib. "Eighteen Lebanese [nationals] from Hizballah have been detained in Iraq on charges of terrorism," AFP quoted al-Naqib as saying in comments published in the Saudi newspaper "Al-Hayat." He said Iraq's "biggest problem" is Iran and "its Iraqi followers," while asserting that "the problem with Syria could be resolved with dialogue." Both Iran and Syria are widely believed to support Hizballah, and both have been accused of involvement in Iraq's insurgency. BW

POSTELECTION UNREST CONTINUES IN IRAQ
A roadside bombing killed four policemen, militants kidnapped a senior government official, and gunmen killed a journalist working for a U.S.-funded television station in the third consecutive day of postelection violence in Iraq, international news agencies reported on 9 February. Abdul-Hussein Khazal, a correspondent for the U.S.-funded television station Al-Hurra, was shot dead at his home in Al-Basrah, Reuters reported, citing police officials. One of Khazal's sons was also reportedly killed in the attack, Reuters reported. In southern Baghdad, militants dragged Colonel Riyadh Katei Aliwi, an official with the Interior Ministry, from his car on 9 February, Reuters reported the same day. In Samarra, north of Baghdad, a roadside bomb killed four policemen, AFP reported on 9 February. BW

FRANCE TRIES TO SECURE HOSTAGE RELEASE IN IRAQ...
France is doing everything possible to secure the release of a female journalist taken hostage in Iraq last month, Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said on 8 February, Reuters reported the next day. Florence Aubenas, a reporter for the French daily "Liberation," has not been seen since she left a Baghdad hotel on 5 January. "We are doing all that we can, all that we should, in Baghdad and here, so that both of them get back home," Barnier said on French television, referring to the journalist's translator, Reuters reported. BW

...AND ITALIAN NEWSPAPER SAYS ITS HOSTAGE JOURNALIST IS 'ALIVE AND WELL'
The Italian daily newspaper "Il Manifesto" reported on 9 February that its missing correspondent, Giuliana Sgrena, is "alive and well," dpa reported. Militants from a group calling itself the Islamic Jihad Organization seized Sgrena on 4 February. Her kidnapping was followed by a series of statements, some of them contradictory, posted on the Internet. One statement threatened to kill her, while another said she would be released (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 February 2005). A third, signed by a group calling itself the Mujahedin Brigade, claimed she had been executed after being found guilty of spying on "holy fighters," dpa reported on 9 February. BW

IRAQI ELECTION COMMISSION DELAYS RELEASE OF POLL RESULTS
Election officials announced on 9 February that results from Iraq's general elections will be delayed so some ballot boxes can be reexamined, international news agencies reported. Officials were originally expected to release results on 10 February. Farid Ayar, spokesman for the Iraqi Election Commission, said officials will begin examining approximately 300 ballot boxes on 10 February, and the final tally will be announced later in the month, Reuters reported. The commission has said gunmen tampered with a number of ballot boxes during the 30 January election, mainly in the northern city of Mosul. Partial returns show the United Iraqi Alliance, backed by Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, holding a commanding lead with more than half the vote. A coalition of two Kurdish parties is in second place, followed by the Iraqi List, a ticket led by U.S.-backed Prime Minister Iyad Allawi. BW

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