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Newsline - February 17, 2005


MOSCOW MAYOR TO ASK CONSTITUTIONAL COURT TO RULE ON BENEFITS REFORM...
Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov told reporters on 16 February that he intends to ask the Constitutional Court to review the government's controversial reform to convert in-kind social benefits to cash payments, Russian media reported. He said that some sections of the law are "incomprehensible," especially the part that seems to cancel benefits for enterprises that hire the disabled. Luzhkov has been a staunch critic of the reform since it was proposed, saying in December that it "grossly infringes the rights of the subjects of the federation," the news agency reported. RosBalt reported on 16 February that Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov is not concerned that Luzhkov, a fellow member of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, opposes the reform. "[Luzhkov] has the right to express his opinion, including by appealing to other government structures," Gryzlov said. "This is not a violation of party discipline." Gryzlov added that implementation of the reform has gone more smoothly in Moscow than it has in most other regions. RC

...AS REGIONS STRUGGLE TO IMPLEMENT LAW
Many regions are having difficulty implementing the benefits reform, ITAR-TASS reported on 16 February. Novgorod Oblast Governor Mikhail Prusak told the news agency that he support's Moscow Mayor Luzhkov's initiative, adding that his oblast is implementing the reforms on a step-by-step basis as it finds the funding necessary to make compensation payments. He said it was a mistake "to carry out such radical changes in the year of the 60th anniversary" of the end of World War II. An unnamed source in the Tuva Republic told the agency that pharmacies are unable to provide the essential medicines that they are required to stock, leading to long queues and popular unrest. The legislature in Chita Oblast has called on the federal government to restore the in-kind benefit of free medicine and has filed a complaint with the Prosecutor-General's Office against the firm Rosta, which has won a tender to supply medicines in the Siberian and Far East federal districts. Presidential envoy to the Far East Federal District Konstantin Pulkovskii said that Rosta has supplied only 50 percent of the required medications to Kamchatka Oblast. RC

LIBERALS' UNIFICATION TALKS GET OFF TO SHAKY START
Just one day after a meeting of Russian liberals devoted to the topic of forming a united democratic opposition party, the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) on 16 February issued a statement saying that some members of the discussion are refusing to negotiate in good faith, RIA-Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2005). "The SPS is ready to create a unified list on the basis of the organizational structures of the Union of Rightist Forces," the SPS statement reads. "We regret that the representatives of Committee-2008, Garri Kasparov and [independent State Duma Deputy] Vladimir Ryzhkov, have backed out of participation in these negotiations." At the 15 February meeting of Committee-2008, various plans for unification were discussed and a working group was established to continue the negotiations between representatives of the committee, the SPS, and Yabloko. SPS spokesman Leonid Gozman told the news agency that the party had accepted Committee-2008, and Ryzhkov in particular, as a facilitator of the negotiations, rather than as a party to them. An unnamed source within SPS told RIA-Novosti that he believes Ryzhkov and Kasparov intend to form their own political party. RC

DUMA LEADER TELLS WASHINGTON TO QUIT LECTURING
Duma First Deputy Speaker Lyubov Sliska (Unified Russia), responding to U.S. government complaints about Russian arms sales to Venezuela, told journalists on 16 February that Russia can do without lectures from Washington, APN reported. "The State Duma and the Federation Council are perfectly capable of responding to any reproaches or blackmail on the part of the U.S. State Department," Sliska was quoted as saying. Her comments come in the run-up to the 24 February summit between President Vladimir Putin and U.S. President George W. Bush in Bratislava, Slovakia. RC

MINISTER: FIGHT AGAINST CORRUPTION FAILING
Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev told a gathering of ministry officials on 16 February that only one bribe taker in 10 is ever convicted in Russia, ITAR-TASS reported. He said that 7,000 bribery cases were filed in 2004, including high-profile cases involving members of the State Fisheries Committee, a deputy governor of Kaliningrad Oblast, and a deputy mayor of Pskov. However, he said that "there is no point in even trying to compare the results of our fight against corruption with the scale of this phenomenon in Russia." "The likelihood of receiving a prison sentence for corruption is minimal and the higher the rank of the official involved, the smaller that likelihood is," Nurgaliev said. Only 5 percent of those arrested in bribery cases are high-ranking officials. Nikolai Ovchinnikov, acting head of the ministry's Department for Combating Organized Crime and Terrorism, told the same gathering that the threat of terrorism is increasing, saying that the Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir party is increasingly active in Russia, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 17 February. Ovchinnikov added that organized-crime structures are working to "get into the organs of executive power." "If we find members of the criminal community among law-enforcement personnel, we will treat them as enemies and traitors," he said. RC

OFFICIAL SAYS PRISON OVERCROWDING EASING...
Federal Corrections Service Director Yurii Kalinin told journalists on 16 February that Russia has 767,000 prisoners, including 42,000 people currently being held in pretrial detention, ITAR-TASS reported. "Information that over 1 million people are behind bars in Russia has not corresponded to reality for some time now," Kalinin said. "We are now encountering no problems in feeding inmates, providing them with medical treatment, and paying salaries to our staff." Overcrowding has eased considerably, he said, although there are about 14,000 more people in pretrial detention than conditions warrant. Three years ago, however, the remand-prison population exceeded the norm by 140,000, Kalinin said. He said that 67 percent of prisoners are serving sentences for serious or very serious crimes and that non-custody sentences are increasingly being applied for less serious infractions. Looking to the future, Kalinin said, "Prison should become a social center where a person not only serves out a sentence, but also gets an education and a profession." RC

...AND SAYS HE DOES NOT KNOW WHERE CONVICTED YANDARBIEV ASSASSINS ARE
Federal Corrections Service Director Kalinin also told journalists on 16 February that he does not know the whereabouts of two Russian secret-service employees who were returned to Russia from Qatar in December following their conviction there for the February 2004 assassination of former Chechen leader Zemlikhan Yandarbiev, REN-TV reported. The men were returned to Russia on 23 December after the Russian government agreed that they would serve out their life sentences in Russia. "As for our citizens who were brought from Qatar, they are not being held in our institutions," Kalinin said. "Maybe they are receiving medical treatment somewhere. Maybe some procedural issues are being resolved. You see, a sentence handed down by a Qatar court does not serve as grounds for holding somebody in prison in Russia." RC

REPORTS THAT BLAGOVESHCHENSK POLICE-RAID VICTIMS HAVE QUIT THEIR PICKET DENIED
The victims of a 10-14 December police operation in Blagoveshchensk who have been protesting outside the Interior Ministry in Moscow on 16 February denied state-media reports that they had abandoned their picket, Ekho Moskvy reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 2005). "This is all lies and disinformation," protester Marat Khairullin said. "We will not come to a deal with the ministry. Besides, neither I nor [For Human Rights leader] Lev Ponomarev, who is in charge of this whole protest, have even been approached by anyone. No one has tried to talk to us." RC

PUTIN HOLDS KREMLIN SUMMIT WITH AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT
President Putin met in the Kremlin on 16 February with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Interfax and other Russian media reported. According to an unnamed source in the presidential administration, the presidents mostly discussed bilateral economic relations, particularly cooperation in the energy sector and the transit of Azerbaijani oil across Russia. Putin reportedly thanked Aliyev for supporting Azerbaijan's Russian-speaking minority, which comprises 40 percent of the country's population. RC

RUSSIA TO SELL MINERAL RIGHTS ON KURILE ISLANDS
Natural Resources Minister Yurii Trutnev on 17 February announced that Russia will begin auctioning off mineral concession in the disputed Kurile Islands, Japan's Jiji Press reported. Trutnev told journalists in Moscow that the Russian government will begin exploratory work in the region soon in preparation for auctioning development licenses. An unnamed official told the news agency that Russia is already exploring gold deposits on disputed Kunashiri Island. Japan claims the islands, which were occupied by Soviet forces at the end of World War II, and the long-standing dispute has prevented the two countries from signing a peace treaty to formally end that war. RC

LARGE BANKS SHOW STRONG 2004 PROFITS
The 30 largest banks in Russia saw 2004 profits increase by 50.8 percent over 2003, the Central Bank reported on 16 February, according to ITAR-TASS. Total profits for the banks -- including Sberbank, Gazprombank, Avtobank, Alfa Bank, Vneshtorgbank, and others -- rose to 129.56 billion rubles ($4.3 billion). Total assets in the banks stood at 4.72 trillion rubles as of 1 January, up from 3.61 trillion at the beginning of 2004. RC

FSB ASKS FOR RESTRAINT IN POSTING TERRORISM RUMORS ON WEB
The Federal Security Service (FSB) on 16 February appealed to Russians not to post reports of supposedly impending terrorist acts on the Internet, ITAR-TASS reported. "The circulation on the Internet of unverified reports alleging that terrorist acts are being planned leads to unwarranted panic among the population and makes it more difficult for the special services to prevent crimes," the FSB statement said. The FSB asked that any reports of planned terrorist acts be forwarded by e-mail to the address fsb@fsb.ru. RC

MINISTRY LOBBIES FOR PAYMENTS TO TRIAL WITNESSES
The Justice Ministry on 17 February presented to the cabinet a proposal to amend the Criminal Procedural Code to allow the state to pay compensation to witnesses in criminal and civil trials, Russian media reported. "Vremya novostei" reported on 17 February that the ministry is calling for witnesses to be compensated for expenses incurred from missed work and travel associated with participating in criminal trials. They would also be eligible for a per-diem payment. The costs of the initiative would be borne by the participants in the cases, the daily reported. RC

TYUMEN OBLAST GOVERNOR CONFIRMED BY LEGISLATURE
The Tyumen Oblast legislature on 17 February confirmed Governor Sergei Sobyanin for another term, following his nomination to the post by President Putin on 3 February, RIA-Novosti and other Russian media reported. Sobyanin has headed the oblast's executive branch since January 2001 and his term was to have expired in January 2006. However, like some other governors, he submitted his resignation following a recent political reform that eliminated the direct election of governors. He will be sworn in on 24 February. Sobyanin becomes the second regional head to be chosen under the new system, following Primorskii Krai Governor Sergei Darkin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 February 2005). RC

JOURNALISTS ALLEGE 'PURGE' IN BRYANSK OBLAST
The new governor of Bryansk Oblast has been accused of carrying out a "purge" of local journalists, REN-TV reported on 16 February. Former State Duma Deputy and Unified Russia candidate Nikolai Denin was elected to head the oblast in December after a court disqualified incumbent Communist Governor Yurii Lodkin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2005). According to REN-TV, the editors of six local newspapers were recently summoned to the oblast administration and told to resign. The editors -- including Vladimir Seleznev, head of the Klintsy Raion paper "Trud" and Nikolai Pozhalenkov of the newspaper "Mayak" -- are seeking support from oblast legislators, REN-TV reported. Deputy Governor Anatolii Terebunov told the station that only one journalist has been asked to resign. "We have suggested that one person submit his resignation," Terebunov said. "It was written in this person's appraisal form that he should stop indulging in drinking alcohol. An offer was made to him to take a different position in the same editorial office, a bit lower post though. He is also human. But to head the editorial office.... I don't know. Maybe you do things like that in Moscow...." The Bryansk journalists have reportedly appealed to Moscow human rights leaders and to Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Alvaro Gil-Robles for support. RC

ARMENIAN DEFENSE MINISTER WELCOMES TURKISH EU ACCESSION TALKS
Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian welcomed the start of membership talks between Turkey and the European Union, adding that the process will encourage Turkey to reopen its border and establish diplomatic relations with Armenia, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 16 February. Sarkisian, in a wide-ranging interview published by the weekly "Yerkir," explained that he hopes Turkey will pursue a strategic course conforming to "European values and standards," resulting in a stable European neighbor for Armenia. Sarkisian also called on Turkey to formally recognize as genocide the killings of Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 February 2005). RG

ATTEMPTS TO FORM NEW ARMENIAN OPPOSITION BLOC REACH 'FINAL STAGE'
Negotiations between three pro-Western, Armenian opposition political parties to form a new bloc reached a preliminary agreement on 16 February, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau and Armenpress reported. The talks between Hovannes Hovannisian of the Liberal Progressive Party and two other opposition groups led by former Prime Minister Aram Sarkisian and former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian seek to forge a new alternative to both the government of President Robert Kocharian and to the existing opposition Artarutiun (Justice) bloc. Both Hovannes Hovannisian, a former head of the parliamentary Foreign Relations Committee, and Raffi Hovannisian are well-known advocates for Armenia's deeper integration with the West and are seen as particularly strong proponents of closer relations with the United States. The traditional nine-party Artarutiun opposition bloc has been plagued by mounting internal discord in recent months and its leader, former presidential candidate Stepan Demirchian, is facing threats of defection by his political partners (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2005). RG

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER ARRIVES IN ARMENIA
Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov arrived in Yerevan on 16 February on a one-day visit to meet with senior Armenian official, Arminfo reported. Meeting with his Armenian counterpart Vardan Oskanian and President Robert Kocharian, the Russian foreign minister discussed bilateral issues related to transport, energy, and trade, and reviewed plans for expanding cooperation in the fight against terrorism. Lavrov is scheduled to travel to Georgia after concluding his meetings in Yerevan. RG

ARMENIAN OFFICIAL RECOGNIZES DISTRUST OF STATE PROCUREMENT
The head of an Armenian agency responsible for the management of the state procurement process on 16 February recognized serious deficiencies in the way the government conducts business, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. According to the official, Gagik Khachatrian, the prices set for goods and services supplied to various government agencies are not necessarily the lowest and many local firms believe that the official tender process lacks transparency and fairness. Under the terms of the 2000 law governing state procurement, all purchases above $500 must be subject to an open tender. Khachatrian reported that his agency administered 26.5 billion drams ($56 million) worth of procurements, mostly of drugs, medical equipment, and fuel, through about 400 tenders in 2004. Although that level is roughly 60 percent more than in 2003 and is expected to reach 40 billion drams in 2005, it is still only a small portion of the total volume of state purchases. RG

AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENT SAYS MILITARY BEING STRENGTHENED
On a visit to Moscow where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin on 16 February, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev expressed dissatisfaction in a Russian newspaper interview with the mediation process of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group and warned that the "patience of the Azerbaijani people is not inexhaustible," "Baku Today" reported the same day. Aliyev also said that Azerbaijan is "strengthening its armed forces," noted that Azerbaijani defense spending is double that of Armenia, and pledged to "further expand" its military potential. RG

GEORGIAN MONITORING GROUP ISSUES REPORT CRITICIZING DEFENSE POLICIES...
A report released on 16 February by a Georgian nongovernmental organization sharply criticized the Georgian government for serious shortcomings in its defense policy, Civil Georgia reported. The report was compiled by the Justice and Liberty group and stems from a one-year assessment of the state of military reform and defense policies. The report specifically cited the government's failure to implement an effective plan to reorganize the Georgian armed forces, noted a widespread misuse of defense funds, and criticized the frequent staff changes in the Defense Ministry and in the General Staff of the armed forces, which, it said, impeded military reform. Assessing the 3.6 million-lari ($1.9 million) training program for reserve forces, the report criticized the lack of an "effective command structure" for the reserves. Most notably, the report also documented a pattern of fraud and corruption, including the misuse of defense funds for the purchase of luxury cars and for the reconstruction of offices for senior Defense Ministry officials in 2004. Similar allegations of corruption within the Georgian military were made by Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili in January, but strongly disputed by his predecessor, Deputy Prime Minister Giorgi Baramidze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 7 January 2005). RG

...AS GEORGIAN GENERAL STAFF DISMISSED
The entire leadership of the Georgian armed forces General Staff was forced to resign at the direction of Defense Minister Okruashvili, Civil Georgia and Rustavi-2 TV reported on 15 February. The move is attributed to Okruashvili's plans to impose a thorough reform of the Georgian military. Okruashvili was appointed to the post of defense minister in December (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 17 December 2004). RG

EU-NATO DELEGATION IN GEORGIA
A delegation led by Luc Frieden, the minister of defense, justice, treasury, and budget of Luxembourg, toured a Georgian military base on 16 February, Civil Georgia reported. Accompanied by NATO official Major General Karl-Heinz Muenzner, the delegation inspected the Ponichala military base outside of Tbilisi, where Soviet-era Krug antiaircraft missiles are undergoing a recycling process as part of a 450,000-euro ($587,000) NATO-run program funded by Luxembourg. The delegation then met with Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and Foreign Minister Salome Zurabishvili on 16 February to discuss Georgia's relations with the EU and the NATO alliance. Luxembourg assumed the presidency of the EU last month. RG

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT APPOINTS NEW ENVOY FOR ABKHAZ TALKS
President Saakashvili issued a presidential decree on 15 February appointing Irakli Alasania, the chairman of the Abkhaz Supreme Council in exile, as his new special envoy handling the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict talks, Rustavi-2 reported. RG

JOINT GEORGIA-OSCE INITIATIVE ON ETHNIC TENSION LAUNCHED
The OSCE Mission in Georgia announced on 15 February the launch of a new bilateral initiative with Georgia aimed at preventing ethnic tension in Georgia, Civil Georgia reported. The initiative focuses on the southern Georgian Samtskhe-Djavakheti region, which is predominately populated by ethnic Armenians, and is designed to promote greater integration of the country's ethnic groups. Developed by the OSCE high commissioner on national minorities, the project includes Georgian-language courses for civil servants and university students, Armenian translations of rebroadcast Georgian television news programs, and free legal aid for the ethnic Armenian population in the region. RG

KAZAKHSTAN BANS DIESEL FUEL EXPORTS
A ban on diesel fuel exports went into effect in Kazakhstan on 16 February, Kazinform and "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The ban took effect in accordance with a government resolution Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov signed on 11 February. The resolution states that the ban, which will last until 31 May, is intended "to create the necessary reserves of fuel for the needs of the country's economy." DK

KYRGYZ FOREIGN MINISTER CALLS CSTO, SCO RELATIONS PRIORITY
Foreign Minister Askar Aitmatov told a Foreign Ministry meeting on 16 February that cooperation under the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO; Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia) will be a priority task for Kyrgyzstan's foreign policy, Kabar reported. Aitmatov urged heightened cooperation "primarily with Russia by implementing agreements under the CSTO and strengthening the contractual and legal base aimed at further strengthening the collective security system in Central Asia." Aitmatov stressed the need for close ties within the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO; China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Russia) and greater integration within the CIS, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Aitmatov also mentioned the need to augment President Askar Akaev's recently announced Clean Kyrgyzstan program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2005) with a "clean diplomacy" focus to raise the professional skills of Kyrgyz diplomats. DK

LIBEL CASE OPENED AGAINST KYRGYZ NEWSPAPER
A libel case in which the Kyrgyz newspaper "Vechernii Bishkek" is seeking damages from the newspaper "MSN" opened at a Bishkek court on 16 October, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. "Vechernii Bishkek" and its former editor, Olga Bezborodova, are suing "MSN" and correspondent Rina Prizhivoit for a total of more than 7 million soms ($170,000) for an article that claimed "Vechernii Bishkek" is controlled by the family of President Akaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2005). "MSN" Editor in Chief Aleksandr Kim called the suit "absurd." He said: "Rina Prizhivoit and I are shareholders in 'Vechernii Bishkek.' So it turns out that the suit has been filed against us in our name." Hearings will resume on 25 February. DK

KYRGYZ POLICE ARREST ALLEGED RELIGIOUS EXTREMIST WITH EXPLOSIVES
Kyrgyz police in the southern town of Kara-Suu recently arrested an alleged member of the banned Islamist group Hizb ut-Tahrir with 1 kilogram of explosives, akipress.org reported on 16 February. A report on Bishkek Public Educational TV quoted police officials in Osh as saying that they confiscated 1 kilogram of TNT, detonators, and extremist literature at the suspect's residence. They described the suspect as an active member of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Akipress.org reported that the suspect is a Kyrgyz national; the television report displayed extremist literature printed in Uzbek, however. According to the television report, the suspect's relatives staged an unauthorized demonstration outside the mayor's offices in Osh to protest the man's arrest and proclaim his innocence. DK

EU OFFICIAL SAYS WORLD COMMUNITY TO GIVE $20 MILLION TO SHORE UP TAJIK-AFGHAN BORDER
Alan Waddams, European Union ambassador to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, told a news conference in Dushanbe on 16 February that the international community will provide $20 million over the next two years to strengthen the border between Tajikistan and Afghanistan as Russian forces complete their handover of the frontier to Tajik control, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Interfax-AVN quoted Waddams as saying, "Total aid from the European Union will amount to 6.5 million euros [$8.5 million] plus 2 million euros from Britain." U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Richard Hoagland said that the United States will contribute $9.5 million. Russia has already handed over an 881-kilometer section of the border, and will transfer the Panj and Moscow sections of the Tajik-Afghan border by the end of 2005, ITAR-TASS reported. DK

OSCE HEAD VISITS UZBEKISTAN
OSCE Chairman in Office and Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Tashkent on 16 February, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Their discussion focused on economic reforms in Uzbekistan, regional security issues, and Uzbekistan's cooperation with the OSCE. Rupel also brought up human rights issues, noting the OSCE's criticism of Uzbekistan's December 2004 parliamentary elections and stressing the need to take steps to combat the problem of torture in custody in Uzbekistan, Ljubljana STA reported. Rupel also suggested that the OSCE's media-freedom representative could help Uzbekistan to improve its media legislation. Finally, Rupel congratulated Uzbekistan's recent initiative to demine its borders, offering OSCE and Slovenian assistance. DK

BRITAIN DISMISSES FORMER AMBASSADOR TO UZBEKISTAN
Great Britain's Foreign Office has dismissed Craig Murray, the country's controversial former ambassador to Uzbekistan, "The Times" reported on 16 February. Murray, who gained renown as a harsh critic of human rights abuses under Uzbek President Karimov, was recalled from Uzbekistan in October 2004 after he alleged that information British and U.S. intelligence were receiving from Uzbek officials was obtained under torture (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 October 2004). Murray said that he plans to write a book about his experiences. The ex-envoy, who received severance pay of 315,000 pounds ($594,000), plans to pursue a political career in Britain, running for parliament against current Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in May general elections, "The Guardian" reported. DK

REPORT SAYS TURKMEN PRESIDENT ORDERS CLOSURE OF HOSPITALS, LIBRARIES
A number of Turkmen opposition sites on 15 February posted a report attributed to PRIMA-News and dated 11 February claiming that Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov has ordered the closure of libraries and hospitals. The president's remarks came at a meeting with employees of provincial and regional administrations, according to the report. He said that libraries should be closed, with the exception of the Central Library and libraries at educational institutions. He also said that each provincial center should have a diagnostic center, but people should travel to the capital for treatment and all other hospitals should be closed. Moreover, Niyazov said that nature reserves should be opened to the public so that "people can graze their livestock there." DK

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT WANTS BETTER BROADCASTING TO OFFSET FOREIGN 'BIAS'
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 16 February demanded that the government improve the quality of programs on Belarusian television and radio to catch up with those broadcast from the country's neighbors and "the world in general," Belarusian Television reported. According to the network, Lukashenka wants to see "new television" in Belarus as of June. "In the worst traditions of the Cold War, more and more channels are being opened to broadcast to the territory of our country: programs of Voice of America, Radio Liberty," Lukashenka said. "We will not conceal that [these media outlets] are often matched in [their] bias and aggressiveness of anti-Belarusian propaganda by television channels of neighboring countries, particularly Russia," he said. "The West is ready to spend a lot of money to hammer into people how bad the authorities are in Belarus, how unbearable the conditions of life are here, and, in general, how bad the people are." JM

UKRAINIAN GOVERNMENT WANTS TO CONTEST 3,000 PRIVATIZATIONS IN COURT
Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko said on 16 February that the government, jointly with the Prosecutor-General's Office, will challenge in court the privatization of nearly 3,000 businesses, Interfax reported. According to Tymoshenko, the Prosecutor-General's Office opened criminal investigations into each of these 3,000 privatizations in the past, but they were subsequently closed following telephone calls from the "top state leadership." "There will be a detailed plan of action concerning every enterprise [on this list of 3,000] in order to stop illegal actions with regard to state property via court, in an absolutely legitimate way," Tymoshenko added. "We will return to the state what was illegally transferred into private, but dishonest, hands." It is not clear how Tymoshenko's announcement is related to President Viktor Yushchenko's statement the previous day that a list of potential privatization reviews will be "limited" to 30 to 40 enterprises (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2005). JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT REITERATES PROMISES ON FRESH GOVERNMENT, GONGADZE CASE
President Yushchenko visited Lviv on 16 February to introduce new Governor Petro Oliynyk to the oblast administration staff, Ukrainian media reported. Yushchenko repeated his earlier pledge that leading posts in the new government must not be occupied by representatives of the former one or by people who took part in the presidential campaign of his opponent, Viktor Yanukovych. "If we want to form a new policy, we need new personnel," he said. He did not comment on his appointment of former Education Minister Vasyl Kremin as first state secretary deputy in the Presidential Secretariat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2005). Yushchenko also said the murder of Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in 2000 is a moral challenge to the current authorities, who should resolve the case. JM

WILL NEW UKRAINIAN JUSTICE MINISTER RESIGN?
Justice Minister Roman Zvarych wants to resign his government post, Interfax reported on 16 February, quoting an unidentified source in the Cabinet of Ministers. Zvarych spoke on Channel 5 on 16 February but declined to answer a question about whether he has tendered his resignation. "I won't tolerate that some businessmen, who are also people's deputies and have powerful positions in the oil-processing sphere, interfere directly with the work of my ministry," Zvarych said. "Secondly, I won't tolerate attempts by some government members to involve members of my family in corruption schemes." Zvarych, an ethnic Ukrainian born in 1953 and educated at Columbia University in New York, moved to Ukraine in 1991 and was granted Ukrainian citizenship in 1995. JM

UKRAINIAN SECRET SERVICE PROBES EAVESDROPPING ON YUSHCHENKO, TYMOSHENKO
The chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Oleksandr Turchynov, told journalists on 17 February that the SBU has opened an investigation into the illegal tapping of telephone calls made by opposition leaders, including Yushchenko and Tymoshenko, during the presidential election campaign last year, Interfax reported. According to Turchynov, the eavesdropping was carried out on a "serious scale" and authorized by "top leaders of power structures." The notion of "power structures" (sylovy struktury) in the post-Soviet political jargon usually includes secret services, the Interior Ministry, and the Defense Ministry. Turchynov also said it is too early to assert that there was a Russian connection in the poisoning of Yushchenko during the campaign last year. Some Ukrainian media reported on 16 February that the Kyiv-based Channel 5 has passed to Ukrainian investigators a taped telephone conversation between purported officers of Russia's Federal Security Service, who allege that the idea to poison Yushchenko came from Russian political strategist Gleb Pavlovskii, who worked for former Prime Minister Yanukovych in his presidential bid. JM

UN CHIEF GIVES KOSOVA POOR GRADES...
UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said in a report issued on 16 February in New York that Kosova has made too little progress in meeting the international community's standards for the UN to consider starting talks on its final status, Reuters reported. "Progress in many areas remained insufficient," Annan said, adding that any renewal of interethnic violence "would set the process back" even more. "Kosovo Serbs in particular continued to consider themselves at risk. Their reluctance to leave their communities or to interact with members of the majority community, and vice versa, is widening an already deep ethnic divide," he noted. Annan also said that some standards have been met and that work on others has intensified. He gave a similarly cool assessment of Kosova's progress in his previous quarterly report last November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 November 2004). PM

...WHICH IS RECIPROCATED
Kosovar government spokesman Arben Qirezi said in Prishtina on 16 February that Annan's report does not reflect the real situation in the province, adding that there has not been a single incident of interethnic violence since the March 2004 riots, "Koha Ditore" reported. Some other, unnamed Kosovar politicians made similar statements. Most Kosovar Albanians expect talks on the final status, which for them means independence, to begin in mid-2005. Delay will only further compound the frustration that helped fuel the March riots, some analysts believe (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 17 December 2004 and 7 January 2005). PM

MINORITY LEADER SAYS SERBIA 'SINKING' IN NATIONALISM
Jozef Kasza, who heads the League of Vojvodina Hungarians, told representatives of the OSCE in Novi Sad on 16 February that Serbia is "sinking in nationalist euphoria," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He blamed Serbian President Boris Tadic, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, the Serbian Orthodox Church, and some unnamed political parties for the resurgence of Serbian nationalism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 September 2004, and "Serbian President Pays Controversial Visit To Kosova," rferl.org, 16 February 2005). Many politicians have sought to play the nationalist card in the run-up to general elections that are widely expected to be held later in 2005. PM

HAGUE PROSECUTOR SAYS CROATIA LET INDICTEE ESCAPE...
Carla Del Ponte, who is the Hague-based war crimes tribunal's chief prosecutor, told the Croatian weekly "Globus" of 18 February that someone in the government of then Prime Minister Ivica Racan leaked word of her sealed indictment against former Croatian General Ante Gotovina to unnamed people close to him in 2001, enabling him to escape before any attempt was made to arrest him. Failure to arrest Gotovina is holding up Croatia's plans to join the EU by 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1, 7, and 9 February 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 24 September 2004). RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service commented on 16 February that Croatia has no alternative to arresting Gotovina if it wants to join the EU, which is the government's top foreign-policy priority. PM

...AS EU REPRESENTATIVE CALLS FOR LENIENCY
Bosnia-Herzegovina's Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic told a conference in Brussels on 15 February that issues regarding cooperation with the tribunal should not be allowed to hinder his country's and Croatia's progress in Euro-Atlantic integration, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported. Ivanic stressed that NATO forces in Bosnia failed to catch many indictees between 1996 and 2004, and that Bosnian forces cannot be expected to do any better with inferior intelligence resources and equipment. Erhard Busek, who heads the EU-led Balkan Stability Pact, told the same conference that the EU should start on 17 March as originally planned with its admission negotiations with Croatia, which should be given an extended deadline until at least the summer to arrest Gotovina (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 10 October 2003, 21 May, and 11 June 2004, and 21 January 2005). PM

SLOVENIAN PRIME MINISTER LINKS CROATIAN RELATIONS TO EU MEMBERSHIP
Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa said in Ljubljana on 16 February that "nothing dramatic" is taking place in his country's relations with any of its neighbors, Hina reported. Referring to Slovenia's often problematic dealings with Croatia, Jansa argued that "the closer Croatia gets to European Union [membership], the bigger [is Slovenia's] room to maneuver in settling outstanding issues" that have bedeviled bilateral ties since independence in 1991 (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 4 February 2005). Jansa denied that relations with Italy have soured over a media discussion there about atrocities against Italian civilians in Istria at the end of World War II, or that problems have arisen with Austria because some politicians there have again questioned whether Slovenia should be treated as Yugoslavia's legal successor under the terms of the 1955 Austrian State Treaty, which also regulated bilateral minority issues. PM

'DIPLOMATIC OFFENSIVE' ANNOUNCED FOR MACEDONIA'S BID FOR EU MEMBERSHIP
Speaking on the sidelines of an official visit to Slovenia, Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski told journalists in Ljubljana on 16 February that his government will launch a "diplomatic offensive" in 2005 to support its bid for EU membership, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. Crvenkovski said he himself, Foreign Minister Ilinka Mitreva, and Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski will engage in coordinated lobbying work in EU member states (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 16 February 2005 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 8 October 2005). In an official statement, Crvenkovski also thanked his Slovenian hosts for their support for Macedonia's EU membership bid. Crvenkovski's visit to Ljubljana was part of his tour through the Balkans; the next stops will be Sarajevo and Zagreb. UB

ROMANIAN, UKRAINIAN PREMIERS SET TO IMPROVE BILATERAL RELATIONS
In a telephone call, Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu and his Ukrainian counterpart, Yuliya Tymoshenko, agreed on 16 February to reconstruct relations between Romania and Ukraine "on a modern, pragmatic, and European basis" after the change in government in Ukraine, RFE/RL's Romanian Service and "Evenimentul zilei" reported. Tymoshenko accepted Popescu-Tariceanu's invitation to visit Bucharest to discuss improvements in bilateral relations, including increased economic cooperation. UB

LEADERS OF GOVERNING PARTIES IN ROMANIA SIGN COALITION AGREEMENT
The leaders of the National Liberal Party (PNL)-Democratic Party (PD) alliance (Justice and Truth alliance), the Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR), and the Humanist Party (PUR) -- Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu, Emil Boc, Deputy Prime Minister Marko Bela, and Dan Voiculescu, respectively -- signed a coalition agreement on 16 February, "Evenimentul zilei" and other Romanian media reported. The document regulates the cooperation of the parties in government and in parliament and aims at stabilizing political relations. The coalition's main decision-making body will be the National Coalition Council, which includes the leaders and one representative from each of the coalition parties, "Adevarul" reported. Similar councils will be established on the county level and in Bucharest. The Parliamentary Council of the Coalition will coordinate the work of the coalition's members in the two houses of parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 and 30 December 2004). UB

ROMANIAN PRESIDENT RECEIVES U.S. JEWISH REPRESENTATIVES
Romanian President Traian Basescu received a delegation from the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations -- an umbrella group of 52 Jewish organizations in the United States -- in Bucharest on 16 February, according to a press release from the president's office. In the talks, Basescu underscored the good relations between Romania and Israel and stressed the Romanian authorities' resolve in the fight against anti-Semitism and extremism. The previous day, the delegation met with Prime Minister Popescu-Tariceanu, who, like Basescu, stressed that Romania is set to apply the recommendations made by the International Commission for the Study of the Holocaust in Romania (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2005 and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 October 2004). UB

STUDY SAYS MOLDOVAN PRESS CRITICAL OF GOVERNMENT
The nongovernmental organization Prodemo presented on 16 February the findings of a study in which coverage by the print media of the ongoing election campaign was monitored in early February, reporter.md reported. According to the study, a majority of articles in the 25 print outlets under scrutiny -- 11 Romanian-language and 14 Russian-language periodicals -- was either critical or neutral toward the government and its officials, while reporting about opposition parties and their leaders was in the majority either positive or neutral. (An English version of the report can be found at http://elections2005.prodemo.md/documents/report1.en.pdf) Earlier reports suggested the electronic media are biased in favor of the government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 15 February 2005). UB

MOLDOVAN CONSTITUTIONAL COURT TO SUPERVISE APPLIANCE OF HUMAN RIGHTS
The Moldovan government approved on 16 February a legislative initiative aimed at making the Constitutional Court the primary mechanism to supervise the observance of human rights in the country, Infotag reported. According to Justice Minister Victoria Iftodi, the Constitutional Court will hear appeals by citizens against decisions of the lower courts that would otherwise have been filed with the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). Iftodi added the initiative follows a recommendation by the Council of Europe that countries should establish intermediary institutions between national courts and the ECHR. Iftodi said Moldovan citizens have filed some 1,500 complaints with the ECHR, only 88 of which have been admitted by the court. UB

THE FOG OF INFORMATION WAR IN CENTRAL ASIA
As Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan prepare for parliamentary elections on 27 February, information wars are heating up in both countries. The basic ammunition is the word, but battles go far beyond dueling declarations to include struggles for control over the means of generating and disseminating information. Tough tactics are the order of the day, with opposition newspapers facing legal travails, duplicate organizations springing up to sow confusion, and dubious leaks poisoning the atmosphere. But the real victim is the political process itself, which can easily lose its way in the fog of information war.

The first front in the information wars involves ideas, and it is often the meanings of words that are at issue. A hard-fought polemic over the meaning of the word "revolution" is under way in Kyrgyzstan, which many outside observers have suggested could be the next candidate for political change in the emerging tradition of Ukraine's Orange Revolution or Georgia's Rose Revolution.

Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev has made it his personal quest to explain that these were not true popular movements, but rather foreign-inspired coups, and that a repetition in Kyrgyzstan is a real and pressing danger. As Akaev put it at a cabinet meeting in Bishkek on 11 January, "The most dangerous thing is that our homegrown provocateurs now have qualified trainers who have learned how to coax from provocations the flame of revolutions of various colors," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. In an address to young people on 5 February, he depicted revolution as foreign contagion attacking the traditions of the Kyrgyz people. "I believe that the Kyrgyz people, with their ancient democratic culture, will demonstrate their immunity to the attempts by extremist forces advancing mercenary goals to infect the country with dangerous revolutionary viruses," Kabar quoted him as saying.

The opposition, careful to avoid the appearance of openly fomenting revolution yet intent on stressing that conditions are right for political change, has offered its own definition. When the BBC asked Roza Otunbaeva, the leader of the Ata-Jurt opposition movement, on 2 February whether Kyrgyzstan is "ripe for its own 'velvet,' 'rose,' or 'orange' revolution," she replied: "I believe that it is absolutely ready. But I would like to make a significant correction. We're not talking about a revolution, but about the peaceful, calm, and constitutional transfer of power in our country. Revolutions, which ordinary people associate with blood, theft, and looting, are not what took place in Tbilisi and Kyiv. And they won't happen here [in Kyrgyzstan]."

Another front in the information war involves the means of disseminating information. Television is far and away the most important medium, and in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, the ruling elites have a firm grip on the airwaves. In Kyrgyzstan, for example, three television stations have significant broadcast range. The largest of them is state-controlled KTR. Another, KOORT, is controlled by Adil Toigonbaev, President Akaev's son-in-law, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) reported on 10 September 2004. The third is Piramida-TV. In August, only a few months before the February 2005 parliamentary elections, a group called Areopag acquired a stake in the network. As EurasiaNet reported on 28 August 2004, Areopag has a number of links to President Akaev's family and administration. In Tajikistan, state-run television predominates.

With television less contested, the dissemination front in the information war often shifts to print journalism. In Tajikistan, the independent weeklies "Ruzi Nav" and "Nerui Sukhan" have experienced a host of difficulties since the tax police shuttered their printing house in August 2004. Further run-ins with the tax police ensued, despite an international outcry. At one point, the staff of "Ruzi Nav" even printed up an issue of the newspaper in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, although Tajik tax police impounded it when it arrived in Dushanbe in November. Most recently, tax police confiscated an issue of "Ruzi Nav" in late January.

In Kyrgyzstan, the newspaper "MSN" now faces a defamation lawsuit from a rival newspaper involving damages in excess of $100,000. The lawsuit, and possible criminal charges against the newspaper in connection with an earlier regulatory dispute, led the opposition People's Movement of Kyrgyzstan to appeal to President Akaev on 1 February, charging that the authorities "want to close 'MSN'...on the threshold of parliamentary and presidential elections," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on 1 February.

Yet another front in the information war involves the actual generators of information -- political parties and organizations. The aims here range from confusion to usurpation, and an important tactic is the splitting of existing organizations or the creation of duplicate structures. In Tajikistan, the Socialist Party has split into two factions. When the faction led by Abduhalim Ghafforov, an Education Ministry official, held a party conference in June 2004, the faction led by Mirhuseyn Nazriev protested that the split was a state-sponsored attempt to divide and demolish the opposition party, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 21 July. The Central Election Commission's eventual decision to recognize the Ghafforov-led faction and approve its party slate for inclusion in parliamentary elections would appear to lend credence to Nazriev's claim.

The Kyrgyz student organization Kel-Kel provides a textbook example of cloning. Kel-Kel arose in mid-January amid protests over a district election commission's refusal to register opposition leader Roza Otunbaeva's candidacy for parliamentary elections. Kel-Kel did not associate itself with any particular party, but billed itself as an organization defending electoral and civil rights. Almost immediately, however, another organization appeared calling itself Kel-Kel, using the same color schemes and logos, and even involving leaders with the same last names, IWPR reported on 28 January. As IWPR noted, the second Kel-Kel is pro-government; it has echoed President Akaev's antirevolutionary rhetoric in its condemnation of "velvet revolutions" and "hysterical demonstrations."

The final front in the information wars is disinformation, or compromising materials, usually of unclear provenance and purpose. Two outstanding examples have appeared in Kyrgyzstan recently. The first is an alleged action plan penned in September by Bolot Januzakov, deputy head of the presidential administration; it lays out clandestine measures for monitoring the political situation in the run-up to parliamentary elections, including surveillance of NGOs that maintain contacts with the opposition. The second is an alleged transcript of a secret meeting in late 2004, with Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev crudely admonishing officials to "liquidate" nettlesome opposition politicians. The documents first surfaced in the Internet, and both officials have vigorously denied their authenticity.

Purported "smoking guns," which are almost always unverifiable, usually give rise to myriad interpretations. The individuals impugned cry foul and allege defamation. Their opponents, caught between an unwillingness to embrace possibly tainted materials and a suspicion that the compromising material may contain a grain of truth, revel in complexities. In an article in "MSN" on 15 January, Rina Prizhivoit, a staunch critic of Akaev and his government, opined that Akaev's political advisers may have cooked up the "Tanaev transcript" "to show the firmness and decisiveness of the president, who defends democracy and the law, against the backdrop of the outrageous excesses that Nikolai Tanaev has blessed his underlings to carry out. And they did it expressly so that all of Kyrgyzstan's independent media would publish it." But Prizhivoit allows that the transcript might also represent an attempt to portray Tanaev "as an idiot and a criminal, so that there would be someone to blame for 'unacceptable' methods of combating the opposition."

In the end, compromising materials and disinformation sully the political process itself more than any concrete individuals. For while they leave analysts guessing at sources and motives, they exert a disheartening effect on the real participants in the political process -- voters, who are left to blunder about in a haze of insinuation.

But if the fog is thickest on the disinformation front, it is also considerable on the front of information generation as well. The fight for control over information dissemination, where most of the battles have gone to ruling elites, forms a further impediment to the political process. Taken together, the shifting fronts of the information war greatly reduce the possibility of a fair fight on the front that is supposed to matter most -- the one that involves ideas.

AFGHAN PRESIDENT DISCUSSES COUNTERNARCOTICS WITH U.K. FOREIGN SECRETARY...
President Hamid Karzai met on 16 February with visiting British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw in Kabul and discussed the country's counternarcotics plan, Radio Afghanistan reported. Britain has led international efforts to cut Afghanistan's drug production (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 November 2004). "The people of Afghanistan turned to poppy cultivation because of invasion, interference, as well as neglect by the international community over the past year," Karzai said. Afghan are victims of the drug "menace and should not be blamed for it," Karzai added. Straw said the United Kingdom will increase its financial support for Afghanistan's counternarcotics effort from $50 million to $100 million. According to Straw, half of the British aid will be allocated to providing alternative livelihoods for farmers who abandon opium poppy cultivation. AT

...WHO SAYS AERIAL SPRAYING A LEGITIMATE STRATEGY
In a press conference in Kabul with his Afghan counterpart, Abdullah Abdullah, on 16 February, Jack Straw said spraying herbicides on opium-poppy fields is one means available to battle the drugs trade, Afghan Voice Agency reported. Straw said he believes such spraying can be implemented without harming other crops or humans. The Afghan government is strongly opposed to the aerial spraying of opium-poppy crops. Some Afghans have recently claimed that people have been harmed by alleged cases of aerial spraying (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 8 December 2004 and 31 January and 11 February 2005). AT

FOUR SENIOR FORMER TALIBAN REPORTEDLY ACCEPT AMNESTY OFFER
According to an unidentified Western official, four former Taliban leaders have accepted the reconciliation offer from the Afghan government, "The Washington Post," reported on 16 February. The source identified the four as Abdul Hakim Mujahed, the Taliban's former unofficial envoy to the United Nations; Arsala Rahmani, the former deputy minister of higher education; Ramatullah Wahidyar, the former deputy minister of refugees and returnees; and Fawzi, who worked as a diplomat in the Taliban regime's embassies in Riyadh and Islamabad. All four are from the southeastern Paktiya Province. In January, Paktiya Governor Asadullah Wafa said talks with the former Taliban were going forward in line with the reconciliation policy laid out by Karzai (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2005). According to the source, 22 lower-ranking members of the former Taliban regime also have agreed to participate in the amnesty offer. AT

BRITAIN HAILS AFGHANISTAN'S RECONCILIATION POLICY
Foreign Secretary Straw said in Kabul on 16 February that his country welcomes President Karzai's policy to offer amnesty to most former members of the Taliban regime, Reuters reported. "In any post-conflict situation, there has to be reconciliation with people who are adversaries," Straw told reporters. According to Straw, reaching out to the "Taliban who are, as it were, simply the foot soldiers, that is a good idea." However, he said he understands Kabul's "determination to bring to justice those who are simply war criminals." The issue of reconciliation with most members of the neo-Taliban was raised by Karzai in a speech in April 2003 and has been elaborated on by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad since April of this year (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 3 July 2003 and 28 April, 25 October, 8 November, and 8 and 17 December 2004). AT

NEO-TALIBAN DENIES RUMORS OF MULLAH OMAR'S DEATH
Mofti Latifullah Hakimi, speaking on behalf of the neo-Taliban, on 16 February denied rumors that former Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has died, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. "I spoke to [Mullah Omar's] deputy, Mullah Obaidullah, seven or eight minutes ago and he told me that Mullah Omar is alive and well," Hakimi told AIP in a telephone interview from an undisclosed area. According to the report, rumors have been circulating in parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan that Mullah Omar had died in southern Zabul Province due to cold weather. Hakimi dismissed the reports as "enemy propaganda to lower Taliban morale." AT

IRAN STRENGTHENS PRESENCE IN HORN OF AFRICA
Sudan's ambassador to Tehran, Hamid al-Tani, said President Umar al-Bashir will visit Tehran in the next few days, "Al-Anba" newspaper reported on 16 February. Al-Tani added that the two sides intend to sign energy and petrochemical agreements. Tehran also has agreed to sponsor Ethiopian peacekeepers who will be deployed in Somalia, Somalia's Radio Shabeele reported on 16 February. In addition, the two sides agreed to cooperate in agriculture and trade. This development occurred during a visit to Tehran by Ethiopian Finance and Economic Development Minister Ahmad Sufian, which began on 14 February. Radio Shabeele also reported the two countries will establish a radio and television station that will broadcast in various languages to the whole region. Sufian met with President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami on the first day of his visit, IRNA reported. BS

TEHRAN OFFERS ADVICE TO DAMASCUS
Tehran is offering advice to Syria on dealing with possible economic sanctions as Damascus faces mounting U.S. pressure in the wake of the 14 February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. "Iran will share its experiences, those of sanctions in particular, with Syria, given the situation Damascus is facing at the present time," Iranian Vice President Mohammad-Reza Aref-Yazdi said at a 16 February press conference in Tehran, as he welcomed Syrian Prime Minister Muhammad Naji al-Utri, IRNA reported. Al-Utri, who is accompanied by his country's ministers of culture, economy, electricity, housing, industries, irrigation, and transportation, said the visit stems from a desire to improve mutual ties. He said in Damascus that the two sides would discuss establishment of an Iran-Syria free-trade zone. He said Iranian electricity, industry, petroleum, and transportation projects in Syria currently total $600 million. In Berlin, meanwhile, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi told reporters, "Iran and Syria have some common interests. This does not mean they are going to establish a united front [against the United States]," he said. "But we all have to help and cooperate with each other, from the European side, from countries in the Middle East, to solve the problems and crises that the whole Middle East is facing." BS

HEAVY SNOW CAUSES EMERGENCY IN NORTHERN IRAN...
Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said 30,000 provincial buildings -- including homes, schools, and offices -- have been damaged by heavy snowfall in northern Iran's Gilan Province, "Iran" newspaper reported on 16 February. He promised the people of Gilan that the government will provide them with "serious support." He said the government was not adequately prepared for such an unprecedented amount of snow, and he called for better readiness in the future. Musavi-Lari and other officials toured the cities of Rasht, Lahijan, Sangar, Dilman, and Kuchsefahan by helicopter. Islamic Revolution Guards Corps spokesman Masud Jazayeri said on 16 February that his organization is providing emergency services in Gilan Province, "Kayhan" reported. This includes medical teams and helicopters to rescue the snowbound, he said.

...AS COMMENTATORS CRITICIZE LACK OF READINESS
Speaking on behalf of parliamentarians from Gilan Province, Iraj Nadimi said in the 13 February legislative session that "having so many problems with power and water distribution networks of the villages around Rasht was surprising," "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported the next day. He added that municipal and provincial officials did not help people who had lost access to natural gas. Nadimi said the government should learn from this and improve its crisis management. "Iran Daily" noted on 14 February that the heavy snowfall caused traffic delays and school closures in Tehran. The snow is not the problem, the newspaper commented, it is the lack of planning and "serious failures in the stewardship of public money and the wholesale mismanagement of the lives of millions of people who for long have been waiting for meritocracy and responsibility from the powers that be." "Aftab-i Yazd" commented on 14 February that Tehran was overwhelmed by heavy rains 21 years ago, and that nothing has improved since then, while other regional states have made progress in dealing with such emergencies. "Jomhuri-yi Islami" said the situation proved a lack of readiness by officials and the weakness of the executive branch. BS

EXPLOSION IN SOUTHERN IRAN MAY BE CONNECTED TO CONSTRUCTION
Supreme National Security Council public affairs official Ali Aqamohammadi said on 16 February that the Interior Ministry has investigated reports of an explosion in southern Iran's Bushehr Province and determined it was connected to road construction in Deilam, Al-Alam television reported. Interior Ministry spokesman Jahanbakhsh Khanjani said "friendly fire" could be behind the explosion and that there have been several such incidents lately, AP reported, but he did not provide more details. Earlier reports -- from Al-Alam, Al-Arabiyah, and Al-Jazeera -- attributed the explosion to the presence of unknown aircraft and the response of antiaircraft artillery, and there was media speculation this was connected to an attack on the nuclear facility at Bushehr. Aqamohammadi was careful to say nothing had happened near the nuclear plant and blamed someone for spreading rumors. The Bushehr facility's manager, Nasser Shariflu, said he was at the plant all day and that nothing had happened there, ILNA reported. He added that Deilam is 250 kilometers from the nuclear plant. BS

IRAN SAYS IT HAS NOTHING TO HIDE
Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi said on 16 February that because its military activities are legal, Iran has nothing to hide from U.S. satellites that are spying on it, IRNA and ISNA reported. U.S. Defense Department officials denied on 14 February that unmanned aircraft are flying in Iranian airspace, CNN and Fox News reported. The Central Intelligence Agency has its own fleet of such aircraft, and intelligence community officials have refused to comment, Fox reported. Senator Pat Roberts, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, denied on CNN's "Late Edition" that U.S. drones are overflying Iran. "The Washington Post" reported on 13 February that the spy drones have overflown Iran for about one year in a quest for information about Iran's nuclear activities and in an effort to examine its air-defense network. An anonymous Iranian official said Iran has not reacted so as not to disclose those capabilities. Yunesi warned that Iran will shoot down any spy planes or drones that get too close. BS

INTERIM IRAQI PRIME MINISTER SAYS HE MAY COMPETE FOR TRANSITIONAL POST
Iyad Allawi told Abu Dhabi television in a 16 February interview that his party was continuing meetings to decide whether Allawi's name would be put forward to head the transitional government. Allawi added that 50 percent of the Iraqi people want to see an Islamic government in Iraq. Asked if the next Iraqi government would be an Islamic one, he said: "Of course, most of the members of the United Iraqi Alliance are Islamists, [but] the liberal members within the list might have an effect on the Islamists." Asked to clarify his comments in a later interview with Al-Arabiyah television, the interim prime minister said: "I did not say that I support the formation of an Islamic government. On the contrary, we believe that this, in fact, should not take place. However, what I said is that I believe the Iraqi people voted intensively in the elections in favor of the [Shi'ite list], which has an Islamic orientation in general, although it includes members of liberal Iraqis." KR

AL-UMMAH PARTY HEAD ESCAPES ANOTHER ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT
Mithal al-Alusi, head of the Al-Ummah (Nation) Party, escaped an assassination attempt on 16 February, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Al-Alusi told reporters his house was attacked on that day for the third time in a week. He criticized police for failing to respond quickly to his request for help. The controversial former Iraqi National Congress member survived two assassination attempts in January. A third attempt on 8 February left two of his sons dead. He told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq that day that the attacks would not dissuade him from working toward a free Iraq. "But we will not, [I swear] by God, hand Iraq over to murderers and terrorists. We will pave the road for peace," he said. "If [the attackers] thought that by attempting to kill Mithal al-Alusi that the advocates of peace in Iraq will be stopped, then they have made a grave mistake. We will be calling for peace." (To read the entire interview, see RFE/RL's Iraq Elections webpage at http://www.rferl.org/specials/iraqelections). Gunmen shot and killed Hizballah political and security adviser Fa'iz al-Ashbal in Baghdad on 16 February, Al-Sharqiyah reported. KR

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH SAYS 'CHEMICAL ALI' ORDERED KILLINGS OF SHI'A IN 1999
Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a report (http://www.hrw.org) highlighting new information that shows Ali Hasan al-Majid, aka Chemical Ali, was the commander who ordered the killings of hundreds of Shi'a Muslims in 1999. The 36-page report, "Ali Hasan al-Majid and the Basra Massacre of 1999," documents summary executions, mass arrests, torture, and other human rights abuses carried out by the Iraqi government and Ba'ath Party officials in southern Iraq. In compiling its report, HRW examined documentary evidence and studied the exhumed remains of mass graves. Researchers also conducted interviews with dozens of victims, family members, and eyewitnesses. Among the evidence obtained by the organization is a handwritten list containing the names of 120 young men executed between March and May 1999 for participating in a Shi'ite uprising against the Hussein regime. The bodies of 29 of the men were found in a mass grave in 2003. The document, which HRW believes is a "contemporary Iraqi government document," identifies the "commander of the southern sector" -- al-Majid, at the time -- as having ordered the executions. KR

IRAQI SHI'ITES ON EDGE, KILL SUSPECTED SUICIDE BOMBER
A group of Shi'ite worshippers in Baghdad attacked and killed a suspected suicide bomber during a religious ceremony marking Ashura on 16 February, Reuters reported the same day. Police said the crowd of worshippers spotted a man mingling among them who appeared to be wearing an explosives-laden vest. "They attacked him and beat the man to death," a police source told Reuters. He said security forces were unable to restrain the crowd. It is unclear whether the man was actually wearing a suicide vest. Meanwhile, a suicide bomber approached Iraqi security forces on foot in eastern Baghdad on 16 February. The man blew himself up when police ordered him to stop. One Iraqi soldier was killed in the attack; another person was wounded. Militants wreaked havoc on Ashura worshippers in 2004, detonating three bombs in Baghdad and nine in Karbala on 2 March that killed a total of 171 people. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 March 2004). KR

EIGHT CONTRACTORS FOUND DEAD IN IRAQ; FIGHTING CONTINUES IN SAMARRA
The bodies of eight Iraqis working for the U.S. Army in Balad were found north of Baghdad on 16 February, Al-Arabiyah television reported. The eight men were kidnapped on 13 February as they left work by bus, the satellite news channel reported. Meanwhile, fighting continued between militants and multinational forces in Samarra, north of Baghdad, on 16 February, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. The news channel said U.S. forces cordoned off the entrances to Samarra General Hospital during the fighting, as well as areas surrounding the fighting. Journalists said they were unable to report on casualties because of the blockades. Fighting was also reported in Ba'qubah and Baghdad. Seven Iraqi National Guardsmen were wounded in Kirkuk on 16 February as they attempted to defuse an explosive charge, Al-Arabiyah reported. KR

TURKISH BUSINESSMAN KIDNAPPED IN IRAQ SAYS RANSOM PAID FOR HIS RELEASE
Kidnapped Turkish businessman Kahraman Sadikoglu said this week that he paid a $500,000 ransom to gain his freedom, Turkish media reported on 16 February. Sadikoglu was released by his captors on 14 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 February 2005). He quoted his kidnappers as telling him: "We will ask for money from you, which will not hurt you too much but will benefit us," AP cited Anatolia news agency as reporting. Istanbul's "Sabah" daily reported that the kidnappers initially had demanded $25 million. Sadikoglu said he was held hostage by former soldiers loyal to deposed President Saddam Hussein, adding, "They never threatened me with death," AP reported. KR

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