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Newsline - April 18, 2005


PRO-KREMLIN YOUTH MOVEMENT WANTS TO FORM NEW ELITE, STOP 'ORANGE REVOLUTION' IN RUSSIA...
The pro-Kremlin youth organization Nashi (Ours) held its inaugural congress on 15 April, where it adopted a political program and elected Vasilii Yakemenko and four others as "commissars," or leaders, of the movement, RosBalt and other Russian media reported. Addressing the congress, Yakemenko, the former leader of the pro-Putin organization Walking Together, said that Nashi considers all those who oppose President Vladimir Putin's policies as "enemies." "Today, an unnatural alliance of liberals, fascists, Westernizers, ultranationalists, international funds, and terrorists is forming, united by a common hatred of Putin," he said. He labeled self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii a "traitor" and National Bolshevik Party (NBP) leader Eduard Limonov a "fascist," and said that Our Choice leader Irina Khakamada and Committee-2008 Chairman Garri Kasparov "are sympathetic to fascists." Another of the group's leaders, Aleksandr Gorodetskii, said that Nashi's goal is to be "next elite of Russia" and "to stop an Orange Revolution," RTR reported. Education Minister Aleksei Fursenko addressed the congress as a guest. VY

...AS OPPOSITION LEADER ATTACKED
Former world chess No. 1 and Committee-2008 Chairman Garri Kasparov was attacked on 15 April at a meeting with youth organizations in Moscow by a young man who hit him over the head with a chess board, Ekho Moskvy reported. Kasparov, who was slightly injured, said that he believes that the Nashi movement, which has dubbed him an "enemy of the people," is responsible for the incident. In response, Nashi spokesman Ivan Mostovich told Ekho Moskvy that no member of his group was involved and that the NBP was responsible for the attack. But NBP leader Eduard Limonov said on 16 April that his people do not use violence during public protests. "I do not believe that Kasparov is an outstanding politician but I do think he or another politician should be attacked," Ekho Moskvy quoted Limonov as saying. VY

DUMA PASSES ELECTION LAW AMENDMENTS IN SECOND READING...
The State Duma on 15 April adopted in their second reading a set of amendments to the law on the formation of the Duma that would eliminate the single-mandate districts and create new obstacles for small parties trying to gain representation in the Duma, Russian media reported. The amendments were submitted by President Putin following the Beslan school hostage taking last September in order to strengthen Russia's party system. However, many analysts see the changes as a way of bolstering Kremlin control over the Duma. "The Kremlin is just slashing the number of actors with which it would have to negotiate," Center for Political Technologies Deputy Director Aleksei Makarkin told "The Moscow Times" on 18 April. Under the amendments, parties will have to secure 7 percent of the vote to qualify for party-list seats in the Duma and election blocs will be banned. RC

...BUT REJECTS SOME PARTICULARS...
Deputies rejected an amendment put forward by the Central Election Commission (TsIK) that would have required candidates to serve in the Duma if elected or else their mandate would pass to another party, Russian media reported. That measure was intended to prevent parties from loading their lists with celebrities and high-profile political figures who have no intention of actually serving in the legislature. Deputies overwhelmingly passed a proposed amendment that would strip the country's human rights ombudsman of the authority to invite international election monitors to observe legislative elections. RC

...AND MALE DEPUTIES SAY QUOTA FOR FEMALE PARLIAMENTARIANS UNCONSTITUTIONAL
The State Duma on 15 April rejected by a vote of 226 to 117 an amendment that would set a minimum 30 percent representation for women in the federal and regional legislatures, RosBalt reported. The amendment was introduced by Yekaterina Lakhova (Unified Russia), who said it was designed to increase the share of the women holding elected office. While 53 percent of the population is female, only 10 percent of Duma deputies are female, and in some regional legislatures, such as Novosibirsk's, there are no women at all, Lakhova said. But Deputy Aleksandr Moskolets, also from Unified Russia, said that Lakhova's proposal is unconstitutional and that the constitution "mentions only citizens, making no difference in gender." Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii, whose faction also voted against the amendment, said that a quota for women will mean also a 20 percent quota for young people, 20 percent for non-Slavs, and so on. VY

COMMENTATOR SAYS PRESIDENTIAL AIDE WORKING AGAINST RUSSIAN INTERESTS
Speaking on TV-Tsentr on 16 April, political commentator Aleksei Pushkov, known for his pro-Kremlin views, harshly criticized presidential economic adviser Andrei Illarionov for his remarks at an economic forum in London about the unpredictable status of the Russian economy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 April 2005). He said Illarionov's statements exhibited both "stupidity and meanness." Illarionov travels abroad on the taxpayers' money to support Russian interests, "not to pose like a peacock for a foreign audience, thoroughly ruining Russia's image," Pushkov said. He called Illarionov the "main American lobbyist in the presidential administration" and "an ultraliberal married to a U.S. citizen," and said he should resign before he makes any further critical remarks. VY

RUSSIA RECALLS DIPLOMAT REPORTEDLY ACCUSED OF SPYING IN GERMANY
Russia has recalled a staff member from the Russian consulate in Hamburg, Aleksandr Kuzmin, who was accused of espionage, Russian and Western media reported on 16 April. According to German counterintelligence officials, Kuzmin recruited a German military officer to obtain information on advanced weapon systems. The German officer was discovered and forced to become a double agent. The Russian Foreign Ministry refused to comment on the incident, RIA-Novosti reported. VY

COMMUNIST LEADER SAYS STALIN DOESN'T NEED REHABILITATION
Speaking at a convention of the communist parties of the CIS countries in Moscow on 16 April, Communist Party of the Russian Federation leader Gennadii Zyuganov said that he has received proposals to revise the decisions of the 20th party congress in 1956 condemning Soviet leader Josef Stalin's cult of personality and "to clear Stalin's name," polit.ru and other Russian media reported. "We decided that the great Stalin does not need any rehabilitation," Zyuganov said. He called for reflecting on Stalin's contribution to the victory in World War II and said his party supports returning Volgograd to its previous name of Stalingrad. Zyuganov also said that the goal of his party and the delegations from the other 16 former Soviet republics is to restore the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, in another sign of Soviet nostalgia, popular Russian singer Oleg Gazmanov, who has close ties to the Kremlin, has released on national television his new rap-style single, "I was born in the Soviet Union, made in the USSR." VY

SIBNEFT NEGOTIATES REDUCTION IN BACK-TAX CLAIMS
Oil major Sibneft announced that it has negotiated with the tax authorities to reduce the government's claims for tax arrears from 2000 and 2001 from $1 billion to $300 million, "Vedomosti" reported on 18 April. An Audit Chamber investigation of the company earlier found that it had sold oil to firms in Kamchatka and Chukotka, which in turn resold it for two to three times as much, while taking advantage of profit-tax concessions offered to companies based in those remote regions. "Vedomosti" reported that word of the government's willingness to negotiate with Sibneft could be good news for other companies facing tax claims, most notably TNK-BP (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 April 2005). RC

SIBERIAN TERRITORIES VOTE TO MERGE
Referendums on merging the Taimyr and Evenk autonomous okrugs with Krasnoyarsk Krai were held in all three regions on 17 April and all three were declared valid, Russian media reported. According to preliminary results reported by RIA-Novosti, voters in all three regions voted overwhelmingly in favor of the unification proposal. In Taimyr, nearly 70 percent of voters favored the merger, while 29.1 percent voted against. In Evenk, the vote was 79 percent in favor and 20 percent opposed, while in Krasnoyarsk Krai, 92.25 voted in favor and just 7.18 percent were opposed. According to Interfax, now that the referendums have passed, the three territories will be formally merged on 1 January 2007, at which point the administrations of the autonomous okrugs will be dissolved and a new governor selected for the combined territory. In September or October 2007, elections will be held for a unified regional legislature. Federation Council member Mikhail Odintsov, who represents the Evenk legislature, said that the regions will continue to have six representatives in the Federation Council until the end of 2007. RC

OPPOSITION RALLY IN BASHKORTOSTAN CANCELLED AS PRESSURE MOUNTS...
Opposition leaders in Bashkortostan cancelled a planned 16 April demonstration in Ufa after supporters of Bashkir President Murtaza Rakhimov said they would hold a rally the same day, Interfax reported on 16 April. The news agency reported that opposition leaders Ramil Bignov and Anatolii Dubovskii were summoned to the local Federal Security Service (FSB) office on 16 April for questioning. "I think that we were isolated from our supporters deliberately because yesterday we expressed concern...regarding the planned alternative rally," Bignov said. He confirmed that the opposition cancelled its demonstration in order to avoid a possible provocation on the part of the authorities or Rakhimov's supporters. Nonetheless, Interfax reported that "several dozen" anti-Rakhimov demonstrators gathered in Ufa's main square. Bignov said that there was some violence during that protest that he alleged was started by Rakhimov supporters. He said the violence had been videotaped and the evidence has been submitted to the Prosecutor-General's Office. Bignov also alleged that someone had loosened the nuts securing his tires to his car. "Despite the unprecedented illegal pressure that has been applied, the opposition intends to continue to pursue its aims and to hold a sanctioned protest on 1 May," Bignov said. RC

...WHILE BASHKIR PRESIDENT DENOUNCES OPPOSITION 'LIES'
Bashkir President Rakhimov told Interfax on 16 April that opposition claims that people in the republic are ready to revolt are "lies." "Average people do not need any seizure of power," Rakhimov said. "They need prosperity and peace and this can only be achieved by many years of hard and honest work, both on the part of the authorities and the whole of society." He expressed sympathy for citizens who have been harmed by the government's reform to convert in-kind social benefits to cash payments, saying, "We have done everything possible to help people and this situation really has started to improve gradually." He said the opposition is led by "businessmen and failed leaders, and bureaucrats who have been sacked for various intrigues." Rakhimov said opposition leaders are motivated by "passionate greed" and that they are "working for those forces that have an interest in wrecking our Russia." "These forces have already carried out revolutions in a number of countries and don't even hide their desire to reshape Russia to their own liking," Rakhimov said. RC

ONE GOVERNOR RECONFIRMED, ANOTHER RENOMINATED
The Chelyabinsk Oblast legislature on 18 April voted to endorse President Putin's 14 April nomination of oblast Governor Petr Sumin for another term, ITAR-TASS reported. Sumin will be sworn in on 22 April, Interfax reported. Putin on 18 April nominated Kostroma Oblast Governor Viktor Sershunov for another term of office, newsinfo.ru and other Russian media reported. Shershunov has headed the oblast since 1996. RC

NORTH OSSETIAN PRESIDENT DENIES HE PLANS TO RESIGN
Aleksandr Dzasokhov, president of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, told Interfax on 16 April he will not step down before completion of the official investigation into the circumstances of the September 2004 Beslan school hostage taking. Relatives of the hundreds of victims have repeatedly demonstrated to demand Dzasokhov's resignation. But according to an article published in "Novaya gazeta" on 14 April and summarized by "The Moscow Times" the following day, it was not Dzasokhov who coordinated the local authorities' response to the hostage taking but a team of senior Kremlin officials and FSB officials. Preliminary hearings in the trial of Nurpasha Kulaev, who according to official reports is the sole survivor among the approximately 30 hostage takers, begin on 19 April. Dzasokhov proposed on 17 April opening a museum in Beslan with exhibits documenting the hostage taking, Interfax reported. On 10 April, yufo.ru reported that a Russian Orthodox church is to be built on the site of the destroyed school in Beslan. LF

FORMER ARMENIAN PREMIER CALLS FOR REVOLUTION
Aram Sargsian told a 15 April congress of the opposition Hanrapetutiun party that a revolution is needed in Armenia to remove what he termed the current illegitimate administration of President Robert Kocharian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He said Kocharian hopes to "stage-manage" the transfer of power to an ally on completion of his second presidential term, but that he will not succeed in installing either Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian or anyone else as his chosen successor. Sargsian, who served as prime minister from November 1989-May 1990, admitted that the opposition campaign one year ago to remove Kocharian failed because of limited popular support, and he did not specify what measures he now advocates to remove the present leadership. He further reaffirmed the Hanrapetutiun's recent espousal of a pro-Western foreign policy. Delegates to the congress accepted Albert Bazeyan's resignation as party chairman and elected Sargsian in his place. LF

ARMENIAN, AZERBAIJANI FOREIGN MINISTERS MEET WITH MINSK GROUP CO-CHAIRMEN...
Vartan Oskanian and Elmar Mammadyarov met separately at the U.S. Embassy in London on 15 April with the three co-chairmen of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. For reasons that remain unclarified, the two ministers did not meet face to face, although they have done so on several previous occasions over the past 12 months. Oskanian declined to comment on the talks, while the Armenian Foreign Ministry said in a brief statement they focused on preparations for a meeting next month between President Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev. Mammadyarov for his part told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service on 15 April that the London talks represented the continuation of his series of discussions with Oskanian under the Minsk Group aegis. Mammadyarov said Baku wants the return of all territories currently occupied by Armenian forces and the return to their former homes of all Azerbaijani displaced persons. He added that Baku "understands" Armenia's insistence on security guarantees for the Armenian population of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. LF

...WHO EXPRESS CONCERN OVER CEASE-FIRE VIOLATIONS
In a statement released in Vienna on 15 April (http://www.osce.org/item/13896.html), the Minsk Group co-chairmen registered their shared concern over the marked increase in recent weeks in violations of the cease-fire signed by the defense ministers of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in 1994. At least six servicemen have been reported killed in those exchanges of fire. The co-chairmen also deplored public statements implying that a resumption of full-scale hostilities is imminent, noting that such rhetoric complicates efforts to resolve the conflict peacefully and fuels feelings of hatred among the populations of both countries. The statement appealed to the conflict parties to reinforce the cease-fire; to refrain from any public statements that could lead to an escalation of the conflict; to recognize that a new war would be "disastrous" for both countries in terms of casualties, destruction, and an increase in refugees and displaced persons; and "to prepare their populations for a balanced negotiated agreement that will require compromises on both sides." LF

ARMENIA REJECTS AZERBAIJANI ARMS ALLEGATIONS
Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Seyran Shahsuvarian rejected on 15 April as "idiocy" Azerbaijani allegations that Russian troops based in Georgia have illegally sold 16 mobile Akatsiya howitzers to Armenia, according to Arminfo as cited by Groong. According to Turan, one of the Azerbaijani agencies that published those allegations on 14 April, the Akatsiya has a range of 17-18 kilometers and can destroy armored vehicles and concrete bunkers. LF

CHARGES DROPPED AGAINST DISGRACED FORMER AZERBAIJANI PREMIER'S ADVISER
The Azerbaijani authorities have dropped the charges of treason brought against Saday Nazarov, who served as an adviser to Prime Minister Suret Huseinov in 1993-94, the online daily echo-az.com reported on 15 April. Nazarov, 58, left Azerbaijan after Huseinov's arrest on charges of preparing a coup d'etat in October 1994 and was granted political asylum in the Czech Republic in 1997. He was arrested three months ago, shortly after returning to Azerbaijan to visit his elderly father (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 27 January and 2 and 15 February 2005). LF

AZERBAIJANI JOURNALISTS OUTRAGED BY CHOICE OF PUBLIC BROADCASTER DIRECTOR
Independent Azerbaijani journalists and opposition politicians reacted with consternation to the announcement that parliament deputy Ismail Omarov has been appointed to head the new public television broadcaster, Turan reported on 16 April. In his previous post as editor in chief of political programs for Azerbaijani State Television, Omarov repeatedly engaged in harsh criticism of the political opposition. Azer Hesret, who heads a confederation of organizations representing Azerbaijani journalists, said the choice of Omarov demonstrates the Azerbaijani authorities' contempt for the views of international organizations. He said Azerbaijani journalists plan to campaign for a public vote of no confidence in Omarov. Omarov was quoted on 18 April by the opposition daily "Yeni Musavat" as saying that he will offer air time to opposition politicians, Turan reported. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT WARNS OF 'FOREIGN CONSPIRACY'
Meeting on 14 April with the staff of the Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office, Mikheil Saakashvili claimed that unnamed circles abroad are planning to destabilize Georgia and thereby demonstrate to the international community that it is a failed state, Caucasus Press reported. Saakashvili said those unnamed persons plan to transfer to Georgia huge sums of money to be paid to Georgian politicians they hope to co-opt. Saakashvili also commented that some of his former comrades in arms who "fought on the barricades" now erroneously consider themselves immune to prosecution, and he warned that they will nonetheless be brought to account for unspecified crimes. Saakashvili praised the performance of both the Prosecutor-General's Office and the Interior Ministry. LF

GEORGIA, RUSSIA END FURTHER ROUND OF TALKS ON BASES' CLOSURE
Two days of talks on 14-15 April on the time frame for the closure of the two remaining Russian military bases in Georgia ended without reaching agreement on any key points, according to Caucasus Press and a Russian Foreign Ministry press release of 16 April. The Russian delegation, headed by Ambassador for Special Assignments Igor Savolskii, reaffirmed its commitment to the time frame for withdrawal agreed on during a visit to Tbilisi in February by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2005), which, according to the Foreign Ministry press release, "practically coincided" with the time frame proposed by Tbilisi. The Russian Foreign Ministry attributed the failure to reach a consensus on unspecified new conditions demanded by Tbilisi. The Georgian side similarly accused Moscow of linking the withdrawal to unspecified other issues, according to Caucasus Press on 18 April. LF

COUNCIL OF EUROPE HEAD DISCUSSES GEORGIAN CONFLICTS
Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis met in Tbilisi on 15 April with Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava to discuss the situation in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported. Speaking at a press conference on 16 April, Davis recommended that Georgia bear in mind the "positive role" played by Russia during the standoff last year between the central Georgian government and Adjara, and its peacekeeping operations in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. He noted that both Russia and Georgia face separatist conflicts, and reaffirmed his support for the territorial integrity of both countries. Davis appealed to Georgians living and working illegally in Europe to return home as "their country needs them." He also downplayed criticisms of unnamed Georgian government ministers expressed by NGO representatives with whom he met during his visit. LF

GEORGIAN PROSECUTOR-GENERAL REOPENS MURDER CASE INVOLVING FORMER ADJARAN LEADER
The Prosecutor General's Office has ordered that the investigation into the death in April 1991 of Nodar Imnadze, deputy chairman of the Adjar ASSR Supreme Council, be reopened, Caucasus Press reported on 13 April. Imnadze died of gunshot wounds sustained during an altercation in the office of Aslan Abashidze, then Supreme Council chairman. An investigation at the time found that Imnadze was killed by a security guard who opened fire in self-defense. Imnadze's daughter Nato, who witnessed the argument, claims that it was Abashidze who shot her father. In related news, Caucasus Press reported on 12 April that seven of Abashidze's 80 pedigree Caucasian sheepdogs, whom he left behind when he stepped down and left Adjara for Moscow in May 2004, have died of starvation. LF

SUPPORTERS DEMAND RETURN OF FORMER GEORGIAN SECURITY HEAD
Some 200 supporters of former National Security Minister Igor Giorgadze staged a demonstration on 15 April in Batumi to demand that Giorgadze be permitted to return to Georgia, ITAR-TASS and rustavi2.com reported. Giorgadze left Georgia in the fall of 1995 after being accused of masterminding a car-bomb attack on then Georgian parliament Chairman Eduard Shevardnadze. His whereabouts since then have remained a mystery, and his applications to register as a candidate for the parliamentary elections in November 2003 and March 2004 and the preterm presidential ballot in January 2004 were rejected (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 October and 15 December 2003 and 3 March 2004). Then Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said in December 2003 in the wake of Shevardnadze's ouster that the criminal charges against Giorgadze will not be dropped. LF

KAZAKH PRESIDENT SIGNS ANTICORRUPTION DECREE
On 15 April, President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed a decree on strengthening measures to fight corruption and improve discipline in government agencies, Kazinform reported. The decree restructures disciplinary councils in all provinces, as well as Astana and Almaty, instructing them to make their work more public. It charges the financial police with preparing an anticorruption plan for 2006-10 by the third quarter of 2005. Other provisions are aimed at achieving greater transparency in procurement, reducing government interference in business activities, and the introduction of trial by jury. DK

ACTING KYRGYZ PRESIDENT ADDRESSES PARLIAMENT...
Acting President Kurmanbek Bakiev addressed Kyrgyzstan's parliament on 15 April, providing an overview of his government's recent actions and plans, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Bakiev noted that the government has approved a "100-day economic plan" prepared by Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov. Bakiev said that he will take action against arbitrary appointments, akipress.org reported. "I am opposed if a new minister changes all the personnel in a ministry," he said. "I will deal with those ministers soon." Bakiev cited the fight against corruption and the reform of the judiciary as priority tasks, Kyrgyz Television reported. In closing, he condemned recent statements by "some people and groups" against non-Kyrgyz citizens, promised measures to "remove this tension," and urged ethnic Russians not to leave Kyrgyzstan. DK

...AND CONDEMNS ILLEGAL LAND SEIZURES
In his remarks to parliament on 16 April, acting President Bakiev called the current rash of land seizures in and around Bishkek a priority task for the government to resolve, noting that up to two-thirds of those who have marked off plots of land lack the legal right to do so. He promised that law-enforcement agencies will take steps to deal with the situation, and that the government has created commissions to address the issue and allocated land for the construction of multistory dwellings, Kyrgyz Television reported. Bakiev also said that the government intends to raise pay for police by 50 percent in the near future, akipress.org reported. The pledge came amid an assessment of the current situation in the country, with Bakiev noting that the consequences of the 24 March looting are being overcome. DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT SUPPORTS KAZAKH LEADER'S UNION PROPOSAL
At a meeting with Kazakh Ambassador Umirzak Uzbekov in Bishkek on 16 April, acting Kyrgyz President Bakiev said that he supports Kazakh President Nazarbaev's plan to create a union of Central Asian states, akipress.org reported. "We fully support this idea. The idea has been around for quite a while now and I think that such a union would only promote economic rapprochement, first and foremost, and of course political union," Interfax quoted Bakiev as saying. Nazarbaev proposed the idea in an address to the nation on 18 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2005). DK

KYRGYZ DEMONSTRATORS PROTEST RETURN OF OUSTED PRESIDENT'S DAUGHTER
About 300 demonstrators gathered in front of Kyrgyzstan's parliament on 15 April to protest the return of Bermet Akaeva (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 April 2005), the daughter of former President Askar Akaev, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Demonstrators included members of the organizations Interbilim, KelKel, and Birge, akipress.org reported. Edil Baisalov, leader of the NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, told protesters that "Bermet Akaeva's arrival means that she feels that the former regime remains strong," RFE/RL reported. Bolotbek Maripov, who lost to Akaeva in a disputed race for parliament, said that Akaeva's return showed courage. "I'm glad that there's at least one man in the Akaev family," he said. DK

TAJIK PRESIDENT ADDRESSES PARLIAMENT
President Imomali Rakhmonov addressed a joint session of Tajikistan's parliament on 16 April, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. He expressed concern at the recent change of government in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, saying, "Our region has never been attractive for investments, and the Kyrgyz events had a negative impact on this factor," Avesta reported. Rakhmonov hailed improved relations with Russia, citing an October 2004 agreement to set up a Russian military base in Tajikistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 October 2004) and Russian commitments to invest $2 billion in the Tajik economy over the next five years. Rakhmonov called corruption the biggest drag on the country's economy, adding, "The bureaucratic system has tightened its grip on everybody, and we should break it." Rakhmonov stressed that international organizations in Tajikistan should abide by "the strict implementation of the tasks specified in their statutes and mandates, and complete openness in their activities and conformity with local legislation," Interfax reported. DK

RUSSIAN ENERGY HEAD VISITS TAJIKISTAN
Anatolii Chubais, the head of Russia's Unified Energy Systems (EES), met with Tajik President Rakhmonov in Dushanbe on 15 April, Avesta reported. Chubais said that EES, which has undertaken to complete the construction of Tajikistan's Sangtuda-1 hydropower plant, will finish the project in April 2009. He noted that investment in the project will total $500 million. DK

U.S. GENERAL VISITS TAJIKISTAN
Lieutenant General David Barno, commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, met with Tajik President Rakhmonov in Dushanbe on 15 April for talks that focused on Afghan-Tajik security issues, Avesta reported. Barno told journalists, "We are aware of the achievements that Tajik border guards have made in combating drug trafficking and ensuring security on the [Tajik-Afghan] border." Barno said that his talks with Rakhmonov touched on the issue of ensuring security through joint efforts along the Tajik-Afghan border. Noting that Afghan armed forces now number 22,000, Barno commented, "The reduction in the number of coalition forces [in Afghanistan] depends on how strong the Afghan National Army becomes." DK

RUSSIA, TURKMENISTAN REACH ACCORD ON GAS SHIPMENTS
Aleksei Miller, the head of Russian gas monopoly Gazprom, reached an agreement with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat on 15 April for Turkmenistan to resume gas shipments to Russia, ITAR-TASS reported. "We have agreed to pay for all Turkmen gas with hard currency and to drop barter schemes, but to leave the gas price unchanged," the news agency quoted Miller as saying. Turkmenistan had cut off gas shipments to Russia earlier this year in an attempt to raise the price from $44 per 1,000 cubic meters, paid then half in cash and half in kind (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2005). Under the new agreement, Russia will continue to pay $44 per 1,000 cubic meters, but make all payments in cash. Under the terms of a contract signed in 2003, Turkmenistan is to deliver 6 billion-7 billion cubic meters of gas to Russia in 2005, turkmenistan.ru reported. DK

UZBEK INTERIOR MINISTRY DENIES REPORTS OF MEASURES AGAINST JOURNALISTS
Deputy Interior Minister Alisher Sharafuddinov met with a group of journalists in Tashkent on 15 April, assuring them that the Interior Ministry has no plans to target them with repressive measures, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. The meeting came about after a group of journalists, several of them from the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, sent an open letter asking the Interior Ministry to confirm or deny internet reports of a coming crackdown. DK

BELARUSIAN SUPREME COURT ORDERS CLOSURE OF INDEPENDENT POLLSTER
The Belarusian Supreme Court ordered on 15 April the closure of the Independent Institute for Socioeconomic and Political Research (NISEPI) for alleged repeated violations of laws, such as failing to provide its questionnaire forms to the authorities and using an office different from its legal address, Belapan and Interfax-Belarus reported. After the hearing, NISEPI Director Aleh Manayew told reporters in Minsk that the court's decision is "politically motivated" and is part of the authorities' preparations for the 2006 presidential elections. Last year, NISEPI cooperated with Gallup/Baltic Surveys on an exit poll that suggested authorities rigged the referendum to lift the constitutional two-term limit on the presidency and allow President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to remain in office (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 26 October, 5 November, and 29 December 2004). Institute directors said in a statement that as long as they are "at large," they will continue their mission to "contribute to the development of democracy, market economy, and civil society in Belarus by conducting sociological surveys." JAC

BELARUS SLAMS UN RESOLUTION...
Following the adoption on 14 April of a resolution by the UN Human Rights Commission alleging human rights abuses by Belarusian officials, Syarhey Aleynik, Belarus's permanent representative to the UN, criticized the document as "another attempt to create a distorted picture of the country's situation in order to justify the intention of its co-sponsors to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state," Belapan and Interfax-Belarus reported. Aleynik said that the resolution has passed under "unprecedented pressure from the United States," which has no moral right to "act as a champion of human rights in the world." Twenty-three out of the 53 members of the Commission voted for the document, with more than half the members either opposing or abstaining. The Russian permanent representative at the UN's Geneva office, Leonid Skotnikov, told ITAR-TASS that he was surprised that Ukraine supported the resolution. JAC

...AS EU LAMENTS BELARUS'S 'SLIDE INTO DICTATORSHIP'
On 16 April, a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Luxembourg adopted a statement condemning Belarus's "slide into dictatorship." The EU ministers took special note of the jailing of former ambassador and opposition politician Mikhail Marynich and the dispersal of a 25 March protest at which some 31 protesters out of 1,500 were arrested (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2005). JAC

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SACKS LOCAL INTELLIGENCE CHIEFS
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko issued decrees on 16 April dismissing the leaders of the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) in seven oblasts, UNIAN and proua.com reported, citing the presidential press service. Those dismissed were Viktor Kozlov from Kherson Oblast, Volodymyr Sakhnyuk from Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast, Mykola Bobrov from Mykolayiv Oblast, Volodymyr Kolesnykov from Chernihiv Oblast, Mykola Vavrynchuk from Khmelnytskyy Oblast, Mykola Borovskyy from Zhytomyr Oblast, and Yuriy Paramonov from Poltava Oblast. At the same time, Yushchenko issued decrees appointing Anatoliy Nazarov as head of the SBU directorate in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast and Oleksandr Petrulevych as head of the SBU directorate in Donetsk Oblast. JAC

UKRAINIAN INTERIOR MINISTER HAS MORE QUESTIONS ABOUT CHARITIES
Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko told Channel 5 on 17 April that he will put former state officials who fail to answer a summons to appear at his office on a wanted list. Lutsenko has summoned seven former regional governors as well as the former head of the Central Election Commission Serhiy Kivalov. Two days earlier, ICTV reported that the heads of six Ukrainian railroads together with their accountants were summoned to the Interior Ministry to answer questions about their role in last year's charity auctions. Lutsenko told Lviv-based "Vysokyy Zamok" on 14 April that "one of the most prominent industrialists of eastern Ukraine will soon be charged with vote rigging." JAC

FORMER UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL-ADMINISTRATION HEAD WARMS TO NEW LEADERSHIP
In an interview with "Komsomolskaya pravda v Ukraine" on 15 April, former presidential-administration head Viktor Medvedchuk said that his party, the United Social Democrats-united (SPDU-o) does not rule out forming an election bloc in 2006 parliamentary elections with Prime Minister Yuliya Tymoshenko. When asked if he was serious, Medvedchuk responded, "Believe me, Ms. Tymoshenko is the most enigmatic and unpredictable player in Ukrainian politics." Medvedchuk added, "We were always against [President] Viktor Yushchenko and his team not because we didn't like them as people. I don't have anything against the president and his comrades in arms. Were we not politicians, it is entirely possible that with some members of the team I could have had simply good personal relations." JAC

EX-PREMIER CALLS FOR 'BUILDING KOSOVA'
Former Kosovar Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj told 20,000 mourners in Gllogjan on 17 April that Kosova must proceed on what he called its path toward statehood despite any sacrifices and setbacks, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He was speaking on temporary leave from the Hague-based war crimes tribunal at the funeral of his younger brother Enver, who was a former fellow guerrilla fighter in the 1998-99 conflict in the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). Unknown assailants killed the young man two days earlier in what NATO peacekeepers said was probably an act of revenge in a feud between clans. The killing is under investigation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 March 2005, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 15 April 2005). PM

EXPLOSION OUTSIDE KOSOVAR POLITICAL OFFICE
An explosive device went off late on 17 April outside the Prishtina office of the opposition Ora party, which is headed by publisher Veton Surroi, Reuters and Prishtina dailies reported. Three children living above the offices were injured and briefly treated in a hospital. The building was extensively damaged. Surroi called the incident an "attempted political murder." It is not clear who is behind the attack, which is under investigation, or whether it is linked to some other recent examples of possible political violence. PM

SERBIAN WAR CRIMES INDICTEES COME HOME FROM THE HAGUE
Former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic, former Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Nikola Sainovic, former Defense Minister and Army General Dragoljub Ojdanic, and former Army General Vladimir Lazarevic arrived in Belgrade on 15 April from The Hague to await their respective war crimes trials, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 April 2005). PM

LEADER OF MACEDONIA'S CATHOLICS DIES
Bishop Joakim Herbut, who headed the Roman Catholic Church in Macedonia for more than 30 years, died in Skopje on 15 April at the age of 78, the private A1 TV reported. In a letter to Herbut's fellow Bishop Kiro Stojanov, Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski hailed Herbut as a strong supporter of religious tolerance. Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski said that Macedonia lost a "firm friend and lobbyist for the country's integration into the family of European democracies." It is estimated that some 20,000 Macedonian citizens are Catholics. UB

ALBANIA SIGNS PACT ON ILLEGAL MIGRANTS
Officials of Albania and the EU signed an agreement in Luxembourg on 14 April obliging Albania to take back illegal migrants who enter EU countries via its territory, Reuters reported. Several EU officials stressed, however, that Tirana still has much to do to meet Brussels' demands regarding stopping human trafficking and other forms of organized crime. Albanian Minister for European Integration Ermelinda Meksi said that her country has already achieved "tangible results" in stopping the flow of illegal migrants. PM

RUSSIA SUSPENDS MOLDOVAN MEAT IMPORTS
Russia will suspend meat imports from Moldova starting on 18 April, Interfax reported, citing Sergei Dankvert, head of the Russian Federal Veterinary Monitoring Service. The ban concerns beef, pork, lamb, and poultry, as well as meat byproducts, and will remain in force "until the current situation becomes clearer," Dankvert said. He added that the Russian government suspects Moldova is re-exporting meat to Russia that originally comes from third countries, which could result in health risks. According to Dankvert, the suspicions stem from Moldova offering to export meat to Russia in quantities greater than its production capacity. Russia has recently considered imposing economic sanctions on Moldova after it made efforts to move closer to the West (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2005). BW

MOLDOVAN PROSECUTORS CHARGE RUSSIAN WOMEN WITH MONEY LAUNDERING
Two Russian citizens were formally charged with money laundering in Moldova, RIA-Novosti reported on 14 April. The two sisters, Olga and Helen Romashchenko, were ordered not to leave Moldova for 30 days. The women were detained in mid-February with a group of political consultants from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Ukraine who were working on the 6 March parliamentary elections campaign without proper documentation. The sisters, who were reportedly carrying $500,000, were detained on suspicion of money laundering, while the others were deported. They were released in mid-March pending formal charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11, 17, and 18 March 2005). BW

INTERNATIONAL COMMISSION PROPOSES PLAN FOR KOSOVA
A new study by an international Balkan commission is one of several recent signs that many in the policy community do not want a Balkan "black hole" to emerge on the European map. The report includes a four-stage plan for Kosova's independence, but not all Kosovars might find it to their liking.

In Washington on 12 April, the 16-member International Commission on the Balkans headed by former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato presented a report titled "The Balkans in Europe's Future" aimed at, among other things, resolving Kosova's status question by granting it formal independence in four stages, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported.

The commission has long argued that the status quo in the Balkans is unacceptable because it could lead to one or more "black holes" emerging in the European political landscape. Instead, that body wants status issues settled by the fall of 2006, a clear EU road map for each country by the end of that year, NATO membership for Albania, Croatia, and Macedonia at the 2006 summit of the Atlantic alliance, and better U.S.-EU coordination in the region (http://www.balkan-commission.org). The latest report also calls for replacing the Office of the High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina with its sweeping powers and in favor of an EU negotiator linked to the enlargement commissioner in Brussels.

Amato stressed that "stability, peace, and economic growth in the Balkans is a must for the security of Europe and has implications for the entire eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea region and indeed the United States. The absence of immediate disasters in the region should not lead to neglect or complacency."

The four-stage plan for Kosova starts with it ending its current status as a UN protectorate under Security Council Resolution 1244 with a formal tie to "Yugoslavia." The second stage is called "independence without sovereignty," during which the international community retains powers regarding human rights and minority protection. This is followed by a third stage known as "guided sovereignty" while Kosova negotiates with the EU, and finally by a fourth stage with Kosova in the EU. The report also notes that "the lack of leadership in Belgrade has contributed to the plight of the Kosovo Serbs, and the Serbian community in Kosovo has to a large degree become hostage to the political struggles in the Serbian capital."

The BBC's Serbian Service suggested that the report will go down well not only in many EU capitals -- enlargement fatigue notwithstanding -- but also in Washington. It remains to be seen, however, what the Kosovars will think of it. To many, it is likely to sound like yet another expensive, colonial-style project to sanction halfway-house status for Kosova for years to come. Critics are likely to note that such a complex arrangement was not required of other former Yugoslav states prior to independence, and that foreign attempts at creative statecraft in the region -- namely Bosnia-Herzegovina and the joint state of Serbia and Montenegro -- have fared less well than traditional nation-states with strong guarantees for minority rights -- Slovenia, Croatia, and possibly Macedonia.

Furthermore, many Kosovars are likely to suspect that anything less than full independence is a EU maneuver aimed at eventually forcing them back into some sort of state with Serbia and Montenegro, which all Kosovar political parties reject. Such critics tend to argue that Brussels is still smarting from its inability to stop the post-Yugoslav wars of the 1990s without U.S. leadership, and that the EU sometimes appears eager to find opportunities to prove that it can indeed manage things in its own Balkan backyard. In any event, to meet the Kosovar Albanians' and Bosnian Muslims' frequently expressed security concerns, any European plan for those regions will need to include a continuing role for the United States.

Brussels nonetheless has a powerful incentive to offer under the four-stage program, since the plan does include eventual EU membership. Joining that bloc has great gravitational pull throughout former Yugoslavia for at least three reasons. First, membership means a place at the table where decisions affecting Europe's future are made. Second, joining the EU holds out the promise of subsidies and other material benefits. And third, it helps overcome the psychological barrier of having been consigned in the 1990s to the bottom of the European pecking order after decades when Yugoslavia enjoyed worldwide prestige and influence, and its citizens were the only Europeans whose passport was valid for visa-free travel to both the East and West.

TOP AFGHAN WARLORD JOINS KARZAI'S GOVERNMENT
Ethnic Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum stepped down as head of his powerful militia in northern Afghanistan to take a ranking military post under President Hamid Karzai, AFP reported on 17 April. Karzai appointed Dostum chief of staff of the high command of Afghanistan's armed forces, a largely ceremonial government position. One of the country's most powerful warlords, Dostum headed the Junbish-e Melli-ye Islami party, which is essentially an Uzbek political organization backed by Uzbek fighters. "Yes, General Dostum has resigned," said Abdul Majid Rozi, the group's deputy leader. Dostum plans to begin work in his new position in a few days, Rozi said. Dostum has already been living in Kabul and had begun disarming his militia in recent months in step with a UN-backed disarmament program. MR

GERMAN TROOPS TO TRAIN AFGHAN DRUG FORCES
German soldiers will be involved in training counter-narcotics forces in Afghanistan beginning this fall, AFP reported on 17 April. German Defense Minister Peter Struck disclosed the initiative in an interview with the German daily "Berliner Zeitung" to be published on 18 April. German troops will offer Afghan antidrug forces logistical support in their operations as well as training, Struck said. He said drug traffickers in Afghanistan views foreign troops as the driving force behind a crackdown on the drug trade by the Afghan government. "That means more danger for our soldiers," Struck said. "We are prepared." Currently about 2,000 soldiers from Germany are serving in Afghanistan. MR

NEO-TALIBAN ATTACK TANKERS
Suspected neo-Taliban insurgents bombed a fuel tanker outside a U.S. military base in southern Afghanistan, AP reported 17 April. The initial bomb attack set off a string of explosions that left five tankers destroyed and injured three drivers. "I was sleeping at the time and suddenly I heard an explosion," said Sher Alam, one of the injured drivers. "When I woke up there was a huge fire engulfing the fuel tanker near mine. We all ran away and there were more explosions." The tankers, driven by Pakistani and Afghan drivers, were lined up waiting to deliver fuel to the U.S. military base at the Kandahar airport. Neo-Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility. "The oil tankers which caught fire 18 April were not destroyed by fire, but by the Taliban's rocket attack," said neo-Taliban spokesman Mufti Latifullah Hakimi, who spoke to the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press news agency. "The Taliban carried out the attack early this morning. They fired rockets and destroyed two tankers, which were carrying oil for the Americans." MR

U.S. COMMANDER WARNS OF INSURGENT ATTACKS IN AFGHANISTAN
The top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Lieutenant General David Barno, said weakening insurgent forces may attempt dramatic attacks in the coming months, AP reported 17 April. "As these terrorist capabilities grow more and more limited, the hard-core fanatics will grow more and more desperate to try and do something to change the course of events in Afghanistan," Barno said. "Terrorists here in Afghanistan want to reassert themselves and I expect that they will be looking here, over the next six to nine months or so, to stage some type of high-visibility attack." Barno said neo-Taliban forces will likely dwindle as the Afghan government extends amnesty offers to factions within the insurgency. "The diverging organization that I see evolving over the next year or so [involves] much of the organization, probably most of it, I think, collapsing and rejoining the Afghan political and economic process," Barno said. "A small hard-core remnant of the Taliban -- which is essentially a wholly owned subsidiary of Al-Qaeda -- [will] continue to wage some degree of a terrorist fight." MR

ISRAEL PREDICTS IRANIAN BOMB CAPABILITY WITHIN A YEAR
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said at a Likud Party rally in Ramat Gan on 17 April that Iran will be able to produce a nuclear weapon in six to nine months, the Voice of Israel reported. He said Israel is doing its utmost to persuade the international community to prevent this development. BS

ETHNIC ARABS RIOT IN SOUTHWEST IRAN...
Rioting ethnic Arabs in the city of Ahvaz in southwestern Iran's Khuzestan province clashed with security forces on 15 April, international news agencies reported. A provincial police official, Islamic Revolution Guards Corps Colonel Hassan Assad Masjedi, said on 16 April, "One person was shot during the unrest but not by our personnel," ISNA reported. He added, "In the past few days 137 people have been arrested for causing unrest in Ahvaz, and eight people have been injured." Al-Arabiyah television reported on 16 April that three Arabs were killed. An anonymous "informed source" cited by Baztab website said "tens" of people were killed and injured. BS

...AFTER ALLEGATIONS OF FORCIBLE RELOCATION
Provincial Governor-General Gholamreza Shariati said on 15 April the unrest is connected with a forged letter attributed to former Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi that detailed governmental restrictions on the Arab minority and plans to forcibly relocate them, ILNA reported (for a translation of the "letter," see http://www.ahwaz.org.uk/images/ahwaz-khuzestan.pdf). Abtahi himself denied writing the letter, IRNA reported. He wrote on his website: "Anyone who reads the letter will realize that such a decision, even if confirmed by the supreme leader or the Supreme National Security Council or the president, cannot be implemented in Iran." Abtahi added, "I have never had the prerogative to order a change of demographic composition." President Mohammad Khatami has ordered the Ministry of Intelligence and Security and the Supreme National Security Council to investigate the affair, IRNA reported on 16 April, citing government spokesman Abdullah Ramezanzadeh. BS

IRANIAN AZERI ACTIVIST RUNS INTO TROUBLE
Iranian Azeri activist Farzad Samadli was fired from his job with Iranian state television for describing the regime's Persianization policies, according to a 15 April statement from the National Federation of Swedish Azerbaijanis (http://www.azfi.org/Turki/index.html). This is allegedly because Samadli said, in an 11 April interview with RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service, that 60 islands in Lake Urumiyeh (Western Azerbaijan Province) have been given new Persian names. The renaming is based on a decision by the Education Ministry. BS

IRANIAN KURDISH JOURNALISTS UNDER PRESSURE
The reformist "Sharq" newspaper reported that the Kurdistan Human Rights Organization has condemned the recent spate of court summonses for Kurdish journalists, according to "Iran News" on 17 April. BS

IRANIAN PRESIDENT BRIEFS NATIONAL OFFICIALS ON ELECTION
President Khatami said in a 17 April speech to provincial governors and Interior Ministry officials that they must prepare the way for mass participation in the upcoming presidential election, IRNA reported. Khatami said the Guardians Council -- which vets candidates' eligibility and supervises elections -- has an important role to play in conducting free and fair elections. He said, "With all respect I have for the system's bodies, I want to say the Guardian Council plays the leading role in holding competitive and free elections." Khatami advised against disallowing any candidate and thereby discouraging that individual's supporters from voting. BS

IRANIAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE REGRETS LOST OPPORTUNITY OF RELATIONS WITH U.S.
Prospective reformist presidential candidate Mohsen Mehralizadeh said on 16 April, "We should do away with the severance of diplomatic relations with the United States," IRNA reported. He said Tehran made a mistake by not reacting positively to the Washington's apology for its part in the 1953 coup d'etat. He said optimistically, "Despite prejudice and sensational slogans, I think we have a good opportunity to resolve the problem with the United States to support national interests. The Iranian nation is strong enough to advance its national interests in the international community within the framework of diplomatic relations." BS

AGRIBUSINESS WORKERS IN KHUZESTAN PROVINCE CONTINUE SIT-IN
A House of Labor official, Gholam-Reza Talebi, said on 16 April that 4,000 agribusiness workers in Khuzestan Province are staging a sit-in to protest the government's privatization of two factories, ILNA reported. Talebi said the two factories are worth some $90 million, and the government wants to cancel their debts by transferring the factories to the creditors. Talebi added that the government has rejected an offer by the workers to buy the factories. BS

IRAQI, U.S. FORCES RAID TOWN SEARCHING FOR HOSTAGES...
U.S.-backed Iraqi forces raided the town of Mada'in on 17 April to search for a group of Shi'ite hostages allegedly threatened with death by Sunni guerillas, international news agencies reported. None of the hostages were found when a 1,500-strong Iraqi force backed by U.S. troops moved into the town, 40 kilometers southeast of Baghdad. Troops found the town's streets deserted, shops shuttered, and most of the 7,000 residents hiding in their homes, AFP reported. "Three areas where we suspected there were terrorists were raided but no one was found. There are other areas we will attack soon," Reuters quoted interim National Security Minister of State Qasim Dawud as saying. BW

...AS CONFUSION REIGNS OVER WHAT HAPPENED DURING SIEGE...
Iraqi officials made a series of contradictory statements about the three-day hostage crisis, casting doubt on what actually happened, international news agencies reported on 17 and 18 April. Reuters quoted one senior Shi'ite official in Baghdad as saying that Sunni gunmen seized as many as 150 hostages in the town on 15 April. But one police official said there might be as few as just three hostages. "The hostages were no more than nine, but the media channels and some political parties made a huge issue of it," Major General Adnan Thabet said, AFP reported on 18 April. Thabet added that the hostage issue is "just a tribal problem." Meanwhile, a Defense Ministry official said police entered Mada'in and met "severe resistance" but recaptured half the town and freed as many as 15 families, AFP reported on 18 April. But other officials disputed this account, saying no hostages were found. BW

...AND MILITANT GROUPS SAY CRISIS IS FABRICATION
Interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi blamed Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda-affiliated group in Iraq for taking the hostages in an effort to spark sectarian violence, Reuters reported on 17 April. "Unfortunately, evil powers are trying to disturb the peace of our country, stop progress, destroy Iraq, keep killing innocent civilians, and planning for the start of ethnic, sectarian and religious division," Allawi said. But al-Zarqawi and another Sunni insurgent group denied having anything to do with the situation and accused the authorities of fabricating the crisis as a pretext for attacking the town. "The infidels fabricated the case of the hostages. They are lying," Reuters quoted a statement by al-Zarqawi's group, posted on the Internet, as saying. In a separate Internet posting, the Islamic Army in Iraq, another Sunni insurgent group, repeated the allegation. BW

LEADING FIGURES CRITICIZE DELAY IN FORMING IRAQI GOVERNMENT
Leading Iraqi politicians on 17 April said protracted negotiations to form a transitional government are undermining public confidence in the authorities and playing into the insurgents' hands, international news agencies reported on 18 April. "We must resolve this by the end of this coming week because the deteriorating security and economic situation cannot bear it any more," AFP quoted Shi'ite parliamentarian Humam Hamudi, a confidante to powerbroker Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, as saying. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is also upset about the delay, according to an unidentified official quoted by AFP. "He was very upset and has sent his son Ridha al-Sistani to meet with leaders in Baghdad," the official, who recently met with al-Sistani, said. BW

WAVE OF VIOLENCE CONTINUES IN IRAQ AS U.S. AID WORKER KILLED
The latest wave of insurgent violence continued as seven Kurdish civilians working on a U.S. military base were kidnapped in central Iraq after leaving work on 17 April, AFP reported the same day. Three U.S. soldiers were killed on 16 April and seven wounded in a mortar attack on a U.S. military base near Ramadi, west of Baghdad. Three civilians were killed on 16 April by a suicide car bomber on the road to Baghdad's airport. Among the dead was 27-year-old U.S. aid worker Marla Ruzicka, who headed the Campaign for Innocent Victims in Conflict. BW

TRANSITIONAL PRESIDENT WILL NOT SIGN HUSSEIN'S DEATH WARRANT
Iraq's transitional President Jalal Talabani said he would refuse to sign Saddam Hussein's death warrant if the former dictator was sentenced to death for war crimes, the BBC reported on 18 April. "I personally signed a call for ending execution throughout the world. And I'm respecting my signature," Talabani said in an interview published on the BBC website. Talabani conceded that he could not stop Hussein's execution since granting amnesties was the authority of the transitional government, Presidency Council, and the National Assembly. "So I can be absent. I can go on holiday and let the two others decide," Talabani said. Hussein and 11 aides face trial for war crimes at a special tribunal in Iraq. The trials are expected to begin later this year. BW

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