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Newsline - December 13, 2005


CHINA APOLOGIZES TO RUSSIA FOR TOXIC SPILL
Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao apologized to Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kuala Lumpur on 13 December for the recent chemical spill that is threatening the water supplies of Khabarovsk, RIA-Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 and 12 December 2005). The two men agreed to work together to eliminate damage from the accident and better protect the environment in the region in the future. They met on the sidelines of the summit of the 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Putin and ASEAN leaders opened the first-ever Russian-ASEAN summit later that same day and signed a declaration that included commitments to fight terrorism and organized crime, ITAR-TASS reported. The Russian leader will remain in the Malaysian capital for the inaugural East Asia summit on 14 December, at which he will be an observer. Moscow seeks to expand not only its political influence at the Kuala Lumpur meetings but also its economic relations in energy, transport, and technology. Both Moscow and Beijing promote regional associations that exclude Washington, such as the East Asia summit. PM

MILITARY HOLDS TWO OFFICERS AFTER FATAL KAMCHATKA BLAST
Military authorities detained Lieutenant Colonel Sergei Chursi, who is chief of staff at an arms depot, and Major Vasilii Sergeev, who heads the depot's storage facility, in Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskii on 13 December after two employees of a nearby scrap metal plant were killed when a shell they were disassembling exploded, RIA-Novosti reported. The depot had supplied decommissioned armaments to the plant, and the shell that exploded is believed to be one that survived a 30 September fire at an army facility. PM

DUMA SPEAKER SAYS CONSTITUTION NEEDS NO AMENDING...
State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov told deputies belonging to his Unified Russia party on 12 December that he can "say on behalf of the Unified Russia faction that the constitution will not be changed," Interfax reported. "I find that the unvarying nature of the constitution is Russia's greatest democratic achievement of the past 12 years," he added in an address to mark Constitution Day. Referring to his party's recent victories in regional elections, he argued the results "attest to voter support of the party's practical moves at the federal and regional levels" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). PM

...AS YOUTHS STAGE ORCHESTRATED PROTEST
Several tens of thousands of young people in the Moscow region were let out or ordered out of school on 12 December for apparently officially sponsored rallies to mark Constitution Day, "The Moscow Times" and Ekho Moskvy radio reported. The ostensible organizer of the events was a little-known group of "young political ecologists" called Locals (Mestnie). Students were taken in hundreds of busses to a rally of about 40,000 people at the Crocus City (Krokus Citi) mall or to a demonstration of about 5,000 protesters outside the U.S. Embassy. Sergei Fateev, who heads the Locals, told reporters that he cannot name any specific U.S. violations of the Russian Constitution but warned that "people who want to teach us what democracy is ought to make sure they know what's in our constitution." His organization gave the embassy an open letter to President George W. Bush in which the Locals said "we would like to remind you about the right of [a] nation to remain [a] sovereign democratic state." One student who was taken to Crocus City told reporters that he knows nothing about the Locals, but referred to some of the demonstrators as "thousands of little Putinites." PM

LIBERALS RALLY IN MOSCOW
Russian liberal politicians and human rights activists gathered in Moscow on 12 December for an annual congress aimed at defending civil and democratic rights, which they say are under attack by the Kremlin, RFE/RL reported. The second annual All-Russia Civic Congress called for uniting the country's fragmented opposition. The leader of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), Nikita Belykh, told the congress that "the leaders of pro-democracy parties, or the potential leaders of pro-democracy parties, intend to unite and participate in the next parliamentary election [in 2007] as a united democratic party." Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said that contemporary Russia reminds him of the Soviet Union, and he proposed the formation of a public oversight body, or alternative Public Chamber, "to give an unbiased assessment of the developments in Russia and serve as a guarantee of future understandings that political parties reach," Interfax reported. Kasyanov's message follows his recent efforts to drum up support for a liberal opposition coalition. PM

NEW TV STATION RETURNS TO THE AIRWAVES
The 24-hour English-language broadcaster Russia Today TV resumed broadcasting on 13 December after having been shut down for a day in response to an apparent attack by hackers, RIA-Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). PM

TATAR YOUTH ORGANIZATION WARNS AGAINST RUSSIFICATION
The Tatar youth organization Liberty (Azatlyk) met in Naberezhnie Chelny on 10 December and passed a resolution criticizing what it called President Putin's policies that are promoted by unnamed politicians and commentators and aimed at Russifying the peoples of the Russian Federation, chechenpress.net reported on 13 December. The document said that Putin's efforts to foster a single national identity for all the peoples of the federation includes promoting the "leading role of the [Great] Russian nation" and language to the detriment of the identities, languages, and cultures of other nations and denying those nations the "right to decolonization and self-determination." The declaration suggested that the Tatars have "for centuries" worked for the benefit of the "Russian empire...[against] their own will and interests." PM

'VEDOMOSTI' SUES RBK WEBSITE FOR COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT
The daily business newspaper "Vedomosti" filed a lawsuit in Moscow's Arbitration Court on 11 December against the RosBusiness Consulting (RBK) Information Systems group for breach of copyright, "Vedomosti" reported. The newspaper published a statement claiming that the rbc.ru website posted "more than 100 articles from Vedomosti's archives without citing the source." The newspaper is seeking 257 million rubles (approximately $9 million) in damages. "Vedomosti" is jointly owned by "The Wall Street Journal," the "Financial Times," and Independent Media. RBK responded to the suit by offering to buy 100 percent of the shares in "Vedomosti" from ZAO Business News Media, the newspaper's founder and publisher, for $56 million, lenta.ru and mosnews.com reported on 13 December. BW

OFFICIAL SAYS RUSSIA WILL NOT JOIN WTO VOLUNTARY COMMITTEES BEFORE BECOMING A FULL MEMBER
An unidentified official said on 13 December that Russia will not join any voluntary committees of the World Trade Organization (WTO) before becoming a full member, RIA-Novosti reported. "Russia is not willing to join any voluntarily associations within the framework of the WTO prior to its accession to this organization," an unidentified official with the Russian delegation said. The official spoke at the sixth WTO Ministerial Conference, which opened the same day in Hong Kong. The official added that the United States "is demanding that we join the Trade in Civil Aircraft Committee, whose members have dropped import duties on all aircraft. We are not ready to join the agreement at present," the official said. Civil aviation, agriculture, banking, and energy are among the problems areas currently delaying Russia's bilateral agreements with some WTO members at present, RIA-Novosti reported. BW

NALCHIK POLICE HUNT WANTED MILITANT LEADER
Police in Nalchik cordoned off a building on 12 December where they believed Anzor Astemirov, one of the leaders of the Kabardino-Balkar djamaat was hiding, regnum.ru reported. The djamaat is believed to be responsible for the 13 October attacks on police and security facilities in the capital of the republic of Kabardino-Balkaria. Police subsequently detained a man who proved not to be Astemirov; they are currently seeking to determine whether he too participated in the 13 October attacks (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 17 October and 14 November 2005). LF

NEW CHECHEN PARLIAMENT ELECTS SPEAKERS
At the opening session on 12 December of the bicameral Chechen parliament elected on 27 November, Akhmar-hadji Gazikhanov, 38, a former bureaucrat with he Nozahi-Yurt district administration, was elected speaker of the Council of the Republic, the upper chamber, Interfax reported. Agriculture Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, 49, was elected speaker of the lower house, the People's Assembly. Both men are members of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, which won 33 of the total 58 mandates. Abdurakhmanov told Interfax on 12 December that the new parliament will adopt within one week a decree or declaration "on peace." LF

ARMENIAN PRESIDENT WILL NOT RESPOND TO OPPOSITIONIST'S QUESTIONS
President Robert Kocharian will not respond to the open letter addressed to him on 9 December by former Foreign Minister and opposition Zharangutiun party leader Raffi Hovannisian, presidential press secretary Viktor Soghomonian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 12 December. Soghomonian dismissed the letter, which contained some 20 incriminating questions concerning Kocharian's citizenship, financial assets, and putative responsibility for political murders, as "complete nonsense" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). Hovannisian characterized as "telling" Kocharian's decision not to respond to his missive. LF

LEADING OPPOSITIONIST JOINS ARMENIAN PACE DELEGATION
The 13 parliament deputies representing the opposition Artarutiun bloc selected People's Party of Armenia Chairman Stepan Demirchian on 12 December as Artarutiun's representative in the four-person Armenian delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Demirchian, who lost to Kocharian in the second round of the 2003 presidential election, replaces National Democratic Party leader Shavarsh Kocharian (no relation to the president), who did not endorse or participate in the Artarutiun campaign to persuade voters to boycott the 27 November referendum on a package of constitutional amendments. LF

ARMENIA, BELARUS APPROVE NEW MILITARY-COOPERATION PROGRAM
Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian and his visiting Belarusian counterpart Colonel General Leanid Maltsau signed an agreement in Yerevan on 12 December outlining joint defense-related activities for 2006, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. They also discussed unspecified prospects for expanding bilateral defense cooperation. Maltsau also met with President Kocharian, whose office subsequently released a statement lauding the "complete mutual understanding" between the two countries, both of which are members of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization. In related news, on 9-11 December Kocharian and Sarkisian inspected a number of military units located close to Armenia's borders, Noyan Tapan reported on 12 December. LF

SOUTH OSSETIAN LEADER UNVEILS ALTERNATIVE PEACE INITIATIVE...
Eduard Kokoity has written to Russian President Vladimir Putin and to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili outlining his proposals for resolving the conflict between his unrecognized republic and the Georgian government, according to regnum.ru, which on 12 December posted what it said is the full text of that letter. Kokoity stressed his appreciation of the roles played by Russia and the OSCE in seeking a solution to the conflict, and his own rejection of violence and threats. He argued that since earlier "unilateral" peace proposals, presumably meaning the four successive strategies unveiled over the past 14 months by Saakashvili and Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, have not yielded the desired result, it is time for Georgia and South Ossetia to draft jointly a program of measures to resolve the conflict. LF

...BUT FAILS TO STIPULATE TIME FRAME
Kokoity proposed in his letter to Putin and Saakashvili that the Joint Control Commission (JCC) tasked with monitoring the security situation in the conflict zone should draft such a settlement plan by 1 February 2006 and then convene, no later than 15 February 2006, a session to discuss it, according to regnum.ru. The OSCE too would be represented at that session. Georgian officials argue that the JCC, which comprises representatives from Russia, Georgia, and North and South Ossetia, is biased toward South Ossetia and that the United States and the EU should therefore be drawn into the search for a solution to the conflict. Kokoity endorsed Saakashvili's proposed three-stage format for resolving the conflict, which comprises demilitarization and confidence-building measures, followed by social and economic reconstruction, and then a decision on South Ossetia's political status. But while Saakashvili's most recent peace plan envisages completing all three stages by early 2007, Kokoity offered no timeframe whatsoever. In a separate 12 December interview with regnum.ru, Kokoity expressed confidence that South Ossetia's armed forces could repulse an anticipated attack by the U.S.-trained Georgian Army. South Ossetian Defense Minister Colonel Anatolii Barankevich expressed similar confidence in an interview published on 12 December in "Nezavisimaya gazeta." LF

SUSPECTS ARRESTED IN SOUTH OSSETIAN ABDUCTION, MURDERS
Boris Chochiev, who is South Ossetia's minister for special assignments and senior JCC representative, announced on 12 December that an unspecified number of persons have been arrested in connection with the abduction of four Georgians in the conflict zone in early June and their subsequent murder, Caucasus Press reported. Relatives of the four men have for days blocked the main north-south highway from Russia to Georgia to demand that the South Ossetian authorities hand over the bodies of the four men. They ended the blockade after meeting on 12 December with Kokoity, who pledged personally to ensure that the bodies are found and handed over to be given a Christian burial. LF

SECURITY EXPERT SHOT DEAD IN ABKHAZIA
Amiran Uratadze, who was in charge of security for the Inguri hydroelectric power station in Abkhazia, was shot dead on 11 December by five men who flagged down the car in which Uratadze, an Austrian construction engineer, and three local women were traveling, Caucasus Press and ITAR-TASS reported on 12 December. Abkhaz Interior Minister Otar Khetsia blamed Georgian guerrillas for the shooting; he denied that Uratadze had criminal connections. LF

DISMISSED CUSTOMS OFFICIALS VANDALIZE CUSTOMS POSTS IN SOUTHERN GEORGIA
Several hundred ethnic Armenians who were recently dismissed from the Georgian customs service and replaced by Georgians, together with other local residents, congregated on 11 December at the Zhdanovakan customs post on the Georgian-Armenian border and demanded a meeting with regional governor Giorgi Khachidze, Caucasus Press reported the following day. Many of those dismissed have no alternative source of income or employment prospects. When Khachidze failed to arrive after several hours, the Armenians got into a fight with Georgian customs officials and border guards and then vandalized the customs posts on both sides of the border, causing considerable material damage. LF

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION ALIGNS TO CAMPAIGN FOR MAYORAL ELECTIONS
Meeting in Tbilisi on 12 December, opposition parties including the Conservatives, the Republicans, the People's Forum, the New Right Wing, Industry Will Save Georgia, and the National Democratic Party aligned in a new bloc that will collect signatures in the hope of forcing a nationwide referendum on introducing direct elections for city mayors and provincial governors, Caucasus Press and Civil Georgia reported. The Labor party, which likewise advocates a referendum on the issue, was not represented. The new alignment needs to submit a minimum of 30,000 signatures in support of its demand for the parliament to schedule a referendum. LF

RUSSIAN COMPANY BUYS KYRGYZ CELL OPERATOR FROM KAZAKH INVESTORS
Russia's MobileTelesystems (MTS), the country's largest cellular operator, announced on 12 December that it has acquired a 51 percent stake in Kyrgyz cellular operator Bitel from Kazakhstan's Alliance Capital for $150 million, Reuters reported. MTS also acquired an option to buy out the rest of Bitel by the end of 2006. Alliance, which reports have linked to the family of former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, has been embroiled in a conflict with Russia's Alfa Group since Alliance acquired Bitel this spring. MTS CEO Vassilii Sidorov played down the risks of ongoing litigation, saying, "We would not do a deal if we were not certain we could eliminate those risks." Bitel is Kyrgyzstan's largest mobile operator, with nearly 500,000 subscribers and an almost 90-percent market share. MTS estimates that by 2010 there will be 2-3 million cell phone users in Kyrgyzstan, akipress.org reported. DK

JOURNALISTS PROTEST AS KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT CREATES COMMISSION ON TV TAKEOVER ATTEMPT
About 20 employees of Kyrgyzstan's independent television company Pyramid held a protest in front of parliament on 12 December as legislators set up a commission to investigate a recent attempt to take over the company (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005), akipress.org reported. The protesting journalists taped their mouths to symbolize what they believe is an attempt to muzzle an independent media outlet. The same day, legislators set up a commission that will meet on 14 December to investigate the takeover attempt. Sultan Kurmanbaev, the director of Invest Media, said in Bishkek on 12 December that his company, which claims ownership of Pyramid, does not have ties to either Aidar Akaev, son of former President Askar Akaev, or Maksim Bakiev, son of current President Kurmanbek Bakiev. For his part, President Bakiev said on 12 December that the conflict over the ownership of Pyramid should be settled in the courts, Kabar reported. Bakiev tasked Deputy Prime Minister Adakhan Madumarov with investigating the situation. DK

FORMER KYRGYZ PROSECUTOR-GENERAL CALLS FOR CHANGE
Azimbek Beknazarov, Kyrgyzstan's former prosecutor-general and now a deputy in parliament, told a press conference in Bishkek on 12 December that not enough change has taken place since the ouster of President Akaev on 24 March, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Beknazarov said, "Our government and [other] branches of state power are working in accordance with the old style and methods. We -- those politicians who want to change the regime and the state system -- will not stop our activities after the removal of [former President] Akaev." Beknazarov said that a number of political parties are planning to hold a congress on 24 December to assess progress since Akaev's ouster and plan future actions, akipress.org reported. Beknazarov added that President Bakiev needs to embark on a thorough reform of the political system, and he called for a referendum before 24 March. He said, "We want to change the system of government because a revolution is a change of system. Consequently, we are giving Kurmanbek Bakiev a chance to think about this idea until 24 March 2006. If the president does not agree we have other methods which are nonviolent." DK

TAJIK PRESIDENT MEETS WITH RUSSIAN ALUMINUM MOGUL
President Imomali Rakhmonov met with Oleg Deripaska, head of Russian Aluminum (RusAl), in Dushanbe on 10 December, RFE/RL's Tajik Service and official news agency Khovar reported on 12 December. Rakhmonov said that Uzbek concerns about the potential environmental impact of RusAl's plans to expand aluminum-production facilities in Tajikistan are politically motivated, RFE/RL reported. Deripaska noted that RusAl has allocated $54 million for the first-stage construction of Tajikistan's Roghun hydropower station, with plans to invest $560 million in the entire project. DK

UZBEK ENVOY SAYS MINE CLEARING TO CONTINUE ON TAJIK BORDER
Shoqosim Shoislomov, Uzbekistan's ambassador to Tajikistan, told reporters on 12 December that Uzbekistan is clearing mines along the border between the two countries, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Shoislomov said, "One of the important issues [between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan] is the clearing of mines in the border region of Bobotogh in [Uzbekistan's] Surkhondaryo Province, which borders Tajikistan. Mine-clearing operations have begun in this region and will continue in accordance with a specific schedule." An Uzbek official made a similar statement in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 October 2005), but Tajik officials said at the time that they were unable to confirm that mine-clearing operations had begun. DK

RFE/RL TASHKENT BUREAU LOSES ACCREDITATION
In a 12 December letter, Uzbekistan's Foreign Ministry informed RFE/RL acting President Jeff Trimble that it has denied the Tashkent bureau of RFE/RL's Uzbek Service an extension of its accreditation. The letter accused RFE/RL of violating Uzbek legislation by employing the services of stringers who "engage in journalist activity without accreditation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs." The ministry also suspended the accreditation of four RFE/RL Uzbek Service correspondents who held individual accreditation. Trimble responded in a statement, saying, "This unwarranted action by Uzbek authorities further erodes the already dismal state of free speech in Uzbekistan and is yet another attack by the Karimov government on the basic human rights of the Uzbek people. While hindered, RFE/RL will not be deterred in its efforts to report accurately and objectively about events in Uzbekistan to the people of that country and throughout Central Asia and the rest of our broadcast region." DK

BELARUSIAN ECONOMY MINISTER SAYS TALKS WITH RUSSIA OVER PIPELINE OPERATOR TO RESUME
Belarusian Economy Minister Nikolai Zaichenko said on 12 December that the country's natural gas pipeline operator Beltransgaz and Russia's natural gas monopoly Gazprom have resumed negotiations to set up a joint venture, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. The negotiations had been suspended for a year due to disagreements over Beltransgaz's assets. Zaichenko said the two sides have agreed to have an independent arbiter assess Beltransgaz's value, and that the Belarusian government will buy back the 0.103 percent stake sold to the company's staff in a privatization campaign. Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller said on 9 December that the successful completion of the talks would give Gazprom "control over Belarus's entire gas transportation system."Miller also named the restarting of negotiations over Beltransgaz as one reason Gazprom is continuing to deliver gas to Ukraine at discounted prices (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). BW

WHO OFFICIALS ARRIVE IN CRIMEA TO HELP WITH BIRD FLU OUTBREAK
Officials from the World Health Organization (WHO) arrived in Ukraine on 12 December to evaluate a recent outbreak of avian flu in the Crimea region, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. The WHO experts plan to review and evaluate measures taken by Ukrainian authorities to battle the virus and to prevent it from spreading to other areas. The Ukrainian Health Ministry said on 9 December that it had detected bird flu cases in the region. Preliminary tests from a Russian laboratory established that the bird-flu outbreak in Crimea was caused by the H5N1 strain of the virus, which is also dangerous to humans and killed nearly 70 people in Asia earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 December 2005). Poultry imports from the region have been banned and vaccinations of the population are under way, RIA-Novosti reported. BW

HEAD OF UKRAINIAN STATE GAS COMPANY REAPPOINTED
The Ukrainian government on 12 December reappointed Oleksiy Ivchenko as head of the state gas company Naftohaz Ukrayiny, Interfax-Ukraine reported the same day. On 9 December, Ivchenko was fired from his post of first deputy fuel and energy minister, which he had combined with the job of Naftohaz head. Some Russian media speculated at the time that the move indicated a possible softening of Ukraine's position in tense gas talks with Moscow since Ivchenko was a key player in those talks, mosnews.com reported on 12 December. But Ukrainian officials said it was part of ongoing changes under way at the ministry, under which the first deputy post will no longer be filled by the head of Naftohaz. BW

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SAYS RUSSIA'S GAS TRANSIT RIGHTS GUARANTEED
Viktor Yushchenko said on 13 December that Ukraine has given Russia "unconditional" guarantees that natural gas can be transported across its territory to Western Europe, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "Ukraine has given government guarantees of transit and these guarantees are unconditional," he said. Yushchenko added that he is confident that Kyiv and Moscow will find a mutually beneficial solution to the gas price issue. "Ukraine is ready to pay for natural gas on purely market principles, but after a gradual transitional period," Yushchenko said. Gazprom has been supplying natural gas to Ukraine under a barter agreement for $50 per 1,000 cubic meters. Gazprom is seeking to raise the price to $160 per 1,000 cubic meters, which is roughly the market price in Europe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 December 2005). Yushchenko spoke as a Ukrainian delegation led by Fuel and Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov left for Russia for talks. BW

GOTOVINA PLEADS NOT GUILTY IN THE HAGUE
Former Croat General Ante Gotovina pleaded not guilty on 12 December to all seven counts of his indictment at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), B92 reported the same day. The ICTY has indicted Gotovina for war crimes committed against Serbian civilians during and after the Croatian Army's counteroffensive, codenamed Operation Storm, against Serbian forces in the Krajina region in 1995. The indictment, which was amended in February 2004, charges Gotovina with persecution, murder, deportation, forced displacement, destruction of settlements, plundering property, and other atrocities. Gotovina's main defense attorneys, Luka Misetic and Marin Ivanovic, were not at the hearing because their ICTY accreditations were not ready in time. In their absence, the defendant was represented at the hearing by Geert-Jan Alexander Knoops of the Netherlands. Gotovina was arrested in the Canary Islands on 7 December and transferred to the Hague-based ICTY on 10 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8, 9, and 12 December 2005). BW

BELGRADE COURT CONVICTS 14 FOR OVCARA MASSACRE OF CROATIAN PRISONERS
The War Crimes Chamber of Belgrade's District Court on 12 December convicted 14 former militiamen for the massacre of at least 200 Croat prisoners of war in 1991, B92 and Reuters reported the same day. The executions, known as the Ovcara massacre, took place at a pig farm near Vukovar during the November 1991 siege of that town. Eight of the defendants were given 20 year sentences, three were given 15 year sentences, and three others received sentences of 12, nine, and five years, respectively. Two of the defendants, Marko Ljuboja and Slobodan Katic, were acquitted. "They are guilty as they, acting as members of the territorial defense from 20 November to 21 November, 1991, at the Ovcara farm, tortured, inhumanely treated, and murdered at least 200 prisoners of war," Judge Vesko Krstajic said, the BBC reported. The landmark trial is widely seen as a test case of Serbia's ability to try war crimes cases. BW

MILOSEVIC TRIAL ADJOURNED UNTIL 23 JANUARY
The ICTY on 12 December adjourned the war crimes trial of deposed Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for six weeks but declined his request to be allowed to go to Moscow for medical treatment, international news agencies reported the same day. Judge Patrick Robinson adjourned the trial until 23 January in response to Milosevic's request for a lengthy break, AP reported. Milosevic, who suffers from chronic heart problems and high blood pressure, said preparations for the trial are preventing his condition from stabilizing and are causing severe headaches. "So far I've been examined by two experts from that institute [in Moscow] and I have full trust in it. It is a top-notch medical institution in Russia," Milosevic told the court. "I'm asking you to make it possible to me for health reasons," he added. In remarks reported by AP, Robinson said Milosevic was making a request for "provisional release," a request the court has denied numerous times. "I can't believe you're even making it," he said. BW

PRIME MINISTER: KARADZIC AND MLADIC NOT HIDING IN BOSNIA
Bosnia-Herzegovina's prime minister, Adnan Terzic, said on 12 December that war crimes suspects Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are "definitely not" hiding in Bosnia, dpa reported the same day. He added that the information was based on reports provided by Bosnian security services. NATO troops the same day searched the home of Karadzic associate Dragan Stajcic in Pale. Stajcic is suspected of helping Karadzic evade capture (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). Mladic is widely believed to be hiding in Serbia while Karadzic is generally believed to be in Bosnia-Herzegovina. BW

MOLDOVAN DELEGATION SEEKS GAS COMPROMISE WITH RUSSIA
A Moldovan official said on 13 December that Chisinau plans to request that Gazprom delay the introduction of European-level natural gas prices for four years, ITAR-TASS reported. A delegation led by First Deputy Prime Minister Zinaida Greceanii would travel to Moldova the same day to make the proposal, the unidentified government official told journalists in Chisinau. The official added, according to ITAR-TASS, that it would be the second such attempt to reach a compromise on the gas price issue. Two weeks earlier a Moldovan delegation went to Moscow to suggest that Gazprom raise prices by 30 percent beginning in 2007. In exchange Moldova would increase gas-transit fees at a mutually acceptable rate. In 2005, Gazprom supplied Moldova with natural gas at a price of $80 per 1,000 cubic meters. Gazprom is seeking to increase the price to $160 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 23, and 28 November and 1, 5, 6, and 7 December 2005). BW

NATO TO MOVE INTO AFGHANISTAN'S MOST RESTIVE PROVINCES
NATO foreign ministers meeting in Brussels on 8 December formally endorsed an expansion of NATO's peacekeeping operations in Afghanistan. While Afghanistan has welcomed the move, doubts remain in Kabul about whether a NATO-led force can effectively deal with the insurgents in restive southern Afghanistan.

The revised operational plan for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) -- known as "Stage 3 expansion" -- provides strategic guidance for increased NATO support to the Afghan government in extending and exercising its authority and influence throughout the country.

The next stage of this plan will be the expansion of ISAF in 2006 to six southern and central Afghan provinces: Daikondi, Helmand, Kandahar, Nimroz, Oruzgan, and Zabul. As part of the expansion, ISAF's strength -- which presently is about 9,000 troops from 26 NATO and 10 non-NATO countries -- is expected to increase to 16,000, with most of the additional forces coming from Canada, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Thus far NATO does not have pledges for upward of 7,000 additional troops that are needed for its planned expansion of ISAF next year. Moreover, even among the three NATO member states promising to share the main burden of providing the additional troops, there are concerns about the rules of conduct that could create obstacles for some to send troops or hamper operational procedures.

In the Netherlands, for example, there is growing concern about the fate of captives once they are handed over to the Afghan authorities, which must happen within 96 hours, according to NATO rules. While Afghan President Hamid Karzai has publicly addressed these concerns, promising that detainees handed over to the Afghan government will be treated humanely, the concerns of some important Dutch lawmakers remain unanswered.

According to information provided by NATO, Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) "will continue to be at the leading edge" of the organization's efforts in Afghanistan and as part of the Stage 3 expansion four PRTs in Helmand, Kandahar, Oruzgan, and Zabul, which are currently under U.S. command, will become NATO's responsibility.

Militarily, ISAF is mandated to conduct "stability and security operations" in coordination with Afghan national security forces and to provide support to Afghan government programs to "disarm illegally armed groups." However, it is not clear whether ISAF is authorized to use force if such an approach is adopted by Kabul.

NATO clearly has decided to steer ISAF away from active counternarcotics operations such as poppy eradication, destruction of drug-processing facilities, and military action against drug traffickers or producers.

The long-standing U.S. hope to combine the commands of ISAF and the U.S.-led coalition forces known as Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) was not accepted by NATO, as major member states such as France and Germany objected.

According to information provided by NATO, ISAF and OEF "will continue to have separate mandates and missions. ISAF will continue to focus on its stabilization and security mission, while OEF will continue to carry out its counterterrorism mission."

The Afghan government, including Karzai, has welcomed NATO's decision to expand the ISAF mandate. Privately, however, Afghan officials have expressed two concerns. First, there is unease that the expansion of ISAF is a prelude to a lessening of OEF military involvement, especially that of the United States. Second, some Afghan officials are not sure about ISAF's ability and willingness to confront the increasingly violent armed opposition and their terrorist allies, which are active in southern Afghanistan.

Beyond these concerns, there remains the potential for the emergence of operational difficulties arising from the two-command structure between ISAF and OEF in restive provinces such as Helmand, Kandahar, Oruzgan, and Zabul, where the neo-Taliban and their allies are particularly active and where both forces will now be operating.

Also, there is growing evidence that the Afghan opposition and the narcotics industries are engaged in a mutually beneficial, though perhaps not always planned, cooperation. Thus NATO's decision to sidestep the narcotics problem may in fact hamper counterinsurgency and counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan.

UN REPORT INDICATES DROP IN AFGHAN POPPY CULTIVATION
The latest report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has revealed that the area under poppy cultivation in Afghanistan in 2005 dropped by 21 percent compared to 2004, a joint press statement released in Kabul on 12 December by the UNODC and the Afghan Ministry of Counternarcotics indicated. Afghan Minister of Counternarcotics Habibullah Qaderi called the decrease in poppy cultivation a "great achievement for Afghanistan and its international partners." According to the report, the number of households involved in poppy cultivation -- 309,000 in 2005 -- fell by 13 percent compared to 2004. The total number of people involved in cultivation has been estimated at 2 million, or 8.7 percent of the population. According to Doris Buddenberg, UNODC representative in Kabul, the "challenge" is to make sure that the reduction in poppy cultivation achieved in 2005 can be sustained in 2006. While the area under poppy cultivation has dropped considerably, opium production for 2005, estimated to be 4,100 metric tons, is only 2.4 percentage points lower than 2004. The low decrease in opium production has been blamed on "improved weather conditions," the released indicated. AT

NEW GOVERNOR APPOINTED FOR RESTIVE SOUTHERN PROVINCE IN AFGHANISTAN
President Hamid Karzai has approved the appointment of Engineer Mohammad Daud as the new governor of Helmand Province, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported on 11 December. Mohammad Daud replaces Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, whom Karzai chose as one of the members of Council of Elders (Meshrano Jirga) in the Afghan National Assembly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). AT

OFFICIAL DENIES RECRUITMENT OF NEO-TALIBAN INTO AFGHAN ARMY
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi on 11 December rejected the charges that members of the neo-Taliban have been recruited into the Afghan National Army (ANA), Sheberghan-based Aina TV reported. Azimi said it is impossible for antigovernment insurgents to join the ANA because the procedure of recruitment is designed to prevent such occurrences. Every recruit's application has to be supported by two individuals, then each recruit is evaluated once in their command, Azimi explained. "Our intelligence unit is actively working" to prevent the neo-Taliban from infiltrating the ANA, Azimi added. Additionally, any individual who tried to falsify his background information would be rejected based on recruitment regulations. There has been a general concern that in the quest to find recruits for the ANA the Afghan government may unknowingly admit members of the neo-Taliban into the ranks of its national military force. AT

FORMER MUJAHEDIN PARTY DENOUNCES NATO'S EXPANSION IN AFGHANISTAN
In a statement sent to some media outlets on 11 December, Hizb-e Islami (Khales faction) denounced the planned expansion of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan as a "satanic plot," Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. The statement adds that the Afghan "mujahedin will continue their armed jihad against all those forces which in any part of the world are committing aggression against the Muslim nation or support the invaders." The statement warns NATO member states not to "drag themselves" into the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Hizb-e Islami (Khales faction) was one of the seven mujahedin parties operating against the Soviets and their client regime in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Party leader Mawlawi Mohammad Yunos Khales, after staying away from the Afghan civil war of the 1990s when mujahedin parties were fighting for power, resurfaced in 2003 and declared a jihad against U.S. forces in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 October 2003 and 1 March 2005). Rumors have circulated since early 2005 that Khales is either dead or is very ill. The most recent statement is signed by Mawlawi Anwar al-Haq Mojahed, identifying himself as "the acting head of Hizb-e Islami-ye Afghanistan," while there is no mention of Khales. AT

IRANIAN PRESIDENT WANTS JUSTICE FOR PALESTINIANS
Mahmud Ahmadinejad reiterated his support for Palestinians and opposition to "Zionism" at a Tehran gathering on 12 December, asking why, "if the killing of Jews in Europe is correct and that is the excuse for backing the Zionists," Palestinians are obliged to pay the price for a historical injustice, ISNA reported that day. He told members of the secretariat of the International Conference to Support the Palestinian Uprising that the Palestinian problem is no "group or race" issue but an "Islamic issue" concerning all Muslims. The Muslim world, he said, must abandon its "passive position" toward Israel and demand that "the fate of the region be given over to the people's votes." The Islamic world, he said, must consider the "philosophy of the formation of the Zionist regime," namely to provide a "means" for "global arrogance" to dominate the Islamic world, ISNA reported. The term is sometimes used in Iran to denote the United States or Western powers more generally. Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Mohtashamipur, the secretary-general of the group, in turn called for a return of Palestinian refugees and denounced the "racist" fence Israel has built around the West Bank, ISNA reported. VS

SOME IRANIAN LEGISLATORS WANT MINISTER SACKED FOR PLANE CRASH
A group of 48 legislators has signed a motion to interrogate Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad-Najjar and perhaps sack him following a recent military plane crash that killed dozens (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6, 7, and 8 December 2005), ISNA reported on 11 December, citing legislator Qodratollah Alikhani. Alikhani said legislators from all political factions signed the motion, which was handed to speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel. An unnamed parliamentary presidium member confirmed on 11 December that the motion has been received and is being examined for conformity with parliamentary regulations and to determine if Mohammad-Najjar is legally responsible in the accident, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 12 December. Mohammad-Najjar and senior military officers met with members of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee on 11 December to answer questions. He told the daily "Farhang-i Ashti" that "there is no reason for my impeachment," ashtidaily.com reported on 12 December. He said the judiciary and the armed forces are investigating the crash. "[Military] transportation matters...are, in terms of hierarchy, governed by the air forces, and...our role is to back the armed forces," he said. VS

TEHRAN PREACHER, OFFICIALS APPOINTED
Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has appointed Hojatoleslam Ahmad Khatami as one of Tehran's "temporary" prayer leaders, Mehr reported on 12 December, a move that allows him to preach some Fridays to a congregation of worshippers including state officials and parliamentarians. Khatami, apparently no relation of former president Mohammad Khatami, is a theologian in the Qom seminary in central Iran, and member of the presidium of the Experts Assembly, which ostensibly supervises the supreme leader's performance. Ayatollah Khamenei is the permanent Tehran prayer leader, and other temporary "imams" -- or alternate preachers -- include Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, and Expediency Council Chairman Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Separately, President Ahmadinejad has reportedly appointed Ali Asghar Soltanieh as Iran's representative at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, replacing Muhammad Mehdi Akhundzadeh, Fars reported, citing "an informed source." The appointment is not yet officially confirmed, it added. Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki has also appointed: Rasul Islami as head of the Foreign Ministry's Western Asia Department, and Mahmud Hasanalizadeh, its personnel security and screening department, Mehr reported on 12 December. VS

EU, STUDENTS URGE RESPECT FOR RIGHTS IN IRAN
EU foreign ministers issued a statement in Brussels on 12 December regretting the state of human rights in Iran, but affirmed a persistent interest in talking to Iran about them, Radio Farda reported the same day. Abdolkarim Lahiji, vice president of the International Federation of Human Rights Leagues, told Radio Farda on 12 December that the impact of the statement will depend on Iran's response. Iran, he said, has responded to such statements in the past by saying the state of human rights in Iran is generally acceptable; that Western states -- including the United States -- have themselves violated rights, and that parts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights contradict Iran's state religion, Radio Farda reported. The Office for Strengthening Unity student group also urged the Iranian government on 11 December to respect the rights cited in Iran's constitution and in the Universal Declaration, which Iran's parliament has ratified, Radio Farda reported on 12 December. VS

IRAQI EXPATRIATE VOTING BEGINS IN 15 COUNTRIES
Iraqi nationals living abroad began casting their ballots on 13 December for the National Assembly elections, international media reported. Polling centers around the world will be open for three days through 15 December. In contrast to the January parliamentary elections in which Iraqis had to register to vote one month before the election, expatriates who wish to vote in this election may register and cast their ballots on the same day. The change reflects the numerous complaints aired by expatriate voters who had to travel long distances -- first to register and later to vote -- in the January election. The Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission (IECI) election coordinator in the United Arab Emirates, Khalid Muhammad al-Barwari, told dpa on 13 December that election officials expect a 35 percent increase in the number of voters in this election as a result of the change in the registration process and steps taken by the U.A.E. to facilitate the travel of voters arriving from other Gulf states. Expatriate voting is being held in Australia, Austria, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Netherlands, Sweden, Syria, Turkey, the U.A.E., the United Kingdom, and United States. KR

SUNNI CANDIDATE SHOT DEAD IN WESTERN IRAQ
Mizhir al-Dulaymi, a National Assembly candidate from the Al-Anbar Governorate, was reportedly assassinated in the governorate capital of Al-Ramadi on 13 December, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. A correspondent for the satellite news channel reported that gunmen riding alongside al-Dulaymi's car opened fire on the vehicle, killing him instantly. Al-Dulaymi has been openly critical of the transitional government and was a staunch supporter of the so-called honorable resistance in Iraq. KR

IRAQI PRESIDENT WILL NOT SEEK REELECTION
President Jalal Talabani will not seek another term in the upcoming government, Reuters cited his office as confirming on 13 December. The president cited the constitutional limitations placed on the power of the president as the reason. "I would not nominate myself given the powers the president now has under the new constitution. He has no power to participate in the running of the state. I would not want to be president of protocol," the president said in a statement issued by his office. Talabani has been highly critical of Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari's control over the cabinet in recent months. KR

KURDISH PRESIDENT, IRAQI ELECTION COMMISSION BATTLING OVER KIRKUK VOTE
Kurdistan Regional Government President Mas'ud Barzani accused the Iraqi Independent Election Commission (IECI) of plotting to steal some 200,000 votes in Kirkuk during the 15 December parliamentary voting there, Kurdistan Satellite Television reported on 12 December. Speaking in Irbil on 12 December, Barzani said: "According to the news we have...they [the IECI] are planning a trick to steal nearly 200,000 Kurdish votes in Kirkuk. Frankly, this is a huge plan, and it is not acceptable by any means; and I hereby warn [the IECI] and all sides; if this was to take place they would be responsible for its outcome and the consequences of whatever may happen afterwards." The IECI said in an undated press release posted to its website (http://www.ieciraq.org) that it found "abnormal patterns" in voter registration in Kirkuk when compared to the national average. The statement noted that its board of commissioners reviewed the voter registration process in Kirkuk and rejected 81,297 voter-registration applications for reasons that include: persons registering only presented one identification card rather than two; the same document was used by more than one person to register; some voter registration forms were unsigned; or the same signature was found on more than one form. KR

IRAQ'S DEPOSED BA'ATH PARTY TELLS FOLLOWERS NOT TO VOTE
The Ba'ath Party urged its supporters to avoid the polls in the 15 December parliamentary elections in a 10 December statement on albasrah.net. The statement warned voters not to be fooled by candidates "who brag about their prior nationalistic history or former Ba'ath Party" membership. The statement added that anyone involved in Iraq's politics is opposed to the national resistance and, therefore, the Ba'ath Party. KR

EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT CANCELS PLAN TO SEND ELECTION OBSERVERS TO IRAQ
The European Parliament cancelled on 12 December a plan to send an informal observer team to monitor Iraq's parliamentary elections out of security concerns, AFP reported on the same day. "The members of this special delegation would have been obliged to undergo special training" for delegations traveling to high-security zones, a spokesman said. The informal delegation was to have been comprised of three parliamentarians who would not have had the powers of an official election observer team. KR

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