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Newsline - December 16, 2005


TOXIC SPILL FROM CHINA REACHES THE AMUR
A 160-kilometer slick containing benzene and other toxic chemicals reached the Amur River in Russia from China on 16 December and moved toward Khabarovsk, which has population of about 600,000, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9, 12, and 13 December 2005). The pollution is the result of a 13 November explosion in a chemical plant in Harbin, which led to widespread criticism of the Chinese authorities for the lack of speed and candor in their response. In Khabarovsk, Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu told reporters on 16 December that he would not call the present situation an emergency, RFE/RL reported. He said that "the city is certainly prepared. Enormous work has been done -- and this concerns not only dams, not only cleaning stations, but all systems of preparation in the city [of Khabarovsk] and the region to deal with this spill, these [polluted] waters." He assured residents that their tap water will be turned off only in case of emergency, and that such a step is not under consideration at present. PM

ONE DEAD IN EXPLOSION NEAR NUCLEAR PLANT
Officials in St. Petersburg said on 16 December that an explosion at a metal smelter killed one metal worker and injured two others but did not cause any damage to the nearby Leningrad Nuclear Power Station, whose second reactor has been undergoing repairs since July, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. The Russian Atomic Energy Agency said that "the radiation background at the Leningrad station and surrounding territory is at a level normal for nuclear reactor use, and does not exceed natural background radiation levels." Regional authorities said that the accident at the smelter, which is not connected to the power station, resulted from lax observance of health and safety regulations. PM

MINISTER PLEDGES BOOST IN NEW WEAPONS SPENDING...
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Moscow on 15 December that the "state defense order" in 2006 will amount to $8.27 billion, up $1.88 billion for this year, Interfax reported. He argued that "this will allow the spending of 70 percent of the funds on the procurement of new armaments and military hardware, or comprehensive upgrades" of current hardware. PM

...AS ARMS EXPORTS ALSO RISE
Mikhail Dmitriev, who heads the Federal Military-Technical Cooperation Service, said in Moscow on 15 December that Russia is steadily increasing its arms sales abroad, Interfax reported. "A very important positive result of this year's work, or, in fact, of all the work we have done over the past five years, is the rapid growth of our portfolio of orders over the past several months," he said. Dmitriev added that "only recently, the figure [for export orders] stood at $15 billion. Now we are approaching $20 billion, with more room for growth in the future." He predicted that actual deliveries will reach $6 billion in 2007. Dmitriev said that India and China account for 70 percent of all sales, adding that "we have made progress [in attracting customers] in the Middle East and North Africa, [and] the situation in Latin America is also changing in our favor." PM

MISSILE FORCES BEING MODERNIZED
Commander Nikolai Solovtsov of the Russian Strategic Missile Forces said in Vlasikha in the Moscow region on 16 December that he is "pleased to report that we put a fifth regiment armed with the silo-based Topol-M missile on combat duty in December," RIA-Novosti reported. He added that the addition was made as part of the missile-forces modernization plan. Solovtsov said Russia will test launch from five to eight strategic missiles in 2006 but disband several units in the Urals and Siberia. The first mobile Topol-M missile complex will go on combat duty in 2006, he noted. PM

RUSSIA REJECTS IRANIAN PRESIDENT'S REMARKS ON HOLOCAUST
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement on 15 December that Moscow rejects the recent remarks by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad denying the Holocaust, Reuters reported. "We consider attempts to revise generally known historical facts about the Second World War, including those facts connected with the Holocaust, as unacceptable," the statement said. It argued that "speculation on these topics runs counter to the charter of the United Nations and the views of the international community." Moscow's position is that "Israel is a sovereign state with the right to live in peace and security side by side with her neighbors, including with the independent Palestinian state." The news agency pointed out that this language is similar to that of previous official Russian statements issued in response to Ahmadinejad's earlier anti-Israel speeches. In related news, the EU protested to Russia on 15 December about Moscow's $1 billion deal with Teheran to provide surface-to-air missiles and other equipment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). PM

RUSSIAN AND BELARUSIAN PRESIDENTS DISCUSS ENERGY, TRADE
Vladimir Putin and Aleksandr Lukashenka met for three hours in Sochi on 15 December to discuss energy cooperation and the harmonization of customs regulations, Russian and international news agencies reported the same day. The meeting came days after Gazprom announced that it will continue supplying natural gas to Belarus at discounted prices. It also came as negotiations resumed over setting up a joint venture between Gazprom and Belarus' pipeline operator Beltransgaz (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and December 2005). "I want to thank you, Vladimir Vladimirovich, because your government and your energy companies have carried out your order and we have practically finalized our contract for gas and oil supplies to Belarus," Lukashenka said. Putin stressed that the two countries needed to harmonize tax and customs policies to facilitate trade. "As far as I understand Russian and Belarusian partners sometimes have to do business through the markets of third countries, including Ukraine," Putin said. BW

GAZPROM PRESENTS SUPPLY PROGRAM FOR THE REGIONS
First Deputy Prime Minister Dimitrii Medvedev, who is also Gazprom's chairman of the board of directors, told a gas conference in the Siberian city of Novyi Urengoi on 16 December that Gazprom has developed a $1.2 billion program to supply gas to the far-flung regions in 2005-07 as a major social project, RIA-Novosti reported. "The new program for regional gas provision, which has been drafted and initiated by Gazprom, should become another major social project directly linked to current national priorities," he said. "Domestic gas supplies leave much to be desired, despite Russia being a major gas producer," Medvedev argued. He noted that gas is provided to only 53 percent of Russia and just 34 percent of rural areas, and that gas pipelines are only used to 26 percent of their capacity. PM

FORMER GAS COMPANY EMPLOYEE SENTENCED FOR FATAL EXPLOSION
The Arkhangel Oblast court sentenced Sergei Alekseichik, who is a former worker at the local gas company, on 16 December to 25 years in a "strict regime" prison in connection with an explosion in an apartment building that killed 58 people in March 2004, lenta.ru reported. PM

FIVE YOUNG PEOPLE CHARGED IN STUDENT MURDER
The St. Petersburg prosecutor's office announced on 15 December that it has charged five young people in the recent murder of Timur Kacharava and that it might expand the charges to include inciting racial hatred, Interfax reported. About 10 youths allegedly stabbed Kacharava and his friend Maksim Zgibai, who was hospitalized and is in critical condition. The five youths were reportedly found to be in possession of fascist emblems, while the two young men they attacked were known anti-fascists. PM

FEDERAL CORRECTIONS SERVICE SUES TV STATION OVER REPORT ON KHODORKOVSKII
The Moscow branch of the Russian Federal Corrections Service said on 16 December that it filed a lawsuit against REN-TV Marianna Maksimovskaya for allegedly falsely reporting that jailed former Yukos head Mikhail Khodorkovskii has gone on a hunger strike, RIA-Novosti and lenta.ru reported. "The department demands that Marianna Maksimovskaya retract information on Khodorkovskii's hunger strike [as false]," REN-TV's press service said in a statement. The Federal Penitentiary Service has also complained about what it called unacceptable comments made on REN-TV by one of Khodorkovskii's lawyers, Yurii Shmidt, RIA-Novosti reported. REN-TV said it intends to defend its employee in court. "Airing the lawyers' comments, the TV channel complied with mass media laws. As for Khodorkovskii, the information of his hunger strike came from different sources," the channel said in a statement. BW

OFFICER ACQUITTED IN JOURNALIST'S MURDER WINS DAMAGES
The Moscow District Military Court ruled on 15 December that a criminal case against Colonel Pavel Popovskikh for the 1994 murder of a journalist was unjustified and awarded him 2.135 million rubles (about $75,000) in damages, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported the same day. Popovskikh was one of six suspects charged with the October 1994 murder of "Moskovskii komsomolets" journalist Dmitrii Kholodov, who was investigating corruption in the Defense Ministry. The defendants were acquitted twice, in 2002 and 2004, by the Moscow District Military court. The Russian Supreme Court upheld his acquittals in March. Popovskikh, who spent four years in prison from his 1998 arrest to his 2002 acquittal, had asked for 3.5 million rubles (about $125,000) in damages. BW

CRIMINAL INVESTIGATION PROBES MASSIVE RADIOACTIVE POLLUTION IN GROZNY
Russian authorities said on 15 December that a criminal investigation has been launched into a case of radioactive pollution discovered at a chemical plant in Grozny, RFE/RL reported. A statement posted on the website of the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office describes radioactivity levels at the Chechenneftekhimprom production facility as "catastrophic" (genproc.gov.ru). The source has been identified as a radioisotope known as Cobalt-60. The statement says 27 to 29 "uncontrolled radioactive elements" have been discovered in one of the plant's workshops and that radioactivity there is 58,000 times higher than the admissible levels. The Prosecutor-General's Office blames the management of the plant for not taking appropriate steps to stop the pollution. PM

ARMENIAN JUSTICE MINISTER VOWS TO ENFORCE NEW RULES ON DEPUTIES' BUSINESS ACTIVITIES
David Harutiunian vowed on 15 December to enforce new rules restricting parliamentarians' business activities, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The new rules, part of the recently adopted set of constitutional amendments, specifically prohibit lawmakers from any direct role in running private companies and ban them from engaging in entrepreneurial activity or receiving compensation from activities that is not "scientific, pedagogical, or creative." In an interview with RFE/RL, the justice minister warned that "we have made it clear" that deputies are "forbidden from heading boards of directors or being appointed to other positions by shareholders." The new rules will be fairly difficult to enforce, as a significant number of deputies in the 131-seat Armenian parliament are wealthy businessmen with ties to a murky and opaque assortment of enterprises and commercial interests. RG

ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER REFRAINS FROM COMMENTING ON IRANIAN LEADER'S REMARKS
Vardan Oskanian declined on 15 December to comment on recent statements by the Iranian president questioning the historical validity of the Holocaust, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Mediamax reported. Foreign Minister Oskanian explained that Armenia has "always viewed our relations with Iran exclusively within the framework of our bilateral relations and do not comment on issues that go beyond this framework." RG

RED CROSS REPATRIATES ARMENIAN WOMAN FROM AZERBAIJAN
Officials of the International Committee of the Red Cross announced on 15 December that it successfully arranged for the repatriation of an Armenian woman after she accidentally crossed into Azerbaijan two weeks ago, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Since the start of its activities in connection with the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in 1992, the Red Cross has helped to repatriate or transfer a total of 654 Armenians and Azerbaijanis. RG

ISRAELI AMBASSADOR CALLS ON AZERBAIJAN TO DENOUNCE IRANIAN PRESIDENT
Israeli ambassador to Azerbaijan Arthur Lenk called on the Azerbaijan government on 15 December to denounce the Iranian president, ANS-TV reported. The Israeli envoy demanded that Baku adopts a strong position against the Iranian leader's latest "anti-Israeli statements," which he termed "a threat to the international community." He further warned that Iran poses a threat not only to Israel, but to the entire region, because it has "started producing nuclear weapons," and stated that Iran's "threat to the international community" is a "threat that also hangs over Azerbaijan." RG

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEE CONSIDERS BILL SEEKING WITHDRAWAL FROM CIS
The Georgian parliamentary Committee for Foreign Relations began consideration on 15 December of a draft resolution submitted by the opposition Democratic Front faction calling for Georgia's withdrawal from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Civil Georgia reported. Committee for Foreign Relations Chairman Kote Gabashvili stated that "even if we want to stay in the CIS, it is impossible," explaining that it would be impossible "to be a NATO member state and stay in the CIS simultaneously." The committee then adopted a resolution instructing the Economy Ministry to submit a study on the possible economic repercussions from a withdrawal from the CIS. The Georgian Foreign Ministry was also instructed to submit information studying the implications of a pullout on bilateral trade and tax agreements with CIS member states. RG

NATO ENVOY OFFERS FINANCIAL SUPPORT FOR RUSSIAN MILITARY WITHDRAWAL FROM GEORGIA
In comments during a Russian radio interview on 14 December, NATO Special Representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia Robert Simmons stated that NATO can partially finance the process of the pullout of Russian military bases from Georgia, Civil Georgia reported. The NATO envoy explained that "since the agreement on the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia already exists, we can cover a part of the withdrawal expenses." According to the terms of the 30 May joint declaration signed by the Russian and Georgian foreign ministers, Russia has pledged to remove its two remaining bases in Georgia by 2008. Although Simmons also noted that Georgia is the only country in the region which has officially expressed a willingness to join NATO, he said "this will take some time." That statement follows a similar disclaimer in late November by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer warning that although NATO's "door is open," Georgia still has "a long way to go" in meeting NATO standards (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 3 December 2005). RG

KAZAKH OPPOSITION FILES MORE THAN 1,000 POSTELECTION SUITS
Members of the opposition bloc For a Just Kazakhstan and supporters of Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, the bloc's candidate in Kazakhstan's 4 December presidential election, have filed more than 1,000 lawsuits alleging election violations, the website Navigator reported on 15 December. The largest numbers of lawsuits were filed in Almaty (166) and Karaganda Province (188), For a Just Kazakhstan announced in a 14 December press release. The bloc, which charged that President Nursultan Nazarbaev's 90-percent reelection was accomplished through widespread fraud, promised to keep the public informed about the progress of its legal struggle. DK

KAZAKH-CHINA PIPELINE BEGINS OPERATIONS
Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev pushed a button in Astana on 15 December to begin filling the Atasu-Alashankou pipeline between Kazakhstan and China with oil, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The 988-kilometer pipeline -- built in a joint venture between China National Petroleum Corporation and the Kazakh oil and gas company KazMunaiGaz -- will have an initial annual capacity of 10 million tons, Xinhua reported. The first actual deliveries will take place in mid-2006. Plans exist to extend the pipeline to a length of 3,000 kilometers by 2011, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. DK

WATCHDOG BLASTS KAZAKHSTAN FOR BOOTING BRITISH COMIC'S WEBSITE
Press watchdog Reporters Without Borders issued a press release on 14 December condemning the Kazakh government's decision to shut down the British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen's .kz website. The site had focused on Borat, a "Kazakh journalist" character created by Cohen. In a letter to Frank Fowlie, ombudsman for the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), Reporters Without Borders stated that "bodies that manage the country code top-level domain names...are not qualified to censor the contents of sites." The organization asked Fowlie to intervene. The Kazakh government has voiced previous objections to the antics of Cohen's character Borat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 November 2005), who pretends to be a Kazakh reporter who talks about ridiculous "Kazakh" practices and customs that don't actually exist in Kazakh society or culture. DK

KYRGYZ CELL PHONE TAKEOVER INTERRUPTS SERVICE...
The 470,000 customers of Kyrgyzstan's largest cell phone operator, Bitel, were left without service on 15 December after representatives of Rezervspetsmet seized control of the company's offices in Bishkek, akipress.org and Gazeta.kg reported. Police and representatives of Rezervspetsmet, which reports say is linked to Russia's Alfa Group, took over Bitel's offices after Kyrgyzstan's Supreme Court ruled on 15 December in favor of Rezervspetsmet's claims to ownership of Bitel. The offices had been controlled by Russia's Mobile TeleSystems (MTS), which recently announced the purchase of a controlling stake in Bitel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2005). MTS and Rezervspetsmet traded accusations on the interruption in service, which occurred after 4 p.m. Akipress.org later reported that service had been partially restored. The news agency also noted that police detained Bitel Director Daniyar Omurzakov, although it did not specify on what charge. DK

...AS RUSSIAN CELL COMPANY HEAD MEETS WITH KYRGYZ PRESIDENT
MTS head Vasilii Sidorov met with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev in Bishkek on 15 December and subsequently described the president as "shocked" by the Bitel takeover, akipress.org reported. Sidorov said that Bakiev promised him he would look into the situation, adding that his meeting with the president gave him confidence that the dispute could be resolved in a "normal legal fashion." Calling the seizure a "complete surprise," Sidorov described the individuals behind the takeover as "raiders" with "Russian roots." He stressed that MTS has every intention of defending the legality of its $150 million acquisition and has high hopes for the Kyrgyz cellular market. DK

JAILED TAJIK JOURNALIST RELEASED
Authorities in Tajikistan released journalist Jumaboy Tolibov on 16 December, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported the same day. Tolibov, whose detention had been condemned by international media-rights groups, was released two months after the Tajik Supreme Court initially ordered his release. Speaking to RFE/RL, Tolibov thanked rights groups that had voiced concern about his prison term. Tolibov was jailed for two years in July for drunken behavior and abusing his position as a local government adviser. Tolibov maintained his innocence, saying he was being punished for writing articles about local government corruption. "I have not committed any crime. I have only gone through all of this because of the articles I wrote defending the people's rights," he said.

ANDIJON SURVIVORS FILE CASE AGAINST UZBEK MINISTER IN GERMANY
Human Rights Watch (HRW) announced in a 15 December press release on the organization's website (www.hrw.org) that alleged survivors of torture and 12-13 May violence in Uzbekistan filed a case in Germany on 12 December against Uzbek Interior Minister Zokir Almatov. Almatov is reportedly undergoing medical treatment in Germany. The victims have asked German prosecutors to charge Almatov with torture, torture as a crime against humanity, and the Andijon massacre as a crime against humanity. German law permits such charges wherever the crimes may have been committed. Holly Cartner, HRW Europe and Central Asia director, said: "This case represents a unique opportunity to bring a measure of truth and justice for some of the horrors that occurred under the command of Zokirjon Almatov." DK

BELARUS'S LOWER HOUSE SETS PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION DATE FOR MARCH
The Chamber of Representatives on 16 December voted unanimously to set the date of a presidential election for 19 March 2006, Belarusian and international news agencies reported. According to the Belarusian Constitution, a presidential election is scheduled by the Chamber of Representatives no later than five months and held no later than two months before the expiration of the term of an incumbent president. President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's second term expires on 19 September 2006. The controversial referendum in Belarus on 17 October 2004 lifted the constitutional limit of two presidential terms for one person and allowed Lukashenka to run again. JM

BELARUSIAN PREMIER SCOLDS RUSSIA FOR SLOW VAT REFUNDS
Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski criticized Russia for not doing enough to solve problems arising from this year's switchover to the country-of-destination principle in the collection of value-added tax (VAT) in mutual trade, Belapan reported. Sidorski told journalists in Tolyatti, Russia, that the Belarusian tax authorities has managed to secure a proper VAT refund system for Russian exporters. "At the same time, no similar steps have been taken in Russia," he noted. Sidorski added that some Belarusian exporters could not claim VAT back from Russia for as long as nine months, while the period should be no more than two months. Starting on 1 January, VAT on exports is paid by the importer. The exporter is exempted from VAT only if the tax authorities of the other country confirm that the importer paid the tax within 90 days after the goods were shipped. JM

MINSK POLICE TO VISIT HOMES IN SANTA SUITS
Police in Minsk will soon launch a holiday season campaign to improve their tough image by making random early evening visits to homes dressed "in an unexpected costume" (typically, Father Christmas and a female assistant), dpa reported on 15 December, citing Interfax. The program is called "Who's There? It's the Policeman Santa Claus!" and will run from 19-23 December. The callers will ask "security related" questions and award gifts for correct answers, according to the police. One goal of the project is to "raise the level of security-consciousness among Minsk citizens," and home owners "will have the opportunity to place their residences in police registers from the comfort of their own sofas." The police announcement concluded that "a visit from 'Santa in a police uniform' will be a special holiday for any little Minsk residents in the house." The police and security forces in Belarus are not known for having a cuddly image. PM

UKRAINE OFFERS RUSSIA GRADUAL SWITCH TO MARKET RELATIONS IN GAS SPHERE
Ukrainian Fuel and Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov told journalists in Kyiv on 15 December that Ukraine has proposed to Russia a "stage-by-stage" move toward market relations during 2006-2009 in the sphere of Russian gas supplies to Ukraine and Russian gas transit across Ukraine to Europe, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Plachkov also revealed that in order to compensate for Ukraine's reluctance to immediately switch to higher prices for Russian gas and cash payments instead of a barter scheme, Kyiv has proposed to Moscow to set up a joint enterprise for supplying Russian and Central Asian gas to the Ukrainian market. Moreover, Plachkov seemed to suggest that Ukraine may pilfer Russian transit gas in 2006 if Gazprom reduces its gas flow into Ukraine in 2006 only to the gas volumes pumped in transit to Europe. "Ukraine guarantees the transport of the [Russian] gas that will be sent via our gas transport system," he said. "But we can guarantee only the transport, we cannot guarantee the volumes." JM

UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT FAILS TO TAKE DECISION ON 2006 BUDGET
The Verkhovna Rada on 15 December failed to approve a 2006 budget bill, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The motion was supported by just 122 votes, with at least 226 needed for approval. Another motion to reject the budget bill also failed, mustering 202 votes. Parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn on 16 December appealed to the Budgetary Committee and the government to modify the bill and submit it for another vote next week. "Otherwise we will have to think how our country has to live after the end of 2005," Lytvyn added. The 450-seat Verkhovna Rada currently has 427 deputies, including 69 in the pro-presidential Our Ukraine group. JM

BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA CHARGES 11 WITH WAR CRIMES
The prosecutor for Bosnia-Herzegovina's State Court on 15 December charged 11 people with genocide in connection with the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, dpa and Reuters reported the same day. The 11 are accused of genocide against Bosnian Muslims in the village of Kravica, near Srebrenica, dpa reported. Serbian militias massacred up to 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys after capturing Srebrenica on 11 July 1995. Of the 11 charged, 10 are in custody and one remains at large. The War Crimes Chamber of Bosnia's State Court has until 20 December to confirm the indictments. BW

SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS MLADIC NOT LIKELY TO SURRENDER...
Zoran Stankovic said on 15 December that he did not expect war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic to surrender, B92 reported the same day, citing an interview in the newspaper "Vecernje novosti." Stankovic was responding to the latest round of speculation in the Serbian media that Mladic and Radovan Karadizc would soon surrender or be captured. "If Mladic hasn't given in so far, I can't see him surrendering in the near future," Stankovic said. "There are people who have made assumptions, in their numerous contacts with foreign officials, about the places Mladic may be hiding in," he added. BW

...AS ICTY PROSECUTOR SLAMS BELGRADE OVER LACK OF COOPERATION
In a speech at the United Nations on 15 December, Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), sharply criticized Serbia for a lack of cooperation in apprehending key war crimes suspects, international news agencies reported the same day. "The army of Serbia and Montenegro continues to hamper, both actively and passively, the cooperation of Serbia and Montenegro with the International Criminal Tribunal on the Former Yugoslavia," Del Ponte said, Reuters reported. She added that Belgrade's "cooperation has unfortunately deteriorated in the past months," adding that Serbian officials "must be made accountable for their failure to bring Karadzic and Mladic to justice." Del Ponte also criticized NATO and European Union troops, calling them "dysfunctional" for failing to arrest Karadzic and Mladic. BW

PRESIDENTS OF CROATIA, SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO SEEK TO CONTINUE VISA-FREE TRAVEL
Serbia and Montenegro President Svetozar Marovic and his Croatian counterpart Stipe Mesic said on 14 December that visa-free travel between their countries should be extended through 2006, B92 reported the same day. "There is not one reason why the visa-free regime should not be maintained next year as well," Mesic told reporters in Zagreb after talks with Marovic. Mesic added that "Marovic reiterated several times that this was also the interest of Serbia and Montenegro." In addition to the visa issue, Mesic said they had discussed bilateral relations, regional issues, the transfer of prisoners from Croatia to Serbia, and improvements in Serbian-Croatian economic relations. BW

CROATIAN COURT SENTENCES SIX FORMER SERBIAN MILITIAMEN
A Croatian court on 15 December sentenced six ethnic Serbs to between six and 14 years in prison for the mistreatment of Croatian prisoners at the start of Zagreb's 1991-95 war of independence, Reuters reported the same day. The court in Vukovar sentenced the six defendants in a retrial ordered in 2004 by Croatia's Supreme Court due to procedural errors in the original trial. Judge Ante Zeljko ruled that the six were members of a rebel Serbian militia, which detained Croatian soldiers and civilians at Borovo, near Vukovar, in late 1991. Three of the defendants have been in custody since March 2003 and three were tried in absentia, Hina reported. BW

UN OFFICIAL URGES BOTH SIDES TO COMPROMISE IN KOSOVA
United Nations official Albert Rohan said both ethnic Albanians and Serbs needed to compromise more to make a final solution for Kosova work, AP and dpa reported on 14 December. Rohan, who is the deputy to Martti Ahtisaari, the UN's special envoy to Kosova's final-status talks, said Kosovar Albanians needed to take steps to assure that minorities are protected. Rohan also said that Serbs in Kosova need to take part in the province's political life, which they have been boycotting. "Status won't come automatically," Rohan said, AP reported. "The solution won't fall from heaven," he said. "They have to really pull up their socks and start to work." BW

GAZPROM SAYS IT HAS REACHED A DEAL ON GAS PRICES WITH MOLDOVA...
Gazprom and Moldova agreed on 15 December to increase the price Moldova pays for natural gas to European levels, Interfax reported the same day citing Gazprom's press service. The announcement came after a meeting between Gazprom head Aleksei Miller and Moldovan First Deputy Prime Minister Zinaida Greciani. "Aleksei Miller and Zinaida Greciani discussed the terms of Russian gas deliveries to clients in Moldova in 2006. They agreed that it was necessary to raise prices to the average European level," the Gazprom press release said. Miller and Greciani also discussed settling Moldova's debt, excluding penalties, to Gazprom. Moldova's total debt is approximately $780 million, including $560 million in Transdniester. BW

...AS MOLDOVAN PRIME MINISTER PLEDGES TO TRIPLE DOMESTIC ENERGY PRODUCTION
Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev said on 15 December that his country plans to increase its domestic energy production threefold by 2010 up to 90 percent of total consumption, RosBusiness Consulting reported the same day. Moldova currently produces 35 percent of the energy it consumes, which is more than a threefold increase from 2001 when the figure was about 10 percent. The increased energy production will be made possible with the Itera oil company's planned construction of new electric generating plant, RosBusiness Consulting reported. BW

IN UZBEKISTAN, ANDIJON RESIDENTS SPEAK ABOUT THE TRIALS
On 14 December, Uzbekistan's Supreme Court announced the beginning of the first trial of Uzbek officials in connection with the bloodshed in Andijon in May, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. In a stark reminder of the gulf that now separates Uzbekistan from Western countries, which have called for an independent investigation of eyewitness accounts that Uzbek security services perpetrated a massacre in Andijon, the officials face charges not of employing excessive force, but rather of negligence in the performance of their duties.

On trial are 10 police officers, two prison medics, five prison guards, and 19 soldiers. One of the police on trial is Dilmurod Oqmirzaev, former head of the Interior Ministry's Andijon section.

Most of the accused face charges of negligence on 12-13 May, when a group of armed men in Andijon carried out attacks on a local prison and army post before seizing the government administration building in the city center. The medics testified at an earlier trial that they supplied a mobile phone and relayed messages to Akram Yoldoshev, the jailed leader of the so-called Akramiya movement who Uzbek authorities have charged was behind the violence in Andijon. Elsewhere in Uzbekistan, 78 people are on trial for alleged direct involvement in the violence.

All of the trials are closed to the public, journalists, and human rights activists. In its statement, the Supreme Court said the measure was necessary to safeguard "state secrets in the criminal cases" and to guarantee "the security of victims, witnesses, and other trial participants."

The first Andijon trial, which began on 20 September with guilty pleas from all 15 defendants and ended on 14 November with prison terms of 14-20 years, received heavy coverage from the international press. But as Human Rights Watch (HRW) noted in a 30 November press release on the organization's website, the Uzbek government has blocked access to subsequent trials. Allison Gill, HRW's representative in Tashkent, told RFE/RL why she thinks the authorities decided to clamp down.

"The government used the first trial as a theatrical spectacle to convey its version of events to the Uzbek people and the international community," Gill said. "The trial was covered every day in detail by Uzbekistan's state television channels, and foreign observers and correspondents were given permission to attend. But because the trial absolutely failed to meet fair-trial standards, it evoked very negative reactions. In order to prevent mounting criticism, the government decided to hold all further trials on the Andijon events behind closed doors. Moreover, there is the possibility, however small, that witnesses or defendants could open their mouths and say things that depart from the government's script. This is why the trials are closed."

In Andijon itself, residents had their own reactions to the latest trial. "In the first place, the people on trial were witnesses to the events of 13 May," one Andijon resident told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service. "The most important task for Uzbekistan's president today is to eliminate such witnesses because they could talk at some point in the future."

The resident said he was personally acquainted with defendant Dilmurod Oqmirzaev, the former head of the Interior Ministry section in Andijon Province. "It's now clear that evil, heartless men are coming to take the place of good police officers like Oqimirzaev," the local said. "This is what they're doing now to keep the people of Andijon in fear."

Asked about the actions of police on 13 May, the resident replied: "On 13 May, there were a lot of police in civilian dress and with white armbands. You could see on the faces of many police that they were being forced to do their work." The individual said that some police showed a desire to join the demonstrators who gathered in the center of Andijon on 13 May, while others shouted at the protestors and threatened them with their weapons. He summed up, "Now the good police officers are on trial, while the ones who threatened the people with weapons are still doing their jobs."

An elderly resident of Andijon told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that police conducted themselves honorably during the demonstrations that took place in Andijon before 13 May as a verdict neared in the trial of 23 businesspeople accused of membership of the Akramiya movement. "When our children were on trial, the police and their commanding officers were in the area," she said. "We didn't see them do anything bad."

The woman asserted that the police were not responsible for the shooting on 13 May. "On 13 May in Andijon, it wasn't the police, but the soldiers who shot at us," she said. "The soldiers shot at us in Chulpon Street and in the village of Teshiktosh. We didn't see any police or police commanders."

Dilshodbek Tullakhujaev, the head of the Democratic Initiative Center in Andijon Province, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that if any officials should be charged with dereliction of duty in connection with the events of 12-13 May, they should be from the National Security Service (SNB).

"When the attack began [on the night of 12 May], there were no commanders or officers on duty at the army post," the man said. "As a result, they should be tried. But the heads of the provincial Interior Ministry section weren't at fault. In my view, the main fault lies with the SNB. Now, the main job of the SNB is fighting against rights activists and democrats."

EDUCATION HEAD AND STAFFER KILLED IN SOUTH-CENTRAL AFGHANISTAN
The bodies of the leader of the Giro District Education Department in Ghazni Province and one of his staffers were found on 15 December, Xinhua News Agency reported. The intelligence department chief of Ghazni, Abdul Wakil Kamyab, told Xinhua that Asadullah and one of his staff were kidnapped by a "group of militants" they day before their bodies were found in Andar District, north of Giro. Kamyab blamed the "enemies of Afghanistan" for the attack -- a term used by Afghan government officials to denote the neo-Taliban. AT

U.S. SOLDIER KILLED IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
A U.S. serviceman was killed and another U.S. soldier and an Afghan National Army soldier were wounded in a firefight with suspected neo-Taliban in Kandahar Province on 15 December, Reuters reported. One neo-Taliban militiaman was also reported killed. AT

VIDEO RECORDING OF AFGHAN SUICIDE BOMBER DISCOVERED
A videotape of a neo-Taliban member involved in a deadly suicide attack in Kabul in November has been released in Miarnshah, a city in the Northwest Frontier Province of Pakistan, Pajhwak News Agency reported on 15 December. The recorded testimony, similar to those made by Arab suicide bombers operating in Iraq and Israel, reportedly shows a man identified as Amanullah who was one of two suicide bombers targeting NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) troops in Kabul, killing a German soldier and several Afghan civilians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 and 16 November 2005). Amanullah says in the 30-minute recording that he is willing to "die in the way of Allah." "I am ready for staging a suicide attack and hope Allah will give me a place in paradise," Amanullah says in the recording. It also shows Amanullah on a motorcycle carrying out his mission. At the time of the attack, the neo-Taliban said one of their ranks from Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan was responsible. According to Pajhwak, the man speaking on the videotape has an accent common in eastern Afghanistan. AT

BOSNIAN SERBS TO DONATE WEAPONS TO AFGHANISTAN
Republika Srpska Defense Minister Milovan Stankovic has proposed to donate surplus weapons to Afghanistan, the Banja Luka daily "Nezavisne Novine" reported on 15 December. If the proposal is accepted by Bosnian Serb authorities, the Afghan government would receive thousands of automatic rifles and several hundred machine guns. The surplus weapons were to destroyed, Stankovic said. According to a report the United States proposed that the Bosnian Serb forces send their surplus weapons to Afghanistan. AT

HAMAS LEADER IN IRAN VOWS TO CONTINUE RESISTANCE
Khalid Mishaal, head of Hamas's political bureau, said on 15 December in Tehran that his organization will never recognize Israel and otherwise legitimize the actions of "Zionist occupiers," Mehr News Agency reported. Expressing gratitude for Iranian support, Mishaal said, I thank the officials of the Islamic Republic of Iran, and in particular the eminent leader and the president of Iran, for their statements." Although Iranian officials' statements upset the West, he said, "we" see them as "courageous and right." He continued: "Nations have always supported the Iranian people because the Islamic Iran expresses their sentiments, particularly when it comes down to the Palestinian issue." Iran has defended Palestinians' rights and they will stand by Iran, he said, and Iran and Hamas will continue their "cooperation and interaction." The cease-fire with Israel will end and resistance will resume, he said, because that is the Palestinians' right. Resistance by Hamas will continue "until the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people are recognized, and the Israeli occupation is destroyed, because we want to take back Al-Quds and the Palestinian lands." BS

EU READY TO CONDEMN IRANIAN PRESIDENT'S HOLOCAUST DENIAL
Anonymous diplomats cited by Reuters on 15 December said that the European Union is about to condemn recent comments by the Iranian president. In the last week, Ahmadinejad has twice denied that the Holocaust took place and in October he called for the eradication of Israel. A draft statement from EU foreign ministers says: "These comments are wholly unacceptable and have no place in civilized political debate." The statement also warns that the time to resolve questions about the Iranian nuclear program is coming to an end. BS

HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH TROUBLED BY IRANIAN MINISTERS...
In a report released on 15 December, Human Rights Watch (HRW) describes as "particularly troubling" the appointment of Iranian Minister of Intelligence and Security Gholam Hussein Mohseni-Ejei and Minister of Interior Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi, Radio Farda reported. Pur-Mohammadi reportedly served on a committee that gave orders for the execution of thousands of prisoners -- described as a "crime against humanity," HRW said. There also are suspicions that he is connected with the murders of dissidents in the late 1990s. Mohseni-Ejei is suspected of ordering the killing of at least one dissident, and in his position as prosecutor-general of the Special Court for the Clergy he was connected with the trials of several reformist clerics. HRW calls on the Iranian government to investigate the allegations against the two ministers, and it suggests they be relieved of their duties until the investigation is complete. Barring this, it continues, the legislature should hold a vote no confidence on the two. BS

...BUT HUMAN RIGHTS SPECIALISTS UNSURE OF OUTCOME
Iranian human rights specialists have differing opinions on the status of the ministers mentioned in the Human Rights Watch report and on the effectiveness of such a report. Ahmad Bashiri told Radio Farda that although Mohseni-Ejei and Pur-Mohammadi held sensitive posts at the time of the serial murders (a common reference to the killings of dissidents in the late-1990s), there is insufficient evidence to prosecute them. However, Reza Moini of Reporters Without Borders told Radio Farda there is enough evidence available on the involvement of the two men in those murders of the last two decades. Hussein Davani, the brother of murdered journalist Piruz Davani, told Radio Farda his sibling was killed on the basis of a fatwa issued by Mohseni-Ejei. BS

TEHRAN STUDENT CONFERENCES GET UNDER WAY
The Islamic Association of Students at the Open University held its annual meeting in Tehran on 14 December, ISNA reported. Parliamentarian Mohammad Reza Tabesh, as well as reformist politician Rasul Montajabnia, addressed the meeting. Another conference, on the "vulnerabilities of the student movement," took place on the same day at Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran, ISNA reported. A third conference -- "the critique of the student movement" -- took place at Elm va Sanat University, ISNA reported. One of the speakers at this event was national-religious activist Taqi Rahmani, who said a student movement is necessary until freedom is realized. BS

VOTE COUNTING STARTS FOR IRAQ'S PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS
The Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission (IECI) announced on 15 December that polling centers across the country began counting ballots after the polls closed (http://www.ieciraq.org). Observers, political entity agents, and the media were invited to observe the counting process at polling centers and to monitor the tallying of results at the so-called Tally Center, when the center's operations begin on 17 December. The IECI said that 6,200 polling centers opened on election day and were staffed by 170,000 people. Some 120,000 observers -- including 800 international observers -- oversaw the election in addition to 230,000 observers from Iraqi political parties. Reuters reported that voter turnout on 15 December was over 70 percent, with up to 11 million of Iraq's 15 million eligible voters going to the polls. KR

SIX IRAQIS ARRESTED IN AMMAN FOR ATTEMPTING TO DISRUPT VOTE
An unnamed IECI official told Amman's "Al-Arab al-Yawm" that six persons were arrested at a polling center in Amman after IECI officials became suspicious of their activities, the daily reported on 16 December. According to the newspaper, the six, all Iraqis, were arrested on charges of forgery. Meanwhile, dpa reported on 16 December that 28 Iraqis were detained on 15 December in Amman on charges of attempted vote rigging. The news agency cited IECI official Hamdiyah al-Husayni as saying the suspects were detained "after they were spotted trying to cast votes in several polling centers." It is unclear whether the individuals actually succeeded in casting forged ballots. Al-Husayni told dpa that out-of-country voting was higher than in the January elections. The news agency cited IECI officials as saying that 20,000 Iraqis had voted in Jordan by the end of the second of three days of voting there, compared with the 14,000 votes cast in the kingdom in the January elections. KR

IRAQI KURDS COMPLAIN OF ELECTION DAY IMPROPRIETIES
A civilian reportedly attacked Salah al-Din Muhammad Baha al-Din, head of the Kurdistan Islamic Union, in Irbil on 15 December, Roj TV reported the same day. Baha al-Din was attacked while trying to cast his vote at a polling center in the city. A fight subsequently broke out between Baha al-Din's guards and some voters. The offices of the Kurdistan Islamic Union were attacked in several Kurdish cities in the days leading up to the election. The union ran its own electoral list in the election after withdrawing from the Kurdistan Coalition List (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 9 December 2005). Meanwhile, Minister of Municipalities and Public Works Nisreen Barwari complained that Kurds in Baghdad and other Arab cities were prevented from voting, Kurdistan Satellite TV reported on 15 December. In Mosul, hundreds of Kurdish voters said their names were removed from voter rolls sometime between the October referendum and election day; some illiterate voters claimed election workers assigned to help them vote ignored their preferences and cast ballots for other parties, Reuters reported on 15 December. KR

SATELLITE NEWS CHANNEL SAYS IRAQI POLICE ATTACKED CAMERAMAN
Al-Sharqiyah news channel reported on 15 December that one of its cameramen was attacked by Iraqi police in Baghdad after they discovered the cameraman had filmed them beating polling center workers at the Al-Kindi Preparatory School on the same day. The police beat cameraman Hasan Abdallah and broke his camera. Al-Sharqiyah called the attack "one of the ugliest images of degrading human and press freedom, which contradicts all of the promises made by the interior minister ahead of the start of elections and [reiterated by the minister] this morning." KR

ITALY TO WITHDRAW 300 TROOPS FROM IRAQ
The Italian Defense Ministry announced on 15 December that Italy will withdraw 300 troops from Iraq in January, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on the same day. Italy currently has some 2,900 soldiers in Iraq. KR

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