PUTIN PLEDGES START ON SIBERIA-PACIFIC PIPELINE
President Vladimir Putin told officials of the Economic Development and Trade Ministry and of Russian Railways in Yakutsk on 6 January that he expects construction of the $15 billion Siberia-Pacific oil pipeline between Taishet and Nakhodka to start this summer, Interfax and RIA-Novosti reported. He called for the development of the region of Sakha (formerly known as Yakutia), which has huge reserves of oil, gas, and coal. He stressed that "the development of an oil and gas complex in Yakutia could provide a footing for promoting growth in East Siberia as a whole.... The demand for energy is growing at a faster rate in Asia and the Pacific than in other regions.... Russian and possibly foreign investments should be more actively drawn in to develop" the proven oil and gas reserves. Putin also called for setting up an "international consortium, with Russia playing the role of leading strategic investor," to develop the Elginskoe coal deposits, which could produce up to 30 million tons annually by 2010. He called for greater attention to be paid to Sakha's overall "strategic" development and "specific features," noting that its "huge territory" makes it well suited to using the internet and other electronic media in education. Referring to the role of private investments in the region, Putin said that there must be an end to "situations in which the state alone invests in infrastructure while other shareholders reap profits." PM
U.S. CRITICIZES RUSSIA OVER GAS DISPUTE WITH UKRAINE...
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Washington on 5 January that Russia was wrong to launch its recent "politically motivated" natural-gas dispute with Ukraine and warned Moscow to stick to international rules, Reuters reported. "The game just can't be played [by making arbitrary changes]," she said, adding that "when you say you want to be a part of the international economy and you want to be a responsible actor in the international economy, then you play by its rules." Rice feels that international attention will be paid to the "distance between Russia's behavior on something like this and what would be expected by a leader of the G-8," whose rotating chair Russia now holds (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2006). She pointed out that Moscow launched the gas dispute "with an obvious political motive" and noted that "it was ironic and not good that they [cut back supplies on 1 January], the day they became G-8 chairman." PM
...AS PUTIN SEEKS TO REASSURE THE EU OVER GAS SUPPLIES...
President Putin told Gazprom Chairman Aleksei Miller at a Moscow meeting on 4 January that the Russian-Ukrainian gas agreement "creates stable conditions for Russian gas supply to European customers for many years ahead," Reuters reported. But Martin Bartenstein, who is economy minister of Austria, which holds the rotating EU chair, said in Brussels that the EU must reduce its dependency on Russia and other outside suppliers by making more efficient use of energy, improving infrastructure, and making greater use of renewable energy sources. He added that he hopes the Russian-Ukrainian agreement "will ensure...the long-term security of supply of gas" to the EU. PM
...AS GERMANS DEBATE RUSSIA'S RELIABILITY...
Following recent criticism of the Baltic underwater gas pipeline (NEGP) backed by President Putin and former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, leading German Social Democratic Party legislator Ludwig Stiegler said in Berlin on 4 January that "the problems arising in the process of the transit of natural gas through somebody else's territories indicate the need for its transportation without intermediaries along the bottom of the Baltic Sea," ITAR-TASS reported. He called the pipeline a "strategic investment in the uninterrupted gas supply to Germany and Western Europe" and a contribution to the energy security and future of the continent. But the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote the following day that Moscow has needlessly set off a debate in the EU on the reliability of Russian gas supplies and strengthened the hand of the EU's newest members, who have long warned against placing too much trust in Russia as a partner (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2006). The daily charged that Moscow's decision to launch the dispute had nothing to do with market-related issues, but rather stem from political considerations, including shoring up a growing corrupt and authoritarian system at home, in which the oil and gas industry plays a central role. The paper predicted that this will not be the last confrontation over gas launched by Moscow, but when the next one comes, Russia will not find Chancellor Angela Merkel as easy to deal with as Schroeder. PM
...AND BULGARIA REJECTS GAZPROM MOVE
Bulgarian Economy and Energy Minister Ruman Ovcharov said in Sofia on 4 January that his country rejects recent proposals by Gazprom to raise the price for which it sells gas to Bulgaria and reduce the amount it pays that country for transit rights to Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey, dpa reported. He did not cite any specific figures but called the Russian demands "unacceptable." "Serious, long-term treaties between [economic partners] like Gazprom and Bulgargas cannot be altered to suit every change in the energy sector," he insisted. PM
PUTIN SIGNS LAW SIMPLIFYING CITIZENSHIP RULES
President Putin on 5 January signed legislation simplifying the procedure for citizens of former Soviet republics to obtain a Russian passport, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. The legislation extends the deadline for ex-Soviet citizens to apply for Russian citizenship by two years, until 1 January 2008. The proposed legal changes would also make it possible for former Soviet citizens who obtained a residence permit in Russia after 1 July 2002 to apply for citizenship. Under the current legislation, only people who obtained a residence permit prior to that date can apply for citizenship (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2005). The new, simplified procedure also allows for individuals to obtain Russian citizenship without five years of continuous residency in the country, a legal source of income, or knowledge of the Russian language. BW
RUSSIA'S CHIEF RABBI SAYS SHARON'S PASSING WOULD HARM MIDDLE EAST
Russia's chief rabbi, Adolf Shaevich, said on 5 January that the situation in the Middle East will likely deteriorate without Ariel Sharon in office as Israel's prime minister, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. "Although Sharon had a lot of enemies even in Israel, especially with the withdrawal of Israeli settlements from the Gaza Strip, I believe he had a definite plan for the settlement of the situation with Palestine," Shaevich, of the National Congress of Jewish Religious Organizations and Associations, said. Sharon was hospitalized on the night of 4 January after a massive stroke. Putin wished Sharon a fast recovery on 5 January, RIA-Novosti reported the same day, citing the Kremlin's press service. BW
JAILED NUCLEAR SCIENTIST APPEALS TO EUROPEAN COURT OF HUMAN RIGHTS
Defense attorneys for Russian scientist Valentin Danilov, sentenced for spying for China, said on 5 January that they have appealed his case to the European Court of Human Rights at Strasbourg, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. Danilov, who was head of the thermal physics center at Krasnoyarsk State Technical University, was sentenced to 14 years in prison in November 2004 for espionage and embezzlement (see "RFE/RL Newsline" 29 November 2004). "We have turned to the European Court to protect Danilov's rights," Anna Stavitskaya, a member of Danilov's defense team, said. "The claim concerns the violation of four provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights." Fifteen human-rights activists, including Yelena Bonner, the wife of Nobel laureate Andrei Sakharov, and former State Duma Deputy Yulii Rybakov, signed a statement declaring Danilov a "political prisoner." The Union of Rightist Forces also collected signatures in his defense. BW
ARMENIAN CULTURE MINISTER FORCED TO RESIGN
Armenian Culture Minister Hovik Hoveyan was forced to resign on 5 January following reports that he attacked electrical workers in Yerevan, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The incident involved an armed assault by the minister, his son, and several other men on workers at a power-distribution facility after a brief cutoff in power supplies to his apartment. According to Electricity Networks of Armenia spokeswoman Margarit Grigorian, the attack left several workers injured, with two victims requiring hospitalization. Police spokesman Sayad Shirinian confirmed that Hoveyan was interrogated by police investigating the incident. After a closed meeting of the leadership of the minister's party, the ruling Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) party, Hoveyan submitted his resignation, Regnum reported. Hoveyan was appointed culture minister in April 2004 to replace Tamara Poghosian, whose flamboyant statements and alleged incompetence made her the subject of widespread media ridicule, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. RG
ARMENIAN HUMAN RIGHTS OMBUDSMAN VOWS TO FIGHT DISMISSAL
Armenia's first-ever human-rights ombudsman, Larisa Alaverdian, appealed on 5 January to Armenia's Constitutional Court to overturn President Robert Kocharian's decision to appoint a caretaker body to replace her until a new ombudsman is selected by parliament, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Although the recently adopted set of constitutional amendments stipulates that the position of ombudsman be elected by the legislature, it fails to indicate when the election should be held. Alaverdian, who was appointed by Kocharian, appealed on 26 December to parliamentary speaker Artur Baghdasarian to be allowed to continue in office until such an election is held, but was denied. Her relationship with Kocharian became strained after her office published reports critical of the government's human-rights record and its crackdown on opposition demonstrators in 2004. RG
EUROPEAN HUMAN-RIGHTS COURT AGREES TO HEAR APPEAL OF ARMENIAN OPPOSITION FIGURE
An Armenian member of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), Alvina Gyulumian, announced in Yerevan on 5 January that the court has agreed to hear an appeal by Armenian opposition activist Armen Mkrtchian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Mkrtchian was arrested for participating in demonstrations against voting irregularities in the country's two-round presidential election in February and March 2003. The first Armenian citizen to come before the ECHR, Mkrtchian is seeking a decision by the Strasbourg-based court to declare his arrest and subsequent detention illegal and to award him compensation from the Armenian authorities. RG
OUTGOING BRITISH AMBASSADOR CITES ARMENIAN PROGRESS IN CONFORMITY WITH EUROPEAN STANDARDS
In comments during a Yerevan press conference on 5 January, outgoing British Ambassador to Armenia Thorda Abbott-Watt cited Armenia's "progress" in bringing its political and economic systems into conformity with European standards, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Marking the end of her three-year tenure in Yerevan, the ambassador specifically noted that the significance of Armenia's inclusion in the European Neighborhood Policy, the EU's framework for engagement in the region. RG
AZERBAIJANI HEALTH OFFICIALS INVESTIGATE MASS POULTRY DEATHS
Regional health officials in a southern Azerbaijani district along the border with Iran are investigating reports of large-scale deaths of poultry, Turan reported on 5 January. The health officials are to join agricultural experts to conduct tests of the thousands of birds that have died over the past few days. The Azerbaijani government also imposed on 5 January a temporary ban on the import of foodstuffs from Turkey after two people reportedly died from bird flu in eastern Turkey, Turan reported. An earlier outbreak of mass deaths of migratory birds was reported in several Iranian districts bordering Azerbaijan in November. RG
DOCTORS EXPRESS CONCERN OVER HEALTH OF AZERBAIJANI HUNGER STRIKERS
Azerbaijani doctors expressed concern on 4 January for the health of a group of Azerbaijani youth activists who have been on hunger strike since 28 December, Turan reported. The students, members of the Maqam! (Enough!) and the Yeni Fikir (New Thinking) youth movements, are protesting the expulsion of two students from university for their participation in opposition demonstrations. The Azerbaijani authorities contend that the students were expelled for poor academic performance that had nothing to do with their personal political activities. The two groups were joined by the leaders of the youth wing of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party in an open letter to President Ilham Aliyev on 4 January demanding his personal intervention in the case. RG
GEORGIAN PRESIDENT SIGNS LAW EXPANDING MILITARY
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili signed a bill into law on 5 January raising the maximum strength of the national armed forces to 32,000, up from its current force of 29,000, Caucasus Press reported. According to the new law, the total number of army troops and border guards is to be set at a maximum of 26,000 and 6,000, respectively. The current force level of the Georgian army is estimated at under 22,000 and it remains unclear whether the increased ceiling will actually result in any new move to expand conscription or recruitment. RG
GEORGIA INCREASES SECURITY ALONG BORDER WITH TURKEY
Georgian Health Minister Lado Chipashvili confirmed on 5 January the introduction of new security measures and border controls along the Georgian border with Turkey, Imedi-TV and Caucasus Press reported. Chipashvili added that an emergency headquarters, headed by Davit Meskhishvili, has been established to deal with the threat of bird flu, after reports of two human deaths from bird flu in eastern Turkey. Food and Agriculture Minister Mikheil Svimonishvili also toured the border on 5 January, according to Caucasus Press. Georgia has recently imposed a ban on all imports of poultry from several states and has prohibited the hunting of migratory birds. RG
GEORGIAN TV COMPANY TAKES OVER RIVAL STATION
Officials of the Rustavi-2 television company announced on 5 January that it has purchased a majority stake in another Tbilisi-based television station, Civil Georgia and Prime News reported. Widely seen as a pro-government station, Rustavi-2 acquired control of 78 percent of the Mze (Sun) station and intends to form a new media holding group, making it the largest in Georgia. Rustavi-2 is owned by Ajaran businessman Kibar Khalvashi, a close friend of Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili. It is the most popular television station in Georgia, and is able to reach viewers in roughly 85 percent of the country. Founded in 1994, Rustavi-2 played a crucial role in 2003 in support of the Rose Revolution that brought President Mikheil Saakashvili to power. Mze was founded in 2003 by former Economy Minister and banker Vano Chkhartishvili. RG
NEW GREEN PARTY TO BE ESTABLISHED IN KAZAKHSTAN
The chairman of the Tabighat (Nature) nongovernmental environmental group, Mels Eleusizov, announced plans in Almaty on 5 January to form a new political party of the same name, Interfax reported. Eleusizov, a former presidential candidate, explained that there is a need for such a party because "the state does not have a unified and comprehensive policy in the area of nature protection and environment." Eleusizov vowed to "influence the legislative process, initiate and implement laws that protect a human and a person, and develop all sectors of the economy without damaging the environment and the public health." In order for Tabighat to be formally registered as a political party, it needs to collect 50,000 signatures. RG
KAZAKH COURT SENTENCES CONVICTED TERRORIST
A court in the western Atyrau Oblast on 4 January sentenced Andrei Mironov to five years in prison, Interfax reported. Mironov is a 27-year-old convert to Islam who was convicted of attempting to bomb the Atyrau municipal government building in August. RG
KYRGYZ PRESIDENT ORDERS PREPARATIONS FOR NATIONWIDE REFERENDUM
Kurmanbek Bakiev issued a decree on 5 January ordering the Justice Ministry to prepare specific measures for holding a national referendum, Kyrgyz Television reported. The referendum, set for some time late this year, is to offer voters the choice of various systems of government, the possible removal of presidential, parliamentary, and judicial immunity, and some questions on judicial reform (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2005). RG
OSCE PROVIDES KYRGYZ REGIONAL POLICE WITH EQUIPMENT
The head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) office in Osh, Jerome Bouyjou, delivered on 5 January new equipment to the Kyrgyz regional police in Osh, AKIpress reported. The OSCE aid includes winter uniforms and supplies, special riot gear, as well as digital cameras, camcorders, computers, and televisions. According to Bouyjou, the donated equipment is part of a larger OSCE program of assistance for Kyrgyz police and law-enforcement agencies. RG
TAJIK PRESIDENT HOLDS MEETING OF SECURITY OFFICIALS
Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov convened a meeting in Dushanbe on 5 January with the heads of the country's various law-enforcement and security agencies, Asia-Plus reported. Rakhmonov reviewed the status of counternarcotics and anticorruption activities, and promised to increase the wages and improve the living conditions of the security forces. The meeting was attended a number of senior officials, including Interior Minister Humdin Sharipov, Defense Minister Sherali Khayrulloev, Security Council Secretary Amirqul Azimov, Emergency Situations Minister Mirzo Ziyo, and Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov. RG
TAJIK AGRARIAN PARTY RULES OUT COALITION WITH RULING PARTY
Speaking at a Dushanbe press conference on 5 January, Agrarian Party Chairman Amir Qaraqulov dismissed reports that he plans to form a new coalition with the ruling People's Democratic Party prior to the presidential elections, Asia-Plus reported. Social Democratic Party leader Rahmatullo Zoirov accused Qaraqulov of seeking to forge a united front with the People's Democratic Party ahead of the November presidential election. RG
UZBEK PRESIDENT APPOINTS NEW INTERIOR MINISTER
Uzbek President Islam Karimov issued a decree on 5 January appointing Bahodyr Matlyubov as interior minister, Interfax and RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Lieutenant General Matlyubov, who previously held senior positions in the Interior Ministry and the State Customs Committee, replaces Zokir Almatov, who resigned in December for health reasons after more than a decade as interior minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 December 2005). The European Union named Almatov as one of many Uzbek officials placed on a visa-restriction list for their role in suppressing a protest in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May. Gayrat Qodirov was also named the new deputy interior minister on 5 January, Uzbek TV reported. RG
U.S. AMBASSADOR SAYS BELARUSIAN ELECTIONS UNLIKELY TO BE FAIR...
U.S. Ambassador to Belarus George Krol said on 4 January that presidential elections scheduled for March are unlikely to be fair, dpa reported the same day. "It's highly unlikely that these elections are going to free and fair," Krol told reporters at the U.S. State Department in Washington. Krol said it will be difficult for opposition politicians to mount a challenge to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the 19 March poll, in part because they lack adequate access to the state-controlled media. Krol also said a new law calling for the criminal prosecution of individuals or media who "discredit" the Belarusian government makes it difficult for opposition candidates to challenge the incumbent. BW
...AND BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION CANDIDATE SEES LITTLE CHANCE OF SUCCESS
Alyaksandr Voytovich, an opposition candidate for president in Belarus, said on 6 January that it will be very difficult to unseat Lukashenka in the country's March elections, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. "Some people may not like it, but I always tell the truth. It's impossible to act otherwise when one is a scientist," Voytovich, the former head of the Belarusian Academy of Sciences, said. "That's why I say the possibility that there will be a change in power in three months' time is very low. As I have already said, there will in fact be no real election at all," he added. Voytovich, who was the leader of the upper house of the Belarusian parliament from 2003-04, said he is in the process of gathering the necessary 100,000 signatures to appear on the ballot. He said, however, that he might withdraw his candidacy to protest Lukashenka's participation in the poll. "This move would be not in order to support somebody else, but to show that Lukashenka's bid for a third term is not legitimate," Voytovich said. BW
FORMER UKRAINIAN PREMIER TO CHALLENGE GAS DEAL IN COURT...
Yuliya Tymoshenko said on 5 January that she will challenge in court the deal Ukraine reached with Russia's Gazprom, Interfax-Ukraine reported the same day. "It is necessary to cancel all [gas] deals that contradict national law," Tymoshenko said. She also pledged to request that the Prosecutor-General's Office open a criminal case against Ukraine's state gas company Naftohaz Ukrayiny and the Energy Ministry. Under the deal, RosUkrEnergo -- a Swiss-based joint venture between Gazprom and Austria's Raiffeisen Zentralbank -- will purchase gas from Gazprom at $230 per 1,000 cubic meters and sell it to Ukraine for $95 per 1,000 cubic meters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2006). Tymoshenko has denounced RosUkrEnergo, which was set up by former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma's government, as a "criminal canker on the body" of Naftohaz Ukrayiny, Reuters reported on 5 January. Critics have said the complicated and opaque arrangement could lead to widespread corruption, Reuters reported. BW
...AS OPPOSITION CALLS FOR PRESIDENT'S IMPEACHMENT AND PRIME MINISTER'S RESIGNATION...
Natalya Vitrenko, leader of the opposition Progressive Socialist Party, has called on the Verkhovna Rada to begin impeachment proceedings against President Viktor Yushchenko over the gas deal Kyiv signed with Russia, Interfax reported on 5 January. Meanwhile, the opposition movement Ne Tak, which is led by former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk, called the deal "destructive for the country's economy" and demanded the resignation of Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov. Russia and Ukraine struck a gas deal on 4 January. BW
...AND UKRAINIAN OFFICIALS DEFEND DEAL
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk and Naftohaz Ukrayiny Chairman Oleksiy Ivchenko defended the gas deal in a briefing for foreign diplomats on 5 January, saying it is in the interests of both Moscow and Kyiv, Interfax-Ukraine reported the same day. Speaking to ambassadors from various EU countries as well as from the United States, Canada, Japan, Bulgaria, Turkey and representatives from the European Commission, Tarasyuk said the agreement ends the possibility for Moscow to pressure Kyiv with ultimatums. Tarasyuk added, however, that Ukraine has come to the conclusion that it should not rely on a single supplier for gas in the future. "We have plans to work with a number of countries on alternative routes of gas supplies to Ukraine and other countries," he said. BW
UKRAINE DISCOVERS NEW GAS RESERVES IN KHARKIV
Additional reserves of natural gas have been discovered at Ukraine's gas-condensate field in Kharkiv Oblast, Interfax-Ukraine reported on 5 January. The press service of the oblast administration said the reserves were discovered after the opening of a new well in the field. Kharkiv Governor Arsen Avakov said that as a result of the new reserves, the region would increase gas production by 3-5 percent in 2006. "But if there are further pleasant surprises like this, I think the growth will be higher," Avakov said. BW
WIFE OF BOSNIAN SERB WAR-CRIMES SUSPECT KILLED IN RAID...
The wife of a Bosnian Serb war-crimes suspect was killed in a shoot-out on 5 January when European Union EUFOR peacekeepers raided their home to arrest her husband, Reuters reported the same day. The suspect, Dragomir Abazovic, and the couple's 11-year-old son were also injured in the morning raid, in a village near Rogatica in eastern Bosnia, police said. "Rada Abazovic died of kidney and abdominal wounds," a doctor in Foca hospital told Reuters. Dragomir Abazovic has been arrested and was being treated for serious head injuries. EUFOR said in a statement that the raid was the result of an arrest warrant issued by Sarajevo's cantonal court in 1999. "As EUFOR troops were deploying at the location, EUFOR troops were fired upon. They fired back in self-defense," the statement said. BW
...AS REPUBLIKA SRPSKA PRESIDENT ASSAILS EUFOR AND CALLS FOR PROBE
Republika Srpska President Dragan Cavic on 5 January condemned EUFOR for the raid and called for an investigation, dpa reported the same day. "Regardless the EUFOR mandate in Bosnia-Herzegovina, no one has the right to take an innocent human life by force," Cavic wrote in a letter to Italian Major General Gian Marco Chiarini, the EUFOR commander. Cavic called on Chiarini to conduct a thorough investigation, explain why the incident occurred and sanction those responsible. Borisav Paravac, the Serbian member of Bosnia's collective presidency, backed Cavic's call for an investigation. BW
SERBIAN PRESIDENT CALLS FOR KARADZIC, MLADIC TO SURRENDER...
Saying that Serbia is the only country not cooperating with the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Serbian President Boris Tadic on 5 January called on war-crimes fugitives Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic to turn themselves in, Beta and B92 reported the same day. "This is a big problem for Serbia and we wish to take care of it. It is a necessary condition for reaching many of our goals, but we will need some help. Not arresting Karadzic and Mladic would be a catastrophe," Tadic said. "I am once again calling on Karadzic and Mladic to turn themselves in, in order to help build a better future for our nation and people." Tadic said Serbia's lack of full cooperation with the ICTY is more apparent after the extradition to The Hague of Croatian war-crimes suspect General Ante Gotovina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8, 9 12, and 13 December 2005). BW
...AS ICTY SAYS MLADIC HIDING IN SERBIAN MILITARY FACILITIES
ICTY spokeswoman Florence Hartman said on 4 January that the Hague-based tribunal has information indicating that Mladic is hiding in Serbian military facilities, ForNet and B92 reported the same day. Serbia and Montenegro Defense Minister Zoran Stankovic denied the claim. "In order to discredit the claims that Mladic and the Serbia and Montenegro military have close ties, we have implemented a widespread investigation and will be giving the results to the Supreme Defense Council, the Hague tribunal, and the public shortly," Stankovic said. "We are prepared to go to the location where Mladic is hiding right now if the tribunal tells us where it is," he added. Hartman proposed what she called the "Bosnia-Herzegovina Model" -- in which those assisting wanted war-crimes suspects have their assets frozen -- should be applied in other countries as well. BW
BELGRADE EXPRESSES REGRET FOR BOMB ATTACK ON ALBANIAN EMBASSY
Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Ministry announced on 4 January that it has expressed regret to Albanian Ambassador Petrit Bushati for an explosion at his country's embassy, B92 reported the next day. There were no injuries in the explosion, which took place on 1 January and caused damage to the building's facade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2005). The Albanian government condemned the explosion on 3 January and issued a formal note of protest to Serbia and Montenegro's ambassador in Tirana. Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Ministry told Bushati that authorities in Belgrade were investigating the incident and were taking steps to identify and apprehend the perpetrators. BW
BOMB THROWN AT BUS IN KOSOVA
In the second attack of its kind in a month, a bomb was thrown at a moving bus in Kosova on the night of 4 January, causing damage but no injuries to the 55 passengers aboard, Reuters reported the same day. "An explosive device was thrown at the right rear end of the bus, causing some damage," UN spokesman Neeraj Singh said. Singh added that most of the passengers on the bus were Albanians. The attack was the second in a month on the same route, which runs from the town of Dragas to the Serbian capital Belgrade. BW
UKRAINE TO ASSIST MOLDOVA WITH GAS SUPPLIES
Moldovan Industry Minister Vladimir Antosii said on 5 January that Ukraine has agreed to supply natural gas to Moldova until Chisinau can reach an agreement with Russia's natural-gas monopoly Gazprom, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. With Ukraine's support, Moldova will be able to hold talks with Russia over gas supplies for a longer time, he said. Gazprom, which is seeking to raise the price Moldova pays for natural gas from $80 per 1,000 cubic meters to $160, shut off supplies earlier this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2006). Chisinau is currently holding talks with Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan on gas supplies. Antosii also said Chisinau and Kyiv are developing a coordinated plan to reduce gas consumption. BW
IRAQI SUNNI FRONT AGREES TO SUPPORT UNITY GOVERNMENT, WHILE OTHERS ON FENCE
Sunni Arab leaders from the Iraqi Accordance Front reached a tentative agreement with Kurdish leaders for the formation of a national unity government on 2 January. Meanwhile, other Sunni Arab parties said they would wait for the results of an election assessment by a group of international monitors before making a decision on their participation in the next government.
In essence, the agreement is little more than a recognition by all sides of the need to form a coalition government that is based on consensus and cooperation rather than sectarian quotas, Accordance Front leader Adnan al-Dulaymi told reporters in Salah Al-Din. Meeting participants said the talks did not focus on leadership positions, saying such issues would be addressed once the election results are finalized.
The Accordance Front -- representing three major Sunni Arab political parties -- appears to have won a majority of the Sunni Arab votes in the 15 December parliamentary elections, and is expected to garner at least 40 of the 275 parliamentary seats when final election results are announced sometime next week.
The talks came as a surprise to other Sunni Arab leaders, who claimed that the Accordance Front violated an agreement with other Sunni Arab parties not to enter talks about the formation of the next government until those parties' claims of election fraud are resolved.
As the talks were taking place, Sunni Arab leader Salih al-Mutlaq told Al-Arabiyah television from Baghdad: "Brothers from the Accordance Front said before traveling to northern Iraq that the dialogue will focus on the issue of elections, not around the details of forming a national unity government.... If [the Accordance Front] has gone to discuss the formation of a national unity government, we would have been invited to attend this meeting."
Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 1 January that the front said it would accept whatever decision was issued by an international observer team that is investigating the allegations of vote fraud in the election. The front's position appears to be based on a belief that the international observers will have the power to issue a legally binding ruling on the election.
The team, sent by the International Mission for Iraqi Elections (IMIE), includes two Arab League representatives, one executive member of the Canadian Association of Former Parliamentarians, and an unidentified European academic, according to the mission's website (http://www.imie.ca).
Tariq al-Hashimi, secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, which is part of the Accordance Front, told Al-Jazeera television on 1 January that he believed that the final decision of the international team would be legally binding. "This committee is coming to Iraq based on international authorization. As far as I know, the Iraqi government has also approved it. Therefore, its decisions must be binding. In a statement issued by the Accordance Front, we welcomed this committee and said it must be armed with legal power so that it can examine all the work done by the [Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission] and make a number of recommendations within the powers vested in it," he said.
Al-Hashimi's position, evidenced by other comments to the media this week, signals a growing split within the Accordance Front. Front leader al-Dulaymi has taken a more pragmatic approach to resolving the political crisis and appears to be focusing his efforts on positioning his party for a greater role in the next cabinet.
Al-Hashimi and Khalaf al-Ulayyan, the secretary-general of the National Dialogue Council, also a front member, have both said that unless the vote-fraud question is satisfactorily resolved, armed conflict may erupt. Al-Ulayyan suggested last week that civil war might break out. Al-Hashimi contended in his interview with Al-Jazeera that the Accordance Front was committed to political dialogue, but cautioned that it participation hinged on a resolution to its liking. Should Sunni Arab parties decide to boycott the political process, he said, "We will have no option other than engaging in armed jihad."
The arrival of the international team was widely applauded by the other parties contesting the election under the banner Maram (Mu'tamar Rafadi Al-Intikhabat Al-Muzawra, or the Conference for Rejecting the Forged Election).
Mahdi al-Hafiz, a member of former Prime Minister Allawi's Iraqi National List, told Al-Sharqiyah television in a 3 January interview that the bloc has prepared a file containing "evidence" of election fraud that it will present to the IMIE in Baghdad.
Al-Hafiz welcomed the arrival of the observer group, telling the news channel: "All political parties should understand the importance of the legality of the intervention of international monitors. It is equally important for those parties to present all evidence...even if they were conflicting, of what occurred in the election."
Adnan Pachachi, head of the Independent Democrats Grouping, told Al-Arabiyah in a 2 January interview that his party has not reached a decision as to whether it will boycott the political process should the allegation of election fraud fail to be addressed, but he added that the party still prefers to participate in the political process. "We do not issue threats. The opposition can be inside and outside the government. This is a sound democratic [practice] that exists worldwide," he said.
U.S. TO REDUCE TROOP LEVELS IN AFGHANISTAN
U.S. President George W. Bush said on 4 January that the United States will cut the number of troops in Afghanistan this year from 19,000 to 16,500 because of improving security, according to a U.S. State Department press release the same day. NATO forces will take over some of the duties of U.S. soldiers. "Our strategy has been to provide a strong commitment to provide stability so that democracy can flourish and then as others, including Afghan troops as well as NATO troops, step in we step back," Bush said. "We're going to continue to conduct antiterrorist operations in Afghanistan as well. This is all part of a global war against a terrorist network." Bush said that his decision to reduce troop levels was based on recommendations from commanders on the ground, rather than a result of domestic pressure. CP
SUICIDE BOMBING KILLS 10 IN AFGHANISTAN
Ten people were killed and approximately 50 wounded in a suicide attack in the Afghan city of Tarin Kot in central Oruzgan Province, "The New York Times" reported on 5 January. The bomb exploded as the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann, was visiting the city, but he was unhurt in the blast, according to a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy. A spokesman for the neo-Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was meant to disrupt the ambassador's visit. CP
MILITANTS SURRENDER TO AFGHAN GOVERNMENT IN AMNESTY
Twenty-four neo-Taliban and Islamist militants surrendered to the Afghan government as part of a U.S.-supported amnesty plan intended to reduce violence, Pakistan's "Daily Times" reported on 6 January. The militants, four of whom were part of the Taliban regime and the rest from the extremist group Hizb-e Islami, gave themselves up in Gardez, capital of Paktiya Province. They had been living in Pakistan. Mawlawi Abdul Hodod, who spoke for the militants, said they would now participate in Afghanistan's reconstruction. CP
MORE THAN 500,000 AFGHAN REFUGEES RETURNED IN 2005
520,100 Afghans were repatriated last year with help from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, according to a 2 January press release from the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan. The vast majority, 453,000, came from Pakistan, a significant increase over the 380,000 who returned from Pakistan in 2003, and due, in part, to the closure of several refugee camps. About 67,000 people returned from Iran with assistance from the UN, a number smaller than predicted. CP
IRAN FAILS TO MEET WITH IAEA HEAD, AS U.S. THREATENS RESPONSE
Iranian diplomats failed to meet as scheduled with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei in Vienna on 5 January to elaborate on the nuclear research Iran is to resume on 9 January, heightening Western concerns about its contested program, news agencies reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2005). El-Baradei met on 4 January with Iranian IAEA representative Mohammad-Mehdi Akhundzadeh, who did not provide details of the planned research, Reuters reported the same day, but a meeting was set for 5 January. That meeting "never took place," AP quoted IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming as saying on 5 January. El-Baradei is not expecting to reschedule the meeting, AP added. The same day, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Washington that if "it is clear negotiations are exhausted," the United States is ready to refer Iran to the Security Council for any apparent violation of nonproliferation commitments. "We have the votes, there is a resolution sitting there on the Security Council, we'll vote it," AFP quoted Rice as saying. Iran is to resume talks with the EU over its dossier on 18 January, "The News York Times" reported on 4 January. VS
ENVOY EXPLAINS IRAN'S PLANS IN DAMASCUS
Deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Reza Baqeri was in Damascus on 5 January to explain Iran's nuclear plans and discuss regional politics with Syrian officials, including President Bashar al-Assad and Faruq al-Shara, IRNA reported the same day. "It was necessary to come and provide our friends, and the [IAEA], with explanations. I gave explanations today to our Syrian friends who are [IAEA] members," he told reporters. He said he gave al-Assad an unwritten message from Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, praised Syria's "firm" positions, presumably in support of Iran, and said that "Iran, as always, stands by Syria." In all "regional issues, whether political, economic, social, and cultural, we coordinate ourselves, and are thinking together over what is going on these days in the region and in Syria." He said Iran, Syria, and Lebanon have continuously consulted with each other to "mitigate the crisis in relations between Syria and Lebanon." In his meeting earlier with Baqeri, President al-Assad said Syria supports Iran's right to "have nuclear science," IRNA reported. VS
PRESIDENT DENOUNCES ISRAEL, WESTERN CHARGES AGAINST IRAN
Speaking in Qom on 5 January, President Ahmadinejad denounced Israel and its Western supporters and said regional states cannot tolerate that "rotten state" in their midst, ILNA reported the same day. "When you cannot tolerate this rotten regime beside yourselves," he said, addressing unspecified Western states, "how do you expect regional nations to tolerate that regime. Not just Palestine, but other Islamic states will not tolerate" it. For "60 years now," the "occupiers murder [Palestinians] every day, he said, adding that if Jews were mass murdered in World War II, "who did this other than your own governments," so why should Palestinians pay for it, he asked. He rejected Western charges of Iran's disrespect for human rights and alleged attempt to produce nuclear weapons. Those "whose dossiers are full of injustice," he said, and who "have built secret prisons" have "no right to speak of human rights." He said states that have used "arsenals full of nuclear and chemical weapons" are now saying Iran should not have nuclear technology. "They say we have no evidence of your deviation, but doubt your intentions. We say we...are certain of your rotten intentions," ILNA reported. VS
LIBERALS DISENCHANTED WITH AHMADINEJAD GOVERNMENT
The Iran Freedom Movement, a liberal political party, has criticized the Ahmadinejad government in a statement, saying it is hostile to civil liberties and meritocracy at home, and has isolated Iran abroad, Radio Farda reported on 5 January. Ahmad Sadr Haji-Seyyed-Javadi told Radio Farda that "Mr. Ahmadinejad...has no idea of the depth of the disaster among the people, that is the lack of freedom...of freedom of speech and thought." He said the Freedom Movement wants people to be able to "state their opinions and speak out," and even though the president has promised "kindness" with Iranians, "what is seen and what people notice is that none of the people's problems have been solved." Haji-Seyyed-Javadi was briefly justice minister in the provisional government that followed the fall of the monarchy in 1979. VS
IRAN'S FOREIGN MINISTRY CONDEMNS IRAQ BOMB ATTACKS
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi condemned in Tehran on 5 January the "continuation of terrorist acts in Iraq" and "the terrorist act today" near the Imam Hussein Shrine in Karbala, and said coalition forces in Iraq are "incapable and incompetent" in assuring security there, ISNA reported the same day. He deplored how "those who do not want peace and security" in Iraq are acting to "create insecurity and killing innocent people," but Iran "expects Iraq's government to take firm measures to identify, arrest, and act against those responsible for this terrorist act, and maintain the security of pilgrims." Coalition forces, he observed, are mandated by the UN to maintain Iraq's security, but are "incapable and incompetent in creating security" there. Four Iranians were apparently killed in the Karbala attack, according to ISNA. VS
BOOK ALLEGES MISTAKE EXPOSED U.S. SPIES IN IRAN
"The New York Times" reporter James Risen writes in his new book -- "State of War: The Secret History of the CIA and the Bush Administration" -- that a Central Intelligence Agency officer in the United States exposed an entire spy network when she sent a secret message to an agent in Iran in 2004. The Iranian was a double agent, and the information was used to arrest and imprison members of the agency's network in Iran. The fate of some agents is unknown. This incident may explain why a nine-member panel appointed by President Bush, the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, found in March 2005 that there is inadequate intelligence on Iran's suspected weapons program, and White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley said around the same time that "intelligence in Iran is hard to come by" (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 28 March and 4 April 2005). The identification of U.S. assets in Iran, furthermore, may explain repeated hints by Iranian officials that they identified and fed false information to individuals spying on Iran's nuclear program. BS
OVER 100 IRAQIS KILLED IN TWO SUICIDE BOMB ATTACKS
Insurgents in Iraq killed between 120-150 Iraqis in suicide attacks in Karbala and Al-Ramadi on 5 January, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Some 50 Shi'ite pilgrims were killed and more than 130 wounded in Karbala when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the Al-Qiblah Gate outside the Imam Hussein Shrine. At least 80 Sunni Arabs were killed and 61 wounded outside an police recruitment center in Al-Ramadi, when two suicide bombers detonated explosive vests among a line of 1,000 men lined up outside the building to apply for jobs, washingtonpost.com quoted a local doctor as saying. The doctor said that tribal leaders on site to supervise the recruitment of local residents were among those killed. A U.S. military statement posted to centcom.mil said 30 Iraqi men were killed in the attack. The statement added that the first three days of the four-day recruitment drive that began on 2 January had produced 600 qualified applicants. Media reports indicated that Sunni Arabs in Al-Ramadi were quick to blame terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi for the attack; the city was formerly known as a safe haven for al-Zarqawi, but local support for his Al-Qaeda organization in recent months has dropped significantly. KR
SUNNI ARAB GROUPS CONDEMN BOMBINGS IN IRAQ
Sunni Arab leaders across Iraq condemned the 5 January attacks, saying they were aimed at escalating ethnic tensions in the country, Iraqi media reported. The Muslim Scholars Association condemned the attacks and urged citizens to be vigilant against terrorism, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Meanwhile, the Iraqi Islamic Party called on Iraqis to close ranks, the satellite news channel reported. "I call on the political authorities not to exploit these [terrorist] incidents.... We all seek to achieve calm, stability, and security in Iraq," Accordance Front leader Adnan al-Dulaymi told Al-Arabiyah television. KR
IRAQI ELECTORAL COMMISSION SAYS FINAL RESULTS WITHIN FOUR DAYS
The Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission (IECI) announced on 5 January that the final results of the 15 December parliamentary elections will be announced "within four days," RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. IECI member Abd al-Husayn al-Hindawi said that the commission will only release uncertified results, adding that the final certified results are expected to be released around 20 January. The IECI announced on 4 January that it was working with the International Mission for Iraqi Elections in Baghdad to provide the mission with information on IECI procedures carried out before and during the election. KR
ISLAMIC ARMY IN IRAQ CLAIMS ATTACK ON FUEL CONVOY
The Islamic Army in Iraq claimed responsibility for the 4 January attack on a fuel convoy north of Baghdad that destroyed 20 tanker trucks in a 5 January statement posted to its website (http://iairaqws.temp.powweb.com). The statement said that the group attacked the convoy in Al-Mushahidah. "They followed that by destroying the forces that were sent to save the convoy," the statement added. International media reported that the 60-truck convoy was attacked as it traveled from the Bayji refinery to Baghdad. The refinery was closed on 21 December due to insurgent threats against its workers and attacks on its pipelines; It reopened on 1 January after the government vowed to provide additional security to truck drivers (see "Iraq: Oil Woes Continue," rferl.org, 4 January 2005). KR
IRAQI GOVERNMENT COMMEMORATES ARMY DAY
The outgoing transitional Iraqi government marked Army Day on 6 January with a ceremony at a fairground near the monument of the unknown soldier, inside Baghdad's Green Zone, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. The one-hour ceremony was attended by 150 guests and dignitaries including Defense Minister Sa'dun al-Dulaymi and Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, as well as U.S. Ambassador Khalilzad. RFI reported that several mortar rounds were heard as the ceremony got under way. This year's Army Day marks the 85th anniversary of the founding of the Iraqi army. KR