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Newsline - January 9, 2006


TALKS BETWEEN MOSCOW AND TEHRAN TO CONTINUE
A spokesman for Iran's National Security Council said in Tehran on 9 January that the latest round of Russian-Iranian talks on nuclear issues has concluded in a "positive" fashion and will continue on 16 February in Moscow, dpa reported. The spokesman did not elaborate. Russia has proposed that Tehran carry out uranium enrichment on its territory and then transfer the fuel to Iran to allay Western fears that the technology could allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons. But Iran reaffirmed on 7 January that it will resume its nuclear-fuel research program, which has been suspended for more than two years due to Western concerns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2006). PM

RUSSIA REJECTS U.S. CRITICISM OVER UKRAINE
The Foreign Ministry said in a statement on 7 January that it does not accept a recent statement by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Russia sought to pressure Ukraine in the recent gas price dispute for political reasons, regnum.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2006). "The agreement reached on Russia's initiative in bilateral format with Ukraine lays the basis for stable...supplies of Russian gas to Europe in the long [term] and is an important contribution to providing energy security for the European continent," the statement claimed. It added that Moscow "cannot agree with [Rice's] opinion that Russian activities [are not in keeping] with its status as a G-8 member... Without even mentioning the Russian-Ukrainian agreement, Ms. Rice [in effect] accused Russia of politically motivated actions." The statement concluded that "it is not at all clear on what her assertions are based." PM

GERMAN CHANCELLOR HAS 'CONCERNS' ABOUT RUSSIA
Chancellor Angela Merkel told the weekly "Der Spiegel" of 9 January that she hopes that Russia will take as democratic a path of development as possible. She added that one must understand the traditions from which Russia is emerging and be careful not to "systematically transfer our understanding of democracy" to Russian conditions. Merkel noted, however, that "there are developments [in Russia] that cause me concern, such as the new legislation regarding NGOs." She argued that the lesson for her country of the recent Russian-Ukrainian gas price dispute is that Germany needs to have "good, stable relations with Russia," but also to diversify its energy sources so as not to be dependent on any particular supplier. It will be necessary to import Russian gas, but that must not be the only or primary source of Germany's energy supplies, Merkel argued. She described German-American relations as "friendship" because they are deeply rooted in "the normal lives of the people." She used the term "strategic partnership" for Berlin's ties to Moscow, however, adding that "we do not yet share as many values with Russia as with America" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2005 and 6 January 2006). PM

RUSSIAN OFFICIALS DIFFER OVER TRAVEL TO TURKEY
Gennadii Onishchenko, who heads the State Health Inspectorate, told RTR state television on 8 January that Russian citizens should avoid traveling to Turkey on account of the recent outbreak of bird flu there, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. He called on regional health officials to more closely monitor the travels of people to and from countries bordering Turkey, especially Armenia. Onishchenko said he is "worried because of [Turkey's] direct proximity to our borders. Secondly, we will be witnessing an increase in the human [non-bird] flu rate this January. Under these circumstances, this kind of [bird] flu may be carried to our territory. Specialists are closely watching the bird flu situation in countries bordering on Turkey and Russia, primarily Armenia." But a spokeswoman for the Russian tourist industry told ITAR-TASS that Onishchenko's warning is "not very relevant" because Russian tourists going to Turkey in winter tend to go to ski resorts, which are far from the areas where bird flu has been reported. PM

AZERBAIJAN RAISES DIESEL, HEATING OIL PRICES
Azerbaijan's State Oil Company announced on 6 January increases of 100 percent or more, effective immediately, in the retail prices of diesel fuel, kerosene, and domestic heating oil, day.az reported. Diesel will now cost not 18 gyapiks but 36 gyapiks per liter (100 gyapiks = 1 redenominated manat = $0.9186). The rationale cited for the price increase was to bring domestic prices in Azerbaijan closer to world market levels and to deter the illegal export of gasoline. Economic Development Minister Geidar Babaev told journalists on 7 January that the price hikes will impact on the rate of inflation, but the effect will not be "serious," day.az reported. On 7 January, some owners of minibus taxis that shuttle between the Baku city outskirts and outlying villages spontaneously decided to double their fares, and announced a protest strike after passengers refused to pay the increased rate. The municipal transport department intervened to defuse the situation, day.az reported on 9 January. LF

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PARTY SPLITS
Supporters of former Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) chairman Etibar Mamedov, who now occupies the honorary post of party leader, and of Mamedov's successor as party chairman, Ali Aliev, convened rival meetings on 8 January, day.az reported. Aliev told his supporters, who met on the premises of the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, that Mamedov has sought to discredit him ever since his election in March 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February and 15 March 2005). He accused Mamedov of collaborating with the Azerbaijani authorities and of seeking to split the Azerbaijani opposition, and he decried the stated intention of some of Mamedov's camp to participate in the repeat voting in May 2006 in 10 constituencies where the outcome of the 6 November parliamentary election was invalidated. Mamedov in turn accused Aliev of trying to marginalize AMIP and "to break me morally." The meeting of Mamedov's supporters unanimously voted no confidence in Aliev. Mamedov told journalists an emergency congress will be held soon to elect a new chairman, but that he does not intend to compete for that post. LF

AZERBAIJAN, GEORGIA DENY REPORTS OF BIRD FLU
Tests conducted on dead poultry in the southern Azerbaijani region of Masally have shown that the cause of death was not bird flu, Emin Shahbazi, deputy head of the State Veterinary Service, told RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service on 6 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2006). On 7 January, the chairman of the Georgian Food and Agriculture Ministry's Veterinary Department, Djambul Maghlaperidze, told Caucasus Press that on 6 January he visited a farm in the village of Shroma in Lagodekhi, eastern Georgia, where several birds were reported to have succumbed to bird flu. He said such reports proved untrue and there is "no cause for panic." On 9 January, the Veterinary Department similarly reported that the deaths of 40 birds in three villages in the western Georgian region of Imereti were the result of Newcastle disease, not of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu, Caucasus Press reported. LF

SOUTH OSSETIA PUBLISHES 'BLACKLIST' OF GEORGIAN OFFICIALS...
The leadership of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia released on 4 January an expanded version of its list of Georgian officials whose actions or statements it considers criminal, Caucasus Press reported. The initial list contained five names, and the expanded one 28, two of whom are dead, according to Prime News. Heading the list is Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, followed by Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili and Mikheil Kareli, governor of the region of Shida Kartli that theoretically encompasses South Ossetia. Okruashvili, who is believed to be behind the abortive attack by Georgian forces on South Ossetia in August 2004 and the mortar attack on Tskhinvali in September 2005, was said to have merited the death penalty. On 7 January, South Ossetian Interior Minister Mikhail Mindzaev said all the officials on the list, including Okruashvili and Merabishvili, will be arrested if they attempt to enter South Ossetian territory, Caucasus Press reported. LF

...DECLINES INVITATION TO TBILISI TALKS
On 5 January, South Ossetian Minister for Special Assignments Boris Chochiev was named a deputy prime minister and designated chief negotiator for talks on resolving the unrecognized republic's conflict with the central Georgian government, Caucasus Press reported. On 7 January, Caucasus Press quoted Chochiev as having written to Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava declining the latter's invitation to attend a session in Tbilisi on 18-20 January of the four-party Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring security in the South Ossetian conflict zone (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2006). Chochiev said South Ossetia considers it ill-advised to hold the meeting in Tbilisi in light of unspecified belligerent statements by Okruashvili and Merabishvili, and he proposed Vladikavkaz, capital of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, as an alternative venue. Meanwhile, Okruashvili told the independent Georgian television station Rustavi-2 on 4 January that the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone has demonstrated its ineffectiveness, and that when the deadline set last year by the Georgian parliament expires next month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 October 2005), the legislature will demand the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal, Caucasus Press reported. LF

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION PARTY ASSAILS RUMORED SALE OF GAS PIPELINE
The opposition Republican party released a statement on 6 January deploring statements by government officials that suggest willingness to sell to Russia's state-controlled Gazprom the gas pipeline linking Russia and Armenia via Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. Energy Minister Nika Gilauri told a government session on 28 December that privatization of that state-owned pipeline "is under consideration," but that no decision has yet been made, Civil Georgia reported on 30 December. The Republican party accused the Georgian government of ineptness in its negotiations with Gazprom that culminated in an agreement by Tbilisi to purchase Russian gas at a price of $110 per 1,000 cubic meters as of 1 January 2006, compared with the previous price of $63 per 1,000 cubic meters, and compared the higher price unfavorably with the compromise reached last week between Ukraine and Gazprom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2006). In an article published on 9 January in the "Washington Post," Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili condemned what he termed Russia's manipulation of energy supplies and resources in an attempt to control supplies to former Soviet republics. He said Gazprom sabotaged a preliminary agreement Tbilisi reached last fall to buy Kazakh gas at lower prices by refusing to allow Kazakhstan to transport the gas to Georgia via Russian territory. LF

GEORGIAN DEMOCRATIC FRONT AGAIN REJECTS DECLARATION OF NATIONAL CONSENSUS
The opposition Democratic Front parliament faction will not accede to the revised version of the Declaration on National Accord and Conciliation presented by speaker Nino Burdjanadze, faction member Kakha Kukava told Caucasus Press on 6 January. The revised declaration was drafted by deputies from President Saakashvili's United National Movement, according to Caucasus Press on 30 December. It lists primary development objectives for 2006-2010, and mentions among foreign policy goals integration into NATO and the EU. The heads of all parliamentary parties and factions are required to sign the declaration. The Democratic Front and the opposition New Rightists declined in November to sign the initial draft of the declaration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 November and 6 December 2005). LF

DIRECT FLIGHT NOW LINKS KAZAKH-AFGHAN CAPITALS
A civilian passenger aircraft landed at Almaty airport on 7 January, marking the start of a new direct air link between Kazakhstan and Afghanistan, Khabar TV reported. Carrying a group of more than 60 Afghan businessmen and government officials, the inaugural flight signified a new effort to expand bilateral trade and commerce. A weekly direct flight by an Afghan Boeing 737-800 will link the two capitals, with flights from Kabul serving Almaty from the Middle East and originating in Almaty to Europe and Asia. Kazakhstan is home to the largest Afghan population in the former Soviet Union. RG

KAZAKHSTAN ADOPTS NEW NATIONAL ANTHEM
The Kazakh parliament adopted a set of amendments on 6 January to the country's law on state symbols approving a new national anthem, ITAR-TASS and Kazinform reported. The new Kazakh national anthem, titled "Menin Kazakhstanym" (My Kazakhstan), was originally written in 1956 but includes changes to the lyrics by President Nursultan Nazarbaev. According to unnamed officials of the Kazakh Economy and Budget Planning Ministry, some 204 million tenge ($1.5 million) has been allocated for the formal introduction of the new national anthem. The new law also sets forth instructions on proper etiquette and behavior during the playing of the new state anthem, including requiring listeners to stand and salute in public. RG

KAZAKH CASPIAN PORT SUFFERS MAJOR OIL SPILL
An Azerbaijani-registered oil tanker spilled more than a ton of oil into the Caspian Sea at the Kazakh port of Aktau on 6 January, Interfax reported. The Kazakh Emergency Situations Ministry responded by trying to enclose the immediate area and launching cleanup operations. The immediate environmental damage from the spill has not yet been determined. RG

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT ASSESSES DEFENSE REFORMS
In a televised meeting in Bishkek on 8 January, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev praised the pace of defense reform and modernization within the Kyrgyz armed forces, Kyrgyz Television reported. Bakiev noted an increase in the army's combat readiness, a significant improvement in living conditions, and a demonstrable increase in unit morale. Bakiev praised Defense Minister Lieutenant General Ismail Isakov for what he described as effective defense reforms. RG

KYRGYZ FOREIGN MINISTER CALLS FOR GREATER ECONOMIC TIES WITH RUSSIA
Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov called on 6 January for greater economic cooperation with Russia and welcomed Russian investment in the country, ITAR-TASS reported. Jekshenkulov added that Kyrgyzstan is particularly interested in jointly developing its "strategically important industrial facilities with the participation of Russia," and he praised Russian investment in two of the country's major hydroelectric power stations. RG

FIRE AT TAJIK ORPHANAGE KILLS 13 CHILDREN...
A fire broke out at a Tajik orphanage in Dushanbe early on 8 January, killing at least 13 children and leaving at least one other with injuries, RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Tajik Radio reported. The fire totally engulfed the building, which houses about 95 mentally handicapped children. Initial reports suggested an electrical problem sparked the blaze, and an investigation was launched into its cause. The chief of the Tajik fire service, Nazarboi Jangiev, said the management of the orphanage was fined last year for not abiding by fire-prevention regulations, according to RFE/RL's Tajik Service. District prosecutors have opened a criminal case against the home's economic director on charges of negligence, RFE/RL reported. RG

...LEADING SOME TO QUESTION OFFICIAL RESPONSE TO BLAZE
Tajik fire chief Jangiev on 9 January rejected suggestions that firefighters were slow to react to the blaze, RFE/RL reported. Jangiev said a call reporting the fire came only an hour after it had broken out, adding that seven fire brigades were at the scene five minutes after the call was received. A witness who said she and her family helped evacuate children was quoted by RFE/RL's Tajik Service on 8 January as saying firefighters arrived only after all the survivors had been evacuated. The children's home's director, Sadullo Yatimov, said on 9 January that his employees had called the fire department immediately after seeing the blaze. AH

TAJIK PRESIDENT CONVENES EMERGENCY CABINET MEETING
Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov responded to the tragic orphanage fire by convening an emergency cabinet meeting in Dushanbe on 8 January, according to ITAR-TASS. Rakhmonov formed a special state commission to investigate the fire and authorized it to provide immediate assistance to the survivors and their families. Tajik Health Minister Nusratullo Faizullaev officially confirmed the deaths of 13 children in the fire and reported that 79 children were rescued, with one survivor with second-degree burns undergoing treatment at a burn-treatment facility. Assistance was being distributed on 8 January by soldiers from the Russian military base in Tajikistan under the direction of base commander General Sergei Yudin, with a pledge of additional funds to be raised on the base for the purchase of clothes and food for the displaced orphans. RG

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE MEETS WITH POLISH PREMIER
Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the Belarusian united opposition candidate for the presidential election on 19 March, met with Polish Prime Minister Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz in Bialystok, northeastern Poland, on 6 January, PAP and Belapan reported. Marcinkiewicz said Warsaw wants to support Belarus by launching a radio station and by sending observers for the presidential election. Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Anna Fotyga said the previous day in the Senate that within the next two months the government will open a radio station to broadcast to Belarus. Fotyga added that the station, financed from NGO and government funds, will broadcast in Belarusian and Polish and address its programs primarily to Belarus' Polish minority. Warsaw-based "Gazeta Wyborcza" wrote on 7 January that the station will be available on the ultrahigh- and medium-frequency bands. The daily added that the station's UHF signal is to be receivable in most localities in the western part of Belarus. JM

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT MULLS COOPERATION WITH GAZPROM EXECUTIVE
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka met with Gazprom deputy chief Aleksandr Medvedev in Minsk on 8 January, Belapan reported, quoting the presidential press service. Lukashenka and Medvedev reportedly agreed that Beltranshaz, Belarus's national gas pipeline operator, and Gazprom will set up a special working group to consider cooperation areas, including the expansion of the capacity of Belarus's underground gas storage facilities to up to 1 billion cubic meters and an increase in the transit of Russian gas to Europe via Belarus. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT LAUDS GAS DEAL WITH RUSSIA AS 'BRILLIANT ACHIEVEMENT'
President Viktor Yushchenko said on Ukraine's NTN television channel on 7 January that last week's deal on gas supplies to Ukraine between Russia's Gazprom, Ukraine's Naftohaz Ukrayiny, and the Swiss-based RosUkrEnergo company (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2006) is a "brilliant achievement," Interfax-Ukraine reported. "Only those who do not understand anything about the gas issue may criticize [the deal]," Yushchenko noted. "Ukraine got the prize of $95 [for 1,000 cubic meters of gas]. Look at the map of Europe. Who else has got such a price? What have we surrendered? Nothing." Meanwhile, critics of the five-year gas deal maintain that the price of $95 per 1,000 cubic meters is valid only for the first six months of 2006 and will be revised upward in the second half of the year, while the cost of Russian gas transit across Ukraine -- $1.6 per 1,000 cubic meters per 100 kilometers -- was set until 2011. "Ukraine and its energy diplomacy made a strategic mistake; the night of 3-4 January [when the gas deal was worked out] was a Pearl Harbor for the Ukrainian diplomatic service," former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Oleksandr Chalyy told the BBC on 6 December. "The consequences [of the deal] will be disastrous, particularly in the second half of the year," he added. JM

UKRAINIAN COURT OPENS TRIAL OF GONGADZE'S SUSPECTED KILLERS
The Kyiv Appellate Court on 9 January opened hearings in the case involving the murder of Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze in 2000, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Journalists have been barred from the proceedings, which concern three former police officers -- Mykola Protasov, Valeriy Kostenko, and Oleksandr Popovych -- suspected of killing the journalist. "I've spent a lot of time in the Prosecutor-General's Office reading files of the case and I think that these people are guilty of perpetrating the murder," Myroslava Gongadze, the widow of Heorhiy Gongadze, told journalists before the hearings. "But I think this is insufficient, since these people had no personal motives for killing Heorhiy, they were just fulfilling a criminal order." Meanwhile, Lesya Gongadze, the mother of the slain journalist, told journalists that she does not consider it necessary to attend the trial. "The hearings in the case are the same game that has been played by five prosecutors-general in a row," the "Ukrayinska pravda" (http://www.pravda.com.ua) website quoted her as saying. JM

EUFOR DEFENDS ACTIONS IN FATAL SHOOTING
EU peacekeepers (EUFOR) defended their actions in killing the wife of a war crimes suspect during a raid, saying the woman had opened fire on them first with an automatic weapon, Reuters reported on 6 January. Rada Abazovic died of kidney and abdominal wounds after a shootout with EUFOR peacekeepers who had come to arrest her husband, Dragomir Abazovic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2006). According to a statement released by EUFOR, when troops attempted to apprehend Abazovic, his wife and 11-year-old son opened fire with AK-47 assault rifles. "She was immobilized by a EUFOR soldier with one shot. The boy who had also been firing at EUFOR was also shot and immobilized," the EUFOR statement said. Rada Abazovic later died of her wounds. Her husband, who shot himself but survived, was arrested. Bosnian Serb President Dragan Cavic has condemned the shooting and called for an investigation. High Representative Paddy Ashdown expressed regret for the loss of life but defended the peacekeepers. "People must understand that if they open fire on the security forces, there are consequences," Ashdown said. BW

SERBIAN GOVERNMENT ADOPTS KOSOVA PLATFORM FOR TALKS
The Serbian government adopted its official platform for final-status talks for Kosova on 5 January, calling for the province to remain in Serbia with broad autonomy, Beta and B92 reported the next day. The platform, adopted at a meeting of senior government officials in Belgrade, also calls for a Serbian entity in Kosova and for the protection of Orthodox Churches and monasteries. The meeting also named the team that will represent Serbia at the United Nations-sponsored negotiations in Vienna in late January. BW

SERBIAN PRESIDENT ATTENDS KRAVICA MEMORIAL
Serbian President Boris Tadic attended a memorial service in the Bosnian village of Kravica on 6 January to commemorate the deaths of Serbs killed in the 1992-95 war, dpa reported the same day. "The whole world, not only us, should know about the suffering of our people. We have a right to that because of those who lost their lives in the war," Tadic wrote in the guest book at the local Commemoration Center. Troops led by Naser Oric raided the Serb-dominated village of Kravica on Orthodox Christmas in 1993. They were accompanied by Muslim civilians from the Srebrenica area in search of food. Bosnian Serbs say 49 civilians were killed, while Bosnian Muslims say 39 Serbs died and that all were members of paramilitary forces. In July 2005, Tadic also attended a memorial marking the 10th anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, in which Serbian militias systematically massacred some 8,000, mostly Muslim, men and boys in July 1995 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 July 2005). BW

ART THIEVES IN SERBIA STEAL REMBRANDT, THREE OTHER PAINTINGS
Art thieves stole four paintings, including a Rembrandt, from a museum in the Serbian city of Novy Sad on 8 January, dpa reported the next day, citing the daily newspaper "Blic." The thieves reportedly broke into the museum in the morning as guards were changing shifts. The stolen paintings, which Serbian authorities say are worth millions of dollars, include Rembrandt van Rijn's "Portrait of Father" and Peter Paul Rubens' "Seneca." Serbian police, who say they are investigating whether the theft was orchestrated from abroad, are stepping up border checks. BW

SERBIAN ORTHODOX LEADER IN CROATIA CALLS FOR RETURN OF REFUGEES
During a Christmas service on 7 January, Metropolitan Jovan Pavlovic, the leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church in Croatia, called on Zagreb to facilitate the return of ethnic Serbian refugees, Hina reported the same day. Pavlovic also appealed to the Croatian authorities to protect the Orthodox Church, which he claimed is under threat. "I appeal for ensuring the legal protection to the clergy, faithful, and facilities of the Serb Orthodox Church that are again exposed to threats and attacks, notably in Dalmatia," Pavlovic said during a Christmas service. Police in Zagreb said on 8 January that they are investigating an attack on a 75-year-old man who was assaulted after leaving Christmas mass, Hina reported the same day. BW

MOLDOVA SEEKS GRADUAL PRICE HIKE FOR GAS, THREATENS TO RAISE TRANSIT FEES
Moldova Gaz CEO Gennadii Abashkin said on 6 January that Chisinau plans to insist on a gradual price increase for natural gas in its negotiations with Gazprom, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. Abashkin also said that Moldova will raise transit costs for gas if Gazprom insists on the higher price. "If gas prices double for Moldova, then for purely technical reasons [Moldova] will have to increase charges on gas transited to Balkan countries," Abashkin said. In talks in Moscow, Moldovan negotiators failed to reach an agreement with Gazprom, which is seeking to double the price of natural gas, from $80 per 1,000 cubic meters to $160 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 and 6 January 2006). BW

There is no End Note today.


AFGHAN PRESIDENT INVITES FORMER TALIBAN LEADER TO PEACE TALKS
President Hamid Karzai said on 8 January that several hundred former Taliban fighters have accepted his government's reconciliation offer and he suggested that Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar should "get in touch" if he wants to discuss peace, AP reported on 9 January. While leaving the possibility of talks with Omar open, Karzai told AP that he does not think the leader of the former Taliban regime will be making peace. "He has so much on his hands against Afghanistan," Karzai said of Omar. In May 2004, the Afghan government established the Commission for Strengthening Peace and Stability to coordinate its reconciliation program with the neo-Taliban and other antigovernment forces. While the commission has claimed success in offering amnesty to neo-Taliban fighters willing to renounce their opposition to the government, the neo-Taliban leadership has consistently rejected such overtures (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 November 2005). AT

FORMER AFGHAN PRIME MINISTER HEKMATYAR ENCOURAGES JIHAD
In a message commemorating the end of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca dated 8 January and published by the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP), former Afghan Prime Minister and Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar writes that it is "incumbent on every Afghan" to engage in jihad until "all occupation forces are driven out" of Afghanistan and "an Islamic system is established" in that country "in accordance with the people's wishes." In his message, Hekmatyar claims that the foreign aid provided to nongovernmental groups in Afghanistan is aimed at "converting Afghans to Christianity and spreading moral corruption." He writes that the United States is trying to force Pakistan to "give up" its struggle with India over Kashmir "in return" for making the Durand Line -- a disputed boundary between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- "permanent." The Durand Line -- named after Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, the British signatory to the 1893 agreement that demarcated the border between Afghanistan and British India -- has never been officially recognized by Afghanistan and has been at the core of disagreements between Afghanistan and Pakistan since the creation of Pakistan in 1947 (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 2 January 2003). AT

RELIGIOUS SCHOLARS IN NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN SEEK BAN ON NON-ISLAMIC RELIGIOUS CELEBRATIONS
The Council of Ulema of Konduz Province has issued a resolution that characterizes non-Islamic religious celebrations as against Islamic law, Sheberghan-based Aina TV reported on 8 January. "Celebration of ridiculous festivals such as Christmas, the Christian New Year, and Indian holidays is against Shari'a law and means the propagation of other religions," the resolution stated, according to Aina. Konduz Governor Mohammad Omar has sought to stress the importance of respect for the religious festivals of other faiths. "In my opinion, we should respect other religions so that they respect ours," Mohammad Omar told the Konduz Council of Ulema, adding that Islam teaches respect toward other faiths. AT

KARZAI REITERATES POSITION ON RECOGNITION OF ISRAEL
President Karzai said in Kabul on 8 January that his government will establish diplomatic ties with Israel once the Palestinians have established their own state, AP reported. "Israelis are people like we are," Karzai said. "If I have the right to live, and have a home, and have a country, Israel has the right to live and have a country." Karzai also expressed the wish that God might grant ailing Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "a longer life." Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev welcomed Karzai's remarks, "The Jerusalem Post" reported on 8 January. Karzai first discussed the possibility of Kabul's formal recognition of Jerusalem in an interview with Israeli journalists in Kabul in October (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 28 November 2005). AT

IRANIAN, RUSSIAN OFFICIALS DISCUSS ENRICHMENT PROPOSALS
Iranian and Russian diplomats met in Tehran on 7 and 8 January to discuss details of a Russian proposal on Russian uranium enrichment on behalf of Iran before adjourning until further talks in Moscow on 16 February, ISNA reported, quoting Supreme National Security Council spokesman Hussein Entezami. Entezami said at the close of an evening session with Russian officials that "after two days, these talks ended tonight with a third session and some agreements. The Russian team tried...to set out the details and ambiguities of their proposed idea." He stressed that the discussions with Moscow are unrelated to ongoing talks with the EU or to Tehran's dealings with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), ISNA reported. Earlier the same day, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak met with Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, who contrasted Russia's perceived willingness to resolve nuclear-related problems within the framework of the IAEA with the United States' view "of the progress of relations between Iran and Russia in various areas that has always been based on resisting and weakening the influence and interests of" both states, IRNA reported. Iranian officials, Mottaki said, "will examine the detailed Russian proposal and announce their opinions and suggestions." VS

IRAN CALLS NUCLEAR TALKS 'POSITIVE'
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said in Tehran on 8 January that the 7-8 January talks with Russian officials were "positive" and could "yield proposals with potential," ISNA reported the same day. "The principle in negotiations is to accept Iran's rights and respect its rights," he said. He confirmed Iran is ready to resume research activities on 9 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 January 2006). "We have announced we are ready for this as of [9 January]," ISNA quoted him as saying. On 7 January, Supreme National Security Council spokesman Hussein Entezami told Reuters that IAEA officials arrived in Iran on 6 January to oversee the imminent resumption of research work. Assefi added on 8 January that research is not a part of Iran's intermittent talks with the EU but "one of the rights of Iran and other" Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) signatories, in line with IAEA rules. "Research has nothing to do with the production of nuclear fuel," he said, and in this case, it will "take place under [IAEA] supervision," ISNA reported. He declined to elaborate on intended research work: "Research has its own definition. We, the Agency and the Europeans know it, and there is no need to discuss it," he told journalists. VS

IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER TALKS WITH TURKISH, VENEZUELAN OFFICIALS
Foreign Minister Mottaki has informed Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul by telephone that Iran's decision to resume nuclear research "is not the subject of talks between Iran and Europe, and has nothing to do with the nuclear fuel cycle," ISNA reported on 8 January. Mottaki reportedly thanked Turkey for its "positions and vigilance in the face of targeted Western publicity," and refusal to be swayed by "media processes" in its relations with Tehran, ISNA reported. Mottaki met separately in Tehran with Venezuela's deputy foreign minister for Asian, Middle Eastern, and Pacific affairs, Alcides Rondon Rivero, telling him that "the current movement" in Venezuela has given Latin America "self-belief and confidence," IRNA reported. Mottaki said Iran is ready to transfer a century of experience in the oil industry to Venezuela. Rondon said Iran's civilization, "wise leadership and revolutionary process" could provide a "model" for Venezuela, which sees Iran as a "trustworthy partner and colleague." Iran, he said, should view Venezuela as its "gateway to Latin America," ISNA reported. Also on 8 January, Mottaki named Morteza Saffari-Natanzi as the head of the Foreign Ministry's Commonwealth of Independent States department, IRNA reported. VS

IRANIAN OFFICIALS SEND CONTRADICTORY MESSAGES AFTER BIRD-FLU OUTBREAK IN NEIGHBORING TURKEY
Border officials at the Bazargan crossing on the Iran-Turkey border reportedly announced a ban on the entry into Iran of Turkish passengers and cars from 7 January in response to a bird-flu outbreak in Turkey, Radio Farda reported on 8 January. But Foreign Ministry spokesman Assefi said on 8 January that "Iran's frontier with Turkey is not shut, and there is only supervision including a ban on the entry of birds from that country.... Iranian nationals should not where possible travel to areas in Turkey where they are liable to infection," ISNA reported. Assefi added that there are no concerns over bird flu spreading to Iran, adding that the cabinet discussed the threat on 7 January and is taking unspecified precautionary measures, ISNA added. There have been several human deaths and at least a dozen people have been diagnosed as having bird flu in Turkey over the past week. VS

U.S. FORCES RAID OFFICES OF IRAQ'S MUSLIM SCHOLARS ASSOCIATION
U.S. forces, backed by helicopters, raided the offices of the Sunni Arab Muslim Scholars Association in Baghdad on 8 January, detaining six people in what the military described as an antiterrorist operation, Reuters reported the same day. The raid was carried out at the Umm Al-Qura Mosque complex after an informant's tip suggested "substantial terrorist-related activity" there, according to Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson. Association spokesman Muthanna Harith al-Dari told reporters that U.S. forces drew crosses on some of the walls in the office, a claim that Johnson denied. Association head Harith al-Dari spoke recently of that group's ties to the insurgency, telling Al-Arabiyah television in an 11 December interview: "We are close to [insurgents] in terms of spirit and goal. But we are not their leaders or instructors.... We support them with heart and soul, and we share with them the same goal of liberating Iraq." KR

U.K. FOREIGN SECRETARY MEETS WITH IRAQI PRIME MINISTER
U.K. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari met with reporters in Baghdad on 7 January following a meeting in the capital to discuss security and other issues, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. Straw told reporters that U.K. policy on troop levels in Iraq remains aligned with U.S. policies, stressing that any troop withdrawal will be contingent on the Iraqi military's readiness to assume responsibility for security. "We were hoping to see a gradual withdrawal of British forces in parts of the south in a matter of months, not weeks," Straw said, adding that such withdrawal is conditional on the Iraqi government "being satisfied that it was safe for this process to begin." Asked by RFI to comment on the recent surge in terrorist attacks, al-Ja'fari said, "The larger the political accomplishment that we achieve, the larger the reactions that we can expect," adding, "Every political accomplishment is accompanied by challenges posed by opposing forces." Al-Ja'fari noted that similar attacks took place in the period surrounding the January 2004 elections, adding: "The political process is advancing even though terrorism is trying to swoop down on it." KR

U.S. REPORTEDLY IN TALKS WITH IRAQI 'NATIONAL RESISTANCE' GROUPS...
An unidentified Western diplomat told nytimes.com that the U.S. administration has entered into "significant" talks with members of the Iraqi national resistance in an effort to draw them into the political process and elicit their support for the defeat of Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents, the website reported on 7 January. The diplomat said the talks, which began in October, are taking place inside and outside Iraq. The website quoted Tariq al-Hashimi, head of the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party, as saying that he does not believe the talks are making much progress. It also quoted al-Hashimi as saying he has occasional contacts with insurgent leaders and asked them not to launch attacks during the 15 December elections. KR

...AS IRAQI ISLAMIC PARTY DENIES REPORT
In a 7 January interview with Al-Jazeera television, Tariq al-Hashimi denied the claims made by nytimes.com about his role in purported talks with national resistance leaders. "The report spoke about two issues. The first issue has to do with the existence of periodic meetings between me and the leaders of the resistance.... The second thing is that I have not asked the resistance or any other side to maintain order on the day of elections.... The two [claims] are utterly baseless," al-Hashimi said. "We do not say that we do not know the resistance. However, we say that we do not have political relations with them at this time. They are independent and have their own spokesman and their political plan. We have our own political plan. If the parties concerned find that the Iraqi Islamic Party could be a bridge for talks with the other side, then we will study this request and make a decision about it." KR

FORMER CPA HEAD SAYS POOR MILITARY PLANNING AIDED INSURGENCY
Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the former head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq, told U.S.-based NBC news in an interview that aired on 7 January that poor military planning affected the postwar environment in Iraq. Bremer said that numerous memos sent to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on military-related issues went unanswered, including a 2003 assessment that 500,000 soldiers would be needed in Iraq to bring order to the country. He added that he also raised questions with President George W. Bush and Rumsfeld over the readiness of Iraqi forces to assume responsibility for security in Iraq. NBC noted that in his new book, "My Year in Iraq: The Struggle to Build a Future of Hope," Bremer wrote that he sent a message to Rumsfeld in May 2004 requesting additional U.S. troops but never got a reply. Asked by NBC if the war should have happened, Bremer said: "I think this had to happen. In my view, the president made the correct judgment.... It would be a mistake of historic proportions for us to leave before we finish the job." The Pentagon did not respond to NBC's request for comment on Bremer's criticism of Rumsfeld. KR

FRENCH HOSTAGE FREED IN IRAQ
French hostage Bernard Planche managed to flee his abductors on 7 January after one month in captivity, international media reported. French Foreign Affairs Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said that Planche escaped after his abductors fled a vehicle during a road check by coalition forces. A group identifying itself as the Surveillance for the Sake of Iraq Brigade claimed to have kidnapped Planche on 5 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 December 2005). KR

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