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Newsline - January 17, 2006


GERMAN CHANCELLOR MAKES HER MOSCOW DEBUT
Chancellor Angela Merkel met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on 16 January for the latest in a series of inaugural foreign trips she has made since taking office in November, Russian and German media reported. She noted the "breathtaking increase" in bilateral trade, the volume of which grew in 2005 by 30 percent to a record level of $32 billion. Both leaders stressed that they want to maintain good ties despite the departure of former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who was known as a close ally and personal friend of Putin. Merkel called for the development of a "strategic partnership" between Moscow and Berlin as she and Putin discussed Iran, the Middle East, the Balkans, Russia's current Group of Eight (G-8) presidency, and energy issues, including the controversial North European pipeline project agreed by Putin and Schroeder in 2005. Putin assured her of the reliability of Russian gas deliveries, which has come into question since the recent Russian-Ukrainian gas price dispute. Merkel broke with Schroeder's practices by raising issues on which she is critical of Moscow's policies, such as Chechnya and the North Caucasus and Russia's controversial legislation on NGOs. She also met with some prominent critics of Putin's rule, which Schroeder refused to do. Merkel will attend the special Russian-German consultations in Tomsk in April. Putin has been invited to the international air show in Berlin in May, and another round of consultations will take place in Dresden in October (see End Note below). PM

PUTIN URGES CAUTION ON IRAN...
President Putin said at a press conference in Moscow on 16 January that Russia has "proposed to our Iranian partners setting up a joint [uranium] enrichment venture on Russian territory," international news agencies reported. "We have heard various opinions from our Iranian partners on that issue. One such opinion has recently come from the [Iranian] Foreign Ministry. Our partners told us they did not exclude the implementation of our proposal. In any case, it's necessary to work carefully on the Iranian nuclear issue and avoid any sharp, erroneous moves," he added (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2006). He also noted that Moscow's position on the Iranian nuclear issue is "very close" to that of European countries and the United States. He stressed that "the key problem is uranium enrichment." Elsewhere, Iran's Ambassador to Russia Gholamreza Ansari said that his government considers Russia's enrichment proposal "constructive, and we are studying it now," ITAR-TASS reported. PM

...BUT SAYS RUSSIA 'CANNOT RULE OUT' TAKING IRANIAN ISSUE TO SECURITY COUNCIL
Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told reporters in Moscow on 13 January that sending Iran's nuclear dossier to the UN Security Council is at least a possibility, ITAR-TASS reported. "The situation as it is, I cannot rule out this scenario. It is quite possible," he said. "Tensions over Iran's nuclear dossier keep growing, and this cannot but cause alarm," Ivanov added. He suggested that the dossier will go before the Security Council "if Iran fails to reconsider its decision to go ahead with research and development and all other works related to the enrichment of uranium. In any case, we have urged Iran to [reconsider]." He did not indicate, however, that Russia has modified its stance in opposing any UN sanctions against Tehran. On 17 January, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow that "sanctions are not the best or only way to resolve international problems," Interfax reported. PM

MINISTER PLEDGES $5.8 BILLION ON ARMS SPENDING
Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Ivanov said in Obninsk in Kaluga Oblast southwest of Moscow on 17 January that the government will allocate about $5.8 billion to buy and maintain arms and military equipment in 2006, RIA-Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 January 2006). He added that the sum is about 70 percent of the total earmarked for defense contracts for the year. Ivanov is inspecting defense facilities in Kaluga Oblast. PM

PUTIN SIGNS LAW ON KALININGRAD OBLAST ZONE
President Putin signed into law on 17 January a measure extending the regime of the special economic zone in Russia's Kaliningrad Oblast exclave for 25 years, RFE/RL and RIA-Novosti reported. During the first six years of the renewed regime, participants in the special economic zone will be exempt from the profit tax and in the six subsequent years from 50 percent of it, according to the law passed by the State Duma on 23 December. No customs duties will have to be paid for goods imported into the Kaliningrad region for production during the first six years. Kaliningrad Oblast is sandwiched between EU members Lithuania and Poland. It has enjoyed special economic status since 1996. PM

GAZPROM HINTS AT HIGHER PRICES FOR UKRAINE
Gazprom chief executive Aleksei Miller told RTR state television on 15 January that his firm is participating directly in the RosUkrEnergo joint venture with Ukraine that sells Russian natural gas, ITAR-TASS reported. "The joint venture between Russia and Ukraine should be absolutely transparent. Gazprombank, a 100 percent subsidiary of Gazprom, represents Russia in the joint venture, and its activities are absolutely clear and transparent. Meanwhile, a foreign bank represents Ukraine. Russia has said many times that it would be better to make Gazprom and Naftohaz Ukrayiny the co-founders of the joint venture," Miller said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2006). Miller argued that Russian gas prices for Ukraine may vary depending on market conditions and petroleum product prices. "The current gas price for [what] Ukraine [gets in Russian gas] is $230 per 1,000 cubic meters. Bearing in mind the shift to market terms, gas prices for Ukraine may increase or go down. This is the market. The gas price is linked to prices for petroleum products and crude oil. So, Russian gas prices on the Ukrainian market may fluctuate," he said. Miller stressed that "the European market is the sole determinant of gas prices." PM

PUTIN SLAMS EU 'IMPERIALISM IN FOOTBALL'
President Putin said in Moscow on 15 January that the influence of the EU countries on international soccer tournaments amounts to "imperialism in football," Interfax and RFE/RL reported. Putin's comments came at a meeting with Joseph Blatter, the head of FIFA, world soccer's governing body. They followed complaints by Blatter that the EU is exerting too strong an influence on the sport. Blatter said it is wrong that the EU's 25 member states should dictate rules to the 207 countries who make up FIFA. Blatter also told Putin that he had held "extremely productive" talks with the heads of the soccer associations of the Commonwealth of Independent States and of the Baltic states on organizing a soccer competition among them. PM

RUSSIA PLANS TO FLY HAJJ PILGRIMS HOME
Russian hajj mission leader and State Duma Deputy Akhmed Bilalov told Interfax in Moscow on 16 January that Aeroflot is organizing a total of 20 Il-86 flights to bring over 8,000 Russian citizens now on the hajj from the Jordanian cities of Amman and Aqaba to Mineralnye Vody starting on 18 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2006). The Russian authorities note that many of the pilgrims passed through areas of eastern Turkey affected by bird flu en route to Mecca and they plan to submit returnees to a medical examination at the border or at airports. PM

MILITANTS IN DAGHESTANI CAPITAL ELUDE POLICE
Police and special forces in Makhachkala launched a special operation on 15 January with the aim of apprehending four suspected militants, but the latter managed to escape before police stormed the building where they were hiding, regnum.ru reported. In an operation in Daghestan's Sergokala district on 13 January, police killed two suspected members of a band of militants subordinate to Rappani Khalilov, including Shamil Abidov, wanted in connection with four terrorist acts in Makhachkala in 2003 that killed seven police officers and one civilian, kavkazweb.net reported on 15 January, citing kavkaz.memo.ru. LF

CHERKESS ORGANIZATIONS ACCUSE ADYGEYA'S SLAVS OF SOWING ETHNIC HATRED
Four public organizations representing the Cherkess community of the Republic of Adygeya have lodged a formal complaint with the republican prosecutor's office against what they consider "chauvinistic and xenophobic" statements made at a congress last month of the Union of Slavs of Adygeya, kavkazweb.net reported on 17 January, citing the "Caucasus Times." At that congress, the Slavs, who account for some 70 percent of the republic's total population of 445,000, pledged to renew their campaign to have Adygeya merged into the surrounding Krasnodar Krai and to arm themselves to defend their interests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 29 December 2005). LF

ARMENIA, RUSSIA AGREE TO POSTPONE GAS-PRICE INCREASE
Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian told journalists in Yerevan on 13 January that Moscow has agreed to defer until 1 April the increase in the price of gas it supplies to Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Russia announced last month that the price of gas supplied to the three South Caucasus states would double as of 1 January, from $56 to $110 per 1,000 cubic meters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 December 2005). Markarian added that a "final solution" to the problem may be reached during Armenian President Robert Kocharian's planned visit to Moscow later this month. He stressed that the Armenian leadership is not prepared to cede any further industrial assets to Russia as part of any agreement to reverse or scale down the gas price increase. LF

THREE CHARGED IN ARMENIA WITH ELECTION FRAUD
Charges have been brought against three men, two residents of Yerevan and one of Giumri, who are accused of voting on behalf of relatives during the 27 November referendum on a package of draft constitutional amendments, Deputy Prosecutor-General Gevorg Danielian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 13 January. He said investigation into claims of malpractice is continuing. None of the three men charged is a member of a local election commission, the bodies that observers believe are primarily responsible for artificially raising turnout figures to ensure passage of the proposed changes. The measures had to be approved by a minimum of one-third of all registered voters. LF

ARMENIAN DEFENSE MINISTER DISTANCES SELF FROM NEW POLITICAL PARTY
Serzh Sarkisian dismissed on 16 January rumors of a link between himself and the new Prosperous Armenia party being established by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Sarkisian said he has not been invited to join that party and does not expect to be. He added that he will clarify early next month whether he will participate in the 2007 parliamentary election on the ticket of Prime Minister Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia. In a 14 January interview with the weekly "168 zham," Markarian said he and Sarkisian have met several times recently with Tsarukian in a bid to dissuade him from forming a new political party. Some commentators have suggested that Prosperous Armenia is being formed with the express intention of backing a presidential bid by Sarkisian in 2008 when Kocharian's second and final term expires. LF

ARMENIAN, GEORGIAN FOREIGN MINISTERS ASSESS BILATERAL RELATIONS
Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili traveled to Yerevan on 16 January for talks with his Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian that focused on transport and economic issues and the two countries' cooperation with NATO and the EU, Noyan Tapan and Caucasus Press reported. The two ministers told journalists after their talks that the two countries' interests coincide with regard to integration into European structures. Oskanian referred to Armenia's concern that Georgian participation in a new $300 million railway linking Kars in eastern Turkey with Baku via southern Georgia and Tbilisi risks increasing Armenia's transport isolation, and he urged restoring rail traffic on the existing Kars-Giumri rail line instead. Bezhuashvili for his part stressed that Georgia "has never advocated transport projects that isolate our neighbors." The two ministers further pledged to expedite the process of delimiting and demarcating their shared border. LF

FORMER AZERBAIJANI OFFICIALS DETAINED FOR FURTHER THREE MONTHS
Three former senior officials dismissed and arrested in October on suspicion of plotting with former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev to overthrow the country's leadership have been remanded in pretrial detention for a further three months, day.az reported on 14 and 17 January. The three are former Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev, former Health Minister Ali Insanov, and former presidential administration official Akif Muradverdiyev. All three are reportedly suffering from serious health problems (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4, 6, and 12 January 2006). LF

TWO MORE AZERBAIJANI HUNGER STRIKERS HOSPITALIZED
Two more of the students who launched a hunger strike on 28 December to protest the expulsion of two of their number from Baku colleges allegedly due to their political activities have been hospitalized, Azerbaijani media reported. Elnur Mammadov, a member of the opposition youth movement Yeni Fikir, was taken to the hospital on 14 January and Timur Aliyev, one of the two expelled students, on 16 January, day.az and zerkalo.az reported. Emin Huseynov was taken to the hospital barely conscious on 12 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2006). The second expelled student, Namiq Feyziyev, is continuing his fast. LF

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PROPOSES NEW MODEL FOR FORMING SUPREME ELECTION BODY
Liberal Party of Azerbaijan acting Chairman Avaz Temirxanov and Eldar Namazov, co-founder of the opposition election bloc Yeni Siyaset (YeS, New Politics), have proposed to the newly elected parliament that candidates to serve on the new Central Election Commission (MSK) should be selected from among deputies elected from political parties and blocs that fielded candidates in 60 or more constituencies in the 6 November parliamentary elections, day.az reported on 17 January. Namazov argued that it is ridiculous that some parties that fielded only one candidate, who was duly elected, have the right to representation on the new MSK while parties that fielded a far larger number of candidates do not. He further pointed out that neither of YeS's two successful candidates belongs to any political party, and they are thus automatically excluded from serving on the MSK. But Siyavus Novruzov, a leading member of the opposition Musavat party, rejected Namazov's argument, and Musavat party Deputy Chairman Arif Hacili told day.az on 17 January that his party will continue to demand equal representation on the MSK for the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party and the opposition. Meanwhile, Namazov has told APA news agency that YeS will decide at the end of this month whether to nominate candidates in the 13 May repeat election in 10 constituencies where the outcome of the 6 November parliamentary ballot was invalidated, day.az reported on 17 January. LF

GEORGIAN TALKS ON SOUTH OSSETIA CANCELLED
Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava told Caucasus Press on 17 January that the meeting in Tbilisi of the Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone, which was scheduled for 18-20 January, has been cancelled. He explained that the South Ossetian co-chairman of the commission, Boris Chochiev, refused to travel to Tbilisi to attend the session, citing security concerns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 January 2006), and that the Georgian members of the commission could not travel to Vladikavkaz, which Chochiev proposed as an alternative venue, "because they would have to obtain Russian visas." On 13 January, Russia's chief negotiator for the South Ossetian conflict, Ambassador Valery Kenyaikin, was quoted by Civil Georgia as saying that despite Chochiev's refusal to travel to Tbilisi there was no risk the JCC session would be cancelled. Also on 13 January, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli told journalists in Tbilisi that the Georgian authorities will not permit South Ossetia to delay implementation of President Mikheil Saakashvili's peace proposal by dragging out talks on its implementation, Prime News reported. Noghaideli noted that an alternative plan subsequently unveiled by South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity coincides 90-95 percent with Saakashvili's proposal. LF

GEORGIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY REJECTS RUSSIAN GENERAL'S CRITICISM
In a statement released on 16 January, the Georgian Foreign Ministry rejected criticism by Major General Murat Kulakhmetov, commander of the joint peacekeeping forces deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone, that "belligerent statements" by Georgian politicians complicate the demilitarization of the conflict zone and may herald a new Georgian aggression, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 January 2006). The Georgian statement implied that the Russian peacekeeping contingent is either unable or unwilling to perform its duties effectively. LF

ABKHAZ ACCUSE GEORGIAN GUERRILLAS OF MURDERING SECOND POWER STATION OFFICIAL
Yevgeny Parulava, an engineer employed at the Inguri Hydroelectric Power Station in Abkhazia's Gali district, was shot dead on 12 January, Caucasus Press reported. The head of security at the station was similarly gunned down last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 December 2005). Otar Khetsia, interior minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, blamed Parulava's killing on Georgian guerrilla formations operating in Gali. At a 16 January meeting between Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh and Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba and Ivo Petrov, who is deputy special representative of the UN secretary-general for the Abkhaz conflict, Bagapsh expressed his concern at the recent upsurge in shootings and kidnappings in Gali, and he accused the Georgian authorities of backing the guerrillas Abkhazia believes are responsible for those crimes, Caucasus Press reported. Meanwhile, the Georgian Foreign Ministry released a statement on 16 January similarly decrying attacks on Georgians in Gali and arguing that such incidents demonstrate the inability of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the CIS aegis in the Abkhaz conflict zone to protect Gali's Georgian population, Caucasus Press reported. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT CONVENES SPECIAL MEETING ON BIRD FLU
President Saakashvili summoned Prime Minister Noghaideli and Health and Social Security Minister Lado Chipashvili on 14 January to review measures taken to date to prevent the spread of avian flu to Georgian territory, Caucasus Press reported on 15 January. Noghaideli reported that special committees have been established across the country to monitor the situation, and that none of an unspecified number of dead birds examined to date has been diagnosed as having died of bird flu. Chipashvili and Agriculture Minister Mikheil Svimonishvili told parliament on 16 January that there is no need yet to cull domestic poultry, Caucasus Press reported. Chipashvili said that Tbilisi will seek to coordinate preventive measures against avian flu with the leaderships of the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. On 11 January, Noghaideli informed journalists that the government has allocated 2.7 million laris ($1.49 million) for measures to counter bird flu, Caucasus Press reported. LF

FREED KAZAKH OPPOSITION LEADER ARRIVES IN ALMATY
A court in Shiderty, Kazakhstan granted former opposition leader Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov early release on 14 January and he arrived in Almaty the next day, Ferghana.ru and RFE/RL reported. Zhaqiyanov received a seven-year prison term on charges of abuse of office in 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 August 2002). He was greeted by hundreds of his supporters, who have maintained that the charges against him were politically motivated. Zhaqiyanov, one of the founders of the now outlawed opposition movement Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan, told RFE/RL: "I'm very happy to see people gathered, to see my friends and relatives, to hug them. It's a big joy for me." Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, who unsuccessfully challenged President Nursultan Nazarbaev in the country's 4 December 2005 presidential election, commented on Zhaqiyanov's release, saying, "We can't say it is a victory of justice. Authorities were forced to release Ghalymzhan upon legal demands, that is, on one hand, as a result of pressure from opposition forces." Altynbek Sarsenbaev, cochairman of the opposition party Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path), told RFE/RL that Zhaqiyanov "should continue his political activity.... The next step is a unification of democratic forces." DK

KYRGYZ DEPUTIES ASK FOR 'TERROR' AGAINST CRIME
Deputies to Kyrgyzstan's parliament on 16 January asked law-enforcement authorities to employ "terror" against criminal elements in the wake of recent high-profile contract killings, akipress.org reported. The requests came as Interior Minister Murat Sutalinov briefed lawmakers on efforts to solve the murder of Raatbek Sanatbaev, a well-known Kyrgyz athlete who was gunned down in Bishkek on 8 January. Deputy Melis Eshimkanov warned that parliament deputies and other prominent figures are at risk, Kabar reported. Sutalinov responded by promising to ensure deputies' security, personally if necessary. But deputies were critical of the Interior Ministry's efforts; since March 2005, apparent contract killings have claimed the lives of three parliament deputies. DK

TAJIK PROSECUTORS BLAME IMU FOR DUSHANBE BLASTS, DETAIL EXTREMIST ARRESTS
Tajik Prosecutor-General Bobojon Bobokhonov told a news conference in Dushanbe on 16 January that members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) were "closely involved" in explosions that took place in Dushanbe in January and June 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 February and 14 June 2005), the BBC's Persian Service reported. Bobokhonov said that some IMU members have been jailed in connection with those attacks while others are still under investigation. Meanwhile, Deputy Prosecutor-General Abdusami Dodoboev told journalists that Tajik police arrested 99 activists of the banned extremist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT) in 2005, including two high-ranking leaders in the movement. Sixteen of the arrested HT members are women. Dodoboev said that 40 of the activists have been tried and sentenced. DK

TAJIK PRESIDENT RESHUFFLES BORDER SERVICE
President Imomali Rakhmonov has issued a decree reorganizing the Border Protection Committee into the Committee for the Protection of the State Border of Tajikistan, Tajik TV's First Channel reported on 13 January. Saidamir Zuhurov, the committee's previous head, will also chair the new body. But a number of high-ranking committee officials, including first deputy chairman and border troop commander Nuralisho Nazarov, did not receive posts in the new committee. Nazarov's replacement will be Safarali Sayfulloev. DK

RUSSIAN NEWSPAPER SAYS TURKMENISTAN PLANNING ANOTHER GAS-PRICE HIKE
Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov intends to use a planned 22-23 January meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to raise the price of Turkmen natural gas from $65 per 1,000 cubic meters to $85, Russia's "Vedomosti" reported on 13 January. The newspaper noted that the price hike, if confirmed, could alter the price Ukraine pays for Turkmen gas supplied through Russia, an issue which recently led to tense negotiations between Ukraine and Russia and sparked a domestic political crisis in Ukraine. DK

UZBEKISTAN SUSPENDS RIGHTS ORGANIZATION
The U.S.-based rights organization Freedom House announced in a 13 January press release on its website (http://www.freedomhouse.org) that the Civil Court of Tashkent has ordered the suspension of its activities for six months. The court ruled that Freedom House violated Uzbek NGO law by "allowing human rights defenders free access to the Internet" and failed to comply with a secret cabinet decree, the press release stated. Freedom House said that it will appeal the suspension. Executive Director Jennifer Windsor commented, "There has been a dramatic increase in government harassment of civil society across Central Asia, but President Karimov has taken particularly drastic measures against local and international NGOs in Uzbekistan, which is among the most repressive regimes in the world." Freedom House noted that in recent years the Uzbek crackdown has forced numerous international organizations out of Uzbekistan, including "IREX, Internews, BBC, RFE/RL, [and] OSI [the Soros Foundation's Open Society Institute]." DK

UZBEK COURT REPORTEDLY SENTENCES RIGHTS ACTIVIST OVER ANDIJON
Andijon-based rights activist Saidjahon Zaynabiddinov has been sentenced to a seven-year prison term in a closed trial in Uzbekistan, ferghana.ru reported on 13 January. The news agency, which cited "preliminary information" in its report, said that Zaynabiddinov was sentenced for spreading "false information" about the suppression of dissent in Andijon on 13 May 2005. In the immediate aftermath of the Andijon unrest, Zaynabiddinov spoke frequently with foreign journalists, providing information on rights violations, including the shooting of unarmed demonstrators, by Uzbek security forces. DK

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT CALLS FOR ANOTHER 'PEOPLE'S ASSEMBLY'
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has decreed that a conference called the Third All-Belarusian People's Assembly be held on 2-3 March, two weeks before the presidential election, Belapan reported. The conference, which is believed to be intended as the culmination of Lukashenka's presidential campaign, will discuss the implementation of the government's social- and economic-development program for 2001-05 and consider a similar program for the following five years. According to the decree, there should be 2,500 delegates to the assembly selected from government-controlled organizations from all regions. Lukashenka convened the First All-Belarusian People's Assembly in October 1996, shortly before a constitutional referendum that extended his first five-year term of office by two years and gave him sweeping powers. The Second All-Belarusian People's Assembly took place in May 2001. JM

BELARUSIAN COURT TRIES OPPOSITION POLITICIAN
The Supreme Court of Belarus on 16 January opened a trial against Syarhey Skrabets, former opposition lawmaker and one of the challengers to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in the forthcoming presidential election, Belapan reported. Skrabets is accused of attempted bribery, involvement in defrauding a bank of more than $500,000 in loans, and illegal business activities. Skrabets was arrested in Minsk on 15 May and has been held in custody since then. He announced his presidential bid in early September in a letter that he sent his relatives from prison. Last week his nomination group reported having collected more than 35,000 signatures in support of placing him on the ballot. At least 100,000 signatures are required. JM

TWO CZECH SENATORS DENIED BELARUSIAN VISAS
Czech Senators Karel Schwarzenberg and Jaromir Stetina have failed to receive visas to visit Belarus, where they planned to meet with opposition politicians, CTK and Belapan reported on 13 January, citing statements they released. The senators intended to meet with presidential candidates, including opposition contender Alyaksandr Milinkevich, representatives of nongovernmental organizations, and journalists. "This did not surprise me," Stetina said in his statement. "A regime that is able to imprison and kill its political opponents must naturally take quarantine measures against the penetrating viruses of democracy." The Belarusian Embassy in Prague and the Belarusian Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the visa refusal, according to Belapan. JM

UKRAINIAN MINISTER EXCLUDES ESCALATION OF ROW WITH RUSSIA OVER LIGHTHOUSE
Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko told the Kyiv-based "Kommersant-Ukrayina" on 17 January that the ongoing dispute between Kyiv and Moscow over a lighthouse in Crimea will not lead to a military confrontation between the two sides. "Let's not frighten people on both sides of the border," Hrytsenko said. "If servicemen in Crimea, as you say, begin to shoot, this will be a sentence for Ukraine, Russia, and Europe as a whole. I categorically rule out such a scenario of events ordered from Kyiv or Moscow." The dispute erupted on 13 January when a group of Ukrainian officials barred Russian personnel from entering the lighthouse in Yalta. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk said the Crimean lighthouses belong to Ukraine and that there are no legal grounds for Russia to claim them. Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council head Anatoliy Kinakh reiterated on 16 January that in accordance with bilateral agreements of 1993 and 1997, Russia recognized Ukraine's ownership right to all Soviet-era facilities used by the Russian Black Sea Fleet in Crimea. Meanwhile, Russian Navy commander Admiral Vladimir Masorin said the Yalta lighthouse must be returned to the Black Sea Fleet. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT PREDICTS REFERENDUM ON CONSTITUTIONAL REFORM
President Viktor Yushchenko said in an interview with four Ukrainian television channels on 13 January that he will seek a referendum on the constitutional amendments of 2004 that limited presidential powers in favor of the parliament and the cabinet, the OBKOM website (http://ru.obkom.net.ua) reported. "There will be a special announcement [regarding the referendum]," Yushchenko said. "I think it is obvious for every citizen that the topic of the changes to the constitution, its legal aspect, and the search for legal ways to overcome this problem is on the national agenda. Ukraine will have a difficult future with such amendments and procedures." Yushchenko stressed that the constitutional reform was adopted without sufficient public discussion. "I think 95 percent [of Ukrainians] will tell you that they don't have any information [about the constitutional reform]," Yushchenko asserted. "They don't know that these changes were not proposed for public discussion, that they were not discussed in the parliament. Everything was done on the sly." JM

JUDGE ORDERS DETENTION FOR SERBIAN CENTRAL-BANK OFFICIAL IN BRIBERY CASE
A Belgrade district court judge on 14 January ordered that Dejan Simic, the former deputy governor of Serbia's National Bank, be held in pretrial detention for one month following his arrest for bribery, serbianna.com reported the same day. Simic, who is also a top Socialist Party official, was arrested on 11 January for accepting a bribe (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2006). Vladan Zagradjanin, a high-ranking Socialist Party official, was also arrested in the case. Simic was accused of accepting a $120,000 bribe to reinstate the license of a blacklisted bank, and Zagradjanin allegedly helped arrange the payment. Judge Novica Mihajlovic said he made his ruling after questioning the two on 13 January, and added that they will remain in custody until a detailed investigation of the allegations is completed. BW

TOP SERBIAN BUSINESSMAN CHARGED WITH FRAUD, TAX EVASION
Serbian tax authorities on 16 January charged leading businessman Sreten Karic with tax evasion, Serbian and international news agencies reported the same day. Karic, the former general director of Serbia's main mobile-phone company Mobtel, and Olga Zilovic, another Mobtel official, were accused of fraud in a 2003 real-estate deal, AP reported. In the deal, 79 luxury apartments were reportedly "falsely presented" in Mobtel's records as company purchases and then resold to Karic's relatives and company employees at a fraction of the price. The alleged fraud is claimed to have resulted in financial losses for Mobtel's shareholders and allowed Karic and Zilovic to avoid paying $3.4 million in property taxes. The charges came as Bogoljub Karic -- Sreten Karic's brother and Mobtel's founder -- is under investigation for fraud and bribery. Serbia's richest businessman, Bogoljub Karic, sold his stake in Mobtel in May and formed the opposition political party Force of Serbia Movement (PSS). He is under investigation for allegedly bribing lawmakers to join the PSS (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2006). BW

SERBIAN JUSTICE MINISTER DEFENDS GOVERNMENT'S ANTICORRUPTION MOVES
Serbian Justice Minister Zoran Stojkovic said on 16 January that the government deserves praise for the arrest of the National Bank's vice governor, and he rejected claims that the case against Karic was political, FoNet and B92 reported the same day. Simic's arrest on 11 January has sparked calls from opposition politicians for the government to step down. Stojkovic also rejected opposition calls for National Bank Governor Radovan Jelasic to be fired, saying Jelasic and the bank are working well. Stojkovic also rejected claims that criminal investigations into the Mobtel mobile-phone operator were politically motivated attempts to curb the influence of business tycoon Bogoljub Karic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2006). "It has become a custom to hear a choir of voices yelling that it is a matter of political persecution as soon as someone is caught doing something illegal," Stojkovic said. BW

ETHNIC ALBANIANS IN SOUTHERN SERBIA FORMALLY CALL FOR AUTONOMY, WARN BELGRADE ON KOSOVA
As negotiations on Kosova's final status draw closer, ethnic Albanians in southern Serbia on 14 January formally demanded greater autonomy from Belgrade and the withdrawal of Serbian troops, B92 and Reuters reported the same day. Representatives from three southern Serbian municipalities in the Presevo Valley -- Bujanovac, Presevo, and Medvedja -- adopted a resolution calling for the region to be granted special status with local control over courts, police, schools, and economic development. They also called for the Albanian language to be made the region's official language and for the right to display the Albanian flag. The declaration also called for special ties with Kosova and threatened that if Belgrade attempts to partition the province by taking its mainly Serbian northern provinces, then Presovo would seek to join Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 11 January 2006). "At a time when Kosovo is entering its most significant phase.... Albanians in the Presevo Valley see the need to take concrete and coordinated steps to resolve the question of Albanians in this region," the declaration said. BW

ROMAN CATHOLIC LEADER IN BOSNIA CALLS FOR MORE RIGHTS FOR CROATS
After meeting with Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader on 16 January, Cardinal Vinko Puljic of Bosnia-Herzegovina called on Zagreb to help defend the rights of Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hina reported the same day. Puljic spoke as talks in Sarajevo continued on revising Bosnia's constitution. "We Croats in Bosnia do not ask to be given any privileges," Puljic said. "We ask that all three peoples become equal and [we] express concern that the new approach to the Constitution of Bosnia-Herzegovina would put Croats in a position of secondary importance. This is why we ask that Croatia should exercise its constitutional right as a cosignatory to the [Dayton accords] and help Croats in Bosnia," Puljic added. The Roman Catholic Church in Bosnia has long sought the creation of a third Croatian "entity" in the country. BW

MOLDOVA AGREES TO GAS DEAL WITH RUSSIA
Moldova and Russia reached a deal on natural-gas supplies on 16 January, with Chisinau agreeing to pay $110 per 1,000 cubic meters for the first quarter of 2006, Russian and international news agencies reported the same day. Russia's natural gas monopoly had been asking Moldova to pay $160 per 1,000 cubic meters, double the $80 price they paid in 2005. "Gazprom and Moldovagaz have signed a contract for the transit and delivery of natural gas to the Republic of Moldova," RIA-Novosti quoted Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov as saying. Officials also hinted that Gazprom could increase its stake in Moldovagaz as part of a deal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 January 2006). "It is possible that Russia will increase its share in Moldova's gas-transport system," ITAR-TASS quoted an unidentified Gazprom official as saying. BW

MERKEL PUTS HER STAMP ON RUSSIAN-GERMAN RELATIONS
German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid a six-hour visit to Moscow on 16 January in which she made it clear that she wants to develop good relations as part of a "strategic partnership" between the two countries. She showed, however, that she is ready to speak her mind on thorny topics and reach out to the Russian opposition, in clear contrast to her predecessor Gerhard Schroeder, who prided himself on his close political and personal friendship with President Vladimir Putin and called him a "flawless democrat."

Merkel's Russian journey was the latest in a series of inaugural foreign trips she has made since taking office in November. Moscow had to wait until she had gone to Paris, Brussels -- first to NATO and the EU and then for an EU summit -- and Washington. Prior to her election as chancellor, she made it clear that she intended to distance herself from what was known as Schroeder's Paris-Berlin-Moscow axis and replace it with a more balanced policy associated with her political mentor and Schroeder's predecessor, Helmut Kohl. That approach included maintaining good relations with Washington and Paris alike and acting within the EU as an advocate for the interests of the small and medium sized countries, being careful to avoid the impression of being overbearing.

Shortly before her trip to Moscow, moreover, she made it clear that she has a different, more critical approach to Russia and its political life than did Schroeder, which many German observers attribute to the fact that she grew up in the former East Germany. She told the weekly "Der Spiegel" of 9 January that she hopes that Russia will take as democratic a path of development as is 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 one. 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 a "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."

These remarks set the tone for her 17 January visit, the atmosphere of which one German daily described as "cool but not frosty by Moscow standards." In the Russian capital, she noted the "breathtaking increase" in bilateral trade, the volume of which grew in 2005 by 30 percent to a record level of $32 billion. She and Putin discussed Iran, the Middle East, the Balkans, Russia's current G-8 presidency, and energy issues, including the controversial North European pipeline project, which will run underneath the Baltic Sea and was agreed by Putin and Schroeder in 2005.

Putin assured her of the reliability of Russian gas deliveries, for which she said she was "thankful." Merkel added that "the Baltic Sea gas pipeline is indeed an investment in Europe's energy security. I have already said that it should be made clear to the Baltic countries and Poland that this project is not aimed against anyone." Putin noted that "many questions -- if not a panic -- arose among many of our European partners in connection with the discussion of relations between Russia and Ukraine in the gas sector." He argued that gas supplies to Europe are "now in no way connected to deliveries to Ukraine.... If people in Europe understood the essence of the problem and the agreements we have reached, they would breathe a sigh of relief and be grateful to both Russia and Ukraine."

If her approach on such issues was somewhat more forceful than Schroeder's, while still being diplomatic, she went on to raise matters that her predecessor avoided. She brought up Moscow's policies in Chechnya and the North Caucasus, as well as Russia's controversial legislation on NGO's. Putin responded politely that he found it "very pleasant that our partners are so interested in [Russia's] internal affairs."

After her meeting with Putin, she held a reception at the German Embassy for guests who included members of the State Duma, religious leaders, and some prominent critics of Putin's rule, whom Schroeder refused to meet with. At the gathering, Valentina Melnikova, head of Soldiers Mothers' Committee, said Merkel told the activists she appreciates the difficulty of their situation. "She did not give us any promises, but told us that what we are doing is important," Melnikova noted. She added that Merkel spoke with the opposition leaders "in Russian, which she speaks very well, and she wished us courage and luck." Melnikova said they talked about Chechnya, the Kremlin's tightening of control over the political process, and the spread of xenophobia and racism in Russia.

Merkel will attend the special Russian-German consultations in Tomsk in April. Putin has been invited to the international air show in Berlin in May, and another round of consultations will take place in Dresden in October.

AT LEAST 20 PEOPLE KILLED IN SOUTHERN AFGHAN BORDER TOWN SUICIDE ATTACK...
A suspected suicide attack in Spin Boldak, Kandahar Province, on 16 January left at least 20 people killed and at least 30 injured, international news agencies reported. Kandahar Governor Asadullah Khaled said that the bomber on a motorcycle detonated explosives strapped to his body near a crowd of people watching a wrestling match in Spin Boldak near the Afghan-Pakistani border. Spin Boldak police chief Was'y Alekozai said that the "intention of the attack was to create insecurity and fear," Reuters reported on 16 January. While most news agencies have blamed the neo-Taliban for carrying out the attack in Spin Boldak, in a short bulletin without details the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) on 16 January reported that the neo-Taliban have "strongly condemned the explosion in Spin Boldak District as the work of the enemies of Islam." AIP has good contacts with the neo-Taliban while, according to Reuters, the neo-Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. AT

...AND AFGHAN SOLDIERS DIE IN SEPARATE BLAST IN PROVINCIAL CAPITAL
A blast described as a suicide attack targeted a convoy of Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers in Kandahar city on 16 January, international news agencies reported. Four ANA soldiers and two civilians were killed in the attack, Reuters reported on 16 January, while according to a report by AFP on the same day, three ANA soldiers were killed and five were wounded with no information provided on civilian casualties. According to an eyewitness, the attack was carried out by a teenage suicide bomber who ran towards the ANA vehicles, Reuters reported. But Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Mohammad Zaher Azimi told AFP on 16 January that the attack was a suicide mission, adding that "an explosives-laden vehicle rammed" into an ANA convoy. But yet another version from Qari Yusof Ahmadi, speaking on behalf of the neo-Taliban, said that it was carried out using a "roadside bomb." According to Ahmadi, three U.S. soldiers were killed in the attack, although no one else reported that. Another neo-Taliban spokesman identified as Qari Mohammad Yusof, told AIP on 16 January that the explosion was "not a suicide attack but [was caused by] some explosives" placed in a wheelbarrow. Mohammad Yusof told AIP that four ANA soldiers were killed in the attack. AT

CANADIAN DIPLOMAT, AFGHAN CIVILIANS KILLED IN SUICIDE ATTACK
A senior Canadian diplomat and three Afghan civilians were killed in a suicide attack on a Canadian military convoy near Kandahar city on 15 January, international news agencies reported. Glyn Berry, the political director of the Canadian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Kandahar, died in the attack while three Canadian soldiers sustained serious injuries, Canadian Press reported on 15 January. Neo-Taliban spokesman Mohammad Yusof on 15 January told AIP that a "Talib, Abdul Wali, exploded his car near the vehicles of foreign troops," killing six soldiers. Currently Canada has around 650 soldiers in Afghanistan and there are plans to expand the force to 2,000 by February. AT

CANADIAN PRIME MINISTER VOWS TO KEEP TROOPS IN AFGHANISTAN...
Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin said on 16 January that his country remains committed to its military mission in Afghanistan despite the death of Berry, Reuters reported the same day. Martin spoke one day after Berry was killed near Kandahar. "The more that we can do to establish...democracy and institutions and [do] it in the tougher parts of Afghanistan, then the more we protect ourselves at home," Martin said at a press conference in Vancouver. "We also have a responsibility to people who are going through what they [the Afghans] are going through," he added. BW

...AND AFGHAN PRESIDENT EXPRESSES CONCERN, CALLS FOR INTERNATIONAL HELP
Hamid Karzai said on 16 January that the rise in suicide bombings is an increasing cause for concern and vowed to step up measures to prevent them, Reuters reported the same day. "They cause insecurity, worry among people...disrupt life. They are a matter of concern for us...but we will use all means to prevent them," Karzai said. Karzai also warned that Afghanistan could again become a staging post for terrorist strikes in Europe and the United States if it loses international support, dawn.com reported. "We are in a joint struggle against terrorism, for us and for the international community," he said. "If you don't defend yourself here you will have to defend yourself back home," according to the website. BW

AFGHAN LEADER POSTPONES VISIT TO IRAN
President Karzai has postponed a scheduled visit to Tehran, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported on 16 January. Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Nawid Ahmad Moez told RFE/RL from Kabul on 16 January that "due to poor weather conditions and technical problems, the journey of President Karzai to Iran has been postponed." According to Moez, the visit scheduled for 16 January has been postponed to an unspecified date, IRNA reported on 16 January. Karzai spoke over the telephone with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, informing him that since he "was very busy with the upcoming meeting in London on 'Aid for Reconstruction of Afghanistan,'" he could not visit Tehran. Karzai was due to meet with Ahmadinejad and Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov during his visit to Tehran, which would have been Karzai's first visit since Ahmadinejad's election. AT

AFGHANS COMPLAIN OF SLOW PROGRESS ON REMOVAL OF SECURITY BARRIERS
People in Kabul have criticized the Afghan government's slow progress on removing the security barriers erected at various locations in the city, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on 16 January. According to the news agency, "a large number of people" on 15 January complained that the government is not honoring its directive issued on 31 December ordering all foreign missions, military outposts, and other agencies to remove the security barriers within a week, and they regard the government's inaction as a sign of its weakness (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 16 January 2006). The head of traffic police in Kabul, Abdul Shakur Khairkhwah, said that the removal of barriers was initially "suspended" because of the holidays marking the pilgrimage to Mecca and could not subsequently commence because of heavy snow. Khairkhwah indicated that the security barriers will be removed, but did not say when. The government reportedly ordered the removal of the barriers after the National Assembly decided to debate the matter. AT

FORMER TALIBAN REGIME OFFICIAL KILLED IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
Unidentified assailants killed the former deputy interior minister and intelligence chief of the Taliban regime, Mullah Abdul Samad Khaksar, in Kandahar city on 14 January, AIP reported, quoting provincial security commander Abdul Malek Wahedi. President Karzai, in a statement released on 15 January, condemned the killing and alleged that the neo-Taliban "are out to kill innocent people and even their former colleagues to scuttle the peace and reconstruction process" in Afghanistan, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on 15 January. Khaksar was one of the highest-ranking members of the ousted Taliban regime who accepted the reconciliation offer made by the government and eventually ran as a candidate for the People's Council of the Afghan National Assembly. In an interview after his candidacy, Khaksar said that he no longer was a member of the Taliban and wanted only what was good for Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 September 2005). AT

EU CALLS FOR EMERGENCY IAEA MEETING ON IRAN
The European Union called on the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to hold an emergency meeting on Iran after talks among EU member states failed to reach consensus on how to address the Iranian nuclear issue, eupolitix.com reported on 17 January. European diplomats held a closed-door session with representatives from the U.S., China, and Russia in London on 16 January to discuss the possibility of referring Iran to the UN Security Council after it resumed its civilian atomic energy program earlier this month. Many EU member states and the United States believe that Iran intends to develop nuclear weapons, a charge Iran denies. German Deputy Foreign Minister Gernot Erler told German television on 17 January that participants at the 16 January meeting could not agree on the content of a planned resolution referring Iran to the Security Council, and what the goal of such a resolution would be, Reuters reported. Erler said the participants agreed, however, to convene an extraordinary meeting of the IAEA board of governors in Vienna on 2 February. Iranian Supreme National Security Council spokesman Hussein Entezami called the EU opposition to its nuclear program "surprising and irrational," IRINN reported on 12 January. KR

RUSSIAN PRESIDENT URGES RATIONALITY ON IRAN NUCLEAR ISSUE
Vladimir Putin called on the international community to act rationally when confronting the Iranian nuclear issue, Interfax news agency reported on 16 January. Putin's remarks came following talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. "The Iranian nuclear problem requires a very precise approach without rash or erroneous moves," said Putin. He said Russia will work with the United States, EU, and Germany to find a reasonable solution, adding: "We all have very similar approaches to the Iranian problem." Russia has proposed the establishment of a joint uranium enrichment program for Iran on Russian territory, AP reported on 17 January. Iranian Ambassador to Russia Gholamreza Ansari called the offer "a good initiative" to resolve the problem, saying Iran will study the proposal, AP reported. Other Iranian officials had previously rejected any uranium enrichment for Iran that took place outside of its borders. Meanwhile, Iranian Economy Minister Davud Danesh-Ja'fari said on 16 January that sanctions against Iran could lead to oil prices "beyond levels the West expects," the BBC reported the same day, citing Iranian state radio. Iran is the world's fourth largest exporter of crude oil. KR

ISRAELI PREMIER: COUNTRY CANNOT ACCEPT A NUCLEAR IRAN
Acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Israel cannot allow for the threat of a nuclear Iran, haaretz.com reported on 17 January. Speaking at a joint news conference with President Moshe Katsav, Olmert said, "Under no circumstances and at no point can Israel allow anyone with these kinds of malicious designs against us to have control of weapons of destruction that can threaten our existence." Asked if Israel might take military action against Iran, Olmert said, "The state of Israel cannot reconcile itself to a situation in which there is a threat against us, just as, in my view, the nations of Europe and the United States cannot reconcile themselves." Israel dispatched a delegation to Moscow headed by National Security Council head Giora Eiland and Israeli Atomic Energy Commission Director-General Gideon Frank on 17 January; the pair will also travel to London for meetings with British officials, the website reported. KR

IRAQ'S ELECTION COMMISSION COMPLETES INVESTIGATION INTO ELECTION FRAUD
The Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission (IECI) announced the results of its investigation into allegations of voter fraud at a 16 January press briefing in Baghdad, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on 17 January. IECI representative Abd al-Husayn al-Hindawi said that 227 ballot boxes out of 31,500 were discarded due to fraud. The boxes were thrown out after it was determined that both stuffed ballots and unofficial ballots were found in the boxes. Al-Hindawi said some IECI workers allowed unregistered voters or some without voter registration cards to cast ballots. He said that those employees will be disciplined. The IECI invalidated ballot boxes from polling centers in Baghdad and Diyala and found that parties interfered in the vote-counting process in the Dhi Qar and Diyala governorates. The commission also determined that ballot stuffing occurred at a polling center in Turkey. The results of an independent investigation by the Canada-based International Mission for Iraqi Elections are expected to be released later this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2006). KR

IRAQ'S SPECIAL TRIBUNAL ACCEPTS RESIGNATION OF CHIEF JUDGE IN HUSSEIN TRIAL
The Iraqi Special Tribunal has reportedly accepted the resignation of the chief judge in the Al-Dujayl trial, Rizgar Muhammad Amin, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on 17 January. Amin resigned last week after coming under apparent pressure from government forces to speed up the trial of Saddam Hussein and seven of his codefendants (see "Iraq: Hussein Trial Chief Judge Answers Criticism," rferl.org, 16 January 2006). A source at the tribunal confirmed the resignation, adding that tribunal judge Sa'id al-Hammash will take over as chief judge. Al-Hammash was sitting with Amin in earlier court sessions. RFI reported that al-Hammash will preside over the next trial session, which resumes on 24 January. KR

IRANIAN COAST GUARD KILLS IRAQI SOLDIER, SEIZES SHIP
The Iranian Coast Guard killed an Iraqi soldier and seized an Iraqi Coast Guard ship in the Shatt Al-Arab waterway on 14 January, Al-Basrah Governor Muhammad al-Wa'ili said on 16 January, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. At the time of the incident the Iraqi Coast Guard was searching a foreign cargo ship that had allegedly smuggled Iraqi oil. Al-Wa'ili contended that the captain of the smuggling vessel requested the Iranian coast guard's assistance during the pursuit. Eight Iraqi soldiers and an officer were detained by the Iranian Coast Guard. Al-Wa'ili added that the incident is not the first of its kind, saying he has raised the issue on several occasions with Baghdad but received no official response. He said that the Iranians are holding two other Iraqi vessels at the Iranian port of Abadan. KR

INSURGENT GROUPS ESTABLISH MUJAHEDIN SHURA COUNCIL IN IRAQ
A number of insurgent groups, including fugitive Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda Organization in the Land of the Two Rivers, have established a Mujahedin Shura Council in Iraq, according to a 15 January statement posted to hanein.net. The statement claimed that the acceleration of the jihad in Iraq over the past two and a half years prompted the formation of the council. The council will work to "achieve" goals including: "managing the struggle" to drive out "invading infidels," "uniting the word of the mujahedin and closing their ranks" as called for by God, and "declaring a clear method of waging jihad." The statement added: "The mujahedin are well aware of the lessons of history and they will devote all their efforts to fighting any person who assumes power and others who seek to prevent the rule of shari'a and power for the Muslims." The statement also lashed out at secular Iraqis, saying: "there is no difference between an Arab and foreign evil person, for the evil one remains evil whatever his nationality and affiliation." KR

TWO U.S. SOLDIERS KILLED IN HELICOPTER CRASH IN IRAQ
Two U.S. soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash north of Al-Taji on 16 January in the third crash this month, mnf-iraq.com reported the same day. The aircraft was conducting a patrol at the time of the crash; the military said it is too early to determine the cause. Meanwhile, two insurgent groups claimed responsibility for the attack. The Salah Al-Din Al-Ayyubi Brigades claimed responsibility in a 16 January statement posted to hanein.net. The Mujahedin Army in Iraq also claimed responsibility for the attack in a separate statement with corresponding videotape purportedly depicting the attack, Al-Arabiyah television reported on 16 January. KR

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