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Newsline - January 26, 2006


PUTIN SAYS HE WANTS NO ROW WITH 'PARTNERS'...
Russian President Vladimir Putin said in St. Petersburg on 25 January that his government will not jeopardize its relations with its foreign partners on account of alleged spying by British diplomats in Russia or their involvement with Russian nongovernmental organizations, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 25 January 2006). "We are not going to exacerbate the situation, and we are not going to spoil relations with our partners," Putin said. "We want to be treated the way other members of the international community are treated: that is, with respect." Putin, who himself was a KGB agent in the former East Germany, added that he has not decided on possibly expelling any diplomats, as is sometimes the practice in such cases. "If these intelligence agents are expelled, [London] will send new ones. These new people may prove to be smart. In this case, we will have to go to much trouble spotting them. Think about it," Putin told reporters. He added that he wants unspecified "proposals on the matter" from the Foreign Ministry. The British Foreign Office has not commented on the spying charges, but denies any wrongdoing in its assistance to Russian NGOs. PM

...AND PLEDGES 'SUPPORT' FOR NGOS
President Putin told a press conference in St. Petersburg on 25 January that recent controversial legislation dealing with NGOs "is aimed at preventing the intrusion of foreign states into Russia's internal political life and at creating favorable and transparent conditions for the financing of nongovernmental organizations," Russian news agencies reported. He added that his "attitude toward nongovernmental human rights organizations has not changed [since the scandal over alleged espionage began recently]. Society needs [NGO] activity so that close control over the state's activity [exists] and so that the state tries to resolve more efficiently problems in the human rights area and the humanitarian area as a whole." Putin stressed that the government "will support the activity of nongovernmental human rights organizations." PM

PUTIN CALLS FOR ACCESS TO NUCLEAR POWER FOR ALL...
President Putin said in St. Petersburg on 25 January that a worldwide infrastructure should be set up to allow all countries access to nuclear energy, with guarantees that international nonproliferation standards will be observed, RIA Novosti reported. The new system would "offer nuclear fuel cycle services, including [uranium] enrichment, under the control of the [International Atomic Energy Agency]," he added. Putin said that he will raise the matter with other Group of Eight countries during the current Russian presidency of that body. PM

...BUT THERE'S STILL NO DEAL ON RUSSIAN'S OFFER TO IRAN
Ali Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said in Moscow on 25 January that his government sees Russia's offer to enrich Iranian uranium on Russian territory as a "positive" development, "The Wall Street Journal Europe" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2006). He added, however, that no agreement has been reached. "This plan can be perfected in the future, during further talks that will be held in February.... There are lots of details surrounding this offer that must be examined," he noted. The next day, Larijani said in Tehran that "the Russian plan could be considered favorably for a limited time period, but the main issue remaining for us is what will happen [after that]," international news agencies reported. In Beijing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said that the Russian proposal "is a good suggestion to break the stalemate and [requires] efforts to be made by all parties." He added that "the Chinese government also [calls for] this issue to be resolved through peaceful talks.... We will support all diplomatic ways to solve the Iranian nuclear issue." In Washington, a State Department spokesman said that the Iranians are stalling. PM

SIX DETAINED IN GRISLY ARMY HAZING SCANDAL
Andrei Sychyov, a 19-year-old Russian Army conscript, remains in critical condition on 26 January after a New Year's Eve hazing incident in Chelyabinsk that led to the amputation of his legs and genitals, "The Moscow Times" reported. Prosecutors said that he was among eight draftees beaten by six drunken senior servicemen. Chief Military Prosecutor Aleksandr Savenkov called it the worst hazing he has ever seen, adding that he will personally see the case to trial. "During the more than 20 years that I have served as a prosecutor, I have not seen a more cynical and audacious crime against servicemen," Savenkov said. Maria Fedulova, who follows such incidents for the nongovernmental organization Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees, feels that "there has not been such an atrocity during the many years of our work." Meanwhile, a Defense Ministry investigative commission has arrived in Chelyabinsk, RIA-Novosti reported. The Russian military claim that particularly violent hazings are isolated incidents, but critics charge that the practice is widespread and condoned or ignored by the authorities. PM

ADYGEYA MOVES CLOSER TO SELF-DISSOLUTION
The lower chamber of the Republic of Adygeya parliament approved on 25 January by 19 votes in its second reading a draft law on referendums that permits the holding of a referendum on the abolition of the republic, according to "Caucasus Times," as cited on 26 January by kavkazweb.net. The law must now be approved by the upper parliament chamber before being signed by President Khazret Sovmen. Adygeya's Slav majority favors the republic's merger with the surrounding Krasnodar Krai; the Cherkess minority has vowed to fight to prevent any such merger, which would deprive the Cherkess of any formal ethno-territorial unit (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 April and 20 and 29 December 2005). LF

OSCE CHIEF ANNOUNCES DATE FOR MEETING OF ARMENIAN, AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENTS
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairman in Office and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht announced in Yerevan on 25 January that the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents have agreed to meet in France in the latest round of talks on the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Yerkir reported. The announcement by the visiting OSCE chief followed "excellent discussions" with Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian to prepare for the presidential summit set for 10-11 February in Rambouillet, outside of Paris." De Gucht called on both the Armenian and Azerbaijan leaders to demonstrate "wisdom and political courage" during the upcoming talks and linked the negotiations to the possible "settlement of the problem of the [closed] Armenian-Turkish border," Mediamax reported. Following the announcement, De Gucht departed Yerevan to meet with Azerbaijani officials in Baku. Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanian added that the two presidents will focus their talks on a "one-page document" presented by international mediators at the recent meeting in London between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19, 20, and 23 January 2006). RG

ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER EXPRESSES CONCERN OVER DEVELOPMENTS IN IRAN
Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanian noted on 25 January that Armenia is "very concerned" over rising tension between Iran and the international community, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Speaking at a Yerevan press conference, Oskanian further called for a diplomatic solution to continued tension over Tehran's nuclear program and expressed hope that "Iran and the international community will be able to find a resolution to this uranium-enrichment issue" and that "the issue will not go to the Security Council and no sanctions will be employed by the international community." Oskanian added that Armenia is especially concerned given its "very good relations with Iran," and because of the "construction of a gas pipeline from Iran to Armenia," according to Mediamax. RG

VISITING U.S. EXPERTS PROMISE AID TO PREVENT BIRD FLU IN ARMENIA
A group of visiting American experts announced on 25 January that the United States is prepared to assist the Armenian authorities in preventing any outbreak of bird flu in the country, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Speaking at a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan, Ann Derse, a senior State Department official leading the 12-member group, promised that "immediate steps will be taken," adding that the protection of "the health of the workers who deal with the disease both in the animal and human realm is critical" and explaining that "the U.S. will be sending to Armenia within 10 days or so 1,500 kits of personal protective equipment." An American expert is also set to arrive in Yerevan sometime next month to "assist in reviewing the preparedness and response plan of Armenia." RG

AZERBAIJANI FOREIGN MINISTER MEETS WITH VISITING OSCE CHIEF
Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov met in Baku on 25 January with OSCE Chairman in Office De Gucht, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service and Turan reported. De Gucht reported to Azerbaijani officials that the OSCE is prepared to assist with the deployment of an international peacekeeping force if the Azerbaijani and Armenian sides manage to reach an agreement on the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict during their upcoming talks in Paris. In comments following the meeting, De Gucht expressed his hope for "a breakthrough" that would involve the replacement of Azerbaijani and Armenian forces by "a peacekeeping force" to help "resolve the remaining problems that in any case will still exist after the Rambouillet talks." RG

NEW CHARGES BROUGHT AGAINST DETAINED AZERBAIJANI YOUTH ACTIVIST
Ruslan Basirli, chairman of the opposition youth organization Yeni Fikir, has been charged with illegal business activities, day.az reported on 26 January, quoting Basirli's lawyer, Elcin Qambar. Basirli was arrested in early August upon his return from attending a conference in Tbilisi and charged with having accepted money during a meeting in Tbilisi with Armenian intelligence agents to destabilize the political situation in Azerbaijan in the run-up to the 6 November parliamentary election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 August 2005). LF

THREE KILLED IN SHOOT-OUT IN DEVOUT AZERBAIJANI VILLAGE
Two police officers and a local criminal kingpin died on 25 January in an exchange of fire in the village of Nardaran on the outskirts of Baku, day.az and zerkalo.az reported on 25 and 26 January, respectively. Two villagers were wounded in the incident, which occurred when villagers reportedly halted a police patrol car and picked a fight with the police officers. Deputy Interior Minister Vilayat Eyvazov traveled to Nardaran to clarify the circumstances of the shooting, and police patrols there have been stepped up. Nardaran residents are renowned for their piety, and one villager was killed in a major confrontation with police four years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3, 4, 5, and 6 June 2002). LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT EXPRESSES FRUSTRATION OVER DELAYED REPAIR OF RUSSIAN GAS LINE...
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili expressed on 25 January his frustration over the delay in repairing the damaged pipeline that supplies Georgia with gas from Russia, Imedi TV and Civil Georgia reported. After Russian officials rejected his offer of Georgian experts to assist in the repair effort, President Saakashvili suggested that Russia was "deliberately" delaying its work to restore the pipeline, Caucasus Press reported. Twin blasts heavily damaged the main Mozdok-Tbilisi pipeline on 22 January, cutting off gas supplies to Georgia and Armenia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2006). Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili recently suggested that Russia was responsible for the explosions and dismissed the possibility that Islamic militants in the North Caucasus were behind the blasts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2006). RG

...AS GAS SUPPLIES FROM AZERBAIJAN ARE REDUCED AGAIN
Georgian Deputy Energy Minister Aleko Khetaguri reported on 25 January that further cuts in gas supplies from Azerbaijan triggered a cutoff of gas to several more districts in Tbilisi, Civil Georgia and Imedi TV reported. The overall supply of natural gas from Azerbaijan was reduced by 2.5 to 2 million cubic meters per day after a sudden gas shortage arose in Azerbaijan. Khetaguri reported that the reduction forced a cutoff of gas deliveries to the Tskneta, Bagebi, and Mtatsminda districts of the capital. Prior to this latest reduction in Azerbaijani gas, only about 40 percent of Tbilisi residents were being supplied with gas. Georgian Energy Minister Nika Gilauri held talks on 25 January in Baku with Azerbaijan officials in an attempt to negotiate for an immediate increase of gas supply. Although Azerbaijan initially began delivering supplies of 3 million cubic meters of gas per day following the disruption of the main gas pipeline from Russia, damage to a gas compressor station on the Russian side of the Azerbaijani-Russian border on 24 January cut supply to 2.5 million cubic meters. RG

GEORGIAN FOREIGN MINISTER APPEALS FOR EUROPEAN HELP
Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili appealed on 25 January to the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels for diplomatic support in Georgia's negotiations with Russia, RFE/RL reported. Vowing his government's commitment to the five-year EU New Neighborhood Policy, Bezhuashvili added that Georgia needs European support for the mediation of the "frozen conflict" with South Ossetia and in the face of the disruption of Russian natural-gas supplies. Bezhuashvili argued that the "most serious impediment for the consolidation of democracy and economic development in Georgia has been internal so-called 'frozen conflicts' in Abkhazia and South Ossetia," and accused Russia of posing the greatest obstacle to the Georgian peace plan for South Ossetia. In addition to seeking European pressure on Russia, he further called for an EU commitment to ensure the demilitarization of South Ossetia and deploy peacekeeping troops once a peace agreement is reached. RG

GEORGIA RESOLVES TO REMAIN CIS MEMBER
In a statement in Tbilisi following a cabinet meeting, Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Levan Choladze announced on 25 January that the Georgian government has decided not to withdraw from the Russian-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Prime News and Civil Georgia reported. Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Kote Gabashvili explained that it would not be "expedient" to withdraw from the CIS until the government can complete a thorough assessment of the economic implications of doing so, according to Caucasus Press. RG

DAUGHTER OF KAZAKH PRESIDENT LAYS OUT POLITICAL-REFORM PROGRAM
Speaking at a conference of the Asar Party on 24 January, Darigha Nazarbaeva, head of the party and daughter of President Nursultan Nazarbaev, called for the modernization of Kazakhstan's political system and laid out a reform program, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Complaining that a Soviet-style "bureaucratic-administrative superstructure" is hampering development, Nazarbaeva said that the country's parliament and local legislatures need "concrete mechanisms" to be able to exercise their powers. She also pointed to a need for greater fiscal control, more responsiveness to journalistic investigations, equal powers for parliament and the cabinet, and more robust political parties. In a 25 January article on Nazarbaeva's proposals, Russia's "Nezavisimaya gazeta" suggested that the statements may represent an attempt by Nazarbaeva to strengthen her influence and raise her party's profile. DK

KAZAKH STATE OIL COMPANY OFFERS $1.2 BILLION FOR YUKOS REFINERY IN LITHUANIA
KazMunaiGaz, Kazakhstan's state-run oil company, has offered to pay $1.2 billion for Yukos's controlling 53.2 percent stake in Lithuania's Mazeikiu refinery, ITAR-TASS reported on 25 January, citing the Lithuanian government's press service. The report noted that Poland's PNK-Orlen has offered $1.5 billion for the stake. Leonid Fedun, vice president of Russia's LUKoil, told reporters on 25 January that his company has also submitted a bid to acquire Yukos's stake in Mazeikiu, "The Moscow Times" reported. DK

KYRGYZ PREMIER DENOUNCES OFFICIAL NEGLIGENCE ON ORGANIZED CRIME...
In a 25 January statement published by akipress.org, Prime Minister Feliks Kulov harshly criticized National Security Service (SNB) head Tashtemir Aitbaev for failing to fight organized crime. Noting the case of reputed crime boss Ryspek Akmatbaev, who was recently acquitted of murder charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2006) after prosecutors dropped all charges against him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2006), Kulov called the work of the judiciary, prosecutors, and SNB "extremely unsatisfactory." Kulov concluded, "Criminalization directly affects the interests of business and exerts a negative influence on the economy." Warning that corruption and criminality have penetrated law-enforcement bodies, Kulov called for an "influx of healthy and fresh forces by bringing in honest, competent specialists." DK

...AS INTERIOR MINISTER SAYS MOB HAS TIES TO SECURITY SERVICE
Interior Minister Murat Sutalinov told a parliamentary committee on 25 January that Aldoyar Ismankulov, an SNB officer detained on 17 January on drug and weapons charges, was a member of an organized crime group, ferghana.ru reported. Sutalinov noted that Ismankulov once faced charges in connection with an armed attack on a businessman in 1996. "It is a fact that members of organized crime groups work in the SNB," Sutalinov commented. Ismankulov headed the SNB department charged with fighting organized crime. Sutalinov also noted that Raatbek Sanatbaev, a well-known Kyrgyz athlete who was recently gunned down in Bishkek (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 January 2006), was killed by shots fired from a Makarov pistol that was confiscated from Ismankulov on 17 January. DK

UZBEK OPPOSITION FIGURE DENIES GUILT AS TRIAL STARTS
Nodira Hidoyatova, the coordinator of the opposition Sunshine Coalition, asserted her innocence and refused the services of a defense attorney on 25 January, the first day of her trial in Tashkent on charges that include tax evasion, ferghana.ru and the BBC's Uzbek Service reported. Ferghana.ru quoted her as saying, "I do not consider myself guilty, so I will do without defense representation." The BBC quoted Hidoyatova as saying, "I can defend myself, so I don't need the services of a defense attorney." The BBC reported that Hidoyatova's sister, Nigora Hidoyatova, expressed surprise at her sister's decision and suggested that officials may have put psychological pressure on Nodira. Nodira Hidoyatova, who was arrested in Tashkent in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2005), is accused of committing various economic crimes in concert with Sunshine Coalition head Sanjar Umarov, whose own trial is expected to start soon. DK

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION CANDIDATE ADDRESSES POLISH PARLIAMENT
Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the Belarusian united opposition forces' candidate for the 19 March presidential election, said in the Polish Sejm on 25 January that Belarusians still have to fight for their "independence, honor, and homeland," RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Milinkevich, the first Belarusian citizen to address the Polish parliament, was received with ovations by Polish deputies from the entire political spectrum. "It is very important that Poles understand the situation in Belarus, that representatives of the Polish nation in the parliament invited the Belarusian democratic opposition to the Sejm, showing by this that Poles are going to assist democratization in Belarus as consistently as they formerly fought for democracy in their own country," Milinkevich said in the Sejm. Later the same day he met with Polish President Lech Kaczynski. Milinkevich told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that his trip to Poland was very important. "It is great support for us because the [Belarusian official] propaganda maintains that nobody in Europe is waiting for us," he said. "My visit today proves that, quite the contrary, we will be welcomed in Europe once democratic changes take place in Belarus." JM

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENTIAL HOPEFUL WANTS TO KICK OUT TWO RIVALS
Presidential contender Syarhey Haydukevich, leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, has petitioned the Central Election Commission to remove Alyaksandr Milinkevich and Alyaksandr Kazulin from the race, accusing them of early electioneering, Belapan reported on 25 January. Haydukevich told Belapan that Milinkevich should be disqualified for allegedly distributing campaign material ahead of time, adding that he attached 10 various campaign calendars and leaflets to support his petition. Haydukevich also said Kazulin earlier this month published an interview in the "Narodnaya volya" daily, where he claimed that he would be the next president of Belarus. "We are all competitors and I demand that the Central Election Commission ensure equal campaign conditions for all contenders," Haydukevich noted. JM

UKRAINIAN PREMIER WARNS INDUSTRIAL SECTOR OF POSSIBLE GAS CUTS
Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov on 26 January announced that the government will reduce gas supplies to industrial facilities if they ignore its order to reduce gas consumption, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "If they do not understand spoken language, we will use normal administrative methods. The government still controls the tap," Yekhanurov told journalists in Kyiv. Yekhanurov's warning came against the backdrop of repeated charges from Gazprom that Ukraine siphons off Russian transit gas bound for Europe. Yekhanurov also declared that Ukraine, which is currently consuming 427 million cubic meters of gas per day, will reduce consumption by 15 percent within the next 24 hours. And Naftohaz Ukrayiny head Oleksiy Ivchenko said on Channel 5 on 26 January that Ukraine in January will exceed the limit of Russian gas contracted for this month. Meanwhile, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said the same day that Ukraine has already consumed its entire January quota of Russian gas. JM

OUR UKRAINE'S COALITION OFFER RECEIVES COLD RECEPTION
Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz said during an online news conference hosted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (http://www.pravda.com.ua) on 25 January that it is inexpedient for his party to sign a coalition accord with the pro-presidential Our Ukraine bloc before the 26 March parliamentary elections. Moroz was commenting on Our Ukraine's recent offer to Orange Revolution supporters to strike such a deal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2006). Mykola Tomenko of the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, which was also approached by Our Ukraine with the coalition proposal, said the document includes "inadmissible principles for forming a coalition of democratic forces." According to Tomenko, the text of the proposal devotes just 1 1/2 pages to "abstract democratic values" and as many as 10 pages to the distribution of government jobs among coalition participants after the elections. "The distribution of jobs two months before the elections is a gross violation of the principles of the expression of the people's will, as well as a return to the Kuchma-era practice of appointing government personnel, when jobs were distributed by an alliance of oligarchic groups and clans," the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc said in a statement. JM

PRISHTINA PREPARES FOR RUGOVA FUNERAL WITH UP TO 1 MILLION EXPECTED...
Police in Kosova said they expect as many as 1 million mourners to attend President Ibrahim Rugova's funeral in Prishtina on 26 January, international news agencies reported. Under tight security and with the entire capital closed to traffic, delegations from 40 countries flew into Prishtina. "We expect hundreds of thousands, up to 1 million," Reuters quoted an unidentified spokesman for the Kosova police as saying. Meanwhile, a group of Kosova war veterans said on 25 January that they were opposed to Rugova being buried in a cemetery for fighters from the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), AP reported the same day. The war veterans' protest illustrates a rift between supporters of Rugova, who favored peaceful resistance to Serbian rule, and the UCK, which advocated armed struggle. Some UCK veterans, including former rebel leader Hashim Thaci, who was Rugova's main political rival, have opted to praise the late president in an effort to foster unity, AP reported. BW

...AND SERBIAN PRESIDENT SAYS HE IS DISAPPOINTED NOT TO BE ATTENDING...
Serbian President Boris Tadic said on 26 January that he is disappointed that he will not be attending Rugova's funeral, Beta and B92 reported. "I wanted to pay my respects to a man that had opinions which were different from mine, who chose peaceful methods of implementing his ideas, and who was the president of the Kosovo Albanians with whom we share our living space with," Tadic said. Tadic said on 23 January that he would like to attend Rugova's funeral, but Kosova officials and the late president's family said he was not welcome due to comments about the province being "part of Serbia's territorial integrity" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2006). BW

...AND WESTERN POWERS URGE KOSOVA TO FORGE UNITY
Hours before President Rugova's funeral on 26 January, EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana asked Kosova's official leaders to set aside their differences and find a successor to keep final-status talks on track, Reuters reported. The United States also urged Kosovar Albanians to heal their differences and quickly fill the void left in the wake of Rugova's death. "He is someone who is going to be sorely missed because he was someone who was by far the most senior and respected figure in Kosovo politics and because he was the unifying figure," Nicholas Burns, the U.S. State Department official responsible for Balkan policy, said in Washington. "What we very much hope now is in the wake of his death, his tragic death, that the Kosovar leaders are going to reassert and commit themselves to unity," Burns added. BW

SERBIA SEEKS MORE GAS FROM RUSSIA AS PARTS OF SOME CITIES WITHOUT HEAT
The Serbian energy company Serbiagas said on 24 January that it has asked the Russian natural-gas monopoly Gazprom to increase gas supplies, stratfor.com reported the same day. Gazprom cut Serbia's gas supplies by 25 percent on 19 January due to rising demand in Russia. The Serbian energy sector is trying to meet some of the country's energy needs by restarting thermal plants in Novi Sad, Zrenjanin, and Sremska Mitrovica. Meanwhile, more than half of the households in Kragujevac and about 1,000 homes in Gornji Milanovac that use gas for heating purposes were left without heat on 24 January, B92 reported the next day. "The situation can only be helped by a greater amount of gas being shipped from Russia and having the temperature outside increase to at least somewhere close to 0 degrees. We are doing everything we can, and this is the best we can do under these conditions," Serbiagas official Laza Djurdjevic told B92. BW

TALKS BETWEEN BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA AND EU BEGIN IN SARAJEVO
Talks between Bosnia-Herzegovina and the European Union aimed at concluding a Stabilization and Association Agreement began in Sarajevo on 25 January, international news agencies reported the same day. The EU negotiating team is led by Reinhardt Priebe, the EU Enlargement Commission's director of the Office for Western Balkans, and the Bosnian team is headed by chief negotiator Igor Davidovic, AP reported. The talks will focus initially on broad issues including political dialogue, regional cooperation, and political and financial cooperation with Brussels. More difficult items like free trade and economic ties with the union will be addressed in later rounds of talks. BW

POLICE ARREST MAN CONVICTED IN 1997 ALBANIAN PYRAMID SCHEME
Police in Albania on 24 January arrested a 45-year-old man who has been sentenced in absentia for running a failed pyramid scheme that sparked widespread rioting in the country nine years ago, AP reported the same day. Refat Bena was sentenced in 2002 to 12 years in prison for defrauding creditors of up to $2 million. He was arrested in the Librazhd district, 80 kilometers east of Tirana, in a village where he had been hiding. In 1997, some 1.7 million investors lost a total of $1.3 billion when 24 separate pyramid schemes -- one of which was allegedly run by Bena -- collapsed. Crowds looted army depots, the government was paralyzed, and several thousand people died. BW

RUSSIAN ENERGY CHIEF VOWS TO WORK TO FREE JAILED FORMER MOLDOVAN MINISTER
Russia's Unified Energy Systems (EES) CEO Anatoly Chubais said on 25 January that he will do everything in his power to secure former Moldovan Defense Minister Valeriu Pasat's release from prison, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "I'll do my best to get Valeriu Pasat's release because he is my adviser," Chubais said. Prior to his arrest, Pasat worked as an adviser to Chubais at EES. Chubais added, however, that the Pasat case will not effect Russian-Moldovan energy cooperation. "We obtained the Moldovan Thermal Power Plant, although President Vladimir Voronin was against it, and we'll now build up supplies of electricity there," Chubais said. After Pasat was sentenced to 10 years in prison for abuse of office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2006), Chubais said Voronin should expect "serious problems" in the near future, sparking a diplomatic protest from Chisinau (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January 2006). BW

SUNNIS TURN AGAINST AL-ZARQAWI IN IRAQ
Six armed groups in Iraq have tentatively agreed to enter into national reconciliation talks aimed at ending the insurgency, amid increasing reports of growing conflict between nationalist-oriented resistance groups and Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda-affiliated movement.

Meanwhile, there are indications that al-Zarqawi is attempting to defuse public anger by remaking his movement, at least in name. Al-Qaeda in Iraq and five other insurgent groups announced on 15 January the establishment of a Mujahedin Shura Council, which purportedly aims to unify the ranks of the Islamist jihad movement in Iraq. The other groups are the Victorious Sect Army, the Islamic Jihad Brigades, and three previously unknown groups: the Monotheism Supporters Brigades, the Foreigners Brigades, and the Fear Brigades.

Since the announcement of the Mujahedin Shura Council, al-Zarqawi has virtually ceased independent claims of responsibility for attacks in Iraq; all claims of attacks are now issued in the name of the council.

The new group's name is telling: Al-Zarqawi, now feeling the wrath of national resistance groups, appears to be purporting an ongoing affiliation with nationalist resistance groups in an attempt to downplay increasing opposition to his movement. He may also be attempting to invoke some sort of religious legitimacy by using the name Shura, which is an Islamic principle that calls for the community to administer its affairs through mutual consultation.

Several Mujahedin Shura Councils have operated in Iraq at a local level since 2004 (Al-Fallujah, Samarra, Baghdad). Such councils were self-described nationalist-Islamist groups, comprised of Sunni clerics, tribal leaders, former Ba'athist fighters, and Islamist groups, including al-Zarqawi's Tawhid wa Al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (Monotheism and Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers), the precursor to the Al-Qaeda Organization of Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers.

In another indication of Al-Qaeda's increasing weakness in Iraq, the group called on Muslim clerics to support its movement. In a videotaped message posted to the Internet (http://www.almeer.net) on 17 January, the group asked Muslim clerics why they have failed to support the mujahedin in Iraq. "Isn't our jihad in Iraq a legitimate jihad?" the unidentified speaker asked. "If the answer is yes, why did you leave us in Al-Qa'im, Al-Rawah, and Hasibah the way you left us in Al-Fallujah, Samarra, and Tal Afar," referring to the sites of intense fighting between Al-Qaeda insurgents and multinational forces over the past two years.

Al-Zarqawi has fallen out of favor in recent months with tribal leaders in the Al-Anbar Governorate, presumably because of divergent views as to how to conduct the resistance. Local and tribal leaders in the governorate have objected to attacks by insurgents that inflict harm on the civilian population, while al-Zarqawi's group has sought to justify such attacks in the name of jihad.

Tension between the two sides escalated last year after some insurgent groups expressed a willingness to enter into talks with the United States over ending the insurgency. The Al-Qaeda leader also denounced the decision of some resistance groups to participate in November's Arab League-sponsored conference on national reconciliation.

Moreover, tribal leaders have expressed growing frustration over Al-Qaeda's attempts to stir sectarian division amongst Sunni and Shi'ite Arabs. Many tribes living in the Anbar-Baghdad-Samarra zone are mixed tribes, with both Sunni and Shi'ite members.

Insurgents attacked a line of Sunni Arabs waiting to enlist as police recruits in Al-Ramadi on 5 January, killing dozens of Iraqis. The registration day had been organized by local tribal leaders; many were on hand at the time of the attack, and some were reportedly killed. Other tribal leaders have been killed in recent weeks in Al-Ramadi and Samarra, purportedly at the hands of Al-Qaeda, prompting tribal and local leaders to mount an all-out drive against al-Zarqawi and his sympathizers.

At a meeting following the Al-Ramadi attack, tribal leaders decided to form armed groups to force Al-Qaeda from the governorate. Media reports indicate that many Al-Qaeda fighters relocated to Samarra, while other al-Zarqawi supporters remain engaged in intense fighting with locals in Al-Ramadi.

When armed gunmen ambushed a bus carrying some 35 Sunni Arab police recruits between Baghdad and Samarra on 16 January -- among them many former officers planning on reenlisting in the Iraqi army -- and killed them execution-style, Samarra residents were quick to blame Al-Qaeda for the attack.

On 23 January, tribal and nationalist insurgent leaders in Samarra announced that they would send armed groups to hunt down Al-Qaeda members in the city in a campaign similar to one launched last month following the assassination of Albu-Baz tribal leader Hikmat Mumtaz, London's "Al-Hayat" reported on 24 January. Hundreds of Iraqis demonstrated in Samarra against Al-Qaeda on 24 January, and reports indicated that many Al-Qaeda loyalists had fled to nearby Diyala Governorate.

"Al-Hayat" also reported on 25 January that six insurgent groups have reached a tentative agreement with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani that they will participate in national reconciliation talks. The report indicated that Talabani and his National Security Adviser Wafiq al-Samarra'i have issued guarantees for the security of the groups to participate in the talks. The Albu-Baz tribe, along with the Al-Dulaym, Al-Janabi and Al-Jubur tribes have reportedly supported the agreement.

The daily reported that the Islamic Army in Iraq, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Mujahedin Army in Iraq, and the Al-Anbar Revolutionaries are among those groups party to the agreement. In return for their participation, the groups would publicly renounce al-Zarqawi and his movement.

Ayham al-Samarra'i told London's "Quds Press" in August that the above groups, although linked to the former Ba'athist regime, have accepted that the Ba'athist era is over. "Even the Muhammad's Army, which claims to be the striking force of the Ba'ath Party, has been far-sighted in its political thinking, structure, and vision.... They try to be more democratic today. They have presented themselves as believing in a peaceful transformation and accession to power," he claimed in an interview published on 14 August.

Former senior members of the Ba'ath Party are now planning to convene a conference to evaluate the period of Saddam Hussein's rule, "Al-Hayat" reported on 24 January. The conference, which would meet ahead of the national reconciliation conference, would include party members who defected in the 1960s and 1970s, and would seek to hold Hussein responsible for the spread of sectarianism in Iraq under his rule. The conference would presumably also seek to redefine and resurrect Ba'athist ideology in the form of a new party.

Meanwhile, it appears that the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army remains aligned with al-Zarqawi's organization. A 23 January statement posted to the Internet (http://www.shamela.net) claimed the two groups took part in a joint operation against Shi'ite members of the Imam Al-Mahdi Army. However, there have been no other statements from Ansar Al-Sunnah commenting on the Mujahedin Shura Council.

EU APPROVES $24 MILLION IN HUMANITARIAN AID TO AFGHANISTAN
The European Union pledged $24 million in humanitarian aid for southern Afghanistan on 25 January, Xinhua News Agency reported. The new humanitarian funds will go toward projects aimed at reintegrating refugees and internally displaced Afghans in the areas that border Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan. EU officials say the aid will help 600,000 Afghan refugees and 120,000 internally displaced people. Most of the money will go toward developing water, sanitation, and housing in southern Afghanistan. But some funds are earmarked as aid for Afghan refugees who remain in Pakistan or Iran. An estimated 4 million Afghan refugees remain in either Iran or Pakistan. The report left unclear how much of the aid will be spent in Afghanistan, as opposed to Iran and Pakistan. MR

TWO SUSPECTED SUICIDE BOMBERS ARRESTED IN AFGHANISTAN
Afghan authorities said they arrested two would-be suicide bombers in Kandahar Province on 25 January, the Afghan Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Local police officer Masud said the two men had strapped explosives around their bodies and were heading towards the city on a motorcycle. He said authorities caught the two in the Zerai District after a joint operation involving provincial police, the army, and U.S.-led coalition forces. In the past 10 days, Pajhwak reported, explosions in the Kandahar area have killed more than 28 people, including a Canadian diplomat. MR

AFGHAN BLAST WOUNDS TWO U.S. SOLDIERS
Two U.S. soldiers were wounded in eastern Afghanistan on 25 January when suspected neo-Taliban insurgents attacked their convoy with an improvised bomb, AFP reported. The attack happened in Konar Province, a statement by U.S.-led coalition forces said. "Following the explosion, forces involved reported coming under rocket-propelled grenade and mortar fire and requested close-air support," the statement said. "Artillery, AH-64 Apache helicopters, and A-10 aircraft responded to the scene, attacking enemy forces." It was unclear whether any neo-Taliban fighters were wounded or killed in the fighting that followed the convoy attack. MR

SCANDINAVIAN TROOPS COME UNDER FIRE IN AFGHANISTAN
Norwegian and Finnish soldiers patrolling in northern Afghanistan came under attack 25 January, AFP reported. No one was hurt. The Scandinavian unit, led by a Norwegian but composed of Finnish soldiers, was in the area as part of a Norwegian-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) along with Afghan troops. The group was in Faryab Province when it was attacked. "The PRT soldiers pulled back while the Afghan troops returned fire," Norwegian military spokesman Thom Knutstad said. "This kind of attack is very rare in this region." MR

UN SECURITY COUNCIL MEMBERS, GERMANY, TO DISCUSS IRAN IN LONDON
The British Foreign Office announced on 25 January that foreign ministers from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), plus Germany, will meet in London on 30 January to discuss the Iranian nuclear issue, AFP reported. An emergency meeting of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is scheduled for 2 February in Vienna. Iranian officials are visiting the capitals of the two countries -- China and Russia -- that remain reluctant to refer the issue to the UN Security Council, a development which could lead to sanctions. There is growing international concern over the lack of transparency on the part of Iran and its inadequate cooperation with the IAEA. BS

TEHRAN BLAMES AHVAZ BOMBINGS ON U.K., AS IRREDENTIST GROUP ISSUES WARNING
Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said on 25 January that the United Kingdom is behind the previous day's bombings in the southwestern city of Ahvaz, state television reported. He said something about the "masterminds" being photographed with British officials in London, and he added that "These people enjoyed the intelligence and cooperation of the British military commanders in Basra." Iranian news agencies, meanwhile, are giving differing accounts of the number of casualties. IRNA reported six dead and at least 40 wounded, while Mehr News Agency reported nine dead and 15 wounded. An irredentist group called the Ahvazi Arab Revival Party issued a statement warning that there will be more violence and in other Iranian cities if Tehran's "repressive policies" and "denial of the legitimate rights of the Ahvazi Arab people" continues, the Arabic-language "Ilaf" newspaper from London reported on 25 January. Blaming foreigners, the group warned Tehran, will not solve the problem. BS

IRAN SAYS IT ONLY WITHDREW FUNDS FROM ITALY
Seeking to allay international concern after reports that Tehran has withdrawn its foreign currency reserves from European banks, a Central Bank of Iran official said in the 25 January "Financial Times" that funds were withdrawn only from Italian banks. CBI Deputy Governor Mohammad-Jafar Mojarrad explained that Iran opts for ambiguity over the amount and distribution of its foreign holdings as a precautionary measure. The withdrawal of money from Italian banks is connected with an Italian court's decision in December that the Banco Nazionale del Lavoro must freeze an Iranian government account. This relates to an alleged Iranian role in the killing of three Americans in Gaza, the "Financial Times" reported. Mojarrad added that Iranian funds could return to Italian banks if the court determines that funds from central banks are immune. BS

SECOND IRANIAN SATELLITE REPORTEDLY READY
Ahmad Taleb-Zadeh, head of Iran's Aerospace Organization, said on 22 January that the Mesbah satellite will be sent into outer space within three months on a Russian rocket, the "Iran Daily" reported. Mesbah is mainly to be used for telecommunications and imagery. The wait before the launch is to allow for preparation of the rockets' other payloads. Sina-1, Iran's first satellite, was launched from Russia in October 2005, Taleb-Zadeh added, and five more satellites are planned by 2010. Scientists from an Italian firm -- Carlo Gavazzi -- are working on the Mesbah satellite, Israel's channel 2 television reported on 20 January. They reportedly visited the city of Shiraz to present information on the satellite, and the Israeli TV channel secured a videotape of their presentation. It revealed a platform that cannot stabilize itself, does not have a camera, and has slow data transmission speed, the Israeli TV channel reported. BS

GEORGIA KEEN FOR IRANIAN GAS
Georgian Fuel and Energy Minister Nika Gilauri and Georgian International Gas Corporation chief Davit Ingoroqva traveled to Baku on 25 January to discuss possible receipt of natural gas from Iran, Caucasus Press reported. The Iranian gas would be delivered via a pipeline from Nagorno-Karabakh to Tbilisi, and is needed because of damage done to the Russian Mozdok-Tbilisi pipeline by a 22 January explosion that has completely cut supplies of Russian gas to Georgia. Georgia also intends to import gas from Azerbaijan and Turkey. Gilauri announced on 24 January that Tbilisi and Tehran have agreed on an electricity barter agreement, Caucasus Press reported. He explained, "We will supply Iran with electricity during the summer and Iran will supply us with electricity in the winter months, when Georgia's energy system does not have sufficient resources." Gilauri met with Foreign Minister Mottaki on 22 January in Iran. BS

IRAN CULLS BIRDS IN PREVENTIVE MEASURE
Iran's State Veterinary Organization announced on 25 January that it has purchased and killed 45,000 birds from poultry farmers along a 10 kilometer strip of the shared border with Turkey, ISNA reported. The step was taken after an reported outbreak of bird flu in Turkey. A sampling from large and small farms has found no cases of the fatal and contagious H5N1 strain of bird flu, according to the State Veterinary Organization. BS

FIVE FEMALE PRISONERS RELEASED IN IRAQ
The U.S. military confirmed on 26 January that five female Iraqi detainees have been released from U.S. custody in Iraq, adding that their release was not related to the case of kidnapped U.S. journalist Jill Carroll, international media reported. Carroll's kidnappers have demanded that all female detainees be released from custody in return for Carroll's freedom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 January 2006). The five women were among 420 detainees freed from U.S. custody on 26 January; three other female detainees remain in custody. KR

IRAQI ELECTION COMMISSION SAYS 42 COMPLAINTS FILED ON ELECTION RESULTS
The Iraqi Independent Electoral Commission (IECI) said on 25 January that it has received 42 complaints contesting the final results of the 15 December parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2006), Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. The IECI said the majority of complaints were filed by victorious blocs over the distribution of seats and the annulment of the votes in some ballot boxes. The complaints have been referred to the judicial commission overseeing the election and are expected to be addressed in the next 10 days. Meanwhile, Judge Radi al-Radi, who heads Iraq's Transparency Commission, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on 25 January that the commission is dealing with some 1,500 corruption cases in Iraq, 450 of which are allegations of corruption within the National Assembly and ministries. To date, only eight cases have been brought before the Iraqi Criminal Court, he said. KR

AUSTRIAN NATIONAL RELEASED FROM KURDISH PRISON IN IRAQ
An Iraqi Kurd with Austrian citizenship has been released from a Kurdish prison after Irbil's Court of Cassation overturned a lower-court ruling that had sentenced him to 30 years in prison for "defamation of the Kurdish leadership," international media reported on 25 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 January 2006). Austrian state television confirmed on 25 January that Kamal Sa'id Qadir was released. Reuters reported on 26 January that Qadir will face lesser charges, which carry sentence of not more than five years, in another court. Kurdishmedia.com cited Kurdish Judge Qubadi Jelilzade as saying in an open letter to the judges of Kurdistan published on dengekan.com that the case against Qadir was a political issue relating to the freedom of expression and should never have gone to trial. Jelilzade criticized the weakness of the judiciary for bowing to government pressure to try Qadir, and castigated the government for its interference in the courts. KR

MUSLIM SCHOLARS ASSOCIATION SAYS U.S.-IRAQI FORCES ARREST 46 YOUTHS
The Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association posted a statement to its website on 25 January protesting a joint operation carried out by U.S. and Iraqi Interior Ministry forces that led to the detention of 46 "youths." Calling the operation "a serious escalation that fueled tension in the area," the association claimed that the Iraqi army was unaware of the operation. The association said it holds the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations responsible for military operations because they did not denounce such "violations." There was no reference to the operation on the Multinational Forces website (http://www.mnf-iraq.com). KR

U.S.-IRAQI FORCES CLAIM PROGRESS IN BA'QUBAH, BAYJI
A joint U.S.-Iraqi raid in three villages outside Ba'qubah led to the detention of 19 suspected insurgents on 24 January, according to a 26 January press release on the Multinational Forces website (http://www.mnf-iraq.com). The statement said eight of those captured were "known to have strong ties to terrorists in the area." In Bayji, tips from citizens prompted a series of early-morning searches in the city on 24 January, which led to the capture of four men with close links to a terrorist ring responsible for killings in the area. A fifth man was killed after he fired at soldiers searching his home, the statement added. In all, 51 suspected terrorists were detained throughout northern Iraq on 24 January, according to the statement. KR

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