Accessibility links

Newsline - February 9, 2006


WILL EU OFFER RUSSIA DEAL ON ENERGY?
France is leading an effort by several West European countries to present an offer to Russia soon to "loosen its grip on oil and gas sectors" and thereby help ensure energy security for its partners in return for longer-term contracts and financing assistance from "the World Bank and other international bodies to build more gas pipelines," the "Financial Times" reported on 9 February. The French also want Russia to ratify the Energy Charter Treaty, which it has already signed, to provide a legal framework for the energy business, the London-based daily added. The European Commission is reportedly preparing a Transit Protocol to the treaty, which would have the effect of ending Gazprom's monopoly on Russia's pipelines. Russia has pledged to put energy security at the center of its current presidency of the Group of Eight leading industrialized countries. The French-led project might nonetheless prove to be "wishful thinking," according to an unnamed "Western energy diplomat" quoted by the "Financial Times." The daily noted that attempts by the Group of Seven to "cool energy markets" over the past two years have been unsuccessful. PM

U.S. REPORTEDLY CONCERNED ABOUT RUSSIAN GAS TRADE PRACTICES
Unnamed U.S. officials told "The Washington Times" of 9 February that "Russia has been using its control of Soviet-era pipelines to squeeze Central Asian sellers of natural gas while setting up corrupt trading intermediaries whose only apparent purpose is to milk huge profits." The daily added that the Bush administration is "alarmed by a recent price dispute between Russia and Ukraine that disrupted vital gas supplies to Europe...[and has] raised doubts about Russia's fitness to chair the Group of Eight countries, beginning with a finance ministers' meeting in Moscow this week" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 8 February 2006). The State Department has reportedly been unsuccessful in its efforts to persuade unnamed EU countries to pressure Moscow to reform its trade practices. One unnamed "senior U.S. official" singled out RosUkrEnergo as typical of Russia's "mysterious, shady trading firms [that] have no purpose. They have been a source of corruption for years. They are instruments for arrangements by which some people buy cheap and sell expensive." The official also told the daily that RosUkrEnergo is "said to be run by people with organized criminal ties, as well as good Kremlin connections." PM

RUSSIA TO GO AHEAD WITH IRANIAN MISSILE DEAL
Mikhail Dmitriyev, who heads the Federal Military-Technical Cooperation Service, said in Moscow on 9 February that the value of Russian arms exports in 2005 was just over $6.1 billion, which is a record for recent years, Russian news agencies reported. Total arms contracts amount to "$23 billion, which is comparable to the Soviet era," he added. He also said that Russia will go ahead with plans to sell Tor-M1 ground-to-air anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran. "As you know, we have a contract on the delivery of anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran. There is no reason not to fulfill this contract," he said. Dmitriyev argued that "the contract on the supplies of air-defense systems, which are of a purely defensive nature, has been concluded. No other talks are being held." The United States, the EU, and Israel have sharply criticized the missile deal, which is reportedly valued at $700 million and was concluded in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7, 12, and 16 December 2005). Russian officials have repeatedly denied media reports that they have also negotiated with Iran over the sale of S-300 air-defense systems. PM

RUSSIAN AIR-DEFENSE UNITS TO BE BASED IN BELARUS
Aytech Bizhev, the deputy commander of the Russian Air Force, said in Moscow on 9 February that four air-defense units equipped with Russian-made S-300 batteries will be stationed in western Belarus in late March, Russian news agencies reported. He said the move will extend the effective range of the air-defense systems on the western border of the Commonwealth of Independent States by 150 kilometers and the detection range of air targets by 400 kilometers. Bizhev also said that Russia, Belarus, and Kazakhstan will conduct a joint air-defense exercise in April involving Russian military aircraft being deployed to the two other states. PM

DOCTORS SAVE KIDNEY OF HAZING VICTIM
Surgeons at Moscow's Burdenko Military Hospital successfully unblocked the left kidney of Private Andrei Sychyov on 9 February, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2006). Major General Vyacheslav Klyuzhev, who heads the hospital, told the news agency that "Sychyov's condition remains grave. He is still in the intensive care unit, where the hospital's leading doctors are monitoring his health." An unnamed doctor on the team tending to Sychyov told RIA Novosti that they succeeded in saving his kidney "without any kind of operation." In related news, Sergeant Dmitry Nagaitsev was arrested in Khabarovsk in connection with the brutal beating in 2005 of Private Yevgeny Koblov, lenta.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2006). PM

MINISTER SAYS 30 PERCENT OF WINTER CROPS ARE DEAD
Russian Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeyev said in Moscow on 9 February that this winter's cold snap has resulted in the loss of 30 percent of the winter crops, RIA Novosti reported. He said that fruit trees were especially hard hit. PM

COURT BACKS OLIGARCH IN PRISON RULING
The Krasnokamensk City Court agreed on 9 February with a complaint by Natalia Terekhova, an attorney for imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky, that prison officials punished him "groundlessly" by placing him in solitary confinement for an alleged infraction of prison rules, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2006). PM

PRO-KREMLIN YOUTH DEMONSTRATE AGAINST REGIONAL GOVERNOR
About 200 members of the pro-government youth group Nashi demonstrated in Perm on 9 February to demand the ouster of Oleg Chirkunov, the governor of the recently constituted Perm Krai, mosnews.com reported, citing the news channel NTV (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 December 2005). The protesters accused him of providing a platform for neo-Nazis at a recently held youth forum. PM

CHECHEN RESISTANCE CLAIMS RESPONSIBILITY FOR KURCHALOI BLAST
The Chechen resistance website chechenpress.org reposted on 8 February a statement sent by email to the website Kavkaz-Tsentr in which the resistance Military Council claimed responsibility for the destruction the previous day of a barracks in Kurchaloi, east of Grozny, that housed the Russian Defense Ministry's Vostok battalion, whose personnel are overwhelmingly Chechens (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2006). The resistance military command claimed to have killed at least 43 Vostok members and civilian support personnel and wounded more than 60. Officials from the pro-Moscow Chechen administration said on 8 February the death toll has risen to 13, and they repeated earlier assumptions that the explosion that destroyed the barracks was caused by a gas leak. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 9 February quoted Chechen Prosecutor Valery Kuznetsov as saying a preliminary examination of the ruined building failed to yield any traces of explosives, but he did not exclude the possibility of terrorism. Acting Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, who has taken control of the investigation, said on 8 February that the charitable fund named for his late father Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov will pay 50,000 rubles ($1,770) to the family of each person killed in the Kurchaloi blast, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

ADYGEYA PARLIAMENT UPPER CHAMBER REJECTS DRAFT LAW ON REFERENDUMS
The State Council -- the upper chamber of the Republic of Adygeya parliament -- failed on 8 February to endorse the draft law on referendums approved by the lower chamber last month, according to "Caucasus Times" as quoted on 9 February by kavkazweb.net (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 January 2006). Public organizations representing the republic's Cherkess and Adyg minority, who account for only some 10 percent of the population, have demanded that the draft be amended to exclude the possibility of holding a referendum on changing the republic's borders. The Slavs, who account for some 70 percent of the population, are campaigning for the abolition of Adygeya's status as a separate federation subject and its merger with Krasnodar Krai, within which it constitutes an enclave. Also on 8 February, several public organizations representing the Cherkess minority dispatched an appeal to Russia's presidential Public Chamber protesting the Slavs' initiative and appealing for the preservation of Adygeya's status as a republic, kavkazmemo.ru reported. LF

ARMENIAN PARLIAMENT FAILS TO AGREE ON NEW OMBUDSMAN
During a secret parliament vote on 8 February, Armen Harutiunian, a long-time legal adviser to President Robert Kocharian and Kocharian's nominee to succeed Larisa Alaverdian as human rights ombudsman, failed to garner the three-fifths majority (79 votes) needed to confirm him in that post, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Harutiunian received 69 votes, and opposition nominee Ruben Torosian 25. In an address to parliament on 6 February, Harutiunian signaled that he would be less critical of the government than Alaverdian was. "We must form a civil society, and only that will allow us to talk about defending and guaranteeing human rights," RFE/RL's Armenian Service quoted him as telling deputies. "The human rights defender must not...point the finger at everyone and give lessons." The ruling three-party coalition decided later on 8 February to renominate Harutiunian for the ombudsman's post, Noyan Tapan reported on 9 February. LF

DETAINED AZERBAIJANI YOUTH LEADER REPORTEDLY IN NEED OF HOSPITAL TREATMENT
Osman Kyazimov, a lawyer for Ruslan Basirli, head of the opposition youth group Yeni Fikir (New Idea) who was arrested last summer on charges of colluding with Armenian intelligence (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 15 August 2005), was quoted by echo-az.com on 9 February as saying that Basirli's health has sharply deteriorated in recent days and he has lost consciousness several times. Kyazimov said Basirli has been examined by two doctors, one of whom diagnosed heart problems, and the other insufficient blood supply to the brain. He said he will ask for Basirli to be transferred immediately from solitary confinement in the notorious Bailov pre-trial detention center to a hospital. LF

GEORGIA DETAINS THREE RUSSIAN OFFICERS...
Georgian military police detained three Russian Army officers on 8 February in the Georgian-populated village of Kurta in the South Ossetian conflict zone on the grounds that they did not have visas to enter Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. The three men, who according to the Russian Foreign Ministry are not members of the Joint Peacekeeping Force deployed in the conflict zone, were taken to Tbilisi, where Georgian Conflict Resolution Minister Giorgi Khaindrava told journalists on 9 February they will be deported to Russia. LF

...DENIES SENDING ADDITIONAL TROOPS TO SOUTH OSSETIA
Khaindrava rejected on 8 February as "a provocation" claims by the Russian Defense Ministry, which were repeated by Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, that Georgia has deployed some 250 servicemen to the village of Eredvi in the conflict zone in violation of existing agreements, Caucasus Press reported. Khaindrava told journalists on 8 February that Georgia's "enemies" will not succeed in provoking Georgia to resume hostilities in South Ossetia, however much they may hope to do so, Caucasus Press reported. Meanwhile in Moscow, Andrei Kokoshin, chairman of the Russian State Duma's Committee for CIS Affairs, accused Georgia on 8 February of fuelling tensions in the conflict zone by its ongoing purchases of large quantities of weaponry, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

U.S. CAUTIONS GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT AGAINST DEMANDING RUSSIAN PEACEKEEPERS' WITHDRAWAL...
Responding on 9 February to an address delivered earlier that day by Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili to the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna, U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Julie Finley acknowledged that the Joint Peacekeeping Force deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone could function more effectively, according to a press release on the website of the U.S. Mission to the OSCE (http://www.osce.usmission.gov). At the same time, Ambassador Finley noted that a request for the peacekeepers to leave before a substitute force is available to replace them could destabilize the situation. She called on Georgia to contribute its full complement of forces to maintain the proper balance within the Joint Peacekeeping Force, which includes Georgian, Russian, and Ossetian contingents, "in coordination with existing mechanisms, in full transparency, and in accordance with previous agreements." LF

...URGES ALL SIDES TO TONE DOWN MILITANT RHETORIC
In her 9 February address to the OSCE Permanent Council, Ambassador Finley further reaffirmed Washington's support for Georgia's territorial integrity, and noted that the close similarity between the most recent Georgian proposal for resolving the South Ossetian conflict and that proposed by Kokoity "furnish a good basis for agreement and prompt implementation" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 November and 13 and 14 December 2005). She called on all sides in the conflict "to abide by existing agreements and carry out demilitarization of the zone of conflict immediately," and "to avoid the harsh language that has recently blemished the debate and...instead, to adopt more measured tones that can lead to real dialogue." LF

KYRGYZ SPEAKER SAYS HE WILL RESIGN
Omurbek Tekebaev, speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, told akipress.org, "Vecherny Bishkek," and Interfax on 8 February that he has decided to resign, akipress.org reported. Tekebaev added that his resignation will likely be announced on 13 February. Ferghana.ru reported that Tekebaev created a stir in parliament on 7 February with a remark about President Kurmanbek Bakiev, saying, "He's become a disgrace, a dog; if he's a man, he should hang himself." Deputy Kubanychbek Isabekov said that many deputies found the comment inappropriate, akipress.org reported. Isabekov said he urged Tekebaev to apologize and Tekebaev agreed, but was then unable reach the president by telephone. Tekebaev's comment about Bakiev came in the wake of a 3 February address in which Bakiev harshly criticized parliament for fomenting political instability (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2006). DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT DISMISSES SECURITY SERVICE DEPUTY HEAD...
President Bakiev has signed a resolution dismissing Abdijalil Jamalov from the position of deputy chairman of the National Security Service, Kabar reported on 8 February. The resolution said that Jamalov's dismissal was linked to his transfer to another position. DK

...AND ACCEPTS SECURITY COUNCIL DEPUTY HEAD'S RESIGNATION
Bakiev signed a resolution on 8 February accepting the resignation of Security Council Deputy Secretary Vyacheslav Khan, akipress.org reported. Khan submitted his resignation on 28 January after parliament passed a resolution on 26 January urging Bakiev to fire Khan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2006). The parliamentary vote followed charges that Khan held foreign citizenship, allegations that Khan denied. DK

TURKISH MINISTER CONFIRMS TALKS ON TRANS-CASPIAN PIPELINE
Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler has confirmed that Turkey and Turkmenistan are holding talks on the construction of a trans-Caspian natural gas pipeline, Trend news agency reported on 8 February. Guler said, "We will go on [with] negotiations with Ashgabat on implementation of the trans-Caspian gas pipeline project. There is a contract between Turkey and Turkmenistan on gas supplies which for certain reasons had not been realized." Guler's comments came on the eve of a visit to the United States. Turkey and Turkmenistan signed a contract in 1991 to build the pipeline, but it has never moved beyond the planning stage. DK

RIGHTS GROUP LOSES APPEAL TO CONTINUE WORK IN UZBEKISTAN
A Tashkent court on 7 February rejected Freedom House's appeal of an 11 January ruling suspending the organization's activities in Uzbekistan for six months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 January 2006), Freedom House reported in a press release the next day. Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor commented, "It is clear from the Ministry of Justice's actions that the Uzbek government has no intention of tolerating international NGOs whose purpose is to circulate information about how genuine democratic societies operate." DK

SIGNATURES FOR BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION CANDIDATE INVALIDATED IN 10 DISTRICTS
Central Election Commission Secretary Mikalay Lazavik told journalists on 8 February that territorial election commissions in Hrodna Oblast annulled ballot-access signatures collected for united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich in 10 of the region's 17 districts, Belapan reported. Under regulations currently in force, if 15 percent of all signatures gathered in one particular area (city, district, or oblast) are declared inauthentic, all the signatures from this area are to be annulled. Milinkevich reportedly submitted 198,000 signatures to support his presidential bid, including 28,000 collected in Hrodna Oblast. Alyaksandr Bukhvostau, Milinkevich's election team manager, commented that the invalidation of signatures in Hrodna Oblast is a deliberate step by the authorities to discredit the united opposition candidate in his native region and undermine public trust in him. "We have Xerox copies of all lists and are ready to check the authenticity of all submitted signatures jointly with territorial election commissions, but we have been told 'no' everywhere," Bukhvostau added. JM

LUKASHENKA WANTS BELARUSIANS TO HAVE MORE CHILDREN
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on 8 February that every Belarusian family should have at least three children, Belapan report. "The most global problem that the country is now facing is that only 10 million people live on our pretty large territory," Lukashenka said at a cabinet meeting. "We may not speak about security if there's no one to protect this land." The Belarusian president said he is sure that Belarus "can feed 30 million people," adding that the government should find ways to support families with three or more children. "We should say clearly: If a family has three children, it has the right to buy an apartment at half the price, for instance. Special baby food stores will be opened. Third, a family should have enough money to maintain children," he noted. JM

MOSCOW APPOINTS AMBASSADOR TO MINSK
Russian President Vladimir Putin has appointed Aleksandr Surikov as ambassador to Belarus, ITAR-TASS reported on 8 February. Surikov is former governor of Altai Krai and a current aide of the presidential envoy to the Siberia Federal District. The position of Russian ambassador to Belarus has been vacant for the past six months. Moscow's last choice for ambassador, former Saratov Oblast Governor Dmitry Ayatskov, reportedly offended official Minsk with comments he made at a news conference in Saratov in July 2005 before assuming his post (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 July 2005). JM

UKRAINIAN GOVERNMENT IMPOSES FIVE-YEAR PRICE CAP ON GAS
The Ukrainian government on 8 February decided that $110 per 1,000 cubic meters will be the maximum price at which the newly created joint venture UkrGazEnergo can sell gas in Ukraine within the next five years, Interfax-Ukraine and ITAR-TASS reported. "If any economic entity decides to sell gas at the price above $110, a fine will be imposed [on it] and the entire proceeds will be confiscated. This will also be a reason for annulling the entity's registration with the state," Economy Minister Arsen Yatsenyuk told journalists. UkrGazEnergo was created last week by the Swiss-based gas trader RosUkrEnergo and Naftohaz Ukrayiny (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report," 7 February 2006). Under an agreement reached in January, RosUkrEnergo was made the monopolist of gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006-10. Ukraine imports gas mostly for corporate consumers, while the population uses gas that is primarily extracted at home and is priced much lower than imported gas. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT WANTS REFERENDUM ON NEW CONSTITUTION
Viktor Yushchenko proposed in an annual address to the Verkhovna Rada on 9 February to set up a commission in order to draft a new constitution and submit it to a nationwide referendum, Ukrainian media reported. According to Yushchenko, that constitutional commission should be composed of representatives of political forces and nongovernmental organizations as well as experts and scientists. Yushchenko said the promulgation of a new constitution should be followed by the adoption of laws defining the functions of the president, the cabinet, and the parliament in the new political system. "I am convinced that it is quite possible to achieve a nationwide and political consensus on this issue," Yushchenko noted. He added that he will not challenge the legality of the 2004 constitutional reform with the Constitutional Court prior to the parliamentary elections on 26 March. JM

SERBIA REPORTEDLY SET TO ARREST MLADIC BY 21 FEBRUARY...
The Serbian government has promised International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte that it will arrest Ratko Mladic by 21 February, Beta and B92 reported on 8 February, citing media reports. Citing anonymous senior government sources, the daily newspaper "Blic" reported that Serbian officials told Del Ponte that the Mladic case is close to being solved, either through his negotiated surrender or arrest. "A solution is near and this is the first time that Carla Del Ponte actually believes that the Belgrade government officials realize that Mladic must be extradited to The Hague in order to avoid sanctions," the unidentified source told "Blic." The EU's Council of Ministers is scheduled to meet on 21 February to decide whether to continue negotiating a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Serbia and Montenegro (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2006). Belgrade officials, the source added, "are no longer looking to avoid the problem, but rather, solve it. They have to face the problem very quickly." BW

...AS ONE MORE OF HIS ASSOCIATES IS DETAINED
Police in Belgrade arrested a former member of Ratko Mladic's personal guard on suspicion of helping the war crimes fugitive evade capture, dpa reported on 8 February. Sasa Badnjar was arrested on 6 February and is being held in 30-day detention. Badnjar is the second figure close to Mladic who has been detained by Serbian police. In January, police arrested Jovo Djogo, the former head of Mladic's personal guard (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2006). NATO troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina, meanwhile, searched the home of a man suspected of providing assistance to Mladic on 8 February, dpa reported the next day. Troops raided the home of Milisav Kljestan in the town of Vlasenica in Republika Srpska. "It is believed that Milisav Kljestan is associated with the Ratko Mladic support network," NATO said in a statement in Sarajevo, but gave no further details. BW

OFFICIAL SAYS THREE KARIC BROTHERS NOT IN SERBIA
Force of Serbia (PSS) official Dejan Milekovic said on 8 February that Bogoljub, Sreten, and Dragomir Karic are all outside Serbia, Beta, FoNet, and B92 reported the same day. "The lawyers have told me that Sreten Karic is in Moscow and I believe them. Bogoljub Karic is outside the country collecting documents, as is Dragomir, who has lived outside the country for a long period of time," Milekovic said. "The other members of the Karic family are in the country and going about their own business." Bogoljub Karic, the founder of the Mobtel mobile-phone operator, and three of his brothers, Sreten, Dragomir, and Zoran, were charged with tax evasion on 7 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 February 2006). BW

SERBIAN FINANCE MINISTER CALLS FOR JUDICIAL OVERHAUL
Mladjan Dinkic said on 8 February that the government plans to propose that every judge in the country be recertified, Beta and B92 reported the same day. "All judges should be made redundant, and then have to apply publicly, and then the ones who are worthy will be rehired," Dinkic said. "This will be decided on by a team of experts. This is what the European Union has advised us to do, adding that without changes and progress in the commerce courts, Serbia will have no chance of joining the EU," he added. Dinkic claimed that Serbia's courts are free of political influence, but that business interests are still able to manipulate the justice system. BW

BOSNIAN MUSLIM LEADER CALLS FOR INTERFAITH DIALOGUE IN AFTERMATH OF CARTOON CONTROVERSY
Reisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric, the leader of Bosnia Herzegovina's Islamic Community, appealed to Muslims worldwide on 7 February to refrain from reacting with violence and to accept the apologies Europe has offered over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, AP reported the same day. "The defense of our Prophet Muhammad is not in screaming and in violence in which nobody can recognize his messages of peace and trust among people," Ceric said after meeting with the ambassadors of Denmark and Norway. Ceric added that the "ugly episode" of the caricatures' publication and the Muslim reaction showed that it is time for a worldwide interfaith and intercultural dialogue, and he proposed Sarajevo as a venue. BW

BOSNIA OPENS FIRST NEW BORDER CROSSING WITH EU FUNDS
Bosnia-Herzegovina on 7 February opened the first in a series of new border crossings paid for with EU funds as part of an effort to crack down on illegal smuggling, AP reported the same day. The crossing terminal in northeastern Bosnia, on the border with Serbia and Montenegro, was built with $4.7 million in funds from the European Commission. It is part of a $41.4 million countrywide project sponsored by the EU to strengthen Bosnia's borders and crack down on chronic weapons and narcotics trafficking. BW

GUNMEN HIJACK BUS IN ALBANIA
Two gunmen hijacked a bus in Albania on 8 February and killed two people, including a policeman, before being arrested, international news agencies reported the same day. The incident started near the town of Rreshen when the bus stopped at a police roadblock and the two men, who were passengers, jumped up with hand grenades and warned passengers not to move, Reuters reported. They then shot and killed a policeman who tried to open the bus door. The hijackers took control of the bus and drove approximately 10 kilometers before being stopped by police in the town of Rubik. After one gunman was injured and surrendered in the ensuing shoot-out, police threw a smoke bomb in the bus and moved in to arrest the second hijacker. BW

WILL ARMENIAN, AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENTS' MEETING YIELD PROGRESS TOWARD KARABAKH PEACE DEAL?
The presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan, Robert Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev, are scheduled to meet on 10-11 February in Rambouillet on the outskirts of Paris for talks under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group that observers and Western diplomats hope may herald a breakthrough in the search for a solution to the Karabakh conflict. Ambassador Steven Mann, the Minsk Group's U.S. co-chairman, and OSCE Chairman in Office and Belgian Foreign Minister Karel de Gucht have both said that they think a peace deal may be within sight.

But Kocharian was quoted by Armenian news agencies on 9 February as telling Swedish Prime Minister Goran Persson in Stockholm that recent statements by Azerbaijani officials have dampened his optimism. "The sides must display the political will to reach a result, take some political risks. I got the impression from statements made in Azerbaijan during the last two-three days that either there is no such political will there, or not enough. My optimism towards the meeting in France has rather decreased for this reason," Noyan Tapan quoted Kocharian as saying.

The Armenian and Azerbaijani Foreign Ministers, Vartan Oskanian and Elmar Mammadyarov, met in London on 18-19 January under the aegis of the OSCE Minsk Group to prepare the ground for the Rambouillet summit. Oskanian confirmed the day after those talks that the two sides are seeking to reach agreement on a half-page document that enumerates general principles that could then form the basis for a more detailed peace plan. But Oskanian said that while the two sides' positions vis-a-vis some of those principles have drawn closer, on others their positions are still far apart, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

Day.az on 26 January similarly quoted Mammadyarov as telling journalists in Baku that the two sides are still trying to reach agreement on the "general principles." It therefore remains unclear whether the two countries' presidents will indeed succeed in reaching a compromise on the contested points, let alone publicly endorse those basic principles, during their upcoming summit. Azerbaijani presidential administration official Novruz Mammadov hinted in a 20 January interview with the online daily echo-az.com that it is unlikely the two presidents will sign any agreements during their "first meeting of the year."

The basic principles have formed the focus of what has become known as the Prague process talks between Oskanian and Mammadyarov (so-called because the first few meetings took place in Prague in the summer of 2004 and January 2005). On 7 June 2005, Mammadyarov told journalists in Baku that the two sides were discussing between seven and nine issues related to a peace settlement, and that those issues had to be addressed in a specific order, with each made secure before the following is added, "like pearls knotted on a silk thread."

Mammadyarov said Azerbaijan insists on the liberation of the seven Azerbaijani districts bordering on Karabakh that are currently occupied by Armenian forces. He also claimed the two sides were discussing which countries or organizations could provide peacekeeping forces to be deployed on those territories after their liberation, according to day.az. Echo-az.com quoted Mammadyarov as saying that the two sides were discussing both "phased" and "package" approaches to resolving the conflict. But a senior Armenian Foreign Ministry official told RFE/RL on 8 June on condition of anonymity that the final agreement will be a package one, although its various provisions may be implemented one after the other, rather than simultaneously.

Then, in early July 2005, a senior Armenian official told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that under the anticipated peace deal, Armenia would return to Azerbaijani control five of the seven Azerbaijani districts adjacent to Karabakh currently occupied by Karabakh Armenian forces, not including the strategic Lacin corridor. An international peacekeeping force would be deployed in the conflict zone under the aegis of the OSCE. Then, at some unspecified future date the population of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic would be required to vote in a referendum on the region's future status.

That blueprint is very similar to those proposed in December 2004 by former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio and NATO Parliamentary Assembly President Pierre Lellouche; and by the International Crisis Group in a document released on 11 October 2005 (http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?l=1&id=3740), although the ICG plan envisages the withdrawal of Armenian forces from all seven occupied Azerbaijani districts including Lacin.

Haik Kotandjian, an adviser to Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, outlined an alternative "road map" for resolving the conflict in a 22 November interview with regnum.ru. That three-stage plan comprised the same elements, but in reverse order: it envisaged a referendum on the status of the NKR, followed by the deployment of international peacekeepers and the simultaneous withdrawal of Armenian forces from five of the occupied districts (not including Lacin and Kalbacar); the third stage comprised the rehabilitation of the conflict zone.

In early July 2005, Armenian officials told RFE/RL's Armenian Service that Armenia and Azerbaijan had reached agreement on the key points of a formal peace accord ending the Karabakh conflict, and that agreement could be signed by the end of this year. The two ministers, and the two presidents, subsequently met in late August in Kazan on the sidelines of a CIS summit, but failed to announce any major progress toward a settlement.

Preparations have nonetheless been launched for one aspect of a peace settlement: a high-level OSCE planning group visited the Karabakh conflict zone last month to assess the requirements for deploying an international peacekeeping force in the event of the withdrawal of the Armenian forces from the Azerbaijani territory contiguous to the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic that they currently occupy.

In a 19 January interview with APA news agency that was posted the following day on day.az, Azerbaijani presidential administration official Mammadov said that Azerbaijan's overriding priorities are for Armenia to agree to a settlement of the conflict that would preserve Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, and the withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territory. Mammadov dismissed as "unimportant" the issue of including representatives of the NKR in the peace process, which the ICG plan advocates. He said that peacekeeping forces should be deployed along the entire length of the Armenian-Azerbaijani border and "between Armenian- and Azerbaijani-populated villages." He said it was premature to discuss the possibility of a referendum, which would, he estimated, be held only in 15-20 years' time.

Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov, President Aliyev's special representative for the Karabakh talks, was more categorical, telling journalists in Baku on 23 January that talk of a referendum is no more than "rumors," day.az reported.

Neither Mammadov nor Azimov appears to have made the crucial point, noted on 19 January by the online daily zerkalo.az, that Article 3 of the Azerbaijani Constitution explicitly bars the possibility of changes to the country's borders being submitted to a nationwide referendum. For such a referendum to take place, a preliminary referendum would first have to be held to amend those articles of the constitution, and few Azerbaijani voters are likely to endorse any amendments that would facilitate the loss of Azerbaijani jurisdiction over Karabakh.

Even if the two presidents succeed during the coming year in finalizing a set of "general principles" intended to serve as the blueprint for a more detailed peace plan, there is still no guarantee that one side or the other will not find it expedient to renege on them at some future date. The so-called "Paris Principles" agreed on in the spring of 2001 were elaborated on in further talks in Florida in April 2001 and during subsequent meetings between Kocharian and Ilham Aliyev's father and predecessor, Heydar Aliyev. U.S. diplomat Rudolf Perina, who served as the U.S. Minsk Group co-chairman during those talks, later revealed that in 2002 the two sides came "incredibly close" to hammering out a peace agreement. But Armenian officials say Baku reneged on that deal shortly before a planned summit between Kocharian and Heydar Aliyev in June 2002 that was cancelled at the last minute.

PROTESTS OVER CARTOONS CLAIM MORE LIVES IN AFGHANISTAN...
Continuing protests throughout Afghanistan against the publication by a Danish newspaper and other media of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad have claimed more lives in Qalat, the provincial capital of Zabul in southern Afghanistan, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported on 8 February. Zabul Province security commander Mohammad Nabi Manakhail told RFE/RL that the 8 February demonstrations turned violent when protesters shot at Afghan security officers. When the officers returned fire, three protesters were killed and up to 13 others were injured. Manakhail said that several security officers were also injured. Police have arrested 40 people who Manakhail said were responsible for instigating violence and destruction of property. According to AFP on 8 February, a total of four protesters were killed in Qalat. The protests over the cartoons have claimed 12 lives since they began in early February, and have prompted Afghan officials to speculate that foreigners are behind the ongoing violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6, 7, and 8 February 2006). AT

...AS NEO-TALIBAN OFFERS REWARDS FOR KILLING PUBLISHER OF CARTOONS, ISAF SOLDIERS...
Mullah Dadullah, identifying himself as the military commander in chief of the Taliban militia, on 8 February offered a reward of 100 kilograms of gold to anyone who kills "the person responsible for publishing the cartoons," Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Speaking with AIP, Dadullah said the militia will give 5 kilograms of gold to anyone who kills a Danish, Norwegian, or German soldier serving with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The rate of neo-Taliban suicide attacks has increased since the publication of the cartoons, Dadullah claimed in his remarks to AIP. The cartoons were originally published in September 2005. There was, however, no noticeable reaction to them in Afghanistan until early February. AT

...AND DECLARES JIHAD AGAINST DANISH FORCES IN AFGHANISTAN
Qari Yusof Ahmadi, claiming to speak on behalf of the neo-Taliban, has said the militia has declared jihad against Danish forces in Afghanistan because of the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, the Copenhagen daily "Berlingske Tidende" reported on 7 February. While all foreign forces remain targets of neo-Taliban attacks, "because of the insults we will to a particular extent attack Danish soldiers," Ahmadi said. Denmark currently has upwards of 150 soldiers in Afghanistan, but Copenhagen has indicated the number of Danish forces will increase to around 350 as part of ISAF's expansion to southern Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2006). AT

SCHOOL TENTS TORCHED IN NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN
Unidentified arsonists have burned two tents used as classrooms in the outskirts of Sheberghan, the provincial capital of Jowzjan, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported on 8 February. Abdul Hayy Yashin, head of the provincial education department, told RFE/RL the tents were located in the Afghan Tapa area and that no suspects have been arrested in the case. The neo-Taliban has began a campaign of targeting schools in the southern and eastern parts of Afghanistan, where they are operating. However, there are few, if any, reports of neo-Taliban activity in Jowzjan. AT

AUTHORITIES ARREST MORE THAN 40 FOREIGN WOMEN IN KABUL FOR 'IMMORAL' ACTIVITIES
Afghan Interior Ministry legal adviser Abdul Jabar Sabet told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on 8 February that upward of 40 foreign women have been arrested in Kabul for alleged involvement in "immoral" acts. The women were working in brothels disguised as guesthouses and restaurants operating throughout Kabul, Sabet added. While the media has identified the women as being from China, Sabet refused to disclose their nationality to RFE/RL. Twenty-two establishments involved in immoral activities have been identified in Kabul, Sabet added. The Afghan National Assembly has been debating the spread of what it calls immoral acts in Kabul, including prostitution and the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Sabet, however, said that the action taken by the Interior Ministry was not the result of direction by the parliament. AT

HAMAS LEGISLATOR SAYS IRAN PROMISED FINANCIAL AID
Hamas member Muhammad Jamal al-Natshah, who was elected to the Palestinian legislature in late January, was imprisoned shortly before polling took place. Responding to warnings that numerous countries have threatened to cut funding for the Palestinian Authority if Hamas does not renounce violence and recognize Israel, al-Natshah said there are other sources of money, "Al-Hayah al-Jadidah" from Ramallah reported on 7 February. He claimed that Iran said it is ready to replace aid from international donors, and Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states are ready to help Hamas as well. Al-Natshah said Hamas does not recognize the Middle East "road map" to peace drafted by the negotiating quartet of the United States, European Union, Russia, and the United Nations because it calls for recognizing Israel, and Hamas cannot recognize Israel. BS

PROTESTS CONTINUE IN FRONT OF DANISH EMBASSY IN TEHRAN
Radio Farda reported that on 8 February a group of people referring to themselves as members of the Basij militia, which is connected with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, threw rocks and Molotov cocktails at the Danish Embassy in Tehran. The protests, which took place outside the embassy on 6 and 7 February as well, reflect public anger over the publication in Denmark in September of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, which many Muslims have criticized as blasphemous. But Radio Farda cited Finnish television correspondent Eva Vix as saying 99 percent of the Iranian people do not back such actions, and the issue is not very important to them. Fars News Agency described the 8 February protest outside the Danish Embassy as simply comprising "dozens of young Iranians" staging a demonstration. The agency said demonstrators called for the closure of the embassy, and police prevented their effort to enter the compound. The demonstrators also shouted "Death to America" and "Death to Israel." BS

NEW THREATS LEVELED AGAINST DENMARK IN IRAN
The spokesman for the hard-line Hizbullah pressure group in Iran, who was identified only as Bigdeli, said the firebombing of the Danish Embassy in Tehran has nothing to do with his organization, emrouz.info, a website linked with the Islamic Iran Participation Party, reported on 8 February. He said the attack on the embassy is just the beginning, and people will hear about international threats to Danish assets. Bigdeli added that his organization is not involved with international activities. He concluded by saying Hizbullah is readying plans for a response to the enemies of Islam. BS

IRANIAN FOREIGN MINISTER DOWNPLAYS DANISH TRADE BAN
Referring to the Commerce Ministry announcement that it is banning trade with Danish firms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2006), Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Tehran that the government cannot force the private sector to engage with a specific country, IRNA reported. He went on to say that it is up to Iranians to decide with whom they will have trade relations, and Iranian merchants decided independently to cut commercial ties with Denmark as a reaction to the publication of the controversial caricatures. Regarding the violation of Danish Embassy property by Iranian demonstrators, Mottaki said, "People were angry and it was natural for them to stage their protest." BS

IRAN CLOSES IRAQ BORDER CROSSING
Mohammad Ali Shirali, governor of the southwestern city of Khorramshahr, said on 8 February that the Shalamcheh border crossing between Iran and Iraq will be closed for two days during the Tasua and Ashura mourning period, IRNA reported. He said prospective pilgrims who wish to visit the holy sites of Karbala should not go to Shalamcheh, and the normal travel regime will resume on 12 February. These regulations apply to business travelers as well. In a 7 February meeting in Baghdad, Iranian special representative for Iraqi affairs Ali Asqar Khaji met with Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Sa'd al-Hayani, IRNA reported. Al-Hayani said Iraq would like even more pilgrims from Iran to visit his country, security conditions permitting. BS

IRAQI SHI'A GATHER IN KARBALA FOR ASHURA
Shi'a gathered in the holy city of Karbala on 9 February for the religious observance of Ashura, one of the most important holy days for Shi'a, commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husayn in Karbala in 680 A.D., RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. The Karbala Health Department has set up 16 mobile medical units across the city to provide medical treatment to pilgrims. One doctor told RFI that the units have treated 35,000 Iraqis in the past 10 days for illnesses ranging from dehydration to food poisoning, to more serious conditions resulting from self-flagellation. KR

U.S., IRAQI GOVERNMENT MEET WITH SUNNI TRIBESMEN
U.S. and Iraqi government officials held a five-hour meeting with Sunni Arab tribal leaders in Iraq on 7 February in what has been described as the most high-level meeting to take place between Sunnis and Shi'a in the post-Hussein era, latimes.com reported on 9 February. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari, National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i, U.S. General George W. Casey, and eight major Sunni tribal sheikhs attended the meeting. "We are engaged with leaders, including tribal leaders and others, to encourage them to suspend their military operations with the aim of ending the insurgency and working together with us against the terrorists," U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad told the "Los Angeles Times" in an 8 February interview. Khalilzad said the incoming Iraqi government must appoint leaders to the security services who are seen as impartial if the government is to succeed in winning Sunnis' support. Al-Rubay'i told the newspaper that al-Ja'fari vowed at the meeting to bring more Sunnis into the police and army, release more Sunni detainees, and provide greater economic aid to Al-Anbar Governorate. Deputy Justice Minister Busho Ibrahim Ali announced on 9 February that 450 male detainees will be released next week, AP reported. KR

IRAQI SHI'ITE LEADER CALLS ON SECURITY FORCES TO PRACTICE RESTRAINT
Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), called on Iraqi security forces on 8 February to practice more restraint, acknowledging Sunni Arab complaints that the Shi'ite-dominated security forces use too much force in dealing with the Sunni community in Iraq, Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on 9 February. "We call upon our faithful security forces...to continue strongly confronting terrorists but with more consideration to human rights," al-Hakim said in a sermon in Baghdad on the eve of Ashura, RFI reported. KR

IRAQI SHI'A, KURDS BEGIN NEGOTIATIONS OVER CABINET SEATS
Representatives from the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) have begun preliminary negotiations with Kurdish leaders over cabinet positions in the incoming Iraqi government, independent parliamentarian Mahmud Uthman told Al-Sharqiyah television on 8 February. Uthman said official negotiations will get under way on 13 February, when each party participating in the talks submits its future agenda. UIA member Abbas al-Bayati told reporters that the UIA will hold a meeting after Ashura to decide on its nominee for prime minister, Al-Sharqiyah reported. Meanwhile, National Security Adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told CNN in an 8 February interview that he does not expect to see the government take power until after Easter, which falls in mid-April. KR

XS
SM
MD
LG