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Newsline - March 8, 2006

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Washington on March 7 that the recent visit by Hamas leaders to Moscow took place because the Russian side "wanted to talk with Hamas so that they [might hear] the voice of peace. The talks will continue, but we have already heard that Hamas is ready to support the 'road map'" put forward by the international community to promote peace in the Middle East, RFE/RL and news agencies reported. Turning to Russia's ongoing talks with Iran about its nuclear program, Lavrov said that Russia has no compromise proposal to offer Tehran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2 and 3, 2006). Both Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice stressed that Iran knows what it must do to avoid possible UN Security Council sanctions, which it runs the risk of facing if it continues with the uranium-enrichment aspects of its nuclear program. Lavrov added that "despite the fact that [Moscow's and Washington's] methods in achieving [their] not necessarily coincide or are identical," the goals "in our cooperation are identical and are shared." PM

Secretary of State Rice said in Washington on March 7 that the United States continues "to enjoy good relations with the Russian Federation. We continue to work together on a number of global problems," RFE/RL and news agencies reported. Rice added that she and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov discussed Washington's concerns about democracy and other Russian domestic issues. She noted, however, that the concerns are not so great as to prompt the administration of President George W. Bush to bar Russia from joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), which Moscow avidly seeks to join (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 27 and March 6, 2006). She said that the administration is negotiating a way to bring Russia into the organization in a way that will please not only the WTO, but also the U.S. Congress, which must approve accession. Lavrov and Rice also had a half-hour meeting with Bush at the White House. The Russian minister later said that Bush is taking the negotiations regarding Russian WTO membership "under his personal control." PM

A new study by the influential Foreign and Defense Policy Council (SVOP), a conservative Russian think tank, says that Iran could have nuclear weapons within five years, Russian media reported on March 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2 and 3, 2006). The report noted that some Russian experts think Iran could have such weapons in as soon as six months. The study points out that a nuclear Iran would not be beneficial for Moscow's interests, but added that "Tehran will not use weapons of mass destruction or pass nuclear technology to other countries, and certainly not to terrorist organizations." SVOP believes that Saudi Arabia and Egypt would seek to acquire nuclear weapons if Iran succeeds in securing its own. PM

President Vladimir Putin is slated to arrive in Algeria on March 8 for a two-day visit, the first trip by a Russian president to that country, Russian and international media reported. Talks between Putin and Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika are expected to focus on expanding political and commercial ties, including cooperation in the energy export sector. Algeria is one of the biggest suppliers of natural gas to Europe. The visit is expected to conclude the sale to Algeria of an unspecified number of Russian MiG-29 combat jets for up to $1.5 billion. The two presidents are also expected to discuss Algeria's $4.5 billion debt to Russia. Close relations between the two countries suffered after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and a fierce Islamic insurgency in Algeria in the 1990s, but have been improving in recent years. PM

Russian prosecutors announced on March 6 that they have filed new murder charges with the Moscow City Court against Aleksei Pichugin, a former security official with the Yukos oil major, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 6 and July 11, 2005, and January 10, 2006). He is already serving a 20-year prison sentence for murder and attempted murder. An unnamed spokesman for the Prosecutor-General's Office told the news agency that Pichugin and five others "are accused of the [1998] murder of TOO Fenix firm director Valentina Korneyeva, who refused to sell her office in downtown Moscow to the Menatep bank, and of the murder of Nefteyugansk administration chief [Vladimir] Petukhov, who demanded that Yukos repay all of its back taxes and duties to the federal, regional, and local budgets." Nefteyugansk was considered the unofficial capital of the Yukos empire in its heyday. The charges against Pichugin are widely seen as part of a larger campaign against the interests of imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 15, 2005 and February 9, 2006). Pichugin's arrest in 2003 marked the start of the Kremlin-led campaign against Yukos. PM

Four thieves recently broke into a Soviet-era missile silo near Kostroma, northeast of Moscow, in hopes of stealing nonferrous metals but found instead that the shaft was filled with worthless Soviet banknotes, reported on March 7. The men told police that they were interested only in the metal and had no idea that the old bills were there. It is not clear how the ruble notes came to be in the silo. Charges will be filed against the four men, who had run the risk of exposing a potential source of radiation and toxins. PM

In a statement posted on on March 8, the first anniversary of the announcement of the death of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, Maskhadov's designated successor Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev praised the deceased both for his inherent "goodness" and extraordinary courage, and for his skills as a military commander. Sadulayev characterized Maskhadov as "a brilliant strategist and the author of most of our military victories." Sadulayev further repeated allegations he made last year that Russian authorities "lured" Maskhadov to his death, by offering to begin peace talks and guaranteeing his safety "at the highest level." LF

The Chechen resistance stepped up operations against Russian and pro-Moscow Chechen military units during the period from February 25-March 3, according to a statement by the Chechen Republic Ichkeria Ministry of Press and Information posted on on March 6. According to the statement, resistance forces killed up to 70 Russians and pro-Moscow Chechens over that period in attacks in Grozny and the Shali, Kurchaloi, Vedeno and Itum-Kale districts of southern Chechnya. LF

The Spiritual Board of Muslims of Ingushetia has appealed to the persons who abducted parliament deputy Magomed Chakhkiev on February 27 to release him, the website reported on March 7 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2006). On March 6, some 200 police officers searched a trading depot in Nazran where the Interior Ministry suspected Chakhkiev was being hidden, but failed to find him. Ten depot employees were detained for questioning but released within 24 hours. Chakhkiev, who is 70, is the father-in-law of Ingushetia's President Murat Zyazikov and of republican Prosecutor Makhmud-Ali Kalimbetov. Representatives of the teyp (clan) of the depot's owner Maksharip Aushev demanded a meeting with Chakhkiev's teyp at which they denied any involvement in Chakhkiev's abduction. LF

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza told journalists in Yerevan on March 7 following talks with top Armenian officials that Armenia has made "considerable progress" over the past year in intensifying its relations with "the Euro-Atlantic family," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Bryza singled out the signing last year of Armenia's Individual Partnership Action Plan with NATO. In addition to military cooperation, Bryza also focused during his talks on energy security, including the pipeline under construction through which Armenia will import Iranian gas. Bryza met with President Robert Kocharian, Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, and Energy Minister Armen Movsisian. Bryza declined either to confirm or refute Armenian diaspora media reports that the U.S. ambassador to Yerevan, John Evans, is to be recalled for having publicly acknowledged last year that he considers the 1915 killings of Armenians in Ottoman Turkey to be genocide. LF

Bryza further told Armenian journalists in Yerevan on March 7 that Armenia and Azerbaijan are "very close" to a framework or interim agreement that would set down guidelines for resolving the Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He downplayed the failure of President Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev to reach such an agreement during their talks at Rambouillet last month, stressing that the search for a settlement "has not stopped" and that the OSCE Minsk Group, one of whose three co-chairmen is named by the U.S., still has a role to play in mediating a settlement. Bryza acknowledged that the two sides still need to resolve a few particularly contentious issues, but declined to name them. The Minsk Group is meeting in Washington this week to press for a resumption of talks on resolving the conflict. LF

A court in Budapest ruled on March 7 that Ramil Safarov, the Azerbaijani army officer who has been accused of hacking to death with an ax an Armenian officer attending the same NATO-sponsored training course in Budapest in February 2004, was sane at the time he is alleged to have committed the crime, Noyan Tapan reported quoting RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Two previous psychiatric examinations of Safarov reached widely diverging conclusions about his mental condition at the time of the killing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 29, 2005). LF

Five people have been arrested in connection with the murder four years ago of Niko Lominadze, financial director of the energy distribution company AES-Telasi, Georgian Interior Ministry officials quoted by Caucasus Press announced on March 7. One of those arrested was Giorgi Gvichiani, General Director of TbilGas, whose unnamed attorney was quoted later on March 7 by Caucasus Press as rejecting the murder accusation as without foundation. The other suspects have not been identified by name. Police officer David Mchedlidze was arrested shortly after Lominadze's August 2002 killing but released several months later. Lominadze was found in his apartment shot dead from Mchedlidze's gun. Georgian Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili told journalists on March 7 that the person who hired Lominadze's killers paid them $20,000 and that his objective was to prevent the discovery of an embezzlement scam within AES-Telasi. LF

Interior Minister Merabishvili also told journalists in Tbilisi on March 7 that his decision, announced earlier that day, to dismiss Guram Donadze from the position of ministry spokesman was not connected with media speculation that Donadze was connected with the murder in January of United Georgian bank employee Sandro Girgvliani, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1 and 7, 2006). Merabishvili said Donadze failed to establish a good working rapport with journalists. Also on March 7, the Georgian parliament majority convened a press conference at which they denounced calls by the opposition for Merabishvili to resign in light of reports implicating senior members of his ministry in Girgvliani's killing, Caucasus Press reported. LF

The Georgian Defense Ministry has posted on its website ( Minister Irakli Okruashvili's vision of the armed forces' priorities for 2006, Caucasus Press reported on March 7. Those priorities are enhancing the combat readiness of the armed forces; expediting efforts to qualify for NATO membership; and improving the system of monitoring defense spending. The English and Georgian versions of the introductory paragraph preceding the discussion of those priorities differ slightly but significantly. According to the Georgian version, Georgia's National Security Concept and National Military Strategy define as the country's primary defense objectives "the conflicts existing in Georgia, regional and international terrorism, and other threats." The English version lists as the first of those objectives "ongoing separatist issues." The Georgian National Security Strategy adopted in November 2005 identifies as the primary threats to Georgian security "spillover" from the conflict in Chechnya, and the "separatist" regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia; it further stressed the need to expedite the closure, agreed on earlier in 2005, of the two remaining Russian military bases in Georgia. LF

Raul Khadjimba and Sergei Shamba, who are respectively the vice president and foreign minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, rejected in separate statements on March 7 Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili's proposed three-phase plan for resolving the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Bezhuashvili outlined his plan, which duplicates President Mikheil Saakashvili's proposal for resolving the two conflicts, in an interview with an Azerbaijani journal, Caucasus Press reported. The first stage Bezhuashvili proposed was the demilitarization of the conflict zones, but Khadjimba argued that this is inexpedient in present conditions, reported. Shamba was quoted by on March 7 as saying neither unrecognized republic can risk unilaterally disarming and demining at a time when Georgia is stepping up its military potential with the aim of joining NATO. He recalled that Sukhum (Sukhumi) has repeatedly called for the demilitarization of the entire Caucasus region, but the international community has ignored such appeals. LF

Petr Svoik, a member of the opposition bloc For a Just Kazakhstan, told a news conference in Almaty on March 7 that opposition activists sentenced to jail terms for organizing an unsanctioned rally on February 26 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2006) are continuing their hunger strike (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2006), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Svoik, who was released from jail on March 5, said that he, Marzhan Aspandiyarova, Gulzhan Ergalieva, and Amirzhan Kosanov are still on a hunger strike. Svoik vowed they will end their protest only when Aspandiyarova, Ergalieva, and Kosanov are released from jail on March 10. Svoik told journalists that the conditions in jail were "horrifying." He described "horrible stench and filth -- a person is humiliated physically and psychologically." The activists were jailed after organizing an unsanctioned demonstration in Almaty to honor the memory of slain opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2006). DK

In an open letter to Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov and Prosecutor-General Rashid Tusupbekov published by Navigator on February 7, For a Just Kazakhstan leader Zharmakhan Tuyakbai posed a number of questions about the official version of the Sarsenbaev murder presented by Mukhamedzhanov at a February 27 news conference (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2006). In particular, Tuyakbai asked whether there is physical evidence to corroborate statements Erzhan Utembaev has made incriminating himself. Utembaev, head of the administration of the Senate (upper chamber of parliament), has been identified by officials as the organizer of the Sarsenbaev killing, but opposition leaders have cast doubt on the official version (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2006). Tuyakbai, who heads an independent commission investigating the slaying, asked that representatives of the commission be allowed to participate in the official investigation. DK

In a news conference in Astana on February 7, U.S. Ambassador John Ordway said that the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is cooperating actively with Kazakhstan's Interior Ministry on the investigation of the Sarsenbaev killing, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. "Working contacts between them take place practically every day," Ordway said. He also praised the Kazakh investigation, saying: "Up to this point, the investigation has been conducted very professionally. It has been thorough, and all of the actions taken have been on par with the actions of any law-enforcement agencies in any other country." More generally, Ordway said that the killing does not present any threat to political stability in Kazakhstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. He added, however, that "there are a number of political issues that people are concerned about." DK

President Kurmanbek Bakiev signed a decree on March 6 making March 24, the anniversary of President Askar Akaev's ouster, a national holiday to be marked on an annual basis, reported the next day. Bakiev tasked the government with developing a program of patriotic events, including military parades, in Bishkek, Osh, Batken, Jalalabad, Naryn, Talas, and other cities. DK

Dushanbe's municipal waterworks has filed a defamation lawsuit against Said Abdullo Nuri, head of the Islamic Renaissance Party (IRP), RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on March 7. The suit charges that Nuri made unfounded corruption allegations against waterworks officials in a December interview with the newspaper "Millat." IRP representative Vohidkhon Qosiddinov told Regnum that Nuri's interview contains no corruption accusations against waterworks employees. "Someone doesn't like the fact that the leader of the IRP is fighting corruption," Qosiddinov said. "This entire business has a political subtext, since Mahmadsaid Ubaydulloev, the mayor of Dushanbe and the speaker of the upper chamber of Tajikistan's parliament, is taking great interest in it." DK

An Uzbek court has sentenced rights activist Mutabar Tojiboeva to an eight-year prison term on defamation and corruption charges, the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported on March 7. Tojiboeva's lawyer said the charges against her included "antigovernment activity and receiving money from Western governments to disrupt public order," IRIN reported. Holly Cartner, HRW's Europe and Central Asia director, called the trial "unsound" and said that Uzbek authorities should "release Tojiboeva immediately." In a statement posted to HRW's website ( on March 7, Cartner commented, "We view Tojiboeva's conviction as part of a pattern of persecution against independent voices and critics within civil society since the Andijon massacre." DK

A district court in Mahilyou, eastern Belarus, on March 7 fined United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka some $750, finding him guilty of organizing an unsanctioned rally and resisting police officers in the city earlier the same day, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. Lyabedzka, who is campaigning for Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the united opposition candidate in the country's March 19 presidential election, held an open-air meeting with some 250 voters, following a last-minute refusal by Mahilyou authorities to hold it at a local university. Lyabedzka was detained after the meeting and taken by force to the court. "In the beginning [the authorities] had a more or less favorable attitude regarding [opposition] meetings with voters," Lyabedzka told RFE/RL. "But later they resorted to provocations and attempts to foil these [gatherings]. The authorities began to be afraid that the [opposition presidential] campaign had been gathering pace and that the development of the campaign had not been in their favor." JM

The same district court in Mahilyou on March 7 jailed Uladzimir Shantsau, a regional manager of Milinkevich's presidential campaign, for 15 days, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. The court found Shantsau guilty of organizing an unsanctioned meeting between voters and Syarhey Kalyakin, Milinkevich's nationwide campaign manager, in front of the Mahilyou City Executive Committee building on March 6. "That was one of the standard meetings with voters that are permitted by electoral regulations. Those in attendance, some 150 people, did not commit any wrongful acts," Kalyakin told Belapan. "This means that they want me, a regional campaign manager, to be removed from campaigning [for Milinkevich] until election day [March 19]," Shantsau told RFE/RL. JM

Supporters of united opposition presidential candidate Milinkevich have found an eavesdropping device at Milinkevich's campaign office in Brest, southwestern Belarus, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. Dzmitry Shymanski, head of the office, told journalists that he received an e-mail from senders claiming to be "KGB officers" and tipping him that the bug was in a wall socket. The message also alleged that weapons would soon be planted in the office, thus providing the pretext for police to arrest Milinkevich's campaign activists in Brest and paralyze the functioning of his regional headquarters. JM

Belarusian Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski said after a meeting with his Russian counterpart Mikhail Fradkov in Minsk on March 7 that the Belarusian government and Russia's Gazprom are discussing Minsk's proposals on establishing a joint gas-transport company, Belapan reported. Fradkov told journalists that he would like the talks to make faster progress. "We hope that both Gazprom and [Belarusian gas pipeline system operator] Beltranshaz will find a common interest that will open up new prospects for cooperation between the two countries in the gas sector -- regarding direct gas deliveries, the use of Belarus's transit capacities etc.," Fradkov said. Both sides signaled their plans to set up a Beltranshaz-based joint gas-transport venture shortly after the 2001 presidential election in Belarus, but have reportedly so far failed to agree on the market value of Beltranshaz. JM

Ukraine's Central Election Commission (TsVK) has banned a referendum on giving Russian the status of a second state language in Crimea, Interfax-Ukraine reported on March 7. The Crimean Supreme Council on February 22 decided to hold the consultative referendum on the peninsula on March 26, together with parliamentary and local elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). TsVK Chairman Yaroslav Davydovych told journalists on March 7 that referendum commissions cannot work at the same locations as the parliamentary and local election commissions during the March 26 vote. In particular, Davydovych stressed that the law bans members of local election commissions from simultaneously performing the duties of members of referendum commissions. The Crimean legislature recommended in February that the commissions for the March 26 parliamentary and local elections simultaneously serve as the referendum commissions. JM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Igor Smirnov, leader of Moldova's breakaway region of Transdniester, agreed in a telephone conversation on March 7 to set up commissions in both Kyiv and Tiraspol to study the recent situation on the Transdniestrian stretch of the Ukrainian-Moldovan border, Interfax reported, quoting Smirnov. "I gathered from the conversation that the Ukrainian president has not been sufficiently informed by his subordinates about what is actually taking place. I explained [to him] that the 1997 memorandum [on principles in relations between Moldova and Transdniester] is the basic document that gives Transdniester the right to pursue foreign economic activities on its own," Smirnov told journalists in Tiraspol on March 7. Ukraine last week introduced new customs rules requiring that all shipments from Transdniester to Ukraine clear Moldovan customs and have a Moldovan stamp. The move has reportedly halted virtually all exports from Transdniester. Tiraspol is accusing Kyiv of imposing an economic blockade on Transdniester in order to make the region more pliant in talks on the settlement of its conflict with Moldova. JM

Martti Ahtisaari, the United Nations envoy leading talks on Kosova's final status, urged Prishtina on March 7 to take steps to protect minority Serbs, Reuters reported the same day. "The progress has to start now," Ahtisaari said in a briefing to the UN Security Council. Calling improvements in minority protections "absolutely vital," Ahtisaari added that progress on the issue will smooth the process of negotiations on the province's final status. Ahtisaari also called on Kosova's Serbs to participate in political life. "That is, too, a very important message that we are continually passing on to them," he said. BW

Prominent Kosova Serb leader Oliver Ivanovic said on March 7 that he and his political allies would be willing to meet with Prime Minister-designate Agim Ceku, Beta and B92 reported the same day. "I care about being part of the process, but I am not sure if we can accept any offers, if there are any, since it is a fairly delicate moment for us," Ivanovic, the leader of the Serbian List for Kosova party, said. Ivanovic's position contrasts sharply with that of Belgrade, which has harshly condemned Ceku's nomination (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 6 and 7, 2006). Ivanovic added that Serbian officials in Kosova increasingly understand that they must work through the province's institutions if they wish to improve the lives of those in their community. BW

One of Bosnia-Herzegovina's attorneys in its genocide lawsuit against Serbia and Montenegro denied on March 7 that greed prompted Sarajevo to file the case, Beta and B92 reported the same day. Alen Pele, the attorney, said the case is aimed at "legally confirming the truth about genocide and what is owed to the victims." Bosnia-Herzegovina, he added, "did not engage in this out of greed." Pele added that it was for that reason that Bosnia did not request a specific amount in damages, adding that this should be determined by diplomatic and expert discussions after the case is decided. Pele was responding to comments by Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus suggesting that the case, currently being heard at the Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ), was financially motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2006). The case is scheduled to run until May 9 and a binding ruling is expected by the end of the year. BW

Former Serbian Supreme Court judge Ljubomir Vuckovic pleaded "not guilty" on March 7 to charges of accepting bribes while serving on the bench, Beta and B92 reported the same day. Vuckovic, who was arrested in September, is accused of accepting a bribe to reverse the conviction of an alleged organized crime leader (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 15, 2005). Vuckovic told the court that he was not offered "one dinar, or one euro" for any illegal services. BW

Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov said on March 7 that further talks with Moldova are pointless, Reuters reported the same day. Smirnov was responding to new customs regulations implemented by Ukraine and Moldova designed to curb smuggling through the breakaway province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6 and 7, 2006). "Given the conditions of economic blockade and pressure on [Transdniester], the talks no longer make any sense," Smirnov said in remarks reported by Russian media. "[Transdniester] is always ready for talks on the basis of equal rights. Not under pressure," he added. (For more on this issue, see item above.) BW

On March 8, 2005, Russian media reported the death, in circumstances that remain unclear, of Aslan Maskhadov, the former Soviet army colonel who headed the Chechen resistance forces during the 1994-96 war and was subsequently elected Chechen president in January 1997. Maskhadov's death has not only made a peaceful negotiated settlement of the ongoing conflict within Chechnya even more remote; it has accelerated the expansion of the Chechens' conflict against Moscow into other regions of the North Caucasus.

On January 14, just weeks before he was killed, Maskhadov unilaterally proclaimed a one-month cease-fire, ordering the resistance forces subordinate to him to suspend all offensive military operations.

That order, according to Maskhadov spokesman Umar Khanbiev, was intended as a "gesture of goodwill," and to demonstrate that the Chechen resistance was subordinate to Maskhadov as supreme commander. At the same time, Maskhadov again invited Moscow to begin negotiations on ending the conflict, focusing on the two key issues of security guarantees for the Chechen people and a Chechen commitment to respect Russia's interests in the North Caucasus.

In his last interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, just weeks before his death, Maskhadov said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin was totally unaware of the real state of affairs in Chechnya.

"I'm deeply convinced that Putin is far from reality about what is really going on in Chechnya today," Maskhadov said. "It is common practice for the army to report what their chief wants to hear from them. Such practices probably exist in Russia's security services too." Maskhadov went on to suggest that that all could change if he and the Russian president could meet face-to-face. Such a meeting, he posited, could serve as a true foundation for change.

"We have been suggesting that a 30-minute, fair, face-to-face dialogue should be enough to stop this war, to explain to the president of the Russian Federation what the Chechen people really want -- I'm sure he doesn't even know that -- and also to hear from Putin personally what he wants, what Russia wants in Chechnya," said Maskhadov.

He added: "If we are able to open the eyes of our opponents, the Russian leaders, peace can be established."

But Russian officials publicly dismissed that offer of peace talks as pointless. Presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak said it was "irrelevant," as Maskhadov "lost control over the situation in Chechnya long ago," according to Interfax on February 3, 2005.

State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov told journalists in Moscow on February 10, 2005 that negotiations with Maskhadov are "yesterday's option," adding that Maskhadov had been given the chance after the signing in August 1994 of the Khasavyurt peace accord to restore order, but lost control of the situation. "It is senseless to try to reach another agreement with a man who has already failed," Kosachyov said.

Unconfirmed reports suggest, however, that the Russian authorities may have seized upon Maskhadov's peace overture as a means to get rid of him. Maskhadov's successor Abdul-Khalim Sadulayev claimed in an address to the Chechen people in autumn 2005 that Maskhadov was "lured" into talks and deliberately killed.

In its first issue for 2006, "Novoe vremya" quoted a lawyer for one of the four close associates of Maskhadov who were apprehended at the time of his death and who went on trial last fall as likewise saying that the Russian leadership agreed to Maskhadov's proposal and even gave guarantees of his safety to Tim Guldimann, the Swiss diplomat who in 1995-1996 headed the Organization for Security and Cooperation and Europe (OSCE) Mission in Grozny.

Maskhadov then declared the unilateral cease-fire and moved from Avtury to Tolstoi-Yurt -- the village north of Grozny where he was killed -- in readiness for those talks. "Novoe vremya" cited Maskhadov's unnamed arrested associate as reportedly testifying that Russian security services succeeded in hunting down Maskhadov and killing him by means of intercepted mobile-phone calls and text messages to Guldimann.

But those reports have never been confirmed, and Guldimann has declined to comment to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on his involvement. Whatever the chain of circumstances that culminated in Maskhadov's death, it removed the last potential negotiating partner on the Chechen side with both a claim to legitimacy (Russia recognized his election in 1997 as fair and legitimate, as did OSCE monitors) and authority with the resistance.

Sadulayev, whom senior resistance figures acknowledged as president within days of Maskhadov's death, had been named deputy president and Maskhadov's designated successor at an extended session of the State Defense Committee in July-August 2002, but that decision was not made public at the time.

Over the past year, Sadulayev, operating in tandem with veteran field commander Shamil Basayev, has taken steps to extend the field of hostilities from Chechnya across the North Caucasus. True, Chechen militants had struck outside Chechnya even earlier, in the Moscow theater hostage-taking in October 2002, the raids on multiple Interior Ministry targets in Ingushetia in June 2004, and the Beslan school hostage-taking in September 2004. But Maskhadov had disclaimed any responsibility for, and voiced his condemnation of, those acts of terrorism, and at least through 2003 he repeatedly impressed on his troops the need to abide strictly by the Geneva Conventions and to refrain from attacking any Russian targets outside Chechnya.

But in his last interview with RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service, Maskhadov signaled his retreat from that self-imposed limitation, saying that he had given orders to establish additional military sectors in Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria and Daghestan.

Sadulayev took that process even further. On May 2, he issued a series of decrees formally dividing the western "front" into no fewer than seven sectors (Ingushetia, North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, Stavropol Krai, Karachaevo-Cherkessia, Adygeya and Krasnodar) and naming commanders of those sectors. He likewise named new commanders of the eastern front as a whole and of four of its sectors (Gudermes, Argun, Kurchaloi and Grozny), according to on May 16, 2005.

While the Chechen resistance has continued to wage hit-and-run attacks on Russian troops, it has carried out only one major operation since Maskhadov's death, in Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, in October 2005. Basayev subsequently claimed to have played a key role in the "operational planning" of that attack, but it was apparently launched prematurely after local police and security personnel tracked down one of the militant detachments that was to take part. The militants, many of them reportedly young and with only rudimentary military training, sustained proportionally heavier losses than those in the Ingushetia raids the previous year.

The apparent waning in military activity on the part of the resistance within Chechnya is likely to bolster the arguments of those senior officials in Moscow who believe that it is expedient to continue to rely on a dwindling number of Interior Ministry troops, many of them ethnic Chechens, to marginalize and then quash the resistance. (There are now only some 36,000-38,000 federal troops in Chechnya, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov said on February 28. That compares with approximately 80,000 one year ago.)

By the same token, Sadulayev's recent affirmations of his commitment to building an Islamic state in Chechnya and to waging a national-liberation struggle to "decolonize" the North Caucasus effectively preclude any attempt by Moscow to seek compromise and common ground. Sadulayev declared in November 2005 that the Chechen side will not propose further peace talks, but continue fighting "until the Caucasus is freed from the boot of the Russian occupiers." There thus seems little chance of ending a conflict that, as Maskhadov repeatedly pointed out, "cannot be resolved by force."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai's chief of staff, Jawed Ludin, has said that his government believes the "increase in terrorist activities in southern Afghanistan is directly linked to elements on Pakistani soil who receive support from circles there," the London-based daily "The Times" reported on March 7. Ludin's comments come as accusations and counteraccusations of intelligence and security failures reverberate between Kabul and Islamabad. Ludin accused Pakistani security forces of allowing insurgents hostile to the Afghan central government to operate openly in Pakistan. Kabul has evidence that "suicide bombings, IEDs [improvised explosive devices], and other terrorist actions" that are taking place in Afghanistan "emanate from Pakistan," Ludin was quoted as saying. He added that unspecified "circles [in Pakistan] actually provide support" for those carrying out such activities. AT

Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on March 7 that his country's policy is to avoid animosity between Afghanistan and any of its neighbors, including Pakistan. Kabul asks all neighboring countries to aid Afghanistan in its counterterrorism efforts, Abdullah added. In a recent interview, Pakistani President Prevez Musharraf suggested that President Karzai is "totally oblivious of what is happening in his own country," where Musharraf alleged elements of Karzai's own government are conspiring against Pakistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2006). Abdullah said that all departments of the Afghan government comply with the central state policy of noninterference in other countries' affairs. Problems in Pakistan -- such as the current clashes in North Waziristan -- are related to that country's active support for militants prior to the September 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States, Abdullah added. AT

Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao told a meeting in Islamabad on March 7 organized to discuss the ongoing military action against alleged militants in North Waziristan that Afghanistan needs to deploy additional forces to the border region, the official Associated Press of Pakistan reported. The "Afghan government should take more effective steps on its side to end cross-border infiltration and to stop poppy cultivation," Sherpao said. Sherpao said the situation in the North Waziristani town of Miran Shah is stabilizing. Refugees from Miran Shah have suggested that fighting between Pakistani forces and the militants intensified after Mawlawi Abdul Khaleq -- the head of a large madrasah -- convened a meeting of religious scholars in the area and they asked residents of Miran Shah and neighboring Mir Ali to resist Pakistani government forces, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported on March 7. Refugees fleeing Miran Shah into Afghanistan have claimed that the Taliban took control of the town, however, it is unclear whether there are any Afghan neo-Taliban elements involved in the clashes. AT

Pakistani Foreign Office spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam told reporters in Islamabad on March 6 that her country is serious about fencing the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, Karachi-daily "Dawn" reported on March 7. "We are working on fencing the border," Aslam said. "Given these repeated allegations [by Afghan authorities] and incursions which are taking place into Pakistan, we would consider it seriously," Aslam added, saying that if Pakistan decides to fence its side of the border there is no need for permission for any other country. The current border between Afghanistan and Pakistan has never been officially recognized by Afghanistan, and President Karzai has opposed the idea of fencing the border, instead advocating a free and open border between Afghanistan and Pakistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," August 7, 2003, and "RFE/RL Newsline," February 17 and March 1, 2006). AT

Suspected neo-Taliban insurgents set fire to a local government building in Daykondi Province on March 6, Xinhua News Agency reported on March 8. Area district chief Ahmad Khan Ahmadi said: "Last night, a big number of Taliban militants attacked the administration building of Gizab district. Our police fired back at the militants and, after a two-hour firefight, the police ran out of ammunition and withdrew from the site. The militants occupied the administration building and set fire to it and nine vehicles." Ahmadi added: "The police, after getting enough ammunition, went back to the area and reoccupied the building again." Some locals said the insurgents also set fire to a school. MR

Marking International Women's Day on March 7, Afghan President Karzai ordered the release of female prisoners with "exceptional cases," AFP reported. "Some women prisoners with exceptional cases will be released on the occasion of Women's Day," presidential spokesman Khaliq Ahmad said. Ahmad offered no details about who would be released or why. But national prison director Abdul Salam Bakhshi said about one quarter of the nearly 110 women imprisoned in the country would likely be set free under the order. Most of Afghanistan's female prisoners, who sometimes live with their children in cells, are held in Pol-e Charkhi Prison on the outskirts of Kabul. MR

Afghan authorities arrested two judges on March 6 in the southern Ghazni Province for taking bribes, the Afghan Pajhwok news agency reported. The report did not name the two judges arrested. Ghazni Governor Sher Alam Ebrahimi said the judges were involved in many bribery cases, an allegation echoed by local residents. Ghazni resident Musa Khan said he had filed some land cases four months ago, only to see his case delayed by the judges, who allegedly used the time to pave the way for bribes. The deputy chief judge of the provincial court, Mawlawi Jan Mohammad, said the arrests were illegal because they were carried out without a court order by local police. MR

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in Washington on March 7 that uranium "enrichment and reprocessing on Iranian soil is not acceptable" to Washington, AP reported the same day. She spoke at a joint conference after meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to discuss Iran's contested nuclear program, AP reported. Lavrov stated that Russia does not have a new proposal for Iran other than an original proposal to enrich uranium for Iran in Russia. "There is no compromise new proposal," he said. Iran has rejected demands to totally abandon all enrichment-related activities, which the West fears may allow it to make nuclear bombs. On March 7, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney told a gathering that the United States and "other nations...will not allow Iran to have a nuclear bomb," AP reported. He said Iran faces "meaningful consequences" if it does not cooperate with the international community over its program, while he added that Washington is "keeping all options on the table in addressing the irresponsible conduct of the regime." VS

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi reiterated Iran's right to make scientific progress in Tehran on March 7 and accused the United States of "surreptitiously" undermining nuclear dossier talks between Iran and foreign states "every time it smells the possibility of an accord...with the [International Atomic Energy Agency] (IAEA), Russia, and other states," ISNA reported the same day. He said U.S. efforts intend to severely weaken international bodies, block Iran's progress, maintain U.S. economic primacy, keep "middle positions for partners," and ensure that "southern" states are dependent on the "energy and limited poles of economic power in the world," ISNA reported. He rejected charges of Iranian interest in nuclear bombs as "entirely ridiculous and baseless." Iran, he said, "will defend its evident rights...and will under no condition forego its legitimate right." Separately, an unnamed diplomat told AP in Vienna on March 7 that Iran may suspend full-scale uranium enrichment for two years, presumably as a compromise gesture. Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told AP the same day, however, that Iran would pursue small-scale enrichment for research. VS

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said in Tehran on March 7 that "friends and enemies should know" that Iran will continue its "peaceful nuclear program" and will not "falter in assuring the rights" of Iranians, Fars reported the same day. "Iran's future direction is to cooperate with the [IAEA] and maintain a stable membership of the NPT [Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty], and we will not forego our evident nuclear right," he told a session of the Assembly of Experts, a body of clerics tasked with selecting and supervising Iran's supreme leader. He said the "West's haste" in reporting Iran's dossier to the UN Security Council showed the political motivations of Western states that are concerned with Iran's "inherent philosophy" which, he said, could attract "all Muslims, both Shi'a and Sunni, and other friends of freedom," Fars reported. The U.S., he said, is waging a "soft war" against Iran, consisting of "sowing discord inside and...pressure from outside to provoke the collapse of...unity" inside Iran. VS

Parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel told Jordanian legislators in Tehran on March 7 that Iranian foreign policy will prioritize better ties with Arab and Islamic states including Jordan, IRNA reported the same day. He said at a meeting of the Iran-Jordan parliamentary friendship group that Iran continues to support "the Palestine ideal," and denounced Israel as well as the presence of U.S. forces in the Middle East, which he said are to assure U.S. dominance of "the oil-producing region" and "pressure" Islamic states, IRNA reported. Haddad-Adel invited Jordan's parliamentary speaker to attend a conference in Tehran next March or April to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Jordanian delegation was led by legislator Muhammad Bani Hani, who told Haddad-Adel that unity between Islamic states is the only way to confront "the plots of the enemies of Islam," and that Jordan supports Iran's "right" to a peaceful nuclear program. VS

Iran is reportedly maintaining a hard line against dissent through prison sentences against students, Radio Farda reported on March 7. It reported a two-year suspended jail sentence for Mehdi Shirzad, a student activist convicted of "acting against national security" by taking part in an unauthorized demonstration. He was earlier sentenced to solitary confinement for 50 days for participating in a student protest in 2003, Radio Farda added. Separately, Tehran student Peyman Aref is being prosecuted for charges including engaging in publicity against "the system," acting against national security, and refusing to obey police orders. He told Radio Farda that the latter is not, legally-speaking, a criminal offense in Iran. Separately, the wife of imprisoned journalist Akbar Ganji, Masumeh Shafii, has publicly accused the deputy-chief prosecutor of Tehran, Mahmud Salarkia, of telling a "great lie" by claiming that her husband is under constant medical care and receives regulated visits and food parcels from visitors, Radio Farda reported. She said visits were allowed reluctantly, and she was so thoroughly searched on jail visits that there was no way she could take Ganji food. VS

A domestically produced submarine called the Nahang-1 (Whale 1) has joined the Iranian navy's fleet, state television reported on March 6. Iran has three Kilo-class submarines it bought from Russia and a number of mini-submarines. Details on the submarine were unavailable. BS

Donald Rumsfeld told reporters at a March 7 press briefing in Washington that the Iranian government is "putting people into Iraq to do things that are harmful to the future of Iraq." He added: "They're putting Iranian Quds Force-type people into" Iraq. Asked if these forces are carrying out violence or trying to instigate political instability, Rumsfeld replied: "I don't think we could consider them religious pilgrims." General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that the United States has found some improvised explosive devices and weapons that it believes can be traced to Iran. Pace added that there has been an influx of "individuals" across the Iran-Iraq border but said he does not know if they are backed by the Iranian government. Rumsfeld, however, said: "Well, of course. The Revolutionary Guard doesn't go milling around willy-nilly, one would think." Pace said multinational forces are working with Iraqi officials to enhance control of the Iran-Iraq border. Rumsfeld said the Iranian government may some day view this move as an "error of judgment." KR

Rumsfeld also told reporters at the March 7 press briefing in Washington that international media have exaggerated the threat of civil war in Iraq ( "It has been and remains a time of testing for the Iraqi people, but the Iraqis are meeting that test thus far successfully," said Rumsfeld, who noted the quick response of the Iraqi government and security forces following the February 22 Samarra bombing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). "I do not believe they're in a civil war today," he added. Asked about the current political crisis in Iraq, Rumsfeld told reporters: "My impression is that they will sort through this and fashion a government of some sort. And I hope that it's a government that is not simply reflective of all elements in the country, agreed to govern from the center, and to see that all the ministries are fair to all elements in that country, and to see that they end up with a platform or a program that is going to move that country forward rather than dividing up the political spoils, as happens from time to time in our country and other countries as well." KR

Police discovered the bodies of 18 men who were bound, blindfolded, and apparently strangled in a Baghdad minibus on March 7, international media reported on March 8. The identities of the men -- all dressed in civilian clothing -- were not known. One victim had a rope tied around his neck, said a source at Baghdad's Yarmuk Hospital, Reuters reported. Many of the 18 victims exhibited signs of torture, according to the news agency. The bodies were discovered in a truck in the Al-Amiriyah area of Baghdad, a known stronghold for Sunni Arab insurgent groups. Al-Jazeera television reported that another five bodies were found blindfolded and handcuffed in Baghdad. The satellite news channel did not give details surrounding the discovery. KR

An Interior Ministry motorcade was attacked in Baghdad after leaving the ministry on March 8, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. The attack killed two ministry commandos and wounded one. Minister Bayan Jabr was not in the motorcade at the time of the attack. Iraqi Military Operations Chief Major General Abd al-Aziz Muhammad announced on March 7 that sectarian violence has decreased 90 percent, but did not say over what time period, KUNA reported on the same day. KR

Ibrahim al-Ja'fari said on March 7 that he will not be intimidated by blackmail, hinting that he will not give up his nomination to head the permanent Iraqi government, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported on the same day. "No one can make bargains with me by enlarging personal agreements. [I] will not be subdued by blackmail. [I] am not violating the constitution," said al-Ja'fari at a Baghdad press briefing, apparently referring to ongoing disputes with political rivals. President Jalal Talabani has routinely criticized al-Ja'fari's administration of the interim government. Iraqi politicians are scheduled to meet on March 9 to discuss the convening of parliament. Iraqi media reported on March 7 that the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) is attempting to delay the session (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2006). Meanwhile, Hamid al-Khaffaf, spokesman for Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, said that the ayatollah intends to maintain neutrality over al-Ja'fari's nomination to head the permanent government. According to al-Khaffaf, al-Sistani has said that the UIA should work to resolve its internal disputes over the nomination, reported on March 7. KR

Jordanian King Abdullah II proposed the convening of a conference for Iraqi religious leaders during a meeting with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar al-Zebari on March 7, dpa reported on the same day. "Jordan, in coordination with the Arab League, is seeking to convene a conference in Amman for various Iraqi religious leaderships with the aim of reaching concord on the best means for ensuring Iraq's stability and unity," the news agency cited a royal court statement as saying. Al-Zebari reportedly hailed the proposal. KR