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Newsline - March 14, 2006

A major two-day international energy conference opened on Moscow on March 13, three days before a meeting of energy ministers from the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized countries, "The Moscow Times" reported. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that "we have set ourselves the task of providing the world with energy resources on a reliable, long-term basis. Russia can make a constructive contribution toward fulfilling this task, and is already doing so." Aleksandr Shokhin, who heads the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, argued that Russia needs a guaranteed demand for its resources if it is to be a stable supplier. PM

Gazprom Deputy CEO Aleksandr Medvedev told the Moscow energy conference on March 13 that Russia is a reliable energy supplier for the European Union despite the recent Ukrainian gas crisis, which, he argued, the media blew out of proportion. "Gazprom was, is, and will be a reliable guarantor of gas supplies to Europe," he said. Speaking on the margins of the conference, he stressed that a recent EU "green paper" on energy issues, which criticized Russia's reliability as a supplier, represented an approach that is "unilateral" and "totally unjustified." He argued that Gazprom needs reliable, long-term buyers, adding that "you can't have road safety by taking care of pedestrians without thinking of drivers' security, too." Medvedev argued that the EU's need for gas supplies is bound to increase and that "there are only four sources of gas in the world: Qatar, Iran, Algeria, and Russia." Asked whether Russia is the only stable supplier of that group, he replied: "You can answer that question yourself." PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov said in Moscow on March 13 that the Russian government will soon send a medical team to The Hague to examine the findings of the autopsy on former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who was found dead in his cell at the United Nations war crimes tribunal on March 11, Russian media reported (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2006). Lavrov stressed that Russia is justified in its lack of trust in the tribunal, which recently rejected Russian guarantees that Milosevic would return to The Hague if allowed to go to Moscow for medical treatment. "Given that we were not believed [regarding the guarantees], we also have the right not to trust [the autopsy results].... We have asked the tribunal to allow our doctors to take part in the autopsy or, at the very least, see its results," he said. Lavrov added that "the Russian Federation provided the tribunal with 100-percent state guarantees that Milosevic would return to The Hague after his treatment.... Essentially [the tribunal] did not believe Russia. This can only disturb us. It can only worry us that Milosevic passed away shortly afterwards." PM

A Russian medical team seeking to investigate the autopsy on former President Milosevic left for The Hague on March 14, RIA Novosti reported. Elsewhere, the Russian State Duma said in a draft statement that the tribunal has "double standards" in applying justice. Finally, Milosevic's son Marko announced that he has asked the Russian authorities for permission to bury his father temporarily in Moscow if the "Belgrade authorities" do not permit a burial there (see "Serbia and Montenegro: The Politics of Burying Milosevic" by Patrick Moore -- PM

The Central Election Commission announced on March 13 that the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party won the previous day's eight regional elections with 55 percent of the total seats, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2006). Next came the Communist Party (KPRF), which took 11 percent of the seats in a system using both party lists and direct mandates. At the other end of the tally, the liberal Yabloko party, which ran in only four regions, and the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS), which fought in three elections, received no seats. The vote took place in the Kaliningrad, Kursk, Kirov, Nizhny Novgorod, and Orenburg oblasts, as well as in Adygeya, the Altai Republic, and the Khanty-Mansiisk Autonomous Okrug. The election was the first under recent legislation that limits regional votes to the second Sunday in March and the second Sunday in October, instead of being held on days set by the regional authorities. The Moscow daily "Kommersant" noted that the new system forces parties to concentrate their resources for several regions on only two days of the year, thereby favoring the parties with more resources to concentrate. The paper added that the October campaign will only widen the gap between "wealthy parties" and "paupers" in the run-up to the 2007 general elections. PM

A Moscow court on March 13 sentenced the head of a Russian investment company to five years in prison for allegedly helping several Yukos executives take millions of dollars from state coffers, Russian news agencies reported. The court found Dmitry Velichko, who heads the Rosinkor investment company, guilty of embezzling, together with the Yukos executives, nearly $10 million. He was arrested in January 2005. Elsewhere, the Moscow Arbitration Court said it will hear a bankruptcy suit against Yukos, once Russia's largest oil producer, on March 28. Foreign creditor banks filed the suit last week seeking to retrieve nearly $500 million (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2006). PM

Said Amirov was elected for a third term as mayor of Daghestan's capital on March 12, reported the following day. Amirov, a Dargin who was first elected to that post in 1998 and reelected for a second term in 2002, garnered over 96 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 17, 1998). His three rivals each received less than 1 percent. Voter turnout was close to 75 percent. LF

The Supreme Court of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic ruled on March 10 that the republican Prosecutor-General's Office acted illegally by refusing to give the lawyers for Ruslan Nakhushev copies of the documentation on the basis of which charges of terrorism and instigation of terrorism were brought against him four months ago, reported on March 13 quoting The Supreme Court did not, however, overturn the legality of those charges. Nakhushev, a former KGB officer and head of the unregistered Islamic Research Institute in Nalchik, disappeared in early November shortly after leaving the Federal Security Service (FSB) office in Nalchik where he was summoned for questioning in connection with the multiple raids on police and security service facilities in the city on 13 October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 7, 2005 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," November 14, 2005). Meanwhile, a group of women whose sons were killed during the October 13 clashes in Nalchik have asked Russian cultural figure Mikhail Shemyakin to submit on their behalf to President Putin an appeal to release their sons' bodies for burial, reported on March 13 citing In line with Russian legislation, families are not permitted to take the bodies of "terrorists" for burial. LF

Former Armenian Foreign Minister and opposition Zharangutiun party chairman Raffi Hovannisian has written to Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian and to Interior Minister Hayk Harutiunian to protest what Hovannisian termed "illegal" actions that have effectively deprived Zharangutiun activists of access to the party's Yerevan office, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 13. On March 4, locks on the doors to the building in which Zharangutiun rents office space were changed, reportedly on orders from the building's management (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2006). LF

In a March 10 interview with the independent Shant television channel, Vartan Oskanian said that Armenia has already agreed to the maximum possible concessions in the process of negotiating a settlement to the Karabakh conflict, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 13. "I think what we have agreed to is the utmost line beyond which Armenia cannot go," Oskanian said, adding that "Azerbaijan has not yet reached that line. Therefore, a lot now depends on Azerbaijan.... Azerbaijan should make its share of compromises." Oskanian characterized the draft settlement plan currently under discussion as "balanced" and as "providing great opportunities." Oskanian dismissed as intended for domestic consumption threats by Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev to resolve the conflict by force. "No one will allow Azerbaijan to unleash war against Armenia," Oskanian said. Responding to questions addressed to him at the website of the independent daily "Azg," Oskanian characterized formal recognition by Armenia of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic as "a political instrument which...should be used at the right moment," Noyan Tapan reported on March 13. Armenian President Robert Kocharian said on March 2 that Yerevan would resort to that move if Azerbaijan breaks off negotiations on resolving the Karabakh conflict peacefully or takes military action against the unrecognized republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2006). LF

Azerbaijan's Deputy Health Minister Abbas Velibeyov said in Baku on March 13 that tests conducted by the World Health Organization have confirmed that three persons from Azerbaijan's Salyany district have died of the H5N1 strain of avian influenza, AP and reported. A Health Ministry statement said that the diagnosis of bird flu has not been confirmed in six more inhabitants of Salyany suffering from flu-like symptoms. A March 10 statement by the WHO described Azerbaijan's response to the discovery of bird flu as "prompt and efficient, but hampered by the lack of some essential equipment and supplies and inadequate diagnostic capacity." LF

Campaigning begins on March 14 for the repeat elections in 10 Azerbaijani constituencies where the outcome of the November 6 parliamentary ballot was invalidated, and reported on March 11 and 14 respectively. Of 196 would-be candidates who submitted lists of signatures in their support, 154 have been formally registered. They include 23 from the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, 12 from the opposition Musavat party, and three from the divided Azerbaijan National Independence Party; most of the remaining candidates are nominally independent. The largest number of candidates -- 22 -- will contest the Binagadi No. 2 constituency. The progressive wing of the Azerbaijan National Front Party and the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, which participated in the November 6 ballot together with Musavat as the Azadliq bloc, decided to boycott the repeat election to protest the irregularities and fraud that marred the voting on November 6 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 13 and February 4, 2006 and "RFE/RL Newsline," February 10, 2006). LF

Two senior Interior Ministry officials, Dato Akhalaya and Vasil Sanodze, have been temporarily suspended from their posts pending the conclusion of the investigation into the January killing of United Georgian Bank official Sandro Girgvliani, Georgian media reported on March 13. Both men, together with two other senior ministry officials, were involved in an argument with Girgvliani at a Tbilisi cafe hours before he was found beaten to death. Akhalaya and Sanodze both denied at a March 13 press conference any connection with the killing, saying they agreed to step down out of a sense of "moral responsibility." They jointly claimed some of the credit for the arrest on suspicion of Girgvliani's murder of four more junior Interior Ministry officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2006). LF

Georgia's Path, the political movement established several months ago by Georgia's former Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili, held its founding congress in Tbilisi on March 12, Georgian media reported the following day. Addressing the congress, Zourabichvili, a former French diplomat, listed among the reasons that impelled her into the opposition ranks the disinclination of Georgia's present leadership to engage in dialogue with the population; human rights violations; and violation of the principle of supremacy of the law, Caucasus Press reported. She accused the present authorities of retreating from their pledge to build a democratic state, and she urged a departure from "neototalitarianism." LF

In a statement adopted on March 13, the parliament of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia accused the international community of "double standards" in declining to recognize Abkhazia, South Ossetia, Transdniester and Nagorno-Karabakh as independent states, and Interfax reported. The statement further decried as "sanctions" that could "lead to social and economic tension and a new humanitarian catastrophe" the newly introduced regulations requiring that all cargo crossing the Transdniester section of the Ukrainian-Moldovan border must clear Moldovan customs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, and 8, 2006). The statement said that in the event of a further "escalation" of the situation in Transdniester, Abkhazia reserves the right to suspend talks with the Georgian government on seeking a solution to the Abkhaz conflict. LF

Boranbek Albergenov, first secretary of the Kazakh Embassy in Kyrgyzstan, told "Kazakhstan Today" on March 13 that Kyrgyzstan owes Kazakhstan $19.5 million for the unsanctioned diversion of natural gas. Albergenov said that a bilateral commission will examine the issue. He said, "We know that Kyrgyzstan is not able to pay the entire amount, but we will try to find other ways. Maybe part of its debt will be paid in the form of electricity supplies." DK

The committee tasked with organizing the festivities to mark the March 24 anniversary of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev's ouster decided unanimously on March 13 to call the new holiday (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 2006) the "Day of the People's Revolution," reported. In the course of the committee's deliberations, Topchubek Turgunaliev, head of the Erkindik Party, warned: "There are forces that are saying openly that March 24 last year was a coup and that we need a real revolution," Kabar reported. Turgunaliev said that the leaders of political parties should meet as soon as possible to discuss ways of preventing unrest during the March 24 anniversary. Deputy Prime Minister Adakhan Madumarov, however, downplayed the possibility of unrest. DK

Tursunbek Akun, head of the state commission on human rights, told Svoboda Slova ( on March 13 that President Kurmanbek Bakiev has given Prime Minister Feliks Kulov full "responsibility" to deal with the criminal case of Ryspek Akmatbaev. Akmatbaev was recently acquitted on triple murder charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2006), a ruling that Kulov criticized. Akun said that Akmatbaev, who plans to run for parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2006), has a previous criminal conviction that the Justice Ministry is examining. Akun stressed that Bakiev "will not interfere, he won't 'cover for' a single crime boss." On March 6, Kulov asked the Justice Ministry to look into Akmatbaev's record and check whether he has the right to run for parliament, reported. Meanwhile, Murat Jumagulov, a former criminal investigator and alleged Akmatbaev associate, was shot dead in Bishkek on March 10, reported. The report noted that Jumagulov is the third Akmatbaev associate to die a violent death since February 28. DK

The United States will provide an additional $7.75 million to build facilities around a bridge linking Afghanistan and Tajikistan, RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Avesta reported on March 13. Avesta cited a U.S. Embassy source as saying that the money will go to build barracks for administrators, border guards, and customs officials on both sides of the Panj River. The United States has already allocated $28 million to build the 672-meter bridge across the Panj River, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. It is slated for completion in mid-2007. DK

Saparmurat Niyazov signed a resolution on March 13 dismissing Ylyas Durdiev as the head of the Yashlyk (Youth) television network for "serious deficiencies" in his work, reported. The report did not indicate what Durdiev had failed to do or who his replacement will be. DK

Courts in Minsk on March 13 sentenced five Ukrainians detained the previous day at an opposition rally in the Belarusian capital to 10 days in jail each, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Police arrested some 15 participants at the rally, held in support of opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, including a group of students from Ukraine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2006). The Ukrainians were found guilty of taking part in an unauthorized protest and disorderly behavior. "They [police] behaved very crudely, they used physical force and foul language. They put me in a cell together with some drunks, who praised Lukashenka and cursed. Actually, I didn't sleep the whole night; I was afraid that they might do something to me," Natalya Kosarchuk, an arrested Ukrainian girl, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. Also on March 13 in Minsk, one Belarusian was sentenced to 10 days in jail, one was given three days, and three were ordered to pay a fine of $300 each in connection with the same rally. Several more detainees are to stand trial on March 14. The presidential election is on March 19. JM

Three independent Belarusian newspapers have suspended their publication after a printing house in Smolensk, Russia, annulled printing contracts with them on March 13, Belapan and Reuters reported. Anatoly Guchev, head of the printing plant, told Belapan that the contracts with "Narodnaya volya," "BDG; Delovaya gazeta," and "Tovarishch" were discontinued due to "economic and political reasons." "The Belarusian newspapers owed money to the plant and, according to our information, they have been paying with someone else's money," Guchev said. "Besides, we do not want to get involved in their political games. I do not understand why these papers are not printed in Belarus. If they have licenses, why are they being printed in Russia? I don't care whether these are opposition newspapers or not. I'm not a censor. But I will not allow anyone to use the plant for an election battle." The three newspapers were forced to find a printer in Smolensk last year, after state printing houses in Belarus refused to do the job. "The [Belarusian] authorities must have struck a deal with Russian authorities who found a way to pressure the printing house," "Narodnaya volya" deputy editor in chief Svyatlana Kalinkina told Reuters. "It is possible that Belarus will have no independent press on the eve of the election." JM

The opposition Party of Regions gathered some 2,000 people in front of Ukrainian parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, in Kyiv on March 14 to demand changes to electoral legislation, UNIAN and Interfax-Ukraine reported. In particular, the Party of Regions wants parliament to give precinct election commissions the right to add names to voter lists on election day. The parliament on March 14 passed a bill allowing such a procedure on election day, but only in instances where individual voters have already won a court decision to ensure their name is entered accurately on the list. The opposition alleges that the authorities compiled lists of voters for the March 26 parliamentary elections with many deliberate mistakes and omissions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2006) aimed at depriving many voters of the right to cast ballots. The People's Opposition bloc, led by Progressive Socialist Party head Natalya Vitrenko, staged a separate rally in Kyiv on March 14, demanding that the government allow Ukrainian citizens in Transdniester to vote in the March 26 elections. Volodymyr Marchenko from the Progressive Socialist Party told a crowd of some 1,000 people that there is not a single polling station organized by the Ukrainian authorities in Transdniester, where according to him 67,000 people have Ukrainian citizenship. JM

Slobodan Milosevic's son Marko said on March 14 that Serbian authorities will not allow the former Yugoslav president to be buried in Belgrade, Reuters reported. Marko Milosevic made his comments as he boarded a flight from Moscow to the Netherlands to claim his father's body, Reuters reported. He added that Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has agreed to hold a funeral in the Russian capital. "The Belgrade authorities do not allow it; they want to avoid it," Milosevic told Reuters television. "We do not have any other choice." Belgrade authorities have said that they would not prevent a funeral for Milosevic in the Serbian capital, but have ruled out state honors. Marko Milosevic's statement added to a general sense of uncertainty about where the funeral would be held. B92 reported on March 14 that it would take place in Belgrade on either March 16 or 17. BW

Prosecutors in Belgrade on March 13 agreed to remove the name of Slobodan Milosevic's widow, Mirjana Markovic, from an Interpol wanted list so she could attend her husband's funeral, should it take place in Serbia, without fearing arrest, dpa reported the same day. The Belgrade District Court is scheduled to issue a final ruling on the matter on March 14. Markovic, who is charged with "incitement to abuse of power," is living in Moscow. In an interview with the Belgrade daily newspaper "Vecernje novosti" on March 13, Markovic said her husband was subject to what amounted to torture by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY). "My husband was killed by The Hague tribunal," Markovic said in the interview, according to dpa. "They kept cameras and lights on in Slobodan's cell non-stop so that he could not sleep. That is an officially recognized form of torture." BW

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia formally closed Milosevic's trial on March 14, international news agencies reported the same day. The trial began on February 12, 2002. "The chamber has been advised of the death of the accused Slobodan Milosevic," Presiding Judge Patrick Robinson said. "We express our regret at his passing. We also regret that his untimely death has deprived not only him, but indeed all interested parties, of a judgment upon the allegations in the indictment. His death terminates these proceedings. We express our thanks to all those who participated in these long and difficult proceedings." BW

A Dutch expert said on March 13 that Milosevic took drugs that worsened his health before his death, Reuters reported the same day. Donald Uges, a toxicologist at Groningen University, told Reuters he thought Milosevic had knowingly taken harmful medicines to improve his case for going for medical treatment to Russia, where his wife, son, and brother live (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 20 and February 24, 2006). Uges said tests he conducted two weeks ago on Milosevic's blood showed traces of rifampicin, a drug used against leprosy and tuberculosis. The drug would have neutralized other medicines Milosevic was taking. "I don't think he took his medicines for suicide -- only for his trip to Moscow.... That is where his friends and family are. I think that was his last possibility to escape The Hague," Uges said. "I am so sure there is no murder." BW

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on March 13 that Moscow does not trust the autopsy results on Milosevic, Russian and international news agencies reported the same day. A preliminary autopsy said the former Yugoslav president died of heart failure (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2006). Lavrov added that Russian doctors should examine the results of the autopsy, Reuters reported. "The central issue is whether or not Mr. Milosevic was receiving the proper medical treatment," Lavrov said. Milosevic's brother, Borislav, criticized the ICTY for denying Milosevic's request for medical treatment in Russia. "Everything was aimed at this outcome. It was a kind of murder. I am not ashamed to use that word," Borislav Milosevic told the Dutch television news program NOVA, according to Reuters. BW

Transdniester officials refused entry to 81 cargo trucks from Ukraine on March 13 as part of a protest against new customs regulations, AP reported the same day. On March 3, Ukraine and Moldova instituted the customs rules, requiring goods passing through breakaway Transdniester to clear Moldovan customs, in an effort to combat smuggling. Transdniester officials called the move an economic blockade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 7, and 8, 2006). "Cargo traffic in transit from Ukraine through the Transdniester region of Moldova is still blocked by the so-called Transdniester authorities, except for several instances," Ferenc Banfi, head of a European Union mission helping to police the border, said. BW

Every world leader aspires to leave his mark on the world. But one who assuredly did so not only figuratively but in a most literal sense was former Estonian President Lennart Meri, who died early today in Tallinn from brain cancer at the age of 76.

Meri left his mark 15 years ago during two visits to the White House in Washington. At that time, Lennart -- and he was on a first name basis with virtually everyone he came into contact with after only a few minutes -- was foreign minister of a country still occupied by the Soviet Union. Speaking perfect English, he immediately found a common language with President George H.W. Bush, who was invariably treading cautiously in his dealings with the three Baltic countries.

After a few minutes of diplomatic niceties, Meri told President Bush, in a way that suggested they had been friends for years, that he knew just where Bush could go fishing and catch "a really big salmon." Bush, intrigued, asked Lennart to show him precisely where on the magnificent antique globe standing nearby.

Meri promptly got up, walked over to the globe, took out his ink pen, and placed an X on the spot designating a river in Kamchatka in the Russian Far East. Most of those in the room were aghast at this breach of protocol -- not to speak of their fears about possible damage to an extremely valuable object. And many Estonians who heard about this later were horrified that their foreign minister would point out a river not in their own country but somewhere else. But if the diplomats and some Estonians were disturbed, the American president was clearly entranced and said with a smile that he would be pleased to go with his new Estonian friend and try his luck in that faraway river.

Five months later, Meri returned to the Oval Office, this time as the representative of an Estonia that had recovered its independence. When he came into the room, President Bush lost no time in asking his "old friend" to show him again just where that river with the salmon was. And again, Lennart got up, walked to the globe -- which had been repaired in the meantime -- took out his pen and placed an X just where he had before. The president laughed, and the friendship was sealed.

In recalling this sequence of events, Meri always referred to it as one of his "managed indiscretions," his carefully thought-out crossing of lines others had laid down -- be they in politics, literature, film, or friendships -- in the pursuit of his greater purposes. And throughout his life, he always acted in this way, whether as a child in exile during World War II picking potatoes near Sverdlovsk, a novelist exploring his nation's history, or a filmmaker seeking to focus international attention on the endangered peoples of the Russian north.

Born on March 29, 1929, Meri was the son of one of the most distinguished of Estonia's pre-war diplomats. He grew up in the Estonian missions in Paris and Berlin, learning French so well that several French presidents went out of their way, in clear violation of protocol, to have him seated next to them at dinners in Paris. His German was reputedly so good that several Baltic German families said they were sure that somehow, somewhere there was German in his background.

But his father, who at the end of the 1930s was serving as Estonia's deputy foreign minister, insisted from the start that his oldest son learn English and corresponded with him in that language both whenever he was away from home and even, on several occasions, from a cell in the Lubyanka. And possibly as a result of his perfect command of English and his father's enthusiasm, Meri was to the end of his life the most consistent supporter of an Atlanticist perspective for Estonia and her neighbors.

When Soviet forces occupied Estonia in 1940, the Meris were among those arrested and deported to a village near Sverdlovsk, in the Urals region. There, the 12-year-old Lennart learned Russian as he made friends with local children and picked potatoes to help feed his family. And he and they might have remained there for many years -- as did other Estonians -- had it not been for the German invasion of the USSR a little over a year later.

Initially hard pressed by the Germans, Stalin began to explore the possibility of a separate peace with Berlin. Meri's father, Georg, decided that he might be able to save his family by offering his services to Moscow in such an effort. The former deputy foreign minister told the police overseeing those Estonians deported into Russia that he knew all the prominent German officials and could serve as a communications link with them if Moscow would agree to send the members of his family -- his wife and their two children -- to a neutral Scandinavian country.

Intrigued by this possibility, more senior Soviet officials brought him and his family to Moscow, placing him in the Lubyanka prison and his wife and two sons in a hotel. But when the tide of battle turned, all of them were sent back to the Sverdlovsk region and were only able to return to Estonia after the end of the war. Because the family was able to return to their homeland when they did, and because Meri was able to enroll at the University of Tartu earlier and subsequently rise through the various bureaucracies and travel abroad when he did, many in Estonia still maintain a more sinister reading of his father's efforts to save his family -- an interpretation that dogged and infuriated Meri to the end of his life.

After graduating from Tartu, Meri himself worked as a broadcaster and an official in the Soviet copyright agency. He also began his career as a writer and filmmaker, authoring a novel, "Silvery White," which traces the links between the Baltic and the Black Sea in medieval times -- numerous travel books, and many ethnographic films.

Meri was among those who took part in Estonia's struggle to recover its independence. Because of his gift for languages -- and perhaps even more his gift for friendship -- he became foreign minister in the first Estonian government since World War II to aspire to the recovery of independence. In 1991, he and his two Baltic colleagues, Janis Jurkans of Latvia and Algirdas Saudargas of Lithuania, traveled the world, pressing sometimes reluctant world leaders to support Baltic aspirations.

After Estonia regained its independence and after a very brief stint as Estonian ambassador in Finland, Meri was elected and then reelected president of Estonia. In that capacity, he helped negotiate a Russian troop withdrawal, famously holding a very drunk Russian President Boris Yeltsin's arm when the agreement had to be signed, and he laid the groundwork for Estonia's inclusion in the European Union and NATO.

After leaving the presidency, Meri moved to his house on the Viimsi Peninsula near the Estonian capital. From there, he said, he could "watch" over those Estonians who had followed him in the corridors of power.

Abdul Rahim Wardak said the increasing ranks of Afghan security forces could allow foreign troops to leave sooner than planners expected, AP reported on March 14. "Our expectation from the international community is to help us to stand on our own feet," Wardak said during a news conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels the same day. "Once that is achieved I doubt there will be a need for the deployment of large formations of international troops." Wardak said the Afghan national army should be up to full strength in five years, though he acknowledged that the outlook for stability in the country is still uncertain. "It cannot be predicted exactly, but we are hopeful and also confident that there will be considerable improvement in the security situation." NATO forces are moving to take over operations in southern Afghanistan, raising the number of international troops in the country from roughly 9,000 to 16,000. The expanded NATO missions comes as neo-Taliban insurgents appear to be stepping up terrorist activity. "The enemy have lost the ability to encounter our forces in the field so they are increasingly resorting to terror tactics," Wardak said. MR

Afghan and UN health officials said at least five cases of the H5 type of bird flu appeared in Afghanistan and warned of the risk of the deadly H5N1 strain, AFP reported on March 13. Authorities said there were three known cases of H5 bird flu in Kabul and two in the eastern Nangahar Province. "Some samples we tested yesterday are positive for H5 but to determine the subtype the samples have been sent to Italy," said Azizullah Osmani, spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture and Animal Husbandry. Serge Verniau, country representative of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Afghanistan, said the virus found in Afghanistan could very well be the H5N1 strain. "There is a high risk that the virus detected is H5N1, but other possibilities remain at this time," Verniau said. The H5 virus kills only birds but the H5N1 strain has killed about 90 people across Asia and Turkey. The H5 variety of bird flu has appeared in Iran and Pakistan, and India, but this is this is the first time the virus has been detected in Afghanistan. MR

A spokesman for neo-Taliban forces in Afghanistan said the insurgent group killed one German and four Albanian hostages abducted in southern Afghanistan, AFP reported on March 13. There was no independent confirmation of the claim, which was issued by self-styled neo-Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi. "Today just before noon we killed the three Albanians and one German. We have left their bodies in an area between Helmand and Kandahar," Ahmadi said. Local officials said on March 12 that four Albanians and four Afghans working for the German firm Ecolog were kidnapped in southern Afghanistan around the Kandahar area the previous day. An Afghan intelligence source said the four Afghans had been released. When the group first disappeared, Ahmadi said neo-Taliban fighters had taken the hostages and were awaiting orders from fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. "We killed the four without any demands, since our demands in the past were not fulfilled and anyone who is working with Americans and foreign forces are our targets," Ahmadi said. It is unclear whether the captives were indeed all Albanian or if a German national was among them. MR

An anonymous Russian source said on March 13 that Iranian-Russian talks on the nuclear issue took place that day in Moscow, RIA Novosti reported. The source said the Iranian side is represented by Ali Husseinitash, deputy secretary of the Supreme National Security Council, and added that the talks will continue on March 14. But another unidentified source told ISNA that the talks will resume on March 15-16, while yet another told ITAR-TASS on March 13 that Husseinitash may travel to Moscow the next day to discuss the possibility of an Iran-Russia uranium-enrichment joint venture. Also on 13 March, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced that Moscow and Tehran will resume talks on the nuclear issue, Interfax reported. Previously, the Iranian Foreign Ministry had announced that nuclear negotiations with Moscow were at an end, but an anonymous Russian Foreign Ministry source said Iran's Supreme National Security Council contradicted the country's Foreign Ministry, Interfax reported on March 13. In Tehran on March 13, Supreme National Security Council spokesman Hussein Entezami said the Russian proposal to enrich Iranian uranium on Russian soil should be reconsidered, IRNA reported. BS

In a 13 March meeting with Iran's ambassadors and other diplomats, Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced that Iran wants to expand its relations with all other countries, state television and IRNA reported. There are two possible exceptions to this rule, he said. The first exception is Israel, and the second one is the United States, as long as the U.S. maintains a hostile stance towards Iran. Ahmadinejad also stressed that Iran will not reverse its pursuit of a peaceful nuclear capability. He said, "Because only a few countries, unfairly and cruelly, order us to forego the rights of the nation, we will not give in to what they impose on us," state television reported. Ahmadinejad continued: "We know well that taking even one step back from one's inalienable rights can lead to total loss of the state territorial integrity in some cases." Ahmadinejad also addressed regional issues, saying, "There will be no peace and tranquility in the region as long as the Zionist regime continues to exist," IRNA reported. BS

The Iranian legislature approved on 13 March a 12.5 billion rial ($1.73 million) budgetary allocation for U.S. plots against Iran, IRNA reported. This money also will be used for pursuing Iranian cases in international courts. BS

Iraqi police have found at least 65 bodies in Baghdad over the past 24 hours, AP reported on March 14. Fifteen of the bodies were men found bound and shot in a minibus in western Baghdad. Al-Jazeera television reported that police found the bodies of some 40 men who were executed by gunfire in neighborhoods throughout the capital. The satellite news channel cited an Interior Ministry official as saying that the bodies were found in Sunni and Shi'ite neighborhoods, including in the Shi'ite stronghold known as Al-Sadr City. Shi'ite vigilantes there beat, interrogated, and killed four men before stringing their bodies from lampposts on March 13, witnesses and government officials told Meanwhile, the Interior Ministry has reportedly confirmed the existence of death squads within its ranks, dpa reported on March 14. The news agency cited a senior ministry official as confirming to Baghdad's "Al-Mashriq" newspaper on March 14 that 22 officials from the ministry and three Defense Ministry personnel have been linked to the death squads. KR

Al-Sharqiyah television reported on March 13 that the death toll from the March 12 Al-Sadr City bombings has risen to 64 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2006). Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr claimed U.S. forces aided insurgents in the attacks in a March 13 speech in Al-Najaf. "We all know that the nawasib and takfiris [referring to those who consider other Muslims infidels] were mainly behind this act, which was carried out under U.S. air cover. Spy planes and other kinds of planes were present when the incident took place. This is in addition to disruption to telephone network. All this corroborates the occupiers' cooperation with takfiris so as to destabilize these Shi'ite areas," claimed the cleric, Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. KR

U.K. Defense Secretary John Reid announced in a March 13 statement to parliament that Britain will reduce its troop presence in Iraq by 800 soldiers, or about 10 percent of its force in Iraq ( Reid said that there are now around 235,000 trained Iraqi security forces. "It is against this background that we assess our force levels," he said. "I can therefore tell the House today that as a result of this roulement [rotation] there will be a reduction of British forces in Iraq of around 800 personnel. This reflects the completion of some of our security sector reform tasks, to develop the capability of the Iraq forces; for instance in training the trainers and in those who guard institutions, as well as improvements in the way we configure our own forces." "We will stay as long as we are needed, and wanted, and until the job is done," he added. KR

. U.S. President George W. Bush said in a March 13 speech at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington that the United States has no plans to pull out of Iraq. "My decisions on troop levels will be made based upon the conditions on the ground and on the recommendations of our military commanders, not artificial timetables set by politicians here in Washington, D.C.," Bush said, reiterating a long-held position. Regarding current military planning in Iraq, Bush said U.S. military planners intend to have Iraqi security forces controlling more territory than the coalition by the end of this year. Bush said Iraqis took a step away from civil war in the aftermath of the February 22 Samarra bombing. "The Iraqi people made their choice," he said. "They looked into the abyss and did not like what they saw." The text of Bush's speech is available at KR

Australian Defense Minister Brendan Nelson said on March 14 that his government has no plans to reduce its forces in Iraq, AFP reported. "I expect the task in terms of supporting the security and overwatch in southern Iraq is one that will continue for at least another six to 12 months," Nelson said in an interview with Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio. Nelson said that 450 Australian soldiers assigned to train Iraqi security forces and to protect Japanese military engineers will be assigned new duties should the Japanese depart Iraq. The military engineers, who serve under the Japanese Ground Self-Defense Forces, have been deployed to the southern city of Samawah since 2004. Japanese officials have said they will consider the status of their troops in Iraq following the formation of the new Iraqi cabinet. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso said on March 14 that the U.K. announcement will have no bearing on Japan's decision on whether to remain in Iraq, Kyodo World Service reported. KR