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Newsline - March 30, 2006


PUTIN SAYS U.S. IS HOLDING UP RUSSIA'S WTO MEMBERSHIP...
President Vladimir Putin said on March 29 that the United States is stalling on Russia's admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which is a top policy goal of the Putin leadership, RIA Novosti reported. "We have received a list of questions from our American colleagues that require additional agreements that we thought had been settled long ago," Putin told a group of leading businessmen. "The negotiating process is being artificially set back. We are interested in joining [the WTO], but we will take this step [only] if it satisfies all participants in the process, and primarily Russia and the [Russian] economy," Putin added. Several leading Russian officials have made similar statements in recent weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2005, and March 8, 13, and 16, 2006). PM

...BUT MINISTER REMAINS OPTIMISTIC
German Gref, who is minister of economic development and trade, said in Moscow on March 29 that he hopes that Russia and the United States "will be able to settle all issues," regarding Russia's admission to the WTO, Interfax reported. Gref noted that the Russian authorities received a letter from U.S. President George W. Bush "several weeks ago...[in which he set down] some new terms and [raised] new differences" regarding accession to the WTO. "We are still optimistic that we will be able to finish the negotiations as soon as possible," Gref added. On March 30, Gref said that "difficult negotiations are under way. But, despite this, there is optimism that within one month or a month and a half at most we will find solutions to all remaining problems." PM

DUMA DEPUTY ACCUSES WASHINGTON OF PLAYING 'DOUBLE GAME'
Konstantin Kosachyov, who chairs the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, said in Moscow on March 29 that the United States is stalling on Russia's admission to the WTO to enable Ukraine to join that body first, Interfax reported. He argued that Moscow has received unspecified promises on its membership from Washington but "nothing is happening because [Washington] has decided to prevent Russia from entering [the WTO] before Ukraine does.... We have the impression that the [United States] is playing a 'double game,' artificially dragging out Russia's accession, setting forth new conditions as far as issues already [dealt with] are concerned, [and] waiting for the moment when it can step aside and leave the dirty work -- setting forth new terms -- to be done by Ukrainian negotiators." PM

BUSH REJECTS CALLS TO BOYCOTT ST. PETERSBURG SUMMIT
U.S. President George W. Bush said at the Washington offices of the NGO Freedom House on March 29 that he wants to attend the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized countries summit in St. Petersburg in July because he fears that shunning President Putin to protest his foreign and domestic policies would be counterproductive, strana.ru and mosnews.com reported. "I need to be in a position where I can sit down with [Putin] and be very frank about our concerns," Bush added. He noted that unnamed members of Russian human rights groups have told him in the past that their "universal consensus...is that it is important for the United States to be in a position to be able to express our concerns" to the Russian authorities. Bush added that leaders of unnamed other countries often ask him to "pass a message for me" to the Russians at top-level U.S.-Russian meetings. He said that he has not "given up" hope on democracy in Russia. U.S. Senator John McCain (Republican, Arizona) and Andrei Illarionov, who recently resigned as economic adviser to Putin, have called on Bush not to attend the summit (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6 and March 20, 2006). PM

RUSSIA SAYS U.S. CHARGES ON IRAQ AIMED AT DIVERTING ATTENTION
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said on March 29 that a Pentagon study that charged Moscow with giving military intelligence to Baghdad at the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003 was recently made public in order to divert attention from the United States' current difficulties in Iraq, RIA Novosti reported. "That the story is being aired in the mass media points to a political subtext, probably linked to ongoing developments in Iraq, where, far from abating, tensions and violence have increased. All of this can only arouse incomprehension and concern, considering that the [United States] has appropriate channels that can always be used to clear up any misunderstanding or concern" with Russia, he added. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov have both denied the charges contained in the Pentagon report (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 28, and 29, 2006). PM

U.S. REPORTEDLY IRKED BY RUSSIAN STANCE ON UKRAINE AND BELARUS
An unnamed "senior State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, citing department policy," told the "Los Angeles Times" of March 29 that Russian policy has become "reactive and defensive" toward democratic movements in neighboring areas. The official cited Moscow's reactions to the recent elections in Ukraine and Belarus as examples (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2006). "In many cases, we wish that Russian policy were more clearly aimed at promoting consolidation of stable democracies," he added. The official noted that "there is something very...Soviet" in the Belarusian authorities' behavior toward their opposition. He also wondered why policy makers in Moscow seem to assume that democratic movements in neighboring countries are by definition inimical to Russian interests. PM

RUSSIA ASKS BELARUS TO FREE JAILED RUSSIAN PROTESTERS
The Russian Embassy in Belarus filed a protest on March 29 over the jailing of several Russian citizens by the Belarusian authorities following the recent post-election demonstrations in Minsk, Interfax reported. "We have asked the Foreign Ministry to free all Russian citizens who received administrative arrest sentences," the embassy's press attache Aleksandr Frolov noted. The Belarusian officials say that 21 foreigners, including four Russians, were detained during the period March 19-25. In related news, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov said on [March 29] while on a visit to Oslo, Norway, that any unspecified attempts at "isolating" Belarus in the aftermath of the recent election there would be "counterproductive," Interfax reported. PM

PUTIN PLEDGES 'COOPERATION' WITH UKRAINE
Russian President Putin told his Ukrainian counterpart Viktor Yushchenko by telephone on March 29 that Moscow is ready to cooperate closely with Ukraine following the March 26 parliamentary election, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2006). Putin congratulated Yushchenko on the completion of the March 26 election. He said the vote demonstrated the predominant aspirations of Ukrainian citizens to develop comprehensive relations with Russia. The two leaders also discussed Putin's visit to Ukraine later this year, for which a date has yet to be set. PM

FORMER GERMAN LEADER TAKES OFFICE AS HEAD OF GAS CONSORTIUM
Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder was formally elected on March 30 as head of the stockholders' oversight body for the planned North European Gas Pipeline (NEGP) running from Vyborg to Greifswald, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2005 and March 28 and 29 2006, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2006). Schroeder joined executives from the Russian and German energy giants OAO Gazprom, BASF AG, and E.On AG in Moscow for the inaugural meeting of the consortium. He will receive an annual "representation allowance" of just over $300,000. Schroeder's nomination to the post late in 2005 led to criticism in Germany and to questions about his taking up the Gazprom pipeline post so soon after the end of a chancellorship that saw ever-closer relations with Moscow, the conclusion of the NEGP deal, and the worst German-American relations since World War II. He has rejected charges of impropriety. PM

RUSSIA, NORWAY HOLD TALKS ON GAS...
Prime Minister Fradkov visited Norway on March 28-29 to tour a land-based facility to process gas from the Ormen Lange field in the Norwegian Sea and meet with representatives of the Norwegian energy companies Statoil and Hydro, which want to cooperate with Russia in developing energy resources, news agencies reported. "Norway and Russia are Europe's most important energy nations. That makes us natural partners," Hydro chief executive Eivind Reiten said, noting that Hydro has had operations in Russia for 50 years. He added that "the next big chapter in this partnership is the development of the Arctic areas, a region that will play a key role in energy supply in Europe and globally." Statoil chief executive Helge Lund said his company "wants to build a common industrial platform for growth in the far north." PM

...AND FISH
Fradkov also inquired during his March 28-29 visit to Norway into the workings of that country's state pension fund, which includes the huge Petroleum Fund, and is designed to make the best possible use of Norway's income from the oil and gas industry for future generations, news agencies reported. It invests outside the Norwegian economy. Norwegian and Russian delegations signed a treaty on exchange of information on vessels sailing in the Barents Sea. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said he is hopeful that a way will soon be found for Russia to lift its ban on fresh salmon imports from Norway, which has been in force since January 1. Norway is the world's biggest exporter of farmed salmon, and fish is its third-biggest export after oil and gas and aluminum. Exporters have lost much money from the ban, which Russia declared on the ground that Norwegian salmon contains excessive levels of toxic metals. Stoltenberg denied that charge, adding that he gives salmon to his two children several times each week. PM

STUDY NOTES POOR STATE OF RUSSIAN MEDIA...
The Vienna-based International Press Institute (IPI) issued its annual report on world press freedom on March 30, in which it described the situation of the mass media in Russia as "difficult" and noted tendencies toward self-censorship and some physical attacks on journalists. The study pointed out that stiff fines were imposed on the Moscow-based daily "Kommersant" in 2005 and that several journalists received prison sentences that year. One of several examples cited is the effective muzzling of critical voices on the formerly independent REN-TV (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 16, 2005, and "Russia: Gorbachev Speaks About Democracy, Authoritarianism"; rferl.org; March 1, 2006). The IPI makes several recommendations for improving the state of the Russian media, including decriminalizing defamation, which is a charge often used to hound journalists. The study also calls for repealing the controversial new NGO law; ending the de facto government monopoly on television broadcasting; carrying out full and transparent investigations of journalists' murders; and ensuring better safety for journalists in remote or conflict areas. PM

...AND RESTRICTIONS ON REPORTING ON CHECHNYA
The IPI further noted in its annual report an intensification of the Russian government's efforts to block media coverage of developments in Chechnya that diverges from the official government line. Specifically, the authorities issued a warning to the daily "Kommersant" for publishing an interview on February 7, 2005, with Chechen President and resistance commander Aslan Maskhadov, and harshly criticized Britain's Channel 4 for broadcasting an interview conducted by ABC with radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev. The IPI also reported the killing in Makhachkala in late June of Daghestani journalist Magomedzagid Varisov shortly after he published an analysis of the circumstances that precipitated the exodus of residents of the village of Borozdinovskaya in eastern Chechnya to neighboring Daghestan. LF

INGUSH STAGE DEMO TO PROTEST ABDUCTIONS
Several hundred Ingush congregated on March 29 outside the local council building in Kartsa, North Ossetia, to demand that the authorities take measures to halt a wave of abductions of Ingush men and to locate the victims and return them to their families, regnum.ru and ingushetiya.ru reported. The protesters claimed that nine Ingush men have been abducted in the last few months; in the most recent such case, Kartsa resident Magomed Yandiev was snatched on March 27. LF

FORMER SENIOR CHECHEN RESISTANCE FIGURE SURRENDERS
Sultan Geliskhanov, who headed the State Security Service under Chechen President Djokhar Dudaev and was an active participant in the 1994-96 war, has surrendered to the pro-Moscow Chechen authorities, regnum.ru and kavkaz.memo.ru reported on March 28 and 29 respectively. Geliskhanov disappeared from the political scene following Aslan Maskhadov's election as Chechen president in 1997, according to kavkaz.memo.ru, which quoted an unnamed Chechen law-enforcement official as saying Geliskhanov has been interrogated and released. That official said the only outstanding charges against Geliskhanov are participation in an illegal armed formation, and he could qualify for amnesty. LF

ARMENIA, RUSSIA CONTINUE GAS TALKS
During talks on March 29, Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Energy Minister Armen Movsisian agreed to continue negotiations with Russia with the hope of averting the 100 percent increase in natural gas tariffs that is due to take effect on April 1, Noyan Tapan reported. The two men also discussed ways of diversifying energy supplies, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The opposition Hanrapetutiun party chaired by former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian recently released a statement calling for a reduction of Armenia's dependence on Russian energy and a "revision" of Armenia's close ties with Russia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on March 27. LF

DARTMOUTH CONFERENCE UNVEILS ALTERNATIVE KARABAKH PEACE PLAN
Representatives of a working group of the U.S.-Russian Dartmouth Conference unveiled in Baku on March 28 a new plan for resolving the Karabakh conflict, zerkalo.az reported on March 29. That plan is based on the so-called "phased" approach to resolving the conflict, and envisages bestowing "intermediate status" on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in return for concessions such as the liberation of Azerbaijani territory currently controlled by Armenian forces. Former presidential adviser Eldar Namazov explained that that approach seeks to bridge the positions currently held by Armenia, which he said wants international recognition of Karabakh's independence in return for ceding occupied territory, and Azerbaijan, which offers peace in return for the restoration of its territorial integrity. In contrast to the International Crisis Group's blueprint for resolving the Karabakh conflict unveiled last year (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 27, 2006), the Dartmouth plan does not provide for a referendum on the future status of the NKR, but it does call for the participation of NKR representatives in the peace process. Harold Saunders, the U.S. co-chairman of the working group, told journalists that the United States and Russian co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group have both given a positive assessment of the Dartmouth conference's plan. He said U.S. co-Chairman Ambassador Steven Mann noted "the attractiveness" of measures intended to increase the level of trust between the conflict sides. Saunders and his Russian co-chairman Vitaly Naumkin presented their peace proposal at a roundtable discussion in Yerevan on March 29, Noyan Tapan reported on March 30. LF

ONE WING OF DIVIDED AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION PARTY REGISTERED
The Justice Ministry has formally registered under the name Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) the wing of that party now headed by its founder and former chairman, Etibar Mammadov, day.az and echo-az.com reported on March 30. AMIP split at an emergency congress in January at which delegates voted no confidence in Ali Aliyev, who was elected one year earlier to succeed Mammadov as party chairman (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2006). Mammadov's wing of AMIP, which recently aligned with other opposition parties in a new Center for Political Coordination (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2006), will participate in the May 13 repeat parliamentary elections in 10 constituencies, while Aliyev's will not. LF

OLIGARCH ACCUSES GEORGIAN AUTHORITIES OF PRESSURING MEDIA, BUSINESSMEN
Addressing a March 29 congress of the Federation of Businessmen of Georgia, of which he is president, Badri Patarkatsishvili accused the Georgian authorities of regarding the business community as a "money bag" that can be tapped for funds at any time, while no one monitors how those funds are spent, Caucasus Press and the Russian daily "Kommersant" reported on March 29 and 30, respectively. He claimed that the Prosecutor-General's Office alone has received 160 million laris ($89 million) in such contributions. As a result, Patarkatsishvili said, the investment climate in Georgia has deteriorated over the past nine months. Patarkatsishvili also accused the government of pressuring the Imedi television channel which he owns for its reporting of the circumstances of the murder two months ago of banker Sandro Girgvliani. Several senior Interior Ministry officials are suspected of involvement in that killing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14 and 20, 2006). Patarkatsishvili said that to remain silent in the face of such pressure would be "a crime." Opposition politicians hailed Patarkatsishvili's statements and expressed the hope that the government will respond by tempering its pressure, Civil Georgia reported on March 29. Parliamentarian Giga Bokeria of the ruling United National Movement dismissed Patarkatsishvili's criticism as an attempt to blackmail the government and accused him of funding the opposition; Pikria Chikhradze of the opposition New Conservatives (aka New Rightists), denied, however, that the opposition receives funds from Patarkatsishvili. LF

TWO GEORGIAN JOURNALISTS SENTENCED IN EXTORTION CASE
The Tbilisi City Court passed judgment on March 29 on two journalists found guilty of seeking to extort a bribe from parliament deputy Koba Bekauri last year, Caucasus Press reported. Shalva Ramishvili, founder of the independent television station 202, was sentenced to four years' imprisonment and company director David Kokhreidze to three years' imprisonment for having allegedly demanded $100,000 from Bekauri in return for not making public incriminating film footage about his commercial activities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29 and 30 and September 1 and 5, 2005). Both accused maintain that the court failed to demonstrate their guilt, and described the trial as "settling scores." Oppositionists and NGOs staged a protest outside the Tbilisi City Court on March 29 to protest the sentences. LF

GEORGIAN, ABKHAZ OFFICIALS AGREE TO RESUME BILATERAL DISCUSSIONS
Irakli Alasania, President Mikheil Saakashvili's special representative for conflict resolution, traveled to Sukhum (Sukhumi) on March 29 for UN-mediated talks with Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba and other officials, regnum.ru and apsny.ru reported. Shamba subsequently told journalists those talks were "unusually fruitful," while Alasania stressed that resuming direct bilateral contacts with the Abkhaz leadership is Tbilisi's main priority "at the present stage." The two sides agreed to resume bilateral talks within the framework of the UN-sponsored Coordinating Council established in 1997, but which has not met for five years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 1997, and January 25, 2001). That council comprises three working groups that focus respectively on security issues; the return of Georgian displaced persons to Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district; and economic reconstruction. LF

SOUTH OSSETIA ACCUSES OSCE OF BIAS
The South Ossetian representation on the Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone has released a lengthy statement accusing the OSCE Mission in Georgia and the OSCE Field Office in Tskhinvali of systematically providing one-sided and distorted information to OSCE headquarters in Vienna in recent months, regnum.ru reported on March 29. Quoting verbatim from nine separate daily or weekly OSCE reports sent to Vienna since January, the statement claimed that OSCE military observers in South Ossetia generally turn a blind eye to violations by the Georgian side while reporting on infringements by South Ossetia. It also claimed that the OSCE praised what it termed unilateral Georgian moves towards demilitarization of the conflict zone while ignoring analogous moves by South Ossetia. It concluded that such bias calls into question whether the OSCE is qualified to act as an objective mediator in the conflict. LF

MONEY TRANSFERRERS REPORT SHARP RISE IN REMITTANCES BY KYRGYZ MIGRANTS
Suren Airiyan, the director of the Moscow branch of Uniastrum Bank, told journalists in Moscow that Kyrgyz migrant workers sent $200 million home through Unistream and Western Union in 2005, Kabar reported on March 29. The figure is 400 percent higher than in 2004. Airiyan noted that the actual numbers may be higher. "Many Kyrgyz migrants, especially from the country's isolated mountainous sections, try not to use wire transfers and send their remittances to Kyrgyzstan without declaring them," he said. DK

KYRGYZ EX-PRESIDENT WILL NOT APOLOGIZE FOR HIS RULE
Maksim Maksimovich, a lawyer defending former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, told a news conference in Bishkek on March 29 that Akaev does not intend to make any public apologies for his actions as president, Kabar reported. Maksimovich said that Akaev is currently teaching at Moscow State University and living in one of Russian President Vladimir Putin's residences near Moscow. Maksimovich also said that he has formally requested that Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev conduct a criminal investigation into allegations by former Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov that Akaev offered him a bribe if he dropped criminal charges against the ex-president (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 24, 2006), akipress.org reported. DK

PAKISTANI MILITARY DELEGATION VISITS TAJIKISTAN
A delegation led by Lieutenant-General Shahid Siddiq Tirmizey, the director-general of the Joint Staff of the Pakistani army, held talks with Tajik military officials in Dushanbe on March 29, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Faridun Mahmadaliev, a spokesman for the Tajik military, said that during the five-day visit the two sides will discuss the possibility of joint Pakistani-Tajik military exercises. Tajik Deputy Foreign Minister Salohiddin Nasriddinov told ITAR-TASS that talks also focused on the construction of a high-voltage power line from Tajikistan to Pakistan through Afghanistan. DK

TAJIK DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS COOPERATION WITH RUSSIA A PRIORITY
Colonel General Sherali Khayrulloev told Interfax on March 29 that Tajikistan considers Russia its main partner for military cooperation. "The Tajik armed forces were set up thanks to Russia's assistance," Khayrulloev said. "Military-technical cooperation between our countries is at a very high level today." Khayrulloev sees no need for Tajikistan to move to NATO military standards, saying that "Soviet standards are no worse." He also stressed that numerous factors facilitate Tajik-Russian cooperation. Khayrulloev explained: "We have a similar structure of the armed forces, similar armaments and military hardware. And what is most important, the Russia military educational system is not inferior to any other." DK

CHINA TO LEND TAJIKISTAN $172 MILLION
China plans to loan Tajikistan $172 million for investment projects in Tajikistan, Regnum reported on March 29. Ghafur Rasulov, a spokesman for Tajikistan's Economy and Trade Ministry, told Regnum that the funds are part of a $900 million loan package China has made available under the aegis of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, whose members are China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Tajik Economy and Trade Minister Hakim Soliev is currently in Beijing for talks on Chinese support for projects in Tajikistan, Soliyev said. DK

OSCE CHAIRMAN VISITS TURKMENISTAN
The chairman in office of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, visited Turkmenistan and met with President Saparmurat Niyazov on March 29. In a press release, the OSCE noted that De Gucht "was very critical about the overall situation," urging Turkmenistan to "start political reforms and democratization." However, official Turkmen reports struck a different note, quoting Niyazov on the "invariably constructive nature of Turkmenistan's cooperation with the OSCE," state-run news agency TDH reported. The OSCE stated that De Gucht "raised the issue of four individuals who either have been detained or cannot leave the country," adding that Niyazov "gave a firm commitment to seriously examine these cases." Official Turkmen reports did not mention this aspect of the visit. DK

UZBEK PRESIDENT VISITS SOUTH KOREA
Uzbek President Islam Karimov and South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun signed a strategic partnership declaration in Seoul on March 29, Uzbek television reported. The visit also produced a number of South Korean investment initiatives, the South Korean news agency Yonhap reported. South Korea's National Oil Corporation (KNOC) and Korea Gas Corporation (KOGAS) signed a memorandum of understanding with the Uzbek state oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz to explore, and possibly develop, two oil and two gas fields in Uzbekistan. Korea Resources Corporation signed an agreement to mine uranium, iron, and gold in Uzbekistan, "The Korea Herald" reported. Korea will also loan Uzbekistan $30 million for an information-technology education project, "The Korea Times" reported. The newspaper noted that 230,000 ethnic Koreans live in Uzbekistan. DK

ONE BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION LEADER GOES TO POLAND...
Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the united opposition candidate in the March 19 presidential election, went to Poland on March 29 to inform the Polish public and politicians about what is going on in Belarus, Belarusian and international news agencies reported. Milinkevich will attend a meeting of Polish university rectors who are expected to sign an accord on the admittance of Belarusian students who could face expulsion from universities for their participation in opposition protest in Minsk earlier this month. The Polish government has pledged to accept up to 300 such students from Belarus and pay for their tuition and accommodation. Similar assistance has also been offered by the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The Czech government on March 29 earmarked 20 million crowns ($850,000) to support Belarusian dissident groups, including oppressed Belarusian students. Meanwhile, the Belarusian Education Ministry on March 29 denied rumors that it has already ruled on the expulsion of students serving jail terms for their participation in antigovernment rallies following the March 19 vote. JM

...WHILE ANOTHER REMAINS IN CUSTODY
Opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin on March 29 met with his lawyer, Ihar Rynkevich, in a pretrial detention center in Zhodzina, where he was placed following his arrest on March 25, Belapan reported. Rynkevich told the agency that Kazulin has not yet been charged. Prosecutor-General Pyotr Miklashevich announced the same day that Kazulin will be formally charged with the organization of group actions that disturbed the peace and active participation in them under Part 1 of Criminal Code Article 342, and with hooliganism under Part 2 of Article 339. The charges carry a maximum sentence of six years in prison. Meanwhile, PAP reported that former Polish Ambassador to Minsk Mariusz Maszkiewicz, who was sentenced to 15 days in jail by a Minsk court on March 27 for taking part in an unsanctioned rally, was transferred to a hospital on March 29. Moreover, Belapan reported on March 29 that human rights activists have failed so far to establish the whereabouts of Syarhey Atroshchanka, an opposition protester who was reportedly beaten in the March 25 police crackdown and taken away by ambulance. Witnesses said Atroshchanka received a serious head injury. He was reportedly taken to No. 4 Hospital in Minsk, but the hospital's registration office denied he was there. JM

TYMOSHENKO'S BLOC COMES SECOND, BUT WINS IN MOST UKRAINIAN REGIONS
With 99.65 percent of the ballots counted, Ukraine's Central Election Commission reported on March 30 that the Party of Regions obtained 32.1 percent of the vote, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc 22.26 percent, Our Ukraine 13.97 percent, the Socialist Party 5.68 percent, and the Communist Party 3.66 percent in the March 26 elections, Ukrainian news agencies reported. The Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc beat its rivals in 14 administrative regions in western and central Ukraine: Kyiv (both the city and the oblast), Volyn, Cherkasy, Khmelnytskyy, Ternopil, Chernihiv, Vinnytsya, Sumy, Rivne, Chernivtsi, Kirovohrad, Poltava, and Zhytomyr. The Party of Regions came in first in 10 regions, while the pro-presidential Our Ukraine won in three (Ivano-Frankivsk, Lviv, and Transcarpathia). Of the 40 other parties and blocs participating in the elections, the Natalya Vitrenko Bloc with 2.91 percent of the vote came closest to overcoming the 3 percent voting threshold. JM

UKRAINIAN GOVERNMENT RAISES GAS, ELECTRICITY TARIFFS
The government on March 30 decided to increase the price of gas for the general population and state-supported organizations by 25 percent as of May 1, UNIAN reported. In May, individual consumers will have to pay 220 hryvnyas ($43), while budged-subsidized organizations 360 hryvnyas ($71) per 1,000 cubic meters of gas. The government also increased the price of electricity for individual consumers by 25 percent as of May. JM

KOSOVAR SERB MAYOR THREATENS PARTITION
Serbs in northern Kosova threatened on March 29 to partition the province if the ethnic Albanian majority secures independence, Reuters reported the same day. "Serbs are not in favor of partition but it will come to that if the international community accepts the Albanian ultimatum and Kosovo becomes independent," Slavisa Ristic, the Serbian mayor of Zubin Potok, said after meeting UN deputy envoy Albert Rohan in the northern town of Zvecan. "No one can force us to accept institutions in Pristina that are unfriendly towards the Serbian people," he added. The Western powers setting international policy on Kosova have ruled out partition as an option for the province. BW

SON OF FORMER SERBIAN PRESIDENT ASSAILS PARLIAMENT FOR HONORING MILOSEVIC
Veljko Stambolic, the son of the late Serbian President Ivan Stambolic, sharply criticized the Serbian parliament on March 29 for holding a two-minute silent vigil for Slobodan Milosevic, Beta and B92 reported the same day. The vigil was held on March 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2006). "A criminal of such proportions as Slobodan Milosevic gets two minutes of silence, but his victims cannot even get one minute. This is a great embarrassment," he said. Ivan Stambolic was assassinated in August 2000. On July 18, 2005, Belgrade's Special Court convicted eight former members of the Serbian secret police of killing Stambolic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 18, 2005). The eight were loyal to Milosevic, who is widely believed to be behind the assassination. BW

ICTY PROSECUTOR TURNS UP HEAT ON SERBIA...
Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), said on March 28 that she wants to start a trial for war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic by the summer, B92 and FoNet reported the same day. "I hope to begin the court process against Mladic this July, along with the other nine Srebrenica genocide indictees," Del Ponte said on the eve of her trip to Belgrade. "It is time for Serbia to end the freedom of the people accused of genocide. But most importantly, Mladic must be in court by July. I hope that this will happen," she added. In Belgrade on March 29, Del Ponte told Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica that what is important above all for the tribunal is for the "case of Ratko Mladic to be resolved," dpa reported the same day. BW

...AS SERBIAN OFFICIAL PLEADS FOR PATIENCE
Rasim Ljajic, the president of Serbia and Montenegro's National Hague Tribunal Cooperation Council, appealed to Del Ponte on March 29 to have understanding for the difficult political situation in the country, dpa reported the same day. Ljajic said halting Belgrade's talks with the European Union on a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), as Brussels has threatened to do, will have "far-reaching negative consequences for political stability and continuing democratic reforms" in Serbia. The next round of SAA talks between Belgrade and Brussels is scheduled for April 5, but it may be cancelled if Mladic is not extradited. Del Ponte is to report to the EU on Serbia's cooperation with the ICTY on March 31. BW

U.S. DEPUTY COMMANDER IN EUROPE MEETS WITH SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO DEFENSE MINISTER
U.S. Air Force General Charles Wald, the deputy commander of the U.S. European Command, met with Serbia and Montenegro's Defense Minister Zoran Stankovic on March 28, stratfor.com reported the same day. Wald is the first U.S. four-star general to visit Serbia in the past six years. The meeting was an attempt to boost military cooperation between Washington and Belgrade. Among other topics, Wald and Stankovic discussed the progress of four bilateral military agreements. The agreements seek to prevent the spread of weapons of mass destruction and to deepen defense and military cooperation. BW

SERBIAN LAWMAKER ACCUSES RULING COALITION OF BRIBERY
Branislav Stevanovic, an independent member of Serbia's parliament, said he was offered a bribe to secure a quorum in the legislature, B92 and Beta reported on March 29. Stevanovic, who was elected to parliament as a member of the Radical Party before defecting and becoming an independent in 2005, said that he was offered the bribe on March 28, when the ruling coalition unsuccessfully tried to secure a quorum. He would not reveal who offered the bribe or where the attempt took place, adding that he will provide the information only to law-enforcement authorities if asked. Stevanovic said members of the ruling coalition also unsuccessfully tried to bribe him in December 2005 to secure his vote in favor of the 2006 budget. BW

BOSNIAN MUSLIM ACQUITTED OF WAR CRIMES
Sarajevo's Cantonal Court on March 29 acquitted former Bosnian Muslim soldier Sead Kadic of war crimes due to a lack of evidence, dpa reported the same day. A member of the Bosnian army's 10th Mountain Brigade during the 1992-95 war, Kadic was charged with the murders of two Bosnian Serbs. The 10th Mountain Brigade is widely believed to have killed Bosnian Serb civilians from Sarajevo as well as Serbs serving in the Muslim-dominated Bosnian army, dpa reported. Prosecutors said they will appeal the acquittal. BW

THE GEORGIAN PRISON 'RIOT': FACT OR FABRICATION?
On March 27, Georgian officials announced that police succeeded in quashing a riot and preventing a mass jail break by 4,000 inmates of Prison No. 5 in Tbilisi. The Justice Ministry subsequently released video footage showing three criminal kingpins discussing preparations for that jail break, according to the daily "Alia" on March 28, prompting representatives of several NGOs to ask why, if those plans were known, the prison authorities did not react promptly to thwart them.

Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze told journalists on March 27 that the authorities learned of the planned jail break two days earlier but were not certain when it was to take place and did not have time to transfer the suspected organizers to another prison. Kavtaradze also told journalists that it was not clear who opened cell doors, thereby giving prisoners access to weapons.

Initial reports said several police and wardens were injured in fighting in the prison, which according to Kavtaradze lasted for two hours. On March 28, the Justice Ministry confirmed that seven prisoners were killed during the disturbances, and listed their names and the crime for which they were sentenced. Bacho Akhalaya, head of the Justice Ministry department for administering prisons, denied in comments to journalists rumors that the death toll was much higher, between 20 and 50.

Top Georgian officials, including President Mikheil Saakashvili and parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, were swift to commend the police action as having prevented the destabilization that according to Saakashvili would inevitably have followed the escape of 4,000 prisoners. But Levan Samushia, a lawyer for one of the prisoners injured during the fracas, told journalists on March 28 that the official claims of a riot by armed prisoners were untrue, Caucasus Press reported. Samushia quoted prison inmates as saying that they were unarmed and that police opened fire on them with machine guns.

The 45 NGOs grouped under the umbrella organization Civil Society for a Democratic Georgia issued a statement on March 28 questioning the official version of what happened and calling for an "independent and fair" investigation. (Earlier on March 28 the Georgian parliament rejected similar calls by the opposition for an investigation.) On March 27, Anna Dolidze of the Georgian Young Lawyers' Association raised a series of questions at a Tbilisi press conference, including why police used live ammunition instead of rubber bullets and tear gas to put down the supposed insurrection.

Elena Tevdoradze, chair of the parliamentary Human Rights Committee, who was at the prison during when the riot supposedly took place, said one of the prisoners killed, an Ossetian, was shot in the back after the riot was quashed, Caucasus Press reported on March 29. A second lawyer, Gia Tevzadze, told the daily "Alia" that his client said police used hand grenades and grenade launchers. Justice Minister Kavtaradze said on March 27 that both rubber bullets and live ammunition were used; human rights ombudsman Sozar Subar, who visited the prison on March 29, said 10 prisoners were injured by rubber bullets.

Perhaps the biggest unanswered question concerns the role of Akhalaya, who, like Tevdoradze, was in the prison at the time of the disturbance. "Alia "on March 28 quoted prisoners as saying that Akhalaya, accompanied by special police and allegedly either drunk or high on drugs, forced his way into the prison hospital and began insulting and beating prisoners. Lawyer Kakha Kvistiani said on March 27 that Akhalaya assaulted and seriously injured his client, Giorgi Avaliani, who has been refused medical treatment for those injuries.

Tevdoradze told the parliament bureau on March 27 that she was summoned to the prison by a telephone call from an inmate who claimed prisoners were being beaten in the prison hospital, but did not mention Akhalaya. She quoted that prisoner as saying, "We are afraid they will start shooting, please defend us." She said that when she arrived, Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili was there and "very agitated." Tevdoradze confirmed that Akhalaya was there, but she said he was not drunk.

Akhalaya is said to have provoked protests at a penal colony in Rustavi two months ago by similarly turning up in the small hours of the morning and ill-treating inmates, insisting they strip naked and run around outdoors in sub-zero temperatures. When they protested, Akhalaya called in special forces troops, who fired rubber bullets to restore order, ombudsman Subar later told journalists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2006).

On March 20, the newspaper "Khronika" quoted lawyer Lali Aptsiauri as saying Akhalaya personally participated in the beating of several prisoners, one of them her client, at Prison No.7. And on March 24, NGOs demonstrated outside the Justice Ministry -- not for the first time -- to demand Akhalaya's resignation. On that occasion, Giorgi Lagidze, who is president of an association to protect prisoners' rights, told journalists that two weeks earlier Akhalaya mistreated inmates of Prison No. 1, Caucasus Press reported. Even before that incident, prisoners' relatives and human rights NGOs began staging demonstrations in Tbilisi demanding Akhalaya's dismissal.

Piecing together the official version of events, Tevdoradze's comments, and those by lawyers for surviving prisoners, it seems possible, even plausible, that Akhalaya may have incited a protest at least by some prisoners, and that some of them may have resorted to violence against warders, but that the Georgian police overreacted and used firearms indiscriminately against both armed and unarmed prisoners. How the reported planned jail break fits into that hypothetical picture remains unclear, however.

AFGHAN CHRISTIAN ASKS FOR ASYLUM IN ITALY
Abdul Rahman, the Afghan convert to Christianity at the center of an international controversy about religious freedom in Afghanistan, arrived in Italy on March 29, AFP reported. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi told reporters in Rome that Rahman "is already in Italy, he has requested political asylum, and is currently under the care of the Interior Ministry." Rahman faced the death penalty under Afghan law, but the case against him was dropped due to intense international pressure. Rahman left Afghanistan to a chorus of calls for his death from religious conservatives. "We are an Islamic country and should implement the rule of the Koran," said Shah Baran, a tribal elder in Zabul Province, in eastern Afghanistan. "He must be killed." MR

DEATH TOLL IN CLASH IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN REACHES 34
Intense fighting on March 29 resulted in the deaths of 34 people, including one Canadian and one U.S. soldier, AP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2006). The battle, which left 32 insurgents dead, erupted when members of the neo-Taliban launched a large-scale assault on a military base of the U.S.-led coalition. "Over the last five or six weeks there have been various proven attacks, mainly at night, by the Taliban on that base, but I think it is fair to say this is the largest we have seen thus far," British spokesman Colonel Chris Vernon told reporters in Kandahar. The clash marked another rise in violence in southern Afghanistan, where neo-Taliban forces appear to be gaining in strength. Coalition forces pursued the insurgents when they retreated, overrunning two local compounds that served as neo-Taliban bases, in which they found a cache of bombs and ammunition. "The capturing of these two compounds with boots on the ground produced significant intelligence and allows us to continue to put pressure on the enemy," U.S. Brigadier General Anthony Tata said. MR

KABUL PROSTITUTES DEPORTED
Afghan authorities on March 29 deported 38 alleged foreign prostitutes from brothels in Kabul, the Pajhwak Afghan News agency reported. Abdul Jabar Sabit, a legal adviser with the Afghan Interior Ministry, said the prostitutes were flown to their native countries, which Sabit refused to name. "The whores were arrested from the restaurants where they were doing prostitution and where wine was also sold," he said. The arrests and deportations were part of the Interior Ministry's ongoing crackdown on prostitution and on illegal restaurants and guest houses, which Sabit said serve as brothels. On February 22, Afghan authorities deported some 46 alleged prostitutes arrested in a similar sweep, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. MR

MILITANTS KILL TWO AFGHAN POLICEMEN
Suspected neo-Taliban fighters on March 28 killed two Afghan police officers at a checkpoint in the Mahalah Jat district of the southern city of Kandahar, Xinhua news agency reported. Afghan army General Rahmatullah Raufi said two other police officers were injured. Raufi said the attackers were injured in the fighting but managed to escape. MR

UN SECURITY COUNCIL GIVES IRAN 30 DAYS TO END NUCLEAR ACTIVITIES
The highest body in the United Nations late on March 29 unanimously approved a statement calling on Iran to fully suspend all uranium-enrichment activities. The statement requests that the UN's nuclear watchdog agency, the International Atomic Energy Agency, report back in 30 days on Iran's compliance with demands to stop enriching uranium, a process that can lead to the development of a nuclear weapon. The statement offers no indication of what the Security Council might do if Iran fails to halt such work. John Bolton, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, told reporters the council's statement sends a clear message to Iran that "we want a response from the government of Iran. And the response we want is full compliance with the obligations it voluntarily undertook under the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty." Iran's UN ambassador, Javad Zarif, who was denied a chance to address the Security Council, told reporters that Iran is not seeking nuclear weapons but will not abandon its right to nuclear energy and will "not accept pressure or intimidation." VS

IRANIAN PRESIDENT MEETS WITH TURKISH ENVOY, REJECTS U.A.E. CLAIMS TO ISLANDS
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told Hasanu Gurkan, the new Turkish ambassador in Tehran, on March 28 that Iran and Turkey must rely on "the Islamic world's immense, latent power" to work together and play a more active international role, and criticized the "imposition of incorrect conditions" on Turkey for entry into the EU, ISNA reported on March 29. These conditions are a "denigration of [Turkish] culture and customs," and "Turkey must maintain its power and dignity," he said. Ahmadinejad welcomed Turkey's "new approach" in playing a "greater role" in Islamic world affairs, and said Iran will place its "advances" at the service of neighbors, including Turkey. The same day in Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi rejected claims by the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) to three islands in the Persian Gulf held by Iran, ISNA reported on March 29. At a summit in Khartoum on March 29, foreign ministers of the Arab League affirmed the sovereignty of the U.A.E. over the islands of Greater and Lesser Tunbs and Abu Musa. Assefi said the islands are an "inseparable" part of Iran, and dismissed the resolution as meddling in Iran's internal affairs. He added that the "irresponsible interference of other parties" in Iran's ongoing talks with the U.A.E. on the matter "will not help this process," ISNA reported. VS

IRAN TO HOLD GULF NAVAL MANEUVERS
Iran is to hold large-scale naval maneuvers in the Persian Gulf and the Oman Sea from March 31, IRNA quoted navy chief Morteza Saffari-Natanzi as saying in Tehran on March 29. Saffari said naval forces of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) will carry out the maneuvers together with the regular navy and air force, unspecified "air and missile forces," the IRGC-affiliated Basij militia, and the police. The exercises will involve more than 17,000 personnel, and about 1,500 vessels. The war games, to be carried out along the coast from "the northern Persian Gulf to Chabahar," an Iranian port close to Pakistan, and as far as 40 kilometers from the coast, are designed to raise defensive capacities, test weaponry produced in Iran, enhance the experience of military personnel, and show Iran's defensive capacity, but also to "send a message of peace and friendship" to neighboring states, Saffari said. They are to last until April 6, he added. VS

PENNILESS IRANIAN REPORTEDLY KILLS HIS FAMILY, HANGS HIMSELF
A man reportedly killed his six children and wife, before killing himself, because he could no longer pay the rent for his flat in Tabriz, northwestern Iran, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on March 29, citing neighbors and local journalist Payman Pakmehr. The rent was a little over $50 a month, Pakemehr told Radio Farda. Neighbors told Pakmehr the man left a note saying he could no longer afford living expenses and rent, and that the family had been evicted before for not paying rent. It is not clear when the killings happened. Neighbors called in the police when alerted by the stench of decomposition, Pakmehr said. Police are investigating, Radio Farda reported. VS

IRAQI COMMANDER, HOSTAGE SAY BAGHDAD COMPLEX NOT A MOSQUE
An Iraqi special-forces commander and a man held hostage inside a building complex raided by U.S.-backed Iraqi forces on March 26 told "Time" magazine that the complex was not a mosque, as some Shi'ite groups have claimed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006). "We didn't find a mosque," the unidentified special-forces commander said. "We only killed men who were armed and firing at us." He said his forces didn't find prayer mats or books or any other evidence of a house of worship; rather, they found instruments of torture including drills and electrical wires. The commander said bomb-making materials and weapons were seized in the raid. The hostage, who was not identified by name, supported the commander's account. The hostage said men claiming to be working for the Interior Ministry kidnapped him at a Baghdad hospital. The men put him in a car, beat him, and took him to the complex, where he was told his family would have until morning to pay a $20,000 ransom for his release. "They said they would take drugs and begin torturing me, that they'd go crazy," he said. The raid on the hideout began 12 hours into his captivity. KR

IRAQI INTERIOR MINISTER CLAIMS AL-QAEDA 'FINISHED,' BA'ATHISTS NEXT
Interior Minister Bayan Jabr told Reuters in a March 28 interview that Al-Qaeda in Iraq has been virtually defeated. Jabr said Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi is "finished." "We heard that al-Zarqawi this week quit the leadership of Al-Qaeda," he added. "What is left is the work of Saddamists." Jabr produced no evidence to back up his claim. Jabr said he has fired some 4,000 Interior Ministry personnel; 3,000 were fired for "cooperating with terrorists," while 800 were fired for criminal activity. "We still have to make more efforts to clean up the ministry. Sometimes I hesitate to make difficult decisions due to ethnic and sectarian calculations," said Jabr, who claimed he does not want to serve another term as minister. KR

FOREIGN MINISTER CALLS ON ARAB STATES TO SUPPORT IRAQ
During a March 29 address to the annual Arab League summit in Khartoum, Hoshyar al-Zebari called on member states to put action behind their words of support for Iraq, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Saying Iraq has always backed the struggles of the Arab people, al-Zebari said: "It is our right [after being] afflicted by the destructive results of decades of despotism, dictatorship, and wars, to expect [Arab] support for our political process and to offer every possible help to us to root out the terrorists and dry up the sources of their activity. It is our right also to ask them to help us reduce the heavy burdens on our people by liquidating the debts of the defunct regime." Al-Zebari also called on Arab states to upgrade their diplomatic representations in Iraq. League members vowed to do so in the summit's final resolution, but did not say when. Arab leaders have made such commitments in the past, but have so far failed to follow through. KR

U.S. JOURNALIST HELD IN IRAQ RELEASED FROM CAPTIVITY
U.S. journalist Jill Carroll has been released from captivity, international media reported on March 30. Iraqi Islamic Party head Tariq al-Hashimi reportedly announced Carroll's release in Baghdad, Reuters reported, citing the Italian news agency ANSA. Details on the release were not immediately available. Carroll's twin sister Katie Carroll issued a plea on Al-Arabiyah television on March 29 for her sister's release. Calling Carroll an "innocent journalist kidnapped in Iraq," Katie Carroll appealed for any information on her sister. "Two months have passed since we last heard from my sister.... We do not have any information about her or the way she is treated. I would like to seize this opportunity to express our appreciation to the Iraqi people for supporting us in these critical times. Jill had good relations with the Iraqis during the three years she spent in Iraq," she said. Jill Carroll was kidnapped in Baghdad on January 7 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10, 2006). KR

REPORT SAYS TURKEY WOOING IRAQI SUNNIS FOR SUPPORT OVER KIRKUK
The Istanbul-based daily "Zaman" reported on March 29 that Turkish officials met with Sunni Arab leaders in Istanbul two weeks ago to seek their support over the disputed oil-rich city of Kirkuk. Ahmed Davudoglu, chief foreign-policy adviser to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Turkish representative to Iraq Oguz Celikkol met Iraqi politicians Tariq al-Hashimi, Muhsin Abd al-Hamid, and Salih al-Mutlaq. The Turks reportedly asked the Sunnis to help secure an extension of the deadline for determining the status of Kirkuk. Turkey has vowed to protect the interests of Iraqi Turkomans in Kirkuk and resist attempts by Iraqi Kurds to incorporate Kirkuk into the Kurdistan region. KR

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