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Newsline - May 19, 2006


RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER ASSAILS EU
In a closed-door meeting on May 18 with European lawmakers, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the European Union of an "imperial way of thinking" and of harboring an unfair bias against Russia, dpa reported. According to unidentified European Parliament officials who attended the meeting, Lavrov said the EU stance on Russia is "often unfounded, partial, and based on unchecked information." He added that "Russia should be seen as a partner, not as an object of EU foreign policy." Lavrov also defended Russia's human rights record, which is coming under increasing fire in the West, saying that Russia has the right to set its own rights standards and should not be forced to comply with requirements set by others. BW

ANOTHER RUSSIAN OFFICIAL CLAIMS THAT KOSOVA IS A PRECEDENT FOR OTHER REGIONAL CONFLICTS
Echoing comments made by Russian President Vladimir Putin in late January, Deputy Foreign Minister Vladimir Titov said on May 19 that the settlement of Kosova's final status should serve as a precedent for other conflicts on CIS territory, Interfax reported. "We are resolutely opposed to any policy of double standards on matters concerning sovereignty or territorial integrity, and are therefore set on seeking a well-balanced solution," Titov said in an interview published on May 19 in "Vremya novostei." "The resolution on Kosovo will create a precedent in international law that will later be applied to other frozen conflicts," he added. Titov's comments are a clear reference to conflicts involving pro-Moscow breakaway regions in various former Soviet republics, including Transdniester in Moldova and South Ossetia and Abkhazia in Georgia. "We disagree with the concept that the case of Kosovo is unique, because such an approach runs counter to the norms of international law," Titov said. BW

SENIOR RUSSIAN ORTHODOX CLERIC MEETS WITH POPE
A senior Russian Orthodox cleric met with Pope Benedict XVI in the Vatican on May 18, Russian and international news agencies reported. The rare meeting is widely being interpreted as a sign that the frigid relations between the Holy See and the Russian Orthodox Church could be thawing. In the meeting, Metropolitan Kiril, the head of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, delivered a message to the pontiff, Reuters reported, citing unidentified sources. It is unclear what the message said. The pope also reportedly spoke to Kiril about the possibility of a Vatican delegation attending an interfaith summit scheduled to be held in Moscow in July. BW

RUSSIAN DUMA MEMBER SAYS SHE REGRETS DA VINCI CODE CAN'T BE BANNED
Irina Savelyeva, the first deputy chairwoman of the State Duma's Culture Committee, said on May 18 that she regrets that lawmakers cannot ban the film "The Da Vinci Code" from Russian cinemas, Interfax reported the same day. "Such films deprave our young people," Savelyeva said. "I won't watch and I don't want to watch it. I am a strong opponent of such films because they are mostly consumed by the weak of mind." The controversial film, based on the best-selling novel, premiered in Russia on May 18. Orthodox Christian groups have announced plans to hold protests against the film (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 18, 2006). BW

RUSSIAN LAWMAKER CALLS FOR CLEARER LEGISLATION ON MIGRANTS
Andrei Kokoshin, chairman of the State Duma's Committee for the CIS and the Russian Diaspora, said on May 18 that rules regarding migrant workers in Russia need to be clarified, ITAR-TASS reported. Kokoshin said policy on migrant workers should balance Russia's economic needs against national security concerns. "The priority of Russia's migration policy is to find this balance," Kokoshin said. "Each official agency issues its own instructions. Each agency safeguards its own interests. And it is ordinary people who have to suffer from the effects of this confusion," he said, adding that existing legislation contains too many loopholes that need to be closed. According to Federal Migration Service head Konstantin Romodanovsky, approximately 20 million migrant workers enter Russia each year. BW

INTERPOL LIFTS RESTRICTIONS ON ARREST OF EXILED RUSSIAN TYCOON
Interpol has removed restrictions against the arrest of several Russian businessmen residing abroad, including the formerly influential oligarch Boris Berezovsky, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported on May 19. The decision affects Berezovsky, his business partner Yuly Dubov, Yukos co-owner Leonid Nevzlin, Yukos legal service chief Mikhail Gololobov, and former Menatep bank official Natalia Chernyshyova. "It means that this group of Russian citizens, placed on the international wanted list by the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office, must be arrested immediately as suspects in serious crimes and must be extradited to Russia under a court ruling," Interpol Russian bureau chief Timur Lakhonin told Interfax. ITAR-TASS, however, quoted an unidentified Interpol official as saying that lawyers of the accused have already filed protests with Interpol claiming that their clients are persecuted for political reasons. "This information was also entered into the database, which allowed the countries in the territories of which the wanted persons are hiding to act at discretion," the official said. BW

CHECHEN PRIME MINISTER REJECTS REPORT OF SECRET PRISON
Meeting on May 18 with human rights groups, Ramzan Kadyrov emphatically denied that he presides over a secret prison where detained suspects are held, Interfax reported. The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights published on May 12 a report titled "Unofficial Places of Detention in the Chechen Republic" that listed 12 such prisons, including one located in the immediate vicinity of Kadyrov's family home in the village of Tsentoroi (see "Chechnya: Secret Prison Victim Recalls His Ordeal," rferl.org, May 17, 2006). Kadyrov on May 12 implicitly challenged the authors of that report to search Chechen territory and demonstrate the location of the alleged detention centers. On May 3, kavkazweb.net reposted a report from kavkaz.memo.ru that the Chechen parliament has formally asked the Russian Interior Ministry to close its Operational-Search Bureau-2 in Grozny, where according to the Helsinki report detainees are subjected to torture, on the grounds that it operates illegally. LF

CHECHEN ADMINISTRATION HEAD CALLS FOR DEVELOPING CONSTRUCTION-MATERIALS INDUSTRY
Alu Alkhanov told a press conference in Grozny on May 18 that 7.5 billion rubles ($277.3 million) are needed annually to fund reconstruction in Chechnya, Interfax reported. He deplored the fact that not a single major reconstruction project has yet been completed, and he pointed out that the cost of reconstruction could be reduced if Chechnya were able to produce its own bricks, concrete, and other building materials rather than import them from other Russian regions. Alkhanov also noted the acute shortage of schools and housing, Interfax reported. LF

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION ADVOCATES BOYCOTT OF ELECTION OF NEW PARLIAMENT SPEAKER
Representatives of the opposition Artarutiun (Justice) and National Accord Party parliament factions announced on May 18 that they will not participate in the election of a new speaker to replace Orinats Yerkir party Chairman Artur Baghdasarian, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. They argued that the parliament elected in 2003 is illegitimate and they have no wish to participate in "inter-factional games." Baghdasarian announced his resignation last week following a major policy disagreement with President Robert Kocharian. Also on May 18, Artarutiun faction secretary Viktor Dallakian denied reports that Baghdasarian has asked opposition parliamentarians to give up their mandates, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

ARMENIAN GOVERNMENT CANCELS CONSTRUCTION CONTRACT WITH RUSSIA
The Armenian government announced on May 18 that it has terminated a contract with the Russian company Ingeocom to construct a new headquarters building for the Armenian Defense Ministry, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The contract was signed in January 2005 and building work got under way in December. No reason was cited for terminating the contract, nor is it clear who will complete the project. LF

AZERBAIJANI YOUTH ORGANIZATIONS FORM COALITION
The youth organizations of the opposition Popular Front, Liberal, and Democratic parties, together with the youth organizations Yokh! (No!) and Yeni Fikir (New Idea), announced on May 18 in Baku their plans to align under the name Azerbaijan Youth Platform, zerkalo.az and echo-az.com reported on May 19. Yokh! and Yeni Fikir announced the imminent formation of that coalition two weeks ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). LF

AZERBAIJANI NEWSPAPER EDITOR ARRESTED FOR SOLICITING BRIBE
Faiq Balabeyli, who is chief editor of the newspaper "Yeni Heber," has been arrested as he allegedly took a bribe from the chief doctor of a Baku maternity hospital, day.az reported on May 19, citing the Prosecutor-General's Office. Organizations representing Azerbaijani journalists have repeatedly criticized those of their colleagues who solicit paybacks from officials in exchange for not making public instances of corruption and other abuses (see "RFE/RL Media Matters," June 8, 2005). LF

GEORGIAN MURDER VICTIM'S RELATIVES WANT SUSPECTS QUESTIONED
Relatives of banker Sandro Girgvliani have formally asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to interrogate senior Interior Ministry officials suspected of ordering his death, Georgian media reported on May 18. They also requested permission to be present at the questioning. Girgvliani was found dead in late January on the outskirts of Tbilisi the morning after a public argument with prominent Interior Ministry officials. Four lower-level ministry staffers were subsequently arrested in connection with his death (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7 and 14, 2006). LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENTARY OPPOSITION CHALLENGES REPORT ON 2005 BUDGET
Members of the opposition Democratic Front faction took issue on May 18 with the report on budget fulfillment for 2005 presented to the parliament's Budget and Finance Committee, rustavi2.com and Interfax reported. One parliamentarian challenged Finance Minister Aleksi Aleksishvili's claim that 100,000 new jobs were created last year, noting that according to the government's Statistics Department, the number of unemployed increased by that figure. Aleksishvili dismissed the opposition criticism, claiming that opposition parliamentarians were "too lazy" to read his report carefully. LF

IMF VOICES OPTIMISM ON CENTRAL ASIAN ECONOMIC GROWTH
David Owen, senior adviser in the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) Middle East and Central Asia department, told a briefing in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, on May 18 that the IMF sees strong macroeconomic growth prospects in Central Asia, the IMF reported in a press release on its website (http://www.imf.org). Owen noted that economic growth in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan averaged over 8 percent in 2005, with 2006 growth set to remain in the 7-8 percent range in Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Owen also said that while inflation has increased in the region, it remains in single digits everywhere but Uzbekistan. "Policies should focus on containing inflationary pressure while taking full advantage of the favorable external environment -- especially in Russia and China -- to secure lasting improvement in growth performance," Owen concluded. DK

KAZAKH PRESIDENT MEETS WITH TURKISH COUNTERPART
President Nursultan Nazarbaev held a working breakfast on May 18 with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Antalya, Turkey, where Nazarbaev is currently on holiday, Kazinform and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Nazarbaev's press service said the two leaders' discussion focused on "the importance of Kazakhstan's and Turkey's participation in such large-scale projects as the shipment of oil through the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline and the development of the Transport Corridor Europe Caucasus Asia [TRACECA]." DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT SAYS DECISION PENDING ON DEBT-REDUCTION PROGRAM
President Kurmanbek Bakiev met with Thomas Moser, executive director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for Switzerland, and David Owen, senior adviser in the IMF's Middle East and Central Asia Department, in Bishkek on May 18, akipress.org reported. Bakiev told Moser and Owen that Kyrgyzstan will decide whether or not to joint the IMF's Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt-reduction initiative only after weighing all of the program's conditions. At a meeting with Moser the same day, Prime Minister Feliks Kulov said that while Kyrgyzstan recognizes the need to reduce its national debt, the HIPC program has evoked a negative reaction in society, news agency 24.kg reported. Kulov pointed to the lengthy process of debt write-offs under HIPC as one of the program's negatives. DK

KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT APPROVES NEW BANK, ACCOUNTING CHAMBER HEADS
Kyrgyzstan's parliament voted on May 18 to approve Marat Alapaev as chairman of the National Bank and Nadyrbek Turganbaev as chairman of the Accounting Chamber, Kabar reported. Alapaev's candidacy garnered 52 votes "for" and nine against, while Turgunbaev's drew 58 votes "for" and only four "against." DK

HIGH COTTON PRICE HURTS TAJIK PRODUCERS
Abdukarim Hikmatov, Tajikistan's deputy minister of industry, told Asia Plus-Blitz on May 18 that high domestic cotton prices are hurting Tajik producers. "If one month ago a ton of cotton was sold for $948 to both domestic and foreign producers, the price has now gone up $109 for domestic producers," Hikmatov said. Hikmatov said that the price increase, which was intended to ease the debt burden on cotton growers, has put domestic textile producers at a disadvantage. Hikmatov also noted that only 12.4 percent of the cotton Tajikistan produces is processed into manufactured goods in Tajikistan, while the remainder is exported for manufacturing outside the country. He said that the pricing problem, which resulted from a decision by the Agriculture Ministry and the Antimonopoly Agency, must be resolved in a fashion that does not impact domestic producers negatively. DK

UZBEKISTAN AGREES TO LONG-TERM GAS CONTRACT WITH RUSSIA
Erkin Vagapov, deputy chairman of state-owned Uzbek oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz, announced on May 18 that Uzbekistan has agreed in principle to sell gas to Russia on the basis of a long-term contract with a price based on a formula that reflects tendencies on the international market, Reuters reported. Vagapov did not specify what the precise terms of the long-term contract will be, but he said that it will go into effect in 2007. Russia's Gazprom bought 8.15 billion cubic meters of gas from Uzbekistan in 2005 at $44 per 1,000 cubic meters and is set to buy 9 billion cubic meters in 2006 at $60 per 1,000 cubic meters. Gazprom, which plans to invest more than $1 billion in gas projects in Uzbekistan, had made it clear that the investments are contingent on Uzbekistan's agreement to a long-term contract instead of the year-by-year contracts that the two countries have concluded in recent years. DK

OPPOSITION YOUTH LEADERS JAILED IN BELARUS
Two leaders of the opposition youth group Malady Front, Zmitser Dashkevich and Artur Finkevich, were sentenced to 15 days in jail by a district court in Minsk on May 18, Belapan news agency reported. The two men were arrested on May 17 when they arrived at the court building where opposition activist Yury Radzivil was being tried. The police claim that the two yelled obscenities and arrested them on charges of "petty hooliganism." On May 18, Judge Nadzeva Ravutskaya fined Katsyaryna Shatsikova 70,000 rubles ($33) for "hooliganism." Shatsikova was arrested along with Dashkevich and Finkevich in front of the court. RK

UKRAINE OPPOSES ISOLATING BELARUS
Ukraine supports democratic transformations in "any country of the world," Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko's spokeswoman, Iryna Herashchenko, told reporters on May 18, but flatly opposes the international isolation of Belarus, Belapan reported on May 18. According to Herashchenko, Belarus and Ukraine maintain close economic and interpersonal contacts. "This sphere is very important for the president, and he will do his utmost to ensure that the Belarusian people feel that Ukraine is its partner and a friendly country," she said. Herashchenko noted that the Ukrainian president is aware of an appeal that a group of Belarusian activists sent him a few days before in which they spoke out against what they believe are Russia's plans to absorb Belarus. RK

AT LEAST 50,000 ATTEND PRO-INDEPENDENCE RALLY IN MONTENEGRO
At crowd of at least 50,000 gathered in central Podgorica late on May 18 in support of Montenegrin independence, AFP reported the same day. "Montenegro is passing a historic test of its maturity" in the May 21 referendum, Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic, a vocal advocate of independence, told the crowd. "The time has come for Montenegro to get its freedom," he said. Djukanovic, who was accompanied by President Filip Vujanovic, added that an independent Montenegro will respect the rights of all its citizens. "Montenegro will be the home for all its citizens, both those for and against independence," he said. BW

MONTENEGRIN PREMIER SAYS HE IS CONFIDENT OF 'YES' VOTE...
Prime Minister Djukanovic said on May 18 that the republic's economy has suffered due to Serbia's failure to build closer ties with the European Union and deliver war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic to the Hague, AP reported the same day. "Our independence will result in a quicker road to the European Union," he said. "By becoming independent, we'll be the ones to decide on our fate," he added. "We will no longer be dependent on Serbia's government and its cooperation with...The Hague." Djukanovic also said he is convinced that pro-independence forces will win the May 21 referendum. "I'm convinced that the support for an independent Montenegro is growing," he said. "I'm absolutely certain that we will exceed a 55 percent majority." Djukanovic said that his bloc's opinion polls show that the support for Montenegro's independence "is nearing 60 percent." BW

...WHILE OPPOSITION LEADER SAYS HIS SIDE HAS ENOUGH 'NO' VOTES
Predrag Bulatovic, the leader of the pro-Serbia unionists in Montenegro, said on May 18 that his bloc's polls show a clear victory for unionist forces, AP reported the same day. "We are certain of 200,000 votes, which will be enough to pave the way for our triumph," he said. "We will win and stay in the union with Serbia. We'll have 10,000 votes more that the separatists." There are approximately 485,000 registered voters in Montenegro. To pass, 50 percent of eligible voters must turn out, and 55 percent of those casting ballots must support independence. BW

UN OFFICIAL SAYS ORTHODOX CHURCHES IN KOSOVA NEED PROTECTION
A UN official demanded on May 18 that ethnic Albanian leaders in Kosova take steps to ensure that Serbian Orthodox churches will be protected, AP reported the same day. Albert Rohan, the deputy UN envoy to Kosova's final-status talks, said Orthodox churches need special physical protection, possibly including special security zones. "We have to ask ourselves what is it that the Serbian Orthodox Church needs...in order to allow it to survive in difficult circumstances," Rohan said. "We are convinced that the church is not a danger to anybody and therefore, whatever they need, they should be given." Serbian and ethnic Albanian representatives are scheduled to meet in Vienna on May 23 for the fifth round of talks on Kosova's future. The protection and restoration of religious sites is slated to be the main topic for the talks. BW

SERBIAN SUPREME COURT REJECTS APPEALS IN 1992 KILLINGS OF BOSNIAN MUSLIMS
Serbia's Supreme Court on May 18 rejected the appeals of four former paramilitaries convicted of the 1992 killing of 16 Muslims, AFP and Beta reported. The four Serbian men were convicted in July 2005 and sentenced in September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 15, 2005). Milan Lukic, Oliver Krsmanovic, and Dragutin Dragicevic received 20-year sentences, while Djordje Sevic received a 15-year sentence. They were found guilty of kidnapping and murdering 16 Muslims from a bus that was traveling near the Serbian city of Sjeverin, near the Bosnian border on October 22, 1992. BW

MOLDOVAN PARLIAMENT SPEAKER CALLS FOR BETTER RELATIONS WITH RUSSIA
Marian Lupu predicted on May 18 that Russia will lift its ban on Moldovan wines and called for better relations with Moscow, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "Sooner or later our dialogue with Russia will become calm and constructive," Lupu said. He added that a solution to the Transdniester conflict is impossible without Russia's active participation. "Russia is playing an extremely important role in the talks on the [Transdniester] settlement and it is impossible to settle the conflict without it," Lupu said in a televised interview. "Talks with the [Transdniester] region will not yield a positive result if we do not preserve good relations with Russia. Therefore, we have to build with Russia the same relations as we have with the European Union and the U.S." BW

EU TO FREEZE BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT'S ASSETS
The European Union agreed on May 18 to freeze the assets of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and 35 other officials in response to the presidential election in Belarus in March. While Lukashenka is widely believed to have made a fortune in his presidential post in Belarus, hard evidence of this has not yet been produced.

In a statement on May 18, the EU said it was taking the step to freeze the officials' assets to protest the flawed election in March and the continuing crackdown against opposition groups. The move expands measures imposed in April, which placed a visa ban on Lukashenka and 30 other senior officials.

The EU said in the statement that "no funds or economic resources shall be made available, directly or indirectly, to or for the benefit of the persons involved."

So far, however, attempts on the part of Western investigators to track down any clandestine funds have not brought any conclusive results. In October 2004, the U.S. Congress passed the Belarus Democracy Act, which in particular obliged the U.S. president to present annual reports on the sale and delivery of weapons and weapons-related technologies from Belarus to any countries supporting terrorism, and on the personal assets and wealth of Lukashenka and other senior Belarusian officials.

U.S. President George W. Bush presented such a report a few days before the March 19 presidential vote in Belarus. In its unclassified part, the U.S. report asserts that Lukashenka is "likely [to be] among the most corrupt leaders in the world." But at the same time the report acknowledges that it is difficult to determine the precise extent of this corruption because of "the regime's lack of transparency and the blurring of personal and state property."

Washington also claims that Lukashenka controls a presidential reserve fund with assets "well over $100 million," which are not recorded in the state budget and are beyond public scrutiny. However, the evidence to support such claims is sketchy and comes mainly from public pronouncements of former Belarusian officials who have fallen out of favor with Lukashenka.

One such official is former Belarusian National Bank Chairman Tamara Vinnikava, who was arrested in 1997 on charges of abuse of power and embezzlement and later placed under house arrest. She managed to escape to the United Kingdom in 1999 under undisclosed circumstances and afterward gave a number of media interviews.

Vinnikava claimed that Lukashenka had ordered her arrest because she opposed "dirty deals" proposed by the government. She confirmed earlier Russian press reports charging that Lukashenka issued confidential decrees exempting some organizations -- including the state-run Torgexpo company in 1995 -- of paying any taxes or customs duties for the import of consumer goods. Those untaxed goods, primarily vodka and cigarettes, were subsequently reexported to Russia, which had no customs controls on its border with Belarus at that time, and part of the proceeds from their sale reportedly landed in Lukashenka's secret fund. Some estimates put Torgexpo's income at billions of dollars.

Vinnikava also said Lukashenka was cautious not to sign any documents relating to such murky transactions or to deposit proceeds from them in foreign banks under his own name. According to her, such deposits were made on behalf of bogus companies that were created especially for this purpose. Vinnikava suggested that such deposits may have been placed in San Marino, Cuba, and the United Arab Emirates.

It is also widely believed that Lukashenka has personally benefited from sales of Belarus's large stock of Soviet-era weapons. Again, the size of such profits may only be estimated on the basis of indirect evidence. In 1996-98, Belarus sold some 50 Soviet-era aircraft and other air-force equipment for around $400 million to Peru, at a time of escalating tensions with Ecuador.

According to a book titled "The Mafia State," which was published by a Peruvian anticorruption investigator in Lima in 2001, the deal was handled by a chain of intermediary firms established in offshore jurisdictions especially for this purpose. As a result, the name Beltekheksport, Belarus's official arms dealer, was absent from the contract or any other document related to the deal.

"The Mafia State" asserts that the deal was devised to divert some $120 million from Peru's payment for the Belarusian delivery. A part of this sum, the book claims, might have landed in secret accounts controlled by the Belarusian partner in the scheme.

Before his electorate in Belarus, Lukashenka poses as an unwavering fighter against official corruption. And he takes harsh measures against anyone trying to challenge this posture.

Valery Levaneuski, a leader of small vendors in Belarus, spent two years in prison on charges of defaming Lukashenka in a 2004 May Day leaflet, which featured the phrase: "Come and say no to someone holidaying in Austria, skiing there, and living well at your expense." The leaflet hinted at Lukashenka's earlier winter holiday at a ski resort in Austria, where the Belarusian president traveled on his own plane and with his own bodyguards.

Levaneuski apparently wondered how Lukashenka had managed to pay his holiday bill from his presidential salary, which he claims to be his sole source of income. In his income declaration made public on the eve of the March 19 presidential vote in Belarus, Lukashenka stated that he earned in 2005 some 60 million rubles ($28,000).

SOME 50 NEO-TALIBAN INSURGENTS KILLED IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN...
A 10-hour battle between Afghan police and neo-Taliban units in the Musa Qala district of Helmand Province on May 17 left an estimated 50 insurgents and nine policemen dead and many injured, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on May 18. Helmand Deputy Governor Mullah Amir told AIP that the clash began when the "Taliban attacked" the district offices of Musa Qala. In addition to those killed, Amir said that "a number of others were wounded." Two policemen remain missing after the clash, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on May 18. AT

...A NUMBER DISPUTED BY NEO-TALIBAN
Qari Mohammad Yusof, speaking on behalf of the Taliban, told AIP on May 18 that only three members of the movement were killed in the Musa Qala clash. "The deputy head of Musa Qala" was killed during the fighting, he added. Qari Yusof Ahmadi -- most likely the same person as Qari Mohammad Yusof -- speaking for the Taliban told Pajhwak Afghan News on May 18 his side did not suffer any losses in the Musa Qala incident while claiming that it killed 10 police and captured 15. AT

SUICIDE ATTACK IN WESTERN AFGHANISTAN KILLS AMERICAN...
A suicide bomber rammed his vehicle into a U.S. convoy in Herat city on May 18, killing one American, Herat News Center reported. In addition to the American -- who was an employee of the U.S. State Department -- an Afghan civilian sustained injuries. Mohammad Ayyub Salangi, Herat's police chief, said that the suicide bomber was driving a car with Kabul registrations, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on May 18. AT

...WHILE ANOTHER SUICIDE BOMBER TARGETS A CONVOY IN SOUTH-CENTRAL AFGHANISTAN...
A suicide bomber drove his vehicle into an Afghan National Army convoy in Ghazni Province on May 18, Xinhua reported. The attack "fortunately caused no damage on life or property except killing" the bomber and wounding a passerby, Ghazni Governor Hajji Sher Alam told Xinhua. AT

...AS NEO-TALIBAN TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR BOTH ATTACKS
Purporting to speak for the Taliban, Qari Yusof Ahmadi told Xinhua on May 18 that two Taliban loyalists from Oruzgan and Ghazni provinces carried out the attacks against the U.S. and Afghan National Army targets in Herat and Ghazni, respectively. Ahmadi claimed that eight U.S. soldiers were killed in Herat. Suicide attacks, mostly with little damage, have been on the rise in Afghanistan in recent months. AT

AFGHAN PRESIDENT REPEATS HIS ACCUSATION OF PAKISTANI INTERFERENCE
Hamid Karzai in a speech on May 18 in Asadabad, the provincial capital of Konar Province in northeastern Afghanistan, once again accused Pakistan of supporting cross-border attacks by militants and of interfering in Afghanistan's internal affairs, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Karzai accused Islamabad of using his country as a "training field" for militants. After similar comments by Karzai, his Pakistani counterpart General Pervez Musharraf charged in March that the Afghan leader was "totally oblivious to what is happening in his own country" and unaware that there was an anti-Pakistani conspiracy brewing inside the Afghan government, comments which Karzai later described as "frank words" exchanged between friends (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," March 24 and April 26, 2006). AT

PRESIDENT DEFENDS IRAN'S NUCLEAR PROGRAM
President Mahmud Ahmadinejad addressed crowds as he toured several towns in Iran's Markazi (Central) Province on May 18, reiterating Iran's right to a nuclear program, denouncing materialism, and urging Western states to return "to the path of the prophets," ISNA reported. He said in Ashtian that Western states should not "trouble" themselves provoking a dispute over Iran's program, but "open their eyes and see realities." He said Iran has never attacked anyone and wants its rights, and "will not put up with the forcefulness" of "some of these powers." He said later in Zarandieh that those who are upset by the progress of countries "suffer from some mental illness, and must...heal themselves," ISNA reported. He said that "according to reports," more than "2 billion people" rejoiced and "celebrated" when they heard about Iran's recent nuclear-technology advances. In the town of Tafresh, he blamed confusion in international affairs on "Western leaders" who he said have forgotten God. "They only think of their material wishes. They are lost, and do not know where they are going." VS

POLITICIANS SPEAK IN FAVOR OF IRAN-U.S. TALKS
Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and current foreign-policy adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, told a seminar in Tehran on May 18 that this is a good time for Iran to "haggle" with the United States, because Iran enjoys a stronger regional position, with friendly forces in power or key positions in neighboring Iraq and Afghanistan, ISNA reported. "We have at no time until now had such powerful means for haggling [nor] the influence we have now in Iraq and Palestine," he said. "Now that we have the power to haggle, why do we not haggle?" He said Iran's official policy on Iraq is "reconstruction," and Iraq's dismemberment does not serve Iranian interests. Separately, a liberal opposition group, the National Front, has issued a statement calling on Iran's government to engage in direct talks with the United States, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on May 18. Group member and statement signatory Davud Hermidas-Bavand told Radio Farda that Iran's national interests make this dialogue necessary. The United States, he said, has effectively thwarted Iranian interests abroad, and forced it to make costly concessions to certain states. VS

IRAN PLANS NEW GULF FLIGHTS, AIRPLANE PURCHASES
The head of the international airport on the Iranian Persian Gulf island of Qeshm said there will "soon" be direct flights from the island to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.), ISNA reported on May 18. Ali Naqavi said the island is currently linked by 12 daily flights to Dubai, and four weekly flights to Ras Al-Khaimah, two other member states of the U.A.E. Separately, the head of Iran's Civil Aviation Organization, Nureddin Rezai-Niaraki, said on May 17 that Iran is to buy 70 passenger planes by the end of the Persian year to March 2008, the "Aftab-i Yazd" daily reported on May 18. He said Iran currently has 130 passenger planes, and intends to increase its fleet to 200, adding various plane models. He added that the organization has advised domestic airlines to buy small to medium-sized planes for use in Iran's smaller, provincial airports. VS

IRANIAN SECURITY FORCES ARREST BANDITS
Iran's Intelligence and Security Ministry announced on May 18 that it has arrested 18 members of two criminal gangs involved in kidnapping, extortion, and armed robbery in Iran's southern provinces, ISNA reported the same day. The ministry said the arrests were made in several stages, with the cooperation of provincial security and intelligence agencies in the Fars, Hormozgan, Yazd, and Sistan va Baluchistan provinces. The ministry said it has arrested "the last member" of one gang that engaged in extortion from rich people in the southeastern Kerman Province over the past two years, after he escaped "a few days ago from a shoot-out." It was not clear if either of the gangs were related to a recent bandit attack (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15 and 16, 2006). In Tehran on May 17, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said that "we are talking to the Pakistanis and other people" so they will help Iran stop banditry in Iran's eastern and southeastern frontier zones, ISNA reported the same day. "If there is insecurity on the borders, this will threaten all countries not just Iran. So it is necessary for [neighbors] to talk, consult, and cooperate to resolve problems," he said. VS

ARMED GROUP IN IRAQ ISSUES DEMANDS FOR RELEASE OF U.A.E. DIPLOMAT
A group identifying itself as Liwa Al-Islam (Banner of Islam) claimed responsibility on May 18 for the kidnapping of United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) Consul Naji Rashid al-Nu'aymi, Al-Jazeera television reported the same day. Al-Nu'aymi was kidnapped in Baghdad on May 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2006). The group released a videotape of the hostage, and issued two demands: first, that the U.A.E. close its Baghdad Embassy; and second, that the Dubai-based Iraqi television channel Al-Fayha be closed. Al-Fayha is a private, pro-Shi'ite satellite channel. The group set a 24-hour deadline for its demands to be met. AFP reported on May 18 that al-Nu'aymi's family has said it is willing to pay a ransom for his release. KR

IRAQ'S VICE PRESIDENT BLAMES AL-BASRAH POLITICIANS FOR DETERIORATING SECURITY...
Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi said at a May 18 press briefing in Baghdad that political infighting among members of the Al-Basrah Governorate Council has contributed to instability there, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported the same day. Speaking to reporters alongside President Jalal Talabani and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, Abd al-Mahdi said that political forces in the governorate have a responsibility to create unity among parties. "The implementation of the law and legal procedures should not be subject to personal mood or political and partisan interests," he said. "The situation in the governorate council caused some security lawlessness that led to an increase in assassinations and forced displacement, which should stop immediately." He acknowledged that "regional and foreign factors," and criminal activities, namely smuggling, are also influencing the security situation in the governorate. U.K. Defense Minister Des Browne, who is currently visiting Al-Basrah, told Reuters on May 18, "There is a high and unacceptable level of violence" in the governorate, but said his commanders assured him that Al-Basrah is "not slipping out of control." KR

...AS CO-VICE PRESIDENT SPEAKS OUT AGAINST FORCED DISPLACEMENT
Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi spoke out against the forced displacement of Iraqis in comments to reporters at the same May 18 press briefing in Baghdad, RFI reported. Al-Hashimi said that both Sunni and Shi'ite Iraqis are paying the price of displacement. "Forced displacement from mixed areas, Shi'ite areas, or from Sunni areas is unacceptable. This is a humanitarian issue. Iraqis are used to living together in an atmosphere of tolerance and harmony," he said. Al-Hashimi added that the Presidency Council is determined to implement "logical and immediate solutions" to normalize the situation in mixed areas and in the areas where forced displacement is taking place. KR

NEW ITALIAN PREMIER CALLS IRAQ WAR 'GRAVE ERROR'
Newly elected Prime Minister Romano Prodi on May 18 called the Iraq war a "grave error" in his first speech to the Italian Senate since taking office, international media reported the same day. Prodi called for an immediate withdrawal of Italian forces from Iraq, but said that the withdrawal will not happen until the Italian government consults with Iraqi authorities, "The New York Times" reported on May 19. Italian daily "La Stampa" reported on May 17 that Al-Nasiriyah Governor Aziz Kazim Alwan issued a plea to Prodi through Defense Minister Antonio Martino to keep Italian forces in Iraq. Italy currently has some 2,600 troops stationed just north of Al-Basrah in the Dhi Qar Governorate. KR

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