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Newsline - June 1, 2006

The recent arrest of Volgograd Mayor Yevgeny Ishchenko after a meeting of the local branch of the Unified Russia party, with which he has long been at odds, suggests that the Kremlin intends to abolish the direct election of mayors, just as it previously ended the direct election of governors, "The Moscow Times" reported on June 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 6 and May 31, 2006). The paper quoted Volgograd Governor Nikolai Maksyuta as saying that current legislation providing for the direct election of mayors should be changed "in order to get some subordination" in public life. The Moscow daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote that Ishchenko may be formally charged soon with abuse of office, exceeding his authority, and illegal business activities. About 300 people demonstrated in central Volgograd, a city of 1.2 million, on May 31 to demand Ishchenko's ouster. The local branch of Unified Russia has called for him to be expelled from the party. Some observers suggested that the Kremlin is consolidating its hold on regional and local governments to ensure favorable results for Unified Russia in the 2007 parliamentary and 2008 presidential elections. Many mayors represent strong local business interests that conflict with those of the Kremlin-backed governors. PM

In response to the proposed merger of the Luxembourg-based Arcelor SA steel company with Russia's Severstal to form the world's largest steel company, more than 20 percent of Arcelor's shareholders have signed a petition aimed at forcing the company to call an extraordinary general meeting aimed at blocking the deal, "The Wall Street Journal in Europe" reported on June 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 26 and 30, 2006). Arcelor says the merger will go ahead unless holders of more than 50 percent of its shares vote against it at a proposed meeting in June. The business daily noted that this is an unusually high barrier by corporate standards because normally the holders of only about one-third of shares are represented at such sessions. The signers of the petition want the deal to proceed only if a majority of shareholders endorse it. The daily wrote that "the investors' letter sets in motion at least two shareholder meetings and a race against the clock. The first meeting would be to pass a motion calling for Arcelor to change the voting procedure to approve the Severstal deal, and the second meeting would be to vote on the motion." The merger is aimed at fending off a hostile takeover bid for Arcelor by Mittal Steel. The Moscow daily "Vedomosti" wrote on June 1 that the emergence of the petition means that "Mittal has gone on the offensive" in blocking Severstal, whose head Aleksei Mordashov is close to the Kremlin. PM

The Moscow daily "Kommersant" wrote on May 29 that Gazprom continues to reject EU demands that Russia ratify the "energy charter" that it has already signed, which would end Gazprom's monopoly over Russia's pipeline system (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, and May 26 and 30, 2006). Aleksandr Medvedev, who is Gazprom's deputy CEO, said that "the charter is an anti-Russian document, which will not be ratified without serious changes," the daily noted. Medvedev did not indicate why Russia signed an anti-Russian pact in 1994. The daily also quoted Valery Yazev, who heads the State Duma's Energy, Transport, and Communications Committee, as saying that unnamed EU "officials' activities [might] provoke [gas] producers to take countermeasures, which could lead to the creation of an alliance of gas suppliers. It would become more efficient and influential than OPEC." He warned that Russia does not "intent to put up with [being assigned] the role of a negligent student because we have lost half of our economy due to the teachers from international financial organizations." Russia is the world's chief producer of natural gas and the second largest exporter of crude oil but does not belong to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). It is the member of the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized countries with the largest energy resources. PM

The international NGO for journalists' rights, Reporters Without Borders, issued a statement on May 31 criticizing the closure of a Russian website shortly after prosecutors started investigating its editor on charges of "insulting a representative of the state," reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2006). Vladimir Rakhmankov, who is editor in chief of, recently called President Putin "Russia's phallic symbol" in an article with that title. "The lack of coherence and transparency in this case is disturbing," the NGO said. It added that "we do not know the source of the accusations. Cursiv was closed by its [service provider], which did not wait for a court order and claimed that it had not paid its bills although it is hosted free of charge." Rakhmankov has a history of clashes with the authorities, primarily for his role in exposing corruption in Ivanovo, northeast of Moscow. He has linked the closure of his website to his criticism of officials for abusing their authority, as did the NGO's statement. Rakhmankov has been placed under house arrest for the duration of the investigation, which is expected to last about two months. As part of the investigation, a "linguistic expert" will be asked to assess the seriousness of the journalist's language regarding the president. PM

Former Russian Atomic Energy Minister Yevgeny Adamov, who is accused of fraud and abuse of his official position, suffered a heart attack in a Moscow jail on June 1 according to his lawyers, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 6, 2006, and "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," February 20, 2006). Adamov's lawyers added that they have sought his release from custody. No date has been set for his trial. Adamov has been in pretrial custody since his extradition on December 31 from Switzerland, where he was arrested in spring 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2005). PM

Speaking on 31 May at a meeting in Baku of defense ministers of CIS member states, Sergei Ivanov proposed that signatories to the revised Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) should abide by that amended treaty beginning in October 2006 even if they have not ratified it, ITAR-TASS reported. In January, Ivanov raised the possibility that Russia might cease to observe the so-called "flank limitations" enshrined in the amended treaty if other signatories fail to ratify it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 25, 2006). To date, only Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan have ratified the amended treaty; the U.S. has pegged ratification to Russia's complete withdrawal of its military presence in Georgia and the breakaway Transdniester Republic. Ivanov accused the United States of "double standards" in its approach to deploying troops in Europe, noting that Washington recently signed an agreement on establishing a base in Bulgaria, but still continues to insist on the withdrawal of Russian peacekeeping forces from Transdniester. LF

Chechen Interior Ministry Special Purpose units (spetsnaz) killed one suspected militant and captured a second in an exchange of fire on May 31 in the western district of Achkhoi Martan, Russian media reported. They then pursued three more militants who crossed the border into Ingushetia, where they entered a house in the village of Nesterovskaya and took one resident hostage. When the Chechen spetsnaz surrounded the house and opened fire the militants retreated to the cellar, where they reportedly blew themselves up. The website identified one of the four militants killed as Ramzan Khaykhoroyev, whose father Ruslan headed the so-called Djokhar Dudayev Bamut regiment until his death in 1999. The detained militant is a member of the same family, Akhyak Khaykhoroyev. LF

Police in the town of Buynaksk opened fire on May 31 on two militants whom they suspected of preparing to assassinate a senior police official, reported, citing RIA Novosti. A passerby was seriously wounded in the incident. LF

A lawyer for Nurpasha Kulayev, the Chechen militant sentenced last week to life imprisonment for his role in the September 2004 Beslan hostage taking, said on May 31 that Kulayev will appeal that sentence, ITAR-TASS dpa reported. A court in North Ossetia found Kulayev guilty of terrorism and mass murder. He admitted during the yearlong trial to participating in the hostage taking, but denied killing any of the hostages. Meanwhile, some relatives of the victims have appealed to the court to annul the verdict and open a new investigation. LF

Legislators blocked on May 31 passage in the second reading of a draft bill that would require all people whose monthly income exceeds 5,000 drams ($1,160) to file an income declaration, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Only 47 of the 131 lawmakers voted in favor of the bill; the pro-government People's Deputy faction comprising 17 wealthy businessmen voted against it. LF

The Armenian Foreign Ministry issued a statement late on May 30 welcoming the outcome of the May 21 referendum in which voters in Montenegro opted for independence from their joint state with Serbia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on May 31 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2006). In an allusion to proposals to make a referendum part of a formal settlement of the Karabakh conflict, the statement underscored the fact that "the Montenegrin people's right to self-determination was expressed by means of a referendum, which proves that in international relations a referendum remains a universally accepted and civilized way of resolving such problems." LF

Armen Harutiunian told journalists in Yerevan on May 31 that he has passed an appeal by opposition Zharangutiun party Chairman Raffi Hovannisian to the Interior Ministry, as he is not empowered to investigate the allegations it contains, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Hovannisian has alleged that government personnel illegally used computers in the party's headquarters between early March and late May while the premises were sealed due to a dispute over the lease (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 31, 2006). LF

Four organizations -- the Movement for the National Revival of Southern Azerbaijan, "Whole Azerbaijan," and both wings of the World Congress of Azerbaijanis -- have formed a committee to support ethnic Azeris in Iran who have taken to the streets over the past 10 days to protest the publication in an official paper of a cartoon that constitutes an ethnic slur, reported on June 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 23, 24, 26, 30, and 31, 2006, and "Cartoon Protests Point To Growing Frustration Among Azeris,", May 31, 2006). Opposition politicians from several political parties attended the meeting; National Democratic Party Chairman Iskander Hamidov advocated sending a parliament delegation to Iran to assess the situation there. Also on May 31, Iran's Ambassador to Baku, Afshar Suleymani, denied that anyone was killed during the recent protests, reported. LF

Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava said in Tbilisi on May 31 he will not attend the meeting, scheduled for June 2 in Tskhinvali, of the Joint Control Commission (JCC) tasked with monitoring developments in the South Ossetia conflict zone, Caucasus Press reported. South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity asked on May 29 for a meeting of the JCC to be convened after Georgian police arbitrarily arrested and beat up several dozen Ossetians on May 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30, 2006). But Khaindrava argued that such meetings should not be held without adequate preparation, and that the next meeting should take place in Tbilisi, as the previous one was held in Tskhinvali. Khaindrava did, however, insist at a May 31 Georgian cabinet session that an investigation be launched into the circumstances surrounding the detention of the Ossetians. Meanwhile, the Georgian daily "Alia" on May 30 reported that South Ossetian officials claim to have evidence of a planned new Georgian attack on their unrecognized republic in the next two months, the Russian daily "Vremya novostei" reported on May 31. Earlier reports claiming that Georgia would launch such an attack in late April or early May proved unfounded. LF

Kazakh Information and Culture Minister Ermukhamet Ertysbaev presented a new draft media law to a meeting of the ruling Otan Party on May 30, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Ertysbaev said the draft law introduces "some technical amendments on media registration." These include a fee for registration applications and a requirement that editors in chief "may not be those citizens because of whom the registration of their [previous] media outlets has been ended by a court ruling." Moreover, the number of reasons for rejecting an application for the registration of a media outlet has been increased from three to six. "We in no way set the goal of reducing freedom of speech," Ertysbaev commented, according to Kazinform. "This is impossible in Kazakhstan, which has a 15-year practice of media development." DK

Karim Masimov, Kazakhstan's economy and budget-planning minister, told a development forum in Astana on May 31 that Kazakhstan hopes to achieve more than 27-percent GDP growth in 2006-08, Interfax reported. "Overall economic growth of more than 27 percent by 2009 is planned," Masimov said. "Per capita GDP should be more than $5,500 by 2009." Masimov's deputy, Marat Kusainov, told Interfax in March that GDP growth in 2006 will be 8.3 percent, and average annual GDP growth over the 2007-09 period 8.8 percent. DK

Prime Minister Feliks Kulov told an economics forum in Bishkek on May 31 that Kyrgyzstan should consider bringing in foreign judges in order to help battle corruption in the judiciary, reported. Citing the example of an initiative by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who invited 300 judges from Sweden to Georgia, Kulov said, "As a pilot project, let's invite judges from abroad to Bishkek and Osh city courts. No one will be able to accuse them of being prejudicial." DK

Kyrgyz-U.S. talks on a new agreement for the U.S. base in Kyrgyzstan began in Bishkek on May 31, news agency reported. A U.S. delegation headed by senior State Department adviser Robert G. Loftis met with Kyrgyz Deputy Defense Minister Kubanychbek Oruzbaev, Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov, and other high-ranking officials. The negotiations were expected to continue on June 1. On April 19, Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev, who had said earlier that he would like to see the United States increase its annual lease payments for the Ganci facilities at Manas Airport from $2 million to $207 million, set a June 1 deadline for hammering out a new agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16 and April 20, 2006). DK

An Uzbek government resolution went into force on June 1 that will end permanent tax, customs, and other exemptions for joint ventures with foreign investors, Rosbalt reported on May 31. In the future, exemptions will be granted only for limited periods. The resolution created a task force to examine applications for exemptions from joint ventures, with priority expected to be given to projects in the oil and gas industry. The report noted that 34 joint ventures previously enjoyed permanent exemptions, including joint ventures with Nestle and Newmont Mining. DK

State Security Committee (KGB) chief Stsyapan Sukharenka told journalists in Minsk on May 31 that the criminal case against four members of an unregistered group named Partnyorstva (Partnership) will soon be sent to court, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Tsimafey Dranchuk, Alyaksandr Shalayka, Mikalay Astreyka, and Enira Branitskaya were arrested by the KGB on February 21 on charges of setting up an illegal organization that "encroaches upon the individuality, rights, and duties of citizens" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 24, 2006). If found guilty, they may be imprisoned for up to three years. Partnorstva gained prominence for its observation effort during Belarus's parliamentary elections and referendum in 2004. Only one of the four was allowed to see a relative during the 100 days of their detention. Relatives of the four fear that the Partnyorstva trial will be held behind closed doors. JM

KGB chief Sukharenka also told journalists on May 31 that his organization continues to investigate a case concerning the preparation of terrorists acts before the March 19 presidential election in Belarus, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Sukharenka told a news conference in Minsk on March 16 that the KGB detained four people who had prepared bomb attacks at four schools in Minsk. A videotape presented by the KGB at that news conference showed an interview with an unidentified person who claimed that he had been trained in "camps of militants" abroad how to use firearms and to poison water-supply systems with the help of dead rats. KGB spokesman Valery Nadtachayeu told RFE/RL that the terrorism case does not involve the detained members of Partnyorstva. JM

Ukraine's Cabinet of Ministers has decided to increase the gas price for individual consumers to 414 hryvnyas ($82) per 1,000 cubic meters as of July 1, up from an average of 220 hryvnyas at present, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( reported, quoting Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov. "The decision in principle has been made, while the differentiation of tariffs is yet to be discussed by us," Plachkou added. This year the government already raised gas tariffs for the population and corporate consumers by 25 percent as of May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, 2006). A gas supply deal between the Ukrainian government and Russia's Gazprom in January increased the gas price for Ukraine from $50 to $95 per 1,000 cubic meters. Gazprom officials have indicated that this price may be revised upward as of July. JM

In an interview published on May 31, deputy UN envoy to the talks on Kosova's future Albert Rohan accused Serbia of holding up progress, AFP reported the same day. In an interview with the Austrian daily "Die Presse," Rohan said that while Kosova's new leaders are "reaching out to the Serbian community...the international community has always hoped that Serbia would abandon its obstructive attitude." The latest round of final-status talks on Kosova took place on May 30-31, but ended without setting a date for further negotiations. The talks focused on economic issues, with Kosova offering to assume part of Serbia's debt. Belgrade, for its part, criticized Prishtina over the way privatizations have been conducted over the past six years. The talks will not restart before July 10, when chief UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari is scheduled to give his report on the negotiations to the UN Security Council, his spokesman Remi Dourlot said. BW

International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) official Francois Stamm said on May 31 that nearly 2,300 people are still unaccounted for from the 1998-99 Kosova conflict, AP reported the same day. Stamm, the ICRC's head of operations for Southeastern Europe, said DNA tests of remains exhumed in Kosova and other parts of Serbia helped identify hundreds of war dead from an initial list of 3,000 missing from the conflict. But speaking in Belgrade, where he was chairing a meeting with Serbian and ethnic Albanian officials, Stamm said that 2,287 people are still unaccounted for. He added that "for further progress to be made, the most senior authorities in Belgrade and Prishtina must fulfill their responsibility by...making available new information on gravesite locations, as well as other information." Of those unaccounted for, 730 are Serbs and the rest are ethnic Albanians, said Veljko Odalovic, a Serbian representative at the meeting. BW

Saying that there is no international support for an independence referendum in Republika Srpska, Prime Minister Milorad Dodik abandoned the idea on May 31, Reuters reported the same day. "I am not an adventurer and I am aware that there is no support now for a referendum for the secession of Republika Srpska from Bosnia, nor is there a possibility that it would be recognized," Dodik told reporters in Banja Luka. A small group of Serbian nationalists proposed the idea in the wake of Montenegro's successful May 21 independence vote, and Dodik angered international officials by making a statement that appeared to endorse the idea (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30, 2006). BW

Forensics experts in Bosnia-Herzegovina exhumed 15 bodies on May 31 from a newly discovered mass grave believed to hold the remains of victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, dpa reported the same day. The grave, discovered on May 30, is located near the eastern Bosnian town of Sekovici, not far from a Bosnian Serb army barracks, according to Murat Hurtic of Bosnia's Committee for Missing Persons. Hurtic said that officials believe Bosnian Serb paramilitaries captured and killed the victims, who were Muslims, in the woods while they were trying to escape the Srebrenica massacre. BW

Separatist leader Igor Smirnov said on May 31 that the breakaway region will be ready to join the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) if Moldova decides to withdraw from the organization, Interfax reported the same day. "[Transdniester] has a 100 percent chance of joining the CIS. It is an open organization and we have already applied for observer status," Smirnov said at a press conference in Tiraspol. Moldova's pro-Western government has thus far rejected calls from an opposition party in parliament to quit the CIS (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24 and 25, 2006). BW

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has vowed to take decisive action against insurgents, militias, and other rogue elements that threaten the security situation in Iraq. But with violence on the rise in May, and no word on who will fill the crucial posts of interior, defense, and national security minister, many are questioning the ability of U.S. and Iraqi forces to pull the country back from the brink of civil war.

Still, al-Maliki has taken a tough stance against all criminal activity, and has vowed in a number of recent interviews to use all means of force necessary to curb the violence.

Insurgents loyal to Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization have regained control over much of the western Al-Anbar Governorate, and are posing a major challenge to U.S. and Iraqi forces. A local security force established by tribesmen under an agreement with the U.S. military has all but ceased operating, after nearly a dozen tribal leaders were assassinated in revenge attacks by insurgents loyal to al-Zarqawi's Mujahedin Shura Council since January. Local tribal leaders now say they are afraid to be seen associating with U.S. forces, lest they be targeted by insurgents.

According to recent media reports, al-Zarqawi's Mujahedin Shura Council has declared the establishment of an Islamic caliphate in areas extending from Al-Ramadi to western districts of the capital. Districts of Baghdad under the control of the council have appointed emirs to enforce the council's brand of Islamic law, and gunmen regularly distribute leaflets written by the council detailing acceptable dress and behavior, London's "Al-Hayat" reported on May 24.

According to the daily, two girls were recently abducted off the street in Al-Amiriyah and later released with their heads shaved as punishment for not wearing hijabs, or headscarves. Leaflets were then distributed saying that the shavings were commuted sentences, and the next violators will be put to death.

Shi'ite militiamen have imposed similar control over the Shi'ite districts in Baghdad, where they run street patrols and inspect government offices and girls schools for violations in dress and conduct.

Women and girls are not the only ones targeted. A team of taekwondo athletes was kidnapped in Al-Anbar Governorate en route to Jordan on May 17, while in Baghdad, gunmen stopped a car carrying a Sunni Arab tennis coach and two Shi'ite players, ordered them out of the vehicle, and shot them dead. The killings came after armed Islamists distributed leaflets warning people in the Sunni Arab districts of Al-Ghazaliyah and Al-Saidiyah against wearing shorts in public.

Meanwhile, U.S. forces announced that they would send a brigade-size unit to beef up security in Al-Anbar. An Iraqi army officer based in Al-Ramadi told Al-Sharqiyah television that he expects an all-out siege on the city, similar to the 2004 Al-Fallujah operation, the news channel reported on May 29. U.S. military officials have said otherwise.

Iraqi and U.S.-led coalition forces are also faced with a surge in violence in areas north and south of the capital. Sunni Arabs have accused multinational forces of laying siege to Al-Dulu'iyah, located just north of Baghdad in the Salah Al-Din Governorate.

Insurgents have regained control over much of the nearby Diyala Governorate as well. The tension there is so great that one parliamentarian blamed those charged with security of fanning the flames of sectarianism. "And, there is a strange silence on the part of the multinational force on the events that happen in this governorate, despite the fact that this governorate holds strategic importance, enabling any group that will dominate this governorate to block the northern road [to or from Baghdad]," parliamentarian Jalal al-Din al-Saghir told parliament on May 29.

Diyala Governor Ra'd Rashid al-Mulla Jawad told reporters at a press briefing in Ba'qubah that insurgents have laid siege to the governorate and are now attempting to displace residents from their homes. "It started with attacks against patrols that hold the access points to Ba'qubah city and all parts of the governorate," he said.

While Jawad pleaded for help from the central government, it remains unclear whether reinforcements alone could reestablish security in the volatile area. "Some administration, army, and police officials carry high ranks, but I cannot see that they would have any abilities sufficient for the confrontation [with terror] other than on paper," Jawad said, and demanded that Baghdad grant him special powers to deal with the security situation in Ba'qubah.

In Al-Basrah, Shi'ite infighting, corrupt police and security forces, and armed gangs have destabilized the governorate to such a degree that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki this week personally led a delegation to address the situation. "We must restore security in Al-Basrah and if anyone defies peaceful solutions, then force will be the solution," al-Maliki told Reuters in a May 30 interview. "There's no way we can leave Al-Basrah, the gateway to Iraq, our imports and exports, at the mercy of criminal, terrorist gangs. We will use force against these gangs."

Al-Maliki's comments came three days after someone close to the Al-Fadilah Party threatened to block oil exports from the city, Reuters reported, a charge party spokesman Hassan al-Shammari has denied, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on May 30.

Al-Maliki said the security crisis in the city cannot be blamed solely on terrorists, and that tribes and organized criminal gangs are also a problem. "We will work on reconciling tribes and religious figures and political parties, and also increase the security presence to stop the criminals," he said. Al-Maliki also criticized British forces in the governorate, but failed to give specifics. He has since imposed martial law in the city.

The prime minister told Al-Arabiyah television in a May 25 interview that all issues plaguing Iraq, whether political, economic, or social, are related to security. "If we want to rebuild the country, we need to provide security. If security is lost, the country cannot be built."

He said the priority for his administration will be to disarm all armed groups and militias, reiterating early calls for weapons to only remain in the hands of official security forces. He predicted that militias linked to political forces could easily be disbanded, while it will be harder to convince the general public to give up arms, since they must come to trust in official security forces first.

The second task is to form a policy to confront armed gangs, including those released from prison. The government must monitor their movements and keep their actions under control, al-Maliki said. He noted that it will be crucial that the armed forces place their loyalty to the nation above political affiliations. "In our new military culture, the security or military man must serve all citizens.... Affiliations weaken the security institution and consequently, they pose a threat" to Iraq, he added.

Al-Maliki also made reference to his oft-mentioned "Baghdad Plan" to restore security to the capital, saying select units will be tasked with protecting the capital. Part of their mission will be to halt further sectarian- and ethnic-cleansing campaigns being carried out in some districts of the capital.

The prime minister's plan for dealing with armed insurgent groups remains less clear. He told Al-Arabiyah that the administration will merge armed groups together, in an attempt to find a framework for national reconciliation, but did not say how. It is expected, however, that he will have a more concrete plan in place by the June 20 national-accord conference in Baghdad.

Colonel Tom Collins, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, said in Kabul on May 31 that the U.S.-led coalition troops opened fire in "self-defense" after the deadly May 29 accident involving a U.S. military truck and several passenger cars in Kabul, AFP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30 and 31, 2006). According to Collins, after the accident the crowd surrounding the U.S. military convoy "became increasingly hostile, throwing rocks and threatening U.S. forces." An initial investigation indicates that "coalition soldiers did in fact use their weapons in self-defense," Collins said, adding that the "fire came from the crowd," prompting the soldiers to respond. Collins said it is still not clear which side fired first or whether the coalition troops fired at the crowd or over their heads. AT

Some Afghan sources claim that U.S. troops killed some of the protesters when they fired upon them. Initial reports estimated that a total of eight people died in the accident and in the ensuing riots, but Collins said that Afghan authorities have updated the death toll to 20 killed and 160 wounded. The Afghan National Assembly has called for the arrest of the driver of the U.S. truck. But Collins said that the U.S. soldier driving the truck "is not under arrest." It was originally reported that the truck suffered a mechanical failure, perhaps its brake system, before plowing into the cars. "We have no indications at this time that he acted inappropriately," he added. AT

Commenting on the accident and ensuring riot in Kabul on May 29, the head of the Russian Federation Council's International Relations Committee, Mikhail Margelov, said in Moscow on May 31 that the incident cast doubt on the success of U.S. polices in Afghanistan, Interfax reported. The incident "gives us reason to doubt the success of the use of coercion in spreading democracy," Margelov told Interfax. Arguing that counterterrorism operations ended in Afghanistan a long time ago, Margelov said that "the imposition of Western models of reforming Afghan society is not the only way to confirm victory over extremism." According to Margelov, attempts by the United States to "create a certain counterbalance" to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) in Central Asia are "not only redundant, but pointless." AT

The Afghan National Army (ANA) and Afghan police, together with the U.S.-led coalition forces, began a joint military operation in the southeastern Ghazni Province on May 31, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Ghazni Governor Hajji Sher Alam told Pajhwak that the operation, codenamed "Desert Lions," has been initiated after increasing attacks on police in several districts in the province. Mohammad Nasir Hedayat, commander of the 205 Thunder Corps of the ANA, told the news agency that the operation targets six southeastern districts of Ghazni, and involves 500 personnel from the ANA, the police, and coalition forces. In the first day of the operation, six neo-Taliban fighters were arrested and four motorcycles and one pickup truck confiscated. AT

Four suspects have been arrested in connection with the May 30 murder of three female aid workers and their driver in the Jowzjan Province city of Sheberghan, Aina TV reported on May 31 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 30, 2006). The provincial chief of security, Colonel Mohammad Ebrahim, told Aina that the suspects have been handed over to the National Security Department. According to Ebrahim, those who carried out the attack were "enemies of the people," not robbers, since the victims' belongings, including their money, were not taken. No one has claimed responsibility for the attack. AT

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discussed the Iranian nuclear issue in a May 31 statement in Washington, international news agencies reported. She called on Tehran to "immediately" suspend its uranium enrichment and reprocessing activities, cooperate fully with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and implement the Additional Protocol of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Rice mentioned greater economic cooperation as an incentive, as well as a continuing reliance on diplomacy to resolve the issue. As soon as Iran fulfills these conditions, Rice continued, "the United States will come to the table with our EU-3 colleagues and meet with Iran's representatives." Rice's statement was conveyed to the Iranian government through the Swiss ambassador in Tehran and through the Iranian representative at the United Nations. Rice added that there are other hindrances to the normalization of Iranian-U.S. relations, such as Iran's support for terrorism and its interference in Lebanese and Iraqi affairs. Several Iranian news agencies -- Fars, ISNA, and Mehr -- carried Rice's statement, as did Iranian state television and "Etemaad" newspaper. BS

The immediate Iranian reaction to Secretary Rice's May 31 statement on possible participation in nuclear talks with Iran was limited, as it was early evening in Tehran. State radio described the U.S. move as a victory for Iran, asserting that "Washington is under immense pressure by the American elite and other governments to hold negotiations with Iran." The broadcaster added, "Although it was difficult for the American authorities to shift their policies and they are severely under the influence of the Zionist lobby in their decisions, the fact that they agreed to enter talks with Iran is a clear sign that their previous allegations against Iran were untrue." State radio concluded by saying Washington must accept Iran's decisive regional role because of the Islamic Republic's nuclear achievements, its national solidarity, and its economic progress. The rapporteur for the legislature's national-security and foreign policy committee, Kazem Jalali, said Washington's initial impulse is a positive development, ISNA reported. But its preconditions, Jalali warned, are unsuitable. Jalali said the suspension of enrichment activities is out of the question. Mohammad Shariati, who was an adviser to President Mohammad Khatami, told Al-Jazirah television that the United States probably expects a response in time for the June 1 meeting in Vienna of the 5+1 group. Shariati speculated the President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's administration will find it hard to compromise on this issue. A headline in "Kayhan," the daily newspaper associated with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's office, announced the offer as "America's Need Under The Mantle Of A Concession To Iran." BS

Student activists told Radio Farda that plainclothes security forces detained Abdullah Momeni, spokesman of the Office for Strengthening Unity's majority wing (Neshast-i Allameh), on the morning of May 31. Reza Delbari, another member of the Office for Strengthening Unity, told Radio Farda that the security forces have been after the organization's members for some time. The security forces, he claimed, see no need to operate within a legal framework because any action prompts a disproportionate reaction. The central council of the Office for Strengthening Unity has decided to convene an emergency meeting to discuss Momeni's disappearance, reported on May 31. BS

Students at Amir Kabir University of Technology in Tehran held a lunchtime on May 31 to rally to protest the detention of two classmates whose whereabouts remain a mystery, ISNA reported. The two students are Yashar Qajar, the head of the Islamic Students Union at Amir Kabir University, and blogger Abed Tavancheh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 31, 2006). Speakers at the rally complained of fear on campus and alleged efforts to dictate standards of conduct to the students. BS

Nuri al-Maliki declared a one-month state of emergency in Al-Basrah on May 31, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Al-Maliki told an assembly of politicians, tribal leaders, and members of the community in the city that he intends to take a tough stance against the deteriorating security situation there. "We will strike with an iron fist the gangs and those who tamper with security and will ask all security services to draw up an effective plan soon to realize security and make the citizens feel reassured," he vowed. "Security is first, security is second, security is third." Al-Maliki said he will order weapons to be confiscated, leaving arms only in the hands of official security services. "We will be prepared to equip, back, and support you with all our strength in order to preserve this city, which represents the political, social, and economic door of Iraq. This city must be protected," he said. Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and State Minister for Parliamentary Affairs Safa al-Safi also addressed the assembly, calling on Al-Basrans to unite against attempts by gangs, militias, and outsiders to foster sectarian division. KR

Al-Maliki later told reporters at a press briefing in Al-Basrah that a security committee will be set up to help defuse the crisis, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. "Through the large-scale security mobilization this month, we hope that all the dialogues between the different components of Al-Basrah residents will ultimately lead to a containment of the crisis," he said. Checkpoints will be set up, police and security agencies cleaned up -- and some even eliminated -- and other reforms will be implemented. "If we all -- the governor, the Governorate Council, political forces, tribes, and religious figures -- cooperate together, we will find, within a month's time, that things are much better," he added. Vice President al-Hashimi told the same briefing that all illegal weapons will be confiscated, "no matter who uses them, including militias and tribes." He added that militias alone cannot be blamed for the security crisis, noting that some tribes possess weapons "that go beyond the need for self-defense." KR

The chief judge in the Al-Dujayl trial ordered four defense witnesses jailed on May 31 on suspicion of making false testimony, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 31, 2006). Two witnesses testified that chief prosecutor Ja'far al-Musawi in 2004 attended an event in the town commemorating the 1982 assassination attempt against Saddam Hussein, where al-Musawi called Hussein a "cancer" to Iraq, and offered to provide cash backing and fake documents to those willing to testify against Hussein. The May 31 session viewed a recording of the event, after which al-Musawi called witness Abd al-Aziz Muhammad Bandar, who testified that it was he, not the prosecutor in the video. Bandar bears a resemblance to al-Musawi. Two of the four witnesses were arrested on suspicion of falsely testifying that some Al-Dujayl residents said to have been executed are alive. The prosecution claimed before the court that the testimonies of the four were part of an attempt by the defense to discredit and harm the reputation of the prosecution. KR

The U.S. military said in a May 31 statement that two Iraqi women were killed on May 30 after their vehicle entered a "prohibited area," AP reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 31, 2006). Nabiha Nisaif Jassim was killed along with her cousin Saliha Muhammad Hassan as Jassim's brother drove them to Samarra General Hospital. Jassim was in labor at the time of the incident. The military said that shots were fired at the vehicle after it entered a clearly marked prohibited area near an observation post and failed to stop despite repeated visual and auditory warnings. "Coalition forces later received reports from Iraqi police that two women died from gunshot wounds...and one of the females may have been pregnant," the statement said. Jassim's brother Khalid Nisaif Jassim said he did not see any warnings when he entered the area. He said doctors could not save the baby. KR