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Newsline - June 21, 2006

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi discussed energy, trade, and world affairs with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on June 20 in preparation for the July St. Petersburg summit of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries, Russian and international media reported. It was the last stop on Prodi's tour of five European capitals and his first visit abroad since recently replacing former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who enjoyed close ties to Putin. Prodi was accompanied by Paolo Scaroni, the CEO of Eni, the state petroleum giant, and praised what he called "a new phase in the energy sector" in bilateral relations, which he described as no longer those of client and customer. Putin and Prodi noted that new agreements concluded during the visit will enable Russian companies participate in the Italian domestic gas and oil markets while Italian firms join in exploration projects in Russia. Putin said that this is tantamount to implementing the EU's Energy Charter "without formal, legal ratification." The EU wants Russia to ratify the charter, which would end Gazprom's monopoly over Russia's pipeline system (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 12, 16, and 20, 2006). Russia signed the pact in 1994 but never ratified it. Russian officials have recently dubbed the document "anti-Russian" and want a series of changes implemented as a precondition for ratification. The State Duma recently reaffirmed Gazprom's monopoly over gas exports. Gazprom has long sought access to the domestic markets of EU countries without giving up control of its pipelines. PM

Bilateral trade topics, as well as energy issues, dominated the June 20 Moscow talks between President Putin and Italian Prime Minister Prodi, Russian and international media reported. UniCredit, which is Italy's biggest bank, announced that its HVB Group will buy a 26 percent stake in International Moscow Bank from Nordea Bank as part of UniCredit's eastward expansion plans. Italy is Russia's third most important trade partner, with a total volume worth $23.5 billion in 2005, ITAR-TASS noted. Before leaving Italy, Prodi told "Izvestia" that he intends to develop bilateral ties in several fields, including not only energy but also "politics, culture, and religion." Some Italian commentators suggested that bilateral relations will now be on a more solid and sober footing without the bonhomie of the Berlusconi years that some felt interfered with substance. In related news, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in Berlin on June 20 that her country welcomes the recent Finnish decision to call an energy summit of EU leaders and Putin on October 20 in Lahti, when Finland will hold the rotating EU chair, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 12, 16, and 19, 2006). PM

U.S. Representatives Tom Lantos (Democrat, California) and David Dreier (Republican, California), and Senators John McCain (Republican, Arizona) and Joe Lieberman (Democrat, Connecticut) called in an open letter on the leaders of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Germany, France, Japan, and Italy to use the upcoming G8 St. Petersburg summit to tell Russia that it must improve its democratic credentials, Reuters reported. The four men argued that "President Putin has steered Russia away from democracy and toward authoritarianism.... He has increased pressure on opposition political parties and civil society, strengthened state control over national broadcast media, and pursued politically driven prosecutions of independent business leaders, academics, and others voicing criticism of the government." The four said that they believe that Russia should not be allowed to host the G8 summit, but "understanding that the summit will take place, however, it is important that the [seven other] heads of state make clear that Russia's actions are inconsistent with G8 democratic norms" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3 and June 9, 2006). PM

Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov said in Moscow on June 20 that Russia will not negotiate with or make concessions to those who have apparently taken hostage a Russian diplomat and three members of the embassy staff in Iraq, RIA Novosti reported (see below and "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, 2006). He said that "Russia has always held the position that talks on political terms with terrorists are out of the question." He added, however, that "we never abandon our people." PM

Sinopec, which is a Chinese state-run oil company, will buy TNK-BP's Udmurtneft and sell a 51 percent stake in it to Rosneft while retaining the remaining 49 percent for itself, Russian media reported on June 20, quoting a Rosneft statement. "The Moscow Times" commented on June 21 that the deal gives "Beijing its first stake in Russian oil and paves the way for a strategic partnership with Rosneft." China has actively sought out new sources of energy and natural resources abroad as its economy and notoriously inefficient energy sector expand. PM

The Russian Supreme Court on June 20 overturned the March 27 decision by the Moscow City Court to sentence Aleksandr Koptsev to 13 years in prison on charges of attempted murder of two or more persons for reasons of ethnic enmity in conjunction with his stabbing of eight people at a Moscow synagogue on 11 January, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23 and 27, 2006). The Supreme Court did not explain the reasons for its ruling. The Moscow City Court will reexamine the case. Koptsev's lawyer had appealed to the Supreme Court for a reduction in the sentence on the grounds that his client is mentally unstable, did not kill anyone, and did not cause any disabling injuries. PM

Ramzan Kadyrov met in Grozny on June 19 with Industry and Energy Minister Amadi Temishev and with Lomali Baymuradov, general director of Chechengazprom, to discuss the ongoing restoration of the republic's gas distribution network, reported on June 20. Temishev noted that almost 40 million rubles ($1.48 million) has been collected this month in payment for gas consumed, and he predicted that in winter those payments will increase. Kadyrov for his part warned that it is time for the Chechen population to come to terms with the need to pay for gas and other communal services, as those payments augment the budget and in turn enable the government to raise salaries. LF

Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, who is speaker of the lower chamber of the pro-Moscow Chechen parliament and close to Kadyrov, has released a statement commenting on the ultimatum to the Russian government by the Mujahedin Shura Council that has claimed responsibility for the June 3 abduction of one Russian diplomat and three embassy personnel in Baghdad, according to RIA Novosti as reposted on June 21 by The council allegedly gave Moscow 48 hours to pull out of Chechnya and free all Muslim prisoners or "accept the consequences" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, 2006). Abdurakhmanov condemned that offer as an unacceptable attempt by "international terrorists" to "play the Chechen card" in a bid to achieve their strategic goals. He argued that Russian troops are stationed in other Russian regions as well as in Chechnya, where he said their presence enhances the defense capability of the Russian Federation as a whole. Abdurakhmanov stressed that the Chechen people has not empowered anyone to make such demands, and that "we shall not permit anyone to speak in our name," the statement continued. LF

Yury Tomchak, who three months ago succeeded strongman Khachim Shogenov as interior minister of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2006) met in Nalchik on June 20 with leaders of political parties and NGOs to solicit their opinions of his ministry's work, reported. Tomchak also appealed to the media to cooperate with the KBR government in combating "extremism." Retired General Supyan Beppayev, head of the pro-government Balkar movement Alan, noted that the Interior Ministry's work has recently improved and that men are no longer branded as Islamic militants simply because they have beards and pray at mosques. Tomchak warned that moving too fast to redress the balance in the work of the police could prove counterproductive. He also said that the recent police operation that some media portrayed as an attempt to apprehend Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev was a training operation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 9, 2006). LF

The Orinats Yerkir (OY) party headed by Artur Baghdasarian, who resigned last month as parliament speaker after a policy disagreement with President Robert Kocharian, has moved into luxurious new headquarters in Yerevan, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on June 20. The new premises have marble floors, expensive furniture, and a jazz club and fitness center for the use of party members. Heghine Bisharian, a close associate of Baghdasarian, told RFE/RL that the party rank and file contributed to the cost of the building that houses the new offices. Security at the new premises is extremely tight, and no one is admitted unless they have a prior appointment with a senior parliament member or OY parliamentarian. LF

A senior member of the Zharangutiun (Heritage) party headed by U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on June 17 that Hovannisian is holding consultations with three other pro-Western opposition parties on the possibility of forming a bloc to participate in the parliamentary elections due in May 2007. He named those parties as OY, the Hanrapetutiun party headed by former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian, and the smaller Liberal Progressive party. But the daily "Haykakan zhamanak" reported on June 20 that OY and other unnamed opposition parties have ignored Hovannisian's overtures. LF

The Tbilisi City prosecutor's office is currently questioning four former senior Interior Ministry officials in connection with the death in January of United Georgian Bank staffer Sandro Girgviliani, Caucasus Press reported on June 20. The four men were dismissed after Girgvliani's family accused them of masterminding his murder; two of them quarreled publicly in a Tbilisi cafe with Girgvliani just hours before his death (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7 and 14, 2006). Meanwhile, additional charges of destruction of property and causing grievous bodily harm have been brought against four more junior Interior Ministry officials who were arrested on suspicion of killing Girgvliani, Tbilisi City prosecutor Giorgi Ghviniashvili told journalists on June 20, Caucasus Press reported. The four men have confessed to abducting and beating up Girgvliani but denied that they acted under orders from their superiors. LF

The European Union has added two airlines from Kyrgyzstan to its safety blacklist of airlines barred from landing at European airports, AP reported on June 20. The airlines are Sky Gate International and Star Jet. The EU has already banned four Central Asian airlines, including two from Kyrgyzstan, from its airspace for safety reasons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2006). DK

Russian state-controlled gas concern Gazprom has acquired more than 100 filling stations in Kyrgyzstan for approximately $99 million, Kabar reported on June 20. Gazprom Deputy Chairman Aleksandr Ryazanov said that the filling stations account for 30 percent of the total market in Kyrgyzstan and 70 percent of the market in the country's center. DK

Turkmen security forces have arrested seven individuals in connection with a spy scandal allegedly involving a French diplomat, British nationals, and the OSCE, RFE/RL reported on June 20. Those arrested are Annakurban Amanklychev and Yelena Ovezova of the Bulgaria-based Turkmen Helsinki Foundation (THF); RFE/RL freelancer Ogulsapar Muradova and her three adult children; and Sapardurdy Khajiev, brother-in-law of THF Chairwoman Tajigul Begmedova. Turkmen authorities charge that Amanklychev was in contact with Turkmen opposition figures abroad and met secretly in Turkmenistan with British citizen Stuart Nicolas Hook and French citizen Cathrine Bertlyer, NewsCentralAsia and reported. Also allegedly involved were Henri Tomassini, charge d'affairs at the French Embassy in Ashgabat, and Benjamin Moreau, a French citizen who is the Human Dimension officer at the OSCE Center in Ashgabat. Tomassini is alleged to have given Amanklychev video surveillance equipment; Moreau's purported role in the case was unclear from Turkmen reports. DK

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Jean-Baptiste Mattei said on June 20 that Turkmen authorities' accusations against Tomassini are "totally unfounded," AFP reported. Mattei described the equipment Tomassini sent to "a Turkmen national" as "standard audiovisual equipment which can in no way be used for any other purpose." He explained, "It was equipment for filming which was sent to a Turkmen national. It is not spying equipment; it is equipment for filming and for making reports about the country, which the Turkmen authorities ought, instead, to welcome." In an interview with RFE/RL on June 20, OSCE spokesman Keith Jinks said, "We have no comments to make on the details. All we can say at this stage is that two members of the staff of the OSCE center in Ashgabat -- they were Benjamin Moreau and [political officer] Dieter Matthei -- were invited to a meeting by the foreign minister yesterday at 7 p.m. local time. They were informed about accusations made against two Turkmen citizens." DK

Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov hopes to raise the sale price of Turkmen natural gas from $66 to $110-$125 per 1,000 cubic meters in the second half of 2006, the Russian newspaper "Vedomosti" reported on June 20. Troika Dialog analyst Valery Nesterov told the newspaper that if the price hike goes through, its knock-on effect could raise the price Ukraine pays for natural gas from current levels of $95 to $140-$150 per 1,000 cubic meters. In 2006, Ukraine is slated to receive 41 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas, which it purchases from the gas trader Rosukrenergo. A Rosukrenergo spokesperson told "Vedomosti," "If Turkmenistan changes the conditions of its supplies, we will inform [Ukrainian national gas company] Naftohaz Ukrayiny and we will propose corrections to the purchase price." Experts queried by the newspaper are divided, with some suggesting that Ukraine may soon face a price hike and others arguing that Russia's Gazprom will seek to avoid a repetition of the "gas war" with Ukraine that broke out in early 2006. Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller recently left Ashgabat without securing an agreement on gas purchases for the second half of 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, 2006). DK

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Papou told journalists on June 20 that some formulations in U.S. President George W. Bush's recent order imposing financial sanctions on Belarusian senior officials "make a judicious person not just smile but laugh," Belapan reported. "This decision pursues an old aim -- spreading false information about our country and discrediting its leadership," Reuters quoted Papou as saying. "We propose that the United States send the mythical funds to which they are referring to needy U.S. citizens." Bush froze the assets of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and nine other Belarusian senior officials in response to what Washington sees as a fraudulent presidential election on March 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, 2006). A month ago, Washington imposed a travel ban on more than 30 Belarusian officials. Speaking at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point, New York, on June 19, Bush said the United States and the European Union are supporting "the [Belarusian] reformers seeking to erase the stain of dictatorship from Europe." JM

The Latvian government decided on June 20 to issue all types of Latvian visas for Belarusian citizens free of charge as of June 21, Belapan reported. Until now, Belarusians had to pay 35 euros ($44) for a Latvian single-entry visa and 70 euros for a multi-entry visa. Last year, Latvia issued nearly 22,500 visas for Belarusian citizens. Latvians pay $32 for a Belarusian single-entry visa and $100 for a multi-entry visa. JM

Roman Bezsmertnyy from Our Ukraine, Oleksandr Moroz from the Socialist Party, and Yuliya Tymoshenko from the eponymous political bloc said during a session of the Verkhovna Rada on June 21 that they have agreed on establishing a ruling coalition, and pledged to sign a relevant agreement within the two following days, Channel 5 reported. Bezsmertnyy proposed to formally announce the creation of a coalition in the morning of June 23, while Moroz urged Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc to complete all formalities on June 21. On June 20, Bezsmertnyy, Tymoshenko, Moroz, and Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov met with President Viktor Yushchenko to discuss the restoration of the Orange Revolution coalition, which existed until September 2005. According to an unidentified source quoted by the "Ukrayinska pravda" website (, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc will obtain 11 portfolios in a new cabinet, including that of prime minister, Our Ukraine eight portfolios, and the Socialist Party four portfolios. The Verkhovna Rada will reportedly be headed by Yekhanurov from Our Ukraine, while Yosyp Vinskyy from the Socialist Party is to become first deputy speaker. JM

Addressing the UN Security Council on June 20, the outgoing head of UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), Soren Jessen-Petersen, criticized Serbia for "damaging" and "divisive" policies in the province, Reuters reported the same day. Specifically, Jessen-Petersen criticized Belgrade for ordering all Serbian government employees in Kosova who also have jobs with the United Nations to resign from their UN positions or lose their Serbian paychecks. Belgrade still finances many services in Serbian enclaves in the province. "I take the opportunity to call on withdraw this damaging directive," Jessen-Petersen told the council. He called Serbia's order a "divisive move" that prevents Serbs in Kosova from participating in their future. BW

Also speaking on June 20, Jessen-Petersen said Kosova is suffering from economic hardship and extremely high unemployment, Reuters reported the same day. Jessen-Petersen added that prospects for badly needed foreign investment in Kosova will remain poor until the province's future was resolved. "The risk is very clear. Kosovo is a place with some extremely difficult social hardship cases," Jessen-Petersen said at a press conference following his speech to the UN Security Council. "It is my biggest hope that we clarify the status," he added. UN-backed talks on Kosova's future are scheduled to resume in July. Jessen-Petersen announced his resignation as UNMIK head on June 12, citing family reasons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2006). BW

Also addressing the Security Council on June 20, Sanda Raskovic-Ivic, the Serbian official in charge of Kosova policy, claimed that the province's authorities have made scant progress in protecting the rights of Serbs, Reuters reported the same day. "There is no rule of law, corruption is rife, pervasive organized crime hampers economic recovery and...undermines people's faith in institutions," Raskovic-Ivic said. Raskovic-Ivic, the head of Serbia's Council for Kosova, said the best solution for Kosova is "substantial autonomy" inside Serbia. Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said the plan to end status talks by the end of the year is arbitrary and wrong, and warned against a "one-sided unilaterally imposed solution" for Kosova. But he stopped short of rejecting independence for Kosova outright. "This can be assured only over a lengthy period of time," he said. BW

Serbia's Foreign Economic Relations Ministry is seeking an adviser to revamp the country's international image, B92 reported on June 19. According to the ministry, most of the world associates Serbia with war and political instability, which is harming the country's investment and tourism prospects. Goran Pitic, vice president of Serbia's Foreign Investment Council, agreed that the country needs to rebrand itself. He stressed, however, that a mere image makeover would not be enough to solve the country's investment problems. "If we do not make the needed progress in the continuation of reforms and creating a positive investment climate, then hiring someone to help give Serbia a brand will not bring many results," Pitic said. BW

In a bribery case brought against former Serbian Supreme Court Judge Ljubomir Vuckovic, a woman testified on June 19 to giving the judge a 1,500-euro ($1,800) bribe to reduce her son's prison sentence, B92 reported the next day. Dzeva Zekic testified that she had twice approached Vuckovic about decreasing a seven-month sentence given to her son, Dzevad Zekic. She said Vuckovic initially asked for 3,000 euros, but settled for 1,500. Vuckovic accused Zekic of making an agreement with the prosecution in exchange for testifying against him. Vuckovic was arrested in September, and is accused of accepting a bribe to reverse the conviction of an alleged organized-crime leader (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 15, 2005). He pleaded not guilty to the charges in March. BW

Transdniestrian President Igor Smirnov said on June 20 that his breakaway region of Moldova plans to create a joint peacekeeping force with the separatist Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. At a meeting last week in the Abkhaz capital, Sukhumi (Sukhum), the heads of the three unrecognized republics discussed joint efforts to fight terrorism, Smirnov said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 15, 2006). He added that the armed forces' chiefs of staffs have been instructed to conduct joint peacekeeping exercises in the near future. "At the meeting in Sukhumi, Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and the Dniester region sealed several agreements aimed at the political, economic, social, and cultural integration of our people," Smirnov said. BW

Speaking on the sidelines of the June 15 Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, Russian President Vladimir Putin dropped the latest in a series of tantalizing clues as to who his potential choice of successor might be. The candidate, he said, is a man whose name "is not completely unknown, but which is simply not circulated" by the mass media.

That statement appears to rule out the two men who, until now, have been widely considered the likeliest options for the post-Putin presidency: First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov.

So who could this "not completely unknown" person -- who furthermore embodies Putin's stated ideals of "integrity, honesty, professionalism, and taking responsibility for one's decisions -- be?

One possibility is Vladimir Yakunin, who for the past year has led the state-run Russian Railway Company, the country's second-largest enterprise after Gazprom. He is also a close friend of Putin, which, together with his relative exclusion from public view, could combine to give him a significant competitive edge against other potential candidates.

Some suggest he is the perfect option for those whose fondest wish is a forbidden third term for Putin. The two men appear so similar, it appears that Yakunin could act as a kind of political double for Putin -- a quality that Putin himself may find attractive as the end of his second term in 2008 draws near.

Kremlin-watchers were quick to note that this year's Orthodox Easter television broadcasts showed Yakunin standing directly to the president's right during services at Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. The two share the same St. Petersburg background, and they are next-door dacha neighbors in Ivanovo.

And while Yakunin's official biography makes no mention of an affiliation to Putin's previous employer, the KGB, his early career -- at the Soviet Committee for Foreign Trade Relations and with the Soviet mission to the United Nations, among other places -- suggests ties to foreign intelligence services.

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yakunin moved into business and banking activities. In 1997, Putin, then the head of the Main Control Department of President Boris Yeltsin's administration, appointed Yakunin to serve as his envoy in northwest Russia.

In 2000, Yakunin was named deputy transport minister before moving on to become deputy railway minister. Now, as president and CEO of Russian Railways, Yakunin is responsible for one of the world's largest railroad networks, with some 42,000 kilometers of track, 1.3 million employees, and annual revenues of more than $20 billion.

Yakunin, since 2001, has also led the board of trustees of the St. Andrew's Foundation, a powerful patriotic organization created in 1992 with the goal of advancing the ideology of national revanchism. Some observers have found symbolism in the fact that Yakunin heads a foundation named for Andrew the "First-Called," who was the first disciple to be summoned by Jesus Christ into his service.

Under Yakunin's leadership, the foundation has launched several nationwide cultural-religious projects, including the repatriation and burial of the remains of two anticommunist heroes, Tsarist General Anton Denikin and emigre philosopher Ivan Ilyin. The foundation also played a key role in the recent reconciliation between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad -- a project in which Putin was also an active participant.

The Kremlin is a routine and enthusiastic supporter of the foundation's work, including its creation, in 2001, of the Center of Russian National Glory, of which Yakunin is also head.

The media has dubbed the center the "Order of Russian Orthodox Chekists" because of the preponderance of St. Peterburg-KGB alumni on its board of trustees: Defense Minister Ivanov; federal drug-control chief Viktor Cherkesov; and Georgy Poltavchenko, the presidential envoy to the Central Federal District.

The center's stated goal is the "revival of Russia's grandeur." It describes itself as a "nonpolitical, nonreligious" organization, but many of its activities appear to promote the ideological interests of either the Russian Orthodox Church, or the Kremlin, or both. Its hallmark project is its annual "Dialogue of Civilizations" international forum, complete with the presentation of the International Prize of St. Andrew. Past recipients include UNESCO Director-General Koichiro Matsuura and Jordan's King Abdullah.

Yakunin's role in promoting the national-patriotic ideology that colors nearly all of Russia's political debate makes him an ideal presidential candidate for the inner-circle "siloviki" drawn from the ranks of the secret services. But his business acumen also makes him an attractive option for the nation's political liberals. (Yakunin, in fact, has made a point of saying he sees "no meaning" to the formula dividing Russian political camps into "siloviki" and "liberals.")

Among Russia's major enterprises, Russian Railways has one of the most favorable debt-to-revenue ratios. Yakunin also participates in a number of additional business projects, including the construction of the Ust-Luga Baltic Sea terminal and the adaptation of the port in Murmansk for the export of liquefied natural gas. He heads the board of directors for the Black Sea port of Novorossiisk and the Far East port of Nakhodka as well.

Yakunin also showed his political versatility by opting to visit the London Economic Forum in May, an event Russian government officials pointedly avoided following widespread criticism of Kremlin policy.

Such resourcefulness has prompted many observers to suggest that Putin's versatile double could be the "first-called" to follow him in the presidency.

In a press release dated June 20, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) voices its "dismay" at recent initiatives undertaken by the Afghan government "aimed at imposing censorship and self-censorship about the security situation and the presence of foreign troops" in Afghanistan. The statement says a number of independent Afghan media editors and executives were "summoned" by Hasan Fakhri, an official with National Security Directorate of Afghanistan, and were provided with instructions on June 12 on what not to report; a list of banned subjects was then sent to the editors on June 18. RSF claims the directive orders media outlets not to publish "interviews and reports which are against the presence in Afghanistan" of foreign troops. The directive also instructs the media not to interview or film Taliban members, not to read the "provocative statements of armed organizations," not to demoralize the Afghan military, not to call the mujahedin "warlords," and not to publish "reports and interviews that are against the government's foreign policy." "We call on President Hamid Karzai to have this list of banned subjects officially withdrawn," RSF said in the press statement, adding that criticizing "the Afghan authorities or the coalition forces is not the same as condoning terrorism." AT

Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) lawmaker Dad Mohammad, who recently suffered the death of 32 friends and family members at the hands of militants in his home province of Helmand (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19 and 20, 2006), has said the Taliban control large swaths of the southern province, Kabul-based Tolu Television reported on June 20. The Taliban "have Sangin district and all areas surrounding it under control," Dad Mohammad told Tolu. "The district chief has only one room for his office inside the district headquarters." Despite the presence of an estimated 1,500-2,000 U.S.-led coalition forces, "final decisions" in the area are made by the Taliban, he added. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Yusof Stanizai rejected Dad Mohammad's claims, saying that military operations in Helmand have been successful. "The government is always hunting the enemies of peace," Stanizai said, employing a term frequently used by government officials to denote Taliban militants. "I would like to assure our people that in the near future the security situation throughout Afghanistan...will become normal," Stanizai said. Dad Mohammad served as the police chief of Helmand before his election to the Wolesi Jirga in late 2005. AT

A Romanian soldier was killed and four others wounded when their vehicle hit an improvised explosive device in Kandahar on June 20, the official Rompres reported. AT

Radio Farda quoted anonymous European diplomats as saying on June 20 that Iran faces a June 29 deadline for responding to an international proposal on its nuclear program despite suggestions by Iranian officials that no such term has been set. The deadline was conveyed to the Iranian government by EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana when he visited Tehran in early June, according to Radio Farda. June 29 is significant because it is when G8 foreign ministers meet in Moscow. In Baku, meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki suggested on June 21 that international negotiations should get under way. "Some kind of negotiation can start even before [Iran gives] the final answer," Mottaki said, according to Radio Farda. "I mean, there can be some questions and some doubts which need clarification, and that is why starting negotiations between Iran and the other parties, of course without any preconditions, can help all the parties come together more closely." Mottaki went on to say that Iran was not given a deadline and it is continuing to consider the proposal. BS

The Iranian Foreign Ministry announced on June 19 that Rasul Movahedian-Attar has been selected as Iran's ambassador to London, IRNA reported on June 20. Movahedian-Attar previously served as ambassador in Prague and in Lisbon. The appointment could prove significant in connection with the United Kingdom's role in nuclear diplomacy. BS

Said Muganli, editor in chief of "Yashmaq" magazine, said on June 20 that three of his staff members arrested in connection with protests in May remain in jail, APA news agency reported. The three men -- Sirus Husseininejad, Yunes Fakhtari, and Ali Reza Qulunju -- were arrested over their roles in protests in Tehran over the publication of a cartoon that offended many ethnic Azeris. Muganli said Azeri-language media face a hostile atmosphere, and he said his magazine might be suspended. Meanwhile, APA news agency reported on June 19 that Saleh Kamrani, the attorney representing several imprisoned Iranian-Azeris, has been arrested. Said Naimi, who chairs a committee for the protection of Azeri political prisoners, told APA that Gholamreza Amani, Abbas Lisani, Ayat Mehralibayli, and many others were jailed in connection with a march to the Babak Castle near the East Azerbaijan Province town of Kelidar. The Iranian central government normally responds to this annual commemoration of Babak Khorramdin, one of the first popular Persian leaders to oppose the imposition of Islam and Arab rule, with repressive measures (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," July 12, 2004). BS

Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) personnel located along that country's northern border claim they have detected Iranian personnel on the Lebanese side of the frontier, Jerusalem's Channel 2 television reported on January 19. Brigadier General Alon Friedman, head of IDF Northern Command Headquarters, said the Iranians are visible to the naked eye. "They are not soldiers, but we know definitely that they are associated with Iran," Friedman said. "We can see them easily." Friedman did not explain how the Iranians' nationality was determined. BS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met on June 20 with the visiting leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, IRNA reported. Khamenei said the withdrawal of occupation forces and the management of national affairs by Iraqis would strengthen national security. BS

The bodies of two U.S. soldiers whose disappearance sparked a huge rescue search were found near Al-Yusifiyah late June 19, international news agencies reported on June 20, citing Iraqi and U.S. officials. The two soldiers were reported missing after an attack on a military checkpoint in Al-Yusifiyah on June 16. The Mujahedin Shura Council, an umbrella grouping for a range of insurgent groups, claimed on June 19 that it had captured the soldiers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19 and 20, 2006). The director of the Iraqi Defense Ministry's operations room, Major General Abd al-Aziz Muhammad, told reporters on June 20 that the two soldiers were killed "in a barbaric way" and that their bodies bore signs of torture, AP reported the same day. A U.S. military statement said on June 20 that "coalition forces had to carefully maneuver their way through numerous improvised explosive devices leading up to and around the site" from where the bodies were recovered, AP reported the same day. In a statement posted on the Internet on June 20, the Mujahedin Shura Council said that the new leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Hamza al-Muhajir, personally killed the two soldiers. BAW

U.S. military spokesman Major General William Caldwell told reporters on June 20 that a U.S. air strike on June 16 in Al-Yusifiyah, 20 kilometers south of Baghdad, killed the "right-hand man" of Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, who was killed on June 7. Caldwell said Mansur Sulayman Mansur Khalifi al-Mashhadani and two foreign fighters were killed shortly before the abduction of two U.S. soldiers in Al-Yusifiyah, AP reported on June 20. Caldwell said al-Mashhadani, who was also known as Sheikh Mansur, recruited new members and "served as a liaison between Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the various tribes in the Al-Yusifiyah area, as well as playing a key role in [Al-Qaeda's] media operations." Caldwell added that al-Mashhadani was arrested in 2004 but he was released after the authorities dismissed him as an unimportant figure, AP reported on June 20. BAW

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi on June 20 announced that Japan will pull its troops out of Iraq but pledged continued support for the reconstruction efforts, Reuters reported the same day. Japanese Defense Minister Fukushiro Nukaga on June 20 issued the order to withdraw, a process that should be completed within weeks, AP reported. Japan deployed 600 noncombatant troops in Iraq, mostly in the relatively peaceful provinces of southern Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said on June 19 that Iraqi forces will assume responsibility for security from the Japanese forces in the Al-Muthanna Governorate in southern Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, 2006). "We played a major role in reconstructing infrastructure and basic living conditions through our activities.... We won the appreciation and trust of the Iraqi government and its people," AP quoted Koizumi as saying on June 20. BAW

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters following talks with his British counterpart on June 20 that Iraqi forces will assume responsibility for security in the Maysan Governorate, AFP reported the same day. Zebari's statement came one day after Prime Minister al-Maliki announced the handover of security responsibilities in the Al-Muthanna Governorate to Iraqi forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, 2006). "The next province that will follow, according to my discussions with Baghdad, will be the province of Maysan and [the city of] Al-Amara.... By the end of the year, we hope that the Iraqi forces will be able to take more and more control of the security situation," AFP quoted Zebari as saying on June 20. Zebari maintained that Iraqi forces are capable of providing security for the two governorates. British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett called the transfer of security in Al-Muthanna an "important milestone," AFP reported on June 20. Although the transfer will not translate into an immediate withdrawal of British troops, "it does offer a greater degree of flexibility and room for maneuver than we have at the present time," AFP quoted her as saying. The two officials called on the international community, especially Iraq's neighbors, to provide Iraq with more support. BAW

Three Iraqis charged with plotting to assassinate former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi during a visit to Germany in 2004 went on trial on June 20 in a high-security court in Stuttgart, Germany, the BBC reported the same day. The prosecutors accused the three of conspiracy and membership of Ansar Al-Islam, a group linked to Al-Qaeda. The defendants are being tried under a post-September 11, 2001, law that allows Germany to jail foreign terrorists for up to 10 years, AFP reported on June 20. German police raided the homes of the three defendants on December 3, 2004, after tapping telephone conversations between them. BAW