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Newsline - June 22, 2006

Igor Shuvalov, who is an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his chief planner for the upcoming St. Petersburg summit of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries, told foreign journalists on June 21 that Russia will not ratify the EU's Energy Charter, which it signed in 1994, "Izvestia" reported on June 22. The daily, which is owned by Gazprom, noted that this is the most explicit statement yet by a senior Russian official to that effect and is probably aimed at removing the question from the agenda of the summit. If that was Shuvalov's intention, it is not clear whether he will succeed. The EU wants Russia to ratify the charter, which would end Gazprom's monopoly over Russia's pipeline system (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24 and 25, and June 1 and 21, 2006). Russian officials have dubbed the document "anti-Russian" and want a series of changes implemented as a precondition for ratification. On June 21, Shuvalov referred to unspecified sections of the charter that "do not correspond to [Russian] national interests." 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

Presidential aide Shuvalov also said in Moscow on June 20 that the international discussion over reported plans by North Korea to test a two-stage ballistic missile soon is "largely a matter of psychology," RIA Novosti reported. "Let them launch it first, and then we will see whether it will fly, where it will fly, and whether it can reach its target in the first place," Shuvalov said. The reports of an imminent launching have raised international concern, especially in Japan, South Korea, and the United States. Some commentaries have suggested that the missile's target might be Alaska. PM

The Hungarian oil and gas company MOL signed an agreement with Gazprom in Budapest on June 21 on extending the Russian Blue Stream pipeline from Turkey to Europe, dpa reported. Hungary's Economy and Transport Minister Janos Koka said that Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and unnamed Gazprom officials reviewed the project, as well as the possible construction of a large Russian gas-storage facility in Hungary, which Gyurcsany and President Putin discussed during the latter's visit to Hungary earlier in 2006. Koka added that the latest deal will make his country's gas supplies more secure. During the Ukrainian gas crisis, Koka called a meeting of energy ministers from Austria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia, and Slovakia to discuss ways of reducing their dependence on Russian natural-gas deliveries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 20 and March 1, 2006). On June 21, Koka noted that his ministry still backs the Nabucco pipeline, which competes with the Gazprom project. Hungary is expected to sign an agreement on Nabucco in Vienna on June 26. He added that the pact will not be binding but will enable the government to determine how much EU funding will be available to it. Nabucco will connect the Caspian region to Central Europe via Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, and Austria. PM

Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said in Moscow on June 21 that his company is considering constructing an export pipeline in Southern Europe to "complement" the controversial planned Russo-German North European Gas Pipeline project that circumvents Poland and the Baltic states, dpa reported. The southern pipeline would be an extension of the Blue Stream project, branch off in Hungary, and transport gas from Russia, Turkmenistan, and Kazakhstan, he added. Kupriyanov did not provide cost estimates or a time frame for the project. PM

Venezuelan Ambassador to Russia Alexis Navarro Rojas told reporters in Moscow on June 21 that his country would welcome Gazprom's participation in constructing a planned 8,000-kilometer gas pipeline to Argentina, Interfax reported. "Russia is the best partner for Venezuela. No other country in the world has better pipes," he added. PM

Up to 2,000 people gathered near Moscow's Ostankino television tower on June 21 to protest what they termed the increasing tendency of the media to become state propaganda outlets, Russian and international media reported. The demonstration was backed by the liberal Yabloko party and the Communist Party (KPRF) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8, 2006). Protesters called for free access by all political groups to the media, live TV coverage of State Duma sessions, and an end to state political control of the media. noted recently that "Russia's opposition media have been reduced to a handful of small-circulation Moscow dailies and Internet sites, such as," which, however, includes Rosneft among its advertisers. Some critics have spoken of an increasing "Putinization" of the Russian media, meaning a tendency to depict the authorities in a favorable light and focus attention away from controversial domestic political issues and onto foreign affairs, sports, entertainment, or business. PM

On the eve of the 65th anniversary of Adolf Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union, the Moscow-based Levada Center published on June 21 the findings of a poll of 1,600 respondents, which suggested that 86 percent of Russians feel no hatred toward their wartime enemies, Interfax reported. Some 57 percent have no objection to erecting a joint memorial to Soviet and Nazi dead, while only 31 percent disapprove. Asked about the reasons for the high Soviet death toll in the first months after the attack, 31 percent said it was because the invasion was not expected, 26 percent blamed Josef Stalin and his policies for weakening the Soviet military, and 18 percent argued that the enemy had better equipment. Asked how the heavy casualties could have been avoided, 46 percent said that Stalin should have listened to Western intelligence reports saying that an attack was imminent, 43 percent noted that Stalin could have better prepared the Red Army and not sent many of its commanders to the Gulag or had them killed, 35 percent argued that he could have better armed his military, and 14 percent felt that he could have established a broad international alliance against Hitler. The results suggest that the generations that fought in the war or were brought up on Soviet propaganda about it are passing from the scene, and that Russians have become well-informed on the circumstances leading up to the conflict. PM

Miklos Haraszti, who is the OSCE's High Representative on Media Freedom, told journalists in Yerevan on June 21 at the end of a three-day visit to Armenia that despite "significant progress" in improving Armenia's media legislation, "real pluralism" remains limited, especially in the electronic media, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Haraszti commended the diversity of the print media, but noted that some papers are weakened by lack of funds and cannot influence public opinion. Most Armenian newspapers are published in very modest print runs of only a few thousand. He also noted that there have been no reported attacks on Armenian journalists since 2004. Haraszti said the Armenian authorities have "privatized the right to grant licenses to TV channels," but that they have assured him that the relevant legislation will be amended and made more transparent. He suggested that limitations should be imposed to preclude one person owning several private TV stations. LF

In a message to participants in an international conference that opened in Stepanakert on June 21, Arkady Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), affirmed that developments over the past 15 years show that the people of the NKR are entitled to an independent state, according to Noyan Tapan and as cited by Groong. He said that the NKR is far closer than is Azerbaijan to conforming to European standards of democracy. Ghukasian dismissed as "unpromising" what he called Azerbaijani efforts "to reverse history and deprive the NKR of the independence it acquired at the cost of irreversible losses." He affirmed that "the future lies in talks between the NKR and Azerbaijan on the search" for ways to resolve the Karabakh conflict. The co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group, which is seeking to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict, will brief the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna on June 22 on the outcome of the most recent meetings between the presidents and foreign ministers of Armenia and Azerbaijan, reported on June 22. LF

A three-day meeting of foreign ministers of Organization of the Islamic Conference member states concluded in Baku on June 21 with the adoption of a Baku Declaration, reported on June 22. That declaration condemns terrorism as a phenomenon that has no basis in either ethnicity or religion, in line with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's statement in his address to the opening session that "we must not acquiesce to attempts to equate Islam with terrorism." It also condemned Armenian "aggression" against Azerbaijan and demanded the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of all Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territory. Conference participants noted the importance to their respective countries of increased cooperation in the energy sector and in creating new East-West and North-South transport corridors. LF

Parliamentarians voted overwhelmingly on June 21 to strip Badri Nanetashvili of his mandate on the grounds that he violated the constitution by simultaneously engaging in business activities, Caucasus Press and reported. Nanetashvili, who quit the majority United National Movement on June 15, owns a private television station and a newspaper, but insists that he has transferred responsibility for managing those media outlets to his brother. Parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze said on June 21 that he failed to produce convincing evidence that he has indeed done so. In March, the parliament voted to strip opposition Republican party deputy Valeri Gelashvili of his mandate because of his business activities. Gelashvili has appealed that decision in the Constitutional Court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, April 3, and June 14, 2006). LF

Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, said in Sukhum (Sukhumi) on June 21 that the Russian peacekeeping force deployed 12 years ago in the Abkhaz conflict zone should remain there "until the dispute over state and legal relations between Abkhazia and Georgia is resolved once and for all," Interfax and reported. The Georgian parliament is to vote next month on whether to demand the peacekeepers' withdrawal; Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Merab Antadze argued on June 19 that the Russian peacekeepers do not fulfill their mandate and promote a peaceful solution to the conflict and the return of displaced persons, but rather "protect the separatists and act as border guards cutting the conflict zones off from the rest of Georgia," Caucasus Press reported. Bagapsh said that if the Russian peacekeepers are indeed withdrawn, Abkhazia will quit all talks on resolving the conflict peacefully and fortify its borders, reported. LF

Kazakhstan's Mazhilis (lower chamber of parliament) passed amendments to the country's media law on June 21, Kazinform reported. The amendments, which were proposed by Culture and Information Minister Ermukhamet Ertysbaev and tighten regulations for media outlets, have drawn sharp criticism from journalists, the OSCE, and Mazhilis deputy Darigha Nazarbaeva (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 1, 6, and 14, 2006). The bill will now move to the upper chamber of parliament, Interfax reported. DK

U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan John Ordway said that the amendments to the country's media law approved by the Kazakh lower house on June 21 represent "a step backwards in the development of the free media in Kazakhstan," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. "This would not help Kazakhstan's bid to chair the OSCE in 2009," Ordway told a news conference. DK

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov held talks in Bishkek on June 21 with Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, reported. Those talks focused on economic and cultural cooperation between Kyrgyzstan and the Russian capital. Bakiev said that economic ties with Moscow have improved over the past year. A protocol between the Kyrgyz government and city of Moscow states that a Moscow House will be constructed in Bishkek and a Kyrgyz cultural and business center in Moscow, news agency reported. The two projects are to be funded by private investors. DK

Akylbek Temirkulov, head of the Bishkek social fund, an agency responsible for coordinating tax payments that fund social services, told on June 21 that U.S.-based NGO Freedom House has failed to pay contributions to the fund for its Kyrgyz employees. Temirkulov said that a 1993 agreement that gave Freedom House tax-exempt status applied only to foreign employees, and that the organization should pay taxes for its Kyrgyz employees. "They came here to teach us how to live, but they're in gross violation of the law themselves," Temirkulov said. DK

Tajik Deputy Economy and Trade Minister Abdughaffor Rahmonov told Avesta on June 21 that foreign direct investment in Tajikistan doubled to $15.9 million in the first quarter of 2006. The leading investors were the United Kingdom, United States, Cyprus, Italy, and Austria. Total foreign direct investment in 2005 was $54.5 million, according to the report. DK

The Turkmen Foreign Ministry announced in a June 20 statement that the country has asked Russia's Gazprom to pay $100 per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas in the second half of 2006 instead of the current price of $65. If Russia does not agree to the new terms within a month and a half, it added, Turkmenistan will halt gas shipments. The statement said that Turkmen Oil and Gas Industry Minister Gurbanmurat Ataev told a visiting European delegation on June 20 that deliveries on a late-2005 contract for Turkmenistan to supply Gazprom with 30 billion cubic meters of gas in 2006 at $65 per 1,000 cubic meters will be completed in two months. Turkmenistan informed Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller of the price hike on June 19, and when Russia held fast to a price of $65, "the Turkmen side flatly refused this proposal," the statement said. Miller's negotiations with Turkmenistan failed to produce an agreement, and a second round is expected soon. An increase in the purchase price of Turkmen gas would have a knock-on effect for Ukraine, which currently pays $95 per 1,000 cubic meters and buys most of its gas from Turkmenistan through Swiss-registered gas trader Rosukrenergo. DK

In a June 21 news release, Human Rights Watch (HRW) charged that Uzbek authorities are bringing criminal charges against human rights activists in an effort to stamp out dissent. HRW noted that Azam Farmonov and Alisher Karamatov, members of the Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan (HRSU), received nine-year prison terms last week on extortion charges. HRW said that the case "appears to be a politically motivated effort" against the two men, who told HRSU head Tolib Yakubov that they were beaten. "We are deeply concerned about Farmonov and Karamatov's safety in custody," Holly Cartner, director of HRW's Europe and Central Asia division, said. "Torture and ill treatment are widespread in Uzbekistan. The allegations brought by these two men should be thoroughly investigated." HRW also noted that another HRSU member, Yadgar Turlibekov, has been arrested on charges of "encroachment on the president of Uzbekistan." DK

Former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich said at a meeting with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in Brussels earlier this week that the EU and the United States should stress at the G8 summit in Russia in July that any Belarusian referendum on a proposed state union with Russia would be illegal, Belapan reported on June 21. "It is impossible to recognize the results of a referendum conducted in an undemocratic country," Milinkevich told Belapan, adding that he fears that Belarus might lose its independence if it forms a union with Russia. Milinkevich noted that this issue met with the full understanding of EU officials in Brussels. Milinkevich and Vintsuk Vyachorka, leader of the Belarusian Popular Front, visited Brussels on June 20, where they discussed possible new projects to support civil society in Belarus. Meanwhile, the European Union and the United States said in a declaration adopted at an EU-U.S. summit in Vienna on June 21 that they "will continue to support the democratic aspirations of the people of Belarus and work together to strengthen democratic institutions, assist civil society, and promote independent media." JM

Yuliya Tymoshenko, head of the eponymous political bloc, told the Verkhovna Rada on June 22 that the three Orange Coalition allies -- her bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party of Ukraine -- have formally signed an accord to form a new government in Ukraine, Ukrainian media reported. The accord comes after nearly three months of negotiations. The coalition will be supported by 243 votes in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada. The Party of Regions (186 seats) and the Communist Party (21 seats) will remain in the opposition. "You [the Party of Regions] wanted to replace the slogan of the Orange Revolution 'Bandits will sit in jail' with 'Bandits will sit in ministerial chairs.' Nothing will come of it, esteemed friends," Tymoshenko said in the parliamentary hall. JM

In a sharp rebuttal, the European Commission on June 21 told Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica to stop blaming Brussels for his government's failures, Reuters reported the same day. Kostunica assailed the EU on June 18, saying its policy toward Serbia is "deeply wrong" and has "produced exclusively negative effects" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2006). "Accusing the European Union for the country's own failures is not serious," Krisztina Nagy, spokeswoman for European Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, said. "Commissioner Rehn considers that it is in the hands of Serbia and its leaders to fulfill the conditions and realize the EU perspective," she added. BW

The Serbian parliament on June 20 approved a reshuffled government following a deputy prime minister's resignation, AFP reported the same day. A bare majority of 126 lawmakers in the 250-seat parliament voted to approve Ivana Dulic-Markovic of the liberal G17 Plus party as deputy prime minister. She replaces Miroljub Labus, who resigned on May 3 after the EU suspended talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement due to Serbia's failure to capture war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). Dulic-Markovic, who served as Serbia's agriculture minister, said after the vote that she will "use all my energy to contribute to a solution for continuing negotiations with the EU." Lawmakers also confirmed Goran Zivkov, also of G 17 Plus, as the new agriculture minister. Before the vote, Prime Minister Kostunica told lawmakers that his government's priority "remains to join the EU," but called on international officials to "halt pressures" on Belgrade. BW

Montenegro established its own Defense Ministry on June 20, one month after voting for independence from Serbia, AFP reported the same day. Deputy Prime Minster Dragan Djurovic said that Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic will serve as acting defense minister until general elections are held later this year. "Our main strategic goal is to join NATO and the European Union," Djurovic said. He added that the ministry will start forming Montenegro's own armed forces "soon." The new Montenegrin Defense Ministry will inherit some of the property and equipment belonging to the former army of Serbia and Montenegro. BW

Montenegrin Foreign Minister Miodrag Vlahovic said on June 22 that one of Podgorica's main foreign-policy objectives will be good relations with Serbia, B92 reported. "That which we promised before the referendum we are now fulfilling in the best and most direct way," Vlahovic said. "The first destination of the Foreign Affairs Ministry of Montenegro, as an independent state, member of the OSCE, and, very soon, a member of the United Nations, will be Belgrade and our friends in Serbia," he added. Vlahovic and Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic are scheduled to sign a protocol in Belgrade on June 22 establishing diplomatic relations. Montenegro is also scheduled to formally join the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on June 22. BW

A court in Transdniester on June 21 extended the detention of two Moldovan policemen who were arrested a week earlier in Tiraspol, BASA reported the same day. A previous ruling to keep Constrantin Condrea and Stefan Mangar in detention until June 21 was extended by 30 days. Transdniestrian special forces arrested five Moldovan police officers on June 14 while they were allegedly photographing unspecified facilities in Tiraspol. They were accused of planning to abduct people who oppose Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2006). Three of them -- Alexandru Pohilo, Vitali Vasiliev, and Igor Datco -- were released on June 19. BW

Even before Central Asian leaders arrived in eastern China for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization's (SCO) summit on June 15, it was clear that economic cooperation was increasingly joining traditional SCO goals like counterterrorism and the suppression of extremism and separatism.

But it was a declaration about integration within the SCO that drove that point home. SCO Secretary-General Zhang Deguang announced that the SCO would devote itself to further economic integration. China's Xinhua news agency quoted Zhang on June 14 as saying the current goal is "the free flow of commodities, capital, technology, and services in the region within 20 years."

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, former Soviet republics have issued frequent statements, signed piles of documents, and formed several groupings aimed at economic integration. But Zhang's declaration was the first to have included China in its architecture.

Yiyi Lu, a China analyst with the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, tells RFE/RL that it would be unwise to dismiss Beijing's ambitions for regional integration. She says Central Asia's integration with Russia has not succeeded in part because the Russian and Central Asian states' economies are based mostly on natural resources -- and therefore make more natural competitors. But Lu argues that there is common ground for a free economic zone that includes complementary Central Asian and Chinese economies.

"There is certainly the potential there," Lu says. "I think the Chinese economy and the Central Asian economies -- between them there is great complementarity. Maybe before it was Russia talking about economic integration with these countries. Maybe there is less complementarity economically there than [with] China -- because these countries have rich natural resources but maybe less-developed manufacturing, whereas China is well known these days for its manufacturing and all kinds of consumer products."

Central Asia's rich oil and gas reserves hold considerable attraction for energy-hungry China, the world's second-largest oil consumer after the United States.

More than half of the energy that China consumes is imported from abroad, mostly from the Middle East and Africa. Chinese planners clearly hope to diversify energy imports and lower dependence from volatile Middle Eastern exporters.

Beijing has recently expanded its energy ties with Central Asia. Kazakh oil started flowing to China in May through the first foreign pipeline to China. Also last week, on the eve of the SCO summit, China's National Petroleum Corporation reached a deal with Uzbekistan to invest $210 million in oil and gas exploration over the next five years.

But that may not provide the whole picture. Chinese officials announced on June 15 that some $2 billion worth of business contracts and loan agreements would be inked on the sidelines of the SCO summit.

China signed a deal on June 14 for the construction of a highway in Tajikistan, and officials announced financial plans to build a hydropower station in Kazakhstan. Then on June 16, $50 million was allocated for a loan to improve Uzbekistan's irrigation system. Chinese officials have also offered to link all six SCO member states via a fiber-optic network by 2010 to boost communications.

Chinese experts say their country has a lot to offer its Central Asian partners. Professor Jiangping Wang of the Shanghai Normal University tells RFE/RL that Central Asians can gain much from Chinese partnerships. "China has very rich resources, like oil, gas, and metals," he says. "And also China has very strong human resources; and experienced, skillful Chinese workers can play a very important role to help the Central Asian republics build some basic infrastructure -- such as highways, electrical power stations, and factories. And, of course, China can supply light-industry production to Central Asia. So, in many ways, China can contribute to the economic development of Central Asia."

But not everyone in Central Asia is convinced. Some observers fear a "creeping Chinese expansion" that might overwhelm local populations. Particularly in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan -- which share borders with China -- some people think a hunger for land has led to the migration of Chinese to the region.

Murat Auezov, a former Kazakh ambassador to China, is one such critic. He claims the Chinese have attempted to expand their territories throughout their history, and continue to do so. Auezov says Chinese oil companies working in Kazakhstan have imported all their own employees from China -- including cooks and doctors.

Auezov says he thinks China's growing influence threatens Central Asian states' sovereignty, as well as national identities. He wants to see Central Asians unite to counter growing Chinese influence.

"It is such a huge mass that it sweeps away everything -- including ethnic differences -- as it moves. China is inevitability," Auezov says. "It is a great neighbor for us, and we can benefit from it. But we need to be prepared. I believe the best means to preparedness is a conscious consolidation and solidarity of the Central Asian states and peoples. We, neighbors, have certain [bilateral] problems -- for example, border issues. But we should be able to stand together. We will maintain our sovereignty and freedom if we're able to create a well-functioning Central Asian brotherhood."

Words like "solidarity" and "brotherhood" might sound ambitious for countries with vastly disparate levels of natural wealth and post-Soviet histories replete with missed political opportunity. But analyst Lu notes that Beijing will have to take such concerns seriously if it wants to substantially improve cooperation with its Central Asian neighbors.

(Gulnoza Saidazimova in an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

In an editorial published on June 19, the government-run national daily "Hewad" called on independent media to avoid aiding the "propaganda campaign" of "terrorists." The following day, Reporters Without Borders voiced its "dismay" on June 20 at initiatives undertaken by the Afghan government that it says are "aimed at imposing censorship and self-censorship about the security situation and the presence of foreign troops" in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, 2006). The "Hewad" editorial asserted that "enemies of peace and stability" -- a term frequently used by Afghan officials to denote the neo-Taliban -- have increased their attacks and boosted propaganda efforts. "Even when they fire two or three bullets," "Hewad" said, militants claim to have carried out massive assaults. The editorial claimed that "some people" are "contributing" to the insurgency's propaganda campaign, "consciously or unconsciously." "Hewad" argued that while the basic duty of the media is revealing facts to the public, it is important to know how to carry out this duty. "If a report on a terrorist attack" is disseminated by the media, "it should be done in a way that it creates hatred against terrorists among the people instead of making them frightened," the editorial suggested. "Hewad" went on to urge balance, however; it cited an example of "a military report...broadcast in a province," saying that "at the same time, there should be reports of reconstruction, economic development, a rise in incomes, and cultural and social developments." "Hewad" concluded by warning that if terrorists succeed, they will abolish the current democratic system along with freedom of the media in Afghanistan and "will also forget that these media were once broadcasting their propaganda." AT

In a speech in Herat city on June 20, Herat Governor Sayyed Hosayn Anwari criticized Afghanistan's independent news agencies for their perceived failure to boost unity and condemn terrorism, government-run Herat Television reported. Saying that Afghanistan's television channels abuse freedom of expression, Anwari added that he has "repeatedly urged" such outlets "to broadcast various programs on national unity and stability and [to] launch a publicity campaign against terrorists." Anwari accused the media of sensationalizing minor incidents to cause panic. The media should not only focus on "negative points and shortcomings" of the government, Anwari argued, but also "report the government's achievements." AT

A self-described "Cultural Affairs Commission" of the "Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan" -- the name used for the country during the Taliban regime -- has issued a statement criticizing a number of news agencies in Afghanistan that have "adopted an extremely unfair policy toward the current political and military developments" in the country, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported on June 21. The statement charges that some news agencies are "censoring authentic reports given to them by spokesmen of the Islamic Emirate in order to undermine the Taliban's claims." It goes on to claim that when spokespeople from the U.S.-led coalition forces or from President Hamid Karzai's administration provide information -- "which is always exaggerated and baseless" -- these media outlets report them without "amendments." The statement concludes by warning that "such behavior and policy are considered a serious crime and an illegal act from the viewpoint [the principles of] journalism." AT

President Pervez Musharraf said in an interview in Rawalpindi on June 20 that Islamabad is "certain that Mullah [Mohammad] Omar is in Afghanistan," Islamabad's "Pakistan Observer" reported on June 21. Musharraf also said Mullah Omar has "reorganized [the] Taliban." "While in the past Al-Qaeda were in the lead, now Taliban are in the lead," Musharraf added. While taking "serious exception" to allegations by Kabul that Pakistan is not doing enough to fight terrorism, Musharraf conceded that the Taliban are operating on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border. Overall, Musharraf said, Afghanistan is no longer headed in "the right direction" and "warlords will sooner or later vanish" under democracy. AT

Speaking at a June 21 press conference in Vienna, President George W. Bush said Iran should hurry up and accept the international community's proposal on its nuclear program, "The Washington Post" reported. "It shouldn't take the Iranians that long to analyze what is a reasonable deal," Bush said. "Our position is we'll come to the table when they verifiably suspend. Period." Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel concurred, saying Iran "should not play with time," "The Washington Post" reported. In the western Iranian city of Hamedan earlier that day, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad announced a seemingly self-imposed deadline, Radio Farda and Iranian state television reported. "We have said many times that we are in favor of dialogue and negotiations," Ahmadinejad said. "We will announce our views on the proposals towards the end of Mordad [month ending 22 August]. We support talks but they must be on equal and just terms." In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi told reporters that it is not clear when Iran will respond to the international proposal because it is being studied closely, IRNA reported. BS

Unnamed "Iranian officials and Western diplomats" say President Ahmadinejad's popularity is "surging" among his compatriots, "The Guardian" newspaper reported on June 21. A Tehran University political science professor, Nasser Hadian-Jazy, told the newspaper, "He's more popular now than a year ago." The trend is being attributed to the president's populism, his communication skills, and his provincial tours. An article in the June 19 issue of "Mardom Salari" newspaper, on the other hand, reports that the president's popularity has fallen sharply because of his inability to make good on his campaign promises. "Mardom Salari" reports that while people respect his modest lifestyle and apparent dedication to resolving their problems, he has failed to bring the country's oil revenues to the voters' tables, as he said he would. "Gradually, Ahmadinejad and his advisers came to the conclusion that they would not be able to implement their numerous economic promises," the paper writes. Unemployment and inflation have climbed, and the administration has alienated its fundamentalist supporters, according to "Mardom Salari." BS

Three Iranians allegedly carrying $545,000 worth of cocaine were arrested at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in Mumbai late on June 20, the PTI news agency from New Delhi reported the next day. Senior Police Inspector C.K. Chavan alleged that Iraj Seifullah Davudnadi, Mohammad Raja Rajabali Ghanbali, and Azizullah Habibullah Kheri were about to board an aircraft headed for Tehran. In Tehran on June 20, Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai complained that Iran has not received much international assistance in its counternarcotics campaign, Mehr News Agency reported. Speaking at a meeting of NGOs that deal with drug abuse, Rezai said the central government must develop a plan that will encourage international cooperation with Iran. BS

Ambassador David Satterfield, currently the senior advisor for Iraq to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, noted continuing Iranian interference in the affairs of its western neighbor, "Al-Quds al-Arabi" and "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on June 21. Satterfield just completed a tour as deputy chief of mission in Baghdad, and he also has served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs and U.S. ambassador to Lebanon. "Everyone is worried by Iran's interference in Iraqi affairs, especially the interference that has led to acts of violence and dead Iraqi and coalition forces," Satterfield said. He encouraged Iraq's other neighbors to pressure Iran to cease and desist. BS

A June 21 statement posted on the Internet and attributed to the Mujahedin Shura Council announced that its legal committee has "decided to apply God's verdict" on the four Russian diplomats it has kidnapped in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, 2006). The statement said the four will be killed. "Let those diplomats be an example to those who consider challenging the mujahedin and who dare to come to the glorious ground in the Land of the Two Rivers." The statement criticized the Russian government for not responding positively to its demands that Russia pull its troops out of Chechnya and release all Muslims held in Russian prisons in exchange for the hostages. It further claimed that the Russian government does not value the lives of its citizens. KR

Jalal Talabani told reporters at a June 21 press briefing in Baghdad that he supports Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's national-reconciliation plan, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. He said that all Iraqis will be included in the national-reconciliation plan, "including Iraqis who hold arms against the government but have not committed horrible crimes against Iraqis." Talabani added that al-Maliki will formally present his plan to the Council of Representatives on June 25. The president said he believes the plan will improve the political climate in Iraq and give hope to many Iraqi groups that previously operated outside the political system. KR

Outgoing U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission in Baghdad David Satterfield told reporters in London this week that the reconciliation plan will be implemented alongside Prime Minister al-Maliki's new security plan, London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on June 21. The daily quoted Satterfield, who has recently been appointed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's senior adviser on Iraq, as saying that the plan will also deal with merging militias into the army and national security forces. The first phase of the plan will include the announcement of a general amnesty, followed by armed government action against those groups still challenging the state's sovereignty, the daily reported. Satterfield also told reporters that $1 billion is needed to modernize Iraq's infrastructure, which is in ruins after decades of neglect and the effects of the recent conflict. KR

Saddam Hussein and 55 other detainees from the former regime are on a hunger strike to protest the assassination of defense attorney Khamis al-Ubaydi, lead defense attorney Khalil al-Dulaymi told reporters in Baghdad on June 22, AFP reported. The announcement came hours after international media reported that Hussein and former Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan initiated a hunger strike to protest al-Ubaydi's assassination, whose body was discovered in Baghdad on June 21 two hours after men dressed in Interior Ministry uniforms took him from his home in the capital for supposed questioning. He is the third defense lawyer from the Al-Dujayl trial to be killed since the trial began last year. KR

The Industry and Minerals Ministry announced on June 22 that only 30 of its employees were kidnapped north of the capital on June 21, Reuters reported. Earlier reports suggested that as many as 80 ministry employees were kidnapped when gunmen ambushed three buses transporting the workers from the Great Victory Factory in Al-Taji, some 20 kilometers outside Baghdad. "Only 30 employees were kidnapped, of whom 25 were released the same day and only five now are still being held," an unidentified official in the minister's office told Reuters. KR