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Newsline - July 20, 2006


RUSSIAN MINISTER CRITICIZES ISRAEL OVER LEBANON
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow on July 19 that "we understand the legitimate demands of Israel for the release of its soldiers, but I do not think that what is happening in Lebanon can accelerate their release," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 18, and 19, 2006). Lavrov stressed that "such radical actions incite radicals on the other side." He suggested that Israel could have taken a different approach, but did not elaborate. Lavrov also said that "the agreement of all sides is the basis needed for the UN to send a contingent and guarantee relative security and calm there." Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said on July 19 that "the war in the Middle East is escalating.... It is particularly painful to witness the destruction of the civilian infrastructure of Lebanon," "The Moscow Times" reported on July 20. The paper also cited remarks by Middle East expert and former Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov to the effect that a peacekeeping force is "required and very important," since it would "create conditions for negotiations." PM

RUSSIA EVACUATES MORE THAN 1,350 PEOPLE FROM LEBANON
Foreign Minister Lavrov told Ekho Moskvy radio on July 19 that his ministry is negotiating with several Western countries about evacuating an unspecified number of Russian citizens from Lebanon. In addition, Russia itself has flown out more than 1,350 Russian and CIS citizens via Latakia airport in Syria, RIA Novosti reported on July 20. The evacuation involved five aircraft belonging to the Emergency Situations and Transportation ministries. It is not clear if there will be any further flights. "The Moscow Times" noted on July 20 that most of the Russian evacuees are of Lebanese descent. PM

RUSSIAN ENVOY LAUNCHES MIDEAST PEACE MISSION
Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Saltanov, who is a senior envoy to the Middle East, began his latest mission to the region on July 19 by meeting in Amman with Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdelelah al-Khatib, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 19, 2006). They issued a joint statement calling for "immediate world intervention" to secure a ceasefire in Lebanon. Saltanov then went to Damascus, where he and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mu'allim discussed the situation in and around Lebanon and the possibilities of brokering a cease-fire there. The Syrian official news agency SANA added that the two men "also exchanged views about ongoing violence in Iraq and how best to support the political process there." PM

RUSSIA WILL CONSIDER 'DISCUSSING' SANCTIONS AND A DEADLINE FOR IRAN...
Foreign Minister Lavrov said in Moscow on July 19 that "if the first [UN Security Council] resolution urging Iran to respond to [International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)] demands fails to work, we have agreed that additional measures, including economic sanctions, will eventually be discussed," Ekho Moskvy radio and RIA Novosti reported. "We will be ready to adopt a resolution putting teeth into the IAEA demands to Iran," including a deadline for a response, he added. Russia and China have so far strongly opposed the possibility of sanctions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7, 14, and 18, 2006). Lavrov also suggested that "a lot of time has passed, a lot more than the Iranian president [Mahmud Ahmadinejad] promised our president [Vladimir Putin], in terms of when Iran would give its reply." Iran has not responded to council demands that it stop its nuclear enrichment program, which has prompted U.S. President George W. Bush in particular to say that Iran is stalling, which he calls unacceptable. PM

...BUT IS IN 'NO RUSH'
Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said on July 19 that the Security Council is "not in a rush at all" in its dealings with Iran, the "Washington Post" reported on July 20. He added that "we do not want to ambush Iran in any way. We're very much in a negotiating political mode. We do not want to dictate things to Iran. Nobody's pushing Iran anywhere." He nonetheless noted that "we keep hearing from Iran that their attitude is supposed to be constructive, so, if this is the case, we hope that...a positive response will come, because [the international community's] offer is so generous." PM

GAZPROM SEEKS TO BUY OUT YUKOS' SHARE IN GAZPROMNEFT
A London-based spokeswoman for the embattled Russian oil company Yukos told Reuters in Moscow by telephone on July 19 Gazprom has offered to buy out Yukos' 20 percent stake in Gazpromneft, formerly known as Sibneft. She added that no discussions have yet taken place. Gazprom acquired 75 percent of Sibneft in 2005 and changed the company's name in May 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2006). The moves are in keeping with the trend under President Putin for key branches of the economy to be concentrated in large state-run corporations, which Andrei Illarionov, who is a former Putin adviser, and the "Financial Times" have described as a "corporate state" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23 and June 19, 2006). Elsewhere, Steven Theede of the United States resigned his post as Yukos president on July 20, saying that he has "exhausted all possibilities...of recovering value for the company" from its plundered assets, news agencies reported. In related news, Putin signed legislation on July 19 confirming Gazprom's monopoly on gas exports, kremlin.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2006). PM

PRIME MINISTER LAMENTS STATE OF CHILDREN'S HEALTH
Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov told the cabinet on July 20 that "it is known that a mere 30 percent of newborn [Russian] children can be described as healthy," RIA Novosti reported. He added that "there are more than 500,000 disabled children in need of various forms of treatment, and also some 730,000 orphans or abandoned children." The cabinet is expected to discuss measures to improve children's health. The UN has suggested that Russia's population of 142 million could drop by more than a third by 2050. President Putin has recently spoken frequently and at length about what he calls the demographic crisis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 17, and 24, 2006). PM

PRO-MOSCOW CHECHEN LEADER ADVOCATES EXTENDING AMNESTY...
Echoing comments by Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, Alu Alkhanov advocated on July 19 extending until January 1, 2007, the amnesty proposed on July 15 by Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev for Chechen resistance fighters, Interfax reported. Patrushev called on members of "illegal armed formations" to lay down their arms by August 1; Kadyrov proposed extending that deadline to September 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). In an interview with a Ukrainian journal reposted on July 19 on chechenpress.org, Chechen Republic Ichkeria Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev said such amnesty offers help to strengthen the resistance in that many amnestied resistance fighters subsequently join the Chechen police force but continue supporting the resistance by supplying information and facilitating its movements. LF

...CALLS FOR THIRD PUTIN TERM
Alkhanov has submitted a written request to the Chechen parliament to ask the Russian State Duma to consider amending the Russian Constitution to remove the stipulation that one person may not serve more than two consecutive presidential terms, Interfax reported on July 19. Alkhanov argued that the Chechen people want the ongoing process of "stabilization" to reach its logical culmination under President Putin. Other prominent Russian political figures, including St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko, have similarly argued that Putin should be legally enabled to serve a third presidential term (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7, 2006). LF

PROMINENT CHERKESS POLITICIAN DIES
Influential businessman and former Cherkessk Mayor Stanislav Derev died of heart failure on July 19 at the age of 58, regnum.ru reported. In 1999, Derev ran unsuccessfully against incumbent Vladimir Semenov for the post of republican president, polling 40 percent in the first round but losing a runoff. Semenov's failure to deliver on a subsequent pledge to appoint a Cherkess as prime minister led to repeated protests, and even to proposals that the republic be split into two constituent parts (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 5, May 20, July 8 and 30, September 2 and 17, and October 7, 1999; and "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17 and 18 and June 22, 1999, and July 18 and 27, 2000). Derev subsequently served as a senator on the Federation Council and as an adviser to the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District. LF

POLICE OFFICER DIES IN SHOOTING IN NORTH OSSETIA
Unknown gunmen opened fire on a temporary police post in the North Ossetian village of Maysky on July 19, seriously wounding two police officers, one of whom died later in hospital, ingushetiya.ru reported. Later on July 19, unidentified attackers mortared the village administrative building in Ali-Yurt, some 8 kilometers away in Ingushetia's Nazran Raion, ingushetiya.ru reported. No one was injured in that incident. LF

TWO ARMENIAN OPPOSITION LEADERS LAUNCH PRO-DEMOCRACY MOVEMENT
Former Prime Minister and National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian and former Foreign Minister and Zharangutiun (Heritage) party leader Raffi Hovannisian unveiled on July 15 what they term a broad-based "apolitical" civic movement, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on July 19. In contrast to existing opposition alliances that focus primarily on replacing the current leadership, the new movement will seek to promote democratization and civic consciousness. Vartan Khachatrian, a leading Zharangutiun member, told RFE/RL on July 19 that the movement wants to "form and strengthen a civic base" for strengthening the protection of human rights, judicial independence, and freedom of speech. Meanwhile, Zharangutiun has reached a legal agreement with the owner of the theater building in Yerevan in which it rents office space to continue using those premises, Noyan Tapan reported on July 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7 and 23, April 4, and May 31, 2006). LF

GEORGIAN, RUSSIAN OFFICIALS MEET
Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Merab Antadze met in Moscow on July 19 with Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov to discuss the impact on bilateral relations of the Georgian parliament's call the previous day for the expulsion of Russian peacekeepers currently deployed in the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflict zones, Russian media reported. According to a statement posted on the Russian Foreign Ministry website, Denisov warned that Georgia's actions are negatively affecting bilateral relations, and appealed to Tbilisi "to take a more constructive and realistic position." Also on July 19, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused Georgia in an interview with Ekho Moskvy of deliberately sabotaging ongoing efforts to resolve the conflicts in question by rejecting proposals by the OSCE to sign an agreement with the two unrecognized republics on abjuring the use of force and guaranteeing security in the conflict zones, Caucasus Press reported. LF

GEORGIAN FOREIGN MINISTER ADMITS PEACEKEEPERS' WITHDRAWAL PROBLEMATIC
Gela Bezhuashvili admitted on July 19 that securing the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal from Abkhazia and South Ossetia is a difficult process that necessitates abjuring international agreements Georgia has signed, Civil Georgia reported. He added that the final decision on whether to act on the parliament's demand for the peacekeepers' withdrawal lies with President Mikheil Saakashvili, who will make "concrete proposals" during his anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin later this week on increasing the peacekeepers' effectiveness. Bezhuashvili admitted that if Tbilisi does formally demand the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal, it is unclear which international organization will take over responsibility for peacekeeping in the conflict zones. Meanwhile, Russian Federation Council member Vadim Gustov was quoted on July 19 by regnum.ru as saying the Russian peacekeepers will not be withdrawn from South Ossetia and Abkhazia until an alternative force is available to replace them. LF

ABKHAZIA APPEALS TO INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY
The Abkhaz parliament adopted on July 19 a statement condemning the Georgian parliament resolution calling for the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers from the conflict zone, apsny.ru reported. The statement noted that the UN has praised the peacekeepers' contribution to preserving stability, and warned that their withdrawal will inevitably trigger an escalation of tension in Abkhazia and across the North Caucasus. The statement warned that in the event of the peacekeepers' withdrawal, the parliament will demand that President Sergei Bagapsh announce Akbhazia's withdrawal from the peace process. The statement appealed to the international community to make every effort to preserve peace and stability in the region and to thwart the "militaristic plans" of the Georgian leadership. LF

KAZAKH OPPOSITION PARTY VOICES CONCERN OVER POLICE ACTION AGAINST 'ILLEGAL' SUBURBS
Kazakhstan's Real Ak Zhol opposition party issued a statement on July 18 expressing "serious concern" at the attempt by police on July 14 to evict dwellers from a settlement outside Almaty that the authorities have deemed illegal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006), Navigator reported on July 19. The party accused the government of ignoring the problem of "spontaneous urbanization." It called on the authorities to halt attempts at eviction by force, form a government commission to deal with problems encountered by migrants from the countryside, and legalize the Almaty suburbs of Shanyrak and Bakai or compensate their residents for resettlement. DK

KAZAKH OPPOSITION LEADER MOVES TO FORM NEW PARTY
Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, leader of the For a Just Kazakhstan opposition movement, told a press conference in Almaty on July 19 that he has begun to form a social-democratic party, Interfax reported. Tuyakbai said that it was necessary to create a party because "the majority of members and supporters of [For a Just Kazakhstan] are not affiliated with any existing party and in fact are devoid of an instrument to express their political views." He stressed that the new party is not intended to achieve the "super goal" of bringing together all opposition forces. DK

KAZAKHSTAN TO BOOST COMPUTER LITERACY
Kazakhstan plans to increase computer literacy from current levels of 5 percent to 20 percent by 2009, a representative of the State Agency for Information Technology and Communication said in Astana on July 19, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Aziza Shuzheeva said that other plans include requiring information technology certification for state employment. Agency head Askar Zhumagaliev said that the 2007-09 program to reduce information inequality will cost 10 billion tenges ($85 million). DK

KYRGYZ POLICE ARREST ALLEGED PLANNERS OF UZBEK UNREST
Kyrgyz police have arrested five Uzbek men in Osh for participation in unrest in Andijon, Uzbekistan, in 2005, Reuters reported on July 19. Police said that they were members of the so-called Akramiya group that the Uzbek authorities have accused of masterminding violence in Andijon. An officer in Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service told Reuters: "They have confessed that they are members of Akromiya and that they were linked to the [Andijon] events." Local police spokesman Zamir Sidikov told Fergana.ru that police found bullets and 400 grams of explosives at the men's residence. Fergana.ru later reported that police in Osh also arrested Robiya Yuldosheva, the daughter of Akram Yuldoshev, the alleged leader of Akramiya. Yuldoshev has been imprisoned in Uzbekistan on terrorism charges since 1999. Official sources had not yet confirmed Yuldosheva's arrest. DK

KYRGYZ PRESIDENT CALLS FOR BETTER CRIME-FIGHTING...
Kurmanbek Bakiev told the heads of Kyrgyzstan's law-enforcement agencies at a meeting in Bishkek on July 19 that he has given them their "last warning" to step up crime-fighting efforts, akipress.org reported. Bakiev stressed that law-enforcement agencies need to clean house and remove discredited officers. The meeting ended with decisions charging the Prosecutor-General's Office with ensuring better coordination among law-enforcement agencies, the National Security Service with battling religious extremism, and the Interior Ministry with improved outreach efforts. DK

...AS POLICE ASK FOR HEAVIER EQUIPMENT
Interior Minister Murat Sutalinov asked for armored vehicles and better automatic weapons at the meeting, news agency 24.kg reported. Sutalinov said that his officers need the equipment to fight terrorists and members of the banned extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir. A meeting participant told the news agency that police in the south are expected to receive armored vehicles. DK

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION PARTY DEMANDS RELEASE OF ITS LEADER
The Political Council of the United Civic Party issued on July 19 a statement demanding the immediate release of its leader, Anatol Lyabedzka, who was recently sentenced to 10 days in jail on public obscenity charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 July 2006), Belapan reported on July 19. The statement characterized the charges as ridiculous, and demands that the Belarusian authorities halt what it calls the persecution of Lyabedzka for his legal and open political activities. "Every time he appears at a rally, picket, demonstration, or a meeting with people in the provinces, law enforcement agencies and bosses in power go into hysteria," the statement claimed. AM

BELARUSIAN PRO-GOVERNMENT COMMUNISTS CHECK OPPOSITION COMMUNISTS
The leadership of the pro-government Communist Party of Belarus (CPB) has asked the Justice Ministry to check the membership rolls of the CPB and the opposition Belarusian Party of Communists (BPC), Belapan reported on July 19. The CPB claims that many BPC members have defected to the CPB, and that the resulting increase in the CPB's membership might require the re-registration of some of BPC's chapters to the CPB. The CPB last week announced a merger with the BPC (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 July 2006) that the latter recognized as a government-orchestrated development intended to liquidate the opposition party. BPC leader Syarhey Kalyakin described reports of the merger as "Goebbels-style propaganda," but admitted that many BPC members believe the reports. "If the Justice Ministry orders us to provide information on the party's membership, we will find the 1,000 members required by law," Kalyakin said. AM

TYMOSHENKO BLOC BOYCOTTS UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT
Yuliya Tymoshenko, leader of the eponymous parliamentary caucus, announced on July 20 that her bloc will boycott parliament sessions until July 25, the day Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko gains the right to dissolve parliament, Ukrainian media reported. Tymoshenko also called on "patriots in Our Ukraine" to prevent the nomination of the Party of Regions head Viktor Yanukovych as prime minister. "We stopped using megaphones...only so society might hear the rustle of dollars in this hall," Tymoshenko said in reference to the bloc's disruption of parliamentary proceedings on July 11. She added that "dollars are still distributed among parliamentary seats in order to broaden the communist-oligarchic majority." Following Tymoshenko's speech, members of her bloc covered their seats in the Verkhovna Rada hall with a huge Ukrainian flag. AM

PARTY OF REGIONS HEAD CONVINCED OUR UKRAINE WILL JOIN ANTI-CRISIS COALITION
Party of Regions head Yanukovych has said he is convinced that the Our Ukraine bloc will join the "anti-crisis" coalition made up of his party, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party, "Ukrayinska pravda" reported on July 20. Our Ukraine announced on July 18 that it has officially shifted to the opposition. However, Yanukovych continues to claim that talks between the coalition and Our Ukraine representatives are in progress and that "most probably Our Ukraine will become a member of the coalition." Yanukovych also said that posts in the future government will be distributed among members of the coalition. AM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT PRAISES PARLIAMENT FOR RESUMING PROCEEDINGS
Ukrainian President Yushchenko on July 19 praised the Verkhovna Rada for resuming its work, Interfax reported the same day, citing presidential spokeswoman Iryna Herashchenko. "President Yushchenko welcomes the fact that lawmakers respect the Ukrainian Constitution and have announced the formation of a new coalition in accordance with the procedural rules," she said. Herashchenko confirmed that the presidential Secretariat on July 18 received the anti-crisis coalition's submission of the name of Party of Regions head Yanukovych as its candidate for prime minister, adding that the president will consider it within 15 days. AM

SPEAKER SAYS UKRAINIAN PARLIAMENT WILL APPOINT GOVERNMENT WITHIN DAYS
Verkhovna Rada speaker Oleksandr Moroz announced on July 19 that the parliament might form a new government within two days, Interfax reported the same day. "The president should perform his constitutional function -- to submit the coalition-designated nomination of the premier to the parliament," Moroz said. Moroz believes that if President Yushchenko endorses Yanukovych's candidacy, "he will gain in support both in the Verkhovna Rada and in the government." Moroz also said he opposes the possibility of dissolving parliament, and declared he will "defend all the democratic achievements, including those for which Maydan [Independence Square in Kyiv, a symbol of Orange Revolution] was fighting." AM

SERBIAN PRESIDENT AGREES TO HIGH-LEVEL KOSOVA TALKS...
Serbian President Boris Tadic announced on July 19 that his country will participate in direct high-level status talks on Kosova with ethnic Albanian officials, Reuters reported the same day. Martti Ahtisaari, the UN envoy and former Finnish president, proposed that direct talks involving the presidents and prime ministers of Serbia and Kosova be held in Vienna on July 24. Kosova has indicated that it will participate, but Serbia had sought more information about the content of the talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 18 and 19, 2006). After talks with NATO officials in Brussels, Tadic told reporters that Serbia had some "small technical problems" over the July 24 talks, but that these have now been resolved. BW

...AND WARNS OF KOSOVA PRECEDENT
Speaking in Brussels on July 18, Tadic warned that Kosova's secession from Serbia would set a precedent for separatists around the world and lead to instability, AP reported the same day. "From my point of view, [independence] is not a useful solution," Tadic said at a news conference with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso. "An independent Kosovo would be a precedent. It is going to be a problem for regional stability not only for the Balkans, but for other regions in the world. It will be a factor of instability for all complex nations in the world [including those] in the Caucasus region and even some EU member states." BW

OFFICIAL SAYS BOSNIA RISKS BEING LEFT OUT OF BALKAN TRADE PACT
An official with the Balkan Stability Pact said on July 19 that Bosnia-Herzegovina risks being left out of a regional trade pact unless it resolves problems in its bilateral trade relations with Serbia and Croatia, Reuters reported the same day. "There is a political risk at the moment that either we are not able to conclude the single CEFTA agreement or that Bosnia-Herzegovina is excluded from this," said Erhard Busek, the coordinator of the EU-funded Balkans Stability Pact. Bosnia has suspended parts of its bilateral trade deals with Serbia and Croatia to protect farmers and manufacturers. The regional trade deal for the Balkans, which expands the Central Europe Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), is due to be signed in September. The deal would bring Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosova, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, and Serbia into the CEFTA. BW

ALBANIA SEEKS NATO HELP IN LOCATING LOST HELICOPTER
Albanian authorities on July 18 asked NATO to help them locate a helicopter that they believe crashed into the Adriatic Sea, AP reported the same day. The helicopter was transporting a former deputy prime minister, Gramoz Pashko, to a hospital in Italy. The other five people on board were Pashko's 24-year-old son, two pilots, a technician, and a doctor. The helicopter disappeared on July 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). The head of the Albanian navy, Kristaq Gerveni, said Albania has asked NATO's Joint Force Command in Naples for assistance. "No survivors or other objects from the helicopter that could have identified the location of the helicopter have been found. The sea's depth -- 200 meters to 1,000 meters -- and the wide area makes searching and retrieving the helicopter very difficult," Gerveni told reporters. BW

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT SAYS TRANSDNIESTER REFERENDUM WILL AGGRAVATE PROBLEMS
Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin said on July 19 that the proposal to hold a referendum about the possibility of independence for Transdniester will not help settle the conflict in the breakaway region, Interfax reported the same day. "The upcoming referendum in Transdniester will aggravate the situation," Voronin said, adding that "neither the [Moldovan] authorities nor the international community will recognize its outcome." Transdniester's legislature voted unanimously on July 12 to call a referendum for September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). Voronin reportedly made his comments at a meeting with William Hill, the outgoing head of the Moldova mission of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). At the meeting, Hill introduced Voronin to his successor, Louis O'Neil. BW

KAZAKH ENVIRONMENTALISTS SAY CHINA MISUSES CROSS-BORDER RIVERS
Kazakh environmentalists are warning that the country's environmental safety and water security are at risk. The problem lies in China's use of two rivers, the Ili and the Irtysh, both of which have their source in China's Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, which borders Kazakhstan.

In an effort to fight separatism by the Uyghurs, who are Turkic-speaking Muslims, Beijing announced a "Go West" policy in 2000 that has led to many hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese being resettled in the Xinjiang, vastly increasing the population in the province.

Meanwhile, Beijing is exploring for oil fields in the country's west as fields in China's northeast are producing less oil and extraction is becoming more expensive.

Despite China's thirst for oil, the oil fields in Xinjiang are virtually untouched. The Turpan field, one of three large fields, is estimated to have 10 billion tons of oil. But the fields are deep in the desert and development will require people and equipment, the kind of development that requires water.

Mels Eleusizov, the head of Kazakhstan's Tabighat (Nature) movement and a former presidential candidate, says that China's use of the Ili and Irtysh rivers raises concerns. "Those lands are semi-deserts like [those in] Kazakhstan," he says. "They demand lots of water. [China] is developing irrigation [and] industry there. The population has been rising. Respectively, more water will be extracted from the two rivers that begin in China -- the Ili and the Irtysh. The decrease of water is a serious problem [for Kazakhstan]."

The Irtysh River rises in China's Altay Mountains, where it is called the Black Irtysh, before crossing into Kazakhstan. It then flows into Lake Zaisan and to the Russian city of Omsk, eventually joining the Ob River.

The Ili River rises in Xinjiang and also flows into Kazakhstan, terminating in Lake Balkhash. It is one of Balkhash's three main sources that provide 80 percent of the lake's water.

Balkhash is the 16th-largest inland lake in the world and the second largest in Central Asia. A great source of fish, Lake Balkhash also provides water for irrigation and government infrastructure, including hydropower, supplying electricity for towns in southern Kazakhstan.

Its water level, however, has declined since the 1960s due to increased usage. Eleusizov says that because of China's overuse of the two rivers, Lake Balkhash may have a fate similar to that of the Aral Sea -- which has been turned into a deadly desert and caused an ecological catastrophe.

Yet Beijing still intends to divert waters from the Ili and Irtysh. One project is the Black Irtysh-Karamai canal in Xinjiang. The 22-meter wide, 300-kilometer long canal is to carry water from the upper Irtysh River to an oil-rich region close to the Uyghur town of Urumqi.

Eleusizov says the diversion of that water will have tragic implications for the environment. "Even if China will take only 15 percent of the water from the two rivers, there will be a new 'Aral' -- Lake Balkhash," he says. "Then there will be more harm. There will be ecological refugees. We'll have a lifeless desert here. A great catastrophe is ahead of us. It will be worse than Aral."

Russian environmentalists share Kazakh experts' concerns. Aleksei Yablokov, the president of the Center for Ecological Policy of Russia and also a member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, tells RFE/RL from Moscow that China's overuse of water from the Irtysh has already affected some Russian regions.

"Russian environmentalists and authorities have long been monitoring the situation around Irtysh with growing alarm," Yablokov says. "China has intensively increased use of the Black Irtysh for irrigation. Now, the amount of water flowing [into Russia] seems to be half as much as [it used to be]. It has effected not only Kazakhstan, but also Russia." Among the negative impacts is the Ob River becoming nonnavigable in the Siberian city of Omsk.

Officials in Beijing, however, say that they consider all of the environmental implications of water projects on the Ili and the Irtysh rivers. Earlier this year, the Chinese government announced the first-ever moratorium on fishing in the Ili River. China's Xinhua news agency reported on May 18 that 20 tons of fish were put in the Ili. The report also said that the Xinjiang administration has increased forest protection in order to prevent soil erosion along the two rivers.

Eleusizov and Yablokov, however, say that their concerns have fallen on deaf ears as China as well as officials in Kazakhstan and Russia have been reluctant to discuss the problem.

Murat Auezov, a former Kazakh ambassador to China, says that he has little hope that officials in Beijing will change the country's water policies. "The subject is very serious," Auezov said. "It is not the first year that we have discussed it. [It can't be solved swiftly] because such a grandiose phenomenon as China is involved."

Environmentalists also say that the international community should put pressure on Beijing. Eleusizov and Yablokov add, however, that that won't be easy as China is not a participatory to the 1992 UN Convention on the Protection and Use of Transboundary Watercourses and International Lakes. Kazakhstan and Russia ratified it in 2001 and 1993, respectively.

PARIS CLUB WRITES OFF $1.6 BILLION OF KABUL'S DEBT
The Paris Club on July 19 announced plans to cut $1.6 billion in debt owed by Afghanistan, AFP reported. A Paris Club statement announcing the debt relief also said $800 million of Afghanistan's debt will be rescheduled. Afghanistan owes international lenders about $11.3 billion. In January, Paris club members Germany, Russia, and the United States met in London and agreed to erase all Afghan debt in accord with an initiative for heavily indebted countries overseen by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. MR

AFGHAN PRESIDENT CALLS FLAG BURNING UNACCEPTABLE
Hamid Karzai said on July 19 that the burning of the Afghan flag is unacceptable after reports that militants torched the country's colors in southern Afghanistan, AFP reported. Afghan authorities said neo-Taliban militants crossed from Pakistan into Afghanistan, entering the remote southern town of Garmser in Helmand Province where guerilla forces managed to take territory briefly on July 17. According to Afghan officials, neo-Taliban militants lowered the Afghan flag flying above the district headquarters and burned it. "Torching our flag, which bears verses of the Koran and the name of God and which represents our national and religious values, is not acceptable for any Afghan," Karzai said in a statement issued in Kabul. The areas neo-Taliban fighters took over have already been retaken by Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces. MR

NEO-TALIBAN KILL AFGHAN POLICEMAN
Neo-Taliban militants have killed an Afghan policeman in an attack on a construction company in southern Afghanistan, China's Xinhua news agency reported on July 19. Local officials said neo-Taliban gunmen attacked an Afghan construction company in the Changir area of Lashkar Gah on July 18, killing one policeman and torching two of the company's vehicles. Hajji Mahiudin Khan, spokesman for the provincial government, confirmed the attack, though the report left the details of the incident unclear. Militants occasionally strike construction companies operating in southern Afghanistan in an apparent effort to derail reconstruction efforts. MR

ATTACKER TOSSES GRENADE INTO CROWD IN NORTHERN AFGHANISTAN
A suspected militant lobbed a hand grenade into a crowd of people watching an outdoor circus in northern Afghanistan on July 19, AP reported. Initial reports were unclear if there were any casualties in the attack, which happened in a park in central Taluqan, the capital of Takhar Province. Scores of people were watching the event when the grenade went off, according to provincial police. Militant violence has ravaged much of southern Afghanistan, but northern areas of the country have been less affected by a seemingly strengthening campaign of guerilla attacks by neo-Taliban forces. MR

IRANIAN GOVERNMENT OPPOSES SIMULTANEOUS ELECTIONS
Government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham said on July 19 in Tehran that the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad opposes holding elections for municipal councils and the Assembly of Experts on the same date, Mehr News Agency reported. Campaigning for the entities differs, he said, and holding the elections simultaneously requires additional planning and preparation. The elections are scheduled for November 17 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 12 May 2006). BS

SECURITY FORCES FREE HOSTAGES IN EASTERN IRAN
Colonel Mohammad Javad Ithna-Ashari said on July 18 that security personnel operating out of the Fath military base in Sistan va Baluchistan Province have freed 35 hostages and arrested five of their captors, IRNA reported. This operation broke up a gang responsible for narcotics smuggling and people-trafficking, in addition to kidnappings, IRNA reported. BS

NEW CLERICS HEAD FOR IRANIAN PROVINCES
Khorasan Razavi Provincial Governor-General Mohammad Javad Mohammadzadeh introduced his new adviser on clerical affairs, Hojatoleslam Seyyed Marvian-Husseini, on July 17, provincial television reported. Mohammadzadeh said the clergy's role in managing the country is "substantial, fundamental, and irreplaceable." On the same day, Hojatoleslam Maadi, head of the Friday Imams' Policymaking Council for Khorasan Razavi, North Khorasan, and South Khorasan provinces, said the provinces will get more clerics soon, provincial TV reported. Maadi said there will be changes in the Friday Prayers staffs and related offices by September 23. He added that the three provinces do not have enough prayer leaders. By March 20, 2008, he continued, North Khorasan will have 12 instead of six Friday Prayer leaders, South Khorasan will have 10 instead of six, and Khorasan Razavi will have 50 instead of the current 38. Late last year it was reported that the administration of President Ahmadinejad was spending a great deal of money on religious institutions, but Friday Prayer leaders answer to the Supreme Leader's office and, presumably, that is the entity that pays their salaries. BS

IRANIAN GOVERNMENT DEVELOPS FUEL-CONSUMPTION STRATEGY
Energy Minister Parviz Fattah said on July 19 in Tehran that the government wants to reduce excessive energy consumption and is developing a related strategy, IRNA reported. Fattah said $5 billion is spent on energy annually, adding that a kilowatt of energy costs 700-800 rials (approximately $.08) to produce, but the price per kilowatt is only 150 rials (less than $.02). Gas and other energy sources are subsidized by the Iranian government, and unrealistically low prices often result in overconsumption. This is why the central government is considering gasoline rationing. Government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham said on July 18, however, that no decision on rationing has been made yet, Mehr News Agency reported. Elham said the government intends to facilitate the use of cars that burn natural gas and make public transport easier. The government also wants to get old cars, which use gasoline less efficiently, off the road. BS

FIRMS LINKED WITH IRANIAN MISSILE PROGRAM IDENTIFIED
Iranian state television reported on July 19 that many of the world's biggest businesses have ties with Israel or have "Zionist" shareholders, and it mentioned Coca-Cola, Marlboro, McDonalds, Timberland, and several other firms. Money spent on their products, state television reported, "turns into hot lead to rip open the chests of the children of Palestine and Lebanon." The previous day, the U.S. Treasury Department listed two Iranian businesses for their ties with the country's missile program, according to a press release. Sanam Industrial Group and Ya Mahdi Industries Group are "owned or controlled by, or act or purport to act for or on behalf of, directly or indirectly, the Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO)." The report adds: "AIO is a subsidiary of the Iranian Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics, and manages and coordinates Iran's missile program and oversees all of Iran's missile industries." The two firms have made extensive purchases of missile-related products. The designation is meant to slow Iranian proliferation. BS

LEBANESE PRESIDENT REPORTEDLY APPRECIATES IRAN'S SUPPORT
Emil Lahud met with Iranian Ambassador Mohammad Reza Sheibani on July 19 in Beirut and expressed gratitude for the Islamic Republic's support, IRNA reported. Sounding less enthusiastic about Iran, Druze leader and Lebanese parliamentarian Walid Jumblatt has again condemned violations of his country's sovereignty, France's "Liberation" newspaper reported on July 19. He added that Hizballah's "entire military infrastructure is the product of its sponsors, Syria and Iran." Under these circumstances, he continued, one cannot believe the Hizballah leadership because it is being "exploited, manipulated." BS

PRIME MINISTER SAYS IRANIAN GROUP INTERFERING IN IRAQ
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told reporters at a July 19 press briefing in Baghdad that an Iranian opposition group long based in Iraq is interfering in Iraq's internal affairs and must go, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on July 20. Al-Maliki said the Mujahedin Khalq, a group formerly supported by Saddam Hussein and dedicated to the overthrow of the Iranian regime, is too involved in his country's political and social issues. "It is interfering as if it were an Iraqi organization, despite the fact that it is considered to be one of the terrorist organizations and its presence in the country contradicts the constitution," said the premier. He added that the government currently has no contact with the group, which has some 3,800 members under guard at U.S.-run Camp Ashraf, located some 100 kilometers north of Baghdad. The United States and Iraq consider the group a terrorist organization, but it reportedly enjoys the support of some Pentagon officials and members of Congress because of its opposition to Iran. The group reportedly responded to al-Maliki on July 19, saying that the premier was carrying out the wishes of Iran. KR

IRAQI EMBASSY EVACUATES CITIZENS FROM LEBANON
The Iraqi Embassy in Beirut has begun evacuating Iraqi citizens from Beirut, according to a statement posted on the Iraqi Foreign Ministry's website on July 19. The statement said the embassy has made public-service announcements on Lebanese television channels urging its nationals to contact the embassy if they wish to leave Lebanon by land. The embassy is currently offering land transport to Syria and Jordan. It has waived all fees associated with passports. The embassy has also asked for Iraqis currently detained in Lebanese prisons to be evacuated, the statement said. KR

NUMBER OF DISPLACED IRAQIS RISING
Iraq's Ministry of Displacement and Migration warned on July 20 of a disturbing rise in internal displacement, Reuters reported. Ministry spokesman Sattar Nowruz said that 32,000 Iraqis have been displaced in the past three weeks. The ministry estimates that 162,000 Iraqis have been displaced within the country over the past five months. The real number is probably much higher, as the ministry's figures only include Iraqis who seek government assistance. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) said in a June 27 press release that the previous four months of violence in Iraq had left 150,000 Iraqis displaced (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 28, 2006). KR

20 EMPLOYEES OF IRAQ'S SUNNI ENDOWMENT KIDNAPPED
Armed gunmen kidnapped two groups of Iraqis employed by the Sunni Waqf (Endowment) Office over a two-day period, international media reported on July 19. Both groups of 10 employees each were kidnapped after minibuses transporting them to and from work were stopped at makeshift checkpoints near Al-Taji. The employees were seized by men reportedly wearing black uniforms and driving vehicles resembling those used by the Interior Ministry. Sunni Waqf head Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i said on July 19 that his office, a state agency responsible for Sunni mosques and shrines, will suspend its work until further notice. He claimed that those kidnapped included children traveling with their mothers, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on July 19. KR

FORMER IRAQI LEADER RECEIVING PSYCHOLOGICAL COUNSELING
Saddam Hussein is receiving psychological counseling after 12 days on a hunger strike, the U.S. military said on July 19. Military spokesman Keir-Kevin Curry said Hussein is still refusing food but continues to take liquids. He added that the counseling is routine medical care for detainees who risk harming themselves. Curry said medical and mental health professionals "try to convince the detainees to end their fast." Three of Hussein's codefendants in the Al-Dujayl trial are also on a hunger strike. Curry said all four men remain in good health. KR

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