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Newsline - July 27, 2006

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said in Ryazan Oblast on July 26 that Russia will not reconsider its agreement to sell Venezuela military aircraft and helicopters valued at about $1 billion, despite a recent U.S. request for Russia to reexamine the deal, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2006). Ivanov said that "reviewing the contract is absolutely out of the question. In my opinion, the 24 [Sukhoi Su-30] planes and the number of helicopters recorded in the contract are not excessive for the defense of a small country such as Venezuela." He added that "we will honor the contract," and noted that Venezuela is not under any international arms embargo. In Moscow, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said that "military-technical cooperation with Venezuela, as well as with other countries, is carried out by Russia in full accordance with the norms of international law as well as Russian legislation." PM

On the second day of his three-day visit to Russia, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said in Izhevsk on July 26 that he appreciates Russian support in selling his country arms despite U.S. protests, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, 22, and 26, 2006, and "Russia: Chavez To Seal Arms Deal,", July 25, 2006). He said that he "would like to thank Russia, the producer of armaments, because Russia has helped to sever the blockade that was tied by the United States around Venezuela." The term "blockade" to describe U.S. policy has been a favorite of Cuban President Fidel Castro for decades. Chavez added, "I would like to thank President [Vladimir] Putin for his determination to work together with us in strengthening our ability to defend ourselves." Chavez visited a firing range and was shown on Russian television embracing Mikhail Kalashnikov, who designed the assault rifle that bears his name. "There is a revolution going on in Venezuela at the moment, and to make it with old weapons is difficult. We must be strong," Chavez said. He also noted that Russia will help build a 8,000-kilometer gas pipeline linking Venezuela and Argentina, among other countries. Russia is the world's leading gas producer and second-largest oil exporter. Venezuela is the fifth-largest oil exporter and has made use of its oil and gas resources to gain political influence in the region. Chavez is visiting several countries to win support for his bid for a UN Security Council seat and with an eye on the Venezuelan presidential elections in December. PM

Presidents Putin and Chavez discussed energy cooperation and arms sales, among other issues, in the Kremlin on July 27, their first meeting since 2004, Interfax reported. Putin told his guest that "judging by what we saw in the local and parliamentary elections, you have a good chance [of winning the presidential vote in December]. We wish you every success." He added that he is "pleased to say that the relations between our two countries are advancing. In absolute figures, trade volumes remain modest, but the speed of turnover growth is positive and impressive at over 50 percent." Chavez asked Putin to help construct an oil pipeline in southern Venezuela and continue work on a number of projects to develop oil fields. PM

Prior to the July 27 Kremlin meeting, Chavez unveiled a statue of his 19th-century hero, Simon Bolivar, near a Moscow library, Russian news agencies reported. Chavez said that "the biggest threat that exists in the world is the empire of the United States. It is a senseless, blind, stupid giant that doesn't understand the world, doesn't understand human rights, and doesn't understand anything about humanity, culture, and consciousness." Chavez has often spoken about a strategic alliance with Russia, but several Russian commentators noted on July 27 that Putin's interest in Venezuela centers more on energy and business than on power politics. They noted, however, that Putin is willing to use Chavez to send a message to Washington that Moscow is entitled to have good relations with Caracas if Washington can have close ties to Tbilisi. Former Venezuelan Ambassador to Russia Carlos Mendoza noted recently that Putin is a champion of "multipolarity" in international relations, and that Chavez seeks to make Latin America -- under his leadership -- one of those poles. PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Rome on July 26 that he is satisfied with the results of the one-day meeting of the foreign ministers of Russia, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt, as well as representatives of the UN, EU, and World Bank, and ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25 and 26, 2006). Lavrov stressed that "UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan gave instructions regarding the strength of the [proposed] stabilization force and its mandate. Everything will be discussed between the [unnamed] parties. This is an indispensable condition put forward by Russia." In his account of the conclusions of the gathering, Lavrov said that the participants were unanimous in agreeing on the importance of the earliest possible cease-fire in the region. The final decision regarding the introduction of a stabilization force will be made once a cease-fire is in place, he added. "The purpose of these actions is to help the Lebanese government establish control in the country," Lavrov noted. The Moscow daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on July 27, however, that the meeting did not achieve much that could lead to a resolution of the conflict in Lebanon. The paper pointed out that one should not have expected much from a gathering to which Israel, Syria, and Iran were not invited. PM

Aleksei Lebed, the governor of Siberia's resource-rich Republic of Khakasia, whom state prosecutors recently charged with abuse of office, was quoted by "Izvestia" on July 27 as saying that the case against him is primarily personal in nature (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25, 2006). It's all rather like a practical joke. I didn't receive any official notification of the case against me. The Prosecutor-General's Office moves very slowly," he added. Lebedev noted that the two trips abroad he is charged with having taken at the expense of institutes of higher education took place seven years ago. Once the propriety of the arrangement was called into question, he paid the bills for the trips himself, he added. Lebed charged, however, that "the problem is that I was once involved in a personal conflict and wasn't very tactful in my treatment of a certain senior official. That is the cause of all these investigations. I won't name the person in question. Let's maintain the intrigue." PM

A Russian Dnepr rocket carrying 18 satellites crashed shortly after launching at the Baikonur cosmodrome on July 26, Russian and international media reported. All satellites, most of which were American, were destroyed. In addition, one satellite was Italian, a second was Russian, and a third was the Belka monitoring satellite that would have been Belarus's first space satellite. President Aleksandr Lukashenka was present at the cosmodrome for the launch. PM

The National Information Service of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria has issued a statement, posted on July 27 on the resistance website, denying that Chechen resistance fighters are participating in the ongoing hostilities in Georgia's Kodori Gorge between Georgian government forces and Svan militiamen led by former regional Governor Emzar Kvitsiani. The statement termed Russian and Georgian reports of Chechen involvement "a fabrication." Georgian presidential administration head Giorgi Arveladze similarly told Rustavi-2 television on July 27 that no Chechens have been deployed to Kodori. Interfax on July 26 quoted Kvitsiani's sister Nora as saying several dozen Chechens were fighting alongside Georgian government forces against the Svans. The Georgian television station Rustavi-2 reported on July 26 that members of the Confederation of Mountain Peoples (KNK), including Chechens and Kabardians, were heading for Kodori via the Lata valley in Abkhazia. The KNK mobilized volunteers in 1992 to fight on the Abkhaz side in the war with Georgia. LF

A high-level Russian government delegation that included Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, and presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak traveled to Grozny on July 25 for talks with Chechen officials on ongoing efforts to restore the republic's war-shattered infrastructure, according to the Russian daily "Kommersant" and website of the pro-Moscow Chechen administration ( It was decided to increase funding for reconstruction to 1.7 billion rubles ($63.3 million), of which more than 450 million rubles will be spent on educational facilities and a further 400 million on highway repair and construction. It is envisaged that reconstruction in the social and economic spheres will be completed by 2011. Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov told journalists in Grozny on July 26 that the Moscow delegation was amazed at the extent of reconstruction in his home town of Gudermes. LF

Speaking on republican television, Ingushetia's Mufti Isa-hadji Khamkhoyev has appealed to militants to lay down their arms, reported on July 26. Russian officials have made similar appeals to fighters in Chechnya, Daghestan, and Kabardino-Balkaria (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17 and 24, 2006). Federal Security Service Director Nikolai Patrushev, who made the first such appeal, told journalists in Tomsk on July 27 that the original August 1 deadline for Chechen fighters to do so will probably be extended, Interfax reported. LF

Armenian Catholicos Garegin II traveled on July 25 to Stepanakert, where he laid the foundation stone of a new cathedral and met with Arkady Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), Noyan Tapan reported. Since his election in 1999, Garegin has visited the NKR on at least one previous occasion, in July 2003. LF

Farhad Aliyev, who was dismissed in October 2005 as economic development minister and arrested on charges of plotting a coup d'etat, released an address to the Azerbaijani people from his detention cell on July 26, reported. Aliyev declared that he is innocent of the coup charges he faces, and expressed the conviction that "people know very well and I worked for nine years [for my country.]" He implied that his arrest was retaliation for his efforts to crack down on corruption. Aliyev also said that "some time ago" he was warned that if he refused to plead guilty to the coup charge, he would be implicated in the murder in March 2005 of opposition journalist Elmar Huseynov. Testifying at his trial on July 25, former Interior Ministry official Haci Mammadov claimed to have murdered Huseynov at Aliyev's behest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2006, and "Azerbaijan: Former Police Official Confesses To Journalist's Murder,", July 26, 2006). Aliyev's lawyer Elton Quliyev told on July 26 that his client never met with Mammadov and is not acquainted with him. LF

A court in Azerbaijan's Nakhichevan Autonomous Republic has sentenced Mushfiq Alekperov, a member of the Nakhichevan branch of the opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party, to six years' imprisonment on charges of illegal possession of arms, and reported on July 27. Police who searched Alekperov's apartment after a local doctor complained of his "rude attitude" found one live and one spent bullet. During the November 2005 parliamentary election, Alekperov acted as proxy for an opposition candidate who accused the doctor of bribing voters. LF

Fighting between Georgian government forces (their numbers are variously estimated by Interfax at 600 and by Abkhaz official Ruslan Kishmaria at 2,000 men) and the insurgent Svan militia headed by former regional Governor Emzar Kvitsiani died down late on July 26 due to dark and adverse weather conditions but resumed on July 27, Georgian media reported. Georgian presidential administration head Giorgi Arveladze told journalists on July 26 that Georgian forces have taken control of "most" of the villages in the upper reaches of the gorge, Caucasus Press reported. Georgia Interior Ministry forces claimed to have surrounded Kvitsiani and some 60 of his supporters late on July 26. Abkhaz Defense Minister Lieutenant General Sultan Sosnaliyev rejected as untrue Georgian media reports that Kvitsiani has been wounded, Interfax reported. He added that Abkhazia will not offer Kvitsiani refuge. The Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office has opened a criminal case against Kvitsiani on charges of illegal possession of arms and heading an illegal armed group, Caucasus Press reported on July 27. Meanwhile, Georgian forces have reportedly confiscated quantities of armaments from inhabitants of several Kodori villages. There are no reliable reports of casualty figures; one elderly woman who refused to leave her home in the village of Chkhalta is reported to have been killed by artillery fire, Caucasus Press reported on July 27. LF

Former Georgian intelligence chief Irakli Batiashvili, who is one of the leaders of the opposition party Forward, Georgia! was summoned on July 26 to the Prosecutor-General's Office in connection with a telephone conversation he held with Kvitsiani, extracts of which were broadcast by Rustavi-2 the previous evening, Caucasus Press reported. Batiashvili said Kvitsiani's statement rejecting an offer of help from an Abkhaz official to whom he is allegedly related was excised from the broadcast footage. LF

A police officer who received burns over 70 percent of his body in a clash over unauthorized construction in an Almaty suburb on July 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006) has died from his wounds, Interfax-Kazakhstan and Navigator reported on July 26. Aset Baisenov was taken hostage during the clash, doused with gasoline, and set alight. Police in Almaty have released a statement saying that they have detained four people in connection with the incident, including the person who allegedly attacked Baisenov, Navigator reported. DK

Alyaksandr Lukashenka observed the unsuccessful launch of what would have been Belarus's first satellite in Baikonur, Kazakhstan, on July 26, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The rocket carrying the satellite failed shortly after launch. Igor Panarin, spokesman for the Russian space agency, Roskosmos, told RIA Novosti that Lukashenka "stoically accepted this blow of fate." DK

Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov and Sergei Kiriyenko, head of the Russian atomic energy agency, Rosatom, have concluded three agreements paving the way for Russia and Kazakhstan to join forces on atomic energy issues, Khabar reported on July 26. The first agreement was a memorandum setting up a joint venture on uranium enrichment in Russia, the second a memorandum on a joint venture to mine uranium in Kazakhstan, and the third to develop small and mid-sized reactors for Russia, Kazakhstan, and international markets, Kazinform reported. Kiriyenko said that the total value of the three joint ventures will be $10 billion, RIA Novosti reported. Additionally, a Rosatom spokesman said that Kazakhstan will not conduct tenders for the construction of nuclear reactors in Kazakhstan -- Russia will build them, reported on July 26. DK

A investigation conducted by the office of Kyrgyz ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu has revealed that over 50,000 of 257,725 new passports issued between February 19, 2005, and June 26, 2006, were defective, reported. Moreover, citizens who received defective passports had to pay a second fee to receive a replacement passport. The office said that Kyrgyz citizens paid 172,819 euros ($220,000) in excess passport fees. Bakir-uulu has asked Prime Minister Feliks Kulov to take action on the basis of the investigation. DK

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov attended a ceremony on July 26 to mark the formal opening of the Anzob tunnel, IRNA reported. The tunnel, which is located 80 kilometers outside Dushanbe, links the Tajik capital with roads leading north. Ahmadinejad called the tunnel project a turning point in Iranian-Tajik relations. "The implementation of this big dream is evidence of the two nations' desire to boost their relations and start larger development projects," Tajik television quoted him as saying. According to IRNA, Iran provided $21 million in financing for the $40 million project. DK

At a joint press conference in Dushanbe on July 26, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Iranian President Ahmadinejad, and Tajik President Rakhmonov called for a diplomatic solution to the current conflict in the Middle East, IRNA reported. The three met with reporters after a closed-door meeting on regional cooperation. Asked whether Iran supplies arms to Hizballah, Ahmadinejad said, "Hizballah is part of Lebanon and we defend the territorial integrity of Lebanon," RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. "We are against forced occupation," he added. "We ask [the United States]: 'What are your intentions and where do you want to go with the situation you have created?'" Ahmadinejad said that the United States has charged that Iran is backing Hizballah because "they are desperate in the face of a popular group in Lebanon and they want to say that this group is not on its own, that it is backed by a country." DK

At a press conference on July 26 in Dushanbe with his Tajik counterpart President Rakhmonov, President Ahmadinejad proposed the establishment of a Persian-language television network for Afghan, Iranian, and Tajik people, IRNA reported on July 26. Ahmadinejad said that the Tajik side has "welcomed" the television initiative "so it should be discussed with Afghan authorities." Iran currently broadcasts programs to Afghanistan in both Dari (Afghan Persian) and in Pashto. It is not clear if the proposed television network would be in Iranian Persian or it would also include segments in Dari or Tajik. While Dari is one of the official languages of Afghanistan, traditionally Afghan authorities have viewed Iranian cultural influences, including in the field of language, with suspicion. AT

A civil court in Tashkent ruled on July 26 to close the Uzbek offices of the U.S.-based agricultural NGO Winrock International, reported. The court supported the Justice Ministry's contention that the organization's activities in Uzbekistan did not correspond to its charter. In particular, a Winrock-financed publication entitled "Islam and Women" was found to denigrate national values. The NGO now has 20 days to appeal the verdict. DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has signed into law an anticorruption bill passed by the legislature earlier this summer, Belapan reported on July 26. The bill extends the list of those who can be prosecuted for corruption by adding foreign citizens, presidential candidates, members of the upper parliamentary house and local soviets who are employed by a company or organization, as well as health-care employees and university professors. The bill bans government officials from opening and keeping accounts with foreign banks and fulfilling orders coming from political parties and nongovernmental organizations. The bill also requires officials and their family members to file annual income and property statements and to notify the tax authorities about the sale or purchase of property valued above $29,000. The law will come into force six months after its official publication. JM

More than 1,500 people have died in Belarus this year of alcohol poisoning after drinking counterfeit products, Belapan reported on July 26, quoting the Belarusian Interior Ministry. The number of deaths from alcohol poisoning last year in Belarus was 3,300. "If you...remove the factor of alcohol abuse, the average life expectancy of Belarusian men increases by seven years," Belarusian sociologist Mikhail Zaleski told RFE/RL in a recent interview. Life expectancy for Belarusian men stands now at 63 years, and for women at 75. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko will meet parliamentary leaders at roundtable talks in the Presidential Secretariat office in Kyiv at 4 p.m., local time, on July 27, Ukrainian media reported the same day. "The goal of the roundtable is to consolidate state institutions, leading political forces, and civic activists around national priorities," the presidential press service announced, adding that the talks will aim to resolve the current parliamentary crisis over the formation of a new government in a "non-confrontational way." The talks are to be attended by parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Moroz, caretaker Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov, the leaders of all parliamentary caucuses (Roman Bezsmertnyy, Petro Symonenko, Yuliya Tymoshenko, Viktor Yanukovych, and Vasyl Tsushko), and "civic leaders." The talks will be televised live by two channels. JM

Speaking to journalists in Kyiv on July 26, President Yushchenko reiterated his earlier stance that he will decide whether to endorse Viktor Yanukovych as prime minister and forward his name to parliament within the 15 days of receipt of his candidacy, Ukrainian media reported. The coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party submitted Yanukovych as its candidate for the post on July 18, meaning a decision is expected by August 2. Yushchenko said that there are essentially two options for overcoming the current political impasse in Ukraine: to form a "different" parliamentary coalition or to disband the Verkhovna Rada. "I do not rule out this option [of dissolving parliament]. I don't. I just want to say that I'm certain that it may cause additional confrontation in society and among political forces. However, as an answer, [this option] can exist," Yushchenko added. Yushchenko has the right to dissolve the current parliament over its inability to form a new government within the constitutionally prescribed term of 60 days following its inaugural session, which took place on May 25. JM

Frank Wisner, a U.S. envoy to Kosova's final-status talks, met with ethnic Albanian leaders in Prishtina on July 27, AP reported the same day. The meeting came one day after Wisner met with Serbian leaders and urged them to show more flexibility in resolving Kosova's status (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2006). "Both the Serbian side and the Kosovo Albanian side should look toward future negotiations, be flexible, and work toward a compromise in order to be able to reach a realistic solution," Wisner said at the end of his July 26 visit to Belgrade. "It is important that any solution provide protection for Serbs and other minorities, and fall within the context of a successful, progressive, and democratic Kosovo," he added. Wisner said that Serbian President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica assured him that they will attend future high-level meetings with ethnic Albanian officials similar to the one held in Vienna on July 24 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24, 2006). BW

During a visit to Belgrade on July 26, Clint Williamson, the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, urged Serbia to "apprehend and transfer all persons indicted by the UN war crimes tribunal," AP reported the same day. In meetings with Serbian President Tadic, Prime Minister Kostunica, Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic, and other officials, Williamson heard details of the government's latest plan to arrest war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 18 and 26, 2006). "The plans and the commitments are made," Williamson said. "Now is the time for Serbia to take action and to achieve full cooperation with the tribunal," he added. "Let us not forget that Mladic is accused of supervising the mass murder of thousands of unarmed people. Unless Serbia closes this dark chapter, it cannot move swiftly into the future its citizens deserve." The Serbian daily "Danas" reported on July 27 that Belgrade plans to issue an arrest warrant for Mladic and offer a reward for information leading to his capture, dpa reported. BW

During a visit to Belgrade on July 26, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel suggested establishing a support group of countries that have good relations with Serbia, dpa reported the same day. The group could assist Serbia to better explain and promote its position regarding the breakaway province of Kosova, he said. "I feel we are in a situation where the Serbian position should be allowed more space, more possibilities to state its stance," Rupel said. It was not immediately clear which countries Rupel thought should be in the proposed group. Serbian Foreign Minister Draskovic and Rupel agreed that a solution to the Kosova issue should not be imposed from the outside. BW

Macedonia's new parliament was formally convened on July 26 with a coalition led by the nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) holding a majority, dpa reported the same day. The VMRO-DPMNE won the July 5 elections with a total of 45 seats and has agreed to a coalition deal with Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSH) and three smaller parties that will give it a total of 64 seats (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7 and 19, 2006). VMRO-DPMNE spokesman Antonio Milososki said President Branko Crvenkovski is expected to name VMRO-DPMNE head Nikola Gruevski as prime minister-designate on July 27. A government will then be formed within 20 days, Milososki added. BW

The United States will not recognize the results of a planned independence referendum in Moldova's pro-Moscow breakaway Transdniester region, Interfax reported on July 26. Transdniester's parliament voted unanimously on July 12 to hold the referendum on September 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). Speaking in Vienna at a meeting of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) Permanent Council, U.S. Ambassador to the OSCE Julie Finley said the referendum could not be seen as a legitimate expression of the will of the province's people and that no country would recognize Transdniester as a state with a lawful government. Finley also called on Russia to demand that Transdniestrian officials cancel the planned referendum and help find a negotiated settlement to the conflict. Also on July 26, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State David Kramer said in a meeting with Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin that the international community will not recognize the referendum's results, Interfax reported the same day. BW

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrived in Russia on July 25 on a three-day visit that is expected to see the signing of several important arms deals. But Chavez is also eager to involve Russia in his oil-rich country's ambitious energy projects, and has already met with top Russian oil company representatives.

Chavez started his Russian tour by visiting the southern city of Volgograd, a hub of weapons manufacturing. He then traveled to Izhevsk, where he visited the factory producing Kalashnikov assault rifles. He was to fly to Moscow later on July 26 for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 27.

Chavez's route reflects his efforts to boost military trade with Russia. He is expected to sign a deal to buy 30 fighter jets and 30 helicopters from Russia, and is negotiating with Russia to build a factory to manufacture Kalashnikov rifles on Venezuelan soil. But the schedule of the Venezuelan leader also illustrates another key ambition -- securing Russia's help in developing Venezuela's energy industry.

Chavez met with Russian businessmen during his Volgograd visit, including LUKoil President Vagit Alekperov and Dmitry Pumpyansky, a top executive of TMK, a Russian firm producing steel pipes for oil and gas transport. LUKoil could not immediately provide details of the talks between Chavez and Alekperov, but the Venezuelan leader is sure to discuss energy projects again when he meets Putin in Moscow.

Eric Kraus, a portfolio manager for the Moscow-based Nikitsky Fund, explains why Venezuela is so eager to tap into Russia's energy expertise. "The problem for Venezuela is that they have to extract a higher proportion of high-sulfur oil, and they definitely need foreign expertise in the extraction, the handling and the shipment of this oil, which is a very challenging substance," Kraus says. "The other thing is that PDVSA, the Venezuelan petroleum company, has never quite recovered from the political strikes a few years ago and they are certainly producing under capacity right now."

Russia can help Venezuela -- which has the largest proved reserves of crude oil in the Western hemisphere -- explore and develop oil and gas fields. Caracas is also counting on Russian know-how and investment to build what would be the world's longest pipeline, running 8,000 kilometers across South America.

Venezuelan Ambassador to Russia Alexis Navarro Rojas said last week that Venezuela would welcome the participation of Gazprom, Russia's gas monopoly, in the pipeline project. "Russia," he said, "is the best partner for Venezuela. No other country in the world has better pipes."

Venezuela currently accounts for 15 percent of U.S. crude oil supplies. But Chavez, a staunch U.S. opponent, is eager to steer oil supplies toward other countries, including oil-thirsty China.

Eric Kraus says Venezuela would have much to gain from energy cooperation with Russia. "Russia produces very high-quality pipeline pipes and has a tremendous experience in laying pipelines. The Venezuelans probably can't do it themselves and they're certainly not going to get much help from the Americans," he says. "Perhaps Russians will provide friendly financing terms, and will provide help in getting Venezuelan oil extraction back up to its former levels. It is also a political statement for Mr. Chavez: the Venezuelans want to decrease their dependence on the United States."

A pipeline deal with Russia is likely to anger the United States, which has already voiced strong concerns over the planned sale of Russian military aircraft to Venezuela. "We certainly hope that the Russians will reconsider this sale," U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said on July 25, referring to the aircraft deal. "We don't think it's in the best interest of Russia or Venezuela."

Afghan President Hamid Karzai met in a closed session with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov in Dushanbe on July 26, IRNA reported. The topic of discussion between the three leaders reportedly revolved around counterterrorism and counternarcotics issues, ITAR-TASS reported on July 26. The three leaders also discussed the construction of a power transmission line from Tajikistan to Iran through Afghanistan. AT

At a press conference in Dushanbe with his Tajik counterpart President Rakhmonov, President Ahmadinejad proposed on July 26 the establishment of a Persian-language television network for Afghan, Iranian, and Tajik people, IRNA reported on July 26. Ahmadinejad said that the Tajik side has "welcomed" the television initiative "so it should be discussed with Afghan authorities." Iran currently broadcasts programs to Afghanistan in both Dari (Afghan Persian) and in Pashto. It is not clear if the proposed television network would be in Iranian Persian or it would also include segments in Dari or Tajik. While Dari is one of the official languages of Afghanistan, traditionally Afghan authorities have viewed Iranian cultural influences, including in the field of language, with suspicion. AT

In a commentary aired on July 25, Sheberghan-based Aina TV said that the first session of the Afghan National Assembly was "ineffective," and its second session -- which began this week -- is a difficult test of the newly formed parliament. According to Aina, the National Assembly took "longer than expected" to finish the tasks before it and there were breaches "of the constitutional law and parliamentary regulations" during the first session. The commentary did not elaborate on the breaches. Aina complained that "contrary" to President Karzai's "request," most members of parliament "traveled to foreign countries and passed happy vacations rather than visiting remote areas [of Afghanistan] and meeting the people who elected them." Lastly, according to the commentary, the "parliament is deeply involved in corruption in comparison with other government departments." AT

The independent Kabul daily "Cheragh" stated in a commentary on July 24 that Afghanistan is close to anarchy. While it is true that foreign intervention and administrative corruption have contributed to the chaos, "Cheragh" wrote, the basic reason for the deterioration of the situation in Afghanistan is that the government "has lost its Islamic identity, especially in the past two years." The Afghan people, "whose social lives are made of Islamic values, [have] distanced themselves from the government" and have become "closer to the enemies," the commentary continues. The most important step that the Afghan government can take to address the chaotic situation in the country, "Cheragh" adds, is to "eliminate its distance with Islam in order to eliminate the distance between people and itself." AT

According to the press office of the Afghan Interior Ministry, new governors have been appointed in Baghlan, Daikondi, Khost, and Konar provinces, the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported on July 26. Sayyed Ikramuddin has been appointed in Baghlan, Sultan Ali Rozgani in Daikondi, Arsala Jamal in Khost, and Hajji Mohammad Didar -- known as Qomandan (Commander) -- in Konar. In addition, Sayyed Ahmad Sa'id has been appointed as the deputy governor of Farah Province and Abdul Satar Barez as the deputy governor of Faryab Province. AT

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi told reporters in Tehran on July 26 that there is no truth to reports that Hizballah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah is in the Iranian Embassy in Beirut, IRNA reported. He called the report an "Israeli lie." The Israeli "Ma'ariv" newspaper reported on July 26 that according to anonymous intelligence officials, Nasrallah is hiding in the embassy basement, and this has become his "refuge and operations room." Assefi also said on July 26 that Iranian Ambassador to Lebanon Mohammad Reza Sheibani has been misquoted. What Sheibani meant, according to Assefi, is that Iran will do what it can to provide Syria with "diplomatic, human, and spiritual support" if it is attacked. It is not known when Sheibani made his statement, nor is it clear how the statement was distorted or who distorted it. BS

Saad Hariri, leader of the Future Trend bloc in the Lebanese parliament and the son of assassinated former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, says the current conflict in his country is "not Lebanese," the British "Al-Hayah" newspaper reported on July 26. The battle, he said, "was brought to the Lebanese arena by Syria and Iran for the sake of their interests." "Israel is our enemy," Hariri continued, "and we have fought and resisted before any Arab state and before any Persian state." If Syria wants to fight Israel it should open a front on the Golan Heights, Hariri recommended. BS

Ali Zu'aytir, Hizballah's representative in Iran, gave a speech at the Ahvaz city hall on July 25, Khuzestan Provincial television reported. He said: "In order to implement its satanic design, the world arrogance has placed the protection of the Zionist regime's interests atop its Middle East agenda." Zu'aytir said "the Zionists" want to disarm Hizballah. "In the first place, our [Lebanese] Hizballah intends to solve the problems which Lebanon is facing and we cannot say if resistance will end or not," he added. "We shall resist as long as our problems with that usurper regime exist." In Mashhad, on the same day, Grand Ayatollah Seyyed Ezzedin Zanjani condemned Israeli activities in Lebanon and Palestine, Khorasan-i Razavi Provincial television reported. He called on Muslims and Islamic governments to remain united and to assist "the pious and heroic Lebanese combatants." Also in Mashhad on July 25, the Khorasan-i Razavi branch of the Imam Khomeini Relief Committee said it is ready to collect people's contributions for the Lebanese and Palestinians, provincial television reported. BS

Speaking in Rome on July 26 after a conference on Lebanon, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, "It is important that we work with the countries of the region to find a solution, and that should also include Iran and Syria," RFE/RL reported. However, neither country was represented at the conference. Participants were Egypt, France, Italy, Jordan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the U.K., the United States, the UN, and the World Bank, Reuters reported. Also in attendance were Canada, Cyprus, Germany, Greece, Spain, and Turkey; the EU was represented by Javier Solana and current EU chair Finland; and the Vatican was there as an observer. Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and four cabinet members represented Lebanon. Iranian officials predicted that excluding them and the Syrians would be a mistake. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said, "They should have invited all the countries of the region, including Syria and Iran, if they want peace," The Guardian" reported on July 26. BS

The Iranian legislature on July 26 approved the general outlines of a bill that would permit holding elections for the Assembly of Experts and for municipal councils concurrently this year, Fars News Agency reported. Some 149 out of 219 legislators voted in favor of the bill. The elections are scheduled for November 17, and the executive branch opposes holding the elections on the same date (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," May 12 and July 24, 2006). BS

A car bomb followed by mortar rounds struck the Shi'ite-populated Al-Karrada district of Baghdad on July 27, international media reported. News agencies gave conflicting reports on the number of dead and wounded, with Reuters reporting some 25 dead and 45 wounded, citing Interior Ministry officials. CNN quoted other officials in Baghdad as saying 19 were killed and 74 wounded in the attacks, with both numbers expected to rise after a residential building collapsed under heavy fire. The satellite news channel reported that the attacks were launched close to the homes of prominent members of the Shi'ite political party Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). KR

The Al-Dujayl trial reconvened on July 27 in what is expected to be its closing day, as the defense wraps up its closing arguments in the case, international media reported on July 27. Saddam Hussein, who claimed he was brought to court against his will on July 26, did not appear at the session (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2006), but his co-defendant and fellow hunger striker Taha Yassin Ramadan did. Ramadan told the court that he would give his own closing arguments after his lawyers boycotted the proceedings and he declined court-appointed representation. "This case is fabricated against me since the beginning. I am innocent and I realize that the verdict was already prepared against me," Reuters quoted him as telling the court. Ramadan also told the court that he ended his 19-day hunger strike after Hussein appeared in court on July 26. KR

In comments to reporters on July 26, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan called for NATO troops to be sent to northern Iraq to fight the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), NTV reported the same day. Erdogan added that any NATO mission would be similar to its mission in Afghanistan. Regarding reports that a trilateral framework between the United States, Iraq, and Turkey will be set up to fight the PKK, Erdogan said he will wait for positive results. "Otherwise we will deal with the situation ourselves," he said. U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley told reporters at a July 25 press briefing in Washington that U.S. and Iraqi officials discussed the PKK during Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's trip to Washington this week. "We have talked about establishing a trilateral framework between the United States, Iraq, and Turkey to address these issues. We have already identified some steps that can be taken and that the Iraqis are going to take, which [the Iraqis], I'm sure, will be announcing in due course," he said. KR

U.S. Lieutenant General Peter W. Chiarelli told the "Los Angeles Times" in a July 26 interview that the United States will help fight security in Baghdad by putting Iraqis to work on reconstruction projects in the capital, the daily reported on July 27. Chiarelli said that an additional 4,000 each of U.S. and Iraqi troops will be sent to the capital to back up the 51,000 troops already present there in the wake of increasing sectarian violence. "The way you have to fight this [violence] is that you have to have presence on the streets. I don't know any other way to fight it," he said. Asked if it is practical to launch reconstruction projects in the midst of so much violence, Chiarelli said: "It is absolutely ludicrous this concept that somehow you have to get to a level of security that will allow commerce to occur. I am not downplaying the importance of security, but the key thing here is getting the people believing their life is going to get better." U.S. soldiers will oversee the digging of water and sewage lines and other public works projects, he added. The work will start with a budget of between $75 million and $100 million. KR

The Muslim Scholars Association claimed in a July 25 press release posted to its website that members of a "known militia" stole furniture from a Sunni mosque overnight on July 24-25. The statement said 10 armed gunmen closed off the street outside the Al-Isra wa Al-Mi'raj Mosque and stole furniture from inside the mosque, as well as from the adjacent home of the mosque's imam. The mosque was closed after attacks on it following the February 22 Samarra bombing of the Golden Mosque. The association said it holds the government and the multinational forces responsible because they failed to protect the holy places from attacks by sectarian militias. Al-Isra wa Al-Mi'raj refers to the Prophet Muhammad's night journey from Mecca to the site of the present-day Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and his subsequent ascension to heaven. KR