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Newsline - July 28, 2006


RUSSIAN ARMS DEAL WITH VENEZUELA TOPS $3 BILLION
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez concluded a three-day visit to Russia on July 27, during which he signed a series of arms deals worth at least $3 billion, the daily "Vedomosti" reported, citing Sergei Chemezov, who is general director of the state arms trader Rosoboroneksport (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26 and 27, 2006). President Vladimir Putin said after meeting with Chavez that "cooperation between Russia and Venezuela is not directed against third countries," Russian and international media reported. But Moscow agreed to the arms deals involving primarily 24 Sukhoi Su-30 jet fighters and 53 helicopters despite repeated protests from Washington. Putin also called Venezuela a "natural partner" for Russia in a variety of areas, including oil and gas exploration and transport, and suggested that Russian private investments in Venezuela could reach "billions of dollars." Putin endorsed Chavez's presidential reelection bid and his claim to one of Latin America's seats on the UN Security Council. Chavez profusely thanked Putin for selling the weapons despite U.S. objections and for his political support. PM

RUSSIA NAMES TERRORIST ORGANIZATIONS
With the authorization of the Federal Security Service (FSB), the state-run daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" republished on July 28 a list of 17 organizations the Supreme Court has declared to be terrorist groups, rg.ru reported. The list includes foreign groups such as Al-Qaeda and Afghanistan's Taliban movement, and also Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is mainly active in Central Asia and the Middle East but whose supporters have been detained in Russia. Most, if not all, of the groups have been active at one time or another on the territory of the Russian Federation. Hamas and Hizballah, which are widely regarded in most Western countries as terrorist groups, do not appear on the list. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told the weekly "Kommersant-Vlast" of July 25 that Russia does not seek to isolate Hamas or Hizballah as terrorist organizations because they are deeply rooted in their respective societies and must be worked with in seeking a political solution to the current Middle Eastern crisis. PM

FOREIGN MINISTER WARNS AGAINST 'ULTIMATUM' TO IRAN
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on July 28 that the proposed UN Security Council resolution on Iran must not be presented as an ultimatum but rather should make binding the requirements set by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2006). The IAEA wants Iran to place a moratorium on its nuclear research program and not make nuclear weapons. PM

WHO IS YUKOS'S MYSTERY INVESTOR?
Yukos Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko told the radio station Ekho Moskvy on July 27 that an unnamed "certain investor" has proposed to the former oil giant's owners to pay the company's debts and take it over. "I have been told that an organization has appeared that is ready to pay Yukos's debts and become the company's owner," he said. Gerashchenko called the offer "the best solution" facing the embattled company but added that many questions need to be clarified first. The creditors of Yukos appealed to the Moscow Arbitration Court on July 25 to declare the company bankrupt and start receivership. The court is slated to hold a hearing on August 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, and July 20 and 26, 2006). Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the embattled oligarch who built up Yukos, is serving an eight-year prison sentence in the remote Chita Oblast for fraud and tax evasion after a trial that was widely viewed as politically motivated and engineered by the Kremlin, which sought to punish the oligarch for supporting the political opposition. PM

JOURNALISTS' NGOS SLAM KILLING OF RUSSIAN REPORTER
The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists and the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders condemned in statements on July 27 the killing of Yevgeny Gerasimenko, who was found strangled in his Saratov flat the previous day, mosnews.com reported. He was a correspondent for the independent weekly "Saratovsky rasklad," which frequently publishes investigative reporting. At the time of his death, he was working on a story about a corporate takeover. Police investigating the killing found no signs of violent entry to his flat, but his computer was missing. The two nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) expressed concern about the state of press freedom in Russia. It is not clear, however, what the motive for the killing really was. Police are investigating. PM

DO RUSSIANS WANT A REINVENTED CPSU?
The respected Levada Center for polling has released a survey suggesting that nearly one-third of respondents believe that Russia should have a strong one-party system, "Novye izvestia" reported on July 27. The poll involved 1,600 people aged 18 and over, in 46 Russian regions. Forty-two percent believe that Russia needs two or three political parties, while only 5 percent want a multiparty system with many smaller parties represented in the legislature. In addition, 41 percent replied that they would not mind seeing the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party enjoying a role similar to that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) in controlling all branches of government and monopolizing personnel appointments. But 43 percent oppose such a system, and 16 percent had no opinion. In regard to the ongoing debate in the media as to whether a president should belong a political party, 62 percent of respondents believe that President Putin should act as an arbiter between parties, while only 21 percent believe that he should be the leader of a party as well as head of state. Yury Levada, who heads the polling agency, told the daily that most people were "indifferent" as to whether a president could belong to a party but became "scared" at the prospect of a president being a party leader. PM

ARMENIAN AIRLINE OFFICIALS REJECT RUSSIAN VERSION OF PLANE CRASH
Officials of Armenia's Armavia Airlines rejected on July 27 a report by Russian Transport Minister Igor Levitin blaming pilot error for the May 3 crash of one of its passenger jets over the Black Sea, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. A July 26 statement by Levitin argued that the Airbus A-320 crashed as it approached the Russian resort city of Sochi because of a "human factor," in essence placing the blame on its crew. A special commission formed by the CIS Interstate Aviation Committee participated in the inquiry and the Russian head of the body, Tatyana Anodina, endorsed its findings, reporting that the A-320's main pilot "did not ensure control of the plane as far as angle and altitude were concerned." Armavia executives disagreed, however, and pointed to other factors, including reports of conflicting instructions conveyed to the A-320 crew by Russian traffic controllers and bad weather conditions that day. The tragic crash, which resulted in the death of all 113 people on board the aircraft, was the worst air disaster in Armenia's history. RG

WORLD BANK SURVEY SHOWS NO IMPROVEMENT IN CORRUPTION IN ARMENIA
The results of a World Bank survey of business-related corruption released on July 26 showed no significant improvement in Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The survey, conducted throughout 2005, revealed that Armenian firms continue to pay bribes to government officials at the same rate as 2002, the last reporting period. The findings, at odds with the Armenian government's repeated claims of success in its campaign to combat corruption, stated that Armenian firms "reported little change in many indicators of corruption" and further noted that "increases in bribery are apparent in some areas, such as taxes, customs, and the courts." Roughly one-third of Armenian firms surveyed charged that government corruption seriously hinders commerce. The survey was part of a broader World Bank effort that conducted interviews with tens of thousands of businessmen throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Overall findings in these countries reported an overall reduction in the amounts and frequencies of bribes paid in the course of carrying out business activities. RG

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION LEADER DISCOUNTS PROMISES OF FREE ELECTIONS
Armenian opposition leader Stepan Demirchian dismissed on July 26 recent promises by Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian that the country's May 2007 parliamentary elections will be the cleanest in Armenia's history, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Demirchian, the top leader of the main opposition Artarutiun (Justice) bloc, explained that Sarkisian's promises of clean elections "cannot be taken seriously" because of what he termed the minister's "rich experience" with electoral fraud and voting irregularities. Demirchian further argued that "forces that were responsible for vote rigging cannot speak of democratic elections." Sarkisian issued the optimistic pledge concerning the elections during a July 22 congress of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), which he recently joined (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25, 2006). Sarkisian is widely seen as a leading candidate in the 2008 Armenian presidential election. RG

AZERBAIJANI POLICE BREAK UP DEMONSTRATION OUTSIDE U.S. EMBASSY
Azerbaijani police broke up on July 27 a rally outside the U.S. Embassy in Baku, Turan reported. The demonstration was organized by the Center to Protect Freedom of Conscience and Religion to protest U.S. support for Israeli military actions in Lebanon. The leader of the group, Ilqar Ibrahimov, later claimed that some nine protesters were arrested by the police as the rally was forcibly dispersed. RG

GEORGIA OFFERS REWARD FOR CAPTURE OF REBEL MILITIA LEADER...
Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili announced on July 27 that authorities are offering a new 100,000-lari ($56,000) reward for information leading to the capture of rebel militia leader Emzar Kvitsiani, RFE/RL and Civil Georgia reported. Clashes between some 1,000 Georgian government forces and the rebel Monadire (Hunter) Svan militia led by former regional Governor Kvitsiani continued in the Kodori Gorge into July 27 after a brief lull in fighting attributed to inclement weather. Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili announced late on July 27 that Kvitsiani was apparently hiding in Abkhazia after unconfirmed reports suggested that he fled the Kodori Gorge, according to Rustavi-2 television. Some unconfirmed media reports contend that Kvitsiani was wounded in a clash with Georgian forces. For his part, Okruashvili contended on July 27 that the whole incident was a "provocation" that was "orchestrated from abroad by those forces who are not interested in stability in Georgia." Georgian government forces launched a military campaign on July 25 to disband the militia and apprehend Kvitsiani after his refusal to accept an order on July 23 to disarm (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25 and 26, 2006. Kvitsiani argues that his militia must maintain its weapons in order to defend the rights of the ethnic Svan population in the gorge. RG

...AND GEORGIAN PRESIDENT ANNOUNCES FULL CONTROL OVER KODORI GORGE
Mikheil Saakashvili announced on July 27 in Tbilisi that Georgian forces have "restored full control over the territory of Abkhazia's Kodori Gorge for the first time in the past 13 years," Caucasus Press and Rustavi-2 reported. Adding that the "main phase" of the operation was now over, Saakashvili praised the success of what he called a "police operation" to restore order in a key area of the breakaway region of Abkhazia and reassert authority over rebel militia leader Kvitsiani. He also announced plans to transfer the Abkhaz government-in-exile to the Kodori Gorge "where it will enforce the full jurisdiction and the control of the Georgian government," and he promised that "life will return to normal and reconstruction work will begin," Imedi television reported. RG

RUSSIA ISSUES WARNING TO GEORGIA...
Russian Lieutenant General Valeriy Yevnevich, the deputy commander in chief of Russian Ground Forces, warned on July 27 that Russian peacekeepers stationed along the Georgian border with Abkhazia will "open fire" if they are attacked by Georgian forces, Interfax reported. In comments during a press conference in Moscow, Yevnevich added that the Russian peacekeepers have already been "subjected to threats and crude insults" when Georgian troops entered the Kodori Gorge and vowed that the Russian troops will be expected to engage and defend against any attack on their positions. RG

...AND GEORGIA RESPONDS
Responding to a recent "expression of concern" by the Russian Foreign Ministry over operations in the Kodori Gorge, the Georgian Foreign Ministry issued a statement on July 27 arguing that the actions by the Georgian authorities comply with all of the country's international obligations, ITAR-TASS reported. The statement explained that the recent Georgian actions do not violate the terms of the 1994 cease-fire agreement, which "does not restrict the presence of police in the Kodori Gorge and police operations aimed at ensuring law and order there." RG

GEORGIAN TROOPS WOUNDED IN IRAQ
A Georgian Defense Ministry spokesman announced on July 27 that several Georgian peacekeepers were injured in an attack outside of Baghdad, Civil Georgia reported. The Georgian peacekeeping unit came under attack by Iraqi insurgents near the town of Ba'qubah, about 65 kilometers north of the capital. Five Georgian soldiers were injured, although four returned to duty after receiving medical attention. A fifth Georgian peacekeeper remains hospitalized. A total of 18 Georgian soldiers have been wounded to date since being deployed to Iraq in August 2003. The Defense Ministry expanded the deployment of Georgian peacekeepers in May 2004, increasing the size of its contingent from 156 to about 500 men (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 2, 2004). There are currently 850 Georgian soldiers deployed in Iraq. RG

GEORGIAN COURT HANDS DOWN LIFE SENTENCES IN TERRORISM TRIAL
A Georgian district court in Gori sentenced on July 27 three South Ossetian residents to life in prison after their conviction on terrorism charges, Interfax reported. The three defendants, Georgy Valiyev, Georgy Zateyev, and Iosif Kosiyev, were found guilty of detonating a car bomb at the Shida Kartli district police station in early February 2004 that resulted in the death of three police officers. The motives for the bombing remain unexplained. RG

KYRGYZ CONSTITUTION GROUP FINISHES WORK
Parliamentarian and former Prosecutor-General Azimbek Beknazarov told a news conference in Bishkek on July 27 that the task force on constitutional reform that he headed has completed its work, Kabar reported. Beknazarov said that President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov have received three drafts prescribing presidential, parliamentary, and presidential-parliamentary forms of government, respectively. The draft constitutions envision a 75-member parliament with 50 deputies elected on party slates and 25 in single-mandate constituencies. (All 75 deputies are currently elected on single mandates.) The drafts give the Russian language the status of a language of interethnic communication rather than the official status it currently enjoys. Beknazarov stressed that the task force, which was created in March, traveled to all regions of Kyrgyzstan, held meetings with citizens, and reviewed more than 3,000 proposals in the course of its work. DK

KYRGYZ PREMIER SAYS MINE ACCIDENT TO AFFECT GDP
Prime Minister Kulov told a cabinet meeting on July 27 that a recent accident at the Kumtor gold mine could reduce 2006 gross domestic product (GDP) by over $100 million, akipress.org reported. Kulov said that as a result of an accident at Kumtor in early July, "the country will be 4.7 billion soms [$117.9 million] short this year." In a July 18 press release, Centerra Gold, which operates Kumtor, announced that pit-wall ground movement at the mine will affect 2006 production. "2006 production at Kumtor is now anticipated to be about 300,000 ounces at a cash cost of about $530 per ounce compared to Centerra's previous projection of 410,000-420,000 ounces of poured gold in 2006 at a cash cost of $370-$380 per ounce," Centerra said. DK

AFGHAN, TAJIK PRESIDENTS MEET
Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov in Dushanbe on July 27 to discuss bilateral relations and Afghan reconstruction, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The meeting resulted in the signing of three cooperation agreements in the areas of education, elimination of double taxation, and conditions for the return of Afghan citizens jailed in Tajikistan, RFE/RL and the BBC's Persian Service reported. DK

REPORT SAYS UZBEKISTAN CONSIDERING GAS PRICE HIKE
Uzbekistan is considering a substantial increase in the price of its natural gas, RIA Novosti reported on July 27, citing a source in state-owned oil and gas company Uzbekneftegaz. The source said that the new price could be $100-$120 per 1,000 cubic meters. Russia's Gazprom is slated to buy 9 billion cubic meters of gas from Uzbekistan at $60 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2006. DK

THREE ARRESTED FOR PROMOTING BELARUS'S FORMER INDEPENDENCE DAY
Three people were detained and charged with a minor civil offense for handing out newspapers and leaflets in central Vitsyebsk on July 27, the 16th anniversary of the adoption of Belarus's declaration of independence from the Soviet Union, Belapan reported the next day. Alena Zaleskaya, leader of the Vitsyebsk branch of the opposition United Civic Party (UCP), UCP member Uladzimir Simankovich, and pro-opposition retiree Vera Kavalyova were detained after distributing copies of "Narodnaya volya" and fliers reminding the public that July 27 was observed as the country's Independence Day until 1996. That year, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka moved the country's independence day to July 3, the day the Belarusian SSR was liberated from Nazi occupation. The activists were reportedly detained by police and taken to a district police office where they were charged with staging an unauthorized demonstration under Article 167 of the Administrative Offenses Code. RK

UKRAINIAN ROUNDTABLE CALLS FOR PARLIAMENTARY DECLARATION OF UNITY
During a roundtable meeting of political leaders in Kyiv on July 27, President Viktor Yushchenko asked that all factions of the Verkhovna Rada sign a declaration of unity, "Ukrayinska pravda" reported. The declaration calls upon its signatories to conduct their activities "in the interests of Ukraine" and cites the need to "create a free-trade zone with the European Union" and to enter into membership talks with NATO. The declaration was subject to amendment before its expected singing on July 28. In remarks during the roundtable discussion, Party of Regions leader and prime-ministerial candidate Viktor Yanukovych said Yushchenko "will stand on the side of the state and the people, and not take the side of any political party." "This," he said of his former rival, "is what is taking place lately." RK

CRIMEA SEEKS TO BUY GAS DIRECTLY FROM GAZPROM
The head of the Crimean parliament, Anatoliy Hrytsenko, told a press conference in Simferopil on July 27 that the Crimean government is negotiating directly with Gazprom to buy 1 billion cubic meters of natural gas directly from the Russian gas monopoly, bypassing the Ukrainian state-owned firm Naftohaz Ukrayiny, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. According to Hrytsenko, an agreement has been reached with Gazprom and negotiations are proceeding to sell gas to Crimea at domestic Russian prices, which presently average about $47 per 1,000 cubic meters, far below the $90 charged the rest of Ukraine. Asked whether the Swiss-based company RosUkrEnergo will play a role in the possible deal, Hrytsenko said Gazprom is currently looking to find a suitable middleman to handle the transaction. RK

SERBIAN RADICALS THREATEN TO TAKE UP ARMS TO KEEP KOSOVA
The ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) threatened on July 28 to take up arms to keep Kosova inside Serbia if the breakaway republic is granted independence, dpa reported the same day. "If they want to take away Kosovo and Metohija, the whole world has to know that Serbia will begin to fight for the return of the province," Serbian media quoted SRS leader Tomislav Nikolic as saying on July 28. Nikolic said taking up arms would be a last resort if all else fails. He did pledge, however, that the SRS will take to the streets and bring down the Serbian government if it does not prevent Kosova's independence. BW

U.S. ENVOY URGES BOTH SIDES IN KOSOVA TO SEEK 'COMMON VISION'
Frank Wisner, the U.S. envoy to Kosova's final-status talks, urged ethnic Albanian leaders on July 27 to strengthen efforts to protect the rights of the province's Serbian minority, AP reported the same day. Visiting Kosova a day after meeting with Serbian officials in Belgrade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26 and 27, 2006), Wisner said both sides need "to put in place a common vision, a practical and a realistic solution to the way forward for Kosova." Wisner's trips to Belgrade and Prishtina followed the first-ever meeting between the presidents and prime ministers of Serbia and Kosova since NATO drove out Serbian forces in 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25, 2006). Wisner stressed that the Western powers are aiming to resolve Kosova's status by the end of this year. "The job ahead of us today is to put in place the necessary elements of a final-status package before we define the package," he said. "That means realistic solutions to the outstanding issues of municipalities, churches, minorities, and economics." BW

NEARLY ONE-THIRD OF BOSNIANS REPORTEDLY UNEMPLOYED
According to the first reliable survey of Bosnia-Herzegovina's labor market since the 1992-95 war, nearly one-third of the country's workforce is unemployed, AFP reported on July 27. The survey, conducted by Bosnia's Agency for Statistics, was the first such report to be carried out according to European standards. It is also the first such study to include the "gray economy," which accounts for approximately 40 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). According to the survey, 31.1 percent of Bosnia's workforce, or 366,000 people, are out of work. "The previous data about an unemployment rate of between 40 and 42 percent relied only on the number of persons registered with the employment bureaus and did not take into account part-time or seasonal workers or the gray economy," Agency for Statistics head Zdenko Milinovic said. The survey was carried out on a sample of 10,000 randomly selected households. BW

BOSNIANS EXHUME MORE THAN 700 BODIES FROM MASS GRAVE
Bosnian forensic scientists have exhumed more than 700 skeletons from the largest-known mass grave of victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, AFP reported on July 27. Muhamed Mustafic, a prosecutor from the eastern town of Tuzla, said 89 complete and 644 dismembered skeletons were recovered from the grave, located in the village of Kamenica near Zvornik. "Among the victims, believed to be killed in Srebrenica, we found a number of skeletons of women and children aged under 14, but their exact number will be revealed after the exhumation is completed," Mustafic said. "One-third of the grave has yet to be unearthed and we believe that we will find around 1,000 complete and incomplete bodies." The excavation of the Kamenica mass grave began last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7, 2006). It is one of eight so-called secondary mass graves found in the area, where Bosnian Serbs brought bodies from other gravesites in order to cover up the massacre. BW

MOLDOVAN PARLIAMENTARY LEADER SAYS UNIFICATION WITH ROMANIA UNREALISTIC
Marian Lupu said on July 27 that unification with Romania is unrealistic and not worth debating in the legislature, Interfax reported the same day. "It's unfeasible," Lupu said at a press conference in Chisinau. "To put such a scenario into practice, one should first of all ask for the opinions of Chisinau and Brussels. One should also realize that there is emotion and there is politics. It's not worth debating something that's unfeasible," he added. "We have issues that can be debated infinitely without any result. I mean issues of language, history, nationality. It will be a destructive scenario if we opt to debate these issues." BW

COURT CONDEMNS RUSSIA FOR CHECHEN 'DISAPPEARANCE'
In a landmark ruling, the European Court of Human Rights has held Russia responsible for the disappearance and presumed death of a Chechen man.

Khadzhi-Murat Yandiyev disappeared in 1999 after being detained by Russian troops. His mother brought the case against Russia in 2001 on the grounds that the Russian authorities had failed adequately to investigate the case. She alleged that Russian troops murdered her son.

It is the first time the European Court of Human Rights has heard a case like this from Russia. It is thought it could now set a precedent for hundreds of other cases concerning disappearances in Chechnya.

For Fatima Bazorkina, mother of Khadzhi-Murat Yandiyev, the ruling is vindication for six years battling with the Russian judicial system and trying to establish the truth.

She brought the case after she saw television footage in 2000 in which a Russian officer appeared to order her son, then 25 years old, to be taken away and shot. The incident occurred in the village of Alkhan-Kala during the Russian military campaign to recapture Grozny in 1999. In the footage, Russian General Aleksandr Baranov is seen to shout, "Take him away, finish him off, shoot him, damn it!" Yandiyev, dressed in camouflage fatigues, is then taken away, never to be seen again.

A chamber of seven judges on July 27 ruled unanimously that there had been a violation of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights in respect to Yandiyev's disappearance, and the failure of the Russian authorities to conduct an effective investigation. The chamber also ruled that Article 5 on the right to liberty and security had been violated, as had Article 13 in respect to Bazorkina's right to an effective remedy. The court awarded Bazorkina 35,000 euros ($44,100) in damages and 12,241 euros ($15,420) in costs and expenses.

Human rights activists estimate that as many as 5,000 people have disappeared in Chechnya since the start of the second conflict in 1999. Most are feared dead.

Human Rights Watch is one of several organizations that has tried to keep a record of the disappeared -- a database containing the evidence of the grieving relatives who have seen their loved ones disappear.

One such account comes from Taisa Imakayeva, whose husband, Balavdi, was taken from her in March 2000 at a Russian military checkpoint. "We walked up to the checkpoint," Imakayeva said. "There were 11 men with us. They separated us from them and pushed them behind a hill. There was a small hill there. And they loaded us and the children onto a Ural truck -- a military truck. An officer came up to me. I was six months' pregnant. I begged him to let my husband go, he's sick, he's epileptic. He said: 'So go and give birth to another fighter. Who needs your sick men?'"

She has found no trace of him ever since. Today, though, Imakayeva and thousands like her may see a glimmer of hope. Close to 200 more cases involving disappearances in Chechnya have been lodged with the court.

(Rob Parsons is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

HELICOPTER CRASH KILLS 16 IN EASTERN AFGHANISTAN
Sixteen people, including two Dutch soldiers and two U.S. civilians, were killed when a chartered, Russian-made MI8 helicopter crashed in the mountains of Paktiya Province on July 26, international news agencies reported on July 27. Rescuers have so far located 12 bodies, but there are believed to have been no survivors. U.S.-led coalition spokesman Colonel Thomas Collins said in Kabul on July 27 that there "is no indication yet as to what caused the crash," AFP reported. Dutch Defense Ministry spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Nico van der Zee speculated that it might have been an accident caused by bad weather, AP reported on July 27. A purported Taliban spokesman identified as "Dr. Hanif" told Pajhwak Afghan News in a telephone interview on July 27 that that group's fighters downed the plane using newly acquired "sophisticated weapons." Hanif identified the downed helicopter as belonging to the United States. AT

KABUL REQUESTS AT LEAST $75 MILLION TO COUNTER FAMINE, DROUGHT
Afghanistan Second Vice President Karim Khalili said in Kabul on July 26 that his country requires more than $75 million to deal with the ongoing drought and resulting famine, Herat-based Sada-ye Jawan Radio reported. Khalili said that northwestern Afghanistan is the most severely affected part of the country. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has already announced a $20 million package aimed at combating the effects of the drought, the report noted. AT

ABDUCTED CUSTOMS CHIEF RELEASED IN WESTERN AFGHANISTAN
The customs chief of Farah Province has been released by his captors after his family paid a ransom of approximately $100,000, Sada-ye Jawan Radio reported on July 27, citing information provided by a family member. The head of the Farah security department, Mohammad Anwar Arif, said the customs chief was beaten severely by his captors. The customs chief, who has not been identified by name, was abducted by unidentified gunmen in mid-July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12, 2006). Farah Governor Ezatullah Wasefi said the customs chief has been sent to Kabul for debriefing on the incident. A number of Farah residents have blamed officials in the security department for kidnappings, a charge that has been denied by the security officials, the report added. AT

TALIBAN LEADER LAUDS HIZBALLAH, SUICIDE BOMBERS
In a message distributed in southern Afghanistan, Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar claimed that the ongoing Israeli military campaign in Lebanon is proof that the United States is not fighting terrorism but rather aims to destroy Muslims and Islam, the Islamabad-based daily "Pakistan" reported on July 26. Mullah Omar says those Arab states that are allies of the United States should learn a lesson from what he suggests are the duplicitous polices of Washington. "God Almighty is with Hizballah," he says, adding that the organization "enjoys the support of Muslims" everywhere. "The infidel powers are proud of their latest weapons and technology, while Muslims are proud of their suicide bomber," the speaker adds, according to the "Pakistan" report. AT

IRANIAN SECURITY CHIEF TRAVELS TO DAMASCUS
Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani arrived in Damascus late on July 26 to discuss regional developments with Syrian officials, Mehr News Agency and Reuters reported. Larijani also is expected to meet with Hizballah Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, "Ha'aretz" and "The Jerusalem Post" reported on July 27, citing Kuwait's daily "Al-Seyassah." Nasrallah reportedly made the hazardous overland trip to Damascus in mufti, rather than in clerical, raiment. The meeting will reportedly focus on continuing the flow of Iranian supplies to Hizballah. BS

IRANIAN VOLUNTEERS FOR LEBANON LEAVE FROM TEHRAN
"We love martyrdom and are ready to go to Lebanon and Palestine with our bare hands to help the resistance, be it in relief work or even martyrdom," a young man said as he prepared to depart Tehran for Lebanon on July 26, Al-Alam television reported. The man was reportedly part of a group of volunteers organized by the Pro-Justice Student Movement. The Al-Alam correspondent noted that the Turkish authorities might not let the volunteers -- "They call themselves living martyrs," he said -- enter their country on the way to Syria. There were approximately 60 volunteers of all ages, AP reported on July 27, and they will join 200 who preceded them. The Iranian government has denied responsibility for the volunteers. BS

TOP IRANIAN CLERICS ENCOURAGE SUPPORT FOR LEBANESE
Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini told officials of the Iranian national airline in Tehran that the Israeli actions in Lebanon and Palestine resemble the Crusades, ISNA reported. He said the United States is allied with European governments in an effort to destroy Islam. "What they want is not limited to the destruction of Hizballah," Amini said. "They want to destroy all Islamic nations and governments." Amini denounced countries that cooperate with Israel. Islamic Culture and Communications Organization head Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Taskhiri told the clerical community on July 27 that the Islamic world is waiting for the clergy to provide Hizballah with "all-out support," ISNA reported. He said the clerics must inform people using any means at their disposal, from the pulpits to the print and broadcast media. Grand Ayatollah Hussein Nuri-Hamedani complained on July 27 that some Egyptian and Saudi clerics have encouraged "the global arrogance" with their religious decrees, ISNA reported. Sheik Abdullah bin Jabreen, a Saudi Wahhabi, issued a fatwa against Hizballah and announced it is illegal for Muslims to support or pray for it, UPI reported on July 21. The governments in Cairo and Riyadh have called on Syria to limit its support for Hizballah. Now that Hizballah has stood up to Israel, Nuri-Hamedani said, Muslims must support the organization. BS

IRAN TO SEAL SEGMENT OF EASTERN BORDER
The commander of Iran's national police force, Brigadier General Ismail Ahmadi-Moghaddam, said in the Luristan Province city of Khoramabad on July 26 that 40 kilometers of Iran's eastern border has been sealed and a total of 400 kilometers will have been sealed by December, Fars News Agency. He explained that this is being done through physical impediments as well as through the use of human resources and electronic and aerial surveillance. Successful border control will contribute to interdicting narcotics traffickers and fuel smugglers, he said. Ahmadi-Moghaddam was speaking at the introduction of the province's new police chief, who was identified only as Qassem-Nasri. Outgoing police chief Hojatoleslam Qassemi was thanked for his 34 years of service. BS

TURKISH TROOPS ENTER NORTHERN IRAQ
The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan's website reported on July 27 that Turkish infantry troops crossed into Iraqi Kurdistan from Turkey the previous day under the pretense of hunting down Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants. The Kurdistan Democratic Party office in Zakho confirmed the report, saying that the troops crossed the border near the villages of Kesta and Horky, close to Zakho. After a few hours, the troops returned to Turkish territory. Turkey has been threatening to launch a large-scale military operation in northern Iraq unless the Iraqi and U.S. governments take steps to help it hunt down PKK fighters based there. KR

IRAQ, UN LAUNCH INTERNATIONAL COMPACT
The Iraqi government and the United Nations formally announced the launch of the International Compact with Iraq on July 27, according to the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) website. The World Bank-supported initiative seeks to "bring together the international community and multilateral organizations to help Iraq achieve its national vision," over the next five years. The vision aims to institutionalize good governance while resolving the outstanding security, political, and economic issues currently plaguing the country. Iraq and the UN as co-chairs have appointed an executive committee composed of representatives of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and other regional financial institutions, "which will manage the process towards the adoption of the compact and beyond." It will also assist the Iraqi government in setting a strategy for economic reform and regeneration that will help integrate the country into the global and regional economies. A preparatory group is also being formed to advise the government ahead of broader consultations planned for the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, and the annual World Bank-IMF meeting in Singapore, both slated for September. The government expects to announce the finalized compact by year-end. KR

UN WRAPS UP SEMINAR SERIES ON MULTIPARTY DIALOGUE
The United Nations Office for Constitutional Support (OCS) and UNAMI will wrap up the final seminar in a series of multiparty dialogues on the Iraqi Constitution on July 28 in Istanbul, according to a July 26 press release posted to the UNAMI website. The two-day seminar brought together international constitutional experts and 30 representatives of Iraqi political parties, technocrats, academics, and civil society organizations. The first five seminars focused on oil and gas, the judiciary, federalism, financial arrangements, and human rights. The Istanbul seminar focused on civil-military relations and militias, de-Ba'athification, the separation of powers in government, civil-service reform, and the role of independent institutions to ensure government accountability. KR

IRAQI GOVERNMENT CONTINUES TO EVACUATE NATIONALS FROM LEBANON
The Foreign Ministry said in a July 27 press release that it continues to evacuate Iraqi nationals to Syria from Lebanon. Some 750 nationals were evacuated by July 26, though there was no mention of how many more might still be in need of assistance. The statement said that the embassy has secured transport out of Lebanon, and accommodation for nationals displaced both inside Lebanon, and in safe houses in Syria. The statement said the government plans to further evacuate nationals from Syria "in coordination with humanitarian organizations," but no additional details were given. At least one Iraqi has died due to Israeli attacks, when a bomb was dropped on a gas station in the village of Al-Hinya, the statement said. KR

IRAQI PREMIER PROMISED ACTION BY JORDAN
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told reporters at a July 27 press briefing in Aqaba that Jordan has promised to crack down on Iraqi exiles that are using the kingdom as a base to plan and finance insurgent attacks in Iraq, Reuters reported the same day. "I found great readiness...for full cooperation with Iraq to get us out of this security problem and face together the challenge of terrorism," al-Maliki said. He said Jordan vowed to take action against "any person" using it as a base to harm Iraq. It is unclear however, if that pledge includes action against Raghad Hussein, daughter of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, who resides in Amman as a guest of the royal family. King Abdullah II granted Raghad, her sister Rana, and their nine children asylum in Jordan in 2003 under the condition that they do not undertake any political activity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2003). The Iraqi government listed her as 16th on its list of its 41 most-wanted fugitives on July 3. KR

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