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Newsline - August 30, 2006

A spokesman for the Japanese Foreign Ministry said in Tokyo on August 30 that Russian officials have handed over two Japanese fishermen to a Japanese vessel dispatched to receive them off Kunashiri Island, which is held by Russia but claimed by Japan, NHK reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 18, 22, 27, and 29, 2006). In an incident on August 16, Russian coast guardsmen killed one Japanese fisherman and took his two colleagues, their captain, and their ship into custody on Yuzhno-Kurilsk. Captain Noboru Sakashita remains in detention pending a trial in early September for poaching. Japan has repeatedly called for the release of all three men and for compensation for the dead sailor. Russia maintains that its coast guard acted in keeping with the law and that the Japanese were poaching in Russian waters. Local Japanese on nearby Hokkaido are accustomed to fishing in the disputed waters, particularly at this time of year, which is the peak of crab season. It is not clear why Russia decided to make an example of the one ship at this particular time. The Russian coast guard and border troops are subordinated to the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB. PM

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement on August 30 that Foreign Minister Lavrov had a telephone conversation on August 29 about the situation in Lebanon with Saad Hariri, who leads the Lebanese parliamentary majority, reported. The statement notes that Hariri explicitly called for the lifting of the Israeli "air and sea blockade." The text quotes Lavrov as saying that Russia supports "the full implementation by all sides of the provisions of UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which will permit a reliable cease-fire and lasting settlement between Lebanon and Israel" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 15, 2006). The Russian statement adds that the conversation took place at Hariri's request. PM

Many Russian media outlets on August 30 reacted with considerable skepticism to the announcement the previous day by Sergei Mironov, who heads the Party of Life and is also speaker of the Federation Council, of the merger of his party with Motherland (Rodina) and the Russian Party of Pensioners to form a new party that is ostensibly in opposition to the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2006). It is widely assumed that the merger is a Kremlin-sponsored attempt to manufacture a loyal "two-party system" and also to lure voters away from the Communist Party (KPRF). The daily "Vremya novostei" commented on August 30 that the new party should be called Triyedinaya Rossiya, or Threefold-Unified Russia, in a pun on Yedinaya Rossiya, the Russian name of the pro-Kremlin party. The daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" called the new party "Unified Russia's left leg" and noted that it has been tentatively named "Motherland. Pensioners. Life. A Union of Trust." In a take-off on a former communist slogan, the paper suggested that it will be the "party of workers and pensioners." The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote that the new party is not likely to be politically significant because none of its individual components is. The daily "Kommersant" agrees that the grouping is likely to win only a few percent of the total vote, thereby leaving it within the overall statistical margin of error. One commentator told RFE/RL's Russian Service that a new political system is being created in which two establishment parties ostensibly "compete" with each other. PM

A group of 40 black-shirted former members of the banned National Bolshevik Party announced in Moscow on August 29 that they are joining with Aleksandr Dugin's one-year-old Eurasian Youth Union to form the National Bolshevik Front, "The Moscow Times" reported on August 30 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 29, 2006 and "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," April 28, 2006). Aleksei Golubovich, who is a leader of the new grouping, said that about 30 percent of the former National Bolsheviks led by Eduard Limonov will be "controlled" by the new party. Dugin, who split with Limonov in 1998, has close ties to the Kremlin. Members of Golubovich's group and of the Eurasian Youth Movement denied that the Kremlin is behind their merger. Limonov, however, told reporters that the merger is a ham-fisted attempt by the Kremlin and Dugin to split his movement. Limonov argued that the new organization will not succeed because he has the support of "thousands" of activists. One political analyst told the daily that Limonov holds on to followers because of his charisma, whereas Dugin's and Golubovich's tiny groupings survive only through the organizational and financial support of the Kremlin. The National Bolsheviks and their offshoots present a curious mixture of communist and fascist ideas and trappings, reminiscent in some ways of the left-wing currents in Nazism and fascism in the 1920s and 1930s, which inspired Benito Mussolini's short-lived fascist republic at the end of World War II. PM

The daily "Izvestia" of August 30 has calculated that Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has an income of about $10,000 per month for an annual income of about $120,000, which makes him Russia's "most expensive official," reported. The paper added that he is not only better paid than President Vladimir Putin or cabinet ministers, but also takes home more than some European heads of state. PM

An unnamed "source close to the deal" told Reuters in Moscow on August 30 that RusAl, which is Russia's top aluminum producer, will take over its second-place rival Sual and the aluminum assets of Switzerland's Glencore to create the world's leading producer of aluminum. Britain's "Financial Times" of August 30 put the value of the deal at $30 billion. The daily added that President Putin has approved the arrangement, which will be announced by the end of September. Neither RusAl nor Sual have officially confirmed the reports. PM

Police in Ingushetia on August 29 opened fire on and killed two militants who attacked a police vehicle in the village of Berd-Yurt in Sunzha Raion, reported. Ingushetian Interior Ministry spokesman Nadir Yevloyev said both men participated in the June 2004 multiple attacks of police and security facilities in Ingushetia, but he dismissed speculation that they were the leaders of the militant group that has targeted numerous policemen and officials of the republican prosecutor's office in recent weeks. During the night of August 29-30, an unknown perpetrator shot and seriously wounded Ibragim Yandiyev, a Nazran prosecutor's office staffer, at his home in Malgobek, reported on August 30. LF

Taymuraz Mamsurov dismissed the North Ossetian government on August 29, expressing "disappointment" with its performance, and reported. Mamsurov said that ministers failed to form a "collegial" team with a shared sense of purpose and that could work together to achieve shared goals. He acknowledged that outgoing Prime Minister Aleksandr Merkulov "did everything he could," but added that the "complex situation" in the republic requires someone with greater organizational experience and decisiveness and who would be more demanding of his subordinates. First Deputy Prime Minister Oleg Khatsayev will serve as acting prime minister pending the nomination of Merkulov's successor. Mamsurov has addressed a written appeal to the Russian Foreign Ministry to reopen the Verkhny Lars (Zemo Larsi) border crossing with Georgia, reported. The crossing was closed seven weeks ago without prior warning for "repairs" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, 2006). Mamsurov implied that the closure has exacerbated unspecified "social tensions." LF

EU officials said in Brussels on August 29 that talks on European Neighborhood Policy "action plans" for the coming five years have been successfully negotiated with Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia, an RFE/RL correspondent in Brussels reported. Those plans will now be submitted to EU member states for approval. The fact that the Armenian and Georgian draft plans identify eventual EU membership as a foreign-policy objective, while the Azerbaijani equivalent does not, has triggered widespread discussion in the Azerbaijani press. Speaking on August 28 at a conference in Slovenia on Caspian prospects, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner expressed concern that defense spending in the South Caucasus "is going through the roof," a trend she termed unjustifiable in countries that "are in desperate need of investment in education, health, and small businesses." A commission official told RFE/RL that Ferreo-Waldner had in mind Georgia and Azerbaijan. Georgia's "The Messenger" on August 29 quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Valeri Chechelashvili as saying the EU has made concrete proposals that will eventually lead to the establishing of a free-trade regime with Georgia. LF

Addressing the Caspian prospects conference in Bled, Slovenia, on August 28, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian said the ongoing talks on approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict have reached "a critical stage," according to a statement posted on the website of the Armenian Foreign Ministry ( He added that agreement has been reached on many of the basic principles for resolving the conflict, but that a few outstanding issues must still be addressed, and he expressed concern at Azerbaijan's "intransigence." Also on August 29, Armenian Foreign Ministry spokesman Vladimir Karapetian confirmed Armenia's unswerving commitment to the "Prague process" Karabakh talks, reported. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev told the Bled conference on August 28 that Baku considers the so-called Prague process, meaning the OSCE-mediated discussions between the two countries' foreign ministers, the optimum vehicle for reaching a phased settlement of the Karabakh conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2006). In Baku, Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Tahir Tagizade told journalists on August 29 that a meeting between Oskanian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov to continue talks within the Prague-process format will take place in mid-September in an unnamed European city. LF

The Georgian Foreign Ministry released a statement on August 29 condemning the stated intention of the leadership of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia to hold a referendum in which citizens will be asked "Do you want the republic to retain its present status as an independent state and to be recognized [as such] by the international community?" according to Civil Georgia on August 29 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, 2006). The Georgian statement alleged that those plans were conceived "to deliberately fuel tension and destabilize the situation in the region," and warned that the international community will not regard the results as legal and valid. LF

Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, leader of the For a Just Kazakhstan opposition movement, told reporters on August 29 that an independent public commission plans to continue its investigation into the February murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2006), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The trial of 10 men charged with the crime is expected to produce a verdict on August 31, but Tuyakbai warned that "it's clear to everyone that no truth will be found in court." The commission, which Tuyakbai chairs, issued a statement on August 29, reported. It called Sarsenbaev's murder "political," blamed President Nursultan Nazarbaev for "predetermining" the results of the official investigation, dismissed the ongoing trial as a "legal farce," and called for a fresh investigation that would question high-ranking officials, including members of the Nazarbaev family. DK

Igor Panarin, a spokesman for Russian space agency Roskosmos, told Russia's "Vesti" news program on August 29 that the full conclusions of an investigation of the June rocket crash in Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 27, 2006) will probably not be made public. Panarin said that the converted RS-20 ballistic missile that crashed is "of great importance for the Russian security system." He continued, "That is why it is unlikely that the official conclusion will be made public, at least in full." Panarin said the most important conclusion the investigation has reached thus far is that "no dangerous substances were found in water, soil, or air within dozens of kilometers from the crash scene." Initial reports suggested that above-normal amounts of heptyl, a toxic component in rocket fuel, were found at the crash site (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2006). DK

Rahmatullo Zoirov, leader of Tajikistan's Social Democratic Party, told a new conference in Dushanbe on August 29 that he was recently the victim of a poisoning attempt, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Zoirov said that tests completed in Switzerland confirmed the presence of unidentified toxins in his blood and urine. Zoirov, who is expected to be nominated as his party's candidate for the upcoming November presidential election, did not provide further details of the alleged poisoning. DK

Shoqosim Shoislomov, Uzbekistan's ambassador to Tajikistan, told a news conference in Dushanbe on August 28 that Uzbekistan's recent accession to the Eurasian Economic Community opens the door to a simplification of the visa regime between the two countries, Avesta reported the next day. Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan recently drafted a 60-day, visa-free travel arrangement that is expected to be finalized next month. A similar agreement should now be possible with Tajikistan, according to Shoislomov. Shoislomov also said that bilateral trade between Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, currently less than $300 million, could reach $500 million in the next two years. Relations between the two countries have cooled recently as a result of tit-for-tat espionage allegations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14 and 26, July 21, and August 7, 2006). DK

Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Tashkent on August 29 for talks focused on expanding mutual trade ties, reported. The two sides agreed to step up information exchange with an eye to the joint development of uranium resources in Uzbekistan, Kyodo reported. Japan will also provide $2.8 million for Uzbek officials to study in Japan in the period 2006-09. Kyodo reported that Koizumi and Karimov agreed that Uzbekistan should increase its efforts to democratize, protect human rights, and create a market economy. DK

Former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich said at a meeting with European diplomats in Minsk on August 29 that the Belarusian opposition will organize protests if Minsk and Moscow move ahead with their reported plans to hold a referendum on the establishment of a unified state, Belapan reported. "In the context of the government's total information monopoly, most Belarusians will not be able to get full information about the referendum's real dangers and the threat of loss of independence and sovereignty by Belarus," Milinkevich said. "Today there are no real opportunities for the public to control preparations for and the process of voting, as well as vote count. Under these circumstances, the planned referendum will become a grave political event that may lead to the disappearance of Belarus from the political map of the world," he added. A Russian newspaper alleged earlier this month that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka during a meeting on August 19 with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, agreed to hold a referendum in November or December on the formation of a Russia-Belarus Union State (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 21, 2006). JM

Lawmaker Yosyp Vinskyy, former secretary of the Political Council of the Socialist Party of Ukraine (SPU), told journalists in Kyiv on August 29 that an "interfactional opposition alliance" in the Verkhovna Rada may include 150-160 deputies by this fall, UNIAN reported. According to Vinskyy, such an alliance may be formed by the opposition Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc (129 parliamentary mandates) and those deputies from the SPU and Our Ukraine who have not agreed to their parties' decisions earlier this month to form a ruling coalition with the Party of Regions. Vinskyy accused SPU leader and parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Moroz of betraying the party's program and demanded that he give up the party's leadership at an upcoming party congress. "Will the Socialist Party remain a socialist organization, or is it turning into a servant of the Party of Regions? The [SPU] Political Council and parliamentary faction have violated at least 10 of their key programmatic tenets by joining the coalition with the Party of Regions," Vinskyy said. He resigned his position in the SPU Political Council earlier this month in protest against his colleagues' decision to support the government headed by Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych. JM

Vojislav Kostunica said on August 29 that Serbia intends to start a diplomatic campaign to expose what Belgrade considers UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari's biased position on Kosova, B92 reported the same day. Ahtisaari, the UN envoy to Kosova's final-status talks, sparked fierce criticism from Serbia when he said the legacy of the Milosevic era was relevant in determining Kosova's future (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28 and 29, 2006). "The Serbian government and the entire negotiating team will, systematically and on an everyday basis, take diplomatic actions to let international officials know what kind of heavy prejudices Ahtisaari has against the Serbian people," Kostunica said. He added that attempts to remove Ahtisaari from his post, which some Serbian officials have advocated, should be put on hold for the time being. "We will wait and see what Ahtisaari will do after this, and we will wait to see what the results of our diplomatic actions will be." BW

A spokesman for Secretary-General Kofi Annan, meanwhile, said that Ahtisaari still has the UN head's support and trust, B92 reported on August 29. "Annan supports Ahtisaari," spokesman Brandon Varm was quoted by the Tanjug news agency as saying. "His words might have been taken out of a wider context, but as far as we see, he only wanted to say that historical heritage cannot be ignored. Annan trusts Ahtisaari, who has a lot of international experience, and is not considering replacing him," Varma added. BW

Veton Surroi, a member of Kosova's negotiating team for the province's final-status talks, has said that Serbia holds collective responsibility for the wars that took place during former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's rule, Makfax reported on August 29. "Responsibility cannot be individualized, society created Slobodan Milosevic's movement and fascist structures in Serbia," Surroi said. He added that the role of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia is to allocate individual guilt. BW

Appealing his 20-year sentence for war crimes, former Bosnian Serb General Stanislav Galic said on August 29 that he never purposely targeted civilians during the shelling of Sarajevo, B92 reported the same day. "Neither General Galic nor his subordinates have ever undertaken a single attack directed against civilians," Galic's attorney Mara Pilipovic said told the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. The Hague tribunal sentenced Galic in 2003 for deliberately shelling and killing civilians in Sarajevo between September 1992 and August 1994 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 8, 2003). The prosecution, which has also appealed the verdict and is seeking a stiffer sentence, claimed that troops under Galic's command conducted a systematic campaign of terrorizing Sarajevo's civilians with artillery strikes and sniper attacks. BW

Vladimir Voronin said on August 29 that a price hike for Russian natural gas is inevitable, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "Gas in Moldova will cost as much as Gazprom will ask for it," he said. "The price of gas is far below those of coal and firewood, so there is no alternative to gas for us for the time being." Until December 2005, Moldova paid $80 per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas. Russia's state-controlled natural-gas monopoly Gazprom raised the price to $110 in January 2006 and to $160 in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline" January 7 and June 20, 2006). Another price hike is expected in January 2007. BW

Also on August 29, Voronin said that the situation for the country's wine industry is improving as new markets open up, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. In a move widely seen as politically motivated retribution for Chisinau's pro-Western orientation, Russia banned the import of Moldovan wines in March, citing health and safety concerns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006). "Moldovan wine makers made a great mistake by selling 80 percent of their products in the Russian market," Voronin said. "The situation is now improving. Moldova is entering the markets of other countries, including those in Europe and Asia. Wine sales in Poland, Romania, and Ukraine have grown. Some Moldovan wine brands have appeared on the markets of Japan and South Korea," he added. Voronin also said that Russia has yet to provide any documentary evidence that Moldovan wines failed to meet health standards. BW

On August 6, 1996, as OSCE Grozny Mission head Tim Guldimann was seeking to mediate talks between Chechen resistance fighters loyal to acting President Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev and the Russian military, the Chechen forces launched a major attack on Grozny, taking control of the city within days.

On August 12, Russian President Boris Yeltsin dispatched his recently appointed Security Council secretary, Aleksandr Lebed, to Grozny for talks on a cease-fire with Aslan Maskhadov, chief of staff of the Chechen resistance forces. Over the next few days, Maskhadov met several times with the acting Russian military commander, Lieutenant General Konstantin Pulikovsky, but successive tentative agreements they reached on a cessation of hostilities were routinely ignored.

Then, on 22 August, Maskhadov and Lebed met in the village of Novye Atagi south of Grozny, and during eight hours of talks drafted and then signed a nine-point cease-fire agreement -- to take effect at noon on August 23 -- on the technical aspects of demilitarization, including the withdrawal of both sides' forces from Grozny and the creation of a joint headquarters to preclude looting in the city.

Eight days later, late on August 30, Lebed met again with Maskhadov, this time in Khasavyurt, Daghestan, close to that republic's border with Chechnya. After hours of negotiations, Maskhadov and Chechen Vice President Said-Khasan Abumuslimov, for the Chechen side, and Lebed and one of his deputies, Sergei Kharlamov, for Russia, signed a declaration and a document entitled "On the Principles for Determining the Bases of Bilateral Relations," universally known thereafter as the Khasavyurt accords.

The preamble to the declaration declared that it reflected the shared desire to create "mutually acceptable preconditions for a political solution to the armed conflict." Those accords detailed measures for normalizing the situation in Grozny. They also envisaged the withdrawal of all federal forces from Chechnya by December 31, 1996. And crucially, they stipulated that a formal agreement on the controversial question of the relations between the Chechen Republic Ichkeria and the Russian federal government need not be signed until late 2001.

They did not, however, address with any finality the issue of Chechen independence. "The Khasavyurt agreement has been interpreted, including by some international experts, as a proof of the Russian recognition of Chechnya's independence," Guldimann, the former OSCE mission head, told RFE/RL on the occasion of the accords' 10th anniversary. "I wouldn't read such a thing in this agreement. The wording was not that clear. There were some references of dealing with each other according to international law, but that in itself does not mean the recognition of independence."

In an article published on October 23, 1996, in the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta," Russian State Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova cited international precedents for delaying a decision on a region's formal status, such as that on the reunification of the German Democratic Republic and the German Federal Republic. Lebed, according to Starovoitova, had cited the example of the French overseas territory of New Caledonia. At the same time, Starovoitova noted the urgent need to form new power structures in Chechnya.

The Khasavyurt accords paved the way for the signing of two further agreements between Russia and Chechnya. In mid-November 1996, Yeltsin and Maskhadov signed an agreement on economic relations and on the payment of compensation to Chechens who had been "affected" by the 1994-96 war. Six months later, Maskhadov, who was elected Chechen president in January 1997 in a ballot monitored by the OSCE and acknowledged by the international community as free and democratic, traveled to Moscow where he and Yeltsin signed a formal treaty "on peace and the principles of Russian-Chechen relations" that Maskhadov predicted would demolish "any basis to create ill-feelings between Moscow and Grozny."

But Maskhadov's optimism proved misplaced. Over the next two years, despite all his efforts, many of Maskhadov's former comrades-in-arms set out to undermine his authority and transform Chechnya into a state based on Islamic law. After those radicals, led by field commander Shamil Basayev, launched their ill-fated incursion into Daghestan in the summer of 1999, the beginning of a new war, and with it the irrevocable eclipse of the hopes engendered by the Khasavyurt accords three years earlier, were only a matter of time.

Officials like Guldimann who were involved in the negotiations say the accords, despite their unavoidable limitations, achieved what they set out to do. The Khasavyurt agreement, he conceded "led to a politically unstable situation in Chechnya after the total withdrawal of Russian military forces, which then led to a confrontation later on in 1999." But the agreement itself, he added, "made the maximum of what was realistically possible. It left open certain questions, but it would be wrong to say that the agreement would have lasted if it had been better drafted."

A statement in the name of the Council of the Secret Army says it has joined forces with Hizb-e Islami, which is led by renegade former Afghan Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on August 28. "Until now we have carried out our activities using the name Secret Army...[but taking] into account the current situation in our country, we deemed it beneficial to join Hizb-e Islami," the statement noted. "We expect others to follow our example and join Hizb-e Islami to prevent division in the ranks of the mujahedin," the statement added, without naming the "others." From the issuance of the statement which is not dated, the group will "announce" its "activities under the name of Hizb-e Islami." In 2004, Hekmatyar reportedly drafted a new plan that included recruitment of militants in the name of the Secret Army of Mujahedin to step up attacks against foreign forces in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 25, 2004). In 2005, the Secret Army of Mujahedin threatened to kill candidates for the parliamentary and provincial-council elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 30, 2005). Most recently, the Secret Army of the Taliban claimed responsibility for a minor explosion in northern Afghanistan targeting the office of a Bangladeshi nongovernmental organization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 3, 2006). The Council of the Secret Army seems to be one of a number of groups of neo-Taliban who increasingly are adopting the term "mujahedin" to identify themselves. AT

Two Afghan civilians were killed and one was injured in a failed attempt to attack a NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) convoy near Kandahar on August 29, an ISAF statement indicated. According to the statement, it is "unclear whether the explosion was caused by a roadside bomb or by a suicide bomber of some sort." According to eyewitnesses, a suicide attacker rammed his car into the ISAF convoy, AIP reported on August 29. A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country used during the rule of the Taliban -- claimed on August 29 that a mujahid named Mohammad Daud from Kandahar Province carried out a "martyrdom-seeking" operation against a Canadian military convoy in Kandahar, destroying a battle tank and killing four Canadians. The neo-Taliban reportedly exaggerate thew impact of their attacks. AT

General Abdul Rahim Wardak said that until the Afghan National Army (ANA) becomes strong, the presence of foreign forces is necessary, the Mashhad-based Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on August 29. Responding to a question from Iranian Radio about a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Wardak said that "security enforcement" and improvement of the ANA are the "two key factors determining" such a timetable. According to Wardak, the ANA is still unable to prevent "a classic, systematic invasion" of Afghanistan, thus the country relies on its agreements with the international community to safeguard Afghanistan's territorial integrity. Iran has voiced its uneasiness regarding the presence of U.S. forces on the territory its eastern neighbor. AT

A group of 104 Portuguese soldiers headed for deployment in Afghanistan on August 29 to replace an existing force of 151, AFP reported. While Portugal has extended the mandate of its forces serving with ISAF until February, it has reduced the size of its contingent, citing budgetary constraints. AT

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad challenged U.S. President George Bush to debate him, state television reported. "I propose holding a live, televised debate with Mr. Bush, the U.S. president, so that we talk about world's issues and ways to solve the world's problems," Ahmadinejad said at a press conference in Tehran on August 29. "We will announce our views and they would do the same, but under the condition that it will not be censored, especially for the American people." This appears to be Ahmadinejad's second attempt to communicate directly with the American people; the first was his mid-August interview with CBS television's "60 Minutes." Ahmadinejad tried to communicate directly with Bush in May, when he sent him a lengthy letter that addressed issues ranging from theology to Iraq and Israel. In the more recent case, however, Ahmadinejad made it clear that he is not calling for bilateral talks. "We will negotiate with those who scowl upon our nation every day under different conditions," he said according to state television. "If the conditions are met, then why not [hold talks with the U.S.]?" BS

Ahmadinejad said at the August 29 press conference that Israel is the cause of violence in the region, state television reported. "The Zionist regime has deprived the Palestinian and other nations in the region of the chance of living in peace," he said. He added, "During 60 years, the Zionist regime has imposed tens of wars on neighboring countries, the last one of which was the savage invasion of Lebanon." BS

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said during an August 29 briefing at the semi-annual Assembly of Experts meeting in Tehran that Iran is willing to provide guarantees that its nuclear program is purely civilian in nature, IRNA reported. These guarantees will demonstrate that no aspect of the program is being diverted for military use, he said. Larijani complained that some countries just do not want Iran to have access to nuclear power. BS

The Assembly of Experts began a two-day meeting in Tehran on 29 August, IRNA reported. This will be the assembly's last meeting before the December 15 elections; the last elections took place in October 1998. All members of the 89 member assembly are male clerics, and the body is tasked with monitoring the performance of the country's supreme leader. It also selects his successor. In his opening speech to the assembly, Chairman Ayatollah Ali Meshkini hailed Lebanese Hizballah's performance against the Israeli military in their July-August conflict. BS

Judiciary spokesman Jamal Karimirad said on August 29 that student activist Ahmad Batebi was arrested again on July 29 so he can complete a sentence at Evin prison relating to his actions during July 1999 student unrest in Tehran, the Aftab website reported. Karimirad said Batebi's prison leave has ended. In a letter to the "sources of emulation" and other leading clerics, Batebi's father has asked for help in securing his son's freedom, Radio Farda reported. Baqer Batebi told Radio Farda on August 29: "We are Muslims and we have a source of emulation; I should be able to live at peace in a Muslim nation and I have asked these senior figures for help." He continued: "I am an Iranian and I have a right to breathe in this country." Batebi wrote in his letter that if he does not get help in this way his only choice will be to turn to foreign human rights organizations. Radio Farda reported that two former student activists from Kermanshah -- Omran Parandakht and Alireza Moradi -- were imprisoned during the previous week. Three other student activists -- Jamal Zaherpur, Abolfazl Jahandar, and Kheirollah Derakhshandi -- were arrested in the last few days, Advarnews website reported on August 29. BS

Some 24 Iraqis were killed and 35 wounded in an insurgent attack on a Baghdad marketplace in the Shurja district on August 30, international media reported. The marketplace has been targeted several times this year. Meanwhile, two people were killed and 21 wounded when a bomb detonated in the nearby Karrada district, while twin attacks near a gas station in central Baghdad killed three policemen and wounded 14 others. Elsewhere, a bicycle laden with explosives was detonated outside a police recruitment center in Al-Hillah, south of Baghdad, on August 30, killing 12 and wounding another 38, a police spokesman said. KR

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki told reporters at an August 29 press briefing in Baghdad that the four-month-long oil crisis plaguing Iraq has ended, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Al-Maliki praised the performance of the Oil Ministry under current Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani, saying the ministry took the appropriate steps to contain the crisis. Al-Shahristani told reporters at the same briefing that oil production will continue to increase in the coming months as new refineries come online. Iraq also intends to increase its oil imports from neighboring states to supplement domestic production. Both men addressed the need to thwart smuggling operations, particularly through Al-Basrah, saying the ministry is currently working on implementing a plan to activate a security committee in Al-Basrah to that end. The ministry's latest figures indicate that imports have been raised from 8 million liters to 11 million liters per day. KR

Justice Minister Hashim al-Shibli told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq in an August 29 interview that the U.S. military has transferred control over Baghdad's Abu Ghraib Prison to the Iraqi authorities, who have in turn, transferred all detainees to other facilities. The government has not yet decided what to do with the facility, which gained notoriety following the 2004 exposure of detainee abuse at the facility (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2004). KR

An official from the Kurdish autonomous region's Human Rights Ministry told IRIN that the government will build a refugee camp for some 6,000 families who have sought refuge in the region since 2003 from fighting farther south, the news agency reported on August 29. "We will build a camp in Al-Sulaymaniyah for those people who are moving here from the south and they will be considered IDPs [internally displaced persons]," ministry director-general Tavga Omar said. Omar said the regional government is having difficulty coping with the masses of people seeking shelter in the north. IRIN cited figures from the Kurdish Interior Ministry's Internal Residency Office that recorded the arrival of some 7,498 families in Irbil from areas in the south between January 2005 and August 2006. Of these people, 2,670 are Arabs, 1,292 identify themselves as Christians, and the rest identified themselves as Kurds who lived in cities and towns outside the region. RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on August 29 that more than 1,000 physicians have sought shelter in the Kurdish region; the government is currently taking steps to accredit them and find them jobs and homes. KR