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Newsline - December 4, 2006

Several Scotland Yard officers are expected to travel to Russia soon under a recently concluded memorandum of understanding to speak to possible witnesses in connection with the unexplained death in London on November 23 of U.K. citizen and former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, British media reported on December 4 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 28, 29, and 30, and December 1, 2006). On December 3, Home Secretary John Reid said that "the police will follow wherever this investigation leads, inside or outside of Britain. That will continue over the next few days," the "International Herald Tribune" reported. "The police will talk to anybody they need to, inside this country or outside this country. Over the next few days, I think [the investigation] will widen out a little from the circle just being here in London." Reid also stressed that "the worst thing we can do is speculate" as to the possible motives for Litvinenko's apparent poisoning. Reid noted that Litvinenko had been "involved with" not only the FSB, but also with Chechens, exiled oligarchs, and organized crime. On December 1, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Amman, Jordan, that he has yet to receive specific questions from London about the case. On December 3, Britain's "Sunday Times" reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin "has expressed his anger at Britain's failure to gag...Litvinenko in the final hours of his life, the cabinet has been told. Margaret Beckett, the foreign secretary, told ministers that the Russian government had 'taken exception' to the poisoned former spy's deathbed letter accusing the Putin regime of murdering him." Beckett noted that Moscow "failed to understand" that Litvinenko was not in police custody at the time of his death. The paper added that "amid signs that [Litvinenko's] death could cause a diplomatic row, [Prime Minister] Tony Blair concluded the cabinet meeting by saying 'the most important issue' was likely to be Britain's long-term relationship with Moscow. Another minister present said that 'it caused some alarm that this case is obviously causing tension with the Russians. They are too important for us to fall out with them over this.'" The Kremlin considers the alleged deathbed letter a publicity stunt aimed at discrediting Putin. PM

Britain's "The Economist" noted on December 2 that "conspiracy theories in Moscow about who killed...Litvinenko have reached a pitch of dialecticism that is scarcely intelligible to outsiders." One of the latest such theories centers on the possibility that Litvinenko might not have been the target of a poisoning. Instead, the speculation is that he was part of an racket trading illegally in nuclear materials and that he was accidentally contaminated in a bungled operation. According to this theory, the traces of the radioactive substance polonium-210 that appeared at various places in London and on several aircraft were allegedly the result of conspirators fleeing an operation gone awry. Many Western media continue to stress, however, that Litvinenko's death and other unresolved murders or apparent poisonings suggest that something is "deeply wrong" in Putin's Russia. Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" argued on December 4 that the Russian "protest" to Britain over the alleged deathbed letter "demonstrated a lack of understanding of democratic norms." "The New York Times" wrote on December 4 that "a culture of lawlessness is spreading throughout Russia, and...Putin has done little to stop it. On the contrary, he has weakened Russia's democracy by stuffing his administration with shadowy fellow veterans of the old KGB and by fanning Russians' deep-seated feelings of insecurity and mistrust of the outside world." The paper stressed that "when Kremlin critics are attacked or murdered, the West must demand a full, transparent investigation and punishment for the criminals -- no matter who they are." Some other Western media suggested on December 2-3 that the problem is not that the Kremlin is involved in murky dealings but that neither it nor anyone else has any control over myriad rogue elements in or around the government and security forces. Proponents of this view tend to link the Litvinenko affair to a power struggle to succeed Putin when his current term ends in 2008. On December 4, Britain's "The Guardian" wrote that "Washington's empire builders" are using the Litvinenko affair, the Ukrainian gas crisis, and numerous other developments to wage "a new 'soft war' against the Kremlin, a call to arms that has been enthusiastically followed in both the U.S. and Britain. Every measure Putin has taken has been portrayed by the Russophobes as the work of a sinister totalitarian." PM

The U.K.-based architectural firm RMJM has won a competition to design the new headquarters of Gazprom in the heart of St. Petersburg, British and Russian media reported on December 2. The planned structure, which the "Financial Times" described as a "twisting glass needle," will be 396 meters tall. The estimated cost stands currently at $600 million. The architects say it will "complement" the spires that currently dominate the historic city skyline and create a "special" environment, as the Eiffel Tower does in Paris. They also argue that its design is well-suited to conserve heat and light in the harsh northern setting. Critics believe that the structure will dwarf and clash with the historic skyline. PM

President Lech Kaczynski told the German weekly "Focus" of December 3 that Germany should be more cautious in its dealings with Russia, which is increasing military spending despite mounting social problems. He also repeated his long-standing concerns that Moscow and Berlin will make deals between themselves at Warsaw's expense. He drew attention to the example of the projected Nord Stream pipeline, which will enable Russia to ship gas to Germany via the Baltic without transiting Poland (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 20, 24, and 31, 2006). Referring to the Litvinenko and Politkovskaya cases, Kaczynski argued that in Russia there are "phenomena that occur nowhere else.... At least in Poland, no opposition figure has lost his life in recent years." Kaczynski is slated to meet soon with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Jacques Chirac in Mettlach in western Germany. PM

President Putin and his Indonesian counterpart Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono agreed in Moscow on December 1 to boost military and energy cooperation, Russian media reported. Russia plans to sell $1 billion worth of arms, build a floating nuclear power station, and help develop Indonesia's space program. Sergei Chemezov, who heads the state arms trader Rosoboroneksport, Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) chief Sergei Kiriyenko, Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika, and Justice Minister Vladimir Ustinov also attended the session, "The Moscow Times" reported on December 4. PM

The Unified Russia party met in Yekaterinburg on December 2 to publicize its platform and launch its campaign for the 2007 parliamentary elections, reported on December 4. Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu proposed that members of the upper house, or Federation Council, be directly elected instead of appointed by regional governors and parliaments. The daily "Vremya novostei" wrote on December 4 that this appears to be an attempt to upstage Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov, who is also a leader of the new "manufactured opposition" party known as A Just Russia, and who made a similar proposal in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27, July 13 and 21, and October 30, 2006). Also at the Unified Russia congress, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov called A Just Russia a "party of has-beens." He argued that Mironov has taken an "irresponsible" position by opposing Unified Russia's plans to abolish the requirement for a 20 percent voter turnout for an election to the State Duma and a 50 percent turnout for a presidential vote for an election to be valid (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 15, 2006). Gryzlov also criticized Anatoly Chubais, who heads Russia's Unified Energy Systems (EES) electricity monopoly, for policies that Gryzlov said led to "turning off" power in unspecified regions. Among those elected to Unified Russia's Supreme Council was Rosoboroneksport's Chemezov. Vladimir Yakunin, who heads Russian Railways, was not elected to the council. Some observers consider Yakunin a possible successor to President Putin when his term expires in 2008. PM

Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian met in Moscow on December 1 with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and urged the Russian government to tackle mounting ethnically motivated attacks targeting Armenians and to minimize the economic impact on Armenia from Russia's trade sanctions against neighboring Georgia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Markarian further called on the Russian authorities to recognize the ethnic character of a wave of recent killings and assaults against Armenians living in Russia and warned his Russian counterpart that failure to address the crimes could harm Russian-Armenian relations. Markarian also complained that Russia's closure of its main border crossing with Georgia last June inflicted serious losses on Armenian companies trading with Russia. He proposed that Moscow restore regular ferry service between Russian and Georgian Black Sea ports as an alternative route for Armenian exporters. RG

In an interview with the Russian daily "Kommersant," Armenian Prime Minister Markarian said on December 1 that the widely anticipated handover to a Russian company of a pipeline that will supply Armenia with Iranian natural gas is not a forgone conclusion, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Markarian added that the construction of the pipeline is not yet complete, and it is still too early to speak of its transfer or nontransfer to any operator, including Gazprom. The comments reflect the ambition of Russia's state-owned Gazprom to acquire the Armenia-Iran gas pipeline and follow an agreement in April whereby Gazprom gained control of the Hrazdan thermal power plant and a controlling 58 percent stake in Armenia's national gas distributor, ArmRosGazprom. RG

Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian cautioned on December 1 that progress in recent talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents should not be overstated, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Oskanian noted that the talks were both positive and constructive, but stressed that both sides still have numerous unresolved issues to deal with. He further added that there is still the question of bringing Nagorno-Karabakh into the negotiations and warned that without Nagorno-Karabakh's participation, at least in that final stage, a resolution is impossible. The two presidents met in Minsk on November 28 on the sidelines of a CIS summit following agreements forged by two of the three co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 22 and 29, 2006). The two foreign ministers are set to hold another meeting in Brussels on December 4 with the participation of the three Minsk Group co-chairs, widely seen as a prelude to another, follow-up presidential summit before the end of this year. RG

In contrast to the sober assessment of Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanian, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov said on December 1 that the recent meeting between Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian resulted in an agreement on all but one of the basic principles of a draft peace plan aimed at resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. In an interview with, Mammadyarov explained that while there are eight or nine principles making up the peace talks, only one, unspecified, issue remains -- adding that if progress is made on that issue it will be possible to speak of a breakthrough. Aliyev also cited progress during his November 28 meeting with Kocharian and stressed that the two presidents managed to a find a solution to a number of problems they could not agree on before. However, he explained that divergences remain on crucial points and noted that Azerbaijan's negotiating position remains unchanged (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). RG

President Aliyev convened on December 1 a cabinet meeting to discuss energy security to prepare the country for winter, Turan reported. Aliyev discussed measures aimed at increasing domestic gas production and noted that the pending imposition of reductions in supplies of Russian natural gas -- from 4.5 billion cubic meters to 1.5 billion cubic meters -- combined with a sharp increase in prices for Russian gas, necessitates a search for additional resources. Although Azerbaijan currently pays $110 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas imported from Russia, Moscow is expected to impose a new price of $230 for the same amount of gas. Azerbaijan has been regularly importing some 4.5 billion cubic meters of gas from Russia each year since 2000. Aliyev also reviewed the development of a long-term strategy for Azerbaijani energy security and stressed that a recently concluded agreement with the EU marked a major step forward in ensuring alternative energy arrangements. Azerbaijan produces about 5 billion cubic meters of gas annually, but requires imported gas to cover its annual needs of 10-11 billion cubic meters. RG

Following a meeting on energy security, Azerbaijani President Aliyev announced on December 1 plans to reduce or even suspend Azerbaijani oil exports via Russia in response to Russia's imposition of a planned cut in gas supplies, RFE/RL and Turan reported. Aliyev explained that oil shipments through the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline would be reduced. The announcement came just ahead of the planned December 4 visit to Baku by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and is seen as a move intended to pressure Russia prior to bilateral talks. RG

An unnamed official of the Georgian National Bank reported on December 2 that since Russia's imposition of an economic embargo of Georgia, the flow of remittances from Russia to Georgia has fallen sharply, Caucasus Press reported. The official noted that since the introduction of the embargo, only $33.7 million in remittances was transferred from Russia to Georgia, representing a decrease of 19.8 percent from September. Financial transfers from Georgia to Russia also fell, to $2 million in October, compared to $10 million in September. RG

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Sharm el-Shiekh, Egypt, on December 1 to discuss international issues and bilateral relations, the Egyptian news agency MENA reported. Talks on bilateral ties focused on ways of boosting trade and investment. The two leaders also discussed the results of Mubarak's November 7 visit to Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8, 2006). DK

Cesar Dubon, head of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) mission in Kazakhstan, told a news conference in Almaty on December 1 that Kazakhstan does not provide equal treatment for refugees from China and CIS countries, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. "An individual who applies for asylum to Kazakh state bodies is not allowed to undergo the procedure for defining refuge status if he or she comes from a CIS country or China," Dubon said. He contrasted the experience of a group of Afghan refugees, who have been staying in Kazakhstan for 10 years, with the experiences of Uzbek and Chinese Uyghur refugees in Kazakhstan. According to Dubon, the UNHCR mission in Kazakhstan received 400 applications for refugee status in 2005-06 and granted 180 of them. Dubon also noted, "In particular, we have sent some 100 Uzbek citizens to third countries from April 2005 up through the present." DK

Tax police tried to arrest the wife of a leader of Kyrgyzstan's opposition For Reforms movement in Bishkek on December 1, news agency reported. Businessman Omurbek Abdrakhmanov said that tax police used force in their attempt to arrest his wife, Beyish Aidikeeva. But Bakai Kajygulov, head of the Financial Police Service, said that Aidikeeva owes more than 1 million soms ($25,800) in back taxes. An unidentified member of parliament prevented her arrest, according to the news agency. The incident highlighted ongoing tension between the authorities and opposition. Meanwhile, police took Bakyt Kalpetov, a member of the opposition Ata-Meken party, into custody again in connection with an alleged assault on the deputy director of the State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (MTRK). Kalpetov was originally detained and held by the National Security Service in November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). Finally, Edil Baisalov, head of the NGO coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, was reportedly assaulted in the Osh airport by an unidentified assailant who hit Baisalov, took a bag of documents, and fled, Kyrgyz television reported. DK

President Imomali Rakhmonov has signed decrees appointing a new government, news agencies reported on December 1. Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov kept his post, as did Defense Minister Sherali Khayrulloyev, Finance Minister Safarali Najmuddinov, Education Minister Abdujabbor Rahmonov, and Deputy Prime Minister Asadullo Ghulomov. Former Transportation Minister Abdurahim Ashurov will head the new Ministry of Transport and Communications. Hamrokhon Zaripov replaced Talbak Nazarov as foreign minister; Abdurahmon Qodirov replaced Voris Madaminov as minister of agriculture and environmental protection; Bakhtiyor Khudoyorov replaced Khalifabobo Homidov as justice minister; Mirzoshohrukh Asrorov replaced Rajabmad Amirov as culture minister; Rano Abdurahmonova replaced Nusratullo Fayzulloyev as health minister; Mahmadnazar Solehov replaced Khumdin Sharipov as interior minister. Khayriddin Abdurahimov, who headed the dissolved Security Ministry, was appointed head of the State Committee on National Security. Other appointments to the new cabinet, as reported by Tajik television, are: Deputy Prime Minister Khayrinisso Mavlonova; Minister of Land Reclamation and Water Resources Masaid Homidov; Minister of Labour and Social Security Shukurjon Zuhurov; Minister of Economic Development and Trade Ghulomjon Boboyev; Minister of Energy and Industry Sherali Gulov; Chairman of the State Committee on National Security Khayriddin Abdurahimov; Chairman of the State Statistics Committee Mirgand Shabozov; and Chairman of the State Committee for Investment and the Management of State Property Sharif Rahimov. DK

President Rakhmonov signed a decree on December 2 removing Soghd province Governor Qosim Qosimov, Avesta reported. Qosimov's replacement will be Abduqohir Nazirov, the former minister of land reclamation and water resources. The report stated only that Qosimov has been dismissed in connection with a transfer to another job. DK

A Czech military aircraft carrying high-ranking military commanders was detained in the Turkmen capital of Ashgabat en route from Afghanistan to the Czech Republic on December 2, AP reported. The plane, which was carrying army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Pavel Stefka and Deputy Defense Minister Martin Bartak, stopped for refueling, but Turkmen authorities held it for several hours because it was carrying armed guards. Czech Defense Ministry spokesman Jan Pejsek said the accompanying guards were a routine measure. The plane had landed in Prague by December 3, RIA Novosti reported. Czech Deputy Foreign Minister Jaroslav Bast told reporters: "As far as I know, our embassy in Moscow has already sent two diplomatic notes to Turkmen representatives. At the ministry here in Prague, we'll weigh our future options. We are going to react." DK

A small group of Uzbek human rights activists held a demonstration in front of the Foreign Ministry in Tashkent on December 1, reported. Demonstrators asked Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov to open a dialogue with them on human rights issues in Uzbekistan. They also demanded the resignation of the government and expressed solidarity with independent journalist Jamshid Karimov, who has reportedly been detained in a psychiatric hospital (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, 2006). Demonstrators included Yelena Urlaeva, Rasul Tojiboev, Yurii Imamov, Valentina Stepchenko, Natalya Panteleeva, and Akhtam Shaimardonov. Security forces reportedly spoke with the protesters but took no other action. DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said at a government conference on December 1 that only the construction of a nuclear power plant in Belarus would guarantee the country's national security and provide it with cheap energy, Belapan reported, citing official information sources. Lukashenka expressed confidence that citizens will support the idea of constructing a nuclear power plant if they are "correctly informed" about the country's energy situation and economic prospects. Belarusian National Academy of Sciences head Mikhail Myasnikovich said at the same conference that the first power unit of a future nuclear plant could be put into operation in 2013. Myasnikovich added that, according to experts, the best location for the plant would be Chavusy Raion in Mahilyou Oblast, some 100 kilometers from Belarus's border with Russia. Lukashenka reportedly ordered that the government submit proposals for the construction of the plant as soon as possible. JM

Central Election Commission Secretary Mikalay Lazavik told Belapan on December 1 that there is just one representative of opposition parties among 70,877 people on 6,526 polling-station commissions for the January 14 local elections in Belarus. The person is reportedly a member of the United Civic Party. JM

A Roman Catholic priest and 11 female members of his parish went on a hunger strike in Hrodna, northwestern Belarus, on December 1 to protest the local authorities' refusal to grant the parish a permit for the construction of a church, Belapan reported. Father Alyaksandr Shemet told the agency that his community of 8,000 parishioners currently has two chapels that can accommodate some 320 people at a time. The community first filed an official request for a plot of land to build a church on in 1998. JM

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych arrived in Washington, D.C., on December 3 for his first official U.S. trip since returning to office in August, Ukrainian media reported. Yanukovych was expected to deliver a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on December 4 and to meet later in the day with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. No meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush has been announced. On December 5 in Washington and the following day in New York, Yanukovych is expected to meet with other U.S. politicians and business representatives. Yanukovych is expected to return to Kyiv on December 7. Yanukovych visited the United States in October 2003 during his tenure as prime minister in 2002-04. JM

Borys Tarasyuk, who was dismissed from the post of foreign minister by the Verkhovna Rada on December 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2006), told journalists in Poltava on December 2 that his dismissal was illegitimate and unconstitutional, UNIAN reported. "The voting in the [Verkhovna] Rada took place with violations, since the foreign minister is appointed after being designated by the president and, accordingly, his dismissal must take place under such a procedure as well," Tarasyuk said. The previous day, Tarasyuk commented that his sacking rekindled "a war against the president [and] for his authority." "This whole situation following the [March parliamentary] elections calls for the rethinking and regrouping of all patriotic and democratic forces, in order to unite and together prevent a rollback of democracy," Tarasyuk added. JM

Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku said on December 3 that his visit to Russia was a "successful and positive" step in Prishtina's efforts to win Moscow's support for independence, B92 reported the same day. Ceku met last week in Moscow with Russian legislators and officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2006). "I am not under the impression that Russia has already made a decision to use its veto regarding the Kosova-status solution," Ceku said upon returning to Kosova. "The fact we were invited on this visit confirms they see us as Kosova's legitimate representatives and partners in this process," he added. Ceku said his discussions with Russian officials were "open and not prejudiced." BW

More than 10,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade on December 2 to express support for Serbian Radical Party (SRS) leader and war crimes defendant Vojislav Seselj, B92, Beta and international news agencies reported the same day. Some estimates placed the number of protesters as high as 25,000. SRS Deputy President Tomislav Nikolic said the party chose the U.S. Embassy as a venue for the demonstration because Washington is to blame for what he called the "savage killing of Serbs at The Hague." He also accused President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica of taking orders from Washington. Seselj, who is on a hunger strike, is facing war crimes charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2006). The ICTY postponed Seselj's trial on December 2 due to his weakening health. "Vojislav Seselj has already won and entered the most precious part of the Serb history no matter what happens at The Hague," Nikolic said. BW

Montenegro has completed technical negotiations for a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the European Commission, AP reported on December 1. Montenegro's minister for European integration, Gordana Djurovic, said that with "technical negotiations finished," the SAA could be signed within weeks. Teresa Sobietski, the head of the EU negotiating team and acting director for enlargement with the European Commission, said on December 1 that although "negotiations with Montenegro were finished," the process is not yet finished. Each of the EU's 25 members must approve the deal before it is signed. And once it is signed, each EU country must then ratify the agreement. Sobietski also urged Montenegro to "enhance administrative capacities," especially regarding customs regulations, to align with EU norms. Djurovic promised that Podgorica would do so. BW

In a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush, Macedonian Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski thanked the United States for supporting Skopje's bid to join NATO, B92 and Makfax reported on December 3. "Personally, and on the behalf of the Macedonian people, I would like to extend gratitude to you and the American people for the continuous support to our aspirations for becoming a [full-fledged] member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization," Gruevski wrote. "The Republic of Macedonia appreciates highly its friendship and strategic partnership with the United States of America, and will continue to make its contribution to securing peace, freedom, and safety anywhere in the world." During a summit in Riga, Latvia, NATO leaders informed Macedonia, Croatia, and Albania that they could receive invitations to join the alliance in 2008 if they meet membership criteria by that time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). BW

ICTY chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte said war crimes fugitives Radovan Karadzic and Stojan Zupljanin are hiding in Bosnia-Herzegovina's Republika Srpska (RS) and in Serbia, Reuters reported on December 1. "They are in the RS, in the border zone between the RS and Serbia," the Bosnian daily newspaper "Dnevni avaz" quoted Del Ponte as saying. "It's a pity nobody's doing anything about it." The newspaper reported that Del Ponte made her comments during a meeting with the members of Bosnia's tripartite Presidency on November 30 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2006). BW

Transdniestrian President Igor Smirnov said on December 3 that the breakaway region could never form a common state with Moldova, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "We do not refuse to build a state within common borders with Moldova, but Chisinau consistently derailed all accords," Smirnov said. "Moldova's authorities say that they are going to the European Union and NATO, [but] we have conducted a referendum, and our people have made their strategic choice in favor of Russia." In a referendum that was widely unrecognized by the international community, Transdniester overwhelmingly voted for independence on September 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2006). Smirnov said since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Moldova and Transdniester "have different economic systems, different education systems, and a whole generation has grown up with different values." BW

The head of a center for Iran's disabled war veterans announced on November 26 that Iraq's former Ba'athist regime used chemical weapons against civilians and soldiers some 300 times in the 1980s.

After two decades, still suffering the long-term effects of chemical agents, many of the 100,000 Iranian survivors of Iraqi gas attacks continue to seek justice as they follow the trial of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. They are described by many as Hussein's forgotten victims. In many cases, they are soldiers who fought in the bloody Iran-Iraq War in 1980-88. But many others were noncombatants.

Iranian authorities have registered more than 50,000 victims of chemical weapons requiring special medical care. But it is thought that about 1 million Iranians were exposed to mustard or nerve gas during the war. Hossein Mohammadian, a resident of Sardasht in Iran's Kurdistan, is among those victims.

Sardasht came under chemical attack months before the March 1988 attack on the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja, which became a symbol of Saddam Hussein's brutality. But Sardasht received scant media coverage, and was soon forgotten by many. But Mohammadian has vivid memories of that hot afternoon in late June 1987.

"It was not the first time Sardasht was being attacked, but the difference was -- and it became clear later -- that it was a chemical attack," he says. "Some of the bombs fell only a few meters from me. I thought our house was destroyed and my parents were under the rubble. I started running toward the house, when I realized there was thick smoke in the air and a special smell."

Several mustard bombs were dropped on the city, contaminating some 4,500 people. More than 100 people died in the first month after exposure. Mohammadian says neighbors began coughing and suffering from blisters. Some vomited, while others could barely open their burning eyes.

Eleven members of his family were seriously contaminated. Mohammadian was in such a critical state that he was transferred to a hospital in Tehran, and then Madrid, for treatment. He learned of his father's death only two months after the attack.

Mohammadian, now 46, is a senior member of a nongovernmental group that tries to help Sardasht's victims of chemical weapons. He tells RFE/RL that the city still bears the scars of that attack nearly 20 years ago. "Many people have problems, including respiratory difficulties and weak nerves -- their immune systems have become weak," he says. "The reality is that [scientists] have not yet found a guaranteed cure for these victims." Many have died of collapsed lungs over the years, and others remain disabled.

A physician who has spent time researching the effects of chemical agents on Iranians, Shahryar Khateri, says many survivors suffer from psychological symptoms, including depression and anxiety. Khateri was 14 years old when he joined the war to repel the Iraqi invasion, and spent three years on the front lines. There, he witnessed several chemical attacks.

"In one of them, nerve gas was used -- but we had atropine cyanide injections and, fortunately, because of that our contamination was not very serious," Khateri says. "In another mustard-gas attack, we were some distance from where the bombs fell and we used masks."

After the war, Khateri finished his medical studies and got involved in drawing attention to the plight of victims of chemical warfare. He says many survivors have developed chronic lung, eye, or skin diseases.

"This is one reason why we believe [chemical weapons] are much more destructive than conventional weapons -- because even 20 years later, those who at the time of the attack were not seriously injured are slowly developing health problems," Khateri says.

Khateri is now the director of international relations at Iran's Society for Chemical Weapons Victims Support (SCWVS). His nonprofit group helps victims and is also active in peace exchanges and efforts to eliminate unconventional weapons. Khateri tells RFE/RL that Iran's victims of chemical weapons feel the world has forgotten about them.

"There is talk of [Hussein's] crimes everywhere, but there is not a word about the crimes he committed against Iranians," Khateri says. "Sardasht is the first city in the world to have been attacked with chemical weapons. When it comes to Iran, this issue has been affected -- maybe because [Tehran] does not have good political relations with some countries."

Khateri says many victims are glad to see Iraq's former leader finally facing justice, but there is also disappointment. "I -- and also many other survivors of the war whom I've talked to -- are happy that [Hussein] is facing trial," he says. "But we are disappointed that the attack against Iran and the use of chemical weapons [against Iranians] have been ignored. I feel this trial is not fair."

In Sardasht, Hossein Mohammadian holds out hope that Hussein -- who has already been sentenced to death for the mass killing of Iraqi civilians -- will also face prosecution for the use of chemical weapons against Iranians:

Khateri wants to know as well. "Before his [death] sentence is carried out, I would like him to answer a question: Why did he order the use of chemical weapons, especially against the defenseless people of Sardasht?" he says.

In the minds of the tens or hundreds of thousands of Iranians whose lives have been wracked by pain and suffering since those chemical attacks, that question deserves an answer.

(Golnaz Esfandiari is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

A suicide car bomber struck a NATO convoy on December 3 in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, killing at least eight people and wounding 19 others, including three British troops, Reuters reported. Three Afghan civilians died in the bombing and five others were killed by gunfire from the troops following the attack. The U.K. Defense Ministry identified the three injured soldiers as British Royal Marines commandoes. It reported one was seriously wounded and the other two were in stable condition. The BBC reported that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) issued a statement regarding the claims of civilian shootings by ISAF troops. "During the aftermath of the incident, it has been reported that warning shots were fired by ISAF soldiers and that a number of civilian casualties were caused. These claims are now being investigated," the statement said. RR

A helicopter chartered by NATO from a U.S. contractor disappeared on December 2 in bad weather while delivering supplies to foreign forces in southern Afghanistan, Reuters reported on December 3. There is no report yet of the number of people on board or their nationalities. A search is under way for the aircraft and those aboard, according to Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary. "The chopper has crashed and there have been fatalities. We do not know how many," Bashary said. He said the helicopter was owned by the U.S. security firm Dyncorp International and was traveling from the capital of Kandahar Province to neighboring Oruzgan Province when it went down in a remote area. On December 2, a Taliban spokesman claimed that that group's fighters shot down the helicopter, but the claim could be confirmed by neither NATO nor the Afghan Interior Ministry, who stated that the cause of the crash is still unknown. RR

"The Washington Post" reported on December 2 that the Bush administration says opium production in Afghanistan reached historic levels in 2006. The report cited a 26 percent year-on-year increase in opium production in 2006, and said the amount of land used to cultivate opium is up 61 percent, including an increase of 132 percent in the two biggest opium-producing provinces, Helmand and Oruzgan. U.S. military and intelligence officials reportedly have suggested the drug trade is an impediment to U.S. policies that equals or in some ways exceeds damage wrought by the Taliban insurgency. "It is truly the Achilles' heel of Afghanistan," U.S. General James Jones, the supreme allied commander for NATO, was quoted as saying. The drug trade provides Afghanistan with over one-third of its gross domestic product. RR

A NATO spokesman said that alliance troops killed 70 to 80 Taliban fighters in the restive southern Afghan Helmand Province on December 3 following an ambush by insurgents, the BBC reported. No NATO troops were reported killed in the fighting. The spokesman said a four-hour battle followed when a Danish patrol working with British soldiers came under fire outside the town of Musa Kala, and air strikes were called in to assist the ground troops. Under a truce reached in October that reportedly was backed by British troops, Taliban fighters, and local elders, the local forces in Musa Qala were given permission to police the area. Since the attack took place just outside the area covered by the agreement, it could add to NATO suspicions that the Taliban are using Musa Kala as a safe haven. RR

Lawmakers voted on December 3 to hasten a decision on a bill for holding Iran's next presidential and legislative elections simultaneously, Fars News Agency, ILNA, and Radio Farda reported. Out of 206 parliamentarians who were present at the session, 156 of the 184 who voted expressed backing for the bill. Holding simultaneous elections is intended to reduce public expenditures and also contribute to political stability. "Iran" newspaper reported on November 20 that legislators' signatures were being collected for a bill requiring the holding of simultaneous presidential and municipal council elections, also as a way to reduce expenses. BS

Deputy parliament speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar said on December 3 that "fundamentalists" (osulgarayan) -- a term referring to the younger generation of conservatives -- have not achieved unity on which candidates to back in the upcoming municipal-council election for Tehran, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported on December 4. He added that there are two or even three candidate lists, and there is the possibility of all three being published in the coming days. Bahonar said that if several lists appear, his Islamic Society of Engineers will not declare a specific choice but will confine itself to encouraging members to vote. BS

The Guardians Council, which must confirm all legislation's compatibility with Islamic law and with the constitution, approved a law on December 2 that requires the fingerprinting of all U.S. nationals when they enter Iran or when they apply for an Iranian visa, IRNA reported. Seyyed Ahmad Musavi, the vice president for legal and parliamentary affairs, said the executive branch opposes this legislation, "Iran" reported on November 20. "The United States government does not like the Iranian nation," Musavi was quoted as saying, "but we do honor all those that are invited to Iran." BS

Dozens of female students at Yazd University have been hospitalized since November 27 with signs of poisoning, Radio Farda reported on December 3. The symptoms include diarrhea, dizziness, fever, and vomiting. Student activist Amir Eshaqi told Radio Farda that the women's dining hall at Yazd University is separate from the men's dining hall, and about 400 women got sick eating there. University authorities, however, say that approximately 50 women have fallen ill. The authorities also have questioned whether the illness is from eating in the cafeteria, and they suggest dirty water could be the source of the illness. BS

Tehran and Yerevan signed a memorandum of understanding on December 1 in which Armenia agreed to export 6,000 tons of beef and 2,000 tons of lamb to Iran annually, the Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) reported. The memorandum was signed during Agricultural Jihad Minister Mohammad-Reza Eskandari's visit to Armenia. Almost two weeks earlier, 22 legislators asked the agricultural jihad minister, as well as the commerce and economic affairs ministers, to halt increases in the prices of foodstuffs, "Iran" reported on November 20. Higher costs for red meat, chicken, eggs, and fruit, are affecting vulnerable segments of society adversely, the legislators said. BS

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan left Tehran on December 3, having arrived the previous evening, international and local news agencies reported. He met during his visit with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and other officials, reportedly to discuss regional affairs and bilateral relations. Iran's presidential press office reported on December 3 that the two sides agreed that the value of bilateral trade should surpass $10 billion, and President Ahmadinejad said Iran could supply energy to Europe via Turkey. Erdogan said that bilateral trade is in excess of $6 billion and that Turkey is eager to purchase natural gas from Iran, according to Fars News Agency. BS

"The Christian Science Monitor" on December 4 cites the Lebanese newspaper "Al-Mustaqbal" as reporting two days earlier that "the Syrian-Iranian camp, led by Hizballah, has begun to implement a plot for a coup" in Lebanon. Some observers have suggested that Damascus is behind the current political crisis in Lebanon in an effort to avert an international tribunal's investigation of the February 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Meanwhile, "The Jerusalem Post" reported on December 3 that intelligence secured by the Israeli "defense establishment" asserts that long-range missiles and advanced antitank missiles supplied by Iran and Syria are being delivered to Hizballah. The missiles are said to be replacing those used or destroyed during the summer conflict between Hizballah and Israel. The information, combined with concerns triggered by the possible collapse of the Lebanese government, reportedly led Israel to raise its state of alert in the northern region bordering Lebanon. The missiles and other supplies are stored in parts of southern Lebanon that are designated as off-limits to UNIFIL and the Lebanese armed forces, "The Jerusalem Post" reported, adding that Hizballah personnel are continuing their activities in the same area. BS

The leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, dismissed on December 2 a call by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan to hold an international conference on Iraq to help end the sectarian violence, international media reported the same day. Al-Hakim referred to such a conference as "illegal" and unrealistic." "This government was formed on the basis of a coalition, and it is therefore unacceptable for the Iraqi people that these questions should be debated at international conferences," he said. Al-Hakim is scheduled to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington on December 4 to discuss the security situation in Iraq. Al-Hakim denied speculation that his meeting with Bush posed a threat to the authority of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, who met with Bush in Amman, Jordan, on November 30 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2006). "This trip to Washington was planned a long time ago and has nothing to do with the meetings that took place in Amman," al-Hakim said. U.S. officials and Iraq's Sunni Arabs have long suspected the military wing of SCIRI, the Badr Organization, of carrying out sectarian attacks against Sunni Arabs. SS

A triple car bombing at a Baghdad market in the predominantly Shi'ite district of Sadriyah on December 2 killed 51 and wounded more than 90, international media reported the same day. On November 23, an attack on the Baghdad Shi'ite enclave of Al-Sadr City killed more than 200 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006). That attack was described as the deadliest in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Meanwhile, a child and two women were killed in a U.S. air strike on December 2 in the village of Al-Lihaib, 80 kilometers west of Baghdad in Al-Anbar Governorate, international media reported same day. Residents of Al-Lihaib said 24 people were killed and several buildings were destroyed. SS

In an interview with the BBC on December 3, UN Secretary-General Annan said the violence in Iraq is far worse than in recent civil wars. "Given the level of violence, the level of killing and bitterness and the way that forces are arranged against each other, a few years ago when we had the strife in Lebanon and other places, we called that a civil war. This is much worse," Annan said. He also acknowledged that life for most Iraqis is now worse than it was during the regime of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. "If I were an average Iraqi obviously I would make the same comparison -- that they had a dictator who was brutal, but they had their streets, they could go out, their kids could go to school and come back home without a mother or father worrying, 'Am I going to see my child again?'" he said. On November 27, Annan said Iraq was perilously close to a civil war (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 2006). SS

The minister of works and construction for the Kurdish regional government, Emad Ahmad, said on December 3 that the Iraqi central government has agreed to return $482 million that was earned from differences in oil prices on international markets, KUNA reported the same day. Ahmad also said a Kurdish delegation will soon hold a series of talks with the Oil Ministry and the Central Bank to discuss a possible new oil law that would meet Kurdish demands regarding oil investment in the Kurdish region. Furthermore, Ahmad noted that a Kurdish delegation met with Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih, and the two sides agreed to increase the Kurdish regional government's investment in the national electricity network by providing skilled engineers to supervise the nation's power plants. SS

An informed Iraqi source said lawyers for former Iraqi President Hussein on December 3 filed an appeal against the sentences imposed on Hussein and his six co-defendants in the Al-Dujayl trial, AFP reported the same day. On November 5, Hussein and two of his co-defendants were sentenced to death for their role in the execution of 148 Shi'a from the village of Al-Dujayl in 1982 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 6, 2006). A nine-judge panel, which could amend both the verdict and the sentence, has unlimited time to make a ruling, but if the appeal fails, then Iraqi High Tribunal rules state that the execution must follow a final decision within 30 days. Several legal experts and human rights groups have said the trial was marred by procedural shortcomings. Human Rights Watch issued a report on November 20 calling the trial "flawed and unsound," and urged that the death sentences be overturned (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2006). SS

The last group of Italian forces left Iraq and arrived in Rome on December 2, three weeks earlier than promised by Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi, international media reported the same day. Prodi and Defense Minister Arturo Parisi held a small ceremony at Ciampino Airport in Rome to praise Italian forces and to officially announce the end of Italy's involvement in Iraq. "They [Italian troops] are testimony that what Italy did [in Iraq] was not occupation but assistance for a people searching for their future," Prodi said. At its height, Italian forces numbered 3,200, most of whom were based in the southern Iraqi town of Al-Nasiriyah. In a separate news conference held in Rome, Prodi said it is important to engage Syria and Iran in an effort to prevent Iraq "from becoming a failed state that can destabilize the region." SS