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Newsline - December 12, 2006


SHELL REPORTEDLY SET TO YIELD CONTROL OF SAKHALIN-2 TO GAZPROM
Royal Dutch Shell will cede control of the Sakhalin-2 gas field to Russia's state-owned monopoly Gazprom following months of Kremlin pressure to do so, international media reported on December 12. Shell officials declined on December 11 to comment on the media reports, and Gazprom officials told reporters that they are still studying Shell's recent proposals. Shell currently owns 55 percent of the Sakhalin-2 gas production-sharing agreement (PSA) in Russia's Far East, while Japan's Mitsui and Mitsubishi control 25 and 20 percent, respectively. Shell's recent offers reportedly involve granting Gazprom at least 50 percent control of the project, including shares from all three foreign companies. Japanese media reported on December 12 that Mitsui and Mitsubishi have made offers that "follow the lead" of Shell. News.ru on December 12 cited the Russian dailies "Vedomosti" and "Kommersant" as suggesting that Gazprom probably will pay cash for its acquisitions in Sakhalin-2 at a generous discount over the real value. Russian authorities have been threatening for several months to cancel some key permits at Sakhalin-2 after Shell announced the cost of the project would double and Russian officials said that Shell is guilty of numerous violations of Russian ecological legislation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 22 and 27, October 5 and 19, and December 7, 2006). Oleg Mitvol, who is deputy head of the Natural Resources Ministry's Federal Service for the Oversight of Natural Resources Use (Rosprirodnadzor), announced on December 12 that he will file lawsuits in March against unspecified Sakhalin-2 subcontractors, Interfax reported. Observers suspect, however, that Moscow's real concern is not the environment -- which many Russian firms are known not to respect -- but rather a desire to renegotiate the PSAs in order to include Russian state monopolies like Gazprom and Rosneft. On December 12, Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" wrote that "the move by the Kremlin [to take over Sakhalin-2] will be seen as a sign that Russia will no longer tolerate foreign investors controlling strategic assets." Britain's "The Times" noted that "Russia wins with the hard line." Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote that "Shell has apparently bowed to pressure from the Kremlin." PM

IS SAKHALIN-2 PART OF MUCH BIGGER PICTURE?
On December 11, the daily "Kommersant" reported that President Vladimir Putin chaired a meeting of the Security Council on December 9, which allegedly dealt with "restoring order to state policy on oil and gas production on Russia's shelf," which includes the Sakhalin-2 project. The daily added that "the meeting focused on the state's ability to consolidate its forces for the purpose of extracting and developing this wealth," and concluded that "the practice of using [PSAs] for shelf fields is inconsistent with Russia's national interests." The council reportedly concluded that "Gazprom, Rosneft, and Zarubezhneft are likely to be instructed to work on creating a unified state-owned company to handle production on Russia's shelf." It is not clear if or when these recommendations might be put into practice. Putin has favored the creation of large state-run corporations in key branches of the economy, which Andrei Illarionov, who is a former Putin economics adviser, and the "Financial Times" of June 19 described as a "corporate state." PM

U.S. REPORTEDLY INVESTIGATING KREMLIN LINKS IN STEEL DEAL
The U.S. Treasury's Committee on Foreign Investment is planning to investigate Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich's links to the Kremlin before deciding whether to approve the $2.3 billion sale of Oregon Steel to the steel maker Evraz Group, which he controls, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on December 11. Abramovich, the Kremlin-appointed governor of Siberia's remote Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, is generally considered politically close to the Kremlin, and reportedly Russia's richest man (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2006). In Washington, a Treasury spokeswoman declined to comment, saying that they do not discuss their reviews, "The Moscow Times" reported on December 12. The "Financial Times" cited Daniel Lucich, a former deputy assistant treasury secretary, as saying that the U.S. authorities want to know whether Evraz "is owned, controlled, or influenced by a Russian or other government interest." The paper did not say when the review will take place. If the deal goes ahead, it will be the largest Russian takeover of a U.S. firm, the British daily added. PM

PUTIN AIDE SAYS MURDER CASE HAS HARMED RUSSIA
Igor Shuvalov, who is a top Kremlin aide and was President Putin's chief planner for the July Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries' summit in St. Petersburg, told Britain's Channel 4 television on December 11 that the imbroglio surrounding the recent apparent murder in London of British citizen and former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agent Aleksandr Litvinenko has caused "untold damage" to the Russian leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 8, and 11, 2006). Shuvalov stressed that those who carried out the killing sought to harm Russia's image abroad. He argued that the murder "was planned to harm Russia's image by someone who wouldn't want [President] Putin to proceed very successfully." Shuvalov noted that Russia "started the year as president of the G8 with not an easy time, after Ukraine complained we raised gas prices. Now we are finishing the year with this case, and people are always asking the same questions. This is happening because someone is interested in pursuing this image in the West that Russia...is still the Soviet Union." PM

RUSSIAN NEWSPAPER DEPLORES NEGATIVE WESTERN MEDIA COVERAGE
On December 9, the Russian daily "Trud" wrote that "the rousing anti-Russian chorus in the Western media is reminiscent of the late and unlamented Cold War era. British newspapers are setting the tone. In connection with the murder of [critical journalist] Anna Politkovskaya and the Litvinenko poisoning, there have been open accusations against Russia's leadership, its special services." The paper added that "the American media aren't far behind. 'The Wall Street Journal' ran a leading article headlined 'Russia - the Enemy.' Richard Holbrooke, likely to become the next secretary of state if the Democrats win the [2008] presidential election, wrote an article about Russian imperialism in Georgia -- an article that went far beyond the bounds of decency. There hasn't been a single positive word about Russia in the American media for months." "Trud" added, however, that "the latest outbreak of Russophobia [is promoted by Russian exiles and limited largely to] the Anglo-Saxon countries, the Baltic states, and Poland." The paper noted that "if we look at the results of worldwide opinion polls, we find that the image of Russia and its leadership is just about the best on the planet. Much better than the image of the United States or Britain." PM

CRIMINAL PROCEEDINGS AGAINST SIBERIAN MAYOR TO GO AHEAD
A Tomsk district court announced on December 11 that Mayor Aleksandr Makarov has been suspended from his post pending the outcome of a criminal case against him on corruption charges, news.ru and ITAR-TASS reported. Makarov was detained on December 6 and suffered a heart attack during a search of his office. Doctors say that he no longer requires hospitalization. Makarov was first elected mayor in 1996 and subsequently reelected three times. He is charged with extorting about $115,000 in real-estate scams, accusations that he denies. The authorities have been waging a nationwide anticorruption drive for months. Critics charge, however, that corruption is so rampant in Russia that the few cases involving officials actually charged might be based on ulterior motives, such as removing politically problematic people from office. On November 1, Makarov and an unspecified number of town council members sent an open appeal to President Putin to protest proposed federal legislation that would effectively abolish the duties of Russia's mayors and would subordinate local administration to the regional governors. Putin has had the right to appoint governors since late 2004, but the elected mayors retain much power and influence in their respective cities and towns. Among the sponsors of the legislation to abolish mayoral duties was a State Duma deputy from Tomsk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 2 and December 7 and 8, 2006). PM

VERDICT IN KARACHAYEVO-CHERKESSIA MURDER TRIAL POSTPONED
The verdict in the trial of 16 men accused in connection with the murder of a parliament deputy and six other people in October 2004 has been postponed from December 18 to December 25 in view of the huge amount of paperwork involved, regnum.ru reported on December 11, quoting a Karachayevo-Cherkessia Supreme Court official. The defendants, who include Ali Kaitov, President Mustafa Batdyev's former son-in-law, are accused of shooting parliament deputy and local businessman Rasul Bogatyryov and six of his friends during the night of October 10-11, 2004, and burning their bodies. Relatives of the seven victims protested in August what they termed efforts by the defense to drag out the proceedings and secure an acquittal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 10 and 12, 2004, and August 24, 2006). LF

ARMENIA'S KARABAKH WAR VETERANS CONVENE CONGRESS
The Yerkrapah Union of Yeterans of the Karabakh War held its seventh congress in Yerevan on December 9, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on December 11. Addressing participants, Union Chairman and Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Manvel Grigorian said the union will not participate as a political force in the 2007 parliamentary elections, and he stopped short of pledging support for the candidacy of Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian in the 2008 presidential ballot. Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, who was elected a member of the union's expanded 65-member governing board, similarly stressed that the Yerkrapah "is an organization that is not affected by conflicts between political forces," Noyan Tapan reported. But a second deputy defense minister, Lieutenant General Artur Aghabekian, implied that the union will indeed support Sarkisian's anticipated presidential bid. And former Prime Minister and opposition Hanrapetutiun party Chairman Aram Sargsian, whose late brother Vazgen founded the Yerkrapah union, told delegates that it would be "a mistake" for the union to distance itself from politics rather than "to think about [what is best for] this country," as Vazgen Sargsian advocated doing, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION DEFENDS ARRESTED EX-COMMANDER
More than a dozen Armenian opposition parties, including Sargsian's Hanrapetutiun, former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir, the People's Party of Armenia, the National Democratic Union, and the Union for Self-Determination, issued a statement on December 11 condemning as reminiscent of the 1937 purge launched by Soviet leader Josef Stalin the arrest late on December 9 of Zhirair Sefilian, the Lebanese-born commander of the Shushi battalion during the Karabakh war, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Noyan Tapan reported on December 11 and 12, respectively (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2006). Meanwhile, the press service of Armenia's National Security Service issued a statement on December 11 saying that it has accumulated "irrefutable evidence" that the newly formed Armenian Volunteer League Sefilian established planned to mount an armed insurrection during the parliamentary elections due in the spring of 2007. LF

BAN ON AZERBAIJANI TV STATION 'TEMPORARILY' SUSPENDED
The ANS TV and radio channels may resume broadcasting "temporarily" as of midday on December 12, Nushiravan Magerramli, chairman of the National Council for TV and Radio, told a press conference in Baku on December 11, zerkalo.az and echo-az.com reported on December 12. ANS broadcasting was suspended on November 24 due to alleged violations of relevant legislation (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," December 1, 2006). Magerramli attributed the decision to permit ANS to resume broadcasting to pressure of public opinion and "recommendations" from President Ilham Aliyev, who on November 29 said he hoped ANS and Magerramli's agency would reach an agreement "within the framework of the law" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2006). It remains unclear whether U.S. officials with whom President Aliyev's wife Mehriban met during her visit to Washington last week raised with her the ongoing erosion of media freedom in Azerbaijan. A tender for the frequencies on which ANS used to broadcast will take place as planned, Magerramli said on December 11. He also said that ANS is not entitled to claim compensation for damage inflicted to its equipment when broadcasting was forcibly suspended on November 24. LF

FORMER AZERBAIJANI MINISTER'S PROPERTY CONFISCATED
An Azerbaijani court has given the green light for the confiscation of former Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev's property, even though the investigation against him has not been completed and he has not been tried and found guilty of any crime, day.az and zerkalo.az reported on December 12, citing a judiciary official. The Prosecutor-General's Office has also barred the sale of any property belonging to Aliyev's relatives. Aliyev was arrested in October 2005 and charged with plotting a coup d'etat. He has rejected those charges as politically motivated and continues to protest his innocence. LF

GEORGIAN APPEALS COURT UPHOLDS SENTENCES IN CASE OF SLAIN BANKER
The Georgian court of appeals upheld on December 11 the seven- and eight-year prison sentences handed down five months ago to four senior Interior Ministry officials found guilty of the death in January 2006 of banker Sandro Girgviliani, Caucasus Press reported. On December 8, the court rejected an appeal by lawyer Shalva Shavgulidze, representing Girgvliani's relatives, to examine evidence rejected by the Tbilisi City Court that could clarify the role played in Girgvliani's killing by other, more highly placed ministry officials. Girgvliani's family now plans to take the case to Georgia's Supreme Court. Girgvliani was found dead on the outskirts of Tbilisi after a public altercation in a bar with senior ministry personnel and Tako Salakaya, the wife of Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7 and 14 and July 7 and 13, 2006). LF

KYRGYZ POLICE CLAIM TO HAVE BROKEN UP EXTREMIST CELL IN CAPITAL
Bishkek police chief Moldomusa Kongantiev told the news agency 24.kg on December 11 that law-enforcement officials have broken up a cell of the banned extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir in Kyrgyzstan's capital. Police arrested three individuals and confiscated a quantity of what they described as extremist literature, including 230 fliers, nine brochures, and 19 audio discs. "The threat posed by international religious extremism and terrorism has risen sharply, and it requires decisive and urgent measures," Kongantiev commented. DK

TURKMEN LEADER DISCUSSES GAS PROJECTS
Valery Golubev, deputy head of Russia's Gazprom gas monopoly, held talks with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat on December 11, official Turkmen news agency TDH reported. The two men examined plans to jointly explore and develop hydrocarbon fields and discussed a project to build a new gas pipeline along the shore of the Caspian Sea from Kazakhstan to Russia. Also on December 11, Niyazov held talks with Vadim Chuprun, Ukraine's first deputy fuel and energy minister, and Eduard Rossel, the governor of Sverdlovsk, an industrial region of Russia. TDH reported both visitors assured Niyazov of their willingness to cooperate "fully" with Turkmenistan. DK

PROTESTS OVER SHORTAGES REPORTED IN UZBEK CITY
Protests have taken place in the Uzbek city of Andijon in recent days over reported shortages of natural gas and power, ferghana.ru reported on December 11. On December 9, 50 women blocked Bobur Prospect demanding that their homes be heated, uznews.net reported. According to the report, Andijon Governor Ahmad Usmanov met with the protesters and promised to ensure gas supplies to their homes. But an unidentified protester told ferghana.ru that gains are often temporary. "After our protests on the city's streets, electricity is provided efficiently for a time and the natural gas pressure is normal," the demonstrator said, adding, "But after a bit, they turn off the gas and electricity again and problems start." Ferghana.ru also reported on December 11 that gasoline for automobiles is in short supply in Andijon, sparking price increases. DK

EUROPEAN DELEGATION ARRIVES IN UZBEKISTAN
A European Union delegation arrived in Tashkent on December 11 for talks with Uzbek officials about the government's violent suppression of unrest in May 2005 in the eastern city of Andijon and the human rights situation in the country, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. A Foreign Ministry spokesman told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the delegation was scheduled to meet with officials at the Prosecutor-General's Office, but he provided no further details. Pierre Morel, the EU's special representative for Central Asia, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the weeklong mission will go to Andijon and is "composed of 14 experts, including specialists in judicial, police, and human rights affairs." Morel noted that one month ago Uzbekistan agreed to discuss last year's Andijon events with EU officials and start a human rights dialogue with the bloc. Morel stressed that the current visit is "not an investigation" into the Andijon unrest. Uzbek authorities claim that 187 people -- mostly security officers -- died in Andijon after opponents whom they describe as foreign-sponsored religious fundamentalists took control of the city, which lies in the Ferghana Valley. Rights activists in turn accuse Uzbek troops of killing hundreds of unarmed civilians while reestablishing control over the city. DK

KAZAKH ENVOY PRAISES IMPROVEMENT IN KAZAKH-UZBEK TIES
Askar Myrzakhmetov, Kazakhstan's ambassador to Uzbekistan, told journalists in Tashkent on December 11 that 2006 witnessed an upturn in Kazakh-Uzbek economic relations and high-level bilateral meetings, Interfax reported. Myrzakhmetov noted that bilateral trade volume grew 136 percent in the first 11 months of 2006, totaling $580 million. He also said that Kazakh investments in the Uzbek economy came to $75 million in the first half of 2006. Myrzakhmetov also pointed to visits by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev to Uzbekistan in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 2006), and by Uzbek President Islam Karimov to Kazakhstan in September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2006), as signs of improving ties between the two countries. DK

HAS IMPRISONED BELARUSIAN OPPOSITIONIST ENDED HUNGER STRIKE?
An unidentified Interior Ministry official told RFE/RL's Belarus Service on December 11 that earlier the same day imprisoned opposition activist Alyaksandr Kazulin decided to end his 53-day hunger strike and began to drink juice (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2006). Meanwhile, Iryna Kazulina, the prisoner's wife, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that she was not allowed to see her husband. Kazulina said she is not sure whether her husband ended his fast or, if so, whether he did it voluntarily. "I traveled 600 kilometers -- 300 kilometers to the Vitsba-3 [correctional facility] and 300 kilometers back -- to give my husband documents that in my opinion could provide grounds for him to withdraw from the hunger strike," Kazulina said. "But I was not allowed to meet with him even for five minutes or even to speak to him by phone. I was forced to go back, and when I returned to Minsk, [journalists] from Belapan called me and asked, 'Do you know that your husband is withdrawing from his hunger strike?' I answered I would be happy if that was true. But since I was not allowed [to see him] and I was sent back, I cannot believe them until I hear my husband's voice." JM

BELARUS ACCUSES WASHINGTON OF INTERFERENCE IN DOMESTIC AFFAIRS
The Belarusian Foreign Ministry expressed hope in a statement on December 11 that the U.S. government will refrain from "discriminatory measures" against Belarus, Belapan reported. The statement came on the day when the U.S. Senate passed a bill titled the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006. Last week the bill, which provides for sanctions against the Belarusian government and authorizes funding for democracy-building activities in the country in 2007-08, was endorsed by the U.S. House of Representatives (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2006). "What causes regret is that the Congress is heading down the old track and continues interfering into internal political processes in Belarus unceremoniously by openly declaring its intention to finance the activities of certain political forces in our country," the Foreign Ministry stated. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT VETOES 2007 BUDGET BILL...
President Viktor Yushchenko has refused to sign the 2007 budget bill that was adopted by the Verkhovna Rada last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2006) and proposed that parliament amend it, Ukrainian media reported on December 11. Arseniy Yatseniuk, first deputy head of the Presidential Secretariat and the presidential representative in the government, is to present Yushchenko's budgetary proposals to parliament. Ivan Bokiy, head of the Socialist Party's parliamentary caucus, told journalists on December 12 that Yushchenko's veto on the 2007 budget bill is a "stab in the state's back," Interfax-Ukraine reported. The Verkhovna Rada needs at least 300 votes to override the presidential veto. JM

...AND TELLS KYIV MAYOR TO REVISE UTILITY-RATE HIKES DOWNWARD
President Yushchenko has advised Kyiv Mayor Leonid Chernovetskyy to reconsider his recent decision to increase housing and utility tariffs as of December 1 by more than threefold (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 8, 2006), Interfax-Ukraine reported on December 12. "Of course, I as the president could not allow the living standards of hundreds of thousands of Kyiv residents to worsen sharply," Yushchenko said in a statement. "I also instructed the city head to reduce the rates for residents of the capital who live in old houses.... If the Kyiv administration refuses to agree with my proposals, I will issue a decree annulling the inflated rates." JM

SERBIAN PREMIER PRAISES RUSSIA FOR STAND ON KOSOVA
Vojislav Kostunica on December 11 praised Russia's pledge to use its UN Security Council veto to preclude any Kosova solution that is not acceptable to both Belgrade and Prishtina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 6, 2006), B92 and Beta reported the same day. "Russia has a principled stand, and it will not allow the...Security Council to breach the UN Charter and thus allow the destruction of the existing states and the redrawing of the existing borders," Kostunica said. "One thing is completely clear...Albanians cannot create their second state on the territory of Serbia," he added. Kostunica's foreign-policy adviser, Vladeta Jankovic, meanwhile, said that there is "no reason to fear that Russia might back down from its principled position regarding Kosovo." Earlier this month, Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku visited Moscow to try to make the case for independence to Russian officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1 and 4, 2006). BW

SERBIAN DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS NATO INVITATION START OF NEW ERA
Zoran Stankovic said on December 11 that NATO's decision to invite Serbia into its Partnership for Peace program shows that Belgrade has moved beyond its troubled past with the Western alliance, B92 reported the same day. Speaking at a reception for foreign ambassadors and defense attaches in Belgrade, Stankovic said the invitation also demonstrates that NATO recognizes the progress Serbia has made on military reform. "Our citizens must be aware that the Defense Ministry is the engine, not the brakes of the Euro-Atlantic integrations process," the defense minister said. At its summit in Riga in November, NATO invited Serbia, Montenegro, and Bosnia-Herzegovina to join Partnership for Peace (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30 and December 7, 2006). BW

SERBIA SEIZES LARGE AMOUNT OF CONTRABAND DIESEL OIL AT BORDER
Serbian officials announced on December 11 that they have seized 35 tanker trucks with 264,172 gallons of diesel oil allegedly being smuggled into the country, UPI reported the same day. In a joint action, customs, police, and tax officials stopped the trucks at the southern Serbian town of Pirot near the Bulgarian border, UPI quoted an unidentified tax official as saying. The diesel oil, which has an estimated market value of $1 million, was incorrectly declared at customs as crude oil needed for paint production. It was actually going to be distributed to filling stations across the country, Serbian media reported. BW

RADICAL PARTY'S DEPUTY LEADER SAYS HUNGER STRIKE HELPS PARTY
The Serbian Radical Party's (SRS) deputy chief, Tomislav Nikolic, said his party will receive an electoral boost from SRS leader Vojislav Seselj's hunger strike at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), AKI reported on December 11. Seselj, who is on trial for war crimes, ended his hunger strike late on December 8 when the ICTY agreed to allow him to defend himself and to have conjugal visits, AP reported the same day. He began his hunger strike on November 11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13 and December 5, 6, 7, and 8, 2006). Nikolic said that what he called Seselj's "Hague victory" will help the SRS enter the campaign for the January 21 general elections with a "new vigor." BW

MONTENEGRO ASKS WORLD COURT TO EXEMPT IT FROM GENOCIDE LAWSUIT
Montenegro has asked the International Court of Justice to exempt it from a genocide lawsuit in which it is accused as part of its former union with Serbia, AP reported on December 9. Bosnia-Herzegovina filed the civil case against Serbia and Montenegro before the court in The Hague (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, March 8 and 16, May 25, and November 21, 2006). "Montenegro can no longer be the prosecuted party in this trial, because the legal successor of the former union is only Serbia," state prosecutor Vesna Medenica told AP. In May, the court's 16 judges finished hearing both sides' closing arguments and withdrew for deliberations. The court has yet to issue a verdict. Montenegro declared independence from Serbia in June following a referendum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 5, 2006). BW

TRANSDNIESTRIAN LEADER WINS FOURTH TERM
According to official results released on December 11, Transdniestrian President Igor Smirnov easily won a fourth term in the separatist region, international news agencies reported the same day. Smirnov received 82 percent of the vote, while communist candidate Natalia Bondarenko came in second with 8 percent, dpa reported, citing the Infotag news agency. Some 65.4 percent of Transdniester's 400,000 eligible voters cast ballots in the December 10 election. "With this result, the [Transdniester] people have expressed their choice to go forward toward economic development, in unison with Russia," Smirnov said in a victory speech. In a statement issued on December 11, the Moldovan government called on the international community not to recognize the election result. BW

THERE IS NO END NOTE TODAY


AFGHAN, IRANIAN OFFICIALS DISCUSS JUDICIAL COOPERATION
Afghan and Iranian officials met in Tehran on December 10 to discuss ways to increase cooperation in legal and judicial affairs to improve security in the region, IRNA reported on December 11. Seyed Hossein Alemi Balkhi, head of the Afghan parliament's Judicial Committee, met with the chairman and members of the Iranian parliament's Legal and Judicial Committee. Both sides acknowledged the cultural commonalities of the neighboring countries and agreed on the need to increase their cooperation on legal affairs. The Iranian representatives hoped the meeting would boost implementation of previously signed judicial agreements. Balkhi expressed his desire for the mutual exchange of experience in judicial and legal matters, and the creation of legal research centers. CJ

TALIBAN SPOKESMAN REJECTS AFGHAN-PAKISTANI JIRGAS
Purported Taliban spokesman Sayed Tayeb Agha on December 11 rejected the possibility of Taliban participation in the jirgas, or councils of tribal elders, that have been proposed by the Pakistani and Afghan presidents, Reuters reported the same day. Officials in Kabul and Islamabad have suggested the proposed jirgas might help stem violence in Afghanistan. "Such jirgas are aimed at protecting American interests only," Agha told Reuters, "The Taliban will not take part in any jirga in the presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan, because such jirgas or meetings have no significance." There are well over 40,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan, under NATO or U.S. command. According to Reuters, government leaders from both Afghanistan and Pakistan have said that "at least moderate elements" of the Taliban should be included in these talks to end the violence. CJ

SUSPECTED TALIBAN MILITANTS REPORTED KILLED IN AIR STRIKE
Police in the western Farah Province announced that at least nine Taliban fighters were killed on December 10 when a U.S.-led air strike hit the militants' hideout in the Balabuluk district, AFP reported on December 11. A police official quoted by AFP said that "we knew for a while that these Taliban had entered this district with an evil aim to sabotage the highway" that links the western cities of Herat and Helmand. CJ

NEW REPORT CRITICIZES PAKISTANI PACTS WITH MILITANTS
An International Crisis Group report issued on December 11 warns that security pacts between Pakistani officials and pro-Taliban militants have served to strengthen militants who oppose the Afghan government, Reuters reported the same day. The Brussels-based group's report notes that Pakistan launched military operations in 2004 to prevent militants from taking refuge in several tribal areas along the Afghan border, known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA); but after suffering heavy losses of troops in clashes in the region, Pakistan later forged agreements with militants in North and South Waziristan to end the violence. The report claims that such pacts have emboldened pro-Taliban forces and increased cross-border attacks into Afghanistan. "The state's failure to extend its control over and provide good governance to its citizens in FATA is equally responsible for empowering the radicals," the report says, and advises Pakistan to strengthen the rule of law in the region to stem further militancy. CJ

RUSSIAN NUCLEAR CHIEF VISITS IRAN
Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) head Sergei Kiriyenko was in Tehran on December 11, where he met with Iranian counterpart Gholamreza Aqazadeh and Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, IRNA reported. Mottaki said at a joint press conference that Iran maintains its right, in accordance with the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), to make nuclear fuel for a civilian energy program, but might still consider a Russian proposal to produce fuel with Russia, in Russia. He said a joint Iranian-Russian economic cooperation committee that met the same day in Tehran is meanwhile examining ways to expand mutual economic and energy cooperation. Kiriyenko said Iran's nuclear dossier must be resolved exclusively through diplomatic means, and that Russia's positions on the dossier "have always been stable and will remain so and will not change," IRNA reported. He said Iran and Russia have excellent propects for cooperation in the fields of energy, industrial manufacturing, transportation, and the construction of the Bushehr nuclear plant on Iran's Persian Gulf coast. VS

IRANIAN NUCLEAR OFFICIAL SAYS BUSHEHR PLANT FACES CASH SHORTAGE
The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aqazadeh, told a joint news conference with Kiriyenko in Tehran on December 11 that Russia is facing "financial problems" as it seeks to complete the Bushehr plant and "wants us to give financial assistance beyond our commitments," IRNA reported. "Iran is ready to help [Russia] to resolve the Bushehr plant's financial problems, but this is not a commitment," Aqazadeh said. He said the plant will be completed on time, and that Russia will send fuel for it in the Persian month ending on March 20, 2007, as planned, Fars and IRNA reported. Aqazadeh said the two sides reviewed a September 26 agreement on the plant's timely completion. Kiriyenko said that although construction is progressing, there are problems that include financing and the timely transfer of equipment, "especially equipment made in third countries." He said Russia has not in any way altered its commitment to complete the plant, and "Moscow will make every effort to make the plant operational." Kiriyenko added that members of his team would remain in Tehran on December 12 to discuss outstanding issues, IRNA reported. VS

GULF STATES EXPRESS CONCERN OVER IRANIAN NUCLEAR PLANT
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) members are concerned by Iran's nuclear program and the construction of the Bushehr plant in southern Iran, and will consider their own joint nuclear program in the future, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on December 11. The GCC concluded a two-day meeting in Manama, Bahrain, on December 10 and ordered a feasibility study to examine the development of a joint program for the bloc of six oil-producing states that comprise the GCC. The newspaper interpreted the statement as an expression of dissatisfaction with Iran's nuclear program. Persian Gulf states have in the past expressed concern over the environmental impact of the plant at Bushehr. The "International Herald Tribune" quoted Dubai-based analyst Abdelaziz Sager as saying that the decision is also a message to the West that "Gulf countries will develop their own nuclear program" if the West effectively allows Iran to develop its program. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said in Tehran on December 10 that the Bushehr plant has the "most advanced equipment" to assure its security, and suggested that Gulf states send inspectors to check this, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on December 11. VS

TEHRAN STUDENTS DISRUPT PRESIDENTIAL SPEECH
Students from Tehran's Amir Kabir University heckled and shouted at President Mahmud Ahmadinejad when he came to speak at their university on December 11, while scuffles broke out between his supporters and opponents, RFE/RL's Radio Farda and Iranian news agencies reported the same day. The university, formerly known as a polytechnic school, is among Iran's most reputable higher-education institutions. The president was scheduled to speak to students bussed in from the Imam Hussein and Imam Sadiq universities at an assembly hall at Amir Kabir, but students from the local university arrived early and filled much of the hall. Scuffles ensued between some of those students and presidential partisans, including student members of the Basij, a state-sponsored militia. As the president mounted the podium, students shouted, "Death to despotism," "Death to the dictator," and "Get lost, liar," and some burned pictures of Ahmadinejad, Radio Farda and advarnews.com reported. Ahmadinejad accused them of taking money from foreign powers and the United States, but said he would respond to them "kindly." He interrupted his speech three times, advarnews.com reported, and it was not clear whether he finished it. VS

IRAQI BA'ATH PARTY REJECTS U.S. REPORT
The outlawed Iraqi Ba'ath Party has rejected the U.S. Iraq Study Group's report, describing it as an unsuccessful recipe for coping with the situation in Iraq, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on December 11. The party said that the most important part of the report "is based on presenting a progressive solution, which starts with preparing political and military alternatives and ends with an attempt to remain in Iraq in the form of military presence outside cities for an undetermined period." In response to the report, the party called for an escalation in resistance operations aimed at placing two options before the United States: defeat or negotiations with the resistance on certain conditions. The party also said it did not approve any dialogue with the United States outside Iraq, explaining that those who attended meetings held in Amman, Jordan, recently did not represent the Ba'ath Party in any way. London's "The Sunday Times" reported on December 10 that three people representing the majority of the Iraqi insurgency have broken off talks with the United States in Jordan after two months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2006). SS

IRAQ, SYRIA OPEN EMBASSIES IN BAGHDAD, DAMASCUS
Two simultaneous celebrations were held on December 11 in Iraq and Syria to mark the reopening of the Iraqi Embassy in Damascus and the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad, Al-Sharqiyah reported the same day. The reopening of the respective embassies marked a resumption in official diplomatic ties between the two countries after 26 years. Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Muhammad Haj Humud presided over the reopening of the embassy in Damascus and called the occasion a joyous one for both the Iraqi and Syrian people. "It is only the beginning of strong relations between two fraternal peoples, who were temporarily parted by uncontrollable factors. Now, there is a mutual and serious desire by the two sides that the relations between them be based on support, partnership, and walking together along one path," he said. SS

IRAQI PREMIER CALLS FOR ACTIVE PARTICIPATION IN IRAQ COMPACT
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called on December 10 for a greater international presence in the International Compact for Iraq, KUNA reported on December 11. Al-Maliki said he hopes the conference will take practical steps toward assisting Iraq's economy and helping it solve its debt problems. He stressed that reducing Iraq's debt, which was mostly accumulated under former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, would enable the country to improve services. Al-Maliki praised Japan for releasing the first tranche of a loan worth $1.6 billion. The International Compact for Iraq is a U.S. initiative to create economic and political milestones that Iraq promises to meet in exchange for pledges of foreign investment and support. Countries involved in the compact are expected to meet sometime in January or February. SS

U.S. HELICOPTER MAKES EMERGENCY LANDING, 18 INJURED
The U.S. military announced on December 11 that a U.S. Marine Corps CH-53E Super Stallion helicopter carrying 21 passengers made an emergency landing in the Al-Anbar Governorate, injuring 18. In a statement, the military said that the emergency landing did not appear to be the result of any hostile action, but stressed that the incident was under investigation. On December 3, a U.S. Marine Corps CH-46 helicopter with 16 people on board crashed in the same region, killing four U.S. soldiers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2006). Meanwhile, on December 11, an improvised explosive device killed three U.S. soldiers in northern Baghdad, the U.S. military announced the same day. The military said the soldiers were on late-night combat patrol when the bomb exploded. The three deaths raised the number of U.S. troops who have died in December to 46. AP reported that the deaths brought the total to 2,934 U.S. military personnel killed since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. SS

SHI'ITE MILITIA ATTACKS SUNNI ARABS IN BAGHDAD
Suspected members of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army went on a rampage on December 9 in the religiously mixed district of Al-Hurriyah in northern Baghdad, "Al-Zaman" reported on December 11. Residents of Al-Hurriyah said members of the Shi'ite militia targeted Sunni Arabs and killed several women and children, and forced more than 200 people to flee from their homes. They said the attacks took place in the presence of Iraqi Army units, who did nothing to protect the victims. Residents in the district took to the streets on December 10 to protest the attack and demand greater protection from the Iraqi government. SS

GUNMEN STEAL $1 MILLION FROM IRAQI CENTRAL BANK
Armed gunmen wearing Iraqi military uniforms on December 11ambushed a security vehicle transporting money to the Iraqi Central Bank in Baghdad and stole $1 million, AFP reported the same day. A source at the Iraqi Interior Ministry said the security vehicle was on its way from a local bank to the Iraqi Central Bank in central Baghdad when it was stopped by around 20 gunmen. SS

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