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Newsline - January 12, 2007

EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said in Brussels on January 11 that all EU member states affected by the recent cutoffs in the Druzhba oil pipeline across Belarus are now receiving oil, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 9, 10, and 11, 2007, and Part II). He added that "at this stage, I can confirm that all the oil supplies are renewed, all [EU] member states that have been affected are receiving oil. We in the [EU's] Oil Supply Group [have also received] information from representatives of Russia and Belarus that the issues related to the disruption will be solved, at least in the next couple of days." Piebalgs stressed that "we should learn lessons" from the past year's crises involving Russia's energy supplies to its immediate neighbors, reported. "We ask from both producer and transit countries to be really reliable.... We call for transparent and reliable behavior in the future. We are paying for these energy resources and are never late in our payment. We have a right [to reliable deliveries], and [it] should be understood by all countries that you never disrupt supply." Also speaking in Brussels on January 11, German Economy Minister Joachim Wuermeling, representing the EU Presidency, warned that the EU "is not just a trading partner, and that we are also donors in many cases in Belarus and Russia, [with] a certain amount of consideration due us." He argued that "conflicts between suppliers and third countries should not [be allowed to] affect" the EU. Claude Mandil, who heads the International Energy Agency, said in an appearance with Piebalgs and Wuermeling that it was not necessary for any country to use "strategic stocks" during the recent cutoffs but that "the main lesson is that it could happen." In Moscow, Dmitry Danilov, who heads the European security section at the Institute of Europe at the Russian Academy of Sciences, wrote for RIA Novosti on January 11 that "far from concealing its expectations, [Russia] has made it clear that it hopes Germany will lead the EU towards rapprochement with Russia during its EU Presidency." PM

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement on January 11 that unidentified gunmen twice fired on the Russian Embassy in Baghdad the previous day, reported. Nobody was injured. On January 11, the Foreign Ministry summoned Iraqi and U.S. diplomats and called on them to ensure the security of the embassy and Russian diplomatic personnel. In June 2006, unidentified gunmen killed four Russian diplomatic personnel in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31, 2006). President Vladimir Putin subsequently instructed Russia's special services to find and "eliminate" the killers. PM

President Putin told Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega in a message to mark his inauguration on January 10 that he hopes for further cooperation between the two countries, including in the fights against terrorism and drug trafficking, reported. Putin said to Ortega, who was a close ally of the Soviet Union during the 1980s, that "traditional relations of friendship have always been the foundation for the development of an equal dialogue between our states. We value your sincere desire to boost bilateral cooperation on the basis of our positive achievements of the past years. For our part, we are prepared to carry on constructive efforts to attain our immediate goals, notably to expand trade, resume economic, research, technological, and cultural partnership, and strengthen the relevant legislation." Putin noted that Russia intends "to promote constructive contacts with Nicaragua on the key issues of the global and regional agendas. In our opinion, closer cooperation in the struggle against modern challenges and threats, such as international terrorism, organized crime, and drug trafficking, meets the common interests of our countries and peoples." Sergei Stepashin, chairman of the Russian Audit Chamber, presented the letter at the inauguration ceremony. The statement as published on Putin's website makes no explicit reference to any resumption of Soviet-style military aid to Managua or subsidies to fund Ortega's populist domestic programs, which Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez says he will support. PM

President Putin told pro-government civil society and human rights activists in Moscow on January 11 that there is no "campaign" against nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in Russia, and news agencies reported. He stressed that "judging by the information I possess, fears that the authorities would pressure NGOs have proven groundless." He was apparently referring to "antiterrorism" legislation passed in early 2006, which critics charge is sufficiently vague to provide for repression of NGOs, and to legislation from the same year on the legal status of NGOs, which many NGOs say is aimed at putting most of them out of business. Speaking to the pro-Kremlin activists on January 11, Putin noted the importance of the "struggle against extremism, drug addiction, juvenile crime, and child neglect." He also called on journalists to live up to the highest standards of their profession and not to serve commercial interests. The website pointed out that it is well-known that the influence of business and its money is widespread in the Russian media. Also on January 11, Putin accused the European Court of Human Rights of handing down "political" rulings. In a recent case, the court ruled that Russian forces were responsible for civilian deaths in Chechnya. Rene van der Linden, the president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, is currently in Moscow to press Russia to ratify a document that would allow the European Court to consider more cases. Russia is the only Council of Europe member not to have ratified that document. Putin also said on January 11 that the Russian jury system has been discredited by a number of high-profile cases in which apparently guilty people were nonetheless declared innocent. But independent rights activists said that what bothers the authorities is that they cannot control juries as easily as judges, and that the authorities are used to being able to control the courts. Putin added on January 11, however, that many innocent Russian citizens have been unjustly sent to prison in a situation that he compared with the Stalin era, reported. Putin also criticized the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo, Cuba, saying, "I hope such a camp never appears in Russia." PM

Gazprom and U.S. oil major Chevron have agreed to set up a joint venture for oil projects in Russia, news agencies reported on January 11. A Chevron subsidiary known as Chevron Neftegaz will initially own 70 percent of the joint venture, with Gazprom eventually to increase its share to 50 percent. The joint venture in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug in northwest Siberia will be called "Northern Taiga Neftegaz." Russia has vast and often untapped oil and gas fields in remote, generally cold areas that it needs to invest in and develop to meet its long-term commitments. Critics charge that too much of Russia's energy industry is based on old fields whose production will soon dwindle and on ageing Soviet-era infrastructure. Often only foreign firms have the technology to develop the new fields. PM

A spokeswoman for the Prosecutor-General's Office on January 11 identified the man whom police detained the previous night in connection with the September murder of Central Bank official Andrei Kozlov, who led efforts against money laundering, as an unnamed "Russian citizen who heads a large commercial structure," reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14, 15, and 18, and October 13, 2006). Police believe that the suspect ordered the killing. Six other people were previously detained in conjunction with the case. Later on January 11, Igor Trunov, who is a lawyer for banker Aleksei Frenkel, told reporters that his client is the man arrested. Trunov stressed that Frenkel maintains his innocence. His VIP Bank is one of many that Kozlov closed down. The bank lost its license in June for "repeated violations" of regulations, including some involving money laundering. On January 12, also reported that "a certain Liana Askerova" has been in detention since January 10 in connection with the Kozlov murder. Her lawyer said she is not an employee of any banking organization. PM

Police in Lyon took Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov into custody on January 9 in connection with an investigation into a suspected international prostitution racket, and reported on January 11. Prokhorov is the CEO of the mining giant Norilsk Nickel and ranked 89th on "Forbes" latest list of the world's richest people, with a fortune estimated at $7.6 billion. Police have detained a total of 26 people in their investigation into the racket, which reportedly operated out of Lyons as a "high-class prostitution ring using prostitutes from Eastern Europe." A spokesman for Norilsk said that the arrest must be the "result of a misunderstanding," dpa reported on January 11. PM

The Supreme Court of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) handed down prison sentences on January 11 to two purported members of the Yarmuk group of militants after a jury of female teachers found them guilty, reported. Magomed Djantuyev was sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment on charges that included illegal possession of weapons, belonging to an illegal armed group, and killing a police officer in April 2005 during a shoot-out that preceded the two men's arrest, and in which four other Yarmuk members also died (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2005). Djantuyev was further required to pay 150,000 rubles ($5,644) in compensation to the parents of the police officer he killed. Ismail Baluyev was found guilty only on one charge of illegal possession of a pistol, and sentenced to 6 1/2 years' imprisonment. Meanwhile, a criminal case has been opened in Nalchik, the republic's capital, in connection with the torture by unnamed members of the KBR Interior Ministry Directorate for Combating Organized Crime of two young men, Radj Bulatov and Magomed Dambegov, arrested in the town of Prokhladny in September 2006 on charges of unauthorized possession of arms, according to as reposted by on January 11. LF

The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights ruled on January 11 that the arrest of activist Armen Mkrtchian in May 2002 following an opposition rally in Yerevan he helped to organize was illegal, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Mkrtchian was fined a symbolic 500 drams ($1.5) and released. He took his case to the Strasbourg court on the grounds that the Armenian authorities were not empowered, in the absence of legislation on the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of assembly, to fine anyone for attending a street protest. LF

Also on January 11, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of Sardar Jalaloglu, first deputy chairman of the opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan, the online daily reported on January 12. Jalaloglu filed charges against the Azerbaijani government in connection with his arrest and detention in the wake of the unrest in Baku that followed the disputed presidential elections in October 2003. Jalaloglu was held for months in pretrial detention, during which he claims he was beaten and tortured. He was sentenced in October 2004 to 4 1/2 years' imprisonment, but was amnestied and released in the spring of 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2004 and March 21, 2005). Jalaloglu said the court imposed a 10,000 euro ($12,984) fine on the Azerbaijani authorities, who must in addition pay 2,000 euros in compensation and "technical costs." LF

Baku's Nasimi Raion Court remanded Rafik Tagi and Samir Sadagatoglu on January 11 for an additional two months' pretrial detention, the online daily reported the following day. The two men, who are, respectively, a journalist and the editor of the newspaper "Sanat," were arrested in mid-November following the publication in "Sanat" of an article deemed to have insulted the Prophet Muhammad and to have drawn derogatory comparisons between Islam and Christianity. LF

The trial opened on January 11 at the Military Court for Serious Crimes of Elcin Babayev, who faces charges of forming, at the behest of former Prime Minister Suret Huseynov, an illegal armed group composed of army officers who deserted from the ranks and that was instrumental in the purported attempt in October 1994 to overthrow then Azerbaijani President Heydar Aliyev, reported. Babayev is said to have surrendered his arms in January 1995, but a warrant was nonetheless issued for his arrest. He was finally apprehended on October 4, 2006.

Mikheil Saakashvili attended on January 11 a session of the Abkhaz government in exile, which comprises Georgian members of the Abkhaz government who fled Sukhum(i) during the fighting of 1992-93, Caucasus Press reported. Following the Georgian military incursion in July 2006 into the upper reaches of the Kodori Gorge, which straddles the territory of Georgia and the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, the government in exile moved its headquarters from Tbilisi to the village of Chkhalta in Kodori (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 28, 2006). Saakashvili said on January 11 that Tbilisi will never accept the annexation of part of its territory. Saakashvili also said that Georgia will not adopt the new constitution he said on January 10 is needed until the country's territorial integrity is restored. Some Georgian opposition parliament deputies said on January 10 they would accept Saakashvili's invitation to "dialogue" only on condition that a new constitution is approved before the parliamentary and presidential elections to be held concurrently in late 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2007). LF

French diplomat Jean Arnault, special representative of the UN secretary-general for the Abkhaz conflict, met in Sukhum(i) on January 11 with Sergei Shamba, foreign minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, reported. Arnault called for a resumption of talks between the Abkhaz and Georgian authorities, stressing that "there can be no long-term stability without a dialogue between the conflict sides." Abkhazia suspended its participation in the peace process in the wake of the Georgian incursion into the Kodori Gorge in July. The UN Security Council is scheduled to discuss the Abkhaz conflict on January 24, and Russian diplomat Vitaly Churkin, this month's Security Council chairman, told journalists on January 8 that Abkhazia should be represented at that session. But Georgian Ambassador to the UN Irakli Alasania rejected Churkin's suggestion, telling the Georgian television channel Rustavi-2 on January 10 that only representatives of UN member states are authorized to attend Security Council sessions, Caucasus Press reported. LF

A probe by the Audit Chamber's revision group has revealed irregularities in the legislature's spending on travel and acquisitions, according to the daily "Alia" on January 11, as cited by Caucasus Press. The parliament reportedly exceeded its travel budget and spent some 1.8 million laris (a little over $1 million) on unspecified expenses and services The "Georgian Times" reported on November 30 that the parliament purchased 24 mostly foreign-made luxury automobiles in the course of the year, and on December 14 that a total of over 2 million laris was paid to two firms to conduct construction and restoration work in the parliament building that was not completed on schedule. On February 27, the parliament's Tender Commission approved a tender for the purchase of 21 autos (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 17, 2006). LF

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev has signed decrees completing the formation of the new government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10 and 11, 2007), Interfax and "Kazakhstan Today" reported on January 11. Marat Tazhin, formerly secretary of the Security Council, will replace Qasymzhomart Toqaev as minister of foreign affairs. Toqaev will replace Nurtai Abykaev as speaker of the senate; Abykaev will become Kazakhstan's ambassador to Russia. Kanat Saudabaev, Kazakhstan's ambassador to the United States, will leave his post to become Security Council secretary. Viktor Khrapunov, previously governor of Eastern Kazakhstan Province, will become minister of emergency situations. Eleven ministers retained their posts. They are: Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov, interior minister; Akhmetzhan Esimov, agriculture minister; Zagipa Balieva, justice minister; Anatolii Dernovoi, health minister; Gulzhan Karagusova, labor and social security minister; Serik Akhmetov, transportation and communications minister; Natalya Korzhova, finance minister; Nurlan Isakov, environment minister; Ermukhamet Ertysbaev, culture and information minister; Temirkhan Dosmukhanbetov, tourism and sports minister; and Baktykozha Izmukhanbetova, energy and mineral resources minister. DK

Kazakh prosecutors have halted the work of 76 medical organizations and sacked more than 1,000 health-care employees in the wake of an HIV/AIDS outbreak that has led to the deaths of at least eight children (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2006), "Kazakhstan Today" reported on January 11. Prosecutors conducted checks in September-December, firing the heads of the National Blood Center and the National Center for Preventing and Combating AIDS. The press office of the Prosecutor-General's Office announced that 30 criminal cases are under investigation. The infection of mothers and children is believed to have taken place through transfusions of tainted blood. The report noted that more than 1 billion tenges ($8 million) has been allocated to ensuring the safety of the bloody supply in 2007. DK

Kazakhstan's Finance Ministry announced on January 11 that the National Fund, which collects excess revenues from the country's lucrative energy sector, now holds assets in excess of $14 billion, Khabar reported. Gulsara Shazhenova, head of the Finance Ministry's Treasury Committee, explained that 13 companies, including foreign firms, "are placing the assets of the National Fund into various portfolios -- securities, stocks, money-market accounts. The main goal is to ensure a secure level of return and increase the National Fund." DK

At a January 11 meeting in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan's Security Council urged President Kurmanbek Bakiev to sign the country's newly passed constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3, 2007), Kabar reported. Bakiev, who attended the meeting, said that he will take the council's recommendations into account. Bakiev also asked Murat Sultanov, speaker of parliament, to speed up the approval of judges to the country's Constitutional Court, whose candidacies were presented to parliament over a month ago. DK

Yevgenii Semenov, head of Russia's Migration Service in Tajikistan, told journalists in Dushanbe on January 11 that Russia does not plan to amnesty 50,000 Tajik citizens deported over the last three years, Avesta reported. "I positively appreciate a proposal by the Tajik State Migration Service to amnesty the labor migrants who were deported from Russia in 2003-06," Semenov said. "However, it is not planned yet." Tajikistan recently asked Russia to amnesty the deportees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2007). DK

The ambassadors of France, Germany, and Great Britain raised the issue of a resumption of BBC FM broadcasts to Tajikistan at a January 11 meeting in Dushanbe with Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zaripov, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. German Ambassador Rainer Mueller told a news conference that his British colleague, Graeme Loten, brought the issue to Zaripov's attention. "As far as I know, we are talking about bureaucracy here," Mueller commented. "The Tajik foreign minister promised to help resolve the issue." BBC FM broadcasts have been suspended in Tajikistan since early 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 20, 2006). DK

Turkmen and international rights groups issued a statement in Vienna on January 11 calling on the OSCE to "press Turkmenistan about its grave shortcomings as a democratic and law-governed state" as the country prepares for a presidential election on February 11, the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights announced in a press release the same day. Farid Tukhbatulin, chairman of the Turkmenistan Initiative for Human Rights, said, "The OSCE and its member states must stay attentive to how the political structures develop in Turkmenistan post-Niyazov." Another statement by the two groups, joined by Russia's Memorial and a number of other Turkmen rights groups, called on the Turkmen authorities to release political prisoners, free the media, and allow international monitors in to see Turkmen prisons. In other news, the Association of Greens of Karelia has appealed to Turkmen Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov to release Russian national Andrei Zatok, co-chairman of the International Socio-Ecological Union, who was arrested on December 17 at the airport in Tashauz, reported on January 12. Zatok has been accused of illegal possession of arms and toxic substances; his current whereabouts are unclear. DK/LF

Alyaksandr Milinkevich, leader of Belarus's united opposition forces, has said the country's controlled economy fails it when it comes to market-based economic relations, Belapan reported on January 11. Meanwhile, Belarus and Russia on January 11 resumed negotiations aimed at ending the trade dispute that led to the recent shutoff of a pipeline that transported Russian oil to Europe via Belarus. Milinkevich was optimistic that an agreement will be reached, saying, "they should agree and will do it." He said the only outstanding issue is the duty Russia will impose on oil exported to Belarus. Regarding the Russia-Belarus Union state, Milinkevich said "the promises to create the common state were insincere...but the most painful fact is that Belarus is not ready for market-based relations." AM

Amnesty International has launched a campaign in support of former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, who is serving time in a correctional facility near Vitsebsk, Belapan reported on January 11. The human rights watchdog called on its members to send Kazulin letters expressing solidarity and support as well as letters to Belarus's prosecutor-general, interior minister, and president demanding his immediate release. Amnesty International in December 2006 recognized Kazulin as a prisoner of conscience. AM

Nearly 7 percent of Belarusian voters exercised their right to vote early on January 9 and 10, Belapan reported on January 11, citing Mikalay Lazavik, secretary of the Central Election Commission. The highest turnout, Lazavik said, was seen in Homel Oblast and the lowest in the city of Minsk. "Early voting is being conducted flawlessly," Lazavik said, adding that "electoral districts in Minsk and in the regions are provided with everything that is necessary." Belarusian elections for local councils (soviets) are scheduled for January 14. Some 22,500 seats in Belarus's local councils of all levels will be determined. AM

The Verkhovna Rada on January 12 appointed Volodymyr Radchenko as deputy prime minister, Interfax reported. Yevhen Kushnaryov, deputy chairman of the Party of Regions caucus, told reporters that Radchenko will be responsible for law-enforcement bodies. Prior to his appointment, Radchenko served with the Security and Defense Council, Security Service, and was the prime minister's adviser on a voluntary basis. With Radchenko's appointment, the Ukrainian government now has five deputy prime ministers: the others are Mykola Azarov, Andriy Klyuyev, Dmytro Tabachnyk, and Volodymyr Rybak. AM

President Viktor Yushchenko on January 11 signed into law a bill extending the moratorium on farmland sales in Ukraine until 2008, Interfax reported. Yushchenko recently vetoed the bill, but the ruling "anticrisis coalition," with the support of the opposition Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, overrode the veto. Also on January 11, Yushchenko vetoed a bill on the Cabinet of Ministers, returning it to the parliament for further consideration. According to RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, Yushchenko proposed 86 amendments, but the Verkhovna Rada failed to incorporate any of them into the bill. AM

Serbian Radical Party (SRS) leader Tomislav Nikolic said on January 11 that Belgrade would neither recognize an independent Kosova nor arrest war crimes fugitives if he becomes prime minister, AP reported the same day. "I am convinced that Ratko Mladic is not in Serbia, but do not expect me to arrest him even if he was," Nikolic said in an interview with AP, referring to the former Bosnian Serb leader and war crimes fugitive. Nikolic also said he would tell the West, "Do not play games with Serbia any more." Polls have shown Nikolic's SRS leading all other parties ahead of Serbia's January 21 elections, but not strong enough to win a majority necessary to form a government. "I would tell them [the West], Serbia is here, if you want to punish us, do it, but we cannot do things any other way," Nikolic said. "There must be no more cat-and-mouse games with Serbia." BW

In the same interview with AP on January 11, Nikolic rejected claims by Serbian liberals that his coming to power would isolate the country. "We are for EU integration, but not at any price," he said. "How can we become EU members if the EU recognizes independent Kosovo?" Nikolic added that the SRS is the victim of "stereotypes" created by political opponents. He also said he was against UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari's decision to delay announcing his final-status proposal for Kosova until after the January 21 elections. Some Serbian liberals are seeking to have the decision delayed further, until a new government is formed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2006, and January 8 and 11, 2007). "There should have been no delays," he said. BW

U.S. Undersecretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns has said that Kosova's final status should be settled "one or two months" after Serbia's elections, UPI, Beta, and B92 reported on January 11, citing an interview by Voice of America. Burns said the people of Kosova, more than seven years after the war ended, do not know what their status is. All people, he added, have the right to know on which territory they live and who rules over this territory. Burns added that the United States will not propose any option for Kosova until after UN envoy Ahtisaari announces his proposal. Ahtisaari is expected to announce his proposal shortly after Serbia's January 21 elections. The UN Security Council must approve any final solution for Kosova. BW

Officials in Bosnia-Herzegovina announced on January 11 that the authorites have revoked the citizenship granted to 330 people, including Islamic fighters who fought in the 1992-95 war, AFP reported the same day. Vjekoslav Vukovic, the head of a commission tasked with reviewing citizenship, said that the "majority" of those people whose citizenship have been revoked "are from African and Asian countries" including the Middle East, and that there are approximately 500 cases left for revision. Among those who lost their citizenship, Vukovic said, are people who obtained it illegally during and after the war. "Conditions were not met and necessary documents were not supplied," Vukovic said. The Bosnian government set up the commission in March to review approximately 1,500 citizenships granted since 1991. BW

Armenia's leading opposition forces are holding negotiations on the possibility of forming new alliances ahead of the parliamentary elections due in May, opposition leaders told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on January 8.

National Unity Party (AMK) leader Artashes Geghamian indicated that he is considering ways of teaming up with another opposition heavyweight, Stepan Demirchian and his People's Party of Armenia (HZhK). Former Prime Minister and Hanrapetutiun party Chairman Aram Sargsian is also involved in ongoing talks with fellow opposition parties.

Geghamian told RFE/RL he has held "some discussions" with the HZhk. "We have primarily talked about doing everything to ensure that the upcoming elections are democratic and preventing falsifications," he said, but declined to divulge further details. HZhK leaders could not be immediately reached for comment.

Geghamian and Demirchian have had an uneasy personal rapport, falling out during the presidential elections of February-March 2003 when they were President Robert Kocharian's main opposition challengers.

The two men joined forces a year later to lead an ill-fated opposition attempt to force Kocharian into resignation with a campaign of street protests. The failure of the campaign opened a new rift between them that appeared to have deepened in May 2006 when Demirchian accused Geghamian of lying about his late father, HZhK founder Karen Demirchian. Geghamian was quick to try to mend fences with Demirchian at the time.

Hanrapetutiun leader Sargsian reportedly is also participating in the current talks, which he described as encouraging. "Formation of alliances is always much easier ahead of elections," he told RFE/RL. "I am really delighted with the current negotiations in terms of their quality and responses of opposition leaders."

He added that the talks have so far focused on the nomination of single opposition candidates in all of Yerevan's 15 electoral districts. But he would not comment on the chances of a new broad-based opposition alliance emerging in place of the largely moribund Artarutiun (Justice) bloc led by Demirchian.

It is also unclear whether Geghamian and Demirchian are prepared to conclude a formal election alliance with the more radical Sargsian. Sargsian for his part "unequivocally" does not rule out cooperation with the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh), according to Noyan Tapan on January 9.

Meanwhile, there is also growing talk of another major electoral alliance that could be led by former parliament speaker and Orinats Yerkir party head Artur Baghdasarian and Samvel Babayan, the former commander of the armed forces of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic.

Babayan launched his Dashink party in late 2005, and told RFE/RL's Armenian Service in June 2006 that he was confident it will win representation in the new parliament to be elected this year. He also said he would not form an electoral alliance with any other party.

Among their potential allies is the Union for Constitutional Rights (SIM), a small opposition party currently affiliated with Artarutiun. Hayk Babukhanian, who replaced Hrant Khachatrian as SIM's leader late last summer, in early January did not rule out the possibility of the SIM joining forces with Orinats Yerkir and Dashink.

Babukhanian dismissed speculation that Baghdasarian's and Babayan's ambitious parties maintain secret ties with President Robert Kocharian. "If they don't support the current authorities, then they are in opposition," he said.

Yet another possible election alliance would bring together the small opposition Union of National Democrats headed by Arshak Sadoyan and the Democratic Path party headed by independent parliamentarian Manuk Gasparian, Noyan Tapan reported on January 9, quoting the independent daily "Aravot."

Gasparian said he is holding talks with "two or three" individual political figures who have expressed an interest in running on the bloc's joint list, but declined to name them.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz and Afghan President Hamid Karzai have approved the composition of a commission to organize jirgas, or councils, to tackle violence in Afghanistan, AKI/DAWN reported on January 11. The commission will submit recommendations to the two governments after meeting with tribal leaders regarding the protocol for convening future jirgas. Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao will reportedly head the initial jirga. For centuries, ethnic Pashtuns in the border area have organized jirgas to resolve internal disputes. Karzai and Musharraf agreed during a September visit to Washington to use jirgas involving tribes from across the Afghan-Pakistani border to help stop insurgent and terrorist activities along their common border (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006), although it was initially unclear whether the plan would entail a joint jirga or separate councils in each country. JC

In an undated interview with Pakistan-based Geo TV network, Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar said his militants aided Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden's escape during a U.S.-led offensive in 2001, BBC reported on January 11. Hekmatyar also claimed that Al-Qaeda's second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, was taken to an undisclosed "safe place" during the U.S. assault on the Tora Bora mountains. U.S. sources have suggested they came closest to capturing bin Laden in Tora Bora. The authenticity of the interview, which was conducted in Pashto, could not be confirmed; but the interviewer, Salim Safi, told Reuters news agency it took place in Afghanistan less than three weeks ago. Hekmatyar twice held the prime minister's post in the 1990s but eventually fled to Iran before his Hizb-e Islami (Party of Islam) was expelled. JC

U.K. forces reportedly killed between 60 and 100 Taliban militants in a major operation in the Helmand Province on January 11, and BBC reported the same day. Roughtly 100 hundred U.K. troops surrounded two compounds in Kostay, a village south of Garmser, in the early morning hours and then used sniper fire to antagonize the militants before calling in Apache gunships to bomb both compounds. According to initial reports, both structures were completely destroyed in the attack. No U.K. casualties were reported, but local police officials said Taliban commander Mullah Faqir Mohammad was killed in the air strike. Militants have repeatedly attacked British positions in Helmand, a Taliban stronghold. JC

As many as 600 inmates have launched hunger strikes at Kabul's Pul-e Charkhi prison, reportedly to protest their treatment by warders, Pajhwok Afghan News reported on January 10. The prisoners, all sentenced either for petty crimes or for alleged links to the ousted Taliban, began their strike on the afternoon of January 9. One prisoner who spoke on the condition of anonymity told Pajhwok Afghan news by telephone that the prisoners have been subjected to harsh treatment since a new jail superintendent, identified as Ahmad Khan, took charge. The inmate claimed that Khan nominated one prisoner to supervise the others, leading to cruel treatment by the "self-styled jailer," including taking money from them. Khan, who formerly served as police chief in Daikundi Province and the northern Balkh Province and Daikundi head in the pre-Taliban government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, could not be reached for comment. JC

Iran has protested against a January 11 raid by U.S. forces on a purported consular building in Irbil in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, along with the arrest of five or six employees (see Iraq section below), news agencies reported. Iran's Foreign Ministry summoned the Iraqi and Swiss envoys in Tehran to state its objections, AP reported. The Swiss Embassy acts as the U.S. interests section; U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini told ISNA in Tehran on January 11 that the move violates "diplomatic norms." "We have always said we have not interfered in Iraq's internal affairs...[as] confirmed by Iraqi officials. But the Americans look for excuses and take actions...[that] we condemn," Hosseini said. In Tehran, Shokat Bamarni, the envoy of Masud Barzani's Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), said KDP forces stopped the "transfer" of five people arrested in the building and were negotiating their release. Iran opened the office six years ago, and its activities have included issuing visas to Kurds traveling to Iran, Radio Farda reported on January 11. IRNA quoted an unnamed security source in Iraqi Kurdistan as saying on January 11 that local authorities were informed of the office's work. Iran was negotiating with Iraq to upgrade the office's status to that of a consulate, IRNA reported. VS

The January 11 raid coincided with U.S. warnings to Iran on January 10 and 11 that Washington will block any Iranian attempts to create trouble in Iraq. President George W. Bush said on January 10 that the United States plans to transfer warships to the Persian Gulf and provide missiles to regional allies, AFP reported. The aim, Bush said, is to prevent Iranian and Syrian support, weaponry, or training from being delivered to unspecified Iraqi insurgents or militias. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice cautioned on January 11 that Washington will not stand "idly by" as Tehran tries to thwart U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq and will block Iran's "regional aggression," AFP reported. U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Peter Pace warned on January 11 that "it is clear that the Iranians are complicit in providing weapons, and it is also clear that we will do all we need to do to defend our troops in Iraq by going after the entire network, regardless of where those people come from." In Tehran on January 12, Iranian Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Baqer Zolqadr said that "America has reached an impasse" and that Iran cannot be addressed "in the language of force," IRNA reported. Zolqadr said at Tehran's Friday communal prayers, attended by officials and politicians, that Bush's recent statements on Iraq indicate "that the United States has accepted its failure there." He added that Washington will fail in its alleged bid to "create divisions" in the Islamic world, IRNA reported. Islamic Revolution Guards Corps commander Yahya Rahim Safavi on January 11 placed Great Britain, the United States, and Israel in an "axis of terrorism," IRNA reported the next day. "America, heading the world's terrorists, is every day killing the people of Afghanistan and Iraq," he said. VS

Iranian observers have commented on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's recent warnings about the rise of an anti-Iranian coalition in the Middle East (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9 and 10, 2007). Shiraz representative Mohammad Nabi Rudaki accused the United States on January 11 of engaging in "false propaganda" by suggesting that Iran and its Shi'ite allies in Iraq were the main protagonists in Saddam Hussein's execution, Fars News Agency reported. This, he said, is aimed at fueling Shi'ite-Sunni divisions. Rudaki, a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, urged Arab states to pay no attention to divisive "American and British lies and accusations" against Iran. Persian Gulf security needs regional cooperation, he said, "and uniting against [Iran] will lead nowhere." He urged Saudi Arabia to be "careful with its political conduct" among Islamic states, and promote unity as Rudaki said Iran does. Separately, reformist journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin said on January 11 that the United States has "lit the fuse" of ethnic and tribal discord in the region, and is promoting "geographical" conflict in the Middle East to strengthen its political position there, Fars reported. Shamsolvaezin urged "elites" to avoid any radical or divisive discourse serving U.S. interests. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told a January 10 cabinet meeting that "despairing" of striking at Iran from the outside, "enemies" are now using subversion "to penetrate and sow discord in the closed ranks of" Iranians, ISNA reported. He said the recent UN resolution on Iran's nuclear program is intended to encourage "certain elements" in Iran to "weaken" the national resolve to pursue a nuclear program and to "create fear." He then accused other, unspecified individuals of being agents of corruption and inflation. He said persistent inflation in Iran has "economic and sometimes political roots" the government had "inherited." Individuals who he said "enjoyed...privileges in previous periods are today using their illegitimate fortunes to disrupt the market and play with prices." Ahmadinejad has previously blamed the more market-oriented and reforming policies of the presidencies of Ali-Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami for encouraging corruption. He said he is hopeful that price fluctuations will be curbed within a year. His allegations prompted replies: Legislator Ahmad Khas-Ahmadi asked on January 10 why the president has not revealed the names of the allegedly corrupt individuals, ISNA reported. He blamed Iran's faulty economic system for allowing some people to make immense fortunes. Tabriz representative Ismail Jabbarzadeh told Aftab news agency the same day that officials should reveal specific information they have about malfeasance in government, and "generalizations" merely indicate a refusal to take responsibility for unchecked inflation. VS

The Democracy and Human Rights Front (Jebhe-yi Democracy-khahi va Hoquq-i bashar), a reforming front that seeks to attract liberal and reformist parties, resumed its activities "this week" after a break in the period around the December 15 elections in Iran, front member Hadi Qabel told the Aftab news agency on January 10. The front is a recent formation that backed Mustafa Moin, a former higher-education minister under President Khatami, as its favored candidate in the 2005 presidential elections. Qabel said seven groups have formally joined the front, and certain people "involved in political, social, and cultural affairs" have given the front their backing, although "presently we cannot give the names of the people and groups that have joined this front." Other groups and people, he said, are reading the front's charter and are to state their positions in "the next two weeks." Qabel said the group focuses on democracy, human rights, and peace and "tries to safeguard the rights of citizens," and he added that anyone active within the bounds of Iran's constitution could join. VS

U.S. troops on January 11 allegedly raided an Iranian Consulate office in the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil and arrested five people, international media reported the same day. A Kurdish security official, on condition of anonymity, told the official Iranian news agency IRNA that U.S. forces had no right to conduct the raid. Salah Al-Din Kurdistan satellite television reported that the raid was not coordinated with Kurdish officials. The U.S. military issued a statement saying that they arrested six suspects, but made no mention of the raid being on an Iranian Consulate. "This operation was part of an ongoing effort by coalition forces targeting individuals involved in activities aimed at the killing of Iraqi citizens and coalition force," the statement said. Last month, U.S. forces arrested four Iranian officials suspected of planning attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2006). SS

President Jalal Talabani said on January 10 that the two Kurdish battalions being sent to Baghdad to take part in the new security operation are not from the Kurdish militia, the peshmerga, Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. "These two battalions are part of the Iraqi Army and they are under the commander in chief, [Prime Minister] al-Maliki, who can move them anywhere. They are not peshmerga units, but regular Iraqi Army," he said at a joint news conference in Al-Sulaymaniyah with U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad. An Iraqi general, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that Kurdish forces will be sent to Al-Sadr City to be used against Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, Al-Jazeera reported on January 11. He added that Kurdish forces will be used because it is widely speculated that Iraqi soldiers from other units would refuse to fight their Shi'ite brethren. The majority of Kurds are Sunni Muslim, but not ethnic Arabs. SS

During the January 11 session of the Anfal trial, Ali Hassan al-Majid, a cousin of Saddam Hussein and former secretary-general of the northern bureau of Iraq's Arab Ba'ath Party, acknowledged that he ordered Iraqi forces to kill Kurdish villagers who refused to leave their homes in 1988, international media reported the same day. "Yes, I gave my instructions to consider these villages as prohibited areas and I gave orders to the troops to catch anyone they find there and execute them after investigating them," al-Majid said. His admission came after prosecutors played audiotapes allegedly of al-Majid talking about the need to purge "Kurdish saboteurs" from villages. In another recording, al-Majid is heard saying he received a letter from President Talabani, who was a Kurdish leader at the time, offering him bogus concessions in exchange for a halt to the destruction of Kurdish villages by the Iraqi military. Al-Majid was known as "Chemical Ali" for his alleged use of chemical weapons against Kurds. The trial was adjourned until January 23. SS

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said during a Senate hearing on January 11 that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government is on "borrowed time," international media reported the same day. "I have met Prime Minister Maliki. I saw his resolve. I think he knows that his government is, in a sense, on borrowed time, not just in terms of the American people but in terms of the Iraqi people," Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. On January 10, U.S. President George W. Bush unveiled a plan to send an additional 21,000 U.S. troops to Iraq in an effort to help secure Baghdad. During his speech, Bush also admitted that mistakes were made in his handling of the Iraq war, but he vowed to prevent Iraq from descending into chaos. "Our past efforts to secure Baghdad failed for two principal reasons: There were not enough Iraqi and American troops to secure neighborhoods that had been cleared of terrorists and insurgents, and there were too many restrictions on the troops we did have," Bush said. "Our military commanders reviewed the new Iraqi plan to ensure that it addressed these mistakes," he added. SS

Kuwaiti Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Muhammad Sabah al-Salim al-Sabah warned on January 11 that the deteriorating security situation in Iraq could lead to a civil war that could affect the entire region, KUNA reported the same day. He indicated that he will bring up these concerns when U.S. Secretary of State Rice visits Kuwait on January 16 as part of a Middle East tour. "We want to first listen directly to the U.S. secretary before expressing our concerns over the situation in Iraq, how violent developments there are being dealt with, and fear of the eruption of a civil war," Sheikh Muhammad said. He also expressed hope that the execution of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein will mark the beginning of a new era in Iraq that will lead to national reconciliation. SS

Britain is expected to cut its troop levels in Iraq by 3,000, "The Daily Telegraph" reported on January 11. The paper, citing a timetable that it has seen, said that Prime Minister Tony Blair will announce the troop reduction within two weeks. A U.K. Defense Ministry spokeswoman described the newspaper report as "speculation." "Our withdrawal from Iraq, we have always said it will be conditions-based," she said. "We would like to reduce our force levels as the Iraqis increase their ability to provide security for their own country." Britain currently has 7,200 troops in Iraq; "The Daily Telegraph" reported that the timetable will reduce that number to 4,500 by May 31. SS