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Newsline - January 18, 2007

In a major speech at the start of the German EU Presidency, Chancellor Angela Merkel told the European Parliament in Strasbourg on January 17 that the EU needs "reliable relations" with Russia, German media reported. She added that "we cannot ignore issues like freedom of the press, civil liberties, or conflicts in Russia's neighboring countries" in dealing with Moscow. Russia has attempted on several occasions over the past year to use energy as a political weapon in disputes with a neighboring country (most recently with Belarus), which left many Europeans without Russian gas and which have called into question Moscow's reliability as a partner (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 9, 10, 11, and 16, 2007). Merkel reaffirmed her determination to negotiate a new EU-Russia comprehensive cooperation pact to replace the current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which runs out later in 2007. "Energy will be high on the agenda," she added. Poland is blocking talks on the new pact because of Russia's year-old prohibition on imports of Polish agricultural products, which Poland calls illegal and politically motivated. German and EU officials have said repeatedly in recent weeks that they expect the dispute to be resolved soon. President Vladimir Putin told foreign diplomats in the Kremlin on January 18 that Russia will continue to be a "reliable supplier of energy," Interfax reported. The weekly "Argumenty i fakty" noted on January 17 that "fuel has heated up the 'Cold War'" between Russia and the West. The state-run daily newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" wrote that "our moves in raising [energy] prices for Ukraine [at the start of 2006] and Belarus were so clumsy that they seriously alarmed the Europeans." The paper also argued that "Russia won't be considered an energy power until it puts its own energy industry in order.... And while we're establishing ourselves as an energy power, the human race will discover some effective alternative energy sources. And we'll be left behind once again." PM

Aleksandr Medvedev, who is Gazprom's deputy CEO and head of Gazeksport, announced on January 17 that Gazprom's export revenues rose 43 percent in 2006 over the previous year and hit a record $37.2 billion as it sold more gas at higher prices to over 20 European countries, "The Moscow Times" reported on January 18. He added that "we have fully met our export plans despite unusually warm weather in Europe." He also told reporters to "be prepared for another record" for export sales in 2007. Gazprom currently supplies about one-fourth of Europe's gas. It has been criticized for selling gas on the domestic market at subsidized prices that do not encourage fuel conservation, and for not investing enough to repair infrastructure and develop new oil and gas fields to meet its long-term commitments. PM

Security forces across the Russian Federation went on an alert on January 17 to protect military facilities, state infrastructure, public transportation, pipelines, and other potential terrorist targets following a warning on January 16 by Nikolai Patrushev, who heads the Federal Security Service (FSB) and National Counterterrorism Committee, that Russia has received word from unnamed foreign sources of a possible terrorist attack on ground transportation and an unnamed subway system, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2007). The authorities cut mobile-telephone access in the Moscow metro for several hours but did not explain why. It is not clear whether any specific threat was indeed thwarted that day. Nikolai Sentsov, who is a spokesman for the National Counterterrorism Committee, said on Vesti 24 television only that "as a result of the measures taken, the threat of a diversionary terrorist act has been minimized.... At this time, we have not found anything to confirm the information received from our foreign colleagues.... We should note that our agencies continue to operate on a higher state of alert and that corresponding measures" have been taken. He also praised the conduct of ordinary citizens and the security forces. On January 18, Sentsov confirmed that the authorities "continue to carry out the same measures we did yesterday, on transport and the metro." PM

Russian media and pundits debated on January 17 and 18 what the alert has actually achieved, although the extent of real or probable threats remains unclear, reported. Some media reported that the authorities uncovered specific threats. For example, the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" reported on January 18 that the authorities discovered a terrorist cell of six people who had 60 kilograms of explosives. The daily "Novye izvestia" reported that a bomb was found in the Moscow metro. Some other media, such as the daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta," suggested that the alert was just a test or exercise. Such critical media noted that the authorities usually do not announce terrorist threats in advance, but simply act. The daily "Vremya novostei" said the alert amounted to "playing with the nerves" of Russia's citizens. State Duma Deputy Gennady Gudkov was quoted in "Novye izvestia" on January 18 as saying that the information on potential terrorist attacks might have been leaked to Russian secret services from abroad deliberately. He argued that such information "could be an element of the media war, somebody trying to cause panic" in Russia. He added that the authorities should provide citizens with an explanation for the alert. Moscow-based security analyst Pavel Felgengauer told Reuters on January 17 that the alert "was very serious. Officials are thinking that another Madrid or London could happen here." Several media outlets suggested that the authorities should establish a graded system of terror alerts, as is the case in the United States and several other countries. PM

The daily "Kommersant" reported on January 18 that the FSB took Igor Izmestyev, a former member of the Federation Council from Bashkortostan's Legislative Assembly, into custody on January 16 in Kyrgyzstan during a "special operation." He left Russia in December after resigning as a senator. Vladimir Sementsov, who is Izmestyev's lawyer, told the daily that the Prosecutor-General's Office is planning to petition Moscow's Basmany Raion Court for Izmestyev's arrest on suspicion of organizing a murder. Sementsov described the FSB's action as a "kidnapping." Izmestyev reportedly traveled to Bishkek from Geneva on a private airplane to meet with acting Prime Minister Feliks Kulov to discuss unspecified "business matters." PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told young nationalists belonging to the pro-Kremlin organization Nashi on January 17 that the group has a right to express its views, but that its "political protests should be carried out within the framework of the law, including Russia's international obligations stemming from, among others, the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations," reported. He was referring to the stalking and harassing of U.K. Ambassador to Russia Tony Brenton by Nashi activists, which has been going on since mid-2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 8 and 13, 2006). Reuters quoted a spokesman for the British Embassy in Moscow as saying that "we welcome the message delivered by Minister Lavrov to Nashi. We will look to the Russian authorities to ensure there is no repeat of the harassment experienced by our ambassador over the past few months." Brenton said in December that "Nashi's links with the Kremlin are well enough known. Their leader has met with President Putin many times, and one of his advisers was known to have been involved in its creation. Even if one were to accept that they are not directly controlled by the Kremlin, this level of influence suggests that the Kremlin could stop them if it wanted to." PM

The parliament of the Republic of Adygeya approved on January 17 President Aslancheryy Tkhakushinov's proposed candidate for the post of prime minister, together with four members of the new cabinet, reported. Parliament Deputy Vladimir Samozhonkov (Unified Russia), one of the republic's most successful businessmen, was approved as prime minister by 48 of his 51 fellow deputies. He vowed to do all in his power to improve the socioeconomic situation and to attract new investment. Dovletbiy Dolev was approved as finance minister, having served in that position from 1995-2002 under President Aslan Djarimov. Parliament Information-Analytical Department head Aslan Matyzhev was named minister of economic development and trade; Svetlana Doroshenko, who served as social development minister under outgoing President Khazret Sovmen, retained that post in the new cabinet. Yury Petrov, head of the Agrarian Party parliament faction, was named minister of agriculture. Other government appointments do not require the parliament's approval. LF

The trial opened in Yerevan and immediately adjourned on January 17 of Gagik Shamshian, a freelance journalist with the newspapers "Chorrord ishkhanutiun" and "Aravot," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Shamshian faces charges, which he denies, of having extorted money in 1998-2004 from residents of Yerevan's Nubarashen district in return for not publishing articles criticizing them, and, on the basis of unpublished cartoons, of defamation. The charges were brought against Shamshian last August, two months after he claimed to have been assaulted by associates of Nubarashen Mayor Mher Hovannisian. Shamshian claimed Hovannisian was angered by articles he published criticizing the district authorities. Shamshian said on January 17 that a senior prosecutor recently offered to drop the charges against him if he wrote to the OSCE admitting his guilt. LF

Azerbaijan's National Security Ministry detained a "criminal group" of 13 people on January 15, and reported on January 17 and 18, respectively. Four of them have been arrested on charges of organizing a criminal group, treason, preparing to seize power by force, illegal possession of arms, dealing in counterfeit currency or securities, and possession of drugs. Most of them call themselves radical Shi'ites, reported, citing relatives of those detained. LF

The NGO Return to West Azerbaijan, which represents the interests of Azerbaijanis who left or were expelled from the Armenian SSR in the 1950s and the late 1980s, plans to establish a "government in exile," its chairman, Rizvan Talybov, told a press conference in Baku on January 17, reported the following day. He said his NGO adopted on January 14 an appeal to President Ilham Aliyev to demand that Armenia create on its territory an autonomous formation for the country's erstwhile Azerbaijani population. Talybov estimated the number of Azeris who left Armenia in the late 1980s at 500,000. LF

The Equality Institute spearheaded a protest demonstration in Tbilisi on January 17 to demand the resignation of Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze, Caucasus Press reported. Participants adduced a recent Human Rights Watch report that concluded that efforts by the Georgian authorities to step up the fight against crime have led to more frequent mistreatment of jail inmates. Kavtaradze, who was appointed justice minister in December 2005, rejected those allegations and claimed that prison conditions have improved over the past three years. Responding to earlier calls for his resignation triggered in part by the high mortality rate among prisoners, Kavtaradze said his resignation would not change anything, according to Caucasus Press on November 8. LF

An EU delegation headed by Hugues Mingarelli, European Commission director for Eastern Europe, the South Caucasus and Central Asia, held talks on January 17 in Sukhum(i), capital of Abkhazia, with Prime Minister Aleksandr Ankvab, Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, Security Council Secretary Stanislav Lakoba, and other senior officials, reported. The visiting delegates sought to persuade the Abkhaz authorities to resume peace talks with Georgia in order to benefit directly from intensified cooperation between Georgia and the EU within the framework of the EU's New Neighborhood program. Ankvab expressed appreciation of the EU's humanitarian activities in Abkhazia -- it has allocated 25 million euros ($32.3 million) for postwar reconstruction in recent years -- but stressed at the same time that Abkhazia has the right to continue developing economic cooperation with Russia. He said economic development should not be pegged to a solution of the conflict with Georgia. Shamba for his part stressed Abkhazia's readiness to establish a direct dialogue with the EU and with individual European states. "We want to try to take into account the interests of all the players in this region, but not to the detriment of our sovereignty," quoted him as saying. LF

Kazakhstan's lower chamber of parliament, the Mazhilis, voted on January 17 to approve Kuandyk Turgankulov as chairman of the country's Central Election Commission after President Nursultan Nazarbaev nominated him for the post, Interfax-Kazakhstan and Kazinform reported. Former commission head Onalsyn Zhumabekov will become deputy head of the presidential administration. Turgankulov has served as deputy chairman of the election commission since 1996. DK

Raikhan Musina, a specialist at Kazakhstan's Health Ministry, told a closed meeting on January 16 in Almaty that the country's "blood service" is 72 percent understaffed with doctors and that donor centers have only 40-90 percent of the equipment they need, the weekly "Liter" reported. Current blood supplies meet only 82.3 percent of hospitals' annual needs and freshly frozen plasma supplies add 2-10 percent of average annual requirements. The Health Ministry has formed a task force to propose changes to legislation and to create a program for improving the situation. The infection last year of dozens of children in southern Kazakhstan with HIV/AIDS is believed to have occurred through the transfusion of infected blood and has brought heightened scrutiny to blood-donor services in Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2006). DK

The Constitutional Law Committee of Kyrgyzstan's parliament approved the candidacy of acting Prime Minister Feliks Kulov for the post of prime minister on January 17, reported. Parliament is expected to consider Kulov's candidacy as early as January 18. Opposition lawmaker Azimbek Beknazarov told a press conference in Bishkek on January 17 that the opposition For Reforms movement would like to see Amazbek Atambaev or Temir Sariev, both opposition lawmakers, become prime minister. DK

Kyrgyz lawmakers rejected President Kurmanbek Bakiev's bid to reappoint outgoing Prime Minister Kulov on January 18, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Only 23 parliamentarians backed Kulov's nomination, while 39 voted against it. A minimum of 38 votes was required for his candidacy to be approved. Addressing Kulov before the vote, opposition deputy Beknazarov urged him to withdraw his candidacy, saying: "I may be wrong, but I believe your nomination will be rejected. Be brave and admit that you cannot perform your duties of prime minister. Admit that you have been unable to do so for the past year-and-a-half. I think it would be better if you refused [to be reappointed]. Be a man!" Another opposition parliamentarian, Melis Eshimkanov, said he would support Kulov's nomination "for the sake of Kyrgyzstan's stability and future." Under the existing constitution, Bakiev can still submit Kulov's nomination for parliamentary approval two more times. If lawmakers reject his choice the president can dissolve the legislature. Kulov and his cabinet resigned on December 19 in a move that sparked political turmoil and resulted in the adoption of a revamped constitution that gives the president more powers. JCP

Kulov told journalists on January 17 that the National Security Service and Defense Ministry should be under the control of the president, Kabar reported. Kulov objected to the way these agencies are subordinated under the country's new constitution. He said, "The current constitution states that the prime minister is a member of a political party, but these force structures are subordinate to him. This is a halfway measure. It all should have been given over to the president." DK

Miroslav Niyazov, the former secretary of Kyrgyzstan's Security Council, told "Delo No" in a January 17 interview that the expulsion of two U.S. diplomats (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 13, 2006) negatively impacted Kyrgyzstan's new agreement with the United States on the latter's air base at Manas Airport (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). Niyazov said that under the new agreement, the United States has been paying $20 million a year to lease the base starting July 14, a nearly tenfold increase on the $2.3 million it paid previously. With taxes, direct U.S. payments for the base will total $40 million in 2007 and $60 million in 2008, Niyazov said. He said that total U.S. compensation to Kyrgyzstan in 2007 will be $150 million. But he added, "If [we hadn't been hindered] with this ridiculous 'spy scandal,' we could have achieved much better results. To be honest, I was thinking not of millions, but of billions." The higher sums could have come from increased U.S. participation in the Kyrgyz economy, Niyazov claimed. Niyazov, who left the post of security council secretary in 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10, 2006), was part of the Kyrgyz team that negotiated the new basing agreement with the United States. DK

Matluba Abdulloyeva, head of the International Relations Department in the Tajik Prosecutor-General's Office, told journalists in Dushanbe on January 15 that Tajikistan has extradited two Uzbek citizens accused of involvement in May 2005 unrest in Andijon, Avesta reported. The report did not provide details on the extradition proceedings or the charges the two face in Uzbekistan. DK

Murad Karriev, head of Turkmenistan's Central Election Commission, told the official daily "Neitralny Turkmenistan" that domestic observers will monitor the country's February 11 presidential election, AP reported on January 17. Karriev stated that no foreign observers have applied for permission to observe the ballot. The report noted that the OSCE has sent a team to Turkmenistan to evaluate the advisability of sending monitors, but has not yet announced a decision. DK

Uzbekistan has granted Russian gas giant Gazprom licenses to explore gas deposits in the western area of the country, reported on January 17. Gazprom will spend $260 million in 2007-2011 on initial drilling and $350 million on the further exploration of the Urga, Kuanish, and Akchalak groups of deposits. The report noted that Gazprom has signed two agreements with the Uzbek government; one on the exploration of the Urga, Kuanish, and Akchalak fields and another on a production separation agreement to develop the fields. DK

Several Belarusian intellectuals have demanded the immediate release of Kanstantsin Lukashou, a researcher with the Geochemistry and Geophysics Institute of the National Academy of Sciences, who has been imprisoned in Minsk since December 19, Belapan reported on January 17. "We regard the prosecution of Kanstantsin Lukashou as the authorities' reaction to his active civil position, which manifested itself in the researcher's running in parliamentary elections in 2004 and the development by Lukashou of an efficient strategy for the election of pro-democratic candidates to local soviets," the intellectuals said in a statement. Lukashou was charged with resisting arrest when he picked up his half-brother and oppositionist Vyachaslau Siuchyk from a hospital after the March 2006 protests. Siuchyk's mother, Halina Siuchyk, said her son's case is evidence that any person who has independent views can be subjected to politically motivated criminal prosecution. AM

The Belarusian government issued a directive January 13 setting the export duty on petroleum products and crude oil, Belapan reported on January 17. The government-set custom duty on the export of crude oil amounts to $180 per ton, and that on petroleum products ranges from $72 to $134 per ton. The directive came days after Belarus and Russia reached agreement on Russian oil supplies. Russia lowered its export duty on oil to Belarus from $180 to $53 per ton and Belarus pledged to pay 70 percent of the export duty it receives for refined products. AM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said on January 17 he will not sign a bill defining the powers of the Cabinet of Ministers that was recently approved by parliament, Interfax reported. The Verkhovna Rada first passed the bill in December, but it was vetoed and sent back with proposed amendments by Yushchenko, who believes the bill will restrict presidential powers. In approving the bill on January 12, the parliament overrode the presidential veto and ignored the suggested changes. "I reached an agreement with the prime minister [Viktor Yanukovych] that we would jointly draft a bill on the Cabinet of Ministers," Yushchenko said on January 17, adding that "the prime minister made a serious mistake when he turned to other institutions for consultations." According to Ukrainian legislation, the Verkhovna Rada speaker has the right to sign a vetoed bill if the president fails to do so within 15 days. AM

Yushchenko said on January 17 he hopes that the Constitutional Court will support his position in a dispute over Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk's place in the cabinet, Interfax reported. The Verkhovna Rada dismissed presidential appointee Tarasyuk as foreign minister in December, but Yushchenko backed his return to that position. Prime Minister Yanukovych recently asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to take measures against Tarasyuk, questioning his right to represent Ukraine abroad. "Since the president is in charge of Ukraine's foreign policy under the constitution, this includes his right to nominate and dismiss the foreign minister," Yushchenko said, adding that "the Constitutional Court will put an end to this empty discussion." AM

Yevhen Kushnaryov, deputy chairman of the Party of Regions caucus in the Verkhovna Rada, died on January 17 as a result of a gunshot wound he received one day earlier during a hunting trip (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2007), Interfax reported on January 17. Kushnaryov suffered cardiac arrest while in intensive care. The Prosecutor-General's Office is considering the lawmaker's death reckless homicide. AM

U.S. Ambassador to Serbia Michael Polt said on January 17 that Kosova's unresolved status is a major obstacle to Belgrade's goal of joining the European Union, UPI and AKI reported the same day, citing local media reports. "Kosovo is obviously a barrier on your road toward the European Union, because the EU doesn't want to import an unresolved conflict," Polt said in an interview with the Belgrade daily "Politika." "If you don't resolve the dispute between Belgrade and Pristina, Kosovo will not move toward the EU, but neither will Serbia," he added. Polt also dismissed Belgrade's claim that it has a right under international law to preserve its current borders. He said the UN is constantly amending international law, and that there are no unchangeable categories, AKI reported. "The point is that the people of Kosovo, of all of Serbia, the region, Europe, and the entire international community deserve a solution to this problem," Polt said. BW

An Austrian official at the United Nations has said that Kosova will be granted a form of limited independence under EU supervision, UPI reported on January 16. Wolfgang Petrich, the Austrian ambassador to the UN Office in Geneva and a former high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, told the Vienna-based daily "Kurier" that Kosova will be granted limited independence for a period of several years. He also rejected the idea of partitioning Kosova, and said the EU will play a major role in containing any outbreaks of ethnic violence in the province. Petrich's comments are consistent with media reports quoting unidentified diplomatic officials as saying that UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari will propose a form of "supervised independence" for the province that will stop short of full independence, but leave the possibility open for individual states to recognize Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 5, 2007). BW

Wartime Bosnian Serb paramilitary leader Dragan Zelenovic confessed on January 17 to raping Muslim women during Bosnia-Herzegovina's 1992-95 war, UPI and B92 reported the same day. Zelenovic, a former Bosnian Serb military police chief, admitted to the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) that he raped and tortured many women and girls in the eastern Bosnian town of Foca. Zelenovic told the ICTY that he repeatedly raped two Bosnian Muslim girls, one of them aged 15, between July and October 1992. He also admitted to allowing other Serbian soldiers to rape the two girls and other Bosnian Muslim women. Zelenovic was arrested in Russia in August 2005 and transferred to Bosnia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31, 2005). He was extradited to the ICTY in June 2006 and initially pleaded innocent to all charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8, 9, and 12, 2006). BW

The European Union has welcomed a deal among Albanian political parties that ended a dispute over local elections, AP reported on January 17. Albanian President Alfred Moisiu announced on January 13 that 12 parliamentary political parties have agreed to postpone the election until February 18 and to implement constitutional amendments linked to electoral reforms. "The EU stresses that all Albanian political forces must now implement the agreement by working together constructively and in good faith and by proceeding with the electoral preparations without further delay," the EU said in a statement. Brussels also commended Moisiu "for his decisive role in mediating the agreement." In December, opposition parties decided to boycott the elections, originally scheduled for January 20, claiming that the governing coalition was preparing to engage in fraud (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006). The opposition accused the government of distributing fake birth certificates, which are used by voters as proof of identity, which the government denied. BW

Paramilitary police in breakaway Transdniester have arrested two Moldovan police officers, dpa reported on January 16. Ion Liakhu, a Moldovan representative to the Joint Council, which monitors the cease-fire zone between Moldova and the breakaway province, said the two were arrested in the city of Bender without cause. "This is just another provocation by Tiraspol," Liakhu said. Sergei Golovach, a spokesman for Moldova's Interior Ministry, said the detainees were a police sergeant and colonel who were attempting to track down a Transdniester resident wanted by Moldovan police for drug trafficking. "This entire incident is because Transdniester has dirty laundry [it wants] to cover up," Golovach said. BW

A new Estonian law could lead to the relocation of central Tallinn's Bronze Soldier monument, which honors Red Army soldiers killed during World War II. The removal of the monument could also mean the reinterment of 13 soldiers in an Estonian cemetery, a suggestion that has caused outrage in Moscow.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on January 16 condemned the new legislation, which has been signed into law by Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and is to go into effect on January 20. "We think that this decision is blasphemous," Lavrov said. "We are convinced that it was prompted by considerations that have nothing to do with the need for drawing lessons from the past, or with building a united, common, Europe without dividing lines."

Lavrov urged the Estonian government to reconsider the measure, saying he hopes that "common sense will prevail."

Russia's State Duma was set to consider a motion on the issue on January 17. Ahead of the proceedings, the chairman of the body's Foreign Affairs Committee, Konstantin Kosachyov, was quoted by Interfax as saying that the Duma would essentially characterize the passage of the law as "another chapter of the 'heroization' of Nazism."

Kosachyov said the Duma may choose to impose economic sanctions against Estonia, and that Moscow might seek to move the remains of the 13 soldiers buried on the Bronze Soldier site to Russia. He said Russia may also seek to have the Estonian law brought up during the Council of Europe's January session.

Major General Aleksandr Kirillin, director of the Russian Army's Military Memorial Center, called the Estonian legislation illegal. He said the Geneva Conventions dictate that war victims can only be moved with the consent of the government to whom they belong.

The Soviet Union's occupation of Estonia during World War II and the existence of an Estonian SS legion that fought on the side of Nazi Germany have long been a contentious issues between Russia and Estonia. Kadri Liik, an Estonian journalist and an analyst at the Estonian International Center for Defense Studies think tank, says Russia and Estonia have different interpretations of the events that took place during the war.

The monument "was erected in the 1940s to commemorate the so-called liberation of Tallinn," Liik says. "That's when the Soviet troops entered Tallinn in 1944, in autumn. And they called it liberation. Estonians have always regarded it quite differently." She says that "liberators leave -- occupiers do not," and notes that the Soviet "liberators" stayed in Estonia until the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

Liik also notes the ill-feelings that remain due to the mass deportation of Estonians to Siberia and other remote regions of the Soviet Union.

In Estonia, a country where ethnic Russians make up more than 25 percent of the population, such issues have acquired added dimensions, according to Liik. "Gradually, the Russian community in Estonia has expanded [the monument's] meaning," she says. "They do not regard it as only a monument for those troops that entered the town in autumn of 1944, but they identify it with the struggle of the Second World War and all the sufferings that Russians went through. So for them it has turned out to be the most important place in Tallinn where they gather each spring and lay flowers on May 9, which Moscow regards as Victory Day."

Liik says that last spring the situation nearly got out of hand when some Estonian nationalists protested against the annual Russian gathering. It ended with police separating two opposing crowds.

It remains unclear whether the monument and the soldiers it honors will, in fact, be moved. Liik leaves open the possibility that parliamentary elections that will take place in Estonia in March could result in a reversal of course, as some Estonian political parties may not be keen to alienate Russian voters.

(Valentinas Mite is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

Purported Taliban spokesman Muhammad Hanif has reportedly told Afghan interrogators that Taliban leader Mullah Omar is hiding in the Pakistani city of Quetta under the protection of that country's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), BBC reported on January 17. Hanif was arrested by Afghan intelligence agents on January 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16, 2007), and a videotape of the interrogation that was distributed to journalists the same day shows Hanif answering questions in a poorly lit room. Afghan President Hamid Karzai made similar allegations regarding Mullah Omar in 2006. Correspondents said they are convinced the voice on the tape is Hanif's, but the conditions under which he made his statements are unclear. Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Khan Sherpao told AP that Hanif's claim is "totally baseless." Mullah Omar, who was reclusive even before his Taliban regime was ousted by the U.S.-led military campaign, has not been seen since 2001. A spokesman for Afghanistan's intelligence service, Sayed Ansari, claimed to reporters on January 17 that the man identified as Hanif is in fact Abdulhaq Haji Gulroz, a 26-year-old Afghan from Nangarhar Province. JC

Afghan and NATO forces arrested a senior Taliban commander in southern Afghanistan on January 16 during an overnight raid in the Gereshk district of Helmand Province, VOA reported the next day. The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) identified the suspect as Mohammed Nabi in a statement on January 17, according to CNN. NATO spokesman David Marsh said the captured commander led insurgents in the Panjwayi district of neighboring Kandahar Province, AP reported on January 17. "This seizure of a Taliban commander once again shows that there is nowhere to hide for insurgent leaders," Marsh said. Nabi had retreated to Helmand during another recent offensive by Afghan and NATO forces in the south of the country, said Marsh. JC

After speaking with U.S. commanders during his first trip to Afghanistan, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates suggested he may advise President George W. Bush to send more troops there, AP reported on January 17. The commanders did not cite any specific number of troops, but rather offered different scenarios corresponding to different force levels, Gates told reporters at a U.S. base north of Kabul, Reuters reported. Gates pledged to discuss the commanders' requests with the Joint Chiefs of Staff before making a recommendation to Bush. General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, who joined Gates in Afghanistan, said new troop commitments could hasten a U.S. military withdrawal as part of a broader strategy against the Taliban. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton (Democrat, New York) is also pressing Gates to recommend more troops following her recent trip to the region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16, 2007). JC

In an effort to coordinate operations against insurgents in the region, the armed forces of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have agreed to set up a joint intelligence operation center, the Indo-Asian News Service reported on January 17. The center, which will be located within ISAF headquarters in Kabul, should be functioning within the next 10 days, ISAF spokesman Richard Nugee said. "By sharing intelligence information, we would bring the two militaries of Afghanistan and Pakistan much closer together," Nugee added. Six officers from each of the three militaries will be seconded to the operation center to ensure that all forces in the region share intelligence reports. Representatives from all three sides agreed to the joint intelligence center during talks in Pakistan on December 27. JC

Manuchehr Mottaki said in Tehran on January 17 during a meeting with Iraqi Minister of State for National Security Sharwan al-Wa'ili that the Iranians arrested in Irbil on January 11 "in a terrorist and savage move" by U.S. forces must be released quickly, IRNA reported. He said U.S. forces have violated "all international regulations" with the raid and a previous arrest of "a delegation sent by Iran" in response to a request by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to help with security in Iraq. "We consider the Iraqi government responsible...and want [the Iranians'] swift release," he said. He also called for the expulsion from Iraq of "counterrevolutionary forces hostile to both nations." He may have been referring to members in Iraq of the Mujahedin-i Khalq Organization (MEK), a militant group opposed to Iran's government. Mottaki said Iraq's security problems are due to the activities of people of "ill-will," and also the presence of "occupiers" undermining Iraqi sovereignty with "unilateral actions." Al-Wa'ili said the Iraqi government is firmly resolved to implement its "security plans," IRNA reported. Al-Wa'ili also met with Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani, who later told the press that "continuous efforts" are under way to release the Iranians captured in Irbil, IRNA reported. VS

Mahmud Ahmadinejad told the daily "El Mundo" in Managua, Nicaragua, on January 14 that the U.S.-led coalition forces are responsible for civil conflict in Iraq, reported on January 17. "It is only after British and U.S. intervention in Iraq" that problems have arisen between Shi'ites and Sunnis there, he said. "Saddam was a dictator" manipulated by the British and Americans, he said, "and they applauded him when he attacked the Iraqi and Iranian peoples." He added that "the time has come" for the great powers to change "their perceptions of international affairs and...this region." Why, he asked "are the British and the Americans still in Iraq?" He said "all the peoples of the Middle East" hate Israel: "we do not want war [or] conflict [or] hate. What we want is to resolve the problem of [Israel], which is the source of hate." He said Iran has "cooperated generously" with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and he dismissed threats of military strikes against Iranian installations. He said Israel knows "the power of [Iranians]. I think they will never dare attack us, neither [the Israelis] nor their masters," reported. VS

Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told ISNA on January 17 that Iran will allow representatives of certain countries to inspect its nuclear installations between February 2-5, and this "with the aim of clarification and to stress the peaceful nature of its peaceful nuclear activities." It is not clear if he spoke in Tehran or Vienna, where the IAEA is based. The representatives would include the ambassadors of Bolivia, Algeria, Cuba, Malaysia, and Egypt, all members of the Nonaligned Movement. Ali Larijani said separately in Tehran the same day that "we have considered all the options," regarding threats to Iran's nuclear installations, and "you should not take these things they say too seriously." He said "they have a little bit of sense to know they should not do mindless things." He confirmed the continuation of "routine" IAEA inspections of Iran's sites, but denied, when asked by a reporter, that Iran has suspended activities at its Natanz nuclear site for four months. "There is supervision of Iran's nuclear activities and we do our work," IRNA reported. VS

A court in Tehran has agreed that detained physician Hesam Firuzi be released on bail, and he may be released in "the next day or two" if the judiciary accepts the deposit or bail to be proposed by Firuzi's family, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on January 17, citing Firuzi's lawyer, Khalil Bahramian, and his wife Mahta Bordbar (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8 and 9, 2007). Firuzi was apparently arrested for giving medical assistance to another detainee, dissident student Ahmad Batebi. Bordbar said this is a political charge, even though political charges are not clearly defined in Iranian law. "When they take a prisoner to Evin prison for a political crime and there is no definition of a political offense in the law, we have to conclude that you cannot count on anything," she told Radio Farda. She said her husband was taken to one of the worst sections of Evin prison in northern Tehran, but rejected unspecified reports that he has been tortured. She said he was at one point taken to the hospital to be treated for food poisoning. VS

Iran has approved plans restricting the entry of Afghans and will, in the coming months, renew efforts to repatriate Afghan immigrants, ISNA reported on January 17. Ahmad Husseini, the head of the foreign nationals and migrants department at the Interior Ministry, told ISNA that Afghans will face tougher conditions before they are given entry visas, including a cash deposit and some form of personal guarantee. He did not elaborate, but presumably a third person would have to guarantee the visitor will leave when his or her visa expires. Husseini said some 925,000 Afghans are in Iran legally. He did not know how many are there illegally, but he said Iran has sent back 150,000 illegal Afghan migrants since March 2006. Husseini said a committee including Iranian, Afghan, and UN representatives is to meet in the Iranian calendar month ending on March 20, 2007, to decide how to repatriate Afghans legally residing in Iran. He said past plans for the voluntary repatriation of Afghans failed because employers and the Labor Ministry did not cooperate fully with police and the Interior Ministry. VS

A car bomb exploded near a busy market in Baghdad's Al-Sadr City on January 17, killing 15 and wounding 33, international media reported the same day. Al-Sadr City is a predominately Shi'ite neighborhood and a stronghold of Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam al-Mahdi Army. In the oil-rich city of Kirkuk, a truck bomb exploded, killing 10 people, including four police officers, and wounding more than 42, international media reported the same day. Local police said the attack targeted the Al-Kuriya police station. Meanwhile, the Muslim Scholars Association posted a statement on the Internet on January 17, condemning the January 16 bombing at Al-Mustansiriyah University in Baghdad that killed some 60 Iraqis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2007). The Sunni group condemned the "terrorist attacks which target innocent civilians and holds the occupation and the current government completely responsible for the security deterioration which paved the way for such crimes." SS

In a January 17 interview with the BBC, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), criticized the arrest of several Iranian diplomats by U.S. forces on January 11 in Irbil (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 12, 2007). Al-Hakim warned that tensions between the United States and Iran might have adverse consequences for Iraq. "Regardless of the Iranian position, we consider these actions as incorrect. They represent a kind of attack on Iraq's sovereignty and we hope such things are not repeated," he said. On January 16, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi said the arrest of the Iranian diplomats in Irbil was a clear indication that Iran is interfering in Iraqi affairs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17, 2007). In December, U.S. forces similarly arrested four Iranian officials suspected of planning attacks against U.S. troops in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2006). SS

Former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari met with Iraqi Shi'ite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani on January 17 in Al-Najaf and briefed him on the recent security situation in Iraq, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. Al-Sistani "discussed a number of issues and expressed his concern about the security situation, the need to stabilize it, saying that security is an indivisible unit. He also stressed the need to ensure security and stability in all of Iraq," al-Ja'fari said. In addition, al-Ja'fari said that he expects Muqtada al-Sadr's political bloc to end their boycott and return to the political process soon. On November 29, the al-Sadr bloc announced the suspension of all participation in the government to protest the November 30 meeting between Prime Minister al-Maliki and U.S. President George W. Bush in Jordan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). SS

The Sudanese Foreign Ministry on January 17 summoned the U.S. deputy charge d'affaires in Khartoum, Roberto Powers, following reports that U.S. forces allegedly attacked the Sudanese Embassy in Baghdad, international media reported the same day. Sudanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadik demanded an apology from Powers and said the raid "contradicts the simplest diplomatic norms as well as the Geneva Convention," the official Sudanese news agency SUNA reported the same day. Lou Fintor, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, said U.S. officials were aware of reports of the incident and are looking into them. It is unclear whether anyone was at the embassy when it was raided. Sudan officially closed its Baghdad Embassy last year after several staff members were kidnapped. SS

Sheikh Abd al-Jawad al-Isawi, a leading member of the Al-Sadr bloc in Wasit, said on January 17 that the bloc advocates disarming militias and other armed groups, "Al-Sabah al-Jadid" reported the same day. He said the bloc believes that only government security forces should be authorized to carry weapons. "We urge groups to cooperate with the security forces and to monitor terrorist groups in Baghdad and other hot spots where these groups are targeting Iraqi Sunnis, Shi'a, or any other ethnic or religious groups," al-Issawi said. Furthermore, he said that any new security plan must help Iraq move forward to end the occupation and gain full independence. SS

Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih on January 17 accused insurgents of infiltrating the Oil Ministry and stealing billions of dollars to finance their operations, "Al-Zaman" reported the same day. He said he believes that insurgents have been stealing as much $1.5 billion a year from the massive Bayji oil fields in southern Iraq. He said the thefts are one of the main reasons for the current fuel crisis facing Iraq, and he holds the government partly responsible. "We have a regime and an administration that encourages corruption," Salih said. SS