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Newsline - March 21, 2007

President Vladimir Putin signed a decree declaring March 21 a day of mourning for the Kuzbass mine explosion, the Krasnodar Krai retirement-home fire, and the crash landing of a Tu-134 jet at the Samara airport on March 17. The death toll in the explosion at the Ulyanovsk mine in the Kemerovo Oblast city of Novokuznetsk reached 107, with the search for four missing miners continuing, Russian news agencies reported on March 20. The fire in a retirement home in Kamyshevatskaya, a town in Krasnodar Krai's Eisk district, killed 62 people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007). Six people died in the Samara plane crash. The presidential decree ordered the Russian government together with the authorities in Kemerovo Oblast, Krasnodar Krai, and Samara Oblast to form a commission to determine what caused the tragedies and render aid to the families of those who died. JB

According to the Kemerovo Oblast administration's press service, some 20 managers of the Ulyanovsk mine were among those killed in the explosion, including the chief engineer, the chief mechanic, and deputies to the mine director, Interfax reported on March 20. "The Moscow Times" daily reported on March 21 that the British citizen who died in the blast, Ian Malcolm Robertson, was a project manager with the mining consultancy IMC and was conducting an assessment of the mine's coal reserves at the time of the explosion. Interfax reported that investigators believe the explosion took place during a test of equipment. "To all appearances, methane or slack exploded, as a result of which the roof caved in," Interfax on March 20 quoted the Prosecutor-General's Office as saying. However, Yevgeny Anoshin, press secretary for the Federal Service for Ecological, Technological, and Atomic Monitoring (Rostekhnadzor), said his agency has not yet discovered any apparent technological reasons for the accident, the Oil Information Agency reported on March 20. The explosion could have been the result either of ground movement or "the human factor," he said. "All the equipment is new, and it is constantly under the control of Rostekhnadzor inspectors," he said, adding that agency inspectors last visited the mine on March 6. The Russian official daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on March 21 that Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika has personally taken charge of the investigation of the mine explosion. In the case of the Krasnodar Krai retirement-home fire, the Emergency Situations Ministry said a late emergency call, staff misconduct, and the remote location of the fire station contributed to the high death toll. RIA Novosti on March 20 quoted ministry spokeswoman Natalya Lukash as saying that the retirement home's janitor twice ignored the fire alarm, making an emergency call only when he saw flames, and that only four nurses were on duty when the fire erupted and that they were unable to evacuate the building properly. JB

Russia is bringing home its technicians and engineers from Iran's unfinished Bushehr nuclear reactor, AP reported on March 20. The news agency quoted an unnamed European diplomat and U.S. official as saying that a large number of Russian technicians, engineers, and other specialists were flown to Moscow within the last week, around the time senior Russian and Iranian officials tried but failed to resolve differences over the Bushehr nuclear reactor. The U.S. official said that a "good number" of the approximately 2,000 Russian workers at Bushehr "have left recently." AP also quoted two senior European officials, speaking separately, as saying that Moscow recently bluntly told Iran that Russia would not make good on pledges to deliver nuclear fuel for Bushehr unless Tehran complied with the United Nations demand that uranium enrichment be halted. The AP report follows the report by the daily "The New York Times" on March 19 that Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov told Iran's deputy chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Hosseini Tash, in Moscow last week that Russia will withhold fuel for the Bushehr nuclear power plant unless Tehran suspends uranium enrichment. Tash told Iranian state radio that, on the contrary, Russia insisted that the Bushehr issue is not linked to the standoff over the Iranian nuclear program, RFE/RL reported on March 20. Russia's UN ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, said on March 20 that "there have been no Russian ultimatums to Iran of any kind" and that "the word 'threat' is not in the Russian vocabulary," Reuters reported on March 21. He said that there is no link between Bushehr and the UN sanctions resolution, and that "our deal with the Iranians is on track" despite financial disputes. "We continue to work on the Bushehr project as a separate economic project, which has nothing to do with the previous [sanctions] resolution and the current resolution," Churkin said. AP quoted an Iranian state television commentary which aired on March 20 as saying that "double-standard stances by Russian officials regarding Iran's nuclear issue show that Russians are not a reliable partner in the field of nuclear cooperation." JB

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on March 20 criticized the execution that morning of former Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, Interfax reported. Ramadan was hanged for his role in the killing of 148 Shi'a in the town of Al-Dujayl following an attempt to assassinate Saddam Hussein in 1982 (see Iraq below). "Our attitude to this execution is the same as to the previous executions," Lavrov said, adding that "it does not add anything positive to the efforts being taken to resolve the situation" in Iraq, which above all else is in need of "national reconciliation." Russian observers, meanwhile, continue to comment on the U.S. invasion of Iraq on its fourth anniversary (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007). Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev told Interfax on March 20 that the decision to invade Iraq was a "big political mistake" because it was reached "by-passing the [UN] Security Council, contrary to international law and in defiance of the world public and the moods running in the American society" and had "dealt a severe blow to the whole structure of international relations" and aggravated the problem of terrorism. "Foreign troops must leave Iraq, and here the Soviet experience of ending the Afghan crisis seems useful," Gorbachev said. JB

Deputy Duma Speaker Sergei Baburin, who heads the People's Will party, is setting up a new nationalist coalition, the daily "Kommersant" reported on March 21. According to the newspaper, People's Will recently brought together representatives of various "popular-patriotic" groupings, including the Union of Officers, the Union of Orthodox Citizens, and the Slavic Union of Russia, who signed a "unification act" to form a coalition aimed at realizing a "Russian national breakthrough to the formation of a society of justice and order." The People's Will party will hold a congress on March 24, at which it will change its name to the People's Union party and bring those who signed the new "unification act" into its leadership. Meanwhile, art-gallery owner and Russian political consultant Marat Gelman is setting up what "Kommersant" described as an "antinationalist coalition." "When the nationalists speak, each representative of the national minorities hears it," Gelman told the newspaper. "They [the nationalists] represent a threat to him. The most recent census showed that 21 percent of the population answered something other than 'Russian' when asked about their ethnicity. We can get big support from this minority." Gelman said that the parties and groups that belong to the "International" movement that he founded in 2005 will sign a cooperation agreement launching his new coalition. According to "Kommersant," Gelman was named secretary of the general council of the Party of Social Justice (PSS) at a meeting of the PSS's presidium on March 17. Among those who participated in that meeting were two veteran Russian radical leftists -- former State Duma Deputy Vasily Shandybin and Working Russia party head Viktor Anpilov. JB

The Election Commission of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic annulled on March 20 the outcome of the March 11 mayoral election in Karachayevsk, the republic's second-largest town, and reported. The results from seven polling stations at which some 56 percent of voters cast their ballots were annulled due to procedural violations, according to Election Commission Deputy Chairman Azhmagomed Kataganov. The city prosecutor has opened seven criminal cases in connection with those violations, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on March 21. But opposition mayoral candidate Magomet Botashev told that the commission's ruling is not legally valid as the election commission failed to comply with the legal requirement to make public the final returns no later than three days after the ballot. Alik Kipkeyev, who heads the Karachayevsk municipal statistical bureau, has been named acting mayor pending a repeat election that according to will be held in June 2007. LF

Armenian Culture Minister Hasmik Poghosian told journalists on March 15 that she will "probably" accept a formal invitation from the Turkish government to attend the inauguration on March 29 of the recently restored 10th century Akhtamar church, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The church, located on an island in Lake Van, is one of the finest surviving examples of Armenian church architecture. The Turkish government paid the $1.5 million cost of the restoration. As of last week it was not clear whether any other Armenian officials would accompany Poghosian, according to Noyan Tapan on March 16. On March 20, the daily "Hayots ashkhar" argued that the Armenian government should not send a representative to the inauguration because the Turkish authorities have not yet granted permission for the Armenian Patriarchate in Istanbul to place a cross on the church steeple. "If [the Turks] are trying to use for propaganda purposes monuments on territory seized by them, then we as a state should have nothing to do with any such attempt," the paper editorialized. The two countries have no formal diplomatic relations. On February 7, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian wrote in "The Los Angeles Times" that Ankara let slip the opportunity for rapprochement created by the outrage generated in Turkey by the January 19 slaying in Istanbul of Armenian journalist Hrant Dink (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2007). LF

As human rights activists anticipated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007), President Ilham Aliyev issued a decree on March 19 on the eve of the Novruz spring holiday pardoning 100 people, 85 of whom are currently serving prison terms, and reported. But only one of those affected was sentenced on political grounds -- Said Nuriyev, deputy chairman of the opposition youth movement Yeni Fikir, who received a five-year suspended prison sentence in July 2006 on charges of conspiring to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 13, 2006). Human rights activist Novella Cafaroglu expressed disappointment that prominent political prisoners Rasim Akperov, Natik Efendiyev, Mehti Mehtiyev and journalist Mirza Sakit were not included among those pardoned, reported on March 20. LF

Appearing on Russian ORT television, Emzar Kvitsiani, former governor of the Kodori Gorge, whom Georgian Interior Ministry troops failed to apprehend in a mass deployment last summer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 27, 28, and 31, 2006), issued a further ultimatum to the Georgian authorities, Caucasus Press reported on March 21. Kvitsiani said that the Georgian authorities will be forced to concede control over Kodori unless they release his sister Nora, whose trial on charges of forming an illegal armed group and illegal possession of weapons began in a west Georgian court last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007). Kvitsiani further appealed to the Georgian population to support him in his bid to expel from Georgia what he termed "[President Mikheil] Saakashvili's pro-American regime." LF

The Foreign Ministry of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia released a statement on March 20 deploring the meeting the previous day in the village of Kurta between President Saakashvili and Dmitry Sanakoyev, whom the minority Georgian population of South Ossetia elected de facto president in a November ballot not recognized as legal and valid by the international community, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007). The statement called on the Georgian authorities to refrain from "provoking tensions" in bilateral relations and from "creating artificial barriers" to a solution of the Ossetian conflict. In Tbilisi, by contrast, Kote Kirtadze, chairman of the Georgian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, positively evaluated the meeting between Saakashvili and Sanakoyev, Caucasus Press reported. Representatives of the Georgian, South Ossetian, Russian, and North Ossetian governments are scheduled to meet informally in Istanbul from March 21-23 to discuss Georgia's demands for changes to both the negotiating format and the composition of the peacekeeping forces currently deployed in the conflict zone. LF

A study conducted by the Charter for Human Rights, a Kazakh NGO, has found that current Kazakh law impedes freedom of assembly, "Kazakhstan Today" and Interfax reported on March 20. Amangeldy Shormanbaev, chairman of the Charter for Human Rights, told a news conference in Almaty on March 20, "The main conclusion we have made is that Kazakhstan's legislation and enforcement of the laws by the authorities cannot create conditions where freedom of assembly thrives," Interfax reported. Shormanbaev noted, "The main thing is that local authorities, who have the power to permit meetings, practice discrimination," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Shormanbaev said that as a result of this discrimination, "The central parts of the city, which are the most convenient for holding meetings, are not accessible to all." The study, which was sponsored by the OSCE, monitored freedom of assembly in Astana, Almaty, Karaganda, and Shymkent from November 1, 2005 to July 31, 2006. DK

Dosaly Esenaliev, a spokesman for President Kurmanbek Bakiev, announced on March 20 that Bakiev has withdrawn a decree issued earlier in the day appointing Elmurzu Satybaldiev prosecutor-general, reported. Esenaliev said that Bakiev withdrew the decree because presidential-administration officials drew it up without his knowledge. Esenaliev commented, "Officials [in the presidential administration] did not study all of the requirements and the president has rebuked them." A day earlier, Bakiev issued a decree removing Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev from his post (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007). DK

Engineers from Afghanistan, Iran, and Tajikistan have signed an agreement to conduct a feasibility study for a project to build a high-voltage power line from Tajikistan to Iran through Afghanistan, Avesta reported on March 20. An Iranian company will carry out the study, due to be finished by October. The three sides are to meet in Iran in November to discuss the project's financing and implementation. The planned 500-kilovolt power line will run from Tajikistan's Sangtuda hydroelectric power station through Mazar-e Sharif in Afghanistan to Mashhad in Iran. DK

Robert Simmons, NATO's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, met with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov in Ashgabat on March 19, the official Turkmen newspaper "Neitralny Turkmenistan" reported the next day. According to the report, Berdymukhammedov stressed that Turkmenistan "intends to facilitate in every way the deepening of mutually beneficial cooperation for the good of our people and the peoples of other countries within the framework of the policy Turkmenistan pursues as a peace-loving, neutral, and independent state." For his part, Simmons praised Turkmenistan's contribution to efforts to stabilize Afghanistan. DK

Jan Kubis told a news conference in Tashkent on the evening of March 20 that his visit to Uzbekistan has included talks on broadening ties between Uzbekistan and the European Union and NATO, Interfax reported. Kubis said, "After the Andijon events, the development of these relations [between Uzbekistan and the EU and NATO] hit some snags. We discussed measures and steps that will help us bring them back to normal through an honest and open dialogue." Kubis added, "We have reached a point where discussions have been resumed after a lull, during which the parties had no contacts and did not discuss most issues." Kubis met during his visit with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and Foreign Minister Vladimir Norov. DK

The Belarusian government has formed a group led by Energy Minister Alyaksandr Azyarets to set up a Belarusian-Russian enterprise that would control the assets of Beltranshaz, Belarus's gas-pipeline operator, Belapan reported on March 20. Under an agreement signed in Moscow on December 31, 2006, Gazprom is to hold a 50 percent stake in the joint enterprise and pay $2.5 billion for the stake in equal installments over four years. Gazprom is to acquire the 50 percent stake by June 1, 2010. By the end of the first half of 2007, Gazprom is expected to purchase a 12.5 percent stake in Beltranshaz for $625 million. JM

A district court in Minsk on March 20 dismissed a suit that was filed by opposition activist Valyantsina Svyatskaya against former Interior Minister Yury Sivakou over his article that appeared last July in a magazine published by the Interior Ministry, Belapan reported. In his article Sivakou, now chairman of an association of special task police veterans called Honar (Honor), made extensive use of quotations from German army officers' code of honor written by Adolf Hitler, suggesting that the Belarusian army should consider adopting some principles formulated by the Nazi leader. Svyatskaya filed the suit to seek 60 million rubles ($28,000) in moral damages, saying that Sivakou's article insulted her as a citizen of Belarus. The judge reportedly dismissed the case, maintaining that the article in question was the subject of a polemical dispute. Sivakou has been barred from the European Union's territory over his suspected involvement in the 1999-2000 disappearances of four opponents of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on March 21 overwhelmingly approved Arseniy Yatsenyuk as new foreign minister, Ukrainian media reported. His candidacy was backed by 426 lawmakers, while only 226 votes were required for approval. The opposition parliamentary caucuses, Our Ukraine, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, left the session hall immediately after the vote on Yatsenyuk. Yatsenyuk, 32, was nominated for the post of foreign minister by President Viktor Yushchenko on March 20, following a failed vote on the approval of Volodymyr Ohryzko earlier the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007). Yatsenyuk was economy minister in the cabinet of Yuriy Yekhanurov from September 2005 to August 2006. He previously served as deputy governor of the National Bank of Ukraine. JM

Also on March 21, the Verkhovna Rada confirmed the nominations of Anatoliy Kinakh, Volodymyr Yatsuba, and Oleh Popov for the posts of economy minister, regional development and construction minister, and housing and public utilities minister, respectively, Ukrainian media reported. Kinakh, head of the Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs, was prime minister in 2001-02 and held a number of other senior positions in different cabinets, including the job of first deputy prime minister in Yuliya Tymoshenko's cabinet formed after the 2004 Orange Revolution. The Our Ukraine People's Union, a component of the propresidential Our Ukraine bloc, said in a statement published on the Our Ukraine website ( that Kinakh's decision to join Prime Minister Yanukovych's cabinet constitutes a "political betrayal" and a "stab in the back" of the united opposition and the president. JM

In a press statement issued after he met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the Security Council, Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu said he urged the UN to accelerate a decision on the future of Kosova, the KosovaLive news service reported on March 20. Sejdiu called for the United Nations to acknowledge Kosova as an independent state, a proposal that the UN's special envoy to the region, Martti Ahtisaari, is believed to have made in a suggested settlement presented to Ban on March 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). Sejdiu said that, as a sovereign state, Kosova would observe the highest international standards with respect to personal and minority rights and that it would aim "for integration into the Euro-Atlantic structures and membership in international organizations, including membership of the UN." The statement said that Ban and representatives of every country with whom Sejdiu met in New York supported the blueprint drawn up by Ahtisaari, which envisages an international representative retaining veto rights over key actions taken by the Kosovar government. However, Radio-Television Kosova on March 20 quoted Sejdiu as saying that some reservations exist about the precedent independence might set for other regions. Local media reported that Kosova's chief representative in talks over the region's status, Veton Surroi, has in recent days lobbied Latin American states and members of the Arab League for their support for the Ahtisaari plan. Ahtisaari's proposed settlement, with its assumed proposal for independence, is due to be discussed by the UN's top body on April 3, Prime Minister Agim Ceku told Kosovar media on March 16. AG

A former chief of Serbia's military intelligence, General Aco Tomic, on March 20 acknowledged in the witness stand that he had contacts with two men believed to have played key roles in the assassination of former Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, AP reported. Tomic said that he met on several occasions with an organized-crime boss, Dusan Spasojevic, and Milorad Lukovic, leader of the Red Berets, a special paramilitary unit created by former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. The meetings were held in 2002; Djindjic was assassinated in March 2003. Tomic reportedly acknowledged receiving a mobile phone as a present from the two men. Tomic said Lukovic, who is also commonly known as Milorad "Legija" Ulemek, wished to know whether his name featured on a list of suspected war criminals wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Lukovic fought in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia in a notorious paramilitary group led by Zeljko Raznatovic, better-known as Arkan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). Lukovic is already in prison for the murder of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic and assassination attempts on Serbia's current foreign minister, Vuk Draskovic. An "informal" meeting between a head of intelligence and a man already suspected then to be a murderer and war criminal and closely associated with an ousted dictator is unusual in itself, but the meeting also has a current dimension because Tomic was also at the time a close aide of the current prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica. A lawyer for the Djindjic family, Srdja Popovic, said on March 20 that Kostunica "should be called to explain his behavior," though he stressed, "I am not saying that Kostunica is an accomplice." The Djindjic family maintains that Kostunica's sharp criticism of Djindjic's pro-Western policies may have contributed to the decision to kill Djindjic. On the recent fourth anniversary of Djindjic's death, they again expressed frustration at the fraught and protracted trial of his alleged killers, which has so far resulted in no sentences (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). Spasojevic was killed in a police operation during a state of emergency announced after Djindjic's assassination. AG

The leadership of the Bosnian Serb autonomous region, Republika Srpska, on March 20 promised that the town of Srebrenica, site of Europe's worst massacre since World War II, will be granted the status of a special-development area, Bosnia-Herzegovina Radio 1 reported the same day. In the wake of a ruling in February by the UN's top court that the slaughter at Srebrenica in 1995 constituted an "act of genocide," some Bosnian Muslim leaders have been calling for Srebrenica to be granted a special status that would would mean that it would no longer fall under the authority of the Republika Srpska administration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, and March 2, 6, 7, 13, and 15, 2007). Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of Republika Srpska, reiterated his opposition to that idea, telling representatives of Srebrenica's Muslim community that he views such calls as illegal and illegitimate. It is not fully clear what the designation of Srebrenica as a special-development area would entail for the city, but more details may emerge in the next days when, as Dodik promised, the Republika Srpska government will confer special-development status on Srebrenica. Reports indicate that, at a meeting with leaders of the municipality, the government promised funds worth 15 million convertible marks ($10.2 million), which would be earmarked for investment into roads and the power-supply network. Srebrenica Mayor Abdurahman Malkic told the media that he will continue to do everything possible to ensure that Srebrenica is granted a special political status, involving its secession from the Bosnian Serb entity. On a related note, a proposal in ongoing talks about police reform envisages a special clause for Srebrenica, under which a special force for the area would be based on Srebrenica's prewar ethnic composition. AG

Local media reported that, in a highly symbolic statement, a signatory to the Dayton accords that brought peace to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995, Muhamed Sacirbegovic, on March 20 declared that he is removing his signature from the agreement as a sign that he believes the Republika Srpska should be abolished. Sacirbegovic, who is also known as Muhamed Sacirbey, is currently facing extradition from the United States to Bosnia, where he faces charges of embezzlement. Nonetheless, as a former foreign minister and ambassador to the UN, his comments carry historical weight and add to the argument made by Bosnian Muslim leaders, who believe Srebrenica should not just be granted special status but that Bosnia's constitutional arrangement should be changed. In a commentary for cited by the daily "Nezavisne novine," Sacirbegovic said that the ruling by the UN's top court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), that the Srebrenica massacre was an "act of genocide" meant that "Srebrenica deserves to be given back its prewar status, irrespective of the Dayton agreement." Referring to the Republika Srpska, which was created by the Dayton agreement, Sacirbegovic wrote that "the 'entity' that emerged from genocide and whose DNA is based on territorial exclusivity has been doomed since its conception," adding that "the future of the Serbs of Bosnia-Herzegovina does not depend on the notion of territorial exclusivity." He concluded, "There is no collective guilt, but only a joint obligation toward the legislative body, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and to a common future, whether or not that seems desirable." The leaders of Republika Srpska have accused proponents of Sacirbegovic's line of trying to hold Serbs collectively guilty for war crimes. AG

In recent days, members of every major community in Bosnia -- and also the EU -- have called for the constitution to be adjusted. While Bosnian Muslims largely argue for a single unitary state, Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dodik on March 17 said that he plans to float the idea that Bosnia should consist of federal units, BH Radio 1 reported. He did not indicate how this would differ from the current arrangement, under which the country's two autonomous regions have gradually ceded some of their powers to the state government and merged some of their institutions, including the army. The Croatian member of Bosnia's three-member Presidency, Zeljko Komsic, has backed the idea of self-rule for Srebrenica, while a March 13 commentary in the Bosnian Croat daily "Dnevni list" called for territorial exchanges, and some Croats are gathering signatures for a petition for the creation of a third autonomous region, for Croats. In a damning critique of Bosnian politics on March 14, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said a new constitution is an "essential" requirement while simultaneously criticizing the politicization of the debate sparked by the ICJ's ruling on Srebrenica (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). AG

Bosnia's Council of Ministers on March 20 cleared the way for the sale of controlling interests in the Republika Srpska's oil industry to the Russian company Zarubezhneft, local media reported the same day. The green light was given when ministers unanimously approved an amendment to requirements for the quality of liquid fuels, a seemingly arcane point but critical to the Zarubezhneft deal because products from Republika Srpska's outdated oil facilities contain more sulphate than allowed under Bosnian and EU regulations. The abstention of several Bosnian Muslim ministers from a vote in early March provoked accusations that the Bosnian Muslims were pursuing "autistic" policies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2007). It also prompted Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dodik to claim, as reported by the SRNA news agency on February 23, that "somebody who has directly been protecting the monopoly of the Croatian INA oil company in Bosnia-Herzegovina has managed to use different ways of obstructing decisions." A consortium formed by INA and Hungary's MOL in September bought the Sarajevo-based oil company Energopetrol. Republika Srpska's government signed the agreement with Zarubezhneft on February 2, in return for cash, promises of investment, and guarantees of job security for employees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). The Council of Ministers' decision obliges gradual improvements in the quality of the output from the Bosanski Brod refinery over the next three years. Zarubezhneft's subsidiary NeftegazInKor will, through its ownership of Bosanski Brod, gain the potential to meet 80 percent of the country's refinery needs. According to SRNA, Bosnian Prime Minister Nikola Spiric, a Bosnian Serb, described the decision as the best possible news for Bosnia's economy. Dodik has previously said the Zarubezhneft deal will add 400 million convertible marks ($272 million) to the Republika Srpska's annual budget and will reduce the country's trade deficit. AG

While Bosnia's Council of Ministers may have approved the sale of the Bosnian Serb oil industry, it did not quell a flaring dispute over who will own Bosanski Brod's stake in a pipeline project created by the former Yugoslavia, local media reported. Bosnian public radio said the Council of Ministers stated that its decision "does not prejudice in any way a fair solution of the question of co-ownership of the Bosanski Brod refinery and the Janaf Adriatic oil pipeline." Non-Serbian ministers and the oil company Energoinvest have accused the authorities in the Republika Srpska of selling the refinery's stake as part of its deal with Zarubezhneft. Republika Srpska Economy Minister Rajko Ubiparip on March 19 denied the accusation, Radio 1 reported. The charge by Energoinvest is part of a broader assertion that it owns stakes in the oil facilities sold to Zarubezhneft, though these ownership claims appear to have been superseded by the terms of the Dayton agreement, which ended the 1992-95 war in the country. The Adriatic pipeline was built in 1979 with money from Energoinvest, Croatia's INA, and Serbia's Naftagas, and current plans envisage investment for technological changes needed to facilitate the transfer of Russian oil, for an extension to the Croatian port of Omisalj, and for a subsequent extension to Italy to connect the pipeline with the Western European pipeline network. AG

The Afghan government and ordinary Afghans are quick to say that most of the destabilizing factors in their country have a foreign origin -- and Pakistan is most likely to be blamed. But recently, more attention is being paid to the possibility that Afghanistan's neighbor to the west -- Iran -- may also be pursuing its own agenda in Afghanistan to the detriment of Kabul.

Iran and Pakistan became actively involved in the internal affairs of Afghanistan during the mujahedin's resistance against Soviet forces and the subsequent communist regimes from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. Both countries also became host to millions of Afghan refugees. During the jihad period -- as the anticommunist resistance is referred to by Afghans -- Pakistan hosted and manipulated the mostly Sunni Muslim and Pashtun mujahedin groups, while Iran managed the mostly Shi'ite Muslim groups.

With the collapse of the communist government of President Najibullah in 1992, the Pakistani-backed groups initially took control of most levers of power.

Gradually, however, Iran, and -- even less obviously, India and the Russian Federation -- cultivated their own relations with new clients to oppose the domination of Pakistan over the future of Afghanistan.

With the emergence of the Taliban in 1994, Tehran began not only to actively support the loose grouping of former mujahedin parties and communist strongmen -- the United Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan (popularly known as the Northern Alliance) -- but also gave refuge to Pakistan's one-time favorite Afghan client, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, regarding him as a potential card to be played.

Whereas during the jihad period Pakistan and Iran chose their clients based largely on ideological, cultural, and religious considerations, in the post-Taliban arrangements Tehran's adamant opposition to the new arrangements in Afghanistan meant that anyone standing against the Taliban was a potential asset. Then, as now, Tehran believed that the Taliban phenomenon was a Western -- mainly U.S. -- undertaking being used not only to oppose Iran but also to defame Islam.

After the ouster of the Taliban regime by the U.S.-led coalition in late 2001, Iran played a constructive role by convincing its clients to cooperate with the new arrangements and to take an active part in reconstruction, focusing especially on areas close to its border with Afghanistan -- most notably Herat Province.

From the beginning, Kabul tried to balance its ties with Iran, despite the presence of U.S. and later NATO forces on its soil, something that Tehran has continuously opposed.

As the pendulum of relations between Kabul and Islamabad began to swing, mostly towards antagonistic levels, the Afghan government began to view India -- but also Iran -- as potential balancing factors in Kabul's threat-perception scenarios.

Despite the official stance of the Afghan government, popular views of Iran's attempts to influence Afghanistan -- both strategically and culturally -- have begun to surface recently. Among many Afghans, mainly Pashto speakers, there is a feeling that Iranian culture and the Persian dialect spoken in Tehran is seeping into their country and is having an irreversible and pernicious effect on the Afghan cultural identity.

Beyond the linguistic influences, Afghans quietly though in ever-greater numbers talk of a long-term Iranian program to bring their country into the sphere of Iranian influence, especially once the foreign forces leave Afghanistan.

Afghan officials in western provinces that border Iran have discussed incursions by Iranians, violations by Iranian aircraft of Afghan airspace, and support of terrorists in camps operated by Iranians. But there have been no formal or public protests against Iran, even though the Afghan government has made many public complaints of reported interference by Pakistan.

Abdul Samad Stanakzai, a former governor of the western Farah Province, expressed concern in January over alleged Iranian interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs. In an interview with Herat-based Radio Sahar on January 30, Stanakzai claimed that Iran is training "a large number of political opponents of the [Afghan] government" in a refugee camp in Iran called Shamsabad.

"Iran's interference is aimed at influencing our national identity and destroying it in the long term," Stanakzai added. Broadcasting the story, Radio Sahar commented that whereas "key [Afghan] government officials previously complained about interference in Afghanistan's internal affairs by neighboring countries, particularly Pakistan, they have avoided blaming Iran."

In mid-February, General Daud Ahadi, the commander of Border Brigade No. 5 in Nimroz Province, pointed to at least three separate violations of Afghan airspace by Iranian helicopters.

State-run Radio Afghanistan reported two such violations on February 18, adding in a commentary that "the Iranian side on occasion has caused border problems between Iran and Afghanistan that have resulted in violence."

Nimroz Governor Gholam Dastagir Azad told the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press on March 9 that "Afghan and Iranian border police clashed" along the border between the two countries and one border policeman from both sides was killed and one Afghan policeman was injured. According to Azad, the clash was caused by a "misunderstanding."

In another development, since February Afghan officials have mentioned that Iran is erecting a wall along the border with the Kang district in Nimroz Province, ostensibly to prevent drug smugglers from entering Iran.

Nur Mohammad Haidar, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Border and Tribal Affairs, told Kabul-based Tolo Television on February 14 that if the "Iranian officials want to prevent drug smugglers and illegal immigrants from entering" their country, they can find more effective preventive measures "in coordination and cooperation with Afghan security officials...than erecting a wall."

Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Satar Ahmad Bahin told Tolo that since the "wall is erected inside Iranian territory, it is not Afghanistan's business." He added: "We have nothing to do with it."

Kabul's total rejection of Pakistan's plans to erect barbed-wire fences in selected areas of its border with Afghanistan -- and also inside Pakistani territory -- and its reported acceptance of barriers by Iran, could present diplomatic and legal obstacles to Afghanistan's policy of opposing the Pakistani plan.

Kabul's choice of siding with Tehran and New Delhi while seeing only evil intent in Islamabad is -- at best -- a short-sighted policy that not only ignores geographical realities on the ground but also discounts the long-term strategic goals of Iran and, to a much-lesser degree, that of India vis-a-vis Afghanistan.

Another factor which makes Iran a threat to Afghanistan's medium-term stability is Tehran's opposition to the presence of NATO and other foreign forces in Afghanistan.

In a recent commentary titled "People of Afghanistan: Hostages of Occupiers and Terrorists," the hard-line Tehran daily "Jomhuri-ye Islami" restated Iran's claim that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban are creations of the United States and that Washington's strategy is based on a "long stay in Afghanistan. But in order to justify this usurpatory presence," it needs an "explanation and pretext."

The commentary concluded that the Taliban and Al-Qaeda "have acted as a fifth column" for the United States not only to enter Afghanistan, but also to legitimize its presence there.

Unlike its reported involvement in Iraq, Tehran has not created much noticeable trouble to foreign forces stationed in Afghanistan. Instead, it has concentrated most of its efforts on cultivating political allies among diverse Afghan political groupings and injecting Iranian culture into Afghanistan.

However, not causing trouble does not mean that Iran lacks the ability to do so, if such a policy would suit Tehran's dealings with the West. Perhaps the "misunderstandings" in Nimroz are just that -- or they could be a message to NATO states of Iran's ability to interfere in Afghanistan.

Ajmal Naqshbandi, the Afghan translator for Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, remains in captivity, AFP reported on March 20. Mastrogiacomo, Naqshbandi, and their Afghan driver Sayyed Agha were abducted by the Taliban in southern Afghanistan on March 4 and were charged with spying for British forces. Najib Manalai, an adviser to the Afghan Ministry of Information and Culture, told AFP that he is very "worried for the translator who is still in the custody of the terrorists." Naqshbandi's father, Ghulam Haidar, told the news agency that in order to gain freedom for Mastrogiacomo, the Afghan government "released five Taliban," but "to release my son they won't release one Taliban. They are not doing anything. This is wrong." Mastrogiacomo was released on March 19 after the Afghan government released a reported five Taliban prisoners (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 8, 12, 19, and 20, 2007). Agha was executed. The administration of President Hamid Karzai has said the exchange was an "exceptional measure" and will not be repeated. The Taliban reportedly are demanding the release of additional prisoners in exchange for Naqshbandi. AT

The family of Sayyed Agha received his body on March 20, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The Taliban decapitated Agha, the driver for Mastrogiacomo, on charges of spying for foreign forces in Afghanistan. Family and friends of the slain man staged a protest in front of Emergency, an Italian-sponsored hospital in Lashkargah, the provincial capital of Helmand. Hajji Ghafar, a relative of Agha, said that Mastrogiacomo hired the driver who had nothing to do with spying. "Why did they set free the Italian man when Agha was found guilty of spying?" Hajji Juma, another relative, criticized the Afghan government for accepting the demands of the Taliban in order to gain the release of Mastrogiacomo while failing to protect its own citizens. "Sayyed Agha was made a scapegoat to release the Italian journalist," Juma added. Meanwhile, security officials in Helmand have detained Rahmatullah Hanifi, the director of "Emergency" hospital in Lashkargah, the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on March 20. Helmand Governor Asadullah Wafa told the news agency that Hanifi was arrested, adding that he does not "have any more details." Hanifi was reportedly the middleman in the negotiations between the Taliban and the Italians, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on March 20. AT

A Pakistani officer was arrested in Paktiya Province on March 19, AIP reported on March 20. Sher Ahmad Kochi, commander of Border Brigade No. 2, responsible for Paktiya and the neighboring Khost Province, told AIP that the Pakistani officer was arrested in the Aryub Jaji area and has been transferred to Khost city where the brigade is headquartered. "Some documents and a map of Khost have been taken from him and he is being interrogated," Kochi added. There has been no Pakistani reaction to the incident, AIP added. AT

Germany and China have urged the swift approval by UN Security Council members of the proposed new set of sanctions on Iran, which amplify last December's penalties on Iran for its refusal to curb some nuclear activities, agencies reported on March 19 and 20. But rotating Security Council chair South Africa has urged more talks before extending further sanctions. New measures envisaged against Iran would ban arms exports from Iran and freeze the assets of 28 companies and persons purportedly linked to Iran's nuclear and ballistic-missile programs, Reuters reported. South Africa, which currently chairs the Security Council, has proposed a 90-day freeze by Iran of its fuel-making activities in return for a suspension of current UN sanctions, which would allow the resumption of talks, AFP reported on March 19. The so-called "time out" was first proposed by International Atomic Energy Agency head Muhammad el-Baradei. South Africa has also suggested reducing the restrictions proposed against individual Iranians and companies, AFP reported. Reuters reported on March 20 that German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao agreed on March 19 that new sanctions must be approved quickly, given Iran's continuing refusal to stop atomic fuel-making activities. VS

Manuchehr Mottaki said in Cape Town on March 20 that Iran supports "the idea of three-way talks" on its atomic dossier between Iran, the UN Security Council represented by its current chair, and envoys of "the 5+1 group" -- the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, IRNA reported. He spoke after meeting with South African President Thabo Mbeki. Mottaki said safeguarding Iran's "evident rights" and removing international concerns over the nature of its program "are two sides of the same coin." He said, "Iran will not forego its rights under any conditions, but remains committed" to continued talks to find "a comprehensive solution." Iran maintains it has the right to produce nuclear fuel. Separately, AFP reported on March 19 that Iran prevented UN inspectors from checking its underground uranium-enrichment plant in Natanz, north-central Iran, on March 17. The inspectors wanted to see a section where hundreds of centrifuges are reportedly installed as part of Iran's stated bid to undertake large-scale uranium enrichment. Spinning centrifuges enrich uranium hexafluoride gas to produce either fuel for power stations or combustible material for bombs, depending on the level of enrichment. Inspectors will try and revisit the site, unnamed diplomats told AFP in Vienna on March 19. VS

Tehran-based academic Davud Hermidas-Bavand told Radio Farda on March 19 that more stringent UN sanctions on Iran would undoubtedly harm its economy. He also said a resolution would serve the United States' alleged goal of gradually preparing international opinion for any measures it may wish to take against Iran over its nuclear dossier. Hermidas-Bavand said that while the United States and European statesmen have stressed they are not planning military strikes on Iran, a recent initiative by the U.S. Congress making any attacks conditional upon Congressional approval indicate that nobody in Washington has ruled out the option. Touraj Atabaki, an academic at the International Institute of Social History in Amsterdam, separately told Radio Farda that the United States and EU have, for now, put aside the military option, or at least the United States "is not talking about it." He said the diplomatic approach with Tehran has been strengthened as Russia has moved closer to Western positions. He said increasing pressure on Iran could exacerbate domestic "differences" over the nuclear program -- weakening supporters of President Ahmadinejad and strengthening "moderate elements looking to negotiate," Radio Farda reported on March 19. VS

Iranian Ambassador to France Ali Ahani explained Iran's nuclear positions to a group of students on March 19, reiterating its stated need to make nuclear fuel for an expanding program of electricity generation, IRNA reported on March 20. Ahani reportedly addressed students at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris. He said the opposition of Western states to Iran's program has political motives, given what he called Iran's hitherto extensive cooperation with UN inspectors and the fact that inspectors have not cited any proof that Iran is manufacturing a nuclear bomb. It is not "logical," he said, to witness how "some anything they like" and have not joined the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), while "countries like Iran are deprived of their most evident rights in line with the NPT." He urged negotiation as the only option, and said a "new resolution will only make conditions more complex and difficult." He also said the United States would pay a "very heavy price" should it attack Iran. "The Iraqi quagmire is enough for America, and we regret that American youngsters are [dying] for [President George W.] Bush's mistakes," IRNA reported. VS

Kurdistan region President Mas'ud Barzani acknowledged during a news conference in Amman, Jordan, on March 20 that the security situation in Iraq was better before the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, international media reported. However, he warned that an early withdrawal of U.S. forces would worsen the security situation. "We are in favor of a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq but only when the Iraqi security forces and the government are ready and able to control the situation and guarantee stability in the country," Barzani said. He also said that the recent Baghdad-centered security operation, aimed at securing the Iraqi capital and the western Al-Anbar Governorate, has not so far achieved its goals and that its failure would have "dangerous repercussions" for the entire country. Furthermore, Barzani denied statements attributed to him that the Kurds would declare independence if an all-out civil war erupted between the Shi'a and Sunnis. "We would not be party to this struggle or take sides and we will not be a cause of the division of Iraq," he said. SS

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on March 20 accused the international community of ignoring the plight of Iraqi refugees, the BBC reported the same day. "There has been an abject denial of the impact, the humanitarian impact, of the war, the huge displacement within Iraq of up to 1.9 million people who are homeless because of the war, and those people who are homeless and never got back to their homes after Saddam Hussein was overthrown," UNHCR spokesman Peter Kessler said. Syria has taken in approximately 1.2 million refugees and Jordan up to 800,000, with many in despeate need of immediate humanitarian aid. "So clearly in every area, there's a need to support what the main host governments are doing and then to gird ourselves for what could be, if the war is prolonged, an increasing movement further westwards," Kessler said. SS

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on March 20 that his country will continue to offer support to rebuild Iraq, KUNA reported the same day. He also indicated that Japan will extend a law that provides assistance to Iraq's reconstruction by two years from its July 31 expiration date. The law allows Japan's Air Self-Defense Force to airlift supplies and noncombat personnel to assist in the reconstruction effort. "The Iraqi government and the United Nations highly appreciate reconstruction assistance activities given by our troops," Abe told reporters, adding that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki requested Japan's air-force mission. Japan has been a key donor to Iraq, providing $5 billion in aid for reconstruction over a four-year period from 2004 to 2007, including $1.5 billion in grants. In February, Tokyo also announced it will provide $104.5 million in emergency grant aid to help improve security and basic services such as health care. SS

British forces pulled out of a key military base in the southern city of Al-Basrah on March 20 and handed it over to Iraqi forces, international media reported the same day. Major General Jonathan Shaw, the commander of British forces in southern Iraq, denied that the pullout was part of a withdrawal, describing it instead as a repositioning of forces according to a timetable. However, in February, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Britain would begin withdrawing a quarter of its 7,000 troops in the coming months. The base at the Old State Building has served as the headquarters of British troops in Al-Basrah since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and has been a frequent target of mortar attacks. "True to the coalition campaign plan, and in consultation with my Iraqi colleagues, we are beginning a gradual transition whereby security will be handed over to the Iraqi Army and the Iraqi police service," Shaw said during a joint news conference with Al-Basrah Governor Muhammad Musabah al-Wa'ili. SS

U.S. Army Staff Sergeant Raymond Girouard was sentenced to 10 years in prison on March 19 after being convicted by a military court of killing three unarmed Iraqi detainees near Tikrit in May 2006, international media reported the same day. Three other soldiers have already pleaded guilty to the killings and testified against Girouard, saying that he had summoned them and told them that the detainees would be shot, and their deaths covered up. The two soldiers who shot the detainees pleaded guilty to murder and each was sentenced to 18 years in prison, while a third soldier was sentenced to nine months in prison. Girouard insisted that he was ordered to kill all men of military age, but denied ordering the killings. A military court found him guilty of negligent homicide, obstruction of justice, conspiracy for trying to conceal the crime, and failure to obey a general order. SS

Following the March 20 execution of former Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, his body was transported to the town of Al-Awja near Tikrit for burial, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported the same day. Ramadan's body, wrapped in an Iraqi flag, was received as a "martyr" by hundreds of people, while gunmen fired shots in the air in his honor. As requested in his will, Ramadan was laid to rest outside the hall housing former President Saddam Hussein's tomb, near Hussein's two sons and two of his top aides, Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti and Awad al-Bandar. During an interview with Al-Jazeera, Ramadan's son Ahmad described his father's execution as a "political assassination." Badi Arif, a lawyer representing former Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, said the U.S. military allowed Ramadan to talk to his family before the execution "He was very calm and composed," Arif said. "He asked his family and friends to pray for him and said that he was not afraid of death." Iraqi government spokesman Ali Al-Dabbagh said the execution was carried out according to plan and measures were taken to prevent any mishaps. There was widespread outrage among Iraq's Sunni population after video footage of Hussein's execution showed him being taunted moments before being hanged and al-Tikriti's execution resulted in his decapitation. SS