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Newsline - April 4, 2007

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on April 3 in Yerevan, Armenia, that Russia "wants a resolution to be found [for the Ukrainian political crisis] within the framework of Ukrainian law and the Ukrainian Constitution, through a dialogue among all political forces on this legal basis," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2007). He added that "as for the possibility of Russia, or the CIS, or other countries getting involved in helping resolve this crisis, I believe it is up to the Ukrainian side, first and foremost. If Ukraine asks for assistance, let me assure you that Russia will not hesitate to provide such help." He did not specify what this "assistance" might entail. In Moscow, State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said that "the power struggle in Ukraine is turning from rivalry between [political] parties into confrontation between the sides that is taking place on the streets, which has already become standard practice, and that is fraught with violence and possible unrest. This is what we would like our Ukrainian colleagues and friends to stay away from." In Kyiv, a spokesman for President Viktor Yushchenko said that the president hopes to pay a working visit to Russia soon, Interfax reported. The spokesman added that "we will not [further] delay [the trip], because we need to finalize all issues pertaining to the plan for our relations for 2007-08." Also on April 3, the Russian daily "Trud" quoted Boris Nemtsov, who is a former adviser to the Ukrainian president, as saying that the political balance of forces in Ukraine is likely to remain the same whatever the outcome of the current crisis. Some other commentators told the daily, however, that the situation is delicate and could lead to violence or to a realignment of the political balance. PM

Eric Edelman, who is U.S. undersecretary of defense for policy, said on April 3 that the proposed U.S. missile-defense system involves only nonexplosive interceptors and not explosive warheads, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2007). He also noted that the proposed radar station that would be installed in the Czech Republic would require about as much energy as radar installations "used for weather forecasting or air-traffic control." Edelman repeated a recent U.S. offer to "link the system with NATO and, possibly, Russian defenses." He suggested that "the potential for cooperation with Russia" will be one of the items on the agenda at the April 18 meetings of the North Atlantic Council and NATO-Russia Council. In Moscow, RIA Novosti on March 29 quoted former Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, who once headed the Defense Ministry's International Department and is currently vice president of the nationalist Academy for Geopolitical Problems, as warning Russia against such cooperation. He argued that "cooperation of this kind is unacceptable because the missile-defense system being created by the [United States], especially its elements that may be deployed in Central Europe and the Caucasus, is aimed against Russia." Ivashov added that "if Russian-U.S. consultations on the issue take place, our so-called partners will again try to deceive Russian specialists into saying everything they know." He added that this has already happened when Russian specialists cooperated with the Americans on fighting nuclear terrorism." PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov said in Yerevan on April 4 that "we need a thorough and joint assessment of technological, strategic, and political issues related to European missile defense" and called for a meeting with EU and CIS member states, RIA Novosti reported. Alluding to U.S. missile-defense plans, he argued that "any unilateral moves in [this] sphere...should be seen as attempts to split Europe. This is the reason why we regard the unilateral decision to place elements of the U.S. missile defense in Central and Eastern Europe as a potential risk to Russia and the whole of Europe." He said that only international cooperation can produce real security, adding that "this is why we are proposing to start a joint assessment of potential nuclear and missile threats to Europe, Russia, and our neighbors in the CIS." According to the RIA Novosti report, he did not specifically include the United States or NATO in his call for a meeting. At the same time, Lavrov expressed hope that a recent spoken agreement between U.S. President George W. Bush and Russia's Vladimir Putin to discuss in detail U.S. plans "will allow the participants to resume collective dialogue and cooperation between Russia and the NATO on missile defense." Some German media have suggested in recent weeks that Russia is ignoring the facts regarding the proposed U.S. defense shield, which Washington has presented repeatedly, and seeks to foster an emotional, anti-American discussion in Germany and elsewhere in Western Europe with the aim of splitting the EU and NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and March 22, 28, 29, and 30, 2007). PM

Self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky announced in London on April 3 that he and the friends and family of Aleksandr Litvinenko, a former Russian security agent who was poisoned there in November 2006, have set up the Litvinenko Justice Foundation, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6 and 8, 2007, and "Russia: Berezovsky Breaks Silence On Litvinenko,", February 7, 2007). Berezovsky, who recently answered questions from Russian officials about his finances in the presence of British police, said that "until the method of this absolutely new type of killing involving a nuclear microbomb is uncovered, not a single person in [Britain] or elsewhere in the world can feel safe against a similar murder." He stressed that the British government "must uncover this crime or risk being seen as incapable of protecting the residents of this country." The foundation announced on that it has sent a letter to Prime Minister Tony Blair and other U.K. officials calling on them to do "everything possible to make sure that suspects will stand trial in [Britain] and will not be shielded from justice by the Russian state." PM

On April 4, a subsidiary of Italy's ENI energy giant bought at a Moscow auction a package of assets of the once-mighty oil major Yukos for $5.8 billion, Russian news agencies reported. An agreement signed with Eni-Neftegaz gives Gazprom the option to buy the 20 percent stake in its own oil division, Gazprom Neft, which was among the Yukos assets. Some Yukos shareholders called recent auctions of those assets an example of "state-sponsored theft" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28 and 30, 2007). PM

Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on April 3, visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov praised Russia's expanding ties with Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Arminfo reported. At the start of a two-day official visit, Lavrov met with his Armenian counterpart Vardan Oskanian and discussed a wide range of issues, including regional security and the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. Responding to an Armenian journalist's question over the upcoming Armenian parliamentary elections, Lavrov stressed that "the official position of Russia" consists of an interest in "seeing Armenia stable and prosperous and seeing it continue to move down the path of reforms." He declined, however, to deny or even comment on speculation that Moscow supports the possible future candidacy of Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian as the next president. The need for stability in the region was also stressed, as Lavrov explained that although "many, including the EU, take an interest in this region," it is important for such interests to be expressed "within the context of mutual cooperation and stability," Caucasus Press reported. The second day of the visit, which happens to coincide with the 15th anniversary of the formal establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, features a meeting with President Robert Kocharian, before Lavrov goes on to Turkmenistan. RG

In comments during a press conference in Yerevan on April 3, governing Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) spokesman Eduard Sharmazanov denied recent reports of dissent within the party, Armenpress and Arminfo reported. Sharmazanov specifically dismissed the suggestions of an open clash between acting Defense Minister Sarkisian and Minister for Local Government Hovik Abrahamian. Recent Armenian newspaper reports have charged that the recent appointment of Sarkisian as the party's nominee for prime minister sparked the clash between the two powerful ministers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2007). RG

HHK spokesman Sharmazanov argued on April 3 that a recent assassination of an Armenian mayor was "directed against" the party, according to Arminfo. He was referring to the shooting of Vardan Gukasian, the mayor of Armenia's second-largest city (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2007) although that attack is generally seen as tied to the victim's reputed criminal ties. Sharmazanov noted that it was "difficult to say" who would benefit from the incident or who was behind the attack, but dismissed the recent remarks of United Labor Party leader Yuri Manukian alleging that unnamed "foreign forces" organized the attack. RG

President Ilham Aliyev met on April 3 in Baku with a visiting U.S. congressional delegation, and the APA news agency reported. Aliyev told the U.S. delegation, led by Representative Peter Hoekstra (Republican, Michigan), that he hopes that the visit will "contribute to the deepening of relations" between the two countries and called for the expansion of parliamentary cooperation. In a separate meeting with the delegation, Azerbaijani parliament speaker Oktay Asadov called for a repeal of the congressional restrictions on government assistance to Azerbaijan, the so-called Section 907 legislation that has been routinely waived by the U.S. president over the past several years. Asadov also briefed the delegation on the continued peacekeeping deployments of Azerbaijani servicemen in support of NATO missions in Afghanistan, Kosova, and Iraq. RG

The opposition Musavat party held on April 2 an inaugural meeting in Baku marking the publishing of a new daily newspaper, reported. The new editor of the "Parallel" newspaper, Tadiq Abbas, announced that the staff is largely composed of Musavat party activists and officials and explained that the launch of the paper stems from dissatisfaction from the "independent line" followed by the party's main "Yeni Musavat" newspaper and its editor, Rauf Arifoglu. RG

Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili warned on April 3 that Azerbaijan has exacerbated tension over a disputed area of the border between the two countries, Caucasus Press reported. The border dispute resurfaced after a statement on April 2 by Azerbaijani Deputy Foreign Minister Khalaf Khalafov, the co-chairman of the bilateral commission on border demarcation, asserting that the Davit Garedji monastery complex on the Georgian side of the border actually belongs to Azerbaijan. Bezhuashvili urged Khalafov to remember that the mandate of the commission is limited to defining and delineating the border and is "not a discussion of historical issues," adding that history "is not his competence." The issue also marred the ceremonial presentation of credentials by the new Georgian ambassador to Azerbaijan, Nikoloz Natbiladze, in a Baku meeting with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov. RG

During a meeting in Tbilisi, Georgian Economy Minister Giorgi Arveladze and Kazakh Minister of Transport and Communications Serik Akhmetov signed on April 2 a new memorandum on economic partnership, Caucasus Press and Civil Georgia reported. The agreement includes a pledge by Kazakhstan to transport at least 10 million tons of cargo and rolling stock annually through the planned Baku-Akhalkalaki-Kars railway. The commercial viability of the $600 million railway project, not expected to become operational for at least 2 1/2 years, depends on the participation of Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states. The signing of the agreement marked the conclusion of the latest session of the Georgian-Kazakh intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. In 2006, Kazakhstan became the third-largest foreign direct investor in Georgia, reaching a level of $152 million. RG

In a speech before Georgian Army recruits and reservists at a military base in Senaki, President Mikheil Saakashvili vowed on April 2 that the pace of military "modernization will increase significantly" in order to forge a "modern armed forces" by the end of the year, according to Civil Georgia. Saakashvili added that "Georgia is ready to have at least a 100,000-strong, well-equipped, and well-trained reserve army," and warned that every Georgian citizen should "know how to handle weapons and if necessary should be ready to repel aggression." RG

The Kazakh authorities implemented on April 3 the terms of a recent law restricting the location and operations of casinos in the country, Interfax reported. All 26 casinos and some 350 slot-machine arcades were closed in the commercial center, Almaty, and the authorities closed another 100 casinos and 1,650 gambling arcades throughout the country. The new law, which officially came into effect on April 1, is an attempt to improve the regulation of gambling in Kazakhstan and requires that gambling establishments be limited to operations in the resort area of Shchuchinsk-Borovskoy, 250 kilometers from Almaty, and near the Kapshagay reservoir, 62 kilometers south of Almaty, according to ITAR-TASS. RG

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev issued a decree on April 3 to "improve the state system" of governance, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. According to the terms of the decree, a special working group is to be formed, comprising experts, government officials, and opposition representatives, and empowered to study and formulate a set of governmental structural reforms. The new group, to be formally led by Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev, is required to report its findings within one week, however, and will also consider and recommend amendments to the Kyrgyz Constitution. The move follows the presentation of a new opposition-drafted constitution to the president the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2007). RG

Kyrgyz parliament speaker Marat Sultanov announced on April 3 the formation of a new opposition faction in parliament, according to the website. The new Ata-Meken Socialist Party faction, led by Omurbek Tekebaev, incorporates a number of opposition deputies who withdrew from several other existing factions and groups in the parliament. Those deputies include Tayirbek Sarpashev, Erkinbek Alymbekov, Bolotbek Sherniyazov, Janysh Kudaibergenov, Melis Eshimkanov, and Karganbek Samakov, AKIpress reported. RG

Following a recent cabinet reshuffle by President Bakiev, several ministers were named on April 3, including the return of several incumbents, according to the website. Among the newly named ministers, Kanybek Osmonaliev was reappointed to the post of minister of education and science; Sultan Raev retained the portfolio of minister of culture and information; Igor Chudinov returned as minister of industry, energy, and fuel resources; and Uktomkhan Abdullaeva was reappointed minister of labor and social development. Additionally, former deputy Sooronbai Jeenbekov was appointed minister of agriculture and water resources, and Akylbek Japarov was named finance minister, a post he has held since 2005. Later in the day, Bakiev also named Nurlan Akmatov a longtime customs official, as the new head of the State Customs Committee, replacing Salaydin Aydarov. A series of other ministerial appointments was announced by the president the day before (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2007). RG

In a press release issued in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz State Customs Committee announced on April 3 the opening of a modernized customs checkpoint along the border with Uzbekistan, the Kabar news agency reported. The Dostuk-Avtodorozhny checkpoint is the fourth in a series of upgraded border posts and was financed by $650,000 in assistance from the U.S. State Department's Export Control and Related Border Security Assistance program. The U.S. program provides customs officials and border guards with vehicles, communications equipment, computers, and radiation-detection equipment. RG

A three-day military exercise of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) began in Tajikistan on April 3, AKIpress and ITAR-TASS reported. The command-staff exercises, known as Rubezh (Frontier) 2007, feature a series of counterterrorism simulations and drills centered on the "command decision-making" process of the CSTO Rapid Deployment Force held at the Lyaur military facility, 15 kilometers north of Dushanbe. Roughly 500 military personnel are participating, using a combination of 50 armored vehicles and Su-25 fighters with Mi-24 helicopters. The maneuvers are a second part of a broader CSTO training exercise and follow a first stage held in Russia in late March that was devoted to the "use of forces and equipment" in a simulated counterterrorist operation in the Central Asian region. Units from Russia, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan were joined by observer groups from the Armenian, Kyrgyz, and Uzbek Defense Ministries. A similar CSTO exercise was held in Kazakhstan in late August (see "RFE/RL Caucasus report," September 1, 2006). RG

Pavel Kalaur, first deputy head of the National Bank of Belarus, told journalists in Minsk on April 3 that there are currently no methods to determine the number of millionaires in the country, Belapan reported. Last week, Syarhey Kastsyuchenka, head of the private Priorbank, asserted that the number of dollar millionaires in Belarus is between 7,000 and 10,000. "It is the task of the government to think how to get this money in bank accounts. If we manage to draw at least 1,000 of these millionaires into banks, this will mean $1 billion for the banking sector," Kastsyuchenka added. Kalaur noted that Kastsyuchenka's estimate of the number of millionaires in Belarus is dubious. JM

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said at a cabinet meeting on April 4 that the ruling coalition will not make any attempt to enter a campaign for early parliamentary elections until the Constitutional Court rules that the presidential decree dissolving the Verkhovna Rada and calling new elections is in line with the constitution, Channel 5 reported. Yanukovych reiterated his position that the presidential decree is a "mistake" and called on President Viktor Yushchenko to make compromises in order to overcome the current political crisis. According to Yanukovych, Yushchenko should rescind his decree in exchange for concessions from the ruling coalition on a number of controversial issues. Yanukovych suggested that the ruling coalition could meet Yushchenko halfway in amending the controversial law on the Cabinet of Ministers adopted in January and in abandoning the expansion of the parliamentary majority with individual deputies from the opposition. Simultaneously, Yanukovych accused the presidential administration of pressuring judges of the Constitutional Court, adding that Constitutional Court head Ivan Dombrovskyy will soon resign because of such pressure. JM

President Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yanukovych discussed the current political standoff in the presidential office on April 3 for 4 1/2 hours, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported, citing the presidential press service. Yushchenko reportedly told Yanukovych that his decision to dissolve the parliament was final and warned the prime minister against resorting to force. "The main issue discussed at the meeting was to ensure strict implementation of the decree on an early election. Viktor Yushchenko, as commander in chief of Ukraine's armed forces, also stressed he would allow no use of force in the country," the president's press service reported. JM

Central Election Commission Chairman Yaroslav Davydovych said on Channel 5 on April 4 that President Yushchenko has instructed the National Security and Defense Council to provide funding for a campaign for the early parliamentary elections scheduled for May 27. Davydovych estimated that some $340 million hryvnyas ($67 million) is needed to finance the campaign. First Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Mykola Azarov told journalists on April 3 that he sees no legal grounds for the government to finance the early-election campaign, as Yushchenko ordered in his decree dissolving the parliament. On April 2, following Yushchenko's decision to call new elections, the Verkhovna Rada passed a resolution to outlaw the Central Election Commission headed by Davydovych, and another one to ban the government from funding the election campaign. JM

According to police, some 4,500 people arrived in Kyiv in the morning of April 4 in busses from Ukrainian regions to support Prime Minister Yanukovych and protest against the presidential decree dissolving the Verkhovna Rada, UNIAN reported. Regional backers of the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party -- whose lawmakers have been continuing a parliamentary session despite the decree disbanding the legislature -- pitched more than 400 tents in downtown Kyiv. They also built a stage on Independence Square, which was the main rostrum for supporters of Yushchenko during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in November-December 2004. JM

On April 3 in New York, the 15 members of the UN Security Council began deliberations on a blueprint for supervised independence for Kosova drawn up by UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari, international media reported the same day. The Ahtisaari plan was first presented to the Security Council on March 26 after Kosovar and Serbian negotiators failed to find common ground in 14 months of talks in Vienna (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2007). Kosova's large Albanian majority wants independence after almost eight years of UN supervision while Belgrade rejects anything exceeding substantial autonomy within Serbia. Russia, a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council, has said it will not support any solution imposed on Belgrade and is suggesting continued negotiations between Serbs and Kosovars as well as a fact-finding visit to the region, an idea that appeared to have some support in the council. The consultations by the Security Council are likely to go on for several weeks. Emerging from the closed-door session, Ahtisaari told reporters, "I wouldn't like to say that this is a marathon, but it may be at least a 10,000-meter run," according to AP. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica told the council that Ahtisaari's blueprint is an "unlawful and illegitimate attempt to dismember our state." Council members also met with Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu. AP reported that on the insistence of Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, the meeting with Sejdiu was held in a basement briefing room since Kosova's president, unlike Kostunica, does not represent a UN member state. TV

On a visit to Prishtina on April 2, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said that the UN Security Council should neither rush nor delay a solution for Kosova, local and international media reported the same day. In a statement carried by KohaVision television, he said that NATO supports the Ahtisaari plan for supervised independence. In response to a statement by Oliver Ivanovic, a moderate ethnic Serbian politician in Kosova, that north Mitrovica with its concentration of Serbs would split from Kosova if the province became independent, de Hoop Scheffer said that "partition can never be an option and will never be an option." He added, "I would advise all those who favor partition that this is very wrong and it will not be tolerated." De Hoop Scheffer was visiting Prishtina with the 26 representatives of NATO member states that make up the North Atlantic Council, NATO's top decision-making body, and met with the heads of NATO's KFOR peacekeeping mission, the UN interim administration, and local politicians. TV

Rasim Ljajic, an official of the government coordinating body for southern Serbia, told the Beta news agency on April 2 that three municipalities in southern Serbia with ethnic Albanian majorities will not be given any special status. His comments came in response to a request by a local politician from Bujanovac, Sali Sallihi, for the three municipalities to be granted autonomy or some sort of special status. "That statement is politically motivated and is part of the overall fight of the Albanian officials in that region," Ljajic said. Sallihi said, according to Beta, that unification with Kosova has always been the political will of the three communities. "We have a legitimate right to our self-determination and we are demanding the presence of peacekeeping forces on this territory until the final solution of the problem," Sallihi said. On April 3, FoNet reported that Ljajic visited the location of a raid the previous day by ethnic Albanians who allegedly beat up two elderly Serbs and seized their livestock. "It is especially worrisome that these were armed men wearing camouflage uniforms," Ljajic said. "Just 30 minutes after we left the place, three shots were heard in the place we had visited, and these were shots fired from weapons of a larger caliber. This means that we had been followed the whole time." TV

The Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) on April 3 reduced the sentence of a top Bosnian Serb wartime official from 32 to 30 years, Reuters reported from The Hague the same day. Radoslav Brdjanin was a political leader of the Serb-run "Autonomous Region of Krajina" in northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina, the scene of widespread atrocities, and a prominent member of the Serbian Democratic Party of Bosnia-Herzegovina founded by war crimes fugitive Radovan Karadzic. Brdjanin was found guilty in 2004 of numerous crimes committed against non-Serbs, including persecution, torture, and deportations, but was cleared of genocide charges (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 2, 2004). In his appeal, Brdjanin challenged hundreds of the court's findings; a majority of these challenges have now been dismissed, but the Appeals Chamber reversed earlier convictions for aiding and abetting torture in detention camps and for destruction in the municipality of Bosanska Krupa. The Appeals Chamber confirmed the court's earlier finding on the existence of a strategic plan to create a Serbian entity from which most non-Serbs would be permanently removed. TV

The Multinational Maneuver Battalion made up of soldiers from Spain, Poland, Hungary, and non-EU member Turkey has reached its full deployment as part of the EU's EUFOR peacekeeping mission, Reuters reported on April 3. "EUFOR is paying tribute to the improved security situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and commenced its transition plan with the main purpose of reducing the troops in the country to approximately 2,500 soldiers during March 2007," EUFOR spokesman Achim Winkler told reporters in Sarajevo, describing the battalion as the "cornerstone" of EUFOR's new force structure. Last year, the U.S. military withdrew most of its contingent from a base near the northeastern city of Tuzla, keeping only a few officers as part of a NATO headquarters in Sarajevo. The 600-strong British force based in Banja Luka began withdrawing in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2007). The EU decided on the withdrawal in February, saying that the security situation in Bosnia has improved considerably (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). TV

On the sidelines of a forum on energy security held in the Croatian capital, Zagreb, officials from Croatia, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Italy, and the European Commission signed a ministerial declaration on the Pan-European Oil Pipeline, Hina reported on April 3. The project would supply oil from the Caspian to European markets via a pipeline running from the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta across the Balkan peninsula to link up with a transalpine pipeline near Trieste; many pieces of the pipeline are already in place. The pipeline is expected to cost between $2.6 billion and almost $4 billion, depending on its capacity, and is scheduled to be completed by 2012. The declaration is nonbinding; potential exporters and buyers will now have to be found and the necessary documentation, such as feasibility and environmental impact studies, will need to be compiled. European policymakers hope that the pipeline will reduce Europe's dependence on Russia for its energy needs. TV

The Georgian Justice Ministry has announced that it has filed a lawsuit against Moscow at the European Court of Human Rights over Russia's mass deportations of Georgians in the fall of 2006. The suit is the first involving any of the former Soviet states and could set a precedent for other CIS governments seeking redress from Moscow, or from each other.

The suit refers to the hundreds of Georgians in Russia who were rounded up in police raids, accused of immigration offenses, and loaded onto planes bound for Georgia. The deportations were part of a series of punitive measures taken by Moscow after the arrest in Tbilisi of four Russian intelligence officers on spying charges.

But for the Georgians involved -- many of whom had been legally living and working in Russia for years -- the expulsion was abrupt, bewildering, and hateful. One Georgian woman, who was living in Russia's Smolensk region, described her ordeal: "There was something wrong in our passports and we were immediately given 10 days to get out. They said, 'You're citizens of Georgia. Go to your Saakashvili,' and that's all. And so we bought a ticket to Baku and came here. It was hard. We'll be going to Tbilisi now."

According to the Georgian Foreign Ministry, more than 4,600 Georgians were evicted from Russia during this period. At least two died in Russian custody while awaiting deportation. One, a 58-year-old man, died of an asthma attack after failing to receive medical treatment in detention at a Moscow airport. More than a month later, a 51-year-old woman with a heart condition died in a detention center in the Russian capital where she had been held for six weeks. The deaths and the deportations were criticized by Western governments and international rights organization.

Now, says Besarion Bokhashvili, the Georgian envoy to the European Court for Human Rights, his country is taking Russia to court over what it says were massive human rights violations during the deportations. "The interstate application is mainly based on those thousands [of deportations] and numerous violations of human rights during the deportation process, which were carried out last autumn by the Russian authorities," Bokhashvili says.

In Russia, the Foreign Ministry branded the lawsuit a "propagandist fuss" and warned that the case was "bad news" for fragile ties between Georgia and Russia. But for Moscow, which has been facing -- and often losing -- a growing number of human rights cases brought by civilians in the Strasbourg court, the prospect of losing the first-ever interstate case between two post-Soviet states cannot be appealing.

Governments rarely chose to settle scores through the European Court of Human Rights. The court was created to systematize the way human rights complaints are brought against the 46 Council of Europe member states, all of which are party to the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms, adopted by the council in 1950.

While tens of thousands of people file complaints against their countries with the court every year, the court has received only two dozen intergovernment lawsuit applications since its creation in 1959. Only three of these applications have resulted in verdicts.

Interstate cases "are a rather rare phenomenon," says court spokesman Rodrick Liddell. "It's not something that is entered into lightly, to bring an application against a fellow member state of the Council of Europe. One can easily understand why member states may feel considerable reluctance before entering into proceedings which are directed against one of their colleagues in the context of the Council of Europe. It's a rather clumsy weapon, in a sense."

In its first-ever interstate ruling, in 1978, the European Court of Human Rights found Britain guilty of mistreating Irish prisoners suspected of belonging to the Irish Republican Army, an armed group fighting British rule in Northern Ireland. British security forces had used interrogation techniques such as stress positions and sleep deprivation. The court ruled that the techniques could not be classified as torture, but were "inhuman and degrading."

Britain did not pay the prisoners any compensation, but said it would refrain from using similar techniques during interrogations. For Ireland, which did not request compensation, the satisfaction was in Britain's public acknowledgement that it used inappropriate force in its interrogations.

Liddell says that while the European Court can make recommendations about possible settlements following a verdict in an interstate case, final decisions about recompense are left to the two states themselves.

In 2000, the court ruled in favor of Denmark, which accused Turkish authorities of torturing one of its citizens while in detention. Afterward, the court facilitated a friendly settlement between the two governments under which Turkey acknowledged the use of torture and agreed to take part in a Council of Europe police-training program. And in 2001, the court convicted Turkey of a range of violations, including ill-treatment and disappearances, against the population of Northern Cyprus. A settlement for that case is still under discussion.

The publicity surrounding such an interstate lawsuit can be extremely punishing for the defendant country. But Philip Leach, the director of the European Human Rights Advocacy Center at London Metropolitan University and the author of "Taking a Case to the European Court of Human Rights," says diplomatic etiquette shouldn't deter countries from seeking redress in Strasbourg.

"States seem to be very reluctant to take other states to the European court; it's deemed to be an unfriendly act, and so perhaps they're worried about reprisals. It's very rare and I think that's regrettable," Leach says. "I think it's potentially an important part of the system of collective enforcement in Europe. States should be willing and able to challenge other states when there are human rights violations."

Georgia, at any rate, seems as unconcerned about etiquette as it is confident in victory. Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze said last month that his country would lodge a lawsuit against Russia only if it was "100 percent sure" of winning.

Sopio Japaridze, a lawyer at Georgia's Young Lawyers' Association, told RFE/RL's Georgian Service that she thought that European court will rule that violations have taken place. "There are enough documented facts that the rights of Georgians on Russian territory have been violated," she said.

The Young Lawyers' Association has helped 17 Georgian deportees file complaints in the European Court of Human Rights. These individual complaints are attached to the Georgian government's case.

It remains to be seen whether the Strasbourg court will accept the Georgian lawsuit as having sufficient evidence to merit a ruling. If the court agrees to hear the case, it may be three years or more before Tbilisi can expect a verdict.

(RFE/RL Georgian Service correspondent Nona Mchedlishvili contributed to this report.)

Twelve suspected Taliban fighters held as prisoners by the U.S. military in Afghanistan were transferred to the custody of the Afghan government on April 3, Reuters reported. The handover was the start of a program to transfer all Afghan prisoners held by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The prisoners were transferred from custody at Bagram air base, north of Kabul, and will be kept in a newly refurbished bloc of Pol-e Charkhi prison on the eastern outskirts of Kabul, Afghan officials said. The transfer is the first of its kind, according to Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Azimi. Prisoners from Guantanamo will start arriving at Pol-e Charkhi later this month and will be tried at a later date, Azimi said. Human rights groups have criticized the U.S. government for holding suspected Taliban and Al-Qaeda prisoners indefinitely without trial. RR

Militia leaders and other strongmen from Afghanistan's war-torn past announced their participation in a new political coalition on April 3, AFP reported. About 300 people, some of them staunch enemies in the past, gathered at a ceremony to launch the United National Front of Afghanistan with former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani as its leader. The coalition is perhaps the most significant political grouping to emerge since Afghan factions agreed to pursue the path to democracy following the fall of the Taliban government in 2001. The front is made up of various leaders of the armed resistance to the 1979-89 Soviet occupation, many of whom turned on each other in a 1992-96 civil war that was fought in part along ethnic lines. Coalition members include Prince Mustafa Zahir, grandson of ailing former King Mohammad Zahir Shah, and former communists. The front seeks to amend the constitution and calls for direct elections for provincial governors. RR

Germany increased its contribution to the NATO forces in Afghanistan on April 2 by deploying six Tornado jets, "Spiegel Online" reported on April 3. The planes will reportedly be used for reconnaissance in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban insurgency threatens international peacekeepers and the Afghan public. German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung said the Bundeswehr's planned air reconnaissance of Taliban positions will strengthen the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and provide security for troops and civilians aiding with reconstruction as well as for the people of Afghanistan. Germany has refused to send troops into southern Afghanistan -- a stance that has drawn criticism from some ISAF partners. With German public support for its role in ISAF waning, Jung outlined a restricted role for the jets: "The mission is clearly and explicitly reconnaissance." RR

U.S.-led coalition and Afghan troops killed at least 10 Taliban fighters and captured two others on April 3 in an attack on a compound in the southern Helmand Province, Reuters reported. The joint forces came under fire from small arms, mortars, and rocket-propelled grenades as they raided the compound after a tip that a junior Taliban commander was hiding there, according to a coalition statement. The junior commander was believed to have direct ties to Mullah Dadullah, the Taliban's commander of military operations in the south, but the statement did not indicate whether he was killed or captured. In a separate incident in the western province of Farah, NATO and Afghan forces raided a mosque and captured 22 Taliban fighters who were being trained for suicide and other attacks, according to provincial police chief Sayed Aqa Saqib. RR

Iranian First Vice President Parviz Davudi and the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aqazadeh, opened a "logistical unit" on April 3 of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which Russia has helped construct in southern Iran, ISNA reported without detailing the unit's functions. Davudi said the opening shows the plant's steady progress toward completion. Aqazadeh said at a subsequent press conference that there may be a "delay of a month or two" in the date when the power plant will start operating, but he said that -- despite press reports suggesting otherwise -- Iran has the impression "from the Russian side" of a "serious" resolve to complete and operate the plant. He said that Russia's failure to deliver fuel and operate the plant on time would confirm the need for Iran to produce its own nuclear fuel. There has been considerable international pressure on Iran to import fuel for its nuclear program, particularly in light of Western suggestions that fuel-making know-how could help Iran build bombs; the UN Security Council has imposed sanctions on Iran in an effort to force it to halt its fuel-making activities. Aqazadeh said recent delays in fuel delivery by the Russian contractor concerned "cash-flow problems" on the Russian side that are being resolved through "regulation and agreements" made in March, ISNA reported. VS

Atomic Energy Organization head Aqazadeh appeared to have suggested in Tehran before going to Bushehr for the "logistical unit" launch on April 3 that "there is no doubt" Russian delays with the Bushehr plant are "political," according to a report by ISNA the same day. "I do not agree [that] the Russians simply do not wish to deliver us the fuel," Aqazadeh reportedly said. "The operation of the Bushehr power plant and delivery of fuel depend on political issues." He said past delays in construction and fuel delivery to Iran constitute "a reason confirming Iran's rightful argument that it cannot trust other countries to provide its fuel or build its nuclear power stations." Iran is planning to generate 20,000 megawatts of electricity with a network of nuclear power stations that it intends to build in the coming years. Aqazadeh said Tehran and Moscow have discussed sums the Russian contractor claims Iran owes it and a "framework" has been found to "help resolve the Russians' problem on cash flow. So Russia is not asking us for money, indeed it even owes us some money," ISNA reported. Aqazadeh's remarks could suggest that Iran is so far withholding disputed money for the plant: "This money will be paid to the Russians when fuel is transported to Iran." VS

Iranian Vice President Davudi said at the "logistical unit" opening in Bushehr on April 3 that UN resolutions targeting Iran have no effect on the progress of Iran's nuclear program, Radio Farda reported, citing remarks made to Iranian news agencies. Davudi said the installation of centrifuges -- which repeatedly spin and enrich uranium hexafluoride to make nuclear fuel -- is progressing at the Natanz plant and there has been no interruption of this process. The deputy head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization for planning and international affairs, Mohammad Saidi, also said in Bushehr on April 3 that Iran will in the next few months start accepting bids or proposals for the construction of a 2,000-megawatt power plant -- presumably a nuclear facility, Radio Farda reported. The Bushehr plant will produce 1,000 megawatts of electricity if and when it begins to operate, the report added. VS

An unnamed "local official on the island of Kish" in the Persian Gulf said on April 3 that there is no solid information of a U.S. citizen having entered Kish, where reports suggest he may have disappeared in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2007), IRNA reported. The official reportedly dismissed press reports of the disappearance as "without news or administrative value." The source claimed that "unfortunately these types of reports are published with political hostility and have no professional value." The source added that U.S. officials should present documentary evidence on the missing man's identity and flight information -- instead of "making up reports" -- so "competent authorities" can examine the case, IRNA reported. VS

Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labid Abawi announced on April 3 that Iranian diplomat Jalal Sharafi has been released from custody, international media reported the same day. Sharafi, who worked as the second secretary at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, was seized in the capital on February 4 by armed men wearing Iraqi uniforms. Abawi gave no further details on the release of Sharafi, who has reportedly returned to Tehran. An unidentified senior Iraqi official said Sharafi was held by Iraqi intelligence, AP reported. Iranian officials have suggested a U.S. role in the diplomat's detention, the "Los Angeles Times" reported on April 4. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said on April 3 that Sharafi was freed through the joint efforts of Iranian and Iraqi authorities, IRNA reported. KR/VS

Al-Anbar Governorate tribal leaders gathered in the Al-Anbar Awakening Conference announced that they have secured most of the governorate eight months after the conference established the Al-Anbar Salvation Council. The council seeks to drive Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgent groups from the governorate, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on April 3. "We have completely liberated the north of Al-Ramadi. Al-Anbar Salvation Police have been deployed in all areas there. We have managed to arrest large numbers of senior terrorists who were pursued by coalition and Iraqi forces for three years," said Sheikh Hamid al-Hayis, the head of the council. "The only option left for the terrorists is to surrender." Colonel Tariq Dhiyab, a security adviser to the Al-Anbar Awakening Conference, announced on April 3 that services and municipal departments will soon be reopened in the governorate. KR

Brigadier General Qasim Ata, the official spokesman for the Baghdad security plan, announced on April 3 that the curfew on Baghdad will be eased, Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. The curfew will now run from 10 p.m. until 5 a.m. Baghdad was previously under an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew since the Baghdad security operation got under way in February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2007). KR

Harith al-Dari, the head of the Muslim Scholars Association, told reporters at an April 3 press conference in Cairo that no serious dialogue is under way between the United States and Iraqi insurgent groups, MENA reported the same day. "America might have spoken with ineffective parties that have no say whatsoever in the Iraqi resistance," al-Dari surmised. He claimed, however, that the aim of the United States is to spread sectarian strife in Iraq. "All Iraqis are now positive the occupation forces aim at dividing the country [through a] civil war that is meant to destroy them," said al-Dari, who is an outspoken supporter of the insurgency in Iraq. KR

Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Jasim told reporters at an April 3 press briefing in Baghdad that the Iraqi military has now obtained "a large number" of helicopters, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. "The MI-17, which is Russian-made, has arrived. We also have the Huey II, which is U.S.-made. We will also receive the U.S.-made King Air reconnaissance planes," Jasim said. "We hope that the Iraqi helicopters will start playing a role in [military operations] early next month." He said that prior to the recent acquisitions, the military was in dire need of helicopters. KR

Hamid al-Khaffaf, a spokesman for Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, has denied media reports claiming the cleric is opposed to the draft Justice and Accountability Law proposed by President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on April 4. "The New York Times" on April 3 quoted an unidentified aide to al-Sistani as claiming the cleric rejected the draft law, which would revise the current law on de-Ba'athification (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 2 and 3, 2007). Al-Khaffaf called such media reports baseless, adding that any statements not officially issued by al-Sistani's office should not be considered valid. Al-Khaffaf declined to comment specifically on comments by de-Ba'athification Commission head Ahmad Chalabi relating to al-Sistani's opinion on the matter. KR