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Newsline - April 16, 2007

On April 14, hundreds of police and OMON special forces detained over 150 anti-Kremlin activists in a bid to stop an unauthorized March of Dissent rally in Moscow before it began, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Among those briefly detained was Garri Kasparov, the former world chess champion and a leader of the heterogeneous opposition umbrella group Other Russia. That movement seeks to use peaceful protests to persuade the authorities to ensure that the 2007 parliamentary and 2008 presidential elections are free and fair. The authorities' use of violence and their detention of Kasparov attracted widespread negative international media coverage. Among Russian domestic television broadcasters, only the independent REN-TV provided any notable footage of the crackdown. According to RFE/RL's Russian Service, several prominent opposition leaders were either detained or prevented from reaching the rally. It is not clear how many remain in detention or were injured during the protests in Moscow on April 14 and St. Petersburg on April 15. Elsewhere in Moscow on April 14, about 15,000 activists of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi held a March of Agreement in support of President Vladimir Putin. On April 15, riot police in St. Petersburg used violence against peaceful protesters, including children and elderly bystanders, international media reported. About 1,000 people took part in the march, of whom about 100 were detained. Police beat and temporarily detained a German television reporter, who was released only after the German Embassy intervened. Police also detained National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov, who called on Putin to resign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13, 2007, and "Second Day Of Marches In Russia,", April 15, 2007). PM

Self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky was quoted by Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper on April 13 as saying that it is not possible to change the "criminal" regime in Russia "without force, pressure" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13, 2007). On April 14, he told RFE/RL's Russian Service by telephone from London that what he meant by "force" was street protests on the model of those that brought about regime change in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. Berezovsky drew attention to the role in those two countries of "forceful pressure on the authorities from the street and the square in order to change the regime." He stressed that "Putin has created a totalitarian regime. There's no chance of changing that through elections. The only way is to use power." Following the publication of the interview in "The Guardian," several Russian authorities said on April 13 that they will again seek Berezovsky's extradition from Britain, where he has political asylum. On April 16, Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika said he signed "an international warrant for the extradition of...Berezovsky. I have made clear that it is unacceptable for him to use his [asylum] status and his residence [in Britain] as a [base] for provocations," Interfax reported (see "Russia: Tycoon Clarifies Remarks, Calls For Popular Revolution,", April 14, 2007). PM

Surgutneftegaz has sold to the St. Petersburg-based Rossiya Bank a 75 percent stake in Media-Invest, which owns 35 percent of REN-TV, the last remaining independent channel, the daily "Kommersant" reported on April 13. This brings Rossiya's total stake in REN-TV, which is held through its subsidiary Abros Capital, to 70 percent. Rossiya's management is widely regarded to be close to President Putin, and many former mangers have moved on to posts in the cabinet, Gazprom, or other state bodies, RIA Novosti reported. Among them are Minister of Education and Science Andrei Fursenko and Russian Railways (RZD) President Vladimir Yakunin. In December 2006, the Paris-based nongovernmental organization Reporters Without Borders called attention to the extent to which the Russian state and state-run corporations have taken over virtually all of the most important electronic media and much of the print media as well, greatly limiting the amount of independent news and information available to the public (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14 and 19, 2006). PM

Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads the Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), said on April 15 in the Arctic city of Severodvinsk near Arkhangelsk that construction has begun on the world's first "floating nuclear plant" to provide electricity and heat to remote areas. He added that the two small reactors have a total output of 70 megawatts and are completely safe. The $352 million facility is expected to start operating in 2010. Russia has also offered to build similar plants for Indonesia and Namibia. In June 2006, Sergei Obozov, who heads the power-generating consortium Rosenergoatom, said that Russia may set up as many as six power stations at sea, with plans already in the works for the regions of Chukotka, Kamchatka, Krasnoyarsk, and Sakha (formerly known as Yakutia). Kiriyenko said in June 2006 that the floating plants will be safe, adding that "there will be no floating Chernobyl.... [The plants] will be as reliable as the world-famous Kalashnikov assault rifle." Some Western experts believe, however, that a floating nuclear power plant would be inherently dangerous because it could sink or be involved in an accident when being towed from one site to another (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 15 and December 4, 2006, and February 26, 2007). PM

First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who has responsibilities for the industrial and military sectors, presided on April 15 over the launching of the nuclear submarine "Yury Dolgoruki" at the Sevmash shipyard in the Arctic submarine base town of Severodvinsk, RIA Novosti reported. This is the first submarine of the Borey class, which will be armed with Bulava missiles. Two more, the "Aleksandr Nevsky" and "Vladimir Monomakh," are under construction at Severodvinsk. The Bulava is derived from the Topol-M, which is known to NATO as the SS-27. Ivanov hailed the construction of his country's first new-generation submarine in 17 years as a "great deed." On April 6, Ivanov said on a visit to the Far East that the Pacific Fleet will be the most important branch of the Russian Navy, the weekly "Kommersant-Vlast" reported on April 16. He noted that "China, Japan, the United States, and Korea are all located" in the Pacific region, and that "there are absolutely no rules of the game" there. He added that, by contrast, Russia does have clear working relationships with its European neighbors and with NATO. PM

U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Henry Obering, who heads the Missile Defense Agency, was quoted by the Czech daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" on April 14 as saying in Washington recently that "we don't want an arms race with Russia...instead we have been looking for a long time for a way to cooperate" with Moscow on missile defense. He stressed that "we are afraid of the arms race that Iran is engaged in." Obering also noted "increasing understanding" from Berlin regarding missile defense, but nonetheless added that "we are not seeking NATO's approval for this shield. We have said that clearly from the start.... There is no time to divide up the responsibilities for such a defense system." In recent weeks, Russia has sought to use the missile-defense project to split NATO and the EU, Britain's "Financial Times" noted on April 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12, 2007). PM

Ramzan Kadyrov issued instructions on April 15 to First Deputy Prime Minister Adam Delimkhanov and the Interior Ministry and Prosecutor-General's Office to launch an all-out campaign against corruption and the theft of budget funds and to eradicate within the shortest possible time the conditions that facilitate such abuse, the official government website reported. "In a republic...that is trying to get back on its feet after extreme deprivation and suffering, no one with the slightest human decency should even consider the possibility of purloining state funds," Kadyrov argued. In an interview with the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" summarized on March 30 by, Kadyrov claimed that some bureaucrats who are known to have embezzled government funds have already begun to repay what they stole, acknowledging that "we are all mortal and will be called to account before the Almighty." LF

Rasul Kudayev, who was detained in October 2005 on suspicion of having commanded one of the detachments of young militants who attacked police and security facilities in Nalchik on October 13, 2005, has addressed a formal complaint to Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chayka about the torture, physical abuse, and discrimination to which he has been subjected since then, and demanded that criminal charges be brought against his torturers, reported on April 14. On April 13, the Supreme Court of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic prolonged Kudayev's pre-trial detention for a further six months, until October 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 24, 2005 and October 23, 2006). LF

The heads of one Chechen, two U.S.-based, and two European human rights groups have addressed an open letter to UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres and Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev requesting that they launch an investigation into the abduction, torture, and killing of Ruslan Eliyev, a Chechen granted refugee status in Azerbaijan, reported on April 14. Eliyev was snatched on the street in Baku in November 2006; his mutilated body was one of several thrown from a helicopter over the village of Samashki, west of Grozny, in late March. LF

The opposition Aylentrank (Alternative) movement and the Impeachment bloc convened a joint meeting in Yerevan on April 13 to demand the impeachment of President Robert Kocharian and other members of what they termed an oligarchic regime, according to and Arminfo as cited by Groong. Arminfo estimated the number of participants in the protest, for which the municipal authorities granted permission, at 500, and at approximately 1,000. LF

Members of the faction of the divided opposition Democratic Party of Azerbaijan (DPA) that remains loyal to self-exiled former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev met in Baku on April 14 and established a new party named Open Society, of which Quliyev was elected chairman, reported on April 15. The meeting took place at the headquarters of the opposition Musavat party after the municipal authorities declined to make available any suitable alternative venue. The DPA split earlier this year following a protracted and acrimonious power struggle between supporters of Quliyev and of DPA First Deputy Chairman Sardar Calaloglu (see "Azerbaijan: Leadership Struggle Within Opposition Party Nears Climax,", March 8, 2007). LF

The Disciplinary Committee of the Milli Mejlis issued a ruling on April 14 noting that Fazail Agamali, head of the small pro-government Ana Vaten party, was partly to blame for the fracas in the parliament chamber on March 16, between Agamali and wealthy independent deputy Guseyn Abdullayev, reported. Abdullayev was detained three days later and remanded in pre-trial custody on charges of assault, but continues to insist that it was Agamali who struck the first blow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19 and 20, 2007). Abdullayev was transferred on April 14 to a prison hospital with unspecified health problems, reported. LF

Some 3,000 Armenians congregated on April 13 in Akhalkalaki to protest what they consider discrimination by the central Georgian government over the past three years against the overwhelmingly Armenian population of the southern region of Samtskhe-Djavakheti, and Caucasus Press reported. Participants in the protest adopted a resolution that included the following demands: an end to pressure on democratically elected local officials; designating Armenian a state language in the region together with Georgian; hiring local workers to participate in construction projects funded by the U.S. Millennium Challenge program; and Georgia's withdrawal from the planned Kars-Akhalkalaki-Baku railway project, which protest participants termed "anti-Armenian and anti-Georgian, and designed to further only pan-Turkish interests." At the same time, the protest participants called on their co-ethnics in Georgia to demonstrate solidarity and restraint and not to fall for unspecified anticipated "provocations." LF

Opposition Labor party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili called at a press conference in Tbilisi on April 13 for a nationwide strike on April 17 to demand President Mikheil Saakashvili's resignation and the dissolution of parliament, Caucasus Press reported. Natelashvili claimed that the authorities have done nothing over the past three years to alleviate the living conditions of the majority of the population. LF

The parliament of Georgia's unrecognized breakaway republic of South Ossetia adopted a statement on April 13 condemning the passage the previous day by the Georgian parliament in the third and final reading of a bill authored by President Saakashvili on creating a provisional pro-Georgian administration in South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10 and 13, 2007). The South Ossetian statement branded the planned new administration illegal and warned that its creation would aggravate the existing tensions in relations between the central government and the breakaway republic. LF

The Kazakh presidential press office reported on April 12 that Kazakhstan's gross domestic product (GDP) grew more than 10 percent in the first quarter of 2007, AKIpress reported. The report also projected GDP growth to level off to 8.6 percent for 2007, following a 10.6 percent increase last year, and noted an 11 percent expansion in the country's manufacturing sector and a 26 percent increase in nominal wages during the first quarter of the year. RG

Several thousand demonstrators rallied for a fifth day in Kyrgyzstan's capital, Bishkek, on April 15 to demand an early presidential election and constitutional reforms, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIPress reported. Speaking at the rally, former prime minister and leader of the opposition United Front for a Worthy Future, Feliks Kulov, blamed the Kyrgyz authorities for violence that erupted during the previous day's demonstration. Responding to that violence, which involved a clash between demonstrators and unknown assailants, Kyrgyz Interior Minister Bolotbek Nogoibaev warned the crowd that those responsible for provoking the violence will "face justice." The violence erupted after a group of between 20 and 30 men approached the demonstrators and began throwing bottles and stones, slightly injuring several protestors. The demonstration follows similar rallies in Bishkek, with several thousand protestors rallying on April 13 and 14 in front of the National TV and Radio Broadcasting Corporation office, demanding unbiased media coverage of their protest actions. Speaking at a press conference in Bishkek on April 15, United Front leader Kulov demanded that President Kurmanbek Bakiev resign, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. Kulov warned that "the country is on the verge of regional confrontation and is very close to a state that can be called civil war," and demanded "immediate" formation of "a government of national reconciliation together with our parliament." He rejected the demand by some opposition activists for the dissolution of the Kyrgyz parliament, however, explaining that such a move "may cause even further destabilization" in the country, Akipress reported. The Kyrgyz authorities have ordered police to avoid any direct confrontation with the demonstrators and are hoping for an end to the rallies when the parliament opens a debate on April 16 of a set of new constitutional amendments formulated by a special working group led by Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11 and 13, 2007). RG

A Kyrgyz opposition supporter who was participating in opposition demonstrations in Bishkek died on April 14 after being arrested by police in the town of Naryn after his return from Bishkek the previous day, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIpress reported. Local police officials reported that Bektemir Akunov hanged himself in his cell, although his family members strongly disputed that claim, saying the 53-year-old father of eight was not suicidal, according to the website. Akunov was arrested on April 14 in the Naryn town square after "shouting an antigovernment slogan." Naryn town prosecutor Kengeshbek Toktomambetov ordered an immediate forensic examination to determine the cause of death. RG

Topchubek Turgunaliev, the leader of the pro-government For Political Stability and Unity Movement, announced on April 13 that a series of rallies in support of President Bakiev has been canceled, AKIpress reported. The pro-government demonstrations were to be held throughout Kyrgyzstan to counter the continued opposition rallies held in Bishkek against the Bakiev leadership. Turgunaliev failed to explain his decision, saying only that "we canceled our earlier plans to hold rallies, in order not to excite people with some more demonstrations," but warning that "if the opposition takes some illegal steps, an immediate reaction will follow." Turgunaliev, the leader of the Erkindik (Freedom) party, formed the pro-government bloc in late March in an attempt to mediate between the Kyrgyz authorities and opposition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2007). Despite his criticism of Bakiev, Turgunaliev opposes demands for early presidential elections. RG

President Bakiev met in Bishkek on April 13 with visiting Spanish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman in Office Miguel Angel Moratinos, according to AKIpress. Bakiev reportedly stressed his government's commitment to cooperating with the OSCE and noted the success of specific OSCE projects in Kyrgyzstan, including a police assistance program and the presence of the OSCE Diplomatic Academy in Bishkek. Bakiev also commented on the current domestic political tension in Kyrgyzstan, reiterating his support for constitutional reform but asserting that the process must be conducted by parliament and the country's constitutional court and not by "pressure from the streets." Following the meeting with Bakiev, Moratinos met with opposition leader Kulov later in the day, declaring that the OSCE views constitutional reform as "certainly essential and necessary for Kyrgyzstan," according to the website. RG

After arriving in Dushanbe from neighboring Kyrgyzstan, Spanish Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman in Office Moratinos met on April 14 with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon and Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zaripov, Asia-Plus reported. Moratinos praised Tajikistan's "excellent" cooperation with the OSCE and noted that it has contributed to making the Central Asian region more secure. The OSCE official welcomed Tajik government efforts to bolster border security and announced that the OSCE has resolved to establish a new center in Dushanbe for the training of customs officers and border guards in counternarcotics and nonproliferation duties. He also offered OSCE support and expertise to help modify a new draft law on nongovernmental organizations to ensure that it is in line with international standards, and added that the OSCE remains committed to promoting media freedoms, human rights protection and other democratic reforms in Tajikistan. RG

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Evan Feigenbaum arrived in Dushanbe on April 13 to meet with senior Tajik government officials, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Feigenbaum called on the Tajik government to create the proper conditions for independent media and to increase efforts aimed at combating corruption. He further noted the transnational threats posed by terrorism and HIV/AIDS, adding that "the United States seeks to be your partner" and noting that "Central Asia is not an arena of competition for influence by external powers," according to ITAR-TASS. Feigenbaum also announced that the U.S. government will provide Tajikistan with almost $50 million in aid this year in appreciation for Tajikistan's role in supporting coalition forces deployed in neighboring Afghanistan, Avesta reported. RG

Leaders of the Belarusian opposition agreed at an April 12 meeting in Vilnius to hold the Second Congress of Pro-democratic Forces in May, Belapan reported quoting the United Civic Party leader Antol Lyabedzka. Former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who has many times opposed holding the congress, also joined the agreement. "I am glad that Alyaksandr Milinkevich has joined this process," another former presidential candidate, Alyaksandr Kazulin, said on April 13. "Sometimes I was intentionally too critical of him, but I always believed at heart that he and his team would agree to a compromise," Kazulin added. The congress will gather delegates whose status should be earlier confirmed by a special commission, as well as some delegates to the previous congress of opposition forces held in October 2005. AM

The Supreme Court of Belarus on April 13 upheld a decision by the Justice Ministry denying the registration of an alliance uniting three opposition leftist parties, Belapan reported. The alliance called the Union of Left Parties (SLP) was established by the Belarusian Party of Communists, the Belarusian Women's Party "Hope," and the Belarusian Social Democratic Party at a conference in Chernihiv, Ukraine, in December 2006. The conference was held in Ukraine as the founders failed to find an auditorium for the meeting anywhere in Belarus. The Justice Ministry rejected the SLP's registration application on the grounds that Belarusian laws ban political parties from holding any events outside the country. AM

Alyaksandr Lukashenka on April 14-15 visited the Sultanate of Oman at the invitation of Sultan Qaboos bin Said, Belapan reported. Lukashenka was accompanied by a number of Belarusian ministers and senior officials. Parties signed on April 15 a Belarusian-Omani agreement on the avoidance of double taxation and the prevention of income and capital tax evasion. Mikhail Paulau, chairman of the Minsk City Executive Committee, reportedly invited the Muscat ruler to visit Belarus. Paulau said that the authorities of Minsk and Muscat will consider signing an agreement on the establishment of bilateral ties. AM

Viktor Yanukovych said on April 14 that the Constitutional Court of Ukraine should be disbanded if it fails to assess the constitutionality of the presidential decree dissolving the Ukrainian Parliament, Interfax reported. "When will there be a decision by the Constitutional Court? Some say the court will be considering the case for six months. Must we wait for six months? A year? If we see clearly that the Constitutional Court is incapable of passing a decision and it is under the influence of some political forces, we should endorse a decision to disband this Constitutional Court," Yanukovych said. If the Constitutional Court is disbanded, Yanukovych added, a decision on early elections will be endorsed and the Prosecutor-General's Office will investigate why the Constitutional Court was unable to assess the presidential decree. The Constitutional Court intends to start hearings on the presidential decree dissolving the Verkhovna Rada on April 17. AM

The Ukrainian Presidential Secretariat is considering the possibility of incremental funding of early elections to the Verkhovna Rada if the government does not allocate budgetary resources in the near future, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website reported, quoting a source in the Presidential Secretariat. The plan provides for financing early elections, including payment for the printing of ballot sheets and payment for local election commissions' members, after the elections are held. Central Election Commission Chairman Yaroslav Davydovych estimated that elections will cost 340 million hryvnyas ($67 million). The Ukrainian government adopted on April 11 a resolution banning the funding of early elections. President Viktor Yushchenko has contested this resolution in the Constitutional Court, Interfax reported on April 13. AM

On April 12, Serbia's diplomatic offensive to persuade members of the UN's top body to reject independence for Kosova took its foreign minister, Vuk Draskovic, on a three-day visit to South Africa, which currently chairs the UN Security Council. B92 radio quoted Draskovic as saying on April 14 that South African officials made it clear "the principles of territorial integrity and the inviolability of internationally recognized states' borders have to be followed." Draskovic also said "South African officials added that if the principles mentioned were circumvented, the UN Security Council would for the first time in its history be promoting a new state within another state's territory against its will." AG

Serbian officials are due to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on April 18-19 and, before that, with China's deputy prime minster, Hui Liangyu. The Serbian government's press office said on April 11 that Hui is due to pay a visit to Belgrade on April 17. Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing discussed Kosova with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on April 15, AP reported the same day. Details of the discussion were not disclosed. China, a veto-wielding member of the Security Council, is highly sensitive to the possibility of separatism at home, and joined Serbia and Russia in persuading the council to agree to dispatch a fact-finding delegation to Kosova to assess the situation, even though UN special envoy to Kosova Martti Ahtisaari spent more than a year in talks before recommending independence for the UN-administered region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5 and March 8, 2007). "Our biggest chance, which may sound strange, lies with the UN Security Council's non-permanent members," Foreign Minister Draskovic told B92 on April 9. "It is enough for six of them to abstain from voting, and then no veto is needed, neither from Russia nor from China." AG

In two separate operations, NATO-led troops and Kosovar police have found caches of weapons in the homes of ethnic Serbs and ethnic Albanians, local media reported on April 13 and 14. In the biggest operation, Kosovar police arrested four people in connection with investigations into an assassination attempt on April 11 on the head of Kosova's telecommunications regulatory body, bringing the total of arrests in the case to seven. Three other men were swiftly arrested near the site of the rocket-grenade attack, just south of the capital, Prishtina. This is the second attempt on the life of the regulator, Anton Berisha, in a matter of weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2007). A police bodyguard was injured in the attack. Police found what AFP described as a large quantity of weapons and explosives during the raid, which was conducted on April 12. The motive for the attack is unclear, but Berisha played a critical role in a controversial decision to award a mobile-phone license to a Slovenian operator after the winner of the tender failed to raise the promised price (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2007). Later on April 14, a Swedish contingent of NATO's force in Kosova (KFOR) detained two Serbs after a raid, Radio-Television Serbia and B92 reported the same day. They found an undisclosed quantity of weapons in the building in an ethnically mixed village close to Kosovo Polje. AG

Hungary has sought to distance itself from a diplomatic row between Serbia and Germany by saying it has no claim on Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina, the Hungarian newspaper "Magyar Nemzet" reported on April 13. Germany's ambassador in Belgrade, Andreas Zobel, sparked a controversy on April 10 by suggesting Hungary might question Serbia's sovereignty over Vojvodina if Serbia refuses to accept Kosova's independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). A spokesperson for Hungary's Foreign Ministry, Zsuzsa Matrai, told "Magyar Nemzet" that Hungary strictly separates the issue of Kosova from the status of Vojvodina. Zobel's comments have been downplayed by the German Embassy as being "misunderstood," and Zobel has apologized for his "vague" statements, but the deputy chairman of the German parliament's Foreign Relations Committee has been highly critical of Zobel. Gert Weisskirchen told B92 on April 13 that "in this case the German government is not accountable" for Zobel's statement, which he described as "ludicrous" and "irresponsible." Weisskirchen added that "Belgrade reacted in a moderate and sensible manner," and he called on Zobel to "apologize to the Serbian and German public for his display of irresponsibility." Serbia has called Zobel's comments "the rudest interference in Serbia's internal affairs" and lodged an official protest on April 12. B92 said Zobel may be summoned to Berlin to explain his statements to the Bundestag's Foreign Relations Committee. The dispute has additional resonance because a German diplomat is currently the international community's most powerful official in Kosova, as head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK). AG

Bosnia-Herzegovina and Montenegro on April 13 became the latest countries to sign an agreement with the EU easing their citizens' entry to the EU, local and international media reported the same day. The agreements with Bosnia and Montenegro -- and with Albania, which had announced the agreement on April 10 -- were signed in the Croatian capital by EU Justice Commissioner Franco Frattini (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12, 2007). "It is a very important political step forward because it is not only an important step on the path to the EU...but it is also adoption of a free-travel regime for Western Balkans citizens," Frattini was quoted as saying by Croatia's Hina news agency. The new visa regime will come into force on January 1. Some visa applicants will use a simplified process and processing charges will be reduced, with some people being exempted from paying. The agreement also addresses the handing of illegal immigrants. AG

EU Justice Minister Frattini added that Macedonia has concluded talks on easing visas restrictions, international media reported on April 13. The Macedonian news agency MIA reported on April 13 that, in a meeting in Brussels on April 12, officials from Skopje secured simplified requirements for 20 categories of travelers and for multiple-entry visas. MIA said "complete liberalization of the visa regime" will become the subject of talks when Macedonia kicks off preaccession talks with the EU. Macedonia hopes preaccession negotiations will start in 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 9, 15, and 20, and March 26, 2007). Similar talks between the EU and Serbia on visas stumbled on April 11 over the issue of illegal immigrants (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12, 2007). In related news, the website reported on April 13 that Macedonia will in April become one of the first non-EU countries to give its population high-security travel documents, with 1.5 million electronic passports expected to be issued between the autumn of 2007 and the end of 2009. AG

The prominent Serbian columnist Dejan Anastasijevic was the target of a grenade attack late on April 13, local and international media reported the following day. The grenade exploded on the ledge of a window in his flat in central Belgrade. Anastasijevic, his wife, and his daughter were at home at the time, but no one was injured. AP reported Anastasijevic as calling the incident a "terrorist attack," Police have given no indication of a possible motive. Anastasijevic, who writes on security matters for the weekly "Vreme," has a long record of speaking out on potentially dangerous issues. In the era of President Slobodan Milosevic, he wrote openly about crimes committed during the Balkan wars, subsequently giving evidence against the now-deceased Serbian leader before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). In recent days, he has criticized as too lenient a decision by Serbia's war crimes tribunal not to pass the maximum sentence on Serbian paramilitaries involved in the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2007). In another recent case of violence directed against Serbian journalists, Dinko Gruhonjic, the head of the Independent Journalist Association of Vojvodina and the head of the Vojvodina branch of the news agency Beta, received anonymous death threats via a neo-Nazi website in late March. Police in Novi Sad, the country's second-largest city, on April 7 arrested a suspect in connection with that case. AG

Ivan Cicak, a columnist with the Croatian daily "Jutarnji List," reported on April 15 that he has received a death threat from the brother of Ante Gotovina, a Croatian general currently awaiting trial at the ICTY for war crimes, Hina reported on April 15. Cicak said Boris Gotovina's threat, conveyed in a phone call, followed the publication on April 14 of a column that he entitled "Hero Defending Himself by Accusing Fellow Fighters." Gotovina, a one-time member of the French Foreign Legion, is considered a hero by many Croatians for his role in the 1991-95 war with Serbia and his commanding role in Operation Storm, during which Croatian troops recaptured land seized by Croatian Serbs. The ICTY alleges Gotovina's troops committed war crimes against Krajina Serb civilians during the campaign. Gotovina's indictment by the ICTY in July 2001 and subsequent extradition to the Hague-based tribunal by Spanish police in December 2005 prompted large, repeated, and stormy public demonstrations in Croatia, while Croatia's failure to hand him over to face trial set back its bid for EU membership, arguably by years. AG

In an interview with TV Hayat, a senior editor on Bosnian public television, Amir Zukic, on April 14 accused the station's directors of sacking him for his stance in a dispute with the Bosnian Serb authorities. Amir, who was the station's news editor and the editor of a flagship political program "Public Secret," reported that the station's new director, Milenko Vockic, dismissed him on April 13 because he had "said something" on "Public Secret" that the board of governors disagreed with. Zukic traced the dispute back to a clash with Bosnian Serb leaders earlier in the year. Bosnian Serb leaders boycotted the national television channel for several weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, and March 30, 2007). Zukic said that the station's board of governors "endorsed the decision of the Repubika Srpska government, saying that everything they said was right. This meant that they endorsed the view of the Repubika Srpska government; that is, that the television was no good, that its editorial policy was biased and all those things." Zukic said that subsequently the board "tried to contribute in all possible ways to having me decide on my own to leave the television or say what was actually happening -- which I did -- in order for them to remove me, which they did." In a "Public Secret" program aired on April 12, Zukic had said the board of governors was exerting "more subtle pressures" through "the management structure" with the same aim: "to deprive the television's development of any meaning and to ensure political and ethnic, instead of professional, criteria are paramount. Goodbye to the public broadcaster; welcome to a regime-run state television." The station's board has denied that the decision was political, but TV Hayat quoted a deputy ombudsman for the media, Mehmed Halilovic, as being skeptical about that assertion. The station's former director-general, Drago Maric, was sacked on January 16 on the grounds that he had "lost control in his management of the media and of producing undesirable results in relations within the media," a statement taken as a reference to the row with the Bosnian Serb authorities. AG

Seven of Serbia's national ice-hockey team were attacked in central Zagreb on April 13, Hina reported the following day. Though set upon by a group reportedly numbering 20 young men plus a number of bystanders, none of the hockey players are reported to have been hurt. The Serbian team was in Zagreb to take part in a lower division of ice hockey's annual world championship. Violence has been commonplace at sporting encounters between the two countries since sporting contacts between Serbia and Croatia resumed after the war in 1991-95. However, in most instances, the violence has been between fans. AG

Leaders of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church on April 14 put the focus of attention on the role of the Montenegrin government at an extraordinary meeting devoted to its property dispute with the Serbian Orthodox Church, local media reported the same day. The head of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Mihailo, lambasted the Montenegrin government for, in his view, colluding with the Serbian Orthodox Church in denying the Montenegrin Orthodox Church's members access to disputed buildings, saying, in comments reported on April 15 by Radio Montenegro, that "I am afraid that an alliance between the Montenegrin authorities and the manifestly criminal Serbian Orthodox Church was forged quite some time ago on foundations that are not exactly dear to God." The church's leaders said its priests will perform services in every church listed at an upcoming meeting, on April 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13, 2007). The Montenegrin Orthodox Church argues that it is the successor to the historic church of Montenegro before the emergence of Yugoslavia, and there can be no genuine Montenegrin independence without the establishment of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church. However, the Montenegrin Orthodox Church -- like the Macedonian Orthodox Church -- is not recognized by other Orthodox communities, and remains only a nongovernmental organization, as the authorities in Belgrade registered it in 1993, at a time when Montenegro and Serbia were part of the same state. AG

Dimitrije Kalezic, a professor of theology in Belgrade, told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Service on April 13 that the Montenegrin Orthodox Church is "not a church at all. They only call themselves a church, and even this should be between quotation marks. If they are a church, where is their 'tomos' of Orthodoxy [decree of recognition as an independent Orthodox church]? They have only been noted in the police registry and exist as a civic society within the framework of the Republic of Montenegro." His argument highlights questions about the role of the state in disputes between Orthodox Churches. The Serbian government has allowed only the Serbian Orthodox Church to operate in Serbia, arguing that Orthodox practice allows only one Orthodox church to operate in a country. The Montenegrin government, by contrast, has largely stayed above the fray, though President Filip Vujanovic has promised to "protect the property" of the Serbian Orthodox Church (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13, 2007). Meanwhile, the head of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Mihailo, invoked the Montenegrin constitution in his call on April 14 for support from the government. However, Montenegro is currently only in the process of debating the constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9 and March 12 and 15, 2007). One of the legal experts who drafted the proposed -- and controversial -- constitution, Mijat Sukovic, told the Serbian news agency Beta on April 15 that a state should regulate the legal status of a Church in a secular context, disregarding its status in the Orthodox communion, and he accused Montenegro's institutions of "evading the duty to legally define property rights over Orthodox churches, monasteries, and other [buildings] in the republic." AG


A video released by the Taliban on April 14 shows two recently kidnapped French aid workers pleading for their lives, Reuters reported the same day. In the video, a French woman who identifies herself as Celine is seen pleading for the French government to meet Taliban requests, saying she and her coworker will be beheaded and their heads sent back to France if the demands are not met. The video also shows a man with a gun standing over three Afghan hostages, who are crouching and blindfolded. Arab news channel Al-Arabiya broadcast the videotape on April 15, but the hostages' voices were inaudible, AFP reported. France confirmed that the video shows the two kidnapped French nationals and says it has not received demands from the kidnappers; the two were kidnapped on April 4 with three Afghan colleagues while working for Terre d'Enfance in southern Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5, 2007). JC

A suicide bomber blew himself up at the gate of a border police base in eastern Afghanistan on April 14, killing nine people, "The New York Times" reported on April 15. The victims reportedly included one civilian. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which took place midmorning outside the gate of the Khost border-police base in the southern Paktiya Province. Initial reports said eight people were killed; but one policeman later died in the public hospital in Khost, according to the hospital director, Gul Mohammadin Mohammadi. A week earlier, a suicide bombing in Kabul killed six people. The Taliban have vowed to carry out more suicide attacks as part of a larger spring offensive. JC

German tornado jets started reconnaissance flights over Afghanistan on April 15 in their first mission in support of NATO-led forces, Deutsche Welle reported the same day. German military spokesman Hartmut Beilmann said two of the six aircraft based on Camp Marmal near Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan participated in the initial flights without complications. The mission of the tornado jets is to search out Taliban positions in three southern provinces where NATO troops are deployed. The terms of the six-month mission stipulate that the jets will not fly low-level sorties and will not be used to strike at Taliban positions. The mission is controversial in Germany due to public fears that it could trigger terrorist attacks at home and draw German forces into future combat operations. The majority of German troops in Afghanistan are engaged in infrastructure projects and provincial reconstruction teams in the relatively peaceful north of the country. JC

A suicide car bomber targeted the employees of a private security firm operating in the Spin Boldak district of Kandahar Province in southern Afghanistan on April 15, killing four Afghans working for the company and wounding another, AP reported on April 15. The security firm, U.S. Protection and Investigations, reported that two employees were killed and another wounded when the attacker blew himself up while riding a motorcycle near a convoy. The differing death tolls could not be immediately reconciled. The attack occurred on a main highway in the Spin Boldak district, where the company was providing security for road-construction projects, said Mohammad Asif Khan, a district police officer. JC

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged Iran on April 14 to lift its ban on the Hamedan Teachers Association, a local teaching union, and release members arrested for activities relating to the recent wage protests of Iranian teachers, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 9 and April 5, 2007). The Hamedan association is one of 34 local teaching unions affiliated with the nationwide Iran Teachers Guild Association or Iran Teachers Association (Kanun-i senfi-yi moalleman-i Iran), stated. HRW Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson stated on April 14 that Iran is violating its own laws, as well as international rights treaties it has signed, by harassing teachers. Iran should "immediately release the teachers in Hamedan and cease its lawless and arbitrary campaign" against teaching unions, she said. The National Council of Teachers Associations, a coordinating body, has reportedly called another teachers' protest on May 2, reported. Separately, 30 legislators are proposing a parliamentary interpellation of Education Minister Mahmud Farshidi, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 16. An interpellation debate could lead to Farshidi's dismissal; one of the demands of protesting teachers has been his resignation. The legislators are to formally present their motion to the parliamentary presidium on April 17, after which, according to parliamentary procedures, it must arrange for the minister's appearance in parliament in the following 10 days, the daily added. VS

Prominent lawyers Mohammad Ali Dadkhah and Shirin Ebadi have filed a lawsuit against Vice President and head of the Iran Cultural Heritage Organization Esfandiar Rahim-Mashai and Energy Minister Parviz Fattah, in a dispute over the filling of the Sivand Dam in southern Iran, which activists say will damage priceless archeological sites in the vicinity, ILNA reported on April 14. The case has been referred to Branch 76 of the Tehran Penal Court, Dadkhah told ILNA that day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2007). The two lawyers were apparently trying to stop the government's reported move to start filling the dam. Dadkhah said he hopes the court decides swiftly on the matter. A member of the parliamentary Culture Committee Amir Reza Khadem told Mehr news agency on April 13 that the Heritage Organization assured the committee that the dam will not be filled until the committee is given a definitive report on its impact and on remaining archeological excavations nearby and the committee is then given its opinion. He said reported moves to fill the dam contradict this agreement. VS

The Iranian parliament's research center said on April 15 that removing "some of the concerns" of Saudi Arabia over Iran and improving ties with the kingdom can improve Iran's bargaining position with Western states, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 16. The center said Iran should continue to improve ties with Saudi Arabia and "strengthen the confidence building trend," and observed that better ties would serve Iranian national interests. The center suggested joint projects and investment by the two states in ballistic and nuclear programs, as one means of removing Saudi "concerns" about Iran. Other proposals include investigating the feasibility of mutual nonaggression pacts and defensive and security cooperation, interaction between Shi'a and Sunni clerics and theologians from the two states, and cooperating "in areas such as fighting terrorism, Al-Qaeda and Salafist forces," the daily reported. A former deputy foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Larijani, said in Tehran on April 15 that Iran might not be able to resolve its differences with Saudi Arabia immediately but it can cooperate with Saudi Arabia to "manage" disagreements, and this will "benefit both countries," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 16. VS

Parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel said in parliament in Tehran on April 15 that Iran condemns the most recent bombings in Iraq and the apparent surge in violence, and he urged U.S. forces to leave so the situation might improve there, ILNA reported. "Even if we were to accept that the Americans are not involved in terrorist operations in Iraq, their departure will at the very least have the benefit of depriving the terrorists of their pretext," he said. Haddad-Adel said the "root" of "all these problems for Iraq is in the decisions and interferences of the superpowers, especially America." The Americans "must be certain that if they leave Iraq, the situation...would certainly not deteriorate from what it is [but rather] improve," ILNA reported. VS

Some 4 million people worldwide were displaced in 2006, with the Iraq conflict and Israel's conflict with Lebanese Hizballah accounting for nearly half of the new displacements, the Norwegian Refugee Council's Internal Displacement Monitoring Center said in an April 16 report. More people are currently forced to flee their homes in Iraq than in any other country, the center noted. More than 700,000 Iraqis have been internally displaced since February 2006. "The massive scale of forced displacement in recent months adds to the dramatic worsening of the humanitarian situation in Iraq," noted Tomas Colin Archer, secretary-general of the refugee council. "After centuries of cohabitation among different religious and ethnic communities, the current wave of displacements leads to increased separation and could result in a permanent redrawing of the ethnic and religious map of Iraq," he added. There are currently 25 million internally displaced people worldwide. This is twice the number of refugees who have managed to cross an international border, which entitles them to protection and assistance under the 1951 Refugee Convention. The internally displaced fall under the protection of their governments. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) will host a conference on Iraqi refugees and displaced persons on April 17-18 in Geneva. KR

Six government ministers aligned with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr resigned their positions on April 16, international media reported. The resignations, which were expected for several days, come in response to a refusal by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki to meet al-Sadr's demand to set a timetable for the withdrawal of multinational forces. At least 15,000 al-Sadr supporters rallied in the holy city of Al-Najaf last week demanding U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq. "For the public benefit and lifting the suffering of the patient Iraqi people...we found it necessary to issue an order to the ministers of the Sadrist bloc to withdraw immediately from the Iraqi government," said Nasir al-Rubay'i, reading a statement from al-Sadr's office, Reuters reported. The resignations are not likely to threaten al-Maliki's position at least in the near term. Al-Sadr has been in hiding for several months and is thought to be in Iran. Al-Maliki was reportedly planning to replace at least some of the six ministers under an anticipated cabinet reshuffle. KR

Hasan al-Zarqani, the foreign relations officer for al-Sadr's office, explained the cleric's position in an April 15 interview with Al-Jazeera television. Al-Zarqani said that while al-Sadr and his supporters recognize that an immediate U.S. withdrawal would cause problems in Iraq, "we also believe that the government should sincerely schedule" a pullout. Al-Zarqani said such a plan would help account for possible power vacuums. The plan would also provide transparency and help ministers and parliamentarians formulate their support for the government. He said the current situation leaves matters open-ended, and interweaves the "occupation's will" with the government's leaving political groups unable to decide which decisions to support or oppose. KR

Some 3,000 Iraqis took part in a peaceful demonstration in Al-Basrah on April 16 demanding the governor provide electricity, water, and waste disposal. The government had ordered the demonstration canceled on April 15 following reported threats to assassinate Governor Muhammad al-Wa'ili, Iraqi media reported the same day. The issue was raised in a parliamentary session in which Al-Fadilah Party Deputy Hasan al-Shammari said there were plans by certain political parties and religious figures to assassinate the governor, who is also a member of the party. Al-Shammari accused the government of failing to intervene in the issue. Meanwhile, Muqtada al-Sadr's aide Nasir al-Rubay'i denied the cleric was behind either the planned demonstration or the assassination threats. The debate prompted parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani to convene a meeting with representatives of the Shi'ite political parties in an effort to defuse tensions. Al-Mashhadani, a Sunni Arab, urged that any disputes be resolved through dialogue rather than violence. The cabinet's ministerial security committee also convened a meeting chaired by Prime Minister al-Maliki to address the security situation in Iraq's second city. Al-Fadilah Party withdrew from the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance last month; the party has been at odds with the larger Shi'ite parties for several months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007). KR

The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq claimed in an April 14 Internet posting that it has captured 20 Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry personnel. The group gave the government 48 hours to meet its demands before it carries out its own judgment against the men. The demands included releasing Sunni Muslim women it claims are held captive in Interior Ministry facilities, and handing over ministry employees it claims participated in the rape of Sabrin al-Janabi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). It also demanded the "handing over all the [ministry] forces who killed or displaced our people in Tal Afar and participated in the rape of Sunni Arab women there" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2007). The statement included pictures of the alleged captives. The Islamic State of Iraq set similar demands when it abducted 18 Interior Ministry personnel in March. It later killed the men (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2 and 5, 2007). KR