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Newsline - April 23, 2007


RUSSIA WON'T BUDGE ON MISSILE DEFENSE
Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said after meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates in Moscow on April 23 that the deployment of the proposed U.S. missile-defense system in Europe "is a serious destabilizing factor that may have a significant impact on regional and global security," Interfax reported. He added that "Russia's stance on the issue remains unchanged." U.S. officials have gone to great pains in recent weeks to show that the proposed missile-defense system is defensive in character and could not possibly pose a threat to Russia. Gates repeated those points in Moscow, saying that both countries face threats from "potential aggressors" in the Middle East and Asia. Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote on April 23 that Gates went to Moscow with several proposals designed to make missile defense more transparent and acceptable to his hosts. Those ideas included joint development of missile-defense technology, sharing of intelligence information on potential threats to either country, possible harmonizing of the two countries' missile defense, and possible Russian inspections of the missile-defense installations in Poland and the Czech Republic, provided those countries agree. The U.S. proposals were designed to reassure not just Russia but also some German and other European politicians who are sensitive to Moscow's concerns, the daily added. Washington maintains, however, that it will not grant Russia a "veto over the project." Some Western media suggested that Russia is using the issue to try to promote splits within NATO and the EU and to pave the way for new arms projects it has already decided on (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). PM

EU AND RUSSIA FAIL TO BREAK IMPASSE ON TRADE
EU Health Commissioner Markos Kyprianou and Russian Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeyev discussed Russia's ban on imports of Polish agricultural products at the Cypriot resort of Limassol on April 21-22, but failed to reach an agreement on lifting it, international media reported. The Russian ban has led Poland to block talks between the EU and its main energy supplier on a new comprehensive cooperation pact to replace the current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which runs out later this year. Russia says its ban is motivated by health concerns, while Poland maintains it is political and consequently illegal. Several Russian analysts have suggested that Russia is in no hurry to end the impasse because it prefers bilateral agreements with individual EU member states over a comprehensive treaty with the bloc as a whole. Germany, which currently holds the EU's rotating chair, hopes to use a new comprehensive agreement to commit Russia to conduct a more transparent energy policy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18 and February 6, 2007). On April 23, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana said in Brussels that he hopes the dispute over Polish agricultural exports will be resolved before the Russia-EU summit on May 18. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that EU foreign ministers will discuss with their Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, on April 23 how to launch talks on a new comprehensive treaty. Polish Foreign Minister Anna Fotyga said she is not optimistic about any breakthrough. PM

RUSSIA WANTS BIGGER SHARE OF URANIUM-ENRICHMENT MARKET
On April 20, Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads the Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), and First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov discussed at the Kovrov Mechanical Factory northeast of Moscow the possibility of setting up a major state-run company to design, produce, and launch gas centrifuges, the daily "Kommersant" reported on April 23. The state-run company Tekhsnabeksport, which sells uranium and uranium-enrichment services, recently bought the plant in Kovrov, which is one of Russia's two centrifuge-producing facilities. Rosatom plans to quadruple production there over the next several years. Russia's current share of the world centrifuge market is under 40 percent. President Vladimir Putin is expected to sign very soon a decree placing all Russian nuclear production under a single entity, Atomenergoprom, the daily added. The proposed projects are in keeping with the trend under Putin for key branches of the economy to be concentrated in large state-run "vertical" corporations, which Andrei Illarionov, who is a former Putin economic adviser, and the "Financial Times" have described as a "corporate state" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2006, and March 23, 2007). Also in Kovrov on April 20, Ivanov said that Russia will not sell enrichment technology to Iran, ITAR-TASS reported. "Exports [of such technology] to Iran are completely ruled out," he added. PM

HAVE RUSSIA AND IRAN MADE A BREAKTHROUGH ON NUCLEAR REACTOR CONSTRUCTION?
Irina Yesipova, who is a spokeswoman for the Atomstroieksport company, said in Moscow on April 22 that Russian and Iranian officials have signed a protocol on guaranteeing payments for the funding of the Bushehr nuclear power plant, which Russia is building for Iran, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11 and 18, 2007, and "Russia: Why Is The Kremlin Retreating From Bushehr," rferl.org, March 23, 2007). She added that more talks will be held in Tehran in May to deal with additional, unspecified issues. PM

POLICE DETAIN, RELEASE RIGHTS ACTIVISTS IN MOSCOW
Two prominent Russian human rights activists complained of heavy-handed tactics after police detained them and three other people on April 22, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Lev Ponomaryov, head of the For Human Rights movement, told RFE/RL by mobile phone from a police station that he and four others were detained after being "forcefully seized." He charged that OMON special police forces blocked him, his wife, and three other people on a busy street and "when we tried to pass by, without explanation they caught us and dragged us into a bus." Police released the five three hours later. Ponomaryov said that the police told him that he was accused of heading an illegal procession and shouting: "Shame to OMON." Lyudmila Alekseyeva, chairwoman of the Moscow branch of the Helsinki Group human rights organization, criticized the detentions as the "crudest violation of human rights." She argued that the activists were neither carrying posters nor chanting any slogans. PM

PUTIN'S RIGHTS ADVISER WANTS INTERIOR MINISTER SACKED
Ella Pamfilova, head of the presidential Council for the Support and Development of Civil Society, said in an interview with the daily "Kommersant" on April 23 that Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev should resign because of the police's heavy-handed response to recent opposition protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 16, and 17, 2007). She believes that police illegally beat up and detained protesters during the "March of Dissent" rallies in Moscow and St. Petersburg on April 14 and 15, respectively. The State Duma is expected to form a commission on April 24 to investigate police abuse during the rallies. Some Russian dailies suggested recently that one should not have unnecessarily high hopes for that commission. Those papers added nonetheless that the appointment of the new body is better than no official acknowledgement of the problem at all. PM

DEMOGRAPHIC, EMPLOYMENT PROGNOSIS UNVEILED
The Economic Development and Trade Ministry published on April 18 a series of demographic and economic predictions for the period 2008-2010, regnum.ru reported on April 19. The ministry foresees a decline in the population of all seven federal districts, with that decline most pronounced in central Russia, despite immigration, and least pronounced in the North Caucasus and in Siberia. The highest out-migration is predicted from the Far East Federal District, with Moscow and St. Petersburg and the surrounding districts, and also Tatarstan and Sverdlovsk Oblast, continuing to be the most attractive places for labor migrants. Moscow and St. Petersburg are likely to have the lowest level of unemployment by 2010, and Ingushetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, the Tyva Republic, and the Koryak Autonomous Okrug the highest. Overall unemployment is predicted at 6.8 percent of the able-bodied population in 2010, with the younger generation accounting for one-third of that percentage. The most sought-after specialists in 2010 will be engineers. In 2010, the average monthly wage is predicted to reach 20,800 rubles ($806.9), and the average annual pension 5,105 rubles. Some 15 million people, or 10.7 percent of the total population, will still live below the official poverty level, a decline from the 16 percent registered in 2006. LF

ARMENIAN PREMIER HONORS SLAIN PARLIAMENT SPEAKER
Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian and parliament speaker Tigran Torosian participated on April 20 in the formal opening in Yerevan of a museum to honor Karen Demirchian, former Communist Party of Armenia First Secretary, opposition presidential candidate and parliament speaker, who was shot dead together with seven other senior officials in the Armenian parliament in October 1999, Noyan Tapan reported. Sarkisian described Demirchian, who would have celebrated his 75th birthday on April 17, as "one of the outstanding figures of post-Soviet Armenia," according to A1+ as cited by Groong. Demirchian's son Stepan now heads the opposition People's Party of Armenia which his father founded in May 1998. LF

FORMER AZERBAIJANI HEALTH MINISTER JAILED ON CORRUPTION CHARGES
Azerbaijan's Court for Grave Crimes on April 20 found former Health Minister Ali Insanov guilty on charges of large-scale embezzlement, abuse of his official position, and giving and receiving bribes, and sentenced him to 11 years' imprisonment with confiscation of his property, Azerbaijani media reported. Seven other people, mostly ministry employees and including a nephew of Insanov, received prison terms ranging from three to nine years; three more received suspended sentences. Insanov was arrested in October 2005 on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership; whether and when he will face trial on those charges remains unclear. LF

AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION JOURNALIST SENTENCED
Baku's Yasamal District Court on April 20 sentenced journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, editor of the newspapers "Realny Azerbaijan" and "Gyundelik Azerbaycan," to 2 and 1/2 years' imprisonment on charges of libel, Azerbaijani media reported. The charges against Fatullayev stem from a formal suit brought by the Committee to Protect the Rights of Displaced Persons in the name of survivors of the February 1992 killings by Armenian forces of hundreds of residents of the village of Hodjaly. Western journalists who visited the site of the massacre say that some bodies were mutilated. In articles elucidating the background to those killings, which Azerbaijani officials consider genocide, Fatullayev quoted an Armenian military officer as saying that when the Armenian forces closed in on the village they left an avenue for the civilian population to flee unharmed. The court found that assertion insulted the villagers. In 1999, chairman of the commission on human rights and national minorities of the parliament of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic quoted Ayaz Mutalibov, who in February 1992 was Azerbaijani president, as having told the Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" two months after the killings that the Armenians indeed announced before the attack that they would leave a corridor for Azerbaijani civilians to leave the village (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 1999). Fatullayev wrote for the opposition journal "Monitor" until the murder of its editor Elmar Huseynov two years ago. Azerbaijani journalists have expressed shock and outrage at his conviction, which is widely viewed as part of an ongoing campaign to intimidate or even silence completely media outlets critical of the country's leadership. Fatullayev's lawyer Isakhan Ashurov told day.az on April 21 that Fatullayev will appeal the "illegal, unfounded, and unjust" sentence. LF

GEORGIAN FOREIGN MINISTER TAKES ISSUE WITH SENIOR RUSSIAN OFFICIAL
Gela Bezhuashvili convened a press conference in Tbilisi on April 22 at which he rejected as unfounded criticisms of democracy in Georgia expressed by Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov in an April 19 interview with the "Financial Times," Interfax and Georgian media reported. In that interview, Ivanov referred sarcastically to Georgia and Ukraine as "beacons of democracy," where democracy is in fact "undermined" and the overall situation is "a total mess." Bezhuashvili in turn drew unfavorable comparisons between Georgia and Russia, pointing out that the Georgian police, unlike their Russian counterparts, do not extort money from immigrants, and that "journalists and members of the political opposition are not assassinated or poisoned in Georgia." LF

GEORGIAN COURT RELEASES JAILED ABKHAZ OFFICIAL
The Kutaisi Appeals Court has ruled that Pridon Chakaberia, an Abkhaz local official apprehended in December and sentenced two months later to 10 years' imprisonment on drug possession charges he denies, should be released, Caucasus Press reported on April 23 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2006 and February 16, 2007). In return, the Abkhaz authorities will reportedly drop charges of illegally entering Abkhazia brought against three Georgian students arrested in early March, and whose trial was due to open in Sukhum(i) on April 23, Caucasus Press reported. On March 28, Caucasus Press quoted de facto Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh as having proposed releasing the students in exchange for Chakaberia. Meanwhile on April 22, Georgian media reported that the Abkhaz authorities have deployed some 100 troops to the unrecognized republic's southernmost Gali district, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. Meeting in Moscow on April 21, Bagapsh and Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, issued a joint statement warning that ongoing efforts by the Georgian leadership to legitimize what they termed "puppet governments" in the respective conflict zones could lead to the withdrawal of the de facto governments from talks on seeking a solution to the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflicts, Interfax reported. The two leaders also warned that Georgia's single-minded aspiration to qualify for NATO membership could similarly preclude a political settlement of the two conflicts. LF

KAZAKH MEDIA MINISTER REACHES OUT TO PRESS
Culture and Information Minister Ermukhamet Ertysbaev told participants in the Eurasian Media Forum in Almaty on April 21 that, in response to criticism from the OSCE, the government has withdrawn a bill that would have imposed licensing requirements on publishing houses, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Ertysbaev also noted that proposed legislation to regulate the Internet has been withdrawn, Khabar reported. Ertysbaev said, "The political regulation of the Internet, an attempt to control it, is absolutely impossible." The authorities are ready for dialogue with the press, Ertysbaev stressed. He said, "We are ready to introduce a moratorium for 'distorting the truth,' to free journalists from criminal persecution, which is unfortunately envisaged by our legislation and to take a number of steps in the area of making the legislation more liberal. However, reciprocal movements and partnership relations of the whole journalistic community are required." DK

KYRGYZ PRIME MINISTER BLAMES OPPOSITION FOR VIOLENCE
In remarks broadcast by Kyrgyz TV on April 20, Almaz Atambaev blamed the opposition United Front for a Worthy Future For Kyrgyzstan (United Front) and its leader, former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, for unrest at a demonstration in Bishkek the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). Atambaev said that Kulov "brings [young people] out onto the square, warms them up for 15 minutes, and then he himself disappears quietly. He disappears quietly, leaving those whom he brought there. This is called a provocation." Speaking to journalists on April 21, Kulov accused the authorities of instigating violence and said that the demonstration's organizers were not involved in the unrest, akipress.org reported. Kulov said, "What's more, the authorities were involved in the unrest. They were afraid that the demonstration organizers would be successful, since the number of demonstrators was growing every day." Kulov dismissed Atambaev's allegations, telling journalists, "I won't comment on a statement by a politician with an insurmountable inferiority complex." Kulov appeared voluntarily and underwent three and a half hours of questioning at the National Security Committee in Bishkek on April 21, akipress.org reported. He told reporters that the questions focused on the United Front's sources of financial support. Police arrested 34 people after riot police stepped in to break up the demonstration in Bishkek on April 19, AP reported. But Interior Minister Bolotbek Nogoibaev told a news conference on April 20 that no members of the United Front were arrested, Kabar reported. DK

WASHINGTON CRITICIZES CENSORSHIP OF KYRGYZ PRESS
Representatives of the Prosecutor-General's Office confiscated the print run of the independent Kyrgyz-language newspapers "Agym" and "Kyrgyz rukhu" on April 20, 24.kg reported. The issue of "Agym," which was printed in a quantity of 60,000 copies, contained information on the clash between riot police and demonstrators in Bishkek the previous day. Police also raided the offices of the United Front and Feliks Kulov's Ar-Namys party, akipress.org reported. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack criticized Kyrgyz authorities for the newspaper confiscations on April 20, AP reported the next day. McCormack said, "This act of censorship by a government that has benefited from a free press and has made public declarations of its support for independent journalism and democracy is disappointing." Freedom House, which supports the Media Support Center Foundation that operates the printing press for "Agym" and other independent newspapers, issued a statement on April 21 condemning the government's actions. Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor commented, "Freedom House is extremely distressed by this serious violation of freedom of the press." The press release said that Freedom House has written to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in connection with the incident and urged Rice to "convey her concern that this action violates fundamental elements of freedom of expression and democracy." DK

TAJIK COURT SENTENCES THREE UZBEKS FOR EXTREMISM
A regional court in Khujand Province has sentenced three Uzbek citizens to long prison terms after finding them guilty of membership in the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Avesta reported on April 21. Abdurahmon Qodirov and Nozirjon Haydarov received 19-year prison terms, while Ghayrat Eshqulov received an 18-year sentence. The judge said that the three attempted to recruit Tajik citizens to the IMU. Three Tajik citizens found guilty of sheltering the convicted IMU members received four-year sentences but were released under an amnesty. DK

RUSSIAN OFFICIAL SAYS TAJIKISTAN TO HOLD TENDER FOR ELECTRICAL POWER STATION
Andrei Rappoport, executive director of Russia's state-run electrical company Unified Electrical Systems (EES), told journalists in Dushanbe on April 20 that Tajikistan plans to hold an international tender to finish construction of the Roghun hydroelectric power plant, official Tajik news agency Khovar reported. Rappoport spoke after a meeting with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, who told him a tender was being prepared, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Rappoport also said that Tajikistan does not want to continue working with Russian Aluminum, with which it concluded an agreement in 2004 to build Roghun (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2004). Rappoport said that EES believes that a Russian company should participate in the project and said that EES would be willing to place a bid in the tender. The cost of finishing construction on Roghun exceeds $1 billion, according to a report in Russia's "Gazeta." DK

TURKMEN PRESIDENT STRESSES IMPORTANCE OF CHINA PIPELINE PROJECT
Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov told a cabinet meeting in Ashgabat on April 20 that the implementation of an April 2006 framework agreement to build a natural-gas pipeline linking China and Turkmenistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2006) is a priority project, Turkmenistan's official Altyn Asyr television channel reported. The report said that Berdymukhammedov tasked Deputy Prime Minister Tachberdy Tagiev with oversight of the project. DK

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION TO MARK CHORNOBYL ANNIVERSARY WITH MARCH IN MINSK
The Minsk City Executive Committee has given permission for the opposition to stage a march in Minsk on April 26 to commemorate the 21st anniversary of the explosion at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant, but changed its route, Belapan reported on March 20. The organizing committee for the "Chornobyl Way" march wanted it to start on Yakub Kolas Square at 6 p.m. and run on sidewalks along Independence Avenue to the square in front of the National Library, where a rally would begin at 8 p.m. The city authorities said the march should start on the square in front of the National Academy of Sciences and run on sidewalks along Surhanava Street to Peoples' Friendship Park on Bangalore Square, where a rally would be held between 8 p.m. and 10 p.m. "We said that we could not accept this decision of the Minsk City Executive Committee, which was made in violation of regulations, as the venue of the march was changed without the organizers' knowledge. We are considering the expediency of appealing this decision to court and will discuss the route of the march," Alyaksey Yanukevich, one of the march's organizers, told the agency. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SIGNALS READINESS TO SUSPEND DECREE DISSOLVING PARLIAMENT
President Viktor Yushchenko told journalists in Kyiv on April 20 that he is ready to suspend his April 2 decree disbanding the Verkhovna Rada in exchange for a number of legislative amendments and reforms, Interfax-Ukraine reported. In particular, Yushchenko said lawmakers should adopt a law on the so-called imperative mandate that would prevent individual lawmakers from changing their party affiliations in parliament. Yushchenko said he would like lawmakers to amend the law on the Cabinet of Ministers in line with his suggestions and adopt a new law on the rules of procedure in the Verkhovna Rada. The president also reiterated his proposals to set up a special commission to amend the constitution and hold a referendum on constitutional changes. Meanwhile, the same day Yuliya Tymoshenko, head of the eponymous opposition bloc, called on Yushchenko to reappoint the Central Election Commission (TsVK) and urged voters to support the president in his determination to hold early parliamentary elections. "I would like us to appeal to the president of Ukraine to demand that the TsVK members, who are sabotaging the electoral process and pretending they are on sick leave today, and that this treacherous Central Election Commission be replaced, and that the president introduce new decent people there, who will serve Ukraine," Tymoshenko said at an opposition rally on European Square, which reportedly gathered some 20,000 supporters of the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada. JM

BLACK SEA LEADERS PLAN MASSIVE RING ROAD...
The leaders of 12 states agreed on April 19 to build a highway around the Black Sea, local and international reported the same day. The meeting brought together six states with a Black Sea coast -- Bulgaria, Georgia, Romania, Russia, Turkey, and Ukraine -- and six neighboring states: Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Greece, Moldova, and Serbia. In the declaration concluding their meeting in Belgrade, the leaders of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC) group said that "road construction and renovation is vital to build ties among EU, Black Sea, and Asian countries." The 4,700-kilometer road would be created by linking up existing roads. No date for completion was given, nor was an estimate of the cost quoted. The Turkish news agency Anatolia reported on April 19 that the BSEC's incoming president, Turkey, plans to institute reforms intended to make the organization more effective and to boost cooperation with other organizations. Collectively, the members of BSEC, which was established in 1992, are the world's second-largest producers of oil and natural gas after the Persian Gulf. AG

...WHILE BALKAN STATES ADDRESS ENERGY SQUEEZE
At a separate meeting held on April 20 in the Macedonian resort of Ohrid, leaders of three members of the BSEC -- Albania, Romania, and Serbia -- met with the presidents of four other Balkan states -- Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro, and Macedonia -- in economic talks aimed particularly at addressing the increasingly pressing issue of electricity supplies, local and international media reported. The closure in January, on the EU's instructions, of two nuclear reactors at the Kozloduy plant in Bulgaria has drastically curtailed output from one of the region's major producers, while a relatively dry winter has lowered power generated by hydroelectric plants across the region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2007). With new projects merely at the planning stage, the focus of the Ohrid meeting was on increasing cooperation. The leaders called for a stable system of cooperation through a transparent and competitive regional energy market, and pledged to increase the use of renewable energy. Stevo Pendarovski, a foreign-affairs adviser to Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski, told AP on April 19 that the region's energy problems are "serious," adding that "our region is not rich with energy resources, we all import oil. We need a stable supply of sources and more use of renewable energies." Pendarovski said that "we would like to see less state intervention, and we are promoting initiatives in this area." This also reflects an EU push to liberalize Europe's energy market. Albania has been particularly hard-hit this winter, and blackouts are typically frequent in the summer. According to figures from the CIA "World Factbook," the only European country that produces less electricity per capita than Albania is Moldova. AG

RUSSIA DISCUSSES INVESTMENTS IN MONTENEGRO...
According to local media, economic issues dominated talks held on April 20 between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Montenegro's president, prime minister, foreign minister, and speaker of parliament. Montenegrin Foreign Minister Milan Rocan and Lavrov, who arrived in Podgorica on April 19 after attended the BSEC meeting in Belgrade, agreed that the two countries should soon sign a free-trade agreement, form a committee to promote cooperation, and ink an agreement enabling visa-free travel between the two countries. Rocan also invited Russian firms to cooperate in major road construction and energy projects. Russian investment in the tourism sector was another subject of discussion. There has been much speculation in recent months in the Montenegrin media about Russian investors snapping up choice assets on the country's prized coastline, as well as the possibility that Russian companies might buy a power plant and coal mine. Russia reportedly invested about 70 million euros ($95 million) in Montenegro last year. TV Crna Gora said that an agreement to settle Russia's debt to Montenegro will soon be concluded. Russia has recently flagged deals with three other former Yugoslav states -- Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, and Serbia -- following a settlement with Croatia in July 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19 and April 18, 2007). AG

...AND STATUS OF KOSOVA
After talks with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov, Montenegrin Foreign Minister Rocan backed Russia's and Serbia's calls for further talks about the future of Kosova, local media reported. According to Radio Montenegro, Rocan said, "it is not too late to continue the negotiations, even though the process has entered into the UN system." To date, Montenegro has restricted itself to calling for a "viable" solution for the Serbian province, which is primarily populated by ethnic Albanians and has been administered by the UN since 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, March 12 and 26, 2007). "Stability can only be achieved in the event of the solution being acceptable to both sides," Lavrov said, Radio Montenegro reported on April 20, adding that "this means taking into account the views of the countries of the region in the close vicinity." Other neighbors of Kosova -- Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, and Slovenia -- have voiced their support of the UN plan, with a number of them doing so again in recent days, local media reported. As he did on April 19 in Belgrade, Lavrov implicitly criticized the U.S. position, saying that "if someone takes the position that should Kosovo not gain immediate independence then violence would erupt -- is this not blackmail? Yes, it is" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). The third-most-senior official in the U.S. State Department, Nicholas Burns, on April 16 argued that "there is every reason to believe that that solution put forward by Russia, put forward by the Serb government itself, would lead to more violence, rather than less" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2007).

BACKLOG OF CASES IN KOSOVA CAPITAL TOTALS 38,000
Radio-Television Kosova reported on April 19 that the 28 judges in the municipal court in the region's largest city, Prishtina, currently need to process 38,000 cases. The station quoted participants of an April 19 forum with Justice Ministry officials and political leaders as saying that the region's politicians lack the will to improve the judicial system. Fatmir Limaj, the deputy head of the Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK), one of Kosova's three largest parties, emphasized the geopolitical context in which the Kosovar judicial system operates, saying: "we cannot talk about an efficient judiciary unless we build a secure state with law and order.... That is the duty of the Kosovar government; that is the duty of the entire institutional mechanism in Kosova." A recent report by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was highly critical of the adequate appeals process in Kosova, highlighting weak laws, "problems with administrative decisions," and problems with reviews of administrative decisions as well as the lack of a judicial review of decisions made by Kosova's international administrators as its four key areas of concern in the review process (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13, 2007).

KOSOVA TO ISSUE ITS OWN TRAVEL DOCUMENTS IN MAY
Radio-Television Kosova on 19 April reported that Kosova's government plans to issue new identity cards and travel documents by the end of May. The plan to press ahead with new documents, which will carry the symbols of the new state, comes despite uncertainty that the UN Security Council will back a proposal to grant the UN-administered region independence. No date has yet been given for a decision on the new state's flag and national anthem (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). It is unclear when the Security Council will vote on the plan or whether it will back it. A member of the Serbian negotiating team in the talks on the region's future, Dusan Batakovic, on April 21 predicted that the UN plan will be shelved and that, instead, talks between Belgrade and Prishtina will resume. Speaking on the B92 television talk show "Poligraf," Batakovic added that "several months ago Kosovo Albanians believed that nothing depended on Serbia and the Serbs and acted as if they were Kosovo's conquerors, which did not reflect the genuine state of affairs." The Kosovar government has made it clear that it will declare independence unilaterally if the UN's top body does not recognize its claim, a move that would have the backing of the United States (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2007). AG

BOSNIA OPENS TRIAL FOR WAR CRIMES AT SREBRENICA
Ten days after Serbia sentenced four Serbian members of a paramilitary group involved in the massacre of Bosnian Muslims at Srebrenica in 1995, a court in Sarajevo on April 20 began considering similar charges against four other Serbs, local media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11, 2007). The four men -- Zdravko Bozic, Mladen Blagojevic, Zeljko Zaric, and Zoran Zivanovic -- were all members of the Bosnian Serb military police at the time of the massacre, in July 1995. Bosnia-Herzegovina Radio 1 said they are accused of murdering and forcibly evicting and imprisoning Bosnian Muslims after Serbian forces took over the town. In a separate case heard the same day, a court in the northern district of Brcko sentenced an ethnic Serb, Kosta Kostic, to 15 years in prison for killing 14 civilians and raping a woman in Brcko in May and June 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina Radio 1 reported on April 20. He was accused of 19 killings. Two other men, Milos Milosevic and Raco Simic, were acquitted for lack of evidence. The International Court of Justice on February 26 ruled the massacre at Srebrenica to be an "act of genocide," triggering calls by Bosnian Muslims for Srebrenica to secede from the Republika Srpska and for the predominantly Serb-populated autonomous entity to be dissolved (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, March 21 and 27, and April 19, 2007). In comments aired by Radio 1, Bosnia's federal prime minister, Nikola Spiric, on April 20 echoed the views of other ethnic Serbian politicians by warning that such calls risk ensuring that Srebrenica will "continue to be an inflamed ulcer that will periodically bleed but will never be solved." Banja Luka Radio, which serves the area of Republika Srpska, on April 20 reported that police have confirmed a death threat against a Bosnian Serb journalist critical of plans by Bosnian Muslims to move from Srebrenica. The journalist, Marinko Kokeza, has apparently received similar threats in the past. AG

BOSNIAN MUSLIM LEADER DEFENDS WAR CRIMES PROSECUTOR
In an interview published by the Bosnian paper "Dnevni avaz" on April 20, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Carla Del Ponte, denied reaching a secret agreement with Serbia enabling Belgrade to withhold documents from the UN court. Del Ponte said the claims were unfounded and stemmed from an inadequate understanding of procedures at such tribunals. The allegations were leveled by Del Ponte's deputy, Geoffrey Nice, on April 15, following a report based on interviews with 20 lawyers and court officials that a separate UN court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), had not pressed Belgrade to release secret documents that could have resulted in Serbia being found guilty of genocide in Bosnia-Herzegovina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10 and 17, 2007). Del Ponte's office previously released a statement denying the accusations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2007). Del Ponte found support on April 19 from Sulejman Tihic, the head of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), Bosnia's largest Muslim party. In a televised interview aired by the Open Broadcast Network, Tihic said that anger should be directed at the ICJ, not at Del Ponte. "I think this lady has done a lot for justice and truth to the extent that she was able to do so and to the extent that others helped her. If NATO did not make arrests, if the authorities of the [Bosnian] Serb Republic and Serbia did not want to arrest [war crimes indictees], we cannot blame her for that. I believe that Carla Del Ponte is sincerely committed to truth, justice, punishment of perpetrators. If she had, to say so, made a deal with Serbia, in order to obtain documents that would lead to the conviction of Slobodan Milosevic, that does not mean that she opposed the [genocide] lawsuit [brought by Bosnia against Serbia]. You saw her reaction and dissatisfaction with the ruling of the International Court of Justice. She wanted to convict Milosevic and if she had convicted him on the basis of these documents, we would not have had any problem" with the ICJ lawsuit. Milosevic, Serbia's ruler throughout the 1990s, died in March 2006, in the closing stages of his trial for war crimes. Del Ponte will step down in September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2007). AG

RUSSIAN CHURCH OFFERS TO MEDIATE BETWEEN MACEDONIA'S ORTHODOX COMMUNITIES
The Russian Orthodox Church on April 20 offered to mediate in a long-simmering dispute between the Macedonian and Serbian Orthodox churches, Macedonia's A1 television station reported the same day. The offer followed a meeting between several Macedonian Orthodox bishops with the head of the Russian Orthodox Church's foreign affairs department, Metropolitan Kiril of Smolensk and Kaliningrad. The dispute relates to the refusal by the Serbian authorities to allow the Macedonian Orthodox Church to operate in the country, and Macedonia's treatment of the Serbian Orthodox Church. This is just one of many similar disputes within the Orthodox communities of the former Yugoslavia. At present, the most visible clash is in Montenegro, but Serbia is the principal battleground, with the Macedonian, Romanian, Montenegrin, and Old Calendarist Orthodox communities all saying they are not allowed to operate freely (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13 and 16, 2007). A long-delayed religion bill is currently being addressed by Serbia's parliament, but Serbia's minority religious communities agree that it ignores their concerns. The Serbian Orthodox Church has itself established a branch in Macedonia, but has complained of persecution, most prominently in the case of embezzlement charges brought against the Serbian Orthodox Church's archbishop in Macedonia, Jovan Vraniskovski. Metropolitan Kiril welcomed a recent decision by a Macedonian court to acquit Vraniskovski, saying the April 10 ruling should ease contacts between the two churches. The tensions are in large part rooted in the refusal of other Orthodox patriarchates to recognize the Macedonian Orthodox Church. They argue it was established in the 1960s under the sponsorship of the communist government. AG

EU, RUSSIA DISCUSS TRANSDNIESTER SOLUTION
The EU's special representative to Moldova, Kalman Mizsei, on April 21 met with Russian officials in Moscow about Transdniester, amid speculation that Moldova is set to reach a controversial settlement with the breakaway region. The Moldovan news agency Basa, citing the Russian Foreign Ministry, said Mizsei discussed the possibility of a resumption of talks in the old 5+2 format, under which EU and U.S. observers were allowed to attend five-party talks between officials from Moldova, Transdniester, and mediators from Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE. Talks were suspended in February when Transdniestrian representatives refused to return, after a yearlong gap, to the negotiating table. Mizsei arrived in Moscow after earlier talks on Transdniester with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin and officials in Ukraine. The fresh flurry of diplomatic activity follows a report by the Jamestown Foundation on April 13 that Moldova's government is preparing to sign a document that will recognize Transdniester, guarantee the coexistence of a separate administration and assembly for the region, dissolve the Moldovan parliament and hold new elections with seats for representatives from Transdniester, guarantee Transdniester the position of deputy in each ministry, guarantee Moldova's permanent neutrality, and "tacitly" accept the continuing existence of Tiraspol's army and security services. In previous bilateral talks, Chisinau reportedly offered neutrality, substantial autonomy for Transdniester, and the legalization of Russian assets in Transdniester's economy, but refused to accept a federal state, a distinct role for Tiraspol in government, or the continued presence of Russian troops in Transdniester. Russia has failed to meet promises made in 1993 and 1999 to withdraw its troops. When he was elected in April 2001, President Vladimir Voronin was seen as a pro-Russian politician, but, since scotching a Russian plan, the Kozak Memorandum, for Transdniester in November 2003, he has followed a pro-Western course. The emergence of details of the plan, albeit unconfirmed, has prompted a reemergence of the old image of Voronin, with the "Jurnal de Chisinau" writing on April 20 that " Voronin is a stray Russian mole in Chisinau who, after he had been removed from Putin's lap for not signing the Kozak Memorandum, is desperately trying again to be in the good graces of the Kremlin." AG

OSCE NOTES CASUAL ATTITUDE TO COURT IN MOLDOVAN JUDICIARY
A report published by the OSCE on April 19 suggests that Moldovan judges and lawyers have little respect for courtroom proceedings and standards. Basa reported that the OSCE found during the first six months of an ongoing survey that over 15 percent of the almost 800 court proceedings tracked started with significant delays, primarily because lawyers failed to turn up on time but also because some lawyers went on unannounced holidays or chose to watch soccer matches instead. The report also criticized judges for frequently presiding over the court dressed in jeans, T-shirts, and sneakers during summer months. Trials typically last a long time, with the result, the OSCE noted, that a slew of cases have been brought before the European Court for Human Rights. According to the survey, judges and prosecutors officially earn 250-400 euros a month ($340-540), though tight budgets mean that some judges did not receive their full salaries. This is the first report of its kind published by the OSCE Mission in Moldova. AG

ARMENIAN ELECTION CAMPAIGN OFF TO UNEASY START
Violence, harassment, recriminations, and international concern about perceived voter apathy have marred the first two weeks of campaigning for Armenia's May 12 parliamentary elections.

Senior officials have repeatedly affirmed their determination to ensure a "clean" vote. But many commentators predict that the opposition's failure to align in a single -- or even several -- blocs will prevent it from beating two rival pro-establishment parties that benefit from virtually unlimited financial and administrative resources.

Serzh Sarkisian, the powerful former defense minister who became prime minister and head of the ruling Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) following the untimely death last month of Andranik Markarian, is increasingly perceived to have the power to determine the outcome of the ballot. Asked on April 10 how many votes he thinks his People's Party will win, Tigran Karapetian responded: "That is known only to God and Serzh Sarkisian," Noyan Tapan reported.

A total of 24 parties and one electoral bloc succeeded in registering to contest the 90 (of 131) parliament mandates to be allocated under the proportional system, and 1,314 individual candidates registered in the remaining 41 single-mandate constituencies.

The overwhelming majority -- 80 percent -- of outgoing parliamentarians are seeking reelection. But the opposition's inability to close ranks and create a single strong bloc is likely to limit dramatically its chances of success. The daily "Zhamanak Yerevan" calculated on April 14 that not a single one of the 20 opposition parties stands a chance of garnering the minimum 5 percent of the proportional vote required to win parliamentary representation. Even if each of those parties wins 4 percent of the vote, the paper pointed out, giving the opposition 80 percent, those votes would not translate into a single one of the 90 proportional mandates.

There have already been several incidents of election-related violence. Even before the campaign officially began, police in Yerevan were forced to intervene on March 15 to end a brawl between supporters of the HHK and of the Prosperous Armenia (Bargavach Hayastan) party founded in late 2005 by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian. Two local Prosperous Armenia offices in Yerevan were rocked by explosions during the night of April 11-12, but no one was injured.

As in previous parliamentary ballots, it is in the single-mandate constituencies where pressure on -- and discrimination against -- opposition candidates is crudest.

In Echmiadzin, south of Yerevan, unidentified perpetrators opened fire on April 8 on a car belonging to a rival candidate to retired General Seyran Saroyan, who is supported by the HHK, while the election headquarters of a second rival were destroyed in an arson attack.

Days later, a local court annulled the registration of both candidates after Saroyan filed a lawsuit alleging that they forged signatures submitted in support of their registration.

Elsewhere, especially in rural areas, powerful local governors who are members of, or aligned with, the HHK are already being accused of intimidating opposition candidates or denying them the opportunity to meet with voters. Two opposition parties -- Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State), which is headed by former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and Zharangutiun, headed by U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian -- have complained that their activists have been refused permission to post campaign posters, Noyan Tapan reported on April 17.

Adding to the widely held perception that the deck is stacked against smaller political parties are the provisions for media access.

True, the election law allows each party registered to participate in the ballot a total of 60 minutes free airtime on Armenian Public Television and 120 minutes on state-run radio, with the option of purchasing a further 120 minutes of television and 180 minutes of radio airtime.

But as "Haykakan zhamanak" noted on April 11, that free media access is divided into maximum two-minute segments, which makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to convey a clear, coherent, and memorable impression of a party's political program, given that even the most politically interested viewers are unlikely to make a point of watching several hours of election-related programming every single night for several weeks.

And the prices set by Armenian Public Television for additional airtime are prohibitively high, as are those charged by its privately owned and overwhelmingly pro-establishment counterparts.

Armenian Public Television announced in February it will charge 80,000 drams (approximately $225) per minute for election-related advertising (compared with $120 during the 2003 parliamentary election), while privately owned channels will charge up to 100,000 drams ($280) per minute. (The election law sets a cap of 60 million drams, or $160,000, on campaign spending.) Moreover, 18 of Armenia's 29 local television stations have decided not to air any campaign advertising at all.

With ideological differences between the various parties almost totally eclipsed by their avowed determination to win, or hold on to, parliament seats, opposition politicians are apprehensive that some impoverished voters will avail themselves of the material benefits offered by Prosperous Armenia in return for a promise to vote for that party's candidate.

During a visit to Aragatsotn Province on April 18, Orinats Yerkir Chairman Baghdasarian appealed to voters to reject the 10,000 drams ($27) he claimed they have been offered to vote for an unspecified rival party, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

Alternatively, as in several previous national ballots, some voters may simply not bother to vote at all. At the time of the May 2003 parliamentary elections, opposition candidates claimed that official statistics showing that just over 50 percent of registered voters cast their ballots were exaggerated, and the true figure was far lower.

A delegation from the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe that visited Yerevan last week registered in an April 13 statement its concern over the "overall impression of a lack of popular interest in the election process by the electorate.... Such attitudes of apathy, or even cynicism, are not conducive to the development of democracy in Armenia," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

Such reservations, though cautiously phrased, may nonetheless have a greater impact on the May 12 election than similar warnings in the past.

Since 1996, when key figures within the Armenian Pan-National Movement falsified the outcome of the presidential ballot to ensure the reelection of incumbent Levon Ter-Petrossian, international monitoring missions spearheaded by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) have evaluated every single national ballot, whether presidential or parliamentary, as not meeting international standards for a free and fair election.

This time around, Armenia stands to forfeit funds allocated under the U.S. Millennium Challenge Account or to have its cooperation with the European Union within the framework of the European Neighborhood Policy curtailed, if the conduct of the ballot is deemed unsatisfactory.

Cognizant of such possible negative repercussions, senior Armenian officials, including Prime Minister Sarkisian, have in recent months sought to convince international observers that this election will be different.

Meeting on April 16 in Yerevan with long-term OSCE election observers, Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian said his agency has set up special "working groups" headed by senior prosecutors that will react immediately to reports of serious irregularities during the vote, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported.

Hovsepian also said he is taking "all measures" to preclude his subordinates' direct involvement in the campaign.

But speaking on April 18 at a press conference in Yerevan, Central Election Commission (KNH) Chairman Garegin Azarian said that to date, his commission has so far received 10 formal complaints from either parties or individual candidates, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He said he considered that figure "okay."

Meanwhile, the KNH is posting voter lists on its website (http://www.elections.am) in the hope of minimizing cases in which potential voters are unable to cast their ballots because they discover only on election day that their names do not figure on such lists. What percentage of voters, especially in remote rural areas, has Internet access enabling them to take advantage of that innovation is unclear, however.

KABUL LAUNCHES MILITARY OPERATION TO RECAPTURE SOUTHERN DISTRICTS
Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman General Zaher Azimi said in Kabul on April 22 that his country's plans to negotiate the return of several districts in Helmand Province to government control has failed and, therefore, Afghan military forces will use force to recapture these districts, the Kabul-based Tolo Television reported. "We have started [military] operations in different parts of Helmand," Azimi said, adding that due "to political and tribal issues," his government "waited for some time and tried to achieve" its "objectives through nonmilitary channels." According to Azimi, the political channels were "unfortunately unsuccessful," thus military operations are "under way and we will soon witness the liberation of Helmand Province." The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) launched a military operation dubbed Operation Achilles in coordination with the Afghan National Army and police forces in the northern regions of Helmand Province early on March 6 in an effort to dislodge the neo-Taliban from several districts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2007). The districts partially or wholly under neo-Taliban control include Musa Qala, Sangin, Kajaki, Nawzad, and Baghran. It is not clear if the operation mentioned by Azimi is a continuation of Operation Achilles or is a new Afghan initiative. AT

SEVERAL KILLED IN SEPARATE BOMB BLASTS IN SOUTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN
A man on a motorcycle wearing a police uniform blew himself up at a market in the city of Khost on April 22, killing several people, international news agencies reported. Mohammad Din Mohammadi, Khost's public health director, said 10 were killed, the Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The blast left dozens injured. Khost police had intelligence reports about an impending suicide attack, Colonel Wazir Badshah, the head of the Public Affairs Department of Khost Province, told the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press on April 22. After police surrounded the suspect near a market, he escaped, Badshah said, adding that the bomber "detonated himself" after police shot at him. Badshah said only three people were killed in the blast. About an hour earlier, a bomb blew up in a mobile telephone shop at a produce market. AT

AFGHANISTAN'S ILLICIT DRUGS VALUED AT BILLIONS PER YEAR
Afghanistan produces narcotics valued at $6.7 billion per year, the state-run "The Kabul Times" reported on April 19, citing the Afghan Counternarcotics Ministry. However, both Afghan farmers and traffickers earn only $700 million while the international drug mafia reaps the rest of the profits. According to Mohammad Sami, deputy counternarcotics minister, around 2 million Afghans "are engaged in poppy cultivation in 20 provinces [out of 34] while 110,000 others are engaged in trafficking." According to Sami, the Afghan government is committed to eradicating poppy fields all over Afghanistan. "We have two different plans to eradicate narcotics production, by discussing and through tribal jirgas [councils] and secondly by force." The Counternarcotics Ministry has reported eradicating opium poppies on more than 7,000 hectares of land since March. Kabul and most NATO member states contributing forces to ISAF have been reluctant to use force to counter Afghanistan's growing narcotics industry. AT

KABUL URGES WORLD BANK, IMF TO EXTEND SPECIAL STATUS
Afghan Finance Minister Anwar al-Haq Ahadi has urged the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to extend his country's special post-conflict status for an additional four years, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on April 22. Under the special status Afghanistan is able to receive grants at very low interest rates. The special status is usually restricted to a four-year period to countries emerging from conflict. Afghanistan's special status will expire in 2008, Ahadi explained. "Our situation is that we are really not out of conflict," Ahadi told the news agency, adding, as such Kabul has been "arguing" for "a continuation of this post-conflict status for Afghanistan for another four years." According to Ahadi, his country has been discussing the extension of the special statutes with the World Bank and the IMF and major donors such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. "The political will is there, but there are some procedural difficulties," Ahadi said. AT

IRANIAN PARLIAMENT VOTES FOR SIMULTANEOUS ELECTIONS, EARLY PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
Iran's parliament voted on April 22 to hold the next presidential and parliamentary elections together, later this year, thus extending parliament's current term by seventh months and shortening the government's term, Iranian media reported. The decision -- which some politicians say is unconstitutional -- must be ratified by the Guardians Council, a body of senior jurists. The council rejected as unconstitutional a previous parliamentary proposal to hold the elections concurrently, but parliament has apparently voted to reconfirm its earlier proposal. This could lead to a stand-off that might have to be resolved by the Expediency Council, a political arbitrating body. The constitution has set the length of parliamentary and presidential terms at four years. The April 22 vote foresees simultaneous elections for the eighth parliament and ninth president since Iran's 1979 revolution in late October to early November 2007, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 23. Deputy parliament speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar said on April 22 that "this vote must go back to the Guardians Council and be approved there," the daily reported. Jurist Hashem Hashemzadeh-Harisi told ISNA on April 22 that he expects the council to reject the bill. Expediency Council member Majid Ansari also told ISNA that the bill is clearly unconstitutional and its "expedient" aspect not so evident. Supporters of the bill have argued that simultaneous elections would save the country time and money, and ensure greater political coordination between parliament and the government. VS

IRANIAN LEGISLATORS WANT INTEREST RATES CUT
Iranian deputies on April 22 criticized a decision taken the previous day by the Money and Credit Council -- a government-affiliated body -- not to cut interest rates in the Persian year that began on March 21, and said it goes against Iran's development plans. Mohammad Hossein Farhangi, a member of the parliamentary legal committee, told ILNA on April 22 that high interest rates are fuelling Iran's double-digit inflation and the present Law to Rationalize Bank Rates requires an annual drop in interest rates to bring them to about 10 percent by the end of the 2005-2010 development plan. He said interest rates are now effectively over 14 percent for state banks and above 19 percent for private banks, though legislator Kazem Delkhosh gave 17 percent as the average interest rate of private banks. Delkhosh told Mehr agency on April 22 that parliament's Economic Committee will examine the Money Council's decision because it violates relevant laws. Gholamreza Mesbahi-Moqaddam, a member of the Money and Credit Council, told ISNA on April 22 that an unexpected inflation rate of 13.6 percent in the year to March 2007 prompted the council not to cut the state bank rate by 1.5 percent, as that would have harmed bank depositors. VS

IRANIAN MINISTER REPLACES GOVERNORS
Iranian Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi is reportedly changing some provincial governors, including those in the western province of Luristan and the northern Caspian coastal province of Gulistan, the "Kargozaran" daily reported on April 23, citing the website Aftab. Luristan Governor Mohammad Reza Mohseni-Sani has apparently incurred Purmohammadi's displeasure by nominating "problematic figures" to provincial posts, such as the Luristan branch of the National Youth Organization. "Karogazan" quoted Borujerd parliamentary representative Alaeddin Borujerdi as saying that "an Interior Ministry official" may become the next governor. Borujerd is in Luristan. New governors are also to be chosen for Gulistan and several other, unspecified provinces, "Kargozaran" reported, citing Deputy Interior Minister Mohammad Hussein Musapur. Separately, Deputy Minister of Culture for Press Affairs Alireza Mokhtarpur is reportedly waiting for Culture Minister Hussein Saffar-Herandi to accept his resignation, submitted about two weeks ago, Fars news agency reported on April 22. Mokhtarpur resigned citing health reasons, Fars reported. It named as possible successors Alireza Malekian, the deputy minister of culture for parliamentary affairs, and Alaeddin Zohurian, the head of the ministry's domestic press and news agencies department. VS

IRANIAN WRITERS PETITION JUDICIARY CHIEF OVER DETAINEE
More than 270 Iranian writers have asked Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi in writing to release Ali Farahbakhsh, a writer detained on espionage charges apparently since December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28 and 29, 2007), Radio Farda reported on April 22. Their open letter stated that Farahbakhsh's arrest and detention violated Iranian laws and the principles of respect for press and political detainees. Iran's laws do not specifically recognize prisoners as political prisoners. The writers asked for an examination of the charges for which Farahbakhsh is being detained, and stated that it is not fitting for the judiciary to have deprived him of basic civil and prisoners' rights during his detention, Radio Farda reported. Separately, an unnamed judiciary official told ILNA on April 22 that the judiciary has made "the necessary changes" to a proposed bill to define political crimes, and the document is ready to be sent to "relevant bodies for approval." VS

IRAQI PREMIER CALLS FOR HALT TO BARRIER...
Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on April 22 ordered an end to construction of a security barrier that would separate a predominately Sunni Arab neighborhood from Shi'ite areas in Baghdad, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported the same day. "I oppose the building of the wall and its construction will stop," al-Maliki said. "There are other methods to protect neighborhoods, but I should point out that the goal was not to separate, but to protect." On April 20, U.S. and Iraqi forces began construction of a 5-kilometer-long security barrier around the Sunni neighborhood of Al-Adhamiyah, creating what U.S. military officials describe as a "gated community." Local Sunni leaders denounced the barrier, saying the community never approved the project and warning that the barrier would isolate the neighborhood. The Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party issued a statement on April 21 saying the barrier would "inflict social and economic damage and it will lead to more sectarian tension." Reacting to the criticism, U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Scott Bleichwehl said: "We are not sealing off neighborhoods. We are controlling access to them. It's a tactic. It's not a change in strategy to divide Baghdad along sectarian lines." Reports indicated that the United States is also considering building barriers around the Sunni neighborhoods of Al-Amiriyah, Al-Khadrah, and East and West Al-Rashid. SS

...AND BEGINS REGIONAL TOUR IN EGYPT
Prime Minister al-Maliki arrived in Cairo on April 22 and held talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, international media reported the same day. Al-Maliki met privately with Mubarak and later with Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmad Nazif, who reiterated Egypt's support for Iraq. "Egypt stands by Iraq to achieve peace, security, and stability and stresses the need to achieve national reconciliation among all sects of Iraqi society," Nazif said. Later, al-Maliki held a joint news conference with Arab League Secretary-General Amr Musa and stressed that Iraq is moving ahead with its national-reconciliation process. "The Iraqi government has launched the principle of national reconciliation and is seeking to push all Iraqi forces, including the Sunnis, to get involved in the political process. The situation in Iraq can be stabilized only when all its forces are involved," al-Maliki said. An international conference on Iraq is to convene in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on May 3-4. The conference is to be attended by Iraq's neighbors as well as Bahrain and Egypt, and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. SS

U.S. OFFICIAL CRITICIZES IRAQI KURDS
During an interview with Al-Arabiyah satellite television aired on April 21, senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice David Satterfield blamed Iraqi Kurds for a recent increase in tensions with neighboring Turkey. He accused the Kurds of not doing enough to prevent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels, based in northern Iraq, from crossing the border into Turkey to carry out attacks. "The Kurdistan leadership must do more to address this problem of terror and terrorism," Satterfield said. On April 7, Kurdistan region President Mas'ud Barzani said Iraqi Kurds could intervene in Kurdish-majority cities in Turkey if Ankara continued to oppose Kurdish ambitions to annex oil-rich Kirkuk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2007). Barzani's remarks have incensed Turkey, where more than 37,000 people have been killed since 1984 in fighting between Turkish security forces and PKK fighters. In response to Barzani's comments, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Iraqi Kurds would "pay a heavy price" if they interfered in Turkey's affairs. SS

SHI'ITE LEADER'S SON ESCAPES ASSASSINATION ATTEMPT
Ammar al-Hakim, the son of Abd al-Azziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), escaped an assassination attempt when his convoy was attacked on April 20, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. His motorcade was traveling through the Al-Latifiyah district in southern Baghdad on its way from the holy city of Al-Najaf when it was fired upon by unknown gunmen. Al-Hakim was uninjured, but six of his bodyguards were wounded. A statement issued by SCIRI the same day blamed the attack on elements of the former Iraqi regime that are opposed to the current Baghdad government. "These takfiri-Saddamist terrorist groups, which seek shelter with some areas in Baghdad using them as a launching pad for their criminal attacks, are today inhaling the last breath of their existence and lowly actions," the statement said. SCIRI is one of the leading components of the Shi'ite-led ruling coalition, the United Iraqi Alliance. SS

POLICE STATION IN IRAQI CAPITAL BOMBED
Two suicide car bombs at a police station in the Al-Baya district of southwestern Baghdad on April 22 killed 12 people and wounded more than 80, international media reported the same day. Local police officials said the first driver sped through a security checkpoint and detonated his explosives-laden car in front of the police station. Moments later, another driver detonated his car at the checkpoint. A local official said the number of casualties could rise as rescue workers were continuing to search for bodies in the rubble. Police stations are often targets of attacks by Sunni insurgents, who accuse police of betraying Iraq by cooperating with government and U.S.-led forces. Meanwhile, on April 21, Al-Fallujah city council leader Sami Abd al-Amir al-Jumayli was assassinated. Local police said he was gunned down outside his home in central Al-Fallujah. Al-Jumayli, who was a vocal critic of Al-Qaeda, was the fourth Al-Fallujah city council leader to be assassinated in just over a year. SS

COALITION FORCES KILL 15 TERRORISTS IN BAGHDAD
The U.S. military announced on April 22 that coalition forces have killed 15 suspected terrorists and arrested seven others believed to be working with Al-Qaeda in Iraq. "Fifteen dangerous terrorists are no longer a threat to the Iraqi people or the security of the country," said U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver. "Coalition forces will continue to pursue terrorists wherever they may hide." Meanwhile, near Al-Fallujah the same day, coalition forces arrested 19 suspected terrorists and seized a cache of weapons, as well as material for making improvised explosive devices (IEDs). During the raid, coalition forces discovered a large quantity of chemicals used to make IEDs, 50 pressure plates, and a suicide vest. "This represents one more small victory in the war against those that would deny safety and security to the Iraqi people," Garver said. SS

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