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Newsline - April 30, 2007

State Duma Veterans Affairs Committee Chairman Nikolai Kovalyov, who is leading a Russian parliamentary delegation traveling to Estonia, said on April 30 that Estonia's government should resign over the crisis surrounding the relocation of a World War II-era Soviet military monument from central Tallinn, Interfax reported. "It is obvious that the government provoked the crisis and failed to cope with the unrest in which one person was killed," Kovalyov said at a Moscow airport before his departure for Estonia. Violence by Russian-speaking protesters near the monument led to three nights of rioting and looting in Tallinn and other parts of Estonia that left one person dead, 156 injured, and more than 1,000 detained, AP reported on April 29. Kovalyov said his delegation will press for the monument to be restored "in its old place," Interfax reported. on April 29 quoted Kovalyov as saying he and his fellow Russian legislators will also demand the release of protesters detained by Estonian police. Estonian Defense Minister Jaak Aaviksoo said on April 29 that the monument will be erected at a cemetery outside Tallinn by May 8, a day before Russians celebrate the Allied victory over Nazi Germany, AP reported. "The Bronze Soldier is in good shape and unharmed," he said, adding the government will organize a ceremony once the statue is in place. JB

Foreign Minister Urmas Paet blamed the Russian media for fueling the unrest in Estonia by publishing what he said was misinformation, including rumors that the memorial was sawed into pieces and that hundreds of ethnic Russians on Estonia's police force had resigned. "It's a complete lie," AP quoted him as saying. According to the news agency, Paet also criticized Russia for not adequately protecting the Estonian Embassy in Moscow from attacks by large crowds of demonstrators, some wearing Red Army uniforms. State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov called Paet's accusations "unfitting," AP reported. "We have no relation to the reaction of civil society that was seen on the streets of Estonian cities," Kosachyov said. AP reported that members of a pro-Kremlin youth group held a candlelight vigil at the Estonian Embassy in Moscow on April 29 to protest the ethnic Russian killed during the rioting. They held a banner reading, "You will be held responsible for a Russian hero!" Meanwhile, Mikhail Margelov, who chairs the Federation Council's International Relations Committee, said that Russia should consider "a whole complex" of possible actions against Estonia, but should not cut diplomatic ties, reported on April 29. On April 27, the Federation Council called on President Vladimir Putin to break off diplomatic relations with Estonia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27, 2007). The Federation Council approved a statement calling the removal of the monument from central Tallinn on the eve of the May 9 Victory Day holiday "just one aspect of the policy, disastrous for Estonians, being conducted by provincial zealots of Nazism," Interfax reported on April 27. JB

A new poll by the Levada Center polling agency puts First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov in first place among potential successors to President Putin, ahead of First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Ekho Moskvy radio reported on April 28 that 31 percent of the poll's respondents said that if presidential elections were to take place on the following Sunday, they would vote for Ivanov, while 29 percent said they would vote for Medvedev. That marks a reversal from March, when, according to the Levada Center's website (, 31 percent of those polled they would vote for Medvedev and 25 percent said they would vote for Ivanov. In the most recent poll, Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov came in third with 17 percent, followed by Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky (11 percent), former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov (6 percent), and State Duma Deputies Sergei Glazyev (5 percent) and Dmitry Rogozin (2 percent). JB

First Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov said on April 28 that the state will always control holdings in "strategic" sectors of industry, while large companies in the other sectors will be completely open to private investment, RIA Novosti reported. "In strategic branches -- for example, [the] atomic and rocket-space [branches] -- control over such holdings will always remain in the hands of the state, as happens all over the world; the rest is 100 percent open to private capital, above all Russian [private capital]," he told a constituent congress of the Union of Russian Machine Builders in Moscow. Ivanov also told the congress that the future of machine building lies in "large integrated structures and with a complete production cycle, from the manufacture of key components to the output of finished products." Ivanov added that such holdings will be especially important on the threshold of Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization. "It will be much easer for powerful companies to compete with foreign companies," RBK quoted him as telling the congress. JB

Police in Nizhny Novgorod broke up another attempt to hold a March of Dissent on April 28. quoted police spokesman Aleksandr Gorbatov as telling journalists that police "stopped an attempt to hold an unapproved rally" and that 10 people were detained and will be charged with "administrative offenses." Gorbatov claimed that protesters used fireworks, endangering passersby. But he also admitted that force was used in detaining demonstrators and added that the prosecutor's office will determine "the legality of the actions of the police." Among those detained was the writer Zakhar Prilepin, who told Ekho Moskvy radio by telephone that he was being driven to the local police station along with several members of the Other Russia opposition group who were also in custody. An Ekho Moskvy correspondent reported that participants in the thwarted protest shouted "Russia without Putin!" and "It's our city!" According to, only 20-25 people took part in the protest, which lasted just five to seven minutes before it was broken up. Police thwarted an attempt to hold a larger unsanctioned March of Dissent in Nizhny Novgorod on March 24, detaining some 100 people (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007) JB

Police in St. Petersburg confiscated 52,000 copies of the newspaper "March of Dissent," reported on April 29. The website quoted Olga Kurnosova, head of the St. Petersburg branch of the United Civic Front, the opposition group headed by former chess champion Garry Kasparov, as saying that the newspapers were seized without a court order. The newspapers, which were supposed to have been distributed in Moscow and neighboring regions, were devoted to the opposition marches held in Moscow and St. Petersburg on April 14-15, during which police detained several hundred protesters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2007). JB

Funeral services were held for Mstislav Rostropovich at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Savior on April 29. Later in the day, the renowned cellist, conductor, and composer was laid to rest at the Novodevichy Cemetery just feet from the grave of former President Boris Yeltsin, who died on April 23. Rostropovich died on April 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27, 2007). "The New York Times" reported on April 30 that among those who attended Rostropovich's funeral services were President Ilham Aliyev of Azerbaijan (Rostropovich was born in Baku); Queen Sofia of Spain; Bernadette Chirac, the wife of President Jacques Chirac of France; Natalya Solzhenitsyna, the wife of the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn; and Naina Yeltsina, Yeltsin's widow. According to the newspaper, President Putin paid his last respects to Rostropovich on April 29 at the Moscow Conservatory, where the cellist's body lay in an open coffin for viewing. AP recalled on April 29 that after Solzhenitsyn won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1970, Rostropovich wrote an open letter to the Soviet media protesting the official vilification of the author. Rostropovich and his wife also sheltered Solzhenitsyn in their dacha in the early 1970s. JB

The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office on April 27 formally charged Igor Izmestyev with ordering the contract killing of Mikhail Orlov, the head of a finance company that owed Izmestyev's own company a large sum of money, the daily "Kommersant" reported on April 28. The assassination bid last August failed, however. Izmestyev, who used to represent Bashkortostan on the Federation Council, was taken into custody by FSB officers while on a private visit to Kyrgyzstan and brought back to Moscow, where he is being held in Lefortovo prison (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18, 2007). LF

A Russian combat helicopter crashed on April 27 in the Shatoi Raion of southern Chechnya, killing 14-15 military personnel and three crewmembers, Russian media reported. According to a Chechen resistance fighter quoted by the website, the resistance shot down the helicopter, which was one of three deploying additional forces to the aid of Russian spetsnaz and members of the pro-Moscow Chechen South battalion whom the Chechen forces attacked earlier on April 27 near the village of Khal-Kiloy, according to the daily "Kommersant" on April 28. The resistance fighter said a further five of the enemy and one Chechen fighter were killed during the attack. In Grozny, pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov denied later on April 27 that the helicopter was shot down; he attributed the crash to a technical defect, reported. On April 28, Russian Air Force commander Colonel General Vladimir Mikhailov said it is not yet clear whether the helicopter was shot down or the crash was the result of technical problems or pilot error. The daily "Kommersant" on April 28 listed 17 similar helicopter crashes since August 2002 in which a total of 185 servicemen and crew members died. LF

An explosion early on April 29 damaged a gas pipeline in Daghestan's Khasavyurt Raion, leaving some 100,000 people without gas for much of the day, Interfax reported. ITAR-TASS cited an unnamed expert as saying an inspection of the site indicated that the blast was caused by an explosive device. Daghestan Interior Ministry and Federal Security Service (FSB) representatives announced in Makhachkala on April 28 that they succeeded in averting a series of terrorist attacks planned by a militant group led by Shamil Gasanov for the May Day holiday period, reported. Three young men were arrested during a search on April 28 of an apartment in Makhachkala and large quantities of explosives confiscated. LF

Some 30 supporters of Magomet Botashev, the opposition candidate in the March 11 mayoral election in Karachayevsk, forced their way on April 27 into the municipal administration building and declared a hunger strike until the republican prosecutor declares Botashev the victor in the disputed ballot, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21 and April 24 and 25, 2007). Botashev personally persuaded them to vacate the premises that evening, but some 100 people continued to picket the building the following day. City prosecutor Askhat Teunayev told journalists on April 28 that the protest was not a criminal act, reported. He also said he has formally protested a court ruling that six criminal cases opened in connection with the disputed March 11 election were unfounded, and he declared that he will not hand over to the republic's election commission protocols from one of the town's electoral districts until the investigation into those criminal cases is completed, reported on April 28. LF

Addressing students at Yerevan State University on April 27, President Robert Kocharian described as an "ugly manifestation" of "treason" comments made by former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian during a February meeting with a British diplomat, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. That conversation was clandestinely recorded, and the pro-Kocharian Russian-language daily "Golos Armenii" published on April 20 what it claimed were excerpts from it in which Baghdasarian complained that the authorities were already taking steps to rig the outcome of the May 12 parliamentary ballot and asked whether the EU could issue "some signal of alarm" before the vote. Kocharian added that he does not "think it would be right" to take "tough action" against Baghdasarian, presumably meaning bringing criminal charges against him, but he made clear that anyone who votes for Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir party will be considered as lacking patriotism and dignity. Baghdasarian, who resigned as parliament speaker one year ago after a public disagreement with Kocharian over whether Armenia should join NATO (see "Armenia: Outgoing Parliament Speaker Now 'In Opposition,'", May 23, 2006), condemned the publication of the transcript in a written statement on April 23 and in a telephone conversation with RFE/RL's Armenian Service on April 27 as "a violation not only of the constitution and laws but also of moral norms." The British Embassy in Yerevan confirmed on April 26 that one of its staff met with Baghdasarian, but similarly condemned as "dishonest" the taping of the conversation and subsequent publication of what it termed "a gross misrepresentation" of what the two men actually said, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

Kocharian also assured Yerevan State University students on April 27 that the authorities will do all in their power to ensure that the May 12 election is free, fair, and democratic, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He predicted that opposition parties are already planning to protest the election results should their "unrealistic" estimates of their popularity prove to be wrong, and he warned that the authorities will act "appropriately" to quash any attempt to mobilize dissatisfied voters and "undermine...political stability." Kocharian assessed the election campaign to date as proceeding in a calm and civilized manner, which he construed as evidence that the Armenian electorate has no interest in a "colored revolution," Noyan Tapan reported. Also on April 27, veteran oppositionist and National Self-Determination Union head Paruyr Hairikian appealed to all voters who want free and fair elections to select the "against all" option on the ballot paper, Noyan Tapan reported. On April 28, the opposition Armenian Pan-National Movement asked the Central Election Commission to annul its registration to participate in the ballot under the proportional system, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

The opposition Musavat Party convened a protest meeting on April 28 in Baku with the approval of the municipal authorities, reported. Participants, including Musavat Chairman Isa Qambar, demanded measures to combat official corruption, transparency in the distribution and spending of revenues from the sale of oil and gas, and the writing off of citizens' debts for communal services. estimated the number of protesters at around 1,000, or fewer than the 2,000 who turned out for the previous rally on March 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007). LF

On a one-day visit to Baku on April 26, Miklos Haraszti, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) high representative for freedom of the media, expressed concern in an interview with at the 2 1/2-year jail sentence for libel handed down one week earlier to Eynulla Fatullayev, editor of the twin publications "Realny Azerbaijan" and "Gyundelik Azerbaycan" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007). Haraszti noted that Fatullayev is the fifth journalist to be sentenced in Azerbaijan, and he characterized his newspaper as one of Azerbaijan's most important independent media outlets. On April 27, Amnesty International released a statement similarly expressing concern over the charges brought against Fatullayev for statements that he denies having made. LF

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giorgi Mandjgaladze met in Tbilisi on April 28 with diplomats representing the five countries (France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States) that are members of the Friends of the UN Secretary-General for Georgia group to discuss what further steps to take toward resolving the Abkhaz conflict in the wake of the UN Security Council resolution adopted on April 13, Caucasus Press reported on April 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 17, 2007). They singled out as priorities the return in dignity and safety of refugees and displaced persons to their homes in Abkhazia and a resumption of dialogue between the central Georgian government and that of the breakaway republic of Abkhazia. On April 27, Ruslan Kishmaria, who is the administrative head of Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion, told the governor of the neighboring Georgian region that the Abkhaz authorities will release three Georgian students who allegedly entered Abkhazia illegally in early March only after the Georgian side frees Gali election official David Sigua, who was abducted in western Georgia in early February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2007). Meanwhile, thousands of Georgian students converged on April 27 on the bridge over the River Inguri that marks the border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia to demand the release of their fellow students, Caucasus Press reported. Initial reports suggested the three would be freed following the release of Fridon Chakaberia, an Abkhaz official sentenced in Georgia in February on what are believed to be fabricated charges of possession of drugs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, 2007). LF

The ban imposed 13 months ago by the Russian Federation on imports of wine and mineral water cost Georgia some $100 million in 2006, National Bank of Georgia Vice President David Amaghlobeli told a parliament committee on April 27, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin met on April 28 with visiting OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Chairman Goran Lennmarker in Astana, Kazakhstan Today reported. After the meeting, Lennmarker pledged his personal support for Kazakhstan's bid to assume the rotating OSCE chairmanship in 2009, noting that the OSCE "appreciates the political reforms" under way but also warning that "there is still room for Kazakhstan to grow." Tazhin is also scheduled to address the Vienna meeting of the OSCE Permanent Council on April 30 and is expected to lobby on behalf of his country's bid to chair the OSCE. In a separate meeting earlier on April 28 with Kazakh Senate speaker Qasymzhomart Toqaev, Lennmarker said that "Kazakhstan's economic development is very good," but added that "it is necessary that economic development is accompanied by democratic development." Kazakhstan is due to host the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly's annual session in 2008. Lennmarker, a Swedish lawmaker, is on a regional tour that includes visits to Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. RG

Polling stations in two key Kyrgyz constituencies closed on April 29 with over 55 percent of eligible voters turning out for a special by-election, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Several election observer teams, including international observers from the OSCE and local representatives of Kyrgyz civil society and the Kyrgyz Ombudsman's Office, reported that the voting was conducted without incident or irregularity. Preliminary results are not expected to be released until the morning of April 30. Candidates must garner at least 50 percent of the vote or face a second runoff election. RG

Bermet Akaeva, the daughter of former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev, was hospitalized on April 29, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Interfax. Akaeva was recently barred from running in the by-election by a district court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, 2007). That ruling was upheld on April 27 by the Supreme Court on the grounds that she failed to meet the minimum residency requirement needed for her candidacy, although the residency requirement was reportedly removed from the constitution in December 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3, 2007) but not adopted in the election law. She was reportedly hospitalized after being summoned for questioning by the Kemin district prosecutor's office. Akaeva, whose father fled to Russia after being forced from power in a series of popular demonstrations in March 2005, first announced last month her intention to run against seven other candidates in the election for the parliamentary seat representing her father's native northern Kemin district that was previously held by her brother, Aidar, who also left Kyrgyzstan in 2005 and is now in Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). RG

Following a meeting with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon in Dushanbe the previous day, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour called on April 28 for Tajikistan to do more to ensure wider access to justice in the country, RFE/RL reported. She also urged Tajik leaders to allow local and international monitors to visit places of detention. Arbour is on a tour of the region and arrived in Tajikistan after visiting Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan Today reported. RG

A court in the Tajik capital Dushanbe on April 27 sentenced two police officers convicted of torturing a 16-year-old boy to two years in prison, according to RFE/RL. The court also fined a third officer the equivalent of $1,700 for not intervening to protect the boy. According to Dushanbe prosecutor Kurbonali Mukhabbatov, the boy was detained in January during the investigation of a robbery and then was beaten and tortured with electric shocks by the policemen. RG

Speaking in Ashgabat following a meeting with officials of the Malaysian Petronas energy company, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov announced on April 28 that the Malaysian firm has agreed to develop the country's energy sector, Interfax reported. Berdymukhammedov added that the foreign company plans to produce up to 1,700 tons of oil a day in 2007 and will start producing natural gas in late 2009. The state-owned Petronas group first signed a 25-year production-sharing agreement in 1996 to explore and develop an area in the Turkmen sector of the Caspian Sea. That agreement was renewed in 2002 and the company has developed several oil and gas fields in Turkmenistan's offshore "Block-1" sector of the Caspian Sea (see "RFE/RL Turkmen Report," November 12, 2002). RG

Opposition groups on April 29 held regional conferences in Minsk Oblast and Homel Oblast to select candidates for the Second Congrees of Pro-democratic Forces, which was preliminarily scheduled in Minsk for May 26-27, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Participants in the regional conferences took part in a secret ballot to determine the status of chairperson and co-chairpersons of the Political Council of the United Democratic Forces, the formation of the Political Council and its board, and the functions and powers of the board. The key question for the nationwide congress of the opposition in May will be whether Alyaksandr Milinkevich, who was elected as the opposition's presidential candidate for the March 2006 election at a similar opposition congress in October 2005, will remain the leader of the united opposition or have to share his leadership with other opposition party leaders under a "rotational principle" proposed earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report," February 22, 2007). JM

President Viktor Yushchenko appeared at an opposition rally on European Square in Kyiv on 28 April, Ukrainian media reported. Yushchenko assured a crowd of some 20,000 supporters of the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada that early parliamentary elections will take place on June 24, as scheduled by his decree last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26 and 27, 2007). "I will soon announce decisions that will guarantee the election takes place in a calm and appropriate manner," Yushchenko said without mentioning specific measures he plans to take. "I have sufficient means to ensure the preparation and staging of these elections. I will overcome any criminal sabotage. Any failure to act will be brought to account," Yushchenko added. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said at a rally of his supporters on Independence Square in Kyiv on April 27 that by issuing his decree to reschedule snap elections for June 24, Yushchenko violated all the agreements the two of them had reached prior to that decree. JM

President Yushchenko met with his Polish counterpart, Lech Kaczynski, in Warsaw on April 27 to sign a joint statement on the 60th anniversary of Operation Vistula (Operacja Wisla), Polish and Ukrainian media reported. In 1947, the then-Polish communist authorities forcibly resettled some 150,000 Ukrainians from their ethnic territory in the southeast of Poland to the so-called Recovered Lands in the north and west of the country. The official reasons for the resettlement was the need to suppress the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, which fought Polish troops after World War II, pursuing the ideal of an independent Ukrainian state. "Today's visit confirms the fact that President Kaczynski and I deeply share the formula for historical mutual understanding and historical reconciliation, which is extremely important to the Ukrainian and Polish peoples," Yushchenko said in Warsaw. JM

Lawmakers from the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party on April 30 passed a resolution calling for early presidential and parliamentary polls to be held not later than December 9, 2007, following the introduction of relevant amendments to the constitution, UNIAN reported. The resolution tasks an ad hoc parliamentary commission with preparing appropriate constitutional amendments by June 10. It is not clear what legal force, if any, the resolution will have in the ongoing institutional crisis in Ukraine. President Yushchenko, after issuing his two decrees in April on the dissolution of parliament and early elections, does not consider the current Verkhovna Rada a legitimate legislature. Meanwhile, lawmakers from the ruling coalition continue to hold parliamentary sittings pending the Constitutional Court's verdict on Yushchenko's decrees. JM

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried said on April 28 that Washington hopes "Russia understands that Kosovo is going to be independent one way or another," Reuters reported the same day. Fried said that "it will either be done in a controlled, supervised way that provides for the well-being of the Serbian people, or it will take place in an uncontrolled way and the Kosovo Serbs will suffer the most, which would be terrible." Previous U.S. predictions of violence have been condemned as "blackmail" by Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20, 2007). Fried said the EU would be divided over recognizing an independent Kosovo if the ethnic Albanian majority were to declare independence without a Security Council resolution. "A divided Europe is a bad thing in general and a terrible thing in this particular case," he continued. However, Fried struck an optimistic note, saying, according to the "International Herald Tribune" on April 29, that he expects a UN resolution to "be adopted by the end of spring." Fried was speaking at a conference in Brussels organized by the German Marshall Fund, during which differences between the United States and some Europeans did emerge. Carl Bildt, Sweden's foreign minister and the EU's special envoy in the Balkans in the mid-1990s, warned that a U.S. threat to recognize Kosova without the backing of the UN would be "playing with fire," not only in the Balkans but also in U.S. relations with Western Europe, Radio-Television Serbia reported on April 28. The Serbian broadcaster also quoted Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht as saying unilateral steps should be avoided. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said on April 27 at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers that NATO's members "believe that the time, after eight years, has come for a decision on the issue," international media reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27, 2007). Media reports from the NATO gathering indicated willingness by the United States to accommodate some concerns about the Serbian minority, but no changes that might compromise the principles of the UN blueprint. "There is no questioning of the Ahtisaari plan, but there could be some adjustments," Reuters quoted one diplomat as saying. AG

During a visit to Paris, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic told the April 26 edition of "Le Figaro" that he finds it incomprehensible that the West backs Kosova but denies Bosnian Serbs the right to self-determination and that it does not see its support for Kosova risks stoking separatist tendencies among Macedonia's ethnic Albanians. Russia has also spoken in the past of Kosova being a dangerous precedent. At the German Marshall Fund conference in Brussels, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee of the Russian Duma, Konstantin Kosachyov, did not call Kosova a precedent, acknowledging that Kosova is a unique case, but he said people in other parts of the world would view it as a precedent for secession. Russian President Vladimir Putin has previously called for "universal principles" to be used when settling unresolved conflicts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 2006). At the NATO gathering on April 27, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described as "perverse" and "imperialistic" the idea that "it is between Russia and the Western countries that the status of Kosovo must be decided," saying, according to AFP, that Prishtina and Belgrade must reach a deal between themselves. AG

A 15-strong delegation of UN ambassadors returned on April 30 to New York after a six-day mission aimed at assessing the situation in Kosova. Speaking in Prishtina on April 28, at the end of three days in Serbia and Kosova, Belgian Ambassador Johan Verbeke told journalists that the members of the UN Security Council should now be able to discuss a resolution on the future of Kosova "with a lot of serenity, with a lot of coolness, with a...mind-set of no nonsense." The ambassadors felt "there is enough potential for mutual confidence and cooperation to indeed aim at what is the collective aim of the international community for Kosovo; that is, to make it a multiethnic society." He added that the Kosovar Serbs showed their "belief in the future of Kosovo, but that still we will have to work on further confidence and willingness to work together for a multiethnic society." He refused to give any hint of the positions of the individual members of the mission. He also refused to indicate when a resolution will be put forward, saying that "important issues should never be hostage to predetermined deadlines" and that "space and time" is needed "in order for all the partners of the Security Council to feel at ease with the solution." In contrast to claims by Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica that the mission opens up a "completely new phase" in talks and signifies the rejection of the blueprint presented by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, Verbeke simply said the members of the Security Council came to Kosova in order "to bridge the gap between what we learn and know in New York...and then the realities here in Kosovo," continuing: "Not that there is a gap, in terms of differences, but that it enables us better to see what these concepts exactly mean" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2007). The mission's itinerary included meetings with UN administrators and NATO commanders operating in Kosova; Serbia's president and prime minister; Kosova's president, prime minister, and members of parliament; representatives of the Serbian Orthodox and Catholic churches and the Muslim community in Kosova; as well as with leaders of the ethnic Serbian and Albanian communities, and representatives of the Romany, Turkish, and other minorities. AG

The 15 ambassadors, all from members of the Security Council, gave few indications of how the trip affected their views. Kosovar Albanian media quoted the French ambassador, Jean-Marc de la Sabliere, as saying he was impressed with the Kosovar government's efforts to meet the standards set by the UN, particularly regarding the position of minorities. Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku reportedly said many of the ambassadors praised Kosova's achievements. Particular question marks linger over the position of South Africa. After meetings in Belgrade on April 26, Serbian officials said the South African ambassador said he was not aware of Serbia's proposal of autonomy for Kosova. A commentary published on April 27 by the South African daily "The Star" said Johannesburg fears "West[ern]-backed independence for Kosovo might create a dangerous precedent for African ethnic minorities to demand secession," but "now seems a bit wary of once again isolating itself by opposing not only the West but much of the rest of the world." Russia's Vitaly Churkin, whose country has threatened to veto independence for Kosova, maintained a low profile. The Kosovar Albanian paper "Expres" said he asked why a limited number of Serbian security forces have not returned to Kosova, as permitted under the UN mandate, while the daily "Kosova sot" reported surprise that Churkin failed to meet with non-Serbian minorities. According to Kosovar Albanian media, the U.S. ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad, asked the head of the UN administration whether Serbia has hindered the implementation of the UN's mandate. International and local media also quoted him as saying he expects a decision on Kosova's future to be settled "in weeks," adding, according to AP and Reuters, that "I believe there are enough votes in support of the...plan." AG

The leaders of Kosova's main communities reiterated long-held positions during their meetings with the UN ambassadors. Speaking afterwards to journalists, Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu told journalists that "we said many times that Kosova is committed to building a democratic, modern state," and he stressed that Kosova would be an inclusive state that would protect its minorities. Prime Minister Agim Ceku said, "Kosova has all the legal infrastructure of a state, it acts like a state, [and] thinks like a state." He blamed Belgrade for the low number of Serbs that have returned to Kosova, saying, in comments carried by the Albanian-language daily "Expres," "we need Belgrade to allow Kosovar Serbs to return to Kosova and integrate." According to the daily "Kosova sot," Ceku predicted the UN will reach a decision in May, a conviction that "comes from the commitment of our allies and partners to conclude the process in May." The leader of the Serbian Orthodox Church in the region, Bishop Artemije, told journalists that "the entire Serbian people as well as the state of Serbia shall never accept any kind of imposed solution, any solution that will separate Kosovo from Serbia," AFP reported, and he added that "the only solution we can see lies in genuine negotiations and a compromise solution acceptable to both parties." According to the Serbian news agency FoNet, Serbs the ambassadors met described their life as an "imitation" of life and pointed to "strict censorship, conditions being set and obstruction through various methods, all in order to prevent the return of a significant number of Serbs and other non-Albanians." Kosovar television quoted a Serbian leader in the divided city of Mitrovica as expressing "skepticism" regarding "deals about the return of the population, the registering of private property, and equal treatment for all citizens." AG

Reports vary on the response to the mission on the part of local people. Reuters reported Kosovar Albanians cheering the entourage while Kosovar Serbians jeered them. However, neither local nor other international reports reported jeering and nor do they support a claim by Reuters that the ambassadors beat a hasty retreat in Orahovac, with the police having to hold back an angry crowd. AFP merely described anxiety, while the Kosovar Albanian media passed over the local Serbs' reaction, and the Serbian news agency FoNet reported Serbs in Orahovac shouting, "stay, don't leave us here" and "help us live better." Kosovar television on April 28 reported that Serbs in Orahovac cheered Russian Ambassador Churkin, hailing Russia as their "last hope." Time pressures meant that a visit to one site on the itinerary -- the Serbian village of Svinjare, which was torched in riots in 2004 -- was fleeting, with the Albanian daily "Koha ditore" reporting that only the head of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), Joachim Ruecker, stepped out of the minibus. The ambassadors did not meet with Serbian refugees who gathered at a border crossing to demonstrate -- in the words of one of the rally's organizers, Goran Savovic, as quoted by the Serbian agency Beta -- that it is "a lie" that they would not return to Kosova. Their number swelled to 12,000 over the course of the two-day rally, according to most accounts (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 19 and 27, 2007). The Kosovar media primarily asserted that the UN ambassadors were impressed by Kosova's progress, while Infopress called the fact-finding mission a "boomerang for Belgrade," which had pushed for the UN to dispatch a fact-finding mission to the region. Some resentment of the mission was evident in comments that the visit was made to satisfy the "ego" of Russia and Serbia, and in a "Koha ditore" commentary that the fate of Kosova will be decided abroad, and that "this is how it is when you are small and you are not capable of solving your own problems." The moderate Kosovar Serb leader Oliver Ivanovic said that "some nonpermanent members of the Security Council can learn some new things, but I would not expect anything significant" from the visit, the Balkan website BIRN reported on April 27. His hard-line namesake, Milan Ivanovic, told the gathering of Serbian refugees that "Kosovo has become a prison camp, run by mafia clans, and all reports by the UN officials running Kosovo are fake," AFP reported on April 27. There have been few commentaries in Serbia so far. AG

The Serbian newspaper "Danas" on April 28 reported claims by a seemingly unknown nationalist group that thousands of Serbs are preparing to wage war should Kosova become independent. The group, which calls itself the National Serbian Movement, said that it plans to swear in a corps of volunteers called the St. Tsar Lazar Guard "to free Kosovo-Metohija," the Serbian name for Kosova. Zeljko Vasiljevic, the head of a minor party called the Movement of Serbian Veterans (SPS), told the paper that "a hundred veterans" of the Balkan wars will attend the ceremony, which will be held on May 5 at the central Serbian town of Krusevac. He said that the group has already found 5,000 "eager volunteers." AG

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf spent two days of a weeklong tour of Europe in Bosnia-Herzegovina in talks that focused on economic issues, but also aimed at developing military cooperation, local media reported. During the trip, Musharraf called for reconciliation between Bosnia's ethnic groups, saying that problems at the root of the 1992-95 war remain "wide open," the Serbian broadcaster B92 reported on April 28. Musharraf also met with leaders of the Muslim, Catholic, and Orthodox Christian communities, before heading to Tuzla, where he served in 1993 with a 1,400-strong Pakistani contingent in a UN-led international force in Bosnia. His trip ended on April 28 with a visit to Srebrenica, where he honored the victims of the war's worst massacre and stressed the identification of the world's Muslims with Bosnia's suffering. B92 reported that, in an interview published on April 27 by the daily "Dnevni avaz," Musharraf argued that the war in Bosnia "was one of the tragic events caused by the same problem -- the unsolved issue of Palestine." The Croatian news agency Hina indicated on April 27 that continuing cooperation in counterterrorism efforts was touched on, but this was not mentioned in Bosnian or Pakistani reports. Pakistan recently arrested a Bosnian whom they believe was connected with Al-Qaeda (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007). There appear to have been no reports in the Bosnian media on the fate of the suspect since mid-March. AG

Serbia on April 26 rejected as "inappropriate" a call by the international community's high representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, for Serbia to meet its obligations to cooperate with the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the Serbian news agency FoNet reported the same day. The Office of the High Representative indicated that the letter was prompted by the intensity of the debate generated within Bosnia by a ruling in February in which the UN's top court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), found Serbia not guilty of genocide in Bosnia, but "recognized that Serbia violated its obligations under international law to prevent the genocide that took place in and around Srebrenica" and obliged it to cooperate with the ICTY. In the letter, which was sent on April 26 to Serbian President Boris Tadic, Schwarz-Schilling said he hopes Serbia "will at last comply with these obligations in full and without delay." According to FoNet, Tadic's office said, "the institutions of the Republic of Serbia are fully aware of the remaining obligations aiming to achieve full cooperation with The Hague tribunal, primarily the need to find and extradite Ratko Mladic," the wartime military leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and noted that Tadic has advocated the arrest of remaining war crimes suspects and a declaration condemning the massacre at Srebrenica (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, and March 2 and 6, 2007). AG

Serbian diplomats have formally asked Croatia to halt what they described as a "campaign" for a revision of a ruling by the ICJ that found that Serbia was not guilty of genocide in neighboring Bosnia-Herzegovina, Radio-Television Serbia reported on April 28. In the note, sent on an unspecified date through Serbia's embassy in Zagreb, Belgrade also mentioned what it described as the genocide of Serbs, Jews, Roma, and other non-Croats in Yugoslavia during World War II , and contrasted the regular antiwar protests in Serbia during the Balkan wars with the relative lack of dissension in Croatian society in the 1990s. Belgrade's reference to the fascist regime that ruled Croatia between 1941 and 1945 echoes one made on April 23 by the prime minister of Bosnia's Serb-dominated Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2007). The ICJ's ruling has angered many in the Balkans, and the quality of justice handed down by the ICJ has been questioned following accusations that the court allowed Serbia to withhold documents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 17, and 23, 2007). However, Croatia's leading politicians, President Stjepan Mesic and Prime Minister Ivo Sanader, have remained notably restrained in public, though they are under pressure from the Muslim and Croatian members of Bosnia's collective Presidency to demand that the ICJ force Serbia to release more documents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2007). The release of previously secret documents could provide Bosnia with an opportunity to reopen its case against Serbia. AG

The head of the Croatian parliament's Committee on Home Affairs and National Security, Ivan Jarnjak, said on April 27 that he has called on the security services to investigate whether a national broadcaster, HTV, violated the law by airing recordings of a meeting held by Croatia's civil and military leadership during the Balkan wars, Hina reported the same day. The recordings capture Croatia's wartime president, Franjo Tudjman, saying that Serbs must disappear from the area where Operation Storm was being conducted. The 1995 campaign prompted the ICTY to bring indictments against several of the generals present at the meeting with Tudjman. Three members of the Committee on Home Affairs and National Security said they believe the recording was, or could be, subject to protection as a state secret. One, Pero Kovacevic of the right-wing Party of Rights (HSP), said, "we believe that the audio recording was doctored to corroborate the transcript sent to The Hague tribunal" in the cases brought against generals at the meeting. The ICTY's pursuit of General Ante Gotovina in particular became a crucial and divisive political issue in Croatia in the 2000s (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2007). He was eventually arrested in Spain in December 2005. AG

Ivica Racan, who led Croatia's first pro-Western government between 2000 and 2003, died on April 29. Local and international media reported that the 63-year-old died of a cancer that had spread over the past three months from his kidney to his brain. Racan, a onetime communist leader, founded the center-left Social Democrats and led it -- with a brief interruption -- between 1990 until April 11 this year. He played a pivotal role in redirecting Croatian politics away from the authoritarianism and nationalism of the late President Tudjman. However, while Racan set Croatia on the road to the EU by signing a premembership agreement, his six-party coalition government hesitated to hand over war crimes suspects to The Hague, a vacillation that may have set Croatia's European ambitions back by years. Racan was born in a German concentration camp in 1944, a period when Nazi sympathizers governed Croatia, and became Croatia's Communist Party leader in 1989. Under his leadership, the Communist Party in Croatia introduced a multiparty system, leading to elections in 1990 that it duly lost. Racan's death deprives the Social Democrats of one of Croatia's most popular politicians half a year before parliamentary elections in November. AG

A week after first receiving the bill, Moldova's parliament on April 27 approved the third and final reading of a set of measures that could, proponents believe, transform Moldova's economic prospects. Local media reported that 67 of the assembly's 101 members voted for the package of tax cuts and amnesties, and said the changes made during the bill's passage through parliament were negligible (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11 and 20, 2007). To become law, the bill now needs to be signed by President Vladimir Voronin, who instigated the reforms. AG

Following the tumultuous Orange Revolution in 2004, Ukraine is facing its second serious crisis in just less than three years. President Viktor Yushchenko on April 2 issued a decree dissolving the Verkhovna Rada and calling for early elections in May, but both the government and parliament refused to obey it. On April 26 Yushchenko signed another decree, rescheduling the early elections for June.

Yushchenko's new decree on early parliamentary elections effectively annuls his decree of April 2, which has been undergoing examination for its compliance with the constitution by the Constitutional Court since April 17. It is expected that the Constitutional Court, in accordance with its rules of procedure, will soon end consideration of this decree now that it is no longer valid.

Many Ukrainian legal experts and political commentators have opined that Yushchenko's April 2 decision to disband the Verkhovna Rada was poorly justified, predicting that the Constitutional Court would invalidate it. According to them, by issuing another decree Yushchenko obviates such an unfavorable turn of events.

In his first decree, Yushchenko quoted Article 83 of the constitution, which stipulates that a government majority in parliament be formed by deputy factions. Since the ruling coalition had expanded its parliamentary representation with some 40 lawmakers from other factions in March, Yushchenko argued the coalition violated the constitution, thus providing him with the right to disband the legislature in order to put the political process in the country back on a constitutional path.

However, the moot point for Yushchenko's opponents from the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party is that the reasons for early parliamentary elections are specified in Article 90 of the constitution.

This article stipulates the president may call early elections if the Verkhovna Rada fails to form a majority in accordance with Article 83 within 30 days after its first sitting; fails to approve a new cabinet within 60 days after the dismissal or resignation of the previous one; or fails to gather for a sitting within 30 days during an ongoing parliamentary session. None of these reasons was explicitly mentioned in Yushchenko's April 2 decree.

Yushchenko's new decree refers to Point 1 of Article 90 as a reason for the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada. It remains to be seen whether, as Yushchenko implies, the defection of more than 30 opposition deputies to the ruling coalition in March may be considered the formation of a new majority. But at any rate, as one legal expert recently told RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service, the new decree at least provides the Constitutional Court with substance for discussion.

Apart from causing headaches for Constitutional Court judges, the current constitutional crisis poses the disturbing question of whether democracy, which was so joyfully celebrated on Independence Square in Kyiv during the 2004 Orange Revolution, has a chance to survive in Ukraine.

Despite ongoing street protests by both supporters and opponents of the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada, the situation in Kyiv and in the provinces has so far been under the government's control. But it is evident Ukraine is slowly edging toward political and legal chaos, which may culminate in a violent scenario if the president, the prime minister, and parliament fail to find a solution quickly.

Could the current confrontation between the key institutions of Ukraine's political system -- the president and the Verkhovna Rada -- have been averted?

The seeds of a potential institutional conflict in Ukraine were sown during the 2004 Orange Revolution in a hurriedly passed constitutional reform that enabled all political players at that time to find a way out of an electoral impasse and paved the way for Yushchenko's victory over Yanukovych in the third round of the presidential election.

The 2004 political-reform package included many vague formulations and loopholes that both Yushchenko and Yanukovych have subsequently tried to use to their advantage. Yanukovych eventually took the upper hand by passing in January 2007 a law on the cabinet of ministers. This law expanded the prime minister's powers at the expense of the president even more than the constitution amended in 2004, which essentially transformed Ukraine from a presidential republic into a parliamentary-presidential one.

However, this law was not enough for Yanukovych, who launched a campaign to lure away lawmakers from opposition caucuses in order to build a majority of at least 300 votes that would enable him to override presidential vetoes, amend the constitution, or even abolish the presidency in Ukraine altogether. Had it not been for Yushchenko's decree on early parliamentary polls, Yanukovych might have succeeded in this plan.

But it would be totally wrong to put the blame for the current crisis only on Yanukovych's appetite for power. Yushchenko should also take a measure of responsibility, because on many occasions he indicated he would like to abolish the 2004 political reform and regain the executive prerogatives enjoyed by his predecessor, Leonid Kuchma.

In short, both Yanukovych and Yushchenko showed disrespect for the constitution amended in 2004 and the checks and balances that were included in it to shift the country's authoritarian political system toward a more European model. Both Yanukovych and Yushchenko have failed to pass a test of political responsibility and moderation and have shown they are true representatives of the post-Soviet mentality, for which a "strongman" is still the ideal of a political leader.

Yushchenko's decision to dissolve the Verkhovna Rada should have been made in July 2006, when Our Ukraine, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Socialist Party buried all chances to recreate their post-Orange Revolution ruling coalition, and the Verkhovna Rada clearly overstepped the constitutional time frame for forming a majority. At that time Yushchenko could have recaptured the political initiative and presented himself as a decisive leader of the nation. What we see now is the direct consequence of his indecision in 2006.

The current political crisis seems to have been cunningly provoked by his enthusiastic ally in the Orange Revolution, Yuliya Tymoshenko, who helped Yanukovych overcome Yushchenko's veto on the law on the cabinet of ministers and thus goaded Yushchenko into action against Yanukovych. Tymoshenko, for whom there has been no government role following the March 2006 elections, is the actor who most wants early elections and a new political opening.

Sociological surveys indicate that Yanukovych's Party of Regions and Tymoshenko's eponymous bloc are poised to win a new poll and effectively inaugurate a two-party system in Ukraine. For any other country in transition such a situation could be a blessing. For Ukraine -- with Yanukovych's electorate entrenched in the east and the south and Tymoshenko's supporters grouped in the west -- such an election outcome could turn into a nightmare.

For Yushchenko, any resolution of the current standoff does not bode well. If he fails to enforce early elections, he will suffer the humiliation of being marginalized in Ukraine's political arena. If early elections take place and, as generally expected, the results reinforce the Party of Regions and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc at the expense of Yushchenko's Our Ukraine, his political stature will hardly improve. The time when Yushchenko could impose his will on Ukraine appears to have been lost.

Hundreds of Afghans took to the streets in Nangarhar Province on April 29 after six people were killed during a raid by U.S.-led coalition forces, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Protesters shouted slogans against Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the United States: "We do not want them. We do not want this kind of life in the future. America is our enemy. America is our enemy! Karzai is our enemy! Karzai is our enemy!" The protesters managed to block the main road from Kabul to the Pakistani border town of Torkham, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on April 29. Some protesters alleged that two women were among those killed and that U.S. forces took away two women and two children after the raid, which took place overnight. In February, the Nangarhar Provincial Council stopped working for four days to protest the killing of a local cleric by foreign forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8, 2007). AT

Celine Cordelier, the Frenchwoman released by the Taliban on April 28, called on her captors to release four other hostages they are holding, including Eric Damfreville, a Frenchman, and three Afghans, Paris LCI Television reported on April 29. After thanking the Taliban for keeping "their promises" in returning her to her parents and for treating her "with respect," Cordelier asked them "to have pity, in the name of their God, on Eric, Hazrat, Hashim, and Rasul." Cordelier said that she told her captors that her "freedom was nothing" if the other four were not released. A letter addressed to "Celine" posted on April 28 in the name of the Leadership Council of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country during the Taliban rule -- on a website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate said that the "mujahedin of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan want to convey a message to the world, and in particular to the people of France, that the Taliban are peace-loving and, in particular, want women to be treated well." In a separate statement posted on the website, the Leadership Council demands that either France withdraws its forces from Afghanistan, or makes a deal with regards to "certain" Taliban prisoners. The statement also says that since the French are busy with their presidential election, the deadline for dealing with the hostages will be extended for an additional week. Taliban abducted the two French citizens and three Afghans on April 4 in Nimroz Province in southwestern Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5, 2007), and demanded that France withdraw its forces from Afghanistan and that the Afghan government release an unspecified number of Taliban prisoners. AT

The suicide bomber who detonated explosives he was carrying at a rally attended by Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao in Charsada, in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan near the Afghan border on April 28, could have been an Afghan, AFP reported on April 29. The attack left 28 people dead and more than 50 injured, including Sherpao, who sustained minor injuries. NWFP police chief Sharif Virk said that the bomber's head has been recovered, adding that he "appeared to be an Afghan." Charsada police chief Firoz Shah told the news agency that DNA samples from the bomber have been taken for further investigation. He added that investigators have found two Russian-made detonators at the scene of the attack. Karzai telephoned Sherpao after the attack. Kabul has blamed Pakistan for the insecurity in Afghanistan, while Islamabad has maintained that Pakistan is a victim of terrorism and it is doing its best to counter it (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," January 26, 2007). AT

The first private university in Mazar-e Sharif, the capital of Balkh Province, opened its doors on April 27, Mazar-e Sharif-based Arzu TV reported. Mawlana Jalaluddin Mohammad Balkhi University, named after the famous 13th-century Muslim mystic and poet, opened with two faculties of law and politics (combined), and journalism. Balkhi University is the third private institution of higher learning in Afghanistan. Jalaluddin Balkhi, who was born in Balkh, is better-known around the world as Rumi, for "Rum," or Anatolia, where he lived most of his life and where he died. AT

Senior Iranian officials addressed in Tehran on April 29 the third set of municipal councils since 1979 as they started their new working term, agencies reported. The officials urged the councilors to respond to people's daily needs, agencies reported. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a public message that the aim of councils is to ensure Iranians live "more comfortably and morally," and he urged them not to act in line with "factional and party motivations," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 30. Party politics and "clan" allegiances are a "deadly poison" in councils, Khamenei said, adding that councilors should oversee the work of mayors with impartiality, take care of municipal infrastructures, and promote a culture of orderliness and piety. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told an April 29 gathering in Tehran marking National Councils Day that his government fully supports local councils, and he urged the public to cooperate with their councilors even if they are not from the parties they supported on election day, ISNA reported. He said justice and the implementation of the law "for everyone" should be the basis of councils' work. VS

Mustafa Purmohammadi said on April 28 in Gorgan, in the northern Gulistan Province, that investment and nonpetroleum exports have increased in Iran and the government of President Ahmadinejad has "seriously" stopped the "increasing flight of elites and brains" from Iran in the past two years, ILNA reported. "The country's doors are not shut to anyone. Everyone is free to go anywhere...they like," he said. Purmohammadi told a ceremony presenting the new governor of Gulistan, Yahya Mahmudzadeh, that "there may have been claims of this [drain] in past years," but not anymore, and the government has created good conditions for "researchers." He also spoke about domestic security and said "presently there are many foreign nationals in the country." He said the government is seeking the departure of 1 million "foreigners" from Iran by the end of the Persian year on March 20, 2008. He did not specify who he meant by foreigners, but Iran has recently been sending Afghan refugees back to Afghanistan, something that Kabul has protested. Purmohammadi also defended the police's current drive to promote public decency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, 2007): "Implementing God's laws and the edicts of nothing to be ashamed of, and this government [cannot] be accused of being reactionary and backward," he said. VS

Iran's Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution has instructed Iran's Telecommunications Ministry to buy equipment to control and block, if necessary, multimedia messages -- such as photos -- sent by Iranian mobile-phone users, Radio Farda reported on April 29, citing the Fars news agency. The council, whose members include Iranian Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Suleimani, state television and radio chief Ezzatollah Zarghami, and Culture Minister Hussein Saffar-Herandi, ordered the measure to prevent "possible abuse and immoral acts," Radio Farda reported. This is, presumably, a reference to such uses as people sending photos of their faces or perhaps even more revealing pictures -- or private e-mails, for example for dating purposes -- which would contravene Iran's religious laws. The Iranian mobile-phone service provider is Irancell. Radio Farda stated that Irancell will begin multimedia messaging service (MMS) in a few months. Radio Farda reported that Iran blocked Internet-to-phone messages for several days in the run-up to last December's local council elections, apparently to prevent political/campaign-related messages from being simultaneously sent out to many users. The Internet is also filtered and controlled in Iran, and pornographic sites or websites deemed hostile to Iran's government are blocked domestically, including the Radio Farda website. VS

An unspecified number of students from the Amir Kabir University in Tehran protested outside the university head's office on April 28 to press for demands including the release of recently arrested student Babak Zamanian, Radio Farda reported the same day. A member of the Islamic Students Association (ISA) -- the student union -- Nariman Mostafavi told Radio Farda on April 28 that students began a sit-in outside the offices of university chief Alireza Rahai to protest over the university's perceived interference in ISA elections, restrictions on the entry of some students onto campus, and Zamanian's arrest. Mostafavi said students believe university authorities have cooperated with security forces in Zamanian's arrest, and had fabricated a "dossier" for him, as he had been an outspoken student activist. Mostafavi told Radio Farda that Zamanian was arrested outside a judiciary office near the campus -- as he stopped to talk to some plaintiffs outside -- and sent to Evin prison on April 25. Radio Farda also reported that the university's authorities are watching some students and they, or other students, are being denied entry onto campus. VS

Branch 6 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced activist Shahla Entesari to three years in jail, apparently on April 28, for her participation in a rights protest last year, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 29 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2006, and March 1, April 17, 19, and 25, 2007). Two and a half years of her sentence were suspended for a period of five years, the daily stated. She is one of several women to have been jailed in recent weeks over the 2006 protest against gender-biased laws in Iran. Two other activists also faced prosecution: Tehran bus drivers' union member Gholamreza Gholamhusseini was to appear in Branch 6 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court on April 29, ILNA reported. His lawyer, Parviz Khorshidi, told ILNA on April 28 that the charge is endangering national security with "acts of propaganda." The editor of the reformist daily "Mardom Salari," Mostafa Kavakebian, also defended himself in court on April 29 against charges of publishing false reports, insulting state officials, and inciting "people and groups to undertake acts against national security," ISNA reported. The charges apparently dated from about 2002, and the court is to sentence Kavakebian later, ISNA reported. VS

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in an April 29 telephone call that Iran will attend the Sharm El-Sheikh meeting on Iraq on May 3-4, IRNA reported on April 29. Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki will represent Iran at the meeting. Al-Maliki met with Ali Larijani, the head of the Iranian National Security Council, in Baghdad on April 29, and told him that the terrorism and insecurity currently plaguing Iraq could easily spill over its borders, including to states that purport to support Iraq, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Larijani told reporters following the meeting that Iran is keen on supporting security in Iraq. "We believe democracy is the only way to establish sustainable security and that the government of [Iraq] is rooted in democratic thoughts and supported by the people," Iranian television reported the same day. KR

Parliamentarian Wa'il Abd al-Latif told Al-Iraqiyah television on April 29 that he is optimistic that the Sharm El-Sheikh meeting will achieve some good for Iraq. "The fact that more than 70 nations will meet in Sharm El-Sheikh is a good international indication that a large number of world states seek to support Iraq," he said. He added that the meeting should help bolster international support for Iraqi reconciliation and reconstruction. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Al-Iraqiyah television in an April 28 interview that the government believes the conference will serve as a starting point for greater interaction between Iraq and its neighbors. Al-Dabbagh said more than 100 states and organizations will take part in the conference. KR

Sunni Arab parliamentarian Khalaf al-Ulayyan called on members of the Iraqi Accordance Front to withdraw from the government to protest the security operations that he claimed unduly target front members and other actions of the Shi'ite-led government, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on April 29. Speaking at a press conference in Baghdad, al-Ulayyan criticized raids on the homes of the front's members, actions taken to strip front members of immunity from prosecution for alleged crimes, and the arrests of front members. "I call on the Al-Tawafuq [Accordance] Front leaders, parliamentary representatives, and ministers to rise to...declare their stand on this miserable situation and to threaten to withdraw completely from government," al-Ulayyan said. "This is to happen unless our legal demands are met within a set period of time." He criticized the government for attacking the front under the cover of legitimacy. Al-Ulayyan praised the U.S. Congress for demanding a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces in an April 27 interview with London-based "Quds Press." He claimed that President George W. Bush objected to the timetable out of economic interests. KR

Iraqi parliamentarian Liqa al-Yasin read a letter from Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to U.S. President Bush during the April 28 session of parliament, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Al-Sadr began by saying that Iraqis and people from around the world, including Democrats and Republicans in the United States, have called for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, adding: "Your occupation is not far from the injustice done by Saddam [Hussein] or the fate of dictatorships, which you know. You ignored your friends and partners, let alone world opinion and Iraqi public opinion." Al-Sadr denied that any worse chaos could come to Iraq should U.S. forces withdraw. Addressing Bush, he asked: "What terrorism have you repulsed when you have replaced the dictatorship with the Takfiris [nonbelievers]? What Ba'ath Party have you uprooted when you are calling for their return to our government? What weapons have you disarmed...? What sectarianism have you eliminated...? Is this the democracy you want?" KR

Muqtada al-Sadr also commented on the 2001 World Trade Center bombing in his letter to President Bush, claiming the United States diverted the war on terror to Iraq. Al-Sadr said: "If a tower was destroyed in the United States, what sin have we Iraqis committed? If Saddam destroyed it, he is now burning in hell. If you claim that it was destroyed by the terrorists, you are the one who opened wide the doors of Iraq for them so as to kill while you [in America] enjoy peace." Al-Sadr said a U.S. withdrawal would be a victory for "honorable Iraqis" who defended their independence, adding, "It is not a victory for terrorism." KR

U.S.-led coalition forces detained 72 suspected terrorists during an overnight raid that targeted Al-Qaeda elements in Iraq, the coalition announced in an April 29 press release. The operation targeted insurgents in the Al-Anbar and Salah Al-Din governorates. Thirty-six suspects were detained in Samarra, where insurgents loyal to the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq have centered their activities in recent months. The coalition announced on April 28 that its forces detained 17 suspected terrorists in overnight raids targeting Al-Qaeda in various locations across Iraq. KR

A department operating under Prime Minister al-Maliki has been accused of intimidating, firing, or driving out senior military and police commanders seen as "nationalist," according to U.S. military documents, "The Washington Post" reported on April 30. Some of the leaders targeted by the Office of the Commander in Chief, headed by Bassima Luay Hasun al-Jaidri, reportedly worked to combat violent Shi'ite militias, U.S. military officials said. "Their only crimes or offenses were that they were successful" against al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army, said Brigadier General Dana Pittard, commanding general of the Iraq Assistance Group. Aides to al-Maliki, including government spokesman al-Dabbagh, denied the allegations, saying no political pressure was exerted on military or police officers. Al-Dabbagh said U.S. military officials are "exaggerating" al-Jaidri's role in the government. KR