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Newsline - June 20, 2007

Addressing the government's Military-Industrial Commission on June 19, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov stressed that it is imperative that planned space-based defense systems should be capable of defending against "any scenario of events," the state-run daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on June 20. He added that "air and space intelligence and strikes" could prove decisive in any conflict in the foreseeable future, although "the likelihood of military actions against Russia [in that time frame] is minimal." He did not specify precisely what kinds of systems should be created, but stressed that "concrete, practical steps" are needed to carry out plans adopted in April for space-based defense through 2016. On February 27, Ivanov said Russia needs to develop a "project of the fifth generation that will include not only air-defense systems, but also anti-ballistic missile and space-defense systems." On March 13, Air Force Commander in Chief Colonel General Vladimir Mikhailov said Russia is developing a "fifth-generation air-defense missile system based on the existing S-300 and S-400 systems" in response to the proposed U.S. missile-defense project (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and March 2, 12, and 14, 2007). Critics charge that the Kremlin and the military establishment are using the U.S. plans as an excuse to embark upon a costly arms program that will necessitate diverting funds away from domestic spending projects. PM

On June 19, the state arms dealer Rosoboroneksport denied a report in that day's issue of the daily "Kommersant" that the firm recently began shipments of five MiG-31E interceptor fighters to Syria as part of a deal funded by Iran, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2007). Sergei Chemezov, who heads the company, said at the Le Bourget Air Show near Paris that "Russia has no plans to deliver fighters to Syria and Iran." He added that "this question has not been discussed, and therefore we have nothing to talk about. If we have something to announce, we will do so." On June 20, Israeli Ambassador to Russia Anna Azari said that any such Russian sales to Syria "would cause serious concern in Israel," Interfax reported. She added that "Iran's involvement in a hypothetical deal like that would arouse even greater concerns." She stressed that she hopes the media reports "were just incorrect" and that Russia still adheres to President Vladimir Putin's earlier pledge "not to change the balance of forces" in the Middle East. Azari was born in Lithuania in 1959 and is a former ambassador to Ukraine and Moldova, specializing in the affairs of the CIS and Baltic states. PM

Estonian Defense Ministry spokesman Andres Sang said in Tallinn on June 19 that a Russian Tupolev-154 passenger aircraft twice violated Estonian airspace the previous day on an unscheduled flight from St. Petersburg to Kaliningrad Oblast, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25 and June 5, 6, and 7, 2007). Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Ehtel Halliste said that "it is the usual procedure in such circumstances to issue a protest note asking for an explanation of the incident," and that the ministry will do so soon, dpa reported. Since joining NATO in April 2004, the three Baltic states have often accused Russia of violating their airspace. In one incident in September 2005, a Russian Su-27 fighter flew into Lithuanian airspace and crashed. PM

Karinna Moskalenko, whom "The Moscow Times" described on June 20 as "Russia's leading human rights lawyer," has been charged by the Prosecutor-General's Office with "negligence" in her defense of former Yukos oil major CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky. Khodorkovsky issued a statement from his prison colony cell in Siberia's Chita Oblast saying that he is satisfied with her work, however. Moskalenko and her associates have won 27 rights cases against the Russian state before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Among those she has represented at various times are opposition leader and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov, dissident former KGB officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, torture victims in Chechnya, survivors of the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, and relatives of those killed in the 2004 Beslan school siege. In 2003, she was elected to the Swiss-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ). In 2006, she received an award from the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. A spokeswoman for the ICJ said Moskalenko "is being victimized for representing people that the government is opposed to, and that's a concern for [those interested in] the rule of law in Russia." A disciplinary panel of the Moscow Bar Association is expected to rule on her case soon. PM

European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pottering has sent a letter to Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov demanding an explanation for the detention by police of two members of that parliament during a crackdown on the recent Moscow gay-pride demonstration, Interfax reported on June 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). Pottering noted in particular the lack of police protection for the deputies, who were assaulted by "aggressive hooligans." He said that the police arrested peaceful protesters, not the bullies, and called this behavior "unacceptable." PM

A group of between five and seven militants launched an attack on the OMON (special police) base at Karabulak early on June 20, subjecting the facility to automatic-weapons and mortar fire and injuring at least three OMON personnel, the websites and reported. The fighters reportedly retreated after an hour when police reinforcements arrived. Ingushetian law enforcement officials later claimed to have apprehended two of the attackers close to the base as they prepared to drive away. Security precautions in the Ingushetian capital, Magas, were intensified on June 18 in anticipation of a militant attack, possibly timed to coincide with the third anniversary of the 2004 multiple raids on police and security facilities in which up to 80 people were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 23, and 24, 2004). LF

Melissa Brown, the U.S.-born wife of former Armenian Foreign Minister Alexander Arzumanian, met in Yerevan on June 19 with her husband's former cabinet colleague Serzh Sarkisian, who is now Armenian prime minister, at the latter's invitation, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. She declined to reveal details of the meeting to journalists. Arzumanian, who served as foreign minister from late 1996-early 1998, founded the opposition grouping Civil Resistance last year. He was arrested in early May on charges of illegally receiving from a Russian citizen of Armenian descent a large sum of money, allegedly to finance his opposition activities. Most major opposition parties and several of Arzumanian's former government colleagues have publicly criticized his arrest as politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 5, 11, and 18 and June 6, 2007). LF

A court in the southern town of Artashat suspended indefinitely on June 19 the ongoing trial of businessman and former parliamentarian Hakob Hakobian due to his allegedly deteriorating health, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Hakobian, who is affiliated with Prime Minister Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia, was arrested in October 2006 after his supporters stormed a gas-distribution facility in a village south of Yerevan. He was subsequently stripped of his parliamentary immunity and charged with "hooliganism" and tax evasion, charges he denies, but which precluded him running in the May 12 parliamentary election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11 and 16, 2006, and January 19, 2007). LF

The presidents of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Romania, Lithuania, and Poland and the prime minister of Moldova attended a summit of the GUAM regional alignment in Baku on June 18-19, together with lower level representatives from Latvia, Bulgaria, Austria, Japan, and the United States, Azerbaijani media reported. Founded in late 1997 to counter perceived Russian revanchism, GUAM (of which Uzbekistan was for a few years also a member) has evolved into a counterweight to the Commonwealth of Independent States, which GUAM members perceive as an ineffective instrument by which Russia seeks to preserve its dwindling influence over other former Soviet republics. Its members have also sought to capitalize to the maximum degree on the potential of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Ukraine to serve as an energy corridor from the Caspian to Europe, bypassing Russia. Discussions at the Baku summit focused on ongoing initiatives, such as the planned rail link from the Turkish city of Kars via Tbilisi to Baku, plans to create a GUAM peacekeeping force, and the use of the Odessa-Brody oil pipeline to export part of Azerbaijan's Caspian oil. Participants also discussed expanding cooperation in various fields, including information technology, security, and counterterrorism. The Baku Declaration signed on June 19 reaffirmed its members' shared commitment to cooperate in resolving conflicts on their territory; working with other international organizations; and energy security. LF

Speaking on June 19 at the GUAM summit in Baku, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili predicted the imminent collapse of the de facto leadership of the breakaway unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, and he said that within months Tbilisi will embark on talks with the head of the alternative pro-Georgian provisional administration of the region on its future status within Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. "Georgia has all the necessary resources to resolve this issue peacefully, but quickly and very soon," he added. In the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, government official Dmitry Medoyev construed Saakashvili's statement as an open threat and as evidence that Tbilisi is preparing for a new war, Caucasus Press reported. Also on June 19, South Ossetian government spokeswoman Irina Gagloyeva announced that South Ossetia will no longer issue accreditation for Georgian journalists wishing to travel to South Ossetia. LF

Speaking on June 19 at a press conference in Tbilisi, People's Party leader Koba Davitashvili, formerly a member of the group of young reformers opposed to President Eduard Shevardnadze, appealed to other opposition parties to align in the run-up to the parliamentary and presidential elections to be held in the fall of 2008, RFE/RL's Georgian Service reported. He argued that only by closing ranks can the opposition pose an effective challenge to the ruling coalition, and he set a date of November 2007 for forming a broad opposition alignment. He further advocated holding "primaries" to determine the relative popularity of individual opposition parties, and that would serve as a criterion in determining which party would have how many places on a combined opposition party list. Kakha Kukava of the opposition Democratic Front parliament faction expressed approval of Davitashvili's proposal, but said it is premature to speak of a shared platform. Soso Shatberashvili of the opposition Labor party declined to comment on Davitashvili's proposal, saying his party has not received either a written or an oral invitation from him. LF

Some 50 deputies from the 77-seat lower house of the Kazakh parliament appealed on June 19 to President Nursultan Nazarbaev to dissolve their chamber, Kazakhstan Today and Interfax reported. In comments to journalists, Deputy Nurbakh Rustemov argued that the dissolution of the lower house would "speed up the country's political modernization" by forcing elections two years early. RG

According to a press release issued by the Kazakh Interior Ministry, police detained a local resident in the southern city of Shymkent on June 18 as he attempted to sell an undetermined quantity of the radioactive material caesium-137, Interfax reported on June 19. The suspect reportedly claimed to have purchased the material from an unidentified Almaty resident. RG

The Kyrgyz parliament voted on June 19 to adopt a new law on the construction and operation of two hydroelectric-power stations, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and ITAR-TASS reported. Following a request from President Kurmanbek Bakiev, parliament also adopted a second, related law allowing for the privatization of the facilities. The new laws were needed to allow a $2.5 billion tripartite Kyrgyz-Kazakh-Russian project to build the Kambar-Ata 1 and 2 hydroelectric-power stations to proceed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007). RG

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon met in Dushanbe on June 19 with visiting U.S. Admiral William Fallon, the commander of the U.S. military's Central Command, Asia-Plus reported. The Tajik president reviewed the regional-security situation with Fallon and discussed ongoing bilateral cooperation in stabilization operations in neighboring Afghanistan. Fallon informed Rahmon that "we are ready to further provide assistance to Tajikistan -- first of all, in training sergeants and recruits." He expressed gratitude for making Tajik airspace available not only to U.S. forces flying to Afghanistan, but to those of other member states of the antiterrorism coalition. Responding to journalists' questions on Iran following the meeting with Rahmon, Fallon called on Iran to play a positive role by contributing to regional stability and said he considers the use of force against Iran as a measure of last resort, adding that he favors diplomatic means to solve the Iranian nuclear issue. RG

Alyaksandr Milinkevich, former presidential candidate of the united opposition, told Belapan on June 19 that the recent UN Human Rights Council decision to eliminate the mandate of a rapporteur on human rights for Belarus "ultimately undermines" the reputation of the UN (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2007). "The council's decision is a severe blow to the struggle for ensuring respect for human rights that pro-democratic forces are conducting here," Milinkevich said. "This decision will now be used by the Belarusian authorities for propaganda purposes. The council has turned into a helpless body incapable of efficiently monitoring the human rights situation in problem countries." Vintsuk Vyachorka, chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front, commented that if undemocratic and dictatorial regimes coordinate their efforts, they will be able to dictate their will to the United Nations. According to Vyachorka, Belarus's democratic forces should pin their hopes regarding the human-rights situation in Belarus on the EU and the United States rather than on the UN. "I believe that if EU countries and the U.S. announced their nonparticipation in the present [UN Human Rights] Council, this would completely discredit this institution, and it would make no sense for us to appeal to the council, as the human-rights situation in Belarus would be considered by representatives of nations that have similar or even worse human-rights records," Vyachorka noted. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on June 19 decided to start its next regular session on September 4 and end it on January 11, 2008, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The resolution was approved by 263 of the 272 deputies present. Earlier the same day, lawmakers resolved to terminate their current session on June 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2007). On June 5, President Viktor Yushchenko issued a decree scheduling early parliamentary elections in Ukraine for September 30. More than 150 opposition lawmakers from the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine gave up their mandates earlier this month to pave the way for the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada and early polls. JM

A group of 15 lawmakers who formerly belonged to the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) have restored the BYuT parliamentary caucus in the Verkhovna Rada, the "Ukrayinska pravda" website reported on June 19. Earlier this month, 103 BYuT deputies resigned their seats, while a BYuT congress formally dismissed those lawmakers who refused to tender their resignations. "Not sharing the position of the leadership of the [BYuT] caucus, which in our opinion may lead to unforeseeable consequences, a group of people's deputies refused to abandon the caucus and returned to the session hall to perform their parliamentary duties," Mykola Zamkovenko, who was elected head of the reestablished BYuT faction, said in the Verkhovna Rada on June 19. JM

President Yushchenko has issued decrees dismissing two Constitutional Court judges, Valeriy Pshenychnyy and Volodymyr Ivashchenko, in connection with their resignations, Ukrainian media reported on June 19, quoting the presidential press service. Yushchenko already sacked Pshenychnyy and Ivashchenko on April 30 and May 10, respectively, accusing them of a "breach of oath." The current decrees on the dismissals of Pshenychnyy and Ivashchenko were published on the presidential press service's website ( on June 15, but they disappeared from there several hours later. The press service commented later the same day that their publication was due to a "technical error." On May 1, Yushchenko dismissed another Constitutional Court judge, Syuzana Stanik, similarly accusing her of a "breach of oath." JM

EU foreign ministers have reiterated their support for an early decision on the future of Kosova and for a UN plan that would open the way for the contested Serbian province to become an independent state, regional and international media reported on June 18-20. They also welcomed the resumption of talks with Serbia on a Stabilization and Association Agreement, the first stage on the road to possible EU membership. The ministers said Serbia has shown determination to cooperate with the UN war-crimes tribunal, a comment that echoed the assessment of the tribunal's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2007). No position was adopted on a French proposal that Belgrade and Prishtina should resume talks for six months at the end of which, in the absence of an agreement, the UN would back independence for Kosova. Evidence that such a solution might divide the EU came on June 19 when, according to local and international media, Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyianni told her Serbian counterpart, Vuk Jeremic, that Greece opposes any solution imposed on Serbia. Bakoyianni's comment, which did not refer directly to the French proposal, underscores similar messages previously sent by Greece. Serbia is currently seeking to drum up support for a fresh round of bilateral talks with no deadline, and Serbian media on June 19 reported the Serbian government has drafted a new proposal with fresh ideas on the future of Kosova. AG

The Finnish national broadcaster YLE on June 19 aired an interview with the author of the UN's plan for the future of Kosova, former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari, in which he said he believes Russia may veto his plan, but that Kosova will nonetheless be independent by the end of this year. "It is starting to feel like Russia will use its veto," Ahtisaari told YLE, a comment that marks a change in assessment from his view in May that he doubted Russia would veto the plan. According to Reuters and dpa, Ahtisaari indicated that if Russia does scupper his plan, Kosova could seek international recognition outside the UN. If so, Kosova would almost certainly implement the provisions of his plan, Ahtisaari said, describing its implementation as "almost a prerequisite" for Kosova to win the support of the United States and the EU. According to Reuters, Ahtisaari described the end of 2007 as "an absolute deadline" for Kosova's independence, and also said "the EU cannot remain a prisoner of this situation." AG

Montenegro's parliament on June 19 voted against a resolution expressing support for Serbia in its battle to retain sovereignty over Kosova, Montenegrin media reported the same day. In all, 31 of the 76 members of parliament voted against the resolution, while 23 supported it. The Montenegrin government has sought to maintain a neutral position on the question of Kosova's future, largely restricting itself to calls for a "viable" solution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, March 12 and 26, April 26, and May 1, 10, and 31, 2007). This has infuriated political representatives of the country's large Serbian community, which comprises around 30 percent of the population. An unnamed source in the opposition People's Party told the news agency Mina on June 19 that "Montenegro's stance on Kosovo will be decisive not only with regard to its relations with Serbia, but also undoubtedly with regard to internal relations in Montenegro itself." AG

In a strongly worded declaration issued at the end of a two-day meeting in Sarajevo, the Steering Board of the Peace Implementation Council -- an ad-hoc body of countries and organizations with an interest in Bosnia-Herzegovina that includes the United States, Russia, and the European Union -- said on June 19 that the country has experienced "a severe deterioration in the political atmosphere," which it blamed on "political leaders who have blocked progress and undermined the political situation with their aggressive rhetoric." The statement noted that since April 2006, when a package on constitutional reform failed in the Bosnian parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27 and 28, 2006), there has been "near total deadlock in peace implementation and the reforms required for a Stabilization and Association Agreement," or SAA, the first formal step toward membership in the European Union. Concluding the SAA must be Bosnia's top priority now, the declaration stated, warning that Bosnia could fall behind its neighbors in seeking closer ties with Brussels. The text of a pre-accession deal has been agreed between Sarajevo and Brussels, but cannot be signed due to political disagreement over police reform, a key precondition. Bosnia's Serb autonomous region, or "entity," the Republika Srpska, opposes plans to put its police forces under central control. The statement, which was issued as a "declaration" rather than the customary "communique" to give it additional weight, identified constitutional reform as another priority and called on party leaders to reengage with talks on a new charter with the political, technical, and financial support of the United States and the EU. The PIC declaration thanked outgoing High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling, welcomed his successor Miroslav Lajcak, and reaffirmed the aim of phasing out the office by June 30, 2008. TV

Asked during a press conference on June 19 to name the leaders whose "aggressive rhetoric" has, according to the PIC declaration, "blocked progress and undermined the political situation," High Representative Schwarz-Schilling, pointed to the prime minister of the Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, and the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) representative on the country's tripartite Presidency, Haris Silajdzic. He also mentioned the leaders of the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and the Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), who boycotted a meeting on constitutional reform called by Schwarz-Schilling last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 18, 2007). The declaration warned that the international community is unanimous and will not remain passive in the face of provocative statements and actions, adding that it "retains the necessary instruments to counter destructive tendencies." The high representative has the power to dismiss public officials if they obstruct the implementation of the 1995 Dayton peace accords, of which the Bosnian constitution forms part. The meeting of the PIC came amid rising tensions in the country that many observers attribute to the clashing agendas of Dodik and Silajdzic, the lack of an international strategy to deal with them, and a disengaged high representative. Dodik is willing to risk blocking a pre-accession deal with the European Union by insisting Republika Srpska retain its own police force, while Silajdzic is calling for the abolition of the entity system altogether. TV

The PIC statement also called on Bosnia's leaders to make a coordinated effort to improve the situation in Srebrenica. It welcomed commitments by the authorities to deal with officials whose names appear on the "Srebrenica list" of people suspected of involvement in war crimes during the fall of the enclave to Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995, when up to 8,000 Muslim civilians were killed. "Survivors should not have to encounter perpetrators of war crimes in government positions," the declaration said, calling on the international community to provide funding for increased investigative and prosecutorial efforts by the Bosnian authorities. At the same time, the PIC rebuffed those who, like Bosniak and Croat Presidency members Haris Silajdzic and Zeljko Komsic, use the issue of Srebrenica to push for the abolition of the Republika Srpska following a finding in February by the International Court of Justice that genocide was committed there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, 2007). In its declaration, the PIC stressed that the genocide judgment "in no way imposes any legal obligation upon Bosnia and Herzegovina to amend the provisions of the Constitution," contradicting an argument laid out by Silajdzic and Komsic in a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2007). The PIC statement noted: "The status of Srebrenica and that of any other unit of government within Bosnia and Herzegovina can only be changed in accordance with the relevant constitutions and laws." The statement added that the PIC will not accept any changes or calls for change that contravene such legislation. TV

The letter sent to UN Secretary-General Ban by Komsic and Silajdzic provoked a harsh rebuttal by the third Presidency member, Nebojsa Radmanovic, on June 19, local media reported the same day. In the letter, Komsic and Silajdzic called on the UN to respond to the genocide committed at Srebrenica and to end the country's division into entities, one of which is Republika Srpska. Radmanovic accused his colleagues of attempting to undermine Bosnia's constitutional order and said Komsic and Silajdzic attacked the entire Bosnian Serb people by claiming it was collectively responsible for the crimes at Srebrenica. "After this letter, nothing will be the same," Radmanovic told reporters at a press conference and accused his co-presidents of lying. "The two members of the Presidency made a foreign-policy move without the third Presidency member, which the constitution does not permit, and their statement yesterday that they had briefed me about everything is not true," he was quoted by FENA as saying, adding that he was only told by Silajdzic about it half an hour before the letter was made public. In his press conference of June 19, High Representative Schwarz-Schilling pointed out that the letter was signed by only two of the three co-presidents and was therefore not an official act of government. It instead added to the deterioration of the political climate, the high representative told reporters. TV

In its first acquittal since starting its operations in 2005, the war-crimes chamber of Bosnia's state court on June 19 found Zoran Jankovic not guilty of crimes against humanity, Reuters reported the same day. Jankovic stood accused of involvement in the killing of 36 Muslim villagers and the forced removal of civilians following the capture of two villages in eastern Bosnia. War-crimes trials involving some two dozen suspects are currently under way or being prepared at the state court, which was set up to take over some of the less-prominent cases from the International Criminal Tribunal in the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, whose last trial is scheduled to open in 2008, with appeals wrapping up in 2010. TV

Albania's parliament is due on June 20 to vote for a new president, but, with hours to go, there appears little likelihood of a choice being made swiftly. Five opposition parties have said they will boycott the first round, arguing that the Democrats, the largest ruling party, are unwilling to seek a compromise candidate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2007). The winner needs the support of two-thirds of parliament, ensuring that, if snap parliamentary elections are to be avoided, the government and opposition will need to compromise at some stage in the selection process, which could run to five rounds and to another date. Some members of parliament have called for early general elections, but new elections could undermine Albania's bid for EU membership. Albanian media reported on June 18 that the Socialists, the largest opposition party, have called for cross-party talks to ensure the presidential vote does not turn into a "parliamentary crisis." The Socialists will be represented in the race by Fatos Nano, who has served four times as prime minister, though only once for a full term. However, as one of the oldest and most bitter rivals of the Democrats' Prime Minister Sali Berisha, his chances of success are not rated highly. Nano also has poor relations with the Socialists' leader, Edi Rama (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11 and May 14, 2007). The two sought on June 14 to change that widespread impression by holding their first private meeting for some time. According to Albanian media, Nano said the two wanted to begin "a new process of cooperation." Outgoing President Alfred Moisiu has signaled his willingness to remain in office for another five years, but the Albanian media report that a compromise figure may instead emerge from the ranks of the judiciary (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 9 and April 11, 2007). AG

The Albanian government has agreed to sell a 76 percent stake in the national telecoms operator to a Turkish consortium, Reuters reported on June 19. The consortium groups the mobile-phone operator Calik with a land-line operator, Turk Telekom. Calik was the only company to bid for Albtelecom when it was put up for tender in May 2005, but the Albanian government refused to go through with a sale unless Calik teamed up with a strategic partner (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 9, 2005). The consortium said the agreement is already signed and the shares should be transferred "in the near future." The deal, which was priced at 120 million euros ($161 million), will give the consortium immediate access to 33 percent of Albania's 800,000 households, a statement from the Calik said. AG

As Iran and the United States return -- after a break of nearly three decades -- to direct and formal diplomatic discussion through dialogue over Iraq, Tehran appears to be raising the stakes by demanding an exclusive agenda while pursuing its own advantages.

Tehran has not been shy about the fact that it can make life difficult for the United States in Iraq, and elsewhere, when the occasion arises. Iran seems to be playing a familiar game of creating quagmires and then offering its adversary a way out as a bargaining chip.

Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior adviser to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said recently "Iran does not intend to provide circumstances whereby the occupiers can end their occupation gracefully; nor do we approve of what the Americans did in Iraq."

Tehran seems to be trying to strengthen its hand -- and conversely weaken Washington's -- in the context of its discussions with the United States.

The Islamic republic has sought advantage in its dealings with the United States by demonstrating that it can destabilize Afghanistan with ease and on multiple fronts.

Until very recently, most Afghan government officials and the Afghan public would have pointed to Pakistan as the neighbor meddling in their country's affairs and supporting the insurgency. But early this year, reports began to surface of alleged Iranian intrusions into western Afghan airspace and of suspected camps inside Iran where opponents of Afghanistan's central government were allegedly being trained.

Kabul, its hands full with Pakistan, initially tried to downplay suggestions of Iranian interference. The signs became harder to ignore when U.S. and NATO military sources claimed to have discovered weapons of Iranian origin inside Afghanistan. Questions about Iran's motives began circulating. Why would Tehran support Afghan clients with weapons that are traceable back to Iran? If it could easily send anonymous weapons, why wouldn't Iran do so?

The forced expulsion of tens of thousands of Afghan refugees from Iran also sent shock waves through western Afghanistan and sparked a humanitarian crisis. Some 85,000 Afghans were forced to return to a land that could hardly absorb them. The expulsions also sent a message to Kabul. Without breaking international law, Iran flexed its muscles and demonstrated both its influence over Kabul's ability to govern and the inadequacy of Western reconstruction efforts.

Iran arguably holds a stronger hand in Afghanistan than in Iraq. In the 1980s, even as the Iran-Iraq War raged, Iran was playing host to more than 1 million Afghan refugees and cultivating strong political and military alliances with several fronts inside Afghanistan. Some of Iran's closest allies in the Afghan power structure are now in positions of considerable authority in Kabul. Unlike in Iraq, the Iranians also can infiltrate Afghanistan with relative ease, since inhabitants of eastern Iran share many common traits -- not limited to language -- with their western Afghan neighbors.

If Iran's past behavior is any indication, the actions in Afghanistan are not coincidental. Traceable weapons and airspace violations might serve as reminders that Iran is watching -- ready, able, and willing to engage if necessary. Should Washington and its NATO allies maintain their pressure on Iran -- on its nuclear program, for instance, support for terrorism, or human rights -- Iran might cause further difficulties for them. Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta described Iran's refugee expulsions as part of Tehran's pressure on Kabul to resist attempts by NATO to formalize its military presence in Afghanistan, to align with Tehran over "Iran's nuclear issue," and to ensure Iran's access to water resources.

The refugee crisis has become a legal pressure point, and the political ramifications have been severe for President Hamid Karzai's administration. A parliamentary vote to remove Spanta, one of Karzai's principal supporters, over his handling of the refugee issue has sparked a constitutional crisis. While Spanta remains in his post pending a Constitutional Court decision, the legal and political battle between the Karzai administration and the Afghan parliament is far from over.

Iran clearly has no intention of holding back when it sits across the table from the United States in the Iraq talks. Instead, it appears to want to up the ante. Afghanistan is an easy bet on Iran's part, but it is keeping its cards hidden. Tehran can point to its cooperation with Washington since the Taliban were ousted. But it has also shown that it can contribute to Afghanistan's difficulties. Which card will it play?

Police said on June 19 that Taliban fighters captured a district in southern Afghanistan on June 18 in the latest push of a Taliban offensive that has killed dozens of people, AFP reported. Purported Taliban spokesman Yusef Ahmadi told AFP the insurgents captured the Myanishen district in southern Kandahar Province at approximately 10 p.m. after police fled into the mountains following two days of fighting. The rebels took control of the district-administration offices, as well as government vehicles and weapons, Ahmadi said. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary confirmed that police have left the area as part of a "temporary tactical withdrawal" and said the government plans to launch an operation to retake the district. NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokesman Major John Thomas also confirmed the rebel takeover. ISAF will help the Afghan military in its efforts to recapture the area, he added. JC

In the first such claim by a high-ranking Afghan official, a provincial police commander said June 19 that more than 20 armed men have crossed the border from Iran into Afghanistan, Deutsche Presse Agentur (DPA) reported the same day. Colonel Rahmatullah Safi, police commander for the three western provinces of Farah, Badghis, and Herat, told DPA the militants crossed the border in two pickup trucks and headed toward the Zirkoh area in Farah Province, the location of recent escalating insurgent activity. Safi was certain the vehicles came from Iran and remarked that if they came "with ammunitions and explosives...they are supported by the Iranian government." The police were unable to track the vehicles, but notified President Hamid Karzai's office and coalition forces operating in Afghanistan. U.S. officials have claimed that some weapons shipments to the Taliban have come from Iran, but Afghan officials have dismissed the claims (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 15, 2007). JC

An umbrella group representing 94 foreign and Afghan aid agencies said on June 19 that support for foreign forces is dwindling due to the number of civilian deaths resulting from air strikes and botched raids over the past year, AP reported. The Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief said in a statement that military operations by U.S. and NATO troops have killed at least 230 civilians this year, although the group laid much of the blame on U.S. actions. "Initial goodwill towards the international military presence in 2002 has substantially diminished in many parts of the country" due to the excessive use of force and abusive raids, the statement said. The previous day, dozens of civilians' deaths, including seven boys, were reported killed during violent clashes between Taliban militants and coalition forces in the southern Oruzgan Province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2007). JC

Over 20 militants were killed on June 19 when blasts, suspected to be missiles fired from Afghanistan, destroyed a militant hideout near the Afghan border in Pakistan, AP reported. According to two Pakistan intelligence officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the blasts were missiles fired from Afghanistan into the village of Mami Rogha in North Waziristan, the northwestern region of Pakistan. Two other unidentified officials reiterated to AP that the missiles came across the border, although neither could confirm who fired them. Pakistan Army spokesman Major General Wahid Arshad, said, however, that the militants caused the explosions themselves while making bombs. Lieutenant Colonel David Accetta, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, said they have had no reports of missiles being fired across the border. "Pakistan is a sovereign nation, and we respect sovereignty," he added. Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters are believed to shelter in North Waziristan. JC

Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani told a Tehran conference on June 19 that there is no sense in Western powers penalizing Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in connection with Iran's nuclear program, because the force has nothing to do with it, Radio Farda reported, citing the Fars news agency. Larijani told a meeting called "Political Guides Of The Guards Corps" (Hadian-i siasi-yi sepah-i pasdaran) that the link between the IRGC and the nuclear program is "zero" and questioned why IRGC commanders have been banned from traveling abroad in two sets of UN Security Council sanctions against Iran. He said the West has not explained why it includes military and ballistic fields in its sanctions against Iran's nuclear program, but suggested the West is doing this merely because it can. Restrictions on the IRGC, he said, merely make it more popular in Iran. He accused unspecified "critics" inside Iran of sending "signals" to Western powers and prompting them to impose further sanctions. Radio Farda interpreted these to include members of Iran's previous nuclear-dossier negotiating team. These signals, he added, have misled Western powers to believe that sanctions would force Iran to relent in the dispute over its nuclear program, Radio Farda reported. VS

Senior police and judiciary officials gathered in Tehran on June 19 to assess a two-month drive by police to enhance public security, ILNA reported. Officials addressing the gathering included Tehran chief prosecutor Said Mortazavi, national police chief Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, Culture Minister Mohammad Hussein Saffar-Herandi, and prominent conservative cleric Hojjatoleslam Ahmad Khatami. Ahmadi-Moqaddam said the drive -- which included detaining rowdy elements and armed criminals, as well as people perceived to be indecently dressed -- has been successful, although press and critics have been unfairly hostile. "The conduct of some media sadly turned certain louts and knife-wielding criminals into people worthy of pity who should not be punished," he said. He said police have a duty to defend citizens' security and privacy, adding that "presently the most important issue in society is citizens' rights." Prosecutor Mortazavi said some in Iran who oppose the Islamic republic would criticize any measure taken by the state, but the state must discharge its duties regarding security, otherwise "louts" and criminals "will be safe in society." Iranian officials have insisted the drive is not just intended to harass women with loose head scarves or makeup -- as some critics have suggested. Iran's religious laws require men and women to dress modestly in public. VS

Ahmad Khatami, one of Tehran's alternate Friday Prayer preachers, told the same June 19 gathering that "the spread of lewd conduct" is encouraging divorce and threatening "the security of families," ILNA reported. "When a lady appears in society wearing makeup, she is a source of corruption and this weakens the foundations of families," he said. He said the aim of the security drive has been "to serve society," and anyone with "self respect" would want a society and families "without insecurity." He said girls and women should be able to walk around without fear of harassment, adding that the law considers rapists enemies of God and religion, and they can expect to be executed if convicted. He added that police should not necessarily arrest, but should "kindly admonish" women detained for their allegedly indecent appearances. Women who go out of the house wearing makeup, he said, "are without a doubt looking to cause trouble." VS

Lawyer Mohammad Sharif said on June 19 that he has been prevented from visiting his client, labor activist Mahmud Salehi, who is currently in a prison in Sanandaj in western Iran, Radio Farda reported. The Committee to Defend Mahmud Salehi and his wife, Najibeh Salehi, have also expressed concern about Salehi's well-being in prison, the broadcaster reported. Salehi has a history of arrests and prosecutions for labor activism since 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13, 2007). He has one partially functioning kidney and needs constant medical attention. He was reportedly in a hospital for two hours on June 17, Radio Farda reported on June 19. VS

A truck bomb outside a Shi'ite mosque in Baghdad on June 19 killed at least 78 people and wounded more than 200, international media reported the same day. Local police sources said that a huge explosion, most probably the result of a truck bomb, partly destroyed the Al-Khalani Mosque in the commercial district of Sinak. The mosque's imam, Sheikh Salah al-Haydari, said the bomb blast went off as worshippers were leaving afternoon prayers. "This attack was planned and carried out by sick souls, damaging the mosque's outer wall and collapsing my office and the room above it," al-Haydari told AP. This was the latest mosque attack after militants attacked the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, a revered Shi'ite shrine, on June 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2007). That bombing led to a wave of reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques throughout Iraq. SS

The U.S. military announced in a statement on June 19 that it has launched Operation Arrowhead Ripper, a major air and ground operation against Al-Qaeda in Iraq near Ba'qubah, capital of Diyala Governorate in northeastern Iraq. "Approximately 10,000 soldiers, with a full complement of attack helicopters, close air support, Strykers and Bradley Fighting Vehicles, are taking part in Arrowhead Ripper, which is still in its opening stages," the statement said. The operation commenced in the middle of the night and by daybreak U.S. military officials said 22 suspected militants had been killed. U.S. military commander Brigadier General Mick Bednarek said the aim of the operation is to eradicate the presence of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and secure Diyala Governorate. "The end state is to destroy the Al-Qaeda influences in this province and eliminate their threat against the people," Bednarek said. SS

Threats by Shi'ite militias against Sunni families have soared since the June 13 attack on the Al-Askari mosque in Samarra, the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks (IRIN) reported on June 18. The militias imposed a 72-hour deadline, which ended on June 18, for Sunni families to leave Shi'ite areas of Baghdad or face death. NGOs and international organizations have warned that these threats could lead to a new wave of internally displaced persons (IDPs) that could overwhelm already strained displacement camps. "The Al-Kadhimiyah and Al-Shu'lah districts [of Baghdad] are the most affected," Abdallah Saif Salman, president of the Iraq Aid Association (IAA), said. "Dozens of Sunnis have been assassinated in their homes since the second attack on the Samarra mosque on 13 June. Neighbors are invading homes and killing people without remorse. Many families are being kidnapped as soon as they leave the area, or the men are being killed by militias. Something should be done to protect these families urgently." Unofficial estimates indicate that 400 families have been forcibly displaced since the June 13 attack, but the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration said that figure could be even higher because sectarian violence has escalated in recent days. SS

The Turkish Foreign Ministry announced on June 19 that Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has accepted an invitation from his Turkish counterpart, Recap Tayyip Erdogan, to visit Ankara in the coming weeks, "Today's Zaman" reported the same day. Turkish Ambassador to Iraq Derya Kanbay extended the invitation on behalf of Erdogan during a meeting with al-Maliki in Baghdad on June 17. During the meeting, al-Maliki stressed that his government is keen to halt attacks against Turkey by Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) fighters based in northern Iraq. Tensions between Iraqi Kurds and Turkey have increased in the last several months, and thousands of Turkish troops have amassed along the Iraqi border. There have been sporadic reports in the Iraqi press of cross-border incursions by Turkish forces into northern Iraq. During an interview with CNN on June 17, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari warned that continued cross-border incursions would lead to the destabilization of northern Iraq. "It would create more imbalances and more instability. And we're in consultation with the Turkish government to ease this tension because any confrontation would not be in the interest of Iraq, Turkey, or anybody else," Zebari said. SS

Kurdish Regional President Ma'sud Barzani reportedly has indicated that he may not oppose a delay in instituting Article 140 of the Iraqi Constitution concerning the future of Kirkuk, Kurdistan Satellite television reported on June 19 June. Barzani made his comments during a meeting in Duhok with Peshmerga troops. "We oppose any postponement of Article [140] through a political decision. However, if the postponement is for a short time and due to technical and not political reasons, the Kurdistan [Region] parliament can make a decision on that. We will adhere to any decision made by the Kurdistan parliament." On July 12, the Article 140 Follow-Up Committee in the Kurdish region parliament rejected proposals to delay implementation of Article 140 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2007). Article 140 calls for a three-step process of normalization, a census, and finally a referendum to be held at the end of 2007 to determine whether Kirkuk is to be integrated into the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. SS

Iraqi police sources announced on June 19 that seven Iraqi soldiers were killed and 19 were injured in an attack near Kirkuk, KUNA reported the same day. Kirkuk police chief Brigadier Sarhid Qadr said several armed assailants opened fire on a military convoy in the Thuz region just south of Kirkuk, killing seven soldiers and wounding 19. Qadr did not offer any further details of the attack. Meanwhile, a car bomb in the city of Mosul killed three civilians. Local police sources said the target of the attack was a police patrol. SS