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Newsline - September 14, 2007


PUTIN NOMINATES LITTLE-KNOWN ZUBKOV AS PREMIER...
Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov announced on September 12 that President Vladimir Putin has submitted to the Duma the candidacy of Federal Financial Monitoring Service Director Viktor Zubkov to succeed Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, who resigned earlier that day, Russian and international media reported. Analysts and politicians had almost unanimously expected that Putin's nominee would be his choice as presidential successor in March 2008, with most observers predicting the post would go to now acting First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov. Zubkov, 65, has headed the Federal Financial Monitoring Service since it was created in 2001. He is a long-time friend and trusted associate of Putin's, although he has avoided the public eye (see "Russia: Surprise Candidate Could Indicate Putin's Indecision," rferl.org, September 13, 2007). "Only insiders who really know what is going on can answer that question," Maria Matskevich of the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Sociology told RFE/RL. "External commentators cannot explain this. And the insiders will either not give an answer or they will put out some disinformation like they did earlier." RC

DUMA APPROVES ZUBKOV AS PRIME MINISTER
The State Duma on September 14 overwhelming approved President Vladimir Putin's choice of former Federal Financial Monitoring Service Director Viktor Zubkov as prime minister, news agencies reported. The vote was 381 in favor and 47 against, with eight abstentions. The Communist Party delegates opposed the nomination and members of the Rodina faction abstained. By law, Zubkov now has one week to propose the structure of his government and to submit to the president his candidates for deputy prime minister(s) and ministers. RC

NEW PREMIER LAYS OUT HIS PRIORITIES...
Appearing before the Duma on September 14, Zubkov laid out the agenda for his new government. He emphasized that he will follow the framework laid out by President Putin in his recent addresses to the Federal Assembly. Zubkov said that "it is time for personnel changes; they are essential." He particularly singled out the "social bloc" -- headed by acting Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov -- for criticism. He also said the development of the military-industrial complex will be a priority. He added that the battle against corruption in government must be stepped up and the law against corruption must be enforced. He noted that he participated in the drafting of that law and said that "unprofessionalism and corruption are capable of sinking Russia." He said that he plans personally to oversee the main economic ministries, including the Finance Ministry and the Economic Development and Trade Ministry, but he did not criticize their work or the work of Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref or Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, both of whom are seen as market-oriented liberals. Zubkov added that he opposes media censorship. RC

...AND DUMA PLANS QUICK CONFIRMATION...
Zubkov on September 13 met with Duma faction leaders in preparation for a confirmation vote on September 14, RFE/RL and other media reported. Deputy Duma Speaker Oleg Morozov (Unified Russia) predicted that approval will be forthcoming, although Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said his party will vote against the nomination. A Just Russia leader and Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov also gave Zubkov his unreserved support. RC

...AS ANALYSTS PONDER WHAT THE CHANGE MEANS
Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky told RFE/RL's Russian Service on September 13 that Zubkov's premiership will not signify any change for Russia. "Appointing Zubkov instead of Fradkov means maintaining the current position," he said. "In this sense, Zubkov does not differ at all from Fradkov." Yavlinsky said the only difference is that Zubkov has a weaker political base and is more loyal to Putin personally. Deputy Duma Speaker Morozov (Unified Russia) told RFE/RL that the appointment signals the approach of "necessary personnel decisions" in the government, adding that the new cabinet makeup and structure will present "the political team that the president envisions as the team for the next political stage in the development of the country." "Vedomosti" also wrote on September 13 that major changes in the structure and personnel of the government are in the offing. The daily, citing a "high-ranking government source," predicted that the Regional Development Ministry, headed by Vladimir Yakovlev, will be abolished and that some ministries that were combined in 2004 will be separated again. Analyst Aleksei Volin told the daily he thinks the Natural Resources Ministry and the Energy Ministry might be combined, creating a particularly powerful combination. "Tvoi den" speculated that many of Fradkov's ministers and even Fradkov himself will go on to occupy key spots in the new state corporations being created. Effective Politics Foundation head Gleb Pavlovsky told the daily the restructuring will proceed in two waves -- one now and another after the December 2 Duma elections. RC

...AMID SPECULATION ABOUT HIS POSSIBLE PRESIDENTIAL AMBITIONS
Zubkov on September 13 refused to rule out a run for president in March 2008, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other media reported. The previously little-known Zubkov, who turns 66 on September 15, told journalists that he might consider a presidential bid "if I achieve something as prime minister." Zubkov's statement fuelled speculation that he might be being prepared as a "caretaker" president who would hold the office for one term or less as a prelude to a return to power by President Putin. Speaking to RFE/RL on September 14, gazeta.ru political commentator Gleb Cherkasov said he believes Zubkov's coy statement is not to be taken seriously and is intended merely to distract the attention of journalists and pundits from more serious matters, such as the composition and structure of the new government. RC

PUTIN EXPLAINS WHY HE CHANGED THE GOVERNMENT
Speaking to reporters on September 13, President Putin offered his most complete explanation yet for why he accepted the resignation of former Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, ORT and other Russian media reported. Putin said that the "uncertainty" about the future that cabinet members faced as the elections approached threatened the effective work of the government. "Therefore I deemed it necessary now to remove all those questions, just as, if you recall, was the case in 2004 on the eve of the presidential elections," Putin said, referring to his unexpected dismissal of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov just weeks before his reelection in March 2004. "In my opinion, it is better now to make some particular personnel decisions, to carry out some necessary steps, with the goal of modernizing the system of governing and not allowing breakdowns in connection with major rearrangements and major systemic changes. And of indicating the vector of the development of the structure of the administrative and executive power in the period after December 2007 and March 2008. I am counting on them to carry out these actions so that people can concentrate more and better on carrying out their official functions. And the entire system of power and government in Russia will function without breakdowns both during the election period and immediately after the elections." RC

PAVLOVSKY MAINTAINS ZUBKOV IS PUTIN'S CHOICE FOR SUCCESSOR
Although most analysts backed away after the Zubkov appointment from earlier predictions that President Putin's nominee for prime minister would be the person he supports to succeed him next year, analyst Pavlovsky told Interfax he believes Putin envisions Zubkov as president. "Definitely, the new prime minister will be that candidate," Pavlovsky said. However, he qualified his statement by adding that Putin might change his mind depending on the outcome of the December State Duma elections. Duma Deputy Pavel Borodin (Unified Russia) told kreml.org that the shakeup is definitely part of the president's pre-election strategy and that Zubkov will be able to use his media access to become "one of the strongest candidates in the upcoming presidential election." "The president has demonstrated that he is a skilled chess master, an unpredictable person," Borodin said. "He makes decisions on the basis of reasoning that is known only to him." RC

UNIFIED RUSSIA LAUNCHES MOSCOW AD CAMPAIGN
The powerful pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party is launching a major advertising campaign in Moscow ahead of the December 2 Duma elections, "Kommersant" reported on September 12. The campaign comes before strict restrictions on spending come into force. The daily reported that the party has ordered 3,000 billboards with posters declaring, "Putin's Plan Is Russia's Victory." "Putin's Plan" is the name of United Russia's campaign platform. After the party's congress on October 1-2, the slogans will be replaced with a more direct call to vote for "Putin's party." The billboards were reportedly paid for by the noncommercial Fund to Support Unified Russia, and Unified Russia campaign official Konstantin Kostin told "Kommersant" the party's campaign office had nothing to do with them. Vadim Solovyov, the Communist representative on the Central Election Commission, told the daily the commission will investigate and "react" to any campaign violations by Unified Russia. RC

ONE POLL GIVES FRADKOV'S GOVERNMENT GOOD MARKS...
A poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found that a relatively high percentage of Russians (39 percent) have a favorable view of the government of outgoing Prime Minister Fradkov, strana.ru reported on September 14. That figure is up from 26 percent in the early days of his tenure in the spring of 2004. The cabinet's rating fell during late 2004 and early 2005 as it carried out a highly unpopular reform of in-kind social benefits (see "Analysis: Battling Over Benefits," rferl.org, August 17, 2004), but has recovered steadily since then. VTsIOM General Director Valery Fyodorov told the website that Fradkov's personal popularity rating is high, as are those of some now-acting ministers, including Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, and Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev. Health and Social Development Minister Zurabov is the least-popular member of the former cabinet with the support of less than 10 percent of the public. RC

...WHILE ANOTHER SHOWS PUBLIC READY TO FOLLOW PUTIN'S LEAD ON SUCCESSION
Levada Center analyst Boris Dubin told RFE/RL's Russian Service on September 13 that about 40 percent of Russians say they will vote for the presidential candidate supported by President Putin. Just 8 percent said they would vote against Putin's choice out of principle, and about 35 percent are undecided. Dubin added that he believes at least half of the respondents who say they are currently undecided will end up supporting Putin's candidate. He said the public's mood is overwhelmingly one of caution: "This is the main thing -- they don't want to change anything; they don't want to risk anything." RC

SMALL LEFT PARTIES ON VERGE OF ELECTION PACT
Patriots of Russia party leader and Duma Deputy Gennady Semigin on September 13 confirmed to "Izvestiya" that his party is close to an agreement under which leading figures from the unregistered Great Russia party and Party of Russia's Rebirth will join the Patriots of Russia's party list for the December Duma elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). Semigin said Duma Deputy Dmitry Rogozin and former Duma speaker Gennady Seleznyov will likely appear with him at the top of the list, forming a powerful left-oriented bloc to rival the pro-Kremlin leftist A Just Russia party. He said a formal announcement of the agreement will come within a week. Semigin predicted that if the elections pass "without serious violations," Unified Russia will poll between 41 and 45 percent; the Communist Party will poll 10-14 percent; A Just Russia will receive 8-10 percent; the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia will end up with 7-9 percent, and Patriots of Russia will enter the Duma with 7-15 percent of the vote. Semigin says his party has participated in more than 30 local elections in recent months and has never polled less than 5 percent. He described his party as "a politically independent force," adding "we regard the opinions of the authorities with respect but we won't dance on a string." RC

DEMOCRATIC PARTY ANNOUNCES MAIN DUMA CANDIDATES
The Democratic Party of Russia will hold its pre-election congress in Moscow on September 18, RFE/RL reported on September 13. The party's list of candidates will be headed by party leaders Andrei Bogdanov, Vyacheslav Smirnov, and Oleg Gemazov, Bogdanov told RFE/RL. The party does not intend to form election alliances with any other parties or organizations, he said. RC

'NEZAVISIMAYA GAZETA' JOURNALIST DETAINED IN PURPORTED BLACKMAIL SCAM
An unidentified deputy editor of "Nezavisimaya gazeta" was detained on blackmail suspicions on September 13, "The Moscow Times" and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported the next day. A spokeswoman for the new Investigative Committee told "The Moscow Times" that the editor agreed to withhold publication of an article in exchange for monthly payments of $30,000 from a government official, who also was not identified. In an editorial on September 14, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" said the case involves material compromising to Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeyev that alleges the ministry has issued falsified grain-harvest reports in order to drive up prices. The paper describes the arrest as "an attempt to influence the paper's editorial policies." "We have written, are writing, and will write critical materials about specific people and agencies," the editorial states. Media analyst Oleg Panfilov told "The Moscow Times" that "it could be a provocation, but it could also be true, because there have unfortunately been many cases where journalists have blackmailed the subjects of their articles." "Nezavisimaya gazeta" is owned and edited by Konstantin Remchukov, a former government official with close ties to tycoon Oleg Deripaska (see "Russia: 'Nezavisimaya Gazeta' Is Worth Watching Again," rferl.org, September 3, 2007). It is also possible that the incident is an attempt to boost the paper's credentials, especially in the West, as an independent and maverick source of information in the run-up to Duma and presidential elections. RC

ESTONIAN GOVERNMENT SAID SPLIT OVER RUSSIAN PIPELINE PROJECT
Estonia's governing coalition is reportedly split over a request from Gazprom to conduct surveys in Estonian waters for the Russo-German Nord Stream pipeline project, and will not consider the issue before September 20, Forbes.com and "Moscow News" reported on September 12 and 13, respectively. Prime Minister Andrus Ansip's Reform Party is said to be supportive of the request on legal and economic grounds. Foreign Minister Urmas Paet of the Reform Party said on September 13 that he doubts that "Estonia can just say 'no' to Nord Stream. We are not completely free to make the decision only upon emotions and have to take into account several aspects." His ministry recently asked 20 leading Estonian institutions for their opinion on Nord Stream. Endel Lippmaa, who chairs the energy council at the Academy of Sciences, said on September 12 that "Gazprom has become partly a military enterprise, and we see that the pipeline poses not only ecological but also very serious security risks for Estonia. Such gas pipelines under the sea have lots of sensors that can be used also for military surveillance. No NATO country can [accept the possibility] that Russia might get such an option inside our territory." He added that "the fact that the leading government party has started to speak openly for granting permission for such work is very regrettable." Also on September 12, President Toomas Hendrik Ilves declined to comment on the Gazprom request. The Baltic states and Poland generally regard Nord Stream as a particularly odious deal cut by Moscow and Berlin in 2005 at the expense of, and without consulting, their smaller neighbors. Sweden and Finland have expressed environmental and other concerns regarding the project (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, March 26, April 12, and August 15, 2007). PM

GERMANY WANTS RUSSIA TO HOLD TO CFE TREATY
Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said in a wide-ranging parliamentary debate in Berlin on September 12 that Germany wants to rescue the 1990 Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, compliance with which President Vladimir Putin "suspended" in April, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26 and 27, and June 12, 18, and 28, 2007). Russia argues that the treaty, which limits military deployments in specific regions, is out of date and harmful to Moscow's security interests, partly because not all NATO member states have ratified it. Putin's announcement was also widely seen as retaliation for the proposed U.S. missile-defense project. On September 12, Steinmeier said that "we cannot permit a treaty like this one aimed at limiting conventional arms, one which was developed over a long period of time, to be scrapped." Steinmeier, whose diplomatic style involves the frequent convening of international gatherings, said that Germany will host a conference in October to discuss the CFE with the aim of "protecting" it. In April, Steinmeier warned in the name of "us Europeans" against a "growing spiral of mistrust between Russia and the United States." He and his Social Democratic Party (SPD), which controls the Foreign Ministry in the coalition government, rarely criticize Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007). The ministry's hopes for using the German EU Presidency from January-June 2007 to promote an "interweaving" of relations between the EU and Russia were dashed by Moscow's assertion of a clear preference for bilateral relations with individual EU member states and by its renewed aggressiveness in international relations. Germany and the EU in general set great store by a culture of rules and agreements. PM

CHINA HAILS DEPARTING PREMIER
Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Jiang Yu told journalists in Beijing on September 13 that outgoing Russian Prime Minister Fradkov made "great contributions" to bilateral relations, Interfax reported. She added that "we hope that political, economic, scientific and technical relations between our countries will continue to develop on a healthy basis.... China is ready to continue to contribute to the development and consolidation of strategic partnership between the two countries" (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). Jiang added that the changes in the Russian government are nonetheless an "internal affair" of that country. PM

WHAT'S BEHIND REPORTED CHANGE OF NAVY COMMANDERS?
The daily "Kommersant" wrote on September 14 that the reported replacement of Admiral Vladimir Masorin as commander of the Navy by Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky is part of an effort by Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov to purge the ministry of top officials believed loyal to his predecessor, acting First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2007). Serdyukov is also the son-in-law of Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov. The daily suggested that General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the Russian General Staff, could be the next to lose his post. "The Moscow Times" argued on September 14 that Masorin incurred Serdyukov's wrath by not asking his permission to receive a U.S. award in Washington recently. Interfax reported on September 13 that Masorin lost his post because he recently turned 60, which is the maximum age for that post. President Vladimir Putin has the legal authority to extend Masorin for five more years if he wishes to do so. PM

'WHITE SWANS' FLY OVER ARCTIC
Two Tu-160 (White Swan or Blackjack) strategic bombers left their base at Engels near Saratov on the Volga on September 14 for a one-day "patrol" over neutral waters of the Arctic Ocean, RIA-Novosti and Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4 and 12, 2007). President Putin said on August 17 that Russian strategic bombers resumed regular long-range flights after a hiatus of about 15 years. PM

NEW COMMANDER OF RUSSIA'S NAVY APPOINTED
Admiral Vladimir Vysotsky, who commands the Northern Fleet, has been named the new commander of the Russian Navy, Interfax reported on September 13, citing an unnamed "security agencies source." Vysotsky replaces Admiral Vladimir Masorin, who recently turned 60, which is the maximum age limit for that post. Masorin recently attracted attention at home and abroad with his call for Russia to reestablish a "permanent presence" in the Mediterranean Sea, which was widely taken to be an appeal to reopen a Cold War-era base in Syria (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11 and August 3, 7, and 14, 2007). The paper "Novaya gazeta" wrote on September 13 that Vysotsky's appointment can be seen as a break with the era of Putin loyalist and former commander Admiral Vladimir Kuroyedov, whom Masorin replaced two years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 6, 2005). The newspaper suggested that Masorin was appointed on the understanding that he would not investigate wrongdoing on Kuroyedov's part and would serve until Mikhail Abramov, a Kuroyedov protégé, could take over the post. According to "Novaya gazeta," the choice of Vysotsky over Abramov is likely to lead to some housecleaning in the navy. Vysotsky is 54 and was born in the Lviv region of Ukraine, Interfax reported. PM

ANOTHER TOP SECURITY OFFICIAL REPLACED IN DAGHESTAN
Four days after Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev sacked Security Council Secretary Akhmednabi Magdigadzhiyev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007), President Putin issued a decree appointing a new head of the Daghestan administration of the Federal Security Service (FSB), riadagestan.ru reported quoting the presidential press service. He is Major-General Vyacheslav Shanshin, former head of the FSB's Astrakhan Administration, and replaces Nikolai Gryaznov, who has served in Daghestan for the past three years. Shanshin, who was born in 1955, has worked for the security services since 1981. Speaking on September 12 in Makhachkala at a session attended by two top Moscow-based FSB officials, President Aliyev said the security situation in Daghestan has improved and the number of terrorist attacks registered so far this year is "practically zero." Meanwhile, in a September 12 press release posted on the resistance website kavkazcenter.com, Daghestan's Shariat jamaat claimed responsibility for the execution-style killing in the village of Karamakhi on August 29 of local school teacher Magomed Magomedov, identified as "a betrayer of Islam" ("murtad") and informer, and for an attack on a military convoy close to the entrance to the strategic Gimri tunnel in which three Russian servicemen were injured. LF

MEDIA TAKE STOCK OF 'BOMB ENVY'
RIA-Novosti and "Izvestia" reported on September 13 and 14, respectively, that retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Thomas McInerny said on September 13 that the Pentagon has a 14-ton super bomb that is much more effective than the vacuum bomb recently tested by Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). McInerny reportedly said that the U.S. bomb can penetrate "anything in Iran," whereas the Russian device is not a "penetrator." He added that German reluctance to impose economic sanctions on Tehran has "forced" the United States into planning for "the military option" in dealing with Iran. "Izvestia" wrote that Washington and Moscow are "seeking to outdo each other with super bombs." The daily "Vremya novostei" suggested on September 13 that "some [in Russia] suspect that the new bomb is really all the Russian military-industrial complex has to show by way of arguments against Washington's plans to install missile-defense elements in Eastern Europe." The paper added that the bomb test could be linked to the upcoming Russian parliamentary and presidential elections, or could be part of a new "arms race" that has already begun. PM

RUSSIA AGAIN DEMANDS GEORGIA RELEASE ARRESTED PEACEKEEPERS
The Russian Foreign Ministry posted on its website (http://www.mid.ru) on September 13 a statement condemning what it termed the illegal detention by Georgia of Tariel Khachirov and Vitaly Valiyev, two Russian members of the North Ossetian contingent deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone. Georgian police detained the two men late last month, and they were sentenced to two months' pretrial detention on charges of having abducted seven Georgians, all of whom were subsequently released (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4, 2007). The Russian statement noted that Georgia has denied the men access to a Russian consular official and has not produced any evidence that they committed any crime. LF

CHECHEN LEADER DECLINES COMMENT ON ALLEGED AL-QAEDA PRESENCE IN INGUSHETIA
Speaking on a live broadcast aired on September 12 by St. Petersburg's Channel Five television, pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov affirmed that "it is no secret that international terrorists are active in the North Caucasus," according to a press release posted the same day on the website chechnya.gov.ru. But he declined to comment on the veracity of claims attributed to unidentified Ingush security officials that the recent attacks in Ingushetia were masterminded by three Arabs affiliated with Al-Qaeda (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). LF

LAND MINE EXPLODES IN KBR CAPITAL
A land mine exploded late on September 12 in Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR), as a police patrol car drove past, causing the car to overturn, but none of the passengers were injured, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on September 13 quoting Interfax. A similar device exploded in Nalchik on September 9 near an Interior Ministry special forces base, likewise without causing major damage or casualties; three other explosions have been reported since the beginning of September in Elbrus Raion, one of which damaged a gas pipeline. Speaking in Nalchik on September 7, KBR President Arsen Kanokov downplayed the likelihood of a major terrorist attack, although he estimated the number of Islamic militants still at large at between 500-700 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). LF

GUNMEN AGAIN ATTACK POLICE POST IN INGUSHETIA
Unidentified gunmen opened fire from mortars during the night of September 13-14 on the Nazran city police headquarters, Russian media reported. Police pursued the gunmen as they retreated and a shoot-out ensued, but no casualties have been reported on either side. On September 13, Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov, Russian Deputy Interior Minister Colonel General Arkady Yedelev, and presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak attended a meeting in Nazran to discuss the recent upsurge in violence and how to counter it, regnum.ru reported. Echoing his superior, Rashid Nurgaliyev, Yedelev said that there are enough Interior Ministry troops in Ingushetia to "restore order." Kozak for his part subjected harshly criticized the Ingushetian Interior Ministry, accusing its officers of corruption, failing to take timely action, not coordinating their activities with the federal Interior Ministry contingent deployed to Ingushetia in July, and collaborating with the armed resistance, the daily "Kommersant" reported on September 14. LF

MILITANT KILLED IN SHOOT-OUT IN KABARDINO-BALKARIA
A Federal Security Service (FSB) vehicle was damaged by an explosive device late on September 13 in the settlement of Khasanya, south of Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR), kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. A search was launched for a group of militants believed to be responsible for the explosion, and one militant was killed and three FSB officers wounded in a subsequent shoot-out. The explosion was the fifth in the KBR in the last two weeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2007). LF

SUPREME COURT OPENS, ADJOURNS HEARING ON KCHR MURDERS APPEAL
Russia's Supreme Court opened on September 13 and then adjourned until October 11 a hearing on the appeal by 16 men against the jail sentences handed down to them in December 2006 in connection with the murder of seven businessmen near Cherkessk two years earlier in a dispute about the privatization of a local factory, regnum.ru and kavkaz-uzel.ru reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 10 and 12, 2004, and August 24 and September 20, 2006). Eight of the 16 men, including Ali Kaitov, the former son-in-law of Karachaevo-Cherkessia Republic President Mustafa Batdyev, were found guilty of murder and sentenced to between eight and 1/2 and 17 years imprisonment; the others received shorter sentences for concealing a grave crime (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2006). The men's former lawyer, Boris Kuznetsov, is himself facing criminal charges for allegedly disclosing state secrets; his successor, Mikhail Botvinnik, on September 13 requested additional time to familiarize himself with the details of the case. LF

TWO TRAIN BOMBING SUSPECTS RELEASED
The prosecutor's office has released Andrei Kalenov and Denis Zelenyuk, two of the three men detained in connection with the August 13 explosion that derailed the Neva Express train that runs between Moscow and St. Petersburg, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on September 13. The two have given a written undertaking not to leave Russia. In a telephone call to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service late on August 14, a man claiming to be the deputy commander of the Chechen militant group Riyadus Salikhiin claimed that group was responsible for the attack (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 14, 15, and 16, 2007). A Chechen, Khasan Idigov, remains in custody in connection with the bombing. LF

ARMENIAN PROSECUTOR GENERAL MEETS WITH MURDER CASE WITNESSES
Aghvan Hovsepian, whom the Armenian parliament confirmed on September 13 for a new six-year term as prosecutor-general, met that day with employees of a restaurant in the northern town of Vanadzor, the owner of which, Arman Darpinian, was arrested on September 7, apparently in connection with the August 26 killing of Lori prosecutor Albert Ghazarian, Noyan Tapan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27, 2007). Up to 20 people, most of them restaurant employees, claim that police summoned them for questioning and beat and threatened them, demanding that they incriminate Darpinian in the killing. Hovsepian has ordered a probe into how the murder investigation has been conducted. Darpinian is the nephew of Vanadzor Mayor Samvel Darpinian. LF

ARMENIAN PRIME MINISTER PLEDGES INCREASE IN TAX COLLECTION, BUDGET SPENDING
Addressing the National Assembly on September 12, Serzh Sarkisian said Armenia's state budget for 2008 will amount to the dram equivalent of $2.5 billion, up from 583 billion drams ($1.7 billion) in 2007, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Of that sum, $400 million will be allocated to the military. Sarkisian rejected as inaccurate repeated claims by the Azerbaijani leadership that Armenia's total budget is no more than $1 billion, the amount that Azerbaijan plans to spend on defense in 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 29, 2006 and August 24, 2007). He further pledged an increase in tax collection, but did not cite concrete figures. Tax collection during the first six months of 2007 stood at 201 billion drams, a 27 percent increase over the corresponding period in 2006, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on September 12. LF

ARMENIAN-RUSSIAN GAS JOINT VENTURE MARKS 10TH ANNIVERSARY
President Robert Kocharian and Prime Minister Sarkisian attended a formal celebration on September 12 to mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of the joint venture Armrusgasard (ArmRusGazprom), Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 1, 1997). Speaking at that ceremony, Gazprom Deputy Chairman Valery Golubev confirmed that Armrusgasard has purchased the Armenia-Iran gas export pipeline, the first section of which was inaugurated in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007). He did not say how much Armrusgasard paid for the pipeline. Golubev also said the price Gazprom will charge Armenia for gas beginning in 2009 will be determined in bilateral talks, Noyan Tapan reported. The current price is $110 per 1,000 cubic meters, the lowest for any CIS state apart from Belarus, which Golubev said will pay $130 beginning in 2008. LF

JAILED AZERBAIJANI JOURNALIST APPEALS FOR PARDON
Independent journalist Eynulla Fatullayev, who was sentenced in April to 2 and 1/2 years imprisonment on charges, which he denied, of threatening terrorism and inciting religious or ethnic hatred (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23, May 30, and August 22, 2007), has appealed to President Ilham Aliyev to pardon him on the grounds that he was sentenced unjustly, the website day.az reported on September 12. On September 5, zerkalo.az and day.az reported that new charges of large-scale tax evasion are to be brought against Fatullayev. LF

GEORGIAN PRESIDENT FIRES RIVAL'S CLOSEST ALLY
President Mikheil Saakahvili issued two decrees on September 12 and 13, the first dismissing Mikheil Kareli as governor of the Shida Kartli region and the second appointing Vladimir Gegelashvili to replace him in that post, Caucasus Press reported. Kareli was named to the less prestigious post of head of the Gori city administration, in which capacity he will report to Gegelashvili. The explanation cited for his demotion was an incident earlier on September 12 in which a group of people, reportedly including Kareli, attempted to storm the town hall in Gori, which police had sealed after arresting several municipal employees on suspicion of corruption, according to civil.ge on September 13. Kareli is a close associate of former Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who is widely rumored to be about to launch a new opposition party. In a September 13 interview with the independent Imedi television channel, Kareli pledged to "fight to the end for the victory of Okruashvili's team." LF

NEW KARABAKH PRESIDENT PROPOSES CANDIDATE FOR PRIME MINISTER
Bako Sahakian on September 12 proposed parliament deputy Araik Harutiunian, a former executive director of the Stepanakert Cognac Factory, to head the next government of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, according to Armenia's De Facto Agency as reposted by Groong. Vahram Atanesian, who heads the majority Democratic parliament faction, was quoted on September 12 by lragir.am as saying Harutiunian can already count on the support of 27 of the total 33 parliament deputies. Summarizing his accomplishments during his eight year tenure, outgoing Prime Minister Anushavan Danielian noted on September 10 that the republic's annual budget has grown from 20 billion drams in 1999 to 70 billion drams, and the average wage has increased five-fold, lragir.am reported on September 11. LF

COURT REJECTS GEORGIAN OPPOSITIONIST'S APPEAL
Georgia's Appeals Court rejected on September 12 a request by jailed oppositionist Irakli Batiashvili that a repeat expert evaluation be carried out of the evidence on which he was convicted, Caucasus Press reported. Batiashvili was arrested in July 2006 and sentenced in May 2007 to seven years' imprisonment on charges of providing "intellectual support" to calls by renegade warlord Emzar Kvitsiani for the overthrow of the Georgian leadership. The prosecution's case was based on a tape-recording, which Batiashvili claims was cut and edited, of a conversation between Batiashvili and Kvitsiani (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 27 and 31 and August 24, 2006 and May 23, 2007). LF

ALLY WANTS GEORGIAN PRESIDENT TO REMAIN IN POWER FOR 20 MORE YEARS
Tamaz Khidasheli, who is chairman of the Georgian parliamentary committee on environmental protection and a member of the ruling United National Movement, proposed on September 13 in an interview with Radio Hereti that the Georgian Constitution should be amended to extend the presidential term to 10 years, and that incumbent President Saakashvili should be reelected in 2008 and again in 2018, Caucasus Press reported. Speaking to teachers at the opening of a new school building in Borjomi on September 12, Saakashvili argued that Georgians should cast off their collective "defeatist mentality" and adopt "a new ideology," Caucasus Press reported. LF

COURT REJECTS GEORGIAN OPPOSITIONIST'S APPEAL
The Tbilisi Court of Appeal rejected on September 13 an appeal by former Security Service head Irakli Batiashvili against his seven-year prison sentence for allegedly providing "intellectual support" to renegade warlord Emzar Kvitsiani in his bid to overthrow the Georgian leadership in July 2006, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 27 and 31 and August 24, 2006 and May 23, 2007). Batiashvili's lawyer Soso Baratashvili said the judge refused to consider unspecified new evidence that Batiashvili is innocent. LF

KAZAKH, BELARUSIAN PREMIERS DISCUSS ENERGY COOPERATION...
Speaking in Astana after a meeting with visiting Belarusian Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov told reporters on September 12 that Kazakhstan is interested in using Belarus as a transit route for its energy resources, Interfax-Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan Today reported. Masimov added that the talks also covered the possible utilization of energy-processing facilities in Belarus and preliminary proposals regarding Belarusian investment in Kazakhstan's electricity industry. Masimov noted that bilateral trade between Kazakhstan and Belarus is "increasing considerably, but its potential has not yet been used to the full." The level of bilateral trade reached only $250 million for the first half of the year. Kazakhstan recently agreed to form a customs union with Belarus and Russia as part of a broader integration effort within the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec), a bloc comprising Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Eurasec succeeded the Central Asian Cooperation Organization in 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 9, 2007). RG

...AS KAZAKH, BELARUSIAN DEFENSE MINISTERS CONSIDER JOINT DEFENSE INDUSTRY PROJECTS
In a separate meeting in Astana on September 12, the Belarusian and Kazakh defense ministers, Leonid Maltsev and Daniyal Akhmetov, reviewed a proposal to establish joint defense industry facilities, including "joint plants for producing Vostok radar stations and joint workshops for modernizing T-72 and T-90 tanks," ITAR-TASS reported. Akhmetov explained that bilateral military cooperation is related to Kazakhstan's interest in "developing the national military industry" and is part of an ambitious program to modernize and develop the Kazakh armed forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2007). Kazakhstan is also reportedly seeking assistance from Belarus in modernizing much of its air force, including MiG, L-39, and Su-27 combat aircraft, and in obtaining greater numbers of the Igla mobile surface-to-air system. RG

LOCAL OFFICIAL SHOT DEAD IN ABKHAZIA
Unidentified gunmen opened fire on Igor Djindjolia, local administration head in the village of Mukhur in the Tkvarcheli Raion of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, on his return home early on September 13, apsny.ru reported. Djindjolia died of his injuries in hospital shortly afterwards. LF

KAZAKH AGENCY REPORTS RISE IN CASES OF HIV INFECTION
The Kazakh State Statistics Agency reported on September 13 that the number of cases of HIV infection has risen sharply since last year, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. According to the official statistics, a total of 1,165 new cases of HIV infections were registered in the first six months of the year, an increase over the 958 cases reported for the same period last year. The agency further reported that some 181 new HIV cases were diagnosed in the month of July alone, compared to 131 cases in July 2006. The increase in cases was also especially serious for children, as 40 new cases of HIV-infected children were diagnosed for the same period, a rise from 22 cases reported for the first six months of last year. The trend was confirmed last month by Roza Zhaukimova, an official with the regional administration in South Kazakhstan Oblast, who warned that the increased infections were most likely a result of unsanitary blood transfusions performed by medical workers who reused disposable syringes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 15, 2007). In June, a district court in Shymkent sentenced 16 doctors and medical workers to prison terms of between three and eight years on charges of negligence for administering transfusions of tainted blood to some 120 children, 10 of whom have subsequently died of AIDS (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2006, and March 19, June 28, and July 19, 2007). RG

KAZAKH INVESTIGATION REVEALS ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE FROM RECENT ROCKET CRASH
An official study conducted by a special Kazakh state working group, released on September 12, revealed that the recent crash of a Russian Proton-M rocket resulted in a serious toxic fuel spill far "exceeding the maximum permissible level," ITAR-TASS reported. The study was conducted by a working group of specialists from the Kazakh ministries of health, environment, agriculture, and emergency situations, with support from the National Space Agency. It recommended "the application of temporary technological regulations for the detoxification of contaminated soil." The crash of the unmanned Proton-M rocket occurred on September 6 after its launch from the Baikonur Space Center (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7, 2006). No one was injured in the incident, but debris from the rocket was spread over a small contained area in the more remote central Karaganda region, including some of the rocket's fuel payload of more than 200 tons of heptyl, a highly toxic rocket fuel. Kazakh Emergency Situations Minister Viktor Khrapunov also reported that "elements" of the Japanese satellite that was on board the rocket were found and turned over to Russian officials on September 11 "for storage." After the crash, an immediate ban on launches from the Baikonur Space Center was imposed, although it was later lifted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 2007). Two similar Proton rockets crashed at Baikonur in July and October 1999, leading to a similar suspension (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7 and 8 and November 3, 1999). More recently, the crash of a Russian RS-20 "Dnepr" rocket in July 2006 caused environmental damage estimated at over $1 million. The Baikonur Space Center is one of the world's leading space facilities and is regularly used to launch commercial and military satellites, as well as missions to supply the International Space Station. RG

TAJIK PRESIDENT MEETS WITH VISITING KAZAKH LEADER
Tajik President Emomali Rahmon met on September 12 with visiting Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, who arrived in Dushanbe at the start of an official state visit, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The leaders on September 13 are due to formally sign a new bilateral agreement on the creation of a $100 million state investment fund aimed at promoting greater Kazakh investment in Tajikistan, according to Kazinform. The presidents also discussed Kazakhstan's plan to construct a $60 million hydroelectric power plant on the Khingob River in eastern Tajikistan. Nazarbaev arrived in Tajikistan after concluding a similar state visit to Turkmenistan, where he discussed energy issues with his Turkmen counterpart Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). RG

KYRGYZ DEPUTY INITIATES PETITION DRIVE TO DISSOLVE PARLIAMENT
Dooronbek Sadyrbaev initiated a petition drive on September 12 to demand the dissolution of the Kyrgyz parliament, according to Kyrgyz television. Sadyrbaev said the drive is an attempt to combat the "immorality" of the parliament and a demonstration of the need to enforce the rules of the legislature. Deputy parliament speaker Erkinbek Alymbekov strongly opposed the petition, warning that it threatens stability and stressing that "although the parliament is not ideal, it is doing its job" and "needs to serve out its constitutional term and pass the necessary laws on improving the electoral system in order to hold elections by party lists in 2010." Another deputy, Karganbek Samakov, also criticized the initiative and defended the parliament for having "passed more than 500 laws" that he defined as critical "for the good of the country." Sadyrbaev has long been an outspoken, although sometimes erratic critic of many of the government's policies. Earlier this month, he claimed that an attempt was made to kill him by an unnamed "criminal authority" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). RG

FLOUR PRICES DOUBLE IN TAJIKISTAN
An unnamed official from the Tajik Ministry of Economic Development and Trade announced on September 13 that the price of flour more than doubled in the past few days and that the government has immediately formed a special commission to address the crisis, Tajik television reported. According to official Tajik statistics, the price for a 50-kilogram sack of flour has risen to an average of 110 somonis (over $32) in urban areas, and has surpassed 150 somonis (or $44) in more remote districts. The sharp rise in flour prices, which has triggered a surge in prices for bread and other related bakery products, has affected the entire Central Asian region and has been traced to this year's poor wheat harvest in Kazakhstan, Russia, and Ukraine. Tajikistan is especially vulnerable to the price rise, as it relies on imports for over 60 percent of domestic demand. RG

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION LEADER AGAIN TRIES TO REGISTER HIS MOVEMENT
Former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich on September 12 filed a new application to register his Movement for Freedom with the Justice Ministry, Belapan reported. The Movement for Freedom was founded in Hrodna in May. The Justice Ministry rejected Milinkevich's first application for registration, citing flaws in the organization's charter (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). The movement held another founding conference in Zaslauye, Minsk Oblast, on August 11. At the conference, which was attended by 74 people from across Belarus, Milinkevich was elected chairman of the movement, while Viktar Karnyayenka and Yuras Hubarevich were named his deputies. JM

BELARUSIAN OPPOSITION SEEKS NONPARTY CANDIDATES FOR PARLIAMENTARY POLLS
The Political Council of United Pro-democratic Forces on September 12 appealed to people with no party affiliation to include themselves on the opposition list in next year's parliamentary elections, Belapan reported. United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka, one of the four co-chairs of the council, said that those wanting to be included in the opposition's election candidate rolls have one month to declare their intention. Elections to the 110-seat Chamber of Representatives are expected in the fall of 2008. JM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT WANTS OPEN TRIAL IN GONGADZE CASE
President Viktor Yushchenko said on September 12 that he wants the ongoing trial of the suspected murderers of journalist Heorhiy Gongadze to be open to the public, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yushchenko promised to ask the Supreme Court to open the trial to the public. A day earlier, the Kyiv Appeals Court, which is hearing the Gongadze case, announced that some sessions will be held behind closed doors because some materials being considered are classified. Meanwhile, Myroslava Gongadze, the slain journalist's widow, told reporters in Kyiv on September 12 that the investigation into the 2000 slaying of her husband has been deadlocked for a year. Investigators "deeply delved into the case and were close to exposing the organizers of the murder. Unfortunately, at the moment they were about to solve the crime, they were removed from the investigation process," she said. Three former police officers are standing trial on charges of killing Gongadze. No charges have been made against anyone suspected of organizing the crime or commissioning the killers. JM

UKRAINE-EU SUMMIT GATHERS IN KYIV
President Viktor Yushchenko told the 11th annual Ukraine-EU summit in Kyiv on September 14 that there is no alternative to Ukraine's choice to integrate with Europe, UNIAN reported. Yushchenko also assured the EU delegation to the summit that the preterm parliamentary elections in Ukraine on September 30 will be democratic and transparent. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, EU Council Secretary-General Javier Solana, European Commissioner for External Relations and European Neighborhood Policy Benita Ferrero-Waldner, and Jose Sokrates, prime minister of Portugal, which now holds the EU rotating presidency, are attending the summit. Reuters quoted an unidentified EU official as saying on September 13 that the EU is still withholding its support for Ukraine's membership bid to the World Trade Organization. According to the official, EU support is contingent on Ukraine's canceling export duties on some goods, including hides, steel, and scrap metal. JM

UKRAINIAN PRIME MINISTER EXPECTS 40 PERCENT OF THE VOTE
Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych told an election-campaign gathering in Sumy Oblast on September 13 that his Party of Regions will receive no less than 40 percent of the vote in the September 30 parliamentary polls. "After these elections, we will be in power for 10 years," Yanukovych predicted. Earlier this week, Yanukovych told journalists that he wants to stay in his job for five more years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). Meanwhile, the Razumkov Center for Economic and Political Studies found in a poll conducted on September 1-10 that five Ukrainian parties are likely to overcome the 3 percent voting threshold to win seats in the Verkhovna Rada. According to the center, the Party of Regions is supported by 33.9 percent of voters, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc by 23.5 percent, the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc by 13.1 percent, the Communist Party by 5 percent, and the Lytvyn Bloc by 3 percent. The minimum percentage is likely to be too high for the Socialist Party, which has 1.6 percent backing, and the Progressive Socialist Party with 1.5 percent. JM

RUSSIA REPORTEDLY PLEDGES TO HELP PROBE YUSHCHENKO POISONING
The Ukrainian Prosecutor-General's Office announced on September 12 that Russian prosecutors have agreed to analyze Russian-made dioxin in order to compare it with the poison used against President Yushchenko when he was a presidential candidate in 2004, Ukrainian media reported. Earlier this week, Yushchenko accused Russia of hampering the investigation into his poisoning (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). Speaking in Dnipropetrovsk on September 11, Yushchenko noted that Moscow has a moral obligation to cooperate. "A country cannot let an attempt on anyone's life go unpunished, let alone on a presidential candidate. For both the country's honor and rule of law, the investigation must be completed, and people have a right to know who committed the crime," Yushchenko said. JM

SERBIA NOT PLANNING TO USE FORCE IN KOSOVA, EU TOLD
Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Bozidar Djelic reassured the EU on September 11 that Serbia is not preparing to use force should Kosova declare independence, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said the same day after meeting with Djelic in Brussels. The EU's concerns were aroused by a statement by a junior government minister that Serbia would feel free to deploy troops to Kosova because a unilateral declaration by Kosova would annul an international agreement under which Serbia agreed to withdraw its troops from Kosova in 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7 and 10, 2007). "I have received clarification and I have been reassured that there has been a misunderstanding and Serbia is by no means contemplating any use of force or military action," Rehn told reporters. Rehn said the threat of violence is "out of the question for any country which aspires to become a member" of the EU, and that "certain Serbian politicians seem to have difficulty turning the page on Serbia's nationalist past." On September 10, Rehn announced that the EU and Serbia have completed the technical aspects of the next step towards integration, a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), a development that means the agreement's conclusion is now a political matter. Rehn has repeatedly said that the key obstacle to Serbia's progress in talks with the EU is its unsatisfactory record of cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The ICTY's chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, is due to visit Belgrade later this month, a visit that Djelic predicted will open up the way for the SAA to be signed in October. Djelic hopes Serbia will officially become a candidate for EU membership in 2008. Djelic continued his discussions with European leaders on September 12, traveling to Portugal, the current holder of the EU's rotating Presidency. The meetings in Portugal involved Serbian President Boris Tadic, who also attended a soccer match between Portugal and Serbia. AG

SERBIA URGES BOYCOTT OF KOSOVAR ELECTIONS
The Serbian government has officially called on Serbs in the disputed province of Kosova not to take part in elections scheduled for November 17. B92 reported on September 13 that the decision was made after consultations with President Boris Tadic. Serbian media on September 12 quoted Tadic as saying he has no right to advise Kosovar Serbs whether to vote or not. The government stated by way of explanation for the decision that "eight years after the UN mission was introduced in Kosovo-Metohija, elementary conditions for a safe and free existence of the Serbs and other non-Albanians in the province are still lacking." It stressed that "two-thirds of all Kosovo Serbs still live in exile away from Kosovo, without any possibility of return." The statement did not draw a connection between the decision and ongoing talks about the future of Kosova. In Kosova itself, Kosovar Albanian media have reported that four ethnic-Serbian parties have already registered to take part in the elections. Oliver Ivanovic, the leader of the moderate Serbian List for Kosovo-Metohija, said in Belgrade on September 13 that a boycott would amount to endorsing a partition of Kosova, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. He stressed that Serbian participation would be a signal to the Albanians that they must take the local Serbs seriously. The EU has urged Kosovar Serbs to participate. AG

SERBIA HOPES TO GAIN CHINESE SUPPORT FOR POSITION ON KOSOVA
Serbia's foreign minister, Vuk Jeremic, said he hopes to persuade China to support its position that the only acceptable solution for Kosova is a compromise agreement, Serbian television reported on September 12 at the start of a three-day by Jeremic visit to Beijing. The UN is not currently directly involved in efforts to resolve Kosova's future, but both Serbia and Russia insist that it is ultimately for the UN to decide Kosova's status. China did not take a clear position when a UN proposal for Kosova failed in the UN Security Council in July, but its long-standing sensitivity to any legitimation of separatist causes makes it a plausible supporter of Serbia's argument that changing Kosova's status would violate international law. According to B92, Jeremic said on September 13 that he has won assurances from China that it would block any effort in the UN Security Council to impose a solution on Serbia. There was no comparable statement from Chinese sources, although according to the Chinese news agency Xinhua on September 13, Chinese Vice President Zeng Qinghong described relations with Serbia as exemplary. China's deputy foreign minister spent the first week of September touring the western Balkans, visiting Bosnia, Montenegro, and Slovenia, but not Serbia. AG

SERBIAN PREMIER VISITS BRUSSELS...
Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Djelic's statement that Serbia is not preparing to use force opened up the way for Serbia's prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica, to visit Brussels on September 12 for talks with senior EU officials. The EU had ruled out a meeting until Serbia made clear its official view on the use of force (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7 and 10, 2007). In a subsequent press conference, the EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, reiterated the EU's view that Kosova should not be divided, that talks on Kosova's future should end in December, and that Serbia's EU prospects depend on its cooperation with the ICTY and not on an agreement about the status of Kosova. Solana also called for Kosova's Serbs to take part in local and parliamentary elections on November 17. Serbia's minister for Kosovar affairs, Slobodan Samardzic, on September 11 said Belgrade is advocating they boycott the elections, though subsequent reports have made it clear this is not a final decision on the part of the Serbian government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). AG

...AND INSISTS UN SHOULD DECIDE KOSOVA'S STATUS
After meeting with EU foreign-policy chief Solana, Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica emphasized that Serbia believes "the UN and the Security Council are the sole institutions within which the problem of the future status of Kosovo should be dealt with and solved," and he warned that "anything else is a violation of international law, the consequences of which are more than dangerous." Kostunica's statement underlines a long-standing position, but comes at a delicate point when the United States is again arguing that it would support a declaration of independence by Kosova should Belgrade and Prishtina fail to reach an agreement and when the EU is asserting that it should play the leading role in deciding the future of Kosova if no agreement is reached (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 11, and 12, 2007). Efforts to agree on Kosova's future within the UN Security Council collapsed in July, prompting the EU, the United States, and Russia to assume responsibility for diplomatic efforts to resolve the issue. Kostunica also used the trip to call once again for the EU not to recognize any unilateral move by Kosova, saying after meeting with the president of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Poettering, that "the international community and the EU should make clear warning that a unilateral declaration of independence is not only in violation of the UN Charter, but also a threat to the peace and stability of the region." Kostunica underscored the earlier statement by his deputy, Bozidar Djelic, saying that Serbia "does not pose a threat to any country in the region." He emphasized that this is despite the "many threatening words" aimed at Serbia. Kostunica was in all probability alluding to the threat by Kosovar Albanian leaders to declare independence in December -- albeit with the caveat that they will act only in concert with members of the international community -- and the subsequent statement by the United States that it would back a declaration of independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 11, and 12, 2007). AG

MLADIC 'NOT HIDING' IN SERBIAN MILITARY FACILITIES
Serbian Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac has said that he can guarantee "fully and completely" that wanted Bosnia Serb leader Ratko Mladic is not hiding in military facilities in Serbia. However, the news agency SRNA reported on September 12 that Sutanovac is not prepared to guarantee that Mladic is not being helped by members of the military. Mladic has evaded capture for over a decade and there have been persistent reports that he has found refuge in military barracks and support from members of the army. Serbia's failure to capture Mladic is the key obstacle to it taking its first step to membership of the EU, concluding a Stabilization and Accession Agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2007). Sutanovac is a strong advocate for Serbia's accession to NATO, an issue that is dividing Serbian politics particularly acutely amid debate about Kosova's final status (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 21, and September 7 and 10, 2007). In an interview with the Bosnian daily "Slobodna Bosna," Jovo Djogo, a former colonel in the Bosnian Serb Army currently awaiting trial in Serbia for helping to hide Mladic, said that when he last saw Mladic -- in early 2001 -- it was in an army building, but that Mladic was banned from taking shelter in military facilities in 2002. He said that between 2000 and 2005, the man chiefly responsible for protecting Mladic was Serbia's current prime minister, Vojislav Kostunica. International and local media reported on September 12 that the chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Carla Del Ponte, once again said that she believes Mladic is currently in Serbia. AG

BOSNIAN ARMY INVITES IN CLERICS
The Bosnian Defense Ministry has signed an agreement allowing muftis to provide religious services to soldiers, the Bosnian media reported on September 12. According to the daily "Dnevni avaz," the ministry says it expects to sign similar agreements with the Catholic Church and the Serbian Orthodox Church, possibly this month. AG

ITALY WANTS SPECIAL DEAL FOR SERBIA
The EU's official position that there should be no connection between Serbia's bid for EU membership and efforts to retain sovereignty over Kosova, reiterated on September 12 by EU foreign-policy chief Solana, is coming under renewed questioning after Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi called on September 10 for the EU to offer inducements to Serbia in a bid to break the Kosova deadlock. Prodi, a former president of the European Commission, said he has already sent a proposal to the commission outlining economic and political proposals, including economic incentives. Prodi explicitly linked his initiative to Kosova, saying that "we can't think about resolving the problem [of Kosova] without Serbia having a role in Europe." According to Reuters, Italian diplomats confirmed that Prodi meant the EU should accelerate Serbia's integration with the EU. "We must show that Serbia is not alone," Prodi said. He was speaking after a meeting with Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa, who will in January assume the presidency of the EU's top body, the Council of Ministers. Jansa said that "Prodi's letter has our complete support." AG

BOSNIAN BUSINESS URGED TO PUSH FOR REFORM
The second most senior international official in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Raffi Gregorian, has urged the country's business elite to lobby for faster reform. In a speech on September 11 to an audience of businesspeople, Gregorian, the deputy high representative, said that Bosnia's political elite must be put under pressure to abandon their populist and nationalistic rhetoric if the country's businesses are "to attract and retain the investment needed to create jobs and lift the country out of poverty." The key issue at present is police reform, which the EU says must be agreed upon before it is willing to allow Bosnia to take the next step to EU integration, the signing of a SAA. A proposal for police reform presented by High Representative Miroslav Lajcak was immediately rejected in late August and a subsequent speech by Lajcak exhorting the country's politicians to set aside their differences has brought no breakthrough (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31 and September 4 and 10, 2007). Lajcak spent September 11 in Brussels, where he gave a bleak assessment of the current situation in Bosnia. He said his continued aim is to broker an agreement on police reform this month, but he also talked about the need to "reverse the current negative trend that has prevailed since April 2006" and stressed the need for commitment on the part of the EU, because "we cannot afford to look on as a key country in the western Balkans goes backward." In Sarajevo, no progress was reported on September 12 after the latest talks on police reform. The next meeting is scheduled for September 18. AG

MONTENEGRO BOOSTS ARMY SALARIES BY 30 PERCENT
Montenegro's Defense Ministry has decided to raise the salaries of the country's soldiers by on average 30 percent, the news agency Mina reported on September 11. The increase is part of a broader reform package that includes a reduction in the size of the army to 2,400 people. Nearly 1,500 soldiers were laid off between 2004-06. Montenegro joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program in December 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, May 1 and 10, and June 26, 2007). AG

EX-PREMIER SUES MONTENEGRIN EDITOR
Milo Djukanovic, the head of Montenegro's largest party, is suing the editor of the country's most respected newspaper, "Vijesti," for libel after he accused Djukanovic of being behind a recent attack on him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). Djukanovic, who served for nearly 11 years as prime minister between 1991 and 2006, is demanding 1 million euros ($1.38 million) in damages. The case was also lodged against the editor in chief of "Vijesti," Ljubisa Mitrovic, and the paper's publisher. Ivanovic was beaten on September 1 by three men wielding batons and iron rods, after which he accused Djukanovic of orchestrating the attack in responses to investigations into his business dealings. Djukanovic was also criticized on September 12 by another leading figure in the national media, Miodrag Perovic, the founder and director of the weekly "Monitor," who wrote in "Vijesti" that Djukanovic had issued a veiled threat when he accused Perovic of acting as a self-appointed arbiter of public values. In his article, Perovic also wrote that the former prime minister "is obviously far fonder of iron bars than of reforms," has "created a society riddled with corruption and organized crime," and has been "installed by the Serbian secret police and [former Yugoslav leader Slobodan] Milosevic in order to lead Montenegro to war and crime." AG

ALBANIAN ARMS INDUSTRY AGAIN UNDER SCRUTINY
Turkey says it has found a large quantity of Albanian arms among a cache of weapons seized from Kurdish rebels, the Albanian daily "Gazeta Shqiptare" reported on September 10. Most were reportedly Albanian-made Kalashnikov rifles. It is unclear how the weapons came to be in the hands of the rebels. Albania's Defense Ministry and the state's arms-trading company, MEICO, have denied any irregularities in the country's arms trade, "Gazeta Shqiptare" reported on September 11. The discovery comes less than two months after Turkey turned back a shipment of Albanian weapons that it said were earmarked for the Armenian Army (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30, 2007). Turkey is arguably Azerbaijan's most stalwart ally in its dispute with Armenia over the contested region of Nagorno-Karabakh, and it is also an important partner for Albania. Arms exports reportedly earned Albania $4.6 million in 2006, "Gazeta Shqiptare" reported on August 20, citing a report by the country's national bank. The figure, though small, was nearly seven times higher than in 2005. "Gazeta Shqiptare" also wrote on August 20 that markets for Albanian arms include Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. AG

TWO 'FULL' DEMOCRACIES IN THE BALKANS
Only two states in Southeastern Europe -- EU members Greece and Slovenia -- can be deemed a "full democracy," the Economic Intelligence Unit (EIU) has concluded. The global survey, which was publicized by the EIU on September 5, considers the quality of elections, how pluralistic a country's politics is, how well its government functions, the level of political participation, and a country's political culture. Seven other democracies in the region are deemed "flawed," including Bulgaria (49) and Romania (50). Croatia, a strong candidate for EU membership, ranks just below them, at 51. Serbia placed 55th out of 167 states. It was followed by Montenegro (58), Moldova (61), and Macedonia (68). In two states, deep flaws have been coupled with authoritarian elements to create "hybrid regimes": they are Albania (83) and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which, at 87th, is the least democratic European state outside the former Soviet Union. AG

U.S. ALBANIANS PROTEST 'DISCRIMINATION' IN MONTENEGRO
Albanian-Americans rallied on September 10 outside the White House in Washington, D.C., to protest against perceived "discrimination" against ethnic Albanians in Montenegro, the Montenegrin daily "Vijesti" reported. The paper quoted the best-known Albanian organization in the United States -- the National Albanian-American Council -- as saying that the rally's organizing group, the Albanian-American National Council, was previously unknown to it. The rally coincided with criticism of Montenegro's new draft constitution by ethnic-Albanian leaders in Montenegro. They argue that minority rights are insufficiently protected. After many months of delays, the draft is due to go to parliament on October 1, the speaker of the Montenegrin parliament, Ranko Krivokapic, said on September 10. Failure to secure the support of two-thirds of parliament would trigger a national referendum. Issues relating to national and ethnic identities have proved the chief stumbling block in debate about the constitution. Albanians make up 6 percent of the population, according to a 2003 census. Forty-three percent of the population call themselves Montenegrins, 32 percent Serbs, and 7 percent Bosnian Muslims. AG

MACEDONIA HINTS AT RESPONSE TO GREEK VETO OF NATO BID
Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski indicated on September 12 that Macedonia will withdraw from negotiations with Greece about its name if Greece vetoes Macedonia's bid to gain membership of NATO, Serbian media reported. Crvenkovski's statement followed a warning issued by Greek Prime Minister Costas Karamanlis on September 6. "If this statement is put into practice...it would mean that Greece is blatantly violating and even invalidating the Interim Agreement between the two countries. Consequently, it would mean that all obligations on the part of Macedonia were suspended, including the one regarding the resumption of negotiations to overcome the name differences under UN auspices," Crvenkovski said. Karamanlis's warning was the latest in a series of threats by Greek officials this year. Macedonian officials have typically attributed the increase to populist electioneering ahead of Greece's upcoming elections, an argument that Macedonian Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki made immediately after Karamanlis's statement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 18 and 23, 2007). There has, though, been a perceptible increase in tensions in recent years as Macedonia's bid for NATO membership has gained in credibility. Skopje hopes that NATO leaders will decide in April 2008 to invite Macedonia into the alliance along with Croatia and Albania. AG

PUTIN'S NOMINATION FOR PREMIER STUNS POLITICAL ELITE
Already caught off-guard by the sudden resignation of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov on September 12, Russia's political elite was sent reeling by the follow-up announcement that little-known Federal Financial Monitoring Service Director Viktor Zubkov is President Vladimir Putin's choice to head the next cabinet.

Virtually unanimously, Russian party leaders and political analysts interpreted the choreographed resignation of the colorless Fradkov as an indication the Kremlin was ready to tip its hand as to who is viewed as the best successor to Putin in March 2008. During his televised meeting with Fradkov, Putin himself indicated the change was being enacted with the upcoming election season in mind. "Perhaps we should all think together how to build a structure of power and governance that better corresponds to the preelection period and prepares the country for the period after the [December] parliamentary elections and the March 2008 presidential election," Putin said.

With Fradkov's departure, the spotlight fell on the two men who have been widely viewed as the leading candidates for the presidency, first deputy prime ministers Sergei Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev. And the glare fell most prominently on Ivanov, who has shared the limelight repeatedly with Putin in recent weeks.

Union of Rightist Forces co-founder Boris Nemtsov told Interfax after Fradkov's resignation that "most likely, Sergei Ivanov will be named." Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov told gazeta.ru that Ivanov was the most likely choice, although other potential successors such as Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin or "several governors" might also be tapped. Liberal Democratic Party of Russia leader Vladimir Zhirinovsky likewise named Ivanov first on his list of likely nominees. Considerable credence was given to recent rumors in the press -- rumors that seemed to be coming from the presidential administration -- that Ivanov would become prime minister.

Yabloko Deputy Chairman Sergei Ivanenko did not name names, but was adamant the new prime minister would be the Kremlin's presidential candidate. "The new prime minister of Russia will be the candidate for president that is supported by the current head of state," Ivanenko said. "This is clearly a preelection decision and, I think, the new prime minister will be a successor, just like Vladimir Putin was eight years ago." Duma Deputy Speaker Oleg Morozov (Unified Russia) was certain that Putin's nominee to head the government would not be "an exotic variant."

Leading analysts were likewise caught flatfooted. Effective Politics Foundation head Gleb Pavlovsky said, "indubitably the new prime minister will be the [Kremlin's] candidate." Political Research Center Director Igor Bunin similarly commented that "if the decision is made quickly, if a letter with a nomination for prime minister is sent to the Duma soon, that will mean that the post will go to Sergei Ivanov." Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Aleksei Malashenko too named Ivanov, saying he is at "the peak of events" in Russian political life at the moment.

As a result, the ensuing announcement by Duma Speaker Gryzlov that Putin had submitted the name of Zubkov as prime minister proved an even bigger bombshell than Fradkov's announcement did. Zubkov, a St. Petersburg colleague of Putin's, has headed the Federal Financial Monitoring Service since it was created in February 2001. Although the government's battle against money laundering has been accelerated under Zubkov, he personally has kept a low profile and his name is not widely known.

Zubkov clearly would be a surprising -- even exotic -- choice as Putin's successor and seems to be yet another caretaker prime minister. Some analysts have predicted that the real reason behind the Fradkov resignation was not to get rid of Fradkov himself, who was thanked and rewarded by Putin for his service, but the rest of the cabinet. Putin may use the opportunity to replace some ministers whose work has reflected poorly on the Kremlin -- even though the policies associated with their names are more likely to have originated with the presidential administration than with their ministries.

Among the ministers most often named in this context are Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov, Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref, and Information Technologies and Communications Minister Leonid Reiman. Zurabov oversaw a highly unpopular plan to convert in-kind social benefits to cash payments that brought Russians out into the streets by the millions in the fall and winter of 2005. Gref was personally criticized by Putin during a trip to Kamchatka earlier this month, and the early exit of this liberal standout in the cabinet has been predicted for months. Reiman, although a close associate of Putin's, has been connected with high-profile corruption accusations in the telecommunications sector.

When Fradkov was named prime minister in 2004, a major restructuring of the government ensued. Numerous ministries were consolidated, and the number of deputy prime ministers was sharply cut back. Although the nomination of Zubkov to head the government came like a bolt out of the blue, the real surprises may come when he presents his cabinet proposals. And on a day when guessing has proven problematic, how those changes might affect the legislative and presidential elections remains a matter of conjecture. But Putin's admonition that "we should all think together how to build a structure of power and governance that better corresponds to the preelection period" is resonating loudly in Moscow now.

BELARUSIAN AUTHORITIES TURN THE OPPOSITION INTO DISSIDENTS
A recent wave of arrests of youth activists in Belarus clearly testifies to the sad reality that the Belarusian authorities do not intend to democratize public life.

But the arrests also show that, following the hotly contested presidential election in March 2006, the ruling regime has considerably marginalized and alienated its opponents. Now Belarusian opposition activists increasingly resemble Soviet-era dissidents, rather than challengers for power.

On September 4, a district court in the city of Salihorsk issued an official warning to 16-year-old Ivan Shyla for acting on behalf of the unregistered opposition organization Youth Front. The judge reportedly took into consideration the fact that Shyla is unemployed and a minor, and therefore did not fine or jail him.

The same day, an 18-year-old girl, Nasta Azarka, was tried in the city of Nyasvizh on the same charge as Shyla and fined the equivalent of $600, which is twice the country's official average monthly wage.

Shyla and Azarka were lucky to have gotten off with such light sentences.

In October 2006, Youth Front leader Zmitser Dashkevich was sentenced to 18 months in a correctional institution for belonging to an unregistered organization.

And in August 2006, a district court in Minsk jailed four young people, finding them guilty of running an unregistered organization that "infringes upon the interests and rights of citizens." The four, who wanted to monitor the presidential election on March 19, 2006, were arrested one month before the polls. Mikalay Astreyka was sentenced to two years in jail, Tsimafey Dranchuk to one year, and Enira Branitskaya and Alyaksandr Shalayka to six months each.

It seems that now, after the wave of opposition protests following the March 2006 presidential election has died down and the opposition is again under strict surveillance and control by the KGB and other law-enforcement bodies, Belarusian judges have been ordered to reduce the severity of punishment for involvement in an unregistered organization.

But the intolerance of the police and the courts toward political protesters continues unabated. During the Shyla trial in Salihorsk, police arrested 11 young people who came to show solidarity with their associate in front of the courthouse. Seven of them were jailed or fined by the same court the following day.

"We have selective repressions. Given that Belarusians are a nation of timid individualists, the authorities strike at the headquarters and the leaders. In essence, they jail very few people, but intimidate millions," opposition leader Mikalay Statkevich, who spent two years in prison in 2005-2007, told the Belarusian independent newspaper "Svaboda" in July.

Moreover, the Justice Ministry remains as adamant as ever with regard to registering opposition-minded organizations. It has already rejected half a dozen registration requests from the Youth Front, always finding some formal irregularities in documents submitted for registration. Perpetuating the illegal status of the Youth Front, of course, makes it easier for law enforcers to neutralize its members.

There are also signs that the Justice Ministry, under various formal pretexts, wants to outlaw most opposition parties in Belarus ahead of legislative polls in 2008, in order to make life for oppositionists even more difficult.

In August, the Justice Ministry suspended the legal status of the opposition Belarusian Party of Communists for three months. The ministry had issued warnings over paperwork irregularities and the party's participation in the founding conference of a Belarusian left-wing alliance, which took place not in Belarus, as required by legislation, but in Ukraine, because the alliance was unable to lease a venue for the conference in its home country.

On September 12, the Supreme Court held a preliminary hearing on a suit by the Justice Ministry to shut down the opposition Women's Party "Hope."

Thus, after squeezing out the opposition from parliament in 1996, the regime has now apparently decided to push its opponents outside even the precarious framework of legitimacy they have enjoyed so far.

But even for those parties that don't face closure, their activities in Belarus are now fairly similar to those of Soviet-era dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s.

Belarusian oppositionists are basically allowed to remain free, but the authorities have managed to restrict their influence to the atomized circles of mostly urban intelligentsia that are opposition-minded even without any outside encouragement. As for the overwhelming majority of ordinary Belarusians, they appear to be ignorant not only of the opposition's goals, but also of its very existence.

Such a situation cannot be blamed on the regime's repressive machinery and information blockade alone.

Many critics of the Belarusian opposition point out that its goals and slogans, particularly regarding democratic transformations and European integration, are very far from the present-day concerns and expectations of most Belarusians.

Belarusian writer Svyatlana Aleksiyevich told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service earlier this week that she cannot help feeling that the opposition groups "are just clubs for harboring illusions." "The Social Democrats have one illusion, the Communists have another, and the United Civic Party has yet another. In other words, they have no base among ordinary people," she continued. Addressing those parties, Aleksiyevich asked, "Why is there such a gap between you and your own people?"

Hopes that the Belarusian opposition could mobilize wider social support behind former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich were demolished at an opposition congress in May.

Instead of formulating a clear-cut and consistent alternative to the authoritarian regime of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- which was particularly vulnerable at that time, following a painful Russian gas price hike at the beginning of 2007 -- the congress spent almost all of its energy squabbling about leadership.

In effect, Milinkevich was dismissed as head of the Political Council of United Pro-democratic Forces, which instead chose four co-chairs to please major opposition factions. "The fight for power in the country has been replaced by a fight for power among the opposition," Milinkevich aptly commented on the congress. The social momentum for change generated by the opposition during the March 2006 presidential campaign, not very impressive to begin with, was irretrievably squandered.

On September 12, the Political Council of United Pro-democratic Forces appealed to people with no party affiliation to become candidates on the opposition list in next year's parliamentary elections.

Desperate as it looks at first glance, that appeal nevertheless seems to be a reasonable attempt at bridging the gap between the elitist circle of Belarusian opposition politics and society as a whole. At any rate, it makes more sense for the Belarusian opposition to seek understanding among people in its own country than abroad. If they fail to find such understanding this time, they may be called dissidents without any reservations.

NATO WELCOMES AFGHAN GOVERNMENT'S OFFER FOR PEACE TALKS WITH TALIBAN
NATO spokesman Nicholas Lunt on September 13 said the international force is optimistic about the potential outcome of peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Lunt told journalists that while military power can play a key role is creating stability, long-term peace can only be achieved through engaging opponents in talks, but with proper control and sincerity, he added. "We welcome the Afghan government's efforts for peace and reconciliation," Lunt said. On September 9, President Hamid Karzai offered to hold peace talks with Taliban militants and Hizb-e-Islami, the faction led by former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). Taliban spokeman Qari Yusof Ahmadi said the Taliban does not rule out talking with the government, and would be willing to hold negotiations if the offer is extended through the appropriate channels, without specifying which channels. The United States has not made any explicit statements regarding the potential talks, although Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte on September 11 warned that any talks with the Taliban must not detract from progress made by Afghanistan and its international partners on all fronts over the past six years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). JC

SENIOR UN ENVOY CRITICIZES GERMAN TROOPS' RESTRICTED ROLE IN AFGHANISTAN...
The senior United Nations envoy to Afghanistan, Tom Koenigs, on September 12 criticized the limited role of the German military in Afghanistan, particularly in combating the country's soaring drug trade, AFP reported. Koenigs told the "Berliner Zeitung" that he believes German army troops stationed in Afghanistan should not only participate in the fight against the insurgency, but also support police in combating illegal opium production and the drug trade, rather than say "that has got nothing to do with us." While the majority of poppy growth is focused in the southern province of Helmand, a Taliban stronghold, some opium poppy crops are also grown in the north where Germany's 3,000 troops are stationed. The UN envoy noted that there is an "excellent police chief in Badakshan," a remote northern province known to produce opiates, but he "lacks the necessary support" to fight the drug trade. Afghanistan, the world's leading producer of opiates, has seen a record level of poppy cultivation this year. Koenigs also praised President Hamid Karzai's offer to the Taliban to open up peace talks in an effort to end the six-year insurgency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). He added that officials in Afghanistan are "without a doubt at a point in which the government and their friends must consider how to make peace." JC

...AS CHANCELLOR PLEDGES FULL SUPPORT FOR PEACEKEEPING MISSION
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on September 12 pledged Germany's full support for its peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan, despite opposition from more than half of German voters, AFP reported. In a speech to the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament, Merkel warned against abandoning the counterinsurgency mission in Afghanistan. "As long as the danger persists, the ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] stabilization mission must continue to be supported by Operation Enduring Freedom," a U.S.-led campaign aimed at actively combating insurgents. The German parliament is expected to approve two mandates relating to the NATO-led ISAF mission: one extending the deployments of about 3,000 German troops, and another new mandate for six German Tornado reconnaissance jets. A third mandate dealing with Operation Enduring Freedom faces resistance from both the opposition party and the Social Democrats, partners in Merkel's coalition government. Although not currently conducting missions, approximately 200 members of Germany's elite KSK unit are authorized to operate with the U.S.-led operation. Merkel's remarks follow a September 10 announcement that Friedrich Eichele, the German head of the European Union's police training mission in Afghanistan, is leaving his post three months after being appointed because of "reorganization," although reports say Eichele was exasperated by disagreements between EU, NATO, and Afghan officials on training issues. JC

CONFLICT SPREADING AND INTENSIFYING IN AFGHANISTAN, SAYS RED CROSS
International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) officials on September 13 warned that fighting in Afghanistan is growing more intense as the conflict spreads to over half the country, AFP reported. "The conflict is clearly spreading and, in certain areas, also intensifying," said Reto Stocker, the head of the ICRC delegation in Afghanistan. More than half of the country is at least somewhat affected by violence, as increasing numbers of people are displaced by clashes between Afghan and coalition forces and Taliban-led insurgents, Stocker said. He added that sustained violence in certain parts of the country has created "no-go areas" for aid workers, making it impossible for non-governmental organizations to provide assistance to those affected. Meanwhile, the ICRC is continuing its aid efforts by visiting prisoners held by the Afghan government or coalition forces. In August, the international aid group played a key role in the release of 21 South Korean hostages held by Taliban militants. "The ICRC has gained the trust of all the parties to the conflict, and the mandate is -- despite the worsening security situation -- respected by all parties to the conflict," Stocker said. JC

GUNMEN RELEASE REMAINING DEMINERS IN AFGHANISTAN...
Militants on September 13 released the last three members of an Afghan mine-clearing group kidnapped on September 6 in eastern Paktia Province, the BBC reported. Police say no ransom was paid in the negotiation with village elders that secured the men's release. The captors remain unidentified, although the Taliban have repeatedly denied involvement in the abduction of the 13 deminers who were traveling through Paktia. Ten hostages were freed on September 10 following earlier negotiations between the captors and tribal elders (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 2007). While the wave of kidnappings of foreigners has raised concern among international aid organizations operating in Afghanistan, journalists on the ground claim Afghan citizens are kidnapped far more frequently than foreign nationals. The abduction of the deminers follows a series of high-profile abductions by the Taliban in recent months, including a group of 23 South Korean aid workers, two of whom were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31, 2007). Mine-clearing groups in particular are concerned about their workers' safety. One such group, the Mine Detection Center, recently refused to continue operations without security guarantees from both the Afghan government and the Taliban (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31, 2007). JC

U.S. OFFICIAL SAYS TALKS WITH TALIBAN MUST NOT UNDERCUT PROGRESS IN AFGHANISTAN
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte on September 11 said any talks with the Taliban should not affect the six years of progress in Afghanistan produced by assistance from the international community, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Addressing reporters in Kabul, Negroponte warned against allowing talks with the Taliban to derail any previous achievements made on the political, social, and economic fronts. President Karzai said on September 9 that he is ready to hold official talks with the Taliban, but denied that his government has already held "formal negotiations" with the Islamic extremist group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). Commenting on the recent video message from Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Negroponte said the terrorist leader and his second-in-command, Ayman al-Zawahri, are alive and hiding out in the border region between Afghanistan and Pakistan. He rejected assertions that the Chinese government is supplying weapons to Taliban militants, although he added that Chinese officials informed him "some time back" that Beijing sold weapons to Iran similar to those recently discovered in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). Negroponte earlier visited U.S. troops in the eastern city of Jalalabad, accompanied by Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Richard Boucher. JC

TWO NEW POLICE BUILDINGS OPEN IN NANGARHAR PROVINCE
Residents of Afghanistan's northeastern Nangarhar Province on September 11 helped inaugurate two new local police buildings, Pajhwak News Reported. Provincial officials, tribal elders, and influential community members looked on as the new district and police headquarters of Ghanikhel and Bhatikot districts were opened and handed over to local officials. The two buildings were completed in one year with the help of the National Solidarity Program (NSP) of the Interior Ministry, according to NSP deputy head Ghulam Dastagir Sidiqyar. The World Bank provided the estimated 27 million afghanis ($544,846) needed for the projects. Nine more similar buildings are expected to be built in the province. The new government buildings are two of many NSP projects going up across Afghanistan in an effort to foster development, including 10 reconstruction projects completed in eastern Laghman Province on September 5 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7, 2007). JC

...AS TALIBAN MILITANTS DEMAND RANSOM FOR THREE AFGHAN OFFICIALS
Taliban militants on September 12 demanded a ransom of 1.5 million afghanis ($30,200) in exchange for the release of three provincial government officials in southern Nimroz Province, Pajhwak Afghan News reported, quoting Muhammad Hashim Nawrozi, the Khashrud district chief. Nawrozi did not say what the captors threatened to do if their demands are not met. Nimroz Governor Ghulam Dastagir Azad said the government will not respond to ransom demands, and that police have arrested five suspects. He warned that more arrests will follow if the hostages are not released within the next few days. Meanwhile, Deputy Governor Malang Rasuli openly disagreed with Dastagir, arguing that refusal to pay the ransom endangers the captives' lives. The provincial government has sent a 14-member delegation to negotiate with the kidnappers and resolve the crisis, according Nimroz Rural Rehabilitation and Development Department head, Khalil Rahman. Taliban rebels kidnapped the three staffers in Khashrud district three weeks ago while they were consulting local residents on National Solidarity Program development projects. JC

UNITED STATES SEEKS MORE IRAN SANCTIONS
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told NBC's "Today" show on September 12 that Iran is a "very troublesome neighbor" for Iraq. The same day, an unnamed U.S. government official told AP that the administration of President George W. Bush intends to list the Quds Force, part of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps, as a terrorist group and subject it to financial sanctions for its alleged involvement in Iraqi insurgent activities. Iranian officials have denied that Iran is involved in any violence in Iraq. The top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, mentioned the Quds Force in a report he gave to Congress on September 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 12, and 13, 2007) and said its members are trying to turn Shi'ite militias in Iraq into a force similar to Hizballah, the pro-Iranian militia in Lebanon. Reuters reported on September 12 that the Quds Force may face tough sanctions even without being labelled a terrorist group. AP reported that the United States will also discuss the prospect of more sanctions against Iran at a strategy session with other permanent members of the UN Security Council scheduled for September 21 in Washington. It added that Security Council permanent members may debate sanctions against Iran at the UN in October. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni separately urged tougher sanctions on Iran on September 13, and said current UN sanctions are insufficient, AFP reported. She told Israeli radio the private sector should stop doing business with Iran, in spite of potential economic losses. The world, she said, cannot "allow itself to wait" to confront Iran over its nuclear program. Iran insists its nuclear program is only intended to generate electricity. VS

WESTERN POWERS SKEPTICAL OF IAEA DEAL ON IRAN INSPECTIONS
Iran and Western powers revealed opposing positions on Iran's recent cooperation plan with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) at a meeting of the IAEA governing board in Vienna on September 12, news agencies reported. The United States in particular is concerned that the deal to clarify all aspects of Iran's activities is giving Tehran time to pursue sensitive uranium-enrichment activities, which could provide it with material for nuclear weapons. The U.S. envoy at the governing board, Gregory Schulte, told the meeting that the UN Security Council needs the board's support for another round of sanctions on Iran, as it has not halted enrichment activities, Reuters reported. Two sets of sanctions are in place to curb Iran's program and its capabilities. Iran's envoy, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said any "interference" in the IAEA's interactions with Iran would "impede" Iran's cooperation. Germany's ambassador at the IAEA, Klaus Peter Gottwald, speaking on behalf of the EU, told the board that Iran may use the time frame worked out with the IAEA to win time, not clarify its activities, Reuters reported. The EU statement read by Gottwald apparently prompted IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei to leave the session. Gottwald said Iran's continuing enrichment activities in Natanz are "unacceptable" and need to be "considered in" the UN Security Council, Reuters added. "We do not only need clarity about" past Iranian activities, he said, but "full trust that Iran refrains now and in the future from any military nuclear activities." Gottwald said Great Britain, France, and Germany want el-Baradei to inform the IAEA governing board by November "at the latest" on whether or not Iran has clarified why it engaged in research on developing advanced centrifuges, used for uranium enrichment. VS

IRAN HANGS MORE CONVICTS
Iran hanged eight men convicted of drug trafficking or murder on September 12, AFP reported, citing Iranian media. Seven men were hanged in public in the southeastern town of Mahan, AFP reported, citing a report from Fars news agency. It added that last week the police chief in Mahan was shot dead there, though it was not clear if the hangings were related to the death. An unnamed man was also hanged in the southern coastal province of Hormozegan, after he was convicted of killing and decapitating his mother, sister and nephew, AFP reported, citing a report from ISNA. AFP noted that with these hangings, Iran has executed over 200 convicts in 2007. VS

IRAN HANGS CONVICTED BOMBERS
The public and revolutionary prosecutor of Ahwaz district in the southwestern province of Khuzestan, Musa Piriai, said in Ahwaz on September 13 that three men convicted of carrying out bombings in Khuzestan in 2005 were executed this week, IRNA and agencies reported. He did not say how the men were executed, or state their names. He said "a number of other bombing agents are waiting to be executed," and their cases are being processed in Tehran. He added that 80 percent of those allegedly involved in bombings in Khuzestan in 2005 have been arrested, while others are living abroad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2007). Separately, police or military troops killed three "armed bandits" in the Taibad district of northeastern Khorasan-i Razavi Province, "Kayhan" reported on September 13, without giving a date for the shootout. A gun battle began when police sought to stop the five armed men from entering the country; two apparently escaped, "Kayhan" reported, citing a statement by the provincial police force. Police confiscated two Kalashnikov rifles, ammunition, and 36 kilograms of opium and heroin during the mopping-up operations that followed, "Kayhan" reported. VS

POLICEMAN ASSESSES IMPACT OF DRUGS IN IRAN
The head of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters, Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, told a gathering of counternarcotics officials in Tehran on September 11 that annual drug production in Afghanistan increased from 200 tons to 8,200 tons "from the time the Americans entered" the country, "Kayhan" reported the next day. He said the U.S. troops "officially said they will have nothing to do with [combatting] drugs" as they are fighting terrorism in Afghanistan. He estimated the number of drug addicts in Iran at 2 million, but said that drugs affect 7 million-10 million Iranians if the families of addicts are included, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on September 12. Ahmadi-Moqaddam said 94 percent of all narcotics in Iran are confiscated, but he admitted that counternarcotics officials and the state have failed to control the "internal consumption market" for drugs. Ahmadi-Moqaddam said drug-control officials entirely agree with the judiciary on the need to reduce the number of "small-time" drug offenders in prisons. He said 90 percent of inmates sent to jail for drug-related offenses are minor offenders and often in jail for about a month for their inability to pay fines. He suggested replacing imprisonment with other, unspecified penalties, and said authorities should concentrate on catching large-scale traffickers. The greater the number of prisoners, he said, the lower the quality of their supervision, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported. VS

IRANIAN CLERIC ARRESTED AT HOME
Hojatoleslam Hadi Qabel, the secretary of the central council of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, was arrested at his home in Tehran on September 12, Fars news agency reported. His son, Ruhollah Qabel, told Fars that agents of Iran's special court for the clergy arrived at the house and searched for an hour, then seized his father, along with some books, personal effects, and a computer. Qabel said he did not know why his father was arrested, and said no court had summoned his father prior to the arrest. He said the family expects Qabel to be released, as the fasting month of Ramadan has begun in Iran. VS

IRANIAN OFFICIALS REJECT REPORTS ON IRAQ...
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on September 12 that reports given by two U.S. officials on the situation in Iraq are for electoral purposes and designed to meet the needs of "neoconservatives" to justify Iraq's continued occupation, Radio Farda reported, citing news agency reports (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10 and 11, 2007). The U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, and U.S. Ambassador in Baghdad Ryan Crocker gave their assessments on Iraq in congressional testimonies on September 10. Petraeus recommended some troop reductions by summer 2008, but accused Iranian elements of meddling in Iraqi affairs and trying to form a version of the Lebanese Hizballah in Iraq, Radio Farda reported on September 12. Hosseini said the recommendations will not address the "tragedy" of so many casualties in Iraq nor resolve the financial burden imposed on U.S. taxpayers. Hosseini said U.S. officials should not blame Iran for their mistakes in Iraq. He said the administration of President George W. Bush is trying to "persuade [U.S. public] representatives...over the continuation of the occupation and expansion of militarism in Iraq, to reduce the daily increasing pressures...on ruling warmongers." VS

ARRESTED CLERIC SENT TO QOM
Agents of Iran's special court for the clergy have sent Hojjatoleslam Hadi Qabel, a prominent member of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, to the city of Qom at the request of the court's branch there, Radio Farda reported, citing ISNA and agencies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2007). Qabel, the Participation Front chief or coordinator in Qom, was arrested in Tehran on September 12, but no charges against him have been announced. Radio Farda reported that in comments in the daily "Kargozaran," Qabel recently criticized what he called the insulting language used by some pro-government websites against certain senior clerics such as Ayatollah Yusef Sanei, considered one of the more liberal of Iran's senior theologians. Qabel and his brother Ahmad Qabel are considered prominent members of the reformist camp, Radio Farda stated on September 12. It added that Qabel warned during 2005 presidential elections that those who "wield the whips at street junctions" -- meaning supporters of strict punishments, including whipping, for alleged religious and social transgressions -- are the same people who supported Mahmud Ahmadinejad in his bid for the presidency. VS

PRESIDENT APPROVES U.S. SCHOLAR'S REQUEST FOR ISFAHAN BURIAL
President Ahmadinejad has agreed to a request sent to his office by U.S. scholar Richard N. Frye to be buried, when he dies, in Isfahan, a historic city in central Iran, IRNA reported on September 13. Frye was born around 1920 and was a member of the Harvard University teaching faculty from 1948 to 1990, and founded the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard. He was a visiting lecturer at universities in Frankfurt, Hamburg, and elsewhere. His well-known or frequently published books on Iran include "Iran," "The Heritage of Persia," and "The Golden Age of Persia." He criticized the ugly development of modern Tehran and the destruction of what remains of its 18th and 19th century architectural heritage at a conference at the U.S. Library of Congress in 2004. Frye first expressed his wish to be buried in Isfahan in his will, but IRNA quoted the president's response to a "recent" letter from Frye. The president thanked him for his scholarly work on Iran and Islamic civilization. VS

...AND GIVE DIFFERING VIEW OF IRAQ
Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani told the press in Tehran on September 12 that any improved security in Iraq is not due to "militarism," but to "different resolves" and initiatives by Iraqi politicians, Iraq's neighbors, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and the good sense of political parties. He accused the occupying authorities of failing to provide any health care or electricity infrastructure. "You shut most of the hospitals and there is not a single hospital in Baghdad now, and people in Iraq have at most two hours of electricity a day," Fars quoted him as saying. He accused the U.S. authorities of fomenting violence -- "you kill Sunnis in the name of Shi'a and Shi'a in the name of Sunnis" -- and urged the departure of U.S. troops to end the terrorist violence. "I would ask you...were the terrorists in Iraq before the occupation or...after? If they just answer this question, they will know whether or not they must continue their occupation." Terrorists in Iraq, he added, come from states he said are friends of the United States, ISNA reported. Asked to comment on the United States' increasingly threatening tone with Iran, he said, "this is nothing new, it has had its ups and downs in past years." He said "conditions in Iraq" are forcing the United States to "say these things to maintain their dignity." Iran, he added, would give "a fitting response" to any U.S. action against it, which he said would harm the "entire region." He said the United States or Western powers might lose control of any initiative they begin against Iran, and cited the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein as creatures of Western machinations that had spun out of control, ISNA reported. "Events are not...controlled by you, especially as you are not familiar with the region. You make decisions that later harm you," Larijani said in reference to the West. VS

IRAQI PREMIER TO ATTEND DONOR COUNTRIES CONFERENCE
The office of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki issued a statement on September 12 saying that he will attend a donors' conference at the UN headquarters in New York on September 21, "Al-Sabah" reported. Al-Maliki is scheduled to meet with U.S. lawmakers on the sidelines of the conference and brief them on the Iraqi government's achievements, particularly the steps being taken to improve the country's security situation. The Iraqi daily also indicated that al-Maliki will use his visit as an opportunity to inform the American public that "the situation in Iraq is different in some aspects to how it is portrayed" in the media. In addition, al-Maliki is expected to co-chair a high-level meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on September 22 focusing on Iraq's future. KUNA reported that al-Maliki will be accompanied to New York by several cabinet members and Iraqi lawmakers, including Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Finance Minister Baqir Jabr Al-Zubaydi, Planning Minister Ali Baban, and Oil Minister Husayn Al-Shahrastani. SS

KEY SUNNI TRIBAL LEADER ASSASSINATED IN CENTRAL IRAQ
Sheikh Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah, the leader of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, was killed on September 13 by a roadside bomb outside his home in Al-Ramadi, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Colonel Tariq al-Dulaymi, undersecretary of the Ministry of Interior, said Abu Rishah was on his way home when his convoy stopped to assist a handicapped man on the roadside. Moments later, a bomb exploded. Abu Rishah "was returning home when his convoy was hit by a roadside bomb planted by insurgents. His car was hit directly," Dulaymi said. The blast also killed one of Abu Rishah's bodyguards. The Al-Anbar Salvation Council is a coalition of tribes in the western Al-Anbar Governorate that aims to rid the region of groups linked with Al-Qaeda in Iraq. It has been widely reported that the council was working alongside U.S. and Iraqi forces against Al-Qaeda elements in the governorate. Sheikh Jubair Rashid, a senior member of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, described Abu Rishah's killing as a major blow to the group, AP reported. "Such an attack was expected, but it will not deter us," Rashid said. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but suspicion immediately fell on Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The group earlier claimed responsibility for the June 25 suicide bombing at the Al-Mansur Hotel in Baghdad that killed four Sunni tribal sheikhs from the Al-Anbar Salvation Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26, 2007). SS

IRAQI LEADERS CONDEMN KILLING, PRAISE ABU RISHAH
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office issued a statement condemning the assassination of Sheikh Abu Rishah, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on September 13. "The criminal incident, which has the fingerprints of the terrorist Al-Qaeda organization, seeks to undermine security and stability in Al-Anbar Governorate. This will only lead to isolating this terrorist organization, not only in Al-Anbar, but in all of Iraq," the statement said. "Martyr Abu Rishah had a prominent role in combating the takfiris [unbelievers] who tried to hijack Al-Anbar Governorate and establish a backward regime in Iraq," it added. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani issued a statement extolling Abu Rishah and called on Iraqis to follow the slain martyr's example. "The great deeds of Sheikh Abu Rishah exhort us to close ranks, shun discord, and work together against the forces of ignorance and terrorism, which assassinated Abd al-Sattar Abu-Rishah," Talabani said. SS

AL-MALIKI SAYS IRAQ CAN HELP THE WORLD FIGHT TERRORISM
In another statement on September 12, Prime Minister al-Maliki's office said that Iraq's experience in fighting terrorism can be extremely beneficial to the international community, the independent Voices of Iraq reported. "Iraq will become a country with big experience in fighting terrorism, because we have witnessed different kinds of terrorist attacks," al-Maliki said. "We can offer our valuable experience to other countries for the good of humanity, but we will not engage our troops and security forces in war and aggression as the former regime did," he added. SS

IRAQI INSURGENT SPOKESMAN SAYS GROUP OPEN TO TALKS WITH U.S.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera satellite television on September 12, Ibrahim al-Shammari, a spokesman for the militant Islamic Army in Iraq, said his group would be willing to hold peace talks with the United States only if Washington commits to a timetable for a troop withdrawal from Iraq. Al-Shammari also said that he does not believe that Sunni insurgents groups have made deals with U.S. forces, even though many such groups have turned their backs on Al-Qaeda in Iraq. "Al-Qaeda's agenda started to reveal itself clearly in October 2006 when they started to consider themselves a 'state,' and started to target other Iraqi resistance factions, including prominent Sunni personnel in our community. This affected our relations with them," al-Shammari said. "These killings started the media war between them and us, so we decided to break away quickly in order not to give our enemies the chance to benefit from it," he added. Al- Shammari stressed that even though their relationship with Al-Qaeda in Iraq has changed, his group and many other Sunni groups still consider themselves to be at war with the U.S. and Iraqi governments. SS

U.S. ANNOUNCES RELEASE OF IRAQI DETAINEES DURING RAMADAN
The U.S. military announced on September 13 that it will release up to 80 Iraqi detainees every day, many of them Sunni Arabs, during the holy month of Ramadan. Major General Douglas Stone, the commander in charge of U.S. detention operations, said all detainees eligible for release will be reviewed by an impartial release board. "This will be a completely non-sectarian, non-political process," said Stone. "The detainees being released are only those who MNF-I [Multinational Forces-Iraq] have determined no longer need to be detained for imperative reasons of security," he added. The U.S. military reached a deal on the "special Ramadan releases" with Iraqi Vice-President Tariq al-Hashimi last month. Al-Hashimi has long complained about the continued detention and treatment of Sunni Arab prisoners by the Shi'ite-led government and U.S. forces. The issue was a key factor that prompted the main Sunni Arab political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, to quit the government in August. SS

SYRIA TO SUSPEND VISA REQUIREMENT FOR IRAQIS DURING RAMADAN
The Syrian government announced on September 13 that it will suspend the visa requirement for all Iraqis fleeing their home country as a goodwill gesture during the holy month of Ramadan, AFP reported. A Syrian official said the decision is aimed at allowing Iraqi families to reunite during Ramadan. Damascus initiated the new visa program on September 10 to stem the flow of Iraqi refugees entering Syria. An estimated 1.5 million Iraqi refugees are currently in Syria, and the Damascus government has warned that its resources and infrastructure are overstretched in trying to deal with such a large displaced population. Previously, Syria had an "open door" policy, in which Iraqis were given a three-month visa that was easily renewable. But under the new visa regime, only Iraqis involved in the economic, commercial, and scientific sectors will receive visas, and they must obtain them from the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad. Human rights groups have warned that the new visa system will exclude desperate Iraqis who are fleeing to Syria to escape the violence at home. SS

IRAQIS PROTEST SEPARATION WALL IN BAGHDAD
Hundreds of Iraqis marched through a neighborhood in northwest Baghdad on September 12, condemning a separation barrier being erected by U.S. forces, the BBC reported. The wall, once finished, will separate the mainly Shi'ite neighborhood of Al-Shu'lah from the adjoining Sunni neighborhood of Al-Ghazaliyah. U.S. forces insisted that the wall will protect residents from sectarian violence, but tribal leaders, clerics, and local residents said the wall would actually promote sectarianism. "This wall does not provide security and stability," Shi'ite cleric Abd al-Baqir al-Subayhawi said. "The government must maintain security in Baghdad rather than separate its neighborhoods," he added. Radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr called on artists to cover the wall with the "ugly face" of the U.S. military in Iraq. "I call on you to draw a magnificent tableau that depicts the ugliness and terrorist nature of the occupier, and the sedition, car bombings, blood and the like he has brought upon Iraqis," al-Sadr said. On April 23, hundreds of residents in Baghdad's Al-Adhamiyah district took to the streets to denounce the construction of a barrier around their neighborhood (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007). SS

UN ENVOY TO IRAQ CONCERNED ABOUT SHELLING OF KURDISH REGION
Ashraf Qazi, the UN special envoy to Iraq, issued a statement on September 12 expressing deep concern over intermittent shelling of villages in the Kurdish-administered regions of northern Iraq, according to the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq. Qazi said the shelling, conducted from across the Turkish and Iranian borders, has caused considerable damage, created panic among residents, and prevented them from performing their daily activities. He called on all relevant parties to stop the shelling and cease any actions that could undermine Iraq's political and humanitarian stability. Qazi indicated that UN agencies are in contact with local authorities in areas affected by the shelling to assess the situation and humanitarian needs there. He said the international organizations have sent tents, blankets, cooking equipment, medical kits, and other emergency items to hundreds who have been displaced by the attacks. SS

IRAQI SUNNI MINISTER SAYS RETURN IS ONLY 'TEMPORARY'
Iraqi Planning Minister Ali Baban announced on September 13 that his recent return to his cabinet post is only temporary, and that he will soon resign from the Iraqi government, KUNA reported. He stressed that the reason for his return on September 11 was to complete unfinished work and to offer his views on pending bills that he deems detrimental to Iraq's future (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). "I returned to offer my views on draft bills related to oil, gas, finance, and local councils. These bills could bring danger to Iraqi interests if approved. I will then resign from the government within days," Baban said. He had previously been highly critical of the draft petroleum law, saying it requires "fundamental amendments." Baban is a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, part of the Iraqi Accordance Front, which withdrew its ministers from Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki's government in August. SS

SAUDI ARABIA REPORTEDLY PLANS WALL ALONG IRAQ BORDER
Saudi Arabia is reportedly planning to build a security barrier along its border with Iraq to prevent militants from entering the kingdom and to deter Saudi extremists from going to Iraq, "Al-Riyadh" reported on September 13. The 900-kilometer security barrier will cost an estimated $1 billion, with the first stage due for completion in 2009. Saudi Arabia has invited bids from five companies, and the winning bid will be announced later this year. "The protection line will [include] two rows of barbed wire equipped with the newest radar and infrared viewing devices," Saudi Interior Ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki said in Riyadh on September 13.

SAUDI ARABIA TO OPEN EMBASSY IN IRAQI CAPITAL
Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal announced on September 12 that his country will open an embassy in Baghdad for the first time since Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, international media reported. Al-Faisal's announcement came after a Saudi delegation returned from Iraq after investigating the possibility of opening an embassy. "After we received the delegation's report, it is expected that an embassy will open soon," al-Faisal said. He did not give a date for the opening. Arab governments have been reluctant to open embassies in Baghdad since several Arab diplomats were abducted and killed in 2005. SS

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