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Newsline - October 1, 2007

President Vladimir Putin said at Bocharov Ruchei near Sochi on September 28 that it would be "premature" to impose sanctions against Myanmar, news agencies reported. He said that "as far as sanctions are concerned, this is a topic to be considered above all in the United Nations. It is premature to speak about it now." Putin added that "we regret the deaths and assume that violence will stop." Putin said that the Foreign Ministry will decide on sanctions once experts make their recommendations as to whether the developments in Myanmar pose a regional threat. China has firmly ruled out sanctions. Beijing has extensive economic and strategic interests in Myanmar. Russia's Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) and the Myanmar authorities agreed in May that Russia will help Myanmar build a nuclear reactor (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2007). PM

Pascal Lamy, who is director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), said in Paris on September 28 that Russia cannot expect a free ride and must make sacrifices if it joins the world trade body, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, 2007). He stressed that "to get into the WTO you have to pay your entrance ticket. It's not free." Lamy argued that "to benefit from the protection of all the WTO rules, you have to pay your way by opening your market and offering a medical certificate regarding your legislation. It's a bit complicated. It's a bit long, and the Russians aren't quite at the end of road yet." He did not indicate when he thinks the negotiations will end. Russia is the largest economy still outside the WTO, which Moscow hopes to join in 2008, after 14 years of negotiations. Georgia and some other states continue to oppose Russia's entry into that body. Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and some nationalist writers have argued against joining the WTO. PM.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said at the UN in New York on September 27 that the imposition of a third round of UN sanctions on Iran would undermine the work of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2007). He stressed that "interference by means of any sanctions would undermine the [IAEA's] efforts.... The UN Security Council's measures on Iran should be balanced and respond to the steps taken by Tehran itself." Russia's position is that Iran recently showed itself to be more cooperative with the IAEA than before, and that new sanctions should not be considered before December. China stresses the need for a "diplomatic solution" and opposes new sanctions or the use of force. PM

Boris Gryzlov, who heads the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party and is speaker of the State Duma, told reporters in Moscow on October 1 that the Ukrainian parliamentary elections the previous day were inconclusive, news agencies reported. He said that "[Ukrainian] voters remain undecided on whom they support.... The west and the east [of Ukraine] vote for different forces, and the distribution of votes is about the same. So, as far as I understand, Ukraine will continue to have vague, incoherent policies." On September 28, the daily "Kommersant" quoted Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin as saying that the outcome of the election will determine the price Russia will charge Ukraine for gas in the future. He said that "it all depends on who forms the new government and how they conduct their relations with us." Former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who heads the electoral bloc bearing her name, subsequently called his comments "interference in Ukraine's internal affairs," news agencies reported. On October 1, she said that "our team will be able to offer very high standards in Ukrainian-Russian relations," Interfax reported. She added that Ukraine will develop "constant and balanced relations of partnership [with Russia].... We will hold...talks on gas deliveries to Ukraine in the near future and on gas transit to the European Union." PM

President Putin signed a decree on September 28 enabling the Justice Ministry to send up to five officials to work with the Russian delegation to the Council of Europe and "enhance the protection of Russia's interests" at the European Court of Justice in Strasbourg, reported. The German weekly "Der Spiegel" of July 30 described the Strasbourg court as a "beacon of hope" for Russians, many of whom have little confidence in their own judicial system (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31 and August 1, 2007). More Russian citizens file cases in Strasbourg than do citizens of any other country belonging to the Council of Europe. Putin has called many of the resulting court rulings politically motivated. PM

Colonel General Vladimir Popovkin, who commands the Federal Space Forces, said on state-run television on September 27 that "we don't want to wage a war in space, we don't want to gain dominance in space, but we won't allow any other nation to dominate space." He added that if "any country deploys weapons in space, then the laws of warfare are such that retaliatory weapons are certain to appear" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2007). PM

Foreign Minister Lavrov said at the UN on September 28 that the world body should establish a religious council as a venue for the discussion of disputes between faiths and for defusing conflicts that are at least in part religiously motivated, news agencies reported. PM

Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin said on September 30 that the current international financial crisis triggered by the subprime mortgage imbroglio in the United States will not have a serious impact on Russia's financial market, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, 2007). He argued that "we are prepared for the crisis and the impact will be minimal. However, we have not left the risk zone yet. And our banks are aware of that." Kudrin noted that the situation would have been worse for Russia if the crisis had taken place five years ago, when Russia was not as well-off financially as it is now. PM

The unregistered Other Russia opposition movement held its national preelection congress on September 30 and elected former world chess champion Garry Kasparov as its candidate for the March 2008 presidential election, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other media reported. Kasparov was elected by an overwhelming majority on the first ballot, defeating former Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, and Duma Deputies Boris Vinogradov and Vladimir Ryzhkov. Gerashchenko, Kasparov, and National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov were chosen to head the movement's list of candidates for the December 2 Duma elections, even though the unregistered movement is not eligible to participate in the campaign. Limonov, however, told the conference that the movement must nonetheless conduct a complete campaign. RC

The Red Youth Avant-Garde movement on September 30 announced that it is withdrawing from the Other Russia movement and will not support Other Russia's candidate for the 2008 presidential election, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Red Youth Avant-Garde leader Sergei Udaltsov told RFE/RL that the movement opposes the selection of a single candidate from Other Russia because doing so would make it less likely that other opposition groups would join Other Russia. Udaltsov told that his movement could not support Kasparov, Kasyanov, or any other "candidate of clear liberal views." RC

President Putin has substantially altered the makeup of the Public Chamber, "Vremya novostei" reported on October 1. The Public Chamber, which is a relatively new organ of government that consults with cabinet and the administration and makes recommendations concerning legislation, comprises 126 members (see "Russia: New Public Chamber Criticized As 'Smokescreen,'", March 17, 2005). The president names the first 42 members; another 42 members are then recommended for presidential approval by federal nongovernmental organizations; in turn, those 84 members nominate another 42 members who are representatives of regional nongovernmental organizations. Putin's latest list includes more than 20 new members, including human-rights activists Alla Gerber and Aleksandr Brod and former Economy Minister Yevgeny Yasin. "The fact that the new presidential list includes rights activists," Brod told the daily, "indicates that the authorities' attitude toward them is changing. The human-rights community is not viewed as a hostile power and the authorities are ready for dialogue." He added that the chamber has proven its ability to work with the authorities and to influence them. The new Public Chamber is expected to be fully formed and functioning in December or January. RC

Two weeks into his tenure as prime minister, Viktor Zubkov is increasingly being viewed as a possible successor to President Putin in March 2008, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Political analyst Mark Urnov said of Zubkov's actions to date, "I have no doubt that this is very similar to a powerful election campaign of a successor." Urnov added that Zubkov's efforts seem heavily focused on pensioners. Merkator center Director Dmitry Oreshkin ascribes particular significance to the fact that Zubkov refused to rule out a presidential run and Putin endorsed the prime minister's ambitions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14 and 17, 2007). Analyst Tatyana Stanovaya wrote on on October 1 that Zubkov's populists appeals may be a way of deflecting attention from the fact that Putin has not yet decided on or is not yet willing to name a successor. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on October 1 published its monthly list of Russia's 100 most influential political figures, noting that during September Zubkov rose from No. 88 to No. 4, following Putin, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, and deputy presidential-administration head Igor Sechin. RC

Prime Minister Zubkov and Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Kudrin in recent days have emphasized that the government will not be any more liberal than in the past when it comes to spending resources in the Stabilization Fund, reported on September 29. Zubkov said that state resources including the fund, the Bank Razvitiya, the State Investment Fund, and others must serve as "a catalyst for private investment" rather than as an "engine for projects," the website reported. On September 28, Kudrin said the Stabilization Fund is "the insurance of the Russian economy." He said the fund will only be used to cover a deficit in the Pension Fund in order to avoid raising taxes. Earlier the same day, Rosoboroneksport head Sergei Chemezov told a conference that the Stabilization Fund should be used to provide credit for domestic enterprises. Chemezov's proposal came on the heels of Zubkov's criticism of Kudrin for doing to little to provide domestic sources of credit (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, 2007). As of October 1, the Stabilization Fund stands at 3.5 trillion rubles ($141 billion), an increase of 110 billion rubles in the month of September. RC

Officials in Ryazan have removed billboards from local streets following a complaint from Unified Russia, "Kommersant" reported on October 1. The offending billboards appeared in the colors of the A Just Russia party and bore the slogan, "Putin's Plan is the Victory of Justice." "Putin's Plan" is the name of Unified Russia's campaign platform. Local A Just Russia officials told journalists that a public organization with no connection to the party ordered the billboards, but local election officials said their investigation revealed that party activist Oleg Nagibin concluded the contract personally and paid nearly 130,000 rubles ($5,200). Nagibin declined to comment on the matter. RC

A dozen Interior Ministry spetsnaz troops deployed to Ingushetia from Kurgan Oblast forced their way early on September 27 into a house in the village of Sagopshi, south of Malgobek, and shot dead Ruslan Galayev, 20, and his brother, Said-Magomet, 22, the website reported. They then detained a third brother, Tagir, 26, together with his wife. The Ingushetian Interior Ministry identified Said-Magomet Galayev as amir of a group of resistance fighters based in Malgobek Raion. But the daily "Kommersant" on September 28 quoted Ingushetian parliament deputy and human-rights commission member Bamatgiri Mankiyev, who knew the family personally, as denying that any of the three men had any ties to the resistance. Mankiyev suggested they were targeted simply because they were devout Muslims. Also on September 28, quoted the commander of one of the Kurgan Oblast spetsnaz detachments as saying his men were given a list, signed by Ingushetian Interior Minister Lieutenant Colonel Musa Medov, of militants and "Wahhabis" who should be "liquidated," and that Medov assured him personally the Galayev brothers were militants and "Wahhabis." The website quoted Medov as saying the list was drafted by Ingushetia's mufti. But a Sagopshi villager told that the two men killed attended a group reading from the Koran (movlat) the previous evening, and he reasoned that since so-called "Wahhabis" eschew such readings, the two brothers could not therefore have been Wahhabis. LF

Nazim Kaziakhmedov, a former employee of the Daghestan Prosecutor-General's Office, was shot dead on the street in Moscow on September 27 by an unidentified gunman who escaped by car, reported, citing RIA Novosti. Kaziakhmedov was transferred from Daghestan to Moscow in May to join a special task force engaged in investigating major crimes. His death is believed to have been a contract killing connected with his professional activities. LF

Nine people, including a police officer, were killed early on September 30 in a shoot-out in Daghestan, the Russian-language "Kavkazskiy Uzel" website reported. The shooting incident in the village of Gonoda was reportedly tied to a dispute over an unsettled debt. The police officer killed in the shooting, Major Magomedrasul Gasanov, served as the head of the criminal investigation department of the Kizilyurtovsk district police and was on his way home when gunmen armed with assault rifles attacked him. Local investigators revealed that some of those killed in the shooting were relatives of Daghestani Interior Minister Adilgirey Magomedtagirov, according to the website. RG

Speaking to reporters in a Moscow following the conclusion of his state visit to Russia by Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, Armenian Ambassador to Russia Armen Smbatian announced late on September 27 that Russian officials have pledged to bolster transport links with Armenia by reopening its main border crossing with Georgia and upgrading a new Black Sea ferry link, RFE/RL s Armenian Service reported. The ambassador explained that Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov has promised to restore the Upper Lars crossing with Georgia sometime next year in his meeting with the Armenian premier. Russia closed the border crossing in June 2006, citing a need to "conduct repairs" of its border guard and customs facilities. The closure greatly impeded Armenian trade, as the route is the main overland transit link between landlocked Armenia and Russia. Nevertheless, bilateral trade between Armenian and Russia expanded by 64 percent last year, reaching $225 million for the first six months of the year, and is expected to surpass $700 million this year. RG

Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian expressed concern on September 27 over recent statements by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian in which he criticized Armenia s policies on the conflict, according to RFE/RL s Armenian Service. The foreign minister said that Ter-Petrossian s stance could make Azerbaijan "more intransigent" and noted that "the Karabakh problem concerns all of us, the entire nation, and we must be really careful in our statements to avoid giving Azerbaijan more reason to toughen its position." Oskanian was reacting to a public announcement by the former president, the first such public speech in almost a decade, in which he defined the unresolved status of the Karabakh conflict as the "greatest crime" committed by the current Armenian government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 24 and 26, 2007). Foreign Minister Oskanian also confirmed on September 27 that he will meet with Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and the Minsk Group s U.S., French, and Russian co-chairs on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting in New York on October 3 or 4. He noted that the planned meeting would be merely a "continuation of what the co-chairs presented to Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Karabakh during their last visit" to the region. During his visit to New York, Oskanian is also set to meet with the new Turkish Foreign Minister, Ali Babacan, although Oskanian said that "the main question for us will be whether there will be changes in Turkish policy towards Armenia after the reappointment of the (Turkish] government with a new mandate," noting that "Armenia s position remains the same: to normalize relations without preconditions." RG

National Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan President Mahmud Kerimov was quoted on September 27 by as saying that at the recent 51st general conference of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) he expressed Baku's concern at the possibility that Armenia may be involved in the illegal use of nuclear and radio-active substances on the districts of Azerbaijan currently occupied by Armenia. Kerimov argued that any nuclear facilities in a country that occupies the territory of another country should be regularly inspected by international agencies, including the IAEA. LF

The trial began on September 27 at Azerbaijan's Military Court for Serious Crimes of Lieutenant Colonel Rasim Muradov, and reported. Muradov was arrested in July and charged with repeatedly soliciting bribes from conscripts while serving from 2002-05 as chairman of the commission responsible for induction into the armed forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 9, 19, 25, and 26, 2007). Speaking in court on September 27, Muradov affirmed his innocence and alleged that the charge against him was fabricated in retaliation for his public revelations of financial irregularities within the Azerbaijani battalion currently serving as part of the international peacekeeping force in Iraq. LF

Following a round of meetings in Baku with senior Azerbaijani officials -- including Defense Minister Safar Abiyev and Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov -- visiting special representative of the NATO secretary-general for the South Caucasus and Central Asia Robert Simmons met on September 28 with President Ilham Aliyev, ANS-TV and Turan reported. The NATO official praised the recent completion of first phase of cooperation between Azerbaijan and NATO, but called on Azerbaijani officials to adopt further steps to improve the next stage of the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP). That next stage of the agreement covers the coming two years of Azerbaijan s activities and overall relations with NATO and, according to Simmons, includes "very significant reforms" and reflects the goals of military "modernization and integration into civil society." During a press conference on September 29, Simmons added that the first stage of the IPAP has been "successfully completed" and welcomed the implementation of effective reforms within the Defense Ministry, the creation of an Emergency Situations Ministry, and greater cooperation with the country s border guards and Interior Ministry. Simmons also introduced Zbiegnew Rybazky, the new NATO coordinator in the South Caucasus and Central Asia. RG

Reportedly part of a broader regional tour, Michael Hayden, the director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), arrived in Baku on September 28 for a one-day visit, Turan reported. The CIA director met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, National Security Minister Eldar Mahmudov, and other senior officials to discuss issues of "regional security" and concerning global fight against terrorism. The opposition daily newspaper "Yeni Musavat" reported on 29 September that Hayden "urged President Ilham Aliyev to help Georgia prevent Russian plans to overthrow [Georgian] President Mikheil Saakashvili" and discussed the situation in Iran. RG

In a special police operation, former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili was arrested late on September 27 in the office of his recently established For A United Georgia party, Rustavi-2 TV and Imedi-TV reported. In a televised announcement following the arrest, Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikoloz Gvaramia said that Okruashvili was charged with "extortion, money laundering, abuse of office, and negligence." Speaking outside Interior Ministry headquarters, Eka Beselia, a lawyer for the former defense minister, told reporters that her client "maintains his total innocence" and limited his statements to interrogators to only repeating that he was "a political prisoner." She added that Okruashvili s Tbilisi home was being searched and that, in violation of the law, another one of his lawyers was not being allowed to enter the house. In a sensational press conference in Tbilisi on September 25, the former defense minister accused President Saakashvili of "corruption and injustice" and "political killings," adding that he could not exclude the possibility that the Georgian authorities will engineer his assassination (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26 and 27, 2007). President Saakashvili dismissed Okruashvili in 2006. RG

In comments televised live throughout Georgia, Deputy Prosecutor-General Gvaramia told reporters on September 27 that if found guilty of the charges, Okruashvili could face up to 25 years in prison, Rustavi-2 reported. He also detailed the case against the former minister, explaining that the arrest of Okruashvili followed an investigation that was "under way in the Georgian Defense Ministry over the past several months" and that resulted in the recent arrest of the former Defense Ministry logistics chief and criminal charges against the head of military procurement. The official further said that the investigation "exposed" a pattern of corruption and crimes in the Defense Ministry, most notably including a January 2005 case involving then Defense Minister Okruashvili s conspiracy with Kibar Khalvashi, the former owner of the Rustavi-2 television station, to establish a construction company to gain preferential defense-related contracts. A second case, from October and November 2006, allegedly involved Okruashvili s attempted extortion of shares in a cellular phone company form owner Jemal Svanidze. That case led to the recent arrest of Dimitri Kitoshvili, the Georgian president s former parliamentary secretary. In a long expected return to politics (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27, 2007), Okruashvili recently announced the creation of a new opposition force intended to unify Georgia. RG

Taking to the streets in reaction to the arrest of former Georgian Defense Minister Okruashvili the night before, several thousand protestors gathered on September 28 to stage a demonstration against the government, RFE/RL s Georgian Service reported. Responding to the demonstration, Giga Bokeria, a parliamentarian and close ally of President Saakashvili, warned that the Georgian authorities would "resort to force" if the protests turn violent. Meanwhile, Georgian Deputy Prosecutor-General Gvaramia reported on September 28 that the case against Okruashvili was bolstered by new evidence provided by former presidential spokesman Dimitri Kitoshvili, who decided to cooperate with investigators after his arrest on corruption charges in an extortion case linked to Okruashvili involving a cellular telephone company. In exchange for his testimony, Kitoshvili was released on bail is expected to receive a favorable sentence in consideration of his cooperation. RG

In a published interview, former Georgian President Eduard Shevardnadze said on September 28 that "it would be right if the president responds to the accusations brought against him by ex-Defense Minister Okruashvili," Caucasus Press reported. Shevardnadze added that although "Okruashvili brought many very serious accusations" against President Saakashvili that should be "thoroughly examined," he characterized them as "problems" that "did not erupt in one or two days," but "accumulated over several years." RG

Beslan Butba, a former chairman of the Abkhaz parliament's International Relations Committee who failed to win reelection in March 2007, has founded a Party of Economic Development, the constituent congress of which took place on September 26, reported. Although Butba ran for parliament as an opposition candidate, he affirmed that his new party is not an opposition one. He said he considers of paramount importance the quality of economic development, as reflected not merely in rising economic indicators but in the creation of a state in which the population can "live comfortably, instead of struggling just to survive." He said the party will formulate and promote the public discussion of "new political ideas" and ways to implement them, and seek to further the political education of the population. Butba owns "Ekho Abkhazii," one of the unrecognized republic's few non-state-controlled newspapers, and also the sole non-state-controlled television channel, Abaza TV, which began broadcasting three months ago. LF

Qayrat Amandyqov, the leader of Kazakhstan's Trade Unions Federation, warned on September 27 that his group will demand that the government resign if it does not alleviate by October 1 the effects of a recent sharp spike in the prices for basic foods and utilities, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Amandyqov, whose group is the largest trade-union association in the country, with over 2 million members, also noted that the true inflation rate in Kazakhstan is actually between 15-20 percent, and not the official 8.2 percent that the government reported, exacerbating the recent price rise. The opposition Ak Zhol, Auyl, and Rukhaniyat parties and the Communist People's Party of Kazakhstan released a joined statement last week calling on the government to intervene to prevent any further rise in bread prices (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 2007). And during a cabinet meeting last week, Bakhytzhan Sagintaev, the head of the state Agency for Regulating Natural Monopolies, announced that new price controls will be imposed on bread prices, and Deputy Prime Minister Umirzak Shukeev added that bakeries will be required to set bread prices at about 39 tenges ($0.32). After a recent increase in bread prices throughout the region (see "Central Asia: Soaring Bread Prices Give Rise to Domestic Solutions," September 17, 2007,, the average price for bread in Almaty has risen to about 60 tenges. As the main exporter of wheat in the region, a recent downturn in Kazakhstan's wheat harvest has exacerbated an already pronounced trend in rising bread prices worldwide. RG

After arriving in Brazil, Nursultan Nazarbaev met on September 27 with his Brazilian host and counterpart, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in Brasilia, according to Kazakhstan Today and Interfax-Kazakhstan. Nazarbaev invited several senior executives from leading Brazilian companies to visit Kazakhstan, noting that "the Brazilian economy is becoming increasingly oriented toward new foreign markets" and promising to extend "favorable conditions" for any Brazilian investment in Kazakhstan. Nazarbaev specifically identified "the energy and mining sectors, agriculture, including the production of bioethanol, and the aerospace sphere" as key sectors of Brazilian interest, and hailed Kazakhstan as "a new promising market" capable of becoming Brazil's "key partner in Central Asia that is a new promising market." RG

As part of Kazakhstan's five-year commitment to support coalition operations in Iraq, a new detachment of peacekeepers arrived in Iraq, Khabar TV reported on September 28. The Kazakh detachment, consisting of military engineers, is assigned to coalition headquarters in Baghdad. Led by Deputy Defense Minister Lieutenant General Bolat Sembinov, the detachment is the ninth Kazakh unit to serve in Iraq, with each unit of roughly two dozen men undergoing a rotating six-month deployment. Kazakh peacekeepers have specialized in demining assignments and the disposal of unexploded ordnance. A Kazakh peacekeeper was killed in early 2005 in a munitions explosion that also killed eight Ukrainian servicemen (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 10 and 13, 2005). RG

Prior to his participation in the UN General Assembly meeting in New York, Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ednan Karabaev concluded on September 27-28 two days of meetings with senior U.S. officials in Washington, the website reported. Karabaev met with U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Evan Feigenbaum and discussed regional security and trade issues. Karabaev also visited the U.S. Congress and reviewed the state of human rights and the course of political reforms in Kyrgyzstan with members of Congress. In a separate meeting with U.S. Defense Undersecretary Eric Edelman, Karabaev discussed ongoing cooperation in counterterrorism operations and reviewed the status of the Manas air base currently serving to support coalition forces in Afghanistan, Kabar reported. Edelman also promised to initiate new "ecological projects" in the vicinity of the air base and pledged to provide the Manas airport with more modern "air-navigation equipment" to improve flight security. Prior to his departure, Karabaev was also received on September 28 by U.S. national security adviser Stephen Hadley, and they discussed "expanding cooperation" to ensure regional security and to counter "modern challenges and threats," AKIpress reported. RG

Kurmanbek Bakiev met on September 28 with officials, teachers, and students from several universities in Bishkek in an attempt to lobby support for his proposed constitutional amendments that are set to be considered in a national referendum, Kyrgyz television reported. Bakiev argued that the proposed changes include important new measures, including a more balanced parliament and a fairer electoral system. He also said that the process of formulating the new draft constitution was "consensual," and was "proposed and approved by many political forces, including the opposition." The president recently set October 21 as the date for the referendum. Kyrgyz opposition parties and several leading civil-society groups recently called on parliament to challenge the referendum in the Constitutional Court, criticizing the timing of the referendum as failing to provide adequate time for voters to fully understand the proposed changes to the constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 24, 25 and 27, 2007). RG

Meeting in Bishkek, the summit meeting of defense ministers from the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) closed on September 28 after signing a set of 20 agreements, ITAR-TASS and AKIpress reported. The agreements included measures intended to expand cooperation in the areas of peacekeeping, military training, and concerning the "legal framework" for "military and economic cooperation." Defense ministers from Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan's deputy defense minister participated in the CSTO summit meeting. RG

In a widely expected move, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov issued a presidential decree on September 29 ordering an amnesty for about 9,000 prisoners, Turkmen Television reported. The amnesty, to be carried out next month to mark Turkmenistan's independence day holiday, followed the president's recent announcement during a visit to New York's Columbia University promising to issue a pardon on every national holiday (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 2007). During that same visit to the United States, Berdymukhammedov also said that former Foreign Ministers Boris Shikhmuradov and Batyr Berdyev -- jailed in December 2002 and January 2003, respectively, for allegedly plotting the death of then President Saparmurat Niyazov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 16 and 19, 2002, and January 3, 2003) -- are still alive, and he hinted that they could soon be freed. RG

Police across Belarus on September 30 counteracted opposition activists' attempts to distribute printed material advertising the Social March, an opposition demonstration planned for November 4 against the upcoming abolition of benefits and privileges for low-income social groups, Belapan reported. The Belarusian Party of Communists (BPK) and the United Civic Party applied to the authorities in some 60 localities in Belarus for permission to set "social pickets" to pass out such material and collect signatures against the benefits cancellation. Out of the 458 pickets, permission was granted for just three. Police reportedly raided the homes of people who had filed applications, demanding a written pledge that they would not stage any pickets and threatening them with punishment if they dared to ignore the ban. On September 30, police officers briefly detained BPK deputy head Valery Ukhnalyou and several other BPK activists. On September 27, police seized some 14,000 copies of an issue of the BPK's "Tovarishch" newspaper, which was entirely devoted to protests against the abolition of benefits and privileges. "We have to be glad that the remaining 16,000 copies of the 30,000[-copy] print run will reach the reader," "Tovarishch" Editor in Chief Syarhey Vaznyak told Belapan. JM

Ukrainians on September 30 voted in the preterm parliamentary elections that were scheduled by President Viktor Yushchenko in July, Ukrainian media reported. "Speaking generally, Ukrainians should congratulate themselves. The elections were valid. In my personal opinion, they took place in accordance with the law and, what is more, in a democratic manner. The voting procedures were appropriately observed," Central Election Commission (TsVK) head Volodymyr Shapoval told journalists on October 1, after the TsVK tallied some 50 percent of the ballots. Shapoval said that, according to preliminary results, turnout was around 62 percent. The vote count is expected to be concluded late on October 1. "I will accept any results of the election in case of legal and fair voting, regardless of the color of the flags, regardless of the region. There will not be another 'Maydan' [protests on Independence Square in Kyiv during the 2004 Orange Revolution]," President Viktor Yushchenko told journalists after casting his ballot on September 30. "In my mind, this is a test for the whole Ukrainian nation. I think there will be no more preterm elections," Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said after voting. JM

With some 68 percent of the ballots counted, the TsVK reported that the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc obtained 32.6 percent of the vote, the Party of Regions 31.6 percent, the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc 15.4 percent, the Communist Party 5.1 percent, the Lytvyn Bloc 4.1 percent, and the Socialist Party 2.96 percent, according to the TsVK's website ( According to three exit polls made public after the closure of polling stations on September 30, the Party of Regions should win some 35 percent of the vote, the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc some 32 percent, the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense Bloc 13-15 percent. "We are the winners of these elections, and I am confident that we have won with a strong result and have the right to form a coalition," Prime Minister Yanukovych, who leads the Party of Regions, said after the release of the exit-poll results. "In these parliamentary elections, Ukraine's democratic forces won again, and together we, as usual, gained more votes than our opponents. This is very pleasant, and I would like to greet the president and all our democratic team with the obvious victory," Yulia Tymoshenko commented on the exit polls. "I think that tomorrow [October 1] morning, I will present the president with an offer to form a democratic-forces coalition in parliament, to form a government, to form all of Ukraine's institutions of power, and I think that this time we will form a proper democratic coalition in parliament," she added. JM

Oleksandr Turchynov, the head of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc's election headquarters, told journalists on October 1 that the bloc is preparing to question in court the official election results in some constituencies in eastern Ukraine, UNIAN reported. Turchynov said these preparations are linked to the reluctance of oblast election commissions in Luhansk and Donetsk to submit the regional vote count to the Central Election Commission. Turchynov suggested that the election authorities in Luhansk and Donetsk have ordered vote recount in some constituencies in order to "improve" the election showing of the Socialist Party and thus ensure that the party overcomes the 3 percent election threshold. According to Turchynov, the Socialists' election results in these two regions are being inflated at the expense of votes cast for the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc. JM

Milan Jelic, the president of the Republika Srpska, has died, international media reported on September 30. Jelic, who was 51, died of a heart attack shortly after being admitted to a hospital on September 30. He underwent a heart surgery in 2003. Jelic, formerly a senior figure in the Republika Srpska's oil industry and onetime head of Bosnia-Herzegovina's soccer association, was initially a member of the Serbian Democratic Party, the party of the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, but in 1998 he joined the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), eventually rising to the position of minister for economy, energy, and development in the Bosnian Serb-dominated region. In elections held in October 2006, the party's leader, Milorad Dodik, led the SNSD to victory in the Republika Srpska, winning the largest number of votes of any party in Bosnia, while Jelic won the Republika Srpska's presidency. Jelic's short tenure in the largely ceremonial role was chiefly characterized by his support for the positions occupied by Dodik. AG

The Bosnian Serbs' and Muslims' leaders have agreed to accept a proposal on police reform outlined by the international community's high representative in the country, Miroslav Lajcak. The breakthrough was achieved on September 28, shortly before a deadline set by Lajcak with the backing of the EU. The deal would remove the key obstacle to the country signing a preaccession agreement with the EU, a Stabilization and Association Agreement. The preliminary agreement -- described as a protocol -- signed by Haris Silajdzic, the Muslims' representative in the country's three-member presidency, and Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dodik, allows for the partial integration of the country's various police forces, but preserves the Republika Srpska's police force. The last-minute signing came under extreme pressure, as Lajcak had indicated he was prepared to use his powers to dismiss political leaders and force through legislation in order to force progress on the police reform, which has -- at best -- edged forward over the past two years. Lajcak's proposals reflect the EU's three stipulations for police reform: that the state, rather than Bosnia's two entities should control all laws and budgets relating to the police; the police operational regions should be based on policing rather than political criteria; and that politicians should have no influence over operational matters. AG

Serbia's and Kosova's political leaders left New York after the first round of direct talks with little hint of a possible breakthrough on the future of Kosova. However, diplomats mediating the talks described the face-to-face meeting as constructive. The EU's mediator, Wolfgang Ischinger, told the media on September 28 that "Belgrade presented and elaborated its vision for substantial autonomy for Kosovo," while "Prishtina presented [its] vision of two independent states who will work together under a treaty arrangement, and who will envisage to fully implement minority rights as envisaged in the so-called Ahtisaari package" proposed by the UN's envoy to the region, Martti Ahtisaari, in February. Russia's mediator, Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko, said the meeting did not provide a "foundation for any kind of negotiated compromise or agreement between Belgrade and Pristina, but I could say that there is a foundation for continued face-to-face discussions and the parties demonstrated an ability to talk to each other." AG

The second-most-senior official in the UN Mission in Kosova, Steven Schook, has said he is under investigation for "unprofessional conduct." Schook told reporters on September 26 that, according to information gleaned from the UN Office of Internal Oversight Services, "I have demonstrated aggressive behavior; that I have demonstrated an unprofessionally close relationship with [Environment and Zoning] Minister Ethem Ceku and with former Prime Minister Ramush Haradinaj; that I have had personal relationships with international and Kosovar women here in the mission." He did not elaborate on any of the accusations other than to say that: he was "guilty" of loving his job; guilty "of being extremely passionate about what I do" and "not acting like a diplomat"; "guilty" of "having great respect for Ramush Haradinaj's performance as the prime minister of Kosovo, including his exemplary cooperation with" the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY); and "guilty" of supporting a plan for Kosova's economic development and supporting the plan's sponsors, "including... Minister Ethem Ceku." The UN has yet to confirm that it is investigating Schook. The most controversial aspect of Ceku's economic plan is a tender, worth 3.5 billion euros ($4.93 billion), to build a power plant in Kosova. Schook said he did not know whether the investigation was instigated by the ICTY, which was established by the UN. However, he also said, "I suspect there may be other agencies involved in this," an unexplained comment that may have referred to UN agencies. The ICTY has been critical of the UN's Kosova mission, arguing that its contacts with Haradinaj may be one reason why few potential witnesses have come forward (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2 and June 28, 2007). There have long been suggestions that Western and UN leaders tried to forestall Haradinaj's trial, suggestions documented most publicly by the "International Herald Tribune" in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2007). AG

Nenad Bogdanovic, the mayor of Serbia's capital, died of cancer on September 27 at the age of 53. Bogdanovic was elected mayor of Belgrade in 2004. He also represented the Democratic Party (DS) in parliament and was a leading figure in the party, which is the largest in the governing coalition. AG

The ICTY's appeals court on September 27 upheld the acquittal of two members of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) charged with murdering and torturing prisoners. Fatmir Limaj, a former senior commander in the UCK, and Isak Musliu, his subordinate in the UCK, were cleared in November 2005. The court also upheld a 13-year prison sentence handed down to another Kosovar Albanian, Haradin Bala, for the murder of nine prisoners from the same prison camp, Lapushnik, near Orahovac. The camp's commanding officer was Limaj, but four of the five appeal-court judges ruled there was inadequate evidence that Limaj had direct or "criminal responsibility" for crimes committed in the camp. Prosecutors argued that the initial trial was marred by "critical" procedural errors. Limaj entered politics after the war, becoming the leader of the Kosova Democratic Party (PDK), which emerged from parliamentary elections in 2004 as the contested province's second-largest party. The camp held ethnic Serbs and also Albanians accused of collaborating with Serbian forces. The crimes of which Limaj and Musliu were cleared and for which Bala was sentenced were committed in the summer of 1998, before the conflict reached its peak, in 1999. The three men were the first Kosovar Albanians to be indicted for war crimes, in February 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2003). Three others have since been charged, the most prominent of them being former Kosovar Prime Minister Haradinaj. AG

Dutch police announced on September 25 the arrest of a man wanted by Serbia on war-crimes charges. The police have yet to reveal his name, but said he is a 28-year-old former member of the UCK. He now faces extradition to Serbia. Kosovar television quoted Dutch police as saying the charges against him could, if proved, result in a 40-year prison term. AG

The war-crimes tribunal in The Hague on September 27 sentenced two officers in the Serbian-dominated Yugoslav People's Army to a total of 25 years for their role in the massacre of 264 Croats and other non-Serbs after the 1991 capture of the town of Vukovar in eastern Croatia. A third, Miroslav Radic, was cleared, as the judges could find no conclusive evidence that Radic, who was an army captain, was aware of the killings. The commander of ethnic-Serbian troops in the area, then-Colonel Mile Mrksic, was jailed for 20 years for murder and torture, while his subordinate, Veselin Sljivancanin, a battalion commander, was given a five-year sentence for "aiding and abetting torture." The judges concluded that while Mrksic did not order the killings, which were committed at a pig farm in the nearby village of Ovcara, he had effectively enabled local troops and paramilitaries to kill the victims. Prosecutors sought life sentences for all three defendants. The trial ended in March, 17 months after it began (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2007). A senior local politician, Slavko Dokmanovic, was indicted along with the three officers, but committed suicide while in the ICTY's custody in 1998. A Serbian court in 2005 sentenced 14 other more junior officers and rank-and-file soldiers to a total of 219 years in prison for their role in the Ovcara killings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2 and 14, and April 11, 2007). AG

The ICTY's decision to clear the three officers elicited an immediate and angry response from the Croatian government as too lenient. Zagreb sent an official protest to the UN, which established the ICTY, calling the sentences "scandalous" and the ruling "a defeat for The Hague tribunal." "Croatia cannot remain silent in a moment when justice is being ignored by an institution which has been founded to serve it," Prime Minister Ivo Sanader wrote in a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. "Impartiality, fairness, and absence of any prejudice must be the basic principles of The Hague tribunal.... Unfortunately, that was not the case yesterday," said Sanader, who added that he will ask the UN General Assembly to discuss the ruling on October 15, a session that he said he will attend in person. President Stjepan Mesic expressed surprise and disappointment both at the leniency of the sentences and at what he described as the judges' inadequate explanations. He also said Croatia should launch its own case against the "Vukovar Three" -- as Mrksic, Sljivancanin, and Radic are commonly referred to in Croatia -- for their role in the destruction of Vukovar. The ICTY's ruling met with resounding criticism across Croatia's parliamentary parties, media and civil-society groupings. Survivors of the Vukovar siege held a protest rally on September 27, while dozens of relatives of victims of the massacre protested in central Zagreb on September 28. The right-wing Croatian Party of Rights (HSP) has begun a petition to halt cooperation with the ICTY, and Sanader himself seized on the ruling to launch a broader attack on the tribunal, saying the time "has come to question all the aspects of the UN court's work." The Croatian government has been critical of the ICTY for its decision to place a number of senior members of Croatia's military command in the 1991-95 war on trial for war crimes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 31, 2007). The ICTY is due to start its last cases in 2008 and to close its doors in 2010. AG

Just days into the official campaign period for a dubious presidential election in Uzbekistan, doubts have emerged about the intentions of the men who have expressed a desire to seek the presidency. Some of the aspirants have suggested that their nominations are nothing but officially designed efforts to demonstrate to the West that December's election will be competitive and democratic. Some of them have even suggested that they have been manipulated into running by the country's security service

Any dissent from the official view is likely to prompt official retribution in Uzbekistan. Many critics and challengers of incumbent President Islam Karimov have ended up in exile, jail, or, indeed, dead. In such an environment, it might seem improbable that anyone would want to challenge Karimov in a direct presidential ballot.

Five men have nevertheless said they are seeking election as Uzbekistan's head of state. The move immediately aroused suspicions regarding their intentions in a region where Potemkin candidacies are nothing new.

Just last year in nearby Tajikistan, five virtual unknowns mounted moribund challenges that did nothing to threaten the reelection of long-time President Emomali Rahmon (then Rakhmonov).

President Karimov, who appears to be barred from another term under current Uzbek law, has refused to make his intentions clear, and many observers expect him to somehow orchestrate his reelection.

Suhbat Abdullaev, a presidential hopeful from Khorazm, has admitted that security service officers ordered him in late 2006 to run for the presidency. He said he followed the "recommendation" and announced his presidential ambitions in early January.

"They summoned me to the regional National Security Committee and told me so openly [that I should run]," Abdullaev says. "They said Uzbekistan needed a pure -- I stress it once again -- very pure candidate, [one] not involved in dirty games and relatively unknown to the public. They said at the time: 'It will look like a victory of democracy. In order to demonstrate that democracy exists in Uzbekistan, we'll not do anything to you.'"

A medical doctor from western Uzbekistan, Abdullaev is little known to the Uzbek public. Among the achievements he touts on his website, Abdullaev cites "practical assistance to the late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in creating [his book] 'Rukhnama,'" as well as conducting "successful surgery aimed at treating male erectile impotence through implanting U.S.-made prosthetic devices."

Abdullaev says many Uzbeks support him. He also makes a vague claim of support from "several foreign organizations and persons." But in an interview with RFE/RL, he failed to provide any further details of those purported sponsors.

The backgrounds of other presidential hopefuls prompt more questions.

Virtually nothing was known of Akbar Aliev until he announced his intention to challenge Karimov last week. The 64-year-old Aliev describes himself as a "scientist, poet, sociologist, philosopher, historian, and specialist in literature." He says he has been unemployed since 1997.

In an interview with RFE/RL, Aliev denied the authorities have any hand in his political activities. "Absolutely not," he said. "I don't have any relations with the government in this field."

In an open letter published on several websites last week, Aliev said that any attempt to keep President Karimov in his post would be a "betrayal of the country, its constitution, social justice, development, democracy, human rights, and statehood." Aliev has not reported any mistreatment from authorities.

It is difficult to know how far authorities would allow a genuine challenge to Karimov to go before extinguishing it, since dissent is not tolerated.

A poet and singer, Dadakhon Hasan, was given a three-year suspended sentence in 2006 for writing and performing a song about local unrest that unleashed a deadly official response in Andijon in May 2005. Several people who listened to the song were also prosecuted.

Other would-be challengers to Karimov include an obscure 57-year-old from the capital named Abdullo Tojiboy Ogli. He was nominated by the unregistered Alliance of Human Rights Defenders. Tojiboy Ogli told RFE/RL that he has been distributing leaflets in several regions of Uzbekistan for the past six months.

An excerpt from one such leaflet represents genuine criticism of the current government. It cites "a lot of unsolved problems," including "mass poverty" and joblessness, in the country.

Tojiboy Ogli said several people who read or possessed his leaflets have been summoned by police and threatened with prosecution. Some were tried and fined, he said. But Tojiboy Ogli himself has not been prevented from distributing his leaflets, whose content is likely to be considered inflammatory by Uzbek officials. "I have to admit that the Interior Ministry officers have -- what can I call it? -- [they have] faith in me," he said. "They think: 'Oh, what if he becomes president? This is a wonderful person. We've read his program. He must be a wonderful person.' I handed [the leaflets] over to the Interior Ministry officers who constantly follow me."

In January 2000, Karimov won an election that involved one other candidate, but was not in any real sense competitive. The leader of the pro-Karimov People's Democratic Party (HDP) who challenged Karimov for the post said that he had voted for Karimov. Western election observers said the polls failed to meet international democratic standards.

The biggest difference this time is that none of the five challengers who have stepped up so far represents any political grouping. Another difference is that Uzbek state-controlled media have not reported the existence of the five possible challengers.

The men have yet to register as presidential candidates with the Central Election Commission. But skeptics might wonder why.

One of the five, Abdullaev, told RFE/RL last week that he has "zero chance" of winning. He conceded that December's election is likely to be "buffoonery" -- like other Uzbek polls in the past.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service correspondent Oktambek Karimov contributed to this report.)

Hamid Karzai said on September 29 that he is willing to meet with Taliban leader Mullah Omar and former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar for peace talks, while offering some government posts to Taliban militants, RTTNews reported. Karzai told reporters that if he knew where to go, he would personally seek out both rebel leaders to ask them, "why are you destroying the country?" While he offered up positions in government departments to Taliban members willing to approach him and work for peace, Karzai rejected a previously stated Taliban demand that all foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan prior to commencing talks. There are no open government communication channels with Taliban fighters, although Karzai does have contacts with the militants through tribal elders, he added. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul has said it does not support talks with the Taliban, which it describes as terrorists, while NATO's ambassador to Afghanistan, Daan Everts, has said the alliance would explore the possibility of negotiations with the militants. JC

A Taliban spokesman on September 30 said the militant group will "never" negotiate with Afghanistan's Western-backed government until all foreign troops have left the country, AP reported. Notwithstanding offers by President Karzai to sit down with Taliban leader Mullah Omar and to give government posts to militants willing to cease fighting, Taliban spokesman Qari Yosuf Ahmadi rejected any negotiations prior to the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO troops. Ahmadi stressed that Omar still may not agree to come to the table "even if Karzai gives up his presidency." On the other hand, presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada said the government is aware of a "serious debate" among certain groups of Taliban over how long to continue fighting, saying that the militants also want "to live in peace and have a comfortable life with their families." International support for involving certain Taliban factions in peace talks and the government has grown in recent months. Following the UN General Assembly meeting last week, Hamidzada said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and several foreign ministers of countries involved with the conflict in Afghanistan called for a "comprehensive strategy in dealing with the Taliban -- both military and diplomatic components." JC

Afghanistan's Taliban on September 29 released four employees of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), abducted near Kabul four days earlier, AFP reported. The four hostages, including a citizen of Myanmar, a Macedonian citizen, and two Afghans, were handed over to an Afghan ICRC representative in Wardak Province and are reported in good health, provincial government spokesman Abdul Udood Pashtunzar said. Taliban militants kidnapped the four while they were returning from an operation to secure the release of a German engineer and five Afghans also abducted by the Taliban on July 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2007). Franz Rauchenstein, the deputy head of the ICRC delegation in Kabul, said in a statement that the hostages were released unconditionally "after being seized by an armed group in Wardak Province," without specific reference to the Taliban. A spokesman for the Taliban, Zabihullah Mujahed, confirmed that the militant group "mistakenly" abducted the four and subsequently freed them because the Red Cross "has a good background in Afghanistan." In August, the ICRC played a crucial role in negotiating the release of 21 South Korean aid workers kidnapped on July 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 30, 2007). JC

A suicide bomb on a bus carrying Afghan National Army (ANA) personnel in Kabul on September 29 killed at least 28 of the passengers and wounded 21 others, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The Defense Ministry confirmed 28 of its personnel were killed in the early-morning blast. Other victims included other army and police personnel, as well as civilians, but the exact death toll is unknown, said Kabul police General Alishah Paktiawal. Witnesses told reporters the explosion took place immediately after the bus stopped opposite the cinema to pick up Defense Ministry employees, leading most to believe the suspect managed to embark the vehicle with the staffers. In a statement, however, the Defense Ministry claimed the attacker exploded himself in front of the bus, which was en route to a ministry complex. The roof and sides of the bus were blown out and mangled as a result of the blast, other witnesses said. The incident marks the second major attack on bus transporting security personnel in Kabul. During the morning rush hour on June 17, a suicide bomber killed 35 people when he detonated his explosives just after boarding a bus transporting primarily police trainers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 18, 2007). JC

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on September 30 that Iran will continue its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on inspections and inquiries into its nuclear program, to prevent another round of UN sanctions, news agencies reported. Iran agreed in July and August to answer the IAEA's questions over its contested nuclear program; it is currently subject to two rounds of sanctions designed to curb its activities. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany agreed on September 28 to wait until late November and reports to be submitted on Iran's activities by the IAEA and the EU's chief foreign-policy coordinator, Javier Solana, before deciding on whether or not to debate another round of sanctions, AFP and Reuters reported on September 30. VS

Following a similar vote by the U.S. House of Representatives on September 25, the U.S. Senate on September 26 approved a nonbinding amendment to have Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) designated a "foreign terrorist organization," AFP reported. AFP described this as the "sense of the Senate" amendment, which does not obligate the executive branch to take measures, but expresses the will of U.S. lawmakers. The text approved stated that it is in the U.S. national interest to prevent Iran from turning Shi'ite fighters in Iraq into a force similar to Lebanon 's Hizballah, AFP reported. U.S. officials have in past months accused Iran or IRGC components of aiding insurgents in Iraq, a charge Iran rejects (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, 2007). Separately, Iranian deputies voted on September 29 to denounce the "terrorist operations" of U.S. forces and the CIA, ISNA reported. A statement signed by 215 Iranian lawmakers cited several reasons for calling U.S. forces terrorists, including dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945; the use of depleted uranium in "the bombardments of the Balkans, Iraq, and Afghanistan"; "unqualified" support for "racist and aggressive" Israel; and the "frequent and illegal" support given to former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, ISNA reported. VS

IRGC chief Mohammad Ali Jafari told a gathering of Basijis, a militia affiliated with the IRGC, in Tehran on September 29 that the Basij "is not separate" from the IRGC and both share the mission to defend "the achievements of the revolution," Mehr reported. He said the IRGC is a "military, political, and cultural" force, and the duties of the IRGC and Basij include "confronting internal threats." Jafari said the IRGC will "respond to any threat that harms the achievements" of Iran's political establishment; he added that the IRGC must be "flexible" to deal with "the political, social, and security threats of the enemies." These threats, he said, have become more complex, "so we have no right to sit and relax." Jafari was speaking at a ceremony to bid farewell to the outgoing commander of the Basij, Mohammad Hejazi, who is being replaced by Jafari himself. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad left New York on September 27 for visits to Bolivia and Venezuela, news agencies reported. The two countries' leftist presidents, Evo Morales and Hugo Chavez, respectively, have cordial relations with Iran. In Venezuela, Ahmadinejad signed agreements on building nine corn-processing mills and a car-parts complex, Bloomberg reported on September 28, citing the Venezuelan Information Ministry. The ministry said the countries also plan to develop methanol projects in both countries, the agency reported. It added that Ahmadinejad signed agreements on September 27 in Bolivia on Iranian investment in the Bolivian energy, mining, and rural-development sectors. Iran's flourishing relations with Venezuela are reportedly provoking a cooling of ties between Venezuela and Israel, Radio Farda reported on September 30, citing the daily "Haaretz." The daily has reported that the Israeli Foreign Ministry may not replace its ambassador in Caracas, Shlomo Cohen, with another ambassador when Cohen's mission ends next June, but with a lower-level representative. It quoted unnamed Israeli diplomats as saying that they believe Chavez has implemented certain policies under Iranian influence, including the formation of militias or politicized troops similar to Iran's IRGC or Basij, Radio Farda reported. The broadcaster noted that Israel-Venezuela ties have suffered in recent years due to anti-Israeli remarks by Chavez, including a firm condemnation of the 2006 strikes against Hizballah in Lebanon. VS

About 1,000 workers of the Haft Tapeh sugar factory gathered outside the Shush district governor's offices in the southwestern Khuzestan Province to demonstrate over unpaid wages, Radio Farda reported on September 29. Haft Tapeh workers have intermittently been on strike or protested in recent months over wages and working conditions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 7, 8, 14, and 21, 2007). This time, the firm's managing director, Yaqub Shafii, -- reportedly a Shi'ite cleric -- had promised the workers they would be paid on September 24, but they were not. An unnamed worker told Radio Farda the manager has promised to pay workers money due to them "many times" in recent months, "but has not done this." The broadcaster reported that workers are claiming other financial and housing benefits beside wages. The worker also said employees are upset that the company is selling off its land and machinery, and has burned land planted with sugar cane to sell off at below-market prices to private buyers. This is apparently in line with a privatization or restructuring plan and to pay off debts. Another unnamed worker told Radio Farda the firm was profitable until 2003-04, when its privatization was decided upon. He said production then fell from 120,000 tons of sugar to 36,000 tons, presumably annually. Radio Farda observed that certain labor activists believe or allege that state firms due to be privatized are sometimes run down by management into making losses, before being sold off to associates or acquaintances. The broadcaster quoted another worker as claiming that the Haft Tapeh management wants to "tire" the workers and encourage them to leave the firm, so management "can take its lands." VS

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on September 28 strongly rejected a U.S. Senate plan passed on September 26 calling for the partition of Iraq into a federation of Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish regions, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. "No Congress or any other establishment can talk about division," al-Maliki said. "They are called upon to support Iraq in favor of entrenching its unity and sovereignty, rather than proposing bills calling for its division. That could be a disaster not just for Iraq, but for the entire region. This is why we eject this decision." He also indicated that he will call on the Iraqi parliament to discuss the proposal and issue an official statement refuting the plan. Meanwhile, Hasan al-Shimmari, the leader of the Shi'ite-led Al-Fadilah (Virtue) Party, told Al-Sharqiyah television the same day that four political blocs are prepared to sign a unified statement condemning the Senate proposal: Al-Fadilah, the political bloc of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and two Sunni-led blocs, the Iraqi Accordance Front and the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue. The Senate's nonbinding resolution called for Iraq to be divided into three entities, with a federal government in Baghdad to be in charge of border security and oil revenues. SS

The office of Kurdistan regional government (KRG) President Mas'ud Barzani issued a statement on September 28 welcoming the federalism proposal by the U.S. Senate. The statement stressed that federalism does not entail dividing Iraq, but rather a voluntary union. Furthermore, the proposal conforms to the foundation of the Iraqi Constitution and is the only viable solution to Iraq's problems. "Federalism is the sound motor that will drive the construction of the new Iraq. It recognizes, without exception, the rights and duties of all constituents in Iraq," the statement said. "We welcome this significant resolution in support of federalism, which guarantees the survival of Iraq on the basis of voluntary union." SS

Iraqi Kurdish officials reacted angrily to the Iraqi-Turkish security agreement on cracking down on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters based in northern Iraq, international media reported on September 29. The agreement was signed on September 28 in Ankara by Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani and his Turkish counterpart Besir Atalay. However, the two sides failed to agree upon a provision allowing Turkish forces, with Iraqi government approval, to carry out cross-border operations into northern Iraq to pursue PKK fighters. Falah Mustafa Bakir, the head of the KRG foreign-affairs department, said Kurdish leaders were stunned that they were left out of the meetings entirely. "It would have been better if someone had told us what was going to be in the agreement. We are talking about a new democratic, federal Iraq, not the Iraq of dictatorship and one-party rule," Bakir said. Sa'di Ahmad Birah, a member of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, told Al-Jazeera satellite television on September 28 that Kurdish authorities had "no knowledge about this agreement, and nobody contacted them." "Not engaging the relevant authorities of the Kurdistan region in such negotiations would either mean that the agreement is not serious and will not be implemented duly, or that the existence of the Kurds has been denied," Birah said. SS

The UN Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced on September 29 that reconstruction work will begin in mid-October on the Al-Askari Mosque in Samarra, international media reported the same day. The project will cost an estimated $16 million, with $8 million coming from the EU and $5 million from UNESCO, and the remaining $3 million from the Iraqi government. Haqi al-Hakim, an adviser on construction affairs to Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki, said that a Turkish company has been chosen to carry out the rebuilding process and will begin after the holy month of Ramadan, which ends in mid-October. "The first phase of the reconstruction could last 10 months as the debris is removed, foundations checked for damage, and historical and golden remnants salvaged and saved," al-Hakim said. The Al-Askari Mosque, a revered Shi'ite shrine, was badly damaged in two separate attacks. On June 13, the mosque's minarets were destroyed by suspected insurgents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2007). In February 2006, a bomb attack destroyed the mosque's golden dome, setting off a wave of sectarian violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). SS

The U.S. military announced on September 28 that it has killed Abu Usama al-Tunisi, the military emir of southern Baghdad, in an operation on September 25 in the town of Al-Musayyib. U.S. military intelligence indicated that al-Tunisi, a Tunisian national, was seen as a likely successor to Abu Ayyub al-Masri, the Egyptian who is believed to be the overall Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader. Al-Tunisi is accused of facilitating foreign terrorists and helping equip them for improvised-explosive-device (IED) attacks, car-bombing campaigns, and suicide attacks throughout Baghdad. "This is one more Al-Qaeda in Iraq criminal who will never kill another innocent civilian," U.S. military spokesman Major Winfield Danielson said. "We will relentlessly pursue all terrorist leaders who threaten Iraqi citizens, their elected government, and Iraqi and coalition forces." SS

During a meeting with Iraqi Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi on September 30, Jordan's King Abdallah called for maintaining Iraq's unity and territorial integrity, the Petra news agency reported the same day. Abdallah expressed hope that any reconciliation agreement reached by Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish leaders in Iraq would "be a serious step towards maintaining unity and the solidarity of Iraqis" and enable all segments of the Iraqi people to participate in the political process. Al-Mahdi's visit to Jordan also coincided with Iraq's first shipment of oil to the kingdom on September 28 after a four-year hiatus following the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. SS