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Newsline - November 28, 2007


MINISTER SAYS RUSSIA WILL HOST NEXT MIDEAST PEACE CONFERENCE
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters on his plane while returning home from Annapolis on November 27 that Russia will host the next Mideast peace conference, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2007). He noted that there is no agreement on the timing and agenda of the talks, which will follow up on the one-day Annapolis gathering that centered on a possible peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. Lavrov said that "there is general understanding that meetings convened in a format similar to that in Annapolis should be continued." Israel's "Jerusalem Post" reported on November 28 that the talks will take place in Moscow, adding that it is not clear which parties, if any, have committed themselves to attend the meeting. The Russian government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" wrote on November 28 that Lavrov would like the Moscow conference to go beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and deal with "all" regional issues, including the Golan Heights and the Lebanese imbroglio. The paper's coverage of the Annapolis meeting suggested that the U.S. authorities kept the meeting unnecessarily brief and limited access by the media. PM

WHITE HOUSE DENIES PUTIN'S CHARGE OVER OSCE MONITORING PULLOUT
White House spokeswoman Dana Perino on November 27 described as "absolutely untrue" President Vladimir Putin's recent claim that the U.S. State Department is behind the decision by the Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) not to send an election observer team to Russia, news agencies reported (see "End Note" and "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2008). Meanwhile, the daily "Moskovsky komsomolets" wrote on November 28 that U.S. President George W. Bush's expression of concern over the weekend crackdown on demonstrators by police in Moscow and St. Petersburg is misplaced. The paper charged that the protesters received "money from abroad" not only to attend the demonstrations but also to engage in scuffles with the police. The daily suggested that Washington's approach to democracy abroad is hypocritical and opportunistic. PM

GENERAL REFUSES TO PROVIDE 'FREE SUPPLEMENT' TO U.S. MISSILE DEFENSE
General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the armed forces' General Staff, said in Moscow on November 28 that the written proposals on missile defense that the United States sent Russia the previous week contain nothing new or constructive, newsru.com reported. He told reporters that the United States is determined to press ahead with its plans and, in effect, make Russia a "free supplement" to them. On November 27, while returning home from Annapolis, Foreign Minister Lavrov repeated his recent criticism of the latest U.S. missile-defense proposals, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2008). He stressed that those proposals constitute a step back from what U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates told their Russian counterparts in Moscow in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 19, 22, 24, and 25, 2007). Lavrov added on November 27 that "if the ideas articulated orally in Moscow were improvised, then the improvisation did not prove successful. We regret what we received in writing." He added nonetheless that "we are responsible people" and have no intention of ending the dialogue with Washington on missile defense, "which is a key element of the U.S. and Russian nuclear armed forces...[and] strategic stability." Lavrov said that "everybody wins" if Washington and Moscow can reach an understanding on such matters. He also told reporters that the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which is due to expire in 2009, should be replaced by a formal, legally-binding agreement that includes all nuclear powers. Lavrov stressed that the new pact must go beyond confidence-building measures and include concrete steps toward nuclear disarmament. PM

FORMER SOVIET LEADER WANTS RUSSIA, EUROPE TO JOIN FORCES TO OFFSET U.S. POWER
Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev said in Budapest on November 27 that Russia and the EU should expand their cooperation and "unite," dpa reported. He told a gathering on the future of Europe that such a move is necessary in order to give Europe a "big voice" in world affairs in the face of "U.S. monopoly leadership." He said that Europe should not unite on "an anti-U.S. basis," but should stop following Washington's lead. Gorbachev argued that "the two parts of Europe need each other. We should build out from the East." He stressed that "Europe can, and must, take the initiative [on the world stage]. The hour of Europe is coming in international affairs.... If it does not, we will see a time of global troubles." Gorbachev said that the EU's policy of rapidly expanding to the East is not working and called for a "new approach." On November 19, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" quoted former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder as saying in Berlin that the EU and Russia should "combine their potentials" in order to better compete with the United States and China. Schroeder currently heads the stockholders' oversight body for the projected Russo-German Nord Stream gas pipeline. PM

GAZPROM BUYS STORAGE SITE NEAR BERLIN
Officials of Gazprom and its German subsidiary Germania said in Berlin on November 27 that the Russian gas monopoly has purchased mining rights north of Berlin that could enable it to construct the largest natural-gas storage site in Europe, dpa reported. Gazprom will have rights to rock layers at Hinrichshagen and Schweinrich to store gas delivered by Nord Stream, which is expected to begin functioning in 2010 at the earliest. In Moscow, Gazprom announced in a statement on November 27 that its CEO Aleksei Miller and Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov agreed in Ashgabat on steep hikes in the price Gazprom will pay for Turkmen gas, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on November 28. The daily noted that Gazprom "will pay $130 per thousand cubic meters in the first half of next year and $150 in the second half, up from $100 this year, and move to a price formula 'based on market principles' from January 2009" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). Gazprom announced in a separate statement on November 27 that it and the U.S.-based Dow Chemical Company "intend to study opportunities to create joint ventures for processing gas in Germany and Siberia," "The Moscow Times" reported on November 28. The paper suggested that "one joint venture would build a petrochemical plant in Germany, where Dow has a solid presence, [according to] a source close to the company. Gazprom could supply gas for that plant to process." The daily quoted the Gazprom statement as saying that a separate "joint venture would make Dow a partner in processing the gas from Gazprom's fields in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug at large-capacity plants in Russia." PM

REPORTS INDICATE WIDESPREAD EFFORT TO MANIPULATE DUMA VOTE RESULTS...
Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov on November 27 held his final meeting with regional election officials before the December 2 legislative elections, Russian media reported on November 28. His main message was that officials should make sure turnout is as high as possible. "It is desirable in the remaining days that leaders of regions, of election commissions, of local administrations once again appeal to voters to take part in the voting," Churov said, according to gazeta.ru. The website reported that there is evidence officials and the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party are trying to influence the outcome by shifting votes from districts where support is strong to those where it is weaker. Teachers at a school in Moscow were reportedly informed recently that they would be bussed to Ryazan Oblast on December 2 to vote there, the website reported. A man presenting a business card from the "Regional Fund to Support the Handicapped and Participants in Peacekeeping Operations" reportedly came to the school and offered teachers a free trip to the birthplace of poet Sergei Yesenin and a free lunch, as well as the opportunity to vote. The teachers were reportedly offered "absentee coupons" that would allow them to vote in a specified district away from their homes. The website also reported that a copy of a document reportedly given to employees of the Sedmoi Kontinent grocery-store chain has been posted on the popular blogging site livejournal.ru. The document urges employees to purloin absentee coupons and vote in Moscow's southwestern district. Sedmoi Kontinent is owned by Unified Russia Duma Deputy and candidate Vladimir Gruzdev. Newsru.com reported on November 27 that 20,000 absentee coupons have been issued in Chuvashia, indicating an effort to manipulate the turnout and the distribution of the vote. The website ura.ru reported that the administration of Sverdlovsk Oblast has received an additional 20,000 absentee coupons in addition to the 40,000 that it had ordered earlier. The website noted that only 2,000 such coupons were issued during legislative elections in the oblast in October 2006. "Nezavismaya gazeta" reported on November 28 that more than 11,000 absentee coupons have been issued in Komi, compared to just 108 during the 2003 Duma elections. RC

...AS OPPOSITION PARTIES CLAIM KREMLIN OFFERED THEM DUMA SEATS
An unidentified Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) official told "The Moscow Times" on November 28 that the party has shifted to a clear anti-Kremlin stance after the presidential administration reneged on a promise to make sure the party wins some seats in the next Duma. "The party is angry, and now the only chance it has to get into the parliament is to gather the protest vote," the official said. "This is why SPS's stance has radically changed." SPS Political Council member Boris Nemtsov denied that any deal had been struck with the Kremlin. An official with the Communist Party told the paper his party has a similar deal with the Kremlin, saying party leader Gennady Zyuganov has been promised a faction in the next Duma in exchange for toning down his criticism of Putin. A Yabloko official said his party was also offered seats in the Duma but that party leader Grigory Yavlinsky rejected the overture. However, party official Sergei Mitrokhin denied there had been such an offer. It is a matter of record that deputy presidential administration head Vladislav Surkov, who heads the Kremlin's domestic political agenda, has met with officials from opposition parties. Putin himself met with Zyuganov and other opposition figures early in the election campaign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 21, 2007). RC

PRO-KREMLIN ORGANIZATIONS TO CONDUCT AUTHORIZED EXIT POLLS
The Central Election Commission has announced that three organizations have been officially accredited to conduct exit polls during Russia's December 2 legislative elections, RIA Novosti reported on November 27. Two state-affiliated research agencies -- the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) and the Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) -- and the nongovernmental organization Nashi vybory (Our Elections) will conduct the polling. Nashi vybory is a joint project of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, the Unified Russia youth wing Young Guard, and other youth organizations. Nashi vybory's stated goal is to prevent a so-called Orange Revolution in Russia. The organization's website claims that in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine "people are in control who receive their pay from other countries...and represent the interests of those who gave money for their 'orange' revolution, those under whose order [the leaders] carried out a coup in their own country." Gazeta.ru reported on November 28 that commission officials expect several other organizations to conduct unauthorized polls. However, a spokeswoman for the independent election-rights NGO Golos told the website her organization will not conduct a poll because doing so under current conditions is "senseless." A spokesman for the Levada Center said no foreign organizations approached his organization with a proposal to do exit polling. Under Russian law, exit-poll results cannot be released until all polling stations have closed, which will be at 9 p.m. Moscow time on December 2. RC

MARCH 2 SET AS OFFICIAL DATE OF 2008 PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
The official state newspapers "Rossiiskaya gazeta" and "Parlamentskaya gazeta" on November 28 published a Federation Council decree setting the date for the presidential election on March 2, 2008. There had been speculation that President Putin might resign before the official publication of the decree to take advantage of a loophole in the election law that could allow him to seek a third term as president (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2007, and " Putin On The Verge Of Resignation?," rferl.org, November 27, 2007). Putin has reportedly recorded a statement that will be aired on national television on November 29. Meanwhile, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov told RFE/RL's Russian Service on November 27 that Putin could make a major announcement during a trip to St. Petersburg on November 28. "I would like all Russians to know that, as far as I know, tomorrow Vladimir Putin plans to travel to St. Petersburg. And coincidentally, that day is the start of the presidential campaign. And very often, we recall from the recent history of Russia, it is in St. Petersburg that new currents were born, some kind of sensations, sometimes on a global level. Maybe on the 28th, in his home town of St. Petersburg, something will be said." RC

HUMAN-RIGHTS ACTIVISTS DEMAND PROBE OF JOURNALISTS' DETENTION IN INGUSHETIA
Seventeen members of the presidential council for furthering the development of civil society and human rights have addressed an open letter to Russia's human-rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin and council Chairwoman Ella Panfilova in connection with the November 23 detention and mistreatment in Nazran of three journalists from Ren-TV and human-rights activist Oleg Orlov, the website ingushetiya.ru reported on November 27. The four were reportedly taken at gunpoint from their hotel room, driven to the outskirts of Nazran, robbed, beaten, threatened with execution, and then abandoned barefoot in the snow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). The signatories denounced the abduction, which ingushetiya.ru alleged was perpetrated by members of Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov's bodyguard, as directed against all human-rights activists and journalists, and called on Lukin and Pamfilova to ensure that a thorough and objective investigation is launched and those responsible identified and punished. LF

CHECHEN COURT SENTENCES FORMER RUSSIAN OFFICER
A Grozny district court on November 27 sentenced former police officer Sergei Lapin to 10 1/2 years' imprisonment for the detention and torture in January 2001 of a resident of Grozny, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. Lapin was originally sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment on the same charges in March 2005 but his lawyers appealed the sentence, and in January 2007 the Russian Supreme Court ordered a retrial. LF

HUNDREDS PROTEST ARREST OF OPPOSITION MAYORAL CANDIDATE IN DAGHESTAN
Some 500 people congregated on November 27 in Makhachkala to protest the arrest the previous day of Nukh Nukhov, the Union of Rightist Forces' candidate for the post of head of Dakhadayev Raion, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported. Nukhov is accused of participating in an armed tussle with police during the run-up to the municipal elections on March 11, according to the daily "Kommersant" on November 28. Nukhov was injured on that occasion when supporters of a rival candidate from the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party opened fire on his motorcade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 6, 2007). Nukhov's election victory was annulled, and a new ballot scheduled concurrently with the December 2 elections to the Russian State Duma. Nineteen candidates will run in that ballot. Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov met with the protesters on November 27 and sought to convince them that there were valid legal grounds for Nukhov's arrest. LF

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION PROPOSES FURTHER ELECTION-LAW AMENDMENTS
The opposition Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) and Zharangutiun parliament factions, which together control 15 of the 131 seats, unveiled on November 27 further proposed changes to the election law that they argue are necessary to preclude vote rigging in the February 2008 presidential election, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The two factions argue that amendments passed earlier this month are unlikely to prove effective. They are therefore demanding, among other changes, that ballot papers be printed in future in an EU member state and that voters' fingers be marked with indelible ink after they have cast their ballot. They further propose stricter prohibitions on vote buying and setting limits on the tariffs for election campaign advertising on local television and radio channels. Also on November 27, opposition National Unity Party (AMK) Chairman Artashes Geghamian announced his candidacy for the February 19 presidential election, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He participated in the 2003 elections, polling third with 17.7 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2003), but the AMK failed to win a single parliament mandate in the May 2007 election. Aleksan Karapetian, a deputy chairman of the AMK, told journalists on November 27 that Geghamian decided to participate in the ballot primarily in a bid to prevent a political comeback by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, whose tenure both men harshly criticized. LF

APPEALS COURT UPHOLDS SENTENCE ON AZERBAIJANI CRIMINAL GROUP
The Baku Court of Appeals on November 28 left unchanged the sentences passed in January on former senior Interior Ministry official Haci Mammadov and 26 other men accused of belonging to a criminal group within the ministry that over some 10 years perpetrated a series of high-profile killings and abductions, day.az reported (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," July 26, 2006 and "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2007). Mammadov was sentenced to life imprisonment, having been found guilty on multiple charges that would carry a combined sentence of 297 years' imprisonment. Nine other men also received life prison terms, including senior Ministry official Zakir Garalov, while the remaining 16 members of the gang were jailed for terms ranging from two to 13 years. The appeal hearing, which some Azerbaijani media compared to a soap opera, lasted over six months, during which Mammadov again denied heading the group, claiming instead that he acted on orders from a senior government official he declined to identify. LF

GEORGIAN OPPOSITIONIST CHALLENGES ACTING PRESIDENT TO LIFT BROADCASTING BAN
Former Georgian Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili, who now heads the Georgia's Path opposition party that is one of nine aligned in the opposition National Council, told the television station Rustavi-2 on November 27 that acting President Nino Burjanadze "now has a good chance to show the world that she really knows what democracy means" by lifting the three-month suspension of the broadcasting license of Imedi television, the sole independent channel capable of broadcasting throughout Georgia, civil.ge reported. Imedi's broadcasting license was suspended earlier this month when then President Mikheil Saakashvili imposed a nationwide state of emergency, and numerous international organizations have repeatedly demanded the suspension be lifted to enable it to report on preparations for the pre-term presidential election scheduled for January 5, 2008. Saakashvili, however, said during a television interview on November 26 that the temporary closure of Imedi was justified as the station was inciting civil unrest during the demonstrations in Tbilisi in early November, and he warned that it will be allowed to resume broadcasting only if its owners guarantee that it will abide by "certain principles" and not serve as "a weapon" in the hands of exiled Georgian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). Burjanadze was instrumental in Zourabichvili's dismissal as foreign minister two years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 19 and 20, 2005). LF

GEORGIAN OPPOSITION NAMES REPRESENTATIVES ON ELECTION BODY
In line with amendments to the election law passed by parliament in the third and final reading on November 22, the seven Georgian political parties that polled over 4 percent of the vote in the last parliamentary elections have nominated candidates to serve on the Central Election Commission, Caucasus Press reported on November 28. Those parties are the majority United National Movement; the New Rightists; Industry Will Save Georgia; Tavisupleba (Liberty); and the Labor, Conservative, and Republican parties. The commission will consist of 13 members, of whom the remaining six will be nominated by the president and confirmed by parliament; its decisions will require a two-thirds majority. Meanwhile, the International Society for Free Elections and Democracy (ISFED) has voiced concern over other election-law amendments, including one that permits voter registration on the day of the election, civil.ge reported on November 22. ISFED fears that provision could be abused to enable voters to register successively at several different polling stations and vote more than once. LF

KAZAKHSTAN RENEWS PRESSURE AGAINST WESTERN OPERATORS OF OIL FIELD
As the November 30 deadline approaches for talks between the Kazakh government and an international consortium operating the offshore Caspian Kashagan oil field, Kazakh Deputy Finance Minister Daulet Yergozhin on November 26 renewed accusations of tax arrears by the consortium, AKIpress reported. The consortium of mainly Western oil companies, led by the Italian ENI group, has been in negotiations with the Kazakh authorities to resolve long-standing disputes stemming from cost overruns and productions delays at the Kashagan oil field (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31 and August 22, 2007). Yergozhin warned that the Finance Ministry is pressing ahead with a separate tax audit of the consortium's operations, and noted previous complaints of environmental damage at the Kashagan field. In August, the government suspended work at Kashagan for three months due to alleged violations of environmental-protection laws (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, 2007). Earlier this month, Yergozhin threatened that if no agreement is reached in the talks with the consortium, Kazakhstan will "take appropriate measures to protect the economic interests of the country" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 5, 2007). The projected total cost for developing the Kashagan oil field has more than doubled from initial estimates of $57 billion to $136 billion. The Kashagan field holds between 7 billion and 9 billion tons of proven reserves, making it the largest oil field discovered in the last three decades and the fourth- or fifth-largest deposit in the world. Kazakhstan recently introduced a revised energy law granting the Kazakh authorities greater authority over the work of international energy companies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 29, 2007). RG

KAZAKH, RUSSIAN CUSTOMS OFFICIALS CONCLUDE AGREEMENT ON CUSTOMS UNION
The chairman of the Kazakh Finance Ministry's Customs Committee, Kozy-Korpesh Karbuzov, met in Astana on November 26 with the head of the Russian Federal Customs Service, Andrey Belyaninov, and signed an agreement to form a customs union, Kazakh Television reported. The agreement calls for measures aimed at reducing corruption and the duration of current customs checks along the Kazakh-Russian border; it also loosens regulations to allow inspections only by customs officials at the final destination and simplifies the documentation required. The move is intended to bolster bilateral trade, which reached nearly $12 billion for the first nine months of 2007 and is expected to increase to $16 billion by the end of the year. RG

KAZAKH DEFENSE MINISTER SIGNS NEW AGREEMENT WITH VISITING RUSSIAN COUNTERPART
Daniyal Akhmetov and Anatoly Serdyukov, the Kazakh and Russian defense ministers, on November 27 in Astana signed a new framework agreement on military cooperation for 2008, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan and the gazeta.kz website. The new defense agreement includes accords on "cooperation in the field of flight security," air defense, and future joint military exercises, and outlines a broad set of measures aimed at enhancing Kazakh military capabilities with Russian technical assistance. The ministers met on the sidelines of a meeting of the CIS council of defense ministers, which included military delegations from Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Ukraine. RG

KAZAKH CABINET APPROVES NEW E-GOVERNMENT PROGRAM
After a cabinet meeting in Astana, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov announced on November 27 that the government has adopted a new "e-government program" to introduce electronic services in the country, Kazakhstan Today reported. The effort includes measures aimed at introducing a new national electronic voting system, and is part of the Kazakh government's broader agenda to develop and expand the country's information technology sector. RG

KAZAKH SECURITY COMMITTEE SEEKS TO STRENGTHEN 'ENVIRONMENTAL SECURITY'
The Kazakh National Security Committee (NSC) on November 27 formally adopted a set of measures aimed at "improving environmental protection" and bolstering "environmental security," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. At a meeting led by NSC Chairman Amangeldy Shabdarbaev in Astana, members of the interdepartmental NSC also discussed the security implications of "the burial of radioactive waste and environmental pollution caused by industrial and military activity." The NSC also resolved to step up regional cooperation in order to address an increase in environmental threats in Central Asia, and identified the need to "prevent drug addiction among youth" as another priority. RG

KYRGYZ PREMIER REPORTEDLY 'RELIEVED OF HIS POST'
Unnamed sources in the office of Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev have said that Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev was "relieved of his post" on November 27, according to the 24.kg website. The report added that the dismissal violates an earlier pledge by the president to retain Atambaev until "at least" the conclusion of the country's December 16 parliamentary election. Atambaev is the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, and his appointment was seen as an essential move by Bakiev to ease political tension in Kyrgyzstan prior to the election. Last May, Atambaev was reportedly poisoned when he drank a glass of water containing "an unidentified toxic substance," according to the results of medical tests conducted by Turkish doctors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 2, 2007). RG

KYRGYZ REGIONAL OPPOSITION PARTY OFFICIAL ASSAULTED
The leader of the Kyrgyz opposition Asaba (Flag) party, Azimbek Beknazarov, announced on November 27 that parliamentary candidate Kamchybek Umetaliev, the local party head in Kyrgyzstan's Issyk-Kul region, was assaulted by unknown men on November 26 in front of his home, the 24.kg website reported. Beknazarov accused the Kyrgyz authorities of being behind the attack, and said that Umetaliev was hospitalized with a concussion, bone fractures, and other serious wounds. In a similar incident on November 21, Jusupjan Jeenbekov, a leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, and his son were beaten up in the town of Kara-Kul (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). Jeenbekov is also a candidate in the December 16 parliamentary elections, from the opposition party headed by Prime Minister Atambaev. RG

RUSSIAN GAZPROM HEAD AGREES TO PRICE HIKE FOR TURKMEN GAS SUPPLIES
Aleksey Miller, the head of Russia's state-run gas monopoly, Gazprom, announced on November 27 that the company will accept the terms of a major price increase for imports of Turkmen natural gas, Turkmen Television reported. After a meeting in Ashgabat with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, Miller said an agreement was signed under which Russia will pay up to 50 percent more for Turkmen gas, increasing the price from the current $100 per 1,000 cubic meters to $130 in the first half of 2008, and to $150 in the second half of the year. Berdymukhammedov also discussed the Russian-backed project to construct a new gas pipeline skirting the Caspian Sea, intended to export gas from Central Asia through Russian territory, and promised to commit to start construction in early 2008. Berdymukhammedov recently met with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov in Ashgabat, where he similarly agreed to sign a final agreement soon on that new Caspian natural-gas pipeline, which is to transport some 230 million cubic meters of gas daily, representing an annual increase of about 20 billion cubic meters of gas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 26, 2007). The existing gas pipeline, constructed in the mid-1970s, runs from Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Russia and currently pumps around 50 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually. RG

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT SIMPLIFIES BUSINESS LICENSE PROCESS...
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on November 26 signed a decree reducing the amount of paperwork needed for some businesses to obtain licenses, Belapan reported. The decree prohibits licensing bodies from demanding documents from an applicant that it can independently obtain from state agencies and other organizations. Under the decree, legal entities that have been reorganized are not required to obtain a new license provided that the data in their current license remains correct, and do not need to obtain permission from authorities to have their license extended. The decree authorizes licensing bodies and courts to partially suspend or revoke licenses, so that a company may be barred from performing certain types of business activities mentioned in its license, but not all of them. The decree takes effect on January 1, 2008. AM

...AND ORDERS UPGRADE TO BELARUS'S ANTI-AIRCRAFT MISSILE SYSTEM
President Lukashenka on November 27 ordered that an upgrade to the BUK surface-to-air medium-range missile system should be completed next year, Belapan reported. Lukashenka met the same day with senior officials of the military and industrial committee and the Security Council. "The upgrade of modern weapons remains a major [priority] in the enhancement of Belarus's defense capacity," Lukashenka said. "To keep up with the times, we have two paths -- buying state-of-the-art weapons abroad and modernizing those modern weapons that we have. We have chosen a third path: we buy what we can, but also aim to modernize systems by our own means," he said. Pyotr Rahazheuski, the first deputy chairman of the military and industrial committee, said that Belarusian experts will cooperate with Russian companies on some aspects of modernization, adding that the upgrade task is particularly challenging because some components are no longer produced. AM

UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT TO STEP IN TO SOLVE PARLIAMENTARY COALITION CRISIS
President Viktor Yushchenko said on November 27 that he intends to talk with the seven lawmakers of the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS) who have refused to sign a coalition agreement with the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT), RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yushchenko pledged that every NUNS member will sign the agreement. "I will meet with each person, with each people's deputy who has yet to sign the agreement on the coalition. I will listen to their complaints... I am sure that we will [resolve this] within two days," Interfax quoted Yushchenko as saying. Yushchenko denied rumors that there is a crisis within the NUNS bloc, claiming that there are simply different opinions among NUNS lawmakers on how to form a coalition with the BYuT. The NUNS lawmakers who failed to sign the coalition agreement with the BYuT are Ihor Kril, Vasyl Petyovka, Stanislav Dovhyy, Viktor Topolov, Yuriy Yekhanurov, Mykola Onishchuk, and Ivan Plyushch. AM

OUR UKRAINE PARTY LEADER DEMANDS COALITION BE FORMED WITHIN DAYS
Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, the leader of the Our Ukraine-People's Union, the largest party within the NUNS bloc, said on November 27 that he will demand that the NUNS and BYuT reach an agreement by November 29, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "We will do our utmost to see the coalition formed by Thursday [November 29]. Frankly speaking, right now I do not even admit" that the coalition with the BYuT might fail, Kyrylenko said, following an unsuccessful meeting of the NUNS political council, which did not manage to gather a quorum. Kyrylenko also did not rule out the possibility that the Our Ukraine-People's Union bloc could meet at an extraordinary convention to decide what to do about the lawmakers who failed to sign the coalition agreement. However, Kyrylenko admitted that even if the bloc obliges its lawmakers to sign the agreement, it might not be legally able to enforce that ruling. AM

NO KEY FOUND TO END KOSOVA DEADLOCK
As the last scheduled direct talks on the future of Kosova draw to an end, there is no indication that a compromise solution on the future of Kosova has been found, with Belgrade continuing to offer Prishtina autonomy but not sovereignty and Prishtina insisting on independence. On the second of three days of talks in Baden, Austria, President Boris Tadic reiterated Serbia's offer, saying Serbia is willing to grant Kosova rights and symbols "normally reserved only for sovereign states" -- including "its own flag, anthem, and national teams" and ties to international financial institutions -- but that Serbia "reserves the right to exclusive representation" at the UN, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Council of Europe, and "maintains the right to associate herself with the province's foreign policy, defense, border control, and the protection of Serbian heritage." However, the Kosovar team's spokesman, Skender Hyseni, described the offer as a further example of "a recipe for frozen conflicts and half-solutions that don't take us anywhere" and of Belgrade's refusal "to approach Kosova as a de facto independent country." Independence from Serbia was "our past and present and future," a member of the Kosovar team and the probable prime minister-elect, Hashim Thaci, told AP. He added that the process of gaining independence "will be very peaceful" and will be embarked upon in close cooperation with the United States and the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19 and 20, 2007). AG

EU ENVOY WARNS TIME IS RUNNING OUT
The EU's Kosova mediator, Wolfgang Ischinger, emphasized on November 27 that he sees the Baden talks as "one last opportunity to seek a negotiated settlement," international media reported. He made clear that he sees the meeting as the last chance for any direct talks before or after the December 10 deadline, when he and two other mediators -- Frank Wisner from the United States and Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko from Russia -- will submit a report to the UN secretary-general. Asked whether he sees anything to suggest that talks should continue after December 10, he said: "My answer is no." Botsan-Kharchenko said Russia will "insist" on talks continuing after December 10. "But we need strong, good arguments to do this," Reuters quoted him as adding. Botsan-Kharchenko has previously criticized the Kosovar team for its alleged unwillingness to compromise and described Serbia's proposals as containing "useful elements." More broadly, Russia has portrayed its arguments against Kosovar independence -- primarily that it would breach international law, cause instability in Europe, and stoke separatism around the world -- as strong and compelling. Prishtina is adamantly opposed to a continuation of talks, a position reiterated on November 27 by prime minister-elect Thaci, who said "we can talk for another hundred years, but with Serbia we can never reach an agreement about Kosova's final status." AG

SERBIA PREPARES FOR POST-TALK SCENARIOS
Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica stated on November 27 that Serbia "will not let an inch of its territory be taken away," and that "Serbia is preparing for any eventuality," a reference to the possibility of a declaration of independence by Kosova. Kostunica's warning was echoed by Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, who said that "whoever decides to carry out such a unilateral act will have to bear the consequences for whatever follows." Neither man elaborated, nor did Serbia's minister for Kosovar affairs, Slobodan Samardzic, who merely said Serbia would "react like each and every country in Europe would react if its territory were endangered." However, AP quoted an unnamed "high-ranking Serbian official" as saying Serbia would impose a "complete economic and travel blockade" on Kosova, including cutting off power supplies. Of Serbia's three governing parties, Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) has adopted the hardest line -- reflected on November 26 in Kostunica's refusal to sit down to a formal meal in Baden with Kosovar leaders -- and he has in the past said Serbia should downgrade ties with any country that recognizes Kosova. Some in the DSS have even called for troops to be deployed in Kosova, but President Tadic and other ministers have insisted Serbia will not take military action (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7, 2007). The Serbian news agency Tanjug reported on November 23 that garrisons in the south of the country have been reinforced with more than 700 soldiers, which it said, quoting an anonymous source, is an "unequivocal" message that "Serbia is ready to act in a serious manner should the need arise." However, there was no indication that the redeployment is for anything other than defensive purposes. The Serbian media on November 23 quoted several ministers as saying that all ministries have been called on to finalize contingency plans for the anticipated declaration of independence by Kosova. Economics Minister Mladjan Dinkic said a decision to draw up a contingency plan was made two months ago, local media reported on November 23 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4 and 7, 2007). The government's statements have been greeted with skepticism by the leader of Serbia's most popular party, Tomislav Nikolic of the opposition Serbian Radical Party (SRS). Serbia "is not ready and does not know how to act" if Kosova declares independence, Nikolic said in comments quoted by the news agency Beta on November 26. AG

MONTENEGRO GRANTS NATO TRANSIT RIGHTS
NATO troops will be allowed to pass through Montenegrin waters and air space and across Montenegrin territory under an agreement signed on November 26, local media reported. In May, Montenegro signed a similar agreement allowing troops in the EU force stationed in Bosnia-Herzegovina, EUFOR, to pass through its territory (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2007). EUFOR commander Rear Admiral Hans-Jochen Witthauer said EUFOR made the arrangement "in order to be able to send reinforcements to NATO forces in Kosovo if any urgent need should arise." Media reports do not indicate that a similar rationale was given for Montenegro's agreement with NATO, but the deal appears to open the way for NATO reinforcements to pass through Montenegro should violence erupt in and around Kosova. Montenegro has maintained a strictly neutral position in the dispute over Kosova's future, though Montenegro's ambassador to Croatia, Branko Lukovac, in mid-November described independence for Kosova as "inevitable," a comment that earned him a rebuke from the government. Montenegro took its first step toward its ambition of becoming a NATO member by joining the alliance's Partnership for Peace program in November 2006. AG

ALBANIA, GREECE EMPHASIZE POSITIVES IN RELATIONSHIP
Albanian President Bamir Topi on November 26 secured fresh avowals of Greek support for Albania's bids to join the EU and NATO, Albanian and international media reported. At a press conference held in Athens, Topi and his Greek counterpart, Karolos Papoulias, emphasized the positive aspects of the influx of Albanians onto the Greek labor market, passed lightly over tensions about the position of Albania's long-established Greek community, and apparently did not touch on the controversy over Greece's wartime expulsion of ethnic Albanians or ongoing tensions over territorial exchanges in the 20th century (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15 and 21, April 26, and July 2, 2007). A meeting with Greek Prime Minister Kostas Karamanlis emphasized what the Albanian news agency ATA described as the "extraordinary" quality of relations between the two countries. According to ATA, Papoulias, who aborted a trip to Albania in 2005 owing to street protests there, said Greece supports Albania on its "path to European and Euro-Atlantic integration," a position also stated by Karamanlis. Albania hopes NATO will in April 2008 invite it to join the alliance. Greece's support for Albania's membership of NATO contrasts with its oft-repeated threat to veto Macedonia's bid for NATO membership unless it changes its name (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 6 and 16, 2007). Differences over the future of Kosova were barely mentioned, though Topi told reporters that independence for Kosova "would be a valuable contribution toward the final peace in the region." Greece is one of several EU countries that have not supported independence for Kosova. AG

ALBANIA PLANS RECORD BUDGET DEFICIT
The Albanian parliament on November 26 approved a government plan to incur a record budget deficit, of 7.9 percent, in 2008, local and international media reported. Finance Minister Ridvan Bode told parliament that the planned deficit is "exceptional" because the country needs to fund a number of large infrastructure projects, including the construction of two highways and improvements to the country's power and water systems. The deficit could be greater still if the economy fails to grow at the 6.0 percent rate projected by the government. Bode said electricity shortages are the biggest threat to revenue forecasts, but the price of oil and the phasing-out of tariffs on EU imports could also have an effect. However, Bode said revenues could be raised by income from the sale of majority stakes in the country's largest oil company and an insurance company, and the sale of minority interests in a number of banks, none of which were included in the revenue forecasts. The IMF has yet to comment, but it warned Albania in early November not to overextend its finances. "This budget aims to increase revenues while cutting taxes, raise public spending to optimal levels, and support reforms that will bring Albania closer to the European Union," Bode said, adding that corporate tax will be halved to 10 percent and a flat personal income tax of 10 percent will be introduced. AG

ALBANIA SEIZES RECORD AMOUNT OF CANNABIS
Albanian border police seized 2.04 tons of cannabis, a haul that the daily "Gazeta Shqiptare" described as a record. The Albanian authorities said on November 26 that the drugs, which were found inside an Albanian-owned truck headed for Greece, had an estimated street value of 2 million euros ($2.95 million). AG

IS RUSSIAN REFUSAL BEGINNING OF THE END FOR OSCE ELECTION MONITORING?
The decision by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) democracy office not to deploy an election-observation mission for the State Duma elections on December 2 marks the culmination of a struggle between Russia and the OSCE, which began after the organization criticized the 2003-04 Duma and presidential elections. Ever since, Russia has questioned the OSCE's mandate to comprehensively observe elections.

Ahead of the Duma elections, the Russian Central Election Commission invited only 70 OSCE observers, instead of letting the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) decide how many observers are needed, as has been the practice for the past decade. In 2003, the ODIHR sent 450 observers, in order to achieve some coverage of Russia's vast territory. The ODIHR has now pulled the plug, after the deployment of even the limited number of observers was delayed due to Moscow's foot-dragging on issuing visas.

The Russian intention appears to have been to keep the ODIHR mission small, in order to portray it as one several invited observer missions, including those by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization comprising Russia, China, and the Central Asian states -- organizations with no track record of credible election observation.

By seriously restricting the time observers could be on the ground, the Russian authorities probably also hoped that the mission would not be able to gather the facts necessary to make a comprehensive and credible statement. It is still possible that members from the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly will go to the Russian elections, but short-term observers cannot produce crucial information on areas such as media coverage or an in-depth review of the election laws.

In some ways, Russia's concern about the ODIHR mission is a compliment to an institution that over the last 10-12 years has established itself as Europe's primary election watchdog. In that time, the ODIHR has fine-tuned a quasi-scientific observation methodology, involving media monitoring, legal analysis, the presence of long-term observers across the country, and a statistically significant number of short-term observers in polling stations on election day. It has issued numerous assessments, both positive and negative. As a result, ODIHR has become the most quoted and trusted source on the quality of elections in Europe and the former Soviet Union, and its methodology has been copied by others, such as the EU.

Until the Russian elections in 2003-04, the OSCE's role in election observation was largely unchallenged, but things have become rockier since then. The Russian government not only resented the critical OSCE reports on Russia, but has become weary of any democracy-promotion activities since the Orange and Rose revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia. A triumphalist tone in some Western media commentary on those elections contributed to a perception in Russia that some in the West regard support for democratic elections primarily as a tool to engineer regime change, rather than as a means of guaranteeing the right of citizens to choose their government, whatever the outcome.

The Russian position sets a negative precedent that other OSCE members, such as Belarus and Uzbekistan, may be happy to follow. They have already endorsed a Russian policy proposal to greatly limit independent OSCE election observation. So did Kazakhstan, but because of its bid for OSCE chairmanship in 2009, it did not hinder OSCE/ODIHR observation. Other supporters of the Russian proposal, such as Armenia and Kyrgyzstan, may continue to respect established OSCE practices of election observation in the hope of lending greater domestic and international legitimacy to their elections. ODIHR has been invited to send observers to both the December 16 parliamentary election in Kyrgyzstan and the February 2008 presidential election in Armenia.

Even some EU member states reportedly wonder if ODIHR's position is too inflexible, which is surprising, because the EU rightly insists on the same approach when it observes elections abroad. Those doubts constitute another sign that the pan-European consensus on democracy and human rights that made the OSCE effective is disappearing. This risks further undermining an organization that is already struggling to maintain a role in the context of EU enlargement and increased Russian confidence.

(Michael Meyer-Resende is the coordinator of Democracy Reporting International, a Berlin-based group promoting democracy.)

GOVERNMENT FINDINGS ON BAGHLAN BOMBING PRESENTED TO KARZAI...
Interior Minister Zarar Ahmad Moqbel on November 27 presented to President Hamid Karzai the findings of an Afghan government investigation into the November 6 suicide bombing in Baghlan Province that killed dozens, including many children and six lawmakers. Moqbel told reporters that "enquiries indicate a range of negligence and carelessness occurred at various governmental levels," Pajhwak News Agency reported. Conflicting reports emerged after the bombing, with an internal UN report saying that many of the victims were not killed by the blast itself, but by gunfire from bodyguards who opened fire after the explosion. Local families who lost their children have demanded that their bodies be exhumed for autopsies to determine the cause of death. Moqbel blamed provincial government officials for the high level of civilian casualties, and promised that "some of these officials will be dismissed...and others will face justice." MM

...AS OPPOSITION RAISES STAKES IN BLAMING KARZAI ADMINISTRATION
Lawmakers of the National United Front (NUF), the main opposition coalition, walked out of parliament on November 26 as the dispute surrounding the Baghlan blast deepened, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Yunos Qanuni, the main opposition leader and speaker of parliament, led the protest, accusing President Karzai's administration of inaction, ineffectiveness, and refusing to listen to the demands of parliament, specifically demands for the dismissal of top Baghlan security officials and the governor. Interior Minister Moqbel, seeking to reassure the opposition, said the team investigating the incident is "hopeful that we will learn the names of those involved in negligence from judicial authorities soon." The NUF has become increasing vocal in attacking Karzai's administration for alleged corruption and other shortcomings in security and governance. MM

AFGHAN JOURNALISTS ENCOURAGED TO EXPOSE HUMAN RIGHTS VIOLATIONS
Speakers at a training seminar on November 26 in Kabul, organized by the nongovernmental Killid Group, encouraged Afghan media professionals to expose human rights violations in Afghanistan, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. In an interview with Pajhwak, the Killid Group's president, Ahmad Zaheen, said that the three-day seminar was intended to improve journalistic skills and professionalism, and teach media outlets and news reporters "how to prepare investigative reports on rights violations." Addressing the participants, Deputy Interior Minister General Abdul Hadi Khalid conceded that human rights violations continue to be committed by some powerful people trying to further their own interests, and stressed "the role of writers and newsmen in discouraging rights abuses." MM

SUICIDE BOMBING IN KABUL KILLS TWO, HEKMATYAR'S GROUP CLAIMS RESPONSIBILITY
A suicide car bomber on November 27 attacked a convey of U.S. armored vehicles leaving a military base in Kabul, killing two civilians, the news website Afgha.com reported, quoting the Kabul police. The attack outside Camp Eggers in the upscale residential neighborhood of Wazir Akbar Khan Mina wounded four people and damaged nearby houses and businesses. The area is home to foreign embassies, the World Bank, and other international organizations. A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition, David Johnson, said no troops were injured. A purported spokesman for Hezb-e-Islami, the renegade faction led by former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, claimed responsibility for the attack. MM

IRANIAN DIPLOMAT ACQUITTED OF SPYING CHARGES
A court in Tehran has acquitted Hossein Musavian, a former nuclear negotiator arrested last May, of charges of spying for foreign powers, Radio Farda reported on November 27, quoting judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi. However, Musavian was convicted of engaging in propaganda against the state, Jamshidi said. Musavian is considered close to centrist political forces and Expediency Council chief and former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Iran's intelligence ministry were keen to see Musavian convicted in what has increasingly come to be seen as an element of the conflict between the political right and center (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). Tehran-based journalist Hasan Fathi told Radio Farda on November 27 that "there was always a perception that if the government has undeniable documents and evidence of his spying, why has it not managed to punish him?" On November 27, after Musavian's acquittal on spying charges, government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham called for a retrial to "resolve public concerns and answer certain questions," further underlining the political nature of the case, according to Fathi. The journalist speculated that Musavian's prosecution was a bid by radicals to discredit political moderates ahead of parliamentary elections next March. Iranian activist Mehdi Fatapur separately told Radio Farda on November 27 that the acquittal was a signal -- presumably from members of the clergy or the judiciary -- that Ahmadinejad and his allies do not wield unlimited power in Iran. VS

JOURNALIST SAYS IRAN SURPRISED BY SYRIAN PRESENCE AT MIDEAST SUMMIT
The editor of the conservative "Keyhan" daily, Hossein Shariatmadari, has told the Arab paper "Al Sharq al-awsat" that Iran was taken aback by Syria's participation in the Mideast conference in Annapolis, in the eastern United States, Radio Farda reported on November 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2007). Shariatmadari, who is thought to be close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was quoted as saying that he was "surprised" by Syria's presence "when we told them we do not support this conference and we clearly stated our view." Separately, government spokesman Elham said in Tehran on November 27 that Iran has invited the heads of 10 Palestinian groups, including militant organizations, to discuss their ideas, in what appears to be an alternative conference to Annapolis, Radio Farda reported. Elham said the groups seek "their country's liberation from Israeli occupation," and can freely travel to Iran to hold talks there. VS

REFORMIST PROTESTS 'BIASED' COVERAGE ON STATE TELEVISION
Abdollah Naseri, a spokesman for the coalition of Iranian reformists, has written to the head of state television and radio, Ezzatollah Zarghami, to protest against a spate of recent programs that Naseri said were biased against reformists, "Etemad" reported on November 28. Naseri said the programs violated a previous agreement -- presumably on fair reporting or impartiality -- that state television reached with prominent moderate politicians Habibollah Bitaraf and Hossein Marashi on behalf of Iranian reformists. He specifically referred to an "unprofessional and immoral" evening news bulletin on October 27 that, Naseri said, falsely attributed remarks to him. The bulletin quoted Naseri as saying that he favors the elimination of "extremists" from the reformist front, but Naseri said that was a "big lie." In his letter of protest, he stated that "we have no extremists and radicals in the reformist front," and told Zarghami he had suggested reformists and conservatives discuss their concerns. These include the strict pre-electoral vetting of aspirants and supervision of the voting process, which, he added, seems to be of no concern to conservative forces. Naseri told Zarghami that impartiality in the state broadcasting body would reduce the country's problems, but added that he is perfectly aware Zarghami does not sympathize with reformists, "Etemad" reported. VS

IRANIAN STUDENTS PROTEST ON TWO CAMPUSES
An unspecified number of students of Amir Kabir University in Tehran and some 1,500 students of Bu Ali Sina University in Hamedan, western Iran, protested on November 27 over campus conditions, the continued detention of some students, expulsions, and disciplinary sanctions, "Etemad" reported on November 28. Students at Amir Kabir were angered by the recent suspension of at least three students and sanctions leveled against others at Shahrud University in eastern Iran. Students in Hamedan boycotted classes for four hours in protest against poor facilities, the quality of food served at the cafeteria, and the conduct of university security personnel, "Etemad" reported. VS

TEHRAN POLICE OFFICIAL SAYS THOUSANDS OF CYBERCAFES OPERATE ILLEGALLY
The head of the Tehran police department tasked with inspecting public venues, Mohammad Ali Najafi, said on November 27 that some 3,000 illegal internet cafes are operating in Tehran, and that members of the public have complained to the police about illegal drug and alcohol consumption as well as "moral issues" in such locales, "Iran" reported on November 28. Internet cafes are venues where young people can socialize, in defiance of Iranian laws banning unrelated boys and girls from mixing. Najafi said only 100 coffee shops or gyms in Iran are permitted to provide internet access, and the law should act against the illegal ones. He also said police are cracking down on barber shops offering tattoos, which the Health Ministry has banned as unhygienic, "Iran" reported. VS

TOP IRAQI SHI'ITE CLERIC HOSTS SHI'A-SUNNI CONFERENCE
Iraq's top Shi'ite religious authority, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, hosted a religious conference in the southern holy city of Al-Najaf on November 27 involving many of Iraq's top Shi'ite and Sunni religious figures, KUNA reported. The First National Conference of Shi'as and Sunnis focused on ways to bridge the divide between the two groups and end sectarian bloodshed. Approximately 200 Sunni religious leaders and scholars attended the conference, including a delegation from the Muslim Scholars Association. Khalid al-Mullah, the leader of the southern branch of the association, hailed the conference as "a new opportunity for exchanging views and unifying the ranks of Iraqi Sunnis and Shi'as." For his part, Shi'ite cleric Sadraldin al-Qubanji said the conference sends a powerful message to the Iraqi people that unity can prevail over divisions. "I tell the Iraqi people that solidarity is the only way to achieve victory," al-Qubanji said. SS

MUSLIM SCHOLARS DENOUNCE LONG-TERM U.S. PRESENCE IN IRAQ
The Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association issued a statement on its website on November 26 denouncing calls by some Iraqi officials to extend the UN mandate allowing the presence of multinational forces in Iraq. "At a time when Iraqis are increasingly suffering at the hands of the occupying forces...some participants in the political process are persistently calling for an extended foreign troop presence," the statement read. "As long as they remain, the occupation forces will never stop the killings, destruction, and arrests [of Iraqis]," the statement added. On November 26, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said his government will ask for the renewal of the U.S.-led coalition's UN mandate for a final year, ending in 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2007). Al-Maliki and U.S. President George W. Bush also agreed on a framework for a future bilateral pact that would allow for a long-term U.S. military presence in Iraq. SS

IRAQ OFFERS JORDAN $8 MILLION TO ASSIST IRAQI REFUGEES...
The Iraqi government is set to offer Jordan $8 million to help cover the costs of sheltering the estimated 750,000 Iraqi refugees residing in Jordan, Iraqi media reported on November 27. Iraqi Ambassador to Jordan Sa'ad Hayani said that the money will "help support the country's health and educational institutions that provide services to the Iraqis in the kingdom." A week earlier, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) pledged $11 million to Jordan to help improve health services for Iraqi refugees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2007). Jordan has long complained that the influx of Iraqi refugees has created an enormous strain on the country's infrastructure and economy, by some accounts costing the kingdom over $1 billion each year. SS

...AS UN UNVEILS PLANS TO AID REPATRIATION
The UN announced on November 26 that it has appointed a special three-member team to help the Iraqi government deal with the thousands of Iraqi refugees returning to their homeland, "Al-Azzam" reported on November 27. Sa'id Ariqat, a spokesman for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI), told AFP on November 27 that the organization will work closely with the Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration to devise the best course of action to assist the returning refugees. In addition, the UNHCR said it is preparing to provide "up to 5,000 families with material assistance including blankets, kitchen equipment, and other material support to help in the returnees' reintegration in their communities." On November 25, Muhsin Abd al-Hasan, the head of the Iraqi border guards, said that many of the border posts between Iraq and Syria are having difficulty dealing with the thousands of Iraqis who are trying to reenter Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2007). SS

U.S. FORCES FIRE ON MINIBUS, KILL FOUR IRAQIS
U.S. forces on November 27 fired on a minibus carrying several bank employees, killing four Iraqis and wounding two others, international media reported. The minibus carrying employees of the Al-Rashid Bank was approaching a U.S.-manned roadblock in Baghdad's Al-Sha'ab neighborhood when the troops opened fire. In a statement carried by AFP, the U.S. confirmed that its forces fired on a vehicle when it failed to stop at a roadblock. "The bus was traveling on a street that was off-limits to vehicles other than passenger cars. Initial reporting indicates that two passengers were killed and four wounded," the statement said. The military added that it will immediately launch an investigation into the incident. SS

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