Saturday, November 01, 2014


Newsline

Newsline - March 24, 2003

WASHINGTON ACCUSES RUSSIA OF ILLEGAL MILITARY SALES TO IRAQ...
Russia's Ambassador to the United States Yurii Ushakov was summoned on 24 March to the U.S. State Department to receive an official protest alleging that Russia allowed illegal transfers of military equipment to Iraq in violation of UN-imposed economic sanctions, Russian and Western media reported. According to the reports, the equipment in question includes night-vision goggles, antitank rockets, and electronic jamming equipment. The U.S. protest specifically accused the Russian company Aviakonversiya of involvement. Aviakonversiya General Director Oleg Antonov admitted that Iraq had requested such equipment from his company, but denied that it had been supplied, Ekho Moskvy reported on 24 March. He also told the radio station that his company has always strictly complied with the sanctions against Iraq, but he added that it is possible Iraq produced such equipment independently or with the help of individuals or firms in the former Yugoslavia. VY

...AS RUSSIA PROTESTS ALLEGED U.S. RECONNAISSANCE OVERFLIGHTS
The Foreign Ministry on 22 March handed U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow an official note of protest over alleged reconnaissance flights by U.S. U-2 aircraft near the borders of the Russian Federation, newsru.com reported on 24 March. The ministry alleges that the flights are originating in Georgia and, according to the Russian note, "can hardly serve the interests of the fight against international terrorism." They "are reminiscent of the Cold War," the note charges. VY

RUSSIAN INTELLIGENCE CAREFULLY MONITORING IRAQ SITUATION
The local stations of Russian military intelligence (GRU) and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) in Iraq have been on special alert status since the onset of the U.S.-led military operation against the regime of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 21 March. They have been issuing bulletins to Russia's political leadership on a constant, rolling basis, according to the report. Russia's intelligence agencies have also activated their resources globally in order to monitor the military operation, the international situation, and U.S. and British plans for post-Hussein Iraq. TVS on 20 Marsh quoted Igor Morozov, a former Soviet foreign-intelligence officer in Baghdad during the 1980s, as saying that Russia has very powerful intelligence assets in Iraq, including within its military commands, its political leadership, and its security services. VY

FOREIGN MINISTER CONCERNED BY U.S. EFFORTS TO SEIZE IRAQI ASSETS
Igor Ivanov said on 21 March that the U.S. decision to confiscate the assets of Iraqi President Hussein's regime is extremely worrying, Russian media reported. Ivanov was speaking in Moscow to a session of the Council for Defense and Foreign Policy. "It could mean that after this is done, it will be announced that all previous treaties and contracts with Iraq are invalid, and we will lose our economic interests in the country," Ivanov said. He also expressed related concerns over Washington's efforts to persuade foreign countries to expel Iraqi diplomats. Ivanov also called for restoring the United Nations' leading role in international affairs and repeated Moscow's call for expanding the UN Security Council to include India and one new permanent member each from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. VY

DUMA CALLS FOR 'URGENT MEASURES' TO BOOST DEFENSE
The Duma on 21 March adopted a nonbinding resolution calling on President Vladimir Putin to adopt "urgent measures to strengthen [Russia's] national defense and to modernize the Russian armed forces," nns.ru reported. Deputies also called for increased defense spending. Commenting on the resolution, Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dmitrii Rogozin (People's Deputy) said that the Duma considers the U.S.-led military operation against Iraq "aggression" and believes that it is crucial to return the crisis to a diplomatic track. Russia must also attend to its possible role in postwar Iraq. For Russia, the most important thing is that the postwar administration and reconstruction of Iraq must be conducted exclusively under the aegis of the United Nations, Rogozin said. VY

EMBASSY IN BAGHDAD DOWNPLAYS REPORTED ATTACK
A group of unknown people fired shots in the vicinity of the Russian Embassy in Baghdad on 23 March, and Iraqi security guards returned fire, ITAR-TASS reported. An embassy spokesman said that none of the 25 people remaining at the embassy was injured. The Foreign Ministry in Moscow later issued a statement saying that embassy guards opened fire on a group of people who were trying to loot a nearby building. VY

ANTIWAR PROTESTS SPREAD
More than 2,000 people led by the pro-Kremlin youth movement Walking Together held a rally on 22 March in front of the Moscow residence of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Vershbow against U.S.-led military action against the regime of Iraqi President Hussein, Interfax reported. The activists brought cans of oil so that "Americans won't be freezing in their homes" and "cars won't be abandoned on the streets of New York because of empty gas tanks," movement leader Vasilii Yakemenko explained, according to the news agency. Other antiwar rallies were held in front of the U.S. Embassy on 20 and 21 March. On 20 March, a small protest was held outside the U.S. Consulate in Yekaterinburg. On 21 March, an unspecified number of members of Unified Russia's youth movement held a protest outside the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg, regions.ru reported. In Nizhnii Novgorod on 23 March, around 50 people -- most of them members of an antiglobalist youth group and a Communist youth movement -- protested in front of a McDonald's restaurant in one of the city's main squares, "Kommersant-Daily" reported. JAC

THOUSANDS OF WAR VETS IN DAGHESTAN VOLUNTEER TO FIGHT FOR IRAQ
At least 8,000 men in Daghestan have volunteered to go to Iraq to fight on the side of President Hussein, "Izvestiya" on 19 March quoted Duma Deputy and People's Front of Daghestan Chairman Gadzhi Makhachev as saying. Makhachev added that most of the volunteers in question are aged between 20-40 and are either veterans of the war in Afghanistan or fought in 1998 to repel the Chechen incursion into Daghestan. He said the men will be issued with weapons if they make arrangements to travel to Iraq "unofficially." LF

DUMA PASSES HOUSING-REFORM BILL BY ONE VOTE...
After three failed attempts and three hours of discussion, State Duma deputies on 21 March approved in its second reading a bill on the fundamentals of federal housing policy, Interfax and RosBalt reported. The vote was 227 in favor, just one more than required. Thirty-five deputies voted against the bill, according to RosBalt. The bill would establish the method and conditions for providing subsidies for housing and communal services for needy citizens. Under the bill, according to RosBalt, the majority of subsidies are preserved. However, the Federation of Independent Trade Unions called upon legislators to reject the bill, arguing that it would worsen the lives of a significant portion of the population. Yabloko, which led a campaign against the bill in 57 regions, argued that if adopted, the legislation would lead to "an aggravation of the crisis in the housing sector and to a widening of the zone of social catastrophe in the regions." JAC

...AS ENERGY CONSERVATION BILL GETS ANOTHER CHANCE...
Also on 21 March, deputies approved the law on energy conservation, which had earlier been rejected by the Federation Council and was revised by a conciliation commission, RosBalt reported. The vote was 257 in favor, with 121 against and two abstentions. According to Interfax, the law now consists only of two lines: "Regional energy commissions are replaced by executive bodies of power of the Russian Federation constituent territories. The relevant amendments are made to the federal law on energy supply." JAC

...AND REPRESSIVE MEDIA MEASURE WINS INITIAL APPROVAL
Legislators on 21 March also passed a presidential bill that amends several laws regulating media coverage of elections, Russian media reported. The bill passed with 245 votes in favor and 160 against, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 24 March. Central Election Commission Chairman Aleksandr Veshnyakov spoke in favor of the bill, which Yabloko, the Union of Rightist Forces, and the Communist factions opposed. The bill has been harshly criticized by media advocates and others who fear that the media will be afraid to offer even unbiased commentary on elections lest they are accused of covert campaigning (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 March 2003). JAC

AUDIT CHAMBER UNEARTHS MORE IRREGULARITIES IN ST. PETERSBURG
The Audit Chamber alleged on 21 March that customs officials in the Northwest Federal District illegally classified imported goods as humanitarian aid throughout 2002 and in early 2003 to allow importers to pay a reduced customs duty, ITAR-TASS reported. According to the agency, auditors found that the classifications were made with the approval of the St. Petersburg city administration. The resulting loss to the federal budget was some 2.7 million rubles ($86,000). Last month, the Audit Chamber found that some 521.4 million rubles ($16.39 million) of federal funds were not used for their designated purpose of preparing for the city's 300th anniversary (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2003). JAC

ANOTHER JOB SOUGHT FOR FRIEND OF PUTIN?
Leningrad Oblast legislator Damir Shadaev has accused presidential administration head Aleksandr Voloshin of putting pressure on the oblast parliament to select a candidate that the Kremlin favors to serve as its representative in the Federation Council, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 24 March. The previous representative, Valerii Golubev, resigned recently to take a job with Gazprom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2003). The oblast legislature is expected to take up the issue on 25 March, and the current top candidates for the post are Rashid Ismagilov, head of the oblast's Chamber of Trade and Industry, and Vladimir Churov, a representative of the St. Petersburg city administration who was a colleague of President Putin when Putin worked in the St. Petersburg mayoral administration. Golubev also once worked with Putin, according to the daily. JAC

QUESTIONS RAISED ABOUT RECENT ELECTION IN BASHKORTOSTAN
Representatives of opposition groups in Bashkortostan told reporters in Moscow on 20 March that the 16 March parliamentary elections in that republic should be invalidated, RIA-Novosti reported. Azat Akberdin, chairman of the Davlekanovo branch of the People's Patriotic Union, said "the election system in the republic was twisted from the start, and intense pressure was exerted on candidates." Bashtransgaz General Director Aleksandr Veremeenko, an independent candidate, showed video footage that he claimed showed evidence of vote rigging. According to "Vedomosti" on 18 March, Veremeenko is a brother of Mezhprombank Chairman Sergei Veremeenko. The daily cited an unnamed political analyst close to Mezhprombank who said the bank promoted several candidates to promote "the interests of the bank, which is seeking [in the course of future privatization] to obtain control over the Bashkir fuel-and-energy sector and [to] oppose [Bashkortostan President Murtaza] Rakhimov." According to an RFE/RL correspondent in Ufa on 18 March, during the vote some 600 ballots already marked for a specific candidate were withdrawn after a resident tried to stuff them into a ballot box. JAC

CHECHEN PRESIDENT, PARLIAMENT, SUPREME COURT CONDEMN 'PSEUDO-REFERENDUM'...
In a joint statement dated 22 March and posted on chechenpress.com, Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, acting parliament speaker Dardail Khiryaev, and Supreme Court Chairman Abdul-Khalim condemned as sabotage of the constitutional order and security of the Chechen state what they termed the "pseudo-referendum" organized by the Russian political and military leadership and the pro-Moscow Grozny leadership. They argued that holding the referendum, especially while hostilities continue, is illegal and constitutes a violation of the Chechen constitution and a "grave crime" against the Chechen people. The statement characterizes Chechen citizens' participation in the referendum as an action directed against constitutional order and calls on prosecutors and the Supreme Court of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria to bring criminal charges against those who do so. Some 400 people attended a demonstration in Grozny on 22 March to protest the referendum scheduled for the following day, RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service reported. LF

...BUT MOST VOTERS APPROVE NEW CONSTITUTION, ELECTION LAWS
Despite President Maskhadov's earlier calls for a boycott of the referendum, voter turnout on 23 March reached 85 percent, Chechen Central Election Commission Chairman Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov told ITAR-TASS on 24 March. That figure included more than 5,500 voters who cast their ballots at two polling stations set up in displaced persons' camps in Ingushetia and a further 1,200 displaced persons who came from Daghestan to vote in eastern Chechnya. With ballot papers from some 52 percent of the 416 polling stations counted, between 95 and 97 percent of voters approved the new draft constitution and the draft laws on presidential and parliamentary elections, Arsakhanov said on 24 March. Chechen deputy administration head Taus Dzhabrailov told ITAR-TASS on 23 March that the 40-odd international observers who monitored the vote did not make any formal complaints about procedural violations. LF

PUTIN, CHECHEN ADMINISTRATION HEAD HAIL REFERENDUM OUTCOME
Speaking in Moscow on 24 March, President Putin characterized the referendum outcome as "positive," adding that "the figures have even surpassed our most optimistic expectations," RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov told ITAR-TASS on 24 March that the referendum has demonstrated that "the people of Chechnya have said 'yes' to its new constitution, which clearly defines the status of our republic as an inalienable part of the Russian Federation." Kadyrov also claimed that the vote has stripped Maskhadov of the "moral right" to call himself Chechen president." LF

CORRECTION:
"RFE/RL Newsline" on 26 February and 13 March 2003 incorrectly identified the current head of Alyans Group as Ziya Bazhaev. His name is in fact Musa Bazhaev. Ziya Bazhaev was the former head of Alyans Group and brother of Musa. Ziya Bazhaev died in a plane crash in March 2000.

ARMENIAN OPPOSITION PROTESTS, ARRESTS CONTINUE
Despite the deployment of police to block roads leading to the capital, several thousand people participated in a rally in Yerevan on 21 March to protest the perceived falsification of the outcome of the recent presidential election and show their support for defeated runoff candidate Stepan Demirchian, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The demonstrators then marched to the main police station to protest the ongoing arrests of opposition supporters. Opposition leaders said on 21 March that more than 30 people have been detained since 17 March for participating in unauthorized pro-Demirchian rallies, and a Yerevan court judge told RFE/RL that at least 10 have been fined and jailed. At least another 30, and possibly as many as 45 people, were detained during the night of 21-22 March for their participation in the 21 March demonstration, opposition leaders told RFE/RL on 22 March. One woman brought before a Yerevan court told RFE/RL she was fined 1,500 drams ($2.50) after being pressured into signing a false confession. An elderly man said he was apprehended by police simply for walking though the demonstrators en route to a nearby cafe. LF

TURKISH PRESIDENT CONGRATULATES ARMENIAN COUNTERPART
Ahmet Necdet Sezer has written to Armenian President Robert Kocharian on the occasion of the latter's re-election to his second presidential term, Mediamax and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported on 21 March. Sezer expressed the hope that "during your second term in office our region, with your participation, will be able to take steady steps toward lasting peace, stability, and cooperation." LF

ARMENIA NOT CONSIDERING SEVERING DIPLOMATIC RELATIONS WITH IRAQ
Armenia is not currently considering complying with a U.S. State Department request to those states that maintain diplomatic relations with Iraq to suspend those ties, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Dziunik Aghadjanian said on 21 March, according to Arminfo, as cited by Groong. Also on 21 March, former Armenian Ambassador David Hovhannisian again warned that the war in Iraq will have "a serious and fateful impact" on Armenia and the entire South Caucasus, according to Mediamax, as cited by Groong. Hovhannisian predicted that Turkey's role in the region will expand as a result of its membership in the anti-Iraq "coalition of the willing" and that its resulting enhanced support for Azerbaijan could hinder a solution to the Karabakh conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 January 2003). LF

AZERBAIJAN CALLS ON IRAQ TO COMPLY WITH UN DEMANDS
Azerbaijan's Foreign Minister issued a statement on 21 March expressing Azerbaijan's "deep concern" over developments in Iraq and calling on Baghdad "to fully meet the requirements" of UN Security Council resolutions 678, 687, and 1441, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. The statement further expressed support for international efforts to resolve the crisis and urged "strict observance of international law" during military operations. Interfax on 21 March also quoted Azerbaijani Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiev as saying on 21 March that the United States has asked Azerbaijan for unspecified assistance in connection with the war in Iraq. Abiev said Azerbaijan might make its airspace available but will not send troops. He said it is too early to say whether Azerbaijani forces might participate in peacekeeping operations in Iraq. In his Norouz address in Baku on 21 March, Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliev did not mention Iraq, according to Azerbaijani State Television Channel One, as cited by Groong. LF

GEORGIA'S AZERBAIJANI MINORITY EXPRESSES SYMPATHY WITH IRAQ
Residents of Georgia's predominantly Azerbaijani-populated Marneuli Raion told Caucasus Press on 22 March that as Muslims they support the people of Iraq and are moved "to tears" by the bombing of Baghdad and other cities. But they stressed that they will not protest the Georgian government's support of the U.S. military action in Iraq. LF

GEORGIAN NATIONAL GUARD VETERANS SEIZE MILITARY BASE
Some 40-50 former members of the Georgian National Guard occupied a military base near Tbilisi late on 23 March, seizing arms and military equipment, Caucasus Press reported. The men said they were acting to protest anticipated reprisals against them on the part of the Georgian authorities. Regular army troops backed by heavy weaponry surrounded the base, and senior government officials and former Defense Minister Gia Karkarashvili held talks with the veterans and eventually persuaded them to surrender early on 24 March. Eighteen of them were arrested and could face prison sentences of up to four years. Georgian Defense Minister Lieutenant General David Tevzadze told journalists in Tbilisi on 24 March that his ministry had advance warning that the men were planning to occupy the base. Prosecutor-General Nugzar Gabrichidze claimed the men are in contact with former Georgian National Guard Commander and Defense Minister Tengiz Kitovani, who currently lives in Moscow. LF

GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT RATIFIES MILITARY AGREEMENT WITH U.S.
Deputies voted at a special session of parliament on 21 March by 138 in favor with one vote against to ratify the military cooperation agreement with the United States signed in December 2002, Caucasus Press reported. The agreement exempts U.S. military personnel from visa requirements and grants them privileges and immunities comparable to those extended to U.S. diplomats. Parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze expressed reservations that the agreement had been drafted and signed without parliament being consulted and warned that it might prove necessary in the future to amend it. Parliament failed to ratify the agreement in a vote in late February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February and 4 March 2003). LF

GEORGIAN NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL SECRETARY MEETS WITH RUSSIAN PRESIDENT
Tedo Djaparidze met in Moscow on 21 March with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the role of the Russian and Georgian security councils in implementing the agreements reached in Sochi on 6-7 March by Putin and his Georgian counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze on resolving the Abkhaz conflict, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 13 March 2003). Also on 21 March, Georgian Minister for Special Assignments Malkhaz Kakabadze met with UN Special Envoy Heidi Tagliavini to discuss the situation in Abkhazia, Caucasus Press reported. LF

KAZAKHSTAN BLAMES IRAQI PRESIDENT FOR START OF HOSTILITIES
In a statement dated 18 March but made public only on 21 March, Kazakhstan's Foreign Ministry said that responsibility for the war in Iraq lies with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, in that he failed to provide proof of disarmament, Interfax and khabar.kz reported. The statement also blamed Hussein for the split that has emerged within the international community. It expressed profound regret that a solution to the Iraq crisis could not be found within the framework of the UN and commented that that failure raises the question of whether the UN should be reformed. The statement also expressed regret at the human casualties reported since the onset of hostilities. Deputy Foreign Minister Alikhan Smailov, who read the statement to journalists in Astana, declined to answer any questions on it, Interfax reported. LF

KAZAKH HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION TAKES ON INTERNATIONAL RESPONSIBILITIES
Kazakhstan's Presidential Commission on Human Rights has received a new statute expanding its role, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 21 March. According to the report, the main tasks of the commission will now be to improve the guarantees of human rights inside the country, to develop policy on human rights, and to strengthen Kazakhstan's role in human rights on the international scene. The main task of the original human rights commission, which was formed in 1998 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 1998), was to assess the human rights situation in Kazakhstan and to report its findings to the president. Human rights activists were scornful of the commission because of its limited mandate. Senator Zhabaikhan Abdildin, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee who has headed the human rights commission since it was formed, will continue in that post. According to the report, Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev will have overall responsibility for the commission, which will include government officials, religious and other public figures, and members of the Prosecutor-General's Office, the military court, and the media. The report did not say whether representatives of independent human rights organizations will be invited to take part. BB

KAZAKH COMMUNIST PARTY REGISTERED
Kazakhstan's Justice Ministry has reregistered the Kazakh Communist Party, party leader Serikbolsyn Abdildin announced at a press conference on 21 March, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. The reregistration procedure, required of all political parties in Kazakhstan under a controversial 2002 law adopted, was "difficult" for the Communists, according to Abdildin. He had earlier attributed the difficulty to questions about the number of party members (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2002). According to the new law, political parties must prove they have at least 50,000 members in order to be registered. The Communists are the fourth party to complete the reregistration procedure. The pro-government Otan Party, the Aq Zhol Party, and the Civic Party have also been reregistered. BB

KYRGYZSTAN TO REDUCE NUMBER OF FOREIGN EXPERTS WORKING ON DEVELOPMENT PROJECTS
Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Djoomart Otorbaev has told international donor agencies working on development projects in Kyrgyzstan that the number of foreign experts working on such projects will be reduced, Interfax reported on 21 March. The intention, the official was quoted as saying, is to develop Kyrgyzstan's potential to manage international projects itself. Reducing the number of foreign consultants will also save some of the money that would have been spent on their salaries, he added. BB

TAJIK FOREIGN MINISTRY EXPRESSES CONCERN
Tajikistan's Foreign Ministry issued a statement on 21 March expressing concern at the onset of the U.S.-led military operation in Iraq, ITAR-TASS reported. The ministry expressed the hope that civilian casualties and the destruction of nonmilitary infrastructure will be kept to a minimum. LF

UZBEK PRESIDENT SAYS HUSSEIN MUST BE DISARMED
Speaking to journalists in Tashkent on 21 March following a celebration to mark the spring holiday of Norouz, Islam Karimov characterized the Iraq crisis as "the consequence of [Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein's reckless policy of conquest," Interfax reported. "In the case of Iraq, we ought to remember the lessons history has taught," he said, adding that Hussein must be disarmed in full to preclude a possible future crisis. Karimov said that Uzbekistan "is not taking sides" over Iraq, but is acting in accordance with its own interests, according to uzreport.com. Although he did not explicitly mention Iraq in his Norouz address, Karimov nonetheless stressed the need for "vigilance" and for swift action to counter international terrorism and any forces prepared to resort to the use of weapons of mass destruction. He also noted the U.S. contribution to removing the threat posed to Uzbekistan's security by the "evil forces on our southern border," meaning the Taliban regime in neighboring Afghanistan. LF

BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT REPLACES FOREIGN MINISTER, VOWS TO BOOST 'WESTERN VECTOR'
President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on 21 March appointed Syarhey Martynau as Belarus's foreign minister, Belapan reported. Prior to the appointment, Martynau served as Belarus's ambassador to Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, and as resident representative to the EU and NATO. Martynau's predecessor, Mikhail Khvastou, was appointed ambassador to the United States and Mexico. The decision is aimed at strengthening the "western vector" of Belarusian foreign policy, Lukashenka said on 21 March. "We cannot build relations with the U.S. on a confrontation basis," he added. Lukashenka noted that the decision to appoint Khvastou, whom he called "one of the best Belarusian diplomats," as ambassador to the United States is evidence of Belarus's readiness to step up cooperation with this country and will be conducive to the expansion of bilateral relations. AM

BELARUSIAN JOURNALIST RELEASED ON PAROLE
A district court in Zhlobin, Homel Oblast, decided on 21 March to release Pavel Mazheyka on parole (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February and 5 March 2003), Belapan reported. The same day, Mazheyka left the "open-type corrective" facility where he had been held and took a train to Hrodna. The court's decision does not annul Mazheyka's sentence. He has to register with the criminal administration inspectorate in Hrodna and may be returned to a corrective facility by court decision for two or more minor civil offenses committed within the five months and eight days remaining until the end of his term. Under law, prisoners may be released on parole after serving half of their term. AM

UKRAINIAN OFFICERS ARRIVE IN KUWAIT TO PREPARE FOR NBC UNIT
A group of 15 Ukrainian officers arrived in Kuwait on 22 March to prepare the deployment of a Ukrainian anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) battalion, ITAR-TASS reported. The officers will identify measures to be taken to ensure the safety of Kuwaitis and to gather information about the sanitary and epidemiological situation in the area, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry told the news agency. The NBC battalion comprising 432 servicemen will be sent to Kuwait this week. The battalion will stay in Kuwait for at least six months in accordance with an agreement between the two countries. It will not participate in combat actions and will only provide humanitarian aid. AM

FORMER UKRAINIAN PREMIER RE-ELECTED AS PARTY LEADER
The third congress of the Industrialists and Entrepreneurs Party of Ukraine on 22 March unanimously re-elected former Ukrainian Premier Anatoliy Kinakh as its leader, Interfax reported. Kinakh was the only candidate for the post. The congress also adopted a resolution that reads that the main goals of the party are its development as a nationwide movement, protection of national economic and political interests, achievement of worthy and equal integration of Ukraine into the global community, creation of favorable terms for industrial and entrepreneurial activity, the protection of the rights of owners and investors, and transparent market competition. AM

ESTONIAN PARTIES AGREE ON GRADUAL INCOME-TAX REDUCTION
In coalition formation talks on 21 March, representatives of Res Publica, the Reform Party, and the People's Union agreed that the income tax should be reduced in stages in 2004-06, BNS reported. The income-tax rate would be lowered from the current 26 percent to 24 percent in 2004; to 22 percent in 2005; and to 20 percent in 2006. The tax-free minimum income would be increased from the current 1,000 kroons ($67.50) to 1,400 kroons in 2004; 1,700 kroons in 2005; and 2,000 kroons in 2006. These proposed tax reductions still have to be approved by the boards of the three parties. Reform Party Deputy Chairman Meelis Atonen also said the so-called maternity allowance would be paid for 360 days instead of the current 140 days, beginning in 2004. SG

LATVIAN PREMIER, EU COMMISSIONER DISCUSS OIL TRANSIT
EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen assured Einars Repse in Brussels on 21 March that the European Commission will discuss with Russia the issue of oil transit through the port of Ventspils, LETA reported. The Russian state-owned oil-pipeline operator Transneft halted all oil shipments to the port in the first quarter of the year and, according to Interfax on 21 March, will decide on 25 March not to send any oil to Ventspils in the second quarter. Verheugen expressed satisfaction with Latvia's preparation for EU membership and said he sees no reason why the accession agreement with EU should not be signed on 14 April. He particularly praised the progress Latvia is making in fighting corruption. The officials also discussed the Iraq war. SG

LITHUANIAN LIBERAL UNION CONGRESS APPROVES MERGER WITH TWO OTHER PARTIES
In Kaunas on 22 March, a congress of the Liberal Union approved by a vote of 363 to zero with 14 abstentions the party's merger with the Center Union and the Modern Christian Democratic Union, "Kauno diena" reported on 24 March. The three parties formed a joint 25-member faction in parliament earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 March 2003) and will hold a merger congress on 21 May. By a vote of 300 to 79 with eight invalid ballots, the congress chose Vilnius Mayor Arturas Zuokas over parliament deputy Rimvydas Vastakas as its candidate to head the new party. Former President Valdas Adamkus told the congress that up to now only leftist parties had succeeded in strengthening their power by uniting and that Lithuania needs a new strong right-of-center political party that he hopes this merger will provide. SG

POLISH PRESIDENT SAYS EARLY PARLIAMENTARY ELECTIONS ARE POSSIBLE...
President Aleksander Kwasniewski said on 22 March that even without the Peasant Party, the government has a chance to last its full term, but that early parliamentary elections are also possible, the "Rzeczpospolita" daily reported. Kwasniewski said that June 2004, the date of the European Parliament elections, would a good time to hold such elections. Parliamentary elections in Poland are scheduled for the spring of 2005. Kwasniewski also added that the "first-past-the-post" electoral system is a good model for future Polish democracy. AM

...AND WANTS MEDIA FREED FROM 'POLITICAL INFLUENCE'
President Kwasniewski announced on 22 March that he will not accept the annual report of the National Radio and Television Broadcasting Council [KRRiT] (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 11 March 2003), the daily "Rzeczpospolita" reported. "It is inevitable" that Robert Kwiatkowski will resign from his post as a chairman of Polish public television, according to Kwasniewski. "It is necessary to free the public media from political influence. Everyone should understand that that this is in their interest," the president added. It is generally believed that beginning in 1997, the KRRiT -- and, consequently, Polish public television and radio -- have been dominated by people associated with the Democratic Left Alliance and the Peasant Party. AM

JOINT CZECH-SLOVAK NBC UNIT IN KUWAIT COMES UNDER MISSILE ATTACK
The joint Czech-Slovak anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) unit stationed in Kuwait has been the target of repeated missile attacks launched by Iraqi forces, unit commander General Dusan Lupuljev was cited as saying by CTK and TASR on 21 March. Lupuljev said a total of six such attacks have been launched on the unit and that all were foiled by the U.S. Patriot antimissile system. There have been no attacks reported after that date. Czech Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik told journalists on 22 March that the mood among the joint unit's members is good and they are continuing their mission and patrolling in Kuwait. President Vaclav Klaus spoke to Lupuljev by telephone on 21 March and told him not to hesitate to call him directly. MS

CZECH PREMIER SAYS POSTWAR IRAQ SHOULD BE ADMINISTERED BY UN
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla told journalists in Brussels on 21 March that the main role in Iraq's postwar reconstruction should be played by the United Nations, CTK reported. Spidla was attending a summit of leaders from EU members and candidates that dealt, among other things, with the Iraq crisis. Iraq "cannot be placed under the rule of any one power or minor coalition," he said. Spidla also said the Czech Republic has not in any way responded to the U.S. call to close down Iraqi diplomatic offices. "The Czech Republic is independent in this matter and will make its own independent decision," CTK quoted him as saying. MS

CZECH ANTIWAR DEMONSTRATORS DEMAND DISMISSAL OF FOREIGN MINISTER
Several hundred antiwar demonstrators on 22 March listened in Prague's Wenceslas Square to speeches by Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSCM) Chairman Miroslav Grebenicek and other communist leaders who demanded that President Klaus dismiss Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda for his support of the U.S.-led coalition in the war in Iraq, CTK reported. Antiwar activists held a smaller protest on the same square on 21 March. MS

CSSD BRANCH CALLS ON GROSS TO RUN FOR CHAIRMAN
The north Bohemian branch of the main ruling Social Democratic Party (CSSD) on 22 March called on Interior Minister Stanislav Gross to run for the post of CSSD chairman at the party's 28-30 March national conference, CTK reported. Gross, who is one of the most popular CSSD leaders, told the daily "Pravo" on 22 March that he is ready to "assume the position if the Social Democrats are of the opinion that this would be the best solution for the party," according to CTK. CSSD Deputy Chairwoman Marie Souckova told TV Nova on 21 March that she does not rule out the possibility of running for the position. Premier Spidla is the only CSSD leader who has officially announced his candidacy for the post. MS

CZECH COMMUNISTS URGE SUPPORTERS TO VOTE AGAINST EU ACCESSION
The KSCM on 22 March recommended to its supporters to vote against the Czech Republic's accession to the EU in the referendum scheduled to take place in June, CTK reported. KSCM Chairman Grebenicek told journalists that the KSCM is not opposed to EU membership in a longer-term perspective, but that the party opposes EU membership now because of the poorly negotiated accession conditions to which the government agreed. He also said the Czech Republic is not sufficiently prepared for EU membership and that the EU itself is undergoing transformations, the outcome of which nobody can predict. Foreign Ministry spokesman Vit Kolar responded that the KSCM wishes to "transform the Czech Republic into an isolated island, similar to Fidel Castro's Cuba." MS

CZECH CITY ON ALERT FOLLOWING REPEATED BOMB THREATS
Olomouc regional Commissioner Jan Brezina on 23 March warned the citizens of the northern Moravian town that there is a genuine danger that an anonymous blackmailer will carry out his threat to detonate explosives in the densely populated area, CTK reported. The agency said on 24 March that police are patrolling streets and that hospitals were placed on alert. The daily "Mlada fronta Dnes," citing "well-informed police sources," reported on 21 March that Czech police fulfilled the blackmailer's demand for 10 million crowns ($334,314) to prevent him from carrying out repeated threats to blow up rail bridges, CTK reported. The sources said the money was dropped on 20 March from a helicopter at 25 different places in central Moravia in plastic bags containing 400,000 crowns each, as demanded by the blackmailer. However, CTK reported later the same day that the money was not picked up. After the threats began, police found and neutralized an explosive device on a railway bridge near Olomouc, northern Moravia. TV Nova said on 19 March that investigators believe former communist-era intelligence (StB) agents could be behind the blackmail. MS

SLOVAK PREMIER CALLS FOR MAINTAINING STRONG RELATIONS WITH EU, U.S.
Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda said in Brussels at the end of an EU summit of leaders of EU members and candidate countries that it is important to maintain a strong Trans-Atlantic bond despite differences of opinion regarding the resolution of the Iraq crisis, CTK and TASR reported. Dzurinda welcomed the fact that the summit agreed that the EU wants to preserve Iraq's territorial integrity and extend humanitarian aid toward its reconstruction, as well as to strengthen the EU's foreign-policy coordination and joint defense capabilities. He emphasized, however, that these aims must be complementary and should not come at the expense of Trans-Atlantic cooperation. Dzurinda said he is not worried about the different views on the Iraq crisis expressed at the summit. "Europe is slowly getting used to the fact that there are more of us now, and that our views differ," he stressed. He also said Slovakia is ready to participate in extending humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people. MS

SLOVAKIA DETAINS ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS NEAR STRATEGIC DAM
Slovak police, who are on alert following the outbreak of hostilities in Iraq, on 22 March detained four illegal immigrants near the strategic Gabcikovo Dam in the vicinity of the Slovak-Hungarian border, CTK and TASR reported. No weapons or explosives were found on the immigrants, who are apparently Iranians and who admitted to having illegally crossed the border from Hungary. They requested political asylum. MS

SLOVAK COURT DISMISSES ROMANY WOMAN'S COMPLAINT AGAINST ALLEGED STERILIZATION
The Kosice Regional Court on 21 March dismissed the complaint launched by a Romany woman from Gelnica, eastern Slovakia, against doctors at the Kosice hospital for having allegedly sterilized her without her consent, CTK reported. The court thus upheld the ruling of a lower court in the Spisska Nova Ves district in 2002. The Kosice court said the woman, Monika Bikarova, failed to prove that her infertility was induced by sterilization induced by an operation at the Kosice hospital in 1986 following the birth of her second child. A Slovak commission is investigating complaints that Romany women underwent sterilization without their consent or without being aware of the content of the papers they were signing. Health Minister Rudolf Zajac recently said the commission has found no proof of the allegations, although in one or two cases "doctors' error" might have led to the sterilization on Romany girls under the age of 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 and 31 January, 14 and 21 February, and 4 and 14 March 2003). MS

HUNGARY REJECTS U.S. REQUEST TO CLOSE IRAQI EMBASSY
Hungary has rejected a Washington request that it shut down the Iraqi Embassy in Budapest, Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs told Hungarian television on 22 March. Kovacs said he sees no reason to expel Iraqi diplomats from Hungary, noting that such a move would terminate diplomatic relations with Iraq. Hungary is not at war with Iraq and is not participating in military operations aimed at implementing UN resolutions relating to Iraq, Kovacs quoted a ministry statement as saying. He said it is in Hungary's interest to forge close relations with a new Iraqi leadership that has no weapons of mass destruction and that will embark on a path to democracy and economic progress. Kovacs also recalled Hungary's expulsion last week of two Iraqi diplomats for allegedly engaging in activities incompatible with their diplomatic status. MSZ

HUNGARIAN SECURITY COMMITTEE MEMBERS SAY NO INCREASED RISK OF TERRORISM
Andras Toth, state secretary responsible for Hungary's secret services, and Laszlo Kover (FIDESZ), the chairman of parliament's National Security Committee, told reporters after a committee meeting on 21 March that the danger of terrorism directed at Hungary has not increased in any way and the military campaign against Iraq has not altered the country's security situation, Budapest dailies reported the next day. Toth would neither confirm nor deny a "Magyar Nemzet" report that the National Security Professional Service, an office which is part of Hungary's Secret Services, is bugging and taping telephone and Internet correspondence in connection with the war on Iraq and Hungary's role in the war. The newspaper reported that listening devices that Hungary has allegedly procured from Israel and France are capable of recording 100 mobile-phone conversations simultaneously. MSZ

OPPOSITION SAYS HUNGARY'S POSITION REFLECTS 'SOVIET LOGIC'...
Former Prime Minister Viktor Orban said on TV2 television on 21 March that no one has said why Hungarians are among the coalition allies in the war on Iraq. The fact that "we are always siding with the U.S." because Hungary is a NATO member reflects "Soviet logic," Orban said. Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs questioned Orban's political credibility if the latter does not understand the danger that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction present to the world, "Nepszabadsag" reported. MSZ

...AS RIGHT-WINGER CALLS FOR BOYCOTT OF U.S., ISRAELI PRODUCTS
Istvan Csurka, chairman of the far-right Hungarian Justice and Life Party (MIEP), called for a boycott of U.S. and Israeli products at a rally in Sopron on 22 March, the MTI news agency reported. MIEP will not buy goods from those two countries "until the number-one masterminds and profiteers of the war end the unjust war and atone for their crimes," Csurka said. He said what is happening in Iraq is not a war but a manhunt. One day earlier, Csurka, whose party opposes Hungary's EU accession, proposed that entry into that bloc be postponed, arguing that "the turmoil of an ongoing war" is not an opportune moment for such a crucial change, the agency reported. Meanwhile, opponents of Hungary's entry to the EU held a conference in Budapest on 23 March titled "EU Expansion 2004 -- the Underhanded Methods of Colonization," Hungarian media reported. Speakers at the conference said it is practically impossible within EU frameworks to safeguard independence, sovereignty, and political freedom. MSZ

SLOVENIAN VOTERS APPROVE JOINING THE EU AND NATO...
With a turnout of just under 60 percent of eligible voters, Slovenes cast their ballots in a binding referendum on 23 March in favor of membership of both the EU and NATO, local and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 February 2003). The vote was about 90 percent in favor of EU membership and roughly 66 percent in support of joining NATO. Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel said the vote marked the end of Slovenia's era of postcommunist transition and demonstrated the political maturity of Slovenian voters. Observers note that the outcome of the EU proposition was never in doubt. Many Slovenes, however, expressed fear that NATO membership is unnecessary in practical terms and will prove too expensive for the country of about 2 million inhabitants. Other Slovenes argued that NATO membership is an integral part of Euro-Atlantic integration and that the recent killing of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic shows that Southeastern Europe remains unstable. Opposition to the war in Iraq, which is widespread in Slovenia, does not appear to have decisively influenced the referendum on joining NATO. PM

...WHICH BRUSSELS WELCOMES
NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson said he welcomes "the vote of confidence Slovenians have given NATO, and also their willingness to accept the obligations of membership," Reuters reported from Ljubljana on 23 March. Elsewhere, the EU Commission said in a statement that "in these times of war, such a commitment to the European project, which is devoted to peace, stability, and prosperity, has a special significance." PM

BOSNIAN ISLAMIC LEADERS SAY IRAQI CONFLICT IS NOT A RELIGIOUS ONE
The leaders of Bosnia's Islamic Community said in a statement in Sarajevo on 20 March that while Muslims are obliged to show compassion for their coreligionists throughout the world, the conflict in Iraq is the result of regrettable developments in international relations and is not a religious war, Fena news agency reported. The leaders warned believers not to succumb to "possible provocations," adding that Muslims bear a special responsibility in the current difficult times. The religious leaders called for an end to the conflict and for the protection of the lives of innocent people, particularly in Baghdad. PM

BOSNIAN POLITICAL LEADERS CALL FOR HEIGHTENED SECURITY
Meeting in Mostar on 22 March, the members of Bosnia's three-member Presidency and the cabinet approved a document calling on all government institutions to take appropriate measures to ensure stability and security in conjunction with the war in Iraq, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Elsewhere, Bosnian officials arrested one Iraqi national in Sarajevo and a second one in Bihac, dpa reported. The two are suspected of posing an unspecified threat to Western diplomatic institutions. And in Sarajevo, some 400 people held an anti-American demonstration, which was led by a young local filmmaker (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 February 2003). Some protesters burned a U.S. flag and called on President George W. Bush to "commit suicide." PM

KOSOVARS DEMONSTRATE IN SUPPORT OF THE WAR
In Prishtina on 21 March, some 400 Kosovars demonstrated in favor of the U.S.-led war effort in Iraq, AP reported. Protest organizer Sadik Halitjaha stressed that "this is not a fight against Islam...but [one] for the freedom of the Iraqi people." Demonstrators carried signs reading "Freedom has no borders" and "Lead the way, U.S.A." Many Kosovars remain deeply grateful to the United States for leading the NATO campaign against Serbian repression in Kosova in 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2003). PM

PRIME MINISTER SAYS KOSOVA 'STANDS WITH THE FORCES OF FREEDOM'
Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi wrote in the "The Washington Post" of 19 March that "in our hour of need [in 1999], the United States, Britain, [and their allies] took on [Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic] and liberated a nation." Rexhepi stressed that "we Kosovars know firsthand that peace is not simply the absence of war." He added that "wherever men are denied freedom, there is a threat to peace.... Whenever we fail to act in the face of evil, a shadow is cast across the future of humanity." Rexhepi noted that for years prior to the NATO intervention in Kosova, the international community talked "while our villages burned." He stressed that "we Kosovars stand with the forces of freedom.... We stand with you, America. We are here to tell you that your sacrifices for the cause of human freedom are remembered." PM

ALBANIAN PRIME MINSTER IS 'PROUD TO STAND WITH THE UNITED STATES'
Fatos Nano said in a statement in Tirana on 20 March that "as a new democracy, Albania is proud to stand with the United States, the United Kingdom, and others in the coalition of the willing to rid Iraq of the weapons of mass destruction and bring about freedom to the long-suffering Iraqi people." Nano added that "we Albanians are a nation of freedom fighters who know something about living under oppression." He stressed that he expects that Albanian commandos will perform well in the Iraqi conflict, adding, "We are proud to have pledged our unconditional support in terms of additional troops, ports, bases, and airfields." The prime minister hailed the United States as the "only country in the world that exports freedom." He noted that "it brought freedom to Japan and Germany after defeating both in World War II. It rebuilt their societies and taught them about liberty. It helped bring down the Berlin Wall, hastening the process of freedom in Central and Eastern Europe. It rarely asked anything in return." Nano concluded that "we are proud to be in the company of the free." PM

CROATIAN COURT SENTENCES GENERAL FOR WAR CRIMES
Judge Ika Saric announced in Rijeka on 24 March that his court has sentenced General Mirko Norac to 12 years in jail for the killing of at least 50 Serbian civilians in the Gospic area in 1991, Reuters reported. A second defendant, Tihomir Oreskovic, received a 15-year sentence, while a third man will spend 10 years in jail. A fourth defendant was acquitted. The sentencing of Norac, whom many Croats regard as a war hero, is the highest-profile war crimes trial in that country to date. The Hague-based tribunal allowed Croatia to try Norac itself rather than extradite him to the tribunal and has monitored the trial closely. PM

SERBIAN POLICE FIND NETWORK OF 'PRIVATE PRISONS'
The Interior Ministry announced on 22 March that its investigations into the activities of the "Zemun clan" have revealed a network of prisons and torture chambers hidden primarily in private weekend homes and cottages in various parts of Serbia, "Vesti" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2003). The criminals are believed to have used the private homes in conjunction with numerous kidnappings and killings in recent years. Observers note, however, that the investigations and the detention of hundreds of people have yet to lead to the arrest of the most important persons wanted in conjunction with Djindjic's killing or to solving of any of the many high-level political abductions or murders, such as the disappearance of former Serbian President Ivan Stambolic shortly before the fall of Milosevic in 2000. PM

MONTENEGRO TO SEEK ROLE IN FOREIGN RELATIONS
Montenegrin Igor Luksic, who is deputy foreign minister of Serbia and Montenegro, said in Podgorica on 22 March that his small republic does not have the "ambition or the money" to demand as many ambassadorial posts as Serbia will have in representing the new state abroad, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Luksic added, however, that Montenegro will insist on being "actively represented" in the world's most important capitals. PM

MACEDONIAN PARLIAMENT APPROVES NEW PASSPORTS
The parliament on 21 March adopted proposed amendments to the law on travel documents, which stipulate that ethnic Albanians can apply for passports that use the Albanian language on the cover, "Dnevnik" reported. During the parliamentary debate, the opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) said it made a similar proposal 10 months ago, but that the now-governing Social Democrats voted against it. The opposition Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH) demanded that the passports of all Macedonian citizens include inscriptions in the Albanian, Macedonian, and English languages on their covers. The Democratic Movement of Turks, for its part, said the amendments discriminate against the smaller ethnic minorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20, 21, 24, 26, and 27 June and 15 July 2002, and 30 January, 27 February, and 14 and 18 March 2003). UB

ROMANIA 'CONSIDERING' U.S. REQUEST TO CLOSE DOWN IRAQI EMBASSY
Foreign Ministry spokesman Cosmin Dobran on 22 March said a U.S. request to close down the Iraqi Embassy in Bucharest is "still under consideration" and no decision has yet been made, Reuters reported. The United States on 20 March made the request worldwide, and on 21 March the State Department thanked Romania and Australia for heeding it. A Foreign Ministry spokesman cited by the private Antena 1 television channel said on 22 March, in what might be an allusion to Bucharest's position, that Romania "is not at war with Iraq" and "backs that country's territorial integrity." For these reasons, the spokesman said, Romania will be involved in Iraq only in "humanitarian and [postwar] reconstruction activities." Mediafax on 24 March cited Interior Ministry official Aurel Neagu as saying that Romania can accommodate 1,000 refugees from Iraq, but hopes there will not be a significant wave of refugees from that country. MS

ROMANIAN RULING PARTY CRITICIZES OPPOSITION NO-CONFIDENCE MOTION
The ruling Social-Democratic Party (PSD) in a 22 March press release criticized the no-confidence motion submitted by the three parliamentary opposition parties after the government's "assumption of responsibility" on a package of laws on combating corruption, RFE/RL's Bucharest bureau reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2003). The PSD said that "two so-called democratic parties, the National Liberal Party (PNL) and the Democratic Party, are following on the path of the extremist Greater Romania Party." It is alarming, the PSD said, that the PNL and the Democrats are adopting the extremism, verbal violence, insult, calumny, and personal attacks that are the characteristic discourse of the PRM. The PNL responded the same day that the PSD is merely attempting to deflect attention from the essence of the problem, which rests in the inadequacy of the proposed legislation. MS

ROMANIAN LIBERAL LEADERSHIP APPROVES MERGER WITH UFD
The PNL Permanent Delegation on 21 March approved the merger of the PNL with the extraparliamentary Union of Rightist Forces (UFD), Mediafax reported. The merger congress is to take place on 19 April. Meanwhile, several UFD local branches continue to oppose the move and to work toward a merger with former President Emil Constantinescu's Popular Action (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 March 2003). MS

TRANSDNIESTER BANS ENTRY OF MOLDOVAN OFFICIALS...
The separatist authorities in the Transdniester on 21 March announced they are banning the entry of 14 Moldovan officials, including President Vladimir Voronin, his son Oleg, Premier Vasile Tarlev, Foreign Minister Nicolae Dudau, and parliamentary speaker Evgenia Ostapciuc, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau and international news agencies reported. The move is an obvious retaliation to the U.S.-EU travel ban imposed on 27 February Transdniester officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28 February 2003). A statement released in Tiraspol said that "using propaganda rhetoric as cover, Moldova constantly appeals to the world community to apply sanctions against Transdniester," which proves that Chisinau is not interested in establishing harmonious relations with the separatist region. The statement said the decision might be revised if Moldova revokes its appeal to foreign countries to impose sanctions on the separatist region. Russian Foreign Ministry official Aleksandr Yakovenko said the decision will not be helpful in "building mutual understanding between Tiraspol and Chisinau." He added that that Russia has expressed the same position on the ban imposed by the U.S. and EU on Tiraspol officials' travel, ITAR-TASS reported. MS

...PROMPTING HARSH REACTIONS IN CHISINAU
Presidential spokesman Valeriu Renita said in Chisinau that the "Tiraspol leaders have forced themselves into a corner from which they will find it difficult to get out," Infotag reported. He said they will "have to explain to the international mediators" a decision that "does not in the least promote progress in the ongoing negotiations." Renita added that it is "strange" that the ban comes right after the recent visit to Chisinau and Tiraspol by Russian First Deputy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Trubnikov, who he said has praised "Tiraspol's constructive position." Premier Tarlev called the move "a provocative game by separatist leader Igor Smirnov and those who influence him." Reintegration Minister Vasilii Sova said the move was aimed at stopping the negotiation process, Flux reported on 22 March. MS

MOLDOVAN POLITICIAN RALLIES IN DEFENSE OF LEBANESE SON-IN-LAW
Democratic Party Chairman Dumitru Diacov, who is a former parliamentary speaker, on 21 March called on the Prosecutor General's Office to initiate proceedings against the daily "Flux," which is owned by Popular Party Christian Democratic Chairman Iurie Rosca, according to a Flux news agency report. Diacov, whose daughter is married to former Lebanese Honorary Consul in Chisinau Mahmud Ahmad Hammud, who was expelled from Moldova last year, says that by publishing an article alleging Hammud was involved in the selling of Strela mobile antiaircraft rockets to Hizballah terrorists in Lebanon, the daily inflicted "serious damage to Moldova's international image" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003). Diacov said the allegation lacks any proof and infringes on the authority of Moldova's police force. MS

MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT PROMULGATES LAW ON TELERADIO MOLDOVA
President Voronin on 20 March signed into law the bill approved by the parliament earlier this month on Teleradio Moldova, Flux reported the next day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 March 2003). Meanwhile, the broadcasts of Romanian Television's Channel 1 were resumed in Moldova on 21 March, after an interruption of more than eight months and prolonged negotiations with the Romanian authorities on ways to finance the broadcasts. Finally, Premier Tarlev was quoted by Flux as saying on Moldovan Television on 22 March that the Chisinau local radio station Antena C has a "reactionary position" aimed at "destroying the Moldovan state," and that the country's leadership "cannot remain indifferent" to that position. Tarlev said radio and television stations that have violated the constitution or current legislation must be disciplined. MS

BULGARIAN TOP BRASS CRITICIZES DECISION TO SET UP INFORMATION CENTER ON IRAQ CRISIS
Army Chief of General Staff General Nikola Kolev on 21 March criticized the government's decision to set up a special coordination body that is to collect and assess all available information about the developments in Iraq and their impact on Bulgaria's national security, mediapool.bg reported. "I was astonished to see over the past two days how many experts for national security and armed forces there are, and I hope that they do not hide when there is a threat for Bulgaria," Kolev said. "Now that there is no danger, as we said, all of a sudden some crisis centers appear -- which I do not know what they are doing, given that there are state structures that do [the same thing] and which get paid for it." Foreign Ministry spokesman Lyubomir Ivanov, who is a member of the new body, defended its existence by citing the political necessity to coordinate public statements made by state institutions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 March 2003). Kolev also said the Bulgarian military cannot deploy troops other than the promised anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) unit, citing the lack of interoperability between the Soviet-equipped Bulgarian military and the coalition forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 March 2003). UB

BULGARIAN GOVERNMENT CONSIDERS U.S. REQUEST TO EXPEL IRAQI DIPLOMATS
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lyubomir Ivanov said on 22 March the government is still considering the U.S. request to expel Iraqi diplomats, BTA reported. According to Ivanov, the Foreign Ministry has asked the U.S. administration for more information and will assess the legal aspects of such a move (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 7 March 2003). UB

BULGARIA'S MUSLIM LEADER SAYS WAR ON IRAQ HAS NO RELIGIOUS BASIS
Chief Mufti Selim Mehmed, who heads the Sunni Muslim community in Bulgaria, said on 21 March that the war on Iraq is based on political and not religious factors, bnn reported. "The war in Iraq is not a war between Islam and Christianity, it is not a clash of civilizations but a military solution to the conflict between the regime of Saddam Hussein and the democratic coalition in which Bulgaria takes part," Mehmed said, adding that he hopes the hostilities end soon. He pledged that the Bulgarian Muslim community will take measures to prevent its mosques from being used as a refuge for terrorists. UB

BULGARIAN TELECOM PRIVATIZATION DEAL SIGNED
The state Privatization Agency on 21 March signed an agreement with the Vienna-based Viva Ventures, a daughter company of the U.S.-based Advent International investment fund, on the privatization of the state Bulgarian Telecommunications Company (BTK), mediapool.bg reported. Viva Ventures will pay some $230 million for 65 percent of the company's shares. It also undertook to invest some $420 million over the next five years. The new owners are planning reduce the total number of 25,000 employees by 6,500 over the next four years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 January and 5 March 2003). UB

THE PITFALLS OF BELARUS'S ECONOMIC INTEGRATION WITH RUSSIA
Recent developments in Belarusian-Russian integration have made it clear that both sides must still demonstrate that some meaningful progress has been achieved on the road to forming a currency union and privatizing Belarusian industries by Russian business groups. Ironically, whenever any progress has been announced by one side, the other side has cooled any initial optimism by announcing that no breakthrough has, in fact, taken place.

Thus, Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin declared in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio in February that the two countries had reached agreement on the creation of a single central bank for the currency union, the operation of which would be transferred in full to the Russian Central Bank. Such progress, however, was immediately renounced by Pyotr Prakapovich, head of the National Bank of Belarus. Prakapovich claimed the issue had only been "discussed" at a meeting of the interbank council of Russia and Belarus in Yaroslavl and that Kudrin's announcement expressed "his personal opinion."

Anatol Drazdou, a press secretary for the National Bank of Belarus, used even stronger words: "We will never accept [Russian President Vladimir] Putin's offer. The National Bank and the government are strongly against it. We will wait [to find out] what politicians will say." "Politicians" in Belarus means President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and Lukashenka only. But the Belarusian president has never retreated from his initial position, which is that the currency union should be managed on equal terms by two sovereign states.

Likewise, the Belarusian side has claimed progress has been made in the privatization of its petrochemical sector. Belarus's Economy Ministry declared that arrangements have been made to sell the sector's leading companies, including the refinery and Palimir conglomerate in Navapolatsk, as well as the Hrodna-based Azot and Khimvalakno chemical plants. Lukashenka signed the relevant decree allowing the privatization of the industry on 13 February. The only companies to express an interest in submitting bids were the Russian oil giants Surgutneftegaz, Sidanko, Sibneft, and LUKoil.

It was later revealed, however, that the offer for privatization will not allow investors to obtain full control immediately. Instead, investors will be allowed to purchase a 10 percent stake each year for four or five years, after which they would be allowed to purchase a majority stake only if they have fulfilled their investment obligations. Russian media reports have claimed that potential investors are steadfastly opposed to this condition.

Moreover, it has been reported that intense negotiations concerning additional conditions of the contracts are still under way. Such conditions include prices -- for example, the cost of Palimir alone is estimated at $1 billion, which is deemed too high by potential investors -- and so-called social guarantees on the part of investors. Minsk wants to prevent investors from laying off the workforce of petrochemical plants being privatized during the entire period of the transaction. Potential buyers have been pressing for the removal of these conditions, which Minsk might find too costly to dump.

It is also worthwhile to mention in this context the controversy surrounding the privatization of Belarusian industrial giants. As has been the case with almost every aspect of the integration, progress in this area depends heavily on whether the Russian authorities or oligarchs are able to strike a political deal with Lukashenka and assist him in his efforts to strengthen his hold on power and to extend his term in office. While seeking support from powerful business groups, however, Lukashenka has to confront the reality that profit seeking is the primary motivation of every investor. Turning outdated and obsolete Belarusian industrial giants into profit-making companies would require not only substantial investment but also radical restructuring, which could lead to massive layoffs and the end of the extensive social infrastructure -- such as preschools, schools, and recreational facilities -- financed by these enterprises.

Since the majority of such giant companies are "city forming" -- that is, they provide employment and income for a majority of the population in the city where they are located -- this could cause enormous social dislocation throughout the country and generate public unrest, which Lukashenka has so far managed to sidestep by maintaining full employment and subsidizing loss-making enterprises. In his effort to avoid this worst-case scenario, Lukashenka has tried to take Russian companies hostage, indicating that their interests will be respected only in return for their loyalty, as well as for their political and financial support. His offer of a gradual sell-off of minority share packages and a five-year period of proposed privatization in the petrochemical sector means that only those oligarchs who support his re-election and the extension of his term in office will have any chance of eventually getting what they want.

This plan, however, has three pitfalls. The first is the lack of desire on the part of Russian business groups de facto to pay generous subsidies to the Belarusian industry for five years before they have the chance to become its owners.

The second is a credibility problem. Lukashenka has a demonstrably poor record of respecting contractual obligations. Two years ago, the leading Russian brewery Baltika was invited to buy the Krynitsa brewery in Minsk for $50 million according to the same scheme -- gradual concession of control in return for investment. In the middle of the process, when Baltika had already invested about $10 million in new equipment in Krynitsa, the Belarusian government revoked the agreement and announced that the deal would be possible only if Baltika agreed to fulfill an additional set of conditions, including the development of barley and hops production in Belarus and financing the construction of a new hockey arena in Minsk. At that point, Baltika withdrew from Belarus, losing its investment.

Given Lukashenka's record of dealing with investors, much larger investment in Belarus will only be possible if political guarantees for investment security are given to the Russian oligarchs by their own government. But here comes the third pitfall. To grant such guarantees, the Kremlin must make a decision about its commitment to support Lukashenka's remaining in office at least until the end of this decade. If such a commitment is not made, Lukashenka will be able to receive a substantial Russian investment only if he withdraws his tough conditions for privatization and thereby paves the way for the economic and social processes that may seriously weaken his grip on power. His only alternative would be either to acquiesce to the Russian version of the union between the two countries that was proposed by Putin last year --incorporation of Belarus by Russia -- or to agree to the Kremlin's proposal of a monetary union in which the Russian Central Bank will be the only body that will determine monetary policies.

Either of these options means a substantial weakening, or even the end of Lukashenka's grip on power. Lukashenka will have a difficult time indeed deciding which of these two evils is the lesser.

Vital Silitski is an associate professor at the Department of Economics of European Humanities University in Minsk.

IRAQI PRESIDENT SPEAKS TO NATION
Iraq Satellite Television and international media carried footage of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein addressing the Iraqi people and military personnel on 24 March. It was unclear whether the speech was live or prerecorded. Although Hussein speaks about the current war and appears to make references in his speech to key battle areas, there are no explicit references that verify his appearance was current. Hussein said the United States and Britain "have daily tried to undermine [Iraqi] responsiveness with new pretexts since the cease-fire in 1991 and up to the war that has started now once again, on a broad scale, not to mention the embargo." He also referred to a ground invasion, saying the "battles" were unlike those conducted in 1991, when coalition forces placed more reliance on air attacks. "Wherever they conducted an incursion into our territories, leaving the desert behind them, they are embroiled. They will find Iraqis surrounding them, directing their gunfire at them." Heavy on religious rhetoric, Hussein repeatedly said the Iraqi people will "achieve a clear and final victory" based on their reliance on God. KR

IRAQI MILITARY ISSUES NEW COMMUNIQUE
The Iraqi Armed Forces General Command issues its fourth communique since the launch of hostilities in Iraq on 20 March, claiming that Saddam Fedayeen paramilitary forces have shot down six coalition fighter planes and two helicopter gunships, according to an Iraq Satellite Television broadcast of 23 March. Iraqi military spokesman Staff Major General Hazim al-Rawi read the communique. According to the statement, five planes were downed in the Al-Shu'lah, Al-Radwaniyah, Aqarquf, and Al-Taji areas of Baghdad; one fighter plane was hit in the Basra Governorate; and two helicopter gunships were downed -- one in the Al-Ba'aj area of the Ninawah Governorate and another in the Al-Samawah area of the Muthanna Governorate. The communique also claimed that the Saddam Fedayeen "surprised the enemy behind its lines" and destroyed four enemy tanks. The communique alleged that Iraqi forces killed 25 coalition soldiers on the outskirts of the city of Al-Nasiriyah and destroyed 13 coalition tanks and armored personnel carriers (APCs), as well as five tank carriers and six vehicles. KR

IRAQI VICE PRESIDENT CRITICIZES UN SECRETARY-GENERAL
Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan criticized UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan during a Baghdad press conference on 23 March, Al-Jazeera reported. Ramadan accused Annan of doing the bidding of the United States and Britain by withdrawing UN Iraq-Kuwait Observation Mission (UNIKOM) observers from the Iraq-Kuwait border on 17-18 March, as well as UN Monitoring, Verification, and Inspection Commission (UNMOVIC) inspectors from Iraq on 18 March. "With his behavior, the UN secretary-general has not acted within the spirit and atmosphere prevailing over the UN Security Council or what most of the UN Security Council believes. He acts as if he is an employee of the U.S. State Department," Ramadan said. The Iraqi vice president also criticized Annan for a proposal the latter presented, and which the UN Security Council began considering on 22 March, that includes the appointment of Annan as administrator of the UN oil-for-food program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2003). Regarding the move, Ramadan said Annan, "started to act in a way that contradicts all laws, norms, and charters of the organization of which he is secretary-general." KR

IRAQ CLAIMS IT DOWNED U.S. HELICOPTERS
Iraq Television carried footage of a downed U.S. Apache helicopter on 24 March. Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf claimed at a 24 March news conference that "a small number of peasants downed two Apache helicopters" near the city of Kerbala, which is approximately 110 kilometers southwest of Baghdad, Al-Jazeera reported. Just one helicopter has been shown in footage from the scene. The pilots were not present in those pictures, but al-Sahhaf said, "Perhaps if we find the circumstances useful, we will show pictures of the pilots of this Apache." An unnamed U.S. Defense Department official has confirmed that one U.S. Apache Longbow helicopter was down and its crew deemed missing, Reuters and other news agencies reported on 24 March. KR

IRAQI INFORMATION MINISTER SAYS IRAQ WILL ABIDE BY GENEVA CONVENTIONS
Iraqi Information Minister Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf told a press conference on 24 March that Iraq will abide by the Geneva Convention regarding prisoners of war, Al-Jazeera reported. Al-Sahhaf said the decision was made to do so despite images of Iraqi prisoners of war (POWs) shown in the Western press in recent days. "We completely abide by the Geneva Convention. It is they [coalition forces] who should abide by it," al-Sahhaf said, adding, "They showed footage of Iraqi civilians and lied to us by saying that they are members of the Iraqi Army and that they are Iraqi soldiers.... As a matter of fact, they treated Iraqi civilians very badly. They aimed their weapons at the Iraqi civilians' heads and threatened to open fire on them." Al-Sahhaf claimed the images of coalition captives broadcast on Iraqi television were an interview by local reporters. "What the television showed was not an investigation. There were local reporters in Dhi Qar, including the Iraqi TV correspondent. Iraqi TV's general channel, as shown by the logo, was there and they asked the POWs what cities they came from and so forth," al-Sahhaf said. He accused U.S. officials of "shedding crocodile tears" over the broadcast. KR

RED CROSS WARNS IRAQ AND COALITION FORCES TO RESPECT GENEVA CONVENTION...
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned on 24 March that the Iraqi government and coalition forces are not allowed to broadcast images of prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions, Reuters reported. "The Geneva Convention completely prohibits publishing pictures of prisoners of war, as has been happening," ICRC spokeswoman Tamara al-Rifai said. "It applies to all parties.... All the parties involved in this war were signatories." ICRC spokeswoman Nada Doumani criticized Al-Jazeera on 23 March for violating Article 13 of the Geneva Convention regarding the protection of prisoners of war, AFP reported the same day. Article 13 states that "prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation, and against insults and public curiosity," Doumani said. "The responsibility for the Geneva Convention is a state's responsibility, it's not a journalist's responsibility. Concerning the journalists, it's a question of ethics," Doumani added. KR

...AND REQUESTS RESTORATION OF WATER SUPPLIES IN AL-BASRAH
The ICRC on 24 March requested the restoration of water supplies to the city of Al-Basrah following their destruction by coalition air strikes, AFP reported the same day. "The situation remains critical, as the provisional water distribution networks only partially and temporarily cover the needs of 1.2 million residents of Al-Basrah," spokeswoman Doumani reportedly told AFP. The ICRC was seeking access to Al-Basrah's main water station, Wafa' Al-Qaid, which is located north of the city, AFP reported. KR

U.S. FORCES MAY HAVE CAPTURED CHEMICAL-WEAPONS FACILITY
"The Jerusalem Post" on 24 March reported that the U.S. Army 3rd Infantry Division on 23 March captured an installation near Najaf, 150 kilometers south of Baghdad, that "apparently used to produce chemical weapons." The deputy commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), Lieutenant General Johan Abizaid, declined to confirm the report, but was quoted by the newspaper as saying the United States has "one or two general officers who are providing" information in custody. The Israeli daily said unidentified U.S. officials "have since confirmed that the site is indeed a suspected chemical-weapons factory." There are no reports of U.S.-led forces in Iraq having captured sites related to Iraq's alleged weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) programs, but the majority of Iraqi WMD programs in the past were concentrated around Baghdad. AT

TURKISH SOURCES OFFER MIXED REPORTS ON POSSIBLE INCURSION INTO IRAQ...
Amid conflicting reports about whether his country had dispatched troops across the border into northern Iraq, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on 23 March that Ankara's plans to send additional troops into the area would provide stability, Reuters reported. In a televised address one day after widespread reports that as many as 1,500 Turkish soldiers had already crossed the border (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2003), Erdogan said, "The presence of Turkish soldiers in the region will be an element of security and stability for Turkey and the region." Turkish officials on 22 March denied reports of the incursion into northern Iraq, where Kurdish distrust of Ankara runs high and Kurdish groups were reportedly preparing to take up arms as the U.S.-led Operation Iraqi Freedom continues (see item above). But AP quoted Turkish government spokesman Cemil Cicek as saying after a cabinet meeting on 24 March that "Turkey is in Iraq, and will be in Iraq [because of] humanitarian aims and terrorist concerns," according the a report in "The New York Times." AH

...AS U.S. ENVOY IS SPED TO ANKARA...
A special U.S. envoy was headed to Turkey on 24 March to discuss Ankara's possible troop movements into northern Iraq, AP reported. Zalmay Khalilzad, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador Robert Pearson and U.S. military officials, met with Ali Tuygan, a deputy undersecretary in Turkey's Foreign Ministry, the agency reported the same day. "We're making it very clear that we expect them [Turkey] not to come into northern Iraq," President George W. Bush said on 23 March, according to AP. "They know our policy." Turkey's ambassador to Washington, Faruk Lologlu, said on 23 March that he believes an agreement will come "in a few days," as local Turkish media speculated that the U.S. is seeking limits on the timing and size of any such incursion, AP added. AH

...AND EUROPE DISCOURAGES TURKISH BELLIGERENCY
The Greek EU Presidency on 23 March joined a growing chorus of voices urging Turkey to respect Iraq's northern border, Reuters reported. The Greek Presidency said Ankara should stay out of northern Iraq to "prevent the crisis in the region from deepening," the agency said. Germany on 22 March threatened to withdraw its crews from NATO surveillance aircraft patrolling Turkish skies if Ankara becomes a belligerent in northern Iraq, Reuters reported, highlighting the rift that the conflict in Iraq has created within the Atlantic alliance. "If Turkey itself becomes a participant in the war, that would be a new situation that would lead to the withdrawal of German soldiers from the AWACS aircraft over Turkey," German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, who has been a staunch opponent of military intervention in Iraq, said. "We will not participate in a war." German Defense Minister Peter Struck added, "If Turkey becomes an active war participant then our [NATO] alliance requirements will be no longer valid." AH

KURDS SAY THEY ARE PREPARING TO ATTACK ANSAR AL-ISLAM
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Islamic Movement of Iraqi Kurdistan (IMIK) forces are preparing to attack Ansar al-Islam positions in northern Iraq, IMIK spokesman Haj Balal Suleiman told IRNA on 24 March. The specific targets are reportedly in Sirwan, Seyyed Sadeq, and Halabja, which have served as buffer zones between the PUK, the IMIK, and Ansar al-Islam. Coalition forces hit Ansar al-Islam positions with missiles on 21-22 March, AP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2003), and the PUK said on 22 March that it fired rockets at Ansar al-Islam positions. Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi on 24 March said a television report that Iran has assisted the Ansar al-Islam organization is a "baseless and sheer lie," IRNA reported. Assefi said Tehran sees Ansar al-Islam as an extremist group and has no links with it. BS

IRANIAN, U.K. SOURCES HINT THAT IRAQIS ARE BEHIND MISSILE THAT LANDED IN IRAN
Iranian Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari on 23 March said a missile that landed in Iranian territory was "probably Iraqi-built," the official Iranian news agency IRNA reported. "Expert studies indicate that the missile that landed in Sardasht region was probably Iraqi-built," IRNA quoted the interior minister as saying. The Iranian Foreign Ministry subsequently summoned the Iraqi charge d'affaires in connection with the incident. Iranian officials had claimed that U.S. missiles landed on Iranian territory on 21 and 22 March, and on 21 March the Iranian Foreign Ministry summoned diplomats representing the United States and the United Kingdom to hear a formal complaint. U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Phillip Reeker said later on 22 March, "We responded last night through the Swiss channel, saying that we take this seriously and will look into it," Reuters reported. "Today, we are sending a second message through the Swiss confirming that we are looking into it," Reeker said. "We take seriously Iranian sovereignty and territorial integrity." Iranian officials privately conceded at the time that the missiles could be Iraqi ones fired at U.S. aircraft, Reuters reported. "Given the disposition of forces, it's most likely that this incident was the result of Iraqi action; that's currently the situation," a British Defense Ministry spokeswoman told AFP on 23 March. BS

OFFICIAL NEWS AGENCY ERRONEOUSLY REPORTS HITS ON IRANIAN VILLAGES
IRNA reported that a missile caused an explosion near Khorramshahr at 3:55 p.m. local time on 22 March. Bahram Nasrollahi, the first deputy of Kurdistan Province's Iraqi Crisis Headquarters, said on 22 March that reports of the village of Alut near Baneh city being hit by three missiles are inaccurate, and Baneh city Governor Ali Falegari said the report relates to the missile in Sardasht (see item above), IRNA reported on 23 March. An Interior Ministry official said in the evening of 22 March that the report of a missile near Khorramshahr is inaccurate and explained that, because Abadan, Khorramshahr, and Sardasht are near Iraq, explosions there can be felt in the Iranian cities, ISNA reported. BS

ALL QUIET ON THE SOUTHWESTERN FRONT
Khuzestan Province Governor-General Fatollah Moin said during a 23 March visit to his southwestern province's border with Iraq that "the security situation on Iran's border with Iraq in this province is good," IRNA reported. He added that locals are concerned about the war in Iraq but are going about their normal business, and, furthermore, many people are visiting the province for the Norouz (Iranian new year) holiday. In Tehran, meanwhile, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attended a 22 March meeting of the Supreme National Security Council that was headed by President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami, according to IRNA. Khatami and SNSC Secretary Hassan Rohani discussed government policies on and preparations regarding the Iraq crisis. Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari described his ministry's activities, and "senior military commanders" reported on the status of the armed forces. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi and Minister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi reported on regional political and security developments. Khamenei thanked everyone for taking steps to guarantee national security. BS

TEHRAN ANNOUNCES ANTIWAR DEMONSTRATION
Iran's Council for Coordination of Islamic Propagation announced on 24 March that the 28 March Friday prayers will be followed with an antiwar demonstration that is meant to "condemn America and Britain's aggression and to express support for the Muslim nation of Iraq," Iranian state radio reported. A telephone poll of Tehran residents conducted by ISNA on 23 March found that 86 percent of respondents condemned the allied attack on Iraq, 97 percent of respondents condemned attacks on Shia holy sites in Iraq, and 78 percent of respondents condemned Iraqi President Hussein. Moreover, 84 percent of respondents said they believe Iran should continue its current policy of neutrality and noncooperation with the United States. ISNA did not report how many people participated in the poll. BS

WARNING OF AN ANTI-U.S. SHIA UPRISING
"Closely informed Lebanese and Iraqi Shia sources" said in the 23 March issue of Manama's "Akhbar al-Khalij" that Iraqi Shia refuse to take power by relying on the United States, which is why they have not staged an antigovernment uprising in southern Iraq. Iraqi Shia who are inclined toward Lebanese Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah are preparing for armed resistance against a U.S. occupation, according to the Bahraini publication. Other anonymous sources close to the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood, according to "Akhbar al-Khalij," say that Sunni Islamists are prepared to join with the Shia in their resistance. BS

WASHINGTON ACCUSES RUSSIA OF ILLEGAL MILITARY SALES TO IRAQ...
Russia's ambassador to the United States, Yurii Ushakov, was summoned on 24 March to the U.S. State Department to receive an official protest alleging that Russia allowed illegal transfers of military equipment to Iraq in violation of UN-imposed economic sanctions, Russian and Western media reported. According to the reports, the equipment in question includes night-vision goggles, antitank rockets, and electronic jamming equipment. The U.S. protest specifically accused the Russian company Aviakonversiya of involvement. Aviakonversiya General Director Oleg Antonov admitted that Iraq had requested such equipment from his company, but denied that it had been supplied, Ekho Moskvy reported on 24 March. He also told the radio station that his company has always strictly complied with the sanctions against Iraq, but he added that it is possible Iraq produced such equipment independently or with the help of individuals or firms in the former Yugoslavia. VY

...AS RUSSIA PROTESTS ALLEGED U.S. RECONNAISSANCE OVERFLIGHTS
The Russian Foreign Ministry on 22 March handed U.S. Ambassador to Russia Alexander Vershbow an official note of protest over alleged reconnaissance flights by U.S. U-2 aircraft near the borders of the Russian Federation, newsru.com reported on 24 March. The ministry alleges that the flights are originating in Georgia and, according to the Russian note, "can hardly serve the interests of the fight against international terrorism." They "are reminiscent of the Cold War," the note charges. VY

RUSSIAN INTELLIGENCE CAREFULLY MONITORING IRAQ SITUATION
The local stations of Russian military intelligence (GRU) and the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) in Iraq have been on special alert status since the onset of the U.S.-led military operation against the Hussein regime, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 21 March. They have been issuing bulletins to Russia's political leadership on a constant, rolling basis, according to the report. Russia's intelligence agencies have also activated their resources globally in order to monitor the military operation, the international situation, and U.S. and British plans for post-Hussein Iraq. TVS on 20 Marsh quoted Igor Morozov, a former Soviet foreign-intelligence officer in Baghdad during the 1980s, as saying that Russia has very powerful intelligence assets in Iraq, including within its military commands, its political leadership, and its security services. VY

RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTER CONCERNED BY U.S. EFFORTS TO SEIZE IRAQI ASSETS
Igor Ivanov said on 21 March that the U.S. decision to confiscate the assets of Iraqi President Hussein's regime is extremely worrying, Russian media reported. Ivanov was speaking in Moscow to a session of the Council for Defense and Foreign Policy. "It could mean that after this is done, it will be announced that all previous treaties and contracts with Iraq are invalid, and we will lose our economic interests in the country," Ivanov said. He also expressed related concerns over Washington's efforts to persuade foreign countries to expel Iraqi diplomats. Ivanov also called for restoring the United Nations' leading role in international affairs and repeated Moscow's call for expanding the UN Security Council to include India and one new permanent member each from Latin America, Africa, and Asia. VY

RUSSIAN ANTIWAR PROTESTS SPREAD
More than 2,000 people led by the pro-Kremlin youth movement Walking Together held a rally on 22 March in front of the Moscow residence of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Vershbow against U.S.-led military action against the regime of Iraqi President Hussein, Interfax reported. The activists brought cans of oil so that "Americans won't be freezing in their homes" and "cars won't be abandoned on the streets of New York because of empty gas tanks," movement leader Vasilii Yakemenko explained, according to the news agency. Other antiwar rallies were held in front of the U.S. Embassy on 20 and 21 March. On 20 March, a small protest was held outside the U.S. Consulate in Yekaterinburg. On 21 March, an unspecified number of members of Unified Russia's youth movement held a protest outside the U.S. Consulate in St. Petersburg, regions.ru reported. In Nizhnii Novgorod on 23 March, around 50 people -- most of them members of an antiglobalist youth group and a Communist youth movement -- protested in front of a McDonald's restaurant in one of the city's main squares, "Kommersant-Daily" reported. JAC

JORDAN, PHILIPPINES EXPEL IRAQI DIPLOMATS, BUT NOT LEBANON
Jordan has expelled five Iraqi diplomats working at the Iraqi Embassy in Amman, Jordan News Agency reported on 23 March. The expulsion was "for security reasons," and Jordan accused the Iraqis of "performing actions that contradict the nature of their work as diplomats," the agency reported. Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri called the expulsion an "unfortunate measure," Al-Jazeera reported on 24 March. The Philippines expelled two Iraqi diplomats, according to President Gloria Arroyo, amid allegations of espionage, "The Philippine Star" reported on 24 March. Meanwhile, Lebanese Foreign and Expatriate Affairs Minister Mahmud Hammud rejected a U.S. request to expel Iraqi diplomats, "Al-Safir" reported on 23 March. "Lebanon is a sovereign country that decides for itself and by itself its international relations based on international laws and conventions, including the 1961 Vienna treaty on diplomatic relations," Hammud said. KR

HUNGARY REJECTS U.S. REQUEST TO CLOSE IRAQI EMBASSY
Hungary has rejected a Washington request that it shut down the Iraqi Embassy in Budapest, Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs told Hungarian television on 22 March. Kovacs said he sees no reason to expel Iraqi diplomats from Hungary, noting that such a move would terminate diplomatic relations with Iraq. Hungary is not at war with Iraq and is not participating in military operations aimed at implementing UN resolutions relating to Iraq, Kovacs quoted a ministry statement as saying. He said it is in Hungary's interest to forge close relations with a new Iraqi leadership that has no weapons of mass destruction and that will embark on a path to democracy and economic progress. Kovacs also recalled Hungary's expulsion last week of two Iraqi diplomats for allegedly engaging in activities incompatible with their diplomatic status. MSZ

ROMANIA 'CONSIDERING' U.S. REQUEST TO CLOSE DOWN IRAQI EMBASSY
Foreign Ministry spokesman Cosmin Dobran on 22 March said a U.S. request to close down the Iraqi Embassy in Bucharest is "still under consideration" and no decision has yet been made, Reuters reported. The United States on 20 March made the request worldwide, and on 21 March the State Department thanked Romania and Australia for heeding it. A Foreign Ministry spokesman cited by the private Antena 1 television channel said on 22 March, in what might be an allusion to Bucharest's position, that Romania "is not at war with Iraq" and "backs that country's territorial integrity." For these reasons, the spokesman said, Romania will be involved in Iraq only in "humanitarian and [postwar] reconstruction activities." Mediafax on 24 March cited Interior Ministry official Aurel Neagu as saying that Romania can accommodate 1,000 refugees from Iraq, but hopes there will not be a significant wave of refugees from that country. MS

BULGARIAN GOVERNMENT CONSIDERS U.S. REQUEST TO EXPEL IRAQI DIPLOMATS
Foreign Ministry spokesman Lyubomir Ivanov said on 22 March the government is still considering the U.S. request to expel Iraqi diplomats, BTA reported. According to Ivanov, the Foreign Ministry has asked the U.S. administration for more information and will assess the legal aspects of such a move (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 7 March 2003). UB

BULGARIA'S MUSLIM LEADER SAYS WAR ON IRAQ HAS NO RELIGIOUS BASIS
Chief Mufti Selim Mehmed, who heads the Sunni Muslim community in Bulgaria, said on 21 March that the war on Iraq is based on political and not religious factors, bnn reported. "The war in Iraq is not a war between Islam and Christianity, it is not a clash of civilizations but a military solution to the conflict between the regime of Saddam Hussein and the democratic coalition in which Bulgaria takes part," Mehmed said, adding that he hopes the hostilities end soon. He pledged that the Bulgarian Muslim community will take measures to prevent its mosques from being used as a refuge for terrorists. UB

CZECH PREMIER SAYS POSTWAR IRAQ SHOULD BE ADMINISTERED BY UN
Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla told journalists in Brussels on 21 March that the main role in Iraq's postwar reconstruction should be played by the United Nations, CTK reported. Spidla was attending a summit of leaders from EU members and candidates that dealt, among other things, with the Iraq crisis. Iraq "cannot be placed under the rule of any one power or minor coalition," he said. Spidla also said the Czech Republic has not in any way responded to the U.S. call to close down Iraqi diplomatic offices. "The Czech Republic is independent in this matter and will make its own independent decision," CTK quoted him as saying. MS

AFGHAN PRESIDENT POSTPONES TRIP TO PAKISTAN DUE TO IRAQ WAR
Afghan Transitional Administration head Hamid Karzai canceled a planned trip to Islamabad at the last minute on 22 March, the BBC reported. Karzai was scheduled to be the guest of honor at a Pakistan National Day parade on 23 March. Karzai's spokesman, Sayyed Fazl Akbar, said the trip was called off because of intensification of the war in Iraq. Akbar told Hindukosh news agency on 23 March that Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf reached mutual agreement that the timing was not right for the visit. Akbar said Karzai's personal security might have been a factor in the cancellation of his trip. Afghanistan's government has endorsed the U.S.-led war on Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003), although many Afghans remain opposed to it, according to the BBC. AT

AFGHAN PAPER SAYS CONTRADICTORY MESSAGES ON IRAQ NOT BENEFICIAL TO AFGHANISTAN
Criticizing the Afghan Transitional Administration for not having a common strategy, the Kabul weekly "Edara" wrote on 23 March that while the Afghan Foreign Ministry has supported the use of military force to disarm Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003), Supreme Court Chief Justice Fazl Hadi Shinwari has "criticized the U.S. invasion of Iraq," calling it a "brutal aggression against an Islamic country." Some Afghans sense that "high-ranking authorities" of the transitional government "have no common strategy in external" affairs, "Edara" commented, adding that if "these contradictions and differences" continue, Afghanistan will not be able to move toward prosperity. AT

FIRST ANTIWAR DEMONSTRATIONS REPORTED IN AFGHANISTAN
Around 1,000 people staged an "anti-American and pro-Iraqi demonstration" in the Laghman Province of eastern Afghanistan, the Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Demonstrators chanted slogans criticizing the United States, the United Kingdom, and Spain, but were prevented by local authorities from burning U.S. and British flags, AIP reported. The Laghman rally was the first recorded demonstration in Afghanistan against the war in Iraq. AT

THREE AFGHAN PROVINCES PLACED ON HIGH ALERT DUE TO IRAQ WAR
Ismail Jaji, spokesman for the 3rd Battalion in Paktiya Province, said on 23 March that the Paktika, Paktiya, and Khost provinces in southeastern Afghanistan have been placed on high security alert to prevent incidents that might occur because of the war in Iraq, Iran radio's Mashhad-based Dari service reported. Southeastern Afghanistan was one of the strongholds of Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and has continued to be a volatile region. AT

TALIBAN CALL THE WAR IN IRAQ A 'CRUSADE' AND EXPRESS SOLIDARITY WITH IRAQ
In the first statement to come from the Taliban since war began on 20 March, Taliban spokesman Mujahid Mulla Mohammad Mukhtar said in an e-mail message on 24 March that the U.S.-led war on Iraq is a "continuation of the recent Crusades that began with the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan in October 2001," the Pakistani daily "The Nation" reported. Mukhtar urged Islamic countries to set their differences aside and wage a jihad against the "the Crusaders, including the U.S. and Britain." Most senior Taliban leaders who escaped the U.S.-led military campaign to destroy the Al-Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan are believed to be hiding in Afghanistan or neighboring Pakistan. AT

UKRAINIAN OFFICERS ARRIVE IN KUWAIT TO PREPARE FOR NBC UNIT
A group of 15 Ukrainian officers arrived in Kuwait on 22 March to prepare the deployment of a Ukrainian anti-nuclear, -biological, and -chemical (NBC) battalion, ITAR-TASS reported. The officers will identify measures to be taken to ensure the safety of Kuwaitis and to gather information about the sanitary and epidemiological situation in the area, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry told the news agency. The NBC battalion comprising 432 servicemen will be sent to Kuwait this week. The battalion will stay in Kuwait for at least six months in accordance with an agreement between the two countries. It will not participate in combat actions and will only provide humanitarian aid. AM

BOSNIAN ISLAMIC LEADERS SAY IRAQI CONFLICT IS NOT A RELIGIOUS ONE
The leaders of Bosnia's Islamic Community said in a statement in Sarajevo on 20 March that while Muslims are obliged to show compassion for their coreligionists throughout the world, the conflict in Iraq is the result of regrettable developments in international relations and is not a religious war, Fena news agency reported. The leaders warned believers not to succumb to "possible provocations," adding that Muslims bear a special responsibility in the current difficult times. The religious leaders called for an end to the conflict and for the protection of the lives of innocent people, particularly in Baghdad. PM

KOSOVARS DEMONSTRATE IN SUPPORT OF THE WAR
In Prishtina on 21 March, some 400 Kosovars demonstrated in favor of the U.S.-led war effort in Iraq, AP reported. Protest organizer Sadik Halitjaha stressed that "this is not a fight against Islam...but [one] for the freedom of the Iraqi people." Demonstrators carried signs reading "Freedom has no borders" and "Lead the way, U.S.A." Many Kosovars remain deeply grateful to the United States for leading the NATO campaign against Serbian repression in Kosova in 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 February 2003). PM

PRIME MINISTER SAYS KOSOVA 'STANDS WITH THE FORCES OF FREEDOM'
Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi wrote in the "The Washington Post" of 19 March that "in our hour of need [in 1999], the United States, Britain, [and their allies] took on [Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic] and liberated a nation." Rexhepi stressed that "we Kosovars know firsthand that peace is not simply the absence of war." He added that "wherever men are denied freedom, there is a threat to peace.... Whenever we fail to act in the face of evil, a shadow is cast across the future of humanity." Rexhepi noted that for years prior to the NATO intervention in Kosova, the international community talked "while our villages burned." He stressed that "we Kosovars stand with the forces of freedom.... We stand with you, America. We are here to tell you that your sacrifices for the cause of human freedom are remembered." PM

ALBANIAN PRIME MINISTER IS 'PROUD TO STAND WITH THE U.S.
' Fatos Nano said in a statement in Tirana on 20 March that "as a new democracy, Albania is proud to stand with the United States, the United Kingdom, and others in the coalition of the willing to rid Iraq of the weapons of mass destruction and bring about freedom to the long-suffering Iraqi people." Nano added that "we Albanians are a nation of freedom fighters who know something about living under oppression." He stressed that he expects that Albanian commandos will perform well in the Iraqi conflict, adding, "We are proud to have pledged our unconditional support in terms of additional troops, ports, bases, and airfields." The prime minister hailed the United States as the "only country in the world that exports freedom." He noted that "it brought freedom to Japan and Germany after defeating both in World War II. It rebuilt their societies and taught them about liberty. It helped bring down the Berlin Wall, hastening the process of freedom in Central and Eastern Europe. It rarely asked anything in return." Nano concluded that "we are proud to be in the company of the free." PM

U.S. TAKES SIX INTO CUSTODY IN KANDAHAR OPERATION
As part of Operation Valiant Strike, which commenced in Kandahar Province on 19 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 March 2003), U.S. and Romanian forces have captured six men, Radio Afghanistan reported on 23 March. The military operation, which has been called the largest campaign in Afghanistan in a year, is designed to flush out Al-Qaeda and Taliban supporters in southern Afghanistan. AT

SIX DEAD IN U.S. CHOPPER CRASH IN AFGHANISTAN
Six U.S. servicemen onboard a U.S. Air Force HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter died when their aircraft crashed in Ghazni Province on 23 March, the BBC reported. According to U.S. Central Command, the helicopter was on a "medical evacuation mission" and was not brought down by ground fire. It is believed that the helicopter was participating in the ongoing Operation Valiant Strike in Kandahar Province. AT

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