FRENCH, RUSSIAN PRESIDENTS HOLD 'PASSIONATE' TALKS
French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in Moscow on October 9 and held talks with President Vladimir Putin at Putin's Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside the capital, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 9, 2007, and "Russia: France's Sarkozy Takes Critical Stand On First Trip To Moscow," rferl.org, October 8, 2007). The two men began a second round of discussions on October 10, after which the French leader is expected to meet with Russian rights activists. On October 9, Putin said that "France has always been and I hope will remain one of our priority partners in Europe and in the world. I want to note that our relations are developing successfully, we maintain regular contacts at the highest level, our bilateral trade is growing." Sarkozy described the talks as "long, relaxed, deep, frank, and passionate." He indicated that he and Putin spent "much" time discussing Russia's political future. The French leader said that Putin knows whom he wants to succeed him but would not identify that person. Sarkozy added that he expressed his concerns frankly about Chechnya, gay rights in Russia, and the unsolved murder of critical journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Sarkozy also indicated that he and Putin found some common ground on the issues of Iran's nuclear program and Kosova's future but did not elaborate. Putin did not discuss those issues with the media. Sarkozy said that the two men agreed Iran may have the potential to develop nuclear weapons, but disagreed over whether Tehran is trying to do so. The French leader simply noted that "our positions moved much closer together" on Iran. Regarding Kosova, Sarkozy insisted that independence is "indispensable" and hinted at a possible but unspecified solution. He said he "found a desire in Putin to not close the door to a solution that would allow humiliation to be avoided." The French leader noted that he described to Putin "a path that might allow for different points of view to come closer together" regarding Kosova, but added that it is too early to make his ideas public. Before the talks began, the French leader said that France wants to be "Russia's friend" and "understand you." Putin responded by quoting 19th-century Russian poet Fyodor Tyutchev: "one cannot understand Russia with the mind.... One can only believe in it." PM
PUTIN 'PLEASED' WITH UKRAINIAN GAS DEAL
Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov said in Moscow on October 9 that Ukraine will repay $1.2 billion owed to Gazprom by transferring gas from underground storage facilities in Ukraine to the Russian firm for further export, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 9, 2007). He also said that the remaining debt of $929 million will be paid by Ukrainian energy suppliers. The total of more than $2 billion is substantially more than the figure of $1.3 billion originally cited by Gazprom. The deal was reached during a meeting between him and Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who said in the presence of President Putin that "with the signing of these documents, a mechanism has been found for settling the so-called debt. We believe the issue has been resolved thanks to the confidence and full trust that we have about how we should build our relations in important areas such as the gas sphere." Putin replied that he is "very glad that the issue has been resolved both between the companies and the governments. It was absolutely unexpected for us that such a large debt -- approximately $1.3 billion -- had accumulated. I will not go into details now, but I'm pleased that you have found a solution." In apparent response to repeated suggestions in Russia and abroad that Moscow manufactured a gas crisis to put pressure on Kyiv, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on October 10 that politics was not involved in the matter, which was strictly about paying debts, Interfax reported. He stressed that "the situation has been settled. I don't see any reasons to politicize the gas issue again. Russia is a reliable supplier. We have not violated a single contract or obligation." He added that "we ask our critics to cite at least one concrete example of violated obligations. We have not received a single answer to this request." In Vilnius on October 10, the presidents of Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, Romania, and Georgia, as well as high-ranking officials from Estonia, Kazakhstan, Turkey, and the EU, began a two-day conference on energy security and reducing dependency on Russian supplies (see "Baltics: Regional Energy Conference Looks For Alternatives To Russia," rferl.org, October 9, 2007). Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus wrote in Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" of October 10 that the EU urgently needs a comprehensive and unified energy policy. PM
INTELLIGENCE CHIEF SAYS BRITAIN IS ACTIVELY SUBVERTING RUSSIA
Britain's Lord Digby Jones, whom "The Times" describes as his country's de facto trade and investment minister, said in Moscow on October 10 that Britain backs Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) as soon as possible, Interfax reported. But elsewhere in the Russian capital, Nikolai Patrushev, who heads the Federal Security Service (FSB), which is the successor to the KGB, was quoted by the October 10 issue of the weekly "Argumenty i fakty" as saying that Britain and the United States are spearheading an espionage campaign against Russia, which includes the intelligence services of Georgia, Poland, and the Baltic states, Interfax and RIA Novosti reported. Patrushev stressed that "regardless of the global changes that took place in late 1980s and early 1990s, the special services of NATO member states have continued their activities in regard to Russia." Patrushev added that "the United Kingdom stands apart from other countries, because its secret services are not only involved in intelligence activities on all fronts, but are also trying to influence domestic developments in Russia." He stressed that Britain's foreign intelligence service, MI6, which Russia seeks to implicate in the imbroglio surrounding the 2006 London murder of former Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, "has been guided by the principle 'the end justifies the means' since the [16th-century] times of Queen Elizabeth I. Money, bribery, blackmail, and pardon for committed crimes are the main tools they use to recruit." Patrushev added that Turkish intelligence is active among Russia's Muslims, and that Pakistani agents are engaged in military espionage. British and U.S. intelligence officials have noted recently that Russian spying has reached levels not seen since the end of the Cold War (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, April 13, and September 19, 2007). PM
RUSSIA BANS 'PROVOCATIVE' ART FROM PARISIAN SHOW
Culture Minister Aleksandr Sokolov told a Moscow news conference on October 9 that the authorities have withdrawn 17 works of contemporary art from an exhibition that will soon open in France as part of that country's "Year of Russia" program, Russian and international media reported. Several artists and Russian art experts said that the items in the exhibit reflect the diversity of Russian life, but a deputy director of the State Tretyakov Gallery called the 17 works "a political provocation by the artists." Officials of the Tretyakov put together the exhibition for the Maison Rouge. One of the "provocative" art works depicts two policemen kissing and caressing each other's buttocks. Sokolov argued that "if this exhibition appears [in France], it will bring shame on Russia, and in this case all of us will bear full responsibility.... It is inadmissible...to take all this pornography, kissing policemen, and erotic pictures" to Paris. Several artists and critics charged that the state is trying to impose cultural censorship. PM
SPECULATION ON WAR AMONG SILOVIKI INTENSIFIES
The Investigations Committee has filed charges against Federal Antinarcotics Committee Lieutenant General Aleksandr Bulbov on charges of abuse of office and illegal wiretapping, Interfax reported on October 9 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 3 and 4, 2007). The Investigations Committee has refused to enumerate or detail the charges and the accused of been barred from discussing the case, gazeta.ru reported on October 10. Bulbov's arrest has set off a firestorm of speculation in the media that a war has broken out among the so-called chekisty, with Federal Antinarcotics Committee Chairman Viktor Cherkesov on one side and Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Patrushev on the other. Cherkesov on October 9 published an article in "Kommersant" in which he called for an end to conflicts among the "chekist community." "On the one hand, we have a war among agencies to determine who will control the bloc of the special services," agentura.ru Editor in Chief Andrei Soldatov told RFE/RL on October 9. "On the other hand, there are the completely concrete economic interests of the two agencies, because no matter how Cherkesov tries to portray himself as a knight of chekism without fear or flaw, all the same the Federal Antinarcotics Committee is an agency with a very mixed reputation and we see that this agency is trying to control various markets." State Duma Deputy Anatoly Yermolin, a former KGB officer, told RFE/RL on October 9 that the commercial activity of the security agencies is "definitely greater" now than a decade ago. He said that the "vertical of power" in Russia consists of three strands -- one that is formal and written in the constitution, one that is "shadow" and operates in parallel, and one that "controls the shadow figures" and is based on threats and compromising material. RC
PARTIES MOVE TO TIGHTEN CONTROL OVER DUMA DEPUTIES
Deputy Duma Speaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky on October 9 introduced changes to Duma regulations that would empower faction leaders to strip deputies of their mandates, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and "Kommersant" reported on October 10. Oleg Kovalyov (Unified Russia), chairman of the Duma's Regulations Committee, expressed support for the changes. Under current regulations, deputies lose their mandates if they leave the factions whose banner they were elected under; however, deputies do not lose their mandates if they are excluded from their factions. "Why shouldn't factions have the right to exclude do-nothings, sluggards, speculators," Zhirinovsky said. "Why should we put up with this?" Ivan Kharchenko, coordinator of the A Just Russia faction in the Duma, expressed concern about the proposed changes. "Now the faction can exclude a deputy, but he doesn't lose his mandate," Kharchenko said. "But Unified Russia is proposing a form of deputy slavery. That is, deputies will be constantly under the threat of exclusion. Of course, factions must have the right to influence deputies, but to turn them into slaves without any voice of their own, that seems wrong to me." RC
UNIFIED RUSSIA SHOWS GAINS IN POLLS FOLLOWING PUTIN ANNOUNCEMENT
The All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) on October 9 released results of the first poll on the Duma elections taken after President Putin's October 1 decision to head the Unified Russia party list, "Izvestia" reported on October 10. According to the poll, Unified Russia's rating rose to 54 percent, up 6 percentage points since the previous week. The number of respondents saying they would vote for Putin if he were allowed to run for a third term rose from 60 percent to 66 percent. According to the daily, a recent poll by the Public Opinion Foundation also found 54 percent support for Unified Russia. Interfax reported on October 10 that a Levada Center poll found 68 percent support for Unified Russia, a 13 percent boost over the last survey. According to the Levada poll, both the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and A Just Russia lost sufficient support to put them below the 7 percent barrier required for Duma representation, while the Communist Party's support fell from 18 percent to 15 percent. Several analysts questioned by "Izvestia" predicted that Unified Russia will see a further boost in its rating in future polls as the effect of Putin's decision continues to reverberate. According to the poll, most of Unified Russia's gain came from undecided voters, although both the Communist Party and A Just Russia registered 1 percent declines. RC
ELECTION OFFICIALS WARN AGAINST DOUBLE STANDARDS IN MONITORING
Two Central Election Commission members on October 9 complained that international election monitors use "double standards" in assessing Russian elections, the government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported the next day. "They come to us and see only black, while in Georgia and in Ukraine, they see only white," commission member Igor Fyodorov said in Moscow. He said the commission expects some 1,500 observers for this election, more than came for the December 2003 ballot. Fyodorov added that "we have a genuine, developed democratic election system." In the same issue of "Rossiiskaya gazeta," Central Election Commission member Igor Borisov wrote a commentary in which he attacked the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) for double standards. He noted that over the last 15 years the OSCE's election-monitoring mandate has expanded from merely observing voting to watching the campaign and the counting process as well. He said some OSCE members see monitoring as "a chanced to actively participate in the national electoral processes of sovereign states." He stressed that "each nation must reach democracy along its own path, overcoming its own unique obstacles and difficulties." RC
ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER CALLS FOR EU PRESSURE ON TURKEY
Armenian Foreign Minister Vardan Oskanian on October 9 called on the European Union to pressure Turkey to open its border with Armenia, and reiterated that Armenia holds "no preconditions" for normalizing relations with its neighbor, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In a speech to the European Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee in Brussels, Oskanian noted that several "outstanding issues" continue to hinder the normalization of relations, but stressed that they should not be allowed to prevent a dialogue between Armenia and Turkey. Oskanian's call for Turkey to open its border and establish full diplomatic relations echoed his speech to the UN General Assembly in New York last week and his meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Ali Babacan, at that time. Oskanian also appealed directly to the Foreign Affairs Committee to put more pressure on Turkey to open a dialogue with Armenia, and explained that the "border opening is not only important for Armenia, but it is also important for the European Union, because Turkey is the natural bridge between the Caucasus and Europe, and the European Union." Oskanian added that "without Turkey's equitable and even-handed policy vis-a-vis our region, our relationship is not as effective as it could have been under conditions of normal ties between Turkey and Armenia." RG
PROMINENT ARMENIAN OPPOSITION FIGURES MEET
Former Armenian President Levon Ter-Petrossian and opposition leader Vazgen Manukian, two long-time political rivals, held a closed meeting on October 8 in Yerevan. Manukian later told reporters that the two men remain divided in their political views, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Manukian, the leader of the opposition National-Democratic Union (AZhM), noted that the meeting with Ter-Petrossian resulted in an agreement to "share information." Manukian added that he still intends to run for president in next year's election. Ter-Petrossian has been considering a return to politics, and supporters from his Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) party have been aggressively pushing him to run in the February 2008 presidential election. Manukian and Ter-Petrosian both rose to power during the start of the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in the waning days of the Soviet Union, but became bitter rivals after Manukian's term as defense minister in the Ter-Petrossian government 1993. That rivalry deepened after the former president barely defeated Manukian in the presidential election in 1996, a contest tainted by Ter-Petrossian's decision to send tanks into the streets of Yerevan to quell opposition protests triggered by reports of widespread election fraud. RG
ARMENIAN LAWMAKER RETURNS FROM AZERBAIJAN
Lawmaker Stepan Safarian returned on October 9 from a visit to Azerbaijan -- the first trip to Baku by an Armenian lawmaker since 2001, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service. Safarian, a deputy affiliated with the opposition Heritage Party, attended a meeting of the Council on Culture and Social Affairs of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation (BSEC). Speaking to reporters at a press conference in Yerevan, Safarian said that his visit was marked by "unprecedented security measures" by local authorities, noting that "they did their best to look hospitable and polite" and that he did not have any problems during his visit. Safarian added that he believes that Armenia and Azerbaijan must expand contacts in all spheres and "make efforts to make up for the things missed during the past 15 years," Mediamax reported. The 12-member Black Sea Economic Cooperation was established in 1992 to foster economic interaction and ensure peace and stability in the Black Sea region. RG
OSCE OFFICIAL IN BAKU EXPRESSES CONCERN OVER MEDIA
The head of the Baku OSCE office, Ambassador Jose Luis Herrero, expressed concern on October 9 over the deterioration of press freedoms and the recent arrests of journalists in Azerbaijan, Turan reported. Herrero said that official representatives of the OSCE have "more than once expressed concern" with the situation of the mass media in Azerbaijan, and stressed that defamation charges should not result in the arrests of journalists. RG
LAWYER DENIES REPORTS THAT FREED GEORGIAN EX-MINISTER LEFT COUNTRY
Speaking to reporters in Tbilisi on October 9, Eka Beselia, the lawyer for former Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, denied recent media reports that her client had left the country with his wife and 4-year-old daughter, ITAR-TASS reported. Beselia said that she had just met with Okruashvili, and that her client "has not gone anywhere and is staying in his apartment in Tbilisi." Following a plea of "partially guilty" in a recent court hearing and a pledge to cooperate with investigators, Okruashvili was released on bail of 10 million laris ($6.5 million) and freed early on October 9. Okruashvili was arrested late on September 27, two days after leveling corruption allegations against President Mikheil Saakashvili. He was charged with extortion, money laundering, and abuse of his official position while serving as a government minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26 and October 2, 2007). RG
KAZAKH LEADERS MEET WITH VISITING OSCE OFFICIAL...
OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities Knut Vollebaek met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev and Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin in Astana on October 9 to discuss ways to expand cooperation between Kazakhstan and the OSCE, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Vollebaek said that he is appreciative of the "exemplary experience of cooperation between Kazakhstan and OSCE institutions" and specifically highlighted Kazakh cooperation "in ensuring the observance of rights of ethnic minorities and harmonizing interethnic relations." Vollebaek also pledged to continue to actively cooperate with Kazakhstan in the implementation of several projects focusing on education, science, and language development and expressed readiness to assist in carrying out "national tasks in the field of interethnic and interreligious relations in society." RG
...AS OSCE MEDIA OFFICIAL URGES KAZAKHSTAN TO WITHDRAW MEDIA AMENDMENTS
In a statement released by the OSCE in Vienna, Miklos Haraszti, the OSCE representative on media freedom, on October 9 called on Kazakhstan to withdraw recent draft amendments to the country's defamation law, AP reported. The OSCE statement, issued as a letter to Kazakh Interior Minister Baurzhan Mukhamedzhanov, complained that the draft amendments fail to conform to Kazakh commitments to the OSCE standards of media freedoms. The amendments, which were presented to the Kazakh parliament in late September, maintain special protections for the country's president, and retain articles that criminalize some forms of published criticism of public officials. RG
KAZAKH, RUSSIAN OFFICIALS FAIL TO AGREE ON COMPENSATION FOR ROCKET CRASH
Speaking in Astana, the head of Russia's Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos), Anatoly Perminov, announced on October 9 that Kazakh and Russian officials have failed to reach agreement over the amount of compensation Russia will pay Kazakhstan for the environmental damage caused by the crash of a Russian rocket last month, Asia-Plus reported. The unmanned Proton-M rocket crashed on September 6 after its launch from the Baikonur Space Center and a subsequent study conducted by a special Kazakh state working group found that the incident resulted in a serious toxic fuel spill far "exceeding the maximum permissible level" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7 and 13, 2007). Perminov added that the officials set "a rigid deadline" of December to come up with a final amount. Kazakh negotiators are seeking some 7.3 billion tenges (over $60 million) from Russia, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. No one was injured in the incident, but debris from the rocket was spread over a small contained area in the remote central Karaganda region. The waste included some of the rocket's fuel payload of more than 200 tons of heptyl, a highly toxic rocket fuel. According to a statement issued by the Kazakh Emergency Situations Ministry on October 10, Russian specialists completed the removal of all debris from the crashed Proton rocket from Kazakhstan, ITAR-TASS reported. After the crash, an immediate ban on launches from the Baikonur Space Center was imposed, although it was later lifted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 2007). Two other Proton rockets crashed at Baikonur in July and October 1999, also leading to suspensions of launches (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7 and 8 and November 3, 1999). The Baikonur Space Center is one of the world's leading space facilities and is regularly used to launch commercial and military satellites, as well as missions to supply the International Space Station. RG
KAZAKH OPPOSITION LEADER CALLS FOR PRICE PROTESTS...
In comments during an Astana press conference, the leader of the opposition National Social Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, on October 9 called for people to join rallies organized by the opposition in the coming days to protest the recent price increases for goods and basic foodstuffs, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Tuyakbai declared that "prices are growing, starting with bread, not to mention prices for other staple foodstuffs and services," and argued that "the government has not taken any real measures to curb the prices." He further noted that his party has already raised this issue twice, but said that "our suggestions are not accepted," adding that "nobody suggested any effective measures on this issue." Tuyakbai said that "we have decided to hold civil actions and rallies in all regional centers," although he admitted that the local authorities in six regions and in Almaty did not give permission for the rallies. RG
...AS KYRGYZ HUMAN-RIGHTS OMBUDSMAN CALLS ON PUBLIC TO REMAIN CALM
Speaking about the same wave of price increases for basic commodities that has swept through the region, Tursunbek Akun, the head of the presidential human-rights commission, called on October 9 for calm and urged the public to refrain from "protests or hunger strikes" in Kyrgyzstan, the 24.kg website reported. Akun argued that the rise in food prices is linked to a worldwide trend, and said that blaming the government for the price rise would not solve the problem. He also criticized unnamed Kyrgyz "political experts" for "making unfavorable forecasts." Meanwhile, in a speech in Bishkek, President Kurmanbek Bakiev on October 9 criticized his own government for failing to adequately address the price increases, according to the 24.kg website. Bakiev said that measures taken by the Kyrgyz government to "ease tension in society" are "having no effect," and singled out Economic Development and Trade Minister Sabyrbek Moldokulov for particularly harsh criticism, saying that he has failed to correctly assess the causes of the price rise. Bakiev also accused unnamed groups in the country of taking advantage of the situation. RG
TAJIK GOVERNMENT REPORTS CONTINUED ECONOMIC GROWTH
A new report on Tajikistan's national economy has found sustained economic growth, with the country's GDP increasing by 7.1 percent for the first six months of the year, according to Asia-Plus. The report was discussed at a cabinet meeting in Dushanbe presided over by Tajik President Emomali Rahmon. During the same period, exports increased by 56 percent and imports decreased by 28 percent. However, Rahmon expressed concern over a recent rise in prices for food products and a possible spike in inflation. First Deputy Prime Minister Asadullo Ghulomov also reported to the cabinet that construction of the Sangtuda-1 power plant is continuing, and that efforts are underway to expand the plant's capacity. RG
TAJIK FOREIGN MINISTER MEETS WITH VISITING OSCE OFFICIAL
Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrohkon Zarifi on October 9 in Dushanbe met with visiting OSCE Secretary-General Marc Perrin de Brichambaut and reviewed plans to expand OSCE activities in Tajikistan, according to the Avesta website. Zarifi expressed his government's satisfaction with the work of the OSCE in Tajikistan, highlighting the organization's work on implementing a program to reduce the proliferation of light weapons and conventional ammunition in the country. He also called on the OSCE to align its activities more closely with Tajikistan's priorities for the next five to seven years, such as targeted social and economic development and environmental protection. RG
EU FOREIGN-POLICY CHIEF ARRIVES IN TURKMENISTAN
A delegation led by EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana arrived in Ashgabat late on October 8 to hold a series of meetings with senior Turkmen leaders to discuss expanding cooperation between Turkmenistan and the European Union, Turkmen Television reported. Solana's one-day visit to Turkmenistan follows his recent meeting with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov at the UN General Assembly in New York, and is also being held in preparation for a planned visit to Brussels by the Turkmen leader in November. Meeting with Berdymukhammedov on October 9, Solana discussed the details of a project to develop a new natural gas pipeline running along the Caspian Sea, which he told reporters is "far from final," but represents the final stage of the Nabucco gas pipeline project, ITAR-TASS reported. Solana also noted that he and Berdymukhammedov discussed "the possibility of delivering Turkmen gas to Europe," and noted that Turkmen leaders "confirmed the guarantee of Turkmen gas supplies to Europe." RG
UZBEK PRESIDENT WELCOMES EXECUTIVES FROM U.S. AUTOMAKER
Islam Karimov met on October 9 with senior executives from the U.S. automaker General Motors (GM) in Tashkent to discuss plans to establish a new auto plant in Uzbekistan, according to the Uzbek National News Agency website. In a meeting with the president, GM-Europe President Carl-Peter Forster and GM-Daewoo Auto and Technology President Michael Grimaldi presented their proposal to open a new facility to assemble Chevrolet cars, and noted that Uzbekistan would gain benefit from the "advanced experience" and "new technologies" offered by the project, while allowing GM to expand into the markets of Central Asia and Eastern Europe. On October 8, Uzbekistan's Uzavtoprom automobile industry association and GM signed an agreement for the creation of a new joint venture to produce and market Chevrolet cars in the country, Interfax reported. According to the terms of that deal, GM will own 25 percent plus one share of the joint venture with the possibility of increasing its share to 40 percent at some point. The project, which will be based in the town of Asaka in the eastern Andijon region, has a planned capacity of producing 250,000 cars per year and is expected to produce roughly 2,000 cars by the end of the year once production begins. The deal follows a strategic partnership agreement signed between the Uzbek auto group and GM-Daewoo in May 2007. RG
BELARUSIAN AUTHORITIES JAIL OPPOSITIONISTS AHEAD OF 'EUROPEAN MARCH'
Vasil Palyakou and Uladzimir Katsora, activists of the opposition United Civic Party in Homel, were sentenced to seven days in jail each on charges of using foul language in a public place, Belapan reported. Katsora told journalists that his arrest is linked to the forthcoming visit of European diplomats to Homel and the opposition's European March for Freedom scheduled to take place in Minsk on October 14. "I was told [by police officers] that I shouted obscenities at 2 p.m. today at the intersection between Dakutovicha Street and Kirava Street, although I actually stayed in another place at the time and there were witnesses to that," Palyakou noted shortly after his arrest. "I guess I will be released only after the ambassadors of EU countries visit Homel and after the European March is over in Minsk," he added. The same day in Minsk, Yauhen Afnahel, one of the organizers of the European March for Freedom, was sentenced to 10 days in jail, also on charges of speaking obscenities in a public place. Afnahel was arrested on October 8, immediately after a meeting of the march's organizers with representatives of the Minsk City Executive Committee, at which both sides discussed preparations for the event. The Minsk City Executive Committee reportedly authorized the march but demanded a change to its planned route in downtown Minsk. More detentions of opposition activists were reported on October 9 in Minsk and Hrodna. JM
UKRAINIAN ELECTION WINNERS HOLD NO COALITION TALKS
The Party of Regions and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT), which finished first and second, respectively, in the September 30 early elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 9, 2007), have not held any talks about the formation of a new ruling coalition, UNIAN reported on October 9, quoting Party of Regions leader and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Meanwhile, Yulia Tymoshenko told journalists the same day that if the Party of Regions and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc create a ruling coalition, her bloc will switch to opposition and start preparations for presidential elections, which are due in 2009 or 2010. President Viktor "Yushchenko and Yanukovych already formed coalitions on two occasions, and both attempts ended in disaster. The only option for bringing stability to the country is a coalition of democratic forces," Tymoshenko said. Speaking at a meeting of party leaders with Yushchenko on October 8, Tymoshenko declared that a potential coalition between her bloc and the pro-presidential Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense could offer the posts of some deputy ministers and deputy regional governors as well as that of the Audit Chamber head to opposition parties. "Yulia Volodymyrovna [Tymoshenko] exaggerates her status by making such proposals to us," Party of Regions member Yuriy Miroshnychenko told "Kommersant-Ukraine." "The Party of Regions cannot be regarded as an opposition force because it won the largest number of votes and is now making every effort to form a coalition. Possibly, Yulia Tymoshenko will have to implement her proposals herself, in the role of an oppositionist," Miroshnychenko added. JM
POWER STRUGGLE IN SERBIA'S MUSLIM COMMUNITY...
Serbia's Muslims are in turmoil after clerics in southern Serbia, one of the Muslim community's major centers in Serbia, moved to oust the local community's Muslim leader on October 3. The clash has so far resulted in attacks on two local television stations, the intervention of riot police, and the condemnation by the chief Muslim cleric in Sarajevo, the traditional leader of Muslims in the western Balkans. The tensions, which have simmered all year, erupted when clerics from five key municipalities in Sandzak -- Novi Pazar, Prijepolje, Nova Varos, Sjenica, and Tutin -- on October 3 said they were deposing the region's chief imam, Muamer Zukorlic, reportedly accusing him of "profoundly" politicizing the community, "spreading fear among the clergy, and violating their right to free expression." Simultaneously, they pled allegiance to the mufti of Belgrade, Hamdija Jusufspahic, who in February was appointed the supreme leader of the Islamic Community of Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 23, 2007). Until now, the Islamic Community of Sandzak has refused to accept the jurisdiction the Islamic Community of Serbia, which was founded in 2006 and refused to accept the authority of Bosnia-Herzegovina's grand mufti, Reisu-l-Ulema Mustafa Ceric. Zukorlic, who was elected only in March, attacked the new grouping and its allegations against him, claiming its actions are the result of a plot between Jusufspahic, Novi Pazar Mayor Sulejman Ugljanin, and Serbia's secret services, and was in part prompted by his earlier demand for the release of files on clerics acting as informers for Serbian intelligence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29, 2007). "Precisely those people are now the main protagonists of these illegal activities," Zukorlic told the news agency FoNet on October 3. Ugljanin, who also heads the regional branch of the largest Bosnian Muslim party, the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), argued in 2006 that the Islamic Community of Sandzak should be disbanded and the concerns of the region's Muslims should be managed by its Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) National Council. Sandzak is predominantly populated by Bosnian Muslims, but also, in addition to Serbian and Montenegrin Christians, has Muslims of Albanian origin. AG
...LEADS TO VIOLENCE...
The rift in Sandzak's Muslim community appears to be the motive for two separate but simultaneous attacks on October 8 on two local television stations. Local media reported that in both instances a single masked man -- armed with a gun in one case -- broke into studios at RTV Novi Pazar and Jedinstvo TV to disrupt the broadcast of a prerecorded interview with the cleric chosen to replace Zukorlic as Sandzak mufti, Adem Zilkic. One person was reportedly injured in one of the attacks. In another incident, police in the town of Sjenica entered a mosque on October 6 in an apparent attempt to prevent a confrontation between Zukorlic's and Zilkic's supporters. Reports variously described the confrontation as "verbal" and as a "scuffle." Serbian Interior Minister Dragan Jocic said on October 6 that police found four guns in the mosque. Aides of Zilkic said on October 7 the operation involved some 30 police officers in riot gear. Supporters of Zukorlic said two clerics were injured, accused the police of brutality, and said that supporters of Novi Pazar Mayor Ugljanin's SDA were among those who challenged them. AG
...AND DISPUTE OVER LEADERSHIP OF REGION'S MUSLIMS
The move to oust Zukorlic as the leader of the Islamic Community of Sandzak has had an immediate impact on Sandzak's politics and has brought to the fore again the struggle for control over Muslims in the western Balkans. In Sarajevo, a senior Muslim figure, Muharem Omerdic, said that "the Islamic Community of Bosnia-Herzegovina does not accept the establishment of yet another mesihat [religious administration] in Sandzak," the news agency Beta reported on October 5. Zilkic's appointment was "irregular" and "a process in which politics got involved," Omerdic added. The daily "Blic" on October 5 published similar quotes from the chief of staff for the chief mufti of Sarajevo, Mustafa Ceric. In Sandzak, Zukorlic on October 4 won the backing of four political parties, including its largest party, the Sandzak Democratic Party (SDP), who jointly accused their political rival, Novi Pazar Mayor Ugljanin, of triggering the crisis and called for political parties not to become involved in "personnel issues" within the Islamic community. Zukorlic's reported links to the SDP have been particularly criticized by the group that removed him. Despite the political opposition to Zukorlic's replacement in Sandzak, the move appeared to win the backing of the Serbian government, when, on October 8, Zilkic met with Serbian Minister for Religious Affairs Radomir Naumov. According to Zilkic, Naumov said Zilkic was the "legally elected head" of Sandzak's Muslim community, while also saying, "the state will not meddle in the conflict between factions in the Islamic community." Some Sandzak Muslims have argued that the government or the Ministry for Religious Affairs is behind the whole crisis in Sandzak. However, it is unclear whether Naumov's apparent support for Zilkic constitutes official government backing. One member of the cabinet, Rasim Ljajic, is the leader of the SDP and has been quoted by the broadcaster B92 as describing the attempt to remove Zukorlic as "shameful" and "the first time that a political party has formed a religious community," a reference to Ugljanin's SDA. Naumov is a member of the government's most nationalist party, the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS). When it was founded, the Islamic Community of Serbia justified its creation and its refusal to accept Sarajevo's authority on the grounds that Serbia's Muslims should respect "the legal and territorial integrity of their country," which it interpreted as meaning "the supreme leadership of the Islamic Community of Serbia must be within the borders of the Republic of Serbia." AG
NEW MAYOR CHOSEN FOR BELGRADE
Belgrade's municipal assembly elected Zoran Alimpic as the Serbian capital's new mayor on October 8. Alimpic belongs to the same party, the Democratic Party, as his predecessor Nenad Bogdanovic, who died of cancer on September 27, but was chosen with the backing of all major parties other than the Serbian Radical Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 1, 2007) Alimpic will serve until new local elections are called. The date of those elections is uncertain, as Serbia's political parties are unable to agree whether any polls (presidential as well as local) should be held before the future of Kosova is resolved. AG
OVER 1 MILLION REFUGEES RETURN TO BOSNIA
Over 1 million Bosnians have returned to Bosnia-Herzegovina since the peace accords signed in December 1995, the country's Ministry for Refugees and Displaced Persons said on October 7. According to local media reports, of the total 1.02 million returnees, nearly 741,000 have settled in the Muslim-Croat Federation and 258,000 in the country's other autonomous region, the Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska. Another 21,000 returned to the district of Brcko, which spans both autonomous regions. AG
ARMS CACHE FOUND IN MACEDONIA
Macedonian police found a cache of mortar shells near the Albanian border, local media reported on October 6. Initial reports suggest the 74 shells may have been in the area since 2001, when ethnic-Albanian guerrillas fought a separatist struggle against the Macedonian authorities. Tensions are once again high in Macedonia amid concerns that the issue of Kosova's future status could prompt violence and spill over into Macedonia. The Macedonian government has consistently stated that the security situation in the country is stable, a position questioned by some in the opposition as well as, recently, Serbian President Boris Tadic, who said on September 27 that Serbia fears Macedonia may become a base for attacks in southern Serbia, which has a large ethnic-Albanian population (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 3, 2007). AG
TAJIKISTAN HOPES TO AVOID ANOTHER WINTER OF POWER SHORTAGES
Tajik officials say an agreement signed last week to bring Turkmen electricity to Tajikistan via Uzbekistan will alleviate the severe power shortages Tajiks face each winter. But many ordinary Tajiks say they do not have high hopes for better conditions this winter, because an earlier, similar energy agreement with Kyrgyzstan was never realized.
At the beginning of October, Tajikistan began a winter schedule for electricity distribution, under which households and offices receive electricity for only two periods a day, in the mornings and evenings, totaling six to eight hours. The authorities have announced that exceptions are made for the main hospitals, government offices, and "strategically important sites."
Gulchehra Dehqonova, a university professor who lives on the outskirts of the northern Tajik city of Khujand, says she cannot properly prepare for her classes because of the shortage of electricity. "As a professor I need to prepare for my lessons. I need to write my lecture and read additional materials for that; I need to watch the news to get up-to-date information before entering the class and facing the auditorium," Dehqonova says. "Under the current circumstances it has become almost impossible."
Ironically, Tajikistan has a greater hydroelectric power capacity than any other country in Central Asia. It reportedly has the potential to produce more than 300 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity per year. Yet Tajikistan is the only country in the region that faces a severe power shortage for more than half the year -- every year -- leaving entire towns and villages without power for long periods and sometimes for several days.
Mirzosharif Isomiddinov, the head of the Tajik parliament's Committee on Energy, Industry, and Communication, says that up to 50 percent of the electricity in Tajikistan is consumed by an aluminum plant. That is the main reason why Tajikistan -- despite its natural energy resources -- cannot provide enough electricity for its people, Isomiddinov said.
Last winter was one of the most difficult; power was cut off even in the city center of the capital, Dushanbe, for weeks. Officials claimed that important engineering work at a power plant, as well as low water levels in major rivers, caused the energy shortage. Tajik officials have promised that the country will have a better situation this winter.
President Emomali Rahmon announced on October 4 that Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan have agreed on the supply and transmission of Turkmen electricity to Tajikistan. According to the new agreement, Tajikistan will import 1.2 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually from Turkmenistan for the next three years.
Many ordinary Tajiks, however, have been very cautious in welcoming the news. There were similar talks last year about importing electricity from Kyrgyzstan through Uzbekistan. Some Tajiks hoped that their long and dark winter nights would finally come to an end with the influx of Kyrgyz electricity. But their dream of a Kyrgyz solution to their energy problem was not realized.
Tajik officials never fully explained to people why the plan was not put into action. There were reports that Uzbekistan did not have the capacity to transmit its neighbors' electrical power in the first place. Lawmaker Isomiddinov says that Turkmenistan definitely generates enough power for export, and that Uzbekistan has started repairing its energy-transmission networks to transfer the Turkmen electricity to Tajikistan.
Besides, Tajikistan is improving its own energy-producing infrastructure, Isomiddinov says. "In December the first block of the Sangtuda-1 hydropower plant will start producing power. It will produce electricity of up to 4 million kilowatt-hours," he says. Another plant, the Yovon power station, "is being renovated and will start producing power in mid-November. The capacity of the Dushanbe power plant is also being expanded."
Tajikistan has several hydropower plants that currently produce some 17 billion kilowatt-hours annually. A large facility is under construction in Roghun, in eastern Tajikistan. At a height of 335 meters, the hydroelectric dam would be the tallest in the world. However, after disagreements between Tajik and Russian investors, little progress is being made at the site.
Two other moderately large plants -- Sangtuda-1 and -2 in the southern part of the country -- are being built with Russian and Iranian financing. Several smaller hydroelectric facilities under construction elsewhere in the country, including in the eastern Pamir and Garm valleys.
Tajik leaders use every opportunity to mention that in the near future, Tajikistan will be exporting electricity to almost all its neighbors. While Tajiks are used to media reports and government speeches about their homeland's vast electricity resources and "bright future," they are still dealing with the prospect of a dark winter with limited electricity supplies.
Conditions are better for their Central Asian neighbors, who have less resources. Kazakhstan has not had trouble with power shortages since 1999. Households in Turkmenistan receive most of their electric power free of charge.
Kyrgyzstan exports electricity to some countries -- including Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- and has not experienced severe power shortages in recent years. This year, however, Kyrgyzstan is predicting some difficulties due to the low level of water in the Naryn River, where the Toktogul power station is located.
The situation in Uzbekistan -- especially in rural areas -- is to some extent similar to Tajikistan. Although Tashkent has not introduced a winter electricity-distribution schedule, power is regularly cut off without warning for several hours a day.
As winter approaches, the prices for stoves, coal, and wood have been going up at Tajik markets. Saodat, who sells stoves in a Khujand market, says that people install wood- and coal-burning stoves in high-rise apartments and use them both for heating their flats and cooking food. "There is no electricity, no gas," Saodat says. "This year people have to use stoves even on the ninth and 10th floors. It would be freezing cold there, otherwise."
Many well-to-do Tajiks buy special power generators that produce enough electricity for one household. Those who cannot afford a foreign-made generator usually opt for a homemade device -- ignoring electricians' and fire departments' warnings about safety risks. Long-forgotten oil lamps have returned to Tajik markets once again, and candles -- long used only for romantic dinners -- are back in fashion for a different reason.
People say they are used to getting prepared for the dark and cold winter ahead, and are not holding too much hope that their government leaders will keep their promises and solve the problem for them.
(Farangis Najibullah is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)
SEPARATE CLASHES LEAVE 19 TALIBAN MILITANTS DEAD IN AFGHANISTAN
Local officials on October 9 said at least 19 Taliban fighters were killed in two separate battles with security forces in Afghanistan's Farah and Paktika provinces, Xinhua news agency reported. Juma Khan, a senior police officer in the southwestern Farah Province, said gun battles between police and Taliban insurgents followed an attack by several militants on a remote police checkpoint late on October 8, killing 10 Taliban. The same day, coalition forces killed nine other Taliban militants in eastern Paktika Province during a U.S.-led operation, said provincial government spokesman Ghami Khan. JC
GERMAN HOSTAGE PLEADS IN VIDEO FOR DEAL WITH MILITANTS
Taliban insurgents released a video on October 8 showing a German engineer pleading for the Afghan and German governments to negotiate his release before winter, AP reported on October 9. Blechschmidt claims he was suffering from health issues, but has been treated by an Afghan doctor. He also says he was recently handed over to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), but was taken hostage again by Taliban militants while returning to Kabul and brought back to the mountains. Four ICRC employees were abducted by Taliban insurgents on September 27 while working to secure Blechschmidt's release, but were freed two days later unharmed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 1, 2007). "Now we plea to German government and Afghan government, give us some help and make a deal with the Taliban to release us before the winter time starting," Blechschmidt implores on the video. The German engineer was kidnapped in July along with another German and five Afghan colleagues in Afghanistan's central Wardak Province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 19 and 20, 2007). The other German engineer taken hostage with Blechschmidt was found dead of gunshot wounds on July 21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 3, 2007). AP reported that one of the Afghans managed to escape, although Pajhwak Afghan News claims all five Afghans are still being held captive. Blechschmidt added that while his country's embassy had refused to negotiate for a period of time, talks recently commenced, giving him hope that "we will become free." Taliban militants released a first video on August 23 showing Blechschmidt pleading for government help (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24, 2007). JC
SCHOOL ATTENDANCE CONTINUES TO SUFFER IN VOLATILE HELMAND PROVINCE...
Over 30,000 students who last year attended schools in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province have not returned in 2007, while the number of female pupils is still on the rise, said provincial education department officials, the UN's Integrated Regional Information Network reported on October 8. While 102,700 students attended school in Helmand last year, only 70,000 continue to attend this year, according to Saeed Ibrar Agha, head of the provincial department. The growing absence of students in school is due primarily to insurgency-related violence, as Taliban insurgents and other armed criminal elements burn down schools and kill students and teachers. More than 20 schools have been torched in the past 15 months and 17 people have been killed, all either students, teachers, or staff, Ibrar Agha said, forcing 98 schools to remain closed. Many schools in Helmand and other nearby provinces in southern Afghanistan also lack functioning water and sanitation facilities, or even infrastructure, forcing students to attend open-air classes regardless of the weather or temperature. According to the Ministry of Education, approximately 400 schools remain closed due to insecurity in Afghanistan's southern, eastern, and central provinces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7, 2007). Despite overall drops in attendance, the number of girls in school has increased nearly 19 percent in the past year, with 14,500 attending school this year and only 12,228 in 2006. The spike in girls' attendance is aided by a World Food Program (WFP) project, which distributes cooking oil, wheat, and fortified biscuits to destitute families lacking access to food in exchange for sending their daughters to school, a WFP spokesman said. Girls were banned from attending school under Taliban rule from 1996 to late 2001. JC
...AS WORLD BANK GRANTS $50 MILLION TO REVIVE AFGHAN EDUCATION SYSTEM
The World Bank has agreed to grant $50 million to assist in the development of Afghanistan's education sector, said Education Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on October 8. The agreement was settled in Washington, where Atmar recently met with World Bank officials to discuss a detailed proposal regarding funding for Afghanistan's education system. Atmar praised the good news, saying that "for a better future for our country, we need to give top priority to building and strengthening the education sector." Of the total grant, $30 million will be used to construct schools and provide teacher training, and the remaining $20 million will fund the development of technical education, he said. Canada recently announced it will provide $60 million to the Afghan Education Ministry. The total $110 million demonstrates the international community's commitment to Afghanistan and their acknowledgement of the role of education in establishing peace and prosperity there, Atmar added. He said a formal approval of the grant by the World Bank is forthcoming. JC
RIGHTS BODY CALLS FOR IRANIAN JOURNALISTS' RELEASE
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) issued a statement on October 8 welcoming the October 6 release on bail in Tehran of journalist Soheil Asefi, and highlighting the plight of other recently detained media workers, Radio Farda reported, citing RSF's website (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 3, 2007). RSF urged Iran to drop the charges against Asefi, stating that fear and self-censorship will otherwise effectively deprive him of the freedom of speech. The group named other journalists detained, sentenced and jailed, or given suspended jail sentences since the June-September 2007 period as Aku Kordnasab, Ejlal Qavami, Jahangir Hashemi, and Bahman Ahmadi-Amui. It also noted the case of Foruzan Asefi-Nakhai, the editor of "Golestan-i Iran" -- a journal closed in 2004 and formally banned in September 2007 -- who has been banned from reporting for two years. A court closed the journal for publishing "false" and "hostile" articles about the Islamic republic. The others cited were prosecuted either for their writings, or in the case of Ahmadi-Amui, for reporting on a Tehran women's demonstration in June 2006, then signing petitions for free speech in Iran, RSF added. VS
OFFICIAL SAYS TWO FOREIGN BANKS 'RETURNING' TO IRAN
An unnamed official of the Iranian Central Bank has said that "two European banks" that reduced their business with Iranian customers "about 2 1/2 months ago for political reasons" have said that they are ready to return to Iran, "Jaam-i Jam" reported on October 9. The official told the daily, which is run by state television, that "one of these banks is German and the other is Swiss" and "they have...informed the Central Bank they are ready to return to Iran and wish to resume their activities." The official said the Central Bank is to send teams to these banks to discuss and resolve the problems caused for Iranian customers in these banks -- such as frozen bank accounts or cancelled bank cards -- in the wake of UN sanctions or Western moves to restrict business with Iran over its nuclear program, jamejamonline.com reported. The official said the Central Bank wrote about a month ago to several banks that were reducing business with Iran "under America's political pressures," that once "political issues are resolved...they will have no place in the Iranian market and will not be able to return." VS
INTERNATIONAL UNION REPRESENTATIVES IN TEHRAN TO VISIT JAILED ACTIVIST
Indonesian members of the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) arrived in Tehran on behalf of the ITF on October 7 to visit Mansur Osanlu and Ibrahim Madadi, two jailed members of the Tehran bus drivers' union, Radio Farda reported on October 8, citing the ITF website. The envoys were Hanafi Rustandi, the chairman of the ITF National Coordinating Committee in Indonesia and head of a seafarers' union in Indonesia, and a colleague from the same union, Syukur Sarto, itfglobal.org reported on October 8. The two met with the detainees' relatives in Tehran on October 7. The ITF website quoted Rustandi as expressing hope that Osanlu and Madadi might be released during his visit, which he said was a test of the cordial relations between Iran and Indonesia. ITF General Secretary David Cockroft has said the visit will remind Iran that the "eyes of the world are on Iran in this matter," itfglobal.org reported. VS
IRAN TO BEGIN SOME PRIVATIZATION PROJECTS
A deputy head of the state privatization agency, Ismail Gholami, told Fars news agency on October 8 that Iran is to start selling parts of the state-owned Telecommunications Company on December 22 through an initial sale of 5 percent of its shares on the Tehran stock market. Gholami said the company is "one of the largest state-sector firms" and 7 billion shares will be sold to test the market and establish a price for the shares. Separately, Asghar Ketabchi, the head of the State Airports Company told ISNA on October 8 that "for the first time in the country, the private sector will in the next three months be given the management of one of the country's airports." He said officials of the State Airports Company are negotiating the terms of the transfer with a private-sector party. Ketabchi said private firms may be allowed to run other airports if this transfer proves successful. VS
TURKISH GOVERNMENT TO SEEK MILITARY ACTION IN IRAQ
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said he will seek parliament's approval for a Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq to root out Turkish-Kurdish rebels from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) holed up there, Turkish media reported on October 9. Turkey's armed forces have stepped up their pressure on the government to authorize such action, following a PKK attack on Turkish soldiers earlier this week that left more than a dozen soldiers dead. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh responded told Al-Arabiyah television on October 9: "The Iraqi government does not allow Turkey to advance even a single inch into Iraq. Its advance will be considered a violation of Iraq's sovereignty." He added: "We know that the PKK harms Turkey and harms us in Iraq. It is a terrorist organization that kills civilians and military men. Therefore, we cooperate with Turkey. We do not think military force can solve the problem." U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack took a similar stance, telling journalists at an October 9 press briefing in Washington: "As a general principle, we have counseled both Iraq as well as Turkey that the way to address the issue is to work cooperatively. In our view, it is not going to lead to a long-term, durable solution to have significant incursions from Turkey into Iraq." KR
IRAQI GOVERNMENT CLAIMS ALLAWI, AL-DARI FUNDED TERRORIST GROUP
Iraqi Major General Abd al-Karim Khalaf, the director of the National Command Center at the Interior Ministry, briefed reporters on the investigation into the January battle between Iraqi security forces and an armed group known as Jund Al-Sama (Army of Heaven) that was plotting to attack the holy city of Al-Najaf, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," February 2, 2007). Khalaf said the group, originally called Jaysh Al-Ru'b (Army of Terror), was headed by Diya Abd al-Zahrah al-Qar'awi, who had ties to Saddam Hussein's intelligence services. Khalaf said the group was based on a farm that spans the borders and jurisdictions of the Al-Najaf, Karbala, and Al-Hillah governorates. Security services were tipped off on the group's activities and raided the compound, which was stocked with light, medium, and heavy weapons. Khalaf said the compound contained ample provisions, including medical supplies and a barber shop, and the grounds were laid out for terrorist training exercises. The eventual raid on the compound left 220 of the group's members dead and 190 injured, and 736 were arrested. Khalaf played the recorded confessions of a few of those arrested, who claimed Muslim Scholars Association head Harith al-Dari and former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi financed the group's activities. KR
TWO IRAQI WOMEN KILLED AFTER U.S. CONTRACTOR FIRES ON VEHICLE...
Guards from an Australian-owned security firm working for a company carrying out U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) contracts in Iraq opened fire on a civilian vehicle in Baghdad on October 9, killing two female passengers and wounding two others, international media reported. According to initial reports, the guards, traveling in four armored sport-utility vehicles, opened fire on the car after it failed to heed warnings to keep a distance from the convoy. Two guards subsequently opened fire and the driver of the vehicle and her front-seat passenger, both Christians, were killed. Two of three backseat passengers were wounded. One police officer who witnessed the shooting told AP that one guard exited his vehicle to fire on the car while another opened fire from an open back door. Iraqi police found 19 spent shell casings at the scene. Unity Resources Group, the Australian-owned security firm that employs the guards, issued a statement on October 9 expressing regret over the incident. This is not the first time Unity has been accused of reckless action against civilians, AP reported. RTI International, the company Unity was contracted to protect, also issued a statement saying none of its staff members were present at the time of the incident. KR
...AS IRAQI GOVERNMENT WEIGHS IN
Government spokesman al-Dabbagh told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television in an October 9 interview that the Unity shooting incident is "part of a series of reckless actions by some security companies that do not abide by any law and which do not believe that they are dealing with human beings." Al-Dabbagh said an investigation is already under way and indicates "some sort of excessive force was used." He said the government "is very angry" over the behavior of U.S.-contracted security firms, and will take the toughest possible measures against those firms. He conceded, however, that current law protects contractors from prosecution in Iraqi courts. In an interview with Al-Arabiyah television, al-Dabbagh said: "No other country allows these firms to act so freely. Iraq is a sovereign country and all firms, be they American or non-American should respect it.... The Iraqi government is going to take firm measures to protect our people and the feelings of Iraqis." Last week, an Iraqi government investigation into the September 16 shooting of Iraqi civilians in Baghdad by security personnel working for Blackwater USA concluded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2007). The government this week demanded Blackwater USA pay $8 million in compensation to each of the 17 victims' families. The committee carrying out the investigation said Blackwater personnel have killed 21 other Iraqis since 2003. KR
HEAD OF SHI'ITE WAQF KILLED IN IRAQI CAPITAL
Unidentified gunmen gunned down the head of the Shi'ite Waqf (Endowments) Office in Baghdad on October 8, Iraqi media reported the next day. Ibrahim Abd al-Karim was killed while traveling through the New Baghdad district. In December, gunmen killed 16 staffers from the office in Baghdad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 16, 2006). KR