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Newsline - November 24, 2003

State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Dmitrii Rogozin said on 23 November that the forced resignation of Eduard Shevardnadze in the wake of the storming by the Georgian opposition of the parliament building, is good in one respect -- in that Russia can openly see the new Georgian leadership's "honestly negative attitude to Russia," Ekho Moskvy reported on 23 November. However, he said, "we hope that the future Georgian leaders understand [Georgia's] dependence -- in its good sense -- on Russia, taking into account their historical and economic ties and the need to resolve problems of national security," Interfax reported. Meanwhile, Federation Council International Relations Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov said that Russia, "which itself recently overcame centrifugal forces, definitely does not want Georgia to disintegrate," RTR reported on 23 November. Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leader Boris Nemtsov said that Shevardnadze's decision to resign was not only right, but was a wise move, as it prevented bloodshed in Georgia, Ekho Moskvy reported on 23 November. VY

Union of Rightist Forces leader Anatolii Chubais, Yabloko leader Grigorii Yavlinskii, Motherland-National Patriotic Union bloc co-head Sergei Glaziev, and Vladimir Zhirinovskii, who heads the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), participated in prime-time electoral debates broadcast on NTV on 21 November. The participants in the debate focused on economic issues, but did not mention the Yukos scandal. Yavlinskii said Russia has exhibited economic growth without qualitatively improving its economy, social sphere, or society. This is similar to the Soviet era, he said, when economic indicators showed growth in the production of steel and coal, but there were no positive changes in people's lives and eventually the USSR's economy collapsed. Chubais said the conditions are in place in Russia for an economic boom, and noted that 80 percent of the country's income comes from the private sector. Glaziev said that a "thieves' economy" developed in postcommunist Russia, which killed any incentive for people to conduct business honestly. This, he said, is good for those who misappropriate others' assets, and profit from the exploitation of the state's natural resources. Glaziev said that Russia must create a real private sector that will sustain itself. Zhirinovskii reiterated his belief that Russia needs an authoritarian regime. VY

In his final contribution to the debate, Zhirinovskii launched a verbal tirade against the other participants, calling them "traitors" and "agents of the West" and the oligarchs, Russian media reported. Yavlinskii refused to speak to Zhirinovskii during the debate, because the LDPR leader had offended former Airborne Forces commander Colonel General Georgii Shpak during a previous public appearance. Shpak, who is a member of the Motherland-National Patriotic union leadership, was present in the audience, and Zhirinovskii singled him out to insult him. He also threatened economist Mikhail Delyagin, who defended Shpak after Zhirinovskii commented on the death of the former commander's son in Chechnya. Following the debate, Zhirinovskii's bodyguards physically assaulted Delyagin, according to Russian media. Glaziev, Chubais, Yavlinskii, and other politicians subsequently asked the management of NTV and other television channels to ban Zhirinovskii from participation in electoral debates. Over the weekend of 21-23 November, Zhirinovskii appeared several times on all the main national networks and was heard on Ekho Moskvy radio. VY

The liberal parties SPS and Yabloko might be struggling to pass the 5 percent barrier necessary to win seats in the Duma, but they are the most popular parties among regular Internet users, reported on 24 November. In an Internet poll sponsored by several popular Russian websites, 25.2 percent of the 50,000 respondents said they plan to vote for SPS. Yabloko came in second place with 16.1 percent. The pro-Kremlin party Unified Russia finished third with 10.8 percent. The least popular parties in the poll were the KPRF and the LDPR, each with 5.7 percent. Some 13.5 percent said they plan to vote "against all." In more representative polls of the entire electorate, Unified Russia and the Communists lead, with SPS and Yabloko each polling around 4 percent. BW

St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matvienko has nominated the financial director of a leading brewery to chair the city's Finance Committee, Russian media reported on 24 November. Citing Matvienko's press service, reported that she has nominated Aleksandr Nikonov, financial director of the Baltika Brewery, as chairman of the Finance Committee. Matvienko also reportedly plans to name Vera Dementeva, director of the company Severnii Svet, to head the city's Committee for the Protection of State Monuments. BW

Aleksandr Kulikov, the head of the working group of the Duma's corruption commission, said during his joint press conference on 19 November with Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 November 2003) that his commission has obtained testimonies by former Prosecutor-General Yurii Skuratov regarding his investigation into Russia's August 1998 default, the website of the Communist Party ( announced. According to these testimonies, some members of the Russian government who had direct ties to the organization of the default greatly gained financially from it. He said the testimony includes insight into the disappearance of $4 billion in International Monetary Fund loans and the misappropriation of as much as $20 billion. This is probably the reason the Central Electoral Commission is reluctant to register Kulikov as a Duma candidate, Kulikov said, because it fears that if he were to gain parliamentary immunity he would reveal "the Kremlin secrets." VY

Deputy Duma Speaker and former Tax Minister Georgii Boos said he supports the idea of having an informal arrangement between the state and oligarchs, TV-Tsentr reported on 22 November. Under such an arrangement, Boos said, the state would ignore any legal violations the country's oligarchs committed as they accumulated their wealth. In exchange, those oligarchs would agree to contribute to the betterment of society. He said it is important that oligarchies admit to any legal wrongdoing they committed, and only after that would they be absolved of punishment and persecution. Boos such an arrangement should not be an amnesty, but an informal, open agreement initiated by the business community itself. He said the state might be open to accepting such an initiative, although it probably would not be popular among Russians. In that case, the agreement could be backed a law that would codify all procedural technicalities, including a norm stipulating how oligarchs who refuse to join the agreement should be dealt with. He said a "normal society" would have a transparent business environment and an open way of exposing economic crimes and scandals. VY

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg is to hear an appeal from Aleksei Pichugin, a security officer working for the Yukos oil company, Russian media reported on 22 November. Pichugin's lawyers claim their client's rights were violated when he was arrested on 21 June on murder charges. According to the complaint, police allegedly injected Pichugin with psychotropic drugs during interrogations and refused him a doctor's visit afterward. BW

Vasilii Shakhnovskii, a major Yukos shareholder, has tendered his resignation as a deputy in the Federation Council representing the Evenk Autonomous Okrug, Ekho Moskvy reported on 24 November. The Evenk regional legislature will consider this request on 15 December. A regional court in had ruled that Shakhnovskii's election was illegal due to procedural violations. Shakhnovskii, the former head of Yukos's Moscow operations, is also under investigation for tax evasion. BW

Managers of the Yukos and Sibneft oil companies held their first public meeting on 22 November to discuss the companies' upcoming merger and vowed that despite the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovskii, the firm will be Russia's most efficient company, reported the same day. "We will remain industry leaders even if sometimes we have to go through difficult times," said Semen Kukes, a Russian-born U.S. citizen who has replaced Khodorkovskii as Yukos's CEO and will become the CEO of Yukos-Sibneft when the two companies merge. Kukes said the two firms will fully combine operations from 2004, when the company plans to boost output to 2.85 million barrels per day (bpd) from 2.3 million bpd in 2003. BW

At least 32 people died and more than 100 were injured in a fire on 24 November at a dormitory for foreign students at Moscow's Patrice Lumumba People's Friendship University, Russian media reported the same day. "The bodies of 28 victims were discovered inside the building, another three were found outside," Interfax quoted Interfax quoted Kirill Mazurin, the spokesman for the Interior Ministry's Directorate for Moscow City, as saying. "One person died in an ambulance. There were 521 people in the hostel, 272 were in the burned-out wing, and 139 victims received medical assistance." Firefighters received word of the blaze at about 2:50 a.m., Moscow Time. BW

The Moscow police force has launched a campaign codenamed "teenager" to crack down on delinquent youths, reported on 23 November. The operation, which comprises 3,600 officers of the Interior Ministry's Main Directorate for Moscow, has resulted in the arrest of 1,102 teenagers. Among those arrested are 291 for drunkenness, 34 for narcotics, 199 for vagrancy, and 43 for begging. Among those arrested, 565 were not from Moscow. According to the Interior Ministry, police have solved 36 crimes committed by teenagers during the operation. BW

The necessary conditions do not exist to create a CIS single currency, Armenian National Bank Chairman Tigran Sarkisian told ITAR-TASS on 23 November. He reasoned that "if we want to have a CIS common currency, we must follow the path of the European Union and unify laws." Sarkisian added it would be more beneficial for Armenia to join the European currency system, because the EU is so much more advanced than the CIS in terms of economic development. Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev told journalists last week that he considers the creation of a single CIS currency "a vital necessity," according to Interfax on 18 November. LF

Visiting Baku on 20-21 November, General Charles Wald, who is deputy commander U.S. forces Europe, met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiev to discuss the prospects for expanding bilateral military cooperation, Interfax and Turan reported. Wald said the United States plans to assist Azerbaijan in protecting its sector of the Caspian Sea and will launch a program for the Azerbaijani military analogous to the Train and Equip program in Georgia. He declined to answer questions about the possibility, currently under discussion, of locating a U.S. military base in Azerbaijan. Meanwhile a planned seminar in Baku organized by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and scheduled for this month has been postponed until next year, according to Azertadj on 22 November as quoted by Groong. LF

During his talks with General Wald on 20 November, Defense Minister Abiev said that as long as Armenia "refuses to liberate the Azerbaijani territories it has occupied," the threat of a new war over the unrecognized Republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (NKR) will increase, Turan reported on 21 November. NKR President Arkadii Ghukasian told journalists in Stepanakert on 18 November that he considers "blackmail" Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Guliev's recent statement that Baku will not agree to talks with the Karabakh leadership on resolving the conflict, according to "Azat Artsakh" on 21 November as cited by Groong. LF

Eduard Shevardnadze stepped down late on 23 November following talks with opposition leaders Mikhail Saakashvili and Zurab Zhvania mediated by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov, Georgian and Western media reported. Ivanov was dispatched to Tbilisi late on 22 November following the storming by opposition supporters led by Saakashvili of the Georgian parliament building (see item below). In accordance with the Georgian Constitution, Nino Burdjanadze, co-leader with Zhvania of the Burdjanadze-Democrats bloc and speaker of the outgoing parliament, assumed the presidential powers on 23 November pending new presidential elections, which must be held within 45 days -- i.e., no later than 7 January. Shevardnadze said he "has never betrayed his country," and that he decided to resign after realizing that the standoff would otherwise give rise to bloodshed. Burdjanadze told CNN late on 23 November that Shevardnadze had left Georgia and she did not know his whereabouts. But Saakashvili, who argued on 5 November that Shevardnadze should be forced to resign and given the statutory 14 laris ($6.50) pension, and last week that a plane was waiting to take Shevardnadze into exile, said on 23 November that it is a point of national honor that Shevardnadze should remain in Georgia, Interfax reported. LF

At a 21 November press conference, Georgian National Security Council Secretary Tedo Djaparidze acknowledged that U.S. criticisms the previous day of the 2 November parliamentary election were justified, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 November 2003). He proposed that the new parliament should convene, but should soon schedule new elections. But the opposition ignored that proposal, and Saakashvili appealed on 21 November to his supporters to attend a demonstration on 22 November to push for Shevardnadze's resignation and new presidential and parliamentary elections. Up to 30,000 people showed up for that demonstration and marched to the state chancellery, where Saakashvili called on Shevardnadze to resign. The demonstrators then proceeded to the parliament building, where Shevardnadze was scheduled to address the first session of the new parliament. Police and Interior Ministry troops deployed around the parliament building failed to prevent Saakashvili and his supporters from storming the main chamber and assaulting parliament deputies. Shevardnadze was taken by bodyguards back to his official residence, where he declared a nationwide state of emergency. He pledged to use the army to "restore order," The following day, Shevardnadze signaled his willingness to discuss with opposition leaders the possibility of new elections in accordance with the constitution on condition that they vacate the parliament building. LF

Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov met alternately on several occasions on 23 November first with opposition leaders and then with Shevardnadze in an apparent effort to persuade Shevardnadze to step down, Reuters and Caucasus Press reported. In midafternoon, Saakashvili issued an ultimatum to Shevardnadze to resign within hours, threatening to lead a crowd of supporters to storm the presidential residence if he failed to do so. That evening, however, Saakashvili called off the march on Shevardnadze's residence but went there himself together with Ivanov and Zhvania for the brief meeting that ended with Shevardnadze signing his statement of resignation in return for immunity from prosecution. LF

Russian Foreign Minister Ivanov flew from Tbilisi late on 23 November to Batumi for talks with Adjar State Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze, Georgian media and ITAR-TASS reported. According to the official Georgian election returns, Abashidze's Democratic Revival Union gained 39 seats in the new parliament; but the U.S. State Department statement of 21 November unequivocally branded the Adjar election returns falsified. Abashidze assured Shevardnadze of his support when the latter visited Batumi on 10 November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November 2003). Abashidze declined on 23 November to comment on the previous two days' developments in Tbilisi, but declared a state of emergency in Adjaria in order, he said, "to protect our people." On 24 November, Caucasus Press quoted Abashidze as having said the previous day that he will not establish contact with people who have come to power by unconstitutional means. The Adjar parliament endorsed the state of emergency on 23 November, Caucasus Press reported. Since 1991, Abashidze has ruled Adjaria, which hosts a Russian military base, as his personal fiefdom. The republic has profited economically from cross-border trade with Turkey, and Abashidze has consistently refused to transfer taxes collected in Adjaria to the central Georgian government. LF

Eduard Kokoyty, who is president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, told Interfax on 22 November that he discussed developments in Tbilisi by telephone earlier that day with Raul Khadjimba, prime minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia. Kokoyty said they were both concerned that the standoff in Georgia could trigger broader destabilization throughout the South Caucasus. Both entities introduced heightened security measures on 22 November. On 23 November, Kokoyty said following Shevardnadze's resignation that the change of leadership in Georgia will not deter his republic from continuing its efforts to become a subject of the Russian Federation. Khadjimba, for his part, similarly told Interfax that the change of leadership in Georgia cannot change Abkhazia's status as an independent state. LF

Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB) has announced that a man from Shymkent was given a three-year suspended sentence for attempting to sell small quantities of highly radioactive curium-243 and -245 and cesium-137 that had apparently been stolen from industrial enterprises, reported on 22 November.(The report specified neither the date of the arrest nor the court that convicted and sentenced the man.) The head of the KNB department that deals with illegal sales of radioactive materials, Kuanysh Isaev, said the isotopes, which the man had been hiding in his apartment, were extremely dangerous but would almost never be used in nuclear bombs. They could, however, be used in making a so-called dirty bomb. The security service is particularly interested in finding out who wanted to buy the isotopes and why. BB

Adherents of the radical Islamic party Hizb ut-Tahrir distributed literature in at least three Kyrgyz cities and the northern Kazakh town of Pavlodar at the end of Ramadan, according to local authorities. A Pavlodar resident from the Caucasus was arrested on the evening of 21 November for distributing Hizb ut-Tahrir literature at the oblast's main mosque that called for acts of civil disobedience against the government of Uzbekistan, reported the same day. It was not the first time that Hizb ut-Tahrir was found in Pavlodar, according to the website; the authorities believe the literature was brought from southern Kazakhstan, where three men were recently sentenced for running a Hizb ut-Tahrir print shop (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 October 2003). Hizb ut-Tahrir leaflets also were distributed in Djalal-Abad, Osh, and Karakol in Kyrgyzstan, reported on 21 November. Those in the latter two towns called on the Kyrgyz government to stop cooperating with Uzbek President Islam Karimov. BB

The Turkmen Justice Ministry held a meeting on 18 November for some 40 representatives of unregistered nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and warned them to cease their activities immediately, reported on 22 November, quoting the Moscow-based human rights organization Memorial. The warning was connected with a presidential decree (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 November 2003) that was signed into law on 21 November and went into force the same day. According to the law, unregistered NGOs are subject to confiscation of their property, and repeat offenses can be punished by up to one year in prison. Registered but independent NGOs have been summoned for court hearings on their dissolution. One of the affected groups is the Dashoguz Ecological Club, Turkmenistan's oldest environmental NGO, registered in 1992. The only groups seemingly unaffected by the new law are the government-sponsored organizations (Women's Union, Youth Association, Veterans' Association, state Trade Union Association, and the Democratic Party) that make up the Galkynysh (Revival) Movement, which exists primarily to promote the president's policies. BB

More than 7,000 prisoners were reportedly released in Turkmenistan in the annual amnesty commemorating the holy night that marks the end of Ramadan, and Russian media reported on 21 November. In what has become an annual tradition, candidates for amnesty were required to swear on the Koran, a loaf of bread, and President Saparmurat Niyazov's book "Rukhnama" that they repented and will not repeat their crimes. About 70 of those amnestied were farmers who had been jailed for hiding grain instead of handing it in at state procurement points, according to Deutsche Welle on 21 November (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 October 2003). BB

The head of administration of a raion in Uzbekistan's Kashkadarya Oblast has been killed, Deutsche Welle reported on 21 November, noting that the oblast is the site of the U.S. air base at Khanabad. The killing reportedly has drawn considerable interest because of the presence of the air base. The raion official, Panzhi Chariev, might have been the victim of a political rival, but Deutsche Welle reported that rumors are spreading that Chariev was killed by Islamic extremists. Law enforcement officials have been unwilling to comment. BB

Martti Ahtisaari, a personal representative on Central Asia for Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Chairman in Office Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Tashkent on 21 November to discuss the work of the OSCE in Uzbekistan and the problems of the Central Asian region, reported the following day. The Uzbek leadership is eager to see the OSCE's work in Uzbekistan equally balanced among the organization's three areas of responsibility: military-political, economic-environmental, and the humanitarian. In a separate meeting, Ahtisaari and Uzbek Foreign Minister Sodiq Safaev focused particularly on stabilizing the situation in Afghanistan. BB

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka instructed his government on 21 November to ensure annual economic growth of 10 percent in 2004 and 2005, Belapan reported. "Some might find this excessive, but I'll say that the officials who fail to ensure the achievement of the targets set at the Second All-Belarusian Popular Congress will have to resign," he said. That Soviet-style congress, held in May 2001 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 May 2001), approved a government-drafted program for Belarus's socioeconomic development in 2001-05 that served as the economic plank of Lukashenka's re-election platform later that year. The program provided for a 40 percent increase in the country's GDP between 2000 and 2005, and a 25 percent increase in GDP compared with 1990. Lukashenka pledged that the average monthly pay in 2005 will total $250. JM

A new political party initiated by Chamber of Representatives member Uladzimir Navasyad and called the Party of Freedom and Progress (PSP) held its founding convention in Minsk on 22 November, Belapan reported. Ninety-nine delegates to the convention unanimously elected Navasyad PSP chairman. The PSP charter defines the organization as a liberal political party intended to promote democratic and liberal values, push for democratic and liberal reforms, develop civil society and local self-government, and further the establishment of the rule of law. Navasyad said it is too early to say whether the party will be in opposition or will seek to establish constructive cooperation with the government. JM

President Leonid Kuchma has called on his fellow compatriots to pay tribute to the victims of the man-made 1932-33 famine in Ukraine that claimed the lives of 5 million-10 million people, Interfax reported on 22 November. "Severe starvation was the apogee of mass repressions in Ukraine.... The truth [about the 1932-33 famine] only became common knowledge for the international public in the years since Ukraine's independence. In fact, the famine is today recognized as a tragedy of mankind," Kuchma said in his appeal. JM

The board responsible for handing out the most prestigious prize in U.S. journalism announced on 21 November that a former correspondent for "The New York Times" will not be stripped of his 1932 prize despite calls for its withdrawal, international media reported. A number of groups, including many within the Ukrainian diaspora, lobbied to have Walter Duranty's prize rescinded in light of a series of articles he wrote in 1931 on Soviet economic reforms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 May 2003). In publications following the award of the prize, Duranty remained silent over the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine. The Pulitzer Prize board said in a statement that the prize is awarded not for the author's body of work or for the author's character but for specific articles entered in the competition. "Duranty's 1931 work, measured by today's standards for foreign reporting, falls seriously short," the board said. "However, the board concluded that there was no clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception, the relevant standard in this case." JM

The meeting on 22 November of representatives from Res Publica, the Reform Party, and People's Union decided to postpone until 27 November further discussions on compromises to preserve their coalition, LETA reported on 24 November. The board of the People's Union on 21 November declared its willingness to continue coalition-saving talks, but did not agree to income-tax cuts. The extended board of the Reform Party on 22 November expressed willingness to accept the compromise proposal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 November 2003) of Prime Minister Juhan Parts of Res Publica to reduce personal income tax next year to 25 percent instead of 24 percent, but stood firm on its demands for parents' benefits. The main reason for the delay is that Parts departed for a visit to several European states on 23 November and will not return home until 27 November. SG

The 10th Congress of the Latvian National Harmony Party (TSP) was held in Riga on 22 November, LETA reported the next day. Delegates re-elected Janis Jurkans as the party's chairman in a contest against Riga Deputy Mayor Sergejs Dolgopolovs. Janis Urbanovics was re-elected deputy chairman. The congress adopted a new TSP platform calling for the consolidation of the nation, granting citizenship to anyone born in Latvia more than 10 years ago and to noncitizens living in Latvia for more than 10 years, and allowing noncitizens the right to participate in local elections. The congress called for Latvia to ratify the European Charter of Local Self-Government and the Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. It also amended the TSP charter so the party chairman, his or her deputy, and the TSP council and audit commission are elected for two-year terms instead of the current one year. The congress passed two resolutions. The first said the TSP will field a separate ticket for elections to the European Parliament headed by parliamentary deputy Boriss Cilevics. The second congratulated the national soccer team on winning a place in next year's Euro Championships. SG

Some 4,000 people gathered in front of the president's office on Daukantas Square in Vilnius on 22 November to urge President Rolandas Paksas to resign, "Kauno diena" reported on 24 November. There were also an estimated 400-500 people, including more than 100 transported from Kaunas by the radical right-wing Lithuanian Freedom Union, expressing support for Paksas. Police officers were able to keep the opposing groups separate. After the official rally was completed and its participants were departing, Paksas came out briefly to shake hands with his supporters. He returned to his office, where he spent more than three hours discussing the existing situation with parliamentary speaker Arturas Paulauskas. Paksas did not comment on the meeting. Paulauskas said the president admitted that he had made some mistakes but rejected the former's advice to testify before the parliament's ad hoc commission, which is examining the possible threat to national security resulting from alleged ties between presidential staff members and organized crime. SG

The prime ministers of the Central European Initiative (CEI) states, gathered in Warsaw for a three-day summit, said in a statement on 21 November that the doors to the European Union should remain open to all states that are interested in membership and fulfill EU criteria, PAP reported. Participants in the summit also stressed the need for tighter cooperation in the struggle with international terrorism. The CEI, formed originally by Austria, Italy, Hungary, and Yugoslavia in 1989, now consists of 17 countries: Albania, Austria, Belarus, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Hungary, and Italy. JM

Prime Minister Leszek Miller said during a 22 November ceremony in Kuznica Bialostocka to reopen the modernized border crossing with Belarus that Poland is not going to build a "new curtain" on its eastern border, PAP reported. "The border must be sealed to pathology, to crime, but it must be open for individual traffic, trade exchange, and the flow of capital," Miller noted. Following its modernization, the Kuznica Bialostocka crossing has become Poland's largest and most up-to-date checkpoint on the eastern border. Its daily traffic capacity is 25,000 people, 8,000 cars, and 1,500 trucks. JM

Civic Democratic Party (ODS) Chairman Miroslav Topolanek told a two-day national conference in the southern Moravian spa town of Luhacovice on 22 November that the ruling coalition must be brought down, CTK reported. Topolanek accused the center-left cabinet headed by Vladimir Spidla of being anti-reform, anti-Europe, and corrupt. He said the ODS must prepare itself for the 2006 parliamentary elections, but at the same time the party must be ready to form a government if Spidla's cabinet falls before then. "We should demonstrate force, unity, diligence, and the capability to take over the responsibility of governing," Topolanek said. Finance Minister Bohuslav Sobotka countered that the ODS could not offer any alternative to the ruling coalition and simply employs "populist shouting." MS

Addressing the ODS republican conference on 22 November, the recently elected chairman of the junior ruling Christian Democratic Union-People's Party (KDU-CSL) said he considers the ODS a prospective future partner at the national, regional, and local government levels, CTK reported. Miroslav Kalousek said the KDU-CSL wants good relations with the ODS and understands that party's "zero tolerance toward the government" to be part of its "opposition strategy." He noted that the KDU-CSL and ODS cooperate in 11 of the 14 regional councils and in hundreds of local councils throughout the Czech Republic. Kalousek's speech drew loud applause from the audience. Politicians from the senior coalition Social Democratic Party quoted by CTK described Kalousek's speech as a form of courtship of the ODS and added that it is Kalousek's duty to remain loyal to the current ruling coalition. MS

The Independent Unions Association (ASO), an umbrella organization representing several trade unions, on 21 November urged President Vaclav Klaus to veto several of the public-finance bills that were recently approved by the parliament, CTK reported. A member of Klaus's presidential staff assured ASO leaders that the president will seriously consider their request. The ASO delivered a petition with 107,000 signatures protesting the proposed reforms. Last week, Klaus signed four of the 11 government-backed reform bills aimed at lowering the country's growing budget deficit. MS

Representatives of the opposition Smer (Direction) party, Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS), and the Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS) agreed on 21 November to vote against the government's draft 2004 budget, TASR and CTK reported. The three opposition parties also agreed to back votes of no confidence in Health Minister Rudolf Zajac, Justice Minister Daniel Lipsic, and Social Affairs Minister Ludovit Kanik, whom they blame for flawed reforms in the health system, the poor state of the judiciary, and "antisocial" policies at the Labor and Social Affairs Ministry, respectively. Smer Chairman Robert Fico would not say for "tactical" reasons when the opposition plans to present the no-confidence motions, but he said they will be presented separately and the first one will be aimed at Zajac. MS

Janos Ader -- who heads the parliamentary group of the main opposition party, FIDESZ -- on 21 November criticized the government's decision to dismiss the president of the Central Statistics Office (KSH), Tamas Mellar, Hungarian dailies reported. Ader said the cabinet expected Mellar "to be servile and understanding of the government's positions," "Magyar Nemzet" reported. Ader quoted Mellar as telling the daily that, when the KSH published GDP figures for the second quarter of 2003, the cabinet asked "why the figure is so poor." Government spokesman Zoltan Gal said, however, that Mellar is being dismissed because the KSH faces major challenges in the upcoming EU accession. In 1998 the FIDESZ-led government appointed Mellar to his post for a six-year term. He has been chairman of the UN Statistics Committee since March 2002, and last year Eurostat asked him to upgrade the European statistics system. The opposition FIDESZ and the Democratic Forum charge that Mellar's dismissal is another attack by the government on independent state institutions. MSZ

Julia Kiraly, Postabank president and chief executive of the International Bankers Training Center, told at a press conference in Budapest on 21 November that the banking profession is protesting the government's plans to dismantle the financial supervisory authority PSZAF (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 October 2003), "Napi Gazdasag" reported on 24 November. Kiraly said the move is not motivated by professional considerations and that placing the PSZAF under the supervision of a committee would be a step backwards. She also said the current leadership of the financial watchdog conforms to European norms. MSZ

Ivo Sanader, who heads the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ) founded by the late President Franjo Tudjman over a decade ago, said in Zagreb on 23 November that his party won the parliamentary elections and is preparing to form the next government, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 November 2003). President Stipe Mesic agreed that Sanader is the political leader most likely to form a government when final results are announced in early December. Preliminary returns suggest that the HDZ will have 61 seats in the new parliament, 73 seats in coalition with its most likely partners, and a total of 78 seats once the votes from the diaspora are tallied. The governing Social Democratic Party (SDP) appears headed to take 34 seats on its own and 64 seats together with its coalition partners. There are 10 geographically based electoral districts in Croatia, plus one at-large district for the ethnic minorities with eight seats and one at-large district for the diaspora. The final number of seats in the parliament will depend on how many members of the diaspora cast their ballots. PM

Returning to a theme he stressed during the election campaign, Sanader told reporters in Zagreb on 23 November that the HDZ is committed to Euro-Atlantic integration. "Our priority in foreign policy will certainly be joining the European Union and NATO and resolving all open questions with our neighbors," RFE/RL quoted him as saying. "We want fast normalization of these relations. We also wish a clear European perspective for our Eastern neighbors as they want it for themselves." A spokesman for EU External Affairs Commissioner Chris Patten told Reuters that "the only goal we have in mind is to work with Croatia in a pro-EU, pro-reform agenda." The EU did not fulfill the outgoing government's hopes of being promised admission by 2007. Brussels also alienated some Croats recently by appearing to suggest to voters that they should not vote for the HDZ or its allies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 October and 14 November 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 June 2003). PM

The SPD of Prime Minister Ivica Racan appears to have carried only the Istrian district out of the 10 legislative districts in the 23 November parliamentary elections, Reuters reported. Racan told reporters: "If these results are final, this really means we do not have enough votes to form a government coalition. In that case, I will be able to congratulate those who will [form the cabinet] and wish Croatian citizens a lot of luck and successes with the new government," RFE/RL quoted him as saying. Many voters appear to have been disappointed with the current government's failure to sufficiently raise incomes and the standard of living. The total voter turnout was 66 percent. PM

Quoting an unidentified "NATO diplomat," the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported from Brussels on 22 November that NATO is increasingly preparing to turn its peacekeeping mission in Bosnia over to the EU. A clear signal to that effect is expected at the December meeting of NATO foreign ministers, the daily added. According to the unnamed diplomat, the EU plans to make its mission acceptable to the United States by linking it to NATO under what is known as the Berlin-plus cooperation arrangement. The United Kingdom has offered to head the mission, which will also sit well with Washington, the German newspaper noted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 October and 18 and 19 November 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 September 2003). Several U.S. officials previously said that it is too early to discuss NATO's exit from the Balkans, where many Muslims and ethnic Albanians trust the United States but not the EU. Many in Washington also have doubts about the EU's ability to manage the security situation in Bosnia and about the EU's ultimate goal in building up a military bloc without the participation of the United States. PM

On 23 November at the beginning of his five-day visit to the United States, Macedonian Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski opened a new consulate-general in Detroit, which has been home to a large Macedonian population for nearly a century, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. In an interview with RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters, Crvenkovski called bilateral relations with the United States "excellent." He expressed gratitude that Washington supported Macedonia when it needed outside backing, such as during the 2001 interethnic conflict. Macedonian media expect that Crvenkovski will lobby in his talks with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Colin Powell for a clear signal at NATO's upcoming Istanbul summit regarding Macedonia's hopes for membership in the alliance. Crvenkovski told RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters that he hopes that his country will indeed receive such a message (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 November 2002). UB

The steering committee of the Democratic Party agreed in Belgrade on 22 November that it will field a list of 250 candidates in the 28 December parliamentary elections under the name Democratic Party-Boris Tadic, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Tadic is Serbia and Montenegro's defense minister and enjoys strong support in public-opinion polls. The use of names of individual politicians along with those of parties on election lists is no rarity in the Balkans, where charismatic leaders rather than ideological issues often constitute the main differences between some parties. The Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) will field its candidates under the name Democratic Party of Serbia-Vojislav Kostunica. The Democratic Party, DSS, and the G-17 Plus political party are the parties linked to the government that followed the ouster of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000 that are expected to fare best in the December elections (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 November and "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 November 2003). PM

Three smaller Serbian parties -- Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Nebojsa Covic's Democratic Alternative, Serbian Justice Minister Vladan Batic's Christian Democrats (DHSS), and Serbian Interior Minister Dusan Mihajlovic's Liberals -- will each field its own slate in the 28 December parliamentary elections, even though they stand little chance of meeting the 5 percent electoral threshold, "Vesti" reported on 24 November. Former Yugoslav President Kostunica recently invited politicians from small parties to run on his slate. Elsewhere, the Serbian Renewal Movement's (SPO) Vuk Draskovic told "Vesti" that voters should support his party because it is the only one untainted by involvement in either the Milosevic regime or the one that followed it. PM

The chief EU negotiator with Romania, Enrico Grilo Pasquarelli, said in Bucharest on 21 November that it is not "very important" for Romania to succeed in finalizing the accession negotiations by the end of 2004, Mediafax reported. What is important, Pasquarelli said, is for Bucharest to be able to meet the 2007 target of integration into the EU. He said Romania has a lot of work to do before being in a position to conclude accession negotiations. He also said the accession treaty should be signed in 2005, at the latest, and should be ratified in 2006 by all 25 EU members. Pasquarelli spoke at the end of a joint EU-Romania Association Committee session held in Bucharest. He also said the EU will grant Romania the status of a functioning market economy when the reform process is ended. MS

Greater Romania Party (PRM) Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor told journalists on 21 November that he is a "philo-Semite" and regrets having published pamphlets criticizing Jews, Mediafax reported. He said those pamphlets were "literary polemics which I now regret -- and that is all." Tudor also said that his depiction as an anti-Semite is "a great injustice, fueled and spread by [President Ion] Iliescu," and he accused Iliescu of having displayed an "irresponsible posture" towards the Holocaust in his interview with the Israeli daily "Ha'aretz" earlier this year (see "RFE/RL East European Perspectives," 30 October and 12 November 2003). He also said there is "a great similarity" between the PRM and Israel: "The former was born out of a journal [the xenophobic weekly "Romania mare"], while the latter was born out of a book, which is the Bible." Tudor ended the press conference by reciting one of the biblical psalms of King David. Tudor also claimed that the Iliescu-established international commission for the study of the Holocaust in Romania amounts to a "propagandistic proposal." Observers dismiss Tudor's claims as an attempt to mend his international image ahead of the 2004 presidential elections. MS

The Privatization Authority on 22 November announced it has nullified the sale of the Bucharest pipe-maker Republica to a joint Russian-Romanian consortium, Mediafax and Romanian Radio reported the next day. The consortium has not paid salaries to workers for nearly one year and last week more than 1,000 workers locked Yurii Trifonov, a representative of the consortium, in his office. On 23 November, the Privatization Authority also announced it has nullified the sale of the Ramnicu-Valcea-based Oltchim chemical enterprise to a Romanian businessman. Media reports last week said the privatization was carried out illegally, and the winner of the tender was not the highest bidder. MS

Commenting on the recent Russian plan for Moldova's federalization, separatist leader Igor Smirnov said on 21 November that he wants the Russian troops to be present in the envisaged future federation for 30 years as "peacekeepers," Moldovan media and ITAR-TASS reported. Smirnov also said Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE should offer political guarantees to Transdniester, which should apply even if the federalization plan is rejected in a referendum. Reacting to Smirnov's comments, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin said on the same day that any pacifying forces should be present in Moldova only for a short "transition period," Flux reported. He added, however, that he would not oppose a longer presence of Russian forces if those were to be joined by forces from Ukraine, the OSCE, and the EU. Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Aleksandr Yakovenko commented that "Moscow believes the suggested format and period of a [Russian] military presence will hardly be necessary under the current circumstances and the [likely] agreement on a political settlement of the Transdniester problem" (see End Note below). MS

The Tiraspol separatist authorities announced on 21 November the lifting of the ban on Moldovan officials entering separatist-controlled territory, Infotag reported. The move reflects "the change in the political situation" in view of a likely agreement on settling the conflict and the need to adopt "constructive and healthy positions" that do not obstruct "the dynamics of creating a federal state" that should "eliminate existing obstacles to interaction of the sides," the statement said. The separatist authorities imposed the ban on 21 March in response to the ban imposed by the EU and the United States on travel by Transdniester officials. On the same day, President Voronin told a forum of foreign diplomats in Chisinau that if the current "constructive dynamics" of the settlement process are maintained, Moldova will request that the EU and the United States lift the ban imposed on the Transdniester officials' travel. MS

Russian Deputy Defense Minister Vladimir Isakov and representatives of the separatist authorities signed a new agreement in Tiraspol on 21 November on a timetable for the withdrawal of Russian troops and military equipment from the region, RFE/RL's Chisinau bureau and ITAR-TASS reported. In Moscow, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said that under the agreement, two to three trainloads will leave the separatist region on a weekly basis and that "we plan to finish this job in six to seven months." The next day, ITAR-TASS announced that the withdrawal process has been resumed, with one trainload having departed that evening and another one due to leave on 24 November (see End Note below). MS

A group of Transdniester war veterans joined the picket in front of the Russian Embassy in Chisinau on 22 November, Flux reported. Organized by the opposition Popular Party Christian Democratic (PPCD), the protest is against the continued presence of Russian troops in Transdniester. MS

On 22 November, the United States decided to unblock military aid to Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia, and Slovenia, reported. Military aid to those countries had been frozen because they have not signed bilateral agreements with the United States exempting each other's citizens from handover to the International Criminal Court (ICC). In a first reaction, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Solomon Pasi said the decision shows that Bulgaria is able to pursue its main foreign policy goals -- EU integration and trans-Atlantic solidarity -- in an adequate way. U.S. military aid to Bulgaria amounts to some $10 million. UB

In the parliamentary debate on the government's efforts to curb crime -- a debate initiated by the conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) in the wake of a recent spate of violence -- Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski said on 21 November that he will not rest until the problem is resolved, and he pledged a series of new laws, reported. The debate focused primarily on the lack of coordination among government institutions tasked with fighting crime. However, the political parties did not miss the opportunity to trade accusations over the question of who is responsible for the current situation. President Georgi Parvanov expressed dissatisfaction with the debate, noting, "This was a debate on statistical data, not on politics" (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 November 2003). UB

Critics of earlier plans for Moldova's federalization as an instrument for solving the long-standing Transdniester conflict are likely to feel vindicated. They had warned against the dangers inherent in two earlier federalization proposals: one worked out by the OSCE at and following the Kyiv meeting of July 2002 and the follow-up proposal by Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin in February 2003.

But the Russian plan, nicknamed the "Kozak plan" after Dmitrii Kozak, the deputy head of President Vladimir Putin's administration who is its apparent "godfather," incorporates all the drawbacks against which federalization's critics have been warned, and adds new ones. Timing is also highly important, since the plan allows Moscow to show up at the forthcoming December OSCE Ministerial Council meeting in Maastricht as the champion of peace rather than as in breach for the second consecutive year of fulfilling the obligation assumed at the OSCE summits in Istanbul in November 1999 and Porto in December 2002. At those summits, Russia had pledged to withdraw its arsenal and troops from Transdniester by the end of 2002 and 2003, respectively.

If the Kozak plan is implemented -- as now seems likely -- there may be no need to complete the withdrawal any longer, or its completion might be followed by a speedy return of Russian forces under a different name. What is more, the plan might create a precedent to be applied at a later date to other conflicts within the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), such as Abkhazia or Nagorno-Karabakh.

Viewed from this perspective, the most important provision of the Kozak plan is the one stipulating that the envisaged federal Moldova will be demilitarized. This new stipulation (the OSCE plan mentioned that the issue would be dealt with in later proposals, while the Voronin plan called for unified military forces to be set up after a long period in which each side would have its own forces recruited on a territorial basis) is clearly aimed at creating a vacuum of military power in the region which could only be filled by Russia.

It should be read hand-in-hand with the absence from the Russian document of any mention of a mechanism of guarantees and political mediation -- an absence that distinguished the Kozak document from its two predecessors, in which Ukraine and the OSCE were mentioned alongside Russia as guarantors and mediators. Not that the mention was worth its ink, since OSCE decisions must be adopted by consensus and Russia therefore has the power to veto them, but it still offered a semblance of possible counterweight now vanished altogether. And, of course, there is no mention of a possible peacekeeping role for the EU, not to mention NATO. The absence in the Russian plan of any mention of security forces in the envisaged federation is also relevant. Russia, in other words, is to become the sole factor that could intervene and "save peace" in the event that the conflict breaks out again.

Some of the plan's provisions could moreover be construed as laying the ground for the resumption of the conflict. First, the envisaged decision-making process in the future federation is incredibly cumbersome, making it easy not only for Transdniester, but also for Gagauz-Yeri to effectively block it. It also gives Transdniester and the autonomous republic a representation that is disproportionately larger than their respective shares of Moldova's population. The "special majority" required for the adoption of decisions in the federal parliament thus in practice means decisions will be, at best, debated and, at worst, made by virtue of the Moldovan majority conceding defeat.

As a matter of fact, according to the Russian plan, no federal law can be approved without the agreement of the federation's subjects, which practically transforms Moldova into a confederation, rather than a federation. Furthermore, Transdniestrian and Gagauz-Yeri representatives in the cabinet -- each with the rank of a deputy prime minister -- are granted the right to veto any decision that affects their interests (a terminology that could mean anything), including decisions on joining or approving international organizations and signing treaties. Thus, the much-heralded Moldovan "strategic objective" of integration into the EU could be given the "kiss of death" by a simple Smirnov "nyet." The plan also speaks -- in Soviet-era jargon -- of "federal," "subject," and " joint federal-subject" powers, despite the fact that experts from the Venice Commission have already warned that "joint powers" are likely to give rise to disputes.

The granting of "official" status to the Russian language, alongside "Moldovan" as a "state" language, in practice lifts Russian to the level of a state language to be used all over the federation. As Kozak himself said in a recent interview in Chisinau, the difference between the two would rest in the fact that the national anthem and the swearing in of the president would be sung or, respectively, recited, in "Moldovan."

All in all, then, the Kozak plan constitutes a good recipe for safeguarding and advancing Russia's interests in the region. As for "Moldovan" interests, it would seem those would be restricted to the federation's official name. It remains to be seen for how long.

Five U.S. servicemen died and seven others were injured when their transport helicopter crashed near Bagram Air Base north of Kabul on 23 November, international news agencies reported. According to Major Richard Sater, a U.S. military spokesman based at Bagram and quoted by AP the next day, their MH-53 helicopter was involved in military operations, dubbed Mountain Resolve, in Nuristan and Konar provinces. Sater did not comment on the cause of the crash. Operation Mountain Resolve commenced on 7 November as part of a U.S.-led coalition campaign to destroy and deny sanctuary to enemy elements (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November 2003). AT

Former Afghan soldiers and Defense Ministry personnel assembled outside the Defense Ministry in Kabul on 23 November to demand three months of unpaid back wages and looming dismissals, the BBC reported. More than 1,000 people were reportedly involved in the protest, which turned violent when soldiers opened fire to prevent protesters from breaking into the ministry building. Defense Ministry Spokesman General Zaher Azimi said four protestors were injured, adding that that "they broke windows inside the Defense Ministry by shooting their pistols. The soldiers had no choice but to fire back." An estimated 50,000 employees are to be dismissed under reforms drafted within the Defense Ministry. Twenty thousand have already been laid off in the past 10 months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 September 2003). Azimi insisted that back wages will be paid to former employees. However, with the government currently dependent upon foreign aid, the ministry does not have funds available to pay wages to thousands of current and former employees, AP commented. MCS

A rocket exploded outside the Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul on 22 November, international news agencies reported. According to a hotel official, the blast shattered a glass wall surrounding the hotel lobby and blew out many of the windows in the 140-room hotel, AP reported. No injuries have been reported, but many of the hotel's occupants reportedly checked out for fear of another explosion. Police and NATO officials were on the scene shortly after the explosion to investigate the damage. No one has claimed responsibility for the blast, but this incident highlights security concerns in the capital. MCS

Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said a Kabul-led disarmament program to collect heavy weapons in northern Afghanistan began on 21 November, Balkh TV reported. Jalali, who was in Mazar-e Sharif, said rival commanders Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ata Mohammad have given assurances that the disarmament plans will continue and that they will "ensure peace" in the region. Jalali declined to provide details on the type or number of heavy weapons collected so far from forces loyal to those rival warlords, saying "the issue is confidential." He said, however, that "some tanks and heavy weapons have already gone" to a collection depot. Generals Dostum and Ata Mohammad, who were present with Jalali when he made the announcement, refused to provide details on the disarmament program. Dostum merely confirmed Jalali's comments, while Ata Mohammad added that his side will stick to the agreements it has signed. Troops loyal to Dostum's Junbish-e Melli party have fought against troops loyal to the Jamiat-e Islami party, led in northern Afghanistan by Ata Mohammad, since the demise of the Taliban in 2001. If the Afghan Transitional Administration is able to disarm the two, it will have taken a major step toward consolidating its power in northern Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 May and 5 June 2003). AT

The United States will not ask the UN nuclear agency to declare Iran in violation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) for hiding parts of its controversial nuclear program over the course of 18 years, Reuters reported on 22 November. But Washington wants France, Britain and Germany, members of the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) governing board, to agree to report any further breaches to the UN Security Council, Reuters reported on 23 November. The softened U.S. position is intended to ensure Iran's continued cooperation in opening its nuclear program to thorough outside checks. Iran recently agreed in principle to allow unfettered inspections of a nuclear program that the United States believes is designed to yield atomic bombs. The IAEA will decide on 26 November how to word a draft resolution condemning Iran's hidden activities. European members fear the charge of treaty noncompliance will prompt Iran to refuse further cooperation. VS

The head of Iran's top political-arbitrating body, the Expediency Council, has accused the United States of trying to deprive Iran of the right to develop nuclear power, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on 22 November. "I hope the Americans do not behave foolishly and deprive Iran of its right," the daily cited Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, a former president, as saying. "America and Israel are thinking of preventing Iran exerting its rights and trying with threatened force or enticement to impose their colonial views on others," he told a Tehran prayer congregation the previous day. Rafsanjani rejected charges that Iran is seeking nuclear weapons, "while we have firmly declared that we will not abandon the nuclear technology industry," he added. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said on 23 November there is no reason why Iran should be condemned after its "very constructive, transparent, and clear" cooperation with the IAEA, according to the ministry website ( Iran, he said, will wait for the new IAEA resolution, but, "to a firm resolution, we shall give a firm response." VS

Iran has dismissed as "distorted" and intrusive a UN draft resolution condemning human rights violations in Iran, IRNA reported on 22 November. Peymaneh Hasteii, representing Iran at the UN committee, warned on 21 November that the resolution might jeopardize future willingness to collaborate on human rights. Foreign Ministry spokesman Asefi said the resolution passed by a General Assembly committee was politically motivated and distorted the facts in Iran, IRNA reported on 23 November: "The Islamic Republic considers this resolution worthless and completely unacceptable." Canada's deputy UN ambassador has denied that the resolution, which it sponsored, is in response to the death in Iranian detention of a Canadian-Iranian journalist in July, AFP reported on 22 November. Reformers in Iran deplore the damage the death has inflicted on Iran's working relations with Canada. VS

Dissidents and intellectuals repeated calls for justice and reforms in Iran on 23 November as some 2,500 mourners gathered in a Tehran mosque to mark the fifth anniversary of the death of two prominent dissidents at the hands of security agents, AFP reported. The crowd, which included the recent Noble Peace Prize winner, Shirin Ebadi, called for a referendum on Iran's system of government and for boycotting the next parliamentary elections, set for February, according to AFP. "Should we take part in the elections?" ISNA quoted one speaker as asking the congregation. "No," it chanted, as organizers asked the crowd to remain orderly, according to ISNA. An AFP correspondent witnessed brief clashes between mourners and plainclothes vigilantes, who often disrupt liberal gatherings. The 1998 slayings of Dariush and Parvaneh Foruhar, and of other dissidents, provoked national outrage and the arrest of security agents the government said had taken the law into their own hands. VS

Iraqi interim Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari announced the appointment of Iraqi-American Rend Rahim Francke as Iraqi ambassador to the United States, international media reported on 23 November. A founding member of The Iraq Foundation, a Washington-based NGO, Francke is well-known in the U.S. capital, where she lobbied in support of human rights in Iraq and for the overthrow of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. Francke told reporters in Baghdad that one of her first objectives will be to reopen the Iraqi Embassy in Washington, which closed during the 1991 Gulf War. "I want to build the embassy to be the face of Iraqi diplomacy...and the new democratic and civilized Iraq," Reuters quoted her as saying. The Iraqi mission will temporarily work out of the Bahraini Embassy in Washington until work on the Iraqi Embassy is completed. KR

Two U.S. soldiers traveling in a civilian vehicle were reportedly killed in an attack by a dozen Iraqi youths on 23 November, international media reported. Media reports vary on the details of the incident. Arab satellite channels Al-Arabiyah and Al-Jazeera reported that the soldiers' car was attacked while sitting in a traffic jam in Mosul. The attackers reportedly pulled the soldiers from their vehicle and stabbed them to death. Meanwhile, AP reported on 24 November that gunmen shot the soldiers as they drove through the city center, causing their vehicle to crash into a wall. Iraqi teenagers then pulled the soldiers from their vehicle and beat them with concrete blocks, according to the AP report. It was unclear whether the soldiers were alive or dead when pulled from their vehicle. Iraqis also looted the soldiers' personal belongings. According to one Iraqi witness, U.S. forces were unaware of the attack until Iraqi civilians reported the incident. U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt confirmed the deaths of the soldiers but refused to provide details, telling reporters that it is against military policy to give such details, AP reported. "We're not going to get ghoulish about it," he said. KR

An Iraqi pipeline caught fire north of Bayji on 24 November, international media reported. According to Reuters, oil officials suspect that spilled oil near the pipeline had been set afire, causing the current blaze. Adil al-Qazzaz, manager of the Northern Oil Company, told AP that while he believes saboteurs were to blame for the fire, details remain sketchy as to the cause. Oil from the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk is processed at a Bayji refinery, and then transported via a pipeline to Turkey for export. According to Reuters, flames shot 7 meters into the air from the broken pipeline. KR

International air courier DHL announced on 22 November that it has temporarily suspended service to Baghdad after unknown assailants fired a surface-to-air missile at a DHL jet during takeoff in Baghdad that day, international media reported. The aircraft landed safely in Baghdad after the attack. "At the moment there are discussions ongoing as to whether we will actually suspend operations" for the longer term, DHL spokeswoman Patricia Thompson told AFP on 22 November. The DHL airbus was hit in the wing by at least one missile in the 22 November attack. It is the first civilian flight to be targeted at Baghdad International Airport. Militants have on several occasions fired missiles at U.S. military flights attempting to land or takeoff from the airport. Soon after the DHL announcement, Royal Jordanian airlines announced that it is temporarily suspending all civilian flights into Baghdad. U.S. officials later announced that all civilian flights into Baghdad have been suspended, AP reported on 24 November. KR