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Newsline - December 29, 2003

President Vladimir Putin said on 23 December that while no wholesale revision of privatization is planned, this "doesn't concern people who didn't observe the law," RBK reported. "We often hear that the laws were complicated and it was impossible to observe them," Putin said in a speech to the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry. "So speak those who didn't observe them. This is nonsense. Those who wanted to did observe the law." Putin said that those who "consciously stole" should not get "preferential treatment." "If five or seven people did not observe the law, it does not mean that everybody did the same," Putin said. This sentence sparked speculation in various media that five to seven leading tycoons might soon meet the fate of jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii. Putin also called for redistributing the "super-profits" of oil and gas companies, using such means as export tariffs and a tax on the extraction of natural resources. He added, however, that the government will work closely with business to decide how to proceed. JB

During the same meeting, Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Yevgenii Primakov said that "indiscriminately" applying the term "oligarch" to all major businesspeople is "offensive" and "dangerous," Interfax reported on 23 December. An oligarch, Primakov said, is a businessperson who "stuffs his pockets by means of machinations, including those with taxes, who can put a knife into an associate, who crudely tries to sneak into politics, and corrupts officials and deputies." These should not be confused with "honest big businesspeople," he said. Primakov, who previously served as prime minister, foreign minister, and foreign intelligence chief, echoed President Putin in calling for redistributing "super-profits" made from exploiting natural resources. JB

The Audit Chamber announced on 26 December that next year it will analyze the results of the privatizations carried out over the last 10 years, AK&M Online News ( reported on 26 December. Chamber head Sergei Stepashin discussed the planned review with President Putin on 25 December. The budgetary watchdog will also "assess the optimal tax level" on the LUKoil, Yukos, and Sibneft oil companies, while examining the effectiveness of the investment and restructuring programs being carried out by Unified Energy Systems (EES), the state-controlled electricity monopoly, and the development plans for Gazprom, the state-controlled natural-gas monopoly, RosBalt reported on 26 December. JB

Moscow's Basmannyi Raion Court on 23 December granted a request by the Prosecutor-General's Office to extend former Yukos CEO Khodorkovskii's pretrial detention until 25 March, Interfax reported. Khodorkovskii said in a statement that the court's decision is "illegal" and "completely discredits the idea of objective, independent, and open court proceedings," RBK reported on 24 December. Echoing comments made earlier by his lawyer, Genrikh Padva, Khodorkovskii claimed that the prosecutors had failed, among other things, to present conclusive evidence that Khodorkovskii presents a flight risk if released on bail or that the bail hearing had to be held behind closed doors. Khodorkovskii, who was arrested on 25 October, faces charges that include tax evasion, fraud, forgery, and embezzlement. On 26 December, the Basmannyi Raion Court extended until 30 March the pretrial detention of Menatep Chairman and key Yukos shareholder Platon Lebedev, who was arrested in July on charges of fraud in connection with a 1994 privatization of a fertilizer factory, Russian media reported. Lebedev faces other criminal charges, including tax evasion. JB

Human Rights Watch has urged European Union governments to raise the case of Igor Sutyagin, a former arms-control researcher accused of spying for the United States, with the Russian government, a pro-Sutyagin website,, reported on 26 December. "The Washington Post" reported on 25 December that a Moscow court has indefinitely suspended Sutyagin's trial, which opened in early November. Sutyagin, who has been held in pretrial detention for four years, denies revealing state secrets, saying that he did not have access to classified information and that the information he used came from open sources (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 November 2003). One of his lawyers, Anna Stavitskaya, told "The Washington Post" she believes that prosecutors postponed his jury trial "because they fear their position is very weak." She added that Sutyagin is in "a very hard psychological state," but is also "a very strong man." JB

Aleksandr Goldfarb, acting vice president of the New York-based Foundation for Civil Liberties, told Ekho Moskvy on 27 December that Mikhail Trepashkin, a former Federal Security Service (FSB) lieutenant colonel imprisoned on charges of revealing state secrets, has detailed alleged torture by his jailers. According to Goldfarb, Trepashkin was denied food and water for up to 48 hours, deprived of sleep, kept in sub-zero temperatures, handcuffed in a painful position, and denied a shower for a month. The mistreatment allegedly took place between 30 November and 20 December in the Matrosskaya Tishina Prison and the building of the Moscow District Military Court. Goldfarb said the methods used on Trepashkin are exactly the same as those used against imprisoned Soviet dissidents. He also said Trepashkin's only crime is to have "too deeply investigated the explosions of the apartment buildings in Moscow and Volgodonsk in 1999" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2003). JB

The Communist Party has picked State Duma Deputy and former Agrarian Party Deputy Chairman Nikolai Kharitonov as its candidate in the 14 March presidential election, Russian media reported on 28 December. Some 123 votes at a party congress were cast for Kharitonov, compared with 105 for State Duma Deputy and People's Patriotic Union head Gennadii Semigin, RIA-Novosti reported. Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov, who ran in 1996 and 2000, did not put himself forward as a potential candidate, saying that he wants to focus his attention on work with the party's grassroots organizations before a party congress in the first half of 2004, Interfax reported. Kharitonov, who has been elected to the State Duma three times, led the agro-industrial group in the last Duma. He is perhaps best known for his consistent advocacy of restoring the monument to Soviet secret police founder Feliks Dzerzhinskii in Lyubanka Square in central Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 July 2000 and 11 July 2001). Participants at a party plenum held on 27 December decided not to boycott the elections and said that Zyuganov should not be blamed for the party's failure during the 7 December State Duma elections, Tula Oblast Governor Vasilii Starodubtsev told Ekho Moskvy. JAC

On 26 December, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) picked State Duma Deputy Oleg Malyshkin as its presidential candidate, Russian media reported. LDPR leader Vladimir Zhirinovskii had announced earlier that he would not run as he has in the past two presidential elections. In an interview with Ekho Moskvy, Zhirinovskii explained that he wants to dispel the "stereotype that the LDPR is a party of one person." Malyshkin is a former raion head from Rostov Oblast and was elected to the Duma for the first time this month from party's southern regional party list. Malyshkin became first deputy head of the LDPR in the spring of 2001 and heads its security service. According to, Zhirinovskii claimed earlier that he had fired Malyshkin and other members of protection team following a fight that occurred after a televised campaign debate on 21 November. JAC

In an interview with Radio Mayak on 27 December, Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov said he will seek the presidential nomination of his party, the Party of Life, at its extraordinary congress on 4 January. He explained that part of his motivation is that "the Russian presidential elections must be democratic and there must definitely be a choice of alternative candidates." He added that a presidential campaign will also provide him an additional platform to explain the ideas of his party to the voters. Also on 27 December, the Central Election Commission registered a citizens group seeking to nominate pharmaceutical tycoon Vladimir Bryntsalov as a presidential candidate. Bryntsalov on 7 December was again elected to the State Duma on the Unified Russia party list. The commission refused to register a group supporting the candidacy of coffin maker German Sterligov. JAC

In an article in "Moskovskii komsomolets" on 26 December, Orel Oblast Governor and former Federation Council Chairman Yegor Stroev argued that many regional leaders are in "a particularly dangerous" position at the moment. "The regional leaders are closer to the open wounds of society than state officials at the federal level and are forced to hire personal bodyguards at great expense," he said. "It would be much better to have them protected by the Federal Protection Service than by any unknown people, up to and including organized-crime groups." He also noted that in recent years, Russia has "lost a number of regional leaders for various reasons." In October 2002, Magadan Oblast Governor Valentin Tsvetkov was shot dead in central Moscow, and in August 2003, Sakhalin Oblast Governor Igor Fakhutdinov died in helicopter accident. In April 2002, Krasnoyarsk Krai Governor Aleksandr Lebed died in a similar crash. JAC

Tatarstan's Constitutional Court issued a ruling on 24 December stating that the republic has the right to determine which script is used in writing the Tatar language, RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service reported. The court was considering an appeal by the republican legislature's Committee on Science, Education, Culture, and National Issues. In September 1999, the Tatar legislature passed a law restoring Latin script for the Tatar language, and a year ago, the State Duma passed a federal law making Cyrillic mandatory for all state languages. The committee's chairman, Razil Valeev, told TNV television that the court's decision does not put an end to the issue, noting that the "problem of defining the official language of a republic has long since turned into a political matter rather than a legal one." He added that his committee will seek further discussion of the matter in the republican legislature and might seek additional clarification from the federal Constitutional Court. JAC

Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov dismissed State Fisheries Committee Chairman Aleksandr Moiseev on 25 December, Russian media reported. Moiseev served in the position less than seven months and is being replaced by his first deputy, Vladimir Burkov. During his short tenure, Moiseev was "able to change fundamentally the rules of the game for fishing enterprises," according to "Vedomosti" on 26 December. He cancelled auctions for fish quotas and fired regional officials who had been responsible for dispensing quotas. According to the newspaper, Moiseev is being "transferred to another post," but that position has not yet been determined. In the meantime, the fate of the commission is uncertain, pending a long-delayed reform of government ministries. There has been some discussion that the committee will be liquidated and its functions absorbed by the Agriculture Ministry, the newspaper reported. JAC

The Moscow Municipal Court ruled on 26 December that a jury will hear the case against the accused murderers of slain State Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov, ITAR-TASS reported. The trial is scheduled to begin on 26 January. Yushenkov was shot dead in Moscow in April, and prosecutors will argue that the murder was the result of an intraparty dispute within the Liberal Democratic Party. "Izvestiya" reported earlier that Yushenkov's family favors a jury trial because Yushenkov long advocated the introduction of jury trials in Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 December 2003). JAC

Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii told journalists in Moscow on 24 December that Chechen field commander Shamil Basaev claimed in a statement posted the previous day on to have masterminded the suicide bombings of a commuter train in the North Caucasus on 5 December and a hotel in Moscow two days later, Reuters reported. Yastrzhembskii added that the Russian authorities have no proof to substantiate Basaev's claim. But on 19 December, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev told journalists that Basaev was responsible for both bombings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2003). LF

Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on 23 December, pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov criticized what he termed a lack of coordination among the various federal agencies -- the Interior Ministry, the Defense Ministry and the FSB --operating in Chechnya, Interfax reported. He proposed that the local operations of those agencies be temporarily subordinated to the Chechen Interior Ministry. Kadyrov also again criticized Moscow's approach to financing reconstruction in Chechnya. He said Chechnya should retain a larger share of the profits from its oil industry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 October 2003). LF

Parliament deputies approved on 25 December by a vote of 96 to six the amended draft budget for 2004, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The final version envisages revenues of 287 billion drams ($508 million) and expenditures of 317.5 billion drams. Both figures are less than those envisaged in the draft approved by the government in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 October 2003). The final figures for expenditures was, however, increased by 6 billion drams at the insistence of some deputies from the Orinats Yerkir Party (a junior member of the ruling three-party coalition), who threatened to vote against the bill. Defense accounts for the largest single item of expenditure at 49.6 billion drams, a 12 percent increase over 2003. Increased spending on education and health care will be financed by a planned 16 percent increase in tax revenues. LF

At an Appeals Court hearing on 26 December, Gegham Shahbazian effectively retracted his pretrial and trial testimony identifying businessman Armen Sargsian as the person who commissioned the December 2002 killing of Armenian Public Television and Radio head Tigran Naghdalian, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Sargsian was convicted and sentenced last month to 15 years' imprisonment for his role in the murder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 November 2003). In his pretrial testimony, Shahbazian said he was told by a second suspect, Hovannes Harutiunian (aka Aper), that Sargsian was behind the killing. But on 26 December, Shahbazian said Harutiunian admitted that it was he who wanted Naghdalian killed, because he suspected Naghdalian of involvement in the October 1999 murder of his cousin and Sargsian's brother, Vazgen. Shahbazian said he believes Armen Sargsian is innocent. Shahbazian was sentenced to 11 years' imprisonment on charges of having commissioned Harutiunian to hire two hit men to carry out the killing. He declined to explain why he has retreated from his original testimony. LF

Akif Nagi, chairman of the Organization for the Liberation of Karabakh, was fired on 26 December from his job as assistant professor of history at Azerbaijan Technical University, and has given a written pledge not to leave the country, Turan reported. He had worked in that position for18 years. On 25 December, Nagi's deputy, Barat Imani, told Turan that charges of hooliganism have been brought against Nagi and several other people who sought on 6 June to clarify the circumstances of the dismissal from the State Oil Academy of Professor Akhad Ibrahimov. Ibrahimov was fired for having signed in April 2003 a petition drafted by Amal, an organization representing the Azerbaijani intelligentsia, calling on then President Heidar Aliyev to resign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 April, 14 May, and 18 June 2003). LF

Azerbaijani border guards have detained on the border with Iran a person suspected of involvement in the 20 November bombings of the HSBC Bank and the British consulate in Istanbul, State Border Service Chairman Elchin Quliev said on 25 December, Russian media reported. No details of the suspect's identity or nationality were divulged. LF

On a one-day visit to Baku on 27 December, Zurab Zhvania met with Azerbaijani Prime Minister Artur Rasizade and with President Ilham Aliyev to discuss bilateral relations and economic cooperation, including construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil-export pipeline, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported. Zhvania described that project as a top priority for Georgia, and Azerbaijan as Georgia's "major strategic partner and closest ally." LF

Acting Georgian President Nino Burdjanadze held talks in Moscow on 24 December with Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov and, the following day, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, Russian and Georgian media reported. Upon her return to Tbilisi, Burdjanadze described her talks with Putin as open, sincere, and a step toward overcoming mutual hostility between the two countries. Topics discussed reportedly included Russia's suspension of its visa requirement for residents of Georgia's Adjar Autonomous Republic, bilateral trade and economic cooperation, and the closure of the Russian military bases in Georgia. Echoing earlier statements, Defense Minister Ivanov told Interfax that Russia needs 11 years to withdraw its troops from Georgia. Responding to allegations by Russian presidential aide Sergei Yastrzhembskii on 24 December that Georgia serves as a conduit for terrorists infiltrating Chechnya, Burdjanadze said on 24 December that she has inspected Georgia's border with Chechnya and Daghestan and is sure it is adequately guarded. On 26 December, however, she admitted that several Chechen militants killed last month had Georgian visas in their travel documents, but added that those visas were issued in 2000-01, and blamed "the previous Georgian leadership" which, she said "always denied the obvious," Interfax reported. LF

Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze announced in Batumi on 28 December that polling stations will be opened in his republic on 4 January to enable voters to cast their ballots in the extraordinary presidential election, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported. Abashidze had previously insisted that the presidential ballot is unconstitutional and will inevitably be rigged. He advocated postponing for six months both the presidential and the repeat parliamentary elections, and holding a referendum on transforming Georgia into a federation. Abashidze expressed his gratitude to U.S. Ambassador to Georgia Richard Miles, who traveled to Batumi on 17 and 23 December to try to persuade Abashidze not to boycott the vote. On 26 December, Interfax quoted an unnamed Georgian official as saying that during Georgian State Minister Zhvania's 20 December visit to Batumi, Zhvania expressed readiness to implement unspecified "economic projects" in Adjaria. But Caucasus Press on 24 December quoted Zhvania as denying that he agreed to create a free economic zone, for which Adjaria has been lobbying for several years. LF

Unknown gunmen fired one round from a grenade launcher toward the premises of the independent television station Rustavi-2, which is located on the 17th floor of a building in Tbilisi, early on 29 December State Security Minister Valeri Khaburzania told journalists, Caucasus Pres and ITAR-TASS reported. No one was injured, but the central studio was partly destroyed. LF

After reportedly suffering a heart attack, David Mirtskhulava was taken on 24 December to a hospital from the Prosecutor-General's Office, to which he had been summoned for questioning about the embezzlement of some $2.2 million intended to pay for electricity supplied to Georgia by Armenia, ITAR-TASS reported. Georgian presidential candidate Mikhail Saakashvili said Mirtskhulava was arrested because he planned to flee to Russia via Abkhazia, according to Caucasus Press on 24 December. Saakashvili added that "someone should be held responsible" for the population having been left to suffer without light or heating. Mirtskhulava's lawyer Eka Beselia said her client is the victim of political persecution. LF

During Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev's official visit to Kazakhstan on 25 December, he and Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev signed an agreement on closer ties between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. After the signing Nazarbaev told a press conference that the agreement includes a plan for economic integration because economic relations would form the basis for any sort of union between the two countries. However, he denied that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan aspire to a union similar to that of Russia and Belarus, according to KazInform on 25 December. Nazarbaev said he envisages a partnership that would include mutual defense. Akaev commented that the CIS states ultimately will have to integrate into a Eurasian Union, for which the populations of the CIS countries might be more ready than their politicians are. BB

Kazakh President Nazarbaev on 23 December signed a decree dissolving the Kazakh Justice Ministry's Committee on Combating Drug Addiction and Drug Trafficking and transferring responsibility for fighting the drug trade to the Interior Ministry, KazInform reported on 24 December. The presidential press office said the transfer is one of a series of changes in government administration included in the decree. The finance police were transformed into an independent Agency for Combating Corruption and Economic Crime, taking over this function from the Interior Ministry. Responsibility for the country's penal and pretrial-detention facilities was transferred from the Interior Ministry to the Justice Ministry. The decree also instructed the government to draft legislation giving the customs service the authority to engage in investigative work. BB

Kazakh President Nazarbaev on 23 December appealed for international organizations to stop interfering in domestic Kazakh affairs and, in particular, to stop telling the country which laws to adopt and which to reject, Deutsche Welle reported on 23 December and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 25 December. Nazarbaev's comments came in reaction to recent appeals from international journalism organizations against the adoption of a controversial draft media law. The government draft has been sharply criticized by independent Kazakh journalists, who say it gives the state too much power over the media. The international journalism group Reporters Without Borders has said the draft does not meet international standards for freedom of the media and of expression, a view shared by other international organizations that have assessed the text, including the OSCE and the International Press Institute. BB

Tajik Foreign Minister Talbak Nazarov told a press conference on 24 December that Tajikistan has not rejected the establishment of a Russian military base on its soil, despite assertions to the contrary in some Russian media, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 25 December. Russian military officials want to transform the 201st Motorized Infantry Division, which has been stationed in Tajikistan for many years, into a full-scale military base, but negotiations have gone slowly throughout 2003. Tajik sources, including Nazarov, say only a few points remain to be resolved, the same situation that has existed for several months. Nazarov added that Tajikistan has good relations with the Russian Federation and hopes the two countries will remain strategic partners. BB

The Turkmen Embassy in Moscow sent a note on 26 December to the Russian Foreign Ministry protesting an assault on the embassy on 25 December by unidentified people throwing bottles of black paint, RIA-Novosti reported. According to on 26 December, radical writer Eduard Limonov's National Bolshevik Party claimed responsibility for the attack. The Russian Foreign Ministry responded to the Turkmen note with an expression of regret and a statement that the culprits are being sought by police. BB

The Uzbek parliament has adopted a law restricting the use of the death penalty to cases involving terrorism and premeditated murder with aggravating circumstances, Interfax reported on 25 December, quoting the Uzbek Foreign Ministry. Genocide was dropped as grounds for applying the death penalty. According to the Foreign Ministry, the death penalty was removed as an option from several article of the Criminal Code in 1998. The report asserts that 44.8 percent fewer verdicts carrying the death penalty were handed down in 2002 than in 2001, but no figures were given. In recent months, Uzbekistan has been criticized by international human rights organizations for allowing corruption to affect the application of the death penalty. BB

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka appointed new ministers of economy, industry, agriculture, and housing on 24 December, Belapan reported, quoting the president's press office. Mikalay Zaychanka, formerly first deputy economy minister, was promoted to the minister's post. Anatol Rusetski, formerly chairman of the Council of Ministers' Committee on Science and Technologies, was appointed industry minister. Vasil Dvaraninavich replaced Zyanon Lomats as agriculture minister. Lomats took over Dvaraninavich's former job as a presidential aide. Uladzimir Belakhvostau, deputy chairman of the Minsk City Executive Committee, was appointed minister of housing. Lukashenka also appointed Uladzimir Syamashka, formerly acting deputy prime minister, first deputy prime minister. AM

Two members of the Conservative Christian Party in Vitsebsk, Uladzimir Pleshchanka and Alyaksandr Salavyan, were sentenced by a district court on 22 December to $1,050 and $1,227 fines, respectively, for collecting signatures on a petition to annul the 1999 treaty that created the Russia-Belarus Union, Belapan reported. The court characterized Pleshchanka and Salavyan's activity as an "unauthorized street demonstration." The average monthly wage in Belarus is estimated at around $100. AM

The Verkhovna Rada approved the so-called Medvedchuk-Symonenko amendments to the Ukrainian Constitution on 24 December, Interfax reported. Approval came on the strength of 276 votes, fewer than the two-thirds majority (300) that will be required when the draft amendments come before the legislature again in mid-January. The bill would allow for the direct election in October 2004 of a president, who would serve until a new president is elected by the Verkhovna Rada in 2006, among other changes (see "Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 23 December 2003, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2003). The Our Ukraine, Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, and Socialist Party of Ukraine caucuses opposed the amendment. AM

State Forest Management Center (RMK) Director Aigar Kallas tendered his resignation on 23 December after the RMK council proposed that he step down, BNS reported the next day. Council Chairman Andres Onemar said the council did not reproach Kallas over RMK's economic results, but he alleged errors in managerial judgment -- including the RMK development plan -- that prompted tension within the organization. Kallas said his dismissal was proposed by People's Union Chairman and Environment Minister Villu Reiljan, who opposed a development plan that included the dismissal of many RMK officials. Many of those slated for dismissal are rural residents and People's Union supporters, he added. The RMK board offered Kallas severance pay of 10 months' salary -- some 450,000 kroons ($35,700) -- if he resigned, instead of the six months specified in his contract. SG

The Latvian government appointed its representatives to the boards of the Riga and Ventspils ports on 23 December, completing a process that was supposed to have ended in time for those bodies to start work by the beginning of December, LETA reported. According to amendments to a law on port authorities passed by the parliament in October, the port boards, consisting of four members each appointed by the government and city councils, should have begun working on 1 December. Prime Minister Einars Repse delayed the appointments "to ensure quality." The cabinet approved the representatives proposed for the Ventspils board by the Economy, Environment, Finance, and Transport ministries. But the government had rejected the Economy Ministry's candidate to the Riga board, Viesturs Koziols, who is a business partner of Latvia's First Party (LPP) leaders Ainars Slesers and Arnolds Laksa. The activities of the Riga port have been hampered by the absence of a board since August, when the government removed its representatives (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 August 2003). SG

An appeal signed by 35 of the country's 60 district leaders urging embattled President Rolandas Paksas not to visit Lithuanian towns in order to avoid creating rifts in society was delivered to the head of state on 24 December, ELTA reported. Paksas has been engaged in a campaign that includes town-hall-style gatherings all over the country. The appeal, which was initiated by the Liberal Centrist mayor of Anyksciai, Darius Gudelis, said Paksas's visits to Lithuanian towns are "provoking the splitting of society and disappointment with truth and democracy." Noting that the "recent developments are causing damage to the authority of the presidency and weakening the image of our state among foreign partners," and that "the continuing presidential crisis may bring about international isolation for Lithuania," it urged Paksas to make "a resolute and right decision." The appeal has been widely perceived as a plea for Paksas to resign amid impeachment proceedings alleging that he has compromised national security and Lithuanian national interests. SG

President Aleksander Kwasniewski said on 23 December that Poland's involvement in stabilization efforts in Iraq might be gradually reduced beginning in 2005, Polish TV reported. 2004 will be a year of high activity in Iraq, according to Kwasniewski. "It is very important to maintain an international coalition...[and] implement a political plan for 2004 and 2005, a plan that envisages the formation of the Iraqi government, taking over the power in Iraq by this government, and the sorting out of many issues in international relations," Kwasniewski said. The next group of soldiers departing for Iraq will have an easier task due to the experience of their predecessors, he added. AM

Cabinet ministers adopted a bill on copyrights and associated legislation in its final session before a holiday break, "Trybuna" newspaper reported on 24 December. Backers say the bill would bring existing Polish legislation into line with EU standards, including new clauses on the dissemination of intellectual property, particularly via high-tech media. Widespread piracy in Poland has attracted the attention of the international community and domestic organizations dealing with copyright and associated rights. AM

Construction authorities in Slavkov u Brna (Austerlitz) in southern Moravia issued a building permit on 24 December for a NATO-financed military-radar facility whose placement is staunchly opposed by the area's mayors, CTK reported on 24 December, citing TV Prima. While the Defense Ministry welcomed the decision, Jiri Zivotsky, mayor of the village of Sokolnice, called it "scandalous." Local inhabitants fear adverse effects on their health and claim the facility threatens a nearby memorial commemorating the Battle of Three Emperors at Slavkov (Austerlitz) in 1805, during the Napoleonic Wars (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 August 2003). MS

Former Defense Minister Jaroslav Tvrdik and the Czech weekly "Respekt" agreed on 23 December to an out-of-court settlement of a dispute stemming from a May article alleging Tvrdik had telephone contact with the owner of a Prague brothel, CTK reported. The weekly later conceded that Tvrdik and Interior Minister Stanislav Gross had in fact spoken with the owner of building in which the brothel operates. Both Tvrdik and Gross said they have no reason to hide links with the building owner. "Respekt" Editor in Chief Tomas Nemecek, in a statement to CTK, said he deeply regrets the inaccuracy of the published information on Tvrdik and the "wild speculation in the media" triggered by the report. Tvrdik is now director-general of Czech Airlines (CSA). Gross's lawsuit targeting "Respekt" is expected to proceed in January, according to CTK. MS

President Rudolf Schuster told TASR on 23 December that the ruling coalition might find it easier to mobilize the 90 parliamentary votes needed to amend the constitution if he does not seek a second term. Presidential elections are due in April, and Schuster has vowed to announce his decision before the 15 January deadline for candidacies set by parliamentary speaker Pavol Hrusovsky. Parliament must amend the Slovak Constitution ahead of planned EU accession in May 2004. MS

Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan told TASR on 27 December that Slovakia is considering appealing to the Hague-based International Court of Justice (ICJ) over its unresolved dispute with Hungary over the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros dam. Kukan implied that negotiations with Hungary are going nowhere and Budapest is showing no willingness to resolve the long-standing dispute. Kukan said the only progress so far has been fixing a date for the next round of talks on the issue. In 1997, the ICJ ruled that Hungary violated international law by abandoning a bilateral agreement to build a hydropower network on the Danube River, but at the same time the court concluded that Slovakia was wrong in pressing ahead with the project and diverting Danube waters from Hungary to Slovakia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 September 1997). MS

Responding to criticism by Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs, the Hungarian opposition FIDESZ party's leadership issued a statement on 23 December calling Kovacs "unfit" to serve as Hungary's most senior diplomat, local media reported. The statement said FIDESZ rejects "with shock and consternation" Kovacs's criticism of its support for autonomy for the Hungarian minority in Transylvania. "The fact that Laszlo Kovacs...repeatedly takes the side of Romanian interests on this issue bears witness to such a level of malevolence and insensitivity to national interests that we can state with justification that Laszlo Kovacs is unfit to represent Hungary at any international forums as foreign minister," the statement charges. Kovacs had criticized the chairman of FIDESZ's national council, Laszlo Kover, who reportedly told a recent ethnic Hungarian forum in Transylvania that "it is regrettable that the peaceful and constitutional aspirations of the Hungarian minority [in Romania] for the assertion of its interests have thus far received less attention and supportive benevolence from European public opinion than the demands of those ethnic groups who have resorted to force" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2003). Kovacs said anyone who believes it is expedient to resort to violence to achieve autonomy and publicly expresses such a position is acting irresponsibly and harming the cause of autonomy for Transylvania's ethnic Hungarians. MS

The Federation of Hungarian Jewish Religious Communities (MAZSIHISZ) expressed disappointment on 23 December with President Ferenc Madl's decision to send a bill stiffening penalties for hate speech to Hungary's Constitutional Court rather than sign it into law, "Nepszabadsag" and "Nepszava" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 December 2003). President Madl meanwhile said in an interview with "Magyar Hirlap" on 23 December that he is aware that some in Hungary perceive his political activities as reflecting a pro-rightist bias; he added, however, that his decisions are prompted by his duty vis-a-vis the Hungarian Constitution. Madl said he is responding to the current political situation, rather than generating it. MS

The nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS) led by Vojislav Seselj, an indictee of the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, won Serbia's 28 December parliamentary elections, local and international media reported. According to preliminary results, the SRS garnered more than 27 percent of the vote, translating into 81 seats in the 250-seat parliament. The SRS was followed, in descending order, by: the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) headed by former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica, 17 percent (53 seats); the Democratic Party, 13 percent (37 seats); the G-17 Plus party, 12 percent (34 seats); the coalition of Vuk Draskovic's Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) and New Serbia, 8 percent (23 seats); and the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) that is still formally headed by war crimes indictee Slobodan Milosevic, 8 percent (22 seats). No other party met the 5 percent parliamentary threshold. Voter turnout was estimated at 58 percent (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003). UB

The SRS won a plurality among voters from the Serbian minority in the internationally administered province of Kosova, where it garnered more than 47 percent support, Tanjug reported. The SRS was followed by the Democratic Alternative party, which is led by the outgoing government's point man for Kosova, Nebojsa Covic. Kostunica's DSS placed third (just under 15 percent), while Milosevic's SPS garnered more than 12 percent support. Other parties did not meet the 5 percent threshold. Kosovar Albanian groups had urged a boycott of the vote. UB

The deputy chairman of the victorious SRS, Tomislav Nikolic, said on 28 December that his party is ready to hold talks on forming a government with any party, Tanjug reported. Nikolic added that those who engage in politics know what the citizens want: the SRS in power. Most democratic parties signaled before the elections that they are unwilling to cooperate with the SRS. DSS leader Kostunica said his party will decide about any future coalition at a party convention (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 15 December 2003). SPO Chairman Vuk Draskovic said the programs of the SPO and the SRS are incompatible. Miroljub Labus of the G-17 Plus told a press conference that he is concerned about Western reactions to the SRS's success. Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party said the election results show that without his party, there will be neither a democratic government nor a democratic Serbia. SPS Deputy Chairman Branko Ruzic said his party is open to forming a coalition with any other party as long as an agreement can be reached over national and social questions. UB

The government in Banja Luka on 25 December unveiled the makeup of the seven-member commission tasked with investigating the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, thus complying with a long-standing demand by the international community, FENA reported. The commission includes legal experts from the Bosnian Serb republic, as well as two members nominated by High Representative to Bosnia Paddy Ashdown (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 October, 5 November, and 19 December 2003). UB

Prime Minister Fatos Nano and President Alfred Moisiu met on 24 December to discuss a major government reshuffle planned by Nano, the "Southeast European Times" reported. Nano wants to replace as many as 12 ministers in order to stabilize his government and to overcome a political stalemate brought on by a crisis within his Socialist Party. On 27 December, the Socialists signed a coalition agreement with the Social Democratic Party, the Human Rights Union, the Democratic Alliance, the Environmental Agrarian Party, and the Social Democracy Party, ATA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 November and 3 and 15 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 June 2003). UB

Special elections were held in Tirana on 28 December to comply with an order from Albania's Electoral College, which ruled that the city's 12 October mayoral elections must be repeated due to "massive irregularities," the "Southeast European Times" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 and 15 October and 3 December 2003). The Central Election Commission voiced concern that the latest vote might also be overshadowed by irregularities. UB

NATO Ambassador to Macedonia Nicolaas Biegman told RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters on 28 December that army reforms in that country have not yielded substantial results. Biegman said that while a strategic review of the army is under way, key army reforms remain in the planning stages. Those reforms include adapting the army to the security situation, as well as a thorough reform of military expenditures, according to Biegman. UB

In an interview with Romanian Radio on 23 December, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase said he intends to reorganize the government at both the central and local government levels in February. Nastase hinted that prefects will be changed in those counties where "serious analysis" -- to be carried out in January -- shows poor performance or where polls indicate dissatisfaction with the performance of the ruling Social Democratic Party. Nastase also said he intends to reestablish the Environment and Tourism ministries, which were folded into other ministries in a June reshuffle (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 June 2003). Environmental matters are currently handled by Agriculture, Forestry, Water, and Environment Minister Ilie Sarbu, who shot himself in the thigh in a hunting accident near Bucharest on 27 December. Sarbu's injury is not life threatening, according to Romanian Radio. MS

Prime Minister Nastase and Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR) Chairman Bela Marko reached agreement on 23 December to resolve a long-standing dispute over reerecting the Liberty Monument in the Transylvanian town of Arad, Mediafax reported. Nastase and Marko agreed on placing the monument, which depicts the 13 Hungarian generals executed by the Habsburg regime in 1849, within a "reconciliation park" that also hosts a triumphal arch featuring Romanian historical landmarks. The blueprint for project is to be finalized by March 2004. MS

The Romanian cabinet voted on 23 December to allow citizens of EU countries to cross the border into Romania after presenting their ID cards, rather than passports, Mediafax reported. The regulation will come into effect 30 days after the decision is published in Romania's official gazette. MS

Zoltan Csondy, a journalist from Miercurea-Ciuc working for the local Hungarian-language newspaper "Hargita Nepe," was severely beaten on 27 December by an unknown assailant as he was leaving his apartment, AFP reported. Csondy suffered head and arm injuries. The incident marks the second time Csondy has been targeted. In September, he was assaulted by a group of unknown perpetrators as he was investigating the torching of cars in Miercurea-Ciuc. Prime Minister Nastase meanwhile condemned attacks on three journalists in separate incidents in the Black Sea town of Constanta, saying on 23 December that "the use of cudgels against the media is unacceptable," according to the private Antena 1 television channel. The Romanian Agency for Monitoring Press Freedoms said on 27 December that 16 Romanian journalists were physically assaulted in 2003 (see also "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 8 December 2003). MS

Alexei Tulbure, Moldova's permanent representative to the Council of Europe, said in an interview with Novosti-Moldova on 23 December that Romanian President Ion Iliescu would be well advised to be more careful in his statements about Moldova, Flux reported. Tulbure, who was commenting on a statement by Iliescu calling Moldova's nationalities policies "Stalinist" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 December 2003), said Iliescu will have to recognize the existence of a Moldovan national identity separate from the Romanian identity sooner or later. Tulbure added that if Romania refuses to do so, recognition will be "imposed" on it from outside. Iliescu would be forced to recognize the separate Moldovan identity just as foreign pressure forced Iliescu to acknowledge the perpetration of the Holocaust on Romanian territory, Tulbure said. "Nobody doubts that the Moldovan and Romanian language are identical, but every people has the right to self-determination and the Moldovan people has exercised that right," he added. On 23 December, Gheorghi Prisacaru, chairman of the Romanian Senate's Foreign Affairs Committee, called Moldova's recently adopted Concept of the State's Nationalities Policies a "historical and judicial aberration...reminiscent of attempts dating back to the Stalinist times," Mediafax reported. MS

Speaking in parliament on 26 December, President Vladimir Voronin charged that the opposition's stance regarding the Concept of the State's Nationalities Policies is motivated by its desire to recreate the "single-nation [Romanian] empire...expanded from the Tisa River to Tiraspol," Infotag reported. Voronin claimed that the Council of Europe has approved the concept, which has drawn heavy criticism from the opposition opponents who labeled it "an example of Stalin-style propaganda." Differences between the Moldovan and Romanian languages might not be readily apparent, Voronin said, but "to be 100 percent sure, we still need the qualified expertise of professional linguists." "One mustn't forget that for six centuries we have been calling our language Moldovan, while in the neighboring state, the designation of the language as Romanian is of rather recent vintage," he added. Voronin said the Concept of the State's Nationalities Policies was not conceived to outlaw Romanian identity or the Romanian language but, "on the contrary, it grants everyone the right to decide what his or her ethnic origin is." MS

Parliament approved in first reading on 25 December a bill initiated by President Voronin that would grant amnesty to all those who participated in the 1992 clashes between separatist Transdniestrian forces and Moldovan forces, Romanian Radio and ITAR-TASS reported. The amnesty would extend to Transdniester and Cossack combatants who fought in the clashes that took place between 2 March and 13 August 1992. Opposition deputies criticized the bill, which does not specify how many people would be affected. "This political and judicial act of mercy will help establish civil peace in society, eliminate many of the conflict's negative consequences, and facilitate the conflict's settlement," Voronin claimed. Separatist leader Igor Smirnov has repeatedly stated that the three members of the Ilascu Group still detained in Tiraspol will not be amnestied before Chisinau "acknowledges its 1992 aggression against the Transdniester people." MS

The European Parliament recently approved a resolution saying the EU is willing to join an international peacekeeping force under an OSCE mandate in the Transdniester, Flux reported on 23 December. The agency said that at its 15-18 December session, the European Parliament criticized the Russian plan for Moldova's federalization, saying the rejected scheme was "aimed at legitimizing the current situation in the region" and its approval would have created a serious obstacle to Moldova's democratization. The European lawmakers deplored Moscow's actions, saying that "despite the obligations it has assumed, Russia does not intend to withdraw its troops from the Transdniester region by end 2003" and thus is essentially contributing to the status quo and the maintenance in power of the Tiraspol secessionist regime. The resolution also said the evacuation of Russian troops and military equipment from Transdniester must in no way be linked to the negotiations for a peaceful solution of the Transdniester conflict. MS

The separatist authorities in Tiraspol on 26 December announced that they have "suspended" the process of Russian troop and weapon withdrawal, ITAR-TASS reported. The authorities said the withdrawal has been halted until "at least" 8 January, when separatist leader Smirnov is to make a statement explaining the decision. Smirnov recently threatened to halt the process in retaliation for Chisinau's last-minute refusal to approve the Russian plan for the country's federalization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2003). The Russian Defense Ministry announced that two military-transport planes evacuated portable surface-to-air missile systems and guided antiaircraft missiles from Transdniester on 26 December. According to ITAR-TASS, that decision was taken "in order to minimize the potential threat of these weapons being seized or used by terrorists." MS

The Bulgarian government declared 30 December a day of national mourning after five members of the Bulgarian military contingent stationed in Karbala died and more than 25 others were wounded as a result of 27 December suicide attacks in that central Iraqi city, reported. Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov, Army Chief of General Staff General Nikola Kolev, and a five-member medical team left for Karbala on 28 December, and are expected to accompany the bodies and a group of wounded soldiers back to Bulgaria. UB

President Georgi Parvanov lauded the professionalism and courage of the Bulgarian casualties of the 27 December bombings in Iraq and vowed to continue efforts to counter international terrorism, reported. "The losses, however painful they may be, must not divert our support for the international community's antiterror efforts," Parvanov said. Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski told journalists that everyone had hoped that tragedies like those of 27 December would not happen, but added that the fight against terrorism brings unforeseeable consequences. "We will not give in to terror, violence, and chaos. The young men killed have given their lives for this," Saxecoburggotski said. UB

"I'm a hero. It's easy to be a hero. If you have neither arms nor legs, you're either a hero or you're dead."

Those are the opening lines of "White On Black," Ruben Gallego's literary account of his life as a severely handicapped child growing up parentless in the Soviet Union, which this month was the surprise winner of the Russian Booker Prize.

In the sentences that follow, Gallego describes himself as a young boy, lying on the floor of an unheated hallway in a Soviet "detdom," a state-sponsored home for orphans and children with severe disabilities. Propping himself up on emaciated elbows, he rocks from side to side to drag his paralyzed body through the hall.

It is an unforgettable image. But asked to read the passage out loud, Gallego refuses outright. Speaking by telephone from his home in Madrid, he says to do so would give the wrong impression.

"I'm not a sad person," Gallego insists, his voice brisk and light.

"White On Black" was short-listed for several Russian literary awards this year before taking the Booker Prize. Gallego wrote it letter by painstaking letter, typing with the index finger of his left hand -- one of just two fingers he can control, and the key to his mobility in a motorized wheelchair.

Gallego was born with severe cerebral palsy in Moscow's Kremlin hospital in 1968. A twin died at birth. He spent the first year and a half of his life in and out of hospitals with regular care from his mother, Aurora, now a correspondent for RFE/RL's Russian Service, who was then a student in Moscow.

But Aurora's father -- the prominent head of Spain's Communist Party and the future author of the Spanish Constitution, Ignacio Gallego -- found the notion of a disabled grandson unbearable. During one of Ruben's hospital stays, he secretly had the boy sent to a state home, telling Aurora that Ruben had died. For the next 30 years, she had no idea that her son was still alive -- or what he was enduring.

This was the Soviet Union, with a glorified social welfare system that left no citizen behind. But Ruben Gallego, taken from institution to institution, grew to see a different side of the story. Left to the mercy of individual caregivers, young Ruben knew some kindness -- like when some of his "nyanechki," or nannies, would slip chocolate into his mouth, and set him up in front of the television, propped up by soft pillows. But he also endured cruelty and humiliation, when other caregivers would mock him with terrifying stories that soon he was likely to die.

But Gallego says orphanage workers were not deliberately cruel -- just a product of a cold-hearted system that repeatedly denied him necessities like a wheelchair. "They thought they treated orphans well," he says with a touch of irony. "After all, they didn't kill us!"

"How did they hide disabled people in the Soviet Union? They just denied [our] existence, the same way they denied the existence of all bad things -- the same way that in the Soviet Union, old age was completely denied, femininity was denied... things that are also rejected in the army. Actually, I would compare the system with the army. In the army you don't have old women or children. The army simply fulfills its role. The Soviet state was like an enormous army," Gallego said.

Even so, as his caregivers were quick to point out, orphans in the Soviet Union were fed and given an education. It was a far better fate, Gallego was taught to believe, than that which befell handicapped children in countries elsewhere. Gallego reads a darkly humorous passage from his book on how he first came to be intrigued by the Soviets' archenemy, the United States.

"I loved America from the time I was 9 years old. Because when I was nine I was told: 'They don't have disabled people in America. They kill them all. When a handicapped baby is born into a family, he is given a lethal injection. Now, children, do you understand how lucky you are that you were born in this country? In the Soviet Union, we don't kill handicapped children. You are fed, given medical care, and educated for free. You have to study well, so that you learn a useful trade,'" Gallego said.

But Gallego says he thought: "I don't want to be fed for free. I'll never learn a useful trade. I want an injection, a lethal injection.... I want to go to America."

Gallego grew up believing his mother had abandoned him. She, in turn, had been told he was dead. By the time he was 6, Ruben writes, he "stopped dreaming about a mother." Instead, he "dreamed of becoming one of those who could walk." Walking, he explains, was his only hope for learning a trade -- and leaving the orphanage.

"There weren't enough mathematicians, and further down the ladder, there weren't enough accountants. And disabled people were educated to become accountants. It was my life's dream to become an accountant. But to become an accountant, your legs had to work. My legs didn't," Gallego said.

Gallego tells powerful stories about other children like him in the orphanage -- unable to walk, but hungry for knowledge and a life beyond their disabilities. Some, like Sasha, read book after book. Genka, a teenager whose growth was so badly stunted he weighed just 10 kilograms, could solve university-level physics problems.

"They were quite smart kids, forcibly intellectualized. They knew everything about physics and math and exact sciences. But they didn't know a thing about life. They could have become somebody, they were sensational people. But they didn't get the time," Gallego said.

Sasha and Genka both left the orphanage at the age of 15 -- in accordance with Soviet guidelines -- and were moved into homes for the elderly. They lived on a special floor for the bedridden, where conditions were even more grim. Left to fend for themselves with no caregivers to speak of, both of the boys were dead within weeks.

Their deaths haunted Gallego, who was not yet 15. When the day came and he was finally taken to the home for the elderly, he was cautioned about the rats, who had recently chewed off the ear of a patient. Left alone on a bed, he writes, he was "sure to die within two months."

But in a bizarre twist of Soviet-style bureaucracy, Gallego found himself spared and sent away from the home for the elderly, which could not legally declare deaths under 18, and where the morgue refrigerators -- where his body could have been hidden away -- were all broken.

Issued identity papers under perestroika, Gallego was finally able to put the institutions and orphanages behind him, and begin a private life. He began to search for his mother, and found her -- in Prague -- in 2000. They moved to Madrid the next year.

Gallego's rendering of his story in "White On Black" is a tale of survival against the greatest odds. But sometimes he puts it more simply. "I'm really lucky," he keeps repeating.

Sophie Lambroschini is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Moscow.

Former mujahedin party leaders appear to have won a victory in the Afghan Constitutional Loya Jirga, one that could boost the authority of Islam in the country, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) stated on 26 December. In a compromise favoring Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai's proposals for a presidential system (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 December 2003 and "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 6 November 2003), the mujahedin groups have altered Article 3 of the draft constitution, which previously stated that "no law can be contrary to the sacred religion of Islam and the values of this constitution." The current compromise eliminates the reference to "the values of this constitution," which some fear might mean that the "conservative interpretation of Islam could take precedence over human rights," the IWPR commented. Shukria Barakzai, a member of the constitutional drafting committee, said that "all the [mujahedin] delegates wanted the word 'Islam' added to the end of every article." Supporters of a presidential system might have won an immediate victory, but over the long term, conservative forces might gain most from the compromise, the IWPR said. AT

Five officials working for Afghanistan's National Security Department were killed by a bomb blast in Kabul on 28 December, Afghanistan Television reported. The officials stopped a group of unidentified suspected terrorists in a vehicle and were transferring one of them to their vehicle when he managed to detonate a bomb, killing himself and the security officers. Two other occupants of the stopped vehicle managed to escape. One of the officials killed, who was identified only as Jalal, was responsible for the security of transitional Afghan Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, "The New York Times," reported on 29 December. AT

Three officials of the Khost Province security department where killed when unidentified assailants attacked their vehicle on 27 December on the Khost-Gardayz road, Pakistan-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. After the attack, a coalition patrol targeted the suspected attackers, killing four. AT

In a commentary on 27 December commemorating the anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union on 27 December 1979, the Herat daily "Etefaq-e Islam" demanded that Russia pay compensation for the suffering of the Afghan people. The commentary added that when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, all "political or clear-sighted people" believed that one day the Afghans would oust the Red Army from the country. However, the cost of this victory was very high on the Afghans, the paper added. Therefore, Afghan authorities have a "legal responsibility" to demand compensation from the "invaders." In September, the Russian Federation asked that $2 billion of the aid earmarked for Afghanistan be paid to it for debts owed to Moscow by Kabul (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 2 January and 25 September 2003). AT

The Tehran University Geophysics Institute announced on 26 December that a 6.3-magnitude earthquake struck the city of Bam in Kerman Province at around 5:30 a.m. local time, IRNA reported. The quake was followed by aftershocks measuring up to 5.3 in magnitude. Provincial Governor-General Mohammad Ali Karimi said the quake destroyed 60 percent of the city's residential areas and two hospitals, IRNA reported. Red Crescent Society official Mehran Nurbakhsh said water, electricity, and telephone communications in the cities of Bam, Jiroft, Golbaft, Kahnuj, and Ravar were cut. Early media reports put the number of dead at 20,000-50,000. The provincial deputy governor for political and security affairs, Mohammad Farshad, said on 27 December that the real figures are well below the highest estimates, IRNA reported. Natural Disasters headquarters Director-General Abbas Jazayeri echoed that sentiment. Interior Minister Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari said some 20,000 bodies have been recovered, adding that the death toll is likely to be much higher, IRNA reported on 29 December. BS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei arrived in Bam on 29 December to mourn the loss of life and inspect the damage from the 26 December earthquake, IRNA reported. "We have come here to offer our condolences to you," he said as he met with survivors and local officials, according to state radio. "We would like to tell you that we share your grief. Of course, you know yourselves that my heart is with you." Khamenei continued, "I beseech God Almighty to provide you with patience, determination, and the power to cope with what has happened." In a 26 December message to bereaved families, Khamenei expressed his condolences and called on official institutions to help the victims quickly. "I pray to God for fast recovery of the injured people and call the executive bodies to take immediate action in rendering aid to the needy people," he added. Khamenei reiterated the need for urgent assistance in a 27 December message, according to state television. BS

Four U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules aircraft carrying relief aid for the victims of the 26 December earthquake arrived in Kerman Province on 28 December, IRNA reported. The flights originated in Kuwait. Three C-5 Galaxy cargo aircraft also brought supplies, "The Wall Street Journal" reported on 29 December. Originating in the United States, the flights brought medical and search-and-rescue teams. For those that believe such "earthquake diplomacy" might lead to warmer relations between Tehran and Washington, an anonymous U.S. State Department official said, "There is no political angle," the "Financial Times" reported on 29 December. "There is a human catastrophe in Iran. Our only mission is to alleviate the human suffering," the source said. "These efforts will not alter the tone or intensity of our dialogue with the Iranians on other matters of grave concern." Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi sounded a similar note on 28 December when he said that U.S. humanitarian assistance and relations with the United States are two distinct issues, IRNA reported. Many other countries have provided Iran with assistance. BS

Describing Iran's need for urgent assistance, Interior Ministry spokesman Jahanbakhsh Khanjani said on 27 December that "heavy damage in the quake-stricken areas makes us to use aid from international bodies and those states which are willing to help the people and have asked the Foreign Ministry to implement necessary measures to this effect," IRNA reported. Iran will not, however, accept aid from "the Zionist regime" (Israel), according to Khanjani. "The Jerusalem Post" reported on 29 December that several organizations based in Israel would like to help the Iranian earthquake victims. Eran Weintrob, general-manager of a Tel Aviv-based relief organization called Latet, was quoted as saying that politics is irrelevant when people are "starving and injured and have no place to sleep." Latet might send its donations through an international nongovernmental organization such as the Red Cross. The Umbrella Organization for Iranian Immigrants in Israel has contacted the Iranian Embassy in the United Kingdom and has received the go-ahead for contributions from "the Israeli people" rather than from the State of Israel, according to "The Jerusalem Post." Menashe Amir, program director of the Voice of Israel's Persian Service, told the same daily that he intends to publicize such contributions so Iranians are aware of this friendly Israeli gesture. BS

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi announced on 28 December that the three cyclists who were kidnapped on 2 December as they pedaled from Iran to Pakistan have been freed, IRNA reported. The three -- David Storm and Oliver Brug from Germany and Aidan James Leahy from Ireland -- were in Sistan va Baluchistan Province when they were seized by suspected drug smugglers who allegedly demanded a 5 million-euro ($6.25 million) ransom (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 December 2003). Deputy Interior Minister for Security Affairs Ali-Asqar Ahmadi said no ransom was paid, according to IRNA. The three men reportedly were turned over to their ambassadors on 29 December and then gave interviews at Mehrabad Airport in Tehran. Leahy and Brug said the Iranian police found them blindfolded in a car and they had no information on the kidnappers' identities. Brug added, "I do not have any information about any deal between the government and the kidnappers." The German ambassador to Tehran, Baron Paul von Maltzahn, praised Iranian officials' handling of the affair and thanked the Ministry of Intelligence and Security for its work, IRNA reported on 29 December. Commenting on allegations that the kidnappers were linked with Al-Qaeda, Maltzahn said, "We have no indication of that; we had no communications with the hostage takers; everything has been in the hands of Iranian authorities." BS

"The Washington Post" reported on 29 December that attacks on coalition forces have compelled the United States to scale back its ambitious agenda for rebuilding the country. Another reason reported is the accelerated timetable for Iraq's return to sovereignty, causing U.S. officials over the past few months to drop plans to privatize state-owned businesses and back off efforts to disarm militias under the control of ethnic and political factions. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) head L. Paul Bremer and his deputies are increasingly focused on forging compromises with Iraqi leaders and combating unrelenting violence by guerilla forces in order to meet a 1 July deadline to transfer sovereignty to an Iraqi provisional government, "The Washington Post" said. MH

A suicide truck bomb exploded outside the Interior Ministry building in Irbil on 24 December, killing at least four people and wounding 20, Reuters reported. According to an unnamed Kurdish official, the bomb killed the suicide bomber, two police officers guarding the building, and a passerby. The ministry building suffered some damage, and windows of nearby residential buildings were shattered by the blast. On 29 December, the deputy security chief of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Jawamir Attiyah Kaki, was wounded and his three bodyguards were killed in an ambush, AFP reported. Irbil's police chief Nariman Abdel Hamid said Kaki was rushed to a hospital. In Karbala, CNN reported that insurgents struck three targets on 28 December, killing four Bulgarian soldiers, two Thai Army engineers, and six civilians, and wounding dozens of troops and civilians, according to coalition authorities. At least 37 troops, including five U.S. soldiers, were injured in attacks that targeted a police station, the town's city hall, and Karbala University, where the six killed soldiers were living in barracks. More than 100 civilians were injured in the closely coordinated strikes, coalition authorities reported. A Polish military spokesman said the attackers used four car bombs, machine guns, and mortars. The strikes hit two coalition compounds and the provincial governor's office. On 29 December in Baghdad, AFP reported that a bomb blast killed a U.S. soldier and two Iraqi children. Five soldiers, one Iraqi interpreter, and eight Iraqi Civil Defense Corps members were also wounded. MH

British Prime Minister Tony Blair's claim that deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein had laboratories for developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD) has been dismissed by CPA head Bremer, the BBC reported on 28 December. Blair said in a Christmas message to troops that the Iraq Survey Group has unearthed "massive evidence" of clandestine labs. CPA head Bremer, before being told that Blair had made the remark, responded that it sounded like a "red herring" made up by someone to upset the rebuilding effort. Former chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix has also said Blair's assertions are untrue, and that it was "innuendo" to suggest laboratories were used to produce WMD. However, Bremer rejected Blix's claim that there were no WMD left for Saddam to give up. "You might conclude that Dr. Blix is out of touch," he said. MH

The U.S. has announced $1 million rewards for 12 of Saddam Hussein's closest allies who are still in hiding, Britain's "The Guardian" newspaper reported on 29 December. CPA officials in Baghdad said the money will be paid to anybody who provides information leading to the deaths or capture of these "most-wanted" former Ba'ath Party officials. The United States has already offered a $10 million reward for Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, the 13th remaining fugitive and Iraq's most-wanted man. Al-Duri was Hussein's Ba'ath Party deputy and a close confidante of the deposed Iraqi leader. MH