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Newsline - January 14, 2004

Officials at one of Russia's leading arms manufacturers, the Tula Instrument-Making Design Bureau (KBP-Tula), have categorically denied renewed allegations in the U.S. and British press that the company supplied Kornet-3 antitank missile systems to Iraq before former President Saddam Hussein's ouster, ITAR-TASS reported on 13 January. The "Los Angeles Times" on 10 January quoted a senior U.S. State Department official as saying that the United States has found proof that Russian firms exported night-vision goggles and radar-jamming equipment to Iraq and that the evidence included "the equipment itself and proof that it was used during the war." The newspaper referred to these and other alleged Russian military transfers to Iraq and named Aviakonversiya, which manufactures radar-jamming equipment, and KBP-Tula. KBP-Tula Deputy Director Leonid Roshal said in an interview late last year that the company earlier sold about 1,000 Kornets to Syria, but the sales were "absolutely legitimate" and none of the missile systems had been found in Iraq, the "Los Angeles Times" reported. JB

On 12 January, Deputy Prime Minister Boris Aleshin denied the latest U.S. allegations of arms shipments to Iraq, telling Interfax that the government's commission for monitoring exports closely follows international standards and that "it is impossible for any action to take place on a large scale without the government knowing about it." Aleshin said that if the United States has such information, "then it would not be a bad thing if they shared it with us." U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli on 12 January said the latest allegations repeated U.S. claims made last March "that sensitive Russian-made military equipment had been sold to Iraq before the war and posed a threat to U.S. forces there." The United States "gave Russia a lot of data to establish the veracity of our contentions, and we will continue our dialogue with Russia on this," the State Department's website ( quoted Ereli as saying. JB

A spokesman for the Russian Conventional Weapons Agency, of which KBP-Tula is a member, dismissed the U.S. allegations of arms transfers to Iraq as "nothing but unscrupulous competition," Interfax reported on 12 January. An unnamed Russian government source called the charges "a worn-out record" and a "canard" that could have been prompted by "the difficult military-terrorist situation" and "the continuing significant losses of coalition forces" in Iraq, Interfax reported. Politika foundation head Vyacheslav Nikonov told Ekho Moskvy on 12 January that the allegations are linked to the U.S. presidential campaign and might be used either by the Democrats to accuse U.S. President George W. Bush "of not taking a sufficiently hard line against Russia" or by the Bush administration "to act harshly against critics of its Iraq policy, including Russia." JB

The Foreign Ministry summoned Georgian Ambassador to Russia Zurab Abashidze on 13 January to protest a threat made against Russian military facilities in Georgia the previous day by Nodar Natadze, chairman since its inception in 1989 of the Georgian Popular Front, Interfax and Caucasus Press reported. Natadze told journalists in Tbilisi that the Georgian people have the right to resort to any measures, including sabotage, to pressure Russia to close its two remaining military bases in Georgia. The Russian Foreign Ministry condemned Natadze's statement as "absolutely inadmissible" and warned that "any provocations against the Russian military bases in Georgia...could have far-reaching consequences," Interfax reported. Abashidze told Interfax that Natadze does not have any great political influence in Georgia. He stressed that the new Georgian leadership has repeatedly affirmed its interest in developing a new relationship with Russia based on mutual trust and respect. LF

Speaking in Krasnoyarsk on 14 January, Sergei Ivanov said the withdrawal of Russian troops from Georgia will be a lengthy process, and the Finance Ministry will not even begin to allocate funds to build alternative facilities on Russian territory for the forces that are to be withdrawn until an treaty is signed between the two countries, ITAR-TASS reported. Ivanov said negotiations are under way on that treaty, presumably referring to a draft framework treaty on bilateral relations (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 2 June 2002). Russian officials have repeatedly said the withdrawal cannot be completed before 2014 unless Georgia or the international community agrees to cover the costs of the new Russian facilities. Georgian Foreign Minister Tedo Djaparidze told Tbilisi's Imedi television station that Russia is demanding $500 million for that purpose and that he considers that sum excessive, Caucasus Press reported on 14 January. LF

Acting Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev announced on 13 January that three former and current officers from a registration division of the Moscow traffic police have been detained on suspicion of providing forged registration documents for more than 1,000 foreign-made luxury cars stolen in Western Europe and brought to Moscow over 18 months, Interfax and other Russian media reported. Nurgaliev said the losses caused by the activities of the group came to "several tens of millions of dollars." An "informed" law-enforcement source in the capital, meanwhile, told the news agency that around 6,000 cars stolen abroad passed through the hands of the traffic police officers. The ring was discovered during an investigation of Salman Rzayev, an official in a Moscow district prosecutor's office who is accused of taking bribes in return for illegally registering vehicles. Nurgaliev said there were 400 criminal cases last year involving the illegal registration of cars stolen abroad, Interfax reported. JB

Sergei Pismenskii, the acting head of the National Central Bureau of Interpol in Russia, said on 13 January that Russian law enforcement officials have asked U.S. authorities to inform them about plans to extradite Aleksandr Konanykhine, a former Russian banker, and his wife, Yelena Gratcheva, Interfax reported. The couple, who have lived in the United States since 1993, was arrested in December while trying cross into Canada to seek political asylum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2004). The Russian authorities have accused Konanykhine of embezzling $8 million from the now-defunct All-Russian Exchange Bank, which he founded in the early 1990s. In November, the U.S. Justice Department ruled that Konanykhine, who was granted political asylum in the United States in 1999, faces no risk of political persecution in Russia. He and his wife were nearly extradited following their arrest, but a federal judge ordered a stay. Konanykhine claims the Russian authorities are persecuting him for his ties to jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii. JB

Audit Chamber Chairman Sergei Stepashin said on 13 January that the newly inaugurated Council for the Struggle Against Corruption will enhance the Audit Chamber's work, and that the two agencies will cooperate, Interfax reported. Yurii Sharandin, head of the Federation Council's Constitutional Law Committee, called for a law that would legally define corruption and clearly spell out its various forms and how they should be punished. Another senator, former First Deputy Interior Minister Valerii Fedorov, called for a system of laws that would make it impossible for state officials to use their positions "for personal ends" and "enrichment." President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, told Deputy Prime Minister Aleshin, who chairs the government's administrative-reform commission, that "the lack of proper regulation in this area is one of the causes that provide the basis for corruption," RTR reported on 13 January. JB

Communist Party leader Gennadii Zyuganov has accused People's Patriotic Union Chairman and Communist State Duma Deputy Gennadii Semigin of trying to "privatize" the Communist Party, RTR reported on 13 January, citing a party press release. According to the statement, during the 28 December party congress, party Secretary Sergei Potapov and people close to him tried to implement Semigin's plan to "buy" the secretaries of several regional party organizations. This resulted in an "absurd attempt to nominate businessman-millionaire Semigin as the presidential candidate for the party of workers, the party of the people." The authors of the press release expressed satisfaction that other party forces thwarted this effort, and they called upon members to maintain their vigilance during the next party congress in June. According to RTR, the release was signed by Zyuganov and Vladimir Nikitin, chairman of the party's Central Control-Audit Commission. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 14 January, Zyuganov did not always have such a poor opinion of Semigin, calling him in the spring of 2000 a "young, capable, and competent man." JAC

State Duma Deputy Gennadii Raikov, who headed the People's Deputy group in the previous Duma, announced on 12 January that he and 19 other deputies from the People's Party who were elected from single-mandate districts will join Unified Russia's faction in the current Duma, "Gazeta" reported on 13 January. Raikov told the daily that under the old Duma regulations, his group would have been able to form its own faction, but now it is necessary to have 55 legislators to do so. He also explained that his group does not agree with Unified Russia on certain things, including the Land Code, communal-housing and public-utilities reforms, the death penalty, and mandatory automobile insurance. "These are questions about which we cannot agree with the majority, but even with the help of 35 [more] deputies, we still could not conduct our own policies," Raikov concluded. JAC

Motherland faction head and presidential hopeful Sergei Glazev told reporters on 13 January that his faction intends to introduce a series of bills in the Duma, the first of which would amend the Tax Code so that up to 80 percent of oil and gas companies' so-called super profits would be sent to the federal budget, RIA-Novosti reported. In the near term, Glazev said his faction will initiate parliamentary hearings on three themes: state control over natural resources, the aviation industry, and protecting individual savings accounts in Russian banks. JAC

Speaking on Russian Press Day, 13 January, Media Minister Mikhail Lesin predicted that 2004 will be "a difficult and important" year for the Russian media, noting that the industry is "focusing more and more on self-improvement and self-organization," ITAR-TASS reported. He concluded that the media "will gain genuine independence as a result of these processes." Speaking the same day, Moscow Helsinki Group Chairwoman Lyudmila Alekseeva said the press-freedom situation has significantly worsened in recent years, and the Russia mass media is becoming more like the Soviet-era media, RFE/RL's Moscow bureau reported. According to Alekseeva, the negative trends are most noticeable in television, and in the majority of Russian mass media, a tacit ban exists on criticism of the country's leadership and on objective reporting of the war in Chechnya. Meanwhile, a new project to study the particularities of Russia's Internet media has been launched, RosBalt reported on 13 January. and "Zhurnalist" plan to conduct a survey of the editors in chief of Internet media about censorship of web media. JAC

Members of the National Strategy Council on 12 January elected a new leader, RosBalt reported on 13 January. The resignation of Director Stanislav Belkovskii was accepted, and Valerii Khomyakov, director of the Agency for Applied and Regional Politics, was selected as temporary acting director until a new charter for the council can be adopted in the fall. Belkovskii was one of the main authors of a council report last summer predicting an oligarchic coup (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 May 2003) that has been widely seen as the opening volley in a campaign against the oligarchs -- most notably, against former Yukos CEO Khodorkovskii. According to "Vremya novostei" on 14 January, the official reason given for the change is Belkovskii's health. However, unofficially, members of the council said the Kremlin insisted on the leadership change. Belkovskii was needed during a time of struggle, but now times are more peaceful and a less militant leader is needed, an unidentified member of the council told the daily. JAC

A ticket for foreign citizens wishing to enter the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg will now cost 368 rubles ($12.70), reported on 13 January, citing Ekho Peterburg. As of 1 January, the discounted ticket price for Russian citizens was increased from 15 to 100 rubles. JAC

The capture of Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov and of radical field commander Shamil Basaev is simply a matter of time, Colonel General Valerii Baranov, who is commander of the Joint Army Command in the North Caucasus, told the weekly "Voenno-promyshlennyi kurer," ITAR-TASS reported on 14 January. Baranov said the two Chechen commanders should "surrender voluntarily or [they will] be destroyed." Baranov also claimed there are no longer any large armed groups of resistance fighters operating in Chechnya. He said the militants have changed their tactics "radically" and currently operate only in small groups. LF

A Yerevan district court sentenced former security officer Levon Abrahamian to six years' imprisonment on 13 January after convicting him of plotting to assassinate Armenian Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. The prosecution had called for a seven-year prison term (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 January 2004). Before the verdict was pronounced, Abrahamian again protested his innocence and claimed that investigators had tried to pressure him to implicate Artashes Geghamian, chairman of the opposition National Accord Party, in the alleged murder plot. Geghamian retaliated by alleging in an interview published on 14 January in the daily "Haykakan zhamanak" that Sarkisian and President Robert Kocharian were behind a number of high-profile crimes, including the December 2002 murder of Public Television and Radio Head Tigran Naghdalian. LF

The Nor Zhamanakner (New Times) party headed by political scientist Aram Karapetian was formally registered on 8 January, one month after submitting the relevant application to the Justice Ministry, Noyan Tapan reported on 13 January. The party's founding congress took place in Yerevan in early December (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 5 December 2003). Karapetian polled fourth in the Armenian presidential ballot in February 2003 with just under 3 percent of the vote. LF

Two Armenian Army officers who planned to travel to Baku on 12 January to attend a conference have not arrived in the Azerbaijani capital, Turan reported on 14 January. The conference, devoted to preparations for military exercises to be held in Azerbaijan in September under the aegis of NATO's Partnership for Peace program, opened on 13 January. The two Armenian officers and their interpreter were originally due to arrive in Baku late on 12 January via Istanbul, but missed their connecting flight as the Yerevan-Istanbul flight was late, Armenian Deputy Defense Minister Artur Aghabekian told RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau on 13 January. He said the men would leave Istanbul for Baku shortly before midnight on 13 January. But Turan on 14 January reported that the Armenians have still not arrived at Baku's Bina Airport. Akif Nagi, chairman of the unofficial hard-line Organization for the Liberation of Karabakh whose members planned to stage a protest at the airport against the arrival of Armenian officers, said police tried to expel him and his fellow protesters from the airport. LF

Azerbaijani First Deputy Prime Minister Abbas Abbasov met in Moscow on 13 January with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov to review several unnamed bilateral agreements to be signed during a visit to Russia next month by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Turan reported. The precise date for that visit has not yet been determined. Also discussed were the trade balance between the two countries and prospects for Russian industrial enterprises to contribute to Azerbaijan's economic development. Bilateral trade stood at $376.6 million in 2002 and at $349.5 million for the first nine months of 2003, according to Interfax on 28 November. LF

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Lynn Pascoe met in Tbilisi on 13 January with acting President Nino Burdjanadze, President-elect Mikheil Saakashvili, Minister of State Zurab Zhvania, and Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze, Caucasus Press reported. During his talks with Burdjanadze, Pascoe expressed support for Georgia's determination to reach agreement with Moscow on the swift closure of the two remaining Russian military bases in Georgia, adding that Washington will pay part of the costs involved (see "Russia" section above). He also said Tbilisi must resolve its problems with the leadership of the Adjar Autonomous Republic on its own. Pascoe and Zhvania signed an agreement under which Washington will allocate $3 million to pay the salaries of the Georgian service personnel currently participating in the U.S.-funded Train and Equip program. Baramidze told Caucasus Press that his ministry will also receive an unspecified sum in U.S. aid. The agency added without revealing its sources that the sum involved is $11 million. LF

On a one-day visit to Tbilisi on 13 January, Mircea Geoana met with acting President Burdjanadze, President-elect Saakashvili, Minister of State Zhvania, and Foreign Minister Tedo Djaparidze, Caucasus Press reported. Topics of discussion included bilateral relations and regional cooperation within the framework of the Black Sea Economic Cooperation Organization. Geoana told journalists that Romania is ready to share its experience of integration into European structures and NATO, and to assist Tbilisi over the next two years in resolving "frozen conflicts" in Romania's capacity as a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council. Djaparidze noted the potential for expanding bilateral economic and military cooperation. LF

Tamaz Nadareishvili submitted his resignation on 14 January as chairman of the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz parliament in exile that comprises the Georgian deputies elected to the Abkhaz parliament in late 1991, Caucasus Press reported. Representatives of the Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-93 war launched a campaign earlier this month to force him to step down, accusing him of corruption and exceeding his authority. Nadareishvili told supporters on 13 January that that campaign is being orchestrated by Russian intelligence organs, according to the website of the independent Georgian television station Rustavi-2. At a meeting late on 12 January, most of the 19 deputies to the parliament in exile also urged Nadareishvili to step down. Also on 13 January, an Abkhaz youth organization that joined the campaign for Nadareishvili's dismissal demanded a legal investigation into a reported physical assault on the mother of organization Chairman Mamuka Maisuradze. The attackers threatened to "make short work of" Maisuradze if he continues to campaign against Nadareishvili. LF

Some 60 Georgian displaced persons from Abkhazia broke into the office in Zugdidi of Mingrelia Governor Leri Chitanava on 13 January and held him hostage overnight to demand payment of their allowances for the past eight months, Caucasus Press reported. A further 400 displaced persons surrounded the building, while others blocked the rail line from Zugdidi to Tbilisi. LF

Kyrgyz Deputy Prime Minister Bazarbai Mambetov told a news briefing in Bishkek on 13 January that the current threat of flooding on the lower reaches of the Syrdarya River (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2004) will accelerate the formation of a transnational water consortium, reported. He said Kazakhstan, Russia, and Kyrgyzstan are eager to form such a group as soon as possible. The present flood threat arose because of excessive discharges from Kyrgyzstan's Toktogul Reservoir in order to generate electricity. Representatives of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan met on 4 January to sign an agreement on measures to prevent the inundation of Kazakhstan's Kyzyl-Orda Oblast. BB

While the Kyrgyz and Kazakh parts of the 4 January agreement are being implemented -- the exchange of Kazakh coal and fuel oil in exchange for a reduction in the flow through the turbines at the Toktogul plant -- some Kazakh media have complained that Uzbekistan has not taken the measures promised at the 4 January meeting to control the flow from the Chardara Reservoir on the Uzbek-Kazakh border, reported on 13 January. According to on 13 January, representatives of the three countries were dissatisfied with the results of a follow-up crisis meeting that ended recently in Tashkent, at least partly because Uzbek representatives refused to explain their country's inaction. According to, Tajikistan has offered to divert water from the Toktogul River to reduce pressure on the Toktogul Reservoir. BB

The representation of the European Commission in Kyrgyzstan informed Deputy Prime Minister Dzhoomart Otorbaev on 12 January that the European Union will continue its support for the country's Food Security Program in 2004, reported. The program, under which Kyrgyzstan has received 45.5 million euros ($58 million) in support since 1996, functions in the poorest countries of the CIS -- Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, and Tajikistan -- to promote reforms to ensure a stable food supply. The EU has also committed $10 million to assist Kyrgyzstan in strengthening its borders to stop trafficking in drugs, arms, and human beings, RIA-Novosti reported on 13 January. BB

High-level delegations from the Interior ministries of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan met in the Uzbek border town of Denau on 12 January to discuss interaction between the law enforcement agencies of the two countries, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 13 January. Tajik Transport Police head Dzhurakhon Zoirov said the Tajik delegation included the top Interior Ministry officials dealing with drug trafficking and organized crime. He added that topics discussed included security on trains and protecting the rights of Tajik citizens traveling through Uzbekistan. BB

Saying Turkmenistan needs to be able to defend itself despite its UN-recognized status as a neutral country, President Saparmurat Niyazov told the annual 12 January ceremony commemorating the fall of the Geok-Tepe fortress to Russian troops in 1881 that last year the country spent $200 million on military equipment, reported on 13 January. A total of $80 million has been committed for this purpose in 2004. The objective, Niyazov said, is to ensure that Turkmenistan has the most up-to-date arms, airplanes, and helicopters so it can protect itself if threatened. But he insisted that Turkmenistan has good relations with all its neighbors, as well as with Russia, the United States, and the European Union. BB

An Uzbek Airlines Yak-40 flying the Termez-Tashkent route on the evening of 13 January crashed at Tashkent Airport, killing all 37 passengers and crewmembers,, RIA-Novosti, and other media reported. Uzbek Prosecutor-General Rashitzhon Kadyrov told a press conference on 14 January that the crash was unlikely to have been the result of terrorism, but all possibilities are being investigated, Interfax reported. A representative of Uzbek Airlines in Moscow told Interfax that the crash occurred because of poor visibility. Four foreigners were on the plane, including Richard Conroy, the head of the UN representation in Uzbekistan. A government commission under Prime Minister Shavkat Mirzayoyev has been set up to investigate the crash. Uzbek Airlines has an excellent safety record. BB

The Belarusian government has increased the monthly minimum wage by 71 percent to 83,000 rubles ($39), effective this month, Belapan reported on 12 January. Labor and Social Protection Minister Antanina Morava said the new threshold accounts for some 76 percent of the subsistence level of 108,790 rubles. "It is the first time the minimum wage has been raised to such a high level," Morava said. She said the minimum monthly wage represented 9 percent of the subsistence level in 2002 and 50 percent in 2003. JM

Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn conceded on 13 January that the Verkhovna Rada is caught in an intractable "parliamentary crisis" as opposition deputies blockaded the rostrum to prevent a plenary session the same day, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "We have an absolutely obvious parliamentary crisis," Lytvyn said. "What is taking place today in parliament is a tragedy for Ukraine." Three opposition caucuses -- Our Ukraine, the Socialist Party, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc -- are demanding that Lytvyn call a repeat vote on the so-called Medvedchuk-Symonenko constitutional-reform bill, which was preliminarily approved on 24 December in a controversial show-of-hands vote after opposition deputies broke the electronic voting system the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 December 2003). In particular, Our Ukraine, the Socialist Party, and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc object to a clause stipulating the election of the president in 2006 by parliament instead of through direct elections. The opposition believes such a constitutional amendment should be subject to approval in a referendum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2004). JM

The State Statistics Committee reported on 13 January that there were 47.66 million people living in Ukraine on 1 December, which was 321,600 fewer than on 1 January 2003, Interfax reported. According to the last national census, held in December 2001, the country had 48.44 million residents. The previous census, which was held in the Ukrainian SSR in 1989, found that there were 51.45 million people living in Ukraine. JM

The cabinet on 13 January unanimously approved Prime Minister Einars Repse's recommendation of Foreign Minister Sandra Kalniete as Latvia's nominee for a seat on the European Commission, BNS reported. The European Parliament is expected to approve in May the candidates submitted by the 10 new EU member states. The representatives from those states will not have any specific portfolios, but will act as an "apprentice" or "shadow" of a current commissioner. Kalniete told the media that she is scheduled to meet with European Commission President Romano Prodi on 26 January to discuss a broad spectrum of spheres for her possible activities. SG

Dissatisfaction with President Rolandas Paksas, whose possible impeachment is being investigated by an ad hoc parliamentary commission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 December 2003), was clearly expressed on 13 January during commemorations of Freedom Defenders' Day held by parliament and the presidential office, "Lietuvos rytas" reported the next day. The day marks the anniversary of the 13 January 1991 attack by Soviet troops on an unarmed crowd surrounding Vilnius's television tower. Fifteen were killed in the attack, which steeled Lithuania's determination to regain independence. Parliamentary deputies from the opposition Conservative and Liberal-Center factions, along with several Social Democrats, walked out of the hall when Paksas was invited to address the session. Later the same day, during ceremonies awarding medals commemorating 13 January, one of the recipients, a 63-year-old engineer from Kaunas, said: "The events of 13 January are too important, and this award is too significant that I could accept it from the hands of a president who is lying and has lied to us and all Lithuania." Of the 127 people who were to receive the awards, 26 did not attend the ceremonies. SG

Warsaw Mayor Lech Kaczynski, leader of the opposition Law and Justice party, told journalists on 13 January that he will not make a planned visit to the United States in April if recently enacted measures are maintained for Poles at U.S. points of entry, PAP reported. Kaczynski intended to meet with Polish-Americans in the United States and the mayors of Chicago and New York. "I will go only when there will be no need to photograph and fingerprint [Poles]," Kaczynski said, referring to the digital photographing and fingerprinting of visitors from states that require visas for entry to the United States. JM

Agora, the publisher of the daily "Gazeta Wyborcza," and commercial television channels Polsat and TVN have filed a joint petition with the president of the Office for the Protection of Competition and the Consumer (UOKiK) to open an antimonopoly probe of state-controlled Polish Television (TVP), PAP reported on 13 January. The petitioners claim that TVP, which enjoys the largest viewership in the country, curbs competition by imposing unfairly low prices when selling advertising time. Agora, Polsat, and TVN also say that public subsidies for TVP, which are paid in the form of subscription fees, distort competition on the advertising market. "The authors of the motion want the UOKiK to stop the monopolistic practices and impose a fine on TVP for applying the practices," the petition reads. JM

New U.S. Ambassador to the Czech Republic William Cabaniss submitted his credentials to President Vaclav Klaus at Prague Castle on 13 January, CTK reported. Both men said they are interested in strengthening the current good relations between their countries. Cabaniss replaces Craig Stapleton, who returned to the United States to assist President George W. Bush's re-election campaign. Cabaniss was expected to depart for Iraq on 14 January to accompany Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda on a visit to that country. MS

The Slovak Trade Unions Federation (KOZ) Chairman Ivan Saktor delivered a petition containing more than 600,000 signatures backing a referendum on early elections to President Rudolf Schuster on 13 January, TASR and CTK reported. TASR reported that 606,325 people signed the petition for the nonbinding plebiscite -- far more than the 350,000 signatures required by the Slovak Constitution. Schuster has 30 days to call the referendum if a sufficient number of signatures are validated. Schuster hinted that he intends to call for the plebiscite, saying the petition cannot be ignored in the light of the level of support it received. Schuster previously said he does not intend to ask the Constitutional Court to render its opinion on the constitutionality of holding the referendum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 January 2004). A referendum requires 50 percent voter participation to be considered valid, and the results are not binding on the parliament. For early elections to take place, the legislature would have to approve the referendum's results with a three-fifths majority of its 150 members. Observers say the ruling four-party coalition is unlikely to support such a scenario, virtually ruling out early elections as a result of a referendum. MS

The Interior Ministry registered the Free Forum as Slovakia's newest political party on 13 January, TASR reported. The new formation, most of whose members broke away from the ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU), was expected to begin negotiations with Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda's governing coalition on 14 January, CTK reported. Dzurinda has said that if the negotiations fail, the minority government will have to find legislative support in parliament based on a case-by-case basis, TASR reported. Free Forum parliamentary deputy Zuzana Martinakova said that before negotiations can proceed, however, the sides must clarify "what has led to the departure of the Free Forum [deputies] from the SDKU" and "who is responsible." The Free Forum was formed after Dzurinda dismissed Ivan Simko from the cabinet for his failure to support Dzurinda's demand that the cabinet dismiss former National Security Office (NBU) head Jan Mojzis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17, 22, 23, 25, and 26 September 2003). MS

Tibor Draskovics, who is expected to be sworn in as finance minister on 15 February, told journalists on 14 January that the 3.8 percent deficit target for 2004 is unrealistic and should be revised to around 4.6 percent, Hungarian media and international news agencies reported. Draskovics said that even with the modified deficit target, further budget cuts of 155 billion forints ($735 million) are necessary, according to AP. MS

Visiting Finish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen and his Hungarian counterpart Peter Medgyessy announced in Budapest on 13 January that they oppose the German-French concept of a "two-speed" Europe, Hungarian media and international news agencies reported. German and French leaders said after the collapse of talks on a European constitution in December that if no consensus is reached in 2004, a core group of EU members might proceed with accelerated integration. "We need a united, operational Europe," Vanhanen said, according to AFP. Medgyessy said, "The EU will succeed only if the principles of solidarity and equality of rights are respected." Both men expressed the hope that agreement on a European constitution might be reached during the current, Irish EU Presidency. MS

Two men suspected of setting fire to an Israeli flag at a recent demonstration in Budapest against Tilos Radio were arrested on 13 January, Hungarian dailies reported. Police reportedly seized far-right and irredentist books and videotapes from the home of one of the suspects. Opposition FIDESZ parliamentary group leader Janos Ader suggested the same day that the burning of the flag (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 13 January 2004) was an act of provocation that could have been done "in the interest of the [ruling] Socialists," "Nepszabadsag" reported. In response to Ader's comments, Socialist parliamentary group leader Ildiko Lendvai sent a statement to MTI news agency in which she said: "FIDESZ politicians are desperately trying to shift responsibility from themselves, after the civic groups they called to life and the extremists who joined them unleashed the spirit of religious and political hate-mongering, anti-Semitism, and exclusion." The protest against Tilos Radio was organized by one of the right-wing civic groups. MSZ

One day after meeting with top EU officials, Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader discussed his government's plans to join the Atlantic alliance with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer in Brussels on 13 January, Hina reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 June 2003 and 13 January 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 November 2002 and 5 December 2003). Sanader told reporters that "our ambition is to receive an invitation for membership as soon as possible," perhaps as early as the June NATO summit in Istanbul. "Croatia is ready to meet all the necessary criteria for membership in NATO," Sanader added. Repeating his pledge made during the recent general-election campaign, he stressed that his government will place more emphasis on obtaining NATO membership than its predecessor did. "This government will have NATO on its agenda at least once a month," he said. De Hoop Scheffer announced that he will visit Croatia in the second half of May, calling the trip "a good start." Croatia must improve its record in instituting military reforms, cooperating with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, and protecting the rights of its Serbian minority before it can be admitted to NATO. PM

Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told the French parliament on 13 January that the Atlantic alliance plans to reduce its forces in Bosnia and Kosova from a total of 30,500 to 17,500 by November, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. She said there has been much progress in the Balkans in recent years, adding, however, that sources of instability remain, especially in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 September, 3 October, and 19 December 2003). PM

A NATO spokesman said in Sarajevo on 13 January that SFOR peacekeepers have ended a four-day hunt for former Bosnian Serb leader and indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic in the Pale area, Bosnian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 13 January 2004). PM

Macedonia will step up its military presence in Afghanistan by March, "Dnevnik" reported on 14 January, quoting Defense Ministry spokesman Marjan Gjurovski. The government will ask the parliament to deploy one more unit or platoon to Afghanistan. Existing Macedonian troops in Afghanistan will most likely be reinforced by a 30-strong special-operations unit, the daily reported. "In this way we will show the interoperability of Macedonian troops with [NATO] troops," Gjurovski said. "This is an important argument in the integration process of Macedonia into the Northern Atlantic alliance." The government hopes Macedonia will be offered candidate status for NATO membership in the near future (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 and 25 November 2003 and 13 January 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 22 November 2002). UB

Cedomir Jovanovic, who is among the younger leaders of the Democratic Party of former Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, said in Belgrade on 14 January that his party should go into opposition rather than form an unstable coalition with former Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica and others who left the former governing Democratic Opposition of Serbia (DOS) coalition, thereby helping to bring the coalition down in late 2003, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 December 2003 and 9 January 2004). Jovanovic stressed that his party could play a more constructive role in the opposition rather than in a Kostunica-led government or by supporting a minority government in the parliament. He warned against leaving the opposition solely to parties that supported the regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. Jovanovic was once considered a rising star in his party but was tainted by unproven allegations of corruption by the DSS in 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 24 June 2003 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 March and 9 May 2003). PM

The five political parties represented in the Romanian parliament on 13 January signed an agreement on the dates on which elections will be held this year, Mediafax reported. The agreement stipulates that local elections will take place on 6 June, with mayoral runoffs being held two weeks later. The parliamentary elections and the first round of the presidential ballot is slated for 28 November. In the event that a presidential runoff is necessary, it will take place on 12 December. The agreement must officially be approved by parliament. MS

Former Social Democratic Party (PSD) Secretary-General Cozmin Gusa, who resigned from that formation last July, on 13 January joined the opposition Democratic Party, Mediafax reported. Gusa is known to have insulted Democratic Party Chairman Traian Basescu while serving as PSD secretary-general and to have called him, among other things, a "paranoiac." Both men said they can overcome past differences. Meanwhile, Romanian media reports said former Prime Minister and Democratic Party Chairman Petre Roman intends to leave the party and set up a new political formation. Basescu responded that Roman has not informed him of these plans but, "Romania is a free country...where everyone may form a political party and I do not see why Petre Roman should be deprived of that right." MS

Romanian-born Lia Roberts, chairwoman of the Nevada Republican Party, told journalists in Bucharest on 13 January that she is considering running in Romania's presidential election this year, Mediafax reported. Roberts said that if she decides to run, she would do so as an independent, but is ready to accept the backing of any political party, including that of the extremist Greater Romania Party. She said that if she decides to run, her campaign will be managed by U.S. political consultant Dick Morris. MS

The trial of former NATO official Jan Willem Matser, who is charged with forgery, fraud, money laundering, and criminal conspiracy, began on 13 January in Haarlem, the Netherlands, AFP reported. Matser, who served as former NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson's adviser for Eastern European affairs, was arrested last February. The prosecution claims Matser received false certificates of deposit in the amount of $200 million with which he intended to set himself up as a trader on the financial markets. Matser allegedly wanted to use his gains to invest in Romania and the false certificates of deposit were issued in the name of Tender, a Romanian conglomerate of 30 companies in the fields of logistics, oil, and mining that is run by tycoon Ovidiu Tender. MS

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) on 13 January called on Russia and Moldova to ensure that the rights of Andrei Ivantoc, who has been imprisoned for 11 years by the separatist authorities in Tiraspol, are respected in line with the European Convention on Human Rights, Mediafax reported. The court, which does not recognize the Tiraspol authorities, issued the appeal following the intervention of the Romanian Foreign Ministry's special envoy at the ECHR. The ECHR is currently examining a complaint launched by Romanian Senator Ilie Ilascu over the continued detention of three members of his group, one of whom is Ivantoc (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2003). Following reports on the deterioration of Ivantoc's health and his detention in allegedly inhumane conditions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2004), representatives of the OSCE mission in Moldova visited the prisoner, who is on hunger strike. OSCE spokesman Claus Neukirch told Mediafax that Ivantoc "looks tired and speaks coherently, but faintly." Neukirch said the authorities did not allow a visit by a doctor and did not permit Reintegration Minister Vasile Sova and Ivantoc's wife Eudochia, who came with the OSCE mission delegation to Tiraspol, to meet with the prisoner. MS

The Russian Embassy in Chisinau on 13 January denied media reports that the separatist authorities in Tiraspol have again halted the process of evacuating Russian military equipment, Flux reported. A spokesman for the embassy said the withdrawal was merely "interrupted" during the Orthodox Christmas season, because authorization for the transition of train freights through Ukraine could not be obtained during that period. Separatist leader Igor Smirnov last month threatened to halt again the withdrawal process (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 December 2003). MS

The EU has sent a demarche to the Libyan authorities demanding that charges against six Bulgarian medics accused of deliberately infecting more than 400 children at a Benghazi hospital with HIV/AIDS be dropped for lack of evidence, reported on 13 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 4 September 2003 and 6 January 2004). After a recent meeting with French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, Abd Al-Rahman Shalgam, Libya's secretary of the General People's Committee for Foreign Liaison and International Cooperation, said in Paris that he expects the verdicts in the trial to be handed down by the end of January. At the end of December, an expert opinion by Libyan doctors supported the charges, whereas French AIDS expert Luc Montagnier and his Italian colleague Vittorio Colizzi testified that the children were infected before the Bulgarians began working at the hospital. UB

A session of the National Council of the conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) on 13 January failed to resolve the party's ongoing leadership crisis, reported. A group of opponents to SDS Chairwoman Nadezhda Mihailova headed by former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov did not succeed in calling a national conference to elect a new leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2004). Deputy Chairwoman Ekaterina Mihailova resigned her position to protest Nadezhda Mihailova's leadership. "It is an ideological, organizational, and a leadership crisis," Ekaterina Mihailova said. "There is also a crisis of trust on the part of society and on the part of the party." The National Council decided that the SDS should leave the parliamentary group of the United Democratic Forces (ODS) and form a parliamentary group of its own. The ODS is a coalition including the SDS, the Democratic Party DP, and the Bulgarian National Agrarian Union-National Union (BZNS-NS). UB

Kurdish demands for expanded self-rule in northern Iraq have dominated discussions of the structure of a federal Iraq between Governing Council members and U.S. officials in recent weeks. As the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) made moves to unify further their 12-year rule over Iraqi Kurdistan, their leaders -- Governing Council members Jalal Talabani (PUK) and Mas'ud Barzani (KDP) -- and the three other Kurdish members of the Governing Council have submitted a plan for greater autonomy to be outlined in the transitional administration law -- a precursor to the Iraqi constitution -- that is slated to be approved on 28 February.

Since the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurdish groups have successfully practiced self-rule through their two Kurdistan regional governments, headquartered in Al-Sulaymaniyah and Irbil. As early as 1992, the groups agreed to seek a federal union with the central government in Baghdad. The joint Kurdish parliament again endorsed a plan for a federation in 2002. Moreover, Kurdish proponents of autonomy say the 15 November agreement between the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) and the Iraqi Governing Council provides certain guarantees for the Kurds under their regional government, since it would be difficult to change the status quo through legal means before the 28 February deadline.

The new autonomy plan that was submitted to the Governing Council calls for the central government to maintain responsibility for foreign affairs, defense, currency and budget, and fiscal policy. Independent Kurdish Governing Council member Mahmud Uthman told London's "Al-Hayat" on 6 January that the central government would also control natural resources, including minerals and oil, "provided the federal region should get a reasonable share of the revenues."

Uthman said the Kurds have also called for three institutions to be established by the central government: a nationally elected parliament; a council for ethnic groups or regions, "which should be equal in representation and which provides some guarantees for the minority"; and a Supreme Court that would resolve any disputes between the center and a federal region. "Our attitude is unionist, and not separatist," Uthman insisted. "But we want guarantees for our existence and future and for our rights and duties in Iraq. Federation provides a kind of guarantee for the Kurds."

The Iraqi daily "Baghdad" reported on 5 January that the Kurdish plan stipulates that Kurdistan comprise three governorates -- Irbil, Dahuk, Al-Sulaymaniyah -- and the highly contested city of Kirkuk. It would also include some Kurdish towns in the Diyala and Mosul governorates. According to a 5 January report in "The New York Times," citing unnamed Iraqi and U.S. officials, the plan would give the Kurds control over their own security, taxation, and oil revenues -- in Kirkuk and Khanakin. However, according to a 10 January AFP report, CPA head L. Paul Bremer has said the status of Kirkuk will be not be determined until after national elections are held in 2005.

Uthman also insisted that the federation would be established on a geographic basis. "We want federal rule in the area of northern Iraq, and not only in the area that has Kurds. Because this region includes a Kurdish majority, and also includes Turkomans, Assyrians, and Arabs, federation -- whether we like it or not -- will be on a nationalistic basis as well."

Mas'ud Barzani laid his case out in a 21 December article published in the KDP newspaper "Al-Ta'akhi." Highlighting decades of repression by successive Iraqi regimes, Barzani argued that in the past 12 years, "the Kurds have been successful in running their affairs [and] establish[ing] several civil-society institutions like the [regional] parliament and the [regional] government."

"The Kurds today consider these achievements their possession," Barzani wrote. "After 12 years of self-rule, without the control of the Baghdad government, the Kurds will not accept less than their existing situation." Barzani seemed to indicate that a federal structure would go far toward ensuring reconciliation between Kurds and Arabs in Iraq, while stipulating the importance for Kurds that a unified Iraq be seen as a voluntary coexistence.

"Respecting this [plan] and accepting the idea of voluntary union between the Kurdish and Arab peoples in a united Iraq are not only a settlement for the Kurdish issue, but for the Iraqi issue as well," Barzani wrote. "The future of Iraq necessitates the participation of Kurds and Arabs in it in the form of a voluntary coexistence between them, which would take into consideration the particular nature of the people of Kurdistan."

Iraqi Governing Council member and President for the month of January Adnan Pachachi, meanwhile, told Iraqi Television on 3 January that most council members support some kind of special status for the Kurds. "The shape of the relationship between the Kurdish province and the central government in Iraq will be decided by the constitution, which will be written by a congress whose members will be elected in free general elections." While the Governing Council has "accepted a federal system in principle," Pachachi said, "the form of the federal system must be decided according to the constitution. I cannot say right now what type of system we will have here in Iraq because the Governing Council is not an elected body, even though it represents a large number of the Iraqi people. The constitution must be drawn up by an elected council."

Pachachi reminded viewers that the special status of the Kurds "was recognized by all regimes and governments that ruled Iraq since the Iraqi state was founded more than 80 years ago," even though those governments many times oppressed the Kurds. He is overseeing a 10-member subcommittee of Governing Council members that is working to define its own version of Kurdish self-rule.

Faysal Istrabadi, a senior legal adviser to Pachachi told "The New York Times": "There is substantial agreement that the status quo in the Kurdish region would be maintained during the transitional period, with an important caveat. No one is conceding any ethnic or confessional grounds as the basis for any future federal state." Istrabadi added that most Iraqis would oppose any kind of division in Iraq along ethnic grounds, pointing out that the largest Kurdish city in Iraq is Baghdad. "It isn't like you could draw a line in Iraq and say the Kurds live here or the Assyrians, the Chaldeans, the Turkomans, the Shi'ites, or the Sunnis live there."

Meanwhile, there is talk of an Arab plan for a federal system in Iraq, which reportedly has Kurds up in arms, claiming such a plan would undermine their rights. The Arab plan, which has not been formally presented to the Governing Council, calls for a federation of governorates. "The principle of federation has never been a new thing. It is the principle of granting authorities from the center to the surrounding areas, so to speak, or to the governorates. But the details of whether this federation will be on a national, geographical, or administrative basis are not settled yet," council member Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i, a Shi'a, told Al-Jazeera on 5 January.

Officials in Washington appear to have changed positions on the issue of Kurdish autonomy in recent days. Western media earlier reported that the U.S. administration had resigned itself to the belief that Kurdish autonomy in some form is inevitable, but officials told on 8 January that Bremer has now come down hard on the Kurds. "Bremer really lowered the boom on them," an unnamed official told the website. "He told them they're going to have to be flexible, and to recognize the existence of a federal state of Iraq and to disband their militias." Bremer has reportedly held a number of meetings in recent days with both Barzani and Talabani. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera reported that Bremer, like Pachachi, has asked the two Kurdish leaders to be "patient" in their call for Iraqi federalism.

Asked about Kurdish aspirations, U.S. State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli told reporters on 5 January: "I would say on the subject of the Kurds, that we have always supported and will continue to support Iraq's political unity and territorial integrity. The Kurds are members of the Governing Council and have themselves expressed a commitment to a unified Iraq. The structure of a future Iraqi state, including federalist elements, is a constitutional issue for the Iraqis to decide." Asked specifically if the United States would support political autonomy for the Kurds, Ereli replied: "Without getting into hypotheticals, I think what we're committed to is Iraq's political unity and territorial integrity." Negotiations on the issue of autonomy are expected to continue for several weeks.

A commander in Afghanistan's eastern Paktiya Province has pledged full cooperation with the Afghan Transitional Administration more than a year after his troops took up arms against the Kabul-based government in 2002, Radio Afghanistan reported on 13 January. According to the report, an agreement was reached after negotiations between the son of rogue commander Pacha Khan Zadran and Paktiya Governor Asadullah Wafa. Zadran's son, Abdul Wali, said that all of the checkpoints on the Khost-Gardayz highway have been removed and security on that route is being ensured. Zadran was an ally of Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and the United States, as well as a signatory to the 2001 Bonn agreement, before he went into armed opposition against the central government the following year. His forces are based in the eastern Paktiya Province. If the agreement between Zadran and Kabul stands, it will mark another victory for Karzai in his continuing effort to consolidate central authority over warlords and renegade commanders. AT

Authorities in the Herat Province have claimed that two of their commanders were abducted by commander Amanullah Khan (Amanullah Naykzad), Hindukosh news agency reported on 14 January. Mawlawi Gholam Mohammad Masun, a spokesman for Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan, said provincial authorities have sought unsuccessfully to resolve the standoff through the central authority in Kabul. Amanullah Khan meanwhile told Hindukosh that he has no information about Ismail Khan's commanders and claimed that forces loyal to the Herat governor killed two of his men. The longstanding rivalry between Ismail Khan and Amanullah Khan, which has erupted intermittently into full-scale battle, had seemingly quieted in recent months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 November and 2 December 2002 and 25 June 2003). AT

The Kabul-based daily "Anis" wrote in a 11 January commentary that the approval of the new Afghan Constitution on 4 January (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 8 January 2004) must be followed up with the enforcement of law and order throughout the country. "Anis" called on the Afghan Transitional Administration to remove unspecified provincial governors who were selected to their positions based on "compromises" that were necessary at the time. According to the commentary, such governors have made appointments in their provinces based on personal relationships or "the number of armed people" that individuals control. There can be no optimism "about reconstruction, disarmament, revenue transfers, or about the enforcement of the constitution" without the removal of such governors, "Anis" argued. AT

Kabul residents had an opportunity to see a female singer perform on Afghan television for the first time in more than a decade on 12 January, RFE/RL reported the next day. A Kabul station broadcast decades-old footage of Salma, a star in Afghanistan in the 1970s and 1980s, singing a romantic ballad. Several other music programs featuring female singers were also broadcast the same evening. Images of women on television were banned under President Burhanuddin Rabbani in the early 1990s and under the hard-line Taliban regime that followed. Women have returned to Afghan public life and television under the post-Taliban Afghan Transitional Administration, but appearances had been limited to newscasts until the Salma footage was rebroadcast. AT

President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami's office on 13 January released a statement that rejected his rumored resignation threat, IRNA reported the next day. According to an article that appeared in "Etemad" on 13 January, the president threatened to quit as a protest against the Guardians Council's decision to reject many prospective reformist candidates for the February parliamentary election. "I will wait for a week for the situation to get back to normal," Khatami reportedly said. "Otherwise, if it is not possible to hold the elections, I will [resign from] my responsibility." Parliamentarians who are participating in a sit-in at the legislature also rejected the accuracy of the "Etemad" report, Mehr News Agency reported on 13 January. They asked the daily's managing editor to publish the denial. BS

One of the incumbent legislators whose prospective candidacy for the upcoming election was rejected is Ahmad Moradi, the representative from Torqabeh and Chenaran (Khorasan Province), and in a 14 January pre-agenda speech he submitted his resignation, ILNA reported. Other legislators are continuing their sit-in outside the parliament, ILNA reported, and they announced that if the candidacy rejections are not reversed by 17 January they will begin fasting. Tehran representative Ali Shakuri-Rad announced on 13 January that he and his colleagues will continue their sit-in until 30 January, "which is the day that the Guardians Council will announce its final decision on the disqualified candidates." "The sit-in will continue if the Guardian Council's final decision does not meet the demands of the MPs who have staged the sit-in," Shakuri-Rad added. BS

President Khatami said during a 13 January meeting with provincial governors-general that the legislature cannot represent just one of society's political tendencies, Iranian state television reported. He said the letter and the spirit of the law must be respected, and "the letter of the law must not be used as a pretext for undermining the spirit of the law." Turning to the current crisis over the disqualification of prospective parliamentary candidates, he said, "I believe that the individuals were not disqualified by impartial people." He asked the governors-general to compile lists of the individuals on the executive and supervisory boards, "with their records, positions, responsibilities, and commitment to the revolution, as well as their weak and strong points." Khatami went on to say that this information "must be published for public opinion." That way, he said, the public can decide what kind of people were on the boards and what their tendencies were. At the end of his speech Khatami appeared to reject the possibility of isolated resignations. "Abandoning the scene does not mean anything. We either all leave together or all stay together," he said. "We all stay, God willing." BS

M. Abdullah Yusuf, secretary at Pakistan's Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources, left for India on 12 January to discuss technical matters relating to the Iran-Pakistan-India natural-gas pipeline, IRNA reported on 13 January. Yusuf discussed the pipeline project in late December with a visiting Iranian delegation, and on 6 January Pakistani Prime Minister Mir Zafarullah Khan and Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee discussed it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 January 2004). Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mohsen Aminzadeh arrived in Islamabad on 13 January and met with Foreign Secretary Riaz Khokhar, IRNA reported. They discussed a range of issues, including economic affairs. BS

Iraq's two main Kurdish parties, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), have reportedly reached an agreement to merge the administrations of their two regional governments in northern Iraq, international media reported on 13 January. The parties will now run the three northern provinces of Irbil, Dahuk, and Al-Sulaymaniyah under a unified regional administration. Officials said that a few details still need to be worked out, including the assignment of ministerial posts and the establishment of a unified judiciary, KurdSat television reported. The plan calls for a rotating Kurdish presidency, which will first be chaired by the PUK. The new cabinet will consist of 14 ministries, six run by KDP officials, four by PUK officials, and one each by officials from the Kurdistan Communist Party, the Islamic Union, the Turkomans, and the Assyrians, "Al-Sabah" reported. While plans for a unified administration have been under way for years, the Kurdish parties in northern Iraq see the move as part of a larger drive for autonomy. KR

Three people were killed and more than 20 were injured on 14 January when a suicide bomber detonated a car bomb outside a police station in the Iraqi town of Ba'qubah, approximately 65 kilometers northeast of Baghdad, international media reported. Iraqi police Colonel Salam Omar told AP that the driver of the explosives-laden vehicle attempted to enter the police-station parking lot, but detonated the vehicle when police guards opened fire. KR

U.S. forces captured four nephews of former vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, sixth on the coalition's list of the 55 most-wanted former regime officials, international media reported. The arrests came during a 14 January early morning raid on two houses in Samarra. Two of the nephews are suspected of being in close contact with al-Duri, having helped hide the former leader in safe houses. "They are his enablers and his movers," Lieutenant Colonel David J. Poirier told AP. "They have information they can provide us...that would be extremely important." Al-Duri's wife and daughter were arrested on 26 November and reportedly remain in coalition custody. The coalition is offering a $10 million reward ( for information leading to the capture of al-Duri, or confirmation that he is dead. KR

U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told reporters at a 14 January press conference in Baghdad broadcast on CNN that coalition forces captured Khamis Sirhan al-Muhammad, 54th on the most-wanted list. Al-Muhammad, former Ba'ath Party chairman and Ba'ath Party militia commander for the Karbala Governorate, was captured on 11 January in Al-Ramadi. Kimmitt declined to provide further details on the capture. KR

Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul told reporters in Ankara on 13 January that his country will facilitate the constitutional process in Iraq by hosting a series of meetings on the subject, NTV reported on 14 January. Gul's comments came following a meeting with Iraqi Governing Council member Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim. Gul said Turkey's desire is to "come up with a constitution that will be acceptable to all the Iraqi people." He said the meetings will bring together Iraqi officials and unspecified foreign "dignitaries," adding that the Iraqi Governing Council has welcomed Turkey's contribution to the constitutional process. The report noted that the meetings would be of an academic nature. KR

U.S. President George W. Bush on 13 January said that Canada can now bid on reconstruction projects in Iraq despite an earlier ban on countries that did not join the U.S. coalition in Iraq, international media reported. Bush announced the decision in his first meeting with new Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. "It actually does show that working together, you can arrive at a reasonable solution," Martin said of the decision, reported. Canada pledged some $225 million in aid to Iraq last year. It will now be eligible to bid on this spring's $6 billion installment of contracts in Iraq. U.S. officials said on 13 January that other countries, including those that have agreed to forgive some of Iraq's debt, might also be eligible to bid on the contracts, AP reported. France, Germany, and Russia, which were banned from bidding on the contracts under Bush's previous decision, could possibly then be eligible to bid on the $18.6 billion in prime reconstruction contracts, the news agency reported, citing White House spokesman Scott McClellan. KR