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Newsline - March 11, 2004

At a press conference on 10 March, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov promised that normative acts outlining personnel matters in the new government ministries and agencies will be signed within the next two months, RIA-Novosti reported. Only after they are signed will the names of deputy ministers and the directors of federal services and agencies become known. Nevertheless, Fradkov did indicate some former cabinet ministers whom he said would be offered posts as heads of services and deputy ministers, including former Deputy Prime Minister Boris Aleshin, who will head the new Federal Industry Agency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2004). JAC

The budgets for the newly formed and remaining ministries will likely be increased because of their redistributed responsibilities, "Gazeta" reported on 10 March. The newspaper calculated the likely budgets of the new ministries by combining the current budgets of the agencies being folded into them. The Finance Ministry, which has taken on many of the functions of the abolished Tax Ministry, will have an annual budget of 1.1 trillion rubles ($39 billion). The Defense Ministry's budget will be 332.1 billion rubles, and the Interior Ministry's budget will be 167.6 billion rubles, the paper reported. JAC

Speaking to journalists in Japan on 10 March, newly appointed Culture and Mass Communications Minister Aleksandr Sokolov clearly indicated that he is not enthusiastic about Prime Minister Fradkov's suggestion earlier that day that Sokolov appoint former Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi and former Media Minister Mikhail Lesin to leading posts in his ministry (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2004), reported. "Obviously, people will recommend to me with whom I should speak, but then I will make my own proposals," Sokolov was quoted as saying. "But today I am not ready to name them and it is premature to discuss it." In apparent reference to Fradkov's comments, Sokolov added: "I am not taking a relay-race baton from the hands of my predecessor, but rather will work in accordance with the new concept of the government. One should first study what the president has in mind in organizing the government." VY

During the same press briefing on 11 March, Culture and Mass Communications Minister Sokolov said that he sees as his main task regarding the mass media fighting "biased" information and the journalists who disseminate it, reported. "One should eliminate the distorting mirrors in the mass media," Sokolov said, adding that he is "categorically against any censorship or punitive measures against the mass media." At the same time, he said that "state television channels and newspapers that have the status of solid publications should make considered personnel choices." He concluded by saying he believes there are too many journalists who are not professionally qualified and do not understand the topics about which they are writing. VY

Speaking to journalists in Moscow on 10 March, Russian Television and Radio Broadcasting Network (RTRS) Director Gennadii Sklyar said that in the next three years, Russia's electronic media will switch over entirely to digital broadcasting, ITAR-TASS and RosBalt reported. RTRS, a state enterprise (, manages the country's broadcast-relay stations and cable networks. Ultimately, under the RTRS plan, all of the more than 800 regional television channels operating in Russia will be available anywhere within the 85 percent of Russia that RTRS covers. However, Sklyar said, the short-term goal of the plan is to increase television access in remote rural locations from the current four channels to 10 through the intense development of cable networks. As part of the plan, RTRS will initiate the production of special cable boxes that will be distributed to television viewers free. Then viewers will be charged a monthly fee of 150 rubles ($6), with the option of paying a premium for extra television programs and Internet access, Sklyar said. VY

The Federal Security Service (FSB) on 10 March released a statement warning of possible attempts to disrupt the 14 March presidential election through the dissemination of false information about terrorist incidents at polling stations, the FSB's website ( and an Interior Ministry website ( reported. According to the statement, a forged letter purportedly from the FSB appeared on several websites earlier this week containing warnings to regional authorities that election-day terrorist incidents were being planned. The FSB statement called this letter a "dirty trick" intended to generate panic and to disrupt the election. The FSB promised to find and punish the authors of the fake letter. VY

Popular NTV television host Vladimir Solovev in interviews with the Italian daily "La Stampa" on 9 March and with on 10 March charged that self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovskii is plotting either the assassination or the faked assassination of a prominent opposition politician on the eve of the 14 March election as a way of discrediting President Putin. He charged that Berezovskii approached him with a proposal to participate in the alleged plot, saying that "the country needs a sacrificial lamb." Solovev explained that Berezovskii hates "the pro-Putin, anti-oligarchic coalition that has taken power in the country." He said he has warned presidential candidate Irina Khakamada and former Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) co-leader Boris Nemtsov that they could be the target of Berezovskii's purported designs. Asked to respond to Solovev's charges, Berezovskii told, "I am not commenting on the statements of crazy FSB agents." He admitted that Solovev had visited him in London and said that he gave Solovev $50,000 to support the work of the opposition television channel TV-6. "Evidently, he decided that this was not enough," Berezovskii remarked. VY

Mikhail Kodanev, the co-leader of a pro-Berezovskii splinter faction of the Liberal Russia party who is on trial for the April 2003 murder of Duma Deputy Sergei Yushenkov, pled not guilty during a Moscow court hearing on 10 March, and reported. He said the charges against him were fabricated by law enforcement agencies. He called the prosecutor's statement that he organized Yushenkov's killing in order to take over Liberal Russia and control its finances "complete nonsense," ITAR-TASS and RIA-Novosti reported. Kodanev said Yushenkov had nothing to do with financial matters. He also rejected a statement by his former assistant Aleksandr Vinnik, who is also accused in the case, that Kodanev offered him $50,000 to kill Yushenkov, saying that he never had that much money. In earlier testimony at the trial, the current leader of the anti-Berezovskii Liberal Russia faction, Duma Deputy Viktor Pokhmelkin, said he believes Berezovskii might have been involved in Yushenkov's killing. VY

Presidential candidate Sergei Glazev has accused state-controlled ORT and RTR of broadcasting only a portion of his campaign advertisements, RosBalt reported on 10 March. Glazev told reporters in Moscow that he has a legal right to free airtime, but the "Central Election Commission [TsIK] has decided not to fulfill this plan." He claimed that representatives of the channels were told to cut back on his airtime by the presidential administration. The same day, the TsIK agreed with Glazev that on 25 February ORT did not run in full a one-minute spot for Glazev, reported. On 24 February, RTR did not run a 50-second spot, but RTR representatives told the TsIK that they had technical difficulties and promised to run the commercial. Fellow presidential candidate Khakamada complained earlier that a meeting with her campaign workers, which should have been aired live, was cut when a well-known actress asked her a question that was critical of President Putin. RTR said that the cut was not deliberate and was due to technical difficulties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2004). It has already rebroadcast the presentation in full, but at a less-attractive time of day. JAC

On the eve of the 14 March presidential election, the Yabloko party filed lawsuits contesting the results of the 7 December State Duma election in 170 of Russia's 225 election districts, Yabloko spokesman Sergei Loktionov announced on 10 March, Russian media reported. The suits, which were filed in 78 regional courts, asks that the results of the voting be invalidated. According to Loktionov, 19 percent of the 14,000 voting protocols examined by the party had "significant divergences" from the official data, reported. The regions accused of the most discrepancies were Perm, Orenburg, Moscow, Tula, Sverdlovsk, Chelyabinsk, and Kemerovo oblasts, the city of Moscow, and Primorskii Krai. Loktionov added that Yabloko -- together with the Communist Party, the NGO Golos, and Committee 2008 -- plan to file a case with the Supreme Court claiming violations of citizens' right to a free election. Yabloko has called on voters to boycott the 14 March presidential election. JAC

Political analysts in Perm are wondering what mechanism will be used to fill the spot left by President Putin's 9 March appointment of Perm Oblast Governor Yurii Trutnev to head the Natural Resources Ministry, reported on 10 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 March 2004). Political consultant Yurii Isaev suggested that there are two possibilities. Either, Putin will appoint a new governor or an extraordinary election will be held in short order. The latter possibility promises intrigue and many candidates, according to Isaev, because Trutnev still had 18 months left in his term. Isaev noted that the region is going through an awkward transitional period because Putin recently asked the Duma to expedite legislation regarding the merger of Perm Oblast and Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 February 2004). JAC

Natural Resources Minister Trutnev, at a press conference on 10 March, promised to address what he called "the deficiencies" in the ministry's policies that he observed as Perm Oblast governor, reported. "Federation subjects and developers of mineral resources wait for months for answers from the ministry on various questions, and it was not understandable what criteria were being used to make decisions," he said. He promised that if companies receive licenses and do not use them, then the licenses will be taken away. He promised to publish a list of licenses that will be revoked. LUKoil spokesman Dmitrii Dolgov told that his company has good working relations with Perm Oblast, and the company always fulfilled its agreements with Trutnev. Perm Oblast is one of the key producing regions for LUKoil. JAC

Prime Minister Fradkov appointed on 10 March former State Duma Deputy and Yabloko member Igor Artemev as director of the new Federal Antimonopoly Service, Russian media reported. For some time, rumors have circulated that Artemev was slated to become deputy economic development and trade minister, but that appointment never materialized (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 February 2004). Last month, another Yabloko State Duma deputy, Vladimir Lukin, was named human rights ombudsman (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). JAC

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) President Jean-Herve Bredol told AFP on 10 March that influential Russian and Daghestan government officials are implicated in the August 2002 abduction in Daghestan of MSF aid worker Arjan Erkel, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 11 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 August 2002 and 1 April and 20 November 2003). Bredol added that negotiations on obtaining Erkel's release were broken off in December when the intermediaries opted out. He said MSF will try to increase international pressure on the Russian authorities to free Erkel. Deputy presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Said-Selim Peshkhoev told Interfax later on 10 March that Bredol's accusations are totally without foundation. Peshkhoev asked rhetorically why, if MSF has information that could be useful to those investigating Erkel's disappearance, the organization has not made that information available. LF

Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov rejected on 10 March a report that Chechen field commander and former Defense Minister Magomed Khambiev surrendered two days earlier to Kadyrov's son, Ramzan, because the latter had taken hostage and threatened to kill some 30 members of Khambiev's family, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2004). Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov insisted that Khambiev's surrender was "voluntary." Speaking in Strasbourg, Khambiev's brother, Umar, who served as Chechen health minister in 1997-99, repeated that Magomed Khambiev was constrained to surrender to save his relatives' lives. LF

Meeting on 10 March with students at Yerevan State University, Robert Kocharian extolled the "unprecedented" economic growth Armenia has recorded since he was elected six years ago, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Yerevan bureau reported. Kocharian argued that the double-digit GDP growth of recent years belies opposition allegations that Armenia is experiencing a political crisis. Kocharian further rejected allegations that his re-election one year ago was rigged and thus of dubious legitimacy. LF

In a statement released on 10 March, the Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry condemned as "a routine propaganda show" an international chess tournament hosted by the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic that began in Stepanakert the previous day, Turan reported. The statement claimed that the world chess body FIDE appealed to the Armenian authorities not to hold the tournament. A correspondent in Stepanakert for RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 9 March, however, that the tournament is being held under FIDE auspices, and quoted from a letter greeting participants sent by FIDE President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov. The tournament is pegged to the 70th anniversary of the birth of the late world chess champion Tigran Petrosian, an ethnic Armenian. LF

Ilham Aliyev issued a decree on 10 March renaming Baku's Bina Airport, Azerbaijan's Higher Military College, and several other institutions in honor of his father and predecessor, Heidar Aliyev, Turan reported on 11 March. Monuments to the late president will erected in Baku and his home province of Nakhichevan, and gold, silver, and platinum commemorative coins will be struck. LF

Baku's Sabayil District Court suspended on 11 March its ruling that the congregation of the Djuma mosque in Baku's old town must vacate the building as of 1 March, Turan reported. Observers interpreted that ruling as retaliation against the mosque's popular imam, Ilgar Ibrahimoglu (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 30 January 2004). Both the U.S. State Department and Azerbaijan's top Muslim cleric have criticized the eviction order (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2004). LF

Defense Ministry department head Lieutenant General Talyb Mamedov and unit commander Major General Gabil Mamedov were dismissed from their posts on 10 March in accordance with a decree signed by President Aliyev in his capacity as commander in chief of the armed forces, Turan reported. A Defense Ministry spokesman described the dismissals as routine, but the opposition newspaper "Azadlyq" on 11 March attributed them to the two generals' failure to defend Azerbaijani positions in Fizuli Raion against a recent Armenian attack. LF

A 22-member Kazakh government delegation visited Baku on 9-10 March for talks on expanding cooperation in the oil and petrochemical, insurance, machine-building, and transport sectors, the Kazakhstan Today website ( reported on 9 March. Azerbaijan's Economic Development Minister Farkhad Aliyev told journalists on 10 March that an agreement was reached, under which Kazakhstan will resume shipping crude oil to Azerbaijan for refining, as Baku's two refineries are currently operating at only one-third of their combined annual capacity of 22 million tons. The two countries will continue consultations on construction in Baku of a transshipment terminal for Kazakh grain with an annual capacity of 7 million tons, ITAR-TASS reported on 10 March. Azerbaijan will purchase 500,000 tons of Kazakh grain annually for domestic consumption. LF

Ambassador Christian Strohal, who is director of the OSCE's Warsaw-based Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), met in Tbilisi on 10 March with Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania, parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, and Central Election Commission Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili to discuss preparations for the 28 March parliamentary election, Georgian media reported. In a press release issued in Warsaw the same day, Strohal stressed the need for "sustained and close dialogue" between the Georgian authorities, NGOs, and the international community to build on the opportunity created by last November's "Rose Revolution" and to promote human rights and democracy in Georgia. Strohal told journalists that his Georgian interlocutors told him it would be "difficult" in the current situation to comply with a Council of Europe proposal to lower from 7 percent to 5 percent the threshold for parliamentary representation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20, 24, 26, and 27 February 2004). LF

Three members of the Georgian Christian-Democratic Union were sentenced in Batumi on 10 March to several days' imprisonment on charges of being drunk and disorderly, Georgian media reported. The three men had reportedly tried to post placards denouncing Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze. Also on 10 March, Tengiz Abkhazava, a coordinator for the opposition movement Democratic Adjaria, resurfaced two days after vanishing without a trace. Abkhazava said he was abducted, held blindfolded, and beaten. LF

Nursultan Nazarbaev on 10 March appointed Imanghali Tasmaghambetov head of the presidential administration, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The move comes amid a general reshuffling that has seen Nazarbaev loyalist Nurtay Abyqaev, former head of the presidential administration, become the speaker of the Senate, and Oralbay Abdykarymov, former speaker of the Senate, become Kazakhstan's state secretary (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2004). Tasmaghambetov has served as state secretary since June 2003. The 47-year-old Tasmaghambetov was also prime minister in 2002-03. The 59-year-old Abdykarymov was speaker of the Senate since December 1999. The weekly "Republika Assandi Times" on 27 February predicted that Nazarbaev would soon initiate a major staff reshuffle, from which Abyqaev and first deputy presidential administration head Marat Tazhin would benefit. The paper further suggested that Nazarbaev might try to wrong-foot the opposition by bringing forward to the late spring the parliamentary elections scheduled for this fall. DK/LF

Kazakhstan's national oil-and-gas company, Kazmunaygaz, has signed an agreement for a $300 million loan from France's BNP Paribas Suisse SA and Switzerland's Euromin SA, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on 10 March. The monthly interest rate on the 5-year loan is 1.75 percent, reported on 10 March. The money, which is part of the company's 2004-06 investment program, will provide "structural financing" for Kazmunaygaz subsidiaries Ozenmunaygaz and Embamunaygaz. Kazmunaygaz also announced that its 2004-06 investment program will require total financing of $1.3 billion, primarily to fund Caspian-shelf research. DK

The press service of Kyrgyzstan's Ar-Namys opposition party has claimed that a U.S. State Department official expressed the hope that future elections in Kyrgyzstan will usher in substantial changes, reported on 10 March. A delegation of Kyrgyz opposition figures, including Ar-Namys Chairman Emil Aliev, met with Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Lynn Pascoe and Director of the Office of Caucasus and Central Asian Affairs John Fox in Washington on 3 March. According to the report, Pascoe commented that future Kyrgyz elections must bring about changes in the country's power structure. As translated into Russian by, Pascoe's alleged comment is suggestive of the phrase "regime change." The Russian daily "Novye izvestiya" immediately picked up on the report, writing on 11 March that "many experts are calling the statement an attempt by the American administration to initiate in the Central Asian republic the same sort of 'velvet revolution' that took place in Georgia on 23 November." DK

A new program to combat the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases will target 16,000 service personnel in the Tajik armed forces, Tajikistan's Khovar national news agency reported on 10 March. The program is a joint effort by the U.S. Department of Defense, USAID, UNAIDS, and the Tajik Defense Ministry. "The UN has identified military forces as one of several high-risk groups for HIV/AIDS transmission," U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Richard Hoagland told the UN news agency IRIN on 10 March. "The goal of the Defense HIV/AIDS Prevention Program is to address the needs of this high-risk group." According to IRIN, trainers for the program will come from the East-West AIDS Foundation. Additionally, the UN Population Fund has contributed 200,000 condoms. The program is slated for completion in September 2004. DK

A Russian delegation began two days of consultations on problems relating to the Caspian Sea in Ashgabat on 10 March, Interfax reported. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Viktor Kalyuzhnyi, Russia's special representative for questions on the status of the Caspian Sea, is heading the delegation. Reports did not indicate who is leading the Turkmen delegation. A meeting of Caspian working groups is set to take place at the level of deputy foreign ministers in Baku in mid-March, and another meeting at the ministerial level in Moscow in early April, reported on 10 March. DK

Islam Karimov met with visiting Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Executive Secretary Zhang Deguang on 10 March, Uzbek Television reported. The two discussed joint antiterrorism efforts and the development of trade ties, as well as relations between Uzbekistan and China. Karimov called the recent commissioning of the SCO executive secretariat in Beijing and of a regional antiterrorism center in Tashkent signs of the SCO's increasingly prominent role in the region. DK

Belarus's monopoly gas importer, Beltranshaz, has signed a contract for the purchase of 1 billion cubic meters of gas from Sibur at a price of around $47 per 1,000 cubic meters, Belapan and ITAR-TASS reported on 10 March. Sibur, which is controlled by Gazprom, will reportedly supply 200 million cubic meters of gas this month following the expiration on 11 March of a short-term supply contract between Beltranshaz and Transnafta (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 March 2004). Beltranshaz also reportedly signed a contract with Transnafta on the purchase of an additional 240 million cubic meters of gas in March at the same price. Gazprom stopped supplying Belarus with gas on 1 January amid disputes over price and the expected privatization of Beltranshaz. JM

A court in Baranavichy sentenced Mikita Sasim on 10 March to 10 days in prison and Andrey Chyzh to seven days in prison for "petty hooliganism," Belapan reported. Sasim and Czyzh were accused of disrupting classes while distributing a youth newspaper at the Light Industry College in Baranavichy, Brest Oblast (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2004). Sasim and Chyzh are activists of the opposition youth movement Zubr, which Sasim recently joined after quitting the Belarusian Republican Youth Union. JM

President Leonid Kuchma has wound up a visit to Thailand, where he has been staying since 9 March, Interfax reported on 11 March. In Bangkok, Kuchma held talks with Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and Thai King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The two sides signed accords on avoiding double taxation and preventing tax evasion, as well as an airways agreement. Before visiting Thailand, Kuchma went to Brunei on 6 March, where he reportedly discussed a wide range of issues with Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Muizzaddin Waddaulah. Kuchma's trips to Brunei and Thailand were the most senior-level visits in the history of Ukrainian relations with those states. JM

The parliament on 10 March unanimously voted to ratify the North Atlantic Treaty, NATO's founding document, BNS reported. Prior to the vote, Prime Minister Juhan Parts said that NATO membership would provide Estonia with the greatest guarantee of security in the country's history. Parliament Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Marko Mihkelson said the opportunity to join the alliance comes at a crucial point in Estonia's history, citing worrying developments in Russia as a reason for joining. Parliament also ratified via another unanimous decision the European Code of Social Security, which was adopted in Strasbourg in April 1964 and signed by Estonia in January 2000. The ratification obliges Estonia not to make any changes to its social-security laws that would reduce benefit levels or other conditions lower than the minimum prescribed in the code. Estonia accepted clauses in the code pertaining to medical care, sickness, unemployment, old age, family, maternity, invalidity, and survivor's benefits. It did not agree to the code's workers-compensation stipulation, as Estonia does not yet have separate insurance from that of its healthcare system to cover payouts for work-related injuries, and the shape of workers-comp insurance has yet to be decided. SG

Representatives of the three parties -- the People's Party, Latvia's First Party (LPP), and Union of Greens and Farmers (ZZS) -- making up the new minority coalition decided on 10 March to restore the coalition council's tradition of holding weekly closed meetings, BNS reported. The previous cabinet formed by former Prime Minister Einars Repse discontinued the meetings in an effort to make all government-related decisions transparent. It was decided that the coalition meetings will be held every Tuesday at the parliament building instead of the government building because the cabinet of Prime Minister Indulis Emsis (ZZS) wants "to underscore the role of the parliament and not to reduce parliamentary influence," according to Viesturs Slienieks, an aide to Emsis. The heads of the three parliament factions and the coalition parties' leaders are expected to sign the coalition agreement during the council's first meeting on 16 March. The draft coalition agreement envisages that the coalition council will consist of nine members: the prime minister and two representatives of the ZZS parliamentary faction, and three representatives each from the LPP and the People's Party. SG

Military prosecutors have charged pilot Marek Milosz with causing the 4 December helicopter crash in which Prime Minister Leszek Miller and other government officials and personnel were injured (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2003), Polish media reported on 10 March. Milosz has reportedly pleaded guilty and faces up to eight years in jail. A special commission recently concluded that Milosz failed to turn on a warmer for the engines, prompting them to ice up and fail. "I do not comment on the rulings of courts or of prosecutor's offices," Miller told journalists the same day. "I can only say that I will willingly continue to travel with Major Milosz.... I will never forget that he saved my life." JM

National-security officials from Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia -- the countries dubbed the "Slavic Four" in their respective media -- met in Krakow on 10 March to discuss cooperation in fighting terrorism and preventing crime in border areas, as well as in ensuring their energy security in light of the recent halt of Russian gas supplies across Belarus to Europe (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 2 March 2004), PAP reported. The meeting was attended by Belarusian Security Council Secretary Henadz Nyavyhlas, Russian Security Council Deputy Secretary Oleg Chernov, Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Volodymyr Radchenko, and Polish National Security Bureau head Marek Siwiec. Siwiec told journalists that the four officials will submit recommendations to their presidents on how to avoid such gas cutoffs in the future. "The partners in the talks constitute a unique composition for discussion on this subject: the three countries that control the entire transit and the one that controls the entire production," Siwiec said. "Nothing else is required so as to draw all the conclusions on the subject of the enormous consequences that have already appeared." JM

Former Czech Finance Minister Ivo Svoboda was sentenced on 10 March to five years in prison and a 1 million-crown ($37,000) fine for stripping the assets of a defunct baby-buggy manufacturer, CTK and dpa reported. The court concluded that Svoboda and former adviser Barbora Snopkova profited by some 5 million crowns through the scheme. The case marks the first time a current or former member of any post-1989 government has been convicted of a crime and sentenced by a Czech court. Snopkova was given a 5 1/2-year sentence for her role in what was deemed a coordinated scheme to bilk creditors of the Liberta company, while her son Stanislav Kratochvil received a two-year suspended sentence and three years' probation. Svoboda, a former deputy chairman of the Social Democratic Party, was appointed finance minister in the cabinet headed by Milos Zeman in 1998, but pressure linked to a police probe at Liberta prompted his July 1999 resignation. MS

Czech police seized hundreds of tons of imported, military-grade plastic explosives and detained two men on weapon-trafficking charges on 10 March, CTK and dpa reported, citing police spokeswoman Blanka Kosinova. Kosinova did not identify the country from which the shipments originated, but the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported on 11 March that the case involves 328 tons of explosives imported into the Czech Republic from Sweden. The daily added that the suspected seller was supposed to have destroyed the explosives but illegally exported them instead. It also reported that the presumed buyers were two Czech businessmen who intended to reprocess the explosives for resale. They will be charged under Czech law as well as under the 1991 Montreal Treaty prohibiting weapons trafficking. MS

Industry and Trade Minister Milan Urban dismissed an adviser in charge of coordinating aid to Iraq on 10 March following reports that he is a former communist-era secret-police agent with ties to the KGB, "Mlada fronta Dnes" reported the next day. The same daily had broken the story of 66-year-old Frantisek Malata's alleged activities for the former secret police, or StB (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2004). A ministry spokesman was quoted as saying on 10 March that Malata has been stripped of authority in all key areas of his official function and that the ministry is investigating the case. AH

Parliamentary speaker Pavol Hrusovsky announced on 10 March that Slovakia's first-ever elections for the European Parliament will take place on 13 June, TASR and CTK reported. Slovakia has been allocated 14 seats in the European Parliament following the country's expected accession along with nine other states in May. Hrusovsky also announced that the debate on a no-confidence motion against Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Ivan Miklos will be held in a special session of the legislature on 16 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2004). MS

The Greens parliamentary group in the European Parliament is asking the European Commission to continue monitoring the situation of the Romany minority in Slovakia after that country accedes to the European Union on 1 May, TASR and CTK reported. The Greens submitted an amendment to the European legislature's Foreign Affairs Committee report slated for debate on 11 March. Deputy Jan Marinus Wiersma, who is the chamber's rapporteur for Slovakia, agreed to the amendment but said in reference to last month's unrest in the country that a distinction must be made between justified protest and the intolerable looting of shops. The group's co-chairwoman, Belgian MEP Nelly Maes, told journalists in Strasbourg that Slovak Roma are treated as second-class citizens and are excluded from education and employment. Maes said the EU must fight for members of that minority group's right to feel at home in the EU because they are excluded from society in their own country. Miranda Vulostar, chairwoman of the European Roma Information Office, called on the Slovak government to restore social benefits on 1 March and to withdraw police and military forces from eastern Slovakia. MS

A group of 84 members quit the Hungarian Writers Association on 10 March to protest what they claim are anti-Semitic statements made by a member of the association's council, Kornel Dobrentei, "Magyar Hirlap" and "Nepszava" reported. Most of the members of the group belong to the "urbanist" school of writers. (A divide dating back to late 19th century separates Hungarian intellectual life into "populist" promoters of national values and traditions and "urbanist" supporters of Western values and modernization.) Speaking at a recent rally outside Tilos Radio, Dobrentei reportedly said that "a minority wants to force its cultural, financial, and political aspirations on the nation." Hungarian Writers Association President Marton Kalasz responded to the mass defection by saying he is "tired of seeing the organization being slandered before the general public with charges of anti-Semitism and other fallacious presumptions." Writer Gyorgy Konrad -- a well-known communist-era dissident -- is among those who announced their intention to quit the association, which boasts 1,200 members. Konrad said the leadership has shown itself to be unworthy of its tasks. MS

The trial of the extremist Blood and Honor Cultural Society continued with witness testimony at the Budapest Metropolitan Court on 10 March, "Nepszabadsag" reported the next day. The Prosecutor-General's Office filed a request for the dissolution of the group, charging that contrary to the cultural goals declared in the association's founding documents, members of Blood and Honor espouse neo-Nazi views. Prosecutors also concluded that the society has not carried out any substantive activities since its registration in January 2002 and has fewer members than the minimum of 10 required by law. Annual demonstrations organized by the Blood and Honor Cultural Society commemorating German and Hungarian troops who defended Buda Castle against Soviet forces in February 1945 generally attract hundreds of supporters. During a recent Blood and Honor rally, speakers described themselves as followers of the fascist Arrow Cross, the German Wehrmacht, and the Waffen SS (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2004). The trial will continue in April. MSZ

The EU's envoy to Macedonia, Soren Jessen Petersen, said on 10 March that the government in Skopje should apply for EU membership as soon as possible, "Dnevnik" reported. Petersen added that it would be best if the application were handed over before the election campaign for the 14 April presidential elections starts. A Macedonian delegation headed by Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski planned to hand over the application in Dublin on 26 February to Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency. However, the ceremony was called off because President Boris Trajkovski died in a plane crash that same day. An EU spokeswoman said talks are under way between the Macedonian and Irish governments to find a new date for the presentation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 February and 10 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 13 February 2004). UB

High Representative Paddy Ashdown told a Sarajevo press conference on 10 March that the governing Serbian Democratic Party (SDS) "has severely damaged Bosnia's reputation on its way towards NATO integration by proposing [two] joke candidates" for defense minister, dpa reported. He was referring to two previous nominees for the post, both of whom subsequently withdrew from consideration because of their respective records from the 1992-95 conflict. A third candidate, Nikola Radovanovic, has been endorsed by Prime Minister Adnan Terzic and awaits approval by the parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2004). Establishing a unified military with a single defense minister is one of the prerequisites Bosnia must meet if it wants to join NATO's Partnership for Peace program at the Atlantic alliance's June Istanbul summit. Ashdown told his press conference that Bosnian membership in NATO's program means that "wars here [will] become impossible" at any time in the future. PM

In the past 15 months, Bosnian Foreign Minister Mladen Ivanic has issued approximately 500 diplomatic passports, Hina reported from Banja Luka on 11 March, quoting "Nezavisne novine." The independent daily wrote that diplomatic passports were issued to Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dragan Mikerevic and his wife and two sons, the wives of members of the parliaments of Bosnia-Herzegovina and its two entities, as well as members of the Bosnian Presidency and many ministers and sons of ministerial advisers. The Foreign Ministry's rules grant the minister broad powers to approve diplomatic passports. Ivanic's office has not commented on the "Nezavisne novine" story, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. PM

Former Generals Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac voluntarily arrived in The Hague from Zagreb on 11 March to face trial for crimes against humanity and violating the laws and customs of war in connection with their roles in the August 1995 campaign against Serbian rebels that ended the war in Croatia's Krajina region, Croatian media reported. Both men hope to be released from pretrial detention and return to Croatia until their trials begin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2004). PM

The European Parliament on 10 March concluded its debate of the draft Romania country report presented by the parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee and is to vote on it on 11 March, Mediafax and AFP reported. Europarliament's rapporteur for Romania, Baroness Emma Nicholson, said many question marks remain over Romania's implementation of the rule of law. She claimed the country's self-imposed ban on international adoptions was circumvented by the government itself. "We want Romania to join [the European Union], but not at a price that is too high for Europe's citizens to pay," AFP quoted Nicholson as saying. EU Enlargement Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said the fight against corruption in Romania must be expanded and that Bucharest must go after "the big fish." Meanwhile, Europarliament rapporteur for Bulgaria Geoffrey van Orden said in his draft country report that the accession of Bulgaria and Romania should be treated separately, the "Sofia Morning News" reported. Unlike Romania, Bulgaria is praised in its report for its progress in EU-accession negotiations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 February 2004). MS

Parliament on 10 March approved the reshuffle of the cabinet headed by Adrian Nastase, Mediafax reported. Two hundred sixty-nine deputies voted in favor of the move, with 68 -- all from the opposition Greater Romania Party -- voting against. Lawmakers representing the opposition National Liberal Party-Democratic Party alliance walked out prior to the vote, saying they refuse to endorse the government's inability to ensure EU integration. Nastase acknowledged the opposition's protests regarding the cabinet's failure to recall or dismiss former Justice Minister Rodica Stanoiu before appointing her successor, Cristian Diaconescu. The prime minister explained that the situation resulted from a procedural mistake, adding that Stanoiu will now be recalled by presidential decree and Diaconescu appointed via a similar move. MS

The Bucharest branch of the ruling Social Democratic Party (PSD) on 10 March selected PSD spokesman Bogdan Niculescu-Duvaz as the party's mayoral candidate for the June elections, Mediafax reported. Incumbent Bucharest Mayor and Democratic Party Chairman Traian Basescu, who is running for a second term, said: "God bestowed on us the best possible rival. I think I won't even bother to print electoral leaflets and will spend the election campaign vacationing." MS

Counselor for Special Tasks Sergiu Mocanu told RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service on 10 March that he believes relations between Chisinau and Bucharest can once again become mutually advantageous. Mocanu said that during his recent visit to Romania he participated in "sincere" discussions to lay the groundwork for "signing a possible treaty at a later stage." Mocanu met in Bucharest with Senate speaker Nicolae Vacaroiu, Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana, and other officials. He said the European Commission is interested in seeing Moldova and Romania cooperate, and that the visit took place at the initiative of EU Ambassador to Romania Jonathan Scheele. MS

Deputy Prime Minister Vasile Iovv said on 10 March that Chisinau Mayor Serafim Urechean must face sanctions for secretly visiting Moscow on 25 February, Flux reported. Iovv said Moldovan legislation stipulates that officials' visits abroad must be coordinated with and approved by the Moldovan authorities. While abroad, Iovv said, Moldovan officials must coordinate their moves with the Moldovan Embassy. Iovv said Urechean informed him on 24 February that he would be undergoing medical treatment the next day, and that he made it clear that Urechean would need prior approval if he was to be treated abroad. Moldovan media has reported that while in Moscow, Urechean met with Mayor Yurii Luzhkov. Flux earlier said Moldova's communist authorities fear that Russia will support the Our Moldova alliance, which is co-chaired by Urechean, in the 2005 parliamentary elections. MS

Victor Stepaniuc, leader of the Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) parliamentary group, said in an interview with RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service on 9 March that despite planned reforms in the party, the PCM will neither give up Marxist-Leninist ideology nor change its name. Stepaniuc said the PCM will promote after reform a "state based on the rule of law entrenched on a market economy," as do European social-democratic parties. He said that while the PCM is not renouncing its goal of "building a socialist, and at a later stage a communist, society," it will become a longer-term objective. Last week, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin said in an interview with the daily "Kishinevskie novosti" that the PCM must undergo "a serious modernization of its own ideology and strategy." MS

The Supreme Judicial Council on 10 March elected Konstantin Penchev to head the Supreme Administrative Court, reported. However, Penchev's current role as a legislator for the governing National Movement Simeon II (NDSV) and reports of Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski's involvement in the election have raised doubts among other high-ranking judges. Supreme Court of Appeals head and Supreme Judicial Council member Ivan Grigorov called Penchev's election "direct...political interference in the Bulgarian judiciary." Grigorov said Penchev's affiliation with the NDSV will place him in a conflicting position as the Supreme Administrative Court will soon review Saxecoburggotski's property holdings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 January 2004). In the past, the Supreme Administrative Court has also caused the current government problems on a number of issues, such as the privatizations of the state-owned Bulgarian Telecommunications Company and the tobacco monopoly Bulgartabac. UB

The newly formed parliamentary group of the conservative opposition Union of Democratic Forces (SDS) headed by former Foreign Minister Nadezhda Mihailova has decided to boycott the vote of no confidence in the government slated for 12 March, reported. The decision followed a lengthy debate, with some lawmakers arguing that the SDS should show its opposition to the government by supporting the Socialist Party-led initiative, and others saying the SDS should not cooperate with the Socialists. In the meantime, the conservative opposition parliamentary group United Democratic Forces (ODS), which is dominated by former Prime Minister Ivan Kostov and his followers, has indicated that it will support the no-confidence vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 and 9 March 2004). UB

Over the past two months, Russian officials in Moscow, Grozny and the Ingushetian capital Magas have issued conflicting and contradictory statements about the status of the tent camps in Ingushetia that at the turn of the year still housed an estimated 4,000-7,000 displaced persons from Chechnya. Despite repeated official reassurances that none of those displaced persons will be constrained to return to Chechnya against their will, one of the three camps in Ingushetia has already been closed, and the remaining two could also be shut down by the end of this month.

The impetus for expediting the return from Ingushetia to Chechnya of the displaced Chechens currently housed in tent camps appears to have come from the pro-Moscow Chechen government, which argues that the apparently voluntary return of the displaced persons attests to the "normalization" of living conditions in Chechnya. On 12 January, Interfax quoted the Chechen government as saying that "after March 1 there must not be a single tent on the territory of Ingushetia." ITAR-TASS the same day quoted acting Chechen Prime Minister Eli Isaev as explaining the rationale for the closure in terms of the appalling conditions at the camps. He said the Chechen authorities will provide alternative accommodation in Grozny with electricity, heating, gas, and water in close proximity to schools.

But on 16 January, Ingushetian presidential press secretary Isa Mezhoev told Interfax the repatriation process will be "exclusively voluntary," and that the Ingushetian authorities would not set any deadline for shutting down the camps. Ingushetia's President Murat Zyazikov similarly told Interfax on 21 February that it is for the displaced persons to decide themselves whether to return to Chechnya, and that "we are not trying to accelerate this process. We do not set any deadlines." On 4 March, Ingushetian Deputy Prime Minister Magomed Markhiev implicitly rejected Isaev's criticism of conditions at the camps. Markhiev told Interfax that the camp residents "have heating, food, gas and electricity. Returning fugitives are given free transportation. There are no specific problems."

A senior UN official who visited Chechnya and Ingushetia in late January subsequently said he considered the 1 March deadline for closing the tent camps in Ingushetia unrealistic. Jan Egeland, who is UN undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told Reuters on 27 January that there is not enough accommodation available in Chechnya to house all the Chechens from the camps in Ingushetia. He added that the security situation in Chechnya is "still very difficult." Two days later, on 29 January, Egeland announced that the Russian authorities had rescinded the 1 March deadline. He said he pointed out to the Russian authorities that to impose such a deadline while insisting that the repatriation process will be purely voluntary is a contradiction in terms. But Reuters on 29 January quoted Ruslan Badalov of the Chechen Committee for National Salvation as implying that Egeland was naive to take at face value Russian officials' assurances that the 1 March deadline had been shelved. Badalov said that representatives of the pro-Moscow Chechen government were visiting the camps in Ingushetia to warn the inhabitants of the impending 1 March closure. On 13 February, reported that water supplies to the three tent camps in Ingushetia had been cut off in a bid to force the inhabitants to leave.

On 27 January, Stanislav Ilyasov, who is the Russian minister for chechen affairs, said the 1 March date for closing the tent camps was only "a working deadline," the purpose of which was to pressure those engaged in building temporary accommodation in Chechnya for the prospective returnees to speed up that process. Ilyasov also suggested that the Ingush authorities should do more to make alternative accommodation available in that republic to those Chechens who do not want under any circumstances to return to Chechnya. An estimated 45,000 displaced persons from Chechnya now live in rented private accommodation in Ingushetia.

Meeting with Egeland on 26 January, Ilyasov assured him that the Russian government will provide funds to house the Chechen displaced persons who choose to remain in Ingushetia rather than return to Chechnya. Ilyasov estimated that of the total 49,000 displaced persons currently in Ingushetia, half would opt not to return to Chechnya. By 14 February, however, Ilyasov was affirming that "all the necessary conditions have been created in Chechnya" for those who do not want to remain in temporary accommodation in Chechnya, Interfax reported. Ilyasov claimed that "hundreds" of displaced persons had applied for permission to return to Chechnya. On 1 March, a Chechen government representatives in Ingushetia told Interfax that between 170-180 displaced persons were leaving the tent camps each day to return to Chechnya.

It was this reported exodus that served as the rationale for the 1 March closure of the Bart camp in Ingushetia, which, as of 29 February, still had 67 inhabitants. On 4 March, Mompash Machuev, first deputy chairman for the Chechen Committee for Refugees, said that the Sputnik camp, one of the two remaining camps in Ingushetia, will be closed by mid-March. Machuev too stressed that displaced persons are not being pressured to return to Chechnya, and that the reason for closing the camps is the unsatisfactory living conditions there.

Russian human rights activists, however, contend that at least some of the displaced persons evicted from Bart have no alternative accommodation to go to. Svetlana Gannushkina of the Moscow-based human rights group memorial told Interfax on 3 March that "neither Chechnya nor Ingushetia can offer accommodation to the people who are leaving the tent camps," and that consequently "scores of people will become homeless."

On 6 March, Russian presidential human rights commission chairwoman Ella Pamfilova traveled to Ingushetia to inspect conditions at the two remaining tent camps and to discuss the displaced persons' plight with Zyazikov and Merzhoev. Pamfilova told Interfax that she resolutely opposes setting any deadline for the closure of the Sputnik and Satsita camps, which still house an estimated 3,000 displaced persons, and that to insist that those displaced persons leave the two camps by the end of March would constitute a violation of their basic rights. She said those two camps could remain open until May. Pamfilova also praised the measures undertaken by the administration of Ingushetia to assist those displaced persons who choose to return to Chechnya. But at the same time, she admitted that unnamed officials are pressuring the displaced persons to leave the tent camps. And on 10 March, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported that four days earlier Chechen Interior Ministry troops descended on the Satsita camp in Ingushetia and conducted a search of several tents. In what the camp residents termed a clear attempt at intimidation, the Chechen forces tried to detain eight men, but were prevented from doing so.

Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim said recently that he does not plan to run against Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai in the country's upcoming presidential election, Dubai-based "Gulf News" reported on 10 March. "We plan to form a pan-Afghan movement, which will cover all sectors of Afghan society, and unite the country," Fahim is quoted as saying in an exclusive 7 March interview. In an apparent break with former Northern Alliance allies like Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and Education Minister Yunos Qanuni -- who are seeking to form their own political party along with Ahmad Wali Mas'ud, a brother of slain Afghan commander Ahmad Shah Mas'ud -- Fahim said that "our plan is to contest the elections as a team -- with Karzai" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 23 October 2003). Fahim and other Northern Alliance leaders met in Kabul in October, reportedly to form a joint political coalition to challenge Karzai in the upcoming elections (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 9 October 2003). Securing the loyalty of Fahim, who commands his own militia, would split the ranks of the Northern Alliance and potentially improve Karzai's prospects for the elections. AT

Six new provincial governors were appointed on 10 March at the initiative of the Interior Ministry and with the approval of Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Karzai, the official Afghan Bakhtar News Agency reported. They are, in the north and northeast: Sayyed Mohammad Akram in Badakhshan; Faqir Mohammad Mamozai in Baghlan; Mohammad Omar in Konduz; Amer Latif in Samangan; and Abdul Kabir Marzban in Takhtar. Mohammad Aman Hamimi was appointed to head a provincial government in Logar, south of Kabul. Reports in February suggested that the Afghan Transitional Administration had plans to transfer or replace about 10 provincial governors in order to increase the influence of the central government, and two gubernatorial appointments were made that same month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2004). AT

A spokesman for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan, Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Hilferty, said U.S. troops acted properly in a bombing that killed nine Afghan children in December, international media reported. The children died on 6 December in the central Ghazni Province after a U.S. warplane targeted the home of former Taliban member Mullah Wazir, who was not at the residence at time of the attack (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 December 2003). Hilferty said that, according to the U.S. investigating officer, the forces "used appropriate rules of engagement and did follow the law of conflict," the BBC reported on 10 March. "However, we did slightly change our rules of engagement after that investigation," Hilferty added without commenting on those changes or the content of the report, which he described as "top secret." AT

Some 200 elders from the Barmal District of Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan have arrived in Kabul to lodge complaints with the Afghan Transitional Administration over the behavior of coalition forces in their region, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on 9 March. Taj Ali, a member of the delegation, reportedly told AIP that "coalition forces [sometimes] enter people's homes without permission and spend two, three nights there," preventing the occupants from leaving and "liv[ing] with the people inside their homes." The delegation also complained that coalition forces "detain people on the basis of wrong information and harass them a lot," Taj Ali added. He cited the alleged case of a pharmacist who was detained for 72 hours without charges and released with only an apology. "What can one do with an apology?" Taj Ali asked. AT

Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali arrived in Tehran on 9 March and the next day met with Iranian President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami and Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, IRNA reported. Khatami praised the ratification of an Afghan constitution and commented on the importance of a strong central government. Khatami also stressed the importance of the international counternarcotics campaign and the role of crop substitution. Jalali noted the importance of Iran's contribution to the war on drugs in his country, which is the world's leading producer of opium (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 November 2003 and Musavi-Lari emphasized the importance of secure borders. Jalali praised Iran's part in the construction of border posts and he later toured border facilities in Khorasan Province. BS

European and U.S. diplomats contend that UN nuclear inspectors found traces of uranium-235 in Iran, "The New York Times" reported on 11 March. U-235, also known as actinouranium, is rare and is reserved for use in weapons. It is unclear whether the related enrichment took place in Iran or the alleged U-235 was on equipment that Iran purchased on the international black market, as it has contended in the past. Meanwhile, the United States and European countries participating in an International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meeting in Vienna on 10 March reached a compromise on a draft resolution on the Iranian nuclear program, international news agencies reported. The resolution describes the Iranian acquisition of uranium-enrichment technology and expresses concern about Iran's failure to provide "a full picture of its past and present nuclear programs," AP reported. European states reportedly agreed to this resolution after the U.S. dropped its demand that the issue immediately go to the UN Security Council, which could sanction Iran. BS

Iran's representative at the IAEA, Piruz Husseini, criticized the IAEA draft resolution on 10 March, IRNA reported. "In the face of constructive activities and cooperation of Iran and implementation of [international] laws and regulations by the Islamic Republic, the draft resolution must not have taken such a shape," he said. Husseini added that U.S. efforts blocked the Europeans' desire to tone down the resolution. He dismissed international concern about Iran's nuclear ambitions, saying, "America, because of the defeats which it faces in all corners of the world, especially in our neighbor in Iraq, is anxious not to suffer another defeat." Husseini declined to say whether Iran would end its cooperation with the IAEA. Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi hinted at such a possibility when he said of the resolution on 10 March, "Decisions of this kind will force us to react," ISNA reported. "We have voluntarily and temporarily suspended uranium enrichment so that there can be confidence building and, later, when our relations with the IAEA are normalized, we will certainly [re]start uranium enrichment," Kharrazi added. BS

Ahmed Shabib al-Dhahiri, who is heading the United Arab Emirates' delegation to the third Organization of the Islamic Conference's parliamentary union meeting in Dakar, asserted in a 10 March speech that his country is fully sovereign over three Persian Gulf islands, the U.A.E.'s official WAM news agency reported. Iranian forces have occupied the islands -- Abu Musa and the Greater and Lesser Tunbs -- since the British withdrawal from the region in 1971. Arab League foreign ministers who were meeting in Cairo on 3 March also urged Iran to withdraw from the islands, Egypt's MENA news agency reported. "The continued occupation of the islands destabilizes the region and threatens international peace and security," they said, adding that if Iran wants to improve relations with Arab countries it must take "tangible steps." The Arab Parliamentary Union voiced support for the U.A.E.'s rights over the islands at the conclusion of its conference in Damascus on 2 March, WAM reported. Gulf Cooperation Council foreign ministers who were meeting in Riyadh issued a statement on 29 February that "condemned the occupation" of the islands and regretted that contacts with Iran aimed at resolving the issue have been unproductive so far, Saudi Arabia's SPA news agency reported. BS

Ayatollah Muhammad Taqi al-Mudarrisi told the London-based daily "Al-Hayat" of 10 March that he believes a federal Iraq will eventually lead to civil unrest in the country, the daily reported. The cleric described the new Transitional Administration Law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004) as a "time bomb," warning that "a civil war will break out in Iraq" if it is detonated. The cleric also accused coalition forces of "deliberately planting mines in the law." Regarding Article 61 of the interim constitution (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 11 March 2004), which he described as giving "Kurds the right to veto any proposal by the Iraqi people" on issues related to federalism, al-Mudarrisi said the clause "means imposing federalism on the majority of the people, who are Arab, and therefore this federalism will lead to a partition and then to civil wars." "Protecting Kurds does not mean circumventing democracy and emptying it of its content but focusing on placing fundamental and legal arrangements to protect their national rights," he said. KR

The Pentagon has continued a prewar arrangement with the Iraqi National Congress (INC) headed by Ahmad Chalabi to pay his organization $340,000 per month for "intelligence collection" about Iraq, reported on 11 March. The arrangement, managed by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), has come under scrutiny with internal government reviews determining that information provided by the INC in the run-up to the war in Iraq was, according to the newspaper, "useless, misleading or even fabricated." The arrangement between the Pentagon and INC reportedly requires the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to obtain permission from the Pentagon before interviewing INC informants. Moreover, the INC acquired a vast amount of secret documents belonging to the deposed Hussein regime following the war and continues to keep those documents in its possession (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 11 March 2004), according to the newspaper. The INC fell out of favor with the CIA and the State Department beginning in the mid-1990s, when the veracity of the Iraqi opposition group's intelligence claims came into question. The CIA is now working with another former opposition group, the Iraqi National Accord (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 December 2003) to develop a new Iraqi intelligence apparatus. KR

The Kurdistan Democratic Party's newspaper "Al-Ta'akhi" published a report on 10 March claiming that some 300-400 individuals from a Yezidi village in northern Iraq have been poisoned. The newspaper reported that terrorism is suspected, because pamphlets posted on walls in and around the city of Mosul said that whoever kills Yezidis will be rewarded by God. Meanwhile, London's "Al-Quds al-Arabi" reported the same day that the Iraqi Communist Party has issued an appeal for aid for the village of Khanik, where the poisoning cases were first reported. The appeal claims that the Kurdish authorities "have shown no interest," adding that the situation is extremely serious as the village's only physician has died from poisoning. The appeal said that Yezidi farms were poisoned, and a second statement by the Communist Party posted on said the village's water supply was also poisoned. The appeal noted that the Yezidis are a peaceful sect "that has never harmed anyone" and is "the only remnant of the religious and ethnic groups of the Sumerian civilization." It referred to attempts to obliterate the sect as genocide and "a major conspiracy against the ancient heritage of Iraq." KR

Turkish Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Namik Tan on 10 March called on the United States to fulfill its commitment to expel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) rebels from northern Iraq, Anatolia news agency reported. Tan said Turkey has continued to pressure the United States to deal with the issue. Meanwhile, Istanbul's NTV television reported on 10 March that the United States has reached an agreement with Osman Ocalan and several other members of the PKK leadership to disband the organization. In return, the top leaders of the PKK will reportedly be granted the possibility of living in a European country. The report added that Ocalan and his fellow defectors are in hiding in Mosul. Meanwhile, NTV reported that PKK Chairmanship Council member Duran Kalkan issued a statement saying that Ocalan and others have tried to cause a total disintegration of the organization. "It is even being said that they have sold out for money," NTV quoted Kalkan as saying. KR