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Newsline - March 29, 2004

President Vladimir Putin on 27 March explained the logic behind his recent reorganization of the government and the presidential administration during a wide-ranging, 90-minute discussion with journalists at the president's Black Sea residence in Sochi, Russian media reported. Putin said the presidential administration was born in the 1990s as "a revolution headquarters," but that now he hopes "there will be no more revolutions," ITAR-TASS reported. "We need not a revolution headquarters, but an effective instrument that will do what it is designed to do," Putin said. He emphasized that the administration should not issue instructions to the government, but should evaluate the situation in the economy and make recommendations to the president. As for the government, Putin said that "it is necessary from time to time to renovate the staff of key structures," because officials "begin to value their posts too much instead of working actively." He said he became dissatisfied over the last year with the government of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, saying it "lost its momentum" in the run-up to the parliamentary and presidential elections. RC

In the same discussion in Sochi on 27 March, President Putin said that Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov has done a good job of "keeping up the pace and momentum of social and economic reforms," ITAR-TASS and other Russian media reported. He noted that he first met Fradkov in St. Petersburg in 1995 when Putin was working in the administration of St. Petersburg Mayor Anatolii Sobchak. Putin said he was impressed that Fradkov had sent his son to study at St. Petersburg's Suvorov Military Academy. He also recalled that in the run-up to a major governmental restructuring last March, he summoned then-Tax Police head Fradkov and asked him what consequences there would be to abolishing the Tax Police and giving its functions to the Interior Ministry. "There would be no loss," Fradkov answered, according to Putin. After Putin abolished the Tax Police, he again summoned Fradkov and asked him what post he would like next. Fradkov answered, "I don't know what you can offer me, but I would not like to leave the country." Nonetheless, Putin named him Russia's envoy to the European Union at that time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 March 2003). RC

In a long commentary titled "The Crisis Of Liberalism In Russia" in "Vedomosti" on 29 March, jailed former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii deplored the "capitulation of the liberals" and offered his plan for recovering from the catastrophic performance of the country's liberal forces in the recent parliamentary and presidential elections. Khodorkovskii blamed the liberals for failing when they had power in the 1990s to care for the "90 percent" of the population that was not prepared to do without state paternalism. He labeled the governments that presided over the 1998 financial crisis and its consequences "irresponsible and incompetent" and castigated the liberals for "doing everything possible to establish financial and administrative control over the media" in order to control public opinion. RC

Khodorkovskii wrote in the 29 March "Vedomosti" article that liberals must recognize that although President Putin is not a liberal or a democrat, "he is nonetheless more liberal and more democratic than 70 percent of the population of our country." Khodorkovskii wrote that liberals must acknowledge Putin as the country's legitimate leader and must recognize that liberal ideas cannot make progress in Russia without "an impulse from the authorities." Khodorkovskii also wrote that 90 percent of the population considers the 1990s-era privatizations illegitimate and, to remedy this, he called for major tax reform that would "force big business to share with the population." Such reforms, he noted, "will not be very pleasant for major owners." Otherwise, Khodorkovskii concluded, the rise of the ideology "of national revanche" will continue unabated. RC

Arkhangelsk Oblast Governor Anatolii Yefremov lost his bid for a third term by a large margin in the second round of the oblast's gubernatorial election on 28 March, Russian media reported. According to preliminary results with just 86 percent of the votes counted, Yefremov's challenger, local dairy director Nikolai Kiselev, received 74.36 percent, compared with just 17.88 percent for Yefremov, RIA-Novosti reported on 29 March. Yefremov's chief rival in the race, State Duma Deputy and local oligarch Vladimir Krupchak, withdrew from the first round after a meeting in the Kremlin just one week before the voting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 March 2004). According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 26 March, local analysts believe that although the Kremlin asked Krupchak to withdraw, it did not necessarily support Yefremov. Presidential administration officials were simply not willing to work with Krupchak. According to ITAR-TASS, Kiselev is a member of the Unified Russia party, although the party did not nominate him for governor. JAC

Former Airborne Troops commander General and recently elected Motherland State Duma Deputy Georgii Shpak was elected governor of Ryazan Oblast on 28 March in the second round of the gubernatorial election there, Russian media reported on 29 March. With more than 99 percent of the ballots counted, Shpak had 53.65 percent of the vote, compared with 40.17 percent for Unified Russia Deputy Igor Morozov, RBK reported on 29 March. Just over 5 percent voted "against all." The turnout was 48.61 percent. "Moskovskii komsomolets" reported on 25 March that rumors were circulating in Ryazan before the ballot that Morozov did not have the support of the presidential administration -- as he had claimed. The rumors were fed in part by a televised remarks by presidential envoy to the Central Federal District Georgii Poltavchenko, who reportedly said "And who is Morozov?" The daily also reported that recent polls showed a surge in popularity for Shpak that was almost in direct proportion to the attacks on him. Newspapers and leaflets were reportedly circulated accusing him of being a thief and drunkard. JAC

Incumbent Novosibirsk Mayor Vladimir Gorodetskii was re-elected in the second round of the city's mayoral election on 28 March, and other media reported on 29 March. Gorodetskii received almost 59 percent of the vote, compared to 28.88 percent for local television magnate Yakov London. More than 11 percent of voters voted "against all" in the race. RC

Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov told RTR on 27 March that the government is prepared to give up its policy of balancing the federal budget. It will do so, Zhukov said, in order to implement a "more aggressive" policy of reducing taxes in order to boost economic growth. At the same time, the government has drafted a major overhaul of the country's pension system that will significantly increase benefits to the country's retired people, Zhukov said. Under the government's proposal, an individual's pension benefits will be raised by 15 percent for each year he or she works beyond the retirement age of 60. Zhukov noted that high world energy prices enabled the government to establish a stabilization fund designed to cushion the economy from fluctuations in the global economy. That fund now holds about 143 billion rubles ($4.8 billion) Zhukov said. He added that he does not expect the government to do any borrowing this year. RC

Police found 4 kilograms of explosives in a Moscow subway car on 28 March, Russian media reported. According to initial reports, the explosives, which lacked a detonator, date back to World War II. The Prospekt Mira metro station was briefly closed because of the incident. More than 40 people were killed during a 6 February suicide-bomb attack in the Moscow metro (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2004). Speaking on Ekho Moskvy on 29 March, Moscow metro Director Dmitrii Gaev denied an earlier "Moskovskii komsomolets" report that the city plans to ban the sale of newspapers in the metro as of 1 April as part of its stepped-up security measures, reported. On 27 March, a bomb exploded in downtown Stavropol near the building of the regional administration, although no one was injured, ITAR-TASS reported. In December, a radio-controlled bomb was found in a trashcan near the building, but it was removed before it exploded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 December 2003). RC

The Duma approved on 26 March in their first reading amendments to the federal law on education, which remove limitations on the number of paid admissions to specialized educational institutions, such as law schools and state- and municipal-administration schools, RIA-Novosti reported. The vote was 333 in favor and 94 against. "For the last 10 years there has been a huge growth in the number of non-state-sector educational institutions preparing students in prestigious specialties," State Duma Education and Science Committee Chairman Valentin Ivanov (Unified Russia) told "Rectors of state institutions consider the [current] situation discriminatory and believe it is leading to the pushing of students out to the private sector." According to, opponents of the bill fear it will lead to the destruction of the system of free education. The bill was originally sponsored by deputies from the last Duma -- Aleksandr Shishlov (Yabloko) and Sergei Yushenkov (independent). JAC

Deputies also approved amendments to the law on the status of members of the Federation Council and the State Duma governing the certification of legislators' assistants, RosBalt reported. The bill passed narrowly, with just 226 in favor -- the exact number required for passage. Under the bill, which was sponsored by the Unified Russia faction, each legislator would be allowed five staff assistants and 40 so-called public assistants. According to, the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), the Communists, and Motherland opposed the bill. If enacted, the bill would deprive public assistants of the right to ride free of charge on public transportation and of immunity from arrest. Duma Regulations Committee Chairman Oleg Kovalev explained that sometimes "dubious personalities" become public assistants and use their status for various misdeeds and even "crime," reported. JAC

President Putin signed the law on forming Perm Krai on 26 March, Russian media reported. The krai will be formed on the basis of the unification of Perm Oblast and Komi-Permyak Autonomous Okrug. The law was approved by the Federation Council on 25 March and by the State Duma on 19 March. Putin also signed on 26 March a decree naming Oleg Chirkunov as acting governor of Perm Oblast until Perm Krai comes into existence in 1 December 2005 and gubernatorial elections can be held there, RosBalt reported. Former Perm Oblast Governor Yurii Trutnev appointed Chirkunov acting governor when he resigned the post to become natural resources minister earlier this month. Before that, Chirkunov served in the Federation Council. A legislature for Perm Krai will be elected in December of 2006, and from 2007 on, the two formerly separate subjects will have a common budget, according to RosBalt on 28 March. JAC

Kirov Oblast's legislature confirmed on 25 March Aleksei Klishin as its representative in the Federation Council, "Kommersant-Daily" reported on 26 March. Klishin previously headed the Moscow Interterritorial College of Lawyers. Klishin replaces Mikhail Mikheev, who has served in the upper chamber since April 2001. An unidentified source in the oblast administration told the daily that Klishin has very good -- but private -- connections in Moscow. He specializes in the regulation of foreign investment, tax legislation, and property rights. Also on 25 March, Tomsk Oblast's legislature confirmed Aleksandr Suvorov as the new Federation Council representative for the oblast's executive branch, the daily reported. Suvorov was most recently the chief federal inspector to Tomsk Oblast. He replaces Vladimir Zhidkikh, who was elected to the Duma in December. Thanking the legislators for confirming his candidate, Tomsk Oblast Governor Viktor Kress expressed the hope that in the future the Federation Council "will cease being a decorative organ" by introducing the direct election of Federation Council members. JAC

Former Audit Chamber auditor Gennadii Batanov will head the Pension Fund, RosBalt reported on 26 March, citing the government information department. Former Perm Oblast Deputy Governor Anatolii Temkin will become a deputy natural resources minister. Former First Deputy Culture Minister Denis Molchanov will become director of the Government Information Department, replacing Aleksei Gorshkov. Ramil Khabriev will head the Federal Health Care and Social Development Supervisory Service. According to ITAR-TASS, Khabriev was previously director-general of the Biopreparat joint-stock company. JAC

Biarslan Kasumov was found shot dead at his country home near Babayurt late on 26 March, Interfax reported. An investigation into the killing is under way. LF

Russian military spokesman in the North Caucasus Colonel Ilya Shabalkin told Interfax on 26 March that in the course of a special operation earlier that day Russian troops apprehended field commander Umar Sulbanov, who, according to Shabalkin, was responsible for the killing in Novye Atagi in December 1996 on orders from Chechen Vice President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev of six Red Cross personnel (see "OMRI Daily Digest," 17 December 1996). But pointed out on 29 March that Sulbanov was arrested in 2000 and sentenced in October 2001 to 15 years' imprisonment for numerous abductions carried out before and after the 1994-96 Chechen war. LF

A rally staged by the opposition bloc Artarutiun on 28 March in Giumri, Armenia's second-largest city, degenerated into a fistfight between Artarutiun activists and supporters of President Robert Kocharian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Four Artarutiun members were arrested on charges of assaulting a police officer. Artarutiun leader Stepan Demirchian told the estimated 1,000 participants that "we are witnessing the death throes" of the Kocharian leadership, and that "the Armenian people cannot tolerate the rule of such thugs." In a joint statement read out in parliament on 26 March, the three political parties aligned in the ruling coalition government warned that "attempts to violate the country's constitutional law and order must be prevented with a resolute and commensurate reaction from the competent bodies," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage met in Yerevan on 26 March with Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and President Kocharian, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Armitage told journalists after meeting with Oskanian that his visit was undertaken to compensate for Washington's recent lack of attention to the Caucasus as a result of the focus on Afghanistan and Iraq. He praised Armenian military cooperation with the United States, and said he believes there is "a possibility, eventually" of resolving the Karabakh conflict. Armitage added that he was present at the talks in Florida in April 2001 between Kocharian and then-Azerbaijani President Heidar Aliyev, and that while "significant progress" was made at those talks toward resolving the Karabakh conflict, "no specific agreements were reached," Armenian news agencies reported. Armitage also took issue with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's 24 March statement that a solution to the Karabakh conflict would be impossible if Turkey opened its border with Armenia. He predicted that both countries could only benefit from such a move. LF

From Yerevan Armitage flew to Baku, where he met on 27 March with President Aliyev to discuss bilateral relations and the Karabakh conflict, Turan and Interfax reported. Aliyev affirmed his readiness to expand military cooperation and to continue participating in the international antiterrorism coalition, Turan reported. Armitage repeated earlier U.S. statements that Washington has no interest in establishing a military base in Azerbaijan. Armitage also met at the U.S. Embassy with opposition party leaders to discuss the political situation following last October's disputed presidential ballot, the position of the independent media, and the human rights situation, Turan reported. He said the human rights situation in Azerbaijan "could be better." LF

Azerbaijani presidential administration head Ramiz Mekhtiev told journalists on 26 March that Baku will not comply with a request by the Council of Europe's Venice Commission to amend the composition of the Central Election Commission (CEC), Turan reported. Mekhtiev said that, as an independent state, Azerbaijan is under no obligation to comply with such suggestions. The ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party currently has six representatives on the 15-person CEC, and can count on the support of three other members from small pro-regime political parties, giving it the required two-thirds majority. LF

Georgian Central Election Commission Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili told journalists in Tbilisi on 29 March that according to preliminary estimates, the ruling National Movement-Democrats alliance won up to 75 percent of the vote in the previous day's presidential election, Caucasus Press reported. He said voter turnout was approximately 65 percent (compared with 86 percent in the 5 January presidential ballot). Chiaberashvili also said the conduct of the voting was "normal," and no irregularities were registered that could influence the final results. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who said on 25 March he hoped the opposition would not win parliament representation as he did not wish to be "stabbed in the back" by deputies who opposed his reforms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March 2004), expressed regret on 28 March when early returns indicated that no opposition party would garner the 7 percent minimum to win parliamentary representation under the proportional system, Reuters reported. LF

Adjar State Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze suspended the state of emergency he proclaimed on 14 March to permit voting to take place in Adjaria on 28 March, Interfax reported. President Saakashvili dispatched Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania to Batumi to monitor the vote. Zhvania told journalists early on 29 March that "no serious violations were recorded on election day, but the atmosphere was nervous over apprehensions that rioting and violence could erupt," ITAR-TASS reported. He said reports that polling stations in Adjaria were attacked were "downright lies." Chiaberashvili claimed late on 28 March that riots broke out at some polling stations in Adjaria. He later said he made that statement in order to prevent any such attacks, Caucasus Press reported. Abashidze accused the central Georgian government of doing all it could to prevent his Union for Democratic Revival from winning parliamentary representation, Interfax reported. Additional voting papers had to be sent to Adjaria during the course of the day as not enough were available. LF

Both the right-wing alliance New Rightists-Industrialists and the Labor Party challenged the accuracy of pro-government exit polls that suggested that only the National Movement-Democrats surmounted the 7 percent threshold in the 28 March parliamentary ballot, Georgian media reported. In a statement released early on 29 March, New Rightists leader David Gamkrelidze said that data provided by the alliance's representatives at polling stations indicated that it won between 9 percent-10 percent of the vote. Gamkrelidze also noted more than 500 reports of irregularities during the vote count. A group of Labor Party supporters congregated outside the Central Election Commission headquarters during the night of 28-29 March to protest exit polls that showed the party polled only 4.4 percent, Georgian media reported. They claimed Labor won some 32 percent of the vote. LF

David Badzagua, who was abducted by Abkhaz gunmen in Abkhazia's Gali Raion in January, was handed over to Georgian police on 26 March, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 January and 13 February 2004). Badzagua told the independent Georgian TV station Rustavi-2 that his captors informed him that he was taken hostage because of his activities as head of an NGO that promotes friendship between young Georgians and Abkhaz. LF

A working group led by Kazakh Deputy Prime Minister Grigorii Marchenko approved the overall concept and strategy for Kazakhstan's "electronic government" project at a 26 March meeting, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported the same day. The project's stated aim is to increase government efficiency, information accessibility, and transparency by making as much information as possible available to citizens. Project developers include representatives of the executive branch, experts from Kazakhstan's information-technology sector, and businesspeople. The project will soon be presented to the cabinet. DK

The missile base that defends Bishkek recently found itself without electrical power as a result of unpaid bills, Kyrgyzinfo reported on 26 March. The report cited military sources as saying the power was shut off 10 days earlier. reported on 26 March, however, that the power was shut off on 25 March. Colonel Oleg Popov called the situation a "looming disaster," and noted that the base was included in a 1997 resolution forbidding power shut-offs at strategic facilities. Later on 26 March, power company Severelektro announced that it restored power after the Defense Ministry paid all of its debts in full, Kyrgyzinfo reported. Company representatives expressed the hope that the Defense Ministry will work to prevent such situations in the future. DK

Heads of the customs services of Eurasian Economic Community (EEC) member states met in Dushanbe on 26 March for the organization's 23rd meeting, Tajik Television reported the same day. Coordination of customs codes topped the agenda, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Member states Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan are currently developing new customs codes. Talks also focused on the possibility of using microchip-equipped plastic cards for the payment of customs duties, reported. The members of the EEC are Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan. DK

President Imomali Rakhmonov met with Nikolai Bordyuzha, secretary-general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), in Dushanbe on 25 March, Asia-Plus Blitz reported the next day. They discussed military cooperation and the upcoming CSTO meeting in June to be held in Astana. Bordyuzha said a Russian military base in Tajikistan could become part of the CSTO security framework, ITAR-TASS reported. "This base will supplement the already existing Collective Rapid Deployment Force of the CSTO in the Central Asian region and the Russian air force base group in the Kyrgyz town of Kant," Bordyuzha said. The CSTO comprises Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Russia. DK

James Callaghan, a representative of the UN Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention, said on 26 March that Turkmenistan has for the first time joined a UN operation to prevent drug smuggling from Afghanistan, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. According to Callaghan, Turkmenistan and the UN "have begun to carry out the first antidrug program on the Turkmen-Afghan border." The program involves border monitoring and the training of Turkmen border guards. A recent UN report criticized Turkmenistan for its reluctance to participate in regional efforts to combat narcotics smuggling. DK

Pakistani Major General Shaukat Sultan said on 27 March that Tohir Yuldosh, the military commander of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, has been wounded and is on the run in Pakistan's Waziristan Province, AP reported on 28 March. Sultan said Pakistani forces failed to capture Yuldosh, saying, "He might have slipped away, he's on the run." At least 50 Pakistani soldiers have died in an operation that was at one point thought to have cornered Ayman al-Zawahiri, reputedly the second-most important figure in Al-Qaeda. However, no high-level figures in the terrorist organization have been captured in the operation. "As a military operation, it did not go well at all," AP quoted Pakistani military and political analyst Talat Masood as saying. DK

Three people are believed to have died early on 29 March in an explosion near the Children's World store in the main bazaar in Tashkent, Russian and Western media reported. Unconfirmed reports say a woman suicide bomber detonated the blast in which she died together with two policemen. Some 20 people were reportedly injured. Dpa quoted Interfax as reporting that a third police officer was killed in a shootout with a suspected accomplice of the bomber. The website reported that two further explosions took place in Tashkent. Uzbek Foreign Ministry spokesman Ilkhom Zakirov said "several attempted terrorist acts" also occurred in Bukhara, but did not elaborate. Uzbek officials reported that eight people were killed in that city. A television address by President Islam Karimov scheduled for 1 p.m. local time was canceled; as of 1430 CEST, the website of the official Uzbek news agency ( had not reported the bombings. LF

The CIS Council of Foreign Ministers held a session in Minsk on 26 March to discuss draft documents on cooperation to combat crime, conduct peacekeeping operations, and monitor elections, Belapan reported. The session also reportedly addressed the coordination of CIS members' stances on nuclear nonproliferation as part of preparations for the Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference scheduled for 2005. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who met with CIS ministers before the session, said he regards the quick establishment of a free-trade zone as the CIS's top priority. "We do not need any new declarative documents -- it is necessary to finalize domestic procedures for the ratification of agreements that were signed earlier," RFE/RL's Belarusian Service quoted Lukashenka as saying. Lukashenka also expressed his hope that recent changes in the Russian government will contribute to furthering Belarusian-Russian relations. "We can prove to the whole world that we can advance considerably in our relationship," Lukashenka said after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. JM

Ukrainian Defense Minister Yevhen Marchuk said in an interview with the Kyiv-based newspaper "Den" of 25 March that after assuming his post in June he ordered an inventory to be taken of Ukrainian military property. Marchuk said his inventory revealed a 900 billion-hryvnya ($169 billion) gap with the inspection made six months earlier under his predecessor, Volodymyr Shkidchenko. "Unfortunately, even such exotic things happen today as [that] we are looking for several hundred missiles," Marchuk said. "They were removed from military service, but we cannot find them. They are said to have been utilized. But where are [the] results of their utilization?" Former Defense Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk told the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( on 26 March that Marchuk's revelations are "nonsense." "I will not even comment on such nonsense. We have this habit of washing our dirty laundry in public," Kuzmuk said. JM

President Leonid Kuchma said on 26 March that Ukraine will complete two reactors at the Rivne and Khmelnytskyy nuclear-power plants on its own, Ukrainian Television reported. "Basically, this amounts to us making a challenge to the world, above all, to the G7, which undertook a commitment but has not yet honored it," Kuchma said. "They promise to give us money this summer or autumn. Well, they may keep it for themselves. We will do it without them. I have no doubt about that." Kuchma was referring to an earlier pledge by Western governments to assist Kyiv in completing the two reactors to make up for the power loss caused by the closure of the Chornobyl power plant in 2000. Kuchma threatened to sack Deputy Prime Minister Andriy Klyuyev "with a bang" if the reactors are not started "on time." The government previously pledged to complete the Khmelnytskyy reactor in August and the Rivne reactor in October 2004. JM

Juhan Parts during a meeting of the European Council in Brussels on 26 March sharply criticized measures taken by some EU members to place restrictions on labor from acceding states, BNS reported. Parts lauded the report compiled by a working group headed by former Dutch Prime Minister Win Kok that called for "eliminating obstacles from the free movement of labor and increasing labor mobility." Parts said that by "restricting the movement of labor we will make the labor market more rigid, weaken Europe's competitiveness, and prevent economic growth," adding that the EU needs to adopt flexible labor policies to increase employment. SG

Vaira Vike-Freiberga on 26 March urged Latvians and minorities living in the country to respect each other and live in harmony, BNS reported. Speaking at the opening of the Minority Information and Culture Department of the Society Integration Ministry, Vike-Freiberga said that as a future member of the European Union, Latvia "has passed all laws to ensure people their human rights." Vike-Freiberga also said that although Latvian is the only official state language, "each person, each language, and each culture" is uniquely valuable. Integration Minister Nils Muiznieks said the new department will provide consultation and assistance to minority organizations and cultural centers in preparing projects, and will offer its premises for events, concerts, and other activities. SG

Algirdas Brazauskas told Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller in Brussels on 26 March that the technical and financial documents for the Lithuanian-Polish power-bridge project must be prepared as soon as possible, BNS reported. The documents must be turned in to take advantage of 29 million euros ($35.3 million) the EU has allocated for the project for 2004-06. Brazauskas stressed that the power bridge should be a priority for the EU, as its construction is linked with Lithuania's commitment to shut down the Ignalina nuclear-power plant by 2009. The project, which is estimated to cost nearly 1.5 billion litas ($535 million), will connect the countries by a 1,000-megawatt power line and the power plants of Estonia and Latvia will be upgraded. SG

Prime Minister Leszek Miller announced on 26 March that a lack of political support and a split within the ruling Democratic Left Alliance has prompted his decision to step down on 2 May, one day after Poland enters the European Union, Polish media reported. "I am announcing my make it easier to form a new cabinet, so that the succeeding government can immediately begin its work," Miller told journalists. President Aleksander Kwasniewski, who was attending Miller's news conference, said he will nominate a new prime minister on 29 March following consultations with some political parties. Kwasniewski vowed that the next government will stick to the fiscal-reform program prepared by Deputy Prime Minister and Economy Minister Jerzy Hausner (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 27 January 2004). JM

Sejm speaker Marek Borowski, who last week left the ruling Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) along with more than 20 other lawmakers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March 2004), announced the creation of a new left-wing party, the Polish Social Democracy (Socjaldemokracja Polska) on 26 March, Polish media reported. "Nearly 4 million voters left the SLD in the past 2 1/2 years," Borowski told journalists. "The last attempt at change that we undertook, during the recent SLD convention [on 6 March], was in fact blocked.... The SLD has ceased to be a party for people and a creative party, it has become a party for itself." Polls last week by two separate polling agencies suggested that Borowski's party can count on 18-19 percent support among voters. JM

The Czech Constitutional Court and the Supreme Court are each facing crisis amid political disputes over senior appointments to their decision-making bodies, CTK and local media reported on 29 March. The Constitutional Court's plenum will suspend its activities on 30 March following unsuccessful presidential nominations that will have left just 11 of 15 justices in place on the bench. Thirty-three cases -- primarily involving proposals to overturn laws or legal directives -- will be interrupted as a result. "The suspended hearings will be continued by the Constitutional Court once the number of justices reaches at least 12," court Chairman Pavel Rychetsky said, according to CTK. Some senior senators have accused President Vaclav Klaus of failing to properly consult the upper house over prospective nominees, several of whom they have been rejected in the past year. Meanwhile, Justice Minister Karel Cermak stressed after a meeting with Klaus on 26 March that he will continue to seek a solution to personnel disputes at the Supreme Court that prompted four members of the consultative Judicial Council to resign recently. The outgoing council members have criticized personnel changes under the leadership of newly appointed Supreme Court Chairwoman Iva Brozova. AH

President Klaus told an international conference on "Germans in the Czech Lands Today and Tomorrow" on 28 March that while "we are logically oriented more on the present and future" in the run-up to EU accession, "we cannot afford the luxury of forgetting the past," CTK reported. He said the times of peaceful cooperation between ethnic Germans and Czechs outweigh periods of alienation or hostility, which include Nazi-led occupation and the postwar expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans from then-Czechoslovakia. "World War II, which brought the most fateful consequences, was the most difficult time of co-existence. Those of us alive now cannot reverse the events of that time," Klaus said. "Hence my appeal for the reconciliation with the past. Only this will create preconditions for good neighborly relations we need so much." AH

The constituent congress of the Free Forum produced a major surprise on 27 March when a former deputy speaker of parliament won election as the party's chairwoman, edging out former Defense Minister Ivan Simko for the post by one vote, according to TASR and CTK. Zuzana Martinakova received 131 votes, one more than was needed, CTK reported. Simko, whose high-profile dismissal sparked the dispute within the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKU) that led to the Free Forum's creation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2003), was initially introduced to several hundred delegates as the only candidate for the chairmanship. He was "visibly shaken" by the snub, in CTK's words, but subsequently convinced to accept a deputy chairman's post. Martinakova said the narrow margin of victory in fact means the party "in fact has two leaders." The Free Forum occupies a key place on the current Slovak political landscape, potentially wielding decisive votes for the four-party, minority government. AH

The opposition FIDESZ party launched a "national petition" drive on 27 March to urge the amendment of Hungary's state budget, Hungarian media reported. FIDESZ Chairman Viktor Orban presented the text of the petition to some 12,000 FIDESZ supporters at a Budapest sports arena, saying he hopes at least 1 million Hungarians sign it, "Nepszabadsag" reported. The petition, which is being circulated under the motto "Work, home, security," demands that the government halt the privatization of hospitals, reduce the price of basic pharmaceuticals, reintroduce state-subsidized home loans, and limit natural-gas and electricity prices to annual increases of 5 percent. FIDESZ does not intend to force a national referendum, but hopes the cabinet will listen to the voice of 1 million citizens, "Magyar Hirlap" quoted a FIDESZ official as saying. The rally was FIDESZ's first since it transformed itself into a right-wing alliance last May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 May 2003). MSZ

On 27 March in Prishtina, Kosova's Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi officially launched a reconstruction campaign valued at more than $6 million to rebuild homes and religious buildings belonging to the Serbian minority that were damaged or destroyed in the recent interethnic unrest, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 and 26 March 2004). In a rare move for any ethnic Albanian official in Kosova, Rexhepi spoke to Serbian reporters in Serbo-Croatian, saying the attacks on Serbian homes constituted vandalism and promising that the first apartments will be ready in 10 days. Those flats were built by the government of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic in the 1990s to house Serbian refugees from Croatia, Hina reported. In Brussels, EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten said Kosova's government must repair the damage and do so with its own funds, the "Financial Times" reported. In related news, about 100 U.S. troops sent from Bosnia to Kosova during the unrest have returned to Bosnia, dpa reported on 26 March. About 250 British and Italian troops will follow shortly. PM

Harri Holkeri, who heads the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), told the "Helsingin Sanomat" of 27 March that "multiethnicity is not working as planned" in the province, Reuters reported. Holkeri said the UN must not "give in to the violence" by moving more quickly toward clarifying Kosova's final status. He nonetheless added that the UN must modify its strategy but did not elaborate. Former U.S. Ambassador to the UN Richard Holbrooke and numerous commentators on both sides of the Atlantic have stressed that the recent unrest was the result of the international community's failure to resolve the status question and end what most ethnic Albanians regard as colonial rule (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 December 2003 and End Note, below). In Brussels, EU foreign- and security-policy chief Javier Solana said he will appoint a "special representative" for Kosova, the "Financial Times" reported. An unnamed "diplomat working with Mr. Solana" told the London-based daily that work in the Balkans is for "a very long haul that requires huge investments in time and security. This is a real test case for the EU." It is unclear what any new "special representative" could expect to accomplish, given that many Kosovars are resentful of the already large international civilian presence in Kosova. PM

In the Serbian parliament on 26 March, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica criticized unspecified attempts at creating a "multiethnic paradise" in Kosova, calling the idea of reestablishing multiethnicity there a "utopia," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. In Prishtina, Nexhat Daci, who is speaker of Kosova's parliament, said, "There will be no departure from the strategic commitment of Kosova and the Kosovars to independence, freedom, and peace for all," Hina reported. He stressed that attacks on Serbs and their property are unacceptable. PM

Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic told the "Financial Times" of 29 March that the EU has not kept its promises to promote the European integration of Serbia and Montenegro made when the two former Yugoslav republics grudgingly set up a joint state in 2003 under great pressure from Brussels (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 14 February and 27 June 2003). Djukanovic added that his government has already begun talks with its Serbian counterpart regarding an early end to the union, which both sides promised to maintain until at least 2006. He stressed that to maintain the joint state is "marking time" and "stupid." The London-based daily quoted unnamed Serbian officials as denying that any talks on dissolving the union are under way. There is little love lost between Djukanovic and Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica, who has used condescending language in reference to Montenegro in the past. In related news, the parliament of the joint state elected its new speaker, Zoran Sami of Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), on 26 March, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The parliament is expected to approve a new cabinet shortly. PM

Branko Bulatovic, who was head of Serbia and Montenegro's Football Association, died in a Belgrade hospital on 26 March of gunshot wounds he received at close range earlier that day, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 March 2004). The identity and motive of the killer or killers remain unclear, but one unnamed soccer official told Reuters the next day that he is "pretty sure that [the killing] is not soccer-related." Team manager Ilija Petkovic said in Belgrade on 28 March that he hopes soccer in his country will emerge stronger from the tragedy. "When the going gets tough, the tough get going, and I will be the last person to [yield to] hard times," he added. PM

Unnamed military-security officials searched the Belgrade offices of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights (HOPS) on 26 March allegedly looking for "secret documents" used by author Vladan Vlajkovic in preparing a book on the role of the military in politics in 1999-2000, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Vlajkovic has already been detained. Also on 26 March, RFE/RL said in a statement that correspondent Hanibal Kovac recently received a two-month suspended sentence for libel in connection with his reporting on the alleged seizure of a building in Sabac by Cedomir Vasiljevic, who is a leader of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 12 March 2004). And on 27 March, Belgrade's B92 radio and television station charged in a statement that unknown individuals planted an explosive device under one of its vans earlier that day. The statement called the planting of the bomb a crude attempt to suppress media freedoms. PM

Unknown individuals desecrated several dozen gravestones in a Roman Catholic cemetery in Subotica, the independent Beta news agency reported on 28 March (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 30 January 2004). PM

The Bosnian Constitutional Court ruled on 26 March that Bosnian Serb authorities must change the names of 13 towns that have had the word "Serbian" added to their names as a result of the 1992-95 war, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. The decision comes in response to a suit launched in 2000 by Sejfudin Tokic, who was then speaker of the Bosnian parliament, on the grounds that the new names intimidated Croats and Muslims from returning to their former homes in those localities. Borisav Paravac, who is the Serbian representative on the Bosnian Presidency, and Dragan Kalinic, who is speaker of the Bosnian Serb parliament, said the court's decision was politically motivated. Republika Srpska President Dragan Cavic told RFE/RL that the decision was no surprise and that there is sufficient time to implement it. In Pale, representatives of Serbian refugee organizations and former prisoners of Muslim forces announced that they will challenge the constitutionality of some street names in Sarajevo that honor Muslim wartime heroes, including the elite Green Berets. Sulejman Tihic, who is the Muslim representative on the Bosnian Presidency and its current chair, said he wants a court ruling on the constitutionality of the name Republika Srpska. PM

The Macedonian Supreme Court confirmed on 27 March a decision by the State Election Commission barring hawkish former Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski from running as an independent candidate in the 14 April presidential elections, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. Both the Supreme Court and the State Election Commission cited a constitutional provision under which potential candidates must have lived in Macedonia for at least 10 of the previous 15 years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2004). Boskovski, who spent much of the 1990s in Croatia, said he will challenge the decision before the Constitutional Court and before the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights. Three other candidates -- Sali Ramadani, Dimce Mijovski, and Mirko Hristov -- apparently failed to collect the necessary 10,000 signatures to support their candidacies. Four candidates will thus run in the first round of the elections: Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski of the Social Democratic Union (SDSM), Sasko Kedev of the opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE), Gezim Ostreni of the governing ethnic Albanian Union for Integration (BDI), and Zudi Xhelili of the opposition Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH). UB

Prime Minister and PSD Chairman Adrian Nastase, speaking at a meeting of young Social Democratic Party (PSD) members in Bucharest on 27 March, said his party will start a new program for combating corruption by establishing a "zero tolerance" policy based on "the rule of law and personal integrity," Mediafax reported. Nastase said the campaign will incorporate training programs for schoolchildren and public officials. He did not say when the campaign will begin. ZsM

The PSD's Permanent Delegation on 27 March suspended eight county branch leaders on "moral grounds" in order to prepare for local and parliamentary elections in June and November, respectively, Romanian media reported. The delegation made the decision after an internal review process. The suspended party members will, however, retain their positions in the public administration. Most of these branch leaders have recently been criticized in the local and national media. An opposition National Liberal Party press release on 28 March said the PSD's decision was merely an image-improving measure ahead of local elections and is "worthless" as long as those suspended still remain in office. ZsM

In a 26 March press release, the National Anticorruption Prosecution (PNA) requested that political parties stop using it "in the rhetoric of this year's electoral dispute," Mediafax reported. Representatives from both the ruling PSD and opposition National Liberal Party (PNL) have recently asked the PNA to investigate members of the other party for alleged corruption. According to the press release, such actions affect the PNA's activities and credibility and prosecutors will only investigate persons when they have sufficient evidence. PSD General Secretary Dan Matei Agathon said the anticorruption agency's request only concerns the actions of the PNL and that his party will continue to inform the agency about serious cases of corruption. PNL Chairman Theodor Stolojan said his party wants the agency to solve corruption cases and not marshal disputes between political parties. ZsM

At the Greater Romania Party (PRM) National Council meeting on 26 March, Chairman Corneliu Vadim Tudor announced his candidacy for the Romanian presidency, promising he would liquidate the mafia in 48 hours, block illegal funds, and would create a fund to equalize living standards, Romanian media reported. He also said his party's election slogan would be "Food, Warmth, Medicine, and Justice." At a press conference later the same day, Tudor backtracked and said that his promise had been a "metaphor." At the meeting, the party also approved a statutory amendment, saying that the PRM will not tolerate anti-Semitic attitudes or Holocaust denials. In related news, the same day the National Peasant Party-Christian Democratic (PNTCD) announced that Constantin Timoc will be the party's candidate for the presidency. PNTCD Chairman Victor Ciorbea announced he will run for the Bucharest mayor. Local elections will be held in June and presidential and parliamentary elections in November. ZsM

President Georgi Parvanov on 27 March expressed his willingness to appear before a parliamentary commission of inquiry investigating whether Bulgarian politicians and political parties received oil payments from the government of deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, reported on 26 March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3, 4, and 5 February 2004). Some members of the commission have reportedly requested that the president face the commission. Until 2001, Parvanov headed the opposition Socialist Party (BSP), which was among individuals and organizations that allegedly supported Hussein's government in exchange for oil, according to a list published by a Baghdad daily in January. Parvanov said it is in his own interest to appear before the commission to clear himself of any possible wrongdoing. UB

BSP Deputy Chairman Rumen Ovcharov said on 28 March that the commission has not formally asked Parvanov to testify, saying such decisions must be made by a majority, reported. Ovcharov said his party will sue commission member Tosho Peykov, a member of the parliamentary group of the governing National Movement Simeon II (NDSV), for lying about the BSP's role in the oil-for-support scandal. Peykov last week cited British diplomatic documents that alleged that former Bulgarian ambassadors to Syria and Lebanon were involved in violations of the UN weapons embargo on Iraq, reported. One of the diplomats, Atanas Samsarev, who also was an adviser to former Prime Minister Zhan Videnov (BSP), on 25 March denied the allegations, but admitted that he held unsuccessful talks with the Iraqi government over oil deliveries. BSP Chairman Sergey Stanishev said the allegations are "phantasmagoria," adding that his party will not allow the commission to be turned into a tribunal trying the BSP. UB

The recent violence in Kosova that left over two dozen people dead and many hundreds injured touched off widespread speculation as to what caused the trouble and what effect it will have on Kosova's political future.

The unrest may or may not have broken out spontaneously. It was, however, quickly exploited and fanned by ethnic Albanian extremists anxious to drive members of the Serbian minority from some enclaves in several parts of Kosova.

Regional politicians, past and present international officials, and pundits around the globe offered a wide range of explanations for the violence, the magnitude of which seems to have surprised most observers. Some critics blamed NATO-led KFOR peacekeepers for not protecting all Serbs or not rounding up all young Albanian toughs. Other writers criticized the UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK) for not succeeding in less than five years in creating a multiethnic society.

Voices from Belgrade said that the international community has been too indulgent toward the Albanians, while Albanian leaders in Prishtina argued that there has not been enough clear progress toward settling Kosova's final status, by which the Albanians mean independence.

Some observers in the Balkans and beyond stressed that the unrest must not be allowed to influence the process of determining Kosova's final status lest the thugs behind the violence get their way. Some of these observers also suggested that it might even be wise to dampen Albanian expectations that talks on the final status could begin in mid-2005. This, so the argument runs, is because Kosova now seems farther than ever from meeting the standards set down by the international community under the formula "standards before status."

Other observers drew the opposite conclusions. They argued that the unrest was a wake-up call revealing the danger inherent in not clarifying Kosova's final status, and stressed that uncertainty breeds instability and trouble. Some of these writers called the proposed standards unrealistic for any of the post-Yugoslav states and wondered how many EU member countries themselves could meet them.

Some American commentators argued that the United States must lead the way in pressing for a solution because the ethnic-Albanian majority trusts Washington in a way it does not trust Brussels. Some of those Americans added that the United States should, for a variety of reasons, reconsider whether it is wise to cede control of Western policy in the Balkans to the EU as completely as many in Washington once hoped to do, at least prior to the 11 September 2001 attacks.

Several critical writers on both sides of the Atlantic added that the EU seems doomed to fail if it seeks to promote a joint state of Serbia, Montenegro, and Kosova, which would be unacceptable to most Montenegrins and Kosovar Albanians alike, and which has few supporters in Washington.

Another issue that received much attention in the media was the possible "cantonization" or partition of Kosova. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica argued that a physical separation of the Serbs and Albanians seems necessary for the sake of the Serbs' survival.

Partition has long been anathema to the Kosovar Albanian leadership and the international community alike, but there have been some suggestions in the wake of the violence that at least some such individuals are now leaning toward partition as the only sensible way to deal with two apparently mutually antagonistic populations.

The problem with this approach, however, is that it potentially opens a Pandora's box of problems in the region. Nationalists of various hues could argue that if ethnically based partition is the cure for what ails Kosova, why should it not be applied to Bosnia or Macedonia as well? And why should the present international borders remain sacrosanct and not give way to a Greater Albania, a Greater Serbia, and a Greater Croatia?

In short, the problems are complex and the proposed solutions are many. "RFE/RL Balkan Report" has long argued that no outcome will be perfect but that political, economic, and social problems will grow unless the status issue is settled, and that peace is inseparably linked to jobs and prosperity.

In any event, the recent unrest may prompt the international community to pay more attention to Kosova and the western Balkans lest problems once thought to be on the wane reemerge with a vengeance.

Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai on 28 March confirmed recent reports suggesting that general elections scheduled for June will be postponed until September, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. "We are focused on having both presidential and parliamentary elections at the same time," Karzai told a news conference, "[However,] the UN and the electoral commission said, 'If you want the presidential election, we can have it on time [in June], but if you want both the presidential and parliamentary elections together, it is not possible due to some technical problems.' That is why we have decided to have them both in September." Karzai said the main theme of his own presidential campaign will be "the question of security for the Afghan people now, [and] in the future the building of national institutions that will enable" the Afghans to provide for their own security. UN and some Afghan officials have been calling for a postponement of general elections in Afghanistan due to lagging voter-registration efforts and a lack of security in parts of the country (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 19 and 26 February 2004). AT

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative for Afghanistan, Jean Arnold, told a news conference in Kabul on 28 March that the delaying of Afghan elections will allow time for the UN-backed Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration (DDR) program to disarm a large number of militiamen, Radio Afghanistan reported. Arnold said free and fair elections are impossible as long as unauthorized armed factions exist. The DDR program in Afghanistan has proceeded slowly, with large numbers of armed troops still under the control of warlords and regional commanders. AT

Major General Mohammad Omar assumed command of the Herat region's 17th Division on 27 March, Herat Television reported, adding that Mohammad Omar's promotion was proposed by Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan and approved by the Afghan Defense Ministry (see below). Forces loyal to General Abdul Zaher Nayebzadah, the previous commander of the 17th Division, have been implicated by authorities in Herat in the 21 March slaying of Civil Aviation and Tourism Minister Mirwais Sadeq. Some 100 troops were reported killed in fighting between troops loyal to Sadeq's father, Ismail Khan, and Nayebzadah's forces before Ismail Khan's troops took command of the 17th Division (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22, 23, and 24 March 2004). Nayebzadah left Herat on 21 March. AT

Afghan leader Karzai said on 28 March that he had no news of any changes in the command of the 17th Division in Herat Province, Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Karzai said that only the Afghan Defense Ministry has the authority to make appointments among military divisions. Karzai added that in talks by telephone with Ismail Khan, the Herat governor said nothing of any changes in the 17th Division. Afghan Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali said on 28 March that Ismail Khan has no authority to appoint military officials, adding that the 17th Division is the responsibility of the Defense Ministry, Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Jalali also said it is still unclear which side, Ismail Khan's or Nayebzadah's, started the conflict in Herat on 21 March. First Deputy Defense Minister General Abdul Rahim Wardak told Radio Free Afghanistan on 28 March that Nayebzadah reports to his ministry, and that Nayebzadah left Herat on Kabul's orders. (For more on the crisis in Herat see, "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 25 March 2004.) AT

Two inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arrived in Iran on 27 March, IRNA reported the next day. The inspectors are due to visit a gas-enrichment centrifuge facility at Natanz, some 250 kilometers south of Tehran, after their arrival. The inspectors' work is made more challenging because, in 2003, Tehran allegedly established a committee consisting mainly of senior Iranian Atomic Energy Organization officials that would coordinate efforts to conceal the country's nuclear activities, according to a "Los Angeles Times" report on 27 March that cited "Western diplomats and an intelligence report." Moreover, the IAEA inspectors will only be allowed to visit sites that were declared previously by the Iranian authorities. The Iranian ambassador to the IAEA, Piruz Husseini, rejected these allegations in an interview with the "Los Angeles Times." "We have adopted a policy of full transparency, and we have declared all of our nuclear activities to the IAEA," he said. BS

Iranian Atomic Energy Organization chief Gholamreza Aqazadeh-Khoi announced on 28 March that the uranium-processing plant in Isfahan will produce uranium hexafluoride, metal uranium, and uranium oxide, state radio reported. These are primary compounds in the nuclear fuel cycle, he said. Aqazadeh-Khoi said that uranium processing is not subject to any previous agreements with the IAEA, and IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming confirmed this, dpa reported. Aqazadeh also said that Iran will wait for IAEA inspectors to leave the country before beginning full-scale processing, dpa reported. BS

Representing Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei at a 28 March memorial ceremony in Tehran for Hamas leader Shaykh Ahmad Yassin, who was assassinated on 22 March by Israeli forces, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Hassan Akhtari said that he hopes the Palestinians will destroy Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, ISNA reported. He said this would result in a civil war in which the Israelis would kill each other. Akhtari predicted that the killing of Yassin will unite Palestinian organizations. Also in attendance were Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi, Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ahmad Masjid-Jamei, and other local and foreign dignitaries, IRNA reported. BS

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) on 28 March issued an order to close the newspaper of anti-U.S. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, international media reported the same day. The "Al-Hawzah" newspaper will be closed for two months for inciting violence, Al-Jazeera television reported. Al-Sadr supporters denounced the decision and staged a peaceful sit-in outside the newspaper's offices following the announcement. Shi'ite leaders said the decision will likely provoke al-Sadr's followers, reported on 29 March. The decision "will emphasize the suspicions of the Iraqi people that America says it wants democracy but is suppressing any view that is not convenient for them," Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) spokesman Hamid al-Bayati said. An unidentified coalition official told that "Al-Hawzah" was warned on several occasions "to retract and clean [itself] up," but failed to do so, prompting the temporary closure. The coalition has not hesitated to sanction Arab media in recent months when it believes those media outlets are inciting violence among Iraqis. KR

Shaykh Sahib al-Ta'i, an instructor at Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani's hawzah (Shi'ite religious seminary) in Karbala, has said the hawzah will soon launch its own newspaper and television station, Voice of the Mujahedin reported on 28 March. Al-Ta'i said the newspaper "Karbala" and the unnamed local television channel will show the various activities of al-Sistani's hawzah, which is responsible for overseeing the resting places of Imam al-Husayn and his brother al-Abbas in the Shi'ite holy city. KR

Ali al-Sistani is reportedly prepared to issue a fatwa delegitimizing the scheduled 30 June transfer of power to Iraqis unless an article in the interim constitution is amended, Voice of the Mujahedin radio reported on 28 March. Al-Sistani's Kuwaiti representative Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Muhri told the radio station that al-Sistani wants Article 61 of the document amended to remove a clause he believes may limit the authority of the Shi'a in Iraq, al-Muhri said. Clause C states that the permanent constitution will be ratified "if a majority of the voters in Iraq approve and if two-thirds of the voters in three or more governorates do not reject it." Meanwhile, reported on 29 March that a vast network of Shi'ite mosques, religious centers, and community organizations are eliciting grassroots support to reject the interim constitution. Posters have reportedly gone up at universities across Baghdad and elsewhere, the newspaper reports, and leaflets have circulated calling for a rejection of the document. Al-Sistani supporters claim to have collected tens of thousands of signatures on their petitions. KR

Municipalities and Public Works Minister Nasreen Mustafa Sideek Barwari escaped an assassination attempt on 28 March in Mosul, AP reported on 29 March. Gunmen opened fire on a convoy in which Barwari was traveling, killing two and injuring two others. Barwari, who was returning to Mosul from a meeting in the northern Iraqi city of Dahuk, was not injured. Iraqi police told AP that the two men who were killed in the attack were both bodyguards and were not in Barwari's vehicle. Gunmen also killed a Canadian and a Briton in Mosul on 29 March, AP reported. The men were working as security guards for foreign electrical engineers at a power station in the city, according to the news agency. KR

A bodyguard of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein reportedly led coalition troops to the hiding spot where he was captured on 13 December, BBC television's "Panorama" reported on 28 March. Muhammad Ibrahim Umar al-Musslit reportedly told coalition officials of Hussein's whereabouts during an interrogation. According to "Panorama," al-Musslit was interrogated in Tikrit following his arrest in Baghdad and led U.S. troops to Hussein's hiding spot within a matter of hours. U.S. Major General Ray Odierno denied that al-Musslit was tortured by coalition interrogators, but told "Panorama" that al-Musslit was a "shady character." KR