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Newsline - April 14, 2004

Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov said on 13 April that Russia has recommended that its citizens do not enter Iraq, and he advised those who are in the country to leave, RTR and RIA-Novosti reported the same day. The Emergency Situations Ministry and the Foreign Ministry are jointly preparing plans for the rapid evacuation of Russian citizens, Ivanov said, adding that the Coalition Provisional Authority has been contacted to determine the logistics of sending Russian aircraft to Baghdad and of the safe delivery of Russian citizens to the airport. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told RTR on 13 April that Russian companies involved in Iraq must decide for themselves whether to evacuate their employees. Approximately 500 Russian citizens are currently working in Iraq. On 13 April, the exporter Tekhnoeksport announced that its 370 employees working in Iraq will be evacuated, Interfax reported. The eight employees of Interenergoservis, who were kidnapped on 12 April and released the next day following the intervention of the Russian Foreign Ministry, were treated well by their captors, RTR reported on 13 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April 2004). VY

First Deputy Chief of the General Staff Colonel General Yurii Baluevskii said during a 13 April news conference in Moscow that the General Staff does not believe that the recent upsurge of fighting in Iraq will subside any time soon, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. He claimed Russia has data on the "real casualties" sustained by coalition forces in Iraq. However, he said, "I do not want to comment or gloat in this regard, as we stand for quickest stabilization of Iraq." VY

Colonel General Baluevskii also said at his 13 April news conference that Russia will revise its military planning, particularly involving strategic nuclear forces, if NATO maintains its current military doctrine, RIA-Novosti reported. Baluevskii expressed concern that the Baltic states have not signed the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) and can thus theoretically deploy any weapons they want to on their territory, including nuclear weapons. TV-Tsentr on 10 April quoted Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov as saying after returning from his recent trip to the United States (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 April 2004) that "we have no illusions [as to] why the Baltic states were accepted into NATO. It has nothing to do with the fight against terrorism." VY

Russia's response to NATO expansion must have "finesse" and be of "a sophisticated nature," Baluevskii said at his 13 April news conference. The primary goal of the country's international and military policies in the face of NATO expansion must be ensuring that Russia does not become isolated. He questioned whether flexing its muscles is the right course for Russia to take, and said NATO is not interested in confrontation. Baluevskii said that in 2004 Russia and NATO will conduct 35 joint peacekeeping, rescue, and antiterrorism exercises that will entail the signing of a special agreement on the legal status of their respective servicemen on each other's territory. Russia will also create a special brigade for peacekeeping operations with NATO, Baluevskii added. VY

Special envoy to the EU Sergei Yastrzhembskii and Aleksandr Udaltsov, the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry's Second Political Department, held talks on 13 April with a delegation from the Estonian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, BNS reported the next day. The chairman of the Estonian committee, Marko Mihkelson, characterized the talks as positive, saying that "it could be sensed that Estonia's accession to the EU and NATO is creating preconditions for the normalization of relations." Mihkelson also said he received assurances that Russia will sign on 27 April a document expanding the membership of the Russia-EU Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to include the new EU members. On 12 April, the delegation discussed with members of the State Duma and the Federation Council the possible effects Estonia's accession to the EU and NATO will have on the two countries' relations. SG

Defense Minister Ivanov is at the center of a scandal involving two Russian security-service employees who are accused of organizing the February car bombing in Qatar that killed former acting Chechen President Zelimkhan Yandarbiev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April 2004), "Vedomosti" reported on 13 April. The newspaper cited the Qatari newspapers "Al-Rayah" and "Al-Sharq" as reporting that the two arrested Russians said during their pretrial interrogation that they entered Qatar posing as engineers. "Al-Rayah" added that the two had direct orders from Ivanov to kill Yandarbiev and carried out their assignment with the aid of a Russian military satellite. Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Vyacheslav Sedov said such reports are absurd, "Vedomosti" reported. Meanwhile, "Novosti kosmonavtiki" columnist Igor Lisov told "Vedomosti" that satellite reconnaissance falls under the supervision of Russian military intelligence (GRU), which he said is overseen by the Defense Ministry. However, Lisov said, it is unlikely that the GRU possesses a satellite that is sophisticated enough to facilitate such an attack. VY

Retired KGB Colonel Stanislav Lekarev, who worked in foreign intelligence and is currently the vice president of the Academy of Security Issues, told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" of 13 April that if Yandarbiev's assassination was indeed a GRU operation, not only Defense Minister Ivanov, but also President Vladimir Putin would have been aware of it. Lekarev said the operation was very poorly prepared and carried out, noting that the trademark of such GRU operations in the past was that they were very clean. He said that before, police in countries where an assassination was carried out did not know what happened, as such killings were cloaked under the guise of natural heart attacks or car accidents. The same article cited an unidentified high-ranking GRU officer as saying that poor training and insufficient intelligence are to blame for the botched result. The officer suggested that upon their arrest, the two agents likely had no hope of receiving support from the Russian authorities and admitted their guilt to help themselves. VY

Presidential economics adviser Andrei Illarionov has submitted a document to President Putin urging him to withdraw completely from the Kyoto Protocol, an international accord that seeks to control the emission of the gases believed by many to cause global warming, Reuters reported on 13 April. The European Union has urged Russia to ratify the protocol, particularly since the United States withdrew from it in 2001. In the document, Illarionov said that the agreement would "limit economic growth" and create "an organ of legal interference in the internal affairs of the country." He argued that the possible economic harm to Russia from the agreement outweighs the likely international outcry that would result from Moscow's withdrawal. Illarionov believes that if Russia is to achieve Putin's stated goal of doubling GDP within 10 years, it will likely exceed the emissions levels set by the protocol sometime between 2007 and 2014. RC

Speaking to journalists in St. Petersburg on 13 April, presidential aide Illarionov said that Moscow's economic policies are now more liberal than they were seven to 10 years ago, Interfax reported. "But they are a far cry from the real examples of liberalism existing in the West," he said. Illarionov added that there are no liberal political parties in Russia, saying that the policies advocated by the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) were "interventionist, rather than liberal." He also said that the government must create a suitable environment for small business rather than create special programs or government departments to support such enterprises. "One should bear in mind that a good quality economic policy rather than support for concrete forms of business determines the development of enterprises," ITAR-TASS quoted Illarionov as saying. RC

President Putin on 9 April appointed Rosoboroneksport General Director Andrei Belyaninov to head the Federal Defense Procurement Service and former Deputy Defense Minister Mikhail Dmitriev to head the Federal Military-Technical Cooperation Service, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and other Russian media reported on 12 April. Dmitriev's appointment came as no surprise, since he had similar responsibilities as deputy defense minister. Although no one has yet been named to replace Belyaninov at Rosoboroneksport, most media reports speculated that company Deputy General Director Sergei Chemezov will be named to head the state arms-export monopoly. According to "Kommersant-Daily" on 12 April, relations between Belyaninov and Chemezov have been strained for some time and Chemezov has actively lobbied the government to assign Belyaninov to another post. On 13 April, Putin named former Russian Ambassador to Slovakia Aleksei Borodavkin as Russia's permanent representative to the OSCE, ITAR-TASS reported, citing the Kremlin's press service. Borodavkin replaces Aleksandr Alekseev, who is reportedly being transferred to another post. RC

Unified Russia on 13 April sponsored a roundtable discussion in Moscow titled "Business And The State: The Dynamics Of Repentance," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" and "Izvestiya" reported on 14 April. Russian Union of Entrepreneurs and Industrialists Vice President Igor Yurgens told the conference that the nature of the dialog between business and the state depends upon the latter. "[Communist Party leader Gennadii] Zyuganov is no longer the enemy," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted Yurgens as saying. "The authorities can't get far on Chechnya. Therefore they decided to make the oligarchs the main target of their new campaign." He said that the rules of the game will "be much stricter for business" and that after the Yukos affair "no businesspeople are going to risk getting involved in politics." Higher Economic School Academic Director Yevgenii Yasin told the conference that the current conflict between business and the government "is dangerous for the country." He urged both sides to turn to civil society and to "draw it into the solution of the problem," "Izvestiya" reported. RC

Prosecutors in several regions have launched a campaign to bring the salaries of local officials into line with the federal Budget Code, "Izvestiya" reported on 14 April. Under the code, the salaries of local officials may not be higher than those of federal bureaucrats with similar status. In Vladimir Oblast and Ivanovo Oblast, prosecutors plan to file suit against the local legislature for its failure to adjust local salaries to conform to the Budget Code. According to the prosecutor's office in Vladimir Oblast, a federal official might receive a monthly salary of 3,420 rubles ($114), while a local official of the same level receives up to 7,172 rubles. Vladimir Oblast last year received 1.5 billion rubles in federal subsidies, and Ivanovo Oblast is also a debtor region. Prosecutors in Voronezh Oblast and the Republic of Karelia are also looking into this question. "Izvestiya" reported that local bureaucrats in Kaluga Oblast receive salaries about three times greater than those of their federal counterparts. Renaissance Capital Chairman Aleksandr Shokhin told the daily that many regions find ways to supplement the salaries of locally based federal officials, often making them more dependent on regional authorities than on their bosses in Moscow. RC

Moscow's Basmannyi Raion Court on 13 April extended the period of pretrial custody for Yukos security official Aleksei Pichugin until 19 June, and other Russian media reported on 14 April. Pichugin was arrested last July on suspicion that he organized the attempted murder in November 1998 of Olga Kostina, a former public-relations adviser to ex-Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii. He is also suspected of organizing the 2002 murder of a couple from Tambov, Olga and Sergei Gorin, and the 1998 attempted murder of former Menatep employee Sergei Kolesov. RC

In an article in "Itogi," No. 15, film director Andrei Konchalovskii responded to the 29 March article "The Crisis Of Liberalism In Russia" by jailed former Yukos CEO Khodorkovskii (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2004). Konchalovskii argues that the Russian intelligentsia entered the 21st century with a number of "misconceptions." Among them he includes the idea that freedom is the main goal of every individual; that free elections are the only way of forming a legitimate government; that human rights, equality before the law, and the value of life are universal concepts; that all one must do to end corruption is to bring honest people to power; that liberal reforms and strict government control are incompatible; that freedom of information and economic globalization will create an open global society with shared values; and that security organs like the KGB and the Federal Security Service (FSB) are the enemies of humanity. He adds that all of these misconceptions stem from one overarching misconception, namely that "politics determines culture." Labeling his philosophy "realistic conservatism," Konchalovskii argues that despite all the social experiments "from Peter the Great to Mao," no one has succeeded in modifying "the values system" or the "network of unwritten laws that is the basic cultural code of a nation." RC

Meeting on 13 April with the leaders of the three parties represented in Armenia's coalition government, President Robert Kocharian condemned the opposition demonstrations of the previous several days as "political extremism," and argued that police were justified in intervening "to establish order in line with the law," according to ITAR-TASS and Mediamax, as cited by Groong (see "RFE/RL Newsline'" 13 April 2004). Kocharian said the authorities "will use all legitimate means to prevent new displays of political extremism." Deputy parliament speaker Vahan Hovannisian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun said the opposition "overestimated its capabilities and made extremist demands," Mediamax reported, citing Groong. At the same time, Hovannisian reaffirmed the offer made by the three coalition parties last week to engage in dialogue with the opposition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 April 2004). LF

U.S.-born Raffi Hovannisian (no relation to parliamentary official Vahan), who served from 1992-93 as foreign minister under President Levon Ter-Petrossian, issued a statement in Yerevan on 13 April condemning "the official acts of violence unleashed against my fellow citizens," Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Hovannisian affirmed that "we are all responsible" for the standoff that triggered the 13 April violence, "but first and foremost the president." He expressed solidarity with "the people, who are struggling to defend their rights." Hovannisian was barred from contesting last year's presidential election on the grounds that he had not held Armenian citizenship for the required minimum 10 years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 January 2003). LF

Meanwhile National Unity Party Chairman Artashes Geghamian and former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian, who spearheaded the peaceful protest that was violently dispersed by special police early on 13 April, remain in hiding for fear of arrest, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. But People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) Chairman Stepan Demirchian (whom Kocharian defeated in the second round of last year's presidential election) and the National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian pledged on 13 April to continue what Manukian called "the fight against the unlawful regime," AP reported. In a 13 April statement, Demirchian denied police claims that demonstrators resorted to violence against the police, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington on 13 April that the United States is concerned by the violence in Armenia, dpa reported. "Physical assaults, raids on political party offices and widespread arrests and detentions of opposition not contribute to creating an atmosphere conducive to political dialogue," Boucher said, urging the two camps to embark on such a dialogue. Ambassadors in Yerevan of unidentified EU member states whom parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian briefed on 13 April likewise expressed concern and volunteered to assist the Armenian leadership in its efforts to defuse the crisis, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

Ilham Aliyev met for 90 minutes in Ankara with his Turkish counterpart Ahmet Necdet Sezer on 13 April, the first day of his three-day official visit to Turkey, Reuters and reported on 13 and 14 April, respectively. Topics discussed included various aspects of bilateral relations, regional issues, and the Karabakh conflict, which both presidents said should be resolved peacefully and in a way that preserves Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. In an interview with the Turkish daily "Zaman" on 13 April, Aliyev expressed confidence that Ankara will not yield to pressure from unspecified "big powers" to open its border with Armenia, the "Turkish Daily News" reported on 14 April. LF

Members of the Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) picketed the Ministry for Economic Development building in Baku on 13 April to demand that the ministry make available premises to house the party's main office, reported on 14 April. AMIP was evicted in 2001 from the building it had occupied for the previous decade, and again one year later from its temporary headquarters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18, 20, and 30 July 2001 and 10 September 2002). The lease on the private apartment it subsequently rented from a German citizen expired last week and has not been renewed as the person in question plans to sell the apartment and terminate his business activities in Azerbaijan. LF

Rafik Aliyev, chairman of Azerbaijan's State Committee for Religious Affairs, has described as "a disgrace" the publication in the new newspaper "Sanat" of the first installment of a translation into Azerbaijani of Salman Rushdie's controversial novel "The Satanic Verses," according to the independent daily "Sharg" on 14 April as cited by Turan. LF

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and National Security Council Secretary Vano Merabishvili failed during talks in Batumi on 13 April to persuade Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze to comply with President Mikheil Saakashvili's demand to disarm illegal armed groups, Russian and Georgian news agencies reported. Zhvania told journalists that Abashidze refused to address the issue, and characterized that refusal as "a provocation" and "a move towards confrontation." Rostom Djaparidze, who was named Adjar prime minister last week, said he finds Saakashvili's demand puzzling as "there are no missile systems or strategic bombers in Adjaria," Interfax reported. In Tbilisi, Georgian Interior Minister Giorgi Baramidze explained that "no one is against Aslan Abashidze or Adjar officials having personal guards, but it's inadmissible that thousands of residents of the autonomous republic illegally keep automatic weapons," ITAR-TASS reported. Djaparidze pointed out, as have other Adjar officials, that those weapons were distributed in the early 1990s when there was a danger that civil unrest elsewhere in Georgia would spill over into Adjaria. LF

Prime Minister Zhvania told journalists on 13 April that the contingent of Georgian peacekeepers dispatched to Iraq on 7 April will not be withdrawn, Caucasus Press reported. Also on 13 April, Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia, former chairwoman of the National Democratic Party of Georgia who now heads the League for the People's Protection, said she plans to collect the required 30,000 signatures to force a referendum on whether Georgian troops should participate in international peacekeeping operations, Caucasus Press reported. On 7 April, another former Soviet-era dissident, former parliament Defense and Security Committee Chairman Irakli Batiashvili, argued Georgia should not endanger its best troops by sending them to Iraq, Caucasus Press reported. The 159-man Georgian contingent currently serving in Iraq are engineers, sappers, and medical personnel. LF

Labor Party Chairman Shalva Natelashvili told journalists in Tbilisi on 13 April he has filed two separate suits against the Georgian leadership with the Strasbourg-based European Court for Human Rights (ECHR), Caucasus Press and the website of the independent television station Rustavi-2 reported. He explained he is contesting the Georgian Supreme Court's decision to annul the results of the party-list vote in the 2 November 2003 parliamentary elections, and the subsequent continuation of legislative activity by the parliament elected in November 1999. Natelashvili, whose party failed to surmount the 7 percent threshold to win parliamentary representation in the 28 March election, said he will demand a symbolic 1 lari ($0.50) in damages from the Georgian leadership. In a statement addressed to the UN last week, Natelashvili accused former President Eduard Shevardnadze, President Saakashvili, and Prime Minister Zhvania of "political genocide." He further accused Saakashvili and his party of misappropriating 60,000 ballots cast for the Labor Party on 28 March in order to keep the party out of parliament, according to Caucasus Press on 7 April. LF

Economy Minister Qayrat Kelimbetov announced on 13 April that Kazakhstan's GDP posted an 8.9 percent year-on-year gain for the period January-March 2004, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported the same day. Agricultural production jumped 6 percent in the first quarter and capital investments rose by 21.5 percent. The minister's remarks came at a forum on regional development, investment projects, and housing policy in Aqtobe. In a briefing at the same forum, Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov reminded journalists that growth, however impressive, is only one component in economic success. Kazinform quoted Akhmetov as saying: "In the big picture, we face the serious task of changing the structure of the economy. Kazakhstan has a raw-materials base, and it is this raw-materials focus that provides an opportunity for effective structural changes." DK

President Askar Akaev sharply criticized Kyrgyz police on 13 April for failing to stem a rising crime wave, Kyrgyz Television reported the same day. Akaev noted that crime is a worsening problem and current law-enforcement efforts are falling short of the mark. Especially worrisome, according to Akaev, is the increase in violent crime and contract killings, as well as efforts by organized crime to penetrate state institutions. "Instead of actually working, law enforcement agencies often foster the illusion that they are fighting crime," quoted the president as saying. Akaev set four main tasks for law enforcement: coordinating crime-fighting efforts, arresting known criminals, attracting more qualified professionals to the ranks of law enforcement, and creating the necessary legislative basis for effective crime fighting. DK

U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Richard Hoagland announced on 13 April that the United States has released four Tajik citizens from detention at Guantanamo Bay, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "They have already returned to their country," Hoagland said after a meeting with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov. RFE/RL's Tajik Service quoted Hoagland as saying that the individuals were released because "they no longer present a danger to society." The BBC quoted a statement from the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan as saying: "We are not able to comment on the number or background of the released detainees. It is the decision of the Tajik government whether to release this information." RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported that 11 Tajiks were held at Guantanamo originally, leaving seven following the release. However, the BBC has reported that eight Tajiks remain at Guantanamo. The Tajik citizens were detained in Afghanistan in late 2001. DK

Seven of eight arrested members of Tajikistan's Islamic Renaissance Party have been released, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 13 April. The IRP members were among 20 alleged adherents of the religious extremist group Bay'at recently arrested on suspicion of murder and arson (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April 2004). IRP spokesman Hikmatullo Sayfullozoda told Asia Plus-Blitz that "the only person from our party still under arrest is Umedjon Mahkamov, the driver for the Isfarin IRP organization." Sayfullozoda went on to deny any knowledge of or involvement in Bay'at's alleged activities. "We didn't even know this group existed," he said. "If Bay'at has some kind of religious basis, that doesn't necessarily mean that it's connected to our party." Law enforcement officials told the news agency that they are continuing their investigation. DK

Belarus' state-run news agency Belta has threatened to sue the private newspaper "Narodnaya volya" for publishing Belarusian state television program listings without its permission, Belapan reported on 13 April. Earlier this year, the presidential administration awarded Belta exclusive rights to distribute TV listings. Private publications have repeatedly protested against what they view as Belta's discriminating pricing policy. In particular, many private newspapers were forced to stop publishing TV guides after Belta requested 5 million Belarusian rubles ($2,320) for a monthly subscription. "Narodnaya volya" Editor in Chief Iosif Syaredzich insists that TV listings are not protected under copyright laws. Syaredzich told Belapan that his publication could afford to buy the rights to publish TV guides from Belta if they cost a few hundred thousand rubles. JM

Representatives of the Belarusian intelligentsia say that last week's amendments by the Chamber of Representatives to a law on culture reintroduces censorship to the creative process in Belarus, Belapan reported on 13 April. The amendments, if signed by the president, would allow the authorities to interfere in creative-art activities if they are found to "constitute a threat to human health and morals" or "contain and spread defamatory information" about top officials, including the head of state. According to the chairman of the Council of the Belarusian Intelligentsia, Uladzimir Kolas, the bill introduces "illegal censorship." Belarusian PEN Center President Lyavon Barshcheuski opined that "works of art do not spread any information." "Unlike the media's information, a piece of art creates an artistic image that cannot humiliate any real persons or injure their reputation," Barshcheuski added. "The above-mentioned changes to the law on culture alarm the union's members, as they would be rendered defenseless after their works' publication," Union of Belarusian Writers Chairman Ales Pashkevich noted. JM

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov visited Kyiv on 13 April and met with President Leonid Kuchma and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Kostyantyn Hryshchenko, Interfax reported. Lavrov and Hryshchenko reportedly discussed the situation in Iraq and relations with NATO. Hryshchenko told journalists that the recently endorsed memorandum giving NATO the right of quick access to Ukrainian territory (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 23 March 2004) pertains to technical issues related to international military maneuvers. "We hope that Russia will take part in such maneuvers as it has done before," Hryshchenko added. "We considered the issue absolutely calmly and there are no big problems about it," Lavrov said about the memorandum, adding that "such episodes can hardly affect relations between Ukraine and Russia." JM

President Kuchma on 13 April appointed Serhiy Tulub, who has headed the state-run atomic energy company Enerhoatom since June 2002, as the new minister for fuel and energy, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Tulub, who served as minister for fuel and energy in 1999-2000, will replace Serhiy Yermilov, whom Kuchma sacked in early March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 March 2004). JM

Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz has announced that his party intends to participate in the 2004 presidential election "on its own," Interfax reported on 13 April, quoting the party's press service. Moroz also declared that the Socialist Party will strive to implement political reform before the election. According to him, Our Ukraine and the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc did not support a constitutional-reform bill last week (see "End Note" below) because they oppose any changes in the country's political system and want "to lay their hands on the existing authoritarian system of power." JM

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) is discussing with Ukraine's Central Election Commission the prospect of conducting two projects that would cost a total of $10 million, Interfax reported on 13 April. USAID administrator Andrew Natsios stated this following a meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in Kyiv the same day. One project would provide training for election committee members at all levels, while the other would seek to increase the role of nongovernmental organizations in the election process, Natsios added. The projects, which could be implemented within two to three years, are currently being considered by the Ukrainian side. JM

Vaira Vike-Freiberga began a seven-day state visit to China at the invitation of her Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao in Shanghai on 12 April, BNS reported. She is accompanied by Deputy Prime Minister Ainars Slesers, Justice Minister Vineta Muizniece, Culture Minister Helena Demakova, Foreign Ministry State Secretary Maris Riekstins, Riga Mayor Gundars Bojars, other officials, and a delegation of some 50 businessmen. In talks with Shanghai Mayor Han Zheng the same day, she stressed the need for closer business ties between the two countries, noting that Latvia will also soon become a member of the EU. Vike-Freiberga also met with officials from the Pudong free economic zone in Shanghai, which has become a global financial center, and expressed interest in developing cooperation in information technology. On 13 April, she called for the establishment of a modern "silk road" between China and the Baltic Sea region via Latvia in talks with the leadership of Shangsi Province, which is known for its research institutes and industrial sector. SG

The parliament approved by a vote of 108 to one with one abstention on 13 April an amendment to Article 57 of the Lithuanian Constitution, setting a fixed date for parliamentary elections -- the second Sunday in October of the fourth year of the previous parliament's term, BNS reported. The decision ignored the recent suggestion by Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas that the elections should be held in March so that the new parliament would have enough time to prepare the next year's budget (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April 2004). The constitution requires that the amendment now has to be approved again after a three-month interval by at least two-thirds of the parliament. It is not clear whether the amendment will affect the recent decision to hold the next parliamentary elections on 19 September. SG

Marek Belka, a candidate to be prime minister, said on 13 April that he is optimistic about his chances to form a new government, PAP reported. Belka stressed that he is not interested in leading a "survival government" that would only preside over Poland until early elections, adding that he wants his cabinet to govern for at least a year. Belka said his cabinet's priority tasks would be fighting unemployment and poverty, preventing terrorist threats, improving health-care coverage, and wisely spending EU funds. He confirmed that he is planning to keep Economy Minister Jerzy Hausner, Foreign Minister Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, and Defense Minister Jerzy Szmajdzinski in the new cabinet. Current Prime Minister Leszek Miller has offered to step down one day after Poland joins the EU on 1 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2004). JM

Tadeusz Iwinski, a secretary of state in Prime Minister Miller's office, said on 13 April that claims that Poland is pursuing a servile policy regarding the United States are "primitive" and do not reflect the truth, PAP reported. Iwinski was commenting on an article published by the 13 April issue of the weekly tabloid "NIE" claiming that Poland's U.S. policy in recent years has been that of a "vassal." The article was allegedly based on confidential information found by the weekly on Foreign Ministry hard drives that "NIE" gained possession of earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 April 2004). "Our love affair with the Yankees is blind and one-sided, a relationship from which only one side can benefit," "NIE" wrote. JM

Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda told the Chamber of Deputies on 13 April that the three Czech journalists kidnapped in Iraq the previous day are alive and that "unconfirmed" information gives grounds to believe they are safe, dpa and Reuters reported. Svoboda added that thus far no person or group in Iraq has emerged with ransom demands or information about the three journalists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April 2004). He said the government is making preparations for "all possible scenarios." Meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists condemned the kidnappings on 13 April as "unacceptable and inhuman," CTK reported. MS

Iraqi Culture Minister Mufid Muhammad Jawad al-Jaza'iri told Czech Television on 13 April that the kidnapped Czech journalists are alive and that according to information he received they are likely to be released the next day, CTK reported. Al-Jaza'iri said the journalists were abducted by one of several groups that compete among themselves to demonstrate they are able to abduct more foreigners than the other groups. Czech Television also reported on 13 April that Czech journalist Tomas Etzler, who is working for CNN, sustained shrapnel wounds to his back, head, and arms in Al-Fallujah, during an attack on U.S. Marine forces in a school in that town. MS

Prime Minister Vladimir Spidla dismissed on 13 April Health Minister Marie Souckova and asked President Vaclav Klaus to replace her with parliamentary deputy Josef Kubinyi, who is a member of Spidla's Social Democratic Party (CSSD), CTK and international news agencies reported. According to Reuters, the move was expected, as the Czech health system is suffering from chronic financial shortages and is indebted to insurers, hospitals, and drug companies. MS

The Chamber of Deputies on 13 April overrode the Senate's veto on its one-line resolution praising the contribution of late President Eduard Benes to Czechoslovak statehood, CTK reported. The legislation was approved by the Chamber of Deputies on 24 February and resulted in harsh criticism from Sudeten German expellees and among politicians in neighboring Germany and Austria, because of the 1946 Benes decrees that forced the exodus of ethnic Germans and the confiscation of their property (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 February 2004). The Senate rejected the resolution on 25 March. It is now President Klaus's decision whether to promulgate or veto it. After the senate's rejection of the legislation, Klaus said he was glad he must not decide on its fate. But the Chamber of Deputies' vote forces him to do so. MS

Michal Kovac on 13 April called on Vladimir Meciar to give up his candidacy for president in favor of Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan, TASR reported. Meciar, the three-time former premier and opposition People's Party-Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS) chairman, won the 3 April first round of the presidential election while his former close ally Ivan Gasparovic, the chairman of the extraparliamentary Movement for Democracy, finished second. Kukan, the candidate of the ruling Slovak Democratic and Christian Union, was a very close third. Kovac said that from 1994 to 1998 most of the harmful decisions for Slovakia were made by Meciar and not Gasparovic, who was parliamentary speaker for a time when Meciar was prime minister. Kovac urged voters to go to the polls, saying that abstaining from the vote amounts to a vote for Meciar, who already has a solid support base he can rely on. MS

Presidential hopefuls Meciar and Gasparovic exchanged verbal punches again in a televised debate, CTK reported on 13 April. Meciar accused Gasparovic of being a turncoat interested only in himself, while Gasparovic accused Meciar of being a liar. "Why did you sit next to a liar for all those years?" countered Meciar, accusing his rival of having left the LS-HZDS when the party was in a deep crisis. Gasparovic asked Meciar to apologize for his past mistakes, but the former prime minister said that he would then have to apologize for the fact that Slovakia is now a sovereign state. He also attacked Gasparovic for accepting the support of extreme right parties such as the Slovak National Party. Meciar also claimed he has the support of foreign politicians such as former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who has sent him an autographed photo, and of people close to French President Jacques Chirac. Gasparovic responded that, unlike Meciar, he has never been criticized abroad. MS

The foreign ministers of Slovakia and Hungary, Kukan and Laszlo Kovacs, respectively, told journalists at a meeting in Sturovo, southern Slovakia on 13 April that neither country intends to withdraw its troops from Iraq in view of the deterioration of the situation in that country, CTK reported. Kovacs nonetheless added that Budapest will follow developments closely and that "if the extent of risk exceeds certain limits, we shall consider withdrawing our troops." Kukan and Kovacs also discussed cooperation between their two countries after they join the EU on 1 May. They said Hungary and Slovakia have joint interests and are "on the same side in almost every issue" in European affairs. Consequently, Kovacs said, the two "should jointly lobby and jointly defend what is important for us." The two ministers refused to comment on the resumption the same day of negotiations over the long-standing dispute about the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros hydroelectric-dam project (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 25 September 1997), saying the matter is one for experts to debate and decide. Meeting in Bratislava the same day, Slovak and Hungarian representatives said they "decided to continue expert talks" and to follow EU recommendations in searching for a solution. MS

Hungarian police on 13 April arrested a Hungarian citizen of Palestinian origin who reportedly planned to blow up a Jewish museum in Budapest, Hungarian media reported. Attila Petofi, deputy director of the National Police Organized Crime Directorate, denied earlier media reports that the plot included an assassination attempt on visiting Israeli President Moshe Katsav, who is scheduled to open a Holocaust memorial center in Budapest on 15 April, "Nepszabadsag" reported. Petofi told reporters on 13 April that the 42-year-old Palestinian dentist approached two Syrian suspects in November 2003 about supplying explosives for the planned bombings and carrying out the attack, the daily said. Police officials said Katsav's visit will continue as planned, the MTI news agency reported. Katsav told reporters in Budapest that he "trusts the Hungarian and Israeli security forces," the agency reported. MSZ

About 1.7 million registered voters have the right to cast their ballots on 14 April in the first round of Macedonia's third presidential election, Macedonian and international media reported. Army conscripts, hospital patients, internally displaced persons, and prison inmates voted the previous day. Voters can chose between 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 Democratic Union for Integration (BDI), and Zudi Xhelili of the opposition Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH). As no candidate is likely to win an absolute majority, it is expected that either Crvenkovski or Kedev will be elected president in a second round on 28 April, in which ethnic Albanian voters could prove decisive. For the elections to be valid, more than 50 percent of registered voters must cast ballots. The vote will be monitored by some 4,000 domestic and about 350 international observers. Initial election results are expected to be announced late on 15 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 2 and 9 April 2004). UB

A spokesman for KFOR peacekeepers told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service in Prishtina on 13 April that Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's charge this week that Kosova has become a hotbed of terrorism is unfounded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 February, 26 March, and 2 April 2004). The spokesman stressed that NATO has no evidence that Al-Qaeda is present in Kosova, as Kostunica charged. A spokesman for Kosova's Prime Minister Bajram Rexhepi called Kostunica's remarks "destructive" and counterproductive for establishing good relations between Kosova's ethnic Albanians and Serbs. The spokesman stressed that Kosova's affairs are its business alone. Meanwhile in New York, the UN Security Council called on the Kosovar leadership to identify local officials who might be aiding extremists. In related news, NATO's commander for Southeastern Europe, U.S. Admiral Gregory Johnson, said in Prishtina after talks with Rexhepi that the recent appearance of three alleged members of the shadowy Albanian National Army (AKSH) in the Drenica region needs to be taken seriously, adding that criminal behavior will not be tolerated, "Bota Sot" reported. Johnson called for unspecified "appropriate action." PM

Harri Holkeri, who heads the UN's civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK), recently dismissed Marie Fucci as director of the Kosovo Trust Agency (KTA), which administers the privatization process, Deutsche Welle's "Monitor" reported on 13 April. Prime Minister Rexhepi and local Albanian-language media hailed the move, saying that she had become an obstacle to privatization. The international civilian administration is widely regarded by Kosovar Albanians as an expensive colonial institution that has long outlived its welcome and usefulness (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 19 December 2003). But local Serb leaders Oliver Ivanovic and Goran Bogdanovic criticized Holkeri's decision as a concession to pressure from the Albanians, the Prishtina daily "Zeri" reported. Local Serb leader Rada Trajkovic said that Fucci's dismissal will not contribute to stability. PM

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's legal adviser Zdenko Tomanovic told Serbian television on 13 April that Milosevic plans to summon 1,631 defense witnesses to his war crimes trial in The Hague, five times the number called by the prosecution, international and regional media reported. Among those Milosevic plans to summon are British Prime Minister Tony Blair, former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, and former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, whom he described as "enemy witnesses." Although the trial has been interrupted many times since it opened in February 2002 because of Milosevic's poor health, he has energetically cross-examined many prosecution witnesses, acting as his own lawyer. He was a banker before entering politics. PM

The Sarajevo office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said in a statement on 14 April that 988,000 refugees and internally displaced persons have returned to their homes since the Dayton agreement was signed at the end of 1995, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. It is not clear how many returned home permanently or how many went back just to sell their property. Many people are hampered from returning permanently for a variety of reasons, including physical and psychological harassment. Others say that they lack locally valid health insurance or that they have been barred from their former jobs because their firm is now controlled by people from a different ethnic group (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 September 2003). PM

The Senate on 13 April rejected a motion submitted by the ultranationalist Greater Romania Party (PRM) against the intention to reerect the Liberty Monument in Arad representing 13 Hungarian generals executed by the Habsburgs in 1849, Mediafax reported. The PRM called its motion "The statue of the 13 Hungarian generals who killed 40,000 Romanians should not be on Romanian territory." The motion called for organizing a referendum on the reerection of the statue among Arad inhabitants. Forty-six senators, including those representing the PRM, the National Liberal Party (PNL), and the Democratic Party backed the motion, which was rejected by 70 senators from the Social Democratic Party (PSD) and Hungarian Democratic Federation of Romania (UDMR). MS

The centrist Our Moldova alliance said in a statement released on 13 April that the ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) is conducting an "unprecedented campaign of intimidation" against political opponents in the autonomous Gagauz-Yeri region, Infotag reported. The statement says the PCM has "established a totalitarian regime" in the region, using "pressure and intimidation" in order to eliminate all opposition to the policies of PCM member and Gagauz-Yeri Governor George Tabunshik. In this connection, it points to the recent dismissal of Comrat Mayor Constantin Taoushanjee. Taoushanjee was dismissed by the region's Popular Assembly on 24 March "for improper and inefficient administration of municipal property and numerous breaches of the law." According to the Our Moldova alliance, the dismissal amounts to a violation of the constitution and election laws and is aimed at the "liquidation of political pluralism" in Gagauz-Yeri. MS

Chisinau Mayor and Our Moldova alliance co-Chairman Serafim Urechean on 13 April voiced indignation over the detention the same day of Chadyr-Lunga Mayor Mihail Formuzal, Infotag and Flux reported. Formuzal was detained by police and brought to the Gagauz-Yeri capital of Comrat, where he was told that he must testify as a witness in a penal investigation launched against Gagauz-Yeri opposition politician Leonid Dobrov. Formuzal said he had received a summons to testify on 10 April and told the authorities he was unable to do so because of the Easter holidays but would be willing to come to Comrat and testify on 13 April. Nonetheless, he said, police arrived in Chadyr-Lunga and brought him to Comrat to testify. Formuzal said he considers this to be an act of "intimidation" against himself and the United Gagauzia Movement he leads, according to Flux. Formuzal was released after being questioned by police. MS

President Georgi Parvanov and Chief of General Staff General Nikola Kolev in separate news conferences on 13 April criticized Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov for his actions since violence erupted last week in Karbala, Iraq, where the 500-strong Bulgarian contingent is stationed, reported. Parvanov thanked Kolev and his team for their good work, but failed to mention Svinarov. He then told journalists to make their own conclusions as to which minister failed to properly perform his duties during the recent crisis. Parvanov also criticized Svinarov for remarks the defense minister made suggesting that the size of Bulgaria's armed forces be reduced. Parvanov said expenditures for defense should remain at 2.6 percent of GDP, with additional funding for military missions abroad. General Kolev directly attacked Svinarov, saying he has been unable to reach the minister since 8 April, following the outbreak of violence in Karbala and other Shi'ite regions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8, 9, and 13 April 2004). The news agency said clashes in the run-up to the 10 April Shi'ite holiday Arbain were predicted by intelligence sources. UB

President Parvanov said on 13 April that the coalition command should consider implementing its original plan and station more than one battalion in Karbala, according to the president's official website ( Parvanov demanded that the coalition command provide military and technical assistance to the Bulgarian troops; limit the tasks of the Bulgarian contingent; and improve communication among coalition forces. He also called on the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry to help prepare a new UN Security Council resolution on the UN's role in rebuilding Iraq. Most importantly, he said, the Iraqi people must be encouraged to participate in building a new Iraq, adding that the coalition command would be wrong to believe that only force can stop the insurgencies and violence. UB

The Verkhovna Rada on 8 April voted on a controversial constitutional-reform bill, falling six votes short of the 300 votes required for approval. The bill was supported by 294 lawmakers from the pro-government coalition, the Communist Party, and the Socialist Party, as well as by some independent deputies.

The opposition Our Ukraine and Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, which did not take part in the vote, met its result with jubilation and sang the Ukrainian national anthem in the session hall. "[The vote was] possibly one of the first victories of the democratic forces in this parliament," Interfax quoted Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko as saying. Yushchenko, who is the most popular contender approaching the 31 October presidential ballot, staunchly opposed the bill that provided for significant cuts in the president's powers. "This is not a victory of the opposition, this is a failure of the authorities," Stepan Havrysh, coordinator of the parliamentary pro-government majority, commented shortly after the abortive vote.

However, a few hours later, following a conference with presidential administration chief Viktor Medvedchuk, who is widely believed to be the main architect of the constitutional reforms, Havrysh changed tack. Havrysh said on Inter Television that the Verkhovna Rada will hold a repeat vote on the constitutional reforms since, he argued, lawmakers voted not for bill No. 4105, which provided for these reforms, but for unregistered bill No. 1674-4, which was announced by speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn before the vote. To support his argument, Havrysh quoted a relevant passage from the official minutes of the session that actually mentioned Lytvyn proposing bill No. 1674-4 for the vote.

Verkhovna Rada staffers subsequently explained that the numbers 4105 and 1674-4 refer to the same piece of legislation -- under the first the constitutional-reform bill is registered with the Verkhovna Rada; under the second it is registered with the Justice Ministry. However, the bill submitted to the vote on 8 April included an addendum by Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz stipulating that the legislation will come into force only after the 2004 presidential election. In other words, the bill was somewhat different from the one endorsed by the Constitutional Court last month, following its preliminary approval in December and February.

Moreover, the Verkhovna Rada on 7 April adopted a procedure for voting on the constitutional-reform bill that banned the introduction of any amendments to it during its second and final reading. Thus, there are formal reasons for the pro-government coalition to demand a repeat vote. True, it is not clear yet whether the constitutional restriction that forbids amending the country's constitution twice within one year may be applied to the 8 April vote.

It is another question whether the parliamentary pro-government coalition will actually push for a repeat vote. Some Ukrainian observers argue that after 8 April the number of supporters of the constitutional reforms in the Ukrainian parliament can only be fewer than 294. According to this line of reasoning, some of the pro-government and independent deputies who were elected under a first-past-the-post system in 2002 did not appear in the session hall on 8 April or voted against the constitutional-reform bill, thus withstanding the pressure reportedly applied upon them by the presidential administration.

They purportedly disliked not only the pressure but also the all-proportional parliamentary-election law that was adopted last month as the pro-government coalition's concession to buy support for the constitutional reforms from the Socialist and Communist parties. Thus, there is absolutely no reason for those deputies to be more enthusiastic about the constitutional reforms after 8 April.

Whatever the final outcome of the constitutional-reform controversy in Ukraine, it is already perfectly clear that the essentially democratic proposals in the reform bill -- the presidency with fewer powers as well as a stronger government and parliament -- have been pursued by the forces grouped around President Leonid Kuchma as a way to preserve the positions of the antidemocratic ruling elites in the country. Faced with the threat of losing the presidential election on 31 October to Our Ukraine leader Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Kuchma camp devised the reforms that would strip the presidency of several important prerogatives and shift the center of power toward the government controlled by the current political establishment.

The position of Yushchenko in the constitutional-reform dispute is also far from crystal clear and honest. Yushchenko advertised a constitutional reform as one of his main programmatic goals before the 2002 parliamentary elections, but has abandoned the idea after opinion polls began to suggest that he may win the 2004 presidential ballot. His main slogan now is not to change the defective power system but to replace defective people in power. Which, of course, does not provide an unambiguous answer to the question whether he will tackle reforming this system once he and his people take control of it.

If the constitutional reform collapses completely, then the 2004 presidential-election campaign may be one of the harshest and toughest political campaigns in the country. The political stakes will be very high indeed. It is not out of the question that Kuchma may choose to run for the post of president a third time. Such an option has been made possible for him by a ruling of the Constitutional Court in December. Kuchma's popularity is very low at present, and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, who is currently supported by some 15 percent of the electorate, seems better equipped as the single candidate of the pro-Kuchma camp to challenge Yushchenko.

However, many Ukrainian analysts assert that pro-Kuchma oligarchs are very unlikely to unite behind Yanukovych against the Yushchenko threat. According to those analysts, the oligarchs are likely to support Kuchma as a guarantor of the stability and continuity of the current political establishment in the country. Yanukovych in the post of president is for Ukrainian oligarchs allegedly no less a risk than Yushchenko himself.

An unspecified number of people have been killed in fighting between rival commanders in Daikondi Province, Kelid radio reported from Kabul on 11 April. The fighting reportedly erupted on 9 April when forces loyal to Afghan Minister of Commerce Sayyed Mostafa Kazemi attacked forces supporting Abdul Karim Khalili, a deputy of Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai. Daikondi Province Governor Mohammad Ali Sedaqat said that tension between armed men in the region has been brewing for some time and that the fighting in the Dara-ye Khudi region lasted until 10 April. Unidentified local sources have disclosed that the main factor behind the fighting has been the central government's March recognition of Daikondi as a province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 March 2004). Before that, Daikondi was a district within Oruzgan Province. AT

In a decree issued on 12 April by Chairman Karzai, the Panjsher District within Parwan Province north of Kabul has been declared Panjsher Province, Afghanistan Television reported on 12 April. The decision to elevate Panjsher to a province is a tribute to former mujahedin military commander Ahmad Shah Mas'ud, who administered the district independently during the jihad (1978-92) period. Mas'ud, who headed the anti-Taliban forces until his assassination in 2001, is regarded as Afghanistan's national hero. The town of Bazarak has been recognized as the provincial capital of Panjsher. AT

Latifullah Hakimi, purporting to speak on behalf of the resurgent Taliban movement, said that Ahmadullah, intelligence chief of the central Afghan Oruzgan Province, was killed on 11 April, the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 12 April. Hakimi said that the neo-Taliban, who abducted Ahmadullah and two of his bodyguards, executed him and would return his body only in exchange for the body of a neo-Taliban fighter killed in the province some time ago. Oruzgan Province Governor Jan Mohammad Mohammadi has warned that if the neo-Taliban has actually executed Ahmadullah, he would retaliate by killing neo-Taliban prisoners, "The New York Times," reported on 13 April. AT

Ata Mohammad, commander of Military Corps No. 7 in Balkh Province, and General Abdul Malik, said that they deplore the ongoing crisis in Faryab Province, Balkh Television reported on 13 April. Militia loyal to General Abdul Rashid Dostum ousted Enayatullah Enayat as governor of Faryab on 6 April (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8, 9, and 13 April 2004). Ata Mohammad and Abdul Malik called on the central government to uphold law and order in Faryab by deploying national police forces in the provincial capital of Maymana. Ata Mohammad is the main military commander of the Jami'at-e Islami party in northern Afghanistan and the strongest rival to Dostum's Junbish-e Melli party for dominance in northern Afghanistan. General Abdul Malik, who is from Faryab Province, had collaborated with the Taliban in ousting Dostum from northern Afghanistan in 1997. Unconfirmed reports in 2003 indicated that Ata Mohammad was seeking help from Abdul Malik to counter Dostum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 April 2003). AT

Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian was in Tehran on 12-13 April where he met with Supreme National Security Council Secretary Hojatoleslam Hassan Rohani, Vice President Mohammad-Reza Aref-Yazdi, and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. The need for expanded bilateral relations was discussed, and Rohani noted that the two countries' long-standing cultural connection contributes to such cooperation. The natural gas pipeline from Iran to Armenia was discussed, as was construction of a dam on the Aras River. Aref told Oskanian that Iran would like to help in a negotiated and consultative solution to the Nagorno-Karabakh issue. In the same vein, Rohani said, "Regional stability is prerequisite for economic development and without settlement of the regional crisis, the ground for extensive investment would not be prepared." Oskanian said upcoming negotiations with Azerbaijan on this issue are important. BS

In a letter to Speaker of Parliament Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi that was read out at the end of the 13 April open legislative session, President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami formally withdrew two pieces of legislation submitted in August and September 2002, IRNA reported. Known as the "twin bills," the first would have amended the election law by reducing the Guardians Council's role and the second would have increased presidential authority. Khatami's letter noted that the Guardians Council rejected the election-law amendment, and he added that the Guardians Council and supervisory boards violated the current election law. His letter concluded, "I predict that keeping these bills on the parliamentary agenda in the future will have a detrimental impact on the people's rights and interests and the president's position." Khatami had announced the bills' withdrawal in mid-March (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 March 2004). BS

President Khatami arrived in the southeastern city of Bam on 13 April to inspect the progress of reconstruction efforts since the 26 December earthquake there, IRNA and state radio reported. Housing and Urban Development Minister Ali Abdol-Alizadeh, Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Abdolvahed Musavi-Lari, Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Ahmad Masjid-Jamei, and Health Minister Masud Pezeshkian accompanied Khatami. Construction of 800 housing units began that day, and Khatami visited other housing projects, IRNA reported. He also inspected work on a hospital due to be completed at the end of the summer. At a meeting at the aid headquarters, Khatami said the government allocated 2.1 trillion rials (about $256 million) for the city's reconstruction in the March 2003-March 2004 year, and another 2.4 trillion (about $292 million) for the March 2004-March 2005 period, state radio reported, and he vowed that nobody will be living in a tent by 20 May. Meanwhile, Bam Governor-General Ali Shafei said on 13 April that Musavi-Lari has accepted his resignation and he will leave within 48 hours, ISNA reported. His resignation was reported in March (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 March 2004). BS

Officials from the Foreign Ministry and Atomic Energy Organization on 13 April briefed members of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Affairs Committee on the progress of the country's talks with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), IRNA reported. Committee spokesman Jafar Golbaz said they were apprised of the government's discussions with IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei and on "U.S. pressure on the IAEA." Golbaz said the U.S. tries to obstruct Iran-IAEA talks but these obstructions can be removed. BS

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers arrived in Tehran on 13 April as part of a trip that will include Afghanistan and Pakistan, and IRNA reported. Some 2.5 million refugees have returned to Afghanistan since the Taliban's fall in December 2001, and the UNHCR intends to help another 400,000 go home in 2004. Just this year, according to, 26,000 Afghans have returned from Iran "spontaneously." Lubbers met with Foreign Minister Kharrazi and told him that the Afghan security situation is suitable for the refugees' return, IRNA reported. Kharrazi expressed the hope that repatriations would be facilitated by the cooperation of the UNHCR and the Afghan interim administration. Kharrazi added that international organizations should be more active in the refugees' repatriation. International refugee agencies working in Iran complained to RFE/RL recently that the Iranian government impedes their work and some have had to leave the country (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 22 December 2003). BS

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said after a 14 April cabinet meeting that the U.S. has requested Iranian assistance in calming the current unrest in Iraq, AFP and Al-Jazeera television reported. Kharrazi said Tehran would help and added that the U.S. is complicating the situation there. In what may be a related matter, the Foreign Ministry's director-general for Persian Gulf affairs, Hussein Sadeqi, arrived in Baghdad on 14 April, ILNA reported. He reportedly will meet with senior Iraqi clerics, Iraqi Governing Council members, and other Iraqi political figures. BS

Anti-coalition Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told Beirut's Al-Manar television in a 13 April interview that a "popular revolution" has broken out in Iraq in response to the "aggression of the occupation troops." "There is no genuine transfer of power. There will be no Iraqi sovereignty, nor will power be transferred to the Iraqis," he said. "Rather, it is a Western authority defined by the Americans. They say freedom and democracy, and yet they appoint a government," he added. "The Iraqi people rebelled against this tyranny and oppression in order to spread freedom and democracy," the cleric further claimed, asserting that Iraqis "seek the most refined democracy, which is the Islamic democracy." Al-Sadr said that he is ready to sacrifice his life in his confrontation with the U.S.-led coalition, adding: "This is the line of my father and forefathers. It is either killing or arrest." Al-Sadr's father and two brothers were killed in 1999, reportedly at the hands of Saddam Hussein's regime. Al-Sadr representative Abd al-Karim al-Anzi told Reuters on 14 April that the cleric has "made several proposals to end the crisis," to the U.S. military. Al-Anzi refused to disclose any details, however. KR

The U.S. military has positioned some 2,500 troops from three U.S. Army divisions on the northern outskirts of Al-Najaf in preparation for a possible confrontation with al-Sadr and his Imam Al-Mahdi Army, international media reported on 14 April. U.S. Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt told a Baghdad press briefing on 13 April that there is a "significant threat in the vicinity of Najaf by the name of Muqtada al-Sadr and his militia. And we will get the [U.S.] forces to the place and at [a] time when it is necessary to go after him and his militia to end this violence." He added that the troops outside Al-Najaf are "capable of conducting the full spectrum of military operations, which could range from full combat operations, and if necessary...humanitarian activities." Asked about prospects for a peaceful resolution with the cleric, Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) spokesman Dan Senor told the same briefing: "We are looking for minimal bloodshed, peace, and justice. We are looking for the rule of law to prevail. Much of this can be dictated by Mr. al-Sadr. Much of this can be dictated by the actions of his illegal mob." KR

UN special adviser on Iraq Lakhdar Brahimi is wrapping up his trip to Iraq and will be returning to UN headquarters in New York this week where he will publicly outline details of a new formula for creating an interim Iraqi government, reported on 14 April. Brahimi met with Iraqi Governing Council President for the month of April Mas'ud Barzani on 13 April, according to Kurdistan Satellite television. Brahimi reportedly told Barzani in that meeting that the UN team had reached positive and appropriate results by considering the views of a wide spectrum of Iraqi groups and leaders. Meanwhile, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan told reporters in New York on 13 April that he does not anticipate the return of a large UN team to Iraq for the "foreseeable future," the UN News Center ( reported the same day. Annan cited insecurity as a major constraint to UN activities in the country. KR

A truce between U.S. Marines and Iraqi insurgents in the volatile city of Al-Fallujah has been extended for an additional 48 hours, AFP reported on 14 April. The announcement was made by Fuad Rawi, a senior official in the Iraqi Islamic Party, which has been leading the mediation talks, the website reported. The truce "is mainly meant to allow the reopening of the Fallujah General Hospital and the Jordanian Hospital, which had been forced to close because of the siege imposed by the Marines," he said. Rawi said that the two hospitals were "forced to shut down" after U.S. Marines took positions on the roads leading to them. "Doctors, nurses, and equipment could not reach them, so they were closed down," he said. "Now, the 48 hours will help the staff reach the hospitals to reopen them and sterilize them." He said that the truce shows that progress has been made in the negotiations, adding that he hopes for more progress in the talks, including the withdrawal of U.S. snipers from the area. KR