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Newsline - April 15, 2004

Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Viktor Beltsov announced on 14 April that the evacuation of employees of Russian companies working in Iraq will begin on 15 April, and other Russian media reported. More than 550 Russian citizens and more than 260 citizens of other CIS states are working for Russian companies in Iraq. The evacuation does not include the 37 members of the Russian diplomatic mission. Beltsov said seven aircraft have been allocated to fly to Iraq and Kuwait for the evacuation, and stressed that the evacuation is voluntary. However, those who decide to stay will be obligated to sign a statement that they were warned about the danger. RTR reported on 14 April that many Russians are reluctant to leave their well-paid jobs in Iraq, and estimated that Russian companies working there stand to lose about $1 billion as a result of the evacuation. VY

Military and political personalities were split over whether the evacuation is really necessary. Fedor Lodygin, a former chief of Russian military intelligence (GRU), told "Komsomolskaya pravda" of 14 April that while involvement in Iraq is in Russia's interest, "we can return there later, when peace is restored." Retired Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, a controversial strategist and geopolitician who once headed the Defense Ministry's International Department, said that "in conditions of war, nobody can guarantee that the hostage taking will not be repeated." Eurasia leader Aleksandr Dugin, however, said Russian military advisers should remain in Iraq, and that "Russia should not leave the region." This view was echoed by Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Federation Council's International Relations Committee, who said Iraq remains an economic and military-political interest of Russia's. Duma Deputy Dmitrii Rogozin, who heads the left-patriotic Motherland faction, said it would be wishful thinking to believe that "nobody will touch Russians in Iraq." He suggested that Russians working in Iraq should be replaced with foreigners because members of Russia's "working class should not risk their lives for oil oligarchs." VY

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov presented the government's five medium-term priorities to the Federation Council on 14 April, Russian media reported. First, Fradkov said the government plans to reduce poverty by 50 percent and raise the minimum wage to subsistence levels within three years. It will also create "a goal-oriented administrative system" to "bring about an economic breakthrough" that will reduce Russia's dependency on the export of natural resources. Third, the government will boost the country's economic competitiveness by removing unnecessary restrictions and increasing business's "access to development resources." Fourth, the government will work out a mechanism for relating to business and for implementing "joint projects." Finally, the cabinet will work to integrate Russia further into the global economy while making the most of the country's competitive advantages. A key to achieving this goal is membership of the World Trade Organization, Fradkov said. RC

Prime Minister Fradkov at a cabinet session on 15 April proposed that all cabinet sessions be broadcast live and be open to journalists, RosBalt and other Russian media reported. The proposal was approved by the ministers. According to RTR, cabinet meetings were open to the media under former Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin, but were closed in 1998 by then-Prime Minister Sergei Kirienko. RC

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was in Dublin on 14 April for talks with the European Union, Russian and Western media reported. Lavrov and Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen expressed confidence that a protocol on Russia's agreement to extend its Partnership and Cooperation Agreement to new EU members and a statement on the EU's recognition of Russia's concerns related to EU expansion can be signed at the 27 April meeting in Luxembourg of the new permanent Russia-EU Partnership Council, ITAR-TASS reported. Lavrov said the two sides also discussed the possible introduction of visa-free travel between Russia and the EU. He said that although the target date of 2008 has been set for such a move, "no exact date to make the transition to visa-free travel" has been established. RC

Lavrov told journalists in Dublin on 14 April that he believes the resolution the EU submitted last week to the UN Human Rights Commission criticizing the actions of federal troops in Chechnya does not accurately reflect the situation there, ITAR-TASS reported. Lavrov pointed out that Chechen resistance is petering out as "ever more people come to understand the terrorists are fighting a losing battle." Human Rights Watch acting Director Rachel Denber has urged the UN commission to adopt the EU resolution in order to help "break the ongoing cycle of abuse and impunity" by Russian troops who, according to a statement summarized by Interfax on 13 April, routinely abduct, abuse, torture, rape, and execute Chechen civilians. LF

Addressing the State Duma on 13 April, Deputy Prosecutor-General Sabir Kekhlerov proposed a number of changes to the country's antiterrorism legislation, including confiscating the property of convicted terrorists and using it to compensate their victims, and other Russian media reported on 14 April. Alternatively, he said, the property of convicted terrorists would be confiscated only if the owners were unable to prove that it was legally acquired. According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 15 April, most deputies approved the proposal. Kekhlerov also called for strengthening legislation designed at identifying and cutting off sources of financing for terrorist operations, K&M reported on 14 April. The agency also reported that First Deputy Duma Speaker Lyubov Sliska (Unified Russia) told the hearing that new restrictions on the mass media must be introduced to prevent "terrorists" from using the media to disseminate their ideas. Sliska on 13 April called for reinstating the death penalty for those convicted of terrorism, RBK reported. RC

Deputy Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kolesnikov proposed to deputies on 13 April that the Criminal Code be amended to criminalize adherence to Wahhabism, "Kommersant-Daily,", and other Russian media reported on 15 April. Kolesnikov proposed making first convictions punishable by up to one year in prison and second offenses punishable "to the maximum extent of the law." He said the main goal of Wahhabism is "to turn children into zombies." Council of Muftis co-Chairman Ismagil-khazrat Shangareev denounced the proposal as discriminatory. "In any religion there are many currents and tendencies, including radical ones. Why should the criminal penalty for one of them be doubled?" Shangareev said, according to "This is an attempt to legalize anti-Islamic sentiment in the country." Two Kyrgyz citizens and one Kazakh were arrested in Samara on 8 March and charged with possessing and distributing "extremist literature and computer discs," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 15 April. According to the report, the three men are allegedly members of the international Islamic organization Tablig Jamaat. The literature they were allegedly carrying contained appeals to the citizens of Tatarstan and Bashkortostan not to cooperate with the federal government. RC

Last year, there were 561 terrorist acts committed in Russia, and 51 in the first two months of this year, K&M reported on 14 April, citing the Interior Ministry. In addition, 34 more terrorist acts were prevented in January and February. Nearly 95 percent of the 2003 terrorist acts were committed on the territory of Chechnya. Last year, police confiscated 3,644 explosive devices and 130 tons of explosives-related materials. As a result of terrorist acts in 2003, about 200 people were killed and nearly 600 injured. Thirty-two people were killed in terrorist incidents in the first two months of this year. Deputy Prosecutor-General Kekhlerov told Duma deputies on 13 April that only about one-quarter of terrorism-related cases are resolved. RC

"The Moscow Times" on 15 April published some crime and other statistics for the city of Moscow for the week of 7-13 April, citing city police. According to those figures, there were 12 murders that week, six of which have been "solved." In addition, 14 people were killed and 155 injured in automobile accidents. Twenty-nine people committed suicide and 57 people were reported missing. Eighty-eight bodies were found. RC

Simon Kukes on 13 April published an open letter in the "Financial Times" to company shareholders calling on them to come forward if they object to the company's stalled merger with Sibneft, "Vremya novostei" and other Russian media reported on 15 April. The merger of the two companies, which was announced with great fanfare on 22 April 2003 and which would have created the world's fourth-largest oil producer, was suspended in December following the 25 October arrest of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovskii (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 April, 25 October, and 1 December 2003). In his letter, Kukes said that there are no formal proposals on the table for reversing the merger and that so far the demerger has taken place exclusively in the courts. He calls on those who want to reverse the merger to come forward with concrete proposals for doing so. Industry analysts quoted by "The Moscow Times" on 15 April said the purpose of Kukes's letter is to force Sibneft to come to the negotiating table. RC

Khodorkovskii said in a letter presented to a forum of media representatives on 14 April that the country's liberals should recognize their mistakes and cooperate with President Vladimir Putin, according to The forum was organized by the Yukos-funded civil-society foundation Open Russia. "We made a lot of mistakes because of stupidity, ambition, and misunderstandings," he wrote. "But these are our mistakes, not the results of liberal reforms." He suggested that liberals say to the people: "Forgive us, if you can. Allow us to make it up to you." But if the people cannot forgive them, he added, the liberals should go, as they failed to uphold the "ideals of freedom and democracy." Khodorkovskii's lawyer, Genrikh Padva, confirmed the authenticity of the letter. "Vedomosti" published a commentary last month by Khodorkovskii titled "The Crisis Of Liberalism In Russia" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 March 2004). VY

In response to Khodorkovskii's latest letter, former Union of Rightist Forces co-leader Boris Nemtsov said on 14 April, "I absolutely disagree with idea that liberals should bow before the authorities," Interfax reported. "It will bring nothing good to the country, or to the author of this idea." Former acting Prime Minister Yegor Gaidar, a key ideologue of the economic reforms of the 1990s, told "Vedomosti" of 14 April that "I knew better than many about mistakes committed and compromises made, but I consider it indecent and counterproductive [for liberals] to repent, especially in the present situation. One battle lost is not a lost war." Former presidential candidate Irina Khakamada said Khodorkovskii's status as a prisoner prevents her from countering his statements at full strength, reported on 14 April. VY

The pro-Kremlin website commented on 13 April that Khodorkovskii has taken a new tack by proposing a truce with the government, but on his conditions. According to the website, Khodorkovskii and his lawyers have hinted that if the Kremlin fails to accept the oligarch's proposals, he will turn the trial into something comparable to the Stalin-era show trials. TV-Tsentr political commentator Aleksei Pushkov said on 3 April that the Prosecutor-General's Office was not swayed by Khodorkovskii's first article and continues to distrust him. Pushkov said prosecutors are concerned with concrete offenses allegedly committed by Khodorkovskii, not with ideological issues. The commentator suggested that Khodorkovskii refrain from writing letters and make restitutions. VY

Duma Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachev (Unified Russia) and Federation Council International Relations Committee Chairman Margelov refused to meet in Moscow on 14 April with U.S. Representative Thomas Lantos (Democrat, California), co-author of a Congressional resolution calling for the suspension of Russia's participation in the G-8 because of the country's violations of democratic principles (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 April 2004), Russian media reported. Kosachev said he found no "expediency in this meeting," adding that "it seems that Mr. Lantos made conclusions on the situation in Russia before he arrived," reported. Speaking the same day on Echo Moskvy, Lantos said that "the ludicrous and childish behavior of not wanting to hear criticism is not worthy of [the] great democracy that I hope Russia will develop into." He added that relations between the two countries cannot develop normally until Russia returns to democracy. VY

Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksii II has said that Hare Krishnas are a threat to "confessional peace in Russia" because of their "unfortunate proselytizing" and plans to build a "colossal temple" in Moscow, reported on 13 April. The comments were made in Alesksii's Easter message posted on the website of the Moscow Patriarchy ( Meanwhile, Moscow's chief architect, Vladimir Kusmin, said on 13 April that the size of the temple the Hare Krishnas are planning to build should correspond proportionally to the number of Hare Krishnas in Russia compared to followers of other faiths in the country, reported. VY

Akhmad-hadji Kadyrov told journalists on 14 April in Rostov-na-Donu, where he was attending a meeting of heads of southern Russian regions, that he has had no contacts during the four years since he was first appointed Chechen administration head with Chechen President Aslan Maskhadov, who is also commander of the Chechen resistance forces, ITAR-TASS reported. ITAR-TASS on 7 April quoted Kadyrov as saying that he has held telephone consultations with Maskhadov, but Kadyrov's press service immediately issued a denial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 April 2004). LF

The website reproduced on 14 April what appears to be a confidential memorandum to President Putin from Viktor Kazantsev, who was removed last month from his post as presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 March 2004). The memorandum, dated 7 November 2001, claimed that separatist sentiments are widespread among the Ingush, and that the republic harbors some 20,000 members of illegal armed formations, including some from Chechnya. In order to quash the danger of separatism and improve the economic situation (Ingushetia relies on funds from Moscow for 85 percent of its budget), Kazantsev proposed that Moscow back Federal Security Service officer Murat Zyazkikov in the April 2002 Ingushetian presidential election; create a commission to draft legislation on the restoration of the former Chechen-Ingush republic (which was divided into two separate entities in the summer of 1992); and order the General Staff of the Russian armed forces to prepare to expand military operations from Chechnya into Ingushetia. Kazantsev predicted that those measures would not only stabilize the situation in Ingushetia but would result in the successful conclusion of the "counterterrorist operation" in Chechnya in 2002-03. Zyazikov was duly elected president in a runoff ballot with 53 percent of the vote (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 3 May 2002). LF

National Accord Party (AMK) Chairman Artashes Geghamian, who went into hiding after police resorted to violence early on 13 April to disperse opposition demonstrators in Yerevan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April 2004), convened a news conference at the parliament building on 14 April, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He told RFE/RL that police who searched AMK headquarters and his apartment the previous day confiscated documents and even family photographs. Geghamian, together with two leading members of the opposition Artarutiun alliance, Albert Bazeyan and Viktor Dallakian, said the opposition will continue to campaign by constitutional means for the resignation of the present Armenian leadership. Another Artarutiun activist, parliament deputy Shavarsh Kocharian (no relation to President Robert Kocharian), said the opposition will convene a further mass demonstration in Yerevan on 16 April, according to Mediamax as cited by Groong (see also End Note). LF

Meeting on 14 April with members of Armenia's United Communist Party, which is loyal to the present leadership, President Kocharian denounced the opposition for "presenting ultimatums" and advocated dialogue as the optimum approach to resolving tensions, according to Armenpress and Mediamax as cited by Groong. Kocharian argued that the ultimate goal of the opposition should be that of the country's leadership, namely to improve the living standards of the population. Two senior parliamentarians from the ruling three-party coalition, Tigran Torosian (Republican Party of Armenia) and Samvel Balasanian (Orinats Yerkir), similarly proposed such a dialogue at a 14 April meeting with AMK Chairman Geghamian, but Geghamian rejected that offer, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Torosian said the coalition believes the April 2003 proposal by the Constitutional Court to hold a nationwide vote of confidence in President Kocharian is illegal and unconstitutional. The opposition has consistently demanded that the parliament schedule such a plebiscite. LF

Two top Council of Europe officials expressed concern on 14 April over the previous day's violence in Yerevan, Noyan Tapan and ITAR-TASS reported. Council of Europe Secretary-General Walter Schwimmer noted the "incomplete and contradictory" reports of excessive police violence, arrests of opposition activists and parliament deputies, and a media blackout. He warned against a crackdown, stressing, "In a democracy, people are free to gather and express their views, even if they are critical of the president or of the government." Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Chairman Peter Schieder has written to Armenian parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian expressing "serious concern" over the violent dispersal of the Yerevan demonstration and requesting more detailed information about what happened and the events that preceded it, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

Meeting with journalists in Baku on 14 April, U.S. Ambassador to Azerbaijan Reno Harnish rejected as misplaced Azerbaijani criticisms that the OSCE Minsk Group tasked with mediating a settlement of the Karabakh conflict has accomplished little or nothing, Turan and reported on 14 and 15 April, respectively. Harnish said that during the late 1990s the Minsk Group proposed three separate peace plans, one of which resolved all contentious issues simultaneously (the so-called package plan), one that tackled problems step by step, and one that involved an exchange of territory between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Harnish did not specify which country rejected the latter approach. Both the Armenian leadership and opposition parties categorically reject a territorial swap. Azerbaijani officials have denied it was ever discussed, but former Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Tofik Zulfugarov and former presidential adviser Eldar Namazov both claim that it was, noted. Harnish said that during the December 2003 meeting in Geneva between Armenian President Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev, the Minsk Group co-chairmen proposed a new approach to resolving the conflict that will be discussed at a 16 April meeting in Prague between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers. Harnish further contradicted Azerbaijani Defense Minister Colonel General Safar Abiev's statement that during his visit to Washington late last month, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld assured him that the United States favors the "phased" approach to resolving the conflict. LF

In a written address to the population of Georgia's Adjar Autonomous Republic on 14 April, Mikheil Saakashvili dismissed as "dirty lies" rumors that the Georgian leadership plans to abolish Adjaria's autonomous status within Georgia, close mosques, and resettle in Adjaria people from other regions of Georgia, Georgian media reported. Saakashvili said those lies are being disseminated by people engaged in criminal activities who have stolen money from the local population, an apparent allusion to Adjar Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze and his closest associates. Speaking in Tbilisi the same day, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said he hopes the international community will take on a more active role in trying to resolve the standoff between the central Georgian government and the Adjar authorities, ITAR-TASS reported. Zhvania said his government will draft a cooperation plan with international organizations to that end. LF

Central Election Commission (CEC) Chairman Zurab Chiaberashvili was met on 14 April at the administrative border between Adjaria and the rest of Georgia by several dozen supporters of Abashidze who prevented him from proceeding, Georgian media reported. Journalists from the independent Georgian television station Rustavi-2 were assaulted and beaten when they tried to film the confrontation between Chiaberashvili and Abashidze's henchmen. Chiaberashvili had intended to study preparations for repeat voting in Khulo and Kobuleti on 18 April following the annulment by the CEC of the results in those districts of voting in the 28 March parliamentary election. Also on 14 April, Adjar Interior Minister Djemal Gogitidze said the population of Khulo and Kobuleti is insulted by the CEC's decision to annul the outcome of the 28 March ballot and will not permit repeat voting to take place, Caucasus Press reported. Gogitidze further slammed President Saakashvili's demand for the disarmament of armed groups in Adjaria, saying that any attempt by Saakashvili at forcible disarmament would simply lead to violence, ITAR-TASS reported. LF

Beer magnate Gogi Topadze, who heads the Industry Will Save Georgia party, proposed on 14 April that Georgia's Union of Major Taxpayers establish a special fund that would pay government ministers' and judges' salaries, ITAR-TASS and Caucasus Press reported. He said the creation of such a fund would demonstrate to the Georgian leadership that it has the support of the country's business community. U.S. philanthropist George Soros and the UN agreed in January to create such a fund in a bid to eradicate corruption by ensuring that such officials are paid an adequate salary. But Topadze told the newspaper "24 saati" that he disapproves of a foreigner subsidizing the Georgian government. In related news, the Union of Major Taxpayers elected Badri Patarkatsishvili as its new chairman on 14 April, Georgian media reported. Patarkatsishvili replaces former Georgian Minister of State Niko Lekishvili, who was re-elected to parliament as an independent candidate in the 2 November ballot. LF

President Nursultan Nazarbaev accepted the resignation of First Deputy Prime Minister Grigorii Marchenko on 14 April and promptly appointed Marchenko a presidential aide, Kazinform reported the same day. According to Interfax-Kazakhstan, Marchenko resigned because of disagreements over economic reforms, and specifically over housing policy. The news agency noted that Marchenko did not attend a 14 April cabinet session that endorsed a draft program for housing construction in 2005-07. DK

President Nazarbaev reaffirmed the continuing participation of Kazakh peacekeepers in the reconstruction of Iraq on 14 April even as parliamentarians hoped to put questions about the matter to the ministers of foreign affairs and defense, news agencies reported. Speaking to journalists at a military training ground, Nazarbaev stressed that Kazakhstan was part of the antiterror coalition "when there was war against the Taliban, and we will remain in this coalition now," ITAR-TASS reported. Meanwhile, parliamentarians are planning to quiz the ministers of foreign affairs and defense on 19 April about the security situation in Iraq and its significance for Kazakh peacekeepers there, Kazinform reported on 14 April. Kazakhstan maintains a contingent of 27 peacekeepers in Iraq that is primarily engaged in mine-clearing operations. The contingent's contracted time in Iraq expires at the end of May. DK

Secretary of State Colin Powell sent a message of thanks to Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev for Kazakhstan's support in the reconstruction of Iraq, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry reported in a 14 April press release. As quoted in the press release, Powell expressed his appreciation "to the Kazakh government for giving firm and all possible support to the coalition to establish security in Iraq and build its future." DK

President Askar Akaev issued a decree on 14 April dismissing Deputy Interior Ministers Kengeshbek Duyshobaev and Bolotbek Nogobaev, reported the same day. (Duyshobaev retained his position as head of Bishkek's police department, however.) The stated reason for the removal of the two officials was a ministerial reorganization. The move came a day after Akaev upbraided law enforcement authorities for their failure to contain rising crime rates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April). DK

Uzbekistan's Uzbekneftegaz and Russia's Gazprom signed a 15-year production-sharing agreement on gas extraction at Uzbekistan's Shakhpakhty gas field, reported the same day. Although the development of the Shakhpakhty field began in the 1970s, production came to a halt in February 2002 because of equipment problems. Valeriy Gulev, head of Gazprom subsidiary Zarubezhneftegaz, said that $15 million in investment is planned for 2004-07 under the current agreement. Uzbekistan signed an agreement with Gazprom two years ago to increase gas exports from Uzbekistan to Russia from 3 billion cubic meters in 2003 to 10 billion cubic meters in 2006, reported on 14 April. Energy issues are expected to be on the agenda when Uzbek President Islam Karimov arrives in Moscow for an official visit on 15 April. DK

State oil company Turkmenneft has concluded a new five-year contract with oil-services company Schlumberger, reported on 14 April. The contract is for a total of $36 million. Schlumberger inked its first five-year contract with Turkmenneft in 1998; that contract expired in November. DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said in an annual address to the National Assembly on 14 April that, judging by the government's performance in the first quarter of 2004, the planned 10-percent annual economic growth is "quite achievable," Belapan reported. Lukashenka stressed that the country's economy is "in good running order" and is moving forward in "practically every respect." The Belarusian president also praised the government for its choice of state ideology. "The government assumed the lead role in summarizing, systematizing, and promoting fundamental ideas that unite society," Lukashenka said. He said that rather than borrowing "foreign values," the state laid emphasis on "an established socioeconomic model, a reliable legal framework, and a strong, people-centered social policy." Lukashenka vilified "foreign-sponsored professional opposition activists" for "knowingly misleading people, especially youths, and misrepresenting the choice of values for state development." JM

President Lukashenka said in his address to the National Assembly on 14 April that Minsk is ready to make "very serious decisions" regarding the delegation of powers to a body that would govern the Single Economic Space of Belarus, Kazakhstan, Ukraine, and Russia, Belapan reported. An accord on the creation of a unified economic zone was signed in September (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 23 September 2003). Lukashenka urged the four states to enter into a comprehensive economic alliance without exception or reservation. Lukashenka said the current situation -- in which signatories to the common economic zone abide by some advantageous provisions in one agreement and refuse to respect others -- is in the worst traditions of the CIS. "In contrast to the dynamic, fast-developing European Union, our Commonwealth of Independent States looks absolutely languid, inert, and weak-willed. This structure is still breathing, but in the past year it has not resolved one single serious issue," Lukashenka said. JM

President Lukashenka also declared in the National Assembly on 14 April that he, as the guarantor of the Belarusian Constitution, will ensure "democratic" legislative elections that are due in the fall, Belapan reported. Lukashenka said he thinks opposition candidates stand little chance of being elected to the legislature but claimed that "no obstacles will be posed to them." He added, however, that the authorities will "orient" voters during the election campaign. "We will just tell people what questions they should pose to the opposition," Lukashenka elaborated. "[People should] ask opposition figures what their specific job is, what they do, where they take money from, who puts money in their suitcases, who are the couriers, where this money goes. If you [opposition figures] do not answer, we will." Lukashenka stressed that the newly elected legislature should include representatives of all groups aside from "businessmen, merchants, and capitalists." JM

The leaders of pro-government groups in the Verkhovna Rada decided at a meeting on 14 April to field Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych as their joint candidate in the presidential election slated for 31 October, Interfax reported, quoting Stepan Havrysh, coordinator of the parliamentary pro-government coalition. "There were no long discussions, and the decision was made unanimously," Havrysh said, adding that the meeting was attended by Yanukovych and President Leonid Kuchma, along with the leaders of the Agrarian Party, the Popular Democratic Party, the Party of Regions, the Industrialists and Entrepreneurs/Labor Ukraine caucus, the Social Democratic Party-united, the Democratic Initiatives group, the Popular Choice group, and the People's Power group. The decision seems to indicate that President Kuchma will not seek a third term, an option made possible for him by a ruling of the Constitutional Court in December (see "RFE/RL Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine Report," 20 January 2004). JM

President Kuchma told Interfax on 14 April that he believes constitutional reforms aimed at transferring some powers from the president to parliament and enhancing the role of the prime minister will be implemented before the presidential election scheduled for 31 October. "When I looked carefully at the results of the [8 April] vote, I was once again convinced that parties should work in politics and not among the amorphous associations of deputies, even if they are called factions," Kuchma said. "The opponents of reform, their behavior, and their arguments show us again that when Ukraine's democratic future is on one scale and the phantom of power is on the other, they very cynically choose the phantom of power." Kuchma did not explain how such reforms might pass in light of the abortive vote on a constitutional-reform bill on 8 April (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 13 April 2004). JM

Verkhovna Rada speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn said on 14 April that parliament will not return to the constitutional-reform bill (No. 4105) that was voted down on 8 April, Interfax reported. "I cannot find words to describe the cynical attempt to misinterpret some facts," Lytvyn said, alluding to allegations that he submitted not bill No. 4105 but a different piece of draft legislation for the 8 April vote (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 13 April 2004). "Everyone knew perfectly well that they were voting on this document [No. 4105]," Lytvyn stressed. Lytvyn claimed that the magnetic voting cards of five absent deputies were used in the 8 April vote, adding that the constitutional-reform bill was therefore supported by 289 votes, not 294, as initially reported. JM

The parliament approved by a vote of by 51 to three with no abstentions on 14 April a resolution extending the stay of Estonian troops in Iraq and neighboring countries until June 2005, BNS reported. Twenty-four other deputies from both the ruling coalition and opposition parties registered their attendance at the session, but did not take part in the vote. The parliament approved the sending of up to 55 soldiers to serve for one year in the Persian Gulf region last May by a vote of 69 to one with two abstentions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 May 2003). Opposition Pro Patria Union deputy Trivimi Velliste said that it was important to extend the mission, adding, "If we are trustworthy allies today, then tomorrow and the day after tomorrow our allies will also be loyal to us." Center Party deputy Juri Shehovtsov, who voted against the resolution, noted similarities between Estonia's occupation by the USSR and the current situation in Iraq, and said that the Iraqi people should decide their future by themselves. SG

Rihards Piks said in an interview with the Latvian Russian-language daily "Vesti Segodnya" that although he does not expect Russia's relations with Latvia to become better immediately, "I am sure that an improvement of political relations will definitely take place. Economic relations are developing well, mutual trade is up and we are happy," BNS reported on 14 April. He said that Latvia is one of the countries with the closest cultural cooperation with Russia and the recent decision to postpone the Russian Culture Days in Latvia, which were scheduled to be held this year, was based on financial and technical, not political reasons. SG

Acting President Arturas Paulauskas vetoed on 14 April the amendments to the presidential-election law the parliament had adopted the previous day, ELTA reported. The amendments, proposed by opposition Homeland Union deputy Vytautas Landsbergis, but receiving backing from the ruling coalition, were clearly aimed at preventing recently impeached former President Rolandas Paksas from running for president again. The amendments charge the Central Election Commission with recommending to a person ousted from presidential office for violating the constitution not to seek the post again. They also state that the commission should inform this person that Constitutional Court rulings are final and not subject to appeal, and the violations remain permanent grounds "for launching an impeachment process at any time." In his veto decree, Paulauskas said that the amendments contradict the constitution, and the work of the Central Election Commission is to organize elections and not to issue recommendations to candidates. SG

The Ipsos polling agency concluded based on a recent survey that Andrzej Lepper's populist, radical Self-Defense party would receive 25 percent of the vote if parliamentary elections were held today, PAP reported on 14 April. The poll also found that the Civic Platform would be backed by 23 percent of voters, the Law and Justice by 15 percent, and the League of Polish Families and the Polish Social Democracy by 11 percent each. The ruling coalition of the Democratic Left Alliance and the Labor Union could count on 7 percent support. Meanwhile, in an interview published by the "Zycie Warszawy" daily on 14 April, Andrzej Lepper praised Adolf Hitler's employment policies. "In the beginning of his activities, Hitler had a really good program," dpa quoted Lepper as saying. "If he wouldn't have gone in the direction of fascism and genocide, he would really have gotten Germany on its feet." JM

Poland's Roman Catholic bishops called on the faithful in an open letter to take active part in the elections to the European Parliament slated for 13 June, PAP reported. "As believers and Europeans, we have the full right to give a testimony of our faith also in public life as the Bible commands us," the bishops wrote. JM

European Parliament member Caroline Jackson (Conservative, United Kingdom) asked Czech Commissioner Pavel Telicka during hearings in the European legislature on 14 April to explain his past membership of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, AP reported. The request came during hearings on the 10 acceding countries' commissioners. "Everyone has a right to make mistakes," Telicka told MEP Jackson, adding, "What is important is what comes after them." He said he now believes in "individual freedom, private ownership, social security, and solidarity." Spanish Socialist Party MEP Manuel Medina Ortega protested Jackson's having raised the subject, saying the European parliament includes Spanish conservatives with a "past linked to dictatorship" but that no one ever asked them such questions. CTK suggested that Telicka left a general good impression on the forum. MS

On the eve of the first visit to communist China by a Czech head of state, Prague was reportedly forced to cancel a lucrative deal with China for the sale of its advanced Vera radar system, dpa reported on 14 April, citing the daily "Mlada fronta Dnes." The report said the deal was canceled due to fears of souring relations with the United States. The Czech-made Vera system is reportedly capable of detecting U.S.-made stealth aircraft. China was expected to pay some $38 million for six Vera systems. Czech President Vaclav Klaus departed overnight on 14-15 April for an 11-day visit to China. MS

Skinhead leader Jaroslav Broz was sentenced by a western Bohemian court on 14 April to five years in prison for supporting Nazism, fascism, and racism, according to CTK. Broz was found guilty of organizing the distribution of Nazi propaganda and of music whose lyrics were deemed to incite hatred. Broz immediately appealed his sentence. Four of Broz's co-defendants received three-year probation sentences. MS

Gabriel Karlin, a parliamentary deputy for the opposition People's Party-Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (LS-HZDS) was officially charged on 14 April with taking a bribe, TASR and CTK reported. Karlin's parliamentary immunity was lifted in November and he was subsequently remanded in custody (see "RFE/RL Newsline, 26 November and 1 December 2003). Milan Mraz, a former public official in Banska Bystrica, was charged on a similar count. Karlin and Mraz were detained after allegedly demanding a 500,000 ($15,000) bribe for awarding a construction contract to a local company, which complained to police. MS

Ruling Socialist Party deputy Edit Herczog told "Nepszabadsag" on 14 April that she will submit a motion to parliament to lift the current ban on the public use of the red star. Herczog argued that after its European Union accession on 1 May, Hungary will be the only state in the union that bans the use of this communist symbol. Last week, the Hungarian branch of the antiglobalization organization ATTAC launched a drive to collect signatures against the ban on communist symbols. The petition was launched after Attila Vajnai, deputy chairman of the extreme-left Workers' Party, was detained by police on 4 April for wearing a red star on his coat at a public gathering. Youth and Sports Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany and Socialist deputy Zita Gurmai have also signed the petition. Gurmai said she wanted to point out that "there is a difference between the swastika and the red star." According to a law passed in 1993, displaying the symbols of left- and right-wing dictatorships is punishable by a fine of the equivalent of several hundred dollars. MSZ

According to preliminary results of the 14 April presidential elections announced by the State Election Commission, Prime Minister Branko Crvenkovski of the Social Democratic Union (SDSM) garnered some 42.9 percent of the votes, MIA reported. About 34.5 percent of those casting their ballots voted for Sasko Kedev of the nationalist opposition Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE); 14.3 percent for Gezim Ostreni of the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI); and 8.3 percent for Zudi Xhelili of the opposition Democratic Party of the Albanians (PDSH). Voter turnout was 55.44 percent, thereby easily passing the 50 percent hurdle necessary for the ballot to be valid. Crvenkovski will face Kedev in a second round on 28 April, where the ethnic Albanian votes might be decisive. Many observers were surprised by the relatively strong showing by Kedev, who is little known and did not perform as well in pre-election opinion polls (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 March and 13 and 14 April 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 2 and 9 April 2004). UB

Serbia's governing coalition picked Finance Minister Dragan Marsicanin on 15 April to be its presidential candidate in the 13 June elections, Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 April 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 21 November and 12 December 2003, and 20 February 2004). Marsicanin is a member of Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) and a former speaker of the parliament. His strongest opponent in the June race is Tomislav Nikolic of Vojislav Seselj's Serbian Radical Party (SRS), who won the most votes in the failed 16 November elections. Either opposition Democratic Party candidate Boris Tadic or Marsicanin is likely to face Nikolic in a second round. The presidential post is largely ceremonial, but the ballot is widely seen as an important test of political sentiment. By using strong nationalist rhetoric over Kosova and agreeing to pay many expenses of Serbian indicted war criminals in The Hague, the government has sought in recent weeks to outbid Nikolic in appealing for the nationalist vote. There is no longer a 50 percent hurdle for the ballot to be valid. PM

Serbia and Montenegro's President Svetozar Marovic presented his proposed new cabinet on 14 April, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. Vuk Draskovic will be foreign minister, Prvoslav Davinic defense minister, and Predrag Ivanovic minister for foreign economic relations. The parliament must approve the cabinet before it can take office. PM

The top officials of the Bosnian state, Croat-Muslim federation, and the Republika Srpska signed a document in Sarajevo on 14 April pledging to increase cooperation with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, local media reported. The signatories also called on all indictees to turn themselves in voluntarily. Improved cooperation with the tribunal is a prerequisite for Bosnia's Euro-Atlantic integration and an essential step in overcoming the divisions of the 1992-95 conflict. Elsewhere, Republika Srpska police raided several buildings in Pale and Bijeljina to thwart alleged efforts to hide or aid indicted war criminals. Among the buildings searched were the Pale offices of Radio Sveti Jovan, which was founded by Sonja Karadzic, the daughter of indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic. NATO-led peacekeepers have previously searched the radio's offices on several occasions, but this the first time that Bosnian Serb police have done so. It is not clear whether the latest searches led to any concrete results (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 January 2004). PM

President Ion Iliescu said on 14 April that Romania is not considering withdrawing its contingent from Iraq "but we shall make our decision jointly with the international community," Mediafax reported. Iliescu said that if the coalition forces were to withdraw their troops from Iraq, the move would "generate anarchy and trigger a process that would be very dangerous and difficult to control." The Supreme Council for National Defense is meeting on 15 April to discuss the situation in Iraq and measures to improve the security of the 1,500-strong Romanian military contingent serving in that country. Meanwhile, the Senate's Standing Bureau approved on 14 April extending to 20 June the mandate of Senator Simona Marinescu as special Romanian representative for social problems on the Coalition Provisional Authority. In related news, the BIDEPA private security company said on 14 April it is withdrawing its employees from Iraq. One BIDEPA guard was killed and another was wounded on 11 April, in an ambush near Al-Hillah, not far from Baghdad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 April 2004). MS

Afghan Deputy Defense Minister Baz Mohammad Jowhari announced on 14 April that Romania has donated light weapons and ammunition to Afghanistan, Mediafax reported. The donation includes some 1,500 Kalashnikov automatic rifles, 200 R-PK machine guns, and dozens of RPG-7 rocket launchers. MS

President Iliescu on 14 April said he regrets that the issue of where to build the National Redemption Cathedral has been turned into a political dispute, Mediafax reported. The Romanian Orthodox Church wants the cathedral to be built in Carol Park in Bucharest, replacing a mausoleum built there by the communist regime for prominent members of the party's leadership. Bucharest Mayor Traian Basescu is opposed to the location and intends to challenge the government decision to remove the mausoleum in court, saying the building is part of Romania's national heritage. A team of prominent architects also spoke up against the cathedral, mainly on the grounds that its huge proportions would destroy the park. Iliescu said that in making a decision on the issue, what should count is the opinion of experts and not political considerations. According to Romanian media reports on 15 April, the demolition of the mausoleum began the previous day. MS

Russian First Deputy Chief of the General Staff Colonel General Yurii Baluevskii on 14 April told journalists in Moscow that the blame for the halt in the evacuation of Russian military equipment from Transdniester must be placed on Moldova, Flux reported on 14 April, citing Interfax. Baluevskii said that the withdrawal process was stopped after Chisinau at the last moment refused to sign on 25 November the so-called Kozak memorandum on the country's federalization "because something [in that plan] was not to the liking of some OSCE gentlemen." As a result, he said, the authorities in Transdniester refused to allow the continuation of the withdrawal, after 50 percent of the arsenal had been evacuated. Baluevskii said that in the new situation, "I would not venture any concrete date for finalizing the withdrawal." MS

The government commission charged with overseeing the privatization of the RED Nord and the RED Nord-Vest electricity distributors on 14 April canceled the tender for the companies' privatization, Infotag reported. The decision was prompted by the fact that Russia's Unified Energy Systems (EES) was the only bidder that submitted a bidding price to the commission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 April 2004). MS

Sergey Stanishev, the chairman of the opposition Socialist Party (BSP), on 14 April accused the government of "inadequate behavior" during the recent violent clashes between coalition forces and Shi'a insurgents in Karbala, Iraq, and other regions, reported. Stanishev said Prime Minister Simeon Saxecoburggotski again went into hiding during a crisis, and that his ministers did the same. Chief of General Staff General Nikola Kolev complained earlier that he was unable to reach Defense Minister Nikolay Svinarov following the recent upsurge of violence in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 April 2004). Stanishev called Svinarov's disappearance "unacceptable and cynical," and lauded President Georgi Parvanov's and General Kolev's actions during the crisis. However, Stanishev argued against Parvanov's proposal that parliament review the mandate for the Bulgarian contingent in Iraq, which could allow Bulgaria to participate in combat operations. He said the Bulgarian troops in Iraq are not prepared for antiterrorist operations and that the functions of the contingent are clearly described as upholding order in Karbala. UB

Kemal Eyup, the deputy chairman of the governing Movement for Rights and Freedoms (DPS), said on 14 April that the mandate of the Bulgarian contingent in Iraq should be changed, reported. Eyup said the government should consider sending more troops, including police forces, to Iraq and to make the contingent's mandate a "peace-enforcing" rather than a peacekeeping mandate. Eyup also demanded that communication among the coalition forces be improved. UB

The bitter standoff between the Armenian leadership and the opposition is entering a new and unpredictable phase fraught with the specter of more violence. The brutal dispersal early on 13 April of thousands of peaceful demonstrators in Yerevan dealt a heavy blow to President Robert Kocharian but is unlikely to prevent further challenges to his rule, whose legitimacy the Armenian opposition questions.

The Armenian opposition, smarting from the worst crackdown to date on its activities, has vowed to continue its campaign for regime change and plans to resume its anti-Kocharian rallies on 16 April. Whether its supporters will again be directed toward the presidential palace remains unclear. Much will depend on the size of the crowd, which should signal whether ordinary Armenians unhappy with their government have been intimidated by the early-morning mass beatings and detentions unleashed by security forces or goaded by such official actions.

That the use of force was aimed at not merely dispersing the demonstrators but injuring and terrifying as many of them as possible seems obvious. More than 10,000 people mobilized by the opposition Artarutiun bloc and the National Unity Party (AMK) walked up the city's Marshal Baghramian Avenue leading to the presidential palace on 12 April. They were stopped by hundreds of riot police lined up behind two rows of razor wire about 200 meters away from Kocharian's residence. They never attempted to break through the cordon throughout the eight-hour standoff.

There were still between 2,000 and 3,000 protesters on the street when the attack began at 2 a.m. local time. Within minutes, truncheon-wielding special police and deafening stun-grenade explosions sent them fleeing toward a key intersection in downtown Yerevan. But their escape route was blocked by other police units, which joined in the indiscriminate beating.

Even journalists were not spared the violence. Three of them, including a photographer for a leading Armenian daily and a cameraman for Russia's ORT television station, were severely beaten and had their cameras smashed by police. This writer had to seek refuge in the backyard of a nearby private home along with about 30 fleeing protesters, elderly men and women among them; at least two men had ghastly wounds to their faces, and one of them fainted at one point. His companions did not dare summon an ambulance for fear of exposing the hideout.

The orgy of beatings was accompanied by the ransacking of the offices of the main opposition parties. There has been no official explanation of that extraordinary measure. According to the Armenian police, 115 people, including three members of parliament, were arrested that night, although most were released in the next 24 hours. Kocharian and his senior allies have justified the crackdown by accusing the opposition of planning the "violent overthrow of constitutional order." They have warned that any further attempts to force them out of power will be countered with similar steps. But the opposition has said the authorities themselves violated Armenia's constitution by rigging last year's presidential and parliamentary elections.

The joint Artarutiun-alliance and National Unity Party (AMK) rallies in Yerevan, which began on 9 April, were not big enough to seriously threaten the ruling regime, which effectively blocked the roads leading to the capital to reduce attendance at the opposition demonstrations. But its heavy-handed response suggests that Kocharian fears the kind of snowball effect that set off the November "Rose Revolution" in neighboring Georgia in the wake of reputedly fraudulent parliamentary elections. The success of the Georgian uprising, hailed by the West, clearly inspired the Armenian opposition.

Yet the West's reaction to the latest events in Armenia has been markedly different. In what some observers interpret as a gesture of support for Kocharian, the U.S. State Department issued a cautiously worded statement on 13 April expressing regret over the mass arrests and calling on "both sides" to embark on a "dialogue." Washington commented on neither the police response to the peaceful demonstration nor the increasingly dangerous conditions in which Armenian journalists operate.

The Council of Europe has reacted in a similar fashion, with its secretary-general, Walter Schwimmer, complaining that information coming out of Armenia is "incomplete and conflicting." Schwimmer has a permanent representative in Yerevan, Natalia Voutova, but she has kept a low profile throughout the crisis, remaining silent even after Armenian authorities renewed the wholesale arrest of opposition activists earlier this month under the country's Soviet-era Code of Administrative Offenses. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has repeatedly expressed "shock" at authorities' arbitrary enforcement of that code during and after the February-March 2003 presidential elections.

There has been no official reaction so far from the European Union, which pledged recently to pay greater attention to political reform in the South Caucasus. The Yerevan-based ambassadors of the largest EU member states urged Kocharian last week to exercise caution in dealing with the opposition protests.

The dramatic developments in Armenia highlight the root cause and the principal source of long-term political instability in that country: the absence of an effective mechanism for the democratic rotation of power among the main political groups. None of the national elections held there since independence have been judged free and fair by the international community. The only regime change the country has had in the last 13 years resulted from government infighting, not the expression of popular will.

Any dialogue between the government and the opposition is highly problematic under such circumstances. For the latter, the path to state power lies along Marshal Baghramian Avenue rather than at polling stations. As long as this remains the case, Armenia will not be immune to political upheavals.

An estimated 200 people demonstrated in Kabul on 14 April to condemn Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai and some of his key advisers, AFP reported the same day. The protesters said they oppose Karzai's stated willingness to negotiate with moderate elements within the ousted Taliban regime. Chanting "Death to Taliban and their supporters in the government," the demonstrators charged that Karzai and some of his ministers are supporting the Taliban. The protestors called for the removal of Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, Interior Minister Ali Ahmad Jalali, and Afghan central bank Governor Anwar al-Haq Ahadi, all of whom are ethnic Pashtuns, dpa reported on 14 April. The main organizer of the rally, Latif Pedram, who also heads the newly established National Congress Party, accused Ghani and Jalali of organizing a "plot" against Herat Province Governor Mohammad Ismail Khan and northern Afghan warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 25 March and 14 April 2004). Dostum's representative in Kabul, Akbar Bai, claimed that Karzai is trying to remove all non-Pashtun figures from government positions through his "fascist" ministers, and demanded, "Karzai himself should resign from his position," dpa reported. AT

Three Afghan soldiers were killed at a military outpost in Khost Province on 14 April, dpa reported, citing a report the next day by Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press. Unidentified gunmen reportedly attacked the Shinkay region outpost during the night. Local authorities, while reportedly confirming the attack, refused to provide further details. AT

The head of security in the city of Kandahar, General Mohammad Salem, was wounded in an explosion on 14 April, Hindukosh News Agency reported the same day. The blast, apparently triggered by remote control, also injured two of Salem's bodyguards and one civilian bystander. Gol Mohammad Parwani, who is in charge of security for Kandahar Province, said eight suspects have been detained. The identities of the suspects have not been revealed. AT

Afghan-government security forces, in cooperation with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), arrested a Hizb-e Islami military commander on 13 April, Hindukosh News Agency reported the next day. Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, along with neo-Taliban and Al-Qaeda elements, are regarded as the main threat to peace and stability in Afghanistan by Afghan authorities and their foreign backers. Canadian commander Chris Henderson, a spokesman for ISAF, declined to identify the arrestee, adding, "Suffice to say that he is suspected to be senior.... But it is important to us that we don't reveal all the details that we learn when a raid like this occurs," "The Washington Times" reported on 15 April, citing AP. The suspect "was deemed to be an imminent threat to the people of Kabul, international aid workers, and personnel from the United Nations and the peacekeeping contingent," Henderson added. AT

Parliamentary speaker Hojatoleslam Mehdi Karrubi said on 14 April that he is glad the Iranian legislature did not approve a parliamentarian's resignation request, IRNA reported. Some 120 parliamentarians submitted their resignations in February to protest the Guardians Council's rejection of incumbents' candidacies for the parliamentary elections, and to date the resignations of Tehran representatives Mohsen Armin and Fatemeh Haqiqatju and Urumiyeh representative Mahmud Yeganli have been accepted (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 16 February and 22 March 2004). The legislature rejected Isfahan representative Rajabali Mazrui's resignation, however. One hundred seventy-four of 194 parliamentarians in the chamber voted on this; 98 would need to vote in favor for acceptance, but only 92 did so. Seventy-seven voted against his resignation, and five abstained. BS

Nearly three months after its grand inauguration by President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami and other Iranian and foreign dignitaries, the Imam Khomeini International Airport remains unusable, Radio Farda reported on 14 April. Construction of the facility cost some $500 million, but the work is substandard and the airport does not conform to international standards, the station reported. The original engineers quit after the Foundation of the Dispossessed and Disabled (Bonyad-i Mostazafan va Janbazan) took over management of the project. The foundation changed many of the original specifications, so that now the runways must be repaved, neither the electrical power nor the runway lighting function properly, and the aircraft-refueling equipment is inadequate. BS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in a 14 April speech in Tehran that "an alien power" invaded Iraq in order to fill the pockets of oil companies "and the Zionists," state radio reported. He went on to say that nobody is inciting Iraqis to acts of violence. "There is no need for anyone to incite the Iraqis," he said, adding, "You [Americans] yourself are the biggest and the filthiest inciters of the Iraqi nation." Khamenei said U.S. policy in Iraq is like Israeli policy in Palestine. In an apparent reference to the closure of Muqtada al-Sadr's "Al-Hawzah" newspaper that disregarded the nearly 100 press closures in Iran, Khamenei said, "They close down newspapers. They ban the press." He predicted, "Sooner or later, the Americans will leave Iraq in wretchedness and humiliation." Khamenei said the Iraqi people can facilitate this through unity and reliance on Islam, and by heeding the clerical authorities. BS

An anonymous "senior State Department official" said on 14 April that the United Kingdom invited a delegation of Iranian officials to visit Iraq in an effort to reduce tensions there, AFP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 April 2004). "Obviously, we did not object," the source added, going on to say that Washington did not ask London to invite the Iranians. "Since Iran does have some influence with the Shi'a community, we hope they would make clear that they are not in any way supporting violence or confrontation and that, in fact, they are supporting the authority of the central government," the source said. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher also denied that Washington asked for Iranian mediation, but he did acknowledge the recent dispatch of messages to Tehran, AFP reported. BS

Iranian presidential adviser Mohammad Shariati said in a 14 April interview with Qatar's Al-Jazeera satellite television that Tehran's intermediary activities in Iraq are not directly related to a request from the U.S. State Department. "Our intervention is not based on the U.S. request," he said. He went on to explain Tehran's reasons for acting at this time and in such a public fashion. "We wanted the world to know our role in solving the problems," Shariati said. "America had prevented us from doing so. Britain was more understanding of the peaceful Iranian role in solving the problems. Now it [the United States] has dropped its objection." Shariati said Iran does not want to interfere in Iraqi affairs, but it "must not leave Iraq and its people alone in their ordeal." "Iran believes the U.S. behavior is wrong," he said. BS

An anti-coalition militant group has killed one of four hostages it is holding in Iraq, international media reported on 14 April. Al-Jazeera reported receiving a statement and a videotape of the execution, carried out by the group alternatively identified in media reports as the Mujahedin Battalion and the Green Battalion. Al-Jazeera refused to broadcast the tape, deeming it "too bloody." "When your president says pulling the troops out of Iraq is non-negotiable, then this means he does not care for the safety of his citizens as much as he is concerned with satisfying his masters in the White House," the militant group said in a statement. "We have killed one of the four hostages we have in order to teach a lesson to those who are involved. We know they are guards working for the American occupation in our country," the group added. The statement said that the fate of the remaining three hostages depended on Italy's decision to stay in Iraq. Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi said this week that Italy would not pull out of Iraq. KR

The Japanese government is still working to confirm information that two more Japanese nationals have been abducted in Iraq, Jiji Press reported on 15 April. The three Japanese kidnapped last week were freed on 15 April, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 April 2004). Their captors had threatened to burn the three alive by 11 April unless Japan pulled its troops out of Iraq. Word of the latest kidnappings came in the form of an e-mail from an Iraqi who was with the two men when they were taken hostage. AP reported on 15 April that 22 foreigners are currently being held captive in Iraq. KR

A French journalist who spent three days in captivity before his 14 April release told France 2 television that his captors, whom he described as Saddam Fedayeen, constantly moved him around the country. Alexandre Jordanov said that he believes different groups were strongly united in their resistance to the coalition. "In all the villages to which they took me, everyone knew everybody else. All these fighters, even when members of different groups, are very, very united," he said. "Practically the entire country is involved in the resistance. Out in the countryside at any rate. And I have seen the countryside, from the desert to the outskirts of Najaf." Jordanov said that he believes he was released because of the human rapport he had established with the members of the Islamic Party, which was the last group to hold him captive. KR

UN special adviser Lakhdar Brahimi told a 14 April press briefing in Baghdad, broadcast on Al-Jazeera, that he was able to meet with a wide range of Iraqis despite constraints on his movement due to the security situation throughout the country. He added that he will make recommendations to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the shape of an interim Iraqi government "only after my return to Iraq and after holding more consultations with more people in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country." "We are confident that such a government can be formed in a timely manner...during the month of May 2004," he added. "This government will be led by a prime minister and will include ministers who are Iraqi men and women known for their honesty and efficiency. There should be a president for the state who is assisted by two deputies." Brahimi also called for the holding of a national conference to "serve the all-important aim of promoting national dialogue, consensus building, and national reconciliation in Iraq," according to the transcript of the briefing posted on the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) website ( KR