BESLAN TRAGEDY SHAVES TWO POINTS OFF PUTIN'S APPROVAL RATING
A survey by the Levada Analytical Center found that President Vladimir Putin's monthly approval rating fell to 66 percent in September, its lowest level in the past four years, newsru.com and Ekho Moskvy reported on 22 September. Only the sinking of the "Kursk" submarine in August 2000 triggered a steeper fall, to 60 percent. In August, Putin's approval rating was 68 percent; in July it was 72 percent. Yurii Levada told Ekho Moskvy that the steady decline in Putin's rating "is continuing despite all the upheavals that normally make people yearn for authoritarian leadership." In a survey of 1,600 respondents conducted by the center from 10-13 September, 56 percent said they believe the authorities have told them only part of the truth about what happened during the Beslan school hostage taking, according to levada.ru. Seventy-one percent said they favor a thorough investigation of the tragedy and that the results of the investigation should be widely reported by the media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 September 2004). JAC
DUMA REJECTS BILLS TO CRITICIZE GOVERNMENT ON SECURITY AND TO LIFT DEATH-PENALTY MORATORIUM...
The State Duma on 22 September rejected a motion presented by the Motherland faction that would have described the government's efforts to ensure national security as "unsatisfactory," RIA-Novosti reported. Only 55 deputies voted in favor of the motion. Deputies also rejected a motion sponsored by Motherland and the Communist Party that would have ended Russia's moratorium on the death penalty and instituted it for acts of terrorism, the news agency reported. Motherland Party head Dmitrii Rogozin admitted that the death penalty is no deterrent to potential suicide bombers, but said that it could be effective against those who order, organize, and finance terrorist acts. Deputies also voted down a Motherland proposal that would have required the legislature to draft a bill on regulating the possibility of instituting direct presidential rule in the country, ITAR-TASS reported. RC
...AND CREATES COMMISSION ON NORTH CAUCASUS
The Duma also voted on 22 September to create a new North Caucasus Commission, to be headed by Deputy Speaker Vladimir Katrenko (Unified Russia), polit.ru reported on 23 September. The commission will study the social, economic, and political situation in the region and prepare legislative initiatives intended to improve conditions there. The commission will have 18 members, 10 from Unified Russia, three from the Communist Party, two from the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), two from Motherland, and one independent deputy. RC
FOREIGN COMPANIES MAKE INROADS INTO NATURAL-GAS SECTOR
French oil major Total announced on 22 September that it will buy a 25 percent-plus-one-share blocking stake in Novatek, Russia's largest independent natural-gas producer, for an estimated price of about $1 billion, Russian media reported on 23 September. A few hours later, state-controlled natural-gas giant Gazprom announced that it has signed a memorandum of understanding with U.S. oil giant ChevronTexaco on gas-sector cooperation, including the likely joint development of the Shtokman Arctic gas fields and the provision of natural gas to U.S. markets, "The Moscow Times" reported on 23 September. The daily reported that the Shtokman development is likely to cost $10 billion to $15 billion. Although Gazprom continues to dominate Russia's natural-gas sector, the significance of Novatek in the sector will likely increase with the participation of Total, "Vremya novostei" commented on 23 September. Novatek is Russia's second-largest gas producer, accounting for about 25 percent of the country's non-state natural-gas production, "Vremya novostei" reported. RC
YUKOS CHAIRMAN SAYS STATE TRYING TO FORCE COMPANY INTO BANKRUPTCY
Yuganskneftegaz, the main production subsidiary of embattled oil giant Yukos, announced on 22 September that it is cutting back production because Tyumenenergo, a subsidiary of the state-controlled electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems (EES), has cut off electricity supplies because of payment arrears, Interfax reported. The company said it will cut production by about 35,000 barrels per day, but that the cuts could be made deeper if electricity is not restored. Yukos has been battling with the government for months for authorization to use its frozen bank accounts to finance operating costs. Last week, Yukos announced that it will cut oil supplies to China because it cannot pay the associated rail-transportation costs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 September 2004). Yukos Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko told "Kommersant-Daily" on 22 September that Yukos will not declare bankruptcy despite state pressure. "The main goal that is now before the state structures is to bring Yukos to bankruptcy and to transfer its assets to Rosneft or Gazprom," Gerashchenko said. The only state official besides President Putin who has publicly stated that Yukos's bankruptcy is not in the interests of the state is Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin, "whom I consider an incompetent bureaucrat," Gerashchenko said. RC
DEPOSIT-INSURANCE SYSTEM OFF TO SLOW START
The new system of deposit insurance for individual accounts in Russian banks came into effect on 21 September and the first 26 participating banks have been determined, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on 22 September. Under the system, participating banks will pay 0.6 percent of their total insured deposits to the Central Bank's Deposit Insurance Agency and individual deposits up to 100,000 rubles ($3,340) will be fully insured, "Vedomosti" reported on 22 September. Central Bank Deputy Chairman Andrei Kozlov said that more banks will join the system in the immediate future. The 26 banks participating so far represent just 1.4 percent of all individual deposits in Russia, the daily reported, as virtually none of the leading consumer-services banks have been approved so far. Kozlov said that banks are being accepted in the order that their applications were received and that smaller banks are able to prepare the necessary documentation more quickly. Bank of Moscow Vice President Andrei Krasnov told the daily that his bank did not apply until June because it wanted to understand fully how the system would work and what verification processes would be used. Kozlov said the Central Bank has received 1,137 applications so far. "Rossiiskaya gazeta" said the review of those applications should be completed by the end of March. RC
EX-WIFE UNABLE TO IDENTIFY BODY OF HUSBAND WHO WAS BEATEN TO DEATH BY SECURITY FORCES
The former wife of Aleksandr Pumane, who died on 18 September after being interrogated by security officials for three hours in connection with an alleged plot to explode one or more car bombs in Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 September 2004), was reportedly unable to identify his badly disfigured body, "Izvestiya" reported on 23 September. Natalya Pumane arrived in Moscow from St. Petersburg on 22 September but, despite being in the morgue for more than half an hour, was unable to identify the unrecognizable corpse that authorities say was her former husband. An unidentified source close to the investigation told the daily that at least 150 security officers were involved in the interrogation of Pumane. Natalya Pumane was accompanied to the morgue by a representative of the Moscow prosecutor's office, which is investigating the case on charges of abusive of authority and manslaughter. "Rossiiskaya gazeta" speculated on 22 September that there might not have actually been any terrorist plot but that Pumane might have been set up by security agents who wanted to take credit for "solving" the crime. RC
BEREZOVSKII FACES NEW CRIMINAL CHARGES
The prosecutor's office in Moscow Oblast has issued an international arrest warrant for Boris Berezovskii, the former oligarch now living in self-imposed exile in London, Russian news agencies reported on 22 September. Moscow Oblast prosecutor Ivan Sydoruk told Interfax that his office has charged Berezovskii with large-scale fraud involving abuse of office and exceeding his official powers. Berezovskii is suspected of acquiring a plot of land and a dacha for his daughter, Yekaterina Berezovskaya, through an illegal privatization. Berezovskii told Ekho Moskvy that the decree privatizing the land and property was signed by then President Boris Yeltsin, and therefore that the real target of the criminal investigation is the former president. This is only the latest arrest warrant to be issued by Russian prosecutors for Berezovskii, who was granted political refugee status in Britain in September 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 and 15 September 2003). JAC
POLICE DETAIN DOZENS FOR PROTESTING IN KALMYKIA
Police detained 106 people for taking part in an unauthorized rally against Kalmykia President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov, ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 September 2004). A criminal case has been launched against one of the rally's organizers, Valerii Badmaev, leader of the Extraordinary Congress of the Peoples of Kalmykia. NTV reported on 22 September that local police in Elista, the capital of Kalmykia, used force to break up the demonstration, and quoted witnesses who said police were beating people who were lying on the ground. One woman told the station that she was not part of the protest, but simply walking by, when she was hit on the head with a truncheon. Kalmykia's chief prosecutor, Sergei Khlopushin, said the use of force by special forces troops was "justified" and broke no laws, according to ITAR-TASS. According to NTV, Khlopushin also said that there were no injuries among protestors but that two policemen were hurt. Newly appointed presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitrii Kozak told Ekho Moskvy that mass rallies in Elista are unacceptable and will be stopped. JAC
RUSSIA'S SECOND CITY GETS NEW PROSECUTOR
Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov appointed Sergei Zaitsev on 22 September as prosecutor for St. Petersburg, fontanka.ru and RosBalt reported. According to RosBalt, Zaitsev has spent the last four years working as a prosecutor for the Chavash Republic and has also served as a prosecutor in Tatarstan, where he attended university. Zaitsev told reporters that St. Petersburg does not deserve its moniker, "banditskii Petersburg," and should not be considered the country's crime capital, because "nothing happens, including contract murder, that doesn't happen in other large cities." JAC
LOCAL EXECUTIVE WINS LEGAL VICTORY
A court in Gorno-Altaisk dismissed a criminal case on 22 September against Atlai Republic President Mikhail Lapshin that charged him with failing to provide replacement housing for the victims of last year's earthquake quickly enough, ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 August 2004). Lapshin's lawyers told the court that the new housing is almost finished and that earthquake victims who lost their homes had been given temporary housing, the agency reported. Lapshin told NTV that the court's decision was "absolutely correct" and that he is considering filing a defamation lawsuit against the prosecutor's office. The prosecutor's office said that it will appeal the decision to the republic's Supreme Court, lenta.ru reported. Lapshin faces reelection in December. JAC
RUSSIANS INDIFFERENT TO UKRAINIAN PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION
A survey of 1,500 Russia citizens by ROMIR Monitoring found that only 12 percent can identify at least one candidate running in Ukraine's presidential election, scheduled for 31 October, newsru.com reported. In the survey, which was conducted from 12 to 17 August, 27 percent said they didn't think a win by any of the candidates would benefit Russia. Seven percent said a win by Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, the heir-apparent to Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma, would benefit Russia the most (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," 31 August 2004). JAC
TWO MORE PURPORTED PUTIN ALLIES TAKE MANAGEMENT POSITIONS AT NTV
The shareholders of NTV have elected a new board of directors for the channel, "Gazeta" reported on 21 September. Among the new additions was Konstantin Chuichenko, who represents Gazprom on the board, and Anton Ivanov, who represents Gazprom-Media and who is president of the Seven Days publishing group. Both Chuichenko and Ivanov studied at Leningrad State University's law department at the same time that presidential-administration head Dmitrii Medvedev studied there. Ivanov has served in the St. Petersburg branch of the federal Justice Ministry, while Chuichenko served in the prosecutor's office and in the security organs, the daily reported. In July, Tamara Gavrilova, who studied at the Leningrad State University law school with President Putin, was made NTV first deputy general director. At the time, "Novaya gazeta" television critic Yelena Afanaseva told lenta.ru that NTV has been pursuing a policy of filling senior management slots with St. Petersburgers connected with Putin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 July 2004). RC
KAZAKH KILLED IN MOSCOW WAS NOT A DIPLOMAT
Ibragim Dzhumaliev, a 52-year-old Kazakh citizen, was shot dead near his Moscow home on 22 September by an unknown gunman, RIA-Novosti and other Russian media reported on 23 September. Initial media reports asserted that the Kazakh Embassy had confirmed that Dzhumaliev was member of its diplomatic mission. However, the Kazakh Foreign Ministry on 23 September issued a statement saying that he was formerly a representative of the Astana mayor's office but that he was not a Kazakh state employee at the time of his death. Dzhumaliev was struck by two of five shots fired from a pistol that was apparently equipped with a silencer, the news agency reported. Police are investigating the killing and no possible motives have been made public. RC
NEW PRESIDENTIAL ENVOY TO SOUTH RUSSIA OUTLINES PRIORITIES
Former Russian presidential-administration head Dmitrii Kozak, who was named earlier this month as presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, told Chechen government officials, police, and security personnel in Grozny on 22 September that his priorities are to improve socioeconomic conditions throughout the region by targeting corruption and the embezzlement of budget funds, and to improve the work of the various law-enforcement agencies by stamping out the existing rivalry between them, Russian media reported. Noting that frequently police and security personnel focus primarily on creating problems for each other, he reminded them that "your real opponents are those who are now hiding in the mountains," meaning the Chechen resistance, ITAR-TASS reported. LF
ARMENIAN FOREIGN MINISTER IMPLIES KARABAKH SETTLEMENT ENTERING NEW PHASE
Meeting last week on the sidelines of the CIS summit in Astana (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 September 2004), the presidents of Armenia and Azerbaijan discussed, but failed to reach agreement on, proposals prepared by the two countries' foreign ministers during four rounds of talks in recent months, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told a press conference in Yerevan on 22 September, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Oskanian said he will not meet again with his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov until the two presidents either approve or suggest amendments to those proposals and issue clear instructions to embark on a second, "more serious" phase of talks. Oskanian declined to confirm or deny a report that one of the proposals in question is for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from some of the seven Azerbaijani districts they currently occupy in return for an internationally supervised referendum on independence for the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. LF
PACE CALLS FOR RELEASE OF AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION LEADERS
The latest report by the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) monitoring committee for Azerbaijan calls for the immediate release of seven Azerbaijani opposition leaders currently on trial for their alleged participation in clashes in Baku on 15-16 October between police and opposition supporters in the wake of the disputed presidential election, Turan reported on 22 September. The report, which is to be formally debated on 5 October during the PACE autumn session in Strasbourg, also calls for the release of several lower-level opposition supporters who were arrested and jailed for protesting election irregularities and falsifications. It also expresses concern over incidences of oppression and intimidation, citing the country's failure to release political prisoners, the eviction of opposition parties from their offices, and the dismissal of the popular and influential leader of Baku's Djuma Mosque. LF
AZERBAIJANI RADICALS' JAIL TERMS COMMUTED
Azerbaijan's Appeals Court on 22 September ruled in favor of shortening the prison sentences handed down last month to six members of the Karabakh Liberation Organization (QAT), Turan reported. The six men were sentenced to between three and five years' imprisonment for their participation in a protest against the presence at a NATO-sponsored conference in Baku of two Armenian military officers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23, 24, and 25 June and 30 August 2004). The Appeals Court commuted the original sentences to suspended sentences of between one and three years' imprisonment. Azerbaijani dailies on 23 September quoted QAT Chairman Akif Nagi as expressing dissatisfaction with the court ruling, Turan reported. He said he will appeal to have the guilty verdict annulled. LF
AZERBAIJANI-TURKISH DEBT DISPUTE RESOLVED
Lawyers for the Azerbaijani Agriculture Ministry and the private Turkish company Saka Korkmaz Pazarlama have reached agreement on the repayment of the former's outstanding debt to the latter, zerkalo.az reported on 23 September (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 6 September 2004). Under the agreement, Saka Korkmaz Pazarlama has reduced, by an unspecified amount, its financial claims on the ministry, which will pay its debts in cash. In return, the Azerbaijani aircraft and merchant vessels impounded in Turkey will be released. LF
ABKHAZIA, SOUTH OSSETIA REJECT GEORGIAN PRESIDENT'S PEACE PLAN...
Senior officials in the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia on 22 September categorically rejected a new set of proposals for resolving Georgia's ongoing conflict with the two republics announced the previous day by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili during his address to the UN General Assembly, Georgian media and ITAR-TASS reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 September 2004). Abkhaz presidential aide Astamur Tania said none of the points in Saakashvili's proposal, even the proposed "broad autonomy with wide ranging powers," is acceptable to Abkhazia, which, he stressed, is an independent state. Similarly, Murat Djioev, foreign minister of the Republic of South Ossetia, said that South Ossetia "will under no circumstances become part of a Georgian state," ITAR-TASS reported. Djioev also said that the conflicts between the Georgian central government and South Ossetia and Abkhazia "are in no way internal Georgian conflicts." LF
...RENDERING NEW ATTACK ON SOUTH OSSETIA MORE LIKELY?
In two separate analyses published on 18 and 22 September, Stratfor argued that the deployment of several thousand Georgian troops to the country's internal border with South Ossetia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 September 2004), and the recent creation of a unified military command for those troops, suggest that a new Georgian offensive against South Ossetia is imminent, and that President Saakashvili is simply awaiting the most advantageous moment to launch it. Stratfor suggested that the primary Georgian objective will be to occupy Tskhinvali, the South Ossetian capital, after which the remaining South Ossetian fighters will retreat to the mountains to wage a guerrilla war. It predicted that North Ossetia is too preoccupied with the aftermath of the Beslan hostage siege to send volunteers to its co-ethnics in Georgia, especially since Russian intelligence sources anticipate further Chechen attacks in North Ossetia. Stratfor said that Russia, too, would be reluctant to provide assistance to South Ossetia in the event of a Georgian assault. But Georgian and Russian allegations that Chechen militants have taken refuge in South Ossetia could serve as the pretext for a counterstrike by Russia against South Ossetia. How accurate such a strike would be, and whether Moscow is prepared to endanger the lives of South Ossetians to "prove" to the international community that Tbilisi cannot prevent "international terrorists" from using its territory, remains to be seen. LF
GEORGIAN POLICE DISPERSE PROTEST AGAINST REGIONAL OFFICIAL
Police in Tbilisi used force on 23 September to disperse a protest by 37 members of President Saakashvili's National Movement who began a hunger strike outside the state chancellery two days earlier, Caucasus Press reported. The hunger strikers were calling for the resignation of Imereti Governor David Mumladze, whom they accuse of corruption. They were forced on to buses and transported outside the city limits. The opposition New Rightists also called on 21 September for the dismissal of Mumladze, who retaliated by accusing that party of acting on behalf of criminals threatened by the ongoing crackdown on corruption, Caucasus Press reported. LF
KAZAKH ELECTION COMMISSION DISPUTES OSCE ASSESSMENT
Kazakhstan's Central Election Commission (CEC) announced in a 22 September press release that it does not agree with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) critical assessment of parliamentary elections that took place on 19 September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 September 2004). The press release followed a 21 September meeting between CEC head Zagipa Balieva and OSCE representatives, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Noting that the CEC has carefully studied past OSCE election reports, the press release disputed the OSCE's conclusions. The OSCE, according to the release, declined to take part in preparatory meetings on electronic voting yet criticized the process as secretive, accused the CEC of lacking transparency even though OSCE representatives were invited to "all CEC events," and inaccurately assessed the significance of Kazakh opposition leaders. Nevertheless, the CEC said that it hoped for "further constructive and bilateral cooperation to perfect our country's election legislation." DK
KYRGYZ PRESIDENT, CHINESE PREMIER MEET IN BISHKEK
Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev met with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jaibao in Bishkek on 22 September, akipress.org reported. The two leaders discussed trade cooperation, security issues, and the possibility of jointly constructing hydropower stations along Kyrgyzstan's Naryn River. Akaev also hailed the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) -- a meeting of SCO prime ministers begins in Bishkek on 23 September -- saying, "The creation of the SCO, which China initiated, was a timely and wise decision." For his part, the Chinese prime minister described the fight against terrorism as the core issue in security cooperation between China and Kyrgyzstan, Kyrgyzinfo reported. Wen said, "We must continue to strengthen our cooperation in the fight against terrorism, taking concrete and effective measures to ensure the security of human life and property in our two countries." DK
TAJIKISTAN RELEASES 10 FORMER UNITED TAJIK OPPOSITION FIGHTERS
Vladimir Sotirov, head of the United Nations' Tajikistan Office of Peace-Building, announced on 21 September in Dushanbe that Tajik authorities have released 10 former fighters of the United Tajik Opposition (UTO), Asia Plus-Blitz reported the next day. The 10 were part of a group of 103 former UTO fighters who Democratic Party leader Mahmadruz Iskandarov said should have been freed in the post-civil-war amnesty. Sotirov said that the 10 were released after the Prosecutor-General's Office determined that they had been arrested illegally. He added, "Another 50 people on the list were never detained at all, according to the Prosecutor-General's Office. The rest were arrested for crimes committed after the amnesty." The UTO was a key player in the 1992-97 civil war. DK
TURKMENISTAN PUTS 2004 CONSTRUCTION CONTRACTS AT $4.5 BILLION
Turkmenistan concluded $4.5 billion in construction contracts with 76 foreign firms from January to July 2004, turkmenistan.ru reported on 22 September. Turkey led the list, with 27 Turkish firms receiving $1.7 billion in contracts. Ukrainian construction companies received $876 million, French companies $458 million, and German companies $343 million. Other contracts were given to companies from Iran, China, and Russia. DK
EXTREMISM TRIALS CONTINUE IN UZBEKISTAN
Eighteen alleged religious extremists went on trial in Uzbekistan's Kashkadarya Oblast on 20 September, bringing to 47 the number of people on trial in the area, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on 22 September. The 18, who are all reportedly residents of Qarshi, were arrested after violence broke out in Tashkent and Bukhara in late March and early April. They are charged with membership in the banned extremist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir, carrying out propaganda activities, and attempting to overthrow the country's constitutional system. A relative of one of the accused told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the defendants maintain their innocence, but some of the lawyers representing them are not even trying to defend them in court. Thirty-one defendants went on trial on similar charges in Kaskadarya Oblast in early September. Two have already received 14-year prison terms. DK
DO BELARUSIAN AUTHORITIES WANT TO BAN MAJOR OPPOSITION PARTY?
Vintsuk Vyachorka, leader of the opposition Belarusian Popular Front (BNF), told Belapan on 22 September that officials from oblast executive committees have begun conducting unscheduled inspections of the party's local offices. Vyachorka said the inspections began on 21 September and that oblast officials were only visiting party cells located in election districts where BNF candidates have been fielded for the 17 October parliamentary elections. Moreover, Justice Minister Viktar Halavanau has demanded that the BNF turn over all records connected to its party convention on 21 August, at which candidates were nominated for the elections. According to the BNF, the authorities intend to "de-legalize" the convention and paralyze the party's activities in the run-up to the parliamentary ballot and presidential referendum on 17 October. Vyachorka did not rule out the possibility that the authorities are trying to liquidate the party altogether. The BNF evolved from the Belarusian Popular Front for Revival, an opposition organization that emerged in 1988. JM
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT SACKS DEFENSE MINISTER
President Leonid Kuchma said in Pavlovhrad on 22 September that he has accepted the resignation of Defense Minister Yevhen Marchuk, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Kuchma made the announcement during a visit to a local chemical plant, one of three plants in Ukraine capable of recycling ammunition. Kuchma suggested that Marchuk has failed to deal properly with the large stores of Soviet-era ammunition that threaten the country's security. "Today I accepted the resignation of Marchuk because everything that is being done here [at the Pavlovhrad plant] is not being done in a way that is acceptable for the state," Interfax quoted Kuchma as saying. Parliamentary speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn commented the same day that he was completely surprised by Marchuk's resignation. "Today Marchuk was presenting a bill [in the Verkhovna Rada] and nothing has heralded [his] decision [to step down]," Lytvyn told journalists. JM
UKRAINIAN SECURITY SERVICE PROBES YUSHCHENKO'S ALLEGED POISONING
Prosecutor-General Hennadiy Vasylyev told journalists on 22 September that the recently opened criminal investigation into the alleged attempt on opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko's life has been transferred to the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU), Interfax reported. "The SBU is conducting an investigation," Vasylyev said. "It is necessary to be patient and wait." Vasylyev added that investigators have established contacts with Austrian doctors who examined Yushchenko and are trying to gain the doctors' cooperation in the investigation. Last week, Yushchenko's campaign manager, Oleksandr Zinchenko, suggested Yushchenko's recent health crisis might have been caused by deliberate poisoning (see End Note). The same day, Yuriy Kostenko, leader of the Ukrainian Popular Party in Yushchenko's Our Ukraine bloc, told Channel 5 television that Yushchenko was poisoned with ricin. "We know when and how this [poisoning] happened and who is behind it," Kostenko said. "All this operation to poison presidential candidate Yushchenko was carried out not by foreign spies, but by our [compatriots] from the Ukrainian corridors of powers." JM
UKRAINE'S TOP PROSECUTOR SAYS 'MELNYCHENKO TAPES' WERE DOCTORED
Prosecutor-General Vasylyev told journalists on 22 September that his office has opened an investigation into the fabrication of evidence -- the so-called "Melnychenko tapes" -- in the case of slain journalist Heorhiy Gongadze, Interfax reported. Vasylyev referred to a recent government-sponsored examination of Melnychenko's recordings, which implicate President Kuchma and other top officials in Gongadze's killing. That examination established that the tapes had been altered and the voices recorded on them cannot be identified (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 September 2004). Vasylyev said investigators do not know who manipulated the Melnychenko tapes -- which were given to the Prosecutor-General's Office by Socialist Party leader Oleksandr Moroz -- and he confirmed the official position that they cannot be accepted as evidence in the Gongadze case. JM
CROATIAN PRESIDENT SAYS HE HOPES FOR EU MEMBERSHIP BY 2008
Following two days of online interviews with users of RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Language Service's website, Croatian President Stipe Mesic told RFE/RL in person on 22 September that he hopes that his country will join the EU in 2008 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 22 September 2004). He noted that Croatia has shown its readiness for EU membership in a number of ways, including by making substantial progress in improving relations with its neighbors in recent years. Mesic said that some problems still remain, such as defining the Croatian-Slovenian maritime border, ending the presence of soldiers on the Serbian side of the Croatian-Serbian Danube frontier, and launching additional mutually beneficial infrastructure projects with Bosnia-Herzegovina. Asked about the current discussion in Croatia about its fascist past, Mesic replied that he finds it odd that there are still people who look back to World War II as a source of something positive. He noted, however, that such people constitute only "marginal groups...who are in no position to threaten Croatia's road to Europe and its democratization." PM
BOSNIAN LEADER WARNS UN OF A 'HISTORIC TEST'...
Sulejman Tihic, who is the Muslim member and chairman of the Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, told the UN General Assembly on 22 September that "Europe and the world [face] a historic test" in helping preserve his country's multiethnic character, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. He argued that Bosnia "for hundreds of years has been a multiethnic country" where many diverse communities have lived together "for the most part in peace and tolerance" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 September 2004). Tihic noted that Bosnia has made great progress since the end of the 1992-95 conflict and has even taken part in six UN-sponsored peacekeeping missions. But, he added, the Republika Srpska's failure to cooperate with the Hague-based war crimes tribunal has led to NATO's refusal to admit Bosnia to the Partnership for Peace program even though that country has met all other criteria for membership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 June 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 28 May 2004). PM
...AND CALLS FOR CHANGES
Speaking to the UN General Assembly on 22 September, Presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina chairman Tihic criticized some unnamed fellow Bosnians for lionizing indicted war criminals and called for an end to such practices, Deutsche Welle's Bosnian Service reported. He also slammed the constitutional and administrative system set down by the 1995 Dayton peace agreements as "complicated, unworkable, and expensive," arguing that his country must now leave the "Dayton phase for the Brussels phase" aimed at European integration. Tihic nonetheless warned against any attempt at changing Bosnia's current frontiers. He noted that his country plans to carry out de-mining work in Iraq and "actively takes part in the international antiterrorist coalition." In closing, Tihic announced Bosnia's candidacy to become a nonpermanent member of the UN Security Council for the 2010-11 session. PM
INTERNATIONAL MEDIATOR SAYS BOSNIA'S CONSTITUTIONAL STRUCTURE MUST CHANGE
Christian Schwarz-Schilling, who is the outgoing international mediator in Bosnia-Herzegovina, said in Sarajevo on 22 September that Bosnia must simplify its constitutional and administrative structure if it expects to join the EU, Hina reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 October 2003 and 24 June 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 5 September 2003). He called the administrative structure "irrational and complicated," noting in particular the confusion over the division of authority between the cantons and municipalities in the Croat-Muslim Federation. Turning to the issue of Kosova's future, Schwarz-Schilling said that the province's final status must be settled in a referendum, the Austrian news agency APA reported. Also in Sarajevo, Wolfgang Schaeuble, who is the deputy chief of the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU/CSU) faction in the German parliament, said that "when Europe convinces the rest of the world that it is capable of solving its [sic] problems in the Balkans by itself, we will also have a stronger role for [the EU] than for the UN in Kosovo" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report, 5 March, 9 July, and 17 September 2004). Schaeuble nonetheless criticized the proposal by Germany's opposition Free Democratic Party for setting up a EU protectorate in Kosova on the grounds that the elites in the region would use such an arrangement to dodge responsibility for dealing with their own important problems. PM
MINISTER IN SERBIA AND MONTENEGRO SAYS HE HAS RECEIVED DEATH THREATS
Serbia and Montenegro's Minister for Human Rights and Minority Rights Rasim Ljajic, who also chairs the National Council for Cooperation with the Hague Tribunal, told Reuters on 23 September that he has received death threats recently, adding that police have stepped up protection for him. "The police told me that certain people are ready to give money to liquidate me," Ljajic said. He added: "I take these threats very seriously. The police have informed me officially, and this is not [just] some kind of rumor." Ljajic would not speculate as to who might be behind the threats or why, saying that "there are many motives that could lead to potential assassins." He has not established himself abroad as a champion of serious cooperation with the tribunal. On 22 September, the three Montenegrin members of his nine-member council decided to leave that body to protest what they called its failure to take steps toward the extradition of several indicted war criminals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 13 September 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 9 May 2003). Speaking in New York, Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic said that his country's position in eventual talks on the final status of Kosova will be "very difficult" if Belgrade does not carry out its obligations toward the tribunal, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported. PM
POACHING REMAINS SERIOUS ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEM IN SERBIA
Croatian customs officials at the Sid-Tovarnik border crossing with Serbia recently found a cargo of "thousands" of small birds in a truck bound for Italy, London's "The Independent" reported on 23 September. The daily quoted unnamed environmentalists as saying that the birds, which included some rare species, were destined for Italian restaurants and were worth "tens of thousands of euros." Aleksandar Tadic, of Serbia's Society for the Protection of Wild Birds, said recently that it is "obvious that our state is [not working] to halt this kind of criminal activity." PM
FORMER PREMIERS OF ITALY AND ALBANIA DIVIDED OVER PROBLEMS IN MACEDONIA
Former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato said in Skopje on 22 September that the situation in Macedonia is better than most of its citizens believe, "Utrinski vesnik" reported. Alluding to fears that a planned referendum against the government's redistricting plans could destabilize the country, Amato added that Macedonians must be more confident regarding their future and less afraid of the past (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 3, 11, and 17 September 2004). Amato said the fact that Macedonia will join NATO some time soon is a form of insurance. The main problems for Macedonia, according to Amato, are a very low industrial growth rate, high unemployment, and bureaucratic obstacles that deter would-be investors. Former Albanian Prime Minister Ilir Meta told the same Skopje daily that he is concerned about the possible consequences of the referendum, adding that if it succeeds, the ethnic Macedonians could use it to block other improvements for the Albanian minority, too. Amato and Meta were part of an international commission that held high-level talks in Macedonia to draft a report on the situation there in connection with Macedonia's hopes of joining the EU (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 13 February 2004). UB
ROMANIA SETS UP WATCH GROUP ON BORDER AREA WITH UKRAINE...
According to a Romanian government press release, Prime Minister Adrian Nastase decided on 22 September to set up a watch group made up of representatives of the Interior, Foreign, and Environment ministries to constantly monitor events in the Danube Delta area where Ukraine is building the controversial Bystraya deep-water shipping canal, Rompres and Mediafax reported. Nastase also called on government officials to urgently begin setting up the Romanian-Ukrainian joint border commission, in line with the bilateral treaty on state borders. He also asked for a thorough report on the situation in the Danube area, in order to decide on measures to "restore legality." Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana warned his Ukrainian counterpart Kostyantyn Hryshchenko on 21 September that Romania will remove the buoys placed on the Romanian side of the Danube, if Ukraine does not do so itself (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 September 2004). ZsM
...AS GEOANA DISCUSSES ISSUE WITH U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER
During their 22 September meeting in New York, Romanian Foreign Minister Mircea Geoana and U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice discussed, among other issues, developments in the Bystraya canal, Mediafax reported, citing a Foreign Ministry release. The two also discussed bilateral relations, and foreign-policy issues, including the situation in Iraq. According to the release, Rice appreciated Romania's contribution to the multinational force in Iraq, and Geoana reaffirmed Romania's special interest in the reconstruction process in Iraq. Referring to the Transdniester conflict, Geoana called for a stronger European and U.S. involvement in supporting Moldova's "stability and security, democratic development, and European destiny." ZsM
HUNGARIAN MINISTER SAYS ROMANIAN GOLD MINE PROJECT A THREAT
Speaking before parliament in Budapest on 22 September, Hungarian Environment Minister Miklos Persanyi said Hungary has to use international legal norms to act against the planned gold mine in western-central Romania near Rosia Montana, Mediafax reported, citing a Hungarian MTI news agency report. Persanyi said the primary means of stopping the project, which he said poses an environmental threat to Hungary, is Romania's future EU membership. "Hungary's responsibility is to draw attention to the project" at the international level, "but Romanian authorities will make the final decision," he added. Persanyi recently visited the site where the Romanian-Canadian company intends to invest $400 million. The open-air mine is to use cyanide-based technologies. In January 2000, a cyanide spill from a gold mine in northern Romania spread through several European rivers, causing serious environmental damage. ZsM
VORONIN: MOLDOVA'S EUROPEAN INTEGRATION IS 'ABSOLUTE PRIORITY'
During a 21 September meeting in Chisinau, Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin told visiting German parliamentarian Claudia Nolte that Moldova's European integration is an "absolute priority" for the government, BASA-Press reported on 22 September, citing a Moldovan presidential office press release. Voronin said Moldova is to sign an action plan with the EU and is currently negotiating the draft of a Moldovan-EU trade agreement. He emphasized the importance of EU members' support in achieving Moldova's aspirations, also calling on the EU to consider Moldova's integration separately from that of Belarus and Ukraine. Meeting with Reintegration Minister Vasilii Sova, Nolte called for the EU's direct involvement in settling the Transdniester conflict, adding that the EU "should not rely exclusively on the OSCE in the settlement process." ZsM
POISONING IMPAIRS UKRAINIAN OPPOSITION CANDIDATE'S ELECTION CAMPAIGN
Two weeks ago, leading opposition presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko stopped his election tour of Ukrainian regions and "disappeared" from the political arena in Ukraine. The first news as to what happened to the Our Ukraine leader came a week later, when his personal website (http://www.yuschenko.com.ua/) announced on 13 September that Yushchenko had recovered from a bout of "acute poisoning" and was getting ready to continue his election campaign trips. Yushchenko's spokeswoman, Iryna Herashchenko, was quoted as saying that Yushchenko was in good physical condition.
Oleksandr Zinchenko, Yushchenko's campaign manager, caused a sensation on 17 September by announcing that Yushchenko's recent health disorder may have resulted from an intentional attempt on his life. Zinchenko quoted doctors from a clinic in Vienna, who examined Yushchenko, as saying that Yushchenko's disease was caused by "a viral infection and chemical substances that usually are not contained in foodstuffs." Since the examination in Vienna was made six days after the poisoning, Zinchenko added, it proved impossible for the doctors to identify what "chemical substances" might have been involved.
Ukrainian independent media have since somewhat elucidated the circumstances of Yushchenko's unexpected and mysterious ailment. Yushchenko fell ill on 6 September, suffering from an acute headache and pains in his abdomen, chest, and face the following day. His facial nerves were paralyzed. Ukrainian doctors diagnosed his illness as gastric flu and prescribed relevant treatment. Yushchenko's physical condition deteriorated, however, and his election staff decided to send him for an examination to the Rudolferhaus clinic in Vienna, where he arrived on the evening of 9 September. Austrian doctors diagnosed Yushchenko's illness as acute pancreatitis -- inflammation of the gland that secretes digestive enzymes as well as the hormones insulin and glucagon to the stomach -- and concluded that it could not be caused by food poisoning alone. Ukrainian surgeon Mykola Korpan, who works in Rudolferhaus, told the "Ukrayinska pravda" website on 20 September that Yushchenko's condition had been "stabilized" by Rudolferhaus doctors. Korpan added that the disease posed a direct danger to Yushchenko's life.
Yushchenko returned to Kyiv on 18 September to take part in a large rally organized by his election staff under the motto "Come and Listen." The Kyiv rally was broadcast by Channel 5, the only television channel in Ukraine backing Yushchenko's presidential bid, and transmitted live to big screens in a number of Ukrainian cities where Yushchenko's supporters gathered for local "Come and Listen" meetings. People were reportedly shocked or at least embarrassed to see Yushchenko looking so deathly ill, with a visibly swollen and half-paralyzed face. In addition, he had difficulties reading his text and frequently resorted to using his handkerchief because of excessive salivation. What was planned as a triumphant return of Yushchenko to the election campaign, apparently turned into a grave advertising miscalculation. Rumors, kindled by the government-controlled media, have begun to circulate in Ukraine to the effect that Yushchenko has suffered an apoplectic stroke or a heart attack that may have lasting consequences for his physical and mental abilities. Instead of a feeling of compassion for Yushchenko as a potential victim of poisoning by his political adversaries, people may have developed the suspicion that their candidate is unfit for the post he aspires to.
According to some commentators, Yushchenko's election staff made a serious mistake by publicizing the allegations about a deliberate attempt on his life too late, just a day before the rally in Kyiv. Besides, instead of clearly delineating who might be interested in liquidating Yushchenko, his campaign manager, Zinchenko, resorted to publicizing physiological aspects of the candidate's illness, thus baffling rather than enlightening ordinary voters. What's more, Zinchenko supplied the government-controlled media with ammunition to present Yushchenko's alleged poisoning as a farcical incident rather than a potentially lethal one.
A majority of Ukrainians remained ignorant about Yushchenko's real condition on 18 September, when state-run and oligarchic media began to issue sarcastic reports suggesting that Yushchenko suffered from poisoning from some exotic food or just alcohol. "I would recommend checking food before consumption in order to avoid stomach problems," Vasyl Baziv, deputy head of the Ukrainian presidential administration, told journalists on 17 September, thus establishing the tone of official comments on Yushchenko's condition. "Let Zinchenko taste the food first, before Yushchenko begins to eat it.... That's what rulers did in the Middle Ages," Baziv added.
It is perhaps characteristic of the atmosphere of the presidential election campaign in Ukraine that none of Yushchenko's 25 rival candidates has expressed public sympathy with Yushchenko or wished him a quick recovery. Instead, the general mood among Yushchenko's adversaries seems to have been defined by marginal presidential candidate Yuriy Zbitnev, who publicly advised that Yushchenko should request that a paramedic give him an enema in order to overcome his health problems.
Yushchenko's staff apparently understood their mistake -- and potential damaging effects of this mistake to Yushchenko's standing as a presidential candidate -- on 21 September. On this day Our Ukraine's lawmakers demanded that the Verkhovna Rada form a special commission to investigate the reasons behind Yushchenko's health crisis. More than 400 lawmakers in the 450-seat legislature supported this measure. And the message that Yushchenko sent to his electorate on 21 September was unambiguously clear. "I am not a gourmand relishing in Eastern or Western cuisines," Yushchenko said in the Verkhovna Rada. "I eat the same borsch, potatoes, and pork fat as you, as 47 million people in Ukraine.... What happened to me is not linked to a food problem. What happened to me is a problem linked to the political regime in Ukraine."
On the other hand, the Prosecutor-General's Office on 20 September begun a separate inquiry into the public allegations that Yushchenko's recent ailment may have been caused by deliberate poisoning. For the next several weeks, the problem of Yushchenko's health is set to dominate the presidential election agenda in Ukraine. It remains to be seen who will win this propagandistic duel -- Yushchenko or his main rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych.
It is already evident, however, that Yushchenko has irrevocably lost two weeks of campaigning, which may gravely impair his presidential bid. Because of the blockade of positive information about Yushchenko in state-controlled and oligarchic media, his election campaign was built on regional tours and direct meetings with voters. The schedule of these meetings has now been seriously disorganized, and Yushchenko's election staff seems presently to be at a loss how to proceed. Moreover, it is not clear whether Yushchenko's health will allow him to continue his election trips. The doctors said they have "stabilized" his condition, but they did not say that they have ensured his recovery.
AFGHAN PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE SETS ELECTION PLATFORM
Mohammad Yunos Qanuni, a candidate in the presidential elections scheduled for 9 October, outlined his future plans for Afghanistan in a speech in Kabul on 21 September, Afghanistan Television reported. Qanuni, regarded as the strongest challenger to Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai, said that his main objective in running for president is "to establish a doctrine for a new Afghanistan." Emphasizing the Islamic character of the country, Qanuni said that the second-most-important characteristic of the new Afghanistan would be "stability and security." "Another characteristic of the new Afghanistan will be the independence of Afghanistan," Qanuni said, adding that as president he would adopt a "policy of nonpolitical and nonmilitary affiliation" with other states. He was not clear on his short-term policy regarding the presence of international military forces in Afghanistan. In his speech, Qanuni also focused on Afghanistan's apalling economic situation, saying that he would try to eliminate hunger and reduce poverty. Qanuni did not mention his rivals in the presidential race, nor did he touch on the reports that he is engaged in negotiations with Karzai to form a coalition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 September 2004). AT
THIRD U.S. CASUALTY IN SOUTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN REPORTED
According to a press release by the U.S. Defense Department (http://www.defenselink.mil) on 22 September, a U.S. solider was killed on 20 September in Naka "when his observation post was fired on by anti-coalition militia forces." Naka (Nika) is situated in Paktiya Province. In a separate incident on 20 September in Paktika Province, south of Paktiya, two U.S. soldiers were killed in action (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 September 2004). "We have had an unfortunate day," Major Scott Nelson, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said on 22 September, referring to the incident two days earlier, AFP reported. In addition to the three deaths, Nelson said that 14 U.S. soldiers and six members of the Afghan National Army sustained injuries in several engagements in southeastern Afghanistan on 20 September. AT
KARZAI SECURES RELEASE OF U.S. DETAINEES...
During his trip to the United States to attend the UN General Assembly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 September 2004), Chairman Karzai secured the release of 11 Afghan prisoners held at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, international news agencies reported. According to a press release from the office of Karzai's spokesman, the 11 men were detained by U.S. forces in Afghanistan "on suspicion of having links with the Taliban," Radio Afghanistan reported on 22 September. The released detainees said that they will participate in the reconstruction of their country, the report added. The released prisoners include Na'im Kuchi, a former commander under the Taliban regime, Reuters reported on 22 September. The U.S. Defense Department provided no details on the 11 Afghans, citing "operational and security considerations." Karzai has been trying to woo "moderate" members of the Taliban regime ahead of the presidential elections, while U.S. President George W. Bush is "keen to see the [Afghan] elections on time so that he can hold up Afghanistan as a foreign policy success story," Reuters commented. AT
...AS ONE DEMANDS COMPENSATION
One of the prisoners released from U.S. detention, Bader Zaman Bader, has demanded that the United States compensate him for three years of his life spent in custody, China's Xinhua news agency reported on 22 September. Bader said that he has a "right" to demand compensation since he "was innocent and the U.S. military failed to prove any charges" against him. According to the report, Bader is the first Afghan prisoner released from U.S. custody who has demanded compensation from the United States. AT
IRANIAN PRESIDENT CRITICIZES LEGISLATION AFFECTING FOREIGN CONTRACTS...
President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami told reporters on 22 September that parliamentary approval of legislation that affects the executive branch's ability to sign contracts with foreign firms would paralyze the government and impose high costs, IRNA and Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 September 2004). "This will cost the country billions of dollars," Reuters quoted him as saying. "I find it completely against the national interests." He added, according to IRNA, "Approval of the bill is likely to be against the constitution and identical to interfering with the responsibilities of the executive power by the legislative branch." BS
...AND LAUNCHES NEW ACADEMIC YEAR
President Khatami launched the new academic year in Iran with a 22 September speech in which he said his administration has done all it can to correct shortcomings in the educational sector, state radio reported. Khatami then posed four presumably rhetorical questions: "What is the relationship between intellectual development, freedom, equality, and ethics in our expected Mahdavi system [A perfect system to come at the time of the advent of the 12th Shi'a imam] and what is the role of human awareness and resolve in creating this system?" "How is Mahdaviyat defined in divine religions, especially Judaism, Christianity, and Zoroastrianism?" Khatami's third question: "What lessons can we learn from the Constitutional Movement, the oil-nationalization movement, and the great Islamic Revolution? What did the great people of Iran want? And what did they achieve?" His final question: "What has been the role of reform in the past 150 years in our country? What are the setbacks and achievements of reform?" If there were any answers to these questions, state radio did not provide them. BS
IRANIAN HEALTH SECTOR CONTENDS WITH INADEQUATE BUDGET
The World Health Organization has welcomed Iran's AIDS control program, Minister of Health, Treatment, and Medical Education Masud Pezeshkian told visiting Kyrgyz Health Minister Mitalip Mamytov on 22 September, IRNA reported. Pezeshkian added that 70 percent of deaths in Iran are caused by noncontagious diseases, such as accidents, cancer, and heart problems. Hussein Husseini, who is a member of the legislature's Health and Treatment Committee, said in Noshahr on 12 September that only 5-5.5 percent of the gross national product is spent on health care, IRNA reported, and none of the foreign-exchange reserve has been spent on it. He added that even the budgeted amount has not been spent properly. Deputy Health Minister Mohammad Ismail Akbari said in a letter to the Management and Planning Organization that because of the unexpectedly low budget allocation in the last quarter of the Iranian year, many planned programs were shelved, IRNA reported on 11 September. He added that the health budget should be raised to 7.5 percent of gross domestic product. Budget shortfalls are affecting epidemiology, family planning, emergency care, and disease control, Akbari said. BS
IRANIAN JOURNALIST'S FATHER RELEASED FROM JAIL
The authorities released Said Motallebi, the father of Netherlands-based Iranian journalist Sina Motallebi, on 19 September, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) reported two days later (http://www.rsf.fr/article.php3?id_article=11384; on Motallebi's arrest, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 20 September 2004). Motallebi is forbidden from having any contact with international organizations or the press, according to RSF. BS
IRAQ RELEASES IRANIAN BUSINESSMEN AFTER TWO MONTHS
Mohammad-Mehdi Teimouri, Masud Zareh, Yusef Muhseni, and Qasem Salehi -- Iranian businessmen arrested by Iraqi and U.S. troops on 18 July -- were released on 22 September, IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 17 August 2004). Teimouri said he and his colleagues were held in Baghdad and their Iraqi captors beat them frequently. Teimouri said the four were asked why they were in Iraq and were accused of espionage, and he cited a memorandum of understanding on cultural cooperation as proof of their innocence. BS
MINISTER: IRANIAN INTERFERENCE IN IRAQ CURTAILED
Iraqi Defense Minister Hazim Sha'lan al-Khuza'i said that Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs, which can be "documented by figures," has fallen since Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih visited Tehran, "Al-Hayat" reported on 22 September (on Salih's visit, see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 31 August 2004). The reduction in interference, he said, includes fewer border violations. Some of those who enter Iraq from Iran are religious pilgrims, while "others are trying to join in acts of sabotage or smuggling." The Iraqi defense minister added that support for radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has fallen since he lost his backing from the Qom-based Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 13 September 2004). BS
IRAQI PREMIER REFUSES TO RELEASE PRISONERS AT TERRORISTS' DEMAND
Iraqi authorities have said they will not release prisoners to meet the demands of a group that is holding a British hostage after killing his two American co-workers, international media reported on 23 September. A video appeared on an Islamic website the same day showing Kenneth Bigley begging for his life and calling on British Prime Minister Tony Blair to heed the terrorists' demands for the release of all female captives in Iraq. Bigley, a engineering contractor, was kidnapped on 18 September along with two American co-workers by the group Al-Tawhid wa Al-Jihad, which is led by suspected Al-Qaeda member Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. Although Justice Minister Malik Duhan al-Hassan suggested that some of the female captives may be released (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 September 2004), other U.S. and Iraqi officials denied the possibility. Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said, "We have not been negotiating and we will not negotiate with terrorists on the release of hostages." Allawi added that he has the final say on the release of any prisoner, AP reported. According to the U.S. military, the only women it is holding are two former scientists under Saddam Hussein. Final authority over the two rests with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, according to a U.S. official cited by CNN on 23 September. EA
NATO TO INCREASE ROLE IN IRAQ
NATO reached an agreement on 22 September to increase training for Iraqi security forces, international media reported on 23 September. The agreement was stalled by concerns that the training programs were tantamount to contributing troops, a move opposed by a number of NATO members. Under the plan, a military academy will be established and several hundred more instructors will be sent to join the 50 NATO instructors already working in Iraq, "The Washington Post" reported on 23 September. France, Germany, Belgium, and Spain said they would not contribute personnel to the training program, which will be led by the U.S. Army. EA
AL-ZARQAWI AIDE REPORTEDLY KILLED IN MISSILE STRIKE
According to family sources in Jordan, Umar Yussif Jum'ah, a senior adviser and supporter of Jordanian militant Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, was killed in a U.S. air strike, Reuters reported on 23 September. Jum'ah, who is also known as Abu Annas al-Shami, issued fatwas and religious commentary that were heeded by al-Zarqawi and his followers. In one commentary, Jum'ah ruled that beheadings were consistent with the teachings of Islam. Jum'ah was reportedly hiding amongst the Zouba tribe, which has been accused of sheltering anti-U.S. insurgents. EA
IRAQI SHI'A LEADER EXPRESSES CONCERN OVER ELECTIONS
Senior Iraqi Shi'a cleric Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani is deeply concerned that the planned January elections will be delayed, "The New York Times" reported on 23 September. According to al-Sistani aides, the cleric contacted former UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi to voice his concerns. Al-Sistani is worried that the process is being disproportionately determined by parties headed predominantly by exiles, which have chosen to cooperate with U.S. authorities. "If he sees that what this is leading to is unfair and unfree elections, then he will not take part in it,'' an al-Sistani aide said. "He will declare the elections to be illegitimate." Brahimi representatives confirmed their contact but did not disclose their conversation. EA
IRAQI AIRLINES RESUMES INTERNATIONAL FLIGHTS
Iraqi Airlines, the national carrier, resumed international service on 18 September, AFP reported on 21 September. The first flight, between Baghdad and Amman, did not have any passengers because the flight was announced too late for tickets to be sold, airline spokesperson Fathi Nassar said. Licensing disputes and security concerns had delayed the resumption of service, originally scheduled for August. Iraqi Airlines had been limited to erratic service due to international sanctions following the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 and the imposition of a no-fly zone in the north of the country. International service is currently planned to Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Syria. EA