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Newsline - December 29, 2005

During talks in Moscow on 28 December, Russia and Ukraine failed to agree on the price of natural gas supplies, RIA-Novosti reported the same day, citing Ukrainian Fuel and Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov. Speaking to reporters after meeting with his Russian counterpart, Viktor Khristenko, Plachkov said some progress has been made and that "compromises are possible." Talks are scheduled to resume on 29 December in an effort to reach a deal before the 1 January deadline. Prior to the 28 December talks, Plachkov expressed confidence saying: "We will reach a deal. Everything will be fine." Also on 28 December, Gazprom CEO Aleksandr Medvedev denied claims by Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov that Gazprom owes Ukraine 1.5 billion cubic meters of natural gas, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. BW

The Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia Aleksii II said on 28 December that the Russian Orthodox Church is not seeking the status of a state church, ITAR-TASS reported the same day citing an interview on the BBC World Service. "The widespread opinion that the Russian church is seeking to get the status of a state church, which can be heard especially often in the West, is untrue," Aleksii said. "History teaches us that a status of that kind may overburden the forces of the church organization and impede the free fulfillment of its mission. The church treasures its freedom and it doesn't plan turning into a part of government machinery," he added. The U.S. State Department's International Religious Freedom report for 2005 claimed that the Russian Orthodox Church was gaining a status approximating that of a state church (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 November 2005). BW

In the same interview with the BBC World Service, Aleksii called for improved relations with the Vatican, but criticized Roman Catholics for proselytizing on Russian soil, ITAR-TASS and Interfax reported on 28 December. "Now it is early to speak about concrete progress in relations," Aleksii said. "We laud the statements by the new pontiff who calls for continuing a dialogue. We hope that actions will follow words," he added. Aleksii rejected the idea of meeting with Pope Benedict XVI until outstanding disputes between the faiths are resolved. "Why meet in front of TV cameras? Just to show to the world that there are no problems between us? But we have problems, don't we?" Aleksii said. "Such meetings should be well-prepared. The problems worrying the Russian Orthodox Church and its flock should be solved for the meeting to take place," he added. The patriarch condemned what he called efforts by Roman Catholics to win converts among the Orthodox faithful. Catholics, he said, are trying to convert "people, especially children, who are baptized as Orthodox Christians." BW

The Russian Foreign Ministry has sent a diplomatic note to Iran reiterating that Moscow's offer to establish a joint uranium-enrichment program remains valid, RIA-Novosti reported on 27 December. "The earlier Russian offer to Iran to establish a joint Russian-Iranian uranium-enrichment venture in Russia remains valid," the Foreign Ministry said, adding that the offer was Russia's contribution to "the search for mutually acceptable solutions in the context of settling the situation surrounding the Iranian nuclear program by political and diplomatic means." Under the Russian plan, which has been endorsed by the United States and the European Union, Iran would be allowed to continue converting uranium ore but would ship it to Russia for enrichment, a system that, in theory, would prevent Iran from producing weapons-grade uranium (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 November 2005). Iran said this week that it will consider the plan. BW

President Vladimir Putin said on 28 December that Russia must act to deal with tough competition in the global arms trade, Interfax and RIA-Novosti reported. He argued that "in terms of its significance and scope, the global weapons market is comparable with such segments of the global economy as energy and food. Competition here is extremely strong." In particular, he noted that "what is happening to our potential contracts on sales of aircraft to some [unnamed] South Asian countries exceeds the standards of normal and natural market competition." Putin called for unspecified "effective instruments of [state] financial support" for defense industry firms, especially regarding what he called "specific deals and contracts that have national importance." He also said that the volume of arms sales abroad topped $5 billion for the third consecutive year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2005). PM

President Putin signed a decree on 28 December "releasing Andrei Illarionov from his duties as a presidential adviser," Interfax reported. Putin's move came in response to a statement the previous day by the senior economics expert that he had submitted his resignation to the president "some time ago," "Vedomosti" reported. In making his announcement, Illarionov charged that political as well as economic freedom is now gone, adding that he is no longer able to influence policy making in what he called a "corporate state." He said that "when I accepted the president's invitation to take this position [of economic adviser] in April 2000, we were talking about pursuing a liberal economic policy, a policy that would broaden the economic freedoms of Russian citizens. Such a policy, as discussed in the spring of 2000, has never been implemented. There is no place for economic freedom in the new model; its main principle is selectivity and discrimination," RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Illarionov added that "there has been a change in the political regime...[and] the country has ceased to be politically free." PM

Ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin, who is a former prime minister, told Interfax on 27 December that "it was a mistake to keep [Illarionov] in the Kremlin for so long." Chernomyrdin said that Illarionov "is competent in economics...but, hearing his remarks and [recalling] the political judgments that he made, [it is striking] how much anger and negative emotions he harbored, and this is his main problem." PM

German Gref, who is minister of economic development and trade, said in Moscow on 29 December that his ministry is proposing to set up tax holidays lasting up to seven years for those registering new oil deposits, especially in the far north and in eastern Siberia, RIA-Novosti reported. In related news, the state-owned oil company Rosneft announced that its net profit for 2005 will reach $5.1 billion. PM

Some 150 Russians and Africans gathered on 27 December outside the city administration building in St. Petersburg to protest the recent killing of a student from Cameroon, RFE/RL reported. The demonstrators included African students, members of the pro-government youth group Nashi, and anarchists. One African student charged that "the continuation of killing of foreigners here in Russia [has gone too far]. Here in St. Petersburg, it is almost [a monthly occurrence that foreigners are killed]. But when we speak to the government, they say that...they are going to do something [about it], but nothing has ever been done. They deceive us and they deceive themselves." The student from Cameroon was killed and a second person from Africa injured in an assault near a dormitory in St. Petersburg on 24 December. Police are investigating whether there were racist motives behind the attack. Racist attacks have been on the rise in Russia, including in St. Petersburg, where a Congolese student was murdered in September. A Peruvian student was killed in the city of Voronezh in October. PM

Russia's Emergency Situations Ministry announced on 29 December that seven people were killed and 12 others injured overnight in a fire at a home for the mentally ill near Moscow, RFE/RL reported. Ministry spokesman Viktor Beltsov said 55 people were inside the medical facility in the village of Dmitrovskii Pogost when the blaze broke out around 4 a.m. local time. Firefighters arrived within minutes, but their task was complicated by the fact that water had to be brought from a kilometer away. It took them some three hours to put out the fire. The cause has not yet been determined, and the authorities have not ruled out arson. PM

Federation Council Deputy Speaker Aleksandr Torshin unveiled on 28 December the conclusions of the commission he chaired that probed the circumstances surrounding the September 2004 hostage taking and siege at a school in Beslan, North Ossetia, Russian media reported. The commission faulted local police and officials for failing to act on instructions to increase security in the vicinity of the school for the start of the school year; for consistently and deliberately understating the number of persons held hostage in the school building by Chechen militants; for a lack of coordination between local police and security personnel; and for failing to prevent local residents who opened fire on the school on 3 September, provoking return fire from the militants and the storm of the building by security forces in which numerous hostages died. On 27 December, Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Nikolai Shepel said an investigation by his office failed to establish any failings on the part of law-enforcement agencies during the siege. LF

President Putin announced on 21 December that Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov is to assume overall responsibility for coordinating reconstruction in Chechnya, Russian media reported. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 23 December construed that announcement as a slap in the face for presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitrii Kozak, who did not accompany Putin on his brief visit to Chechnya on 12 December. LF

The resolution adopted on 18 December by the fourth congress of the Union of Slavs of Adygeya has triggered widespread criticism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 December 2005). Adygeya's Slavs, who account for some 70 percent of the republic's total 446,000 population, hope to win a majority in the parliamentary elections scheduled for 12 March 2006 and then enact legislation on a referendum on abolishing the Republic of Adygeya and subsuming it into the surrounding Krasnodar Krai. Meeting in Maikop on 28 December, representatives of the Cherkess Congress and Adyghe Khase, which represent the republic's Cherkess minority, vowed to seek to prevent the emergence of a Slavic majority in the new legislature, reported. The Adyghe Khase representatives proposed sending a formal protest to President Putin, the Adygeya prosecutor, and the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, while copying OSCE High Representative on National Minorities Rolf Ekeus. Cherkess Congress Chairman Murat Berzegov earlier expressed concern at the exhortation by individual delegates to the Union of Slavs congress that Slavs should legally acquire weapons in order to be able to defend their interests, reported on 20 December. LF

Taliy Beretar, who heads the Republic of Adygeya presidential administration, condemned the calls by leaders of the republic's Slavs for the liquidation of the Republic of Adygeya and its merger with surrounding Krasnodar Krai, reported on 20 December. He warned that such blatantly nationalist sentiments could trigger "unforeseen consequences." Culture Minister Gaziy Chemso similarly dismissed the statements made at the 18 December congress as "preelection PR," and he construed them as evidence that the Union of Slavs is incapable of adapting its policies to changing circumstances, according to on 20 December. LF

The Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by five Ingush men against the sentences handed down to them on 27 April by Ingushetia's Supreme Court on charges of participation in the armed raids of police and security facilities in Nazran in June 2004, RIA-Novosti reported on 27 December. The five received prison terms ranging from 13 to 17 years. Several of a group of 13 Ingush sentenced on similar charges in August said they confessed under torture to participating in the raids, in which up to 90 people died (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 August 2005). LF

Hranush Kharatian, who heads the Armenian government department on ethnic minorities and religious affairs, told a roundtable discussion on 28 December that she does not believe official claims that almost two-thirds of eligible voters participated in the 27 November referendum on a package of constitutional amendments, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 28, 29, and 30 November 2005). Kharatian said she toured polling stations in Yerevan that day and estimates that only 20 percent of eligible voters cast their ballots. Kharatian further criticized the ongoing redevelopment of central Yerevan in which residents evicted from dilapidated buildings scheduled for demolition received what they claim is inadequate financial compensation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 29 June and 12 September 2005). She termed that redevelopment one of numerous "undemocratic" measures undertaken by the government, the parliament, and the presidential administration. Speaking at the same roundtable discussion, parliamentary deputy Alvard Petrosian of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun, one of the two junior partners in the three-party ruling coalition, similarly criticized both the demolitions in Yerevan and the heavy-handed government campaign to push through the constitutional amendments. LF

Meeting with journalists on 28 December, Ilham Aliyev stressed that Azerbaijan's approach to resolving the Karabakh conflict remains unchanged, and that any settlement must guarantee Azerbaijan's territorial integrity, reported on 29 December. Aliyev noted "positive developments" in the peace process in 2005, including the intensification of the "Prague process" talks between the two countries' foreign ministers. Aliyev said further progress in 2006 will depend on whether Armenia affirms it will be bound by the norms of international law. He implicitly ruled out any concessions on the part of Baku, noting that Azerbaijan's territory is occupied, and that Azerbaijan "has not engaged in ethnic cleansing." LF

Five leading Azerbaijani opposition politicians -- Ali Kerimli of the Azerbaijan Popular Front Party progressive wing; Musavat party Chairman Isa Qambar; Azerbaijan National Independence Party (AMIP) Chairman Ali Aliyev; Democratic Party of Azerbaijan First Deputy Chairman Sardar Djalaloglu; and National Unity movement head Lala-Shovket Gadjieva -- have written to the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group engaged in trying to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict requesting a meeting, AMIP Chairman Aliyev told journalists on 28 December, Azerbaijani media reported. He explained that the opposition is concerned at the prospect of a peace settlement that violates Azerbaijan's national interests, specifically at the possibility of deferring a decision on the status of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. According to unconfirmed reports attributed to unnamed officials familiar with the peace talks, the anticipated settlement entails the withdrawal of Armenian troops from occupied Azerbaijani territory, the deployment of an international peacekeeping force, and the holding in 15-20 years of a referendum on the enclave's future status. LF

Former Economic Development Minister Farkhad Aliyev suffered a further health crisis during the night of 27-28 December, reported on 29 December, citing one of Aliyev's relatives. Aliyev, who was dismissed and arrested in late October on suspicion of plotting a coup d'etat, was hospitalized for low blood pressure last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 December 2005). On that occasion, a National Security Ministry official claimed that Aliyev overexerted himself while exercising, but on 28 December the chairman of Azerbaijan's Committee Against Torture, Elchin Bekhbutov, told after meeting with Aliyev in detention that Aliyev's blood pressure dropped during the night of 23-24 December and he was then taken to the hospital. Aliyev attributed his health problem to stress, and again protested his innocence. Having initially refused to answer interrogators' questions, Aliyev has prepared a written statement and plans to ask to be released from detention, quoted Bekhbutov as saying. LF

The Joint Control Commission (JCC) tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone met in Moscow on 27-28 December to discuss establishing a working group to implement a plan for resolving the conflict, Caucasus Press and Russian media reported. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili and South Ossetian leader Eduard Kokoity have proposed largely similar three-stage plans for resolving the conflict that entail demilitarization, economic rehabilitation, and then a decision on South Ossetia's political status (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 September 2004 and 27 January, 11 July, 31 October, and 13 December 2005). On 27 December, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava proposed beginning with the third stage of Kokoity's proposed plan on the grounds that all members of the JCC agree on the first two stages. The representatives from Russia and North and South Ossetia rejected Khaindrava's proposal, and he subsequently opposed establishing the proposed working group, a move that Valerii Kenyaikin, the Russian co-chairman of the JCC, deplored, according to ITAR-TASS on 28 December. LF

The Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office has launched an investigation into the prison unrest in which at least three prisoners died, Caucasus Press reported on 28 December. Some 1,000 prisoners transferred to a new prison building in Kutaisi began rioting on 21 December to protest the lack of heat and hot water and the confiscation of their mobile phones. At least three prisoners were reportedly killed and others injured when special police sought to restore control. Elena Tevdoradze, who chairs the Georgian parliament's Human Rights Committee, said after visiting the Kutaisi jail on 28 December that numerous prisoners were beaten and 26 are still being treated in the prison hospital for their injuries. Inmates of jails in Zugdidi, Batumi, and Tbilisi launched hunger strikes to demand improved living conditions, Caucasus Press reported on 27 December. Gia Kavtaradze, the former Central Election Commission chairman who was named justice minister on 22 December in place of Kote Kemularia, told journalists on 27 December that the authorities were justified in using force against the rioting prisoners in Kutaisi, Caucasus Press reported. Kavtaradze blamed the protests on criminal kingpins who, he argued, must not be allowed to dictate conditions in places of detention. LF

The prosecution on 27 December demanded life imprisonment for Vladimir Arutiunian, who threw a hand grenade in the direction of the podium in Tbilisi from which U.S. President George W. Bush and Georgian President Saakashvili were speaking in Tbilisi on 10 May (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 May 2005), ITAR-TASS reported. Arutiunian shot and killed a police official while seeking to evade capture in July. Psychiatrists have concluded that he was sane at the time of the grenade incident but suffers from "megalomania," the daily "24 saati" reported on 27 December, quoting his lawyer, Lizi Djaparidze. LF

Uzakbai Karabalin, head of Kazakh national oil and gas company KazMunaiGaz, told Khabar on 27 December that Kazakhstan considers it possible to build an undersea pipeline across the Caspian Sea to connect to the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan oil pipeline, ITAR-TASS reported the next day. Karabalin said that the issue of an undersea pipeline to Baku will be raised when annual production at Kazakhstan's Kashagan oil field reaches 20 million tons. According to the 2004 Kashagan development plan on ConocoPhillips' website (, production at the field is slated to reach 75,000 barrels a day (roughly 3.7 million tons per year) in 2008 with a subsequent increase to 1.2 million barrels a day (60 million tons per year). DK

Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev told a press conference in Bishkek on 27 December that Kyrgyzstan has asked Russia for assistance in the extradition of Aidar Akaev, son of ousted President Askar Akaev, reported. The younger Akaev, who currently resides in Russia, faces corruption charges in Kyrgyzstan. Russia's "Kommersant-Daily" reported that Kyrgyzstan made a similar request to Russian authorities in October. Maksim Maksimovich, a lawyer representing Aidar Akaev, told RIA-Novosti that Kongantiev's comments were "purely political." DK

Kongantiev also said that Adil Togonbaev, former President Akaev's son-in-law and a Kazakh citizen, is being sought on corruption charges, RIA-Novosti reported. Queried about the likelihood of Kazakhstan handing over Togonbaev, Kongantiev said that Kazakhstan's constitution does not allow this and said that Kyrgyzstan would send case materials for Kazakh authorities to try Togonbaev in Kazakhstan, "Kommersant-Daily" reported. Further, Kongantiev added that Kyrgyzstan will ask for Russia's assistance in extraditing former Kyrgyz Defense Minister Esen Topoev on corruption charges. Topoev is currently "serving in one of the structures of the Russian armed forces," Kongantiev said. He noted that investigations of former Prime Minister Nikolai Tanaev and National Bank head Ulan Sarbanov are nearing completion, Kyrgyz Radio 1 reported. DK

Kongantiev told journalists that Kyrgyzstan recently extradited Kazakh youth activist Makhambet Abzhan on the basis of a request from the Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office in accordance with the Kishinev Convention, reported. Kongantiev said that Abzhan, who advocates the revolutionary overthrow of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, was sought in connection with criminal offenses in Kazakhstan and is not being persecuted for his political views. Kyrgyz Radio 1 reported that Kazakh authorities have charged Abzhan with misappropriating 1,362,000 tenges ($10,000) in funds allocated for elections. Kyrgyz rights activist Aziza Abdirasulova charged that Abzhan's rapid extradition -- he was arrested on 13 December in Bishkek and handed over within 10 days -- violated the requirement that the Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General's Office consider extradition requests for 30 days, Kyrgyz Radio reported. DK

Bakyt Kerimbekov, a spokesman for the Korean company Venture C&C Plaza Co. Ltd., told a news conference in Bishkek on 28 December that the company plans to file a 50 million-euro ($60 million) lawsuit against the Kyrgyz government in an international court unless its contractual dispute with the government is resolved to the company's satisfaction, reported. The company won a tender in September to produce foreign passports for Kyrgyzstan, but the Kyrgyz government charged in December that the company had failed to fulfill its obligations. Kerimbekov called the Kyrgyz government's charges groundless and warned that international litigation could delay the production of new passports for Kyrgyzstan by any company for up to three years. DK

Tajikistan's Supreme Court has ruled that the trial of Ghaffor Mirzoev, former head of Tajikistan's Drug Control Agency and former commander of the presidential guard, will begin in Dushanbe on 10 January, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on 27 December. Mirzoev faces a number of charges, including abuse of office and attempting to mount a coup (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 November 2005). DK

Ukraine has not signed an agreement with Turkmenistan on 2006 gas shipments, ITAR-TASS reported on 26 December, citing Turkmen government sources. The report appeared to contradict recent comments by Ukrainian Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 December 2005). For his part, Plachkov told reporters in Kyiv on 27 December that the contract "has been signed, sealed, and delivered to Ukraine," Interfax reported. Official Turkmen news outlets carried no reports clarifying the issue on 28 December. DK

The Central Election Commission on 27 December registered all eight nomination groups that applied to collect signatures for candidates seeking registration for the 19 March 2006 presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 December 2005), Belapan reported. A nomination group has to collect no fewer than 100,000 voter signatures from 29 December to 27 January in order to place its candidate on the ballot. The largest nomination groups are those of incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka (6,212 people), democratic opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich (5,135), Belarusian Social Democratic Party head Alyaksandr Kazulin (3,347), and Democratic Liberal Party head Syarhey Haydukevich (3,073). JM

Beltranshaz, Belarus's state-owned gas transport company, and Russia's Gazprom on 27 December signed a contract for the supply of natural gas to Belarus and gas transit via the country in 2006, Belapan reported. Under the contract, Belarus will buy 21 billion cubic meters of gas from Gazprom in 2006 at $46.68 for 1,000 cubic meters. Gazprom press office told Belapan that of this amount, 1.5 billion will be supplied only if there is a "technical opportunity." Belarus will collect $0.75 in transit fee per 1,000 cubic meters per 100 kilometers for gas pipelined through Belarus by Beltranshaz's network and $0.46 for gas transported via the Yamal-Europe pipeline, which is owned by Gazprom. Explaining the reasons why the gas price for Belarus remains unchanged compared with this year, Gazprom's press office said Belarus and Russia are forming a union state where uniform economic standards should be applied. Gazprom, its press office added, also obtained full ownership of the Belarusian section of the Yamal-Europe pipeline and the two sides resumed talks on selling a stake in Beltranshaz to Gazprom this year. "Thus, the price is economically justified. Gazprom's policy with regard to Belarus suits the interests of all of the company's shareholders -- both the state and private investors," the press office quoted Gazprom deputy chief Aleksandr Ryazanov as saying during the signing ceremony. JM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov on 28 December reiterated that Ukraine is not going to sign a contract for Russian gas supplies in 2006 with a price of $230 per 1,000 cubic meters, up from the current $50 per 1,000 cubic meters, Ukrainian and international media reported. "Ukraine's proposals to resolve the situation in a civilized manner have been sent," Reuters quoted Yekhanurov as saying at a meeting with regional governors. "We hope Gazprom will give answers to the Ukrainian side's proposals. Should the Russian side refuse...we have grounds to appeal to the Stockholm court [Arbitration Institute of the Stockholm Chamber of Commerce]." Ukrainian Fuel and Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov met with his Russian counterpart, Viktor Khristenko, in Moscow later the same day, but their talks reportedly did not resolve the gas dispute and were scheduled to continue the following day. On 27 December, Plachkov told journalists in Kyiv that Ukraine wants Russia to charge $80 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas in the first three to six months of 2006, with a gradual switch to a "market price" in 2009. Plachkov did not reveal what price Kyiv is prepared to pay in 2009. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko has abolished the state of emergency he introduced in some areas of the Crimean Peninsula on 3 December to help the authorities fight an outbreak of bird flu," UNIAN reported on 29 December. By the end of last week, the authorities destroyed nearly 70,000 domestic birds in Crimea in order to prevent the bird-flu outbreak from spreading. No bird-flu infection cases have been registered among humans on the peninsula. JM

Republika Srpska's parliament passed legislation on 28 December abolishing its Defense Ministry and army, Hina reported the same day. The move, which goes into effect on 1 January, is part of a defense reform in Bosnia-Herzegovina transferring authority over military matters from the country's two entities, Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation, to the central government. The reform also establishes an integrated army. According to the law, any defense-related laws passed by Republika Srpska's parliament will go out of force on 1 January. The defense reform, a prerequisite for Bosnia joining NATO's Partnership for Peace program, has been criticized for not going far enough to integrate the country's military. Critics say each ethnic group will have a veto over military affairs through the joint presidency, which acts as supreme commander, and that there will be three separate brigades and command centers, one each based in Serbian, Muslim, and Croatian areas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 September 2005). BW

Bosnia-Herzegovina's Presidency agreed to a dual-citizenship agreement with Croatia on 28 December, Hina reported the same day. Croats living in Bosnia regard the agreement as important because under existing law they risked losing their Bosnian citizenship if they took Croatian citizenship. Bosnia has already concluded a similar agreement with Serbia and Montenegro. BW

Bosnia-Herzegovina's Defense Minister Nikola Radovanovic said on 28 December that an investigation has identified 40 people involved in a support network helping war-crime fugitive Ratko Mladic evade capture, dpa reported on 28 December, citing " Dnevni Avaz." According to Radovanovic, the network includes 10 current and 30 former members of Republika Srpska's army. The Defense ministries of Bosnia and Serbia and Montenegro are cooperating in the investigation. BW

Serbian President Boris Tadic said on 28 December that tracking down Ratko Mladic is Belgrade's top priority, Radio Television Serbia and B92 reported the same day. "Mladic is our biggest problem that has to be solved before attending to other issues," Tadic said in an interview with Radio Television Serbia. "I am offering my assistance in this process, but we will have to pool all of our departments and we cannot work through the problem without cooperating with international intelligence services. We must establish an international intelligence community that helped Croatia solve a problem similar to ours," he added. BW

Predrag Bubalo on 28 December accused President Tadic of behaving irresponsibly by insisting on early parliamentary elections, AKI reported the same day. In a television interview the previous day, Tadic said Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's government lacks legitimacy due to its narrow base of support in parliament. "Serbia needs a new government, composed of all democratic forces, which would be able to withstand the talks on Kosovo, the [independence] referendum in Montenegro, and talks on Stabilization and Association with the European Union," Tadic said. Bubalo said in response that Serbia's government has "full legitimacy," has passed 200 laws, and has majority support in parliament. "Serbia's interests are much more jeopardized by constant talks about early elections and by the behavior of some of the highest state officials," Bubalo said. "Tadic is very consistently, but lately exclusively, concerning himself with the new elections. I think there are much more important matters Tadic should deal with, if he really wants to do his job well," he added. BW

Albanians in the southern Serbian towns of Bujanovac, Presevo, and Medvedje plan to seek greater autonomy within Serbia, B92 reported on 27 December. Ragmi Mustafa, head of the Albanian Democratic Party and President of the Presevo City Council, said that Albanians in southern Serbia support the aspirations of Kosova Serbs for greater autonomy, adding that Albanians in Serbia should be granted similar rights. A working group from the southern Serbian towns is planning to meet in Prishtina with Veton Suroij, a member of Kosova's negotiating team in the UN-sponsored final-status talks, to press their case. Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic said the Albanians should address their concerns to Belgrade, not Prishtina. "They can go to Pristina, but the address of the place where they have to talk about their disputes is not located in Pristina, but Belgrade," he said. BW

Security Information Agency head Rade Bulatovic said in his biannual report to parliament on 28 December that Serbia is vulnerable to terrorist attacks, B92 reported the same day. "We have determined that the rising support for radical Islamic organizations and movements, and their organized activity has increased the danger of terrorism in the region, including our territory," Bulatovic said. "However, the agency is keeping this risk under control in cooperation with partner security agencies," he added. Bulatovic did not give specifics about what kind of terrorist attack Serbia could face, not did he identify any specific groups that might be planning an attack. BW

Traian Basescu on 28 December reiterated his pledge to assist Moldova with energy resources when Russia raises the price of natural gas, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. Basescu made his comments in a telephone conversation with Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin. "The two sides discussed the problem of Moldova's energy security in the context of growing prices of Russian natural gas," Voronin's press service announced. Basescu initially made the promise when Voronin visited Bucharest on 10 December. Currently, Russia's natural-gas monopoly Gazprom sells Moldova natural gas for $80 per 1,000 cubic meters, but plans to raise the price to $160 per 1,000 cubic meters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 December 2005). BW

President Jalal Talabani has taken the lead in sponsoring dialogue between rival political groups to resolve a political crisis that erupted after some 60 political parties claimed fraud had taken place during Iraq's 15 December parliamentary elections.

Some political leaders have vowed to seek Arab League support in trying to force a new vote, and thousands of Iraqis have taken to the streets to protest perceived flaws in the election process. Their complaints have been countered by assertions by the Iraqi Independent Election Committee (IECI), the United Nations, and the European Union that the voting was free and fair.

Those seeking compromise are trying to avert potential Sunni boycotts of the political process, as well as threats of violence, and appear to be pinning their hopes on efforts to bring Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs and Kurds into a new unity government.

Together with representatives of the Kurdistan Coalition, including Kurdistan Regional President Mas'ud Barzani, President Talabani has held separate meetings in recent days with representatives of the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front and the secular Shi'ite Iraqi National List, both of which have contested the election results, and Iraq's largest Shi'ite list, the United Iraqi Alliance (UIA), which appears poised to control a majority of parliamentary seats.

Talabani and Barzani also met with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad in Al-Sulaymaniyah on 26 December to discuss the convening of a summit meeting in that northern Iraqi city for the leaders of electoral lists that won parliamentary seats in the voting, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Al-Sharqiyah quoted sources as saying that Khalilzad has asked the two Kurdish leaders to take the lead in containing the crisis.

Talabani had planned to bring representatives from the Iraqi Accordance Front, Iraqi National List, and the UIA together on 28 December, but that meeting was postponed at the last minute. Iraqi Communist Party head Tariq al-Hashimi told Al-Arabiyah television on 28 December that a number of representatives from the Iraqi Accordance Front are currently outside Iraq and were unable to return in time for the meeting. He said that a new date for those talks will be set once coordination issues were worked out.

Meanwhile, UN adviser to the IECI Craig Jenness told reporters on 28 December that the UN views the elections as fair. "The United Nations is of the view that these elections [in Iraq] were transparent and credible," Jenness said. "Turnout was high, the day was largely peaceful, all communities participated."

Some 32 election lists representing dozens of political parties which claimed electoral fraud banded together last week under the banner "Maram" [Mu'tamar Rafadi Al-Intikhabat Al-Mazawra, or the Conference for Rejecting the Forged Election] to contest the election results. Maram members intend to present their case to the Arab League in the hopes that that organization will pressure the Iraqi government into supporting new elections.

The leading Sunni Arab lists participating in Maram include the Iraqi Accordance Front, the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, the Reconciliation and Liberation Bloc, the Independent Democrats Grouping, and the Sun of Iraq list. The secular Shi'ite Iraqi National List and the National Congress Coalition are also taking part, as well as the Iraqi Turkoman Front.

Sunni Arab leader Khalaf al-Ulayyan, who heads the Iraqi National Dialogue Council, a party to the Iraqi Accordance Front, warned "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in a 23 December interview that violence will flare if Maram's demands go unmet. "Either we obtain our rights of participation in the [National] Assembly, as we deserve, or [we] withdraw. We will not allow the formation of a national assembly and will not remain spectators or oppositionists [if we are not allowed to participate], but rest assured that it will turn into civil war," al-Ulayyan vowed, according to "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on 24 December.

Al-Ulayyan also contended in statements to the press last week that the Iraqi Accordance Front would boycott the political process if no resolution was found. Meanwhile, Iraqi Accordance Front member Adnan al-Dulaymi told Al-Jazeera television in a 25 December interview that there would be no boycott of the political process. The contradictory positions come as little surprise; Sunni Arab leaders have failed to present a cohesive front on many issues over the past two years. In this case, the disparity could end up costing them politically in negotiations with the UIA.

Reports from Baghdad this week indicate that some political parties are already defecting from Maram. The defections appear to be the result of infighting and a belief by some that Maram will be unable to achieve its demands. Moreover, it appears that the Kurdistan Coalition and the UIA have succeeded in exerting pressure on some political groups in the form of a guaranteed role in the next government.

Maram has sponsored large-scale demonstrations to protest the election outcome in Baghdad on a daily basis since 23 December. Some 10,000 demonstrators attended a protest in the capital on 24 December. Demonstrations have also been organized in the largely Sunni cities of Samarra, Al-Fallujah, Tikrit, Ba'qubah, and Mosul.

Shi'ite Arabs who support the UIA have responded with more modest demonstrations of their own. Hundreds of supporters of cleric Muqtada al-Sadr demonstrated in Baghdad's Al-Sadr City neighborhood on 25 December, waving pictures of al-Sadr, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari. Al-Sadr, who has generally avoided direct political involvement, lent his support to the UIA in the December elections, and several of his supporters ran on the UIA's list.

London's "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on 26 December that the UIA dropped a warrant for al-Sadr's arrest in return for the cleric's support in the elections. According to the daily, files connecting al-Sadr to the 2003 murder of Ayatollah Abd al-Majid al-Khu'i -- including an arrest warrant issued against al-Sadr in 2004 -- have disappeared from the judiciary. A judicial source quoted by "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" claimed the disappearance of the file was the price of al-Sadr's support for Prime Minister al-Ja'fari's UIA in the election.

Representatives from the UIA have rejected calls for a repeat of the balloting, saying that while there is evidence that some fraud might have taken place, the United Nations, European Union, and other observer groups deemed the elections free and fair.

UIA representative Jawad al-Maliki talked tough at a 24 December press briefing in Baghdad, telling reporters that attempts by rival groups to stir up sectarian sedition by protesting the elections was a "grave mistake," and adding that government forces would not hesitate to enforce Iraq's laws against sedition.

Asked if the UIA would make concessions in negotiations with rival groups, al-Maliki said, "We will not concede our matter what the pressure and blackmail might be." Still, he maintained that the UIA was open to dialogue.

The position of the UIA and its willingness to compromise may well prove decisive to the success of negotiations between rival political groups in the coming days. While the UIA is not expected to agree to a repeat of balloting, it might be willing to compromise on other issues, such as control over key ministries such as the Defense or Interior ministry. Such concessions, coupled with the awarding of the majority of the 45 compensatory parliamentary seats (they have yet to be allocated), might be enough to satisfy Maram supporters.

While the UIA has shown little flexibility thus far, its position could change now that Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani has called on that group to support the formation of a unity government.

Following a visit to Iran, Farah Province Governor Ezatollah Wasefi said Tehran plans to pave roads and provide electricity to western areas of Afghanistan, Afghan independent Sada-ye Jawan Radio reported on 28 December. "The government of Iran has said that it is ready to contribute to ensuring security on borders, providing electricity, and resurfacing roads. They will resurface roads in and around the city of Farah, and in Herat and Nimroz provinces," he said. Wasefi reportedly met with senior Iranian officials during his visit. "We also talked about the revival of the Silk Road. In addition, they pledged to offer agricultural contributions to us. They expressed concern about [opium] poppy cultivation and demanded that this should be eliminated in Afghanistan. God willing, I will visit the esteemed President [Hamid Karzai] in the near future and share these ideas with him." MR

Afghan presidential spokesman Mohammad Karim Rahimi said Afghanistan will consider Russia's demand for repayment of a loan Moscow made to Kabul during the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan, China's Xinhua News Agency reported on 27 December. "The government of Afghanistan is examining the claim," Rahimi said, speaking at a press briefing on the 26th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of the country. Rahimi also suggested that Afghanistan may seek war compensation from Russia for the invasion, which began decades of war in the country. "The destruction of Afghanistan began with the invasion of the Soviet Union." MR

Suspected neo-Taliban insurgents tossed a grenade into a girls school in Kandahar on 28 December, but no one was reported hurt, the Afghan Islamic Press news agency reported. "An unidentified person threw a hand grenade into the girls high school in the Mirwais Mina area this morning. Some windows were broken and a wall was slightly damaged as a result," said the head of the Kandahar Education and Training Department, who the news agency did not identify by name. "There were no casualties." Similar attacks have occurred in Kandahar, a former Taliban stronghold. Local officials routinely blame neo-Taliban insurgents. MR

A U.S. soldier died and two others were wounded when a roadside bomb exploded near their convoy in Afghanistan's eastern Konar Province, AP reported on 28 December. Konar Governor Assadullah Wafa said neo-Taliban insurgents detonated the bomb by remote control. Konar Province, which borders Pakistan, has emerged as a hotbed of neo-Taliban insurgent activity. MR

Supreme National Security Council deputy head Javad Vaidi, who leads Iran's negotiations with the EU over its nuclear dossier, told ISNA on 28 December that Iran might consider a Moscow proposal to have uranium enriched for Iran's program in Russia. He said the proposal is "based on the formation of a joint Iranian-Russian company on Russian territory to enrich uranium," adding that if this is in line with Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT] stipulations on technology transfers, "it will be considered seriously and enthusiastically," ISNA reported. "We believe that the Russian proposal can implement some of the neglected regulations of the NPT on technology transfer to states that do not have them, and break the existing scientific monopoly in this regard," Vaidi said. However, he said that Iran will not forego any treaty rights on fuel production. "Iran precisely wants all its rights within the NPT, and stands by all its commitments in this framework," he said. Whatever the "meaning" of the Russian proposal, Vaidi said, "it will not signify any regulations beyond the NPT nor deprive Iran of its treaty rights." VS

Iran's Supreme National Security Council has blocked the intended launch of an independent satellite channel by former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi, agencies reported on 26 December. Saba TV was to broadcast news and factual programs in Persian but was "temporarily" ordered closed after authorities informed Managing Director Behruz Afkhami that the network is illegal, the BBC and AFP reported on 26 December. Afkhami told the BBC that Iranian security agents prevented the transfer of Saba's first recorded program from Iran to Dubai, whence the network would broadcast. Karrubi and Afkhami are postponing broadcasting, citing the uncertain position of their staff, but have said they will take the Supreme National Security Council to court, news agencies reported. Broadcasting is a state monopoly in Iran. The council informed Iranian media on 21 December, when the channel was to start broadcasting, that Saba was illegal and they could not advertise it, while the Intelligence and Culture ministries informed Afkhami personally of the ban, he told the BBC. Reporters Without Borders deplored the ban in a 27 December communique and called this "one more example of the battle by [Iranian] media for freedom of expression." VS

Karrubi said in Tehran on 28 December that should Saba start broadcasting, "if its programs are not better and more useful" than those of state television and radio, "I am prepared to be whipped in public," ISNA reported the same day. He dismissed fears that his network could threaten state interests. "Everybody knows I have never gone beyond...the constitution and [political system], so why should I be restricted today? If they will not tolerate us, who will they tolerate?" Karrubi ran for the presidency in June and was speaking at the opening of the central office of the National Trust Party that he recently founded. "We had asked" authorities to allow Saba to broadcast for two months before reacting, he said, "but there was no patience." Karrubi blamed Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani for being "the main instigator and responsible" for the ban, ISNA reported. Larijani had asked the Guardians Council, a body of jurists, to rule on the legality of Saba, and they decided it was unconstitutional. Karrubi said that "nowhere does the law have what these gentlemen have said," ISNA reported. VS

Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf persuaded striking Tehran bus drivers late on 25 December to go back to work and promised to address grievances over wages and the arrest of union representatives, Radio Farda reported on 26 December, quoting union member Ibrahim Madadi. The strike caused serious congestion across Tehran on 25 December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 December 2005). Qalibaf informed a crowd of 3,000-4,000 people around midnight on 25 December that the Tehran city council has tasked the mayor's office with overseeing the Tehran bus company's affairs, and he pledged to "make the utmost efforts" to secure the release of several arrested union leaders and strikers, Madadi told Radio Farda. In response to the promises, Madadi told Radio Farda, "We decided to announce an end to the strike," given the widespread need for Tehran buses, "especially by weaker groups." He added, "[We] are waiting...for our first demand, the release of detainees, to be met." VS

Iranian Deputy Oil Minister Hadi Nejad-Husseinian led a seven-member delegation to New Delhi on 27 December, for technical talks on a proposed Iran-Pakistan-India pipeline to supply gas to India from 2010, news agencies reported on 28 December (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 7 and 23 March 2005). Nejad-Husseinian told IRNA on 28 December that he expects the oil ministers of Iran, Pakistan, and India to sign an agreement on the pipeline in the Persian month to 20 March 2006. He said an Iran-India Joint Working Group on 28 and 29 December discussed the pricing of gas that Iran would sell India, "factors affecting pricing," the formulation of an agreement to be signed later by oil ministers, and two proposed scenarios for the project's implementation. One option would be for each country to finance and build the portion of the pipeline on its territory, and the other would be to refer the project to one or two international consortiums, he told IRNA. Indian Oil Secretary Sushil Tripathi led the Indian team in the talks, IRNA added. The Joint Working Group is scheduled to meet again in Tehran in January, after studying the latest proposals, Nejad-Husseinian said. VS

A suicide bomber dressed in a police uniform killed four policemen and wounded five at a checkpoint outside the Interior Ministry in Baghdad on 29 December, Reuters reported. One policeman told the news agency: "He was wearing an explosive belt. He approached the checkpoint as police cars were entering the ministry, then he blew himself up." KR

Al-Arabiyah television aired a videotape of French engineer Bernard Planche on 28 December, international media reported. Planche was kidnapped three weeks ago. The kidnappers, the Surveillance for the Sake of Iraq Brigade, denounced the "illegal French presence" in Iraq and said the brigade will kill Planche unless that presence ended. Planche was shown in the videotape sitting in a chair flanked by two armed men; he identified himself in English by his first name only, and apologized to his family "for all the problems [he] has caused them." The French Foreign Ministry said it is examining the images, AFP reported. Ministry spokeswoman Agnes Romatet-Espagne told AFP: "We are calling for the immediate release of Mr. Planche. There is no justification for him being held hostage in Iraq." KR

Interpol announced on 28 December that it has issued an arrest warrant for Iraq-based Jordanian terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi. The arrest warrant was issued at the request of Algeria, following the July kidnapping and killing of two Algerian diplomats in Iraq, AFP reported on 28 December. Al-Zarqawi has been convicted and sentenced to death in absentia by Jordan in the 2002 murder of U.S. Agency For International Development (USAID) executive officer Lawrence Foley. On 18 December, Jordan sentenced al-Zarqawi to death in absentia for his role in a failed suicide attack on the Al-Karamah border crossing in December 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2005). KR

A shoot-out inside Baghdad's Camp Justice on 28 December left nine dead and six wounded, included a U.S. soldier, reported on 28 December. The shoot-out began when some 16 inmates attempted to escape from the prison, located in the Al-Kadhimiyah area of the capital, by storming the armory and seizing weapons. The U.S. military said four guards, four inmates, and an interpreter died in the ensuing gunfight. Lieutenant Colonel Barry Johnson said that six prisoners escaped during the battle, but a statement issued later in the day claimed all prisoners were accounted for. Meanwhile, Muhammad al-Askari told Al-Arabiyah television that three prisoners are still missing, reported. KR

UN special commissioner Craig Jenness, an adviser to the Iraqi Independent Election Commission (IECI), told reporters in Baghdad on 28 December that Iraq's 15 December parliamentary elections were "transparent, credible, and good," RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. "The United Nations is of the view that these elections were transparent and credible. Turnout was high, the day was largely peaceful, all communities participated," he said. The UN's endorsement gives further support to the IECI, which has come under intense criticism from a number of Iraqi political parties which claim the electoral body played a role in the alleged rigging of some ballot boxes in the election. KR

Iraqi Airways has signed a $500 million contract for a fleet of new passenger planes, "Al-Zaman" reported on 27 December. The newspaper quoted an Iraqi Airways source as saying that the planes will be used for international flights. It did not say how many planes will be purchased. The carrier currently leases three Boeing 737 planes and one Boeing 767, according to the Arab Air Carriers Organization. The Iraqi government has been in talks for more than a year to regain planes docked in regional airports since the outbreak of the 1991 Gulf War. The carrier began flights to Turkey in August, to Beirut and Cairo in October, and Damascus in November. It has been flying to Amman since 2004. KR