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Newsline - January 25, 2006

Members of the Federal Security Service (FSB) briefed the State Duma in a closed session on 24 January on the recent spy allegations involving four British diplomats, including one alleged to have close ties to some Russian nongovernmental organizations, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 and 24 January 2006). The British Foreign Office has said its dealings with Russian NGOs have been proper. Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov said that "we are witnesses to the fact that not only are espionage activities being conducted in Moscow, but also that foreign secret services are financing [NGOs]. We are troubled by this situation, and it is possible [that]...we will address our British colleagues from the English parliament" about the matter. Dmitry Rogozin, who heads the nationalist Motherland (Rodina) party, said that his party wants to set up a "blacklist" of at least 10 NGOs suspected of receiving funds from foreign intelligence agencies and send it to the Prosecutor-General's Office. "We must explain to the Russian [people] and international community that unfair methods are being used against us," Rogozin said. PM

The State Duma issued a statement on 25 January slamming "the funding of NGOs by individuals engaged in intelligence activities on the territory of Russia, namely certain staff members of the British Embassy," Interfax reported. "Such actions undermine trust in NGOs as a generally recognized, important institution of civil society," the statement added. It also criticized "the impermissibility of using NGOs for purposes contradicting their humanitarian and socially positive nature." PM

FSB spokesman Colonel Sergei Ignatchenko told the government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" of 25 January that "we don't need any large political scandals" at a time when Russia is chairing the Group of Eight industrialized countries. In a separate interview with the state daily, Lyudmila Alekseyeva -- who heads the NGO Moscow Helsinki Group mentioned in the original RTR state television broadcast on the spying allegations -- said that her organization received no money from the Russian government or businesses and is dependent on contributions from abroad. She stressed that all funding takes place in an orderly and transparent manner. PM

President Vladimir Putin told his Kazakh counterpart, Nursultan Nazarbaev, in St. Petersburg on 25 January that the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec, formerly the CIS Customs Union) is about to welcome "the accession of Uzbekistan [as a member] of this organization," Russian and international news agencies reported. Putin hailed Nazarbaev for his own role in "strengthening the integration processes within the CIS and post-Soviet space." The Russian leader noted that his country and Kazakhstan have drawn up a statement on cooperation in "the peaceful use of nuclear energy" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2006). Nazarbaev said that "today we shall approve a final protocol on borders in the North Caspian, which will give the green light to work at Kurmangazy, Central, and Khvalynsky, [which are] three large [oil and natural gas] fields, where Russia and Kazakh companies will work on a 50:50 basis." In related news, the Russian company LUKoil announced the discovery of an additional North Caspian field about 220 kilometers away from Astrakhan that is estimated to contain about 600 million barrels of oil and 1.2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, RIA Novosti reported. PM

President Putin and his Belarusian counterpart Alyaksandr Lukashenka agreed in St. Petersburg on 24 January that the leaderships of their respective countries made a sound decision in setting up a union in 1996, Russian news agencies reported. Putin hailed bilateral cooperation in foreign and security policy, while Lukashenka said that "the union is real, and we are determined to develop integration." Russian and Belarusian authorities signed a series of agreements regulating joint property, social and medical security, and freedom of travel and residence rights. The visit was widely seen as an opportunity for Putin to give a boost to Lukashenka in the run-up to the 19 March Belarusian presidential election. PM

An unnamed official of the state arms-exporter Rosoboroneksport confirmed recent media reports on 24 January that his company is interested in taking over at least part of the government's 34 percent state in the Tatarstan-based truckmaker KamAZ, "The Moscow Times" reported. He said that his company is interested because it "accounts for 30 percent of KamAZ exports," but he declined to comment on the size of the stake the arms firm seeks. The Moscow daily suggested that this is "the latest in a series of plans hatched by the government over the past year to get rid of its stake. The government has long considered selling or listing the stake, having previously included it on a list of assets due for privatization in 2006." But the authorities then placed KamAZ on a list of "strategic enterprises, as it supplies vehicles for the armed forces." In addition to the state, KamAZ's shareholders include Tatarstan's Land and Property Relations Ministry and the state-run Vneshtorgbank. PM

The Supreme Court of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR) on 24 January postponed for one week further hearings in the trial of 16 men accused in connection with the high-profile murders of seven businessmen in October 2004, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 25 January. One of the accused, Ali Kaitov, was married at the time of the killings to the daughter of KChR President Mustafa Batdyev, whose image has been badly tarnished by the repeated delays in the court proceedings. Lawyers for the accused have asked for the trial, which got under way 11 months ago, to be transferred to a court elsewhere in the North Caucasus, noting that KChR Supreme Court Chairman Islam Burlakov was one of Batdyev's unsuccessful rivals in the August 2003 presidential election. Burlakov placed third in the first round of that ballot after Batdyev and incumbent Vladimir Semenov. LF

Shushan Sardarian, who is a spokeswoman for the Armenian-Russian gas joint venture ArmRosGazprom, told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on 24 January that corporate customers have been warned that gas supplies will be curtailed on 27 January if repair work to the main gas pipeline from Russia via Georgia to Armenia is not completed by that date. She said gasoline stations and industrial enterprises will be affected first, and stressed that there are no plans at present to cut gas supplies to the population at large. Since the pipeline was damaged by an explosion early on 22 January, Armenia has tapped its 80 billion cubic meters of reserves in order to maintain supplies to individual households and to the thermal power plants that generate up to one-third of the country's electricity. ArmRosGazprom has denied reports that Azerbaijan is currently supplying Russian natural gas to Armenia as well as Georgia, Noyan Tapan reported on 24 January. LF

Sergei Ivanov arrived in Baku late on 23 January for talks with his Azerbaijani counterpart Colonel General Safar Abiyev, Prime Minister Artur Rasizade, President Ilham Aliyev, Russian and Azerbaijani media reported. After talks with Abiyev on 24 January, Ivanov told journalists that Russia could provide peacekeepers to be deployed as part of a settlement of the Karabakh conflict. But in an implicit rejection of Baku's preferred timetable, Ivanov said that a "political-diplomatic" solution to the conflict is the top priority, and only afterward should the issue of a peacekeeping force be addressed. Azerbaijan would prefer an Armenian withdrawal from occupied Azerbaijani territory and the deployment of peacekeepers to precede any discussion of the future status of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. Ivanov also told journalists that Russia is prepared to train Azerbaijani military personnel at Russian military colleges. He confirmed that part of the Russian weaponry to be withdrawn from Georgia in connection with the imminent closure of the two Russian military bases in that country will be transferred to the Russian military base in Armenia, and he affirmed that Russia is willing to sell armaments to both Armenia and Azerbaijan "taking into account the balance of forces in the region," reported on 25 January. LF

Russian Defense Minister Ivanov also hinted during his remarks to journalists in Baku on 24 January that Russia may cease to comply with the so-called "flank limitations" enshrined in the 1999 amendments to the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE Treaty), "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on 25 January. Those limitations restrict the number of troops Russia may deploy to the North Caucasus, but do not affect the Group of Russian Forces in the Transcaucasus. Ivanov noted that until now Russia has observed those so-called limitations, "unlike many states that have signed the treaty but not ratified it," but he added that it might cease to do so at some unspecified future date. Russia ratified the amended CFE Treaty in July 2004, and since then Russian officials have repeatedly urged other signatories to do so. The treaty will come into force only when all 30 signatories have ratified it, but the United States has pegged ratification to the completion of the Russian troop withdrawal from Georgia and Moldova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 21 July and 8 December 2004 and 14 April and 22 July 2005). LF

Arkadii Ghukasian met in Yerevan late on 24 January with visiting Belgian Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman in Office Karel De Gucht, Noyan Tapan reported on 25 January. Speaking to journalists after those talks, De Gucht repeated his earlier optimistic prediction that progress will be made this year towards resolving the Karabakh conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 January 2006). LF

Zurab Noghaideli told a cabinet meeting on 25 January that Russian officials have assured him gas supplies will return to normal later that day, Caucasus Press reported. Gas supplies through the main Mozdok-Tbilisi pipeline were disrupted by an explosion on 22 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2006), and alternative supplies channeled via Azerbaijan were reduced on 24 January from 4 million cubic meters per day to 2.5 million cubic meters due to a pipeline malfunction on the Azerbaijani-Georgian border, ITAR-TASS reported. Also on 25 January, the Georgian Foreign Ministry stated that Iran offered the previous day to supply Georgia with an unspecified amount of natural gas to cover the shortfall until repairs to the Russia-Georgia pipeline are completed and normal supplies from Russia are resumed. Meanwhile, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili told journalists in Berlin on 24 January that Russia was responsible for the explosions that damaged the Mozdok-Tbilisi pipeline, dpa reported. Bezhuashvili rejected the possibility that Islamic militants in the North Caucasus were behind the blasts. LF

Following six hours of talks at ministerial level in Abkhazia's Gali district on 24 January, the Abkhaz and Georgian representatives signed a protocol pledging to intensify cooperation aimed at countering the recent upsurge of killings, robberies, and kidnappings in Gali, Caucasus Press reported. Georgian Conflict Resolution Minister Giorgi Khaindrava rejected allegations by Sergei Shamba, foreign minister of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, that Georgian guerrillas operating in the conflict zone are responsible for at least some of those crimes, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 January 2006). The two sides also signed a protocol on measures to preclude the spread of bird flu. LF

In a 13 January report to the UN Security Council recommending the extension for a further six months of the mandate of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan similarly registered concern at the recent upsurge in violence in Gali. He observed that "the repeated targeting of Abkhaz officials and the use of relatively sophisticated explosive devices are a recent development and a matter of concern." LF

President Nursultan Nazarbaev issued a decree on 24 January appointing Krymbek Kusherbaev, who most recently served as Kazakhstan's ambassador to Russia, governor of Kazakhstan's Mangistau Province, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Bolat Palymbetov, who had headed the region since February 2002, will be appointed to another leadership post, Nazarbaev said. DK

Acting Jalal-Abad Governor Jusup Jeenbekov returned to Jalal-Abad on 24 January after meeting with President Kurmanbek Bakiev in Bishkek the previous day, reported. Jeenbekov is currently serving in the capacity of acting governor after a failed attempt by President Bakiev to replace him with Talas Governor Isken Aidaraliev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 and 23 January 2006). Jeenbekov told journalists in Jalal-Abad that Usen Sydykov, the head of the presidential administration, was one of the figures behind the attempt to replace him. In a further indication of regional dissatisfaction with Bakiev's appointments and dismissals, an initiative group met in Osh Province on 24 January and appealed to Bakiev to reappoint dismissed Governor Anvar Artykov. Artykov was replaced by Adam Zakirov in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 12 December 2005). DK

Ryspek Akmatbaev, reputed to be one of Kyrgyzstan's most powerful mob bosses, was acquitted on multiple murder charges by a Bishkek court on 24 January, reported. Akmatbaev and eight other defendants were accused of organizing contract killings, including the 2004 murder of police anticorruption official Chynybek Aliev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 May 2004). Akmatbaev told Kyrgyzstan's that he now plans to run for a seat in the country's parliament. DK

Justice Minister Marat Kayipov has ordered his ministry to check all NGOs that receive funding from abroad to determine whether any of them threaten the country's national security, UPI reported on 24 January. Edil Baisalov, leader of the coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, told the news agency that the move is part of a broader campaign. "In the past few days, Kyrgyz media have carried an increasing number of reports focusing on the role of the nongovernmental sector and accusing it of serving U.S. interests and Western donors," Baisalov said. Alisher Mamasaliev, head of the youth organization KelKel, told "There will probably be an initiative to control or pressure [NGOs] through the National Statistics Committee, tax inspectors. In my view, however, it's not worth making hay out of the fact that a number of NGOs work on the basis of foreign grants." The move to check NGOs comes on the heels of a similar campaign in Russia, where state-controlled television recently aired a program accusing a number of NGOs of receiving funding through Britain's intelligence services (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2006). DK

The Kyrgyz Foreign Ministry has presented U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch with the Kyrgyz government's proposal for a new agreement on the presence of the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan, Kabar reported on 24 January. The report stated that the proposed agreement significantly increases lease payments for the base, but it did not specify exact amounts. Zamira Sydykova, Kyrgyzstan's ambassador to the United States, said at a briefing in Bishkek on 24 January that the new agreement will provide for direct payments to the Kyrgyz budget instead of payments to Kyrgyz subcontractors for fuel shipments, as was the previous practice, Interfax-AVN reported. DK

Ambassador Sydykova told a news conference in Bishkek on 24 January that the FBI has been informed about U.S. accounts held by former Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev and his relatives, reported. Sydykova said that an investigation of U.S. payments to companies controlled by Akaev's relatives for fuel shipments to the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan is continuing. DK

Some two dozen women in the Oq-yor district of Andijon briefly blocked a road on 21 January to protest shortages of gas and power, RFE/RL reported on 24 January. Isroiljon Kholdorov, regional head of the banned Erk opposition party's Andijon branch, told RFE/RL that 125 villages around the city are without gas this winter. Residents of nearby Ferghana have also complained of sporadic gas supplies, the report noted. No officials met with the protesters and no police interference was reported. DK/GS

The trial of Bakhtiyor Rahimov, who headed a brief rebellion in the Uzbek city of Qorasuv (Karasu) in May, has begun in Tashkent, reported on 24 January, quoting unnamed sources. Rahimov, who claimed that he intended to set up an Islamic state in the rebellious town, was later arrested by Uzbek security forces when they reestablished control over the area (see "Sister Of Karasu Popular Leader Tells About Her Brother's Arrest,", 19 May 2005). DK

Viktar Sheyman, the head of the nomination group for President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, told journalists on 24 January that the group has collected 1.57 million signatures for Lukashenka -- well in excess of the 100,000 names required to put potential candidates on the ballot for the 19 March presidential election, Belarusian Television reported. "We have not violated existing legislation under any circumstances. The signatures have been collected [exclusively] by members of our nomination group and only from willing voters," Sheyman said. The nomination groups of some opposition candidates have repeatedly charged that signatures for Lukashenka are gathered by administration officials at state-run enterprises and organizations, and using psychological pressure. There were some 7.1 million eligible voters during the legislative elections and constitutional referendum in Belarus in October 2004. JM

According to a poll conducted by the Gallup/Baltic Surveys in the first half of this month, 54.6 percent of Belarusians said they would vote for Lukashenka if a presidential election was held on 15 January, Belapan reported on 23 January. Of those polled, 16.8 percent declared they would vote for united opposition candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, while 2.9 percent intended to cast ballots for independent candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin. Nearly 80 percent of respondents said they had heard or read about Milinkevich. Of those, 55 percent saw him in a positive light, while 25 percent had a negative attitude toward him. JM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov suggested on 25 January that the signing of accords resulting from the 4 January framework agreement on gas supplies to Ukraine in 2006 between Gazprom, Naftohaz Ukrayiny, and the Swiss-based intermediary RosUkrEnergo will be put off again, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Initially the signing was planned for 21 January and then put off to 25 January. "It looks today as if the agreements will not be signed," Yekhanurov said. "Russian experts are currently working in Ukraine but, unfortunately, we are not yet going ahead with the signing," he added. Earlier this week Ukrainian Fuel and Energy Minister Ivan Plachkov told journalists that the Ukrainian cabinet had approved a directive on setting up Gazenergo, a joint venture by Naftohaz Ukrayiny and RosUkrEnergo to sell gas to Ukrainian consumers, as stipulated by the 4 January agreement. The joint venture's charter capital is reportedly to amount to 5 million hryvnyas ($1 million) and will be contributed equally by Naftohaz Ukrayiny and RosUkrEnergo. JM

The pro-presidential electoral bloc Our Ukraine has appealed to political forces that supported Viktor Yushchenko's presidential bid during the Orange Revolution in 2004 to sign a coalition agreement before the 26 March parliamentary elections, Interfax-Ukraine reported on 25 January. "Our potential coalition partners should recognize the president as the leader of an 'orange coalition,'" Roman Zvarych from Our Ukraine told the agency. Zvarych also said Our Ukraine makes the formation of such an "orange coalition" contingent on its partners' readiness to annul the dismissal of Prime Minister Yekhanurov's cabinet by parliament on 10 January. Our Ukraine reportedly made its coalition offer to the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, the Socialist Party, the Kostenko-Plyushch Ukrainian People's Bloc, and the electoral bloc formed by the PORA youth organization and the Reforms and Order Party. JM

Bogoljub Lazic, a deputy chief executive with the Mobtel mobile telephone operator, was arrested for abuse of office in Belgrade on 24 January, Beta, B92 and dpa reported the same day. Lazic, who will be detained for 48 hours pending formal charges, also held government posts dealing with telecommunications, raising allegations of conflicts of interests, B92 reported. In addition to his post at Mobtel, Lazic served as a deputy to Serbian Capital Investments Minister Velimir Ilic and had jurisdiction over telecommunications. He also sat on a government committee charged with determining Mobtel's ownership structure. Mobtel has been the subject of a far-reaching corruption probe by Serbian authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13, 17, 18 and 19 January 2006). BW

Serbia and Montenegro and European Union peacekeeping forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina (EUFOR) signed an agreement on 24 January guaranteeing the safe passage of EUFOR troops, FoNet, B92, and AP reported the same day. Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic and EUFOR Commander Major General Gian Marco Chiarini signed the agreement, which allows EUFOR troops stationed in Bosnia to move through the territory of Serbia and Montenegro to Kosova. "Among other things, the agreement guarantees stability in Kosovo and the security of Serbians who could potentially become targets of terrorist attacks," Draskovic said. Asked by reporters if the agreement allows EUFOR forces to search for war-crimes fugitives in Serbia and Montenegro, Draskovic said it is related exclusively to transit, B92 reported. BW

Officials and the Rugova family in Kosova said on 24 January that Serbian President Boris Tadic is not welcome at the funeral of President Ibrahim Rugova, Reuters reported the same day. "Tadic is not welcome at the funeral, especially after his last comments," Reuters quoted an unidentified senior government official as saying. On 23 January, Tadic said he wanted to attend Rugova's funeral, saying: "It would be a matter of basic courtesy for the Serbian president to go to Kosovo, which is part of Serbia's territorial integrity, and pay his respects to the political representative of the Albanian people," Beta reported the same day. Tadic's comments sparked fierce criticism in the Kosovar media. "Serbia's president has not chosen the right moment to express the ambitions of his state towards Kosova," Reuters quoted the newspaper "Kosova sot" as writing. Rugova will be buried in Prishtina on 26 January in a cemetery for ethnic Albanian guerillas slain in the 1998-99 war in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 January 2006). BW

The outgoing High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina, Paddy Ashdown, said on 24 January that the failure to apprehend war crimes fugitives Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic was the "biggest disappointment" of his term, Reuters reported the same day. Ashdown also said that the international community bears some responsibility for the failure. "Can criticism be attached to the international community? Of course it can, we all make mistakes," Ashdown said in remarks to reporters in Banja Luka. But primary responsibility, Ashdown said, lies with authorities in Serbia and Bosnia's Republika Srpska. "It is with the authorities in Belgrade and Banja Luka who for nine years did not try to do this at all," Ashdown said. He added, however, that "Karadzic and Mladic are now more isolated than ever and I regard that as a success." BW

Macedonia has asked Belgrade to explain why Serbian border guards have allegedly halted Macedonian fuel shipments to Kosova, AP reported on 23 January. The alleged halt in fuel shipments came as unusually freezing weather gripped much of the Balkan region. "We are waiting for an answer," an unidentified Macedonian official told AP. "This is against the agreement for transit of the goods for Kosovo," the official added. AP cited Macedonia's A1 television as reporting that Serbian customs officials on 21 and 22 January turned back more than 60 trucks carrying crude oil and gasoline at the Tabanovce border crossing. But an unidentified Macedonian Interior Ministry official told AP that Serbian customs allowed three trucks with kerosene fuel to pass to Kosova on 23 January. BW

Moldavian Reintegration Minister Vasile Sova said on 24 January that Chisinau will provide officials from the breakaway Transdniester region with full information about new customs regulations governing imports and exports when talks on resolving the province's status resume, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. The talks are scheduled to resume on 26-27 January. As of 25 January, all companies in Transdniester must process all imports and exports through Moldovan customs offices and all companies in the region, he added, must be registered in Moldova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 January 2006). Transdniester officials have called the measure an economic blockade and asked the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to prevent the move. Valerii Nesterushkin, Russia's representative at the Transdniester talks, said on 24 January that "there is absolutely no clarity as to how the new rules will be effected in practice," ITAR-TASS reported the same day. BW

Speaking on 24 January during a two-day visit to Baku, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov warned that Moscow may pull out of the amended Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) that regulates the amount of heavy weaponry Russia and NATO member states may deploy in sensitive strategic locations, Russian and international media reported. Ivanov expressed his displeasure that some NATO member states have still not ratified the Treaty (Russia did so in July 2004). He said: "So far we are fulfilling all our obligations [imposed by the CFE Treaty,] unlike the other states that have signed the treaty, but have yet to ratify it. "[But] we have limits over which we will not go for now. As for the future, we will see," RTR and Channel One reported.

The original CFE Treaty was signed in November 1990 between the Soviet Union, its Warsaw Pact allies, and NATO. Following the collapse of the Warsaw Pact and of the USSR, preliminary agreement was reached in July 1997 on amending the original treaty to impose "ceilings" on individual countries' armed forces, specifying the maximum number of troops that may be deployed in each country (including troops from a foreign country or military alliance), and the number of tanks, aircraft, artillery pieces and other military hardware that may be deployed in individual countries in the region extending from the Atlantic to the Urals. Those amendments were further adapted in 1999 to reflect the fact that by that time former Warsaw Pact members Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic had been admitted to NATO and Slovakia, Slovenia Romania, and Bulgaria, as well as the Baltic states, had been given the green light to embark on talks on joining the Alliance. (They eventually did so in March 2004.)

The Agreement on Adaptation of the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe was finalized and signed during the OSCE summit in Istanbul in November 1999. But even before the Adaptation Agreement was signed, the U.S. signaled that it would not ratify it until Russia reduced its military presence in the North Caucasus, which had been expanded just months earlier due to the onset of the second war in Chechnya. Consequently, of the 30 OSCE member states that signed the amended treaty, only four -- Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia -- have ratified it. In recent years, senior Russian officials have repeatedly argued that the Baltic states should also accede to the amended treaty, but no further countries may do so until all the original signatories have ratified it. And Washington has imposed further conditions for ratification, namely that Russia make good on the agreement it signed on the sidelines of the 1999 Istanbul summit in Istanbul to scale down its military presence in Georgia, closing two of its four bases in that country by July 2001, and to withdraw all its forces from Moldova by the end of 2002.

Russia duly withdrew from two bases in Georgia by mid-2001, but an agreement on closing the remaining two by the end of 2007 was signed only in May 2005. The situation with regard to Moldova is even bleaker, as 1,400 Russian servicemen and 21,000 tons of hardware and ammunition remain in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester Republic with no clear date set for their departure.

The United States and other NATO countries continue to peg ratification of the amended CFE treaty to Russian compliance with the commitments it made in Istanbul, even though then Russian Defense Minister Igor Ivanov argued in February 2005 that those commitments took the form of bilateral agreements and are therefore not binding with regard to multilateral agreements. Ivanov's statement in Baku suggests that Moscow has decided to flex its military muscle and threaten to destroy a pact that has been described as the cornerstone of the entire European security system. Russian Foreign Minster Sergei Lavrov uttered a similar warning last month, telling RIA Novosti on 12 December: "If steps are not taken to ratify [the adapted CFE Treaty] in the very near future, we will be in danger of losing the whole regime of conventional arms in Europe," reported.

But an unnamed Russian military diplomat quoted by "Vremya novostei" on 25 January downplayed the likely impact of a hypothetical Russian withdrawal from the CFE treaty. That diplomat predicted that little would change in real terms, and that Russia is unlikely to embark on a military build-up on its Western borders that would pose a threat to the West.

Hamid Karzai said on 24 January that Afghanistan will never consider a truce with Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, regardless of his relations with the United States, AFP reported. "It is up to America if they want to make peace with him or not. But I, as a son of Afghanistan, want him before an Islamic court," Karzai told an audience at a ceremony marking the start of construction of a new Islamic school in the Afghan capital, Kabul. "I will not negotiate with him; there is no room for peace." A speaker purported to be bin Laden on a recently broadcast audiotape suggested a truce between Al-Qaeda and the United States. The speaker said the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and Afghanistan could help expedite the reconstruction of both countries and ease hostilities. Washington immediately ruled out the offer. Karzai has repeatedly said Afghanistan will need U.S. troops for years to come. "We have given 1.5 million martyrs for Islam -- my country was invaded, we have freed it from the grip of infidels," Karzai said. "But he (bin Laden), under the name of my jihad (holy struggle), invaded my country. This land needs justice." MR

Kandahar residents have expressed concern over the recent arrest of a student bookseller along with several of his relatives, AFP reported on 24 January. Witnesses said U.S. soldiers raided a Kandahar mosque during prayers on 10 January, allowing masked men to look at the face of every worshiper before taking away local poet and high-school student Sayed Ahmad Qaneh and four of his relatives. One of the detainees, an elderly man, was released the following day. "He [Qaneh] was detained while praying in the city's grand mosque on 10 January. We've no news about him since then," said witness Sarajuddin Khan, principal of the Zahir Shahi high school that Qaneh attends. Another witness, Mohammad Yar, said: "We're concerned about their fates. They were just taken away and no one talks about them." Khan and Yar claimed there was no reason to believe Qaneh had links to insurgents operating in the area. "As far as I knew, he was a very good person -- he had no links to the Taliban or other groups," Khan said, according to AFP. MR

The search for a missing International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) helicopter lost en route from Pakistan to the Afghan capital continued for a fourth day on 24 January, but found no sign of the missing aircraft, AP reported. The Russian-made Mi-8 transport helicopter went missing on 21 January after taking off from the Pakistani border city of Peshawar bound for Kabul. The helicopter, with seven people aboard, was supposed to refuel in Kabul and then fly on to its base in Turkmenistan. The ICRC had chartered the helicopter for relief efforts in Pakistan, where earthquake victims are fighting severe winter conditions. The helicopter's crew comprised employees of Turkmenistan Airlines; no ICRC employees were traveling on the aircraft when it vanished. "Unfortunately, we do not have any news," Red Cross spokeswoman Layla Berlemont Shtewi said. "The search is still going on inside Pakistan and Afghanistan." A Pakistani army official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the helicopter did not crash in Pakistan. "Whatever happened to it, it happened in Afghanistan," the Pakistani official insisted. MR

Militants recently set fire to a girls' school in western Afghanistan, the Afghan independent Pajhwok news agency's website reported on 24 January, without specifying the date of the incident. Farah Province Deputy Governor Haji Besmellah Khan said the school the attackers burned was in the Charbagh neighborhood of the provincial capital, Farah. Besmellah Khan said gunmen torched the school after overpowering a guard. Pajhwok reported that there have been 20 recent incidents of school burnings in southern and southeastern Afghanistan, where neo-Taliban forces continue to wage an insurgency against Afghan and international forces. MR

Interior Minister Hojatoleslam Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi attributed the two fatal 24 January bombings in Ahvaz to extraterritorial forces, ISNA reported. "As soon as the incident took place, the propaganda machines became active," he said. "It was clear they were anticipating such an incident." He vowed "tough action" against the perpetrators. Pur-Mohammadi said all those responsible for previous incidents in Ahvaz have been arrested. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad expressed condolences from Tehran and called for resolute action against the perpetrators, IRNA reported. Ahmadinejad tasked the Intelligence and Security Ministry and the Foreign Ministry with investigating the alleged extraterritorial aspect of the incidents. BS

Athletes, Basij members, and others formed a human chain around the uranium-conversion facility in Isfahan on 22 January, international news agencies reported. A spokesman for the demonstrators, Behruz Aqa Ebrahim Samani, told the Iranian Labor News Agency that participants were defending the country's right to use nuclear energy for peaceful purposes. Samani appealed to Iranians' nationalistic impulses, saying, "By constructing this complex, we succeeded in becoming one of the eight best countries in the world." National pride is frequently invoked among the Iranian public when the nuclear issue is broached, and international concern about potential weapons production is rarely mentioned. BS

Parliamentary speaker Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel has sent a letter to his Omani counterpart, Sheikh Abdullah bin Ali al-Qatbi, inviting him to attend Iran's third International Conference to Support the Palestinian Uprising (Intifada), IRNA reported on 24 January. The letter was hand-delivered by an Iranian parliamentary delegation that is visiting Muscat. The conference is scheduled for March-April. The first two conferences took place in Iran in April 2001 and June 2002, and they were attended by representatives of Hizballah, Hamas, the PIJ, and the PFLP-GC, all of which are classified as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department. BS

President Ahmadinejad said during a 24 January visit to the Cultural Heritage and Tourism Organization in Tehran that Iran's "culture, values, policies, and behavior" are different from the West's and Iran is acting on its belief in the free flow of information, state television reported. On 23 January, Masud Fateh, who is in charge of media affairs at the Information Communication Technology Ministry's public-relations office, said the BBC Persian website is being filtered, ILNA reported. He added that the names of websites that must be filtered will be forwarded to Internet service providers (ISPs) in the near future. BS

The Iraqi Islamic Party called on Sunni Arabs to defend themselves by all possible means on 24 January following an apparent Interior Ministry operation in a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad that sought out and killed two men and rounded up 50 others, international media reported on 25 January. The operation, carried out in the Tubji neighborhood of Baghdad, is one in a series of operations that Sunni Arabs claim target innocent civilians. In a statement, the Iraqi Islamic Party called on people "to be aware of these criminal gangs...and face them in any appropriate way to defend their souls, honor, and wealth," Reuters reported. The Muslim Scholars Association issued its own statement, saying: "The occupiers and the government adopt terrorism and assassination, and they practice racial and sectarian discrimination in various Iraqi cities," according to the news agency. KR

U.K. forces in Al-Basrah arrested two police officers and one civilian during an operation to root out corruption in the police on 24 January, the U.K. Defense Ministry said in a same day statement ( The men detained in the raid are affiliated with the former Department of Affairs, Criminal Intelligence Unit, and Serious Crimes Unit; all are suspected of kidnapping, extortion, and the assassination of civilians in the governorate, as well as participating in attacks on multinational forces. "In addition to the arrests, a considerable number of weapons including 70 AK [rifle] variants, four machine guns, and 15 pistols were seized during the operation," the statement noted. "As this operation progresses, we will be supporting the [Al-Basrah] chief of police in selecting and training decent and honest police service officers to form the new intelligence agencies" which will allow the police to "carry out their duties without fear of intimidation," the statement added. Brigadier Patrick Marriott said at a 24 January press briefing in Al-Basrah that the operation had detained 14 people from the intelligence and homicide divisions, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) reported. KR

Five female Iraqi detainees currently in U.S. custody will be freed on 26 January, an unidentified Iraqi Justice Ministry official told Reuters on 25 January. Insurgents holding U.S. journalist Jill Carroll hostage in Iraq have called for the release of all female detainees in return for Carroll's freedom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2006). The ministry claimed last week that six women were scheduled to be freed, although U.S. officials have denied that. The U.S. is reportedly holding eight women detainees in Iraq. KR

An Iraqi cameraman working for Baghdad TV was killed in a U.S. air strike in Al-Ramadi on 24 January, international media reported on 25 January. Witnesses told Reuters that Mahmud Za'al was filming an insurgent attack on two governorate buildings used by U.S. forces when the attack took place. U.S. military planes and helicopters began shooting at the insurgents, wounding and then killing Za'al. Meanwhile, a female Iraqi broadcaster working for Al-Sharqiyah television reportedly escaped an attempted kidnapping when armed gunmen stormed her Baghdad apartment by jumping from her first story window, Xinhua news agency reported on 25 January. Nagham Abd al-Zahra sustained broken bones in the fall, a police official told the news agency. KR