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Newsline - February 3, 2006

U.S. National Intelligence Director John Negroponte told the Senate Intelligence Committee in Washington on 2 February that "[Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin's drive to centralize power and assert control over civil society, growing state control over strategic sectors of the economy, and the persistence of widespread corruption raise questions about the country's direction," reported. Negroponte believes that Russia probably will continue to "work with the United States on shared interests, such as counterterrorism, counternarcotics, and counterproliferation." But he stressed that "growing [Russian] suspicions about Western intentions and Moscow's desire to demonstrate its independence and defend its own interests make it harder to cooperate with Russia on areas of concern to the United States." The veteran diplomat believes that "Russia could become a more inward-looking and difficult interlocutor for the United States over the next several years." PM

Mikhail Sukhachev, a spokesman for Russia's Rosoboroneksport state arms trader, told reporters in New Delhi on 2 February that work is proceeding on schedule in a $1.5 billion project to renovate and refit the aircraft carrier "Admiral Gorshkov," RIA Novosti reported. In one of Russia's largest military deals with India, work on the ship's keel and training of the Indian maintenance crew began in December. The vessel, which is named after one of the Soviet Union's best-known proponents of a blue-water navy, will carry MiG-29K Fulcrum aircraft (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 20 January 2004). PM

Lawyer Anatoly Kucherena said in Moscow on 2 February that 14 criminal cases have been opened in connection with the brutal New Year's Eve hazing of Private Andrei Sychyov, whose legs and genitals were amputated as a result of the beatings he received from fellow soldiers at the Chelyabinsk tank school, Interfax reported. Kucherena added that "no pressure is being put on military prosecutors" in conjunction with the investigation. He chairs the Public Chamber's commission for public control over law enforcement and security agencies and over judicial-system reforms. He said that unnamed other members of that advisory body who went to Chelyabinsk felt that Sychyov and suspect Aleksandr Sivyakov had been "brainwashed" before speaking to their visitors from Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2006). PM

A spokesman for the prosecutor's office of the Far Eastern Military District told RIA Novosti on 2 February that prosecutors for the Khabarovsk garrison are investigating an incident last May that resulted in the amputation of the legs of Private Yevgeny Koblov from Saratov Oblast, RIA Novosti reported. A spokeswoman for the Saratov chapter of the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees said that the young soldier is being hospitalized in Moscow. In related news, an Army spokesman in Novosibirsk said that all new conscripts in the Siberian Military District will be kept separate from older soldiers for six months. A deeply rooted culture of bullying of new draftees by older soldiers is widely seen as being at the root of brutal hazing incidents. PM

President Putin told a meeting at the Prosecutor-General's Office in Moscow on 3 February that the situation surrounding the fight against crime remains "far from favorable," Russian news agencies reported. He noted that some sources indicate that over 5,000 people who allegedly committed murders in 2005 were not prosecuted. The president recalled that some 70,000 Russian citizens have been reported missing, adding that "it is a terrible figure, and it is even frightening to talk about it." He noted that "the surge in crimes related to xenophobia and to ethnic and racial intolerance is shameful. It has naturally aroused public indignation." Turning to the issue of brutal hazing in the armed forces, Putin called on prosecutors to take quick action in dealing with any reports of infractions of the law in the military (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January 2006). PM

The Moscow Arbitration Court ruled on 2 February that former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov's purchase of a dacha at an auction was illegal, reported. The prosecutors charged that he set up favorable conditions for the sale before President Putin fired him in 2004. Kasyanov, who has since become an opposition politician with presidential ambitions, says that the case was fabricated to discredit him. PM

A court in Zonalnoye in the Altai Krai sentenced Oleg Shcherbinsky to four years in a penal colony on 3 February for his role in the death on 7 August 2005 of the region's governor, Mikhail Yevdokimov, and two others in a car accident, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 August 2005). The judge said that Shcherbinsky "showed criminal negligence" and could have avoided the fatal collision. PM

Sergei Koltovich, who heads Aeroflot's planning and development service, said in Moscow on 2 February that Russia's leading airline wants to expand its fleet from 90 to more than 110 planes by 2010, RIA Novosti reported. "The last few years have shown that if Aeroflot continues to use high-cost Soviet-made planes [built before 1990], then our airline cannot be competitive," he added. Most of the new planes will come from Boeing and Airbus, as well as from Russian Regional Jets, which brings together Russia's Sukhoi aerospace firm and international subcontractors. Soviet-era Tu-154 and Tu-134 aircraft will start to be phased out later in 2006. Aeroflot will buy 12 Airbus A-320 aircraft that same year to replace some Tu-154 planes. In related news, Aeroflot announced that it lost about $6 billion in 2005, primarily due to rising fuel costs and the temporary grounding of its IL-96 jets, "The Moscow Times" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23 September 2005). PM

Igor Yesipovsky, who is the new head of AvtoVAZ, said in Tolyatti, Samara Oblast, on 2 February that his company will invest billions of dollars in new production facilities and car models in the coming years in an effort to fight foreign competition, "The Moscow Times" reported. The maker of Lada cars plans to unveil 12 new models and double production capacity over the next five years alone. AvtoVAZ will rely on a combination of Russian talent and foreign partners in its efforts. Yesipovsky and another top manager recently came to the car maker from Rosoboroneksport, which has raised questions about state involvement with AvtoVAZ. PM

Health and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov said in Moscow on 2 February that the government has allocated $46 million to combat bird flu, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10, 11, and 12 January 2006). Developing a vaccine and immunizing birds top the list of priorities. PM

Writer Valentin Rasputin, who has been linked to nationalist causes over the years, said that the planned Siberia-Pacific oil pipeline threatens the ecology of Lake Baikal, reported on 1 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 February 2002 and 6 January 2006). He noted that President Putin has already announced the start of construction on the project. Rasputin stressed nonetheless that not enough consideration has been given to the pipeline's potential damage to the environment, as was the case with the virgin lands project of the 1960s. He argued that pure water has become more precious in many Russian communities than oil and gas and called on society to break out of its apathy and help save Lake Baikal. PM

Two people have died and 15 are in the hospital following overnight explosions in three gambling halls in Vladikavkaz, the capital of North Ossetia, Russian news agencies reported on 3 February. Police found and defused an explosive device in a fourth casino before it could go off. Investigators are looking into several possible motives for the explosions, including terrorism and a turf war among local criminals. The republic's First Deputy Prosecutor Aleksandr Panov said that "a criminal case has been opened. Terrorism remains the main theory, but we have not yet excluded a variety of theories related to business." The North Ossetian government has meanwhile closed all gambling establishments in the republic. Some Islamic fundamentalists strongly oppose gambling. PM

The Supreme Court of Daghestan ruled on 3 February in Makhachkala that Magomed Salikhov must serve four years and four months in prison for participation in an armed group and use of forged documents, Interfax reported. On 24 January, a jury acquitted him of the more serious charge of organizing a bombing of an apartment building in Buinaksk in September 1999, which killed 64 people. PM

The French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group arrived in Yerevan on 2 February from Baku and met with Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and Yerkir reported. Accompanied by Andre Kasprzik, the special representative of the OSCE chairman in office for the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, the OSCE officials discussed their recent meeting with Azerbaijani leaders and reviewed preliminary details of the upcoming Paris summit meeting between the Armenian and Azerbaijani presidents set for 10-11 February (see "RFE/RL's Newsline," 2 February 2006). The upcoming talks are widely expected to focus on a one-page document of "fundamental principles" intended to serve as the centerpiece of a formal peace settlement (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 27 January 2006). RG

A new bilateral memorandum of understanding on energy cooperation was signed in Tehran on 2 February during the latest session of the Armenian-Iranian intergovernmental commission, Arminfo and Armenian Public TV reported. The new accord formally endorsed plans for the construction of the second section of the Iran-Armenia natural-gas pipeline, for a third electrical-power transmission line, and regarding the modernization of the fifth unit of Armenia's Razdan power station. The meeting produced a further agreement on the establishment of cultural and education centers in each country. RG

A group of several Armenian civic groups released a report in Yerevan on 2 February criticizing what they consider the country's failed and regressive democratic reforms, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The 200-page report, written by local Armenian civil-society groups and the National Press Club, also condemned the Armenian government for its pattern of voting fraud and related irregularities, and for its failure to address police misconduct and human rights violations. The report was released to coincide with the fifth anniversary of Armenia's accession to the Council of Europe. RG

Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council Secretary Anatoliy Kinakh met on 2 February in Baku with Azerbaijani Prime Minister Artur Rasizade and Foreign Minister Eldar Mammadyarov, Turan reported. The Ukrainian official discussed the need to expand bilateral cooperation in the economic and trade sectors and Azerbaijani officials requested greater military cooperation, adding that bilateral cooperation was needed to "tackle frozen conflicts," ANS-TV reported. RG

A visiting Georgian delegation led by parliament Deputy Chairman Jemal Inaishvili thanked Azerbaijani officials on 2 February for helping Georgia overcome its recent energy crisis by delivering gas supplies, according to the Azertac News Agency. The Georgian parliamentary delegation met with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev at the presidential palace in Baku and praised the current state of bilateral relations and cited the work of the joint Georgian-Azerbaijani Economic Commission in resolving past issues of contention. RG

Azerbaijani Deputy Interior Minister Vilayat Eyvazov, the senior official responsible to combat human trafficking, reported on 2 February that police have arrested 269 individuals on charges of human trafficking, Turan reported. Eyvazov explained that the Azerbaijani authorities have uncovered and dismantled some 50 criminal gangs involved in human trafficking operating in the country. Eyvazov also reported that counseling services were being provided to victims of human trafficking and added that victims are "illegally sent to Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and other foreign countries." RG

Georgian opposition Industrialists Party Chairman Zurab Tkemaladze announced on 2 February that his party intends to withdraw its seven deputies from a 17-seat opposition parliamentary faction led by the New Rights Party, Civil Georgia and Rustavi-2 TV reported. Tkemaladze stated that he will set up a new independent faction in parliament aimed at further "strengthening the parliamentary opposition." Tkemaladze was elected chairman of his party in November 2005 and seeks to set a new course to oppose the Georgian government ("RFE/RL Newsline," 7 November 2005). RG

President Nursultan Nazarbaev has signed a decree ordering the creation of a holding company called Samruk that will manage state assets, "Kazakhstan Today" reported on 2 February. The decree gives the government two weeks to establish the basic principles of Samruk's operations. The holding company's acting director will be Sauat Mynbaev. Samruk will manage the state's stakes in such firms as postal company Kazpochta and telecommunications provider Kazakhtelekom. A full list of the companies that will be managed by Samruk remains to be determined. DK

Prime Minister Feliks Kulov visited the Russian military base in Kant, Kyrgyzstan, on 2 February, reported. "This military airfield should be seen as a basic component of Kyrgyzstan's defense capability," Kulov commented. "It ensures that the sky above our heads is defended." Kulov told journalists that there are no plans for additional military bases in the country's south, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. "I do not rule out the possibility of cooperation in the fight against terrorism, possibly by using [foreign] advisers and other structures, but not bases, in the south of our country, although it won't entail deployment of foreign contingents," Kulova said. DK

With 38 votes against, Kyrgyzstan's parliament on 2 February rejected the candidacy of Sultangazy Kasymov to head the country's supreme court, reported. Kasymov had been chief justice of the court since 1996, and President Kurmanbek Bakiev had resubmitted Kasymov's candidacy when his term expired. Deputy Ulukbek Ormonov said that "new, young faces" should come to the high court. Deputies also voted down two other Bakiev choices: Ermek Sharsheev, proposed as a judge for an economic court in Issykkul Province; and Jyrgalbek Mamaev, proposed as a judge in the Aksu regional court of Issykkul Province. DK

Recent reductions in pensions and other social benefits in Turkmenistan have caused widespread anxiety among retirees and other beneficiaries of social programs, Deutsche Welle and "Vremya novostei" reported on 1-2 February. Deutsche Welle reported that the social-security minister spoke on national television on 30 January, explaining that 100,000 retirees will no longer receive pensions while the pensions of 200,000 others have been reduced. "Vremya novostei" reported that the reductions began in January, although the government provided incomplete information and many pensioners only learned of the changes once they tried to pick up discontinued payments. The newspaper reported that President Saparmurat Niyazov signed a law on 25 January ordering some pensioners to repay sums they had already received as a result of alleged miscalculations. Both reports indicated that the reductions sparked panic among beneficiaries who had rely on pensions to survive. Central Asia analyst Michael Laubsch told "Vremya novostei" that Niyazov is "consciously embarking on the destruction of the elderly segment of the population, which still remembers the time before Niyazov and is thus socially dangerous to him." DK

Opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on 2 February, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The meeting was also attended by Milinkevich's allies in the presidential election campaign: Belarusian Popular Front leader Vintsuk Vyachorka, United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka, and Belarusian Party of Communists leader Syarhey Kalyakin. "Ms. Merkel was primarily interested in the election and its possible falsifications as well as in the media," Vyachorka told RFE/RL. "As a person who has her own experience from a totalitarian country -- she lived in the German Democratic Republic -- she understands the situation [in Belarus] very well. In this context she expressed her solidarity with us and her understanding of our democratic goals." JM

Naftohaz Ukrayiny and the Swiss-based RosUkrEnergo on 2 February signed an accord on creating a joint venture to sell gas in Ukraine, as they were obliged to do under a framework agreement concluded between them and Gazprom on 4 January (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report," 10 January 2006), Interfax-Ukraine reported. The joint venture, named UkrGazEnergo, has a charter capital of 5 million hryvnyas ($1 million) with stakes shared evenly between its founders. Naftohaz Ukrayiny spokesman Eduard Zanyuk told journalists in Kyiv that neither gas-storage facilities nor gas pipelines in Ukraine will be included in UkrGazEnergo's charter fund. He also revealed that RosUkrEnergo and UkrGazEnergo signed a five-year contract on gas supplies to Ukraine. Under the contract Ukraine is to receive 34 billion cubic meters of gas in 2006 and some 60 billion cubic meters annually in 2007-10. "The gas price defined in this contract is fixed for five years and is $95 for 1,000 cubic meters," Zanyuk noted. RosUkrEnergo's managers, Konstantin Chuichenko and Oleg Palchikov, who attended the news conference along with Zanyuk, refused to answer questions from journalists and reportedly left the conference room to continue talks with Naftohaz Ukrayiny. JM

RosUkrEnergo executive director Konstantin Chuichenko told Interfax-Ukraine in Kyiv on 2 February that his company may revise the price of gas supplies to Ukraine under the contract it signed with UkrGazEnergo earlier the same day. "The price may be changed -- it depends on the price of Russian gas for RosUkrEnergo," Chuichenko said. "There is a procedure [for changing the price] written down in the contract, and it is a typical procedure in international contacts of such a type," he added. Another RosUkrEnergo manager, Ivan Palchikov, told Interfax-Ukraine that there is no "price formula" in the gas contract signed with UkrGazEnergo. According to Palchikov, the effective gas price for Ukraine will depend on the price of Central Asian gas in the total gas volume supplied to the country. Meanwhile, Andriy Halushchak from the UkrGazEnergo supervisory board, told Interfax-Ukraine that the contract includes no "mean tricks" regarding the gas price. "If one side wants to change the price, it proposes to conclude a relevant agreement to the other side. If both sides cannot agree on this, they resort to court," Halushchak explained. JM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and his Romanian counterpart, Traian Basescu, signed a protocol in Kyiv on 2 February on the establishment of a joint Ukrainian-Romanian presidential commission, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Both presidents told journalists that they also created an intergovernmental commission to study cooperation in exploring and exploiting gas and oil deposits in the Black Sea continental shelf. Yushchenko said they also discussed issues related to the Romanian minority in Ukraine and the Ukrainian minority in Romania. "We jointly proceed from a principle of equality and symmetry in organizing cooperation in this issue," Yushchenko noted. JM

Bosnia's State Court announced on 2 February that a war crimes suspect whose wife was killed in a shoot-out with European Union peacekeepers (EUFOR) during his arrest will be freed on a technicality, Reuters reported the same day. The court said that Dragomir Abazovic, a Bosnian Serb, was arrested on an old warrant that is no longer valid because Bosnia has since established a new war crimes court and new legislation governing war crimes suspects. EUFOR arrested Abazovic on 5 January, killing his wife and wounding his 11-year-old son in a shoot-out in which all three fired on the peacekeepers. Abazovic shot himself to avoid capture (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 9 January 2006). Abazovic, who was indicted in 2002 for war crimes against Muslims in his home area of Rogatica, is in the hospital recovering from the gunshot wound. "Technically, he could walk out today. But the doctors planned to release him on [3 February]," hospital spokeswoman Biljana Jandric told Reuters. "He's eating normally and going to physiotherapy." BW

General Gian Franco Chiarini, the commander of EUFOR peacekeeping forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, said on 2 February that the country's security is threatened due to a large amount of illegal weapons, AKI reported the same day. Speaking at a press conference in Sarajevo, Chiarini said that in one operation in January, his troops found 3 tons of illegal weapons in an underground bunker near the town of Bosanska Dubica in Republika Srpska. The prevalence of illegal weapons, he said, is a "threat to the general security of the country" adding that searching for illegal weapons depots will continue to be a priority for EUFOR. BW

A decision by Serbia and Montenegro's Supreme Defense Council to classify a report on military officers assisting war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic has come under fire in the media, B92 reported on 2 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 2 February 2006). Writing in the daily newspaper "This demonstrates that we are still moving in a closed circle. I assume that the report contains information that may harm certain individuals, but I doubt that it contains something that would harm a country like ours, that is unable to pick up Mladic's trace," "Politika" security analyst Ljubodrag Stojadinovic wrote, according to B92. BW

Serbian law-enforcement officials interrogated business tycoon and politician Bogoljub Karic on 2 February over allegations of income-tax evasion in 1999 and 2000, B92 reported the next day. Karic, the founder of the mobile-telephone operator Mobtel, and his brother Sretan Karic, have been the subject of various criminal probes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13, 19, and 24 January 2006). Bogoljub Karic, who has formed the political party Force of Serbia (PSS), claims the cases are politically motivated. On 1 February at a rally in Kragujevac he accused the government of plotting to kill him, Beta and B92 reported the same day. "The ruling parties in Serbia are corrupt, and are trying to turn the public's attention away from the tricks they are pulling by attacking Mobtel and the Karic family," he said. BW

Three witnesses to a train crash near Bioca have said that the engineer, Slobodan Drobnjak, was not responsible for the derailment, Beta and B92 reported on 2 February, citing the engineer's attorney. Several witnesses have confirmed that "Drobnjak took all the necessary preventive measures in order to stop the train from losing control," attorney Goran Rodic said. Rodic added that Zoran Radovic, the judge hearing the case, has talked to three witnesses thus far. "I am happy with the content of all three statements, which prove that the engineer did everything he could in an effort to avoid losing control of the train." Rodic said. A judge has ruled that Drobnjak be held for one month pending an investigation into criminal charges that he endangered the lives of his passengers in the 23 January derailment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 24 and 31 January 2006). BW

Leka Zogu, the son of Albania's last king, said on 2 February that he plans to withdraw from political life, dpa reported the same day. In a press release, Zogu, 66, said he will devote himself instead to the royal family's affairs, adding that his decision is the result of an "assessment of the current political situation in the country." Zogu said, however, that he will remain head of the Movement of National Development, which he founded. Zogu fled Albania in 1939 after the Italian occupation of the country. He remained abroad throughout World War II and the communist period, returning briefly in 1993 and 1997 and moving back in 2002. BW

The Moldovan Reintegration Ministry has accused authorities in breakaway Transdniester of not allowing businesses in the region to register with Chisinau authorities as required by new legislation, Moldpres reported on 2 February. According to the ministry, Transdniestrian authorities have been intimidating businesses that seek to register. As of 25 January, all companies in Transdniester have been required to 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). Transdniestrian officials have called the measures an "economic blockade." BW

When Russia and Ukraine quarreled recently over the price of natural gas, the tiff garnered worldwide attention because European gas supplies suffered a brief interruption. But when the two countries brokered a tentative agreement on 4 January, Turkmenistan's role as the supplier of the cheap gas that made the agreement possible drew scant notice. That could be about to change, however, as Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov is sending increasingly clear signals that he is looking for ways to enlarge the benefits he reaps from his country's most coveted natural resource.

Turkmenistan currently ships the vast majority of its gas for export to Russia and Ukraine, both of which buy it at bargain prices. Russia's Gazprom is slated to buy 30 billion cubic meters of Turkmen gas at $65 per 1,000 cubic meters in 2006, according to International Oil Daily. The Turkmen gas that will go to Ukraine in 2006 could cost as little as $50 per 1,000 cubic meters, the "Financial Times" reported on 5 January. Meanwhile, prices in Western Europe exceed $200 per 1,000 cubic meters.

The most obvious way for Turkmenistan to get more for its gas would be to diversify its export routes and free itself from the need to send virtually all of its exports to Russia. Lately, President Niyazov has been exploring his options.

On 30 January, Niyazov met with Turkish Ambassador Hakki Akil and U.S. Ambassador Tracey Ann Jacobson in Ashgabat to discuss energy cooperation, reported. According to Turkmen television, Niyazov stressed that his country is considering "all possible routes for bringing its energy resources to international markets bearing in mind increasing global demand." The report noted Turkmenistan's ongoing interest in the construction of a gas pipeline through Afghanistan, adding that the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan will soon meet in Ashgabat to discuss the project. The presence of the Turkish envoy at the meeting with Niyazov suggested that a trans-Caspian pipeline to Turkey might have been on the agenda as well, although it received no mention in official reports.

The meeting came amid a quickening tempo of Turkmen energy talks. On 23 January, Niyazov met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Although Turkmen gas is a crucial component in the rickety resolution of the Russia-Ukraine gas crisis, the meeting appeared to indicate that the Turkmen president was not yet ready to extend price guarantees either to Moscow or Kyiv, "Kommersant" reported on 24 January. While in Russia, Niyazov also met with LUKoil head Vagit Alekperov and Kremlin-friendly oligarch Oleg Deripaska to discuss Russian investments in Turkmenistan, reported. Aleksei Miller, head of state-run Russian gas behemoth Gazprom, is slated to visit Ashgabat in the near future.

Before his Moscow meeting, Niyazov had hosted Zhang Guobao, deputy minister of China's National Development and Reform Commission, to draft a gas-export agreement in preparation for the Turkmen president's planned visit to China this spring. The agreement reportedly calls for Turkmenistan to export 30 billion cubic meters of gas to China a year through a pipeline to be built through Uzbekistan.

The discussion of energy cooperation with the U.S. and Turkish envoys against the backdrop of ongoing talks with other current and potential partners suggests that Turkmenistan's efforts to explore alternative export routes, or at least use the possibility as a bargaining chip in ongoing price talks, are accelerating. Contributing to this impression was a long article that appeared the day after the 30 January meeting on News Central Asia (, an English-language website run by Ashgabat-based Pakistani journalist Tariq Saeedi. News Central Asia's offerings are idiosyncratic, but its stance on Turkmen affairs is pro-government with a particular focus on energy issues.

In a lengthy commentary, Saeedi suggested that the 30 January meeting between Niyazov and the U.S. and Turkish envoys "could possibly be the starting point of a new phase in energy diplomacy." He went on to note that the recent Russian-Ukraine dispute has shown "that you cannot trust Russians." Saeedi then enumerated possible export routes for Central Asian gas: through Russian and Ukraine; through the Caspian (Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey); through Iran and Turkey; and through Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Saeedi commented that the first route -- currently the path most Turkmen gas takes for export -- is problematic because "Russians have proved that they are not reliable partners as far as energy security of Europe is concerned." Saeedi added that Iran "would be a logical route but the present circumstances and the American stance make it a politically indigestible fare." The trans-Caspian pipeline promises certain benefits, but would require the resolution of thorny political and environment problems. Saeedi presented the trans-Afghan pipeline as the most promising alternative export route.

The most intriguing section of Saeedi's article came at the close in a discussion of an "honest price" for Turkmen gas. Stressing that "Turkmen gas has been used to resolve" the recent crisis between Russia and Ukraine, the author took as a benchmark the $230 that Russia receives per 1,000 cubic meters of gas in Western Europe; he factored in transit charges, set aside 15 percent profit for Gazprom, and then concluded that a fair price for the Turkmen gas that Gazprom sells on to Europe would be $170 per 1,000 cubic meters. He added the caveat that there "may not be any immediate likelihood for Turkmenistan to get this price."

News Central Asia, as the website strains to make clear, is not officially affiliated with the Turkmen government. But its strikingly pro-government stance on major issues suggests at the very least an affinity for official thinking in Ashgabat. As the latest moves by Turkmenistan's mercurial leader indicate, his thoughts seem increasingly to be of ways to increase competition for his country's natural gas and ensure that it commands a higher price.

Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah told RFE/RL in Kabul on 2 February that an administrative committee will be formed under the auspices of the United Nations to coordinate the aid pledged to Afghanistan at this week's London conference (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January and 1 and 2 February 2006). An Afghan delegation should be appointed to the committee to consider Afghanistan's priorities and needs when deciding on the distribution of the aid, as well as to ensure that donors honor their pledges, Abdullah added. The two-day conference concluded on 1 February with new pledges of $10.5 billion for Afghan reconstruction in the next five years. AT

In press released on 2 February, Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, the official Radio Afghanistan reported. The cartoons were initially published by a Danish paper and were later reprinted in several other European countries, including France, Germany, Italy, and Spain. Speaking at a news conference in Davos, Switzerland, Karzai said the media should respect the beliefs of all people and added that, if such acts recur, the perpetrators should be sacked and punished in accordance with the law. Afghan Information, Culture, and Tourism Minister Sayyed Makhdum Rahin in a statement released on 2 February called the publication of the cartoons an "inhuman and immoral" act, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. "We strongly believe in freedom of the press. However, we strongly condemn abuse of freedom of the press that can harm Muslims," Rahin said in the statement. AT

A passenger blew up a car at a security checkpoint in the Bak district of eastern Khost Province on 1 February, killing three Afghan National Army (ANA) personnel, two civilians, the bomber, and the driver, RFE/RL 's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Provincial security chief General Mohammad Ayyub told RFE/RL that soldiers stopped the car at a checkpoint before a man in the backseat -- wearing traditional women's clothing -- detonated explosives close to his body. Three ANA soldiers and one civilian were also injured in the incident. Mohammad Ayyub blamed the attack on "enemies of Afghanistan" -- a term frequently used by Afghan authorities to denote the neo-Taliban -- and their foreign backers. AT

Mullah Abdul Samad, identified as a "Taliban commander," in Khost on 2 February claimed responsibility for the Bak suicide attack, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. Speaking to AIP by telephone, Abdul Samad said a "Taliban fighter, Mohammad Rahman," carried out the attack and went on to say that 12 ANA and U.S. troops were killed and four vehicles were destroyed. Abdul Samad also rejected reports that the attacker was wearing women's clothing. Afghan authorities have said that no U.S. troops were in the vicinity of the attack. People purporting to speak on behalf of the neo-Taliban have exaggerated casualty claims in past attacks. AT

Afghan security forces arrested one Iraqi and three Pakistani nationals in Nimroz Province on 31 January for suspected of links to Al-Qaeda, state-controlled Afghanistan National Television reported. The Iraqi has been identified as the son of a resident of Baghdad. The three Pakistanis are believed to have come from Pakistani-administered Kashmir, the Islamabad-based daily "The News" reported on 2 February. AT

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told a rally in Tangestan in southern Iran on 2 February that "nuclear energy is essentially enrichment" and rejected calls for Iran to again suspend activities related to uranium enrichment, IRNA reported. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei said in Vienna on 2 February that Iran's decision to resume limited enrichment activities might prompt skepticism of the peaceful nature of its program, Reuters reported. But Ahmadinejad accused "enemies" of trying to deprive Iran of its right to run a nuclear program. "They are so shameless that they want to deprive us of our legal right to have nuclear technology so that they can then sell us nuclear energy at some exorbitant price," IRNA quoted him as saying. "Who do you think you are trying to set limits for the independent Iranian nation?" he added. "They propose that we have [enrichment] outside Iran. They think they are dealing with a nation of a few hundred years ago.... What will we do if they refuse to give us fuel one day?" He asked how Iran could trust any foreign state to supply its fuel when "30 years ago, you took our payments for aircraft parts but will not deliver them to us." VS

President Ahmadinejad told an audience in Jam, also in southern Iran, earlier on 2 February that "the great powers" must abandon their nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, ISNA reported. He went on to blame those states for provoking a global arms race. "Why must there be an arms race" wherein "weak countries" must "build armies," instead of spending on welfare and education?" Ahmadinejad asked. He said Iran has an "active foreign policy" to defend its interests and is popular abroad, while "those who claim to preside over the world are more hated every day. If they want to know who is more hated, they should circulate a little among people of different countries," ISNA reported. Meanwhile, Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad-Najjar told a gathering of military and police officers in the southern port of Bushehr on 2 February that Iran's armies are ready to meet any threat, ISNA reported. "The armed forces have such a high level of readiness [that] they will deal their crushing blows to the aggressors, like a thunderbolt," in responding to any attack, he said. Mohammad-Najjar was in Bushehr for the opening of a multipurpose jetty, ISNA reported. VS

Iran's ambassador to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told BBC News 24 in Vienna on 2 February that any referral or reporting of Iran's dossier to the UN Security Council is "the wrong course" and reflects the views of "perhaps 20 or so" IAEA members, not those of many more nonaligned members. He said he is "100 percent sure" that there will be no consensus on a resolution to report Iran to the Security Council for suspected nonproliferation violations. IAEA governing board members were in Vienna on 2 and 3 February to discuss such a resolution. Soltanieh said referral would oblige Iran to "retaliate" and adversely affect cooperation with the IAEA. This, he said, would mean ending "voluntary" cooperation and prevent the implementation of an additional protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) that Iran has not formally ratified concerning closer inspections of nuclear installations. Sotanieh said referral would not immediately prompt Iran to abandon the NPT or cease all cooperation with the IAEA, but he predicted the government would be obliged to implement a law to end spot checks if Iran were referred to the Security Council. VS

An increasing number of domestic observers and politicians have criticized the government's draft budget for the Persian year beginning on 21 March, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported. Critics say the draft contradicts the provisions of a 2005-10 state plan to curb inflation and shrink the state sector. Others have criticized projected withdrawals from Iran's foreign-reserve account -- a fund containing Iran's excess petrodollars -- and there is a view that Iran should be saving money in case it faces sanctions over its nuclear dossier. The draft would contract out several development and construction projects to the Basij militia affiliated with Iran's revolutionary guards, Radio Farda reported, citing a "Hamshahri" daily interview with an unnamed expert who called such a process noncompetitive. On 1 February, economist Mehdi Sahraian told ISNA that the government should have drafted a budget more cautious with spending and less dependent on oil revenues. The budget forecasts revenues based on a price per barrel of $40. Sahraian said projected spending will totally deplete Iran's foreign-exchange reserves when Iran needs "sufficient foreign-exchange reserves" in anticipation of "challenges" like possible economic sanctions. VS

A mortar attack destroyed a Kirkuk oil-processing plant on 2 February, adding new woes to Iraq's struggling oil industry, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. The station was responsible for processing crude oil before it's exported through one of two pipelines to Turkey (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 6 January 2006). An Iraqi oil executive working for the North Oil Company said the incident was the "most severe attack we have ever faced on an oil installation," reported on 3 February. Meanwhile, the South Oil Company announced that a mortar attack set fire to an oil complex in southern Iraq, KUNA reported on 2 February. The complex was described as a crucial location and considered one of Iraq's largest crude-oil distribution outlets. , Meanwhile, former Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum told that his recent resignation came after attempts by Shi'a to politicize the ministry, the website reported on 1 February. It appears that the Al-Fadhilah (Virtue) Party pushed for Bahr al-Ulum's removal after he refused to give in to political pressure from the party. Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari appointed Tourism Minister Hashim al-Hashimi, a member of the Al-Fadhilah Party, to replace Bahr al-Ulum last month. KR

Iraqi Health Minister Abd al-Muttalib Ali Muhammad Salih has said that five mobile clinics capable of testing birds and humans for the H5N1 strain of bird flu (avian influenza) are en route to Iraq, "Kurdsitani Nuwe" reported on 1 February. Two mobile clinics will be based in both Al-Sulaymaniyah and Irbil, while a fifth will be sent to Dahuk Governorate. Muhammad Qadir Khoshnaw, health minister for the Kurdistan region, told the daily that in-country testing equipment, based in Baghdad, can only detect 50 percent of bird-flu cases. Hasan Ibrahim Kazim al-Zubaydi, director of the Ba'qubah Veterinary Clinic, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq (RFI) in a 1 February interview that Diyala Governorate has closed down all poultry and pet-bird markets in the governorate, and has organized veterinary teams to inspect all poultry farms. The governorate has also undertaken an educational campaign to warn local residents of the danger of bird flu. The governorate has also banned the entry of poultry and pet birds into the governorate, RFI reported. KR

The World Health Organization (WHO) confirmed in a 2 February press release that further testing has confirmed that an Iraqi girl died of bird flu last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2006). The organization said that further testing at a WHO laboratory in Great Britain confirmed the human infection; the WHO had previously said that the girl did not die of bird flu. Specimens from the girl's 39-year-old uncle, who died on 27 January, and a 54-year-old woman currently being treated for respiratory illness are en route to Britain from Iraq, the statement added. Meanwhile, two other people are exhibiting symptoms of the virus in Al-Sulaymaniyah. The WHO said that a team of epidemiologists and experts on animal disease are on the way to Iraqi Kurdistan to assess the situation there. The team is not expected to arrive until next week, due to the security situation in Iraq. KR

The Al-Dujayl trial adjourned for 11 days on 2 February after the first day of testimony without the presence of the defendants or their attorneys, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his seven co-defendants watched the 2 February session on closed-circuit television from a courthouse chamber, reported on 3 February. Hussein's attorney, Khalil al-Dulaymi, on 2 February reiterated his call on Al-Jazeera television for chief Judge Ra'uf Rashid Abd al-Rahman to step down. "Based on the fact that he clearly holds hatred toward my client, President Saddam Hussein, he should resign," al-Dulaymi contended. He also criticized court-appointed defense attorneys assigned to represent the defendants after their attorneys walked out. "It is professionally and ethically known that these lawyers, who were assigned by the court, should not be accepted because this violates the oath taken by them as lawyers and because we are still assigned by our clients to defend them." KR