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Newsline - February 8, 2006

Russian President Vladimir Putin told journalists in Moscow on 7 February that the International Atomic Energy Agency's recent decision to report Iran to the UN Security Council is "balanced," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 7 February 2006). He added: "We will explain the essence of these decisions to our Iranian partners." Putin stressed that "an essential point" of the matter is that the IAEA has not yet actually referred Iran to the high UN body. "The Security Council will be briefed on [the state of] joint work on the Iranian [nuclear] dossier. The...dossier [itself] has not been referred to the Security Council. This...offers an opportunity to keep looking for ways of settling this issue," he said. Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry said in a 7 February statement that Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Saltanov and Iranian Ambassador to Russia Gholamreza Ansari discussed the need for solving problems in the Middle East by political means, reported. PM

President Putin told reporters in Moscow on 7 February that the recent publication in some Western countries of cartoons satirizing the Prophet Muhammad is an "inadmissible" provocation against Muslims, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2006). "We condemn caricatures of this type, which create an additional rift between faiths and offend and provoke worshippers," he added. Putin stressed that "before publishing something, doing something, [or] drawing something, you have to think 100 times." As far as free speech is concerned, Putin argued that governments "should at least apologize" if they cannot prevent the publication of offensive materials. He also called on "Muslim religious figures and leaders of the Muslim take the situation under control." PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow on 7 February that "freedom of the press must not be used for instigating tensions and [playing into] the hands of terrorists. I don't know what prompts publishers to print such cartoons, perhaps a desire to boost circulation," RIA Novosti reported. Elsewhere, Konstantin Kosachyov, who chairs the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that the controversy over the cartoons is helping radicalize anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world and plays into the hands of Iranian hard-liners. "For us, Iran is not the most comfortable of partners, particularly President [Mahmud Ahmadinejad], who through his public speeches on a range of international issues has ruled out the possibility of an alliance with Russia. We have virtually no means of applying pressure on Iran," Kosachyov said. For his part, Federation Council International Relations Committee Chairman Mikhail Margelov told ITAR-TASS that "the outrages [in the cartoon affair] have now assumed such a scope as to require close attention of the world community." Finally, several Russian Islamic leaders criticized the publication of the cartoons and stressed that they hope to avoid any violence in Russia, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2006). PM

German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck told the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" of 8 February in Berlin that he supports full membership for Russia in the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2006). "After my [recent] discussions in Moscow, I am sure that it's right to bring Russia in as a full member as soon as possible," he said. Steinbrueck added that it would also be better to have the head of Russia's Central Bank included in G-8 financial discussions rather than excluded. At present, top G-8 financial officials from the United States, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, and Canada do not include their Russian counterparts when discussing sensitive economic and financial topics. PM

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Williams Burns told reporters in Kazan on 7 February that Washington will continue to monitor the situation of nongovernmental organizations in Russia, RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 January and 7 February 2006). "We're going to watch carefully the implementation of the [recent] NGO law because it's our view that NGOs can continue to play an extremely useful role in Russian society. We will continue to try and support that [role] in every way that we can, consistent with Russian law." PM

In his 7 February address to Federal Security Service (FSB) officials in Moscow, President Putin stressed that the organization's Federal Border Guard Service plays a key role in combating terrorism, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2006). Putin noted that, in keeping with the 2005 program entitled Russia's State Border, the "border department of the FSB has done a great deal to strengthen border areas. As a result, a number of routes that allow international terrorists to smuggle weapons and drugs on Russian territory have been blocked. One of the consequences is that the operational capacities of border guards working along the most difficult border, that in the northern Caucasus, have increased." The president added that the morale of the border guards is up and that "the effectiveness of their work has increased." PM

President Putin told Spanish journalists in Moscow on 7 February that he is unaware that Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the jailed former head of oil major Yukos, is being held in solitary confinement in a prison camp near Krasnokamensk, Chita Oblast, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 January 2006). "Prison isn't a vacation camp, [but] I've just learned only from you that Khodorkovsky is in a [solitary] punishment cell. As you have drawn my attention to this, I will ask Justice Minister [Yuri Chaika] what is going on, where they have sent [Khodorkovsky], and for what." Meanwhile, Natalia Terekhova, an attorney for the imprisoned oligarch, said in Novosibirsk on 8 February that a judge in Krasnokamensk will rule on 9 February on Khodorkovsky's petition against being placed in solitary confinement for an alleged infraction of prison rules, RIA Novosti reported. PM

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 on New Year's Eve, arrived at Moscow's Burdenko hospital on 7 February for treatment, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January and 3 February 2006). Doctors described his condition as serious but stable, adding that he will receive the best care possible. Elsewhere, State Duma speaker Boris Gryzlov said that Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov will brief lawmakers on hazing in the military on 15 February. PM

Marina Muffert, a sister of Private Sychyov, told "Nezavisimaya gazeta" of 7 February that "it is a matter of time" before her family files a lawsuit against the Defense Ministry because of the injuries her brother sustained in the hazing. She added that she and her relatives are discussing the matter with lawyers. Later, however, she told RIA Novosti that her family's course of action will depend on how the military carries out its promises. Muffert also said that the family has selected one of the four apartments that the Defense Ministry offered them in Yekaterinburg. She also noted that her brother will receive a monthly pension of about $100, adding: "I can't imagine how an invalid can live on that kind of money" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 January 2006). PM

The Russian Supreme Court ruled on 6 February that the case surrounding the 1998 assassination of reformist State Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova must continue through the courts, RIA Novosti reported. The highest judicial body thereby overruled a late 2005 decision by the St. Petersburg City Court to send the case to the City Prosecutor's Office to "remove obstacles" to further court hearings. At that point, the prosecutor's office appealed to the Supreme Court for the case to continue through the courts and has now won its appeal. Verdicts have already been handed down for six suspects, but two others remain on trial for what was widely seen as a politically motivated killing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 December 2002). PM

Acting Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov was formally nominated on 6 February to head the Chechen branch of the Unified Russia party, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. He replaces Frants Klintsevich, who stepped down two months ago. Unified Russia's leadership initially planned to name Ruslan Yamadayev, who represents Chechnya in the Russian State Duma, to head the party's Chechen branch, but its Chechen members recommended Kadyrov for that post, spreading erroneous reports that he had already been elected (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 9 December 2005). LF

Kadyrov returned prematurely from Moscow to Grozny on 8 February following a gas explosion the previous evening at a barracks in Kurchaloi that killed 12 people, mostly members of the Vostok battalion of the Russian Defense Ministry's military intelligence service (GRU), and injured 22 others, Russian media reported. A Military Prosecutor's Office official said the blast was probably an accident caused by a leak of natural gas, but he did not rule out the possibility of sabotage. The Vostok battalion is headed by Ruslan Yamadayev's brother Sulim; Kadyrov implicitly blamed Vostok for reprisals last summer against the predominantly Avar population of the village of Borozdinovskaya in northeastern Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 24 June 2005). LF

President Putin told Spanish journalists on 7 February on the eve of his departure for Madrid that if members of the armed Chechen resistance announce that they are ending military operations, the Duma should pass legislation offering amnesty to those who have not engaged in murder or other crimes as a precondition for embarking on a "dialogue" with them, Interfax reported. Putin said that "we cannot do without" such dialogue, but at the same time, he once again ruled out any talks with, or concessions to, "terrorists." The Duma passed legislation in November 1999 and again in 2003 offering to pardon Chechen fighters who laid down their arms; 150 fighters were exonerated under the first such amnesty, and some 200 fighters availed themselves of the latter offer. Putin noted that up to 50 percent of the Chechen police force is made up of former resistance fighters. LF

Robert Kocharian endorsed on 7 February the candidate proposed by junior coalition member Orinats Yerkir for the vacant post of culture minister, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Orinats Yerkir passed over three of its own members and finally selected nonpartisan Gevorg Gevorgian, 57, head of the Hayfilm studio, which is Armenia's oldest and largest film company. Hovik Hoveyan resigned as culture minister last month following reports that he attacked electrical workers at a power-distribution facility Yerevan after a brief cutoff in power supplies to his apartment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 January 2006). LF

Azerbaijan's parliament reappointed Mazahir Panahov on 7 February as chairman of the new Central Election Commission (MSK) and named 12 more parliament deputies to serve on that 18-person body, Azerbaijani media reported. The composition of the new MSK parallels that of its predecessor: it will comprise six deputies each from the majority Yeni Azerbaycan party (YAP), from minority parties, and from among nominally nonpartisan deputies. The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe has urged the Azerbaijani authorities to give YAP and opposition candidates equal representation on the new MSK. The OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights advocated in its final report on the 6 November parliamentary election, released last week, that "the election code should be amended to reconfigure the composition of the Central Election a manner that will ensure...public trust." Parliament on 7 February named six deputies from YAP, five nonpartisan deputies and two from minority parties; the remaining MSK positions will be filled only after the repeat ballot on 13 May in 10 constituencies where the outcome of the 6 November election was annulled. LF

Police arrested eight residents of the village of Nardaran on the outskirts of Baku on 7 February when they visited the grave of a fellow villager killed in a standoff with police on 25 January, Azerbaijani media reported the following day. According to a joint statement released by the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office, the eight men are suspected of involvement in last month's incident in which two police officers were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 January 2006). Nardaran residents, most of them devout practicing Muslims, allege that the police officers were drunk and themselves provoked the shooting. They have demanded a meeting with President Aliyev to discuss their grievances (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2006). LF

President Aliyev signed a decree on 7 February dismissing Ali Nagiyev from the position of labor and social security minister he has held for the past decade, Azerbaijani media reported. Former career Komsomol official Fizuli Aleqperov, who is now a prominent businessman, was named to succeed Nagiyev as minister. Nagiyev, who is 51, has not been named to another government position, but retains his post as one of four YAP deputy chairmen. LF

Azerbaijan's Appeals Court rejected on 7 February an appeal by former Health Minister Ali Insanov against the extension of his pretrial detention for a further four months, Azerbaijani media reported. Insanov was dismissed and arrested in October on charges of plotting with former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev to overthrow the country's leadership. His health has since deteriorated to the point that he can walk only with crutches; his request for medical treatment has been approved (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 and 24 October 2005 and 5, 17, and 30 January 2006). LF

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli and Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava briefed the Georgian parliament bureau on 7 February on the government's assessment of the activities of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone, Caucasus Press reported. Noghaideli was quoted as saying that the government regards resolving the conflict with South Ossetia as its primary objective, not forcing the peacekeepers' withdrawal, but at the same time he deplored their "repeated provocations," Caucasus Press reported. Khaindrava argued that the peacekeepers do not fulfill any of the three points of their mandate: disbanding illegal armed formations, disarming self-defense forces, and preventing the concentration of heavy weaponry in the conflict zone. But in an implicit rejection of an earlier militant statement by parliament Defense and Security Committee Chairman Givi Targamadze (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2006), Khaindrava said Georgia will abide by the norms of international law. Parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze told journalists after the bureau session that the Russian peacekeepers are either unable or unwilling to comply with their mandate. The parliament will resume its discussions on 13 February and vote on 15 February on whether to demand the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal. LF

Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, praised the Russian peacekeeping force on 7 February and argued that Tbilisi's calls for its withdrawal reflect the desire of unnamed members of the Georgian leadership to resolve the conflict militarily, ITAR-TASS reported. Also on 7 February, South Ossetian official Vazha Khachapuridze called for an urgent meeting between Kokoity and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to defuse tensions in the conflict zone, Caucasus Press reported. Khaindrava rejected that suggestion, noting that Kokoity has turned down four successive invitations to met with Noghaideli, Caucasus Press reported. In Sukhum(i), Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh told journalists on 7 February that armed Georgian detachments are trying to fuel tensions in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district in an attempt to demonstrate the ineffectiveness of the Russian peacekeepers deployed there, reported. Bagapsh said that if those Russian peacekeepers are withdrawn, he will deploy army troops along Abkhazia's border with the rest of Georgia. LF

Senior Russian diplomat Andrei Kelin, who recently visited Tbilisi for talks on the tensions caused by Georgia's threat to demand the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal from South Ossetia and Abkhazia, attributed those tensions on 7 February to Georgia's "misunderstanding" of unspecified aspects of bilateral relations and to the mistaken impression that Moscow seeks to block Georgia's proposed plan for resolving the South Ossetian conflict, Caucasus Press reported. Also on 7 February, Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the Russian State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, told Ekho Moskvy that Georgia is not empowered to introduce changes unilaterally in the mandate of the Russian peacekeeping force. He said the agreement of all four parties that contribute troops to the combined peacekeeping force must sign off on any such change. Kosachev argued that the Russian peacekeepers are successfully fulfilling their duties. LF

Economy Minister Kairat Kelimbetov told a cabinet meeting in Astana on 7 February that Kazakhstan's GDP grew 9.4 percent in 2005, the same rate as in 2004, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Exports rose 36.3 percent to $28 billion, the BBC reported, noting that Kazakhstan's economy has grown 84 percent over the last eight years. Kelimbetov forecast average economic growth of 8.5 percent in 2006-2008, with overall growth coming to 27.7 percent over the next three years, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov noted, however, that industrial production rose only 4.6 percent in 2005, as compared to 10.4 percent in 2004. Akhmetov said that a greater degree of economic diversification is needed to spur production growth. The National Fund, created to set aside surplus energy-sector revenues, rose from $5.1 billion to $8 billion in 2005, Finance Minister Natalya Korzhova said. DK

Kazakhstan's government issued a resolution on 6 February extending a ban on the export of diesel fuel, jet fuel, and gasoline until 28 February, Interfax reported the next day. The ban on diesel exports was instituted in early 2005 to stabilize prices within Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17 February 2005), while the gasoline export ban was introduced on 31 December 2005. DK

Kyrgyz prosecutors have completed the investigation of a case in which former officials are charged with illegally giving then President Askar Akaev $400,000 in 1999, reported on 7 February. Criminal charges of embezzlement and abuse of office have been filed against former Finance Minister Sultan Mederov, former National Bank head Ulan Sarbanov, and former Accounting Chamber head Medet Sadyrkulov. The criminal case was handed to a Bishkek court for review on 26 January. DK

Kyrgyzstan's government has created a commission to investigate the causes of an apparent ethnic clash in the village of Iskra on 5 February (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2006), Kabar reported on 7 February. Prime Minister Feliks Kulov said, "I can state clearly that we will not allow the tension to grow into an ethnic conflict." Kyrgyz police reported on 7 February that the situation in Iskra was calm, with round-the-clock patrols instituted to maintain order. reported, however, that some ethnic Dungans have left the village of Iskra in the wake of the 5 February unrest, noting some representatives of the Dungan community said they plan to seek the aid of rights organizations in Russia and the United States. DK

Nikolai Bordyuzha, secretary-general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO -- Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan), met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Tashkent on 7 February, UzA reported. Their talks focused on threats to regional security. Karimov commented, "The strengthening of security and stability in our region requires broad-based international cooperation." An unnamed diplomat at the Russian Embassy in Uzbekistan told ITAR-TASS that he does not rule out the possibility of Uzbekistan joining the CSTO. Dosym Satpaev, director of the Almaty-based Assessment Risks Group, told the BBC's Uzbek Service, "After Uzbekistan's recent accession to the Eurasian Economic Community, Moscow has set itself the goal of bringing [Uzbekistan] into the CSTO." DK

The Belarusian government has adopted new rules for the deportation of foreigners, Interfax reported on 7 February, quoting Alyaksey Byahun from the Interior Ministry. "The regulations provide for an expanded list of reasons for which foreigners can be deported from Belarus," Byahun said. "[The new rules include] a provision stating that a foreigner should be deported if his/her stay in Belarus poses a threat to national security, public order, or health of the nation." Byahun noted that the enforcement of the new deportation rules should not be linked to the upcoming presidential election in Belarus. "It's a mere coincidence," he added. JM

The Belarusian KGB has reported increased activity by Polish intelligence in Belarus ahead of the 19 March presidential election, Interfax and PAP reported on 6 February, quoting KGB spokesman Valery Nadtachayeu. "Elections are always a catalyst for intelligence and antinational activities," Nadtachayeu said. "There have recently been increasingly frequent attempts by foreign special services, including Polish intelligence, to recruit Belarusian citizens." Nadtachayeu repeated his charges in a documentary broadcast by Belarusian Television on 7 February. The documentary accused Polish diplomats of interference in Belarus's internal affairs during a diplomatic row in 2005 over the Union of Poles in Belarus. An unidentified officer of the KGB's counterintelligence department said that an "intelligence post" is working at the Polish Embassy in Minsk. JM

Naftohaz Ukrayiny head Oleksiy Ivchenko told UNIAN on 8 February that "the Ukrainian side is not represented legally" in the obscure Swiss-based RosUkrEnergo company, which was made the monopolist of gas supplies to Ukraine via a controversial Russian-Ukrainian gas deal in January (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report," 10 January 2006). Ivchenko was commenting on Russian President Vladimir Putin's statement to Spanish journalists the previous day, in which he said that a 50 percent share in RosUkrEnergo belongs to Ukraine. "RosUkrEnergo with its nontransparent 50 percent Ukrainian share is nothing compared to 15 years of gas cheating [by Ukraine]," ITAR-TASS quoted Putin as saying. "This is the share of Ukraine, so you should ask them the question." Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said earlier this month that there are no Ukrainian government bodies among the owners of RosUkrEnergo. According to media reports, a 50 percent stake in RosUkrEnergo is owned by Gazprom, while the other half belongs to undisclosed owners represented by the Vienna-based Reiffeisen Investment AG. JM

Serbian tax authorities submitted criminal charges to the Interior Ministry on 7 February for businessman Bogoljub Karic and his three brothers, Sreten, Zoran, and Dragomir, B92 reported the same day. The brothers are accused of evading taxes between 1999 and 2001, costing the government 7.7 million German marks ($4.8 million at current rates). The Interior Ministry is expected to issue an international arrest warrant for Bogoljub Karic, who has fled the country and did not show up for police questioning (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 7 February 2006). Karic's attorney, Zdenko Tomanovic, said his client did not return to the country from a business trip because he knew that he would be arrested on arrival, and that he does not know where Karic is now. Citing an unidentified source, B92 reported that Sreten Karic has been in a Moscow hospital since 24 January, but Interpol officials in Russia deny this. There has been widespread speculation that Bogoljub Karic is also in Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2006). BW

Vojislav Kostunica told British Foreign Office Political Director John Sawers on 7 February that Serbia's sovereignty must be respected while Kosova's future status is resolved, dpa reported the same day. Kostunica was reacting to comments attributed to Sawers, in which he said that the Contact Group -- which comprises the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy, and Russia -- supports Kosova's independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2006). According to a Serbian government press release, Kostunica told Sawers that any attempt to impose any solution on a democratic country represents a breach of the fundamental principles of international law. Other Serbian politicians have reacted strongly to Sawer's comments. Sanda Raskovic-Igic, head of Serbia's coordinating team for the talks, said on 7 February that if the Western powers have already decided that Kosova should be independent, then Belgrade should reconsider its participation in negotiations, Beta reported. BW

The Foreign Office's John Sawers, meanwhile, has denied that he said the Contact Group has made up its mind on Kosova's independence, B92 reported on 8 February. In a statement to B92, Sawers emphasized that the number of options being considered for Kosova is very limited. Going back to the province's pre-1999 status is out of the question, Kosova is not going to be divided, and there will be no unification with a neighboring state, Sawers said in a clear reference to Albania. He added that Serbian negotiators should focus on what will be the status of Serbs in Kosova after its final status is determined. Sawers also told B92 that Serbia needs to face up to its wartime past in order to secure a better future. "Every country has to face the heritage of its past," he said, citing the examples of Germany and its allies after World War II. BW

At the request of EU envoy Miroslav Lajcak, Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic has postponed a parliamentary session scheduled to set a date for a referendum on independence, AP reported on 6 February. The session was originally scheduled for 7 February. No new date has been set. "By accepting Mr. Lajcak's suggestion...President Vujanovic has decided to reschedule the parliamentary session" to allow more time for talks, a statement from Vujanovic's office said. Parliament was widely expected to set the referendum date for mid-April. Lajcak said that although pro- and anti-independence camps in Montenegro have agreed on financing and monitoring rules for the vote, they are still divided over the minimum turnout to make the poll valid. Pro-Serbia opposition parties, moreover, have threatened to boycott the vote. BW

Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in The Hague, told NATO and EU peacekeepers (EUFOR) in Bosnia-Herzegovina on 7 February to step up their efforts to locate and apprehend Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, Reuters reported the same day. Del Ponte said that while she could confirm that fellow war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic is in Serbia, Karadzic's whereabouts are less clear. "I had a meeting today with...EUFOR [and] NATO pertaining particularly to location of Karadzic," Del Ponte told a news conference in Sarajevo. "I need more activity...more information, more intelligence because I don't know if Karadzic is in Republika Srpska, if Karadzic is in Bosnia-Herzegovina or if he is in Serbia-Montenegro," she added. "I can confirm that Mladic is in Serbia. But Karadzic, I don't know where he is." BW

Albanian police said on 6 February that they arrested three men suspected of making and selling bombs in a raid targeting weapons traffickers, AP reported the same day. The three were arrested in the town of Shkodra, 110 kilometers north of Tirana, on suspicion of trafficking arms and explosives. BW

Moldovan prosecutors filed new charges against former Defense Minister Valeriu Pasat on 7 February, accusing him of plotting to overthrow the government and planning the murder of a top politician, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. In January, Pasat was sentenced to 10 years in prison for abuse of office in connection with the sale of MiG-29 fighter jets to the United States (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2006). A new investigation "revealed that Valeriu Pasat, George Karamalak, Anatolie Gboglo, and other people, who are so far unnamed, tried to seize power before the parliamentary elections in 2005," the Prosecutor-General's Office said in a statement. That statement also implicated Pasat in planning the killing of Christian Democratic People's Party leader Iurie Rosca in order to destabilize the country. Pasat has described the criminal cases against him as political retribution for his cooperation with the opposition in the March 2005 parliamentary elections. BW

Iraq's struggling oil sector is once again being rocked by scandal, following an announcement on 5 February that the Public Integrity Commission has filed criminal charges against a member of parliament for allegedly embezzling millions of dollars intended to improve security of a key pipeline. Meanwhile, tensions between the central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), which administers one of Iraq's key oil-producing areas, are on the rise.

Control of Iraq's oil is a highly sensitive issue, so the claim made by outgoing Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi on 31 January that the KRG failed to obtain approval from the central government for a number of oil-exploration projects in Kurdistan could complicate talks to form a new government.

Among the most important oil-exploration efforts is that in Zakho, a town on the Turkish border. Kurdish officials said in late January that the exploration there has already produced "very good results." Kurdish officials maintain that the Oil Ministry was aware of the drilling. Back in November, in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq, the governor of the oil-rich Dahuk Governorate, Tamir Ramadan, said, "the Oil Ministry has helped and expended great effort [on the project] so it was a party in this project."

Under the new Iraqi Constitution, ratified in October, regional governments are supposed to work closely with Baghdad to develop the oil sector. "The federal government and the governments of the producing regions and provinces together will draw up the necessary strategic policies to develop oil and gas wealth to bring the greatest benefit for the Iraqi people," the constitution stipulates.

Chalabi, who briefly took control of the Oil Ministry in December, said that no such agreement between the KRG and Baghdad exists about oil exploration, Dow Jones Newswires reported on 6 February. That places Det Norske Oljeselskap (DNO), the Norwegian oil-exploration company drilling at Zakho, in an uncertain legal position. DNO maintains that it has "a legal valid agreement in full compliance with the constitution."

Chalabi begs to differ, saying that "negotiations have not started yet." DNO "may have some deal with the Kurds," Chalabi said in an interview with Reuters published on 1 February, "but they need to have a deal with Baghdad to explore."

Chalabi believes "we need a law before we can get to exploration and production." He gave no indication, though, when such a law might be passed and, in reality, at this point the central government can do little to stop the drilling, something Kurdish officials are acutely aware of.

Corruption and the growing dispute with the KRG are just two of the problems besetting the Oil Ministry. The Oil Ministry itself has been in disarray since the start of the year, after Oil Minister Ibrahim Bahr al-Ulum tendered his resignation on 2 January. The reason was the government's decision in December to put him on leave after the minister openly criticized a planned increase in fuel prices. Bahr al-Ulum returned to his post one week later at the behest of President Jalal Talabani and Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, but, at the minister's urging, al-Ja'fari finally accepted his resignation last week.

His replacement as acting oil minister, former Tourism Minister Hashim al-Hashimi, has raised questions, with media reports saying that al-Hashimi has no expertise in the oil sector. Chalabi told Reuters that, in his view, al-Hashimi's lack of expertise is not an issue.

Despite its wealth of oil, Iraq has had to rely heavily on oil imports since the fall of the Hussein regime in 2003. In January, its oil debt to Turkey topped $1 billion, prompting 34 Turkish companies to stop exporting to Iraq. The Iraqi government says payments will begin shortly, but Turkish State Minister Kursat Tuzmen said exports will remain suspended until the debt is paid.

The situation worsened, rather than improved in 2005, with insurgent attacks on pipelines and refineries crippling the country's oil industry. Oil production fell by 8 percent in 2005, averaging between 1.5 and 1.8 million barrels per day -- 1 million barrels fewer than it was producing before Operation Iraqi Freedom began in 2003.

For a country that relies on oil revenues to finance more than 90 percent of its annual budget -- and with foreign aid expected to be cut drastically this year -- the impact could be disastrous for the incoming government.

Leaving aside the additional damage that the insurgency could wreak, Iraq needs billions of dollars to modernize its oil production system. A World Bank estimate says it would take $8 billion to raise output to 3 million barrels per day. Speaking at a gathering of members of the Oil Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna on 31 January, Chalabi said that he expects $4 billion in investment, but did not say from where it would come.

But until insurgent attacks on oil infrastructure are addressed, the industry will continue to suffer. An increasing amount of information is emerging from Oil Ministry insiders that points to massive criminality, including indications that some ministry personnel are acting, for example, as paid informants for insurgent networks and for oil-smuggling mafias.

In January, a security guard working at the Bayji complex in northern Iraq told the U.S. magazine "Newsweek" that his colleagues were known to be paid informants for insurgents.

Finance Minister Ali Allawi, quoted in a 5 February report by "The New York Times," estimated that between 40 and 50 percent of all profits from oil smuggling go into the pockets of insurgents. He added that members of the insurgency hold senior management positions in the Bayji refinery, one of the country's key oil installations.

The previous day, on 4 February, police arrested the director of a Kirkuk processing plant, along with police officials and other employees, for a 2 February attack that destroyed much of the plant.

It is against this backdrop that the multimillion-dollar embezzlement scandal broke on 5 February. Mish'an al-Juburi, who was nominated last year to serve as the speaker of parliament, is charged with graft after a government investigation revealed that he and his son embezzled government funds intended to pay for paramilitary forces to guard pipelines that run from Bayji through the Salah Al-Din Governorate to Baghdad. The paramilitary force proved to be fictitious. Through a company formed by one of his sons, al-Juburi allegedly pocketed about one-fifth of a $102,000-per-month contract to feed the guards, who, according to a list provided by al-Juburi, were supposed to number between 200 and 300.

Al-Juburi is also accused of colluding to steal Kalashnikov rifles. The weapons were stolen from civilian vehicles after Al-Juburi had ordered soldiers not to transport the 200 rifles to his battalion in military vehicles, which would be the normal practice.

Al-Juburi, who once had strong relations with Saddam Hussein's deceased son Uday, is now in Syria, his son Yazin told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on 6 February.

Thirteen people were killed and at least 11 others were wounded on 7 February when a suicide bomber set off his explosives outside police headquarters in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. The Afghan Interior Ministry said that the bomber, who was on a motorcycle, detonated his explosives while being searched at the entrance to the police compound. The neo-Taliban have claimed responsibility for attack, Voice of America reported on 7 February. In a statement issued in Kabul the same day, Afghan President Hamid Karzai strongly condemned the attack, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. "Enemies of our soil want to block Afghanistan's progress" and are opposed to peace in the country, Karzai's statement added. Karzai characterized the attacks as being against Islam and human rights. AT

A Turkish engineer was killed in a bombing attack targeting his vehicle in Farah Province on 7 February, Anatolia news agency reported. The engineer, identified as Ufuk Aydin, was an employee of the Kolin construction company, which is repairing the highway between Kandahar and Herat. An unidentified Indian engineer and two Afghans also died in the attack. According to the report, Afghan police are searching for neo-Taliban members suspected of carrying out the attack. AT

Norway will maintain its military presence in Afghanistan despite a mob attack in Maymana, the provincial capital of Faryab, in northern Afghanistan on 7 February, AFP reported. "It is out of the question to withdraw our Norwegian troops from Afghanistan," Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg said in Oslo on 7 February. Four Afghans were killed and as many as 20 people, including six Norwegian soldiers serving with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), injured when a mob protesting the publication by a Danish newspaper and other media of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad tried to storm the ISAF base (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 February 2006), prompting a gun battle. Conflicting reports have blamed different sides for starting the shooting. Pajhwak Afghan News, quoting Faryab police spokesman Mohammad Azim Hakimi, reported on 7 February that the protesters were peacefully heading to Maymana city center, but "antigovernment elements" led them toward the ISAF base where Norwegian and Danish troops fired at the crowd when they tried to enter the base. Norwegian Defense Ministry spokesman Commander Thom Knustad, not elaborating on who was behind the shooting, called the incident "an attack on a NATO base in Afghanistan," the Oslo daily "Aftenposten" reported on 7 February. AT

Mawlawi Fazl Hadi Shinwari told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in Kabul on 7 February while he and the government of President Karzai have strongly condemned the insults to Mohammad and have supported the protests held throughout Afghanistan, he is disappointed that the protests have gone from a positive expression of outrage to a negative exercise in the hands of opponents of the Afghan government. According to Shinwari, the violence and loss of life resulting from the demonstrations does not serve the protesters' cause. "If the protests go beyond this, it may benefit the enemies of Afghanistan," Shinwari added. Thus far, eight deaths, including the four killed in Maymana on 7 February, have been blamed on the protests that have taken place in many parts of Afghanistan. AT

Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Nawid Ahmad Moez on 7 February denied any discussions between Afghan and Israeli diplomats in London, the official Radio Afghanistan reported. Afghanistan's policy toward Israel will remain the same until the establishment of a Palestinian state, Moez added. According a report published in the Israeli daily "Ma'ariv" on 6 February, "senior" diplomats from Afghanistan and Israel recently met in London. President Karzai has already expressed his country's desire to establish diplomatic ties with Jerusalem once a Palestinian state is established (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 28 November 2005). AT

A group of Iranians angered over the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a number of European newspapers attacked the Norwegian Embassy in Tehran on 7 February, NRK and other news agencies reported. They threw stones and a Molotov cocktail that caused a fire inside the building. They also chanted anti-Norwegian slogans. According to dpa, Iranian security personnel prevented the mob from entering the embassy compound. BS

For the second day in row, the Danish Embassy in Tehran was attacked by people protesting the cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, international news agencies reported. According to IRNA, 300 slogan-chanting demonstrators attacked the embassy, throwing stones and incendiary devices, and then occupied it. The police told IRNA they forced the occupiers to leave. According to an IRNA dispatch that came out 10 minutes earlier, Tehran Governor Vajiollah Aqataqi persuaded the crowd to disperse, while a few people stayed behind to repair the damage. Tehran journalist Fariborz Soroush told Radio Farda that the 7 February demonstration was not on the same scale as the previous day's, and he added that police are in control of the situation. BS

In Copenhagen, Danish Foreign Minister Per Stig Moeller telephoned his Iranian counterpart, Manuchehr Mottaki, to demand better protection of the embassy, Danmarks Radio reported. An anonymous Danish official described Moeller as protesting "in the strongest possible terms over the lack of protection despite warnings," and reminding Mottaki of a host country's responsibilities. Mottaki responded by demanding compensation for the harm done to Muslim sensitivities, IRNA cited Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi as saying. In Brussels on 7 February, the European Commission condemned a state-imposed Iranian boycott of trade with Denmark, AFP reported. The commission added that Iran-EU trade talks will remain suspended until the controversy over the Iranian nuclear program is resolved. BS

The Austrian Foreign Ministry on 7 February summoned Iranian Ambassador Mohsen Nabavi for an explanation of the previous day's attack on the Austrian Embassy in Tehran, IRNA reported. Nabavi reportedly expressed his regrets and said he will follow up on the event. BS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on 7 February that the continuing Muslim protests are against "some diabolical hands involved in this diabolical affair," dpa, radio Farda, and Iranian state television reported. Khamenei described the cartoons as a "conspiracy by the Zionists to cause tensions between Muslims and Christians." He said these are not anti-Christian protests. He questioned why the denial of the Jewish Holocaust is not protected as freedom of speech, whereas "insulting more than 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide" is protected in these terms. Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani on 7 February described the cartoons as part of an anti-Muslim conspiracy, IRNA reported. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi demanded a European apology, as well as compensation, IRNA reported, but he also called on his compatriots to control themselves. On 6 February, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad described the leaders of countries that defend publishing the controversial cartoons as "prisoners of a bunch of blood-sucking Zionists," IRNA reported. BS

Iranian Ambassador to Beirut Masud Edrisi met on 7 February with Lebanese Minister of Foreign Affairs and Emigrants Fawzi Salloukh to convey an Iranian request for support on the nuclear issue, the Lebanese National News Agency reported. Edrisi said afterward the two sides are in agreement that major international powers -- "particularly the United States" -- have double standards on all international issues, particularly with respect to Iran's peaceful use of nuclear energy. He added that he and Salloukh discussed bilateral relations and regional developments. BS

The World Health Organization (WHO) issued an update on 7 February on the H5N1 strain of bird flu (avian influenza) in Iraq's Kurdistan region, saying seven patients are currently being treated for the disease in local hospitals. The WHO confirmed that local testing indicated that an uncle of the first known victim, a teenaged girl, to die of bird flu in Iraq has tested positive for bird flu; the uncle died on 27 January (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 3 February 2006). A WHO laboratory has not completed testing on the man, and another unidentified victim is also being tested by the WHO. The organization also said that a 13-year-old boy who exhibited flu-like symptoms died in Al-Amarah in southern Iraq on 5 February. While no poultry deaths were reported in the area, pet birds kept by the boy's family died at the time of the boy's illness. The Kurdistan government has culled some 500,000 birds since the Health Ministry recorded the first bird-flu case, reported on 7 February. A veterinarian in Al-Sulaymaniyah told on 7 February that 4,000 chickens died of suspected bird flu in the previous 24 hours in farms around the city. KR

The WHO said on 7 February that it is working closely with the Iraqi government to coordinate efforts to combat the spread of bird flu. A 24-hour emergency operations center was set up at the WHO regional office in Cairo to facilitate coordination and provide back-up support. "The [WHO] team found a good system in place for detecting and managing possible human cases, collecting specimens, and tracing and monitoring contacts," the WHO announced on its website ( Intensive culling is also under way in northern Iraq, and the WHO is working to provide Iraq with emergency supplies and testing equipment. The WHO said Kurdistan has about 1.3 million poultry raised mostly by individual households that depend on the poultry for their livelihoods, adding that discussions are under way to develop a plan to compensate for the birds culled. The WHO also said it is working to improve isolation wards for patients, and intensive training courses are being organized for hospital staff. KR

Higher Education Minister Sami al-Muzaffar survived an assassination attempt when a booby-trapped vehicle exploded near his convoy in Baghdad on 8 February, international media reported. Three of the minister's bodyguards were wounded in the attack. The attack is the second against al-Muzaffar in two years. The motive for the attack is not known, but reported that al-Muzaffar has openly criticized the growing influence of Islam on university campuses. Al-Muzaffar is reportedly not affiliated with any political party. KR

Al-Jazeera television reported on 8 February that the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army has posted a videotaped message on the Internet claiming responsibility for the kidnapping of Kirkuk-based Iraqi special forces Brigadier General Dera Muhammad Mahrus. The group said it has carried out a death sentence against Mahrus to make him an example to others. Meanwhile, gunmen shot and killed Sunni cleric and Al-Fallujah municipal-council head Sheikh Kamal Shakir Nizal on 7 February, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Nizal was en route to work in the city when the attack occurred. Also on 7 February, at least three civilians and 20 others were wounded when two bombs blew up near a music shop in central Baghdad, Iraqi media reported. Five policemen were wounded in the attack. KR

The Iraqi government sealed off the Al-Azamiyah area of Baghdad, including the Al-A'imma Bridge, ahead of the 9 February holy day known as Ashura, Iraqi media reported on 7 February. Ashura marks the anniversary of the martyrdom of Imam Husayn in Karbala in 680 A.D. The bridge will remain closed to pedestrian traffic during the holy day and visitors will be forced to seek alternate routes to the imam's shrine, located on the opposite side of the bridge in Al-Kadhimiyah. Nearly 1,000 Iraqis were killed in a stampede on the bridge on 31 August as Shi'a commemorated the death of Imam Musa (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 1 September 2005). Defense Ministry spokesman Abd al-Aziz Muhammad told reporters at a 7 February press briefing in Baghdad that intelligence indicated that terrorists are planning to carry out big operations in Baghdad and Karbala during Ashura. Some 1 million people are expected in Karbala on 9 February; more than 8,000 guards will be on hand to provide security in the holy city, dpa reported on 8 February. KR