GAZPROM SAYS IT HAS NO PLANS TO SHARE EXPORT MONOPOLY
Gazprom indicated on 13 February that is has no intention of giving up its export monopoly despite recent French and other Western pressure and a statement by Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin that independent providers will be able to use some pipelines in the future, "The Moscow Times" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9, 10, and 13 February 2006). Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov told the Moscow-based daily that sharing pipeline capacity "is not part of our plans." He declined to comment on French calls for Russia to ratify the Energy Charter Treaty, which Moscow has signed. The newspaper suggested that Kudrin's remarks were simply "polite diplomacy" and that Gazprom is too central to President Vladimir Putin's overall power strategy for its monopoly to be broken up. In related news, German Finance Minister Peer Steinbrueck told German television on 12 February that he has "no doubt about the reliability of Gazprom, or of Russia in general, as a supplier of energy to Western Europe." PM
LUKOIL ON THE MOVE
Vagit Alekperov, who heads Russia's LUKoil company, said in Moscow after meeting with President Putin on 13 February that his company has big expansion plans in the United States and Europe, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 5 December 2005). "LUKoil has about 2,000 gasoline stations working in the U.S. and about 600 in Western and Eastern Europe. These are good assets, which bring decent revenues," he said. Alekperov noted that LUKoil has been particularly assertive in investing in oil refineries in Europe. "The Foreign Ministry has been extremely helpful, lobbying [for] our interests [abroad]," he added. Alekperov argued that Putin's upcoming visit to Hungary, where the company owns a chain of gasoline stations and sells oil products, will also help LUKoil. Putin said that LUKoil's activities benefit both the Russian and neighboring economies. PM
RUSSIA'S UN AMBASSADOR SAYS MOSCOW PLAYS NEEDED ROLE WITH HAMAS...
Andrei Denisov, who is Russia's ambassador to the UN, told "Izvestiya" of 14 February that an unnamed West European colleague said to him that "[President] Putin is taking the lead" in opening contacts with Hamas on behalf of the international community (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 13 February 2006). Denisov argued that Russia is playing a go-between role with Hamas, just as it is doing with Iran. He made it clear that Moscow does not regard Hamas as a terrorist organization but as a legitimate player in Palestinian politics. Denisov stressed that Hamas must nonetheless "abstain from terrorist activities..., recognize Israel as a sovereign state, its neighbor, and political partner..., and abandon its radical views in favor of a political settlement of the conflict, together with the Middle East Quartet [which consists of the United Nations, United States, European Union, and Russia] and countries of the region, including Israel." PM
...BUT PICTURE SEEMS MORE COMPLEX
Reuters on 13 February quoted unnamed "Israeli political sources" in Jerusalem as saying that the Foreign Ministry has instructed diplomats "to show the Russians and others that there is no difference between Hamas terrorism and Chechen terrorism." In Moscow, an "informed source" told Interfax that Russian plans to sell two Mi-17 helicopters and 50 armored troop carriers to the Palestinian Authority are "on hold" until the political situation there becomes clearer. PM
IRAN ASKS RUSSIA TO POSTPONE TALKS
A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Moscow on 14 February that Tehran has asked for bilateral talks on nuclear issues slated to begin in the Russian capital on 16 February to be postponed until 20 February, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2006). PM
CSTO DOES NOT CONSIDER COOPERATION WITH NATO A PRIORITY
Nikolai Bordyuzha, who is the secretary-general of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan), said in Moscow on 13 February that "cooperation with NATO is not a major priority or an end in itself for us," Interfax reported. He added that such cooperation "is desirable, but it is not so important to the CSTO, which is a self-sufficient organization seeking cooperation with many international organizations," such as the United Nations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 11 January 2006). Referring to possible Uzbek membership in the CSTO, Bordyuzha said that "the Uzbek president has not and could not have made any statements on Uzbek accession to the CSTO." Bordyuzha added that the Uzbek authorities will make that decision only after they have studied what membership would entail and "understood the usefulness of cooperation with the organization." Bordyuzha also said that any military strike against Iran would pose "huge [negative] consequences" for all concerned. PM
U.S. CONCERNED ABOUT RUSSIAN PIRACY OF INTELLECTUAL PROPERTY
The Washington-based International Intellectual Property Alliance said in a statement on 13 February that "Russia's copyright piracy problem remains one of the world's most serious," mosnews.com and iipa.com reported. The alliance of U.S. movie, music, and software companies said that Russian piracy costs U.S. firms about $1.76 billion in lost sales annually, compared to up to $35 billion from all sources and $2.4 billion from China. The statement noted that Russian pirates have "some of the world's most open and notorious websites" for dealing in illegal goods. The alliance wants the U.S. government to suspend trade benefits and label Russia a "priority foreign country," which is a designation reserved for states with the worst problems in protecting copyrights. PM
SOLDIER DIES AFTER REPORTED HAZING
Nursullah Dautov died in intensive care in the Kuvatov Hospital in Ufa, the capital of the Republic of Bashkortostan, where he was brought on 9 February, two days after an alleged hazing incident, regnum.ru and Interfax reported. Prosecutors have opened a criminal investigation. Elsewhere, the Russian Defense Ministry announced that 53 servicemen died last month as a result of crimes, accidents, or, in 14 cases, suicide (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 8 and 9 February 2006). PM
FIRE RAVAGES MOSCOW PRESS COMPLEX
The Emergency Situations Ministry announced on 14 February that a group of experts will decide what to do with the eight-story Moscow building of Pressa Publishers, which houses "Komsomolskaya pravda" and several other papers and was hit by a fire the previous day, RIA Novosti reported. Four people were injured in the blaze, and one woman is reported missing. Mayor Yury Luzhkov called for rebuilding the structure, much of which was badly damaged by fire and freezing water. PM
RUSSIAN MUFTI SAYS GAY PARADE INVITES VIOLENCE
Chief Mufti of Russia's Central Muslim Spiritual Directorate Talgat Tadzhuddin said in Moscow on 14 February that Russian "Muslims' protests [might] be even worse than these notorious rallies abroad over the scandalous cartoons" against the Prophet Muhammad if gays and lesbians go ahead with plans to hold a parade in the Russian capital in May, mosnews.com reported. The mufti added that "the parade should not be allowed, and if they still come out into the streets, then they should be bashed.... All normal people are going to join [the bashing], Muslims and Orthodox alike." PM
RUSSIAN ANTIDRUG BODY WANTS LIFE SENTENCES FOR SOME DEALERS
Aleksandr Fyodorov, who is a leading official of the Federal Drug Control Service, said in Moscow on 13 February that his organization wants life sentences for at least some drug dealers, RIA Novosti reported. "Such a measure of punishment must be used in extraordinary cases. It would help society protect itself from the threat posed by narcotics through drug dealers." State Duma Deputy Yevgeny Roizman said that the legislature is reviewing a draft bill that provides for such penalties, including for those who sell drugs to adolescents and for officials who face drug-related charges from abusing their position (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2006). He noted that "the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor-General's Office, and the State Duma's Security Committee have already endorsed the measure, but the government has not yet done so." Fyodorov said the government has budgeted over $20 million to fight drug trafficking in 2006. PM
CONVICTS SLIT THEIR VEINS TO PROTEST TV SCHEDULE CHANGES
Seventeen convicted felons in Prison Camp No. 2 in Yekaterinburg cut their veins recently to protest the rescheduling of their favorite television program to a later hour, when convicts are not allowed to watch television, mosnews.com reported. The program, called "The Zone," depicts life in a Russian prison camp and is reportedly based on true stories. The protesters suspected that camp officials were lying about the rescheduling of the program and simply trying to deprive the convicts of their favorite show. The protest ended when prisoners were shown the official NTV schedule. The authorities decided not to punish the 17 felons. PM
ADYGEYA PROSECUTOR ASSESSES 'CHAUVINISTIC' SLAVIC PUBLICATION
The Maykop prosecutor's office and the Kuban office of the federal service responsible for monitoring media compliance with legislation are evaluating recent articles published in a newspaper representing Adygeya's Slavic majority, according to kavkazweb.net on 14 February, citing Kavkazsky uzel. At least one article published last year in "Zakuban'e," the organ of the Union of Slavs of Adygeya, has been assessed as "nationalistic," and as propagating chauvinism and interethnic enmity. The Union of Slavs advocates the abolition of Adygeya's status as a republic and subsuming its territory into the surrounding Krasnodar Krai. The Union of Slavs is fielding an unknown number of candidates in the 12 March election for a new republican parliament; those candidates are included in the party list of the United Industrial Party of Russia. LF
TWO AZERBAIJANI OPPOSITION FORCES ALIGN FOR REPEAT BALLOT
The opposition Musavat party, which last week formally quit the Azadliq bloc established one year ago to participate in the 6 November parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 February 2006), will join forces with the opposition group Yeni Siyaset (YeS) in parliament and to participate in the repeat voting on 13 May in 10 constituencies where the outcome of the 6 November vote was annulled, day.az reported on 14 February, quoting YeS co-founder Eldar Namazov. Musavat has four deputies in the 125-member legislature and YeS two; the minimum number of deputies required to form a parliamentary faction is 20. LF
DETAINED AZERBAIJANI YOUTH ACTIVIST IN NEED OF HOSPITALIZATION
Ruslan Basirli, leader of the opposition youth organization Yeni Fikir (New Idea), who was arrested six months ago on charges of collaborating with Armenian intelligence to provoke unrest in Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 15 August 2005), was transferred on 13 February from his cell to the first-aid point of the Bailov pretrial-detention facility, the online daily zerkalo.az reported on 14 February. Basirli's lawyer, Elchin Gambarov, told the daily that Basirli has suffered for several days from pains in his kidneys, and a medical examination on 13 February revealed problems with his heart and liver (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2006). LF
GEORGIAN DEFENSE MINISTER ACCUSES SOUTH OSSETIA OF BUYING ANTIAIRCRAFT MISSILES FROM RUSSIA
Irakli Okruashvili told the Georgian parliament committees on defense and security and international affairs on 13 February that militia groups in the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia have recently purchased portable ground-to-air antiaircraft Strela missile systems from the Russian military base in Akhalkalaki, southern Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. It is not clear whether Okruashvili explained how that weaponry was transported from southern Georgia to South Ossetia. Ten days earlier, Okruashvili alleged that an Igla missile apparently lost by South Ossetian militants and discovered by Georgian police near the South Ossetian conflict zone was to be used in an attempt to assassinate President Mikheil Saakashvili (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2006).
...DESCRIBES WITHDRAWAL OF RUSSIAN PEACEKEEPERS AS 'INEVITABLE'
On 12 February, Defense Minister Okruashvili told the independent television channel Rustavi-2 that Georgia's parliament should demand the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers from the South Ossetian conflict zone, a process he characterized as "irreversible," Caucasus Press reported. At the same time, Okruashvili stressed that Georgia should "set the rules of the game" for that withdrawal and on no account be drawn into anticipated "provocations" by Russia. Okruashvili further made a number of derogatory and possibly slanderous comments about South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity. In comments to journalists on 13 February, Okruashvili predicted that the Georgian leadership will restore its hegemony over South Ossetia by the beginning of 2007. LF
GEORGIAN OFFICIAL SLAMS RUSSIAN REFUSAL TO ADMIT GEORGIAN NATIONALS
Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Merab Antadze criticized on 13 February as politically motivated the Russian decision to bar 55 Georgian citizens from entering the Russian Federation over the previous two days, Caucasus Press reported. Antadze said the Georgians were not allowed access to consular officials. LF
KAZAKH OPPOSITION LEADER FOUND SHOT DEAD
Altynbek Sarsenbaev, a leading member of the For a Just Kazakhstan opposition group, was found shot dead on the outskirts of Almaty on 13 February, Interfax-Kazakhstan and ferghana.ru reported. Almaty police said that they discovered three bodies, including Sarsenbaev's, with gunshot wounds on a roadside, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Ferghana.ru claimed that the three men had all been shot in the head execution-style, but noted that that information has not been officially confirmed. Kazakh police announced that Deputy Interior Minister Kalmukhanbet Kasymov will head a special commission to investigate the murder, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. President Nursultan Nazarbaev has expressed his condolences to Sarsenbaev's family, Kazinform reported. Sarsenbaev served twice as information minister. Since 2003, he was active in the opposition parties Ak Zhol and True Ak Zhol, as well as For a Just Kazakhstan. Sarsenbaev was a member of Zharmakhan Tuyakbai's unsuccessful campaign in the December 2005 presidential election. A second opposition figure, Zamanbek Nurkadilov, was found dead with two gunshot wounds three months ago; the Kazakh authorities returned a verdict of suicide (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14 and 30 November 2005). DK
KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT SCHEDULES VOTE ON SPEAKER'S RESIGNATION
Kyrgyzstan's parliament voted on 13 February to include the resignation of speaker Omurbek Tekebaev on the legislature's agenda for 20 February, akipress.org reported. Fifty deputies voted in favor of the motion. Deputy speakers Bolot Sherniyazov and Erkin Alymbekov also tendered their resignations on 13 February, but deputies voted against including them in the agenda. DK
KYRGYZ PARLIAMENT SPEAKER CRITICIZES PRESIDENT, PREMIER
In an address to parliament on 13 February, Tekebaev praised the work of the legislature but harshly criticized both President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, ferghana.ru reported. Calling parliament the country's "most transparent branch of government," Tekebaev said that the legislature has "evoked the intense envy of certain individuals, who have accused parliament of trying to assume the role of head of state." The remark apparently referred to a 3 February address in which Bakiev criticized parliament for allegedly exceeding its mandate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 February 2006). Tekebaev reminded Bakiev and Kulov that they decided in May to work as a team (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 16 May 2005), but that "the participants of the tandem have forgotten about their promises." Tekebaev said that he submitted his resignation because the form of his recent comments about Bakiev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 9 February 2006) was "incorrect [and] unworthy." He pointedly refused to apologize for the substance of his remarks, in which he called Bakiev a "disgrace," "for virtually everyone agrees with the content." In closing, Tekebaev stressed, "I feel bad that since the March  revolution no changes have taken place in the mentality of officials." DK
TAJIK COURT SUSPENDS OPPOSITION EDITOR'S SENTENCE
Tajikistan's Supreme Court has suspended the sentence handed down by a Dushanbe court in August 2005 to Mukhtor Boqizoda, the editor in chief of the opposition newspaper "Nerui Sukhan," Asia Plus-Blitz reported on 13 February. Boqizoda was convicted of stealing electricity and sentenced to two years of corrective labor, a verdict the Committee to Protect Journalists described as "politically motivated" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 26 and 30 August 2005). Boqizoda said that his legal troubles have cost him nearly $30,000 and he plans to sue for compensation. DK
INDIAN DELEGATION ARRIVES IN TURKMENISTAN FOR PIPELINE TALKS
Delegates from Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India arrived in Ashgabat on 13 February for the ninth meeting of the steering committee for the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan natural-gas pipeline, turkmenistan.ru reported. Mines and Industry Minister Mir Mohammad Sediq will represent Afghanistan. Amanullah Jadoon, federal minister for petroleum and natural resources, will head Pakistan's delegation, "Dawn" reported. Dinsha J. Patel, minister of state for petroleum and natural gas, will represent India, news.webindia123.com reported. The two-day meeting, scheduled for 14-15 February, is the first ministerial-level session of the steering committee to which India has been invited. NewsCentralAsia reported that India may formally join the project as an official member in the course of the session. The estimated construction cost of the 1,680-kilometer pipeline from Turkmenistan to the Pakistan-India border is $3.3 billion, and it will have an annual throughput capacity of 33 billion cubic meters of gas, turkmenistan.ru reported. DK
BELARUSIAN POLICE DETAIN ASSOCIATES OF OPPOSITION PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE
Police in Lida, Hrodna Oblast, on 13 February detained associates of united opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich for over five hours, Belapan reported. The car carrying Anatol Khotska, head of Milinkevich's regional campaign headquarters; his deputy Syarhey Malchyk; and Hrodna council deputy Syarhey Antusevich was stopped at 7.30 p.m. and after a search was released at 1.40 a.m. the next day. Police seized 1,200 copies of the newspaper "Narodnaya volya" and photocopied several documents belonging to Antusevich, who is also the leader of an independent trade union at a Hrodna-based company. The same night police searched the apartment of Vadzim Saranchukou, deputy head of Milinkevich's campaign headquarters in Hrodna, accusing him of writing graffiti in Vaukavysk on 5 February denigrating President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. AM
BELARUSIAN ACTIVIST FINED FOR 'ILLEGAL ELECTIONEERING'
A district court in Masty, Hrodna Oblast, has fined Yauhen Skrabutan 290,000 Belarusian rubles ($135) for distributing wallet-sized calendars with a portrait of opposition candidate Milinkevich, Belapan reported on 13 February. Police detained Skrabutan on 12 January and found 5,000 of the calendars on him. The court found him guilty of illegal electioneering and distributing unlicensed materials. Skrabutan, who described the ruling as "completely illegal," intends to appeal the fine. AM
UKRAINE HOPES TO ATTRACT FOREIGN INVESTMENT IN GAS INFRASTRUCTURE
Ukrainian Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said on 11 February that the government will propose to the EU and other foreign investors that they take part in the construction of new gas pipelines in Ukraine, Interfax reported on 13 February. Yekhanurov also said that pipelines will be subsequently privatized. Ukraine is currently building a 240-kilometer section of the Bohorodchany-Uzhgorod pipeline, which is part of Novopskov (Russia)-Uzhgorod pipeline. The expected annual capacity of this pipeline, which will cost around $560 million, is 19 billion cubic meters. The tender to select the main contractor for the project is set for 31 March. AM
UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT CALLS FOR ENERGY EFFICIENCY
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko promised on 11 February to set up a national energy-saving agency and outlined a program to improve energy efficiency in Ukraine, Interfax reported on 13 February. The proposed program includes cutting energy consumption by half, diversifying energy supplies, and using local energy resources. Yushchenko said that "it's time to introduce new energy technologies and replace outdated equipment. The government will support entrepreneurs' intentions to invest in energy efficiency by cutting taxes and tariffs." AM
EU SAYS IT WILL ADVISE, NOT IMPOSE SOLUTION ON MONTENEGRIN INDEPENDENCE REFERENDUM
European Union envoy Miroslav Ljacak said on 13 February that Brussels does not intend to impose a solution regarding Montenegro's independence referendum, FoNet and B92 reported the same day. Ljacak said, however, that he will convey to the Montenegrin government and opposition the EU's opinion on the type of majority necessary in the proposed referendum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2006). "I expect that I will tell them at those meetings what the EU thinks about the majority question, the schedule for the referendum, and the questions posed by the referendum," Ljacak said. "It is not Brussels' intention to impose anything. The decision must be reached within Montenegro," he added. Montenegrin parliamentary speaker Ranko Krivokapic, meanwhile, has scheduled a special session of parliament on 25 February to debate the referendum law. BW
CONTACT GROUP SAYS KOSOVA'S STATUS NOT DECIDED IN ADVANCE
The Contact Group's unanimous position is that Kosova's status can only be reached through direct negotiations between Belgrade and Prishtina according to internationally set guidelines, Beta and B92 reported on 13 February, citing unidentified officials. Comments attributed to British Foreign Office Political Director John Sawers in the media suggesting that the Contact Group has already decided on independence drew fierce criticism from Serbian politicians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 7 and 8 February 2006). "The solution must be acceptable for the people of Kosovo," an unidentified official from the Contact Group said, according to B92. Regarding Sawers' alleged statements, the official said that "everyone has a right to their own opinions on the matter," but that such a conclusion was not reached at the Contact Group's last meeting on 31 January. The Contact Group comprises the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, and Russia. BW
HAGUE PROSECUTOR'S SPOKESWOMAN SAYS MLADIC STILL IN SERBIA UNDER PROTECTION
Florence Hartmann, the spokeswoman for Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor for the Hague-based war crimes tribunal, said on 13 February that Ratko Mladic is still in Serbia, Beta, FoNet and B92 reported the same day. "Mladic is under the protection of people whose duty is to arrest him," Hartmann said, adding that "every piece of information that we gave the authorities in Serbia in relation to Mladic was not just correct, but also very precise." Hartmann said in January that Mladic is hiding in Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 January 2006). BW
BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA, CROATIA BAN SLOVENIAN POULTRY AS NEW BIRD-FLU SCARE HITS BALKANS
Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina on 13 February banned poultry imports from Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, and Slovenia after bird flu was detected in those countries, international news agencies reported the same day. Bosnian authorities also banned the hunting of wild birds and warned farmers to protect their poultry from contact with wild birds, dpa reported. Authorities in Slovenia, meanwhile, declared their country a bird-flu "risk zone" on 13 February, as they await tests on a dead swan to see if it was infected with the deadly H5N1 strain of the virus, AP reported the same day. The dead swan, infected with the H5 substrain of the virus, was discovered on 12 February in Maribor, near the Austrian border. Tests for the H5N1 strain are being conducted at a EU laboratory in the United Kingdom. Slovenian authorities have culled 170 chickens and 16 other birds at a farm in Sveti Primoz Nad Muto, where the veterinarian who found the swan worked. BW
ALBANIAN RIGHTS GROUPS TO SUE OVER PUBLIC-SECTOR JOB CUTS
Four Albanian human rights groups announced on 13 February that they will sue the government over planned cuts in public-sector jobs, serbianna.com reported the same day. As part of an anticorruption campaign, Prime Minister Sali Berisha's government plans to cut more than 2,000 public-sector jobs and reduce the number of ministries in his cabinet from 18 to 14. The Albanian Helsinki Committee, Albanian Human Rights Group, Center of Parliamentary Studies, and the country's ombudsman are challenging the move in Albania's Constitutional Court. "The fight against corruption and conflict of interests cannot be legitimatised by illegal acts," the groups said in a joint statement. "These decisions violate employees' constitutional rights." BW
MOLDOVAN COMMUNISTS PROPOSE LIFETIME IMMUNITY FOR PRESIDENT
The ruling Party of Moldovan Communists (PCM) submitted a bill on 13 February that grants lifelong immunity to the president for acts committed while in office, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. "The initiative necessitates changes to the law on the president and envisages immunity only for actions carried out while in office," Vadim Mishin, one of the bill's authors, told reporters. "In a democratic and rule-of-law state, it is quite natural for those who hold the office of president to have immunity because this job presupposes a certain amount of risk." Mishin added that, if passed, the new rules will apply "not only to incumbent head of state Vladimir Voronin but also to all presidents after him." BW
GEORGIAN PARLIAMENT SET TO VOTE ON RUSSIAN PEACEKEEPERS
Georgia's parliament on 15 February will almost certainly vote to demand the swift withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the South Ossetia conflict zone. But the Georgian government is not obligated to act on that demand, and observers question whether it is legally empowered to do so unilaterally. A parliament ultimatum would also exacerbate the already tense relations between Tbilisi and Moscow and would constitute clear defiance of the United States, whose ambassador to the OSCE, Julie Finley, called on both sides on 9 February to demonstrate "caution." Finley noted that a pullout by peacekeepers before an alternative force is available to take over their duties could negatively impact on the situation in South Ossetia.
On 13 February, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili presented to parliament a new proposal intended to prevent a further exacerbation of tensions.
On 11 October, three weeks after Tskhinvali, capital of the unrecognized Republic of the South Ossetia, was subjected to mortar fire from a Georgian-populated village, the Georgian parliament set a deadline of 10 February for the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the South Ossetian conflict zone to demonstrate its effectiveness and impartiality. An analogous deadline of 1 July was set for the Russian peacekeepers that have been deployed under the CIS aegis in Abkhazia since mid-1994.
The Georgian parliament accused the Russian peacekeeping forces in both conflict zones of failing to comply with their respective mandates and of turning a blind eye to abductions, attacks on local civilians, smuggling, illicit arms sales, and other crimes. In the case of South Ossetia, the resolution further accused Moscow of providing military assistance to the breakaway republic's leadership.
The resolution set deadlines of 10 February 2006 and 1 July 2006, respectively, for the Russian peacekeepers deployed in the South Ossetian and Abkhaz conflict zones to demonstrate they are complying with the terms of their respective mandates and that their continued presence in the conflict zones is essential. In the event that they fail to do so to deputies' satisfaction, the Georgian parliament will insist on their withdrawal within two weeks and their replacement by an international peacekeeping force.
In recent days, Georgian politicians -- including parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze -- informally sounded out Ukraine and Latvia, both Georgian allies, concerning the possibility that they might contribute troops to an international peacekeeping force. While expressing diplomatic support for Georgia, neither country has responded with a firm offer of troops.
The Georgian parliament is accordingly set to vote on 15 February on whether to issue a formal demand for the peacekeepers' withdrawal from South Ossetia. As with most aspects of Georgian-Russian relations, the Georgian parliament has for the past decade taken a more aggressive and militant stance than has the executive. Few observers either in Tbilisi or abroad doubt that parliamentarians will indeed insist on the peacekeepers' withdrawal. If they do, they risk fuelling even further the tensions between Tbilisi and Moscow that have recently been exacerbated by the cutoff of Russian gas supplies last month due to sabotage of the main Russia-Georgia pipeline. Such a demand would also pit the Georgian parliament against at least the more moderate members of the executive branch.
Givi Targamadze, who heads the parliament's Defense and Security Committee, told Caucasus Press on 6 February that Georgia will resort to force if necessary to expedite the peacekeepers' withdrawal. By contrast, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli said the Georgian government does not regard the peacekeepers' withdrawal as an end in itself, while Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava was quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on 7 February as saying "there are civilized ways of seeking to solve problems, and we do not intend to diverge from them one iota. There is the peacekeepers' mandate and international law, and all our activities will be subordinated to that law. All issues connected with the presence of Russian peacekeepers in Georgia will be addressed by the Georgian president and parliament in accordance with international law."
Any resolution by parliament calling for the Russian contingent's departure is not binding on the Georgian government. And Khaindrava's statement implies the executive would seek ways of expediting the Russian withdrawal that would not risk a new crisis in relations with Moscow. But if the "hawks" within the executive branch -- in particular Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili and Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili, both of whom were born in South Ossetia -- choose to throw their weight behind the parliament, they would present President Mikheil Saakashvili with an unenviable choice. He could back them and the legislature at the risk of challenging Washington, which has urged caution, or scramble to reconcile the positions of all three parties. Saakashvili has not yet openly formulated his position on the upcoming vote, but is likely to touch upon the issue during his annual televised address to the country on 14 February.
As noted above, Washington is eager to avoid a new crisis in Georgian-Russian relations. Addressing the OSCE's Permanent Council in Vienna on 9 February, Georgian Foreign Minister Bezhuashvili called for the fulfillment of earlier agreements by the two sides, including those on demilitarization. He advocated establishing a joint Georgian-South Ossetian police force to maintain order in the conflict zone once the demilitarization process is complete: a proposal that suggested the Georgian government is treating the parliament demand for the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal as a fait accompli.
But the U.S. permanent representative to the OSCE, Ambassador Julie Finley, implicitly rejected that approach, reasoning that a pullout of the Russian peacekeepers before an alternative force is formed to replace them could further destabilize the situation. Finley called on Georgia to contribute its full complement of forces to maintain the proper balance within the Joint Peace-Keeping Force, which includes Georgian, Russian and Ossetian contingents, "in coordination with existing mechanisms, in full transparency, and in accordance with previous agreements," and on both sides to moderate their militant rhetoric.
In a clear attempt to dissuade parliamentarians from demanding the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal, Bezhuashvili told them on 13 February that at the meeting scheduled to take place in Vienna on 20-21 February of the Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring the situation in the South Ossetia conflict zone, Georgia will unveil a detailed demilitarization proposal that would necessitate the continued presence in the conflict zone of the Joint Peacekeeping Force (JPKF), comprising Georgian and Ossetian contingents as well as Russian peacekeepers. Bezhuashvili further advocated continuing "consultations and negotiations" with Russia, Caucasus Press reported.
That approach, if parliament approves it, would not simply buy time for the Georgian leadership. It would obviate the need to embark on a course of action whose legality may be questionable, insofar as it is by no means clear whether Tbilisi is legally empowered to demand unilaterally the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force from South Ossetia. That force was first deployed, as part of a JPKF, on the basis of an agreement signed in June 1992 by the then Russian and Georgian heads of state, Boris Yeltsin and Eduard Shevardnadze, that established the Joint Control Commission, which comprises Russian, Georgian, South Ossetian and North Ossetian, and OSCE representatives.
JPKF commander Major General Marat Kulakhmetov and Konstantin Kosachyov, who chairs the Russian State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, were quoted on 6 and 7 February by Interfax and RIA Novosti, respectively, as arguing that that all four sides must approve the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeeping force. By contrast, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Khaindrava was quoted by Caucasus Press on 7 February as saying the Russian and Georgian presidents should jointly make any decision on pulling out the Russian peacekeeping contingent.
FOUR U.S. SOLDIERS KILLED IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN
Four U.S. soldiers were killed when a suspected improvised explosive device struck their vehicle in Deh Rahwod, Oruzgan Province, on 13 February, the American Forces Information Service reported. The four were on patrol with Afghan National Army (ANA) forces at the time of the attack. Shortly after the explosion, the patrol was attacked by unknown assailants, prompting a U.S. air assault. Oruzgan security commander Rozi Khan said that six members of the neo-Taliban were killed in the clash, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on 13 February. Mohammad Hanif, speaking for the neo-Taliban, told AIP that nine U.S. solders were killed in the incident and two of their vehicles were destroyed. The neo-Taliban often exaggerate their claims. Since the ousting the Taliban regime from Afghanistan in late 2001, a total of 214 U.S. service members have died in that country, "The Washington Post" reported on 13 February. AT
AFGHAN SOLIDER KILLED IN EXPLOSION IN NORTHEASTERN AFGHANISTAN
One ANA soldier was killed and five others were injured when a remote-controlled bomb exploded as their patrol vehicle passed in Chawki District of Konar Province on 13 February, international news agencies reported. Mullah Abdul Rahman, identifying himself as the commander of the Bara bin Malik Front, told AIP on 13 February that his forces destroyed an ANA vehicle with a remote-controlled bomb in Konar, killing "five soldiers" and injuring one. The background and affiliation of the Bara bin Malik Front remains vague. AT
FEMALE DEPUTY ATTACKED NORTH OF KABUL
Same'a Sadat, a member of the Afghan National Assembly from Parwan Province, was attacked by unknown assailants in her home province on 13 February, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Sadat who also serves as the honorary president of Parwan's education department, told RFE/RL that a gunman jumped from the back of a store and shot at her vehicle. Sadat's bodyguard was injured in the attack, but she escaped unharmed. Sadat blamed groups who do not want peace and stability to prevail in Afghanistan for the attack. Parwan Governor Abdul Jabar Taqwa told RFE/RL that people who were in the vicinity of the attack have been detained for questioning and an investigation has been ordered. AT
TWO JOURNALISTS REPORTEDLY BEATEN IN WESTERN AFGHANISTAN
In a press release issued in Kabul on 13 February, NAI, an Afghan NGO working in support of open media, condemned attacks on two journalists in the city of Herat. According to NAI, Reza Shayr Mohammadi, a journalist working for the privately owned Tolu Television, was physically abused by the police on 10 February while covering the sectarian riots in Herat (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 13 February 2006). Ehsan Sarwaryar, a freelance journalist from Herat, was also reportedly beaten by authorities in Herat. AT
TELEVISION TRANSMITTER DESTROYED IN EASTERN AFGHANISTAN
Unidentified people blew up a television transmitter and a generator in Nangarhar Province on 11 February, AIP reported. The transmitters were used by the Nangarhar Television Department, which broadcasts to five districts in the province and is supported by financial assistance from India. An unidentified engineer working for the television station told AIP that the generator alone cost around $20,000. AT
IRANIAN CENTRIFUGES START SPINNING
Visiting International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials removed their seals from equipment at the Natanz nuclear facility, Fars News Agency reported on 13 February. Later that day an anonymous "informed source" told Fars that the injection of uranium hexafluoride into some of the centrifuges at the Natanz facility has begun. The news agency reported that 164 centrifuges were under seal and eventually they all will be put to use. BS
IRAN-RUSSIA DELIBERATIONS ON HOLD
Iranian government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham announced on 13 February that Tehran-Moscow talks on the possibility of Iranian uranium-enrichment activities taking place on Russian soil are on hold, Radio Farda reported. Representatives from the two countries were scheduled to meet on 16 February, and they met in Moscow in late-January. "The question of negotiations is still open and the time of the negotiations is another issue," Elham explained. "These will take place in view of the new circumstances that were created and the [Iranian] government's determination to seriously pursue a peaceful [uranium-] enrichment program inside the country. We believe that the [Russian] plan needs to be adjusted according to the Islamic Republic's policies and we are pursuing this aspect." Elham added that Iran's decision on continuing adherence to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) will reflect Europe's behavior. He said Iran has acted within the NPT framework and has even surpassed requirements in an effort to eliminate any ambiguities, state radio reported. Iran will remain committed to the NPT if Europe, the IAEA, and other entities recognize Iran's right to have access to nuclear technology, Elham continued. BS
LEBANESE DRUZE LEADER REPEATS CHARGES AGAINST IRAN...
During a 12 February meeting in Lebanon's Shouf Mountains, parliamentarian Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze sect and the Progressive Socialist Party, repeated his earlier charges that Iran and Syria are working with Hizballah to dominate his country, the Lebanese National News Agency reported (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 3 May 2005 and 23 January 2006). Jumblatt contrasted a 1962 Lebanese army map that shows the Shabaa Farms are outside Lebanon's borders with a 2001 map provided by the Syrian-allied former director-general of general security, Major General Jamil al-Sayyid, which shows the farms within Lebanese territory. Hizballah cites the alleged Israeli occupation of the Shabaa Farms as a pretext for retaining its arms and for continuing operations against Israel. Jumblatt continued that this new map and the principle of the liberation of the Shabaa Farms through resistance are an obstacle to building Lebanon. "This map permits an armed force [Hizballah] to control the south and to use it indefinitely, through the Lebanese-Syrian-Iranian alliance, for the benefit of the [Syrian] regime and the Islamic Republic of Iran, while Lebanon remains a captive," Jumblatt said. Use of the newer map means that "Lebanon's destiny and independence remain in limbo for many years to come," Jumblatt said, adding that Lebanon risks remaining "a hostage of the avarice of the Syrian regime and of the Islamic Republic of Iran." BS
...AS LEBANESE MINISTER VISITS TEHRAN
Lebanese Labor Minister Trad Hamadeh said in Tehran on 13 February that he thanks Iran for supporting his country and its resistance against what IRNA termed "Zionist threats and aggression." He added, "Iran has always been a forerunner in supporting the Palestinian nation to resist Israel's systematic killing of Palestinians." He went on to criticize those who do not approve of the Iran-Syria coalition. Hamadeh also said that military threats against Iran will be defeated by the will of the Iranian people, IRNA reported. BS
FORMER IRAQI REGIME OFFICIALS TESTIFY IN AL-DUJAYL TRIAL
The 14 February session of the Al-Dujayl trial got off to a chaotic start but quickly settled into routine proceedings, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein shouted slogans as he entered the courtroom, and was overheard saying, "We have been on a hunger strike for three days to protest the way they brought us to court." Al-Arabiyah television reported on 12 February that Hussein was planning to begin a hunger strike on 13 February, but then cited one of his lawyers as saying that the rumors of a hunger strike were false. The court session heard from two witnesses, both former members of the intelligence apparatus. One official's identity was hidden, while the other appeared openly in court. The trial will resume on 28 February. KR
IRAQI POLICE COLONEL KILLED, FOUR BODIES FOUND IN BAGHDAD
An Iraqi police colonel was assassinated on 13 February in the Al-Dawrah district of Baghdad, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on 14 February. An unidentified Interior Ministry source told Al-Sharqiyah that Colonel Mahdi al-Mutlaq, Baghdad police director of training, was killed on a street in his neighborhood by gunmen. Meanwhile, two police commandos were wounded on 14 February in Al-Dawrah when an explosive charge detonated near their passing police vehicle. A source from the Defense Ministry said that Iraqi security forces discovered four unidentified men who had been shot at close range; two of the bodies were found in the Al-Shu'lah area of northern Baghdad, one was found in Kasra wa Atash in eastern Baghdad, and the fourth was found in the Al-Sha'b area of northeast Baghdad, Al-Sharqiyah reported on 14 February. Meanwhile, gunmen in Balad, some 100 kilometers north of Baghdad, reportedly opened fire on a family working their land, killing 11, including tribal leader Sheikh Hasan al-Sarhan, dpa reported. Also, four civilians were wounded in central Baghdad when an explosive device targeting a police patrol went off in front of the Technical University. KR
NEW VIDEOTAPE SURFACES OF GERMAN HOSTAGES IN IRAQ
A new videotape showing two German engineers abducted in Iraq last month was aired on Al-Arabiyah television on 13 February. The abductors, identified as Ansar Al-Tawhid wa Al-Sunnah (Supporters of Monotheism and the Prophet's Tradition), issued a final warning to the German government in the video, saying they will kill the hostages unless the German government and German companies cease all relations with Iraq, Al-Arabiyah reported. Al-Arabiyah showed the hostages kneeling on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs; no audio was broadcast from the video. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called the video "shocking evidence of human humiliation," ddp reported on 13 February. He said the German government is doing everything it can to save the lives of the hostages. KR
IRAQ MOST DANGEROUS PLACE FOR JOURNALISTS
Iraq was the most dangerous place for journalists in 2005, according to a 14 February report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). The organization said in its annual report, "Attacks on the Press," that Iraq has also become the deadliest conflict for the media in CPJ's 24-year history. Sixty journalists and 22 media support staff have been killed on duty in Iraq since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom in March 2003. In 2005, 22 journalists and three media workers were killed in action. The report said most of those killed were Iraqis. "Insurgent attacks remained the leading cause of media deaths," the report noted. "In several cases, armed groups hunted down and murdered journalists." Meanwhile, the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said in a 13 February press release that delegates to an 11 February conference of Iraqi journalists in Egypt drafted a charter of rights for journalists in Iraq. IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said among the issues discussed at the conference was the need to "create safe and secure working conditions and to end the killings of journalists and media staff" in Iraq. KR
U.K. POLICE ARREST ONE IN CONNECTION WITH IRAQ ABUSE VIDEO
British authorities have arrested a "serving soldier" in connection with the allegations of abuse that surfaced following the release of a videotape depicting British soldiers beating Iraqi teenagers, the Ministry of Defense announced in a 13 February press release. The statement said investigations are ongoing to identify all military personnel in the video. The statement reprinted 11 February remarks by Adjutant General Chief of Staff Brigadier Martin Rutledge, in which he said: "The images in this video amount to very serious allegations.... We condemn all acts of abuse and brutality and always treat any allegations of wrongdoing by our personnel extremely seriously." KR