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Newsline - May 17, 2006

Sergei Lavrov said on May 16 that Chinese-Russian relations are now better than ever before, Interfax reported the same day. "Today Russian-Chinese relations are at their highest level in their entire history," Lavrov said during a visit to Beijing. He added that a summit in March raised Moscow's relations with Beijing "to a qualitatively new level, largely thanks to the friendly and trustful relationship between the two countries' leaders." Lavrov said that during his visit to Beijing, he discussed the demarcation of the eastern section of the Russian-Chinese border, the use of waterways, and issues related to environmental protection. Lavrov and Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing also signed agreements to construct a bridge linking China to Russia's Chita Oblast. BW

Lavrov has accused the United States of "bias" and of "ignoring the facts" in its recent criticism of Moscow, Interfax reported on May 16. "Opponents of the positive development of Russian-U.S. cooperation have become more active in the U.S. of late," Lavrov said in an interview published in the weekly "Argumenty i fakty." "As far as I can judge from numerous media reports, the reasons for this activity should be looked for in domestic political arguments within the U.S., which concern their own problems. This is what biased and fact-ignoring criticism of Russia's domestic and foreign policies stems from. We cannot agree with this prejudiced approach from the position of double standards," Lavrov added. Lavrov was presumably referring to a May 4 speech in which U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney accused Moscow of backsliding on democracy and using its energy resources for political blackmail (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). BW

Human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin said on May 16 that gay-rights activists have a right to hold a procession in downtown Moscow, but he questioned whether such a demonstration is necessary, Interfax reported. "Like any other minority, they have the right to express their views, and they enjoy the same constitutional rights as other citizens," Lukin said. He added, however, that the demonstrators should not use their sexual orientation "as an excuse for a boisterous public demonstration" that will alienate society. "I can hardly imagine supporters of more conventional principles voicing their priorities in such a manner. It is a matter of tact. My personal opinion is that it will only irritate society," Lukin said. The Moscow city government said it will not issue a permit for a gay-rights parade to take place in the capital. BW

The Union of Orthodox Citizens announced in a press release on May 16 that it will block any gay-rights parade if the authorities allow it to take place, Interfax reported. The group also said that opposing gay rights is tantamount to supporting President Vladimir Putin's demographic policy. "The president's recent address raised the problem of demography as a matter of the nation's survival and Russia's sovereignty," the group said in a press release. "Any sexual perversions, including this so-called gay-pride parade, run counter to the president's address." In his May 10 state-of-the-nation speech, Putin said Russia is facing a demographic crisis, and he raised child-care allowances in an effort to encourage more births (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10, 2006). "If the authorities do not prevent this unauthorized march," the country's Orthodox citizens "will speak out in support of the president's demographic policy" and block the parade's route, the group's press release said. BW

Russia hopes to wind up its talks with the United States on joining the World Trade Organization (WTO) by the middle of the summer, Interfax reported on May 16, citing Maksim Medvedkov, head of the Russian delegation in WTO talks. "It will become clear in the next two to three weeks how, under what conditions and, most importantly, when the talks will end," Medvedkov said. "This is a question of a week and not months. I think like this because several top U.S. administration officials think so too. They say that we will finish talks with Russia by the middle of summer." One of the key outstanding issues in the talks is access to the Russian market for U.S. banks. BW

Yury Luzhkov said on May 16 that Russia should consider reducing oil and gas exports, Interfax reported the same day. "We could consider reducing oil and gas exports, as our own reserves are not limitless," Luzhkov said. "We sell oil and gas to the West, in so doing helping to develop foreign economies, and the money that we receive for selling these resources we again invest in foreign securities, again stimulating the foreign economy," he added. Luzhkov argued that the Stabilization Fund from oil and gas revenues has become large enough that the government could consider cutting exports. "We have financial stabilization in the country. The Stabilization Fund is worth 1.8 trillion rubles [$66.8 billion] and will reach 2.1 trillion rubles by next year. There is the impression that the government is confused about what to do with this money," Luzhkov said. BW

Presidential adviser Igor Shuvalov said on May 16 that Russia is committed to being a reliable energy supplier to the West, but will also defend its interests, Interfax reported. "Nobody had any questions about the reliability of Russian supplies of energy before the incident with Ukraine," Shuvalov said at a press conference in Moscow. "If you address real information sources, Russian companies have fully honored their contractual obligations. In the entire history of relations with European countries, Russia and the former Soviet Union have never used energy supplies for political purposes. We are an absolutely transparent and reliable supplier," he added. Shuvalov said that if European countries, concerned about excessive dependence on Russia, seek alternative energy sources , then Moscow will need to protect itself by seeking other markets. BW

Konstantin Kosachyov, the chairman of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, said on May 16 that Russia should take seriously a Council of Europe report criticizing Moscow's response to racist attacks, Interfax reported. "We should all listen to the Council of Europe commission's conclusions very attentively and on no account should we dispute them," he said. "There is no attempt to treat Russia with bias nor an attempt to make it follow some excessive double standards -- this is not the case here." The council's European Commission against Racism and Intolerance released a report on May 16 urging Russia to do more to combat hate crimes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2006). "You can hardly deny that xenophobia, extremism, and nationalism are pressing problems for Russia, because our country is multiethnic and multidenominational, and there is no doubt that this problem is much more acute here than in many other Council of Europe member states," Kosachyov said. BW

Ingushetia's First Deputy Interior Minister Djabrail Kostoyev and six other people were killed by a car bomb in Nazran on May 17, and reported. Interfax quoted Ingush officials as saying a bomb in a parked car exploded as Kostoyev's car drove past en route for his office, while reported that a suicide bomber driving a truck filled with explosives rammed Kostoyev's car. The dead included four civilian passengers in a vehicle that collided with Kostoyev's car after the explosion. Issa Kostoyev, who represents Ingushetia in the Federation Council, praised Djabrail Kostoyev, who survived several earlier assassination attempts -- including two last year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 2005) -- as one of very few officials to wage a consistent and resolute struggle against "terrorism, wahhabism, and all the other -isms," reported. LF

Ara Abrahamian, who is founder and president of the World Armenian Congress that seeks to unite diaspora Armenians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 7, 2003), complained at a meeting of the congress's governing body in Yerevan on May 16 that the Armenian government has failed to assist its efforts to "consolidate" diaspora communities, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Abrahamian further expressed sympathy for outgoing parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian and his Orinats Yerkir party, which last week quit the coalition government following Baghdasarian's policy disagreements with President Robert Kocharian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 12 and 15, 2006). Abrahamian provided material support for Orinats Yerkir in the run-up to the 2003 parliamentary elections, and said on May 16 that in his capacity as head of the Union of Armenians of Russia, which has more than 500,000 members, he will be "actively involved" in the 2008 Armenian presidential ballot. LF

President Kocharian is unable due to conflicting commitments to accept an invitation from NATO Parliamentary Assembly President Pierre Lellouche to attend a plenary session of that body in Paris in late May, Noyan Tapan quoted presidential spokesman Viktor Soghomonian as saying on May 16. Visiting Baku earlier this month, Lellouche extended an invitation to the presidents of both Azerbaijan and Armenia to visit Paris for talks on ways to resolve the Karabakh conflict. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev has reportedly accepted that invitation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 5, 2006). In late 2004, Lellouche and former Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio proposed resolving the Karabakh conflict by giving Armenia temporary control of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic in exchange for the withdrawal of Armenian forces from Azerbaijani territory, with the final status of Karabakh to be decided by its inhabitants in a referendum after five or 10 years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 21, 2005). Also on May 16, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told journalists that the timing of the next meeting between Kocharian and Aliyev will be "clarified" during the visit to Armenia and Azerbaijan later this month of the co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

The opposition Democratic Front parliament faction has set forth additional conditions for ending the boycott of parliament proceedings it began in early April, Georgian media reported on May 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2006). Current faction leader Zviad Dzidziguri said the opposition wants to discuss with the pro-government majority three bills it has drafted. One draft would amend the composition of election commissions to include two representatives from each of the six parties represented in parliament; the second would introduce elections for the position of mayor of Tbilisi and other major cities; and the third would establish a parliamentary commission to investigate the attack last summer on opposition parliament deputy Valeri Gelashvili (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 15, 2005) and the killing in January 2006 of banker Sandro Girgvliani. LF

The opposition Conservative, Republican, and Labor parties, together with the New Conservatives (aka New Rightists) and the Tavisupleba (Liberty) party headed by Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, the eldest son of deceased former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, have begun consultations on forming an alliance to participate in the local elections to be held this fall, reported on May 16. On May 6, opposition National Democratic Party leader Bachuki Kardava was quoted by Caucasus Press as saying his party will boycott the ballot as participating makes little sense unless the election law is changed to create equal conditions for all participating parties. LF

Djemal Gogitidze, who served as interior minister under Adjaran Supreme Council Chairman Aslan Abashidze until the latter's ouster in May 2004, was quoted by Caucasus Press on May 16 as telling journalists in Moscow he has applied for political asylum in Russia. The Georgian government has issued a warrant for Gogitidze's arrest on charges of extortion, fraud, and terrorism that he claims are politically motivated. Gogitidze is a leading member of the opposition Samartlianoba (Justice) party headed by former Georgian National Security Minister Igor Giorgadze. LF

Zharmakhan Tuyakbai, leader of the For a Just Kazakhstan opposition movement, told a news conference in Almaty on May 16 that a court in Zhambyl province the previous day sentenced movement activist Alibek Zhumabaev to five years in prison, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Zhumabaev was convicted of preparing public disturbances during Kazakhstan's December 2005 presidential election. Tuyakbai described the verdict as politically motivated and said that For a Just Kazakhstan plans to appeal. DK

Representatives of slain would-be lawmaker Ryspek Akmatbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2006) met with President Kurmanbek Bakiev in Bishkek on May 16, reported. The report did not identify the representatives of Akmatbaev, although it noted that they were accompanied by Issyk-Kul Province Governor Esengul Omuraliev. After the meeting, Akmatbaev's representatives returned to Balykchi, where they recently blocked roads in protest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2006). They told a meeting of 1,000 Akmatbaev supporters in Balykchi that Bakiev heard their demands and they pledged not to renew their blockade of the Balykchi-Bishkek highway. Previously, Akmatbaev's supporters had demanded a thorough investigation of Akmatbaev's killing and the resignation of Prime Minister Feliks Kulov. DK

A bill that would have amnestied 185 prisoners failed to garner a majority of votes in Kyrgyzstan's parliament on May 16, news agency reported. The bill would have released 185 prisoners and reduced prison terms for 5,800. It drew 28 votes in favor among 55 deputies present in the 75-member legislature. Deputy Kubatbek Baibolov of the opposition Union of Democratic Forces argued that the state needs to build new prisons and detention centers instead of periodically amnestying prisoners to reduce overcrowding. DK

Omurbek Tekebaev, the former speaker of parliament and current head of the For Reform! opposition movement, told a briefing in Bishkek on May 16 that his group plans to gather 50,000 people for a May 27 rally in the Kyrgyz capital, reported. Tekebaev said the rally organizers have notified the authorities but have not yet received an official response. The opposition is holding the May 27 demonstration because one of the key demands of an April 29 rally -- that officials should not be able to use their position to gain advantage in business deals -- has not been met, Tekebaev said. DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov issued a decree on May 16 removing Yklymberdy Paromov as property manager for the presidential administration and naming him minister of the textile industry, reported. Former Textiles Minister Dorguly Aidogdiev was dismissed and stripped of the post of deputy prime minister for alleged "serious flaws in his work and abuse of office." Niyazov named deputy property manager Muhammetberdy Bashiev property manager for the presidential administration. DK

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Papou told journalists in Minsk on May 16 that the recent travel ban imposed on Belarusian officials by U.S. President George W. Bush (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2006) is "shortsighted and has no prospects," RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. "There are no grounds to respond with some restraining measures to the people's choice [in the March 19 presidential vote]. This choice has taken place and no one has the right to change it," Papou said. Bush slapped the travel ban on an as yet unspecified group of top Belarusian officials and their spouses over their purported involvement in alleged electoral fraud in the March 19 presidential election, human-rights abuses, or corruption that undermines the transition to democracy in Belarus. In April, the EU introduced a visa ban on 31 Belarusian government officials, including President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, to punish them for their role in the flawed March 19 presidential election and the subsequent crackdown on opposition protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10 and 11, 2006). JM

A district court in Minsk is scheduled on May 17 to begin the trial of Yury Radzivil, who is accused of endangering the life of elite police (Almaz) officers on March 2, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. If found guilty, he could receive a six-year prison term. Radzivil, who worked for the election staff of opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, on March 2 drove in his car to a police station where police were holding Kazulin and some 20 of his supporters who were arrested earlier that day. When several police officers attempted to get into the vehicle, Radzivil reportedly locked the car and drove off. One officer fired several shots at the car. Radzivil managed to escape but was arrested later that day and charged with resisting arrest and using force against police. "[Radzivil] is a young man who got involved in big politics and narrowly escaped death.... Now he is being framed to cover those who actually violated the law," said Uladzimir Nistsyuk, who worked with Radzivil on Kazulin's election team. JM

Roman Zvarych of Our Ukraine told journalists in Kyiv on May 16 that his bloc has suspended talks on the creation of a ruling coalition with the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and the Socialist Party, Ukrainian media reported. Zvarych explained that the move was taken in response to Yuliya Tymoshenko's earlier public statements that her bloc will get the post of prime minister and the Socialists that of parliamentary speaker. He stressed that Our Ukraine will not accept an "ultimatum." Zvarych also said that Our Ukraine wants the three 2004 Orange Revolution allies to request that President Viktor Yushchenko hold a meeting with them. "[We want to request that] the president receive leaders of these political forces in order to find a joint way out of this situation," Zvarych added. Yushchenko is Our Ukraine's founder and honorary chairman. Meanwhile, Oleksandr Turchynov of the Tymoshenko Bloc told journalists on May 17 that the talks between the three forces were to be restarted later the same day, UNIAN reported. JM

Ukraine on May 16 passed on to the Hague-based International Court of Justice a memorandum concerning the delimitation of the continental shelf near Serpents Island in the Black Sea, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The memorandum is a response to a similar document that Romania provided the court in August 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 17, 2005). Since 1997, Ukraine and Romania have been locked in a bitter dispute over how to demarcate their maritime border around the tiny island. The continental shelf is reportedly rich in oil and gas deposits. At the heart of the dispute lies Ukraine's claim that it has the ownership rights to territorial waters around what it considers its island. On the other hand, Romania argues that Serpents Island is just a rock deposit and Kyiv has no right to claim its ownership to the adjoining sea basin. JM

In meetings with Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica on May 16, German officials pushed him to arrest war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic and to respect the results of Montenegro's upcoming independence referendum, AP reported the same day. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier stressed to Kostunica the importance of arresting Mladic, according to a statement released by the German Foreign Ministry. Regarding Montenegro, Steinmeier "underlined the EU's position that [the] result of the referendum must be respected," the statement said. Montenegrins are scheduled to vote in an independence referendum on May 21. Speaking in Berlin on May 16, Kostunica asked the European Union to help him prevent the disintegration of his country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2006). BW

Svetozar Marovic predicted on May 16 that Montenegrins will strongly favor independence in the upcoming referendum, Reuters reported the same day. "I'd say the result will be between 58 to 60 percent for yes," said Marovic, who favors independence. To pass, at least 50 percent of Montenegro's eligible voters must cast ballots in the May 21 referendum and 55 percent of them must vote for independence. Marovic has come under severe criticism from Serbia for advocating Montenegrin independence while at the same time serving as president of the union. BW

Serbia's Supreme Court on May 16 overturned the convictions of two men for a 1999 assassination attempt against Vuk Draskovic, now Serbia and Montenegro's foreign minister, AFP reported the same day. The court cited "serious violations of procedure" in the case, Tanjug reported. In June 2005, Milorad Ulemek, a former commando, and Radomir Markovic, a former secret-police chief, were sentenced to 10 and 15 years in prison, respectively, for the attempted murder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 30, 2005). In response to the ruling, Draskovic threatened to withdraw the support of his Serbian Renewal Movement (SPO) for Prime Minister Kostunica's ruling coalition. BW

Fatmir Sejdiu said on May 16 that the results of Montenegro's independence referendum will have no impact on Kosova's drive for independence, AFP reported the same day. "We absolutely don't link the question of Kosova's status with the status of other countries," Sejdiu said. "Kosova's status is a result of the political will of the people here. We respect the will of the people in Montenegro. Their verdict will be considered by us as a result of their political will." BW

Moldova announced on May 16 that it will veto Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) unless Moscow drops a ban on the import of Moldovan wine, Reuters reported. "Moldova supports Russia's entry to the WTO in principle, but on condition that...problems in our bilateral relations are solved," Octavian Calmic, Moldova's chief WTO negotiator, said. "The main problem is [Russia's] ban on the import from Moldova of alcoholic and agricultural products." Russia banned the import of Moldovan and Georgian wines on March 27, citing health and safety concerns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006). Moldovan and Georgian officials have called the move political retribution for the pro-Western course both countries have taken. Under WTO rules, Moldova can block Russia's membership. BW

The Coordinating Council established by the UN in late 1997 to serve as a forum for discussing issues related to resolving the Abkhaz conflict convened in Tbilisi on May 15 for the first time since January 2001.

Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, who headed the Abkhaz delegation, formally presented to the Georgian side Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh's new plan for resolving the conflict. Shamba also said that talks will continue on the implementation of a plan drafted by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to enable Georgian displaced persons to return to Abkhazia.

Both sides expressed optimism that the very real differences between them could be resolved over a period of time. The risk still remains, however, that maximalist demands by Georgian parliamentarians for the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers from the Abkhaz conflict zone, or reprisals against Georgians in Gali, might again return the peace process to deadlock.

The decision to resume sessions of the Coordinating Council was made in late March during talks in Sukhum (Sukhumi) between Shamba and Irakli Alasania, who is Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's special representative for the Abkhaz conflict.

Two months earlier, during a meeting in Geneva, the so-called Friends of the UN Secretary-General Group of countries (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia) had appealed to Abkhaz and Georgians to begin talks on confidence-building measures, including the nonresumption of hostilities, and on what they termed "core political issues" -- meaning Abkhazia's ultimate status vis-a-vis the central Georgian government.

Alasania told RFE/RL on May 16 that the resumption of talks within the Coordinating Council format constitutes "a good first step," and reflects the political will on both sides to tackle contentious issues they have not addressed in previous talks.

Abkhaz Foreign Minister Shamba told a press conference after the council session that the participants focused on a broad range of issues including security in the conflict zone, the return of refugees, and social and economic issues. A press release issued afterward by the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) said that sessions of the council's three working groups (on confidence-building measures, economic issues, and the repatriation of displaced persons) will take place within the next few weeks.

Speaking at the same press conference, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava described the meeting as '"an important initiative," and expressed the hope that regular bilateral contacts will lead to progress in resolving the conflict, Civil Georgia reported. Shamba for his part described the council meeting as "productive" and without "serious controversies."

Possibly the most tangible outcome of the May 15 Council meeting was the announcement that agreement has been reached, according to Shamba, on permitting an estimated 200,000 Georgian displaced persons who fled Abkhazia during the 1992-93 civil war to return to their abandoned homes. Shamba noted that a formal agreement on repatriation was signed in Moscow in April 1994, but has not been systematically implemented. He said that the working group on repatriation will convene next month to discuss implementing, over a period of two years, a repatriation plan drafted by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

In addition, Alasania was quoted by Caucasus Press as telling the Georgian parliament after the Coordinating Council session that Abkhazia has agreed that instruction at schools in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district, where the majority of the prewar population was Georgian, will be in Georgian. UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has repeatedly urged the Abkhaz both to give the green light for repatriation, and to make provision for Georgian-language schooling in Gali.

A further indicator of the improved prospects for resolving the conflict was the Georgian side's measured reaction to the new Abkhaz peace proposal, which Shamba described to journalists as the Abkhaz vision of how to achieve "peaceful coexistence." "We think there are issues that we can start to discuss today and on which we can find mutual understanding," Shamba said.

At the same time, he acknowledged that the Abkhaz leadership is aware that some aspects of Bagapsh's proposal may be unacceptable to the Georgian side, but that Sukhum is willing to "work gradually" on such questions, Civil Georgia reported. He did not cite examples, but the plan envisages recognition of Abkhazia as an independent sovereign state -- a concept that is anathema to Tbilisi, which is currently prepared to offer only "very broad autonomy" -- and calls for a formal apology by the Georgian leadership for the suffering inflicted on Abkhazia during the war.

Khaindrava for his part told journalists that while he has not studied the Bagapsh plan in depth, "I can say that there are issues that can be regarded as a basis for mutual understanding." Khaindrava also said that Tbilisi too has a new "road map" for resolving the conflict, which will be presented to the Abkhaz side after it has first been discussed with representatives of the Friends of the UN Secretary-General group who are to visit Georgia next week.

In short, the resumption of talks under the aegis of the Coordinating Council is regarded with cautious optimism both by the two conflict sides and by the UN. An UNOMIG spokeswoman told RFE/RL on the condition of anonymity that the UN is much encouraged by the willingness shown by both sides, and hopes they will avail themselves of a "great opportunity" to push the peace process forward. She also stressed the importance of the visit next week by the Friends of the UN Secretary-General group, which will travel to Sukhum and Gali, to familiarize themselves with the problems and attitudes of those on both sides most affected by the conflict.

But success in building on the apparent willingness to compromise demonstrated by both Georgians and Abkhaz on May 15 does not depend solely on the negotiators, and the entire fragile peace process could be jeopardized by incautious or maximalist moves or statements.

Speaker Nino Burdjanadze warned on May 15 that the Georgian parliament will not withdraw its demand to the Georgian government that the Russian peacekeeping force currently deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone be withdrawn. Shamba was quoted by Caucasus Press as saying that such insistence on the part of Tbilisi that the Russian peacekeepers leave would call into question not only any progress achieved toward a settlement of the conflict, but the entire future of the negotiation process.

Alasania, meanwhile, told RFE/RL on May 16 that he sees the main danger to the peace process in "provocations" in the conflict zone, and the militarization of the situation in Gali. He stressed the need for enhanced security guarantees for the Georgians who wish to return to Gali, including the opening of a UN Human Rights office in that district. Alasania said that the two sides discussed (bilaterally, not at the Coordinating Council session) the possible signing of a formal document on the nonresumption of hostilities, but concluded that they need more time to finalize such a document, which could be signed at a meeting between Bagapsh and Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili. Alasania said Tbilisi sets no preconditions for such a meeting, and hopes that it could take place within the next few months.

Alasania also said that Georgia would like to "change the format" of the peacekeeping operation to make it more effective and better suited to conditions on the ground, but he declined to specify what, if any, alternatives Tbilisi might propose to the current exclusively Russian peacekeeping force.

Around 200 female students failed to show up for classes at the Asyab-e Gorg Girls' Middle School in Balkh Province's Chemtal district on May 16, one day after a grenade attack on their school, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. A teacher and several students were injured when an unidentified assailant threw a hand-grenade at the school. Principal Gol Mohammad said the students did not attend classes because the attack had spread fear. Balkh Governor Ata Mohammad Nur called it an unforgivable crime and has assigned a team to investigate, Mazar-e Sharif-based Balkh Television reported on May 16. Nur warned that if Chemtal residents do not cooperate with provincial authorities to help arrest the culprit, they will be forced to compensate by paying to rebuild the school. AT

Four of President Hamid Karzai's nine Supreme Court nominees appeared before the People's Council (Wolesi Jirga) on May 16 as part of the confirmation process, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported. Mohammad Omar Momand, Mawlawi Mohammad Qasem, Shah Ali Asghar Shahrestani, and Mohammad Alam Nasimi took questions from a panel chaired by lower-house speaker Mohammad Yunos Qanuni. The People's Council is expected to vote on the four nominees on May 17. It is unclear whether or when the five other nominees are scheduled to appear. Chief Justice Mawlawi Fazl Hadi Shinwari has indicated that he will not respond to questions from members of parliament, however, he appeared briefly before the Wolesi Jirga to be introduced (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2006). AT

Authorities have discovered two headless corpses in Helmand Province's Greshk district, Pajhwak News Agency reported on May 16. The bodies are believed to be those of two government employees who were kidnapped on May 12 while traveling from Herat to Kandahar via Helmand. Several decapitations -- an otherwise rare occurrence in the Afghan conflict so far -- have been reported in recent weeks inside Afghanistan and, in the case of an Afghan elderly woman, in Pakistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2006). AT

Four inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will visit Iran on May 19 to inspect the uranium-conversion facility in Isfahan in central Iran "and another installation," Fars News Agency reported on May 16, quoting an "informed" source. The source said the inspectors will stay a week and carry out a routine inspection under Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) regulations. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on May 16 that there are no better "incentives" for Iran than the "implementation without discrimination" of NPT provisions, Fars reported. He was referring to incentives EU states are reportedly considering proposing to Iran to curb sensitive nuclear activities. Assefi said that if the EU wishes to find a peaceful solution to the impasse, it should "not look for any measures beyond accepted international treaties." EU incentives could reportedly include the provision of a light-water nuclear reactor, Reuters reported on May 16, quoting unnamed diplomats in Berlin. Light-water reactors can produce electricity but are unsuited to nuclear bomb-making activities, Reuters added. VS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei denounced the mass media on May 16 for forming a "one-way road" serving the interests of "the owners of media empires," large companies, and "imperialist powers," ISNA reported the same day. He told an audience of radio managers and producers that the media today "are entirely owned by those who dispose of the greatest armament factories and most destructive atomic bombs." They report as their owners see fit, he said. "Today the interest of the owners of money and power require the equate Islam with terrorism and present America as the manifestation of human rights and democracy," Khamenei said. "Suddenly these media make bird flu, which has not killed 1,000 people across the world, a headline item but say nothing about the killing of 120,000 Iraqi...civilians," he said. If an explosion kills "a few Zionists" in Israel, he said, "they present that as a calamity," but they ignore "the daily killing" of Palestinians or Israeli declarations "that it will assassinate Palestinian militants." Now, Khamenei added, the media find it expedient to claim that "Iran is trying to gain access to nuclear weapons." VS

Iranian politicians have generally welcomed President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's May 8 letter to U.S. President George W. Bush, but more recent, extravagant praise by a senior conservative cleric has prompted reactions by several legislators and a response by the reformist former parliamentary speaker Mehdi Karrubi. Karrubi wrote on May 16 to Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati -- head of the Guardians Council, a body that oversees elections and is considered conservative in sympathies -- to convey his "amazement" at Jannati's description of Ahmadinejad's letter as "divine inspiration." Jannati said in a sermon on May 12 that "children should read [Ahmadinejad's letter], it should be read in schools and universities, and [state television] should repeatedly read it out," ISNA reported on May 16. "When was such a letter written...that could have amazed everyone quite like this?" Jannati asked. Karrubi wrote that no president since 1979 has been given such extravagant praise, ISNA reported on May 16. His remarks, he wrote, "make me truly feel that the republic...the clergy's reputation and...people's beliefs are threatened." Separately, Fars News Agency quoted "informed sources" as saying that Ahmadinejad is planning another letter "next week," addressed to "the heads of several important world powers." VS

President Ahmadinejad has reportedly expressed hope recently that inflation will fall to an annual rate of 11 percent -- the lowest rate for years - "in the near future," RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on May 16. The broadcaster noted that the government is using oil revenues to keep prices down by financing imports, maintaining a fixed exchange rate, and freezing prices on certain basic goods. On May 16, Finance Minister Davud Danesh-Ja'fari told a seminar in Tehran that reducing inflation is "one of the government's main and crucial policies," and the efforts of several governments have cut inflation from around 50 percent a year in the 1990s to 12.1 percent in the Persian year to March 20, 2006, Fars reported. Danesh-Ja'fari said Iran -- in contrast to industrial states -- reduces interest rates to cut inflation and encourage "productive investment." VS

Al-Arabiyah television reported on May 17 that Iraqi police believe they have determined the whereabouts of United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) Consul Naji Rashid al-Nu'aymi, who was abducted in Baghdad on May 16. The satellite news channel reported that police have sealed off the entrances to the capital in an effort to prevent the abductors from leaving the city. The report could not be independently verified. Al-Nu'aymi was abducted in the upscale Al-Mansur neighborhood as he was arriving for a meeting with a colleague not far from the U.A.E. Embassy, Reuters reported. His Sudanese driver, Badawi Muhammad, was shot during the abduction and died of his injuries on May 17. KR

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr told dpa in an interview that his Imam Al-Mahdi Army is no longer a militia, the news agency reported on May 17. "I have recently given orders to restrict the activities of the group to cultural, social, and religious aspects and that its members should work on integrating into society despite the tough conditions they are living in," al-Sadr said. In calling for a time frame for the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq, he also declined to describe the resistance as Sunni or Shi'ite-based, but instead called it "an Iraqi Islamic resistance that is purely nationalist." KR

In a May 16 statement, al-Sadr criticized this week's announcement of the reinstatement of full diplomatic relations between the United States and Libya. He attacked Libya for forgetting the suffering of the people "under U.S. occupation," in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the Palestinian people, who he said suffer from an "unjust U.S. starvation policy." Al-Sadr added that the restoration of relations was "a reward for the Libyan regime's abduction" of Musa al-Sadr, the Lebanese-based cleric and cousin of Muqtada's father, who disappeared in August 1978. Al-Sadr's family claims Libyan authorities jailed Musa al-Sadr while on a visit to Tripoli, while Libya claims al-Sadr left Tripoli for Rome. The United States demands the handover of some people while forgetting "such great personalities" as Musa al-Sadr, the cleric's statement added. While demanding his relative's handover and a full investigation into his disappearance, al-Sadr added, "Let it not be said that I am asking America to intervene, because it is also accused." The statement also claims that the restoration of relations is a prelude to the opening of an Israeli Embassy in Libya. KR

Tariq al-Hashimi, secretary-general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, told Al-Jazeera television in a May 16 interview that he understands the unwillingness of some "resistance" groups to negotiate with the United States. "I understand the position of the official spokesman for the resistance when he mentioned that the resistance does not sense enough seriousness on the part of the U.S.," he said, and noted that the political scene in Iraq has been significantly altered since 2003 due to outside interventions in Iraq. "Some threats seek to change ideologies in Iraq and the country's identity, in addition to [trying to] fragment the country," al-Hashimi said in an apparent reference to allegations of Iranian interference. He added that the Iraqi resistance should have a "distinguished role," and called on the United States to propose a "mature and integrated plan" to persuade resistance groups to come to the negotiating table. Al-Jazeera reported on May 16 that five resistance groups have signed a joint statement saying the time is not right to enter into negotiations with the United States. KR