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Newsline - May 24, 2006

European Commission spokeswoman Emma Udwin said in Brussels on May 23 that the upcoming twice-yearly Russia-EU summit, which is slated to open in Sochi on May 25, will highlight the importance of energy in relations between the two sides, RFE/RL reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, April 26 and 28, and May 23, 2006). She stressed that the EU wants a "deeper energy relationship" with Russia. She argued that "this is a two-way street. It is true that Russia is a very, very important supplier for the EU, supplying about 25 percent of our oil and gas consumption. But it is also the case that we are not just [any] customer for Russia. We are at the present time the [most important] customer for Russia, accounting for...[65] percent of their gas exports." Udwin nonetheless acknowledged Russia's repeated refusal to ratify the EU's Energy Charter that would end Gazprom's monopoly over Russia's pipeline system. She said that Brussels expects only "understanding" but "no great leap forward" on that issue. PM

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in Brussels on May 23 that the letter he received from Russian Energy and Industry Minister Viktor Khristenko the previous day is "very assuring and that [reflects] a good spirit," Reuters reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22 and May 23, 2006). Khristenko wrote that there is "no reason to doubt" Russia's reliability as an energy supplier. Barroso said that the EU wants a "win-win" energy partnership with Russia in which both sides' interests are taken into account. "It is in the interest of both sides to remove potential barriers to investment," Barroso said. "I believe transparency [and] reciprocity [should be the] key elements in our relationship." He also called on Russia to be a "global responsible player" but denied unspecified reports that Brussels prefers Moscow to be "weak." Barroso stressed that he has "no problems with a very strong Russia. The question is the values of a strong Russia. Are those values democratic values?" PM

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who is Russia's special envoy to the EU, made clear that his country has no intention of ratifying the Energy Charter and wants instead a special protocol with the 25-member bloc, "The Wall Street Journal in Europe" reported from Moscow on May 24. "We'd like [the document] to take into consideration not only the EU's interests but those of Russia, too," he said. He denied, however, that there is any "drama" in energy relations between Moscow and Brussels. PM

Claude Mandil, who heads the International Energy Agency, said in London on May 22 that his agency is "afraid that Gazprom will not have, in the coming years, enough gas to supply even their existing customers and existing contracts. This is [what] our data [say]," "The Moscow Times" reported on May 23. In Moscow on May 22, former Deputy Energy Minister Vladimir Milov charged that "inefficiency" at Gazprom could lead to the monopoly exporter falling short of its needs by about 100 billion cubic meters of gas by 2010. "We have nothing to cover the gap," he added. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who hosted the Moscow meeting and who recently launched a liberal political movement, expressed similar views (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2006). PM

Prosecutors have started criminal proceedings against Vladimir Rakhmankov, who is editor in chief of the Internet publication, for recently calling President Vladimir Putin "Russia's phallic symbol" in an article with that title, reported on May 23, citing the Moscow daily "Kommersant." Referring to Putin's May 10 state-of-the-nation speech, in which he called for measures to reverse Russia's demographic decline, Rakhmankov wrote that the president's influence is so great that "even beasts in Russian zoos responded to his call to breed immediately." Rakhmankov argued that "Putin looks like the country's phallic symbol, in all senses [of the word]. So why not secure the symbolism officially.... We can now start producing new souvenirs with the president's head as a penis head." Rakhmankov later said that he "sees nothing criminal" in what he wrote because he did not use obscenities and engaged in what he called "harmless satire." But the prosecutors apparently regarded his article as an insult to the authorities, searched his apartment, confiscated his computer, confiscated other computers used by his website, and sealed the website's office. His website has stopped functioning, allegedly because of debts he owes to his Internet provider. PM

Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug Governor Aleksei Barinov was arrested and taken into custody in Arkhangelsk on May 23 in connection with a criminal case allegedly involving large-scale embezzlement at the Arkhangelskgeoldobycha company at which he served as general director until 2003, and RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on May 23 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 20, 2006). Barinov's lawyers told reporters that he has gone on a hunger strike. Barinov was elected Yamalo-Nenets governor in February 2005, defeating two rival candidates from the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, according to "Gazeta" on May 22, and in that capacity he voiced his objections to the proposed merger of the oblast with Arkhangelsk. PM/LF

Speaking in Moscow on May 23, Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov said there is "no anti-Russian factor" in the upgrading earlier that day during a summit in Kyiv of the GUAM group into an international organization, RIA Novosti reported. By contrast, Mikhail Margelov, who chairs the Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee, commented that "any friendship [or] partnership against [Russia] is ineffective" (see End Note). LF

Nikolai Bordyzuha -- general secretary of the CIS Collective Security Treaty Organization that comprises Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- told journalists in Moscow on May 23 that some of the organization's statutes provide for its "serious transformation" from a military bloc into a "universal political organization," Interfax reported. LF

Presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak traveled on May 23 to North Ossetia, where he visited the disputed Prigorodny Raion and held talks in Vladikavkaz with President Teymuraz Mamsurov, Russian media reported. Kozak praised the North Ossetian leadership's efforts to enable Ingush who were forced to flee Prigorodny Raion during the fighting in 1992 to return, but stressed that the repatriation process must proceed strictly in accordance with the law and not under pressure from "extremists." Six Ingush families who attempted on May 16 to return to the Prigorodny village of Ir were forcibly prevented from entering their former homes, which have been occupied by refugees from South Ossetia, according to Inform-Byuro, as cited by The parliament of the Republic of Ingushetia adopted an appeal on May 16 to Russian Prosecutor-General Vladimir Ustinov to condemn "extremist" actions by Ossetians and to intervene to prevent "an open confrontation" between Ossetians and Ingush in North Ossetia, the website reported on May 19. LF

Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev traveled to Kabardino-Balkaria on May 22, together with Colonel General Vladimir Pronichev, commander of the Federal Border Guard Service that is subordinate to the FSB, reported the following day. The two officials inspected high-altitude border posts on the frontier with Georgia to assess implementation of a federal program to make Russia's borders more secure. LF

A suspected Chechen militant has been detained in Solnechnogorsk in Moscow Oblast, Interfax reported on May 23. The man's identity has not been revealed, but he is said to have taken part in fighting against federal forces in Chechnya in 2001. Meanwhile, police and security forces in Moscow and the surrounding region remain on heightened alert, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on May 24. LF

Robert Simmons, who is NATO's special representative for the South Caucasus and Central Asia, told journalists in Yerevan on May 23 that Armenia has made a successful start on implementing its Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) approved last December, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. That plan, which is to be implemented over a period of 10 years, encompasses military reform that will boost the interoperability of Armenian troops with those of NATO member states, and the drafting and publication of a defense doctrine and national security strategy. Also required are moves towards greater democratization of Armenia's political structure, including strengthening the judiciary and cracking down on corruption. During their separate meetings with Simmons, President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian, and deputy parliament speaker Tigran Torosian all stressed Armenia's commitment to closer ties with NATO. Asked by a journalist on May 23 to comment on the recent resignation of parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian, who publicly took issue with the official policy that Armenia should cooperate with NATO but not aspire to membership (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," May 5, 2006 and "RFE/RL Newsline," May 12, 2006), Simmons said only that "NATO is not forcing Armenia to join the alliance." LF

Opposition parliament deputy and Umid party chairman Iqbal Agazade urged the parliament on May 23 to lodge a formal protest with the Iranian embassy against the clashes reported to have taken place in Tabriz the previous day between police and Iranian Azerbaijanis protesting the publication in the state newspaper "Iran" of a cartoon they deemed insulting (see Part 3 below). Up to 20 people were killed and hundreds wounded when police opened fire on the demonstrators, according to unconfirmed reports by Turan and on May 23; some 250 demonstrators have reportedly been arrested. Citing interviews with organizers and residents, RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service was reporting on May 24 that more than 50 people were injured in the clashes but not suggesting any protesters were killed. Also on May 23, some 30 members of the Single Azerbaijan Society burned an Iranian flag outside the Iranian Embassy in Baku in protest, but police forcibly dispersed them after 10 minutes, Interfax reported. LF

An EU delegation headed by Peter Semneby, who is the EU special representative for the South Caucasus, met in Tskhinvali on May 23 with Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. Kokoity expressed thanks for the funds the EU has allocated for reconstruction of the conflict zone. He went on to criticize what he termed the biased approach of the OSCE Mission in Georgia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, 2006), and he accused Georgia of preparing for new hostilities. Kokoity specifically condemned an attack on May 21 on an Ossetian family in the village of Khelchua in which two assailants, both Georgians, were killed. LF

The opposition Democratic Front rejected on May 23 an offer by David Kirkitadze to cede his post as deputy chairman of the parliament Committee on Defense and Security issues to the opposition should they agree to end the boycott of parliament proceedings they began in late March, Caucasus Press and reported (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," April 11, 2006). Democratic Front leader Kakha Kukava earlier proposed that the opposition name the deputy chairmen of parliament committees, an initiative that parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze supported. LF

In the course of a visit to Kazakhstan on May 23, Christian Poncelet, speaker of France's Senate, expressed support for Kazakhstan's bid to chair the OSCE in 2009, Kazinform reported. "I assured President [Nursultan] Nazarbaev that France will support Kazakhstan's candidacy for the chairmanship of the OSCE in 2009," Poncelet said. Poncelet said after a meeting with Nazarbaev that the two agreed to "work together for Kazakhstan to join the World Trade Organization [WTO]," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Reports noted that bilateral trade between France and Kazakhstan was $2.95 billion in 2005, with a total of $2 billion in French investment in Kazakhstan. DK

Kyrgyz police arrested Nurlan Motuev, who seized a coal mine in 2005 and has held it for over a year, in Bishkek on May 23, reported. Motuev gained fame when he seized the Kara-Keche coal mine in Naryn Province after the fall of President Askar Akaev on March 24, 2005. Motuev has defied the authorities for the past year, maintaining control of the mine, refusing to pay taxes on its operations, and becoming a symbol of the post-Akaev central government's inability to enforce its writ. noted that Motuev was believed to enjoy the support of Ryspek Akmatbaev, a reputed crime boss, and Usen Sydykov, the head of the presidential administration. Akmatbaev was recently gunned down, and Sydykov has been removed from his post (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, 2006), prompting the news agency to term Motuev's subsequent arrest "logical." DK

Nodira Hidoyatova, a businesswoman and the coordinator of the Uzbek opposition movement Sunshine Coalition, was released from jail in Tashkent on May 23 with a seven-year suspended prison sentence for financial crimes, reported. Hidoyatova originally received a 10-year sentence in March for economic crimes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2006). The court commuted her sentence at an appeal on May 23 after Hidoyatova's relatives and friends compensated the state for 36 million soms ($29,500) and $40,000 in damages. The total value of currency and property ceded to the Uzbek state for Hidoyatova's release was 120 million soms ($100,000). Under the terms of her release, Hidoyatova will not be allowed to leave Tashkent and must compensate the state an additional 150 million soms. If she violates the terms of her release, she will be forced to serve her full seven-year sentence. DK

A Tashkent court on May 23 rejected an appeal by the American Bar Association Central European and Eurasian Law Initiative (ABA/CEELI) and upheld a decision liquidating the U.S.-based NGO's operations in Uzbekistan, Regnum reported. In the original ruling on April 27, the court held that ABA/CEELI violated the terms of its charter by providing assistance to law firms who defended unregistered political groups. DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on May 23 that he has instructed Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski to prepare an appeal to international courts, including the European Court of Human Rights, to contest travel bans imposed on him and 35 other officials by the European Union after the presidential election in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10 and 11, 2006), Belarusian and international news agencies reported. Lukashenka was answering questions from legislators, following his annual address to the National Assembly. "What are the grounds for these [travel] restrictions? What, is there a decision of an international court stating that Lukashenka and Sidorski are criminals?" Lukashenka said. JM

President Lukashenka expressed his surprise in the National Assembly on May 23 that the Belarusian government has so far taken no retaliatory action against the refusal in April by Canada and the United State to refuel a Belarusian plane carrying two officials barred from entering these countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 21, 2006), Belarusian and international news agencies reported. Lukashenka said the refueling denial by Canada and the United State was "full savagery." He said he wants to ban flights of Canadian and U.S. airplanes over Belarus. "Let them fly over the Baltic states or Ukraine, while the main route is closed. Perhaps we will lose something here, but we ought to show them our pride," Lukashenka added. JM

President Lukashenka explained to the National Assembly on May 23 why he allowed the Belarusian opposition to organize a tent camp on October Square in Minsk following the March 19 presidential vote, Belarusian Television reported. Lukashenka said opposition presidential candidates Alyaksandr Milinkevich and Alyaksandr Kazulin asked him not to disrupt their planned protest in Minsk in order to allow them to "save face." "They sent their mediators to [presidential administration chief Viktar] Sheyman, he can tell you a great deal. I was telling him constantly: 'Viktar, do not touch anybody. Do what they ask -- let them save face.' But that [subsequently] made them impudent. I had promised that we would react adequately to all events and all of their actions. They are not opposition, they are thugs -- I repeat it publicly once again," Lukashenka said. He also suggested that he was "physically" present "in the thick" of the opposition protests that followed the presidential election. He did not reveal whether he was there alone or with his bodyguards. JM

Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov said in an interview with the May 24 issue of the Kyiv-based daily "Ekonomicheskie izvestia" that an "official negotiation process" regarding the creation of a new ruling coalition will begin only after the inauguration of the newly elected Verkhovna Rada. "For the time being, it's just a warming-up, a preparatory work -- there is an exchange of opinions [and] ascertaining of positions of the sides under way," Yekhanurov added. The Ukrainian parliament elected on March 26 gathers for its inaugural session on May 25. President Viktor Yushchenko is expected to attend the session and make a speech. Under the amended Ukrainian Constitution that took effect on January 1, 2006, the president has the right to dissolve parliament if it fails to form a majority within 30 days after its first sitting or to form a new cabinet within 60 days after the dismissal or resignation of the previous one. JM

The presidents of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova (GUAM) -- Mikheil Saakashvili, Viktor Yushchenko, Ilham Aliyev, and Vladimir Voronin, respectively -- signed a protocol in Kyiv on May 23 declaring their intention of creating a free-trade zone among the four countries, UNIAN reported. The protocol followed a declaration by the four presidents to set up the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development-GUAM (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 23, 2006, and End Note). JM

Serbian President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica both said on May 23 that they will accept the results of Montenegro's independence referendum as legitimate, international news agencies reported. According to official preliminary results, 55.5 percent supported independence in the May 21 vote, narrowly surpassing the 55 percent threshold agreed with the European Union (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 23, 2006). "Serbia will fully respect the final outcome of the referendum," dpa quoted Kostunica as saying. Kostunica, speaking after meeting with Miroslav Lajcak, the EU envoy to the referendum, added, however, that he will wait for the final official election results before elaborating on the position of the Serbian government. "The referendum is important, the least doubt may not fall on it.... Every vote counts and it is important to verify each vote," he said. The final results, which are widely expected to be the same as the official preliminary results, are expected within days. Tadic, who also said he accepted the preliminary results, said he will be the first Serbian official to travel to Montenegro and congratulate the winners in person, dpa reported, citing the Tanjug news agency. BW

EU envoy Lajcak said on May 23 that Brussels too will accept Montenegro's referendum results, and praised Podgorica for a "surprisingly" peaceful, civilized, and European vote, international news agencies reported. "We are ready to recognize the democratically expressed will of the people of Montenegro," Lajcak said after a meeting with Serbia and Montenegro's Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic, dpa reported. Raising the prospect that Montenegro could move ahead of Serbia in joining the EU, Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said on May 23 that Brussels will prepare separate mandates for negotiating a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Montenegro. The EU halted talks on an SAA with Serbia and Montenegro over Belgrade's failure to arrest war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2 and 3, 2006). But EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana warned against leaving Serbia behind. "Without Serbia on the way towards Brussels and the European Union, there would not be stability in the Balkans and therefore there would not be stability in the European continent," Reuters quoted him as saying. BW

Top Montenegrin officials on May 23 sought to reassure Serbia that the union's breakup will be implemented in a measured, orderly, and civilized manner, Reuters reported the same day. Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic said that "continuation of cooperation with Serbia and defining our relations on a new basis" is a high priority for Montenegro, adding that there will be no "rush into some euphoric, unilateral moves." Foreign Minister Miodrag Vlahovic said Montenegro hopes "to start talks with Serbia at the first possible moment after the results are final," adding that negotiations "could last a few weeks or up to two to three months." Serbia and Montenegro's President Svetozar Marovic, a Montenegrin who strongly backed independence, said he will be in Belgrade on June 1 "to hold the last session of the Council of Ministers and resign...from the post of the president of the state union." BW

Serbian officials on May 23 hailed what they called a newly positive tone in the fifth round of Kosova final-status talks in Vienna, dpa reported the same day. Dusan Batakovic, an adviser to President Tadic who is a member of the Serbian delegation, said the talks on May 23 were "much more positive than" they had been "up till now." He noted "very encouraging statements from the Albanian side." The May 23 talks focused on protecting religious and cultural heritage. Serbia is pushing for special protection zones around about 40 religious sites, including Serbian Orthodox churches. Ylber Hysa, who led the ethnic Albanian delegation, said the talks were "successful in the sense that goodwill was shown by the Albanian side." Ethnic Albanians, he noted, are prepared to grant "a number of privileges" to the Serbian Orthodox Church, including a tax exemption. BW

President Vladimir Voronin said on May 23 that Moldova's parliament will debate a proposal to withdraw from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Interfax reported the same day. "This initiative has been put forward by the opposition and will be debated in parliament. The outcome of these debates is another issue," Voronin, who is attending a summit of the GUAM (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova) regional grouping in Kyiv, told reporters. Voronin added that Chisinau is seeking to increase GUAM's importance. "We want to transform this body into an international organization and to continue to do everything we have been doing, but on a different basis," he said. BW

On the sideline of a Council of Europe summit in Strasbourg in October 1997, the then presidents of Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova proclaimed the formation of a new geopolitical alignment named GUAM. The stated aim of that alignment was to promote and defend the four members' strategic interests -- a euphemism for their shared desire to counter, with tacit U.S. support, Russia's ongoing efforts to retain its dominance over the former Soviet republics.

More than eight years later, at a GUAM summit in Kyiv on May 23, the four countries' current leaders formally announced their desire to secure recognition of GUAM as an international organization under a new name -- the Organization for Democracy and Economic Development - GUAM. They further adopted a new charter, rules of procedure and financial regulations, and a statement reaffirming their shared commitment to democracy, the rule of law, human rights and freedoms, and ensuring regional stability, and, crucially, their desire for increased cooperation with NATO and the EU.

That latter pronouncement is guaranteed to irritate Russia, which from the outset reacted to GUAM with mistrust and hostility, perceiving it as a secret weapon with which the United States planned to emasculate the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). (At a CIS summit in March 1997, then Russian President Boris Yeltsin had advocated openly undermining those pro-Western CIS states that sought to break away from Russia's sphere of influence.)

Those misgivings on Russia's part are the primary reason why defense and security cooperation has never figured prominently among GUAM's priorities, at least not publicly -- although concerns over the concessions to Russia contained in the 1997 amendments to the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe were one of the reasons for GUAM's creation. The member countries' defense ministers have met periodically, but proposals for military cooperation, including forming a GUAM peacekeeping battalion, never came to anything. Instead, the presidents of the GUAM member states in their public statements have consistently stressed the anticipated benefits of economic cooperation, especially the construction of export pipelines for Caspian oil and gas that bypass Russian territory.

Speaking in May 2000 at a joint presentation by GUAM ambassadors to the U.S. Senate, Azerbaijan's Hafiz Pashayev highlighted three main priorities: political interaction between member states in their respective efforts to integrate more closely into Euro-Atlantic and European structures, and to establish closer cooperation with NATO; economic cooperation, including the establishment of a Europe-South Caucasus-Asia transport corridor; and countering ethnic and religious intolerance. Three of the four initial GUAM members, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Moldova, were at the time of its inception, and still are, seeking solution to deadlocked ethno-territorial conflicts with former autonomies.

The decision in 1998 to route the so-called Main Export Pipeline for Azerbaijan's Caspian oil from Baku via Tbilisi to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan -- a decision that Washington wholeheartedly supported -- served to strengthen GUAM. Uzbekistan formally joined the alignment in 1999 in a demonstration of its then pro-Western orientation, but "suspended" its membership in June 2002 and in 2005 quit the organization altogether.

Uzbekistan's "suspension" of its GUAM membership in 2002 heralded a period of inactivity that led at least some commentators to question whether GUAM had a future, and whether Moldova too might terminate its membership. But the advent to power in Georgia and Ukraine in late 2003 and late 2004 of new, unequivocally pro-Western leaders breathed new life into the grouping. It was Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko who, at a GUAM summit in Chisinau in April 2005, first proposed transforming GUAM into a new international regional organization with its own office, its own secretariat, and its own plan of actions.

The May 22-23 Kyiv summit saw that proposal become reality. And speaking at a press conference after the summit, Yushchenko announced that he and his fellow presidents also signed a protocol on creating a free-trade zone and a customs union, reported. On May 22, the four GUAM foreign ministers signed a protocol on temporary trade rules intended to pave the way for the free-trade zone. Yushchenko first floated the idea of a GUAM free-trade zone five years ago, when he was Ukrainian prime minister.

Counter to the expectations of some Russian commentators, none of the four presidents announced in Kyiv that his country will withdraw from the CIS. Georgia's Mikheil Saakashvili has repeatedly hinted at that possibility in recent weeks, but prior to his departure for Kyiv he said that decision should be made by the population as a whole, presumably in a referendum. In Ukraine and Moldova too, senior politicians have alluded to the possibility of leaving the CIS, but Azerbaijan has ruled out doing so.

The contrast between the unequivocally pro-Western and pro-NATO orientation of Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova and Azerbaijan's more ambivalent position was underscored by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev's statement in Kyiv on May 23 that cooperation within the energy sector will be GUAM's first priority. Those diverging priorities may in the medium term give rise to tensions between GUAM's four members, as may the economic coordination required to establish the free-trade zone.

Neo-Taliban insurgents kept up their attacks in southern Afghanistan on May 23, bringing the death toll in the latest wave of violence to around 300, AFP reported. Insurgents reportedly killed three policemen on May 23 when they struck a convoy carrying a deputy provincial governor and a local police chief in a clash that left 12 neo-Taliban fighters dead. Insurgents have staged more than 20 assaults in at least 12 provinces over the past two days. Most of the fighting has been in the south and southeast quarters of Afghanistan, where an estimated 250 rebel fighters have died along with some 50 Afghans who were either civilians or among security forces battling guerrillas. Five foreign nationals have died over the past week, according to AFP, four of them soldiers. MR

A doctor, two nurses, and a driver died on May 23 when a land mine tore apart their car as it drove west of Kabul, AP reported. Bashar Gul, the deputy police chief of Wardak Province, said the victims worked for a local aid group called the Afghan Health Development Services. Militants in the area have repeatedly targeted teachers, aid workers, and health-care workers. In April, militants attacked a medical clinic in northwestern province, killing five doctors and nurses. MR

The International Committee for the Red Cross voiced concern about rising violence in Afghanistan and called on the warring factions to abide by international humanitarian law, Pajhwok news agency reported. "The ICRC is deeply concerned about the worsening situation and its effects on civilians," the organization said in a statement. "In particular, the ICRC urges the parties [involved in conflict] to exercise constant care in the conduct of military operations." The United Nations echoed the concerns expressed by the Red Cross. A spokesman for the UN mission in Afghanistan, Adrian Edwards, said insecurity is hindering U.S. operations in areas affected by the fighting. "What is certain is that insecurity presents problems to our work and, realistically, over the next three months or so, insecurity seems likely to continue," Edwards said. "If staff can't get out to do their work, we will assess staff levels and move people to places where they can be more effective and useful." MR

A bus service will begin running on May 26 between the western Pakistani city of Peshawar and the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, Xinhua News Agency reported on May 23. The bus line will be the first official road link between the two countries since 1979. The two countries have also agreed to open a bus route between the southern Pakistani city of Quetta and Kandahar, one of the most restive provinces in Afghanistan. MR

Iran staged another test of the Shihab-3 1,300-kilometer-range ballistic missile on the night of May 23, "The Jerusalem Post" reported, quoting Israel Radio. Israeli military officials are unclear on the significance of the test but speculated that it is connected with Lebanese Hizballah's commemoration of the Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon six years ago. BS

Thousands of people in the northwestern city of Tabriz demonstrated on May 23 against the publication of a cartoon in a state newspaper depicting an Azeri-speaking cockroach, ILNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 23, 2006). Many members of Iran's Azeri minority live in the northwest. Chanting demonstrators marched on the East Azerbaijan Province governor-general's office, and students at the other end of the city chanted slogans relating to the rights of Azeri speakers. The city's bazaar was closed already, and shopkeepers joined the demonstrators. Police dispersed the crowd with teargas. The provincial police chief, General Mohammad Ali Nosrati, attributed some of the unrest to provocateurs, and he said guilty parties would be dealt with severely, Fars News Agency reported. Nosrati noted that there had been some arrests. Publication of the Islamic Republic News Agency's "Iran" daily has been banned by the central government since it ran the cartoon, according to state-radio reports cited by RFE/RL. The "Iran" website was not updated as of May 24. BS

There has been no confirmation of the suggestion by Oqtay Tabrizly, a member of the National Revival Movement of Southern Azerbaijan, to Azerbaijan's private Lider television on May 23 that 14 ethnic Azeris were killed amid the protests in Tabriz and another 400 arrested. Radio Farda reported on May 23 that one demonstrator has been injured; RFE/RL's Azerbaijani Service reported early on May 24 that more than 50 people were injured in the clashes but did not suggest that any protesters were killed. Azerbaijan's Turan news agency quoted unidentified sources in Tabriz on May 23 as claiming that up to 20 people were killed and more than 50 wounded -- along with at least 200 arrested -- during the demonstrations. BS

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad cautioned Tehran's "enemies" on May 24 against attacking his country, RFE/RL reported. Addressing residents of Khorramshahr during commemorations marking the 24th anniversary of the recapture of that border town from Iraqi forces, Ahmadinejad said aggressors would receive a "historic slap." At the same venue, Ahmadinejad said Iran has mastered the entire nuclear fuel cycle. "Our nation has conquered the highest peaks of science through its persistence and its efforts," he said. "And today, I proudly announce that Iran possesses, from 0 to 100 [start to finish], the nuclear fuel cycle for peaceful use." AH

Interior Minister Mustafa Pur-Mohammadi said in Tehran on May 23 that foreigners residing in Iran illegally should be repatriated promptly, state television reported. Pur-Mohammadi noted that some of the countries bordering Iran do not control their frontiers, and stronger border measures are a priority for the Iranian government. Referring to the influx of people displaced by regional wars, he said: "We have carried the heaviest burden of Afghanistan's domestic crisis on our shoulders. We have carried the heaviest burden of the Iraqi crisis on our shoulders. We have even carried the burden of the crises in other countries in the past two or three decades." The director general of the Foreign Ministry's Foreign Nationals Office, identified only as "Husseini," was quoted as saying that visas are given out too readily and few immigrants are willing to leave Iran. "For your information, the Foreign Ministry gave visas to 510,000 Afghans in 1384 [2005] and more than one-third had not returned by the end of their visa period," Husseini said. BS

Amnesty International's most recent annual report, which was released on May 23, questions the detention of individuals in secret facilities and suggests that there could be "considerably" more than the 94 executions that officials claim. It also refers to "scores of political prisoners," and it notes "hundreds" of arrests of people in minority areas. The report highlights repression of Arabs and Kurds, as well as arrests of Baha'is and Christian converts. Women's rights activists, according to the Amnesty International report, have been subject to arrest, torture, and other forms of ill treatment. BS

In its 2006 report on human rights published on May 23, Amnesty International accused the U.S.-led coalition forces and Iraqi security forces of committing "grave human rights violations." Such violations include "torture and ill-treatment, arbitrary detention without charge or trial, and excessive use of force resulting in civilian deaths." According to the report, detention centers controlled by coalition forces house "thousands of people...held without charge or trial." Iraqi security forces have used torture and have ill-treated detainees in secret and official detention centers and police stations. The report also holds Iraqi armed groups responsible for human rights violations. Using practices such as bombs and hostage taking, these groups have targeted and killed many members of the security forces, public servants and particularly journalists. Furthermore, the report maintains that "women and girls continued to be harassed and lived in fear as a result of the continuing lack of security." BAW

Human rights in Iraq continue to deteriorate, according to a UN Assistance Mission for Iraq report released on May 23, the UN News Center reported on May 23. The report maintains that killings committed by insurgents, terrorists, and armed groups in Iraq have increasingly targeted "women, children, and professionals, including academics, judges, and their relatives, while military operations have also severely affected the enjoyment of human rights, resulting in civilian deaths." The report maintains that "a new brand of violence has emerged, a mix of organized crime and sectarian killings, increasingly attacking businesses. Gunmen often wearing police uniforms have stormed numerous businesses since the beginning of March resulting in workers being kidnapped or killed and money being stolen." Attacks on religious sites "with the clear intent of fomenting sectarian animosity," such as bombing the Al-Askari shrine in Samarra, have fuelled sectarian tensions and resulted in an increase in internal displacement. "The Washington Post" reported on May 24 that, according to the International Organization for Migration, 85,842 people have been displaced on a sectarian basis, mainly across central and southern Iraq. BAW

An Iraqi government contractor confessed on Jordanian television on May 23 to working for Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, AP reported the same day. Ziad Khalaf Raja al-Karbuli, known as Abu Huthayfa, an Iraqi customs clearing agent on the Iraq-Jordan border, admitted that he kidnapped two Moroccan employees of the embassy in Baghdad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25 and 26 and November 2, 2005) and an Iraqi Finance Ministry official under direct orders from al-Zarqawi. He also confessed to abducting and later killing a Jordanian truck driver and himself giving the news to the family of the victim. The Jordanian government said that al-Karbuli "was Al-Qaeda in Iraq's point man for receiving goods stolen by Iraqi insurgents, to supply terrorist operations and for sale inside and outside Iraq." It also said that he was "lured" to Jordan, where he was arrested. BAW

Husayn al-Shahristani told reporters at a press conference on May 23 in Baghdad that "oil production, exports, or exploration should be handled by the ministry" in Baghdad, the "Financial Times" reported. Al-Shahristani was referring to the contracts signed in November between the Kurdish regional government and a Norwegian company to begin new drilling in the region, followed later by a Canadian and a Turkish company (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 12, 2005). Regarding the need for regulating and attracting foreign investment, al-Shahristani also called for a "national agreement" regarding the constitutional articles related to investment and natural resources. "There is a need to pass an oil and gas law to guarantee the right conditions for international companies to help develop the Iraqi oil sector," he said. According to some estimates, Iraq may need as much as $25 billion to refurbish and streamline its oil industry. BAW