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Newsline - May 25, 2006

President Vladimir Putin welcomed leading EU officials in Sochi on May 24 for their latest twice-yearly summit, Russian and international media reported. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana, and Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel of Austria, which holds the rotating EU chair, are expected to focus their discussions with Putin on May 25 on energy issues (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2006). London's "The Times" wrote on May 25 that Putin will go "eyeball to eyeball with [his guests] in a tense standoff over Russia's energy policy that is already being compared on both sides to a new Cold War." The daily predicted "fraught exchanges as Moscow and Brussels confront what some analysts describe as the worst crisis in their relationship" following the Ukrainian gas crisis and in light of the increasing perception in the EU that Russia is willing to use energy as a political weapon. The Moscow daily "Kommersant" wrote on May 25 that the growing role of former communist states such as Poland in the EU has also contributed to rising skepticism toward Russia within the bloc. PM

EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner again appealed to Russia in Brussels on May 24 to ratify the 1994 Energy Charter Treaty that would end Gazprom's monopoly over Russia's pipeline system, "The Times" of London reported on May 25 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 23 and 24, 2006). "It would be excellent if Russia seized the moment, as [current] president of the [Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized countries], to move towards ratification of the Energy Charter Treaty. This will create a win-win energy relationship for the EU and Russia." En route from Brussels to Sochi, EU Commission President Barroso told Reuters on May 24 that "it would be very difficult to imagine the full success of the [July] St. Petersburg G-8 summit without positive results now in Sochi." But in Moscow, Igor Shuvalov, a top Putin aide, was quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on May 23 as saying that the EU must understand that Russia will set its own policies. "You want our oil and gas? We will give it to you and in this way ensure stable global economic growth. At the same time, our energy companies...will develop their business overseas. We will be expanding further, whether our European partners like it or not," he argued. PM

General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the General Staff, said in Moscow on May 24 that any deployment of a U.S. missile-defense system in Eastern Europe would be "unequivocally intended to neutralize Russia's strategic potential," RIA-Novosti and reported. He stressed that Russia has and will continue to develop an "asymmetric response" in the form of its own high-precision intercontinental ballistic missiles "whose trajectory cannot be predicted by a potential enemy" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2006). PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Doha, Qatar, on May 24 that "when we speak of new challenges and threats, it is important to [conscientiously practice] professional responsibility in...providing viewers with facts and news," Interfax reported. Lavrov visited the offices of the Qatar-based Arabic-language television broadcaster Al-Jazeera earlier on May 24. He added that it is necessary to "take into account the international community's concerns reflected in UN Security Council resolutions as regards opposing the use of the media for instigating terrorism and brainwashing young people." He praised Al-Jazeera for "promoting democratic standards in spreading information." He also expressed the hope that the Arabic-language broadcasts of Moscow's Russia Today television, which are scheduled to begin soon, will be of similar quality. PM

The State Duma voted on May 24 to give initial approval to a bill providing punishment for government ministers who use the word "dollar" when "ruble" would also do, Russian and international media reported. The largely pro-Kremlin parliament is expected to agree soon on the size of the fines and to extend the measure to legislators and the media. Supporters of the bill say it will help draw a line under the immediate postcommunist era, when a high rate of inflation made it impractical to calculate many prices in rubles. Critics say the draft legislation is a political ploy and will be difficult to put into practice. PM

The Russian Foreign Ministry recently expelled an unnamed junior Swedish diplomat in apparent retaliation for Sweden's two-month detention of a Russian scientist earlier this yar, Reuters reported on May 24, citing Swedish Radio. Neither the Russian ministry nor its Swedish counterpart would comment on the report. The Swedish authorities on April 7 released Andrei Zamyatnin, a Russian agricultural scientist at Uppsala University, who had been held since mid-February on suspicion of spying for an unnamed country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 7, 2006). PM

Sergei Zaitsev, who is St. Petersburg's chief prosecutor, said on May 24 that police have recently arrested eight people and are looking for five more in connection with a "wave of racist murders" in the city in recent years, "The Moscow Times" reported on May 25. Those detained are allegedly members of a gang called the Mad Crowd that has been linked to several racially motivated killings and to the 2004 death of Nikolai Girenko, an expert on such crimes who testified in a court case against another extremist group (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 7, 2006, and "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," May 5, 2006). PM

The legislature of Khakasia in Siberia recently defied a demand by Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov to recall Senator Arkady Sarkisyan, and the legislature of the Nenets Autonomous Okrug in the Arctic has refused a similar order to sack Senator Aleksandr Sabadash, RFE/RL's Russian Service and "The Moscow Times" reported on May 25. By contrast, Senator Boris Gutin of the Yamalo-Nenets Autonomous Okrug and Senator Igor Ivanov from the Primorsky Krai "went quietly" in the face of similar pressure to sack allegedly corrupt officials. The May 23 arrest in Arkhangelsk of Nenets Autonomous Okrug Governor Aleksei Barinov, who was the last governor to be popularly elected to his post before President Putin began appointing such officials, is seen by some Russian media as the Kremlin's response the Nenets legislature's refusal to oust Sabadash (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22 and 24, 2006). The weekly "Argumenty i fakty" suggested on May 24 that the four senators were probably sacked at random, either to free up their respective seats so that those posts could be "resold" to other well-heeled businessmen, or to intimidate the respective regional authorities. PM

An unspecified number of Ingush former residents of villages in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion have addressed an appeal to top Russian officials, including President Putin, against new restrictions imposed by the North Ossetian authorities that preclude their return to their former homes, reported on May 25, quoting "Kavkazsky uzel." The North Ossetian authorities have reportedly expanded the zone surrounding major sources of drinking water to encompass several villages formerly inhabited primarily by Ingush. For ecological reasons, that zone may not be used for human habitation; members of other ethnic groups required to relinquish their homes there have been offered apartments in the republican capital, Vladikavkaz, while the Ingush have been offered only alternative accommodation in a remote new settlement with few amenities. The signatories to the appeal want the Russian authorities to rule on whether the North Ossetian authorities' moves are justified, and to be allocated new accommodation either in Vladikavkaz or close to their former homes. LF

The French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group together with senior officials from those countries' respective foreign ministries met in Baku on May 24 with Azerbaijan's President Ilham Aliyev and with Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov to discuss the prospects for speeding up the Karabakh peace process, and reported on May 24 and 25, respectively. In a joint statement released after those meetings, which they described as "constructive," the diplomats said that it is time for the two sides to reach agreement on the basic principles for resolving the conflict. They further stressed that the leaders of both Armenia and Azerbaijan should prepare their respective populations for peace, not for a new war. The co-chairmen will meet with Armenian President Robert Kocharian in Yerevan on May 25, after which it may become clear whether and when Aliyev and Kocharian will meet again to discuss the peace process. LF

Former presidential administration official Akif Muradverdiyev, who was dismissed and arrested in late October on charges of plotting a coup d'etat, has been remanded in pretrial custody for a further five months, reported on May 25. Muradverdiyev's lawyers have appealed that ruling on the grounds that his health has seriously deteriorated since his arrest. LF

Former Georgian National Security Minister Igor Giorgadze, whose whereabouts have remained a mystery since he left Georgia in late 1995 after being accused of masterminding the car-bomb attack in August of that year against then Georgian parliament Chairman Eduard Shevardnadze, arrived in Moscow on May 24 where he held a press conference, Russian and Georgian media reported. Giorgadze threatened to stage a "nettle revolution" to oust the current Georgian leadership if the latter do not resign voluntarily or hold preterm parliamentary and presidential elections. He said that upon coming to power in Georgia, his first priority would be to establish not just "normal" but "friendly" relations with Russia. Giorgadze has repeatedly been refused permission to register as a candidate for Georgian parliamentary or presidential elections; attendance at protest rallies organized by his Samartlianoba (Justice) party has generally not exceeded a few hundred. LF

Giorgadze denied at his May 24 press conference that he intends to request either Russian citizenship or political asylum as some Russian media have suggested. But the Georgian Foreign Ministry nonetheless summoned Russian Ambassador Vladimir Chkhikvishvili later on May 24 to protest Russian First Deputy Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kolesnikov's statement that Moscow is ready to grant Giorgadze political asylum, Civil Georgia reported. Meanwhile, Pikria Chikhradze, who heads the New Conservative (aka New Rightist) parliament faction, said that both the former and the present Georgian leaderships have exaggerated Giorgadze's influence. LF

The senior diplomats from the five countries that belong to the Friends of the UN Secretary-General for Georgia group (France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), together with Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, who is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative for Abkhazia, met in Sukhum (Sukhumi) on May 23 with Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, and with Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, Georgian media reported. The Abkhaz officials stressed their commitment to achieving a peaceful solution of the Abkhaz conflict that would formalize the unrecognized republic's self-proclaimed independent status. They also stressed the need to sign an agreement with Georgia on the nonresumption of hostilities. Shamba outlined to the ambassador the main points of Bagapsh's recent peace plan (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," May 12, 2006). German Ambassador Norbert Baas was quoted as describing the talks as "serious and open," but he acknowledged that the two sides' positions remain far apart. Shamba met in Sukhum on May 24 with Irakli Alasania, President Mikheil Saakashvili's special representative, who presented new Georgian proposals that Alasania said could form the basis for a "road map" for resolving the conflict. LF

The Russian Foreign Ministry rejected on May 23 as inappropriate criticism by its Georgian counterpart of the participation of government officials from North Ossetia in a May 19 session of the government of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2006). Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Giorgi Khaindrava on May 24 condemned the entry of North Ossetian officials into Georgia without valid visas as "criminal" and "illegal." The Georgian Foreign Ministry released a second statement on May 24 rejecting the Russian response to its initial protest as an exercise in dialectics. LF

The registered opposition party Naghyz Ak Zhol (True Bright Path) and the unregistered party Alga (Onward) have both issued statements calling on the Kazakh authorities to officially register the latter party, Navigator reported on May 24. In a May 23 statement, Naghyz Ak Zhol called for Alga's registration "based on a commitment to the basic democratic principle of freedom of association, the letter and spirit of Kazakhstan's Constitution, our country's international obligations, and a recognition of the need for the entire spectrum of nonextremist organizations to be present on Kazakhstan's political arena." In its statement, the Alga party appealed to "political parties and social movements," "international and rights organizations," and "President [Nursultan] Nazarbaev" to allow the party's registration. Alga, which arose on the basis of Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan after the latter was banned in 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 7, 2005), was recently denied registration after the Justice Ministry queried its claim to have the minimum 50,000 members required (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2006). Alga's appeal will be heard by the Supreme Court on May 30. DK

Jumabek Shakirov, a lawyer for Nurlan Motuev, told the news agency on May 24 that his client was arrested the day before (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2006) for the illegal seizure of the Kara-Keche coal mine in Naryn Province. Shakirov said, "As a lawyer, I don't understand why they arrested only Nurlan Motuev. They need to arrest the entire population of Jumgal District. They all took over the mine." Shakirov said that Motuev, whose seizure of the mine in 2005 and yearlong defiance of the government earned him nationwide renown, has been detained for 72 hours. Shakirov told that he does not know whether Motuev will be released or charged after that time. DK

Former parliament speaker Omurbek Tekebaev said on May 23 that the "tandem" of President Kurmanbek Bakiev and Prime Minister Feliks Kulov has "outlived its usefulness," reported on May 24. Tekebaev said, "The tandem, which was created for purposes of stabilization and the development of society, has not justified itself and has outlived its usefulness. That's why the country now faces the critical issue of clearly delineating the functions and duties of all branches of government." Bakiev and Kulov joined forces as a "tandem" in the lead-up to the July 2005 presidential election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2005). Tekebaev stepped down as speaker of parliament in February after making a derogatory comment about Bakiev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9, 2006). DK

President Bakiev issued a decree on May 24 removing Myrzakan Subanov as head of Kyrgyzstan's Border Service and appointing Colonel Zakir Tilenov as the new chief, Kabar reported. Tilenov was the deputy head of the defense and law enforcement department in the prime minister's office from 2002-2005, reported. The news agency reported that Subanov is retiring. A report by ITAR-TASS cited unnamed "analysts" as linking Bakiev's decision to the fallout from a recent incursion by armed men from Tajikistan on May 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 13, 2006). DK

On May 24, Kyrgyz State Secretary Adakhan Madumarov presented Jantoro Satybaldiev as the newly appointed governor of Osh Province and President Bakiev's new representative to southern Kyrgyzstan, reported. Satybaldiev replaces Adam Zakirov, whom Bakiev appointed in December 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2005). Satybaldiev is a parliamentary deputy and a member of the opposition movement For Reforms. DK

In an interview with the BBC's Uzbek Service on May 24, Nodira Hidoyatova, the recently freed coordinator of the unregistered opposition Sunshine Coalition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2006), said that she plans to continue her activities in the public sphere. Hidoyatova said, "The Sunshine Coalition is functioning. I intend to continue my public activities. But I want to reform it a bit. I want to look at some mistakes that have been made. I intend to legalize the coalition to make it serve the interests of our people and nation." Hidoyatova said that she feels the Sunshine Coalition should be a "constructive" movement. Sunshine Coalition leader Sanjar Umarov has been jailed on economic charges his supporters believe were politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2006). Asked whether she was mistreated in jail, Hidoyatova told the BBC, "I can't say that any physical or psychological pressure was applied to me." DK

The Verkhovna Rada of the fifth convocation, which was elected on March 26, gathered for its first session in Kyiv on May 25, Ukrainian media reported. Newly elected deputies took an oath of office. The text of the oath was read out by the oldest parliamentarian, Ivan Herasymov from the Communist Party. The Party of Regions has 186 seats in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc 129, Our Ukraine 81, the Socialist Party 33, and the Communist Party 21. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko addressed the inaugural session of the newly elected Verkhovna Rada on May 25, Ukrainian media reported. Yushchenko said he will endorse the candidacy of a new prime minister proposed by a parliamentary coalition if a future cabinet sticks to several "principles." According to Yushchenko, Ukraine's new cabinet should work toward safeguarding the country's development based on "European values," consolidating the nation, boosting economic reforms, and securing the observance of human rights and freedoms. JM

An estimated 10,000 people turned out for a protest meeting organized by the Trade Union Federation of Ukraine in Kyiv on May 24 against the government's increase in tariffs for electricity and public services earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, 2006), UNIAN and Reuters reported. Participants in the meeting adopted a resolution demanding that the government compensate people for the tariff hikes. JM

A working group for forming a ruling coalition between the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Our Ukraine, and the Socialist Party is planning to agree on a coalition accord by June 7, UNIAN reported on May 25, quoting Our Ukraine parliamentary caucus head Roman Bezsmertnyy. The working group has proposed that the Verkhovna Rada adjourn its session, which was inaugurated on May 25, until June 7. JM

Vuk Draskovic said on May 24 that Montenegro could declare independence as soon as July, dpa reported the same day. Speaking at a news conference during a visit to Helsinki, Draskovic said the process of "official divorce of state union" will start after the publication of the official results. He added that the "main issues" in the separation could be solved by July 13. "The goal is that two internationally recognized states will be born shortly," Draskovic said. He added, however, that despite the separation, the two countries will remain close. "Serbs and Montenegrins were people of the same history and people of the same destiny," he said. BW

Speaking at the same May 24 press conference in Helsinki, Draskovic said there are no parallels between Montenegro and Kosova and warned that international attempts to impose a solution could cause upheaval, Reuters reported the same day. "I think it will be a very bad decision of the international community if the independence of Kosovo [becomes] inevitable," he said, adding that such an outcome could lead to "dangerous turbulence" in the region. "Such a decision would be [met] by Serbs, not only in Serbia but in the neighborhood and all over the world, [with] a sense of humiliation," he said. BW

The head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) said on May 24 that ethnically motivated crimes have decreased dramatically and urged an end to what he called "misinformation" about the issue, dpa reported the same day. UNMIK chief Soren Jessen-Petersen said Serbs in the province have been attributing racial and ethnic motives to crimes where no such motives exist. "All too often an ethnic motive is alleged for crimes, merely because the victims happen to be from the Kosovo Serb community," Jessen-Petersen said, according to a statement released by his office. "While we always deplore any attack on any citizen, statements of a misleading nature are not helpful and are in fact contrary to the interests of the Kosovo Serbs. This kind of misinformation not only erodes their confidence level, but has a cascading negative impact on interethnic relations," he added. BW

Bosnian Serb lawmakers walked out of Bosnia-Herzegovina's parliament on May 24 to protest Prime Minister Adnan Terzic's refusal to form a commission to investigate alleged war crimes against Serbs in Sarajevo during the 1992-95 war, Reuters reported the same day. Terzic, a Muslim, said that he only supports the forming of a state commission to investigate all war crimes throughout the country. More than 10,000 people -- most of them Muslims -- were killed in fighting, sniper attacks, and indiscriminate shelling of civilians during the Bosnian Serbs' 43-month siege of the capital from 1992-95. According to most independent estimates, some ethnic Serbs and Croats were also killed, some by Serbian artillery and sniper attacks and some in reprisals from militias organized to defend the city. Bosnian Serbs have been pressing for an investigation into alleged war crimes against them in Sarajevo ever since former High Representative Paddy Ashdown forced Republika Srpska in 2004 to acknowledge the systematic massacre in July 1995 of approximately 8,000 Muslims by Serbian paramilitaries in Srebrenica. BW

The Moldovan government on May 24 rejected a call from Our Moldova, the largest opposition bloc in parliament, to secede from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), ITAR-TASS reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2006). "Moldova's desire to integrate itself into the European Union and its participation in the CIS do not contradict each other," Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan said. "The cabinet acts on the strength of President Vladimir Voronin's position that Moldova will be where its economic interests are. Besides, the president has called for harmonizing CIS and EU legislation," he added. BW

Iraq's Council of Representatives approved Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's cabinet at a May 20 session, but not before one party stormed out of the session to protest what it said was the allocation of portfolios along sectarian lines.

Salih al-Mutlaq, the head of the Sunni-led Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, led the walkout of some 15 representatives, saying al-Maliki had violated the constitution by presenting an incomplete cabinet.

Indeed, al-Maliki was unable to negotiate the appointment of three key portfolios, and opted to delay the appointment of ministers to the Interior, Defense, and National Security ministries. He told parliament on May 20 that for the time being, he will oversee the Interior Ministry, while Sunni Deputy Prime Minister Salam al-Zawba'i will oversee the Defense Ministry and Kurdish Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih will oversee the National Security Ministry.

Al-Mutlaq earlier complained about the United Iraqi Alliance's (UIA) offer of three cabinet posts to his party, which won 11 parliament seats in the December elections, saying that the ministries offered -- Women's Affairs, Environment, and National Dialogue -- are "secondary" posts.

More damning was al-Mutlaq's contention that the Shi'ite-led UIA demanded that his party change its political platform in order to join the government. Al-Mutlaq said the UIA twice demanded a written pledge from him indicating that he would change platform. "We will not pay this price to enter the government," he told reporters at a May 20 press briefing in Baghdad.

The composition of the cabinet appears strikingly similar to previous cabinets. Ministerial posts by and large were divided among political blocs to reflect the percentage of parliamentary seats won in the election: the UIA has 17 ministers (128 parliament seats); the Kurds six (53 seats); the Iraqi Accordance Front seven (44 seats); the Iraqi National List six (25 seats); the Kurdistan Islamic Union one (five seats); and the Islamic Action Organization one. As far as minorities are concerned, it appears that one minister is a Fayli (Shi'ite) Kurd, one minister is a Shi'ite Turkoman, and two ministers are Christians. Four of the 38 ministers are women.

Four ministers held their posts from the transitional government: Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Safa al-Din Muhammad al-Safi, Water Resources Minister Abd al-Latif Rashid, and Environment Minister Narmin Uthman.

In addition, three ministers from the transitional government were moved to new ministerial posts. Former Planning Minister Barham Salih is now deputy prime minister, while former Construction and Housing Minister Jasim Muhammad Ja'far is now the minister of youth and sports. Perhaps most controversially, former Interior Minister Bayan Jabr is now finance minister. "I am not sure if the person who was not able to preserve the blood of Muslims [as interior minister] can protect the funds of Muslims," Sunni parliamentarian Nasir al-Janabi commented.

Apart from the breakdown of portfolios, there have been rumors in the media about the solidity of parliamentary blocs. The Al-Fadilah Party pulled out of the negotiations over cabinet posts with other parties in the UIA two weeks ago, saying sectarian preferences, rather than qualifications, were dominating the talks.

This week, much of the focus has been on the Iraqi National List. Hamid Majid Musa, a leading member of the secularist Shi'ite bloc, denied on May 22 that there is a split within the coalition. "Our Iraqi National List is an expanded political coalition that brings together political parties, organizations, and figures. It is democratic in its nature and liberal in its composition. Hence, different viewpoints are freely expressed within this list.... What we have is a difference in individual judgment, ideas, and visions on the political performance. In our view, this is not a rift, but a healthy phenomenon that helps us remain on track and enhances the performance of the list," Musa told Al-Sharqiyah television.

Iraqi National List member Izzat al-Shabandar told the London-based newspaper "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on May 21 that rumors of a split within the list surfaced because it held out on its decision to participate in the government until minutes before the announcement of the cabinet, the daily reported on May 22. He said the list agreed to join the government when it was offered another portfolio.

Like al-Mutlaq, Al-Shabandar maintained that his list should have been allocated more cabinet posts. He also maintained that the UIA was more concerned during negotiations about satisfying the demands of parties within the UIA than it was in forming a national-unity government.

The UIA and the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front "have not abandoned their sectarian-based culture," he added. Al-Shabandar claimed that the new government has "no aspect of a national-unity government...except for the participation of the Iraqi National List."

For his part, Iraqi National List head Iyad Allawi has been less than optimistic about the ability of the new government to better serve the Iraqi people. He told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on May 20: "There is no doubt that the new government...will be an extension of the former government and the operation is no more than just an operation of changing faces." He contended that al-Maliki's government is likely to "fall short of its duties in many areas," adding, "I believe it will take measures only after a certain period of time passes during which more funds, which are the property of the Iraqi people, have been squandered."

Indeed, the new government faces a tough road ahead if it is to address the problems currently plaguing the country: a thriving insurgency and national resistance, a failed economy, massive corruption, a widening sectarian divide, and the unresolved disputes regarding the constitution, to name a few. Some Iraqis already doubt al-Maliki's commitment to national unity. If he is to succeed in the next six months, which he has declared the most crucial of his administration, he will need to address the criticisms of those who claim to have been marginalized.

Continuing days of violence, some 60 suspected neo-Taliban insurgents died along with five men from Afghanistan's security forces in fighting in southern Afghanistan on May 24, AFP reported. The latest clash began on May 23, when insurgents attacked an Afghan army convoy on patrol in Oruzgan Province. "We launched a massive search and clean-up operation after the attack in which our troops spotted and killed 60 Taliban," said General Rahmatullah Raufi, the head of Afghan forces in the south. Raufi said four soldiers were killed in the fighting. The Interior Ministry said a policeman died in the same incident. An estimated 350 people -- overwhelmingly insurgents -- have died in recent days as fighting has raged in Afghanistan. Most of the violence has occurred in southern Afghanistan, where neo-Taliban insurgents are most active. But the security situation appears to be worsening somewhat in the north as well. MR

Afghan President Hamid Karzai met with the commander of the U.S.-led coalition forces in Afghanistan on May 24 in Kabul to discuss reports of civilian causalities in recent fighting, AFP reported. In the Afghan presidential palace, Karzai held talks with Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, though few details of their exchange emerged. At least 16 civilians are thought to have died in a recent air strike by coalition warplanes against neo-Taliban targets in southern Afghanistan. Karzai has called for an investigation into the fighting, which erupted in Panjwayi in Kandahar Province on May 21. Up to 80 neo-Taliban fighters are thought to have died in the same clash. The U.S. military has vowed to conduct an investigation of its own. MR

The new Pakistani governor in charge of the volatile tribal territory along the border with Afghanistan promised on May 24 to confront militants operating in the area, AP reported. "My top priority will be to ensure peace and eliminate terrorism," Ali Mohammed Jan Aurakzai said after he was sworn in as the governor of Pakistan's Northwest Frontier Province. Aurakzai is a retired army general who served as the top military commander in the province for 28 months starting in 2001, when Pakistan deployed troops in the tribal areas to aid the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. "I have worked in this province as a military commander. I know the tribesmen and they also know me very well," Aurakzai said. "I am confident that we will be successful in the war against terrorism." He added, "We will ensure exemplary peace in our tribal areas." Afghanistan has repeatedly accused the Pakistani government of giving support to militants who base themselves in Pakistan and conduct attacks in Afghanistan. Pakistan denies the charge, with officials in Islamabad insisting that they are trying to rid the tribal areas of militants. MR

A U.S. military official in Afghanistan acknowledged on May 24 in Kabul that some territory in the country is largely in the hands of neo-Taliban insurgents, Xinhua news agency reported. "There is no doubt that Taliban have influence in certain areas," said Colonel Tom Collins, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Afghanistan. Collins said "several hundred" neo-Taliban fighters likely held significant sway in parts of Kandahar, Helmand, and Oruzgan provinces. The comments, voiced at a regular news conference in Kabul, marked a departure from previous assertions by the U.S. military, which as recently as last year claimed that neo-Taliban forces were losing strength in Afghanistan. MR

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on May 24 that Tehran is ready to hold talks with Washington if there are no preconditions, IRNA reported. Furthermore, anonymous diplomats in Vienna told AFP on May 24 that Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani told International Atomic Energy Agency Director Muhammad el-Baradei that Tehran wants to discuss the nuclear issue with Washington. Larijani demanded the absence of preconditions, such as foregoing uranium enrichment. Tehran-based analyst Said Laylaz said similar requests have been conveyed through Indonesia, Kuwait, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, "The Washington Post" reported on May 24. BS

Referring to ongoing disturbances by ethnic Azeris in the northwestern cities of Tabriz and Urumieh sparked by publication of an ethnically offensive cartoon (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 23 and 24 , 2006), national police chief Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam said on May 24 that approximately 60 people have been arrested, ISNA reported. He mentioned that "a number of compatriots as well as law-enforcement personnel have been injured in Tabriz," but nobody was killed. Turan news agency on May 24, however, cited "unofficial reports" of 10 demonstrators being killed in Urumieh after they raised the flag of the Republic of Azerbaijan, and Turan also claimed there were deaths in Mahabad. These latter allegations are unconfirmed, and several Azeri sources in Tabriz said no one was killed there during demonstrations. Iran's ambassador in Baku, Afshar Suleimani, said on May 24 that nobody has been killed, APA News Agency reported. Reports about it "are nothing but a lie," he added. BS

Following unrest in northwestern Iran after the daily "Iran" published a cartoon that insulted the country's large Azeri minority, the paper's Friday supplement editor, Mehrdad Qassemfar, and cartoonist Mana Neyestani are being held in Evin Prison, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) announced on May 24. The press freedom organization demanded their release, describing the two as "convenient scapegoats for a government that has been scared by large-scale protests." National police chief Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam said on May 24 that the publication of the cartoon was malicious, ISNA reported. He added that Iran's Supreme National Security Council met the previous day and decided the responsible parties should be arrested. The staff of the since banned "Iran" newspaper defended its two colleagues in a May 24 statement: "we attest that all those involved in the creation of the cartoon are among colleagues who truly care and attach great importance to national solidarity and had no intention of fomenting discord," IRNA reported. RSF described Iran as the Middle East country that has imprisoned the most journalists, and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad are on RSF's list of press freedom predators. BS

During a one-day visit to southwestern Khuzestan Province, President Ahmadinejad said the United States and its allies are behind the continuing unrest in the country, state television reported. When the alleged "enemy" failed to stop Iran from "acquiring nuclear energy," he said, they turned to other means. "Today -- by creating discord, despondency, and division -- they intend to prevent the realization of all the rights of the Iranian nation," he said. In Tehran, Expediency Council Chairman Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said unidentified "hegemonic powers" are stirring up ethnic strife in an effort to hinder the advancement of developing countries, Mehr News Agency reported. Hashemi-Rafsanjani was speaking at a conference on Cultural Diversity and National Solidarity. Deputy Parliamentary Speaker Mohammad Reza Bahonar, former Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani, and former Intelligence Minister Ali Yunesi were also there and each spoke about ethnicity. Parliamentarian Imad Afruq said U.S. agents in Iran are trying to stir up discord, Fars News Agency reported, and he also blamed pan-Turkists. BS

Fifty-four mostly young members of the Baha'i faith were arrested in the city of Shiraz on May 19, the Baha'i International Community announced on May 24. Simultaneously, six Baha'i households were raided and property -- including computers, books, and documents -- was seized. The charges against the Baha'is are not known. Bani Dugal, principal representative of the Baha'i International Community to the United Nations, was quoted as saying that more than 125 Baha'is have been arrested since January 2005, although not all of them remain in detention. Dugal described these developments as "religious persecution." In addition to arrests and detentions, state radio and television broadcast critical information about the Baha'is, and the "Kayhan" newspaper, which is connected with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's office, has published more than 30 anti-Baha'i articles. BS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi on May 24 rejected a critical report on Iran from international human rights watchdog Amnesty International, IRNA reported. Amnesty's annual report had noted, among other things, the difficulties encountered by religious and ethnic minorities in Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2006). Assefi said the report is based on information fabricated by opposition groups. He added, "The Islamic Republic of Iran respects human rights on the basis of religious beliefs and in line with the process of political and social development. It has made great achievements in this respect." BS

Tehran police chief Morteza Talai said on May 24 that some 20-30 people were behind the previous night's unrest at Tehran University, and he estimated that some of these people were not students, IRNA reported. Eyewitnesses reported some injuries and damage to parked vehicles, and Talai said 40 police were hurt. Demonstrations also took place at Amir Kabir University. Students told Radio Farda that some students are missing and others were injured when police and paramilitaries attacked them. Students have been angered over the last few months by the government's interference in campus affairs. Such steps include the dismissal of numerous professors and the replacement of successful and popular administrators with clerics deemed unqualified. Students also are angry over the interference of the Basij in student council elections. They did not make it clear if this is the University Basij, which is the largest student organization, or the Basij Resistance Force, which is an arm of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. BS

Armed gunmen shot and wounded a senior Defense Ministry official in Baghdad on May 25, one day after killing a senior police official, Reuters reported. General Khalil al-Ibadi and his driver were shot as al-Ibadi left his home for work. He was in charge of food supplies for the armed forces. Police General Ahmad Da'wud, who served as deputy chief of the Baghdad municipality's protection units, was shot and killed as he left his Baghdad home for work on May 24. Meanwhile, the Defense Ministry announced on May 23 that 98 people were killed and 280 wounded in insurgent attacks across Iraq last week, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Major General Abd al-Aziz Muhammad, director of operations, said that Iraqi security forces killed 85 suspected insurgents and arrested 315 others. Muhammad added that 607 insurgent attacks were carried out in Iraq last week, with 69 attacks targeting civilians, 94 targeting Iraqi security forces, and 74 targeting multinational forces. Muhammad said it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between terrorists and militiamen, as both are armed and present on the streets. KR

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki said in a May 24 written statement that Iraqi security forces should be able to take over security within 18 months, international media reported on May 25. Al-Maliki acknowledged the need to build up Iraq's security forces. He said the number of armed forces and police personnel stands at around 254,000; it should reach 273,000 by year-end, AP reported. Al-Maliki said on May 22 that Iraqi forces could take control of 16 of the country's 18 governorates by the end of 2006. The prime minister told Al-Arabiyah television on May 24 that he has asked the heads of Iraqi security forces to draft a "Baghdad plan" that will enable security forces to take control of the capital and surrounding areas. "We will seek the participation of some people who worked in the former [security] establishments if it is proven that they want to serve the nation [and] that they worked with the former regime against their will," he said. KR

The Mujahedin Shura Council denied in a May 24 Internet statement that an Iraqi man now in Jordanian custody is a member of Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 24, 2006). The statement said al-Zarqawi's organization does not know Ziyad al-Karbuli and contended that multinational forces have claimed to have arrested more than 70 of al-Zarqawi's assistants and deputies. "We do not even know the person shown on Jordanian [television] and what was aired is nothing more than a theatrical play written by the black [White] House's clients," the statement said. KR

Interpol arrested a nephew of Saddam Hussein in Beirut on May 24, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Bashar Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hasan is the son of Hussein's half-brother, Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hasan al-Tikriti. The U.S. Treasury blocked Bashar Ibrahim's assets in July 2005, saying the 35-year-old "directed a number of anticoalition activities in Iraq and maintained communication with several insurgent groups throughout northern and central Iraq," according to U.S. State Department statement. A statement by the Iraqi government said Ibrahim was among the most important fugitives wanted for crimes against the Iraqi people. KR

Tariq Aziz took the stand in the Al-Dujayl trial on May 24, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Aziz told the court that the Al-Dujayl assassination attempt against Saddam Hussein was just one of a series of assassination attempts against Iraqi officials carried out by groups affiliated with the Iranian regime. He said that the arrests and executions that followed the attack were carried out in accordance with both Iraqi and international law. He added that citizens whose orchards were razed were compensated by the government in accordance with the law. Aziz defended regime members Barzan al-Tikriti and Taha Yassin Ramadan, saying he knew both men well and neither mentioned having any connection to the arrests or torture that was subsequently carried out in Al-Dujayl, which Aziz contended proved their innocence. Four other witnesses took the stand on May 24. The trial is scheduled to resume on May 29. KR