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Newsline - July 18, 2006

President Vladimir Putin said in Strelna near St. Petersburg on July 17 that Russia will consider contributing troops to an international peacekeeping force in the Middle East if the UN Security Council decides to authorize one, Russian and international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). He told reporters at the close of the Group of Eight (G8) summit of leading industrialized countries that "no decision has been made on sending peacekeeping troops. When a decision is made, we will consider whether or not to take part." Putin also argued, "I don't think the situation has gotten out of control, but I am not certain that the return of [the abducted Israeli] soldiers will stop the conflict." When a reporter asked him about Russia's contacts with Hamas and Hizballah, Putin replied that "we maintain regular contacts. It helped us in our work on the resolution today." Russia is the only G8 country that has invited leaders of the radical Hamas, which won the Palestinian elections in January but is shunned by the West, to its capital for talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12, 19, and 21, and June 29, 2006). Putin also argued that the international community has yet to develop effective security mechanisms adapted to the realities after the Cold War. "That is why the Russian delegation, when discussing the Middle East, insisted on emphasizing the UN's role, because it is the only universal organization," he added. PM

President Putin told reporters in Strelna on July 17 that "our relations [with the United States] have changed fundamentally" since the end of the Cold War, Russian and international news agencies reported. He added that "not only have we ceased to be enemies, but we don't consider each other opponents, either. And by the way, the course of discussions yesterday and today showed that our positions are very close in many respects." He said that the two countries "should simply know how to work in a frank and professional way and, while defending our own [respective] national interests, we can always find a way to solve issues that doesn't lead to a confrontation, but to a compromise." Putin noted that "not all people in our two countries are ready to take a look anew into the future. Unfortunately, there are such structures and forces...that still rely on concepts of confrontation. We see that all too often." Asked by a reporter whether he was offended that U.S. President George W. Bush met with Russian human rights activists, Putin elicited laughter among his audience by admitting that he himself has "met with representatives of nongovernmental organizations, too.... It's good. The more we work with civil society, the better." PM

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said in Strelna on July 17 that President Putin and his guests discussed Russia's democratic development at an informal dinner the previous evening, international news agencies reported. Prodi noted that Putin gave "a long, articulated explanation about the evolution of Russia's institutions, about prospects for new elections, and about rules for the election of presidential presidents." Prodi added that a lively and "detailed discussion" followed. German Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed the importance of having an independent judiciary. French President Jacques Chirac referred to the fact that Russia is a huge country that is in transition and has no democratic tradition. Putin reaffirmed his previous pledge that he will not seek a change in the constitution to enable him to serve a third term when his current mandate expires in 2008. Sergei Prikhodko, who is the president's foreign policy aide, said that Putin "is satisfied with his colleagues' reaction. He also had some questions. The colleagues also had questions for each other.... It is quite normal and useful to be able to share opinions on any subject within the G8." Some journalists later commented that Putin largely succeeded in keeping the so-called "frozen conflicts" in Georgia and Transdniester out of the G8's discussions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 16 and 23, 2006). PM

Some reporters noted at the July 17 Strelna press conference that the hosts succeeded in avoiding EU pressure to ratify the Energy Charter, which Russia signed in 1994 and which would require it to open up access to its pipelines, Russian and international news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). President Putin replied, however that the charter "implies mutual access to production infrastructure of energy resources and to transportation infrastructure. Naturally, we can allow our partners access to both. But our question is, what will they give us access to? Where is their production or transportation infrastructure?" PM

President Putin told reporters in Strelna at the close of the G8 summit on July 17 that "we are satisfied that our partners received with understanding Russia's ideas and proposals for the summit," Russian and international news agencies reported. He added that "it is also obvious that Russia's growing economic potential allows it to play a more significant role in global development, and we are ready to participate actively in implementing all of the proposed initiatives." Deputy Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov noted that, prior to the summit, Moscow "faced a lot of criticism from different parts of the world, but in the end we managed to show that Russia's place in the G8 is quite natural, that it's impossible to tackle vital problems without Russia." An unnamed Western diplomat was quoted by "The Washington Times" on July 18 as saying that the "Russians have clearly had a recovery of confidence." The Moscow daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on July 17, however, that Russian plans for the gathering were overshadowed by the Middle East crisis and by Iran's refusal to agree to the Russian-backed proposal to halt uranium enrichment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 14 and 17, 2006). The dailies "Novye izvestia" and "Gazeta" both called attention on July 17 to the large amount of money that the gathering cost. The daily "Kommersant" wrote on July 17 that much of the summit and its documents were "unreal" and suggested that Presidents Bush and Putin were trying to prove something to themselves rather than to each other. The paper added that "the leaders shouted until they all became hoarse." PM

Grigory Yavlinsky of the liberal opposition Yabloko party wrote in "Novaya gazeta" of July 17-19 that President Putin's foreign policy is ill-conceived and threatens the interests of Russia more than it does those of any other country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 14, 2006). Yavlinsky stressed that the root of the problem is that Russia lacks "effective modern state institutions, democratic traditions, or even a modern society as such." He notes that Putin has successfully called attention to problems in democratic countries to discredit democracy itself. Yavlinsky believes that "there has been no discussion in Russia of Russia's place and role in the world, long-term strategy for international relations, or how all this relates to our country's internal...development." Instead, Putin conducts a short-sighted foreign policy aimed at promoting the immediate interests of various "factions within the Kremlin." Yavlinsky argues that official comments about "being 'separate' from other [countries], [establishing] 'sovereignty,' and [exercising] foreign-policy independence are sometimes expressed in an oddly adolescent manner and involve steps that are potentially dangerous for Russia itself. How else could we describe the decision to sell Tor missile systems to Iran, or show friendship and concern for North Korea and Hamas?" On July 17, State Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov of the Republican Party wrote in "Nezavisimaya gazeta" that the discussion in Kremlin circles about "sovereignty" only serves to show that democracy is what Russia lacks in order to be truly sovereign. PM

Nikolai Patrushev, who heads the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the National Antiterrorist Committee, said in Moscow on July 18 that President Putin has put the committee in charge of coordinating the efforts of the special services aimed at "tracking and eliminating" the killers of the Russian diplomats in Iraq, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 29 and July 7 and 12, 2006). PM

The temporary settlement of Maysky in North Ossetia, home to some 1,230 Ingush forced to flee for their lives during the fighting in October-November 1992, has been surrounded by special police detachments (spetsnaz), the independent website reported on July 17. Twelve men from Maysky began a hunger strike earlier this month to demand the right for their families to return to their abandoned homes in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 13 and 17, 2006). The hunger strikers adopted an appeal on July 15 to the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights to publicize their predicament. LF

The light-water reactor at Armenia's Medzamor nuclear power plant was shut down on July 14 in response to dangerous voltage fluctuations in its incoming power supply, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on July 17. The reactor was restarted on the afternoon of July 15. A similar emergency shutdown took place three years ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 7, 2003). LF

In a statement released on July 17 in St. Petersburg, the leaders of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized countries called on Armenia and Azerbaijan "to demonstrate the political will" and reach agreement on the "basic principles of a peaceful solution of the [Karabakh] conflict" before the end of this year, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. On July 16, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that while Russia hopes Armenia and Azerbaijan will reach a mutually acceptable solution to the conflict, it will not seek to impose one. Russia is prepared to act as guarantor of any peace accord, Putin added. Meanwhile, the online daily on July 18 quoted Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov as saying in an interview with Trend news agency that Armenia's "unconstructive" position with regard to the return of Azerbaijani displaced persons to their homes is delaying a solution to the Karabakh conflict. LF

The Foreign Ministry of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR) released a statement on July 17 accusing Azerbaijan of having started the series of fires that have devastated districts bordering on the NKR during the past two months, Noyan Tapan reported. Noting that in 2001 the NKR leadership proposed to the OSCE Minsk Group that the conflicting sides should formally agree to refrain from setting fire to pastures and agricultural land, the statement accused Baku of seeking to undermine the NKR's economy. Azerbaijani activists who toured the districts in question last month accused the NKR authorities of a deliberate campaign of arson (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 15, 19, and 29, 2006). In his interview with Trend, Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Mammadyarov said the Armenians are to blame for the fires whether they were spontaneous or ignited deliberately. LF

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Merab Antadze rejected on July 17 a statement the previous day by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accusing Georgia of fuelling tensions in South Ossetia, Caucasus Press reported. Antadze admitted that tensions in South Ossetia are rising, but attributed that trend, and specifically the two bombs that exploded in Tskhinvali on July 9 and 14, to infighting among the leadership of the unrecognized republic. Antadze sought to justify the detention by Georgian military police on July 14 and 15 of Russian diplomatic personnel in terms of the Russian side's failure to comply with a requirement that they inform Tbilisi of their planned route 14 days in advance. LF

In a July 17 statement posted on the OSCE website, Belgian Foreign Minister and OSCE Chairman in Office Karel de Gucht expressed regret at the postponement of a planned meeting in Tbilisi of the Joint Control Commission that was to have focused on the increasingly tense situation in the South Ossetian conflict zone. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and the South Ossetian leadership announced on July 16 their decision not to send representatives to that meeting in the wake of the detention on July 14 and 15 of Russian diplomatic personnel by Georgian military police. De Gucht described those incidents as a violation of internationally accepted diplomatic practice that he hopes will not be repeated. LF

Speaking on July 17 at the Krtsanisi military training ground, U.S. Ambassador to Tbilisi John Tefft said Washington will extend for a further 12 months the ongoing Sustainment and Stability Operations Program (SSOP) for the Georgian military, Caucasus Press and Civil Georgia reported. The United States will provide a further $30 million in funds for that program. The SSOP was launched in 2004 as a follow-up to the two-year Train and Equip program inaugurated in 2002. It was to have ended earlier this year, but has been extended at the request of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili explained on July 17. LF

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has named French diplomat Jean Arnault to succeed Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini as his special representative for the Abkhaz conflict, Caucasus Press and reported on July 18. Arnault, who is 54 and speaks fluent Russian, has worked for the UN in a similar capacity in Guatemala, Burundi, and most recently in Afghanistan. LF

Foreign Ministry spokesman Erzhan Ashykbaev said in Astana on July 17 that Kazakhstan has withdrawn its charge d'affairs from Lebanon and is taking steps to ensure the evacuation of Kazakh nationals from the region, Interfax-Kazakstan and Khabar reported. Ashykbaev said that 39 Kazakh nationals are registered with the country's mission in Lebanon and around 150 Kazakh nationals are living in Gaza. Most of the Kazakh nationals in Gaza have not expressed a desire to leave, Ashykbaev said, because they fear that the Israeli authorities will not allow them to reenter. Ashykbaev also noted that Kazakhstan has appealed to the Russian Foreign Ministry for assistance in evacuating Kazakh nationals from Lebanon. DK

State oil and gas company KazMunaiGaz has completed the purchase of a 33 percent stake in Chinese-owned PetroKazakhstan, Xinhua reported on July 17. The purchase price was approximately $1.4 billion, AFP reported, citing a spokesman for China National Petroleum Corp. (CNPC). CNPC acquired the Canadian-registered PetroKazakhstan, which holds production assets in Kazakhstan, for $4.18 billion in 2005. DK

A court in Bishkek has sentenced two men to death for killing parliamentary deputy Bayman Erkinbaev in September 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 September 2005), news agency reported on July 17. The two men are Makhmutjan Ruzimetov and Sabyrkul Batyrov. While Kyrgyz legislation still provides for the death penalty, the country has imposed a moratorium on capital punishment. DK

Representatives of many of Kyrgyzstan's NGOs held a press conference in Bishkek on July 17 to warn that the government is attempting to discredit NGOs, and reported. Speakers cited the government's recent decision to expel two U.S. diplomats who were reported to have had improper contacts with local NGOs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 13, 2006). Edil Baisalov, head of the coalition For Democracy and Civil Society, called the government's actions a "stage-managed campaign" to present NGOs as a "fifth column." Noting that the regime of former President Askar Akaev made similar efforts, Baisalov commented, "Even under Akaev, the authorities didn't go so far as to forbid us from speaking with diplomats." DK

Kurmanbek Bakiev told a meeting of youth groups on July 17 that his government is wary of "free" foreign aid because it brings with it an "alien ideology," Interfax reported. Bakiev said, "We do not want to become addicted to such aid.... We want to participate directly in the upbringing of our young people, and that is why we are turning down proposals of 'free' foreign aid." DK

A 10-day military cooperation exercise under the aegis of Kyrgyzstan's armed forces and the U.S. Central Command began in Kyrgyzstan on July 17, RIA Novosti and Interfax-AVN reported. A Kyrgyz Defense Ministry spokesman told Interfax that the exercise scenario involves a natural disaster under conditions when hostile forces are operating in the area. The exercise involves personnel from Afghanistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and the United States. Representatives of Russia and Turkmenistan were invited as observers. DK

Tajik Interior Minister Humdin Sharifov told a briefing in Dushanbe on July 17 that 10 members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan were detained in a special operation in the northern city of Khujand last week, Avesta reported. Sharifov said that three of the 10 were Uzbek citizens. Sharifov blamed IMU members for a string of violent attacks in Tajikistan, including two bomb blasts in Dushanbe in 2005, an attack on an Interior Ministry facility in Qayroqqum in January 2006, and the murder of a Defense Ministry official, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Sharipov also noted that police have arrested 42 suspected members of the banned extremist group Hizb ut-Tahrir, including 20 women, in the first half of 2006. DK

Twelve Uzbek refugees who fled after violence in Andijon in 2005 and received asylum in the United States have returned to Uzbekistan, reported on July 17, citing a source in the Uzbek Foreign Ministry. The source said the refugees appealed to the Uzbek government for help in returning home. The Foreign Ministry granted their request after determining that "they had no involvement in the terrorist acts committed in Andijon in May 2005. It was confirmed that they had been misled and taken out of the country by means of deception." RFE/RL's Uzbek Service was able to confirm that nine Uzbek citizens who had been residing in the United States as refugees from Andijon returned to Uzbekistan. The Uzbek Embassy in Washington told RFE/RL that it purchased tickets for them to return. DK

The Minsk District Court on July 17 sentenced Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the United Civic Party, and opposition activist Anatol Askerka to 10 days in jail on charges of using obscene language in public, Belapan reported the same day. Lyabedzka, Askerka and about 40 others were arrested on July 16 as they attempted to stage a protest outside the Russian Embassy in Minsk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). They intended to protest the Kremlin's support for President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and to display solidarity with political prisoners to mark a "Day of Solidarity," which the Belarusian opposition observes on the 16th day of every month. The protests were timed to coincide with Russia hosting the G8 summit in St. Petersburg from July 15-17. AM

Belarusian human rights defenders have urged the European Union and the United States to impose a travel ban on Alyaksey Rybakou, the Minsk District Court judge who recently sentenced former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin to 5 1/2 years in prison, Belapan reported on July 17. Human rights activists also demanded a travel ban for public prosecutor Syarhey Bortnik. "Judge Alyaksey Rybakou was apparently interested in the outcome of the trial, he executed someone's evil will and fulfilled the task assigned to him," Belapan quoted Ales Byalyatski, chairman of the Human Rights Center "Vyasna," as saying. "Rybakou failed to take steps to establish the truth in the case, as well as steps to prevent actions dishonoring Kazulin," Byalyatski added. AM

The pro-presidential Our Ukraine bloc announced on July 18 that it accepts the legitimacy of the "anti-crisis" coalition, international media reported. "We welcome the announcement of an anti-crisis coalition [led by the Party of the Regions] today in strict accordance with the constitution and [parliamentary] regulations," Our Ukraine lawmaker Anatoliy Kinakh was quoted as saying on Ukrainian television. "Proceeding from this fact, as of today the faction of the Our Ukraine political bloc is officially in a minority; that is, in opposition." The news announcement came as Ukraine's parliament convened for the first time since July 11, when proceedings were disrupted after the anti-crisis coalition comprising the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party was announced. Verkhovna Rada speaker Oleksandr Moroz claimed on July 17 that Our Ukraine was holding talks with the anti-crisis coalition on ways of possibly joining it, Interfax and "Ukrayinska pravda" reported. Our Ukraine denied that it was holding any such talks. AM

Yuliya Tymoshenko, head of the eponymous parliamentary caucus, announced on July 18 from the parliamentary rostrum that her bloc is prepared to give up seats in order to dissolve the parliament, "Ukrayinska pravda" website reported. Tymoshenko called on Our Ukraine to do the same. "There are two options to change situation in the parliament: either the president dissolves the parliament or 150 lawmakers vacate their seats, thus making the parliament illegitimate," Tymoshenko said. However, Verkhovna Rada speaker Moroz countered that such a move would not result in the dissolution of the parliament because "another 150 lawmakers will arrive courtesy of a decision by the Central Election Committee" replacing the lawmakers with others on the party list. Supporters of Tymoshenko and of the youth organization Pora attempted on July 18 to block access to the parliament building, but the effort failed to disrupt the proceedings. AM

Viktor Yanukovych, the leader of the Party of Regions, has said he objects to the possible dissolution of parliament, and hopes that President Viktor Yushchenko will endorse his bid for the premiership within 15 days, Interfax reported on July 17. Yanukovych also said he fully trusts Moroz, whose Socialist Party was part of the Orange coalition before abruptly switching sides and joining the anti-crisis coalition after Moroz was elected Verkhovna Rada speaker. "We have no doubts about him. He shares our point of view that the coalition should be expanded," Yanukovych said. AM

In a bid to restart suspended premembership talks with the European Union, Serbia on July 17 presented the EU with a "road map" to catch war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic, international news agencies reported. The six-point plan calls for a restructuring of the intelligence services, a media campaign to explain the need to capture Mladic to the public, and enhanced coordination between Serbia and the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Reuters reported. EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana said that the Serbian road map is similar to Croatia's six-point blueprint to apprehend fugitive war crimes suspect Ante Gotovina, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 8, 2005). "The plan provides a very good basis for future cooperation with the EU, but it has to be implemented immediately," Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja told reporters after a meeting with Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, dpa reported. Finland currently chairs the rotating EU Presidency. BW

A senior Kosovar official said on July 17 that the province will go to the next round of UN-sponsored talks not to negotiate but to demand full independence, Reuters reported the same day. "The Kosova delegation will go to Vienna, not to negotiate but once more to argue its case that full independence and sovereignty for our country based on the will of the the vital solution that must be confirmed," Skender Hyseni, adviser to Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu, said. The United Nations is trying to bring together the presidents and prime ministers of Serbia and Kosova for talks in Vienna on July 24 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). Those would be the highest-level talks between the two sides since NATO's 1999 bombing campaign drove Serbian forces out of Kosova. Serbia has yet to confirm its participation in the July 24 talks. BW

The War Crimes Chamber of Bosnia-Herzegovina's State Court on July 17 charged a former member of the Bosnian Serb government with war crimes, Reuters reported the same day. Momcilo Mandic served as deputy interior minister and justice minister in the wartime government of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. According to the indictment, Mandic led an attack by Bosnian Serb police, military, and paramilitary units against the Interior Ministry's training center in Sarajevo in April 1992. "The indictment further alleges that the accused, having the duties of justice minister...was exclusively responsible for the functioning of the correctional facilities in the Serb Republic between May and December 1992," the court said in a statement quoted by Reuters. The prisons, two near the Bosnian capital and one in the eastern town of Foca, were allegedly run as detention camps where many non-Serbs were illegally imprisoned. Mandic is already on trial for abuse of office, organized criminal activity, and aiding Karadzic. BW

The Appellate Division of Bosnia-Herzegovina's State Court announced on July 18 that it has overturned the embezzlement conviction of Ante Jelavic, a former Bosnian Croat member of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Presidency, and ordered a new trial, dpa reported. In October 2005, Jelavic was sentenced to 10 years in prison for the embezzlement of funds donated by the Croatian government in Zagreb to assist Bosnian Croats. He fled to Croatia shortly after he was sentenced (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 6 and 11, 2005). BW

Former Albanian Deputy Prime Minister Gramoz Pashko is missing and presumed dead after a helicopter he was in crashed in the Adriatic Sea on July 16, Reuters reported the next day. The helicopter was carrying Pashko, a central figure in Albania's 1990 revolution that toppled communism, to a hospital in Italy. Pashko was in a coma after having hit his head while diving off a rock into the sea in southern Albania on July 16. "At 2018 GMT, a minute after its last radio message, the helicopter disappeared from the radar screens," Albanian Interior Minister Sokol Olldashi told reporters. "We express our regret and feel for their families." A joint Italian-Albanian rescue effort has failed to locate any sign of survivors or wreckage so far, a senior government official told Reuters. BW

As the conflict initiated by Hizballah's seizure of two Israeli soldiers and killing of another eight in a cross-border raid on July 12 continues, many observers are voicing concern that other regional actors -- notably, Iran and Syria -- will be drawn into the conflict.

Iran has warned that it will respond if Israel attacks Syria. Realistically, however, Iran and Syria have been involved with this conflict from the outset because they are the main outside sponsors of Hizballah. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton alluded to this relationship on July 14 at the UN Security Council in New York. "No reckoning with Hizballah will be adequate without a reckoning with its principal state sponsors of terror," Bolton said.

Within hours of Israeli retaliation for the raid and commencement of efforts to recover its soldiers, Israeli officials began assigning some responsibility for the Hizballah attack to Iran. "There is an axis of terror and hate, created by Iran, Syria, Hizballah, and Hamas that wants to end any hope for peace," said Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry website.

Major General Udi Adam, chief of the Israeli Defense Forces' Northern Command, added: "Hizballah, which is a terror organization, operates from inside Lebanese soil with Iran's assistance and financial aid," Jerusalem's Channel 2 television reported. "Iran signed a defense treaty with Syria not too long ago, which is why they are all one single package."

"We know for a fact, and you know it too, that Iran supports these organizations," Adam asserted, while also assigning some blame to Lebanon's government.

Iranian reaction was not immediately forthcoming. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad had been touring East Azerbaijan Province for several days, where he gave several speeches excoriating Israel. "There are also some countries that claim to be democracies and supporters of freedom and human rights but which keep silent when this regime [Israel] bombs Lebanon in front of their eyes and slaughters people in their houses," Ahmadinejad said in Sarab on July 13, state television reported. "They keep silent and they support murderers with their silence." Countries that stay silent will be viewed as Israel's "accomplices," he said, and will be judged accordingly.

In Tehran the same day, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani and Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi condemned Israeli actions, IRNA reported.

As hostilities entered their second day on July 13, the Israeli Foreign Ministry voiced concern that its missing soldiers will be sent to Iran. "We also have specific information that Hizballah is planning to transfer the kidnapped soldiers to Iran," the ministry's statement said, according to the government's press office.

Although Iran has rejected the possibility that the Israelis will be transferred there, such speculation has historical echoes. Israeli airman Ron Arad, who was shot down over Lebanon in 1986, was reportedly sent to Iran. It is also believed that William Buckley, the Central Intelligence Agency's Beirut chief of station, who was taken hostage in 1984, was sent to Iran for interrogation. He was tortured to death.

The same July 13 Israeli government statement added that Iran is Hizballah's "main benefactor" and provides "funding, weapons, and directives."

"For all practical purposes, Hizballah is merely an arm of the Tehran jihadist regime," the Israeli government asserted. The statement argued that Iranian and Syrian support for groups like Hizballah, Hamas, and the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade is ideologically driven, but also serves as a diversion from other international issues.

Some Iranian connections with Hizballah and Hamas are well documented. Larijani was in Damascus on July 12 and, according to KUNA, he met with Hamas leader Khalid Mishaal and leading figures from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, and other groups. He was to meet with a Hizballah delegation, KUNA added, but the Lebanese could not come. Representatives from all these groups participated in a conference in Tehran in April, and they participated in similar events in Tehran in 2001 and 2002. Furthermore, they met with Ahmadinejad when he visited Damascus in January 2006, and they frequently meet with Iranian officials in the Syrian capital and travel to Iran.

Tehran has never tried to hide its support for these groups, which it views as legitimate resistance movements, and it has taken the lead in trying to raise funds for the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

Among all these groups, Tehran's relationship with Hizballah is the closest. Iranian officials had a leading role in the creation of Hizballah in the early 1980s, and the organization's ideology is based on the Iranian theocratic system of Vilayat-i Faqih. Although it has never renounced its platform of creating an Islamist government similar to Iran's, Hizballah now operates within the Lebanese political system, with its members running for office and serving in the cabinet and the legislature.

A visitor to the Hizballah press office in southern Beirut will see pictures of the founder of Iran's Islamic republic, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and of the country's current supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Travelers in other predominantly Shi'ite parts of Lebanon will note the numerous posters of these Iranian clerics as well. Hizballah hospitals and schools continue to receive funds from Iran's Martyrs' Foundation.

The U.S. government, which classifies Hizballah as a terrorist organization, has asserted that Iran provides Hizballah with funding and weapons. Press reports from September 2002 note U.S. claims that Iran provided surface-to-surface rockets to Hizballah, and there are repeated allegations that Tehran provides Hizballah with millions of dollars annually. Tehran dismisses such accusations, saying it supports Hizballah only with moral and political backing.

Hizballah has repeatedly denied, furthermore, that it is directed by the Iranian government. Most recently, on July 15, Mahmud Qamati, deputy chairman of the Hizballah Political Council, told Al-Jazeera: "We would like to confirm today that the Iranians or Syrians have nothing at all to do with the actions of the resistance in Lebanon, or with the confrontation of the Israeli aggression." He said such allegations are meant to pressure the two countries to force Hizballah to disarm, as called for by UN Security Council Resolution 1559.

Israeli sources claimed on July 15 that an Iranian C802 shore-to-ship missile that was operated by Iranians struck an Israeli navy vessel off the Lebanese coast. The Iranian Embassy in Beirut denied on the same day that any of the country's military personnel are in Lebanon, Al-Alam television and the Lebanese National News Agency reported. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi denied on July 16 that Iranian missiles were used.

Iran's support for Hizballah on Lebanon concerns the international community. A UN report in April said the cooperation of Iran and Syria is needed to bring about the disarmament of all Lebanese militias, and it referred to Hizballah as "the most significant Lebanese militia." The subsequent Security Council Resolution 1680, which was issued in May, cited Syria's negative influence on Lebanese affairs and indirectly referred to Iranian influence.

The relationship between Tehran and Damascus has grown warmer in recent years, as both Iran and Syria face increasing international pressure. The two countries have signed military agreements, and their chief executives have exchanged visits.

Ahmadinejad telephoned President Bashar al-Assad on July 13 and declared that an attack on Syria would be an attack on the Islamic world and would elicit a response, Hizballah's Al-Manar television, Iranian state radio, and SANA reported.

Iranian Friday Prayer leaders' sermons, the content of which is determined in Tehran by the 10-member executive board of the Central Secretariat of the Central Council of Friday Prayer Leaders, has echoed this theme, as well as support for Hizballah. In Tehran, Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani encouraged Muslims to back Hamas and Hizballah, the actions of which he described as "self-defense," state radio reported. In the southern city of Ahvaz, Ayatollah Musavi-Jazayeri said Hizballah has "smashed the myth of [Israeli] invincibility," and he described Hizballah's actions as "a source of pride for the world of Islam," provincial television reported.

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in Tehran on July 16 that the most recent events in Lebanon and the Palestine territories prove that "the presence of the Zionists in the region is a satanic and cancerous presence and an infected tumor for the entire world of Islam," state television reported.

Neo-Taliban guerillas have overrun two towns in southern Afghanistan, Afghan officials said on July 17, AP reported. On July 16, an unknown number of neo-Taliban fighters swept into Garmser, a town on Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, according to local authorities. Then, on July 17, a band of neo-Taliban fighters appeared in Naway-e Barakzayi, a town north of Garmser, and fought off local police. Afghan authorities speaking on condition of anonymity said insurgents were moving freely in at least the Garmser area after forcing local police to flee. U.S.-coalition forces confirmed insurgent activity in the area but stopped short of saying neo-Taliban forces controlled any towns. "We have heard reports of two districts in southern Helmand being under the control of the Taliban, and we are in contact with lots of people to build an accurate picture," said coalition spokesman Major Scott Lundy. MR

UN officials said on July 17 that the Afghan government is about to appeal for drought aid, AP reported. "The north and northwest have been directly affected by drought and poor wheat harvests," said Serge Verniau, the country representative for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. "The government will launch shortly an appeal campaign for the drought in order to respond appropriately in all the affected areas." Abdul Rahim Zarin, a spokesman for the Afghan Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development, confirmed that the government in Kabul will seek international aid later this week. The World Food Program says 2.5 million people are at risk from drought in Afghanistan, where infrequent rains often lead to drought conditions. MR

Afghan parliamentarians have accused U.S.-led coalition forces of making illegal arrests in northern Afghanistan, AFP reported on July 17. Lawmakers from the region said coalition forces arrested people in northern Afghanistan without consent of the central government in Kabul. Most of the accusations stem from a coalition raid in June, when a former Soviet resistance commander was arrested in Balkh Province. Coalition forces seized Akhtar Mohammad Amarkhail, a prominent fighter, at his house in the Chahar Bolak district during a nighttime raid, according to lawmakers from the areas. Authorities questioned Amarkhail for few days in Kabul but then released him. "The coalition does not have the right to enter people's houses without the presence and knowledge of government forces, police, or army," said Balkh area lawmaker Alam Khan Azadi. "They need to conduct their operations with the consultation of provincial authorities." There have been earlier complaints that coalition raids that went forward with no apparent involvement from the central government. MR

Afghan police are destroying 3,000 cans of beer and 630 bottles of wine and liquor, AFP reported on July 17. A recent crackdown targeted guesthouses where alcohol is often available despite laws banning it across the country. In Afghanistan, Westerners are allowed to buy alcohol but locals are not. Still, some Afghans are nonetheless able to purchase it. Last month Afghan authorities destroyed some 15,000 bottles of alcohol. MR

Manuchehr Mottaki arrived in Damascus on July 17, Iran's Arabic-language television station Al-Alam reported from Iran and the Hizballah television station Al-Manar reported from Lebanon. Mottaki and Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shar'a condemned Israeli activities in Lebanon and Palestine, and they expressed solidarity with the Lebanese and Palestinian "resistance," Syrian state news agency SANA reported. They called for a united Arab and Islamic stance on these issues. Mottaki called for a cease-fire and a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hizballah. BS

The Tehran Revolutionary Court sentenced attorney Abdolfattah Soltani to five years in prison and also barred him from practicing as a lawyer or holding public office for an additional five years, ILNA reported. Soltani was the attorney for several people accused of spying on the Iranian nuclear program, and he was imprisoned for seven months before being released in March. Soltani told ILNA he was acquitted of espionage but found guilty of revealing classified documents and of antigovernment propaganda. BS

The Tehran Penal Court initially sentenced Abdul Rasul Vesal, the former editor of "Iran" newspaper, to four months in prison for the publication of an offensive cartoon and fined him another 2 million rials ($225) for publishing false information, reported on July 17. However, ILNA reported on July 17 that payment of the fine was in lieu of the prison sentence. The cartoon allegedly insulted teachers, "Sharq" reported on July 5. BS

Murat Karayilan, a top official of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), suffered a leg wound in an Iranian artillery barrage in northern Iraq in late June, NTV reported from Istanbul on July 15. Karayilan and other wounded PKK members were treated at a hospital near Baghdad. The Iranian and Turkish armed forces have been cooperating on operations against the PKK and affiliated organizations for several months. BS

A car bomb killed some 59 laborers in the Shi'ite holy city of Al-Kufah on July 18, international media reported. More than 130 people were wounded in the attack, which occurred when the bomber reportedly lured day laborers into his minibus with the promise of jobs. The bus detonated as it pulled away from a crowded marketplace. Reuters reported that following the bombing a demonstration broke out against police. It appeared to be led by supporters of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Al-Najaf Governor Asad Abu Kalal blamed the attack on the "criminal Ba'athists and terrorists of Al-Mahmudiyah," referring to an attack on July 17 on a town south of Baghdad in which 100 people were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). In other violence, Al-Sadr militiamen clashed with British troops in Al-Basrah overnight, a British military spokesman said. Captain Tane Dunlot said British troops were attacked during a search operation that resulted in the discovery of more than 2 tons of weapons and explosives. Three people were arrested in the raid. No British troops were injured in the ensuing attack, which left one member of the Al-Mahdi Army militia dead and another five wounded. KR

Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani called the Israeli military offensive against Lebanese Hizballah a "flagrant aggression," and called for international intervention to end the conflict in a statement posted to his website on July 17. "This outrageous oppression is taking place under the watch of the entire world, which is turning a blind eye," the statement said. Al-Sistani also called on foreign states to secure humanitarian aid for the wounded and displaced. "The representatives of the religious authority in Lebanon and believers in general should do their utmost in this regard," the statement said. In an apparent comment on U.S. policy, he added: "The grievances of the peoples in the region, including the Lebanese people, would increase the peoples' feeling of resentment and anger at the international policies that approve of what is taking place or turn a blind eye to it. This will consequently step up tension and violence and impede the achievement of security and peace in the entire region." KR

Turkish Justice Minister Cemil Cicek said the Turkish government expects the Iraqi government and the United States to take concrete steps to wipe out the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in northern Iraq, the Anatolia news agency reported on July 17. Cicek said the parties involved must understand Turkey's resolve in destroying the PKK, which it considers a terrorist group, adding that Turkey "will take appropriate steps decisively and with firmness" to achieve that goal. "We expect support, sincerity, and cooperation from all governments that acknowledge that the PKK is a terrorist organization," he noted, referring to the United States and Iraq. Istanbul-based NTV television reported on July 18 that the government has issued a directive to the Turkish General Staff to plan and prepare for a possible cross-border operation into Iraqi Kurdistan. The news channel reported that the operation will be launched if there is no response from the United States and Iraq. KR

Japan completed the withdrawal of its 600 soldiers from Iraq on July 17, Japanese media reported the same day. The pullout took 11 days to complete, Kyodo World Service reported. The head of the Japanese Defense Agency, Fukushiro Nukaga, told reporters in Kuwait City on July 18 that Japan will help to find new jobs for some 150 Iraqis who worked for the Japanese troops in Samawah. He also pledged to help ensure that locals who worked on Japanese-sponsored reconstruction projects keep their jobs by working on projects financed by Japanese foreign aid, the news agency reported. KR

The European Commission has appointed Ilkka Uusitalo, a Finn, to head its newly established delegation in Iraq, the commission announced in a July 17 press release. Uusitalo previously served as head of the commission's delegation to Pakistan. External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner called the appointment a "major milestone in the development of EU relations with Iraq." She added that Uusitalo will take part in the "Iraq Compact," an apparent reference to the upcoming national-reconciliation conference in Baghdad. The press release noted that the European Commission has contributed 720 million euros ($903 million) toward the reconstruction of Iraq since 2003. KR