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Newsline - July 19, 2006

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement on July 18 that Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Saltanov will leave for the Middle East on July 19 to seek an end to the violence in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, and RIA Novosti reported. Saltanov will also promote the idea of sending a UN peacekeeping force to southern Lebanon, as suggested by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Annan said in Brussels on July 18 that he expects "contributions from European countries and countries from other regions" to the force, which will be larger and better-armed that the current 2,000-strong UN contingent in Lebanon, Reuters reported. It is not clear which countries Saltanov, who is a senior envoy to the region, will visit. The latest crisis in the Middle East overshadowed the St. Petersburg summit of the Group of Eight (G8) leading industrialized countries from July 15-17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17 and 18, 2006). PM

The office of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki responded in a statement on July 18 to President Vladimir Putin's recent "sarcastic remark" at the G8 summit about Iraqi democracy, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). The statement said that "the government of Iraq was astonished by the remarks, [which] ignore the sacrifice and unique courage shown by the Iraqis who turned out in large numbers to exercise their right to vote." The document added that "we would like to remind Mr. Putin that change in Iraq does not appeal to some in the region. Unfortunately, there are those who support terrorism, which threatens this unique [democratic] experience." PM

Cherie Blair, the wife of British Prime Minister Tony Blair and a human rights lawyer by profession, irked the Kremlin on July 17 by offering to help Russian human rights activists challenge new legislation on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in the European Court of Human Rights, RFE/RL reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12, 17, and 18, 2006). Russian NGOs had long planned the meeting with Cherie Blair, which had the approval of the British prime minister's office. She told activists from some 12 prominent NGOs that she wanted to learn more about their plight and to honor the work they carried out. She added that she wanted to familiarize herself with the text of the legislation and that, if necessary, she was prepared to help activists pursue cases in the European Court of Human Rights. "The Moscow Times" on July 19 quoted several Russian NGO officials as saying that they nonetheless doubt whether expressions of support from foreign leaders at the summit will lead to a change in the NGO legislation. PM

Nikolai Patrushev, who heads the Federal Security Service (FSB) and the new National Antiterrorist Committee, said in Moscow on July 18 that his forces foiled an attempt by unspecified terrorists to disrupt the G8 summit the previous weekend, RIA Novosti reported. "The plans and objectives hatched by terrorist leaders and extremist organizations to thwart the summit in St. Petersburg were uncovered and prevented," he noted. He added that security forces were on high alert both in the St. Petersburg area and in the North Caucasus. Patrushev did not elaborate, but "Nezavisimaya gazeta" suggested on July 19 that the cruiser "Aurora," which is anchored in St. Petersburg and whose guns provided the signal for the Bolshevik coup in 1917, might have been a terrorist target. PM

As part of the extensive commentary in the Russian media on the G8 summit, the state-run daily newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" wrote on July 19 that its panel of experts has concluded that the gathering improved Russia's standing in foreigners' eyes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17 and 18, 2006). "Izvestia," which is owned by Gazprom, noted on July 19 that President Putin plans to reward the summit organizers for helping to bring so much favorable attention to Russia. The daily also quoted Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, as saying that the summit brought Russia better coverage abroad than it would have received from hosting the Olympics or the world soccer championship. On July 18, concluded that the summit set a G8 record for producing documents and statements but did not meet anyone's expectations for a real breakthrough on any number of issues, including resolving differences over energy-related questions. The website noted nonetheless that neither Putin nor the summit organizers could have prevented the crisis in the Middle East from overshadowing the discussions. The Moscow daily "Kommersant" wrote on July 19 that the gathering was a "summit of three blind mice," by which it meant that the participants were unable to take control of the energy-stability issue. The daily also noted that Russia, as a major oil and gas producer, has a vested interest in the price of hydrocarbons remaining high, whereas the other G8 member states stand to lose unless prices drop and stabilize. PM

The Russian Expo Arms 2006 was held in Nizhny Tagil in Sverdlovsk Oblast from July 11-15, RFE/RL and RIA Novosti reported (see "Russia: Arms Industry Gathers Steam, But For How Long?", July 14, 2006). About 660 people representing 250 Russian and foreign firms took part in the biannual exhibition at a time of increasing Russian arms sales both at home and abroad. India and China continue to account for about 80 percent of Russia's arms exports, but Moscow has sought to expand its markets in Latin America and the Middle East. Many experts in Russia and abroad, including Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, have questioned whether Russia's arms industry is competitive in the long term. Some experts noted that certain customers, like Venezuela and Syria, buy from Russia because they have nowhere else to turn. PM

A London High Court judge refused on July 18 to grant a judicial review or injunction on behalf of the embattled Russian oil company Yukos regarding the initial public offering (IPO) of Rosneft on the London Stock Exchange, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on July 19 (see "Russia: Rosneft's Successful Gamble,", July 13, 2006). The decision enabled Rosneft shares to begin unconditional trading in London as well as Moscow on July 19. Yukos challenged the IPO on the grounds that 70 percent of Rosneft's value came from the forced sale of Yukos' core assets and that the flotation is tantamount to money laundering under U.K. law, RIA Novosti reported. PM

Malaysia's state-run oil company Petronas has bought a total of $1.1 billion in Rosneft shares in the $10.4 billion IPO that began on July 14, Malaysia's "The Straits Times" reported on July 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7, 2006). The daily quoted Malaysian experts as saying that the investment will enable Petronas to enter the Russian market with its various products and services. Petronas and the China National Petroleum Corporation together have bought about one-quarter of the shares in the IPO. PM

Addressing a Security Council session on July 18, President Khazret Sovmen called for an all-out campaign to eradicate bribery, tax evasion, extortion, and other forms of economic crime, according to Noting that such practices deter badly needed investment, Sovmen ordered law enforcement agencies to take more effective measures to eradicate them. LF

The editors of eight leading newspapers, together with the heads of several NGOs, released a joint statement on July 18 expressing their concern at growing pressure brought to bear on journalists who criticize the Armenian authorities, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. They cited specifically the arrest last month of Arman Babadjanian, editor of the independent twice-weekly "Zhamanak Yerevan" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27 and 28 and July 3, 7, and 13, 2006). Yerevan Press Club head Boris Navasardian deplored the Armenian authorities' failure to respond to instances of violence against journalists. LF

National Democratic Union Chairman and former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian told journalists on July 18 in Yerevan that he considers the basic principles for resolving the Karabakh conflict currently under discussion more advantageous than the peace proposal unveiled by the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairs in late 1997, Noyan Tapan reported. Manukian argued that the more recent principles provide for Armenian control over Kelbacar as well as Lachin (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," June 30, 2006). However, Manukian also said he doubts that Armenian President Robert Kocharian will sign the framework document. Manukian said that there is no point in resuming negotiations on a settlement unless Azerbaijan waives any claim on the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. LF

The Georgian parliament voted on July 18 to demand that the Georgian government take immediate measures to secure the withdrawal from the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflict zones of the Russian peacekeeping forces currently deployed there and their replacement by an international contingent, Georgian and Russian media reported. That demand stems from a resolution passed nine months ago setting deadlines for two Russian peacekeeping contingents to improve their respective track records in protecting the Georgian population of South Ossetia and of Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 12, 2005). Addressing the OSCE Permanent Council in Vienna in February, shortly before the Georgian parliament assessed the activities of the Russian peacekeeping force in South Ossetia as inadequate, U.S. Ambassador Julie Finley noted that demanding the Russians' withdrawal before a substitute force is available to replace them could destabilize the situation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9 and 16, 2006 and End Note below). LF

Presidential spokesman Christian Bzhania told in Sukhum (Sukhumi) on July 18 that Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, considers the Georgian parliament's demand for the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers from the conflict zone "the most destructive political decision during the entire peace process." Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba said the resolution "demonstrates who is it that is destabilizing the situation in the region," while parliament speaker Nugzar Ashuba described the Russian peacekeepers as "the guarantors of peace and stability," reported on July 18. In the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, President Eduard Kokoity said the Russian peacekeeping forces should remain until a political solution to the conflict with Tbilisi is reached, and he expressed concern that the Georgian leadership is preparing a new assault on South Ossetia, Civil Georgia reported. LF

Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev said in Riga on July 18 that Kazakhstan wants to take part in the privatization of Latvian ports and acquire a stake in a Latvian oil shipping company, LETA and Interfax reported. Nazarbaev said that Kazakhstan is primarily interested in the Ventspils port and a majority stake in Ventspils Nafta, LETA reported. In the course of his visit to Latvia, Nazarbaev met with President Vaira Vike-Freiberga and Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis. Their talks focused on bilateral trade ties and Kazakhstan's interest in oil exports to Europe via Latvian ports. Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on July 18 that Kazakhstan's Bank Caspian will invest $60 million in the construction of the Astana Towers hotel complex in Riga. DK

In a meeting with National Security Service (SNB) head Busurmankul Tabaldiev in Bishkek on July 17, President Kurmanbek Bakiev urged him to keep up the pressure on extremist and terrorist organizations, reported. Tabaldiev reported to Bakiev on a recent operation in which SNB officers killed five suspected members of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in Jalalabad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). Tabaldiev said that planning for the operation began after a cross-border incursion by suspected militants on May 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2006). Bakiev noted that he recently spoke by telephone with Uzbek President Islam Karimov and the two agreed to step up cooperation between the two countries' law-enforcement agencies to combat threats. DK

Prosecutors asked a court in Dushanbe on July 17 to sentence former Drug Control Agency head Ghaffor Mirzoev to death, Asia Plus-Blitz reported the next day, citing defense lawyer Abduqayum Yusufov. Yusufov said that the defense will present closing arguments on July 20 and it plans to insist on a verdict of not guilty. Mirzoev, who was arrested in August 2004 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 9, 2004), faces charges that include embezzlement and attempting to mount a coup. DK

In an open letter on July 18, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Reporters without Borders, and a number of other rights groups urged the Turkmen government to ensure the unconditional release of Amankurban Amanklychev, Ogulsapar Muradova, and Sapardurdy Khajiev. The three are associated with the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation, and Muradova is a freelance RFE/RL correspondent. They were arrested in June amid allegations of espionage (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20 and 21, 2006). The letter noted "credible allegations that the detainees have been ill-treated in custody," the detainees' denial of access to legal representation, and indications that the three "are being detained not for violations of the law but in retribution for their peaceful and legal human rights work." The other signatories were the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Donetsk Memorial, the International Helsinki Federation, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, the Turkmenistan Helsinki Foundation, and the Turkmenistan Initiative. DK

Javier Solana, the EU's high representative for common foreign and security policy, on July 18 denounced the 5 1/2-year prison sentence imposed on former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin as politically motivated, Belapan reported the same day. "Kazulin was arrested during a peaceful demonstration, exercising his democratic rights," Solana said in calling on the Belarusian authorities to overturn the verdict and free all other political prisoners. Solana said the EU is "open to developing relations with Belarus," but added that doing so "requires specific steps toward democratization and respect for human rights." Ukraine has also backed the EU's statement condemning Kazulin's conviction, according to "Ukrayinska pravda" on July 19. AM

The Verkhovna Rada adopted a resolution on July 18 that distributes parliamentary committees among caucuses, Interfax reported. According to the resolution, which received 285 votes in favor, the Party of Regions will head eight committees; the Socialist Party, three; the Communist Party, three; the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, seven; and Our Ukraine, five. One committee -- for economic policy -- is to be headed by Our Ukraine lawmaker Volodymyr Zaplatynski, who has joined the "anti-crisis" coalition made up of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party. AM

Adam Martynyuk, the first deputy speaker of the Verkhovna Rada, said on July 18 that the anti-crisis coalition intends to select Constitutional Court members as soon as possible in order to challenge a possible dissolution of parliament, Interfax reported. Martynyuk said he sees no grounds for such a dissolution, but "we will manage to form the Constitutional Court by the time the president proposes the dissolution of parliament. The court will decide whether the steps by the president are legal or not." Martynyuk also announced that Communist Party leader Petro Symonenko "reached an agreement with the Russian government that it would receive our delegation and hold negotiations, including on gas." AM

Yuliya Tymoshenko, the head of the eponymous bloc in the Ukrainian parliament, told "Ukrayinska pravda" on July 18 that her bloc does not intend to stage acts of civil disobedience similar to those that accompanied the Orange Revolution at the end of 2004. "When we had presidential elections [in 2004] people already rallied once and gave a message, but later politicians did not act quite right with regard to these people," Tymoshenko said, adding that the public is now well-informed about the actions of politicians and the situation. "Dissolution [of the parliament] is necessary and remains possible," Tymoshenko said. AM

War crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic was hiding in a series of apartments in Belgrade from June 2002 until January 2005, dpa reported on July 19, citing the daily "Politika." The "Politika" report, published on July 19, cites an indictment issued on July 14 against 10 alleged Mladic accomplices (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). According to the indictment, the group kept Mladic hidden in at least five apartments in the Novi Beograd section of the Serbian capital, paid his rent, and brought him food. According to "Politika," the key figure in the effort to hide Mladic was his former security chief, Jovo Djogo. BW

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso urged Serbia on July 18 to follow through with a proposed plan to capture Mladic, dpa reported the same day. Serbia presented the blueprint to the EU on July 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 18, 2006). The plan calls for a restructuring of the Serbian intelligence services, a media campaign to explain the need to capture Mladic to the public, and enhanced coordination between Belgrade and the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. "Let's hope that not only a plan was presented but also that results will be achieved," Barroso told reporters after meeting with Serbian President Boris Tadic. "The question is: If a plan was necessary to deliver Mladic, why...was it not done before?" BW

Boris Tadic said on July 18 that he wants to hear details about proposed high-level talks with Kosovar officials before making a decision about whether or not to attend, Reuters reported the same day. UN envoy and former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari proposed that direct talks involving the presidents and prime ministers of Serbia and Kosova be held in Vienna on July 24. Kosova has already indicated that it will participate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17 and 18, 2006). Tadic said he was waiting for details of what exactly will be on the table in Vienna. "After that we are going to decide. We are ready to participate, but we need some conditions on those talks," Tadic said at a news briefing during a visit to Brussels. "An independent going to be a problem for regional stability, not only for the Balkans but for other regions in the world." The talks, if they take place, would be the highest-level meeting between Serbian and Kosovar Albanian officials since the 1999 NATO bombing campaign drove Serbian forces out of Kosova. BW

The nationalist Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO-DPMNE) announced on July 17 that it has secured a parliamentary majority through a deal with the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSH), Reuters reported the same day. The VMRO-DPMNE won 44 seats in the 120-seat parliament in Macedonia's July 5 elections, ousting Prime Minister Vlado Buckovski's Social Democratic Union (SDSM) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7, 2006). It said it has agreed on a coalition deal with PDSH and three smaller parties that will give it a total of 64 seats. PDSH and VMRO-DPMNE governed Macedonia together from 1998-2002, but were voted out of power following a six-month ethnic Albanian insurgency in 2001. Since losing power, the VMRO-DPMNE has tried to discard its nationalist image and repackage itself as a conservative party focusing on jobs and economic growth. BW

European Union foreign ministers pledged on July 17 to continue supporting Macedonia's EU aspirations for membership, but also called on Skopje to accelerate reforms, dpa reported the same day. In a statement, the ministers said that Macedonia's newly elected government must "work resolutely" on the European reform agenda. The statement added that although the country's July 5 elections were conducted in a "generally peaceful" and democratic way, shortcomings such as violent incidents early in the campaign need to be investigated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27 and 28, 2006). The EU accepted Macedonia as a candidate in December 2005, but said the country needs to carry out extensive police, judicial, and administrative reforms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2005). BW

Moldovan parliament speaker Marian Lupu said on July 18 that Russian troops must withdraw from separatist Transdniester before a settlement can be reached for the region, Interfax reported the same day. Speaking at a conference titled "The Resolution of Frozen Conflicts" in Chisinau, Lupu said Transdniester can only be democratized after Russian troops leave, the region is demilitarized and impediments to free and fair elections are eliminated. Lupu said it will be impossible to hold elections or referendums in Transdniester before these conditions are met. Transdniester's legislature voted unanimously on July 12 to hold an independence referendum in September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). BW

The Georgian parliament passed on July 18 by 144 votes (of a total of 235, and in the absence of opposition deputies) a resolution calling on the government to take immediate measures to expedite the withdrawal from South Ossetia and Abkhazia of the Russian peacekeeping contingents that have been deployed there since 1992 and 1994 respectively.

At the same time, it tasks the government with securing pledges from the international community to deploy alternative, international peacekeeping contingents and with convincing world public opinion of Tbilisi's continuing commitment to resolving its conflicts with Abkhazia and South Ossetia by exclusively peaceful means. On that level, the resolution could be construed as proposing that the Georgian government pass the buck and abdicate to an already overstretched international community responsibility for protecting the lives of its own citizens.

Russian politicians, including Konstantin Kosachyov, chairman of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, were swift to point out that the parliament resolution is not legally binding. Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili for his part told journalists on July 18 after the vote that the Georgian leadership will decide on its further steps only after his expected meeting later this week with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin in Moscow.

Nonetheless, the July 18 resolution, which is the logical culmination of an ultimatum the parliament issued to the Russian peacekeepers in October 2005, will inevitably exacerbate the already tense relations between Tbilisi and Moscow. The Russian Foreign Ministry, in a statement posted to its website on July 18, termed the resolution "a provocative step directed at fuelling tension, undermining the existing format for negotiations, and demolishing the legal foundations for resolving the Georgian-Abkhaz and Georgian-Ossetian conflicts peacefully."

The leaders of the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia will almost certainly construe the Georgian parliament's demands as evidence that the successive draft peace proposals unveiled over the past two years by the Georgian leadership are not worth the paper on which they are written. The resolution is also likely to fuel fears in South Ossetia that a new Georgian offensive may be imminent with the aim of bringing that breakaway region back under the control of the central Georgian government.

On October 11, the Georgian parliament approved a resolution setting deadlines of February 10, 2006, and June 15, 2006, respectively, for the Russian peacekeeping forces deployed in the South Ossetian and Abkhaz conflict zones to demonstrate they are complying with the terms of their respective mandates. That earlier resolution warned that in the event that the Russian peacekeepers continued to turn a blind eye to killings, abductions, smuggling, and other crimes, the Georgian parliament would insist on their withdrawal and replacement by an international peacekeeping force.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov immediately dismissed the October resolution as politically rather than militarily motivated. Lavrov argued that it would be more appropriate to try to rebuild trust between Georgia and the leaders of its breakaway republics, and he stressed that Russia was trying, together with the OSCE and the UN, to promote a political settlement of the two conflicts.

There are marked differences between the two peacekeeping operations. The 500 Russian peacekeepers in South Ossetia are part of a force that also includes equal numbers of Georgian and Ossetian servicemen. That force was deployed in 1992 following the signing of an agreement between the then leaders of Georgia and Russia, Eduard Shevardnadze and Boris Yeltsin, that ended two years of sporadic low-level hostilities between informal Georgian and South Ossetian militias. The different national contingents patrol the conflict zone separately, however, hence the Georgian perception that the Russians selectively extend protection to Ossetian civilians and to Ossetian criminal clans engaged in smuggling, while ignoring Ossetian reprisals against the unrecognized republic's minority Georgian population.

From that angle, the question arises why, if Georgia's overriding concern is the security of the Georgian population of South Ossetia, rather than simply scoring political points, the Georgian authorities have not long ago raised with the OSCE the possibility of introducing mixed-nationality patrols? There is a recent precedent for doing so: following the fall of Grozny to the Chechen resistance forces in August 1996, Russian military police and Chechen militants patrolled the city jointly.

Whether Georgia is legally empowered unilaterally to demand the withdrawal of the Russian peacekeepers from South Ossetia is a matter of debate. In the event that Moscow agreed to their withdrawal, it should not prove too difficult for the international community to find a contingent of 500 men to replace them. Such acquiescence is, however, unlikely, given that up to 90 percent of the South Ossetian population have acquired Russian passports, and thus are entitled to Russian "protection."

In Abkhazia, by contrast, the Russian peacekeeping force is far larger (1,600 men), and is not complemented by contingents from any other country. (Ukraine has offered to send peacekeepers to Abkhazia under the aegis of the UN, but not of the CIS.) Even though UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's outgoing special representative for Abkhazia, Ambassador Heidi Tagliavini, last month lauded the Russian presence, together with that of the unarmed UN Observer Mission in Georgia, as "the sole deterrent to prevent the situation spiraling out of control," Tbilisi repeatedly accuses the Russian peacekeepers of conniving with Abkhaz criminal gangs and of failing to protect Georgians who have returned to the homes in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion from which they fled during the fighting of 1992-93.

There is, moreover, a domestic political component to the Georgian parliament's ultimatum. The Georgian parliament has traditionally adopted a far more hostile and aggressive attitude toward Russia than has the executive branch, calling periodically for the closure of the Russian military bases in Georgia (now under way), or for Georgia's withdrawal from the CIS. Former President Shevardnadze traditionally played "good cop" to the legislature's "bad cop," seeking to reassure Moscow. But Shevardnadze's successor Saakashvili has sent mixed signals, alternately seeking to reassure Russia's leaders of his desire for "normal, friendly " relations and warning that his country is not to be intimidated.

As for the leaders of the two unrecognized republics, the Abkhaz have repeatedly warned that they will not agree to the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal, which they claim Georgia only seeks in order to facilitate a new war. Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh warned last month that if the Russian forces do leave, the Abkhaz will mine, and deploy their armed forces along, the border separating Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia. And in recent days, NGOs in several North Caucasus republics have declared their readiness to send armed volunteers to fight alongside the Abkhaz -- as they did in 1992 -- in the event of a new Georgian offensive.

Abkhazia, however, appears less vulnerable at this juncture than does South Ossetia, in light of repeated vows by Georgian Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili, who was born in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, to bring the breakaway republic back under Tbilisi's control by the end of this year. An offensive in August 2004 by Okruashvili, then interior minister, intended to accomplish precisely that ended in failure, with up to two dozen Georgian Interior Ministry troops killed. Whether the Georgian battalions that have undergone U.S. training in the meantime will prove more effective remains to be seen.

Any Georgian aggression would, however, almost certainly trigger a military response by Russia. That may be why Saakashvili wants to defer an official response to the parliament's demand until after his talks with President Putin later this week, presumably in the hope of wresting from Putin some major concession (such as lifting the ban imposed in March on the import of Georgian wine into Russia) that he could then brandish before the parliament. Should Putin prove unyielding, however, Saakashvili is likely to find himself under increasing pressure from both parliament and a military eager to demonstrate its enhanced combat ability.

Afghan and U.S.-led coalition forces have retaken the town of Garmser in southern Helmand Province, which neo-Taliban insurgents captured on July 16, AP reported on July 19. The operation follows the retaking of nearby Naway-e Barakzayi on July 18. Before retreating from Naway-e Barakzayi, neo-Taliban fighters torched several buildings in the town, including a police compound. "The Afghan flag has been raised back over the compound," Helmand Deputy Governor Amir Mohammad Akhunzada said. MR

Neo-Taliban fighters said July 18 that they will step up guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings, promising to capture southern Afghanistan, AFP reported. "During these operations which will begin today or tomorrow, we'll take most of the districts in southern and south-central Afghanistan," Mohammad Hanif, who claims to speak for the neo-Taliban, said during a phone interview. Hanif said a coming neo-Taliban offensive will bring "lots" of suicide attacks in addition to roadside bombs and ambushes of coalition targets. "We will increase our attacks. We will carry out lots of suicide attacks, we will carry out bombings, and we will engage the infidel troops in guerrilla battles," he said. MR

Pakistani authorities on July 18 said they have arrested 140 Afghans in a sweep in the southwestern province of Baluchistan that netted a top neo-Taliban commander, AFP reported. A former Taliban official, Mullah Hamdullah, was arrested on July 17 during a raid on a house in Quetta, according to local police. "We are questioning Hamdullah about the activities he had been carrying out in Pakistan and his linkages with other terrorist groups," Baluchistan police chief Chaudhry Mohammad Yaqub said. Yaqub said the others arrested in raids over the past 48 hours will be sent back to Afghanistan after being investigated. "We will arrest Afghans entering illegally into Pakistan and the Afghan refugees would be confined to their camps, as investigators have found involvement of Afghans in three bomb blasts in the city," he said. Afghanistan routinely accuses Pakistan of doing too little to rein in militants operating in Pakistan. MR

Some 4,000 Afghans have fled southern parts of the country where fighting continues to worsen, an official with the International Organization for Migration (IOM) said on July 18, AP reported. IOM spokeswoman Rahilla Zafar said many of the displaced Afghans are staying with relatives in Kandahar Province, though some are without shelter. "We are working with the PRTs [Provincial Reconstruction Teams] to try to locate as many of the displaced people as possible and provide them with tents and food items," Zafar said. According to Zafar, large numbers of displaced people are also on the move into Zabul Province. MR

Senior officials, political activists, students, and members of the public participated in a July 18 rally in Tehran against Israeli activities in Palestine and Lebanon, IRNA reported. Parliamentarian Hussein Muzaffar read out a statement from the legislature in which Israeli activities were denounced as "brutal aggression" and "savagery," IRNA reported. The statement criticized the U.S. for vetoing an anti-Israeli resolution in the UN Security Council. Ali Zoham, the Hizballah envoy in Tehran, also spoke at the rally, Fars News Agency reported. "We are now fighting with the worst creatures of God," he said. The conflict is not about the Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hizballah on June 12, Zoham said, "Rather, this is an idealistic, ideological, and cultural war -- the war of Islam with blasphemy." Zoham said Hizballah is willing to fight for another century, until it "demolish[es] the Israeli regime exactly the same way that we destroyed the Israeli townships, settlements, and navigation fleet." BS

In Mashhad, Brigadier-General Mohammad Hejazi, commander of the Basij Resistance Force, said on July 18, "Today, we can hear the crushing of the Zionist regime's bones," ISNA reported. He added that the Islamic community is praying for victory on the part of young Palestinians and Lebanese. Hejazi denied that Iranians are involved in the fighting in Lebanon, and said such accusations stem from Israeli embarrassment. Hejazi criticized Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, who claim they are fighting the occupiers of Iraq and Afghanistan and are not involved with events in Lebanon and Palestine. The failure of Taliban and Al-Qaeda to act, he continued, "shows that these groups were created by America and that they are still influenced by Western and Zionist power." BS

Government spokesman Gholam-Hussein Elham said on July 18 that the international proposal submitted to Iran in early June in an effort to resolve the continuing crisis over the country's nuclear program is a "good starting point for negotiations," IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," June 12, 2006). He said Iran remains optimistic about a negotiated solution to the standoff, and he described the current atmosphere as "positive." Also on July 18, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said Iran will continue enriching uranium, ISNA reported. A halt to uranium enrichment is one of the international community's demands of Iran (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," June 5, 2006). Ahmadinejad said mastery of the complete nuclear fuel cycle is the Iranians' right. Earlier in the day, Ahmadinejad said Iran is willing to hold talks with the European powers, IRNA reported, and he urged the United States not to cause problems. BS

Alaedin Borujerdi, chairman of the legislature's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said on July 18 that the parliament is ready to cancel the country's membership in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) if the UN Security Council passes a resolution against Iran, Mehr News Agency reported. Iran signed the NPT in 1968 and ratified it in 1970. Also on July 18, talks began at the UN in New York on a Security Council resolution demanding a halt to Iranian enrichment activities and on the construction of a reactor in Arak, Reuters reported. Participants were China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Russian and Chinese diplomats were reportedly not seriously engaged, participants said, because they had not received instructions from their capitals. BS

Homayun Hamidi, head of the Veterinary Department in the West Azerbaijan Province city of Maku, said on July 16 that avian flu has not been detected in the area, provincial television reported from Urumiyeh, and that preventative measures are in place. In the first three months of the Iranian year -- which began on March 21 -- 70,000 trucks entering the country at the Bazargan border crossing have been disinfected. Red meat, chicken, and fishmeal entering Iran from Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan have been checked at Bazargan as well. One day earlier, Anushiravan Mohseni-Bandpey, deputy chairman of the legislature's Health Committee, said reports of humans infected with bird flu in Mazandaran and Gulistan provinces have not been confirmed, Fars News Agency reported. Veterinary officials are destroying infected birds, he added, and the Health Ministry is trying to find the source of the infection. Hussein Hassani, director of Iran's Veterinary Organization, said on July 15 that almost 380 birds were tested and none were infected, Fars reported. He said a three-month operation to destroy migratory birds in the provinces bordering the Caspian Sea began in June, but added that there have been no cases of bird flu. BS

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (UNAMI) said in its bimonthly human rights report for May-June that 5,818 civilians were reportedly killed and 5,762 wounded during those two months. The Medico-Legal Institute (MLI) in Baghdad separately reported receiving 1,375 unidentified bodies in May and 3,149 in June. The report also cited Health Ministry statistics concluding that between January and June, 6,826 civilians were killed and 13,256 wounded. "Including the figures of the MLI in Baghdad for the period, the total of civilians killed in Iraq from January -June 2006 was 14,338. "Killings, kidnappings, and torture remain widespread. Fear resulting from these and other crimes continued to increase internal displacement and outflows of Iraqis to neighboring countries," the report noted. It also reported that the Health Ministry publicly acknowledged that at least 50,000 people have been killed violently since 2003. It added that the Baghdad morgue received 30,204 bodies from 2003 to mid-2006. KR

The UN and the Iraqi government postponed the launch of a major economic recovery program on July 18, international media reported the same day. The five-year program, called the International Compact for Iraq, was reportedly postponed because of difficulties in getting high-level participants into Baghdad and because of the situation in Lebanon, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih told Reuters. Unnamed UN and Western diplomats told the news agency that the meeting may be rescheduled for late August or early September. KR

Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told reporters at a July 18 press briefing in Baghdad that a number of terrorists responsible for the killing of Shi'a have been arrested or killed in recent raids by Iraqi security forces, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Among those arrested were four key leaders of the Umar Brigades, an armed group established by Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi to hunt down and kill both Shi'ite security forces and militiamen aligned with the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) Badr Brigades, and persons aligned with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. "Any group that takes up arms against the Iraqi security forces or confronts the Baghdad security plan or that of Al-Basrah, Diyala, or other [governorates] will be faced by the Iraqi security forces. Those who are not authorized to carry or possess weapons will be confronted by the security forces without hesitation," al-Rubay'i said. KR

Hoshyar Zebari announced that Iraq is to restore diplomatic relations with Syria, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported on July 18. Speaking from Amman, Zebari said that the two countries will soon exchange ambassadors, a step he described as important to normalizing relations. He said that some members of the Iraqi government have objected to the decision, but noted that the relations will better enable Iraq to pressure neighbors against interfering in the country's internal affairs. KR

Kurdistan Region President Mas'ud Barzani discussed the progress being made toward the unification of the Kurdish administrations at a meeting with Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) officials in Al-Sulaymaniyah on July 18, KurdSat reported the same day. Barzani said the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) should act as pioneers in unifying their administrations. "There must be one authority, one government -- a government functioning under the rule of law," he said. Regarding ongoing efforts to unify the ministries of the two administrations, Barzani said that officials are close to reaching agreement on the establishment of a joint Supreme Court and Judiciary Council for Kurdistan, while the issues of merging the peshmerga, police, and security departments are still being discussed. "Kurdistan must have one army, an organized one, one which is equipped and trained according to world standards. An army for Kurdistan," he added. KR