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Newsline - July 26, 2006

Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Saltanov, who is a senior envoy to the Middle East, told Syrian leaders in Damascus recently that Moscow does not want them to use Russian-made missiles to retaliate if Israel attacks Syria, Reuters reported from Damascus on July 25, citing unnamed diplomatic sources (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 21, and 24, 2006). The news agency quoted one diplomat as saying that "Saltanov told them Syria can use Russian antiaircraft missiles to thwart Israeli air attacks, but that Russia objected to using Russian Scuds to retaliate." A second diplomat added that "the Russians don't want their missiles to hit Israeli cities. Syria, however, has more advanced North Korean missiles." Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Syria has diversified its sources of arms beyond Russia to include China and North Korea. It reportedly has a large arsenal of surface-to-surface missiles. PM

President Vladimir Putin discussed the Israeli offensive in Lebanon and Iran's nuclear program in a telephone conversation with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad at the latter's initiative, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2006). The presidential website added that Putin reiterated Russia's "principled position" on those issues. Also on July 25, Putin met with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal and Bander bin Sultan, who is the general secretary of the Saudi National Security Council, Interfax reported. The Saudi diplomats arrived from Washington, where they discussed their six-point plan for resolving the Israeli-Lebanese conflict with U.S. President George W. Bush. It is the first formal plan put forward by an Arab state to deal with that crisis. PM

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez arrived in Volgograd from Belarus on July 25 at the start of a three-day visit that is expected to yield a $1 billion deal for at least 24 Sukhoi-30 fighter jets and a good deal of anti-American rhetoric, the Moscow daily "Kommersant" reported on July 26 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20 and 22, 2006, and "Russia: Chavez To Seal Arms Deal,", July 25, 2006). Chavez delivered an impromptu speech from the balcony of city hall, which began with "Long live Lenin" and went on to hail "Volgograd, [President] Putin, and the Russian government." Chavez's schedule on the first day of his visit included meetings with LUKoil President Vagit Alekperov and Dmitry Pumpyansky, who is chairman of the board of TMK, which makes steel pipes for oil and gas transport. Venezuelan Ambassador to Russia Alexis Navarro Rojas told the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina on June 15 in connection with Chavez's trip that Venezuela is dependent on foreign companies for 87 percent of its exports of hydrocarbons. He added that "our country wants to solve this problem." Navarro told reporters in Moscow on June 21 that his country would welcome Gazprom's participation in constructing a planned 8,000-kilometer gas pipeline to Argentina. Carlos Mendoza, who was Navarro's predecessor and is now an adviser to Venezuela's Central Bank, told the "San Francisco Chronicle" of July 23 that unnamed Russian companies are investing "heavily" in Venezuela's oil and gas fields. He added that "Russia is a key element of Venezuela's ambitions to become a global player on many levels." PM

Venezuelan President Chavez cancelled planned visits to several Volgograd-area arms factories on July 25 "because he was running late," the daily "Kommersant" reported on July 26. On July 26, he toured arms factories in Izhevsk, the capital of Udmurtia, which is a major weapons-producing center and home of the Kalashnikov assault rifle, Interfax reported. Russia's Rosoboroneksport arms exporter already plans to supply Chavez with 100,000 AK-103 Kalashnikovs, which Washington and some Latin American countries fear will be used to consolidate his rule at home and export trouble to Colombia and throughout the region. Chavez said in Izhevsk on July 26 that he will sign an agreement with President Putin on July 27 to build a factory in Venezuela to make Kalashnikovs under license, which would be the first such plant in the Western Hemisphere. On July 25 in Washington, U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters that "we've repeatedly talked to the Russian government that the arms purchases planned by Venezuela exceeded its defensive needs and are not helpful in terms of regional stability," international news agencies reported. "I think on this issue, we've got a very clear opinion and we certainly hope that the Russians will reconsider this sale because we don't think it's in the best interest of Russia or Venezuela," he added (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19, 2006). PM

The leader of the Motherland (Rodina) party, Aleksandr Babakov, and the head of the Party of Life, Sergei Mironov, who is also speaker of the Federation Council, announced the imminent merger of the two parties in Moscow on July 25, Russian media reported. Babakov said that "in the process of discussing the consolidation of leftist forces, we decided to join the efforts of our two parties. We simply announce this decision today without specifying the conditions of this union because it will take quite a long time to work them out." Mironov stressed that "we are the real left. We will participate in regional and federal elections, and we call on everybody to unite under our banners." Russian media commented that both parties are small and are widely regarded as having been created by the Kremlin to draw off votes from other parties, a charge that the two parties' respective leaderships deny (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, April 3, and July 25, 2006). "The Moscow Times" commented on July 26 that news of the merger nonetheless "sent a shock wave through the stagnant political scene." Andrei Isayev, who is a member of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party's presidium, told RIA Novosti on July 25 that the Party of Life claims to be a leftist opposition party, whereas in reality Mironov has a prominent legislative post and his party is a "vacuum cleaner, sucking up all fringe elements that have fallen by the wayside, including nationalists." PM

The Unified Russia party has decided to drop references to "sovereign democracy" from its program following public criticism of that concept by First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in "Ekspert" of July 24, "The Moscow Times" reported on July 26 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24, 2006). Duma Deputy Speaker Oleg Morozov said on July 24 that the party's program, which is expected in September, cannot be built around the concept of "sovereign democracy." But Vyacheslav Volodin, who heads the party's General Council Presidium, said that the concept remains a basic one for the party, reported on July 26. Medvedev stressed that any time one attaches a qualifier to the word democracy, it gives the impression that what is meant is something less than full-fledged democracy. He noted that this is precisely the impression that has been generated abroad by the use of the term sovereign democracy in Russia. Vladislav Surkov, who is one of several deputy heads of the Kremlin's administration, has said that the term means that Russia is democratic, that it is free to define what its democracy is, and that any foreign concerns or doubts about how solid Russian democracy might be are tantamount to interference in Russian internal affairs (see "Kazakhstan: 'Sovereign Democracy' In Almaty And Moscow,", July 10, 2006). Deputy Prime Minister and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov was quoted in "Izvestia" on July 17 as saying that Russia's national values include "sovereign democracy, a strong economy, and military might." The Moscow daily "Vedomosti" on July 25 quoted an unnamed Kremlin official as saying that Medvedev's remarks are not a criticism of Surkov but of Ivanov, whom many regard as a rival to Medvedev to succeed President Putin when his current term expires in 2008. PM

Abdul-Khakim Sultygov, a Chechen who served from 2002-04 as presidential envoy for human rights in Chechnya and currently coordinates ethnic policies for the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, said on July 24 that Russia should hold a plebiscite prior to the 2008 presidential vote to determine popular attitudes toward President Putin's domestic and foreign policies, the daily "Kommersant" reported on July 25. He stressed that such a plebiscite would enable the "course to survive after 2008, irrespective of the name of the future president." The plebiscite could be held concurrently with December 2007 elections to the State Duma, Sultygov said. But Leonid Goryainov, who heads the information department of Unified Russia's Central Executive Committee, said Sultygov's initiative is his own and has not been sanctioned by the party. Vyacheslav Volodin, who heads the party's General Council Presidium, made a similar statement. The daily "Vremya novostei" commented on July 25 that Sultygov's proposal amounts to "an indirect way of proposing extra time in office for Putin." In recent months, several dozen regional officials have called for a constitutional amendment to enable Putin to run for a third term. Putin has opposed any such move on the grounds that he would have no legitimacy if he changed the laws to suit his own purposes. He has not been explicit, however, as to whether he would go along with a constitutional change if there were widespread popular "demand" for it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 16, and July 3, 7, and 18, 2006). PM

The creditors of the former oil giant Yukos appealed to the Moscow Arbitration Court on July 25 to declare the company bankrupt and start receivership, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 29 and July 20, 2006). Several Russian commentators noted that this "effectively means the end of Yukos." The court is expected to hold a hearing on the creditors' request on August 1. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the embattled oligarch who built up Yukos, is serving an eight-year prison sentence in the remote Chita Oblast for fraud and tax evasion after a trial that was widely viewed as politically motivated and engineered by the Kremlin to punish Khodorkovsky for supporting the political opposition. PM

Only six of the 11 Ingush men who began a hunger strike in early July are still continuing their protest, reported on July 25. The remaining five have been hospitalized. The men are demanding that they and their families be permitted to return to the homes in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion from which they fled during the fighting of October-November 1992. They have appealed for help to President Putin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 13, 17, 18, and 25, 2006). LF

The international rating agency Moody's on July 25 assigned Armenia a credit rating of Ba2, which indicates a medium level of creditworthiness, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Armenian Central Bank Chairman Tigran Sarkisian and Finance Minister Vartan Khachatrian both noted that the rating is higher than those Moody's has assigned Georgia and Turkey. Khachatrian said it will enable Armenia to sell bonds in international finance markets and make it easier for private companies to attract foreign investments and loans. A second international agency, Fitch, allocated Armenia the slightly lower sovereign credit rating of BB- last month, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on June 8. LF

Haci Mammadov, a former senior Interior Ministry official charged with heading a criminal group that committed a series of high-profile murders and kidnappings for ransom, said in court on July 25 that it was he who gunned down Elmar Huseinov, editor of the opposition journal "Monitor," in March 2005, Azerbaijani media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2005). Mammadov said he committed the killing at the behest of then-Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev. Aliyev was dismissed in October 2005 and arrested on charges of plotting a coup d'etat. His lawyers were quoted on July 26 by the online daily as casting doubts on Mammadov's allegation. Shahbaz Hudoglu, a close friend of Huseinov, told on July 26 that the murdered man considered Aliyev corrupt, but at the same time pointed out in his published articles that in contrast to other government ministers, Aliyev invested heavily in Azerbaijan's economy. Mammadov's gang was rounded up shortly after Huseinov's murder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 11, 14, and 24, 2005). LF

Georgia sent some 1,000 army and Interior Ministry troops into the Kodori Gorge on July 25 to disarm the Monadire armed militia headed by former Kodori governor Emzar Kvitsiani, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25, 2006, and End Note). In a statement the same day, however, Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said the operation was a police, not an army one, Caucasus Press reported. Bezhuashvili appealed to Monadire members "who were caught up in this misunderstanding" to lay down their arms. On July 26, the pro-government Georgian television channel Rustavi-2 reported that at least four people, including two Interior Ministry officers, were wounded in fighting the previous evening. Also on July 26, the Georgian government appealed to the Kodori population to leave the area as "it is difficult to distinguish local civilians" from Monadire members, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Republic of Abkhazia President Sergei Bagapsh has sent an unspecified number of army troops to the Abkhaz sector of the Kodori Gorge in line with his July 25 warning that Abkhazia will take "appropriate countermeasures" if Georgian forces advance beyond a certain point, reported. Abkhaz Vice President Raul Khadjimba was quoted by as characterizing the situation in the gorge as "complicated," but also as affirming that Abkhazia will continue to abide by the cease-fire agreement signed in May 1994. Meanwhile, Abkhaz armed forces Chief of General Staff Lieutenant General Anatoly Zaitsev told on July 26 that Kvitsiani's men have abandoned armed resistance and taken to the forests. Zaitsev denied that Abkhaz officials met with Kvitsiani on July 25 or that Kvitsiani has fled to Abkhaz territory. In a July 25 statement posted to its website (, the Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the Georgian troop deployment to Kodori as violating the 1994 cease-fire agreement and warned Tbilisi against launching any incursion on to Abkhaz territory. LF

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns told a business forum in Astana on July 25 that the United States supports Kazakhstan's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Johanns noted, however, that Kazakhstan will first have to conduct agricultural reforms. Johanns also told forum attendees, "We believe that Kazakhstan -- headed by your president [Nursultan Nazarbaev] -- can become a leader in this region. We can already see the signs which indicate this leadership." DK

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev issued a statement on July 25 saying that he and Uzbek President Islam Karimov decided at a July 22 meeting in Moscow to join forces to fight terrorism and extremism, reported. Bakiev said that he and Karimov decided that they must "unite forces in the struggle against international terrorism and various actions by the representatives of religious-extremist tendencies. What is primarily needed here is coordination in the work of our countries' security services." Bakiev also said that he received "complete support and understanding" from Karimov during their discussion. Karimov invited Bakiev to make an official visit to Uzbekistan, which is expected to take place before the end of 2006, news agency reported. DK

Bishkek police chief Moldomusa Kongantiev told news agency on July 25 that police in the Kyrgyz capital have been put on high alert because of extremist action in the south of the country. Kongantiev said police have set up 10 additional checkpoints on approaches to the city to prevent extremists from entering. DK

Police in Osh have arrested a suspected member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), reported on July 25. A police spokeswoman said that Bekmurat Karimov, an Uzbek citizen, was arrested and three hand grenades confiscated. Karimov reportedly told the arresting officers they were lucky he did not have time to blow himself up. There have been several arrests and killings in southern Kyrgyzstan recently (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 17 and July 11, 20, and 21, 2006). DK

General John Abizaid, head of U.S. Central Command, met with Kyrgyz Defense Minister Ismail Isakov in Bishkek on July 25, reported. Their talks focused on bilateral military cooperation, with Abizaid thanking Kyrgyzstan "for understanding the important role played by the antiterrorist coalition's air base at Manas." Kyrgyzstan and the United States recently reached a new agreement for the U.S. base to remain in the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2006). DK

Mahmud Ahmedinejad met with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov in Dushanbe on July 25 for talks on bilateral relations and regional issues, IRNA and RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Ministers from the two countries signed five memoranda of understanding and cooperation agreements in the course of the visit. At a press conference after his meeting with Rakhmonov, Ahmedinejad warned that the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon could unleash a "hurricane" in the Middle East, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Ahmedinejad said, "To attack another country in this way will not solve anything, instead it will make the problems more complicated. Those who think that by oppressing a nation they can create a foothold for themselves are making a big mistake. There is an expression in Persian: 'He who raises the wind will get a hurricane.' And this hurricane is just round the corner in the Middle East and it will be harsh and destructive for the enemies of humanity." For his part, Rakhmonov called for a cessation of hostilities, arguing that "as a member of the Organization of Islamic Conference and the larger community of Muslims of the world, we believe the destructive armed operations in Lebanon must be stopped as soon as possible and the ensuing problems should be resolved through a political route, taking into consideration the territorial integrity and independence of Lebanon and the prospect of peace and stability in the Middle East." DK

Before departing for Tajikistan on July 25, Ahmedinejad held a second round of talks with Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in Ashgabat, reported. The discussion focused on energy issues, with the two sides agreeing to form a joint task force to work out proposals in a month's time on hydrocarbon shipments. Iran, which is set to buy 8 billion cubic meters of natural gas from Turkmenistan in 2006, plans to buy 14 billion cubic meters in 2007. During Ahmedinejad's visit, the two sides also signed seven cooperation agreements, MNA reported. DK

The trial of 29 suspected members of the banned extremist organization Hizb ut-Tahrir began in Tashkent on July 25, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. The defendants face charges of threatening national security and setting up an outlawed organization. The Tashkent-based Center for Human Rights Initiatives said that 19 defendants have previous extremism-related convictions and that nearly all were subjected to physical abuse during pretrial detention. DK

Visiting Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez said in Minsk on July 25 that he and Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka have created a "strategic alliance between our countries," Reuters and Belapan reported. Chavez and Lukashenka were visiting the Military Academy in Minsk. "It is vital for us to resist any inside and outside threats in order to defend our national projects," Belapan quoted Chavez as saying. "After the Soviet Union collapsed, America made a try to open its dreadful jaw of hegemonism and imperialism over Belarus and Venezuela, declaring the victory of capitalism and free-market economy and announcing the death of socialism and the sovereignty of nations. But sovereignty and socialism will never die," Chavez added. There have been no reports on the precise nature of the Belarusian-Venezuelan alliance. The Venezuelan government news agency ABN reported that Chavez and Lukashenka signed an agreement to share military technology. JM

Latvia has lodged an official protest over a search of the residence of an unnamed Latvian diplomat in Minsk, Belapan reported on July 25. According to the Latvian Embassy in Minsk, Belarusian law-enforcement and security officers conducted the search on July 25, seizing the diplomat's belongings. "This move of the Belarusian authorities is a flagrant violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations," the embassy said in a statement. A delegation of the Latvian Foreign Ministry is reportedly to arrive in Minsk on July 26 to investigate the incident. JM

Belarusian Deputy Labor Minister Valery Paulau said in Minsk on July 25 that some 600,000-700,000 people of working age in Belarus are "economically inactive," Belapan reported. Another ministry official explained that people are deemed economically inactive if they do not have jobs but are not considered to be unemployed. This category includes students, prisoners, those on parental leave, and people who are not registered with any institution. As of July 1, the number of officially registered unemployed people in Belarus, which has a population of about 10 million, was 66,500. JM

Parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz told lawmakers on July 25 that President Viktor Yushchenko has proposed to hold a roundtable with representatives of the Ukrainian parliament and main political forces in order to discuss the current political situation in the country, Ukrainian media reported. "It was the president's initiative. I think it is a useful step. In my opinion, it will be an effective step," Moroz noted. He added that the roundtable will take place on July 26, but the presidential press service said that Yushchenko's schedule for July 26 does not foresee his participation in the roundtable announced by Moroz the previous day. Lawmakers from the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party fear that Yushchenko may dissolve the current parliament over its inability to form a new government within the constitutionally prescribed term (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25, 2006). JM

Party of Regions leader Viktor Yanukovych, Yushchenko's main rival in the 2004 presidential election, declared in the Verkhovna Rada on July 25 that the recently forged parliamentary coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party can be expanded to include the pro-presidential Our Ukraine, Ukrainian media reported. "At this crucial moment we must begin our work together from a clean sheet that has no markings or past mistakes. And the first line on this clean sheet should be '[Do] good for the people of Ukraine,'" Yanukovych said. The three-party coalition proposed Yanukovych last week as a candidate for prime minister. Yushchenko promised to express his opinion on Yanukovych's candidacy by August 2, amid rumors that he may also be pondering the dissolution of the legislature and new elections. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on July 25 canceled its resolution of January 10 to dismiss the cabinet of Prime Minister Yuriy Yekhanurov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11, 2006), Ukrainian media reported. The move was supported by 239 deputies -- mostly from the newly formed coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party. "After we exchanged opinions on the need for holding a roundtable, I asked my colleagues: 'Let's look at how we could make a gesture to meet the president halfway, to demonstrate that we are ready for cooperation, that we are working the way he wants us to work,'" parliament speaker Moroz told lawmakers in explaining the reason for the vote on Yekhanurov. The parliamentary debate before the vote, according to the "Ukrayinska pravda" website, took place "amid bursts of laughter." It is not clear what legal consequences the July 25 resolution may have for Yekhanurov. In January, President Yushchenko ignored the parliamentary no-confidence motion in Yekhanurov's cabinet. Yekhanurov stayed in his post until the inaugural session of the newly elected Verkhovna Rada on May 25, when he submitted the resignation of the entire cabinet and assumed the role of a caretaker prime minister. JM

Frank Wisner, a U.S. envoy to talks on the final status of Kosova, said during a visit to Belgrade on July 25 that Serbian officials should show more flexibility in negotiations about the future of the breakaway province, AP reported the same day. According to a statement released by the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade, in his meetings with Serbian officials Wisner urged "Belgrade to play a constructive role in the ongoing negotiations to ensure a peaceful, democratic Kosovo that protects the rights of all its residents." Wisner is expected to visit Kosova in the next couple of days to deliver a similar message to ethnic Albanian leaders, AP reported. BW

During an official visit to Romania on July 25, Serbian President Boris Tadic said he is optimistic a compromise can be reached on the final status of Kosova, AFP reported the same day. "The talks on the issue of Kosovo are very difficult, but I must remain optimistic," Tadic said at a press conference in Bucharest with Romanian President Traian Basescu. "Serbia is opposed to Kosovo's independence but is offering the greatest possible autonomy," he said. Belgrade will also "take part each time in negotiations on Kosovo, while respecting the rights of Serbians and European values." Basescu said he is "against any imposed solution" for Kosova. "A potential solution that would not result from negotiations between the two parties could only be imposed with troops present...and would create instability in the entire region," he said. BW

Speaking at the same July 25 press conference in Bucharest, Basescu called on Bosnian Serb war crimes indictee Ratko Mladic to surrender, AP and AFP reported the same day. "If General Mladic loves his people, he should surrender to Serbian authorities or to the international tribunal as now an entire people is held captive because he doesn't have the courage to do this," Basescu said. He added, however, that Mladic's whereabouts are unknown and he could be outside Serbia. "If that's the case, how long are we going to keep Serbia hostage to General Mladic?" Basescu asked. The European Union in May suspended talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Serbia over Belgrade's failure to capture Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). BW

Serbian Interior Minister Dragan Jocic said on July 25 that Belgrade has put a secret plan to capture war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic into effect, AP reported the same day. Jocic did not reveal any details of the plan. It was not clear whether the plan Jocic referred to was related to a blueprint Belgrade presented to the European Union on July 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 18, 2006). That plan calls for Serbia's intelligence services to be restructured, a media campaign aimed at the public to explain the need to capture Mladic, and enhanced coordination between Serbia and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Recent Serbian press reports have alleged that Mladic hid in a series of apartments in Belgrade from June 2002 until January 2005 with the aid of hard-liners in the intelligence services (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 19, 2006). BW

In an interview published on July 25, Bosnia-Herzegovina's Prime Minister Adnan Terzic defended his country's plans to impose customs duties on Serbian and Croatian agricultural products, B92 reported the same day. Erhard Busek, the coordinator of the EU-funded Balkan Stability Pact, has said that Bosnia's insistence on the tariffs could cause it to be left out of a regional trade pact (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2006). The regional trade deal for the Balkans, which expands the Central Europe Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA), is due to be signed in September. Terzic told the daily "Nezavisne novine" that "our market is completely open for all products, while the markets of other countries, mainly Serbia and Croatia, are not. We therefore wish to bring in customs taxes that will be in effect until 2010, after which they will be abolished." BW

Early on July 25, Georgia deployed up to 1,000 troops to the lower reaches of the Kodori Gorge, which straddles Georgia and Abkhazia, in a bid to rein in an armed Svan militia commanded by the region's former governor, Emzar Kvitsiani. The Svans are an ethnic group closely related to the Georgians, and their traditional home is in the high mountains of northwest Georgia. The military situation, and Kvitsiani's whereabouts, remain unclear.

The Georgian television station Rustavi-2 reported on July 26 that at least four people, including two police officers, were hospitalized after fighting the previous day. And on July 26, the Russian news agency reported that Kvitsiani's men have abandoned armed resistance and 60 of them have been arrested.

Kvitsiani was named governor of the Georgian-controlled stretch of the remote Kodori Gorge in 1999 by then President Eduard Shevardnadze. In that capacity, he formed an armed militia known as Monadire (Hunter), that was theoretically subordinate to the Georgian Defense Ministry.

In April 2005, Georgia's present Defense Minister Irakli Okruashvili ordered the disarming and disbanding of Monadire, whose members retaliated by accusing Okruashvili of selling out to the leadership of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia. Interior Minister Vano Merabishvili rejected an alternative proposal to subordinate Monadire to his ministry, and the militia apparently continued to function on an unofficial basis.

On July 22, Kvitsiani issued an open challenge to the Georgian leadership, saying that Monadire would not permit government plans to occupy the Georgian-controlled section of the gorge on July 27. He also warned that in light of the unresolved killings in recent months of numerous Svans, including banker Sandro Girgvliani, he would "start a civil war" if Merabishvili were reappointed interior minister in the new Georgian cabinet. Merabishvili's wife and several senior Interior Ministry personnel were involved in a public altercation with Girgvliani in a Tbilisi bar just hours before he was found dead on the city outskirts with his throat cut.

Kvitsiani demanded that Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli, parliament majority faction member Giga Bokeria, and State Minister Kakha Bendukidze come to Kodori for negotiations, but Bokeria, President Mikheil Saakashvili, and parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze on July 24 ruled out any talks with Kvitsiani, whom they branded a criminal.

Givi Targamadze, who chairs the Georgian parliament's Defense and Security Committee, told the independent television channel Rustavi-2 on July 25 that Kvitsiani's militia, estimated to number only a few hundred men, are armed by, and are acting on orders from, Russia.

The possibility that Kvitsiani was indeed co-opted by Russia to provoke the Georgian military to launch an offensive against Kodori is only one of several. It is also conceivable that Kvitsiani was acting in league with the Abkhaz leadership, which may have calculated that an incautious Georgian military response in the Kodori would strengthen its argument that the Russian peacekeepers currently deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone should not under any circumstances be withdrawn.

Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, has reportedly deployed Abkhaz forces to the lower reaches of the gorge, in accordance with a warning he issued on July 25 that they would "respond appropriately" if the Georgians advanced beyond a certain point. Kvitsiani is reported to have met recently with Abkhaz Interior Minister Otar Khetsia, and to have refused an offer late on July 25 from Abkhaz Deputy Defense Minister Garri Kupalba of safe passage into Abkhazia.

Alternatively, Kvitsiani may, as he claims, be motivated exclusively by concerns over discrimination against the Svan minority and the Georgian government's failure to provide reliable transportation and other assistance to Kodori's population. Or, he may have been set up, through a middleman, by "hawks" within the Georgian leadership eager to create a pretext for military intervention in Abkhazia.

Whatever the case, the Russian Foreign Ministry responded on July 25 to reports of the deployment of Georgian troops to Kodori with a statement accusing Tbilisi of violating the May 1994 cease-fire and agreements on the deployment of troops to the conflict zone. The commander of Russian peacekeepers in Abkhazia described the deployment of Georgian forces in Kodori as a military operation.

That though is denied by the Georgians. Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said the operation in Kodori is a police action, and he pledged that Georgia will not extend the operation onto Abkhaz territory.

Hamid Karzai expressed his condolences upon hearing about the death of Mawlawi Mohammad Yunos Khales, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported on July 25. According to a message from Karzai, Khales's role in the Afghan struggle against the Soviet occupation is "preserved in golden words" in the history of Afghanistan. According to the message, Khales was the first person to send a letter to Karzai after the downfall of the Taliban regime in which he wished for peace in the country. Khales's death was first reported by a Taliban website which also claimed that he was a supporter of the ousted Taliban regime (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25, 2006). Khales led one of the seven mujahedin parties that were based in Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and led a party jointly with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar early in the struggle against the Soviet army before they split to form two Hizb-e Islami factions. AT

Residents of Lashkargah, the provincial capital of Helmand, have alleged that Afghan police have looted their homes under the pretext of conducting anti-Taliban operations, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on July 25. Abdul Salam, a resident of Baba Ji -- an area where an operation was carried out on July 23 -- alleged that Afghan police confiscated motorcycles, cars, power generators, and other items found in houses. A resident of Malgir village, Sardar Mohammad, alleged that the police forcibly took his motorcycle and 35 kilograms of heroin. Helmand's deputy governor, Amir Mohammad Akhondzada, defended the actions of the police saying that the "search operation was carried out only to track down the militants," adding that the motorcycles were confiscated on the suspicion of being used by militants. Akhondzada invited the residents to directly report to him any complaints. Meanwhile, Tor Jan, another resident of the area around Lashkargah, told Pajhwak that he has proof of police misappropriating people's property. AT

All restaurants and guesthouses that are operating in Kabul without proper licenses or that are involved in activities which spread "moral corruption" will be ordered to close, Tolu Television reported on July 25. Jabar Sabit, a legal adviser to the Afghan Interior Ministry and chairman of a commission on moral corruption, told Tolu that the new measure is aimed at ending the sale of alcohol and preventing moral corruption -- a term often used in Afghanistan to denote activities ranging from coed dancing to prostitution. In early 2005, the Interior Ministry launched a campaign headed by Sabit to stop the sale of alcohol in Kabul (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2005). Although alcohol consumption is forbidden in Islam, and Afghanistan is officially an Islamic republic, many restaurants and hotels in Kabul freely serve alcohol and it is readily available in many shops in the city -- despite efforts by the conservative-led National Assembly to limit this. AT

An explosion on the outskirts of Kabul on July 25 killed a taxi driver and two other civilians and injured three others, international news agencies reported. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Yusof Stanizai blamed the "enemies of Afghanistan" for the blast, which occurred on the road leading to the U.S. air base located in Bagram, AFP reported on July 25. A Taliban website on July 25 posted a message claiming the "Islamic Emirate" "mujahedin" placed a remote-controlled mine which destroyed a U.S. battle tank. AT

During his July 25 visit to Dushanbe, Mahmud Ahmadinejad said the Israeli attack on Lebanon will not yield positive results and could cause bigger problems, Radio Farda reported. "To attack another country in this way will not solve anything, instead it will make the problems more complicated," he said. "Those who think that by oppressing a nation they can create a foothold for themselves are making a big mistake." He appeared to threaten that the conflict will escalate, saying, "There is an expression in Persian: 'He who raises the wind will get a hurricane.' And this hurricane is just round the corner in the Middle East and it will be harsh and destructive for the enemies of humanity." BS

Ambassador Henry Crumpton, the State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, said on July 25 that Iran has greater influence over Hizballah than Syria does, Reuters reported, but it does not control the group. Crumpton did not rule out an Iranian role in the current conflict, saying, "I am confident that Iranian operatives are inside Lebanon right now with Hizballah." Crumpton referred to Iran as "the paymaster" that spent "hundreds of millions of dollars" on arms and other forms of support for Hizballah. Iran is "clearly directing a lot of Hizballah actions," he said, and "Hizballah asks their permission to do things, especially if it has broader international implications." BS

The Ahvaz Revolutionary Court on July 25 passed sentences on 19 people for their alleged involvement in bombings in Khuzestan Province, ILNA reported. Attorney Javad Tariri, who represented two people, said 10 people have been sentenced to death for being "at war with God" (mohareb) and endangering national security. Three others have been sentenced to internal exile for 10, 15, and 20 years on identical charges. Another three defendants received five-year sentences for membership in an illegal group that seeks to undermine national security; one received five years for carrying explosives; and one received a one-year sentence for propagating against the system. The 19th defendant was acquitted, Tariri said. BS

Khalil Bahramian, the lawyer for a student activist who has been imprisoned for almost seven years, said on July 25 that he is no longer allowed to receive visitors, ILNA reported. The lawyer said he went to visit his client, Akbar Mohammadi, at Evin prison on July 24, and the authorities said because Mohammadi is on a hunger strike visitors are barred. Bahramian added that Akbar and his brother, Manuchehr, are in poor health. BS

Employees of a knitting and weaving factory in Isfahan continued demonstrating for a third day outside the legislature in Tehran on July 25, ILNA reported. Workers at the Simin-i No factory say they are owed five months of wages and, furthermore, management is ignoring them. They say Isfahan parliamentary representative Hassan Kamran and Tehran's Alireza Mahjub are following up on the case. BS

Saddam Hussein appeared at the July 26 session of the Al-Dujayl trial after boycotting several earlier sessions, international media reported. Hussein, who appeared in good health despite more than two weeks on a hunger strike, lashed out at Chief Judge Ra'uf Rashid Abd al-Rahman, claiming he was brought to court against his will. "I wrote you a petition clarifying that I don't want to come to court, but they brought me against my will," Reuters quoted him as saying. As court proceedings continued and Hussein's court-appointed attorney began reading his closing argument, Hussein interrupted to claim the argument was "written by a Canadian-American agent." Speaking for his co-defendants, he added, "We don't recognize a government appointed by occupation or this court." Hussein also told Abd al-Rahman that as "a military man," he insists that if he is given the death penalty, he should die by shooting, not by hanging. KR

George W. Bush reiterated U.S. support for the Iraqi people during a July 25 press briefing in Washington alongside Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. Bush commented several times on the courage of the Iraqi people, adding that the United States will send more troops to Baghdad to help beef up security there. "The Prime Minister [al-Maliki] advised me that to support this plan, he and General [George W.] Casey [commander, Multinational Forces Iraq] have agreed to deploy additional American troops and Iraqi security personnel in Baghdad in the coming weeks. These will come from other areas of the country. Our military commanders tell me that this deployment will better reflect the current conditions on the ground in Iraq," Bush said. "We also agreed that Iraqi security forces need better tools to do their job. And so we'll work with them to equip them with greater mobility, firepower, and protection." Regarding al-Maliki's proposal for an international compact for Iraq, aimed at boosting economic development, Bush told reporters, "The United States will work to encourage other countries to support the compact, and for other countries that have made pledges to Iraq, to make good on their pledges." KR

Al-Maliki told reporters at the same press briefing that Iraq is now in the second phase of implementing the Baghdad security plan aimed at eradicating terror in the capital. He added that his national reconciliation plan seeks to attract more Iraqi forces that have not engaged in the political process yet. "This initiative represents, in addition to building the Iraqi armed forces, one of the initiatives that will contribute to choking terrorism and defeating terrorism in Iraq," he said. Al-Maliki said that the international support that will come through the international compact for Iraq will help with reconstruction and improved services. "We hope that many other countries will participate and contribute in that conference that will be convened in the next few months in order to sign this international compact," he added. KR

Prime Minister al-Maliki was asked by a reporter during the July 25 press briefing in Washington to clarify his position on the Lebanese conflict and Hizballah. He responded: "Here, actually we're talking about the suffering of a people in a country.... The important thing here is what we are trying to do is to stop the killing and the destruction, and then we leave the room and the way for the international and diplomatic efforts and international organization to play the role to be there." Continuing, he added: "We are not here facing a situation only in Lebanon, but would be facing a variety of issues in different countries. I'm talking here about the approach that should be used in order to stop this process of promoting hatred, that has to be superior decisions coming from above in order to protect these experiments, particularly the democratic experiments that should be protected by those who are trying to oppose it." Al-Maliki is expected to comment further on his position on Lebanon when he speaks before the U.S. Congress on July 26. KR

The Mujahedin Shura Council announced in a July 24 Internet statement that it has formed a new brigade to target members of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army. The statement claimed that the Shi'a are undertaking "organized campaigns of depopulating various parts of Iraq of Sunnis," in addition to their armed attacks against Sunni mosques and citizens. It also criticized Sunni Arab groups for ignoring the "dangerous role" of the Al-Mahdi Army in attacks on Sunnis. The new brigade will fall under the command of the Umar Brigade, "with the goal of eradicating the existence" of the Al-Mahdi Army. The Umar Brigade was established by deceased Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi in July 2005 to "hunt and kill" members of the Shi'ite-led Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq's (SCIRI) Badr Corps. Since then, the brigade has claimed to have killed hundreds of Badr members, including some 75 Badr members in and around Baghdad between July 15 and July 20. KR