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Newsline - August 18, 2006

Japan's Senior Vice Foreign Minister Yasuhisa Shiozaki arrived in Moscow on August 17 to demand the return of three fishermen and the body of Mitsuhiro Morita, a fourth fisherman, who died in an August 16 incident between Russian border-patrol forces and the Japanese fishing vessel "Kisshin Maru No. 31" off the disputed Kurile Islands, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16 and 17, 2006, and "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," August 11, 2006). Shiozaki also plans to discuss ways of preventing future incidents and "ensuring safety" in an area where incidents are common but fatalities are otherwise rare. In Tokyo, a Foreign Ministry spokesman told reporters that Japan is "strongly urging the Russian side to release the three crew members as well as return the body. This is very, very important." In Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk on August 18, Russian Coast Guard officials told Interfax that only "a strong sea storm" is temporarily preventing the return of Morita's body to Japanese officials. On August 17, Japanese Vice Foreign Minister Akiko Yamanaka arrived in Nemuro on Hokkaido to talk to members of the fishing cooperative that includes the "Kisshin Maru," state broadcaster NHK reported on August 18. She told them that she plans to go to Kunashiri Island in the Russian-held Kuriles to recover Morita's body. The broadcaster suggested that the incident has greatly upset local people on Hokkaido, who are accustomed to fishing in the disputed waters, particularly at this time of year, and it could take on political importance. PM

Russian prosecutors have launched criminal proceedings against the three members of the "Kisshin Maru's" crew being held at the House of Friendship Hotel in Yuzhno-Kurilsk, the Moscow daily "Kommersant" reported on August 18. The charges will center on illegal entry into Russian waters and poaching, but the three are not yet formally under arrest, Interfax reported. Japan's "Daily Yomiuri Online" commented on August 18, however, that the Russian decision to press legal charges suggests that the three are unlikely to be released soon. The punishment for illegal border crossing is a prison sentence ranging up to five years, while conviction for poaching can bring a six-month sentence and a stiff fine. The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on August 18 that Japanese Captain Noboru Sakashita has confessed to poaching. The "Daily Yomiuri Online" noted that he is known on Hokkaido as "not the kind to do something dangerous." Some Russian commentators called attention to the role played in the incident by the Coast Guard, which is subordinated to the Federal Security Service (FSB), the successor to the KGB. "Kommersant" suggested on August 17 that Japan has sufficient problems to deal with involving some of its other neighbors during the last weeks of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's administration and is unlikely to want to add Russia to the list. PM

A Foreign Ministry press spokesman told Interfax in Moscow on August 17 that "Russian border guards have data indicating that small vessels have repeatedly crossed into [Russian waters] from Japan...every two or three days since July 20, 2006. Russian competent services have been drawing Japanese officials' attention to the increasing incidence of poaching by Japanese fishermen in Russian waters on many occasions lately, demanding that order be restored. Unfortunately, these warnings have not been heeded." Japan's "Daily Yomiuri Online" reported on August 17 that "despite the lack of notable trouble with Russia in recent years, local fishermen are nevertheless on edge because it is crab season, their busiest time of year." Meanwhile, in Khabarovsk on August 18, local members of the nationalist youth movement known as Our Country (Nasha Strana) picketed the Japanese Consulate to demand an end to "illegal fishing in Russian waters," Interfax reported. Members of Our Country held a similar protest in Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk. The demonstrators carried banners with slogans reading "Our Country--Our Islands!" and "If You Steal, We Will Shoot!". Our Country has held several gatherings in the Far East recently to stress Russia's claim to the region, according to PM

German Gref, who is minister of economic development and trade, said in a letter made public by the Moscow daily "Kommersant" on August 17 that Russia is prepared to cancel the preferences it has given the United States in the meat trade if there is no breakthrough by October in Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). Russia is a major consumer of U.S. poultry. In Washington, Assistant Trade Representative for Public and Media Affairs Sean Spicer told Interfax on August 18 that any decision by Russia to scrap preferences for U.S. poultry and red-meat imports could backfire and complicate Russia's negotiations for WTO membership. The BBC commented on August 18 that Gref's statements amount to a "political ploy" and show how important WTO membership is to many in the Russian political establishment. President Vladimir Putin has stressed, however, that Russia will not accept terms that are not to its advantage, and Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov has openly questioned the wisdom of joining at all (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17 and 31, 2006, and "Russia: WTO Becomes Long-Term Issue For Relations With U.S.,", July 24, 2006). PM

The government approved the draft 2007 budget on August 17, which will now be sent to the parliament, ITAR-TASS reported. Spending will reach a record $205 billion, with a budget surplus of $56 billion, or 4.8 percent of gross national product (GNP). The budget increase for defense, security, and law enforcement will amount to over $10 billion. Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin stressed, however, that 52.2 percent of the budget's revenues will come from oil and gas exports. He warned that Russia should take steps to end this dependence and divert more oil revenues into the Stabilization Fund to help control inflation, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on August 18. PM

The Moscow City Court on August 17 sentenced Aleksei Pichugin, a former security official with the Yukos oil major, to 24 years in prison for a series of contract killings, RFE/RL reported. Aleksei Pichugin is already serving a 20-year sentence on charges of organizing several murders, including the 1998 killing of Vladimir Petukhov, the mayor of Nefteyugansk, Yukos's main base in western Siberia. Pichugin's lawyer called the most recent sentence politically motivated and said his client will appeal. Elsewhere, Russia's Prosecutor-General's Office launched criminal cases against three former Yukos executives and the director of the oil firm's main shareholder, Menatep. The office said in a statement that the former chief executive of Yukos, Steven Theede, two other managers, and Menatep's director "entered into agreements with the aim of appropriating Yukos's foreign assets." The charges against Pichugin are widely seen as part of a larger campaign against the interests of imprisoned oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 15, 2005, and February 9, March 8, and July 20, 2006). Pichugin's arrest in 2003 marked the start of the Kremlin-led campaign against Yukos. PM

Marking the 15th anniversary of the 1991 coup by hard-liners against his reforms, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev told Interfax by telephone on August 18 that "a repeat of those events is impossible today. Society and the structures responsible for security have learned all the appropriate lessons from what happened. " He added nonetheless that "the [subsequent] development of our country has shown that not all conclusions have been drawn yet. Instead of holding an investigation into the shelling of the parliament building, the persons involved in it were effectively amnestied." This an apparent reference to an incident during the parliamentary revolt of October 1993 against Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who emerged from the 1991 coup attempt greatly strengthened at the expense of Gorbachev. The two men are not now on speaking terms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3, 2006). Gorbachev also said that "a large number of people" who backed the 1991 coup now hold important positions and "have received awards." He stressed that "even today, a lot of people seek to hold onto power by any means. But they don't want to do it through honest and open elections, in which the voters make the decision. It is high time to understand that only democracy, freedom of speech, a responsible social policy, and a transparent market economy can help improve people's lives and make the state stronger." PM

Police in Altai Krai have detained a 16-year-old suspect who has confessed to the murder earlier this month while on a camping holiday of Omsk-based journalist Aleksandr Petrov, his wife, and their two small sons, reported on August 18. In a statement on its website, the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office said that Petrov's death was not connected with his professional activities. He was a reporter for "Moskovskie novosti" and editor in chief of the magazine "Pravo na Vybor" (The Right to Choose), which is published by the Omsk regional election commission. The bodies of Petrov and his wife were found with gunshot and stab wounds on August 13, and that of the elder child on August 18. Petrov's jeep was recovered some 140 kilometers from the scene of the crime. RH

The self-styled Ingush Shariat jamaat has released a statement, posted on August 17 on the Chechen resistance website, disclaiming any responsibility for the attack last week on the home of Nazran district prosecutor Gerikhan Khazbiyev. Khazbiyev escaped unscathed, but his brother Adam was killed and 13 people, including neighbors, were injured in a bomb explosion during the night of August 9-10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 10, 2006). The Shariat jamaat defined its objectives as imposing Islamic Shari'a law throughout Ingushetia; providing unspecified assistance to fighters in "other regions"; liberating Ingushetia from the "infidels" and their hangers-on; and protecting Muslims' rights. The statement stressed that in undertaking any action to further those aims, the jamaat takes every precaution to preclude causing any injury to "ordinary Muslims." LF

UNICEF staffer Elina Ersenoyeva, who also works as a journalist for the Chechen newspaper "Chechenskoe obshchestvo," was abducted in central Grozny on August 17 by a group of men in military uniforms, reported. LF

A six-month probe has yielded evidence that the Armenian Environment Ministry condones illegal logging, poaching, and mining on a large scale, Deputy Prosecutor-General Gevorg Danielian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on August 17. He added that the probe findings have been submitted to the ministry for comment. The Armenian independent daily "Aravot" on August 17 quoted Environment Minister Vartan Ayvazian, who is currently vacationing abroad, as denying reports in the Russian press last week that he may soon be dismissed for misuse of public funds and gambling. LF

Azerbaijan handed over on August 17 to the International Committee of the Red Cross three Armenian civilians who were detained in Azerbaijan last month in circumstances that remain unclear, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Armenian Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Seyran Shahsuvarian said the three men strayed onto Azerbaijani territory "accidentally." LF

Antonio Guterres, who is the UN's high commissioner for refugees, held a press conference in Baku on August 17 to summarize his four-day visit to Azerbaijan, and reported on August 17 and 18, respectively. Guterres noted that Azerbaijan has more refugees and internally displaced persons than any other country. (The UNHCR estimates the total figure at 800,000, while the Azerbaijani leadership puts it at 1 million; Guterres was not quoted as citing a specific figure.) He praised the assistance provided to those people by the Azerbaijani government and hailed its pledge to move all of them from tent camps to permanent housing by the end of 2007. Guterres said his agency supports the right of displaced persons to return to their abandoned homes, but added that it is not empowered to assist in mediating a political solution to the Karabakh conflict that would open the way to repatriation, reported. Ali Hasanov, chairman of the Azerbaijani government's Committee for Refugees and Displaced Persons, estimated the cost of resettling displaced persons in their abandoned homes at approximately $60 million. LF

Unidentified gunmen opened fire on August 17 in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion on two armored vehicles in which four military observers from the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) and their translator were conducting a routine patrol, reported, quoting Major General Sergei Chaban, commander of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the Abkhaz conflict zone. No one was injured in the incident. The Gali prosecutor's office has opened a criminal case on charges of terrorism against representatives of foreign states, according to Interfax. Also on August 17, Abkhaz security officials discovered an arms cache, including antitank mines and explosives, in an abandoned house in Tkvarcheli Raion, north of Gali, reported. LF

Kazakh Culture, Information, and Sport Minister Yermukhamet Yertysbaev vowed on August 17 to defend the weekly "Central Asia Monitor" against an adverse ruling in a libel suit brought by a Kazakh parliamentarian, Interfax reported. A district court in Almaty recently ruled in favor of deputy Yerasyl Abylkasymov and ordered the newspaper to pay him 5 million tenge (about $37,500) in compensation for "emotional distress." Yertysbaev promised to "defend this newspaper both in the city court and in the Supreme Court" and criticized the award as excessive. Abylkasymov brought suit against the newspaper after it published an article in December 2005 that he charged "damaged his honor and dignity." RG

Speaking in Astana on August 17, Minister Yertysbaev called for the Kazakh media "to launch a full-scale fight against corruption among state officials," according to Interfax. Yertysbaev also pledged to "protect" journalists against any pressure by state officials and proposed to meet monthly with all journalists and editors "to exchange information on corruption-related crimes." In a speech to the Kazakh parliament in May, Yertysbaev called for state control of the country's leading television station, Khabar TV, arguing that "the importance of information security" necessitates state "domination" of the media (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). RG

A nationalist movement in Kazakhstan released a statement on August 16 welcoming Russia's proposed plan to repatriate ethnic Russians from former Soviet republics, RFE/RL and reported. The nationalist Ult Taghdyry (Fate of the Nation) group posted its statement on Kazakhstan's Zona website on August 15 and urged the Kazakh government to help with the repatriation of ethnic Russians from the country. Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov recently criticized the Russian plan and warned of the negative economic consequences for Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 2006). RG

Kyrgyz National Security Service (SNB) spokesman Nurbek Tokbaev announced on August 17 that a local leader of the outlawed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) has surrendered to law enforcement agencies, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and the Kabar news agency. Tokbaev said that the unnamed IMU leader, who led a local IMU unit in the southern Kyrgyz city of Uzgen, surrendered on August 15. The IMU leader reportedly has been a fugitive since March, following the arrest of six suspected IMU members in a raid by Kyrgyz security forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2006). reported the man's name as Jamaldin Abdrashitov and alleged that he was involved in a July attack in the southern Jalal-Abad province. RG

Kyrgyz opposition Asaba Party Chairman Azimbek Beknazarov on August 17 criticized the Kyrgyz government's counterterrorism policy and charged that it has already led to numerous abuses, AKIpress and the website reported. In a statement posted on the website, Beknazarov further accused Kyrgyz law-enforcement agencies of conducting a series of "dubious" security operations in recent weeks in which "dozens of ethnic Uzbeks" have been arrested. He also charged that there is "evidence that innocent people are being killed" in those operations. Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu voiced similar criticism during a press conference in Bishkek on August 16, accusing the Kyrgyz security forces of imitating the violent tactics of their Uzbek counterparts and warning that cooperation between the Kyrgyz and Uzbek security service could increase radicalism in the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 17, 2006). RG

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov met on August 17 with Russian President Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the summit of the Eurasian Economic Community in Sochi, Asia-Plus and Tajik TV reported. In their seventh meeting of the year, Rakhmonov and Putin discussed plans to expand bilateral trade and investment, with special attention devoted to projects on hydroelectric power and natural gas in Tajikistan. The Eurasian Economic Community comprises Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, with Armenia and Ukraine enjoying observer states. RG

As the Tajik and Russian presidents met during the Sochi summit of the Eurasian Economic Community on August 17, Tajik Interior Minister Khumdin Sharipov met with his Russian counterpart, Rashid Nurgaliyev, according to Asia-Plus and ITAR-TASS. Sharipov and Nurgaliyev signed a bilateral agreement on cooperation to combat drug trafficking and organized crime. Tajik and Russian interior troops have held more than 20 joint counternarcotics operations since 2004, reportedly disrupting and arresting members of some 40 transnational organized criminal groups and seizing significant amounts of heroin. RG

The leaders of five member states of the Eurasian Economic Community announced on August 17 their approval of Uzbekistan's application to rejoin the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), which it quit in 1999, Asia-Plus and Interfax reported. A preliminary protocol on Uzbekistan's accession was signed during the meeting on August 16. Commenting on the Uzbek application, CSTO Secretary-General Nikolay Bordyuzha announced that Uzbekistan has pledged to "undertake all obligations related to its membership in the organization." The regional security group -- comprising Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan -- seeks to promote military and political cooperation aimed at ensuring the collective security of its member states. Uzbekistan has deepened its relations with the CSTO in recent months, with greater coordination to combat terrorism, organized crime, and Islamic extremism (see "RFE/RL Central Asia Report," June 26, 2006). RG

Deputy Prime Minister Uladzimir Syamashka said on August 17 that utility bills for a two-room apartment would increase by some $35 monthly (or more than 50 percent) if Russian gas giant Gazprom raised its gas price for Belarus to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters next year, Belapan reported. Belarus currently pays $46.68 for 1,000 cubic meters of gas, the lowest price among all of Russia's gas customers. Russian media signaled earlier this year that Gazprom may increase the gas price for Belarus in 2007, even up to as much as $200 per 1,000 cubic meters. JM

Some 3,500 people, including 450 full-fledged delegates, will take part in a three-day worldwide forum of Ukrainians, which opened in Kyiv on August 18, Ukrainian media reported. The forum gathers representatives of public life in Ukraine and the Ukrainian diaspora from more than 40 countries as well as journalists and artists. On the eve of the forum, President Viktor Yushchenko met with leaders of the Ukrainian diaspora at his dacha outside Kyiv. Yushchenko pledged during the meeting to work toward building closer ties between the homeland and diaspora organizations. JM

After meeting with EU officials in Brussels on August 17, Serbian Deputy Prime Minister Ivana Dulic-Markovic said Belgrade must capture war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic in order to resume premembership talks, Reuters reported the same day. "The general conclusion is that everything is up to Serbia," Dulic-Markovic told reporters after talks with EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn. "The [European] Commission has a very clear vision of Serbia in Europe but it's up to Serbia. If we manage to fulfill our obligations and full cooperation with ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia], the European Commission and the European Union will try to support our further steps into integration," she added. The EU froze talks with Belgrade in May over Serbia's failure to arrest Mladic by an April 30 deadline (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). BW

Vesna Pesic, chairman of Serbia's Center for the Development of Democracy, said that Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica will seek concessions on Kosova's status in exchange for arresting war crimes fugitive Mladic, B92 reported on August 17. "If Kostunica fails to persuade the Contact Group to accept an outcome that would meet Serbia's demands, and Kosovo gains independence instead, he will not extradite Ratko Mladic, nor any of the other Hague fugitives," Pesic, a prominent human rights activist during the regime of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, told the daily "Dnevnik." "I am convinced that this is the reason Mladic is still not in [a prison] cell, and it is also confirmed by the fact none of the other indictees have been extradited yet. It's at the same time highly unlikely that the authorities don't know where these people are, as they claim is the case," he added. "All of this means that the consequence will be the door of the EU slamming shut in our faces, while anti-European rhetoric thrives in the country." BW

Cetinje Archbishop and Montenegrin Metropolitan Mihailo contended on August 17 that the Montenegrin Orthodox Church has the right to build churches in Serbia, B92 reported the same day. Mihailo, the head of the Montenegrin Orthodox Church, was responding to comments the day before in which Serbian Religion Minister Milan Radulovic said the Montenegrin Church is banned from building in Serbia. "There is only one Orthodox Church in Serbia, and that is the Serbian Orthodox Church. No group of citizens can under any circumstances establish any orthodox church, or establish what is already in existence and has a tradition and a historical continuity," Beta and B92 quoted Radulovic as saying on August 16. "It is astonishing that a minister can make statements of this kind, but I believe these are his personal opinions," B92 quoted Mihailo as saying in response. Mihailo added that he will personally lay the foundation stone for a planned Montenegrin Orthodox Church in Lovcenac. BW

Forensic experts in Bosnia-Herzegovina said on August 17 that they have exhumed the bodies of more than 1,000 victims of the Srebrenica massacre from the country's largest mass grave, international news agencies reported the same day. Experts exhumed 144 complete and 144 partial skeletons from the grave in the village of Kamenica, near the Serbian border. Together with the remains, experts found 14 documents indicating the victims were killed as part of the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, AP reported. Experts also found bullets mixed with body parts and plastic and cloth bindings around the victims' arms, AP reported. Of the 3,500 bodies of Srebrenica victims excavated thus far, 2,500 have been identified through DNA testing. Of these, 2,000 are buried in a cemetery in the Srebrenica suburb of Potocari. BW

Republika Srpska President Dragan Cavic said on August 17 that it is legally impossible to hold a referendum on the Bosnian Serb republic's status, B92 reported the same day. "The right to secession can only be granted by a country's constitution. The Dayton agreement with its Annex 4 constitutes for the Bosnia-Herzegovina Constitution, and does not allow for such a possibility," Cavic told Serbian state television. Cavic added, however, that if either side broke the Dayton peace accords, and the 1995 agreement became null and void, then a referendum would be possible. "Acting in breach of the Dayton agreement would represent a regression to the prewar status and would make [Republika Srpska] a state," Cavic said. "The most democratic and peaceful way to achieve this would be a referendum, but this will not meet with the agreement of either Bosniaks or Croats, especially of Bosniaks, since they identify with the state completely and believe it is their exclusive right," he added. BW

The European Commission has offered Moldova a 10 million-euro ($12.8 million) assistance package, Moldpres reported on August 16, citing the Moldovan government's press service. Paolo Berizzi, the European Commission's acting charge d' affairs for Moldova, said in a letter to Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev that 9.2 million euros of the package will be in the form of a grant and the remainder will be a loan. The funds will be earmarked for assisting the agricultural sector, social welfare, and modernizing the management of public finances. BW

Haci Mammadov, a former high-ranking Azerbaijani Interior Ministry official, created headlines last month when he claimed to have instigated the murder in March 2005 of opposition journalist Elmar Huseynov at the behest of then Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev. But many observers have cast doubts both on Mammadov's allegations and on the veracity of official statements corroborating them. Meanwhile, it remains unclear why the various law enforcement agencies ignored for several years reports that Mammadov was implicated in a series of murders and kidnappings.

Mammadov was arrested in early March 2005, days after Huseynov was gunned down in the stairwell of his apartment building. Initial reports of Mammadov's arrest identified him as the head of a gang of over two dozen people that carried out a series of abductions for ransom and contract killings over a period of 10 years.

Testifying over the past week at his trial, which opened in early July, Mammadov confessed to many of the charges against him and explained his motives for some of the crimes he committed or instigated. Those revelations pale, however, in comparison with Mammadov's claim to be behind Huseynov's killing. The Azerbaijani National Security Ministry, which is conducting the investigation into that murder, last year identified two ethnic Azerbaijani citizens of Georgia as having slain Huseynov and then left the country. Neither man has yet been apprehended, nor has Mammadov provided any details of his purported dealings with them.

Farhad Aliyev, who was dismissed as economic development minister in late October 2005 and subsequently arrested and charged with plotting with exiled former parliament speaker Rasul Quliyev to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership, issued a statement to the Azerbaijani people from his pretrial detention cell on July 27 in which he rejected yet again the coup charges against him and reaffirmed his loyalty to President Ilham Aliyev (to whom he is not related). Farhad Aliyev also said in that statement that he had been warned that if he continued to refuse to plead guilty to the coup charge, he would be implicated in the killing of Huseynov. Aliyev's lawyer Elton Quliyev told the website on July 26 that his client never met with Mammadov and is not acquainted with him.

Curiously, the Azerbaijani authorities made no official comment on Mammadov's revelations until August 8, when Prosecutor-General Zakir Garalov appeared on national television and produced what he claimed was Aliyev's address book that contained Mammadov's telephone number. Several commentators subsequently asked why Garalov did not make that information public at the time of Aliyev's arrest last year.

Meanwhile, Mammadov's testimony, especially concerning the role of several of his subordinates, including General Zakir Nasirov, who headed the Criminal Search Department, has raised questions how his gang could have acted with impunity over a period of almost one decade. Former National Security Minister Namik Abbasov, who was dismissed from that post in July 2004 and is currently Azerbaijan's ambassador to Uzbekistan, told on August 15 that he alerted the Interior Ministry and the Prosecutor-General's Office in 1999 to reports of Mammadov's criminal activities, as it was not within the competence of his ministry to investigate such reports. But immediately after Mammadov's arrest in March 2005, President Aliyev lambasted Abbasov for failing to take any action in 2001 in response to information provided by the Prosecutor-General's Office implicating Mammadov.

Interior Minister Colonel General Ramil Usubov for his part has sought to offload responsibility for the failure to apprehend Mammadov on to the Prosecutor-General's Office, claiming that his ministry alerted that agency to reports of suspected crimes. Speaking on August 11 in Lenkoran, Usubov expressed "regret" that Mammadov "managed to evade arrest" over a long period. He insisted that the crimes Mammadov and his henchmen committed do not reflect badly on himself and his deputies. Usubov also cast doubt on the veracity of Mammadov's testimony, arguing that "you can expect anything" from a man who has committed such egregious crimes, and that it would be unwise "to regard every word he says as the truth."

But Shahbuz Hudoglu, a close friend of Huseynov, told on August 11 that he is convinced both Usubov and other senior ministry officials were aware of Mammadov's criminal activities and received a cut of the proceeds from them. Former Colonel Arif Aliyev, who was dismissed from the Interior Ministry in 2001, had similarly told a press conference in Baku on January 26 that Usubov could not have remained ignorant of the crimes Mammadov and his gang committed. Asked whether he was afraid of possible retribution for publicly implicating Usubov, Aliyev said he has received security guarantees from Eldar Mahmudov, who succeeded Abbasov as national security minister.

Sifting and comparing Mammadov's testimony and the official reactions to it, several Azerbaijani commentators and political analysts have inferred that Mammadov is seeking to send a clandestine message to whoever served for years to shield him from investigation: intervene and help me, or I'll implicate you too. As yet, however, no commentator has speculated on the identity of that person or group -- indeed, to do so would be foolhardy if not suicidal in the light of Huseynov's killing and the myriad libel suits brought against Azerbaijani journalists in recent years.

Veteran human rights activist Eldar Zeynalov suggested in an August 14 interview with that someone within the Azerbaijani government may be trying to use Mammadov to tarnish President Aliyev's image. But that hypothesis is not entirely convincing, given that Aliyev was elected only in November 2003, at which juncture Mammadov had already committed several spectacular crimes. An alternative possibility, and one that would explain why Usubov has not (yet) been dismissed, is that Usubov possesses compromising information about either Aliyev's father and predecessor Heidar Aliyev, or about other influential senior members of the Azerbaijani leadership.

Taliban abductors released 15 health workers just hours after they were taken captive in Kandahar Province on August 17, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. The team of volunteers, which included some women, was held after armed men boarded their bus. Kandahar's deputy health chief, Abdul Hayy Razmal, told AIP that the gunmen did not return the bus. Ali Ahmad, who was among those abducted, told journalists in Kandahar that the Taliban investigated each member of the team individually before releasing them upon learning that they were not government employees. Speaking in the name of the Taliban, Qari Mohammad Yusof told AIP that the fighters had been informed that the bus was carrying government employees, but that once the Taliban learned that the passengers were health workers, it was decided to release them but keep their bus. AT

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on August 17 that he is "shocked and angered" by reports that an air strike by U.S.-led forces killed at least 10 border policemen in the southeastern Paktika Province, RFE/RL reported. In a statement, Karzai stressed that he has repeatedly asked coalition forces to exercise maximum caution while carrying out operations, and he said such incidents must not be repeated. Major Matthew Hackathorn, speaking for the coalition forces in Afghanistan, told Xinhua news agency that a bomb dropped by a coalition aircraft on August 17 in the Tarwa district of Paktika destroyed two trucks, killing all passengers. But Hackathorn added that the number and identity of those on board is being investigated. Abdul Rahman, deputy chief of the Afghan border police, claimed that 10 policemen were killed in the incident. Abdul Hamid, the head of Paktika border police, put the death toll at 12 policemen, including a police commander, who "came under U.S. bombardment," AFP reported on August 17. "An event did happen," coalition spokesperson Colonel Thomas Collins reportedly said, adding that the incident is "under investigation. We are scrambling to get the details." AT

Asadullah Wafa, first deputy in the Border and Tribal Affairs Ministry, said his ministry is planning to establish councils of representatives to include tribes on both the Afghan and Pakistani sides of the mutual border, Kabul-based Tolu Television reported on August 15. "From Chitral [in northern Pakistan] to the end of Baluchistan [in southern Pakistan] and to Nimruz Province [in southwestern Afghanistan], they are all one and the same tribe," Wafa said, alluding to the Pashtun and Baluch tribal confederations living on either side of the Afghan-Pakistani border, which Kabul has never recognized officially (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," March 24, 2006). "They have been separated. This side or the other side of the border makes no difference." Wafa said that if the Afghan government had mustered the support of the tribes and worked in consultation with them, "the enemy" would have not been able to "harm" Afghanistan. AT

Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta said his country wants to establish a strategic partnership with India based on "common values and goals," reported on August 17. Calling India a "stable democracy" and his own country a "young democracy," Spanta said that the relationship between the two countries is not based on choice but is a historical fact. Afghanistan is facing "the expansionist foreign policy of some countries that try to use terrorism as an instrument of foreign policy," Spanta said, without naming the country in question. Spanta and other Afghan officials have repeatedly blamed Pakistan for exporting terrorism to Afghanistan and have sought to counter Islamabad's influence in Afghanistan with closer relations with India (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," April 26, 2006). AT

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wrote to the Hizballah chief Hasan Nasrallah on August 17 to congratulate him on what he termed a "victory for Islam" over Israeli forces in Lebanon, IRNA reported the same day. Hizballah faced off Israeli attacks in Lebanon from July 12 to August 14. "You imposed your military superiority over" Israel and "ridiculed the myth of invincibility and false aura of the Zionist army," IRNA quoted Khamenei as saying in the letter. He added that the war showed "the real face of American rulers and some European countries" who he described as standing by "the disgusting and hated face" of Israel. Khamenei claimed the Israeli operations "showed what disasters can befall human societies when the rulers of countries are detached from mercy...and reason and sincerity." Khamenei also said Hizballah resistance has thwarted the United States' and Israel's "illusory plan for the Middle East." But in a presumed reference to postwar plans to extend Lebanese government control to Hizballah-controlled areas and disarm the group, Khamenei warned that the "enemy is now trying to cut this potent...arm, sow discord among statesmen, and sow the virus of impatience and doubt." VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in the town of Kosar in Iran's northwestern Ardebil province on August 16 that Israel and its Western allies should be made to pay for damages inflicted on Lebanon and their leaders taken to court, IRNA reported in August 17. Israel and "American and British leaders are the causes...of damage inflicted on Lebanon, and must pay full compensation for these damages to" the Lebanese. He said the United Nations should be tasked with taking the money and placing it at Lebanon's disposal. The UN and its secretary-general "personally" must also name those he said were responsible for the "martyrdom of Lebanon's defenseless women and children" to "international courts," IRNA reported. He said in Namin in the same province on August 17 that "the entire world can bear witness" that Britain and the United States "were partners in Israel's crimes" in Lebanon, so "all nations" now want "these two undesirables" to be expelled from the UN Security Council, IRNA reported the same day. VS

President Ahmadinejad said in the same speech on August 17 that Western states are in no position to denounce others as threats to international peace when "they are the only group that violates the independence of states," IRNA reported. "These are the people" who bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, he said, "and are now taking on a peace-loving countenance and depriving the Iranian nation of its right to use peaceful nuclear energy." He said Iran has repeatedly stated the peaceful aims of its nuclear program, and "in spite of [its] clarifications, they say Iran may [deviate] toward making a nuclear bomb," IRNA reported. "The governments that make this charge against Iran must themselves be disarmed," he said. Ahmadinejad added that when "a group appears and tries to stand up" to these states "and reveals their dirty face to the world, they label them terrorists." He said unspecified efforts to sow discontent in Iran will fail. "They think that by provoking certain people...and with their public postures, they can create divisions between the people of Iran," when "Iran is a large, close-knit family," he said. VS

Iran will not curb domestic gasoline consumption despite expected shortages but rather import more to meet demand, Reuters and RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on August 17. Iranian officials are expecting shortages in the second half of the Persian year running to March 20, 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 10, 2006). Iran recently bought several cargoes of gasoline for delivery in September, indicating a decision to renew imports after a month-long suspension of such purchases, Reuters reported on August 15. On August 16, Farhad Rahbar the head of the Management and Planning Organization, said that "gasoline rationing is off the government agenda until further notice," Mehr reported. "There will be no rationing...while the state of not organized," he told a Tehran seminar. Rahbar said people's "living and welfare situation" will suffer if they have to buy expensive gasoline above a fixed weekly or monthly amount charged at current, subsidized prices. He added that the government is working on expanding public transportation and removing old, fuel-inefficient cars. VS

Iraqi parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani said in Amman on August 17 that reports that he plans to step down are "lies created by some satellite television channels," AFP reported the same day. "Personally, I did not receive any such request," he added. Criticism of al-Mashhadani has been mounting among Kurdish and Shi'ite lawmakers, who have voiced their intention to replace him. "The New York Times" quoted al-Mashhadani on August 14 as saying, "Maybe now is the best time for me to withdraw," (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 15 and 16, 2006). BAW

Falah Al'amri, who heads the Iraqi State Oil Marketing Organization (SOMO), said that the amount allocated by the Iraqi government to import oil products has been doubled to $426 million for both August and September, AP reported on August 17. Due to administrative corruption, pipeline sabotage, and the smuggling of imported oil products, a black market is thriving, where fuel is sold at prices seven times higher than the official price. Iraqi refineries are running at half their prewar capacity, producing only 35,000 barrels a day, according to AP. Al'amri said that the fuel crisis has been exacerbated in the last four weeks after the Bayji refinery was shut down, due to the sabotage of pipelines bringing crude oil from fields near Kirkuk. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani has blamed the fuel shortage on terrorists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 14, 2006.) Al'amri also said that SOMO is working with Turkish companies to supply more fuel. Rizgar Ali, head of the Kirkuk Governorate council, said that the Iraqi Oil Ministry will build three refineries in the autonomous Kurdish region as a step to alleviate fuel shortages, Radio Nawa reported on August 17. BAW

Kirkuk Mayor Abdurrahman Mustafa decided on August 16 to dig a ditch around the city to prevent terrorists from entering it, the Peyamner news agency reported on August 17. The decision was made along with Kirkuk police chief Major General Sherko Shakir and army General Anwar Hamad Amin. The relatively quiet city has recently been hit by several car bombs. BAW

Kurdish regional Human Rights Minister Yusuf Muhammad Aziz told reporters on August 17 that "50,000 of the 182,000 families" of victims of the 1987-88 Anfal campaign against the Kurds "have hard evidence" of the alleged genocide, Peyamner news agency reported the same day. He added that there will be 42 witnesses, including former regime members who will also stand as defendants. The second round in the trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and six co-defendants will start on August 21 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 28 and August 11, 2006). BAW