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Newsline - October 18, 2006

Officials of the Interior Ministry announced in a statement on October 17 that they have uncovered a money-laundering scandal involving over $7 billion and at least 10 banks, Russian media reported. They said that the group responsible was led by a Georgian with Russian citizenship and had "ethnic and financial ties to criminal representatives of the Georgian diaspora," the daily "Kommersant" reported on October 18. The ministry maintains that this "channel was used to transfer funds to Georgia and other countries," and that the money came from a variety of sources including casino operations, robberies, and embezzlement. The alleged leader's name is Dzhumber Elbakidze, aka Dzhuba. The statement suggested that part of the money was intended to be used to fight an unspecified "small, victorious war." Many Russian media outlets seized on the Georgian and criminal connections in their coverage of a scandal that, if proven true, would be one of the biggest money-laundering schemes of all times. Some commentators linked the ministry's revelations to Moscow's blockade of Georgia and various official Russian measures against Georgians in the Russian Federation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 3, 4, 5, and 12, 2006). argued that the Georgian connection is the actually main point of the revelations. Some media, such as and, linked the alleged scandal to the recent murder of Central Bank official Andrei Kozlov, who led efforts against money laundering (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14, 15, and 18, and October 13, 2006). PM

EU foreign ministers adopted a declaration in Luxembourg on October 17 in which they sharply criticized Russia for the economic blockade and other measures it imposed on Georgia in the wake of the row between the two countries earlier this month, RFE/RL reported (see End Note, and "RFE/RL Newsline," October 12, 2006). The move was a departure from the neutral stance the EU has maintained since Russia hit out at Georgia in the wake of Tbilisi's arrest of four Russian officers on spying charges. However, EU officials were quick to stress that the union doesn't want to damage its long-term relations with Russia. External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner stressed that the bloc considers Russia's anti-Georgian measures to be excessive and unjustified. She stressed that "the measures that were taken against the Georgians working in Russia -- and especially against the schoolchildren in Russian schools -- as well as also the pressure on Georgian-owned business, but also the economic sanctions and the severed transport links, the ban on the imports, the closure of the borders -- all these are extremely worrying. We think that indeed the consequences of the Russian measures can, of course, not contribute to a return to calm and should be lifted." PM

Speaking in Luxembourg on October 17, Erkki Tuomioja, foreign minister of current EU chair Finland, downplayed media reports of divisions among EU member states, which many fear could provide an opening for Russian President Vladimir Putin to exploit when he meets with EU leaders in Lahti, Finland, on October 20, RFE/RL reported. Tuomioja added that "the ministers had no trouble whatsoever [in reaching their conclusions].... There was total unanimity on them and on the thinking behind them. So much for the divided European Union." However, well-placed EU sources told RFE/RL that the wording of the statement on Georgia was bitterly contested by member-state ambassadors in Brussels in the run-up to the ministers' meeting. While the Nordic and Baltic countries -- backed by some of the Central European states -- sought to include tough criticism of Russia, traditional Moscow allies France, Italy, Portugal, and Greece were allegedly equally keen to ward it off. Another meeting of the same EU ambassadors earlier in the day resulted in a compromise. The criticism of Russia remained, but detractors -- led by France -- inserted a reference to a UN Security Council resolution that was critical of Georgia's approach to the conflicts in South Ossetia and Abkhazia. One senior EU source told RFE/RL that in a final minor, but significant, triumph, Georgia's EU supporters successfully fought off an attempt to have the reference placed in the same paragraph containing the EU's condemnation of Russian sanctions. PM

In response to media leaks by several unnamed EU diplomats on the wisdom of inviting President Putin to Lahti, Finnish Prime Minister Matti Vanhanen told London's "Financial Times" of October 18 that there are "risks" in openly exposing Putin to differences in the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 12, 13, and 16, 2006). Vanhanen said that "Russia knows very well the differences in the EU. But I believe this method in Lahti will place healthy pressure on European leaders to find a common message.... If you don't take any risks and have real debates, what can you achieve?" He added that the EU should press Russia to agree to an open, "market-based" form of cooperation in the energy sector, so "we would no longer be afraid about political interference." The prime minister referred to Russian moves against Royal Dutch Shell over the Sakhalin-2 gas production sharing agreement (PSA) as "problems." Critics charge that the Kremlin is violating international norms and showing aggressive intentions in its behavior over this and other PSAs, as well as in its refusal to ratify the Energy Charter, which Moscow signed with the EU in 1994 and which would require it to open up access to its pipelines. Daniel Cohn-Bendit, floor leader of the Greens in the European Parliament, recently warned against "having cozy dinners" with Putin. PM

Speaking in Seoul, South Korea, on October 17, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov warned North Korea against making a second nuclear test, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16 and 17, 2006). Fradkov said: "I hope a second nuclear test does not take place, at least it should not take place. That is the signal -- and quite a tough signal -- that the UN Security Council has sent by adopting its [recent] resolution." The minister stressed that "we are concerned with the [nuclear] test conducted [by North Korea], which has seriously violated the nonproliferation regime and which poses a threat to regional security. It is in our interest that North Korea should return to the six-party talks and the nonproliferation regime." He made the remarks at a news conference with South Korean Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook. Elsewhere, quoted General Yury Baluyevsky, who heads the Russian General Staff, as saying on October 17 that a North Korean nuclear bomb would not pose a threat to Russia at present because Pyongyang lacks the technical capacity to deliver it. On October 10, the daily "Vedomosti" suggested that Pyongyang will be able to pose a threat to its neighbors in three to five years time. PM

General Yevgeny Buzhinsky, who heads the Defense Ministry's International Military Cooperation Directorate, called on the United States to refrain from what he described as unilateral action in deploying a possible missile defense system in Central and Eastern Europe, the daily "Izvestia" reported on October 18. He did not suggest what Moscow's response to such a deployment might be (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 3 and 11, 2006). He wrote that "there's a great antimissile game under way in Europe. The main players are the United States, Old Europe within NATO, the Eastern European states, and Russia. Each player has its own goals, which are often accompanied by negative consequences for itself and its partners." He stressed that "the deployment of missile defense facilities close to Russia's borders could create a real threat to Russian deterrence forces. This will be regarded as an unfriendly act on the part of the United States, certain Eastern European countries, and NATO as a whole. Such actions require appropriate reciprocal measures of a military and political nature. Looking at the scale of missile defense deployment in Europe, it's possible to say this much with a high degree of certainty: the argument that the region's capacities are restricted, and allegedly no match for Russia's deterrence forces arsenal, is no more than a declaration." The general believes that "a military build-up close to Russia's borders would not be conducive to enhancing European security. It's not too late to analyze the potential negative consequences of unilateral actions in the area of security, and attempt to avert them. Russia is prepared to engage in dialogue on this topic." PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Moscow on October 18 that "it is necessary [for the international community] to act on Iran, but that action should be in direct proportion to what is really happening," RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 6 and 17, 2006). He added that "what is really happening is what the [International Atomic Energy Agency] (IAEA) reports to us. And the IAEA is not reporting to us about the presence there of a threat to peace and security." Elsewhere, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Kislyak told Interfax that Russia's position in the UN Security Council on Iran will not be influenced by the U.S. sanctions against Russia's main arms exporter, Rosoboroneksport, and the aircraft manufacturer Sukhoi. He said that "these are two separate, serious issues. We will tackle them separately." His remarks appeared to contradict somewhat recent statements by Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin linking the two issues. PM

Oleg Orlov, who heads the human rights group Memorial, said on October 17 that he has resigned his post as adviser to President Putin as a member of the Presidential Council on Promoting Civil Society and Human Rights, news agencies reported. Orlov said he disagrees with Putin's recent comments on the slain journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Many observers at home and abroad described Putin's comments as cold and demeaning (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11 and 12, 2006). PM

Addressing Interior Ministry personnel on October 17 in Nalchik, capital of Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, Colonel General Arkady Yedelev characterized the situation there as "tense," noting that 39 participants of last October's multiple attacks on police and security facilities remain at liberty, according to as reposted by Yedelev further alleged that Anzor Astemirov, one of the leaders of the Yarmuk jamaat responsible for those attacks, "has links to the special services of countries interested in launching blitzkriegs in South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Transdniester," RIA Novosti reported. In an implicit contradiction of Kabardino-Balkar President Arsen Kanokov, who last week ruled out a further mass attack like last October's (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006), Yedelev argued that as long as Astemirov and his fellow leader Musa Mukozhev remain at liberty, the danger of further terrorist attacks will persist. Yedelev also criticized the Ingushetian Interior Ministry as "ineffective," saying that as a result, the danger of "terrorism" is greater in that republic than anywhere else in the North Caucasus, reported on October 17. He said an Interior Ministry temporary operative group has been deployed to Ingushetia to help in the "struggle against terrorism" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006). LF

In comments during a Yerevan press conference, Armenian parliament speaker Tigran Torosian and his deputy Vahan Hovannisian complained on October 17 that Russia's decision to impose a transport blockade of Georgia has caused considerable economic harm to Armenia and criticized Moscow for failing to take Armenian interests into account, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In a press conference following a meeting of a Russian-Armenian commission on interparliamentary cooperation, the Russian commission co-chairman, Nikolai Ryzhkov, told the Armenian officials that Russia does not want to cause any damage to the Armenian economy, noting that "Armenia is a strategic partner of Russia" and pledging that "our relations are certified at the highest, presidential level." Ryzhkov also suggested that Armenian firms can transit Iranian territory instead, downplaying the substantially higher transport costs for such an alternative export route. In another meeting of the Russian-Armenian intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation last week, its Russian co-chairman, Transport Minister Igor Levitin, promised that Armenian companies will be able to continue to ship cargos to and from Russia though Georgian Black Sea ports, although the regular ferry service between Russia and Georgia remains suspended. Russia severed all transport and postal links following an escalating crisis in early October that was sparked by the arrest of four Russian officers accused of espionage by the Georgian authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 2 and 3, 2006). RG

Speaking at a seminar in Yerevan, Amalia Kostanian, the head of the Armenian branch of corruption watchdog Transparency International, warned on October 17 that corruption in Armenia remains widespread and is rising despite the government's three-year anticorruption program, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Kostanian pointed to the government program's to curb the scale of corrupt practices and reiterated her view that the government lacks the "political will" to combat corruption. Adding that "corruption has taken new forms" and "has become more politicized and large-scale," Kostanian further explained that the state anticorruption plan is inherently limited by its sole focus on legislative measures and by a serious lack of public confidence driven by the fact that senior government officials are rarely prosecuted for bribery or other forms of graft. Armenia ranked 88th out of 146 nations that were covered by Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index, slightly worse than the group's 2004 global survey, in which Armenia was in 82nd place. An earlier World Bank survey released in July found no significant improvement in the level or amount of bribes that Armenian firms routinely pay to government officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 28, 2006). RG

In a television interview with the Arabic-language network Al-Jazeera, Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev threatened on October 17 to "fight" the politically active Armenian diaspora and announced a new state campaign to counter its influence and power, Azertac reported. Aliyev explained that Azerbaijan plans to open new embassies and consulates as part of a new diplomatic effort aimed at confronting worldwide ethnic Armenian groups. He also added that a consulate was established in the United States to confront the large ethnic Armenian population in California and "to fight the Armenian lobby." RG

In comments during a television interview, Georgian ombudsman Sozar Subari deplored on October 17 Russia's treatment of Georgians deported from Russia, Georgian Public Television reported. Subari charged the Russian authorities with implementing deportation procedures that he criticized as "not just a violation of human rights" but which "can only be described as ordinary fascism." Speaking as the latest group of some 150 Georgian citizens deported from Russia arrived at Tbilisi airport, the ombudsman also announced that Georgia is "looking for ways to file complaints with international human rights bodies," including the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Council for Human Rights. RG

A 58-year-old Georgian citizen died on October 17 at a Moscow airport as he was being detained for subsequent deportation to Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. According to Russian medical personnel, Tengiz Togonidze died from an asthma attack at the Domodedovo Airport after doctors were unable to revive him. Prior to being brought to Moscow for deportation, Togonidze was first detained after being arrested with another 36 Georgian citizens in a police sweep in St. Petersburg for failing to have a proper residency permit. RG

In a press conference in Baku, Georgian Energy Minister Nika Gilauri announced on October 17 that he has signed a new agreement with Azerenergy company executives for the import of electricity from Azerbaijan, Caucasus Press reported. The barter agreement calls for the seasonal export of electricity from Georgia during the winter in return for the imports from Azerbaijan in the summer months. RG

Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov "believes that the [Kyrgyz] borders inherited from the USSR should be preserved" with neighboring Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Interfax reported on October 17, citing a Foreign Ministry press release. The statement came after a Foreign Ministry meeting on October 16 to discuss the delineation and demarcation of Kyrgyzstan's more than 2,000-kilometer frontier with those two countries. The ministry also stated that Jekshenkulov "ordered the relevant departments at the ministry to step up talks with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on border issues." DK

Evan Feigenbaum, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, met with Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov in Bishkek on October 17 to discuss bilateral cooperation, reported. Feigenbaum said U.S. companies are looking to invest in Kyrgyzstan's economy and the energy sector. The two also exchanged views on the possibility of Kyrgyzstan's full-fledged participation in the Millennium Challenge Account, a U.S. program to give money to poor countries that have sound political, economic, and social policies; Kyrgyzstan is currently taking part in the program as a threshold country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2005). DK

Kurmanbek Bakiev has ordered a full-scale investigation of the murder of Uzbek community leader and Osh city council member Oibek Olimjonov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006), reported on October 17. Meanwhile, a police official in Osh said that "there is no political motive in the case" and stressed that the police already have clues to aid their investigation. DK

Tajik officials have confiscated 60 kilograms of heroin valued at $3 million from the gas tank of a truck bound for Russia, AFP reported on October 17. The report quoted a Tajik Drug Control Agency official as saying that Tajik security forces have seized 3.7 tons of narcotics from Afghanistan this year, including 1.6 tons of heroin. DK

Imomali Rakhmonov has said that all candidates in the country's November 6 presidential election should enjoy equal conditions for campaigning, Asia Plus-Blitz reported on October 17. Rakhmonov also stressed that members of the executive branch should not interfere in the work of election commissions. The comments came in the course of a visit by Rakhmonov to the southern Khatlon Province. DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov told a cabinet meeting on October 16 that eight people sentenced to prison terms in connection with a 2002 attempt on his life will be released in the course of an upcoming amnesty, reported the next day. The amnesty, which has become an annual tradition under Niyazov, will take place at the end of Ramadan on October 19 and will see the release off 10,056 inmates. NewsCentralAsia reported that the amnesty will affect 55 percent of the country's prison population. Regarding the eight "coup plotters," Niyazov said that they had confessed and did not carry weapons during the incident. The eight individuals were not identified. After the 2002 attempt on Niyazov's life, former Foreign Minister Boris Shikhmuradov was sentenced to life in prison. According to, 50 people were convicted and imprisoned after the event. DK

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev on October 17 signed a bilateral accord on social and economic cooperation until 2015, following their talks earlier the same day in Minsk, Belapan reported. Both presidents agreed that Belarus will establish a tractor-assembly plant in Azerbaijan and supply the country with farm equipment. Lukashenka suggested that both countries could implement joint projects in developing oil and gas fields in Azerbaijan. Aliyev reportedly expressed his satisfaction with the successful development of trade and economic ties between Belarus and Azerbaijan. "What is manufactured in Belarus is currently in demand in Azerbaijan and what is made in Azerbaijan is of interest to your country," he told Lukashenka. Trade turnover between Belarus and Azerbaijan in 2005 amounted to $30 million. Belarus supplies Azerbaijan with tractors, trucks, road-construction equipment, and plywood, while importing raw tobacco, cotton fiber, and foodstuffs from Azerbaijan. JM

The editors in chief of five private newspapers have petitioned President Lukashenka to help them solve their printing and distribution problems, Belapan reported on October 17. The newspapers "Narodnaya volya," "Tovarishch," "BDG. Delovaya Gazeta," "Vitebsky kurer," and "Borisovskie novostei" were rejected by state-run printing plants and press-distribution networks in late 2005 in a move that is widely believed to have been ordered by the presidential administration. While addressing the National Assembly earlier this year, Lukashenka said he was ready "to solve" problems encountered by in the publication of Belarusian private newspapers. The five newspapers stress in their petition that they have not managed to sign contracts with Belarusian printing plants for 2007 and have not been included in next year's subscription catalogue of the Belposhta state postal service. JM

Belarus's population decreased by 26,500 people in the first eight months of 2006 to 9,724,000, Belapan reported on October 17, quoting the Statistics and Analysis Ministry. The 1999 census registered that there were 10,045,200 people living in the country. JM

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych on October 17 called on members of the Cabinet of Ministers to work as a team despite the recent switch of the Our Ukraine bloc to the opposition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 17, 2006), Interfax-Ukraine reported. "We should remain calm and work as we have worked," Yanukovych said at a cabinet meeting. "I wish us to continue cooperating, and let nothing change in connection with the processes under way in the country. The attitude of ministers to business must be the same as always," he added. Our Ukraine has delegated five ministers to Yanukovych's cabinet, including Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, who was appointed by President Viktor Yushchenko. Our Ukraine leader Roman Bezsmertnyy said on October 17 that the bloc is withdrawing its ministers from the government but was unable to predict when they will officially step down. "[The issue] is to be decided in the ongoing dialogue with the president of Ukraine and the parties of our bloc," he told journalists. JM

Oleksandr Turchynov, deputy head of the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) parliamentary caucus, told journalists on October 17 that the BYuT expects to coordinate opposition activities with Our Ukraine, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "We hope that the decision of Our Ukraine to join the opposition will not be abandoned tomorrow," Turchynov said, adding that the withdrawal of Our Ukraine ministers from Prime Minister Yanukovych's cabinet could pave the way for a cooperation agreement between the BYuT and Our Ukraine and the subsequent formation of a shadow cabinet. JM

Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), accused Serbia on October 16 of lacking the political will to capture fugitive war crimes indictee Ratko Mladic, Reuters reported the same day. "It's almost a smokescreen they are...showing us, [there is] no real political will and investigative will to locate and arrest Mladic," Del Ponte said after briefing EU ministers and officials in Luxembourg. "Most probably they want him to voluntarily surrender, to oblige him to voluntarily surrender, but I think Mladic will never voluntarily surrender. They will never achieve to locate or arrest Mladic," she said. The EU broke off talks with Belgrade on a Stabilization and Association Agreement in May over Serbia's failure to arrest Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). Before meeting with Serbian Prime Minster Vojislav Kostunica in Luxembourg, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Serbia's cooperation with the Hague tribunal was "not satisfactory." BW

EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said on October 16 that talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement with Belgrade will not resume until Mladic is captured, B92 reported the next day. "We are prepared to continue the discussions on the same day that Serbia fulfills its obligations to The Hague," Rehn said. "Unfortunately, there has been no new information regarding this plan. The implementation of the action plan [to capture Mladic] has yet to yield results and the discussions remain frozen. Of course, a lack of progress in that field is a source of frustration for us as well," he said, adding that Serbia has the economic and intellectual potential to someday become a member of the EU. BW

Reacting to the EU announcement, Serbian President Boris Tadic said on October 17 that he has "not lost faith that we can continue negotiations" on a Stabilization and Association Agreement, B92 reported Tadic as saying. "That means we must all work, each in his own area of responsibility, to convince EU politicians that the talks must resume," he added. "This is of vital importance for this country. Serbia cannot stop." After meeting with EU officials in Luxembourg, Kostunica denied that Serbia lacked the will to apprehend Mladic. "Certainly, progress has been made," the prime minister said. "Some could say that the action plan has not been implemented yet, but what is important is that we are working on it, and there is certainly a political will and a very tough, everyday work plan in Serbia of those who are responsible for taking care of this job, which is of the greatest importance for Serbia," he added. BW

Speaking at a regional conference on organized crime and terrorism in Serbia on October 16, Serbian President Boris Tadic verbally sparred with his Albanian counterpart, Alfred Moisiu, over Kosova's future, B92 reported the next day. At the end of the summit in Karadjordjevo, north of Belgrade, Moisiu said that "Albania's position is known," and that his country supports independence for Kosova. "I have talked to many Serbian representatives and I told them that we should forget the past, be realistic, and look to the future," Moisiu said. "Albania doesn't reject a compromise, but it is the only a way of solving the status question, not the solution itself," he added. Tadic responded that Kosova has been a part of Serbia since 1912 and that it would be dangerous to change existing borders. "Destabilizing any state in the region would mean destabilizing the entire region," he said. BW

The European Union announced on October 16 that it will expand its presence in Bosnia-Herzegovina next year when the broad executive powers of the international community's high representative are shifted to elected officials, AP and Reuters reported the same day. EU foreign ministers, meeting in Luxembourg, endorsed a report by foreign-policy chief Javier Solana and Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn backing the goal of closing the office of High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling on June 30, 2007, and transferring full responsibility to Bosnian leaders. "Only threats to the country's peace and stability ought to change that timeline," a statement summarizing the report said. According to the report, the EU special representative's office would then be expanded, but would differ in "size and overall approach" from that of the high representative, who has sweeping powers to impose laws and dismiss local officials. A final decision on the high representative's office is due in February. BW

An appeals court in Moldova overturned a guilty verdict against former Defense Minister Valeriu Pasat on October 16, clearing him of charges that he sold 21 fighter planes below market cost to the United States, AP reported the same day. Pasat, who was defense minister from 1997 to 1999 and head of the intelligence services from 1999 to 2002, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for abuse of office in connection with the sale of the MiG-29 fighter jets (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 19, 2006). The court, however, upheld Pasat's conviction for selling grenade launchers to a Slovak company at a discounted price in 1998, causing Moldova to lose $1.8 million. The ruling reduces Pasat's prison sentence from 10 years to five. Pasat claims the cases against him are politically motivated. BW

The European Union has said that it backs gradual international sanctions against Iran's nuclear program after Tehran rejected conditions to reopen negotiations. In a text adopted in Luxembourg on October 17, the bloc's foreign ministers expressed concern that Iran has not suspended uranium enrichment -- a process that creates fuel for nuclear energy but which can also be used for an atomic bomb.

The EU decision to back sanctions against Tehran comes after more than three years of talks between Iran and the EU that failed to bring a diplomatic solution to the dispute over Iran's controversial nuclear activities.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg said in their final statement that "Iran's continuation of enrichment-related activities has left the EU no choice but to support consultations" on United Nations sanctions. Nevertheless, they said, the door to negotiations remains open.

EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana, who has been deeply engaged in talks with Iranian officials recently, said it's time for Tehran to accept the preconditions for real negotiations with Brussels.

Solana said after talks with Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, that "there has been no change" in the crisis over Iran's refusal to give up sensitive nuclear work. "I had the opportunity to talk [on October 16] with Dr. Larijani on the telephone," he said. "We have said that we maintain the door open to continued negotiations but for that it's necessary to enter into the serious negotiation phase; some decisions have to be taken also on the Iranian side."

Solana, however, said that the EU talks with the Islamic republic have not broken down. "We were in the prenegotiation phase, we have not entered into the negotiation part so it's impossible [that] they have broken down," he said. "We would like to [make] all the efforts to enter into the formal negotiation phase. For the moment it's not possible because we have a very important hurdle that we cannot overcome."

The hurdle is Iran's uranium-enrichment program, which Iranian officials have refused to suspend. Iran has ignored a UN Security Council resolution that demanded a suspension of uranium enrichment. Iran has also not accepted a Western package of incentives offered to Iran in order to persuade it to halt uranium-enrichment activities.

On October 17, French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said Iran's refusal to halt enrichment leaves the EU no choice but to take the issue to the Security Council. He said the UN Security Council should adopt "gradual, reversible measures [that are] proportionate to Iranian actions."

Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, said sanctions were not discussed during the EU meeting. "If and when the UN Security Council adopts any decisions, of course all EU member states will also implement them," Tuomioja said.

On October 16, Alaeddin Borujerdi, the chairman of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told Iran's ISNA news agency that the EU will be wasting a great opportunity if it left talks with Iran. Borujerdi said Iran would be harmed much less than the EU by such a decision.

Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior nonproliferation expert at the London-based International Institute For Strategic Studies, believes Iran has more to lose than the EU. He says Iran is facing UN Security Council sanctions and other measures that could limit or halt interactions with its trading partners.

I don't know the exact nature of the sanctions but there are other sanctions that are also coming into place, financial sanctions not necessarily adopted by the Security Council," he says. "Iran is already paying a price of banks choosing not to engage in new operations, insurance companies not willing to insure new projects. So I think those in Iran's financial sector know very well who is paying the greater price and they might be asking themselves 'is it really worth it?'"

The same day that the EU demanded a halt to Iran's enrichment activities, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said on October 17 that countries that are seeking to dissuade Iran from "using nuclear technology for peaceful purposes" will be defeated.

Despite Iran's uncompromising rhetoric and defiance, Fitzpatrick says that it is still possible that Iran will return to the negotiating table. "Mr. Larijani -- sometime in the early discussions [with Solana] -- suggested that Iran could consider perhaps a three-month suspension; later he said no suspension at all and President Ahmadinejad said not even a suspension for one day," Fitzpatrick says. "So one wonders what was going on with Iran's position in these negotiations; were they just buying time or were there internal debates in Tehran that were reflected in this change of position? I think both factors were in play here and I don't think it's still totally impossible for Iran to consider a suspension."

Despite Tehran's intransigence on halting uranium enrichment, Brussels has said it remains committed to a negotiated solution to the issue that would contribute to the positive development of EU-Iranian relations. But Iran must act soon, as action on the conflict is now going to the UN Security Council.

(Golnaz Esfandiari is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

British forces serving with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) have pulled out of Musa Qala district in Helmand Province, international news agencies reported. The decision to leave Musa Qala, where eight British soldiers have been killed, was reached in early September after discussions between local tribes and British forces, London's "The Times" reported on October 17. ISAF commander British Lieutenant General David Richards said NATO's strategy in Afghanistan is not to get bogged down in a remote, fixed area. In an agreement negotiated between a local shura (council) and the British forces, a newly formed tribal police force is responsible for maintaining security in the district. Mark Laity, speaking for NATO in Kabul, said the Taliban are not involved in the deal. "We have had a local agreement that has brought 35 days of quiet, and the end result is they [ISAF forces] do not believe there is any need for them to remain permanently there when this local agreement has brought peace." The British Defense Ministry said that the move is "not a withdrawal" and the United Kingdom continues "to support the government of Afghanistan." Afghan National Army (ANA) Chief of Staff General Besmellah Mohammadi said in Kabul on October 17 that 50 policemen are currently in charge of security in Musa Qala, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported. If the Interior Ministry requires additional personnel, a number of ANA soldiers can be deployed in the district, Mohammadi added. AT

A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- on October 17 announced that "ISAF occupiers" evacuated Musa Qala after sustained, fierce, and direct battles carried out by the "mujahedin of the Islamic Emirate." Purporting to speak for the Taliban, Mohammad Yusof claimed on October 17 that the "government's flag" will not fly over Musa Qala and the Afghan government will not be in charge of running the affairs of the district, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. While Musa Qala has been more peaceful for ISAF forces since an understanding was reached with the locals, the terms of this agreement are unclear and it is not known whether there are measures in place to guard against a return to Taliban control of Musa Qala. AT

Kabul police have launched a 10-day operation to ensure security following a series of suicide and roadside bombings in the Afghan capital in recent months, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on October 17. The head of criminal investigation within the Kabul police force, General Alishah Paktiyawal, explained that the aim of the new operation is the elimination of the threat posed to Kabul residents by terrorists. As part of the operation, police checkpoints should be in place in Pol-e Charkhi, east of the city, to monitor roads leading to Kabul. The operation will involve 500 policemen divided into 10 squads. "With the exception of house searches, the police squads have been authorized to check every suspicious place and vehicle," Paktiyawal said. AT

The unidentified kidnappers of Italian journalist Gabriele Torsello have said they will release their captive in exchange for an Afghan national who was arrested in March and threatened with death for his conversion to Christianity (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," April 3, 2006), AFP reported on October 17. Torsello, who is reportedly a convert to Islam, was kidnapped while traveling between Helmand and Kandahar provinces in southern Afghanistan on October 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006). An Afghan court initially sentenced Abdul Rahman to death following his conversion to Christianity, but Rahman was released after amid international outcry and granted asylum in Italy. It is unclear what group has kidnapped Torsello; the neo-Taliban have denied any involvement. AT

EU foreign ministers met in Luxembourg on October 17 and were reportedly ready to back the imposition of sanctions, described by news agencies as mild and incremental, on Iran in response to its refusal to end sensitive nuclear-fuel-making activities, Reuters reported. EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner was quoted as saying that Iran must see that there is a united international response to its contested program, although a Spanish official said sanctions will be "gradual," as Iran remains an EU oil supplier, Reuters reported. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on October 16 in Washington that the UN Security Council will "begin to work this week on an Iran sanctions resolution," AFP reported. Rice said Iran and North Korea are two countries "that violate their pledges to respect the [Nuclear] Nonproliferation Treaty." EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana said in Luxembourg before the October 17 meeting that the doors to talks with Iran remain open and there is "always hope" that negotiations might resume, AFP reported. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on October 16 ordered the merger of the provincial offices of the Management and Planning Organization, the state budgeting body, with provincial governorates, prompting a vigorous protest from the organization's chief Farhad Rahbar and criticisms from politicians, local news agencies reported on October 17. The order stated that the move is part of the government's decentralizing policies, and will expedite provincial administration and boost regional development programs, reported. Provincial planning and budgeting chiefs are to work as deputy-provincial governors, according to his decision. But Rahbar has written to the president to protest, while three of his deputies have tendered their resignations, ISNA reported on October 17. The move is seen as stripping the budgeting body of much of its power and resources, effectively handing them to the Interior Ministry. A previous state budget chief, Muhammad Ali Najafi, said the decision is a "mistake" that will harm the centralized system of economic planning and budget allocation, reported. Legislator Hamid Reza Haji-Babai said the move has legal "ambiguities" and parliament must examine it and state its opinion, ISNA reported. Rajabali Mazrui, a former legislator, said this will eliminate the "role of the Management Organization as the government's mind in budget supervision and allocation," ISNA reported. VS

A new daily, "Ruzegar" (Times), was published on October 16 and is seen as an unofficial successor to the banned reformist daily "Sharq," which was closed on September 11, Reuters and AFP reported. The daily's managing editor is Farzaneh Kharaqani, and members of the former "Sharq" staff are working on the new daily, although they are "none of the well-known faces," Reuters reported, citing Mohammad Atrianfar, a former member of the "Sharq" policymaking board. Separately, ILNA reported on October 16 that three journalists were arrested "last week" at the offices of their Kurdish-language weekly, "Rujheh Halat." It reported that agents with a court order arrested Farhad Aminpur, Reza Alipur, and Saman Soleimani, without specifying why they were arrested or where the publication is based. On October 17, Justice Minister Jamal Karimi-Rad assured ISNA that the government is not trying to curb "critical" media but wants them to observe the government's "conduct" and "generosity" and "return to their true position and mission." He said unnamed domestic media have been "unkind" to the Ahmadinejad government, and "some of the opinions of government critics are baseless." VS

Students from Tehran's Amir Kabir University, formerly known as the Polytechnic, protested perceived pressure on students and dissidents in Iran and the three-week detention of Keivan Ansari, a former member of the university's Islamic Students Association, RFE/RL's Radio Farda and ISNA reported on October 16 and 17. Protesters called for the release of political and student prisoners, and the suspension of the Basiji association in the university, Radio Farda reported. Basijis are members of a militia affiliated with Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps. A student identified only as Qaragozlu told ISNA on October 16 that "they may have damaged the buildings of the Islamic association" of students, referring to unspecified agents, "and as they say the...association has no headquarters; but if they want to continue like this, we shall gather in the university and stop them. This is the Polytechnic, and we will not let them do [whatever] they like." VS

The Iraqi Interior Ministry announced on October 17 that Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani has removed three top police commanders who Sunni Arabs accused of having links to Shi'ite death squads, and reassigned them to administrative positions, international media reported the same day. The three commanders, all major generals, were identified as Mahdi Sabih al-Gharawi, commander of the 2nd Division of the National Police; Adnan Thabit, commander of the ministry's Special Forces; and Rashid Fulayyih, commander of the 1st Commando Unit. A ministry source told Reuters that the moves "are related to the sectarian conflict in the country." Meanwhile, AP reported that the commanders attended a ministry press briefing on October 17 dressed in civilian clothes rather than military uniforms. Interior Minister al-Bulani announced on October 13 that 3,000 ministry personnel were dismissed on charges of corruption and human rights violations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006). SS/KR

Interior Ministry spokesman Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Khalaf played down the reassignments, telling reporters at an October 17 press briefing in Baghdad that the men were transferred to oversee other areas of the ministry. "Due to their great experience in facing terrorists, the great sacrifices they have presented in the past period, and their long experience, they were transferred to other senior pons in the Interior Ministry so that the ministry may benefit from their new expertise in commanding other sections of the ministry in the fields of intelligence and police work in Baghdad Governorate," Khalaf said. "The interior minister and the Interior Ministry are very proud of the commanders who are sitting in front of you, due to the great sacrifices they have presented in serving the ministry, and therefore, serving Iraq," he added. Khalaf insisted that the transfer of Fulayyih and Sabih was unrelated to last week's dismissal of 3,000 ministry personnel. KR

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki released a statement saying that a special committee will be formed to deal with the contentious issue of the militias and that the government is determined to tackle them both politically and militarily, "Al-Sabah al-Jadid" reported on October 17. "The government is determined to oppose armed groups by all means politically or militarily and the government will not hesitate to strike at those who try to disturb the security of the nation and threaten civil peace," the statement said. It also indicated that the committee will review the structure of the ministries and look at weaknesses that are preventing the security forces from carrying out their duties effectively. SS

Radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has called on members of his Imam al-Mahdi Army to prevent the displacement of people from their homes and said he will disown any member who committed crimes against the Iraqi people under the banner of the Al-Mahdi Army, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on October 17. He urged his followers to assist displaced Iraqis, both Shi'ite and Sunni Arabs, to return to their hometowns. Furthermore, he called for coordination between the Public Relations Commission and social and political committees to restore some of the services that the oppressed Iraqi people were deprived of over the years. SS

Several tribal chieftains in the Al-Anbar Governorate condemned comments made by the he Al-Qaeda-affiliated Mujahedin Shura Council on October 15, declaring the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006). Tribal chief Abd al-Sattar Abu Rishah, the leader of the Islamic Salvation Council, told Al-Iraqiyah television on October 17: "We live in an Islamic country.... We do not want to learn Islam from those criminals. Islam is a religion of peace. It is not a religion of murder and terrorism." He stressed that the Al-Anbar tribal chieftains are following the leadership of Prime Minister al-Maliki and vowed to fight the terrorists and reveal their lies. SS