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Newsline - November 27, 2006

The British government's emergency planning committee, known as Cobra, met on November 25-26 to discuss the implications of the unexplained death in London on November 23 of former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agent Aleksandr Litvinenko, who had U.K. citizenship since 2001, British and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 21, and 22, 2006). Medical authorities have not been able to carry out an autopsy because of the high level of radioactivity in Litvinenko's body but believe he was poisoned under unclear circumstances with the radioactive substance polonium 210. Police are using several different techniques to try to retrace Litvinenko's movements on November 1, when he first reported feeling unwell. British media attention has centered on the allegation that Moscow might have been behind the death of Litvinenko, who was a strong critic of President Vladimir Putin and was researching the recent killing of Russian investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya at the time of his apparent poisoning (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 16, 2006). RFE/RL's Russian Service reported from London on November 26 that a state's involvement in the death seems highly possible because polonium 210 is available only from government-run nuclear facilities. The British and German governments have called on the Russian authorities to assist with the investigation. Few senior British officials made public comments on the case, but one said on condition of anonymity on November 24 that the Litvinenko affair is "unprecedented." On November 26, Home Secretary John Reid called the case "suspicious." Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain said on November 26 that relations between London and Moscow have become "tricky." He did not address the Litvinenko affair specifically, but referred to what he called Putin's "huge attacks" on liberty and democracy and the occurrence of unspecified "murky murders" during his rule. Speaking in Helsinki on November 24, Putin called for an inquiry and pledged Russian help. PM

On November 24, Litvinenko's friend Aleksandr Goldfarb read to reporters in London what he said was a deathbed letter from Litvinenko addressed primarily to Putin. Litvinenko allegedly wrote that "you may succeed in silencing me, but that silence comes at a price. You have shown yourself to be as barbaric and ruthless as your most hostile critics have claimed.... You have shown yourself to have no respect for life, liberty, or any civilized values. You have shown yourself to be unworthy of your office, to be unworthy of the trust of civilized men and women.... You may succeed in silencing one man, but the holler of protest from around the world will reverberate, Mr. Putin, in your ears for the rest of your life." The letter added, "May God forgive you for what you have done, not only to me but to beloved Russia and its people." In his remarks in Helsinki on November 24, Putin appeared to question the authenticity of the letter: "If this note was in fact written before Mr. Litvinenko's demise, then the question arises, why wasn't it made public while he was alive? And if it appeared [only] after his demise...then, naturally, what [conclusions can be drawn from that fact]?" Putin stressed that "it is extremely regrettable that such tragic events as a human death are used for political provocations." He argued that "a human death is always a tragedy, and I offer my condolences to Mr. Litvinenko's family.... We believe that our British colleagues, including those in law enforcement agencies, understand the measure of their responsibility for ensuring the safety of citizens living on their territory... [including] citizens of the Russian Federation..., regardless of their political views and convictions." Putin added that he hopes that "the British authorities will not help give life to any political scandals that have no real grounds." The daily "Rossiya" on November 23 and some other Russian media suggested that the killing was somehow arranged by self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky, who was also Litvinenko's friend, in order to discredit Putin. But Yuly Dobov, who is a London-based associate of Berezovsky, told RFE/RL's Russian Service in London on November 24 that such charges are groundless and that the Kremlin is simply using Berezovsky's name in an attempt to cover up its own crimes. PM

EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson said in Helsinki on November 24 on the sidelines of an EU-Russia summit that Russia's threat to ban the import of EU meat products when Romania and Bulgaria join that body in January 2007 could prompt several unnamed EU member states to block Russia's planned entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO), the "International Herald Tribune" reported on November 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20 and 21, 2006). Mandelson said that Russia's trade tactics "will affect the attitude of member states toward signing off on [Russia's WTO] accession. This is not the only trade irritant between us and Russia. There are at least half a dozen.... We can't have so irritants hanging over us." He noted EU concerns over Russia's refusal to ratify the EU's Energy Charter, which Moscow signed in 1994. The document would require Russia to open up access to its pipelines, which Gazprom now effectively controls as a monopoly, while seeking greater access to European markets for itself. Mandelson argued that "Russia is acting in a disproportionate way" in its approach to trade issues. Russia currently forbids meat and plant imports from Poland, which the EU has criticized and Poland calls illegal. The EU has also dismissed Russian charges regarding Romanian and Bulgarian meat exports, Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on November 25. But President Putin argued in Helsinki that the EU bears responsibility for the problem because "it decided on the admission of the two countries...without [first] consulting us in the interest of all concerned." PM

Polish officials at the Helsinki summit blocked the launching of Russia-EU talks aimed at preparing a new and expanded partnership agreement to replace the current one, which expires in 2007 but which can be renewed automatically if a new document has not been agreed. Poland insists that Russia lift its ban on Polish agricultural products and sign the Energy Charter before Warsaw will agree to the talks. It maintains that the meat ban is politically motivated and based on forged documentary evidence. In the run-up to the summit, Germany tried to convince Poland that its interests would best be served by securing a new partnership agreement. Finland failed to persuade Poland that talks could begin without signifying that Poland automatically agreed to accepting the final document. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said that he hopes that "Poland understands that the best way to defend its national interests is through a European position." Latvian Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis argued that his country also has problems with Russia but prefers "dialogue" to resolve them. Some European media on November 25 and 27 suggested that Warsaw played into Moscow's hands by highlighting divisions within the EU and increasing the likelihood that Russia will secure bilateral agreements with individual EU member states, which is what Putin allegedly prefers. Others argued that Poland did the difficult work for other, less assertive EU governments by insisting that Russia live up to agreements it has already signed before talks can begin on any new pacts. The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote on November 25 that the Russian authorities are behaving in the "old Kremlin...great power" style and seeking to "punish" other states on a bilateral basis. The "Financial Times" argued on November 27 that "the EU should adopt what could be termed a Russian approach -- a cold-eyed assessment of how its own interests can best be advanced by cooperating with the other side. That means holding Russia to account for all the commitments it has signed up to in its current agreements with the EU, which encompass visas, trade, and human rights." The Russian daily "Vremya novostei" wrote on November 24 that the Polish government is hurting the interests not only of other EU member states but also of its own meat producers by failing to deal with what Putin called the root of the problem, which allegedly is substandard meat exports of products originating in third countries. The daily "Kommersant" suggested that the EU risks becoming as weak as the CIS if individual members use it to solve their own bilateral problems with other countries, which, the paper argues, is what happened to the CIS. EU and Russian leaders nonetheless agreed on November 24 on eliminating overflight fees for EU aircraft flying over Siberia en route to Asia. The controversial fees will be gradually reduced starting in 2007 and eliminated entirely by 2014. EU carriers currently pay about $300 million annually for overflight rights. PM

Igor Shuvalov, who is a top Kremlin aide and was President Putin's chief planner for the July Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries' summit in St. Petersburg, was quoted in the "Financial Times" of November 27 as saying that Europe "will never have a more reliable energy supplier than Russia" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 24, and November 3 and 21, 2006). He added that the authorities have agreed on an unspecified cap for gas used in generating electricity within Russia, despite a growing demand. He said that domestic industrial gas prices will be increased, albeit not until after the 2008 presidential election. He argued that higher prices will enable smaller gas companies to develop new fields. In recent weeks, some European and Russian media have noted that Russian domestic demand for gas is rising much more quickly than expected and is encouraged by artificially low prices, Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on November 25. Demand from abroad also continues to rise despite increasing prices. Russia's gas industry needs large investments to modernize its infrastructure and develop new fields, which are often in remote and inhospitable locations. PM

Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov has said in Moscow that Russia will go ahead with deliveries of Tor-M1 ground-to-air antiaircraft-missile systems to Iran, which began recently under a contract signed in December 2005, reported on November 27 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 12, and 16, 2005, and February 9 and May 4, 2006). He repeated Moscow's long-standing position that the missiles are purely defensive in nature. Washington objects to the sale. PM

At a November 22 session of the Federation Council's Commission on Nationality Policy that was also attended by the senators and parliament speakers from individual federation subjects, Regional Development Minister Vladimir Yakovlev presented the revised version of the draft State Nationality Concept unveiled last year, reported on November 23. That initial version contained a formulation referring to the creation of "a single multinational society in which the Russian people [russky narod] would play a consolidating role." That formulation triggered outraged protest from non-Russian minorities, and has been watered down in the revised version, which envisages a "unifying role" for the Russian people in the process of forming "a single sense of civic awareness [grazhdanstvennost]." President Putin advocated in 2002 revising the Russian nationality policy concept adopted under his predecessor Boris Yeltsin in 1996. That concept was largely authored by former Deputy Prime Minister Ramazan Abdulatipov, an Avar who is currently Russian ambassador to Tajikistan. LF

Jordanian-born Abu Hafs al-Urdani, who joined the Chechen resistance in 1995, was one of five militants killed during a sweep operation in the Daghestan town of Khasavyurt early on November 26, Russian media reported. Abu Hafs fought first under fellow Jordanian Khattab, then after the latter's death in April 2002 under his successor Abu-Walid, who was killed two years later. The U.S. State Department has linked Abu Hafs with Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, head of the Al-Qaeda network in Iraq who was killed in June of this year. Asked about that imputed connection with Al-Qaeda in a recent interview with the Turkish newspaper "Zakit" that was posted on on November 10, Abu Hafs avoided a direct answer. He asked rhetorically "when has America ever told the truth about Muslims?" and added that it is "unjust to brand as Al Qaeda members all those who seek to defend [their] honor, religion, and oppressed Muslim brothers." Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov told Interfax on November 26 that Abu Hafs was planning a series of terrorist attacks in Daghestan and that the situation in Chechnya will doubtless improve in the wake of his death, according to LF

In a statement posted on November 27 on the Chechen website, the Ossetian jamaat acknowledged that pro-Moscow republican leaderships in the North Caucasus have launched successful operations against the resistance on the basis of tip-offs received from paid informants. The jamaat announced that at a recent meeting of its amirs, it was decided to offer a reward of $50,000 plus selected weaponry to militants who succeed in executing Chechen Prime Minister Kadyrov, or Sulim Yamadayev or Said-Magomed Kakiyev, who are the commanders, respectively, of the East and West battalions of the Russian Defense Ministry's military-intelligence arm. LF

Representatives of several Armenian opposition parties, including the National Democratic Union, the Brotherhood of Liberation Struggle, and Homeland and Honor, attended the first meeting of the Civil Disobedience movement in Yerevan on November 23, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The movement, of which former Foreign Minister Alexander Arzoumanian is one of the initiators, advocates "removing the current regime and holding free and democratic preterm elections." Addressing the gathering, Academician Rafael Ghazarian, one of the original 11 members in 1988 of the Karabakh Committee, expressed support for those objectives and noted that the Armenian population is disenchanted with mainstream opposition parties which, he implied, are bogged down in squabbling among themselves. LF

Azerbaijan's National Council on Television and Radio ruled on November 24 to ban further broadcasts by the independent television station ANS and ANS radio, Azerbaijani media reported. Technicians began dismantling ANS's transmitters the same day, even before the company's owners were formally informed of the council's decision. Council Chairman Nushiravan Magerramli was quoted on November 25 by the independent daily as saying that ANS was closed down in light of 11 separate violations of broadcasting legislation, including opening a bureau of ANS Radio in the provincial town of Sheki on the eve of the November 2005 parliamentary ballot without obtaining the required license. He said a tender will be held for the frequencies on which ANS TV broadcast. Later on November 24, ANS President Vaxid Mustafayev told a press conference that during the 15 years of its existence, ANS has consistently observed the law and sought to act in the national interest. He stressed that in 2005 alone, ANS paid $2 million in taxes to the national budget. He said he plans to appeal to President Ilham Aliyev over the station's closure which, he argued, negatively reflects on Azerbaijan's international reputation. Also on November 24, the OSCE Office in Baku released a statement expressing "surprise and concern" at the closure of ANS, which it characterized as one of the most objective broadcasters in Azerbaijan. ANS, the country's first private radio and television company, was carrying shows produced by the Voice of America and RFE/RL. LF

A court in Baku ruled on November 24 that the editorial staff of the independent daily "Azadliq" should immediately vacate the Baku offices it has occupied since 1992, reported. The Committee for State Property demanded the eviction on the grounds that the paper allegedly owes a total of $26,000 in rent arrears (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2006). Police cordoned off the building on November 25 to facilitate the removal of property belonging not only to the "Azadliq" editorial staff, but also to the newspaper "Bizim yol," the news agency Turan, and the opposition Azerbaijan National Front Party (AHCP) that also occupied offices in the same building. The paper "Azadliq" plans to use temporarily the editorial offices of the radical opposition publication "Yeni Musavat," while the AHCP staff will move temporarily into the headquarters of the Democratic Party of Azerbaijan. LF

Speaking in Tbilisi on November 23, the third anniversary of the Rose Revolution that culminated in the resignation of then-President Eduard Shevardnadze, Mikheil Saakashvili affirmed that "no one will ever be able to force Georgia to its knees," Caucasus Press reported. He acknowledged that external pressure on Georgia has increased over the past three years and called on the population to demonstrate "patience and unity." On November 24, Saakashvili predicted that Georgia will not experience problems with energy supplies during the coming winter, Caucasus Press reported. He said Georgia generates a surplus of electricity that will more than compensate for any cutbacks in supplies of natural gas. LF

In an assessment of the situation in Georgia three years after the Rose Revolution, summarized on November 23 by Caucasus Press, Transparency International Georgia expressed concern at what it perceives as the lack of any clear division between the branches of power in Georgia. Georgia currently has a super-presidential system very similar to those of the Russian Federation and Central Asian states, the report concluded. It noted that while the reintroduction of the Cabinet of Ministers constituted a step away from a purely presidential system, the parliament has been stripped of many of the powers it enjoyed under Shevardnadze and now effectively functions as a "rubber stamp for the government of Saakashvili." LF

Eduard Kokoity was sworn in in Tskhinvali on November 25 for a second term as president of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, Georgian and Russian media reported. Kokoity was reelected with 96 percent of the vote on November 12, defeating three rival candidates in a ballot not recognized as legitimate or valid by the international community (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2006). Present at the inauguration ceremony were representatives from the similarly unrecognized republics of Abkhazia, Transdniester and Nagorno-Karabakh, and the presidents of the North Caucasus republics of North Ossetia, Kabardino-Balkaria, and Karachayevo-Cherkessia, whom Kokoity referred to as part of a "strong and cohesive team" to which his republic also belongs, according to Georgian President Saakashvili ignored Kokoity's invitation to attend the inauguration ceremony; former Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Gogi Khaindrava expressed thanks, but did not attend, Caucasus Press reported. Dmitry Medoyev, South Ossetia's permanent representative in Moscow, was quoted by on November 27 as reaffirming South Ossetia's readiness for talks with Georgia. At the same time, Medoyev stressed that the unrecognized republic's voters again affirmed their support for independence during the referendum held concurrently with the presidential ballot, and that consequently "South Ossetia will never [again] be a part of Georgia." LF

In a unanimous vote, the Kazakh parliament on November 24 overturned a national ban on postelection demonstrations, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and AKIpress reported. The move to end the prohibition was adopted by both houses of the Kazakh parliament but must still be signed into law by President Nursultan Nazarbaev. The ban followed a series of demonstrations in neighboring Kyrgyzstan in March 2005 that led to the ouster of Kyrgyz President Askar Akaev; it made any protests between election day and the release of official results illegal. Addressing parliament, Kazakh Central Election Commission Chairman Onalsyn Zhumabekov said the decision to lift the ban was unrelated to recent criticism leveled by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), adding that the OSCE "may give only suggestions." Zhumabekov noted that Kazakhstan has a right "to consider" OSCE suggestions and "to agree with them or not." Kazakhstan is actively campaigning to assume the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE in 2009. RG

In a statement released in Bishkek, Ata Meken (Fatherland) opposition party leader Omurbek Tekebaev on November 24 denounced the arrest by Kyrgyz security forces for unspecified reasons of one of its members, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Attorney Kasymbek Raiymkul-uulu said he has been prevented from seeing his client, Bakyt Kalpetov, who he said has launched a hunger strike to protest his detention. Tursunbek Akun, the head of the Kyrgyz presidential Human Rights Commission, said the commission has asked the security services to clarify the arrest following a formal appeal submitted by the Ata Meken party. Kalpetov was briefly detained on November 22 by Bishkek police in connection with his alleged involvement in an assault against the deputy director of the Kyrgyz State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company (MTRK), Beyshenbek Bekeshov, Kyrgyz State Television reported. RG

A session of the Kyrgyz parliament on November 24 was disrupted by a fight between parliamentary speaker Marat Sultanov and Omurbek Tekebaev, the leader of the opposition For Reforms movement, AKIpress and ITAR-TASS reported. The clash erupted during a parliamentary debate over the appointment of candidates for the Kyrgyz Supreme Court, sparked by Tekebaev's accusations that the process is marred by corruption. Tekebaev has become a leading opposition figure since his resignation as legislative speaker in early 2006. RG

A group uniting several Kyrgyz youth organizations called on November 23 for the dissolution of the Kyrgyz parliament, arguing that the legislature is "hampering the executive from working consistently and fruitfully," according to Supporters of the appeal include the national youth league For the Unity of Kyrgyzstan, the Union of Young Businessmen, the ecological Altyn Moon youth foundation, and the Bishkek school of tutors and the Bishkek development center. The move coincided with an allegation on November 23 by opposition parliamentarian Tekebaev charging that a government "plan is being worked out" to "dissolve the parliament in December 2006." Several Kyrgyz lawmakers called on November 20 for the parliament to dissolve itself (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2006). RG

The United Nations Committee against Torture released a report on November 25 in which it praises Tajikistan for having made "some improvements" in observing human rights, but it notes that significant improvements are still needed in some areas, RFE/RL reported. The UN report pointed to the need to reform the Tajik law on pretrial detention, which can last as long as 15 months, and noted a high number of deaths in custody. It also called on Tajikistan to guarantee the independence of the judiciary. RG

Meeting during a summit of CIS defense ministers, Tajik Defense Minister Colonel General Sherali Khayrulloev and Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko signed a new bilateral accord on defense cooperation on November 24, the Avesta website reported. The new agreement calls for the staging of five joint training exercises and provides for closer military and technical cooperation, including the training of Tajik military specialists by Ukraine to repair tanks and armored personnel vehicles. RG

Tajik legislators unanimously adopted the state budget for 2007 on November 22 that identifies the fight against poverty and expanding the tax base as priorities, AKIpress reported. Tajik Finance Minister Safarali Nadzhmuddinov said the state budget includes a projected increase in state revenues to 3.195 billion somonis ($926 million) and an increase in expenditures to 3.290 billion somonis. The budget further projects a 7.5 percent increase in GDP, to some 9.55 billion somonis, and inflation of 7 percent. Some 40 percent of budgetary expenditures, or about 1.3 billion somonis, are earmarked for spending in the energy, transport, and agricultural sectors. The budget also increases spending on education and health care, and provides a 71 million somoni ($21 million) increase in defense and law-enforcement spending, Asia-Plus reported. RG

The Uzbek Foreign Ministry released a statement on November 24 denouncing a recent report on religious freedom compiled by the U.S. State Department as "unfounded" and "interference in [the] internal affairs of Uzbekistan," AKIpress and Uzbek television reported. The statement criticizes the U.S. report for including Uzbekistan on a list of countries violating religious freedoms, adding that the United States is following "a one-sided approach and double standards" regarding such issues as freedom of religions and conscience. RG

The deputy director of the Uzbek State Press and Information Agency, Utkir Juraev, announced on November 21 that Uzbekistan has initiated a broad review of all media outlets, warning that those outlets with registration details and statutes found to be not fully complying with existing legislation will have to re-register with the Uzbek authorities, according to the website and RFE/RL. Juraev denied charges that the measure is intended to strengthen the government's control of the country's media. RG

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka suggested to a group of Ukrainian journalists in Minsk on November 23 that Belarus and Ukraine could work out a joint stance on "oil and gas issues," including a coordinated policy on tariffs for Russian natural gas transited to Europe, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. "What if we pursued a single policy in talks with Russia on this matter?" Lukashenka said. "Would it be worse? It would be better. So let's do it." Lukashenka complained earlier in that interview about Moscow's declared intention to increase the price it charges Belarus for natural-gas exports in 2007 from the current rate of $47 per 1,000 cubic meters to possibly as much as $200. Lukashenka also suggested the possibility of raising tariffs for cargos in transit from and to Russia in order to make up for an anticipated Russian gas-price hike. "For instance, 100 million tons of cargos is annually transported from Western Europe to Russia and back via Belarus. We can earn a billion if we charge $10 per ton. And there will be no questions regarding the price of gas then," he said. JM

President Lukashenka said in the same interview with Ukrainian journalists in Minsk on November 23 that he would welcome the idea of a union state with Ukraine as a more feasible political formation than the declared union with Russia because of the "comparable" sizes of Belarus and Ukraine, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. "Pray God it happens some time. Believe me, everybody would have to take this [Belarusian-Ukrainian] state into consideration. We would bargain a great deal from the world for our peoples," Lukashenka said. JM

While speaking with Ukrainian journalists in Minsk on November 23, President Lukashenka admitted to rigging the March 19 presidential election, in which he officially obtained 83 percent of the vote, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. But Lukashenka claimed that he falsified the election in favor of his rivals. "Yes, we falsified the last election. I have already told the Westerners [about this]. As many as 93.5 percent of voters voted for President Lukashenka. But they said this was not a 'European' result. So we made it 86 [percent]," he said. "The Europeans told us before the election that if there were 'European' figures in the election, they would recognize our election. And we tried to make European figures," Lukashenka explained, noting that the move nevertheless has not resulted in recognition of the ballot. Meanwhile, Mikalay Lazavik, secretary of Belarus's Central Election Commission (TsVK), said on November 24 that the TsVK "is not aware of any fraud" in the March presidential election. According to Lazavik, the official results reflect the "genuine will" of the people. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko on November 24 called on the Verkhovna Rada to recognize the Holodomor [Famine] of 1932-33 as an act of genocide against Ukrainian people, Ukrainian media reported. "I believe that when we are talking about the tragedy of Ukrainian people in 1932-1933, you can call it nothing but an act of genocide against the Ukrainian nation.... I want to call on all Ukrainian politicians to adopt a clear stance on this matter, be courageous and get up from their knees," Yushchenko said while opening an exhibition of famine-related documents declassified by the Security Service of Ukraine. As many as 10 million Ukrainians may have died in the famine provoked by the Soviet leadership under Josef Stalin in a bid to force peasants to give up their land and join collective farms. A dozen foreign legislatures have recognized the 1932-33 Holodomor as genocide, but the Ukrainian parliament has not yet done so. Some lawmakers from the ruling Party of Regions -- apparently lending an ear to protests from Moscow -- have proposed dropping the word "genocide" from a relevant bill, suggesting that the Holodomor be called a "tragedy" instead. JM

Police in Serbia have apprehended a suspect in the 2003 assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic, Reuters reported on November 25. Aleksandar Simovic, who was on the run since the March 12, 2003, assassination, was arrested in Belgrade, according to a police spokesman. He was already on trial in absentia along with 12 others accused of the murder. Five other suspects are still being sought. A key witness in the case, Zoran "Vuk" Vukojevic, was found tortured and shot dead in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 5, 2006). Some Serbian media reported that Simovic's DNA was found on the body, Reuters reported. BW

Dragan Djilas, the chairman of the Belgrade council of President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party (DS), has called on Vojislav Kostunica to declare whom his Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) plans to ally itself with after the January 2007 elections, B92 reported on November 26. Prime Minister "Kostunica and others from his party have said they won't make any promises, but will rather speak about what they will do after the elections," Djilas said. "I call on them to say whether they will align with [Serbian Radical Party (SRS) leader] Tomislav Nikolic or Boris Tadic." BW

More than 50 inmates were injured at two prisons on November 24 when riot police intervened to curb protests, Reuters reported the same day. The inmates at a prison in the city of Nis and the Zabela prison in Pozarevac were protesting to demand the quick adoption of an amnesty law. "Some 40 prisoners who were putting up resistance were injured in the prison in Nis and some 15 in Zabela," a police statement said. The statement added that following the police intervention "the situation in the prisons is in line with the law." Prisoners were angry that parliament failed to meet to adopt a long-delayed amnesty law that would commute a quarter of all sentences except those for organized crime and terrorism. The law will now have to wait until after Serbia's January 21 elections. BW

Romanian Ambassador to Serbia Ion Macovei said on November 26 that Kosova's independence would destabilize the region, B92 and Beta reported the same day. "Romania favors broad autonomy for Kosovo, agreed on through a direct dialogue of Pristina and Belgrade," Macovei said. "In case of an unprecedented decision to grant Kosovo independence, other separatist regions throughout Europe would see this as encouragement to continue with their demands." Macovei said he recently relayed his position to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop-Scheffer. BW

Forensics experts in Bosnia-Herzegovina have exhumed 156 bodies from a mass grave in the northeastern village of Snagovo, B92 and AP reported on November 26. In addition to the victims' remains, "blindfolds, wires, wallets, watches of the victims of the Srebrenica massacre from 1995 have been found in the grave," said Jasna Subotic, a spokesman for the prosecutor in charge of genocide crimes. The grave in Snagovo, located 50 kilometers north of Srebrenica, was found earlier in November following a tip from an undisclosed source, Missing Persons Commission head Murat Hurtic said. It is the seventh mass grave Hurtic's team has found near Srebrenica. BW

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka made some surprising announcements on November 23 as Minsk prepared to host a summit of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). Meeting in the Belarusian capital with a group of Ukrainian journalists, Lukashenka informed them that Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko had "announced" that he will not be coming to the CIS summit on November 28. Lukashenka also proposed the formation of a Ukrainian-Belarusian state, and even admitted to rigging Belarus's last presidential election.

The news that the Ukrainian president would not be coming to the summit came as quite a shock to the journalists, as neither Yushchenko or any of his aides had issued such a statement.

Later in the day, Vitaliy Hayduk, secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defense Council, refuted Lukashenka's comments by saying Yushchenko was, in fact, planning to visit Minsk.

Apparently out of concern that Yushchenko might refuse to meet with him, Lukashenka touted the potential success of such talks. "If only Belarus and Ukraine could reach an agreement, the configuration of economic and political relations in the region would completely change," he said.

Asked by the Ukrainian journalists to clarify what he had in mind, Lukashenka said Minsk and Kyiv could work out a joint stance on "oil and gas issues," including a coordinated policy on tariffs for Russian gas transit to Europe. "What if we pursued a single policy in talks with Russia on this matter?" Lukashenka said. "Would it be worse? It would be better. So let's do it."

Lukashenka did not conceal his concern over Moscow's declared intention to increase the price it charges Belarus for natural gas in 2007. Belarus could find itself paying as much as $200 per 1,000 cubic meters, compared to the current rate of $47. By insisting on the price hike, Gazprom has made clear that it wants Lukashenka to give up control over Beltranshaz, Belarus's gas-pipeline operator.

After complaining to the Ukrainian journalists about the expected price increase and about what he sees as Moscow's intention to put Belarusian economic entities in a disadvantageous position compared to Russian businesses, Lukashenka admitted that he would welcome the idea of forming a union state with Ukraine. He went so far as to suggest that, because of the "comparable" sizes of the two states, such a union might even be more feasible than one with Russia.

According to the Belarusian president, such a political formation could face a bright future. "Pray God it happens some time. Believe me, everybody would have to take this [Belarusian-Ukrainian] state into consideration," Lukashenka said. "We would bargain a great deal from the world for our peoples."

Vintsuk Vyachorka, leader of the Belarusian Popular Front, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that, in making such comments, Lukashenka is beginning to promote an idea first proposed by the Belarusian opposition 15 years ago. At that time, Vyachorka noted, the opposition sought to seek closer ties and, if possible, a union with Ukraine and the Baltic states in order to counter Russia's political and economic clout.

According to Vyachorka, such a move on the part of Lukashenka testifies to his desperation in the face of Russia's economic pressure. "I think that today Mr. Lukashenka has no response to this challenge, to this deadlock into which he himself has brought our country," he said.

Another prominent opposition activist, United Civic Party deputy head Alyaksandr Dabravolski, agrees with Vyachorka. But Dabravolski does not believe that Lukashenka is serious in speaking about a union with Ukraine. According to Dabravolski, Lukashenka is merely trying to blackmail Moscow.

"Now, when Russia wants to obtain actual money for its energy resources, it has become apparent to everybody that there is nothing behind the [Belarus-Russia] union state," Dabravolski said. "There is neither foundations nor a roof. All opposition forces have warned that it is necessary to talk with Russia about cooperation while taking into account real [national] interests. Now, as usual, Lukashenka will try using blackmail or persuasion."

Will Lukashenka broach the union idea to Yushchenko if the Ukrainian president does, in fact, come to Minsk for the summit? Such a scenario cannot be ruled out.

It is quite reasonable to assume that if the two were to meet in the future, the issue of Russian gas supplies to, and Russian gas transit through, Belarus and Ukraine might come up. Both countries now seem to have similar problems in ensuring their energy security. In other respects, however, any potential understanding between Lukashenka and Yushchenko is unlikely.

In March, Ukraine held parliamentary elections that were praised in Europe as almost exemplarily fair and democratic. The same month, Lukashenka was reelected for his third straight term in a ballot that was internationally decried as deeply flawed and fraudulent.

Lukashenka on November 23 acknowledged that he rigged the March presidential election. But he claimed to have stolen the vote from himself, not from the opposition. "Yes, we falsified the last election. I have already told the Westerners [about this]. As many as 93.5 percent of voters voted for President Lukashenka. But they said this was not a 'European' result. So we made it 86 [percent]. That is true," Lukashenka said. "If we were to start recounting ballots now, I don't know what we would do with them. The Europeans told us before the election that if there were 'European' figures in the election, they would recognize our election. And we tried to make European figures."

If Lukashenka, in fact, went to such lengths to be recognized by Europe to no avail, then it is easy to understand why he is becoming increasingly bitter toward Europe, in particular, and the West in general.

But it would be unrealistic for Lukashenka to expect sympathy, either publicly or privately, from his Ukrainian counterpart who is still enjoying the positive international response to the Orange Revolution and successful parliamentary elections.

A suicide bomber detonated his explosives inside a restaurant in Orgun in Paktika Province on November 26, killing 15 people and injuring up to 25 others, international news agencies reported. Paktika police chief General Shah Alam Spand described the restaurant as "a place the people from the militia force are coming [to, and that] is always crowded," "The New York Times" reported on November 26. Spand speculated that the bomber's intended targets might have been a local official and the chief of a militia force that cooperates with U.S. forces in the province, both of whom were present in the restaurant and survived the attack. Paktika Governor Akram Khpalwak said the chief of the Barmal district, Mobin Shah, and an "Afghan special force" commander, Azizullah, were among the injured, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. "Afghan special force" is a term widely used to refer to a militia. A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- claimed on November 26 that a "mujahid of the Islamic Emirate" and resident of Paktika named Nur Mohammad carried out a "sacrificial attack" against a police station in Orgun that killed 20 policemen. AT

Afghan President Hamid Karzai condemned the Orgun suicide attack on November 26, the official Radio Afghanistan reported. Expressing his "deep sorrow," Karzai lamented that once "again the enemies of Afghanistan have shown their anti-Islamic and anti-humanitarian face by killing" innocent Afghans. AT

Mohammad Hanif, speaking for the Taliban, claimed that four Afghan nationals kidnapped in the northeastern Konar Province have been executed on charges that they spied for the United States, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on November 26. Konar Governor Shalizi Didar told the news agency that the four, local workers at a U.S. military base in the Korengal area, were kidnapped by "armed enemies" on November 25. A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan claimed on November 26 that four "American spies" were killed by the "mujahedin of the Islamic Emirate" after an examination of their documents and following a ruling by a Shari'a court. AT

A session of the Afghan National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) on November 26 approved a plan to change the name of the Culture, Tourism, and Youth Ministry to the Information and Culture Ministry. From the 1970s onward, the ministry was known as the Information and Culture Ministry, but was then twice renamed under the post-Taliban transitional administrations (initially to the Information, Culture and Tourism Ministry and later to the Culture, Tourism, and Youth Ministry). Under the Wolesi Jirga decision, youth affairs will be assigned to another ministry at a later date. AT

A 47-strong unit of Czech troops arrived in Afghanistan on November 25 to assume command of Kabul airport, CTK reported. This is the first time that a Czech contingent has been designated to command a unit within the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. The Czech command will comprise around 500 ISAF and Afghan soldiers. With the additional forces, the Czech contingent in Afghanistan will total about 150, stationed in Kabul and in northeastern Afghanistan. AT

Ayatollah Jalaledin Taheri-Isfahani, a member of the Assembly of Experts, said on November 25 that the vetting body has rejected the qualifications of all prospective reformist candidates for the December 15 council elections in Isfahan, Aftab News website reported. Also on November 25, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a parliamentarian and spokesman for the Central Council of the Election Supervisory Committee, said that 700 candidates who were previously disqualified were reinstated, ILNA reported. A final figure is not available yet, he said. Falahatpisheh said on November 19 that all the reformists in Tehran were approved, "Farhang-i Ashti" reported. He added, "According to the figures we received from some 28 provinces, the average disqualification rate in executive committees was 11 percent in cities and 5 percent in villages; and supervisory committee reviews have reduced these numbers by 50 percent." According to Ahmad Karimi-Isfahani, a member of the executive committee for council elections in Tehran Province, "All the inquisitions and qualification assessments for the candidates of Tehran have been finalized and it must be mentioned that 1,243 people were qualified, 191 disqualified and seven resigned from running," "Siyasat-i Ruz" reported on November 11. BS

Gholam-Ali Haddad-Adel on November 26 blamed strife on Iran's periphery to the country's enemies, Fars News Agency reported. "Enemies of Islam intend to exercise the same policy and sow discord between the Shi'a and Sunnis in a number of border provinces, such as Sistan va Baluchistan, Khuzestan, Kurdistan, etc., in a bid to hinder materialization of the goals of the Islamic Revolution and prevent our revolution from setting a paradigm for other countries," he said. Nasser Bani Assad, spokesman for the British Ahwazi Friendship Society, said the same day that Haddad-Adel is misrepresenting the situation in southwestern Khuzestan where, according to him, 70 percent of the population is Arab and 80 percent of the Arabs practice Shi'a Islam, according to the society's website. Locals' protests are not, he continued, "against Shi'ism but against the regime's anti-Arab racism." The province has seen fatal bombings and demonstrations over the last 18 months; provincial television has broadcast the heavily edited confessions of some bombers, and in March two were executed. The UN General Assembly on November 22 voted in favor of a resolution that criticized Iran's human rights record and its treatment of minorities; the European Parliament had adopted a similar resolutionon on November 16. BS

Speaking to worshippers before the November 24 Friday Prayers in Tehran, Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Reyshahri discussed the upcoming Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, ISNA reported. The hajj is obligatory for all Muslims and is one of the five pillars of Islam. Reyshahri warned that there are efforts to create differences between Shiite and Sunni Muslims, and he encouraged friendliness. Turning to the Iranian-organized "Disavowal of infidels" event which takes place every year at the pilgrimage, he said, "The slogans of 'Death to America' and 'Death to Israel' are the same as those used for the disavowal of infidels and rejection of polytheism in the world of Islam which are, with the grace of God, being realized, and we hope to see the disintegration of America and Israel in the near future." Reyshahri has been the supreme leader's representative at the Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization since 1991 and leads the pilgrimage delegation. In June 1993, Reyshahri was prevented from returning to Medina from Mecca by Saudi authorities after Iranian pilgrims held illegal demonstrations. Iran boycotted the pilgrimage from 1988-91 because a 1987 Iranian rally resulted in clashes with Saudi security forces in which more than 400 people died. BS

Jalal Talabani will arrive in Tehran on November 27, Fars News Agency reported, although it did not provide a source. Talabani was scheduled to arrive during the weekend, but a curfew in Baghdad and closure of the city's airport prevented his departure. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said in Tehran on November 26 that a trilateral meeting involving Talabani, President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, and Syria's President Bashar al-Assad is a good idea but is not on the agenda, IRNA reported. BS

The Iranian soccer federation lodged on November 25 an official complaint against Federation International de Football Association (FIFA) after it suspended Iranian participation in international competition, Fars News Agency reported. The Iranian federation attributed FIFA's action to international politics. FIFA issued its ruling on November 22 due to what it called government interference in running the sport, Reuters reported. FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation had given Iran a November 15 deadline for reinstating the elected president of the country's soccer federation, Mohammad Dadkan, who along with his board was forced out by the government. BS

Suspected Sunni insurgents on November 23 detonated five car bombs and fired mortars into the Shi'ite district of Al-Sadr City, killing 202 people and wounding more than 250, international media reported the same day. Shi'ite militiamen then retaliated by firing mortars into Sunni Arab neighborhoods, killing and wounding dozens. Several rounds badly damaged one of Sunni Islam's most important shrines in Baghdad, the Abu Hanifa Mosque, and another landed near the Baghdad offices of the Muslim Scholars Association, one of the leading Sunni organizations in Iraq. In addition, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on November 24 that five Sunni mosques in the Al-Hurriyah neighborhood of Baghdad were burned down, killing 30 people. The attack prompted the Iraqi government to impose an indefinite curfew in Baghdad and to close the Baghdad International Airport. The Transport Ministry announced that the airport in the southern city of Al-Basrah as well as the city's port facilities were also closed. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki went on national television to appeal for restraint. "We denounce sectarian practices that aim to destroy the unity of the nation," he said. The attack was the deadliest in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. SS

The White House announced on November 24 that U.S. President George W. Bush will meet with Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki on November 29-30 in Amman, Jordan, international media reported. U.S. officials said that discussing how to halt the violence and secure Baghdad will dominate the meeting between the two. Meanwhile, radical Shi'ite leader Muqtada al-Sadr issued a warning that his political bloc would withdraw from the national unity government if al-Maliki meets with Bush, international media reported. Officials from al-Sadr's political bloc accused U.S. forces of being involved with Sunni insurgents on the November 23 attack on Al-Sadr City. "It is clear that there is a collaboration between U.S. forces and Ba'athists," said Sahib al-Amiri, the secretary-general of the Martyrs of Allah, a Shi'ite religious body linked to al-Sadr's movement. However, Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i stressed that the meeting will take place, despite al-Sadr's threats. SS

Muslim Scholars Association head Harith al-Dari urged Arab countries on November 25 to withdraw support for Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki's government, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported the same day. He accused the current administration of being a "sectarian government par excellence" that is exploiting the sectarian divisions to help it survive. "I ask the Arab governments that backed the political process and stood by it throughout this past period to withdraw their recognition of and support for this government, otherwise the Iraqi people will hold them responsible; otherwise history will blame them for this failure and delay," he said. On November 17, the Iraqi Interior Ministry issued an arrest warrant for al-Dari on charges of "inciting terrorism" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2006). SS

Kurdish region officials announced on November 25 that Iranian forces entered northern Iraq to engage Kurdish rebels, AFP reported the same day. The deputy commander of the Kurdish peshmerga, Mustafa Sayyid Qadir, said Iranian forces crossed the border to attack a customs post of the rebel Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) earlier that day and quickly withdrew to Iranian positions. In addition, a PKK leader known as "Jingawr" said that the anti-Iranian Party of Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK) was also involved in the cross-border clashes. "A number of Iranian forces crossed into Iraqi territory [on November 25] in the Nowzang border area and a force of PJAK attacked them, and the clashes continued for an hour until Iranian forces withdrew to their posts inside their own territory," he said. The PJAK, which has close links with the PKK, was formed in the late 1990s and describes itself as struggling for Kurdish identity in Iran. Tehran has said it has been battling PJAK infiltrations for more than a year. SS

The leader of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, Sattar al-Buzay'i, said on November 26 that tribal fighters raided an Al-Qaeda stronghold and killed 55 terrorists and arrested 25 others the previous day, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. The U.S. military also said in a statement that it launched air strikes and fired artillery rounds to support the Abu Suda tribe in the town of Al-Sufiya after an attack by Al-Qaeda fighters, Reuters reported on November 26. The Al-Anbar Salvation Council, which was formed in September, is a coalition of tribes in Al-Anbar Governorate that aims to cleanse the region of Al-Qaeda-linked groups (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2006). SS