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Newsline - December 1, 2006

Home Secretary John Reid told the British Parliament on November 30 that searches are continuing for radioactivity in connection with the unexplained death in London on November 23 of British citizen and former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agent Aleksandr Litvinenko, U.K. media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28, 29, and 30, 2006). He said that "to date, around 24 venues have or are being monitored, and experts have confirmed traces of contamination at around 12 of these venues." He added that "the Health Protection Agency continues to reassure members of the public that the risk of exposure to this substance remains low." Reid noted that Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett "spoke to the Russian foreign minister [Sergei Lavrov] on [November 29], and requested all necessary assistance with the public health aspects of this incident [and]...with the ongoing investigation. The Russian foreign minister assured that this cooperation would be forthcoming." Reid pointed out that "if it is necessary to use the powers that are conferred on the police for access, for instance, to planes in this country, then the police will be prepared to exercise that power on their own judgment. There certainly will be no political prohibition on the police following where the evidence leads them." On December 1, "The Guardian" daily reported that unnamed "British intelligence sources increasingly suspect that...Litvinenko...was the victim of a plot involving 'rogue elements' within the Russian state." The paper added that "police [are] closing in on a group of men who entered the [United Kingdom] among a large crowd of Muscovite football fans" for a CSKA Moscow-Arsenal match on November 1. The men in question "flew back shortly afterwards." The daily wrote that British officials believe that the polonium-210, which probably killed Litvinenko, could have only come from state sources. On December 1, the Russian daily "Izvestia" reported on several conspiracy theories about the Litvinenko affair, most of which centered on the possible roles of self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky and of some Chechen exiles. On November 30, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told the German parliament's European Affairs Committee that "too many people have been killed [in Russia in recent years], and we don't know who killed them," reported. PM

Britain's "The Guardian" reported on December 1 that "doctors in Moscow said [on November 30] that the former Russian prime minister, Yegor Gaidar, had been poisoned with an unidentified toxic substance on a recent visit to Ireland" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). Gaidar is in stable condition in a Moscow hospital. His spokesman Valery Nantarov told Reuters on November 30 that Gaidar is recovering and that his life is not in danger. Nantarov added that the cause probably was not food poisoning but rather "a substance [the doctors] cannot identify." He suggested that Gaidar was healthy and active prior to falling ill in Ireland. Gaidar's daughter Maria told the BBC on November 30, however, that her father was the target of a "political poisoning." She was also quoted by the daily "Kommersant" on November 30 as saying that the doctors treating her father believe he was poisoned, and that they believe that the poison is one "unknown to civilian medicine." Anatoly Chubais, a longtime associate of Gaidar and head of Russia's Unified Energy Systems (EES) electricity monopoly, told RIA Novosti on November 30 that unnamed anti-Kremlin forces were behind the Gaidar and Litvinenko affairs, as well as the recent killing of critical journalist Anna Politkovskaya. Chubais argued that the incidents "would have been extremely attractive to those supporting unconstitutional, violent means of changing power in Russia." He did not elaborate, but the Russian authorities have accused Berezovsky of seeking regime change through violence. In Dublin, Irish police said on November 30 that preliminary checks revealed "nothing untoward" regarding Gaidar's illness. The police launched a full investigation on December 1. PM

Gernot Erler of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), who is state secretary at Germany's Foreign Ministry, was quoted by the Moscow daily "Vremya novostei" on November 30 as saying that Germany hopes to overcome Poland's "unhappiness...about Russia's import ban on Polish meat" by the end of 2006 and to launch talks leading to a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement between Russia and the EU. Germany will assume the rotating EU Presidency in January 2007, and the SPD-led Foreign Ministry has drafted a plan to promote German and EU ties with Russia on the basis of an expanding network of interrelationships (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10 and 11 and November 27, 2006). Erler told the Moscow paper that "all of the priorities for Germany's [EU] chairmanship are connected with Russia in one way or another." He argued that "Russia needs to be included in implementing EU strategy in Central Asia.... Central Asia's significance to the EU is primarily due to this region being the transit route for drug trafficking to Europe.... The EU is not setting itself the goal of changing the [political] order in those five former Soviet republics [Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan]." Erler stressed that Central Asia "is rich in energy resources. It's no coincidence that Russia, China, the United States, and Japan have been so actively involved in events in Central Asia." Erler noted that the "EU cannot ignore Russia's interests" when the German presidency "gives new quality to the European Neighborhood program," which centers on countries such as Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. He added that "at present, [the three] don't have a realistic chance of being accepted as EU members." Erler said that the Ukrainian gas crisis in January 2006 "did a lot of damage to Russia's prestige as a reliable supplier of energy resources to Europe.... Europe perceived Russia's actions as blackmail -- using economic resources to achieve political goals.... Europe does not want to be dependent on oil and gas deliveries from Russia." Erler believes that, consequently, "the EU will step up its pressure on Russia in the near future" either to ratify the EU Energy Charter Russia signed in 1994 or to accept its provisions as part of the new EU-Russia agreement. PM

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said in Moscow on December 1 that opposition parties should boycott the 2007 parliamentary elections, which will be only an "imitation of democracy," news agencies reported. He previously announced his intention to run for president in 2008 and has attempted to secure the backing of a small liberal movement to that end, but enjoys little popular support (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11 and October 24, 2006). PM

Maksim Kashulinsky announced in Moscow on December 1 that he has resigned as editor in chief of the Russian edition of "Forbes" magazine, reported. Kashulinsky said he quit to protest a decision made by the publishers, Axel Springer Russia, to retract the December issue at the last minute because of an article about Yelena Baturina, who is the wife of Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov and reportedly Russia's richest woman. Kashulinsky charged that Springer gave in to pressure from Baturina and her family to kill the December issue. In the article, which had been quoted in a prepublication advertising campaign, she is alleged to have said, "I am guaranteed protection." Springer later said in a statement withdrawing the December issue that the quote was misleading and that "principles of journalistic ethics were not observed" in the advertisement. Baturina's business interests range from construction to petrochemicals. Her wealth is estimated at about $1.1 billion. But after Kashulinsky announced his decision, Springer issued another statement in which it reversed its earlier one. Springer now believes that the article was essentially accurate and will make every effort to get the magazine to the stands quickly. It is not clear if Kashulinsky has withdrawn his resignation. In 2004 he succeeded Paul Klebnikov to that post following Klebnikov's murder. PM

Elcin Beybutov, who heads the NGO Azerbaijan Committee against Torture, met on November 30 at the Ministry of National Security with former Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev and former Health Minister Ali Insanov, reported on December 1. Both men were dismissed and arrested 13 months ago on suspicion of plotting a coup d'etat. As they have done repeatedly since their arrest, both men told Beybutov they are innocent of the charges against them. They reportedly said they have no complaints about the conditions in which they are being held, but requested urgent medical treatment for chronic health problems. LF

Meeting in Baku on November 30, Azerbaijan's National Council on Television and Radio decided to declare a tender for the broadcasting frequencies previously used by ANS television and radio, and reported on November 30 and December 1 respectively. The Council suspended ANS broadcasts one week ago in light of alleged infringements by ANS of broadcasting legislation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006). The three top executives of ANS appealed to Council Chairman Nushiravan Magerramli on November 30 to permit ANS to resume broadcasting, citing comments made the previous day by Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, reported on December 1. Affirming his support for media freedom, Aliyev expressed the hope that ANS and the council would succeed in reaching an agreement within the framework of the law (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). Magerramli told journalists that ANS may bid in the tender for its own former frequencies, even though the law on broadcasting does not explicitly permit unlicensed television channels to do so. ANS's former license expired in 2003; it is the only television channel whose application to renew its license has not been granted. A U.S. State Department spokesman has expressed "concern," as did the EU on November 30, over the closure of ANS and the eviction of two independent newspapers from their offices, reported on December 1. LF

Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili said on November 30 that Tbilisi is prepared to begin talks without preconditions with the Abkhaz leadership, but that it will not withdraw the police detachments it deployed to the Kodori Gorge in July, Caucasus Press reported. Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh and Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba have repeatedly said they will resume talks with Tbilisi only when Georgia complies with the October 13 UN Security Council resolution requiring that it withdraw "unauthorized" troops from Kodori (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16 and 23, 2006). LF

Abkhaz President Bagapsh told Russian journalists in Sukhum(i) on November 29 that Abkhazia has no intention of opening a UN human rights office in its southernmost Gali district, reported. The predominantly Georgian population of Gali has repeatedly complained of reprisals and human rights violations by Abkhaz militants. Bagapsh pointed out that the UN already has a human rights office in Sukhum(i). Shamba suggested in January of this year that Abkhaz NGOs could open a human rights office in Gali to review Georgian complaints, according to on January 18. LF

The opposition Forum of National Unity established early last year (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 11, 2005) convened an emergency congress in Sukhum(i) on November 29, which was attended by Vice President Raul Khadjimba, former Deputy Prime Minister Anri Djergenia, and several parliament deputies, reported on November 30. The congress expressed its support for President Bagapsh, commending his efforts to secure international recognition for the unrecognized republic and to establish associate membership of the Russian Federation. At the same time, the congress harshly criticized the Abkhaz government for what was termed its "destructive political role" and inability to draft and implement an effective program of action. The congress appealed to Bagapsh to form a new government capable of addressing the problems Abkhazia faces. It further demanded that the authorities take urgent measures to avert the threat of a new Georgian military strike. Daur Arshba, who is the forum's co-chairman, said he considers it entirely possible that Georgia will launch such an attack in the spring of 2007, reported on November 29. Bagapsh responded to the forum's criticism in a statement on November 30, reported. He stressed that the opposition has an important and essential role to play in developing civic society by monitoring the actions of the government and drawing attention to its errors, but that it should not aggressively insult those in power. LF

Eduard Kokoity, who was inaugurated on November 25 for a second term as president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, dismissed the government on November 28 and asked outgoing Prime Minister Yury Morozov to form a new cabinet, Caucasus Press reported on November 29. Also on November 29, Yury Popov, who is the senior Russian diplomat in charge of the ongoing talks on resolving the South Ossetian conflict, met in Tskhinvali with South Ossetian Deputy Prime Minister Boris Chochiyev, Caucasus Press reported. LF

EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs told reporters in Astana on November 30 that the European Union plans to sign two energy deals with Kazakhstan when President Nursultan Nazarbaev visits Brussels in early December, news agencies reported. One agreement explores possible energy supplies to the EU from Kazakhstan and investments in the Kazakh oil sector; the other covers cooperation in peaceful nuclear energy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2006). Piebalgs spoke out in favor of the diversification of export routes for Kazakh energy, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported; he noted the possibility of a trans-Caspian gas pipeline, adding that the EU "would also like to ensure Russian participation in this project." Piebalgs also said that the EU has "a certain concern" about China's rising involvement in the Kazakh energy sector, although he stressed that "it is very important for the EU to work with China for our positions on energy security to become similar." DK

Kazakh Foreign Minister Qasymzhomart Toqaev told an international conference on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) in Almaty on November 30 that "the SCO has all the prerequisites to become a foundation of the future world order," ITAR-TASS reported. Stressing that he believes the SCO will soon become an internationally influential organization, Toqaev said that the development of Kazakh-SCO relations is a top priority in Kazakhstan's foreign policy, Xinhua reported. DK

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov told a news conference in Bishkek on November 30 that there is no evidence exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky visited Kyrgyzstan over the summer, news agency reported. Jekshenkulov said that the Kyrgyz Embassy in London, where Berezovsky resides, did not issue him a visa. Various reports suggested that Berezovsky visited Kyrgyzstan in July, prompting Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev to issue an official denial that he ever met with Berezovsky (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 15, 2006). DK

Recently reelected President Imomali Rakhmonov issued a series of decrees on November 30 dismissing Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov and his government and abolishing or restructuring a number of ministries, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. Rakhmonov reappointed Oqilov, who has served as prime minister since 1999, on December 1, according to RFE/RL. A total of 26 ministries and committees were abolished in the decree, with their functions redistributed. The ministries of Industry and Energy were combined into a single ministry, as were the ministries of Transportation and Communications. The full text of the presidential decree listing all of the abolished and reformed ministries and committees is available (in Russian) at: DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov has removed Hojaberdi Bashimov from his post as governor of Mary province for allegedly falsifying grain-sowing figures, reported on November 29. The sacking is the latest in an ongoing scandal over bogus planting and harvest figures that has included reports of possible grain and bread shortages (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28 and 29, 2006). DK

A group of between 500 and 2,000 people held an unsanctioned demonstration at the Chinaz fish market in Tashkent province on the night of November 27, reported. The protest began after traders heard reports that the market was sold and would be transferred to the capital. Local residents told that the market is the only source of a livelihood for 20,000 people in the area. The outcome of the demonstration was unclear, but the report noted that members of the National Security Service surrounded the area. quoted local residents as saying that they plan further protests if the market is moved. A government source told that a protest took place, but said that the situation is under control and ascribed the incident to a "misunderstanding." DK

Belarusian Deputy Economy Minister Aleh Melnikau told journalists in Minsk on November 30 that the Dutch ABN AMRO bank has estimated the value of Beltranshaz, Belarus's gas pipeline operator, at "relatively close" to $3.5 billion, Belapan and "Kommersant" reported. Russian President Vladimir Putin said in Minsk earlier this week that Belarus and Russia "have agreed in advance" to accept the appraisal of Beltranshaz made by the Dutch evaluator. Russia's government-controlled gas giant, Gazprom, has sought to acquire a 50 percent stake in Beltranshaz for several years but has not been able to agree on a price with Minsk. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka suggested earlier this month that Beltranshaz may be worth as much as $12 billion and that the Dutch appraisal would mean little in talks with Gazprom on establishing a joint venture to control Belarusian gas pipelines (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2006). Russian newspapers speculate that by selling a 50 percent stake in Beltranshaz to Gazprom, Minsk will be able to receive Russian gas at $120-$130 per 1,000 cubic meters for up to 18 months starting in January 2007. Gazprom signaled earlier this year that it wants to increase its gas price for Belarus in 2007 to $200 per 1,000 cubic meters from the current $47. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on December 1 dismissed Foreign Minister Borys Tarasyuk, Ukrainian media reported. A motion to sack Tarasyuk was supported by 247 deputies. Shortly afterward, 248 deputies endorsed the dismissal of Interior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko. The Verkhovna Rada tried to fire Lutsenko on November 30 but fell three votes short of the 226 required to do so. Tarasyuk was appointed to his cabinet post directly by President Viktor Yushchenko, as required by the constitution. Lutsenko too was proposed to his cabinet post by President Yushchenko, following an agreement with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Yushchenko said in an interview with the BBC on November 30 that the Verkhovna Rada's attempts to dismiss Tarasyuk and Lutsenko destabilize the situation in the country. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on December 1 appointed Vasyl Tsushko, head of the Socialist Party parliamentary caucus, as interior minister to replace Lutsenko, Ukrainian media reported. Earlier the same day the legislature appointed Viktor Korzh as family, youth, and sports minister to replace Yuriy Pavlenko, who resigned in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). JM

Prime Minister Yanukovych made a working visit on November 30 to Moscow, where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, UNIAN reported. Yanukovych reportedly discussed "current issues" in bilateral relations and an upcoming visit by Putin to Kyiv. Putin told Yanukovych that he will come to Kyiv on December 22. JM

Boris Tadic said on November 30 that NATO's decision to invite Serbia to join the Partnership for Peace program marks the end of the country's isolation from Europe's mainstream, AP reported the same day. "By joining NATO's Partnership for Peace program, Serbia becomes a secure country," he said, adding that the development marks a watershed for Serbia's efforts at Euro-Atlantic integration. "This is an assurance Serbia is firmly on track to join the European Union and NATO. Other countries which joined the European Union also first joined NATO's Partnership for Peace." Serbia was previously excluded from Partnership for Peace because of its failure to arrest war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic. Bosnia was similarly excluded for failing to apprehend Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic. But NATO leaders decided at this week's summit in Riga, Latvia, that the Balkan countries offer a "valuable contribution" to stability in the region and that their membership in the program is important (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). BW

Also on November 30, President Tadic stressed that Serbia needs to quickly arrest Mladic in order to forge closer ties with NATO and the European Union, AP reported the same day. "It is our international obligation, but also our responsibility at home," he said. The EU suspended negotiations with Belgrade for a Stabilization and Association Agreement in May over Serbia's failure to apprehend Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 3, and 4, 2006). BW

Vojislav Kostunica said on November 30 that Serbia's Partnership for Peace invitation is the result of Belgrade's new approach to international diplomacy, B92 reported the same day. He also said it is an indication that the international community has decided that forcing Serbia to meet conditions in order to join international institutions can sometimes be counterproductive. BW

Serbian Deputy Interior Minister Vladimir Bozovic said on November 30 that the European Union wants to know why Belgrade has not introduced civilian controls over the police and security services, B92 and UPI reported the same day. The subject came up during talks between Bozovic and EU officials in Brussels on November 28. Bozovic said he told EU officials that Serbia's parliament has yet to enact appropriate legislation to facilitate such oversight. BW

In an attempt to lobby for support for the province's independence, Kosova's President Fatmir Sejdiu visited the United States while Prime Minister Agim Ceku visited Russia, B92 and Beta reported on November 30. Ceku said that the goal of his visit is to "encourage Russia to view the Kosova case in a more realistic way." Ceku met with lawmakers in the Russian State Duma on November 30 and is also scheduled to meet with Foreign Ministry officials. "This is a very important visit, which gives both sides an opportunity to exchange opinions regarding Kosova," he said after meeting Russian lawmakers. "My goal is to explain the situation to the Russian officials. I wish to ask the Russian officials to consider Albanians as legitimate partners on the international scene, which would open the doors for the development of the political and economic relations," he added. Sejdiu, meanwhile, visited New York where he has met with top UN officials and the ambassadors of the Security Council's permanent members. BW

Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY), visited Bosnia-Herzegovina on November 30 in an effort to coerce the authorities to apprehend war crimes fugitives, AP and dpa reported the same day. Del Ponte met with High Representative Christian Schwarz-Schilling, the international community's top official in Bosnia. She also met with the three newly elected members of Bosnia's collective Presidency: Muslim Haris Silajdzic, Croat Zeljko Komsic, and Serb Nebojsa Radmanovic. On November 29, NATO invited Bosnia, Serbia, and Montenegro to begin negotiations to join the alliance's Partnership for Peace program. Del Ponte opposed NATO issuing an invitation to Serbia, which she has criticized for insufficient cooperation with the ICTY (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). BW

Vladimir Voronin said on November 29 that Chisinau will tighten quality-control standards on wine exports, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. Russian President Vladimir Putin announced on November 29 that Moscow will lift a ban on Moldovan wines in place since March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). "Moldova's experts are creating a new system of wine quality control [for] the entire production and marketing cycle," Voronin said. "Only state-run laboratories will be checking quality and issuing certificates. We cannot afford to repeat mistakes. Winemaking is a symbol of Moldova and a major industry of our economy. It deserves proper attention," he added. In a move widely seen as politically motivated retribution for Chisinau's pro-Western orientation, Russia banned the import of Moldovan wines in March, citing health and safety concerns (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2006). BW

Also on November 29, President Voronin said Moldova's relations with Russia are steadily improving, AP reported the same day. "We are sure that relations will continue to improve in the future, based on sincerity, trust, and a strategic partnership," he said. Voronin and President Putin met on the sidelines of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) summit in Minsk on November 28. Moldova then agreed to support Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization and Russia lifted a ban on Moldovan wine imports. Voronin said he and Putin also discussed the conflict in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region, and expressed optimism that such meetings could lead to a solution. "If these continue this way, we could be close to finding a settlement," Voronin added. BW

Over the past 12 months, the three co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict have warned repeatedly that the window of opportunity for reaching such a settlement will remain open throughout 2006, but may then close in light of parliamentary elections due in Armenia in 2007 and presidential elections in both Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2008.

In the run-up to those ballots, the co-chairs reason, the two countries' leaders will be reluctant to agree on the serious mutual compromises that a settlement will inevitably necessitate. Consequently, a sense of urgency has imbued successive meetings this year between either the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers or the two countries' presidents. The meeting in Minsk on November 28 between Armenian President Robert Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev was thus widely perceived as the last chance for some time to reach even a preliminary agreement.

The two presidents did not issue any formal statement after their meeting in Minsk. But Aliyev told Azerbaijani National Television on November 29 that since the so-called "Prague process" talks between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers on approaches to resolving the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict began, the negotiating process has gone through several stages, and "we are approaching the final stage." The first Prague talks took place in April 2004, and Aliyev has met with Kocharian seven times since then; the Minsk meeting was their third this year.

Aliyev said the Minsk talks "were held in a constructive way," and that "we managed to a find a solution to a number of problems we could not agree on before." He added, however, that "divergences remain on crucial points," and that further progress "depends on us ourselves," presumably meaning the conflict sides, as opposed to the Minsk Group. Aliyev stressed that "Azerbaijan's negotiating position remains unchanged," insofar as any solution must preserve Azerbaijan's territorial integrity. He further stressed that Azerbaijani displaced persons (whose number he said exceeds 1 million, compared with UNHCR estimates of 800,000) must be enabled to return to their homes.

Aliyev also said the four resolutions on Nagorno-Karabakh adopted by the UN Security Council (in 1993, and which call for an immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Armenian forces from occupied Azerbaijani territory) must be fulfilled. He said the population of Nagorno-Karabakh "must be provided with the highest form of self-government" possible within Azerbaijan. The constitution of the Azerbaijan Republic defines the Nakhichevan Republic as an autonomous republic within the Azerbaijan Republic, with its own parliament, but makes no mention of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia, however, rules out any "vertical subordination" of the NKR to the central Azerbaijani government.

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, who with his Armenian counterpart Vartan Oskanian also traveled to Minsk, similarly described the meeting between the two presidents in an December 1 interview with as having taken place in a productive and open atmosphere. Mammadyarov said that only one issue remains on which the two presidents have failed to reach agreement, but he declined to specify what it is, referring to the need to keep the peace process confidential. He added that he plans to meet in Brussels on December 4-5 with Oskanian and the Minsk Group co-chairs.

Oskanian for his part was more guarded in his comments on the Minsk meeting, telling journalists on his return to Yerevan late on November 28 that "I cannot say concretely whether progress was made or not, but both presidents assessed the meeting as positive in terms of atmosphere and constructive approaches," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on November 29. Echoing Aliyev, Oskanian said the presidents "mainly concentrated on the issues in the document on which no agreement has been reached," presumably an allusion to a half-page document, drafted by the Minsk Group co-chairs and enumerating general principles, that the two presidents discussed earlier this year. Oskanian also said that the elections due in Armenia next spring "will not interrupt" the ongoing peace negotiations, but he admitted that they could make it more difficult to reach any agreement.

Kocharian declined to comment on the talks; his press spokesman Viktor Soghomonian said Kocharian had nothing to add to Oskanian's remarks. In Stepanakert, however, Armen Melikian, an aide to Arkady Ghukasian, president of the self-proclaimed Nagorno-Karabakh Republic (NKR), expressed concern over the implications of President Aliyev's pronouncements. "If President Aliyev is saying that the process is moving in a positive direction, that is quite dangerous in itself," Melikian told RFE/RL's Armenian Service on November 30. "To my knowledge, his idea of a positive direction is that Nagorno-Karabakh cannot be an independent and sovereign state."

As outlined by the Minsk Group co-chairmen in June 2006, the draft peace plan under discussion envisages the gradual withdrawal of Armenian forces from territory they currently occupy contiguous to the NKR; the demilitarization of that territory, including the strategic Lachin corridor and Kelbacar, and the deployment of an international peacekeeping force; then, at some future date, the future status of the NKR vis-a-vis the Azerbaijani central government would be decided in a "popular vote or referendum." Insofar as the population of the NKR is overwhelmingly Armenian, such a vote would indubitably register support for independence.

Even so, Melikian admitted to RFE/RL in February 2006 that the Karabakh leadership is not enthusiastic about that draft proposal. He said that any discussion of a referendum is inappropriate in light of Baku's a priori insistence that Azerbaijan's territorial integrity must be preserved at all costs. The Armenian leadership, for its part, has repeatedly made clear that it will not sign any final peace settlement that is unacceptable to the NKR.

Afghanistan's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) on November 30 condemned a reported suggestion by Pakistani Foreign Minister Khursaid Kasuri to a number of NATO foreign ministers that Afghanistan should establish a coalition government that includes the Taliban but excludes President Hamid Karzai, state-run Radio Afghanistan reported. The lower house's press office called Kasuri's remarks tantamount to direct interference by Islamabad in Afghanistan's internal affairs. Meanwhile, in a press release dated November 30, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said Kasuri's comments have been "distorted and misrepresented." Kasuri "did not say that the Taliban were winning the war and NATO was bound to fail," the press release stated, adding that Kasuri "encouraged" Afghans to work toward "national reconciliation." AT

Afghan Prosecutor-General Abdul Jabar Sabet has ordered the arrest of the head of the Konar Province Endowment and Islamic Affairs Department on charges that he embezzled more than $20,000, Kabul-based Tolu Television reported on November 30. Sabet's office has also arrested the director of Sher Khan customs office on the Amu River that separates Konduz Province from Tajikistan on suspicion that he misappropriated more than $40,000. Four customs officials in Aqina, in the northern Faryab Province bordering Turkmenistan, have been arrested on charges of tampering with customs records. Sabet has already dismissed, and in some cases arrested, a number of officials in the western Herat Province and in Kabul in conjunction with an anticorruption "jihad" declared by President Karzai (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 6, 13, and 17, 2006). AT

Tolu Television on November 30 aired comments on a recent demand for a salary increase by members of the Afghan National Assembly. One Kabul resident told Tolu that while people are "not criticizing the members of parliament for demanding an increase" in their salaries, they are aware that ordinary people in the Afghan capital cannot afford "wood for winter." Another Kabul resident said members of the National Assembly are only interested in helping themselves, not in the welfare of their constituents. The Afghan Finance Ministry has responded to the legislative prodding by saying that it has no authority to increase parliamentarians' salaries and that only the cabinet can make such a decision. Sayyed Daud Hashemi, a representative from Kabul Province, said government employees who earn much less than parliamentarians "do not receive 10 guests" in one night the way members of the National Assembly do. AT

Commercial air service between Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar resumed on November 30, the first time that route has been available since the fall of the Taliban in late 2001, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. A flight by national carrier Ariana Afghan Airlines departed Kabul the same day with 15 passengers bound for Kandahar, the former stronghold of the Taliban regime. Ariana is planning to operate three flights per week on the route and increase the frequency of those flights if there is sufficient demand. AT

A translation of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's November 29 open letter to the American people has been provided by IRNA and received coverage in Iranian newspapers, state television and radio, and on Radio Farda. Ahmadinejad discusses Palestine and refers to alleged "persistent aggressions by the Zionists" there. "For 60 years, the Zionist regime has driven millions of the inhabitants of Palestine out of their homes," Ahmadinejad says, complaining that the White House has given Israel "blind and blanket support." Ahmadinejad then discusses Iraq, advocating a U.S. withdrawal, before turning to the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. He also notes U.S. expenditures in Iraq and refers to the problems faced by victims of Hurricane Katrina, as well as poverty and homelessness. Ahmadinejad claims that judicial due process in the United States is "trampled upon," and he adds, "Private phones are tapped, suspects are arbitrarily arrested, sometimes beaten in the streets, or even shot to death." Ahmadinejad addressed a letter to U.S. President George W. Bush in May that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said at the time contained "nothing new...that would suggest that we're on any different course than we were before we got the letter." BS

U.S. State Department spokesman Tom Casey responded on November 29 to President Ahmadinejad's open letter to the American people by suggesting that "there's really not a lot new here, and certainly it is something of a public-affairs or public-relations effort on the part of the Iranian government," RFE/RL reported. Casey dismissed Ahmadinejad's observations on Iraq, saying, "If you look at Iranian actions towards Iraq, it's a bit hard to take some of these things seriously when Iran continues to actively work in a negative way in Iraq, including through its support for violence, its support for militias, as we've previously discussed." An Iranian university lecturer identified only as Dr. Moslehzadeh by state radio said on November 30 that global media have falsely portrayed Ahmadinejad as a "hard-line and extreme person who does not respect international regulations." Moslehzadeh argued that the portrayal has only increased the president's popularity. In the eastern city of Mashhad, legislator Musa Qorbani said on November 30 that Ahmadinejad's letter shows Americans that lies are being told about Iran, IRNA reported. "The letter will pave the ground for a more objective public opinion on U.S. policies and their impact on countries," Qorbani said. BS

U.S. President George W. Bush announced during a joint press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on November 30 in Amman, Jordan, that U.S. forces will remain in Iraq until "the job is complete," international media reported the same day. He praised al-Maliki as the "right guy for Iraq," but stressed that it is important to speed up the training of Iraqi security forces. For his part, al-Maliki said he agrees that there needs to be a quick transfer of security responsibilities to Iraqi forces. "Concerning the security situation, we affirmed our readiness to take over the security file and we agreed on expediting the Iraqi government's taking over the security issues and controlling Iraqi military groups," he said. A senior aide to al-Maliki who attended the meeting said the Iraqi prime minister gave Bush a "blueprint" for equipping and training Iraqi forces, but he declined to provide any details, AP reported on November 30. The two leaders were originally supposed to meet on November 29, but that meeting was abruptly cancelled. There was speculation that the cancellation was due in part to the release of a secret White House memo on November 29 by national security adviser Stephen Hadley that was critical of al-Maliki's leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). SS

The political movement of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced on November 30 that it is seeking to build an anti-U.S. bloc in the Iraqi parliament to press for a complete withdrawal of coalition forces, international media reported the same day. A representative of the bloc, Dr. Salih al-Ugayli, issued a statement saying that the movement hopes to persuade more lawmakers to join their bloc. "We are endeavoring to form a national front inside parliament to oppose the occupation," al-Ugayli said. On November 29, the al-Sadr bloc announced the suspension of all participation in the government to protest the November 30 meeting between Prime Minister al-Maliki and U.S. President Bush in Jordan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). An al-Sadr spokesman, Baha al-A'raji, said that the movement will submit a list of demands to al-Maliki when he returns from Jordan. "At the forefront of these demands are the setting of a timetable for the withdrawal of the occupier, the handover of security tasks to Iraqis, and the improvement of public services in secure cities," he said. Al-Maliki issued a statement from Jordan calling on the al-Sadr movement to "reconsider their decision because it doesn't constitute a positive development in the political process." SS

Iraqi Shi'ite leaders on November 30 expressed anger at a Saudi official who said Riyadh will support Iraqi Sunni Arabs in the event of a U.S. withdrawal, AFP reported the same day. The director of the Riyadh-based Saudi National Security Assessment Project, Nawaf Obaid, wrote in the November 29 edition of "The Washington Post" that in the event of a U.S. withdrawal, Saudi Arabia would arm Sunni Arabs to counter Iran's alleged support of Iraqi Shi'ite militias. The secretary-general of the Al-Fudala Party, Muhammad al-Juburi, described the comments as "sectarian and un-Islamic." "We reject any interference in Iraq's affairs, whether from Saudi Arabia or Iran," he added. U.S. officials and Iraqi Sunnis have long accused Iran of funding and supporting Shi'ite militias in Iraq. Abd al-Hadi al-Daraji, a top aide to Muqtada al-Sadr, called on all of Iraq's neighbours to help set a timetable for a U.S. withdrawal. "We advise Saudi Arabia and the neighbouring countries to seriously work over the exit of the occupying forces first and to mend fences among politicians, both Shi'a and Sunnis," he said. SS

During the November 30 session of the Anfal trial, American forensics expert Michael Trimble gave graphic accounts of how hundreds of Kurdish women and children were killed and buried in mass graves, international media reported. "The captives were often bound and blindfolded. The captives were led into the grave and then executed with pistols or automatic assault-rifle fire. The graves were then covered by those directing the execution," he said. Trimble, the head of the Mass Graves Investigation Team at the Iraqi High Tribunal, said of the 301 bodies exhumed, 183 were children and 90 percent of the children were under 13 years old. Former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein dismissed Trimble's testimony, saying he could not be trusted. "Let me suggest the court consider what is said by the American expert, but also call a new trial expert that has nothing to do with the enemy or the army of the enemy," he said. The trial was adjourned until December 4. SS

The U.S. military announced in a statement on November 30 that Iraqi soldiers have discovered a mass grave containing 28 bodies. "Elements from 2nd Battalion, 2nd Brigade, 5th Iraqi Army, with support from coalition forces, including an air-weapons team, identified the possible grave site," The statement said. No details were given concerning how the victims died, whether they were all men or included women and children, or whether they were killed in a single incident. SS