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Newsline - December 5, 2006

Four London Metropolitan Police investigators began work in Moscow on December 5 and plan to speak to possible witnesses in connection with the unexplained death in London on November 23 of British citizen and former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, and December 1 and 4, 2006). The investigators' interest reportedly centers on former KGB officer Andrei Lugovoi, who met several times with Litvinenko before his death. British inspectors also want to interview several other people, including former FSB officer Mikhail Trepashkin, who began serving a four-year prison term in Nizhny Tagil in 2004 for allegedly divulging state secrets. But a spokesman for the Federal Corrections Service said in Moscow on December 5 that his department "will not allow a person convicted for divulging state secrets to remain a source of information for representatives of foreign special services," Interfax reported. Russian officials previously pledged full cooperation with the British investigation. A lawyer for Trepashkin told reporters recently that her client has "information that may shed light on the murder [of Litvinenko], and he is ready to speak out." PM

In Brussels, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on December 4 that he has warned his British counterpart, Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, against anyone "politicizing" the Litvinenko case, Britain's "The Times" reported on December 5. Lavrov also said that "it is unacceptable that a campaign should be whipped up with the participation of [unnamed British] officials. This is...harming our relations." He added that he told Beckett of "the necessity to avoid any kind of politicization of this matter." But also in Brussels, U.K. Home Secretary John Reid stressed that British police "will follow the evidence wherever it goes." "The Times" reported on December 5 that unspecified "intelligence services in Britain are convinced that the poisoning of...Litvinenko was authorized by the [FSB]. Security sources have told 'The Times' that the FSB orchestrated a 'highly sophisticated plot' and was likely to have used some of its former agents to carry out the operation on the streets of London." The paper added that an unnamed "source" told its reporters that "'we know how the FSB operates abroad and, based on the circumstances behind the death of...Litvinenko, the FSB has to be the prime suspect' in his death." The daily argued that "the involvement of a former FSB officer made it easier to lure...Litvinenko to meetings at various locations and to distance its bosses in the Kremlin from being directly implicated in the plot. Intelligence officials say that only officials such as FSB agents would have been able to obtain sufficient amounts of polonium-210, the radioactive substance used to fatally poison...Litvinenko." But unnamed officials of the Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom) denied on December 4 that any polonium could have left Russia unaccounted for, Russian news agencies reported. The officials added that Rosatom exports polonium to the United States and United Kingdom but has no control over what happens to the substance when it arrives there. PM

Valter Litvinenko, the father of the late Aleksandr Litvinenko, told RFE/RL's Russian Service in London on December 4 that his son converted to Islam shortly before his death. Valter Litvinenko added that "Sasha had been thinking about becoming a Muslim for some time because he was fairly critical of what had been happening in the hierarchy of our [Russian Orthodox] Church. Deciding to become a Muslim is, of course, a fairly unordinary decision and a crucial one." The father said that his son told him two days before his death that he had "become a Muslim." The father replied that "it's your decision. As long as you don't become a communist or a Satanist." London-based Chechen Republic Ichkeria Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev told RFE/RL's Russian Service on December 4 that Aleksandr Litvinenko told him of his desire to embrace Islam. Zakayev added that "I told him it was a purely personal question, that it isn't important to which god we pray as long as we aren't doing ignoble acts. And I sort of dropped it." But Zakayev noted that Litvinenko repeatedly "returned to the subject. He pronounced the shahadah [the fundamental Muslim statement of faith], and any student of Islam will tell you that there are no particular rituals for converting to Islam. All you have to do is say one sura [a verse or chapter from the Koran] and, from that moment, if the person who pronounces this sura, this shahadah, has sincere intentions, from that moment he is considered a Muslim." Zakayev said that on November 22, at Litvinenko's request, Zakayev "brought an imam to him. The imam read over him a sura from the Koran, the one that is read over a dying Muslim." On December 4, the Russian daily "Izvestia" returned to the theory that "Litvinenko was either involved in selling radioactive materials, or somebody was trying to build a portable nuclear device. It's hard to find any other explanation for the presence of that much polonium in proximity" to him. The daily suggested that the polonium with which Litvinenko had come into contact would have been worth $40 million, which would have made it "the most expensive poisoning in history" had it indeed been a poisoning. On December 5, Britain's "Financial Times" suggested that "prolonged exposure to Russian conspiracy theories can be damaging to mental health." PM

Patriarch Aleksy II, who heads the Russian Orthodox Church, said in Moscow on December 5 that the Vatican is pursuing an "unfriendly policy" in Russia and other former Soviet republics, Interfax reported. He reiterated long-standing claims that Roman Catholic priests are working to convert people baptized as Orthodox Christians to Catholicism and discriminating against the Orthodox in western Ukraine. Aleksy called on the Vatican to take unspecified "concrete steps" to rectify the situation. The Vatican has rejected the accusations of proselytizing. The Orthodox Church has long cited the dispute as its reason for not welcoming a papal visit to Russia. Orthodox suspicions of the Vatican were particularly strong during the reign of Polish-born Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005 and was linked in many Orthodox commentaries to the alleged proselytizing efforts. Many Vatican-watchers have anticipated a possible change in Orthodox policy following the election to the papacy in 2005 of Benedict XVI, who is German. PM

Patriarch Aleksy II and the Moscow clergy on December 5 offered prayers for Andrei Nikolayev, a village priest in Tver Oblast, who died with his three children in a suspicious fire in their home on December 2, Interfax and RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. The family had reportedly been locked inside the gasoline-doused building. Prosecutors are investigating, but local people strongly suspect arson, RFE/RL reported. The fate of his wife is not clear. The priest reportedly previously had arguments with local alcoholics, whom he suspected of trying to rob the church. PM

Unidentified gunmen shot dead Aleksandr Samoylenko, who headed a Russian oil-exploration company, near his office in Samara on December 4, news agencies reported. Authorities said that the shooting bore the hallmarks of a contract killing. Samoylenko recently became head of a subsidiary of the car manufacturer AvtoVAZ. This is but the latest in a series of apparent contract killings in Russia in recent months. PM

Speaking at a Yerevan press conference, Armenian presidential national-security adviser Garnik Isagulian said on December 4 that President Robert Kocharian, whose final term expires in early 2008, will continue to exert a "big influence" in Armenian politics, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Although Isagulian failed to elaborate on any specific plans concerning a possible future role for the president, his comments fueled rumors that the 52-year-old Kocharian may seek another high-level government post. The Armenian Constitution strictly limits a person to two consecutive presidential terms and Kocharian has pledged to abide by that provision. Isagulian further added that the new draft national-security strategy, recently presented to parliament by Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, is Armenia's "second-most-important document, only after the constitution," Arminfo reported. RG

Armenian authorities on December 4 deported an ethnic Armenian activist from the predominantly Armenian-populated southern Georgian region of Djavakheti to Georgia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The activist, Vahagn Chakhalian, is a leader of the United Djavakhk organization campaigning for the region's autonomy within Georgia. Chakkhalian was convicted by a district court in the Armenian city of Gyumri for illegally entering Armenia from Georgia and received a one-year suspended sentence. Following the court session, Chakhalian was escorted by police to the Georgian border. His defense lawyer, Tigran Hayrapetian, explained that local police officers showed him a written deportation order signed by the chief of Armenia's national police, Lieutenant General Hayk Harutiunian. The 24-year-old Chakhalian was arrested and later charged with illegally entering Armenia on October 11, just hours after he, his parents, brother, and fellow activist Gurgen Shirinian were reportedly stopped and attacked as they arrived in Yerevan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 20, 2006). RG

Armenia hosted on December 4 the opening of two days of crisis-management training involving NATO and the Armenian Rescue Service, Arminfo and Armenian Public Television reported. The training is part of Armenia's participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace program and conforms to Armenia's Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) with the alliance. According to the head of the Rescue Service, Edik Barsegyan, Armenia plans to create a new crisis-management center in the country with NATO assistance. The head of the Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Center, Evert Sommer, said that "Armenia's activity within the IPAP processes helped to launch assistance in crisis management" and pledged that NATO is ready to render all possible assistance to Armenia for programs "targeted at overcoming of crisis and emergency situations," Yerkir reported. RG

Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev met on December 4 in Baku with visiting Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov to discuss plans to expand bilateral trade, Lider TV and ITAR-TASS reported. Fradkov also met with his Azerbaijani counterpart Artur Rasizade and the two signed a set of four new bilateral agreements, including on the protection of intellectual property and cooperation in the banking sector and on humanitarian issues, according to Space TV. The visit follows a recent announcement by Aliyev warning that Azerbaijan may cut or suspend its oil exports via Russia in response to Russia's imposition of a planned cut in gas supplies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2006). RG

A Georgian woman died of heart failure on December 2 while awaiting deportation from Russia, becoming the second Georgian national to have died in Russian custody since the start of Moscow's crackdown on illegal Georgian immigrants, Rustavi-2 reported. The 51-year-old Georgian citizen, Manana Javelia, died while being held at a detention center in Moscow. She had been held there for nearly two months, according to Caucasus Press. In October, 48-year-old Georgian citizen Tengiz Togonidze died of an asthma attack on October 17 at Moscow's Domodedovo Airport while awaiting deportation to Georgia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2006). RG

President Nursultan Nazarbaev held talks in Brussels on December 4 with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer against a backdrop of energy deals (see End Note), Khabar TV reported. The EU and Kazakhstan signed a memorandum of understanding on energy, while EU justice ministers approved an EU-Kazakhstan agreement on the peaceful use of nuclear energy, AFP and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Commenting on the possibility of a trans-Caspian pipeline, Nazarbaev said, "Any route which is feasible and efficient for the transfer of Kazakh hydrocarbons will be thoroughly considered," AFP reported. "We will still probably be using the Russian network to the Baltic ports, but we have also discussed the further extension of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline." DK

Kazakhstan's bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009 "looked set to fail" as that body's Ministerial Council met in Brussels to discuss the issue on December 4, Reuters reported. The report noted that the United States feels 2009 is too early for Kazakhstan to chair the OSCE, while Kazakhstan is unwilling to accept a compromise allowing it to chair the organization in 2011. An unidentified diplomat told the news agency, "It looks as though any decision will be booted into next year, which won't go down well with those countries advocating the candidacy." Kazakhstan's candidacy is supported by Russia and a number of CIS countries. Goran Lennmarker, president of the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, also expressed support for Kazakhstan on December 4, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. "I fully support Kazakhstan's application for the OSCE chairmanship," he said. DK

President Kurmanbek Bakiev told Kyrgyzstan's parliament on December 4 that he remains undecided on the country's possible participation in the Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt-reduction initiative, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Nevertheless, Bakiev urged a "careful" examination of the program. Also on December 4, a cabinet meeting on HIPC turned divisive when Prime Minister Feliks Kulov asked ministers to refrain from public criticism of HIPC, which sparked a number of objections, reported. Kulov reportedly told ministers who object to the no-criticism suggestion that they can resign. The program, which could help to reduce Kyrgyzstan's $2 billion external debt, has prompted significant debate in Kyrgyzstan. DK

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov issued a decree on December 4 removing Amirsho Miraliyev as the head of Khatlon province and replacing him with Ghaybullo Afzalov, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Afzalov had previously been the deputy governor of Khatlon province. The new appointment came one day after Rakhmonov replaced the head of Soghd province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2006). DK

Czech Foreign Minister Alexander Vondra said in Brussels on December 4 that the recent detention of a Czech aircraft carrying military brass in Turkmenistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2006) was the result of a misunderstanding, Czech news agency CTK reported. Vondra noted that he accepted a statement from Esen Aidogdyev, head of the Turkmen delegation to the OSCE, with "satisfaction." Vondra said, "We have agreed that it was a misunderstanding in bilateral communication that, unfortunately, brought these negative consequences [on December 2-3], when Turkmen authorities were unable to properly resolve this." DK

Swiss-registered Zeromax has agreed to buy a 16 percent stake in Oxus Gold in a move that could help the British company with its troubled joint venture in Uzbekistan, reported on December 4. Oxus Gold owns a 50 percent stake in Uzbekistan's Amantaytau Goldfields (AGF), which was recently hit with a $225 million claim for back taxes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 27, 2006). A source told, "Zeromax is a very influential company which has significant experience in doing business in Uzbekistan. Such a shareholder is strong enough to resolve the AGF joint venture's tax problems." Zeromax, which reportedly belongs to businessman Miradil Jalolov, is buying the stake in Oxus for 12.3 million pounds ($24.3 million). DK

Residents in the town of Hojeyli in Uzbekistan's Karakalpakstan Republic blocked the Kungrad-Nukus highway on December 2 to protest a shortage of natural gas, reported on December 4. The protest reportedly involved 200 people and prompted local authorities to restore gas supplies. An eyewitness told, "People were decisive in their demands, and they replied to requests to clear the road from Nukus police brass, 'Give us gas, and then we'll talk.'" But a local doctor told that he doubts the protest will solve the problem of irregular gas supplies in winter months, suggesting that as protests occur in other locations where gas is lacking, the authorities will simply redirect the gas from Hojeyli to another place. DK

Former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich was detained in the town of Belaazyorsk, Brest Oblast, on December 4 on suspicion of carrying drugs and alcohol, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. "Policemen examined the car and, of course, found nothing," Milinkevich's spokesman Pavel Mazheyka told journalists. "They recorded Milinkevich's explanation and let him take the car from the Belaazyorsk police office. It is interesting that their questions had nothing to do with the drugs allegation. [The police] asked what Milinkevich was doing in Belaazyorsk.... The authorities are looking for new methods of pressure on the leader of the united pro-democratic forces but cannot find any." Milinkevich was staying in Belaazyorsk to help collect ballot-access signatures for a local opposition activist to run in the local elections on January 14. Milinkevich was briefly detained at the Minsk airport last week over a passport irregularity (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). JM

Viktor Yanukovych said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on December 4 that his government remains committed to democratic and economic reforms, an RFE/RL correspondent reported. "We will not abandon the path we have chosen, the path of democratic market transformations. There can never be too much democracy in Ukraine, just as there cannot be too much freedom," Yanukovych noted. He insisted that the period of instability is now behind Ukraine, and promised that the next five years will be "predictable and stable" as well as marked with palpable economic growth. Yanukovych also sought to downplay differences between himself and President Viktor Yushchenko, insisting that he has "no disagreements with the president of Ukraine" when it comes to the country's strategic direction and future. However, he admitted that both have different "tactical approaches." JM

Prime Minister Yanukovych also stressed at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington on December 4 that Ukraine remains committed to its long-term goal of joining NATO, but added that public skepticism to membership makes the issue a "significant and controversial problem," an RFE/RL correspondent reported. "A great number of our people still fear that our accession to NATO will be directed toward Russia [and] would harm our friendly relations. As a result, only one in five Ukrainians support filing a membership application to the alliance. And one cannot fail to take this situation into account," he noted. Referring to Ukraine's potential EU membership, Yanukovych said he prefers a slow approach but left no doubt that Kyiv aspires to accession. "I hope that Ukraine will come close to start negotiating its accession to the European Union with me as its prime minister. Maybe we will start the negotiations. It will not happen today, or tomorrow, but I believe it will happen," he said. Later the same day, Yanukovych met with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. JM

Within the framework of Prime Minister Yanukovych's ongoing visit to the United States, both sides signed two cooperation accords in Washington on December 4, UNIAN and Reuters reported. Ukrainian Economy Minister Volodymyr Makukha signed an intergovernmental agreement with U.S. State Department Undersecretary Claudia McMurray on cooperation in science and technology, and another one with the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation on receiving some $45 million for a two-year program to combat corruption in Ukraine. JM

The Serbian Socialist Party (SPS) chose deputy chief Ivica Dacic as its new leader on December 4, replacing the late Slobodan Milosevic, international news agencies reported the same day. Dacic, who will lead the SPS into Serbia's January 21 general elections, defeated the party's other deputy head, Milorad Vucelic in a party vote. Dacic pledged to "continue Milosevic's legacy, but also implement changes needed to win support of citizens," AP reported. He also took a hard-line stance on Kosova. "No one can say that there won't be war again" over Kosova, Dacic said. "Kosovo must be defended with all means." The SPS also passed a resolution honoring Milosevic's "heroic efforts to defend the Serbian people" during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia. Milosevic, who led the SPS since its founding in 1990, died of a heart attack in March at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2006). BW

The ICTY announced on December 4 that doctors are scheduled to examine Serbian Radical Party (SRS) leader Vojislav Seselj, whose health is failing due to a hunger strike, Reuters reported the same day. The examination was originally scheduled for December 4, but was delayed until December 5, according to an unidentified ICTY spokesman. In a letter to Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, ICTY President Fausto Pocar said Seselj has refused to be examined by the medical staff of the UN detention unit and by representatives of the International Committee of the Red Cross. "The tribunal has initiated and facilitated a visit by a group of Serbian, French, and Russian doctors whom Mr. Seselj has advised us he is willing to meet," Pocar added. Seselj is on trial for war crimes. Last week, the ICTY suspended proceedings due to Seselj's failing health (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2006). BW

Serbia's war crimes prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic said on December 4 that his office is investigating a mass grave containing up to 750 bodies, AP reported the same day. Vukcevic did not reveal further details or the location of the mass grave, but he said that it is connected to an investigation of a group of Serbian paramilitaries accused of executing hundreds of Muslim civilians near the town of Zvornik in Bosnia-Herzegovina, near the border with Serbia. Vukcevic's office said it has charged seven people over the killings in Zvornik, but added that the investigation is ongoing and that more people could be charged. Vukcevic said the mass grave discovered during the investigation contained between 670 and 750 bodies. BW

Police in Presevo are seeking to interrogate several ethnic Albanians over the removal of Serbian flags on municipal buildings and the display of Albanian flags in their place, B92 and FoNet reported on December 4. Ethnic Albanians in Presevo removed the Serbian flag from municipal buildings and replaced them with three Albanian flags on November 28 to mark the Albanian holiday Flag Day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 28 and 29, 2006). Presevo municipal head Ragmi Mustafa said Presevo Albanians are upset over the police request. Mustafa said those who removed the Serbian flag and replaced it with an Albanian one "did not provoke anyone" and called on police to "stop using the methods from the Milosevic era." BW

Officials from Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina said on December 4 that they are reluctant to sign on to the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) unless they win concessions on tobacco and food duties, Reuters reported the same day. Serbia is concerned about protecting its tobacco sector. Belgrade currently applies a 15 percent tax on imported cigarettes but protects its own producers with high excise duties. Serbian negotiator Vlatko Sekulovi said it is unfair to ask Belgrade to cut duties without concessions. Meanwhile, Bosnian negotiator Duljko Hasic said his country's farmers would be harmed by what he called unfair competition within the bloc. Hasic said Serbia and Croatia heavily subsidize their food sectors, use noncustoms barriers and block Bosnian exports in transit to Slovenia and Macedonia. The CEFTA is considered a step toward EU membership. Romania and Bulgaria will leave the bloc in January to join the EU, leaving Croatia and Macedonia as the sole signatories. Albania, Bosnia, Serbia, Montenegro, Moldova and Kosova have until December 19 to agree to join. BW

The main focus of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's visit to Brussels has been energy. On December 5, Nazarbaev's EU hosts made no secret that their interest in Kazakhstan is first and foremost fuelled by the country's vast oil and gas resources.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the EU's executive European Commission, made the link clear after meeting the Kazakh president on December 4. "Security of energy supply is very much at the top of the European Union's political agenda, and the European Union is keen to enhance relations with Kazakhstan, a partner that we give a great value," he said. "In fact, we were very encouraged during our meeting to listen to President Nazarbaev when he said he is ready to consider all those issues in a very pragmatic and a very economic manner."

The two sides signed an agreement on energy cooperation and a declaration on the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Kazakhstan is the world's third-biggest producer of uranium but accounts for just 3 percent of uranium deliveries to EU utilities. The nuclear agreements signed today cover areas such as increasing nuclear safety, controlled nuclear fusion, research and development, and trade in nuclear materials.

Nazarbaev said after meeting with Barroso that Kazakhstan supports EU plans to source up to a quarter of its energy needs from the Caspian region. He indicated Kazakhstan was receptive to the EU's bid to diversify its external energy supplies, as well as routes, saying Kazakhstan will consider all economically viable routes. Currently, Kazakh oil transits via Russia and in tankers across the Caspian Sea and on to Turkey by means of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline.

The European Union and the United States are currently funding feasibility studies for a trans-Caspian gas pipeline, which could also link Kazakhstan up with Turkey. However, Kazakhstan has appeared noncommittal on the prospects of the trans-Caspian project in recent months. On December 4, Nazarbaev said the idea was "interesting," but said too little detail was available on the project as yet.

The Kazakh president indicated that his country wants to use the current rapprochement with the EU to take relations to a new level, and mooted the signing of a new "strategic partnership" accord. The EU and Kazakhstan "are currently working together on the basis of a [Partnership and] Cooperation Agreement that was signed in 1995," he said. "I proposed [today] that the next document cover our strategic partnership, not only in the energy sphere."

Nazarbaev also timed his visit to coincide with a meeting of Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) foreign ministers in Brussels, seeking to promote his country's bid to chair the organization in 2009.

Nazarbaev is courting the EU and its member states for support for Kazakhstan's application. Although the EU and most of its member states have indicated they support the bid, it remains controversial -- not least for the United States, which has tried to persuade Astana to opt for a later date.

On December 4, Nazarbaev rejected any postponement. "In the past seven years, Kazakhstan's economy has tripled," he said. "Its economic growth currently stands at about 9 to 10 percent [per year] and it has an open economy. All this explains why we have applied to chair [the OSCE] in 2009, and we will not withdraw our candidacy."

(Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels.)

A spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, Zemeri Bashary, said on December 4 that his ministry is satisfied with the police-training program despite a U.S. government report that concluded the Afghan National Police have trouble carrying out even routine law-enforcement duties, AP reported. The report, by the U.S. State Department and the Pentagon, points to illiteracy, corruption, and low pay as contributors to the failings of the $1.1 billion U.S.-sponsored training program. Bashary conceded that Afghan police would perform better if they were provided with better equipment and weapons. Joanna Nathan of the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit analytical organization, said the training and quality of Afghanistan's police force has been one of the international community's greatest failings. RR

NATO responded favorably on December 4 to the possibility that the EU might embark on an operation in Afghanistan to train and fund local police and judiciary, AP reported. The EU sent a fact-finding mission to Afghanistan on November 24 in response to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer's request for EU help in building the country's police force and courts. "It is very valid that the EU and NATO have as much cooperation as possible," de Hoop Scheffer said. EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana indicated that the mission to Afghanistan will study ways for NATO and the EU to cooperate in a "profound manner." The mission is expected to present a report to EU officials next week, and they will then decide whether to embark on a combined mission to supplement ongoing training operations led by individual European governments. RR

Pakistan announced on December 4 that Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri will visit Afghanistan on December 7-9 for talks on dealing with the Taliban insurgency, AFP reported. Kasuri will use the visit to discuss the possibility of convening tribal elders from both sides of the border for a joint jirga, or council of tribal elders, as well as other bilateral issues. "Basically, he [will] discuss how to bring about peace and calm in the bordering areas of the two countries," Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam said, according to AFP. Kasuri will meet with Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta to follow up on decisions made by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and Afghan President Hamid Karzai at their meeting with U.S. President George W Bush in September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 29, 2006), including Karzai's proposal of convening a jirga to help curb violence. RR

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) announced on December 4 the reopening of the sole operating sugar-production facility in Afghanistan, Xinhua reported. The sugar factory, located in Baghlan Province, was rehabilitated through an FAO program begun in 2004 that was financed by a German public-private partnership. The New Baghlan Sugar Company, as the plant is called, presently employs 120 people and has the capacity to process 600-800 tons of sugar beet per day. FAO will provide assistance to farmers growing high-quality sugar beet on approximately 2,500 hectares of land in order to ensure a stable supply of sugar for the plant. Although the sugar factory covers just 1.3 percent of Afghanistan's total sugar demand, the FAO claimed that reopening the plant is an important step toward self-sufficiency after decades of war. RR

Viktor Cherkesov, head of the Russian Federal Drug Control Service, and a delegation arrived in Tehran on December 4, IRNA reported. Amir-Hussein Motahar, deputy chief of Iran's Drug Control Headquarters, expressed the hope that their meeting might result in closer cooperation between the two countries, while Cherkesov noted that Russia and Iran have a common interest in controlling the flow of drugs. The discussions will focus on the growing of opium in Afghanistan and the resulting export of narcotics, as well as cooperation in multilateral forums. Motahar also told reporters of a counternarcotics facility in Iran that directs the efforts of 60,000 people, and the country's construction of canals, fences, and walls along the eastern border. The same day, Brigadier General Behnam Shariatifar, the chief of Iran's Border Guards, said in the northwestern city of Gorgan that difficulties with the porous eastern border are mostly resolved, IRNA reported. He attributed the change to "appropriate and comprehensive investments," including the construction of static defenses. Shariatifar described the installation of "advanced radar systems" in the future, saying this will give Iran total control over the border. BS

Seyyed Mohammad Hussein Musavi, head of the Fajr industrial complex in Iran's southern city of Shiraz, announced on December 4 that his facility builds three types of launchers for naval rockets, IRNA reported. He described mass production of an 11-tube rocket launcher that can lock onto a target in less than 10 seconds even in rough conditions. He added that Iran produces RPG-7 rocket launchers and SPG9 rocket launchers. Every stage of the process is domestic and supervised by the Defense and Armed Forces Logistics Ministry, he added. BS

The Iranian cabinet has granted permission for the opening of an Iraqi consulate in the northwestern city of Mashhad, Fars News Agency reported. Mashhad is an important pilgrimage site for Shi'a, because the tomb of the Eighth Imam, Imam Reza, is located there. The custodian of the shrine, the Astaneh Qods Razavi, is a wealthy conglomerate that in addition to earning revenues from the pilgrimage traffic, owns agricultural lands, factories, and real estate. The cabinet also approved the temporary transfer of an Iraqi consulate from the southwestern city of Khorramshahr to Ahvaz. BS

The Iranian student organization known as the Office for Strengthening Unity has called on Iranians to demonstrate against what it terms a second Cultural Revolution on Students Day, December 6, Radio Farda reported on December 4. Cultural Revolution is a reference to the purging of professors from the universities in the early 1980s, and those events are being compared to more recent dismissals of professors and administrators from the universities. The latter events coincide with the reported blocking of admissions for activist students who refuse to renounce political advocacy. The Office for Strengthening Unity statement refers to the death of students when hard-line forces attacked the Tehran University dormitory in July 1999, and it calls for the release from prison of political activists, Mansur Osanlu of the Tehran bus drivers syndicate, and equal rights for men and women. BS

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani on December 3 rejected UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's initiative to hold an international conference on Iraq in an attempt to end the sectarian violence, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on December 4. Talabani said there is a political process under way in Iraq and the country is more than capable of solving its own problems. "We became an independent and sovereign state. Thus, we will decide the future of Iraq," he said. On December 2, Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim also rejected the proposal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2006). Al-Hakim met with U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington on December 4 to discuss Iraq's security situation. SS

Salih al-Mutlaq, the Sunni leader of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, announced his support on December 4 for an international conference on Iraq as proposed by UN Secretary-General Annan, the Jordan-based "Al-Arab al-Yawm" reported the same day. Speaking at news conference in Amman, al-Mutlaq said that the invitation to convene the conference "came late, but it is better than never." He rejected SCIRI leader al-Hakim's objections to an international conference, accusing the Shi'ite leader of colluding with Iran. "What does Iran and al-Hakim want in expressing this objection? Has not the number of victims satisfied them yet?" al-Mutlaq said. Meanwhile, Muslim Scholars Association leader Harith al-Dari on December 4 urged Arab states and the international community to work seriously toward saving Iraq from disaster, Al-Arabiyah satellite television reported the same day. Furthermore, he accused the Iraqi government of fomenting the violence in Iraq. "It has become known to people everywhere that the political process brought to Iraq by the occupation, starting with the Governing Council and ending with the present government, is only a process for devastating, destroying, and dividing Iraq and its people," al-Dari said. SS

An Iraqi Interior Ministry official said on December 3 that police discovered 50 bodies with gunshot wounds in Baghdad, international media reported on December 4. The official also said that most of the bodies showed visible signs of torture, suggesting that that they were victims of sectarian violence. Thirty-five of the bodies were discovered in Al-Karkh, a majority Sunni Arab district, while the remaining 15 were found in Al-Rusafa, a mainly Shi'ite area. Meanwhile, gunmen killed an Iraqi journalist outside his Baghdad home on December 4, AFP reported the same day. Nabil Ibrahim al-Dulaymi, the news editor at Radio Al-Dijla, was shot while leaving his home in the Al-Washash section of Baghdad. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 89 journalists and 37 media support workers have been killed in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. SS

During the December 4 session of the Anfal trial, a Kurdish chemistry teacher recalled how he saw more than 40 people dead from an alleged chemical attack in 1988, international media reported. Speaking directly to Chief Judge Muhammad al-Uraybi, Abdallah Abd al-Qadir Abdallah said he lost 25 members of his own family, including his mother and five of his six children. "Your honor, you can imagine my condition when I saw my family members in this state and I'm alone in the darkness. I saw more than 40 people, most of them were women and children, lying on the ground suffering from chemical injuries," he said. Prosecutors have accused former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and six co-defendants of killing more than 180,000 people. The court was adjourned until December 6. SS

Ozcan Sahin, a high-ranking Turkish diplomat, was shot and wounded on December 2 in the garden of the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad, the Anatolia news agency reported on December 4. A statement issued by the Turkish Foreign Ministry on December 4 said that Sahin was airlifted to a hospital in Ankara and had surgery to remove the bullet lodged in his abdomen. The statement added that Sahin is in stable condition and is expected to be discharged soon. Turkish officials said the nature of the attack is unknown and is under further investigation. SS

A U.S. Marine Corps CH-46 helicopter with 16 people on board crashed in a body of water in the western Al-Anbar Governorate on December 3, the U.S. military said in a statement released on December 4. Twelve passengers survived the crash and after a search-and-rescue operation, the body of one Marine was recovered. "Search-and-recovery efforts are ongoing for the remaining three unaccounted service members who have been listed as duty status unknown," the statement said. It also added that the cause of the crash did not appear to be the result of hostile action, but the incident remains under investigation. The latest death brought the total number of U.S. military casualties in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 to 2,895. SS