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Newsline - December 11, 2006

The Federal Press and Mass Communications Agency is "gathering publications worldwide to be studied for libelous and offensive comments against Russia in their coverage of" surrounding the recent apparent murder in London of British citizen and former Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) agent Aleksandr Litvinenko, reported on December 10, citing the state-run English-language broadcaster Russia Today TV (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 6, 7, and 8, 2006). added that "the government intends to file lawsuits for libel against international media if there is evidence of journalistic misconduct." The website noted that "the Russian government's warnings aimed at international journalists follow President [Vladimir] Putin's largely successful efforts to bring major media outlets in Russia under government control and to limit media criticism of his policies." It is not clear exactly what the authorities have in mind by "journalistic misconduct" or how and where they intend to pursue any legal claims. The website suggested that the authorities are particularly irked by articles linking Putin to Litvinenko's death and the murder in October of journalist Anna Politkovskaya. On December 6, Interfax quoted Mark Franco, who is the European Commission's representative for Russia, as telling the news agency in Moscow that no European government "has told its media to publish reports that Russian special services are involved" in Litvinenko's poisoning. Franco stressed that the critical "reports being published in the [European] press" should be understood as "a demonstration of freedom of speech and the independence of the media in Europe." PM

The British daily "Financial Times" reported on December 11 that "Russian prosecutors are exerting pressure on U.K. authorities to allow their own investigators to fly to London to probe the poisoning of...Litvinenko, in a move that threatens to raise political and diplomatic tensions over the case. The U.K. government has tried to keep the Russian intervention secret to avoid the issue turning into a full-blown dispute, say Whitehall officials." Unnamed "U.K. police sources" told the daily that Russian investigators want to question self-exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky and London-based Chechen Republic Ichkeria Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev. The Russian authorities have repeatedly sought the extradition of the two men on separate charges. Each man says that the charges against him are politically motivated. Some Russian media have sought to link one or both men to Litvinenko's death. On December 11, Interfax quoted unnamed Russian "sources close to the investigation" in Moscow as saying that Russian investigators will fly to London with the Scotland Yard team currently in Moscow when the British officials return home. Also on December 11, the BBC quoted Litvinenko's friend Aleksandr Goldfarb as saying that he has spoken to Berezovsky, Zakayev, and Litvinenko's widow, Maria, and that "none of them trust a Russian investigation." Goldfarb added that the three "will only talk to the Russians in London if the British request that they do it or to help the British get access to witnesses" in Russia. He added that any meeting must not take place in the Russian embassy, must be held with British police protection, and must take place only after the Russian officials have been "screened for any kind of possible poisoning." PM

Maria Litvinenko was quoted by Britain's "Mail on Sunday" on December 10 as saying that unnamed "Russian authorities" might have been responsible for her husband's death. She added that "obviously it was not Putin himself, of course not. But what Putin does makes it possible to kill a British person on British soil. I believe it could have been the Russian authorities" who killed him. She said that she does not trust any Russian investigation to "tell the truth." In a written statement he reportedly made on his deathbed, Aleksandr Litvinenko accused Putin of being behind his murder. PM

In Hamburg, Germany, the authorities have begun investigating [eds: exactly when is unclear] the activities there of Dmitry Kovtun, a Russian who met with Litvinenko the day he took ill, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on December 11. Kovtun has reportedly been hospitalized in Russia for radiation poisoning, but his condition is unclear. On a visit to Hamburg before meeting Litvinenko, Kovtun reportedly left numerous traces of the radioactive substance polonium-210, which apparently also killed Litvinenko, in several places. The German authorities suspect that Kovtun was illegally dealing in radioactive materials. Hamburg's chief prosecutor Martin Koehnke said on December 10 that there is "a reasonable basis of suspicion that [Kovtun] may not just be a victim but a perpetrator" in the Litvinenko case. A police spokeswoman said on December 10 that the Russian authorities have not responded to a German request for investigators to speak to Kovtun, the "International Herald Tribune" reported on December 11. PM

In the early hours of December 9, a fire at a Moscow center for drug and alcohol treatment claimed the lives of 45 women, Russian media reported. Some patients and staff managed to escape, but 43 patients and two employees died from asphyxiation after they were unable to open locked or barred windows. Deputy Emergency Situations Minister Aleksandr Chuprian said that the staff appear to have fled without alerting the patients. Mayor Yury Luzhkov said that he suspects arson. In the early hours of December 10, a fire broke out in the psycho-neurological clinic in Taiga in Kemerovo Oblast, southeast of Tomsk, Interfax reported. The blaze killed nine and left 16 injured. The regional prosecutor's office launched a criminal investigation later that same day. A spokesman for the regional authorities said that arson is suspected. PM

Presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak met for two hours late on December 9 in Rostov-na-Donu with 13 representatives of a group of Ingush displaced persons, reported. The Ingush arrived by bus the previous day and parked outside Kozak's headquarters in the hope of meeting with him. Kozak undertook to expedite the return of the Ingush to their homes in North Ossetia's Prigorodny district within one week. Last year, President Putin set a deadline of December 31, 2006, for the return of the former Ingushetian population of Prigorodny district, but the Ingush claim the North Ossetian authorities continue to obstruct their return (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 25, June 27, and July 31, 2006). LF

President Putin met in Moscow on December 7 with Aslancheryy Tkhakushinov, his proposed candidate to succeed Khazret Sovmen as Republic of Adygeya president, Adygeya parliament speaker Ruslan Khadjibiyokov told journalists in Maykop on December 8, reported. Khadjibiyokov, one of several alternative presidential candidates, said Putin thanked Sovmen for his work as president; praised and stressed his support for Tkhakushinov; and characterized Adygeya as one of the most stable North Caucasus republics in terms of interethnic relations. Putin further affirmed that the issue of subsuming Adygeya into surrounding Krasnodar Krai "is not on the agenda" as "we understand perfectly well that posing such a question is unacceptable, especially in the Caucasus" (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 10 and April 13, 2006, and "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12 and 18 and May 3, 2006). Shortly before their meeting with Putin, the Adygeya delegation met with Kozak to complain about the subordination of unnamed Adygeya government agencies to the Krasnodar administration and the liquidation of the Adygeya customs authorities, reported. The newly launched website quoted Murat Berzegov, head of the Cherkess Congress movement, as warning that the federal leadership is systematically abolishing Adygeya government agencies as a preliminary to effecting a merger of the two federation subjects without conducting a referendum on the issue. LF

National Security service personnel arrested Zhirair Sefilian, a Lebanese citizen who during the Karabakh war commanded the Shushi battalion, at his home during the night of December 9-10, and Noyan Tapan reported. Sefilian has been charged with calling during a December 4 meeting of the Union of Armenian Volunteers for a coup d'etat, a charge that other members of that organization reject as untrue and that independent parliament deputy Hmayak Hovhannisian attributed on December 10 to Sefilian's support for members of the Armenian minority in southern Georgia's Djavakhk region who plan to stage protests against the anticipated construction of a railway linking Turkey and Azerbaijan via Georgia, but which bypasses Armenia. Also arrested during the night of December 9-10 was Karabakh war veteran Vardan Malkhasian, who heads the Aragatsotn chapter of the Hayrenik yev Pativ (Fatherland and Honor) party, Noyan Tapan reported on December 11. LF

Voters in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic overwhelmingly endorsed in a referendum on December 10 the enclave's first-ever constitution, Armenian and Russian agencies reported. Voter turnout was estimated at 84 percent of the registered 74,500 voters; of whom 98.58 percent approved the draft, Noyan Tapan reported on December 11. Former residents of the NKR currently living in Armenia were also entitled to vote. The constitution defines the NKR as "an independent and sovereign state." NKR President Arkady Ghukasian said after casting his ballot on December 10 that any impact from the adoption of the constitution on the ongoing search for a negotiated solution to the Karabakh conflict can only be positive, reported; Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov earlier warned that the referendum will negatively affect the peace process. On December 7, Mubariz Ahmedoglu, who heads Azerbaijan's Center for Political Technologies and Innovations, said that the status the Azerbaijani leadership is currently offering the NKR is more favorable than what will be proposed in future, reported. LF

During talks in Tbilisi on December 8, the energy ministers of Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey failed to accede to the Georgian government's request to increase the amount of gas Georgia will receive in 2007 from Azerbaijan's off-shore Shah Deniz field, which recently came on stream, and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on December 9 and 11, respectively. Under the original agreement, Georgia will receive 250 million cubic meters of gas from Shah Deniz in 2007. Georgia's annual requirement is 1.8 billion cubic meters, and it has asked for 1.5 billion of Turkey's 3 billion cubic meter allocation, rather than pay the increased price of $230 per 1,000 cubic meters that Gazprom will charge as of January 1, 2007. It is not clear what price Georgia has offered. Turkey has reportedly agreed to waive its claim, on condition that it receives the 1.5 billion cubic meters in question at an unspecified later date, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta." Faced with the same steep increase in the price of imported Russian gas, Azerbaijan wants to retain more Shah Deniz gas than originally planned for domestic consumption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2006). LF

The pro-government parliament majority postponed indefinitely on December 8 voting on a draft resolution proposed by opposition lawmakers calling for Georgia to withdraw from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Caucasus Press reported. The opposition amended the wording of the draft at the last minute, setting a deadline of February 15, 2007 for President Mikheil Saakashvili to pronounce on the issue rather than calling for an immediate vote on whether Georgia should quit the CIS. But Givi Targamadze, chairman of the parliament's Defense and Security Committee, said the ruling United National Movement is against any such deadline. Opposition deputy Davit Gamkrelidze said he cannot understand why the majority "is so afraid" of a debate, but parliament speaker Nino Burdjznadze countered that "now is not the right time" to raise the issue. "The CIS is not only Russia," she added. LF

The Georgian parliament approved on December 8 in the first reading a draft bill that would require all men aged between 27-40 to perform 18 days' compulsory military training every second year, Caucasus Press reported. Teachers, doctors, some railway personnel, judges, diplomats, members of the clergy, and employees of the Defense and Interior ministries are exempt from that requirement; agricultural workers will not be mobilized during the harvest season. Others who are eligible may instead perform 180-200 hours' community service. Nika Rurua, who is deputy chairman of the parliamentary Defense and Security Committee, said there are plans to train 20,000 reservists in 2007. LF

The government of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia barred entry to Georgian citizens on December 8 to protest the arrest two days earlier in the west Georgian town of Zugdidi of Fridon Chakaberia, administration head in the village of Kvemo Bargebi in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion, Caucasus Press reported. Chakaberia has been remanded in pre-trial detention for two months on drug charges which the Abkhaz government claims are fabricated. In a December 8 interview on the official website, Republic of Abkhazia President Sergei Bagapsh described Chakaberia's arrest as a political act and as evidence of Georgia's "aggressive intentions" towards Abkhazia. He warned that Abkhazia may suspend power supplies to western Georgia if Chakaberia is not released. LF

President Nursultan Nazarbaev met with representatives of major investors in the Kazakh economy in Astana on December 8, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Participants in the meeting included Chevron Executive Vice President George Kirkland, LUKoil head Vagit Alekperov, British Gas chief executive Frank Chapman, and European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) President Jean Lemierre. Kirkland said that his discussion with Nazarbaev focused on the expansion of work on the Tengiz oil field, while Alekperov noted that LUKoil has already invested $4.5 billion into the Kazakh economy. For his part, Nazarbaev told a news conference that the EBRD will invest 700 million euros ($924 million) in the Kazakh economy in 2007, 80 percent of it in the private sector, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. DK

Kazakhstan's Supreme Court ruled on December 8 to uphold the sentences of 10 men convicted of involvement in the February murder of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev and two aides (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2006), "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Lawyers representing Sarsenbaev's family had demanded an additional investigation into allegations that the men's confessions were obtained under duress. Petr Svoik, a member of the opposition movement For a Just Kazakhstan, commented, "We had no real hope that the sentences would be overruled and there would be a new investigation -- it would be too dangerous for certain people," AP reported. DK

Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Alikbek Jekshenkulov met with U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in Bishkek on December 8 and presented a formal request that Kyrgyz law enforcement authorities be granted access to the U.S. serviceman who shot and killed a Kyrgyz citizen at the U.S. air base at Manas on December 6 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2006), Kabar reported. Jekshenkulov also presented a formal request to form a bilateral commission to develop new procedures to prevent such incidents in the future and provide recommendations on changing the basing agreement between Kyrgyzstan and the United States. DK

Shavkat Shoimov, deputy head of Tajik state gas company Tojikgaz, told Interfax on December 8 that Tajikistan will purchase 650 million cubic meters of gas from Uzbekistan in 2007, 40 million more than in 2006. Shoimov also said that Tajik negotiators have not managed to alter an Uzbek demand that Tajikistan pay $100 per 1,000 cubic meters of gas in 2007; Tajikistan currently pays $55. Shoimov said that a final agreement on 2007 gas imports from Uzbekistan will be signed in January. DK

President Saparmurat Niyazov has issued a decree removing Transportation Minister Baimukhammet Kelov from his post for alleged shortcomings in his work and falsified construction reports, Turkmen TV reported on December 7. Ashirgeldy Zamanov has been appointed as his replacement. DK

In remarks delivered on Uzbekistan's Constitution Day, December 7, and broadcast on national television the next day, President Islam Karimov urged Western countries to refrain from lecturing Uzbekistan about democracy, touted the importance of political parties, and announced that 2007 will be the year of "social protection" in Uzbekistan. Speaking of Western governments and democratization, Karimov said, "May they not teach us, force us, and tell us what to do, and not teach us what democracy is and what it is not." Karimov spoke out in favor of a draft law aimed at increasing the role of political parties. He described that law as an "opportunity to broaden the authority of legislative bodies -- that is, the Supreme Assembly and local councils -- increase the independence of executive power including the government [and] to make changes to the authorities and functions of the president and their reduction and strict definition within legal norms." In pronouncing 2007 the year of "social protection," Karimov promised greater efforts to ensure the well-being of the least protected members of society. DK

Riot police on December 10 broke up a demonstration of some 50 people in downtown Minsk by pushing them out of a square within minutes after the beginning of the protest, Belapan reported. Some 25 demonstrators were detained during the intervention. The demonstration was in support of imprisoned oppositionist Alyaksandr Kazulin, who has now entered the 53rd day of his hunger strike in a correctional facility near Vitsebsk (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 8, 2006). According to Kazulin's wife Iryna, he will decide on December 11 whether to continue his protest. Kazulin is demanding that the UN Security Council discuss the situation in Belarus. JM

The U.S. House of Representatives on December 8 passed a piece of legislation titled the Belarus Democracy Reauthorization Act of 2006, which extends the Belarus Democracy Act of 2004 (see "RFE/RL Belarus and Ukraine Report," October 8, 2004) for 2007 and 2008, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. "As one who has worked for freedom in Belarus over many, many years, I remain deeply concerned that the Belarusian people continue to be subjected to the arbitrary and self-serving whims of a corrupt and antidemocratic regime headed by Alyaksandr Lukashenka," Representative Chris Smith, who authored the bill, said during debate in the House of Representatives. The bill reportedly authorizes $27.5 million in funding for democracy-building activities in Belarus. The bill also bans the U.S. government from providing financial assistance to Belarus, except for humanitarian aid, until Minsk conducts a thorough inquiry into the 1999-2000 disappearances of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's opponents, releases political prisoners, drops charges against opposition figures, and ends the prosecution of independent media and pro-democracy organizations. JM

The Communist Party of Ukraine (KPU) has presented its partners in the ruling coalition, the Party of Regions and the Socialist Party, with a "political ultimatum," the "Ukrayinska pravda" website reported on December 9, quoting Leonid Hrach, head of the KPU's Crimean branch. According to Hrach, a meeting of the KPU Central Committee on December 9 concluded that the KPU's ruling coalition partners do not fulfill coalition commitments as regards government appointments and other issues. In particular, Hrach mentioned the Socialists' recent support for a bill defining the 1932-33 famine in Ukraine as genocide (see "RFE/RL Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova Report," December 5, 2006). Hrach warned that the KPU may leave the ruling coalition if its partners fail "to correct their mistakes." JM

Vojislav Kostunica sharply criticized UN Special Envoy Martti Ahtisaari on December 10, accusing him of failing to condemn attacks against the Serbian minority in Kosova, AP reported the same day. Kostunica was reacting to an incident on December 8 in which unidentified assailants blew up railroad tracks on a route used by Serbs. "The Serbian government is demanding to know why...Martti Ahtisaari has not yet condemned the terrorism by [ethnic] Albanian separatists in Kosovo," Kostunica said. He added that Ahtisaari has a "strict responsibility to instantly condemn every form of threat, especially terrorist attacks, such as blowing up a railway line." The Serbian premier added that "Ahtisaari has been unable to escape his own prejudice and has severely accused the entire Serb nation while mutely watching the terrorist Albanian separatists carry on." BW

Boris Tadic acknowledged on December 10 that Kosova will most likely become independent, but he nevertheless vowed to work against such an outcome, AP reported the same day. "The probability is greater that Kosovo will become independent," Tadic said. "Every citizen knows this, and I have no right to deceive anyone," he added. "But I shall fight to the last moment so this will not happen." Tadic added that "no normal country would give up a part of its territory." BW

Vuk Draskovic said on December 10 that Belgrade should extradite war crimes suspects not only to meet international obligations, but also to defend Serbia's honor, B92 and Beta reported the same day. "We Serbs have led so many wars but never before [former President Slobodan] Milosevic have we committed war crimes, nor have we featured in international arrest warrants," Draskovic said. "If these men have committed crimes they need to be brought to justice, since they have damaged and shamed the Serbian history and the Serbian people," he said. BW

Former Serbian Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic offered on December 10 to lead negotiations on Kosova's status, B92 and Beta reported the same day. He said the chances of Serbia holding on to Kosova would be stronger if pro-Western parties were to win the January 21 elections. "Should [the] Radicals win, which I doubt will be the case, Kosovo will be granted independence immediately," said Dinkic, who is president of the G17 Plus party. "But should the democratic forces win, the negotiations will be neither quick nor simple, and I expect that a true compromise solution will be reached then, one that will enable Serbia to save face," he added. "If there is consensus between President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, I am ready to personally take over the future Kosovo status negotiations, just as I have led those with the IMF and the London Club," he added. BW

A senior United Nations official said on December 8 that the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) can do little more to help the breakaway province until its status is decided, AP reported the same day. "We can no longer make great improvements on economic issues. We can no longer make great improvements on security of minorities," Steven Schook, deputy U.N. administrator in Kosova, said at a town hall-style meeting in the province. Schook said Kosova's unresolved status is hindering progress, but added that it should soon be resolved. "The only activity that would derail the process would be unilateral action or threats to the security of anyone right now," Schook said. "We are very close to the finish line." BW

Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik on December 9 appealed to all war crimes fugitives to surrender, Reuters reported the same day. "I call...on the indictees to surrender and enable us to continue with a full democratic development of the Republika Srpska so that we are relieved of a burden that can always stop us in our progress," Dodik said during a news conference in Banja Luka. "I am ready to personally head a unit tasked to arrest persons indicted for war crimes, if I knew where they were. When Republika Srpska completes the issue of war crimes indictees, its role, importance and perception by the world will significantly change. That is why we need to be done with it," he added. The chief prosecutor of the the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Carla Del Ponte, last week said that war crimes fugitives Radovan Karadzic and Stojan Zupljanin are hiding along the border between Serbia and Republika Srpska (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2006). BW

Speaking at the same press conference on December 9, Dodik said that Republika Srpska should be allowed to keep its own police force under a European Union-sponsored reform, Reuters reported the same day. "We don't see the reason why the Republika Srpska police, which is in charge of the Republika Srpska territory, cannot be kept," he said. The EU is pushing Bosnia-Herzegovina to integrate the ethnically based police forces in Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat Federation into a unified national force (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 1 and 14, 2006). The Peace Implementation Council (PIC) for Bosnia says police reform is necessary for Bosnia to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with the EU. "Anyone reneging on previous commitments and not cooperating on this important reform must be ready to accept the consequences," the PIC said in a statement issued during the week ending December 8. BW

Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region held presidential elections on December 10, RIA-Novosti reported the same day. The incumbent, Igor Smirnov, is widely expected to win a fourth term as president of the unrecognized separatist republic. His opponents are Pyotr Tomaily, a member of the region's parliament, Andrei Safonov, the editor of a weekly opposition newspaper, and Nadezhda Bondarenko, the editor of a communist newspaper. Preliminary results are expected on December 11. BW

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has reportedly welcomed a new UN draft resolution targeting Iran's nuclear program. Lavrov said the so-called 5+1 major powers' compromise is "based on Russia's proposals" and is intended "to push Iran to sit at the negotiating table."

But officials in Tehran have remained defiant, with local voices recently declaring Iran "the final winner" in the nuclear dispute.

There were reportedly still obstacles to a new draft when officials from the 5+1 Group -- China, France, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States, plus Germany -- met in Paris late on December 5 to discuss the sanctions issue.

By the end of the week, it became clear that the effort to achieve consensus necessitated serious compromises. According to the British newspaper "Financial Times," European diplomats on December 9 still thought a decision might be reached before Christmas.

Moscow appears to be the main obstacle to the adoption of a wide-ranging sanctions regime. Russia is building an $800 million nuclear facility at Bushehr, in southern Iran, and Iran is an important market for Russian armaments. Foreign Minister Lavrov, possibly fearing the adverse impact of sanctions on his country's Iranian business interests, said on December 5 that "broad sanctions" would not be "proportionate" and would "harm the situation."

Washington, which accuses Iran of trying to develop nuclear weapons, has taken a more robust approach to the sanctions issue. U.S. Under Secretary of State Nicholas Burns suggested during the 5+1 talks that any UN resolution should "increase the [political and economic] cost to Iran" of what he called "illegitimate behavior." He pushed for a move to "take away any possible technical...scientific...political, or financial support" for Iran's efforts from the private sector, including research institutions.

But a compromise at the December 5 meeting was reportedly blocked by Russian foot-dragging. An anonymous European diplomat told Reuters at the time that "the gap between Russian and U.S. positions [was] still huge."

French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy expressed frustration on December 6 at the task of "propos[ing] sanctions that all the international community agrees on but, at the same time, they have to be proportionate and reversible." That terms "proportionate" and "reversible" echo the language that Moscow was demanding should appear in any resolution.

Douste-Blazy added that the objective is to tell Iran to "come back to its senses, come back to the international community," and to offer the possibility of developing its civilian nuclear program. He warned that a compromise was all the more urgent with "the credibility of the United Nations Security stake."

By the end of the week, reports emerged that a compromise draft resolution was being distributed among ambassadors from the 5+1 that would be introduced formally on December 11.

The document's new wording reportedly focuses on activities directly connected with making nuclear weapons. As an apparent sop to Russia, restrictions relating to the Bushehr nuclear facility were said to have been removed.

Not surprisingly, the Iranian government is advising against the imposition of sanctions, and senior officials are maintaining a defiant stance.

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad led the way, cautioning that his country will view efforts to halt Iranian nuclear progress or curb "the Iranian nation's rights, either in propaganda or international bodies," as "an act of hostility"

Speaking later on December 9 to an audience of young people, Ahmadinejad dismissed the international effort as having "backed down from military sanctions to empty sanctions," the Iranian news agency IRNA reported. He described the situation as one of "great successes" for Iran and added that the country is "only one step away from [its] nuclear climax."

Iran's foreign minister, Manuchehr Mottaki, said there are no legal grounds on which to refer Iran to the UN Security Council and reiterated Iran's determination to continue with its nuclear program.

Conservative Iranian newspapers adopted a similar tone. The front page of the "Kayhan" daily on December 7 proclaimed that "5 + 1 = 0," and described the international impasse as "the seventh collapse of the Group of Six." It said the five permanent members of the Security Council, plus Germany, have failed to achieve consensus on Iran's "peaceful" nuclear program.

A conservative columnist, Ali Yusefpur, boasted in the pro-government "Siyasat-i Ruz" daily on December 9 that Iran is "the final winner in the nuclear energy field." He went on to assert that Iranian officials have successfully countered American plots.

A meeting on December 8 between officials from Afghanistan and Pakistan ended with no new agreement on measures to combat the growing Taliban insurgency, Reuters reported the same day. Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri traveled to Kabul on December 7 to discuss cross-border tribal councils, or jirgas, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta. Reuters claims that a key point of dispute is Kabul's desire for all Afghan tribes to participate in the jirgas, while Islamabad reportedly would prefer that only tribes from affected areas participate. After the meeting, a joint statement by Kasuri and Spanta confirmed that the two countries "agreed on the common objectives to promoting peace, security, and prosperity." Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf agreed on the idea of using the jirgas this September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, 2006). Recently, the two countries have been exchanging accusations that the other is to blame for the increasing violence in Afghanistan. CJ

President Karzai delivered an emotional speech to foreign dignitaries and senior government officials in Kabul on December 10, AP reported the same day. Karzai described how Afghan children are being killed by the violence. "We can't prevent the terrorists from coming from Pakistan, and we can't prevent the [international] coalition from bombing the terrorists, and our children are dying because of this. The cruelty is too much" AP quoted him as saying. Karzai's speech coincided with the anniversary of the United Nations' adoption of its "Universal Declaration on Human Rights," which the UN has declared Human Rights Day. Karzai also unveiled what he described as an "action plan on peace, reconstruction, and justice." The plan involves government reforms, acknowledgement of the suffering of Afghan citizens, and accountability for perpetrators of past human rights abuses. Karzai also marked December 10 as a National Day of Remembrance to pay tribute to those who have died in the war. CJ

Five members of a single family, including two teachers, were killed by purported Taliban militants in the eastern Konar Province on December 9, AP reported the same day. Education Ministry spokesman Zuhur Afghan stated that 20 teachers have been killed by militants this year, and added that the Taliban have burned down 198 schools. AP claims that a list of rules, guiding Taliban actions and signed by Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, has recently circulated on the Internet. It reportedly includes a rule forbidding anyone from working as a teacher "under the current puppet regime, because this strengthens the system of the infidels." The rules also indicate that teachers who ignore Taliban warnings will be killed, and schools that fail to close will be burned. Major Luke Knittig, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), said that "the rules confirm a Taliban policy of undermining all forms of development that benefit ordinary Afghans, and seem to sanction the targeting of civilians." Knittig added that officials have no reason to doubt the authenticity of the rules posted on the Internet. CJ

Four Afghan civilians were killed and another was injured in a NATO-led air strike intended for Taliban militants on December 9, AFP reported the next day. The incident occurred in Laghman Province, east of Kabul, according to provincial police chief Abdul Karim Omeryar. Omeryar said that intelligence reports indicated Taliban militants were using a house in the Alishing district, "but only civilians were in that house." The governor of Laghman Province, Mohammad Gulab Mangal, has appointed a committee to confirm the civilian deaths, according to an unnamed official from the governor's office quoted by AFP. CJ

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on December 10 that Iran will "reconsider the level of its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency" (IAEA) if the UN Security Council issues a resolution targeting Iran's nuclear program, IRNA reported. "Iran's decision in this regard will be regulated on the basis of decisions" taken by the so-called 5+1 powers -- the five permanent Security Council members plus Germany, he said. "They have embarked on a bad path, and I hope they return to the...path of negotiations," IRNA quoted Hosseini as saying. Asked at a press conference about possible Iranian-U.S. talks on Iraq and regional affairs, he said the United States is "drowning" and yet setting preconditions for talks and using "insults and threats" when addressing Iran. Iran remains ready to cooperate with the Iraqi government to bring security and peace there, he said. Hosseini added that there is currently no question of bilateral talks, and Washington would first have to "make changes to its policies and conduct." VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told students in Tehran on December 9 that Iran has begun installing 3,000 centrifuges to enrich uranium, suggesting a step toward Iran's goal of autonomous nuclear-fuel production, news agencies reported. According to Iranian officials, 54,000 centrifuges could produce fuel for a 1,000-megawatt electricity plant, AP reported on December 9. Western powers want Iran to import nuclear fuel and avoid a manufacturing process that could give it the know-how to enrich uranium to very high levels and make nuclear bombs. Ahmadinejad said Iran has been operating a cascade of 164 centrifuges for eight months now and a second cascade in the past month, Fars reported on December 9. Enrichment on such a scale is likely for research purposes, but the new line will take Iran closer to industrial-scale fuel production. "When we take [the number of centrifuges] to above 60,000, we can then entirely make our own nuclear fuel," Fars quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. He said Western powers "began with 100 percent military threats [against Iran] and reached empty threats, but they have not yet understood Iran's power." VS

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei met with Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyah in Tehran on December 10 and said "resistance and resolve" will ensure "the return of Palestine with all its parts to the Palestinians, and the formation of a Palestinian government in this territory," IRNA reported. He said it must be a "divine sign" that efforts to "forget the Palestinian issue and eliminate [its] name" have failed for 60 years despite difficult conditions and a lack of support from Arab states. Haniyah told him that Iran is the "real supporter" of Palestinians, and expressed hope he will soon meet with Khamenei in the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. Haniyah during his visit also met with President Ahmadinejad and Expediency Council Chairman Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Ahmadinejad told him on December 9 that Israel's supporters are now "unsure" of their support, while Israel's chief ally, the United States, is faltering and weak, IRNA reported. He said Israel and the United States are fomenting Shi'a-Sunni conflict in the Middle East. Haniyah separately told a gathering of students in Tehran's Sharif Industrial University on December 10 that Hamas will never recognize Israel, and added that "the Palestinian self-governing authority backs the resistance," IRNA reported. He said the "Palestinian self-governing authority will never...arrest a [militant], never...pursue [them], and never disarm the resistance." VS

Bread prices in Iran have risen by 30 percent since December 6, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on December 10, citing Fars News Agency. The head of the bakers' guild, Hossein Nazari, told Fars on December 8 that bakers were informed they should post new bread prices on their shops on December 6, after a rise in the prices of various types of flour. The hike follows the Trade Ministry's recent denial that there would be any price increase. The ministry issued a statement in response to reported public dissatisfaction with related rumors. Radio Farda reported that a variety of Iranian flat breads now cost between 30 and 100 tumans ($0.03-$0.11) and quoted Nazari as saying that with new prices, bread quality will improve. Iranian households are estimated to consume five or six loaves a day of flat bread, which comes in various types, Radio Farda added. Separately, the director-general of economic statistics at Iran's central bank, Mohsen Taqavi, told Mehr on December 8 that the price index of consumer goods and services in Iranian cities rose 11.5 percent in the first eight months of the Persian year that began on March 21. VS

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani on December 10 sharply criticized a report published on December 6 by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, describing some of its recommendations as "dangerous," international media reported on December 10. Talabani said that the commission's recommendation to pressure Iraq to expedite the reconciliation process would undermine Iraq's sovereignty. "If you read this report, one would think that it is written for a young, small colony that they are imposing conditions on, neglecting the fact that we are a sovereign country and respected," Talabani said. He also said Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki would be better able to improve the nation's security situation if he were given full command of all Iraqi forces. He also objected to including representatives of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party in any attempts at national reconciliation, saying it would be "against the long struggle of the Iraqi people against dictatorship." "As a whole, I reject this report," he said, calling it "not fair and not just" and saying that "it contains dangerous articles which undermine the sovereignty of Iraq and its constitution." SS

The U.S. military announced on December 8 that it had killed 20 Al-Qaeda militants, including two women, in the Salah Al-Din Governorate. In a statement, the military said U.S. ground forces were searching buildings in the town of Al-Ishaqi on the night of December 7-8 when they came under heavy fire. U.S. troops returned fire, killing two militants, and then called in air support. The subsequent air strike killed 18 suspected Al-Qaeda-linked fighters. The statement added that U.S. forces also discovered a weapons cache consisting of AK-47 machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, antipersonnel mines, explosives, blasting caps, and suicide vests. "This is another step closer to defeating Al-Qaeda in Iraq and helping establish a safe and peaceful Iraq. Coalition forces will continue to target not only senior Al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders, but all terrorists regardless of their titles or positions within the community," the statement said. SS

The mayor of Al-Ishaqi, Amar Alwan, disputed the U.S. military's claim that its forces killed dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported on December 9. "All the casualties were innocent women and children and everything they said about them being part of Al-Qaeda is a lie," Alwan said. "This is the third crime done by Americans in this area of Al-Ishaqi," he said. The governor of the Salah Al-Din Governorate, Abdullah Hussein Jubara, called for an international inquiry into the attack and said those killed were all members of the same family. Exclusive footage shown on Al-Jazeera showed the bodies of men, women, and children wrapped in blankets after they had been pulled from the rubble. Al-Sharqiyah television reported on December 8 that local police believed that as many as 32 civilians were killed in the attack. A spokesman for the U.S. military, Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver, refuted the accusations that civilians were killed in the air strike. "We've checked with the troops who conducted this operation -- there were no children found among the terrorists killed," Garver said. SS

Iraqi insurgent leaders said that secret talks hosted by former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi in Amman, Jordan between themselves and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad broke down in mid-March, two months after they began, "The Sunday Times" reported on December 10. The three negotiators for the insurgents claimed to represent three-quarters of the "resistance," including Ansar Al-Sunnah, the 1920 Revolution Brigade, and the National Islamic Resistance. "The meetings came about after persistent requests from the Americans. It wasn't because they loved us but because they didn't have a choice," said an unidentified insurgent leader who took part in the meetings. At one point the insurgents proposed that the democratically elected Iraqi government be removed and replaced by an emergency government led by Allawi, in which non-sectarian politicians would be appointed to the crucial ministries of defense and the interior. "I told Khalilzad that we had the know-how and the manpower to regain control of Baghdad and rid it of the pro-Iranian militias. If he would just provide us with the weapons, we would clean up the city and regain control of Baghdad in 30 days," one insurgent leader said. The talks eventually collapsed after insurgent leaders were shocked to learn that Khalilzad was willing to talk to Iran about resolving the conflict in Iraq. SS

U.S. and Iraqi forces on December 9 arrested a top aide to the radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr and seven of his guards in the town of Al-Kut, international media reported the same day. Sheikh Yahya Ahmed al-Khafaji, the head of al-Sadr's movement in Al-Kut, 175 km southeast of Baghdad, was seized in an early-morning raid on his office, an unnamed Iraqi security official was quoted as saying. A spokesman for Al-Sadr, Sheikh Salah Hasan, confirmed al-Khafaji's arrest and criticized the raid, saying it will increase "sedition within the region." "If occupation forces are so active and capable, they should target terrorist hideouts and not escalate violence in peaceful regions like Al-Kut," Hasan said. A source from al-Khafaji's office called for the detainees to be released immediately. SS

The nephew of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein escaped from the Al-Badush prison in northern Iraq on December 9, apparently with the assistance of a prison official, AFP reported the same day. Ayman al-Sabawi, the son of Hussein's half-brother Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hasan al-Tikriti, was arrested in May 2005 in the town of Tikrit and accused of financing the Sunni-led insurgency and providing its fighters with arms and explosives. Brigadier Muhammad al-Waqa'a, the director of the Mosul police operations room, said the commander of the prison's night watch helped al-Sabawi to escape, but it is unclear how he managed to flee. Mosul police said 20 police vehicles have been dispatched to search for al-Sabawi, while 40 vehicles were patrolling Mosul itself. "The Interior Minister has ordered that a committee be formed to investigate [the escape] and arrest of the head of the prison and his deputy," Interior Ministry spokesman Major General Abdul Karim al-Khalaf told Al-Iraqiyah television on December 9. SS