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Newsline - December 18, 2006

Up to 3,000 opposition supporters gathered in Moscow on December 16 to demonstrate against the regime of President Vladimir Putin, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. The politically diverse protesters, led by former chess champion Garry Kasparov, sought to draw attention to what they call widespread corruption and a Kremlin crackdown on democratic freedoms. There was also a heavy police presence of about 8,000. Around 50 people were reportedly detained after scuffling with security forces. The Other Russia protest organizers said that roughly 100 people were prevented from leaving their regions to attend the rally in the capital. About 320 people were taken off trains and busses en route to the capital, "The Washington Post" reported on December 18. The authorities used similar tactics to keep protesters away from St. Petersburg during the July summit of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries. On December 12, police raided the offices of Kasparov's United Civil Front, saying they were looking for "extremist literature" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25 and December 13, 2006). On December 18, Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" called the opposition protest "a demonstration of weakness." On December 17, up to 70,000 supporters of the pro-Kremlin Nashi youth movement gathered in Moscow to mark the 65th anniversary of the routing of German forces at the approaches to the city, RIA Novosti reported. Nashi supporters, some of whom were dressed in Father Frost costumes, visited several parts of the city and met with World War II veterans. Their demonstration was unhindered by the police. Nashi often mobilizes large numbers of supporters through well-organized and well-funded actions. PM

About 400 Russian journalists lit candles on December 17 and read a roll-call of over 200 colleagues who have died violently since the fall of the Soviet Union, reported. The journalists gathered in a central Moscow square under writer Alexander Pushkin's statue, hemmed in by hundreds of police. The radio station Ekho Moskvy reported that there were as many police as demonstrators. Holding photographs of slain reporters such as Anna Politkovskaya and Paul Klebnikov, two of the journalists killed in Russia in the past 15 years, supporters accused authorities of not doing enough to track down the assassins. The protesters originally planned a march, but the city authorities said it would violate the constitutional rights of Muscovites by blocking traffic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006). PM

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka apparently failed to convince Russian President Putin in Moscow on December 15 not to hike the price for gas sales and not to tax oil shipments to Belarus, beginning in January 2007, "Kommersant" and reported on December 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2006, and "RFE/RL Russian Political Weekly," February 6, 2006). Gazprom plans to raise the price it charges Belarus for gas from $47 per 1,000 cubic meters to $200 unless it can obtain an interest in Beltranshaz and its pipeline network. Some Russian press reports suggested that a deal over at least the oil taxes is close at hand. Lukashenka left Moscow after his talks, canceling plans to attend a Kremlin dinner and watch a hockey game. PM

Olga Yegorova, who heads the Moscow City Court, told the weekly "Itogi" of December 18 that "there is no [judicial] corruption in Moscow, only judicial mistakes," reported. She added that the last case of corruption she can recall was in 1997. Yegorova stressed that the city's judicial system monitors its own judges and removes dishonest ones, so that "no single case has been identified of a judge involved in bribe-taking" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7 and 15, 2006). She added, however, that "if a judge makes a mistake, that's not corruption." PM

Amir Mukhannad, an Arab from one of the Persian Gulf states who has fought as a volunteer in Chechnya for 10 years, was unanimously chosen on December 9 to succeed the slain Abu Hafs al-Urdani as commander of the group of Muslim mercenaries fighting with the Chechen resistance, the website reported on December 17, citing Al-Urdani was killed in a sweep operation in the Daghestani town of Khasavyurt last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 2006). LF

Acting on a directive signed by Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic President Mustafa Batdyev on December 11, deputies voted on December 15 to establish a Nogai district on part of the territory of the Adyge-Khabl Raion, according to the newspaper "Yuzhny federalny" on December 17 as reposted by The new district comprises five predominantly Nogai-populated villages, occupies 187 square kilometers, and has a population of some 15,000 people, or 3 percent of the republic's total population. Residents of those villages voted overwhelmingly in October on the creation of a separate Nogai district (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 22 and October 11, 2006). LF

Hrant Markarian, a leading member of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD), one of two junior partners in the coalition government, told hundreds of supporters in Giumri on December 14 that during its years in power, the HHD has not succeeded in implementing many tenets of its program relating to the eradication of poverty and corruption, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on December 15. He implied that doing so is not a priority for the present government. At the same time, Markarian stressed that the HHD is "not trying to dodge responsibility," and does not regret having been part of the coalition government since 1998. LF

In a December 15 interview with three Armenian television channels, Robert Kocharian stressed the contribution made over the past six years by Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) -- the largest parliamentary faction and the senior partner in the ruling coalition -- to economic growth and the strengthening of Armenia's independence, Noyan Tapan reported on December 16. He rejected media speculation about an emerging rift between himself and the HHK, and predicted that the HHK will score a "serious success" in the parliamentary elections due in spring 2007. At the same time, Kocharian attributed the success of the recently created rival Prosperous Armenia party headed by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian to its "simple and understandable slogans" and the concern it manifests for the population at large, rather than its charity activities. Kocharian predicted that Prosperous Armenia, the HHD, and the United Labor Party (the third member of the present coalition government) will likewise all be represented in the new parliament, and he implied that they may form a coalition government, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

President Kocharian also said in his December 15 television interview that during the run-up to the 2007 parliamentary elections "there will be no active negotiating process" in the ongoing search for a peaceful solution to the Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He did not elaborate, and it is not clear whether he meant there will be no meetings in the next few months between himself and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev, or between the two countries' foreign ministers. Kocharian said some people in Armenia are openly predicting that he will be forced to make concessions, and they would "try to discredit even the best peace deal." In those conditions, Kocharian explained, "I find it immoral to use the Karabakh issue in the pre-election struggle." In Baku, presidential administration official Novruz Mammadov told journalists Kocharian's announcement of a "suspension" of talks shows the Armenian authorities are not sincere in affirming their desire for a swift solution to the conflict, reported on December 17. But Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov said the same day neither the Armenian authorities nor the OSCE Minsk Group have formally notified Baku of any imminent suspension of the negotiating process. Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov told on December 17 that the two sides have made quite considerable progress over the past 2 1/2 years, that the talks in 2006 have been "productive," and that only one crucial issue remains to be addressed. At the same time, Mammadyarov noted that the Armenian side has requested "a short breathing space" to mull over its next steps. He said Baku would like to believe that Armenia "is seriously considering a phased solution," and that the request for a short pause does not mean Yerevan "is simply killing time." LF

The National Forum held its founding congress in Tbilisi on December 15, electing as its chairman Kakhaber Shartava, Caucasus Press and the Imedi television channel reported. The forum believes Georgia should be a parliamentary republic, according to one of its founders, Irakli Melashvili, who argued that "we cannot live under rules clumsily copied by one man." A second founding member, Gubaz Sanikidze, argued that Georgians have become "successful beggars" living on largesse dispensed by international finance organizations. The forum plans to unveil its own proposal for resolving the Abkhaz conflict by building "a common homeland." Shartava's father Zhiuli was a Georgian Komsomol first secretary and protege of Georgian Communist Party First Secretary Eduard Shevardnadze, who named him in 1993 to head the Tbilisi-based Abkhaz Council of Ministers; he was summarily executed shortly before the fall of Sukhum(i) in October 1993 under circumstances that remain unclear. LF

Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, addressed on December 15 a congress in Sukhum of Abkhaz emigres from across the world, reported. In his address, Bagapsh criticized Georgia's Abkhaz policy, in particular the deployment of troops in July to the Kodori Gorge, as aimed at preventing a negotiated settlement of the conflict. He argued that the signing of a nonaggression pact under which both Georgia and Abkhazia would abjure further military action, and of which the UN General Assembly and Russia would serve as guarantors, would advance the negotiating process to "an absolutely new and productive phase." He further noted that the overwhelming majority of the present Abkhaz population has acquired Russian citizenship, a development that implies shared responsibilities between Russia and Abkhazia in both social and security issues. Bagapsh stressed that Abkhazia's location "on the crossroads of the most important international transport corridors" should qualify it to participate in the EU's planned expanded cooperation with South Caucasus states within the framework of the New Neighborhood Program. In Tbilisi on December 15, some 1,000 members of the movement Chven Tviton (We Ourselves) that represents the former Georgian population of Abkhazia protested the convening of the Sukhum(i) congress, arguing that they are entitled to a say in how the unrecognized republic develops, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Dato Shengelia, who headed the Georgian partisan formation Forest Brothers until its disbanding in early 2004, has been arrested after Tbilsisi police found quantities of heroin and methadon in his car, Caucasus Press reported on December 18. The Forest Brothers operated in the late 1990s in western Georgia and southern Abkhazia, targeting Russian peacekeepers and Abkhaz police; some reports have implicated them in smuggling across the internal border that divides Abkhazia from the rest of Georgia. LF

Speaking in Astana on December 15 to mark the 15th anniversary of Kazakhstan's independence, President Nursultan Nazarbaev described his country as a "full-fledged, respected, and influential member of the international community," Khabar Television reported. Nazarbaev touted Kazakhstan's "leading position in the CIS" in "economic and social development." He stressed that per capita GDP has risen significantly from $600 in 1994 and should exceed $6,000 in 2007. Turning to foreign policy, Nazarbaev said Kazakhstan is member of the Collective Security Treaty Organization and Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and participates "in counterterrorism exercises and peacekeeping missions in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq." DK

Nazarbaev also stated on December 15 that Kazakhstan will in the near future "become one of the world's leading hydrocarbon producers," Interfax reported. Nazarbaev added that its estimated hydrocarbon reserves of 12 billion-17 billion tons "make it possible to view Kazakhstan as one of the world's oil powers." Citing data from Kazakhstan's Energy Ministry, Interfax reported that 2007 production of oil and gas condensate is forecast at 64 million tons, rising to 78 million tons in 2009 and 150 million tons in 2015. DK

Manuchehr Mottaki told journalists in Astana on December 15 that any decision on the construction of a trans-Caspian pipeline requires unanimity from the Caspian littoral states, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Asked whether Iran would back an EU proposal to build a trans-Caspian pipeline (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2006), Mottaki said that "any decision related to the Caspian Sea and everything that has any connection with this sea should be considered by all the Caspian littoral states." The littoral states have as yet been unable to reach a consensus on the legal status of the seabed. The next high-level summit on the issue will take place in Tehran in the first quarter of 2007, Mottaki said. DK

Kyrgyzstan's parliament on December 15 passed a resolution calling for a broad review of the U.S. military presence in the country in the wake of the fatal shooting of a Kyrgyz citizen by a U.S. serviceman on December 6 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2006), news agency reported. The resolution called on the Kyrgyz government to review the 2001 Kyrgyz-U.S. agreement on the status of U.S. forces in Kyrgyzstan, request the handover of the U.S. serviceman involved in the incident to Kyrgyz law-enforcement authorities, review the "expediency of the continued presence of Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan," and present to parliament a detailed report on the investigation of the incident within two weeks. DK

Kyrgyz Economy Minister Akylbek Japarov announced on December 15 in Bishkek that a final decision on Kyrgyzstan's participation in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank's Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) debt-reduction initiative will be made in March 2007, reported. A meeting of Kyrgyz officials and IMF and World Bank representatives is scheduled for March 20. The Kyrgyz cabinet on December 14 approved the terms for participation in HIPC and will now submit them to the financial institutions, the report noted. Participation in HIPC has become a hot-button issue in Kyrgyzstan, sparking debate and protests (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2006). DK

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and Anatolii Chubais, the head of Russia's Unified Energy Systems (EES), presided on December 15 over the blocking of the Vakhsh River to further the construction of the Sangtuda-1 hydroelectric station, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. The report noted that the construction work is expected to cause a near-nationwide blackout for several days. The BBC's Uzbek Service reported that work on Sangtuda-1 has caused intermittent power shortages over the last two weeks, driving up bread prices in the capital (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006). DK

A joint session of Tajikistan's parliament on December 16 approved the newly appointed cabinet (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 4, 2006), RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Reappointed Prime Minister Oqil Oqilov said, "The final goal of the government is to raise the people's living standards." RFE/RL's Tajik Service noted that the predominantly pro-presidential legislature did not discuss the new government's composition or put questions to the new ministers. DK

An IMF mission that visited Uzbekistan from November 30 to December 13 has concluded that prospects for economic growth in Uzbekistan in 2007 are good, the official Uzbek news agency UzA reported on December 14. The mission, which was headed by Sena Eken, assistant director of the IMF's Middle East and Central Asia Department, assessed economic growth in 2005-06, growth prospects for 2007, and ongoing reforms. On a more critical note, the mission called for "a more flexible currency policy," reform of the banking system, and a decrease in "tax and administrative expenses related to foreign trade," Regnum reported. DK

Ihar Rynkevich, imprisoned former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin's lawyer, said on December 15 that his client is deeply grateful to the European Union and the United States for their support, Belapan reported. Kazulin staged a hunger strike from October 20 and December 11, demanding that the UN Security Council discuss the situation in Belarus. U.S. envoy William Brencick on December 12 raised the issue of Kazulin during a closed-door session of the UN Security Council, but the Russian representative reportedly blocked the initiative. "What was particularly inspiring is that the U.S. envoy to the UN Security Council put aside all formal procedures that are ardently adhered to in the diplomatic work for the sake of one human life," Rynkevich quoted Kazulin as saying. "He [Kazulin] is withdrawing from the hunger strike. He is drinking watered juice and has stopped losing weight. But he can still resume the protest," Rynkevich added. AM

The Minsk City Court on December 15 upheld an 18-month prison sentence against opposition youth leader Zmitser Dashkevich, Belapan reported the same day. The court found Dashkevich guilty of running an unregistered organization called Young Front. The sentence thus came into force and Dashkevich is to serve his prison term in a minimum-security correctional institution. A dozen Dashkevich supporters attempted to protest near the court's building but were reportedly dispersed by police. AM

The Ukrainian Communist Party organized on 16 December in Crimea a "public referendum" intended to answer "whether you agree with the political course of Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on joining NATO," Interfax reported. According to "Ukrayinska pravda," around 900,000 Crimean voters took part in the referendum, and 98 percent of them answering "no" to that question. According to the organizers, voters were able to cast their ballots at 1,200 polling stations in Crimea. The ballot papers were reportedly handed out without conducting identity checks, and it is also unclear how voters were registered. "Communists are alarmed at what is going in Ukraine," said Leonid Hrach, the leader of the Crimean Communist Party. "Neither the president, the defense minister, nor the foreign minister have powers to set the course of foreign policy, especially concerning NATO." Yaroslav Davydovych, head of the Ukrainian Central Election Commission, said the same day that conducting a "public referendum" constituted a political move without legal grounds. The previous day, the office of the Ukrainian president in Crimea asked the Justice Ministry to provide a legal assessment of the action. AM

Roman Zvarych, the Ukrainian president's representative in the Verkhovna Rada, has said that any referendum on Ukraine joining NATO should be held after an Membership Action Plan for joining NATO is signed, Interfax reported on December 15. "Until the agreement is signed, it's impossible to determine what requirements NATO will ask of us," Zvarych said, adding that Ukrainian voters should understand what conditions NATO is offering Ukraine. According to Zvarych, there are as yet no procedures in place for holding such a referendum in Ukraine. AM

The International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia's (ICTY) chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, urged the UN Security Council on December 15 to pressure Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to arrest war crimes suspects, AP reported the next day. Del Ponte added that 11 years after Bosnia's 1992-95 war, neither country appears willing to arrest fugitives such as Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic. "My assessment remains that the Serbian government could easily arrest Ratko Mladic should the authorities want to do it," she said. "It is simply a question of political will." Del Ponte also said officials in Bosnia's Republika Srpska have not shown "a robust willingness" to arrest Karadzic and another wanted fugitive, Stojan Zupljanin. "Key institutions" in the Bosnian Serb entity "remain stuffed with individuals who used to be and maybe are still closely connected to Karadzic and his network," Del Ponte said. "Strong messages must be passed to Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina so that they finally deliver the fugitives from justice, especially Karadzic and Mladic." BW

Also addressing the Security Council on December 15, Del Ponte criticized NATO's decision to admit Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina to the alliance's Partnership for Peace (PfP) program, AP reported the next day. Bosnia, Montenegro, and Serbia joined the program, seen as a first step toward membership, last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 15, 2006). Del Ponte said the invitations were "a powerful signal that international support for the tribunal is decreasing." Del Ponte also asked the Security Council to clarify whether it believes the ICTY should stay open until Karadzic and Mladic are tried. The Security Council has been pressing the Hague-based tribunal to complete all trials by 2008 and appeals by 2010, but Del Ponte has sought to keep it open. "This is very important for the tens of thousands of victims who have placed their hope in the justice provided by the United Nations," Del Ponte said. BW

Zoran Stojkovic rejected Del Ponte's allegations that Belgrade lacks the political will to arrest Mladic, adding that it is in Serbia's interests to resolve its outstanding issues with the ICTY, B92 and FoNet reported on December 17. "An action plan has been produced, we are doing everything" possible, Stojkovic said, adding that Serbia is also communicating with foreign countries about the progress in tracking Mladic. "One thing is clear -- the political will is there, and it is in this country's interest to remove this obligation from the agenda," he added. BW

Serbia has initialed the Central European Free Trade Agreement (CEFTA) and indicated that it plans to sign the pact formally in the coming week, UPI reported on December 15, citing the Beta news agency. Serbia is to sign the agreement on December 19 in Bucharest, Romania, Beta reported on December 15. The CEFTA -- which currently comprises Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, and Macedonia -- 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-Herzegovina, Serbia, Montenegro, Moldova, and Kosova have until December 19 to agree to join (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2006). BW

The relatives of two imprisoned U.S. citizens accused of plotting an ethnic Albanian insurgency in Montenegro demonstrated on December 17 outside the U.S. Embassy in Podgorica, AP reported the same day. "The Montenegrin government has arrested and tortured my brother to the point where I could not recognize him," Katrina Dedvukaj said. The demonstrators claimed that the charges against the Michigan-based cousins, Rok and Kolja Dedvukaj, were politically motivated. The two were arrested, together with 12 local ethnic Albanians, in September and accused of plotting terrorist attacks aimed at establishing an autonomous Albanian enclave in Montenegro. Amnesty International has called for an investigation into allegations that police tortured the suspects (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 19, November 7, and December 8, 2006). Four of the suspects have been released pending trial. The U.S. Embassy has "followed the case from the beginning...and will continue to provide all adequate consular assistance," spokesman Sasa Brajovic said. BW

Authorities in Macedonia announced on December 16 that police have seized three trucks loaded with weapons and arrested four Bulgarian citizens on smuggling charges, AP reported the same day. The four suspects were detained late on December 14 after police searched their trucks on a highway near Skopje. They found 300 new German-made MG-3 machine guns and 33 M-43 mine-throwers. The suspects had no documents for the weapons and claimed to be transporting the arms as part of an agreement between Bulgarian and Macedonian metal companies involving repaired weapons decommissioned by the Macedonian Army. Ljupco Todorovski, director of the National Bureau for Public Security, pointed out, however, that the weapons are new. "This is a very odd case and we will continue investigations," Todorovski said. BW

Transdniestrian President Igor Smirnov said on December 17 that he plans to bring the breakaway province even closer to Russia, RIA Novosti reported the same day. "We are proving by deeds, not by words, that we'll be developing together with the Russian Federation, and this can be confirmed by our referendum-approved course toward independence and the development of relations with Russia," he said. In a September 17 referendum that was widely unrecognized by the international community, Transdniester's voters overwhelmingly approved independence from Moldova and closer ties to Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2006). In the breakaway region's December 10 election, Smirnov overwhelmingly won a fourth term in office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12, 2006). BW

Jasmin Merdan, who heads a Bosnian nongovernmental organization (NGO) opposed to Islamic fundamentalism, told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service on December 8 that such beliefs pose a threat to Bosnia-Herzegovina by providing encouragement to terrorists and by undermining the more tolerant form of indigenous "traditional Islam."

Merdan, 26, has a degree in Arabic language and literature from Jordan. There he became acquainted with the Saudi form of fundamentalism widely, if not always accurately, known as Wahhabism or Salafism. The term Wahhabism itself has become somewhat pejorative in many postcommunist countries and in Russia has even become a blanket term of abuse.

The young writer and his colleague Adnan Mesanovic recently translated and annotated a book entitled "Wahhabism or Salafism: Ideological Background and Historical Roots." Merdan is also the founder of the Sarajevo-based NGO Center for the Prevention of Terrorism, or Zapret. He has further publicized his ideas in interviews with non-nationalist publications in both the Croat-Muslim Federation and the Republika Srpska.

Bosnian Islam has its roots in the Ottoman Empire and is a relatively tolerant borderland faith quite distinct in spirit and practice from that of the Arabian heartland. The elected leader of Bosnia's Islamic Community, Reisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric, has pointed this out repeatedly.

What is known as Wahhabism was introduced into Bosnia during and after the 1992-95 conflict by aid workers, mujahedin fighters, and others from the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Their behavior was often regarded as heavy-handed, and they frequently alienated local Muslims. But the foreigners provided a source of inspiration and financial support for others whom the war left traumatized or disillusioned.

The most visible evidence of these influences from far away is in the wearing of Islamic dress by women in urban centers, where such clothing would have been a fairly rare sight in the last decades of socialist Yugoslavia, particularly on younger women. Another testimony to the Arabian influence is the appearance of Saudi-designed and -funded mosques, whose style of architecture is noticeably different from Bosnia's Ottoman-inspired structures. It is difficult to say whether Wahhabism has put down firm roots, particularly among the young women who have embraced Islamic fashion, but its presence is undeniable.

Merdan told RFE/RL that Wahhabi-inspired terrorism is a danger because it only requires "a couple of people" to be effective. He notes that Bosnian society has been through extensive upheavals since 1992 and that this has provided a fertile breeding ground for terrorist ideology. The result is a problem that must be dealt with, he stressed. Merdan believes it is "catastrophic" when the media use the term "Islamic terrorism," but he has noted in other interviews that "not all Wahhabis are terrorists, but all terrorists are Wahhabis."

The second aspect of what he calls the Wahhabi "threat" to Bosnia comes from its opposition to the tolerance characteristic of traditional local Islamic ways. Merdan believes that this tolerance is precisely "what Muslims can offer the [wider] world today." He argues that it is a great blessing that Bosnians today live in a democratic society where problems and issues can be discussed openly and not be swept under the rug. Merdan stressed that "we cannot discriminate against people who follow [fundamentalist] ideology because there are good people among them." At the same time, however, he believes that "there are individuals who are potentially...[open to] terrorism."

Merdan noted that the official Islamic Community preferred to ignore the problem until fairly recently, when a lively discussion on Wahhabism was launched in the media. He called on the community to appreciate the size of the threat, become more active in combating fundamentalism, and join forces with his NGO.

He pointed out that polls show that only about 3 percent of the Bosnian population subscribes to Wahhabist beliefs. But Merdan believes that their ideas must be openly confronted before the number grows to 10 or even 20 percent and society is faced with a major problem. He said that he himself has received threats from fundamentalists, including some living in Western Europe.

The French Defense Ministry announced on December 17 in Kabul that it has decided to pull all French ground forces from Afghanistan now that a NATO-led stabilization force, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), has extended operations throughout the rest of the country, Reuters reported. The contingent of 200 elite troops, operating under U.S. command near the Pakistan border, will be withdrawn at the beginning of 2007, a spokesman said. "We are reorganizing our presence because ISAF has spread across the country and so we are also making a change, which is to withdraw our special forces from Jalalabad," French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie told France Info radio while visiting Kabul on December 17. She said France will instead step up training of the Afghan army, particularly its special forces. Some 1,100 French troops will remain in the region around Kabul as part of ISAF, and it was announced on December 18 that they would be allowed to deploy to the more dangerous southern and eastern parts of the country if called on by ISAF. RR

Seven Afghans freed after up to five years imprisonment at the U.S. Navy base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, arrived in Kabul on December 16 under a reconciliation program, "The New York Times" reported on December 17. The seven men, mostly farmers and villagers, arrived at the offices of the Afghan Commission for Peace and Reconciliation and received official guarantees of freedom from the Afghan government. Most of the seven men were from Helmand Province, one of Afghanistan's most volatile areas. "Is this my fault that I believe in the words, 'There is no God but Allah?'" said Haji Alef Muhammad, 62, from Helmand's Baghran district. "Other than that there is no witness and no evidence of my guilt." This was the eighth group of prisoners released from Guantanamo under the program. Nearly 50 Afghans have been released from Guantanamo and 70 reportedly still remain. RR

The Afghan government told farmers on December 17 that it will spray chemicals to destroy poppy fields if the illegal crops are not eliminated in other ways, AFP reported. "Yes, we've accepted in principle to use ground spray when it's needed," Habibullah Qaderi, the counternarcotics minister, said in Kabul. He did not say when the spraying will begin, but made it clear that the government has rejected the aerial spraying of poppy crops. Qaderi co-chaired a conference with Interior Minister Zarar Ahmad Muqbel, attended by the governors of 11 Afghan provinces where poppy cultivation is high, to discuss plans for poppy eradication in 2007. "At today's meeting, the government stressed that eradication would mainly be the responsibility of local governors, with support and guidance from the center," Qaderi said. RR

A suicide bomber drove a car at a U.S. military convoy on December 17 in eastern Afghanistan and blew himself up, killing one Afghan civilian and injuring two others, AP reported. The suicide attack took place on a busy highway outside Khost, the capital of Khost Province, a mountainous region bordering Pakistan, acting deputy police chief General Sakhi Mir said. A spokesman for NATO-led ISAF said there were no dead or wounded among the U.S. troops in the incident. Taliban militants have exploded more than 100 suicide bombs in the country this year, a more than fivefold increase from 2005, often targeting NATO forces in armored personnel carriers and jeeps. RR

Though counting for Tehran city-council elections continued on December 18, news agencies cited partial results as indicating a victory for some conservatives and reformers, and a rejection by voters of candidates close to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. The director-general for elections at the Interior Ministry, Ali Asghar Karandish, announced results for just over 186,000 votes in Tehran, which showed the top vote-winners for the Tehran city council to be Mehdi Chamran, Morteza Talai, Hadi Sai, Rasul Khadem, Abbas Sheibani and Alireza Dabir, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on December 18, citing Iranian news agencies. Chamran is a leading Tehran city-council member and Morteza Talai a former Tehran police chief -- both are considered supporters of Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf, a conservative rival of the president. Sai is a reformist, Radio Farda reported; other reformists to win council seats so far are Masoumeh Ebtekar, Ahmad Masjed-Jamei, and Mohammad Ali Najafi, all senior officials of the government of former President Mohammad Khatami. The current president's sister, Parvin Ahmadinejad, also won a seat. Radio Farda observed that so far, of the 21 top vote-winners in the Tehran city-council polls, 11 are conservatives but not close presidential allies, seven are reformers, and three are Ahmadinejad supporters. VS

Conservative and reformist parties were concerned on December 17 over the prolongation of and uncertainty surrounding the process of counting votes for the December 15 municipal elections, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on December 18. The daily stated that the various electoral coalitions except the Sweet Scent of Service -- the list of close allies of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- were dissatisfied with the Interior Ministry's failure to give information on results 48 hours after voting ended. Conservative legislator Mohammad Khosh-Chehreh said, "it is most probable the unexpected...results, especially for government supporters, is the main reason for delays in presenting results," the daily reported on December 18. The reformist coalition has written to parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel citing a list of what it termed were discrepancies in the counting process. The municipal polls are supervised by parliament. The reformist campaign headquarters also wrote to the interior minister, urging him to order a clarification of issues in response to reformist concerns, the daily reported. The deputy-interior minister in charge of the elections, Mustafa Samareh-Hashemi, dismissed on December 17 any cause for concern and said delays were due to "the great volume of work in holding three elections simultaneously," ISNA reported. VS

Manuchehr Mottaki said in Tehran on December 17 that any UN sanctions against Iran over its nuclear dossier "will be considered a hostile act by Iran," and he urged parties to return to the negotiating table, ISNA reported. He was speaking at a news conference with Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian. He said there was no legality in taking Iran's dossier to the Security Council, when UN nuclear inspectors have not registered any deviation in Iranian nuclear activities. Western powers are concerned there may be a secret weapons program behind Iran's civilian nuclear program. He said Western threats against Iran "have deafened heaven's ears" but "a little farther from Iran, [Israel] is proud to have nuclear weapons as stated by the highest officials of that artificial regime." Iran, he said, is trying to persuade international bodies like the UN and the Arab League to look into "the accumulation of 200 nuclear warheads in the occupied territories," though he said nuclear weapons are no longer useful as a threat. VS

Bakers gathered in protest outside a Trade Ministry department in Tehran on December 17 after the government seemingly overturned a reported decision to allow an increase in bread prices (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2006). Many bakers are apparently making a loss with the current prices that are fixed by the government, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on December 18, citing Iranian agencies. According to the daily, the head of the bakers' guild told IRNA on December 9 that Deputy Trade Minister Mohammad Sadeq Mofatteh, after meeting with officials and guild representatives on December 2, had decided to allow a 14 percent rise in bread prices, though reported figures have differed. A protesting baker told Fars on December 17 that the ministry was to have allowed a 15 percent increase. "Why has the Trade Ministry gone back on its decision?" he asked. Another baker told Fars that those bakeries that were shut for raising prices and violating a price freeze have been "disgraced" by their portrayal on television. A baker from northern Tehran said, "our living [expenses] have increased several times, whereas bakers' incomes are the same as" in 2002-2003. "What are we supposed to do to win our rights?" he asked. VS

Iranian state security agents arrested 14 Christians in three cities on December 10, apparently to prevent them from celebrating Christmas and New Year, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on December 17, citing human rights activists in Iran. The group issued a December 16 statement to report the arrests in Tehran, Karaj -- west of Tehran -- and Rasht on the northern Caspian coast, though two of the arrested have been released, the broadcaster stated. Group member Sadeq Naqashkar told Radio Farda that those arrested are allegedly Christian converts. Islam forbids conversion from Islam, as it is considered heresy or a conscious rejection of truth; it is potentially a capital offense. Naqashkar said the Intelligence Ministry apparently carried out the arrests and relatives of some of the arrested gathered outside the judiciary offices in Rasht to protest the arrests, though they faced "an insulting and aggressive response from the Intelligence Ministry," Radio Farda reported. VS

Armed gunmen wearing Iraqi Army uniforms stormed the headquarters of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society in Baghdad on December 17 and seized 25 aid workers, international media reported the same day. An Interior Ministry source told Xinhua news agency that men in between eight and 10 sport-utility vehicles kidnapped between 20 to 30 people from organization's offices in Baghdad's Al-Karradah district. The secretary-general of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society, Mazin Abdallah, appealed to the kidnappers to release the hostages. "They represent a humanitarian agency that works for the general good, and this agency helps all people regardless of their sect or ethnicity," Abdallah said. On December 15, the society's vice president, Jamal al-Karbuli, accused U.S. forces of repeatedly carrying out raids on the group's offices in an attempt to flush out suspected militants. This is the second mass kidnapping in a week. On December 14, armed gunmen seized over 50 shop owners and bystanders from the Al-Sinak district in Baghdad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 15, 2006). Police said that 29 people from the Al-Sinak kidnapping were released, but the fate of the remaining hostages is unknown. SS

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called on December 16 for officers from former President Saddam Hussein's disbanded army to return to duty, international media reported the same day. Al-Maliki made the call during the first day of the National Reconciliation Conference held in Baghdad's Green Zone, with Shi'ite, Sunni, and Kurdish politicians making an effort to bring an end to the violence in Iraq. "The new Iraqi Army is opening the door to former Iraqi Army officers. Those who do not come back will be given pensions," al-Maliki said. He also called for a comprehensive review of the de-Ba'athification process that caused many Sunni Arabs to lose the jobs they had under the former regime. "I call upon parliament to review the constitutional items regarding such committees as the de-Ba'athification and anticorruption committees to embody the principle of forgiveness," he said. SS

Former Iraqi Army officers on December 17 rejected Prime Minister al-Maliki's offer to return to duty, Al-Quds Press reported the same day. A statement issued by the Society of Demobilized Officers rejected al-Maliki's offer, saying that "it is an army of collaborators with the occupation," since "armies around the world are founded to fight invaders and not to cooperate with them to perpetuate the occupation." The group set several conditions for rejoining the army, including: setting a timetable for the departure of occupation forces from Iraq within six months; dismantling the current army and reorganizing it based on former structures and hierarchies; and trying the current army's senior officers for crimes against civilians in a neutral international or Iraqi court. SS

On an unannounced visit to Baghdad on December 17, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that British troops will remain in Iraq "until the job is done," international media reported the same day. Blair met with Iraqi Prime Minister al-Maliki and reiterated Britain's support for Iraq's government. "We stand ready to support you in every way that we can so that in time the Iraq government and the Iraqi people can take full responsibility for their affairs," he said. Blair said he is confident that security responsibilities for the Al-Basrah Governorate will be handed over to the Iraqis sometime next year, and then Britain's 7,200 troops can be withdrawn by the end of 2007. "This is our policy: as the Iraqi forces are capable of taking over the security in Basrah, our forces will stand back and take a support role. That is by agreement between ourselves and the democratically elected Iraqi government," he said. SS

Iraqi Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani and his Syrian counterpart Major General Bassam Abd al-Majid agreed on December 16 to form a joint security committee to better coordinate security operations between the two countries, KUNA reported the same day. The two also discussed the need to cooperate in the areas of immigration, passports, residence permits, and the extradition of wanted people in coordination with each country's Ministry of Justice. Al-Bulani said Iraq is especially looking forward to learning from Syria's experience in fighting terrorism and organized crime. Iraqi Minister of State for National Security Sharwan al-Wa'ili, who was also present at the meeting, thanked Syria for its assistance in the security field and called for increased bilateral cooperation in future. SS

A mass grave containing the bodies of 30 men and women was unearthed on December 16 in the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala, AP reported on December 17. Local police said an Iraqi discovered the grave when he uncovered bones and old clothes while he was digging a foundation for a new house. Police suspected that the victims were killed in 1991 when the regime of former Iraqi President Hussein brutally crushed a Shi'ite uprising following the Gulf War. SS