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Newsline - January 9, 2007

President Vladimir Putin met with top Russian officials on January 9 to discuss the ongoing energy dispute with Belarus and to prepare for talks with a Belarusian delegation that is already in Moscow, reported. RIA Novosti reported on January 9 that talks aimed at resolving the dispute could begin the same day. Semyon Vainshtok, who heads the pipeline monopoly Transneft, said on January 8 that his company recently shut off the flow of oil to Europe via the Druzhba pipeline transiting Belarus because the Belarusian authorities have begun siphoning off oil in the context of the tit-for-tat dispute, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3 and 8, 2007, and Part II). He and Deputy Trade and Economic Development Minister Andrei Sharonov both blamed the Belarusian side for presenting Russia with what Sharonov called "unavoidable circumstances" that pose a "threat to the fulfillment of international contracts between Russian companies and companies in Western Europe and Eastern Europe." In addition to Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Ukraine, Slovakia and Hungary have also reported that their oil shipments from Russia have "stopped completely," noted on January 9. The affected countries have oil reserves of at least 70 days. On January 8, Sharonov said on Ekho Moskvy radio that "it looks like we are heading into a trade war." On January 9, Mikhail Margelov, who chairs the Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee, said that Belarus's recent decision to impose customs duties on Russian oil transiting Belarusian territory amounted to the "declaration of a trade war on Moscow," RIA Novosti reported. PM

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency and chairmanship of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries, said on German television on January 8 that the oil cutoff has provided an impetus for her country and the EU to consider diversifying their sources of energy, Deutsche Welle reported. She argued that Transneft's move "has not caused any acute threats to our energy supply. But there have been transit problems again and again over the past few years. We need legal protection, we need contract security." German Economy Minister Michael Glos told a news conference in Wildbad Kreuth on January 8 that "it is unacceptable when it comes to such stoppages. This just shows that we cannot have the main source of [oil] delivery only from the East." Some German media reported on January 8 and 9 that the cutoff is likely to lead to further calls for Germany to reconsider its planned phase-out of nuclear power. It is not clear how the latest developments will affect plans by the German Foreign Ministry, which is controlled by former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (SPD), to promote German and EU ties to Russia on the basis of an expanding network of interrelationships (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 20, and December 1, 13, and 21, 2006). The "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote on January 9 that the supply problem will not be resolved by the construction of the projected Russo-German Nord Stream pipeline, formerly known as the North European Gas Pipeline, because "the petroleum great power known as Russia is no longer as reliable as many like to suggest. Growing dependency on Russian energy only increases the potential for further trouble." Merkel was quoted by the British daily "The Times" on January 9 as saying that the pipeline "must not work against Poland." PM

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso discussed the problems arising from the energy dispute between Russia and Belarus with Chancellor Merkel in Berlin on January 9, news agencies reported. On January 8, Ferran Tarradellas Espuny, who is a spokesman for EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, said in Brussels that none of the states affected by Transneft's cutoff has any "immediate cause for alarm," reported. The spokesman said on January 9 that Piebalgs wants the EU's Oil Supply Group to meet on January 11examine the adequacy of the measures the bloc has in place to assist member states suffering from oil shortages. The Paris-based International Energy Agency (IEA) said in a statement on January 9 that "there is apparently no immediate impact to any of the refineries in the countries involved, as they all have working stocks of several days. So there is no threat that product supplies to the end users will be disrupted." The statement added that "should disruption from the Druzhba pipeline prove more prolonged, each of the refineries could source crude supplies from alternative routes and some of them are already organizing alternative supplies, be it through ports at the Baltic Sea or through pipelines coming from other sources.... Reports from the different countries and companies currently indicate that the market is quite capable of handling this situation." The IEA also called for a quick and clear resolution of the "disruption." PM

Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt told a news conference in Stockholm on January 8 that he "welcomes" a preliminary investigation launched recently by prosecutors into his previous holdings in a company linked to Gazprom, dpa reported. Bildt, who is also a former prime minister, said that his share options in oil and gas company Vostok Nafta were compensation for the four years that he served on its board. He sold the options in December for $600,000 and stressed that "no special rules applied for me" in his dealings with the Bermuda-based company, most of whose holdings are in Gazprom. Chief public prosecutor Christer van der Kwast recently launched the investigation to determine whether Bildt had received an "improper benefit," meaning a possible kickback, when he accepted the share options. He joined the government in October, at which time he left his post with Vostok Nafta and sold his stock. He kept the options until December. Opposition legislators have suggested that Bildt might nonetheless face a possible conflict of interest in dealing with the proposed Russo-German Nord Stream pipeline, which many in Sweden oppose on ecological grounds, the BBC reported on January 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24 and December 20, 2006). The BBC suggested that Bildt seems to have acted totally within the law, but that the matter is far from over because of tough Scandinavian attitudes regarding any possible corruption. Former German Chancellor Schroeder, who heads Nord Stream's stockholders' oversight body, has repeatedly defended his acceptance of the Gazprom post as being in Germany's national interest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 24, 2006). PM

The Volgograd Oblast Court on January 9 sentenced Pavel Karev, a former speaker of the city duma, to three years in a high-security penal colony for taking a $11,400 bribe in connection with reducing land-rent payments for a business, RIA Novosti and reported. Karev could have faced up to 10 years in prison. His lawyer said that he will appeal the sentence, ITAR-TASS reported. The news agency noted that Karev is "the sixth person from the team of Yevgeny Ishchenko, the former mayor of Volgograd, convicted by the courts. Ishchenko is also in the...dock on...charges of corruption." The authorities have been waging a nationwide anticorruption drive for months. Critics have suggested, however, that corruption is so widespread in Russia that the few cases involving officials actually charged might be based on ulterior motives, such as removing politically problematic individuals from office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 22 and 28, and December 7, 8, and 15, 2006). PM

Three members of the so-called Kadyrovtsy -- the armed men loyal to pro-Moscow Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov -- quit their base in Gudermes in November and have gone over to the resistance, the website reported on January 8, citing a source in the Eastern Front headquarters. The defectors reportedly said Kadyrov and his entourage are wholly controlled by Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB), and that they could no longer tolerate the "humiliation" and forced Russification to which they claimed they were constantly subjected. The pro-Moscow Chechen authorities have announced that the three men are missing. LF

Armenia's foreign trade deficit topped $1 billion for the first time ever in 2006, due to the combination of a 20 percent increase in imports and 1.2 percent decline in industrial output, which in turn resulted in stagnating exports, reported on January 8 quoting the Armenian State Statistical Service. The Armenian government has attributed the negative trend in the manufacturing sector to the continuing downturn in global trade in refined diamonds, which are one of Armenia's major exports, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on January 8. Despite the dip in industrial output, GDP growth in 2006 was projected at over 13 percent, primarily due to the booming construction and services sectors. LF

Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told journalists in Yerevan on January 9 that a meeting between himself and his Azerbaijani counterpart Elmar Mammadyarov to resume talks on approaches to resolving the Karabakh conflict has been "very tentatively" scheduled for January 23 in Moscow, and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Oskanian said that given "the political will," "serious progress" in the peace process could be expected at any time. He further recalled that he has "repeatedly said that quite an interesting proposal is on the table." Armenian President Robert Kocharian's December 15 statement that "there will be no active negotiating process" during the run-up to the May 2007 Armenian parliamentary elections was widely construed in Azerbaijan as signaling a total freeze in negotiations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 18, 2006). LF

Azerbaijan's Tariff Council announced on January 8 increased prices, effective immediately, for gasoline and public transportation, and for natural gas, water, and electricity, and reported. Gasoline prices have risen by 50 percent to 60 gyapiks for one liter of 95 octane gasoline (100 gyapiks = 1 manat, which is equivalent to $1.13); kerosene and heating fuel now cost 45 gyapiks per liter. The cost of public transportation has risen by 30 percent, electricity tariffs have tripled to 6 gyapiks per kWh, and tariffs for water have almost doubled. Gas prices for domestic consumers have been pegged at the current level of 47.2 manats per 1,000 cubic meters, but institutional consumers will have to pay 100 manats per 1,000 cubic meters. Union of Free Consumers head Eyyub Guseynov told on January 8 that the price increases could lead to a rise in the price of other consumer goods; singled out specifically bread. Press Council Secretary Aflatun Amashev expressed concern that rising gasoline and energy prices could necessitate an increase in the price of newspapers, which he said is already much higher in Azerbaijan than in neighboring Turkey. LF

The opposition Azerbaijan Popular Front Party slammed the price hikes for gas and gasoline on January 8 as part of a policy intended to "destroy the Azerbaijani people," reported. The governing council of the opposition Musavat Party convened on January 8 to discuss the price increases, which it said run counter to the people's interests, and announced it will discuss with other parties organizing mass protests. In a statement released on January 8, the opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party called on the government to resign, arguing that "a government that is not capable of protecting the economic interests of its citizens, that is unable to implement economic reform, and that is bogged down in corruption and bribery" should step down, reported. Lale Sovket-Haciyeva, who heads the Movement for National Unity, said the price increases will wipe out Azerbaijan's embryonic middle class and make the struggle to survive even more difficult, reported. She predicted that the population will take to the streets to protest the price increases. By contrast, Adalet Party Chairman Ilyas Ismailov said he thinks people will express their discontent, but then resign themselves to the new prices, reported on January 9. LF

In line with hints dropped over the past several weeks by President Ilham Aliyev and government officials, Azerbaijan's state oil company SOCAR will suspend the export of oil by the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline during the first three months of this year, reported on January 9. According to on December 6, the oil that would otherwise have been exported (2.4 million tons, according to ITAR-TASS on January 8) will be used to fuel thermal power stations that since 2000 have run on natural gas imported from Russia; those gas imports will be halted in light of the steep increase, to $230 per 1,000 cubic meters, in the price Gazprom has announced it would charge Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 5, 2007). During the first 11 months of 2006, SOCAR and the Azerbaijan International Operating Company (AIOC, the first international consortium formed to extract oil from Azerbaijan's sector of the Caspian) together exported 4.1 million tons of oil via the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline. AIOC will continue to export oil via the Baku-Novorossiisk pipeline. LF

Farmers in Azerbaijan's southern Fizuli Raion have reported the death of poultry on a massive scale, and large numbers of dead wild ducks have been found near reservoirs in the region, which borders Iran, reported on January 9. A local veterinary official told the agency that preliminary checks have not yielded any evidence that the deaths were caused by avian influenza. LF

Taymuraz Mamsurov, president of the Republic of North Ossetia-Alania, said on January 8 that the Prosecutor-General's Office should open criminal proceedings against the drivers of some 60 trucks that have blocked the main highway between Russia and Georgia to protest Russia's refusal to allow them to bring their cargos of tangerines into Russia, Russian media reported. Russian officials claim the fruit has not been inspected and certified suitable for human consumption. Russia banned the import of agricultural produce from Georgia on health grounds in 2006. The Georgian authorities recommended on January 7 that the drivers end the blockade of the highway they began several days earlier and that the producers seek an alternative market for their produce. LF

Following Kazakh Prime Minister Daniyal Akhmetov's resignation on January 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2007), reports emerged that President Nursultan Nazarbaev will name Karim Masimov to replace him, news agencies reported. "Kazakhstan Today,", and Interfax-Kazakhstan each quoted an unnamed Kazakh government source saying that Nazarbaev will nominate Masimov to replace Akhmetov at a joint session of parliament scheduled for January 10. On January 9, the ruling Nur-Otan party backed Masimov's eventual nomination, RFE/RL reported. According to a biography on Interfax-Kazakhstan, Masimov, who has been deputy prime minister since January 2006, has studied in China and speaks Arabic, Chinese, and English. "Kazakhstan Today" noted that another source claimed that Adilbek Dzhaksylbekov, head of the presidential administration, will be nominated to replace Akhmetov. DK

Marat Sultanov, speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, said on January 8 that President Kurmanbek Bakiev is expected to announce his nominee for the post of prime minister next week, reported. "The next move belongs to the president -- he proposes the candidate for prime minister, we approve him, and then they form the cabinet, and after its structure is approved we'll start to work," Sultanov said. He stressed that recent amendments to the country's new constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3, 2007) make it possible for Bakiev to form a government, Kabar reported. Sultanov also noted, "There's nothing terrible about the fact that the president has yet to sign the basic law; he's still reading it." DK

More than 40 women accompanied by their children held a demonstration in the Tajik city of Panjakent on January 8 to protest a lack of electricity in their homes, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The women said that they also have no gas or water, and that their children are falling ill in their cold homes. Panjakent Deputy Mayor Khurshed Sirojov met with the protesters, explaining that limitations on power usage have been imposed throughout the region. The report noted that close to 180,000 residents in 14 communities in Panjakent received limited power over the last four days and are now entirely cut off. The women said that they plan to continue their protests until power is restored. Power shortages in the capital of Dushanbe occasioned by power station construction recently led to higher prices for bread (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30 and December 18, 2006). DK

Uzbekistan's Interior Ministry released a statement on January 8 denying a claim by human rights activist Elena Urlaeva that police were behind her beating last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 5, 2007), RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. The ministry maintained that Urlaeva was beaten by relatives of convicts to whom she had allegedly promised legal services that they say she failed to provide. Urlaeva today reiterated her charge that she was assaulted by a group of women hired by Uzbek police. Urlaeva has suffered beatings and detentions in the past, and has been sentenced to forced psychiatric treatment three times. Human rights organizations have protested her forced hospitalization. DK

Alyaksey Kastsyuchenka, director-general of the Homyeltransnafta Druzhba oil-pipeline enterprise, said on January 8 that the company has nothing to do with the disruption of oil headed westward across Belarus, Belapan reported. "We flatly deny media reports that oil pumping toward Unecha-Mazyr-Adamovo and Unecha-Mazyr-Brody was stopped by the decision of the Belarusian side," Kastsyuchenka said, adding that the Russian side has halted the pumping of oil destined for Poland, Germany, and Ukraine on three occasions. "After the last stop in oil pumping, between January 7 and 8, we repeatedly sent official notifications to the Bryansk-based Druzhba trunk-pipeline company about our readiness to pump oil in all directions," Kastsyuchenka said. "If there is consent from the Russian side, we are ready to urgently resume oil pumping in accordance with the established technology and rules," he said. Kastsyuchenka on January 8 told reporters that the Homyeltransnafta Druzhba oil pipeline is prepared to resume pumping oil and that the Russian side is aware of this, Belapan reported. "It is only now that the Russian side has proposed to us that the matter should be considered," Kastsyuchenka said. "We will be considering it in the short term," he added. AM

Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Kabyakou flew to Moscow on January 9 to join the Belarusian negotiating team that arrived there the previous day, Belapan reported. The Belarusian Foreign Ministry said after the original team was dispatched on January 8 that the delegation would hold talks "to settle mutual claims stemming from Russia's unilateral introduction of customs duties on oil exports to Belarus, as well as Belarus's duty on oil transported by trunk pipeline via the territory of Belarus." The Belarusian government recently announced that it will consider scrapping its transit duty on Russian oil pumped across Belarus to European countries if Moscow agrees to abolish its duty on crude oil exports sold to Belarusian refineries. AM

Early voting for the Belarusian local elections, scheduled for January 14, started on January 9, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Some 24,000 candidates are conmpeting for nearly 23,000 seats in 1,581 councils (soviets). All polling station commissions combined have 70,000 members, of which only one is a representative of the opposition. Mikalay Kamarouski in Vorsha, Vitsyebsk Oblast, is a member of the Belarusian Language Society (TBM) and a member of United Civic Party (AHP). AM

The Yuliya Tymoshenko bloc (BYuT), the opposition caucus in the Verkhovna Rada, has adopted a decision to join the ruling "anticrisis coalition" in order to override President Viktor Yushchenko's veto on the prolongation of the moratorium on land sales, "Ukrayinska pravda" reported on January 9. Yushchenko vetoed the bill (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 5, 2007) on the basis that the continued ban on land sales would only lead to increased corruption as Ukrainian farmland is redistributed. BYuT member Ivan Kyrylenko, who announced the decision, said that the caucus is not opposed to land sales, but first of all it intends to support "the civilized land market." AM

NATO announced on January 8 that it is unlikely to reduce its troop strength in Kosova this year, Reuters reported the same day. The earliest time for a troop reduction would be in early 2008, alliance officials said. "We will maintain our mandate, our strength, our organization in 2007," said Lieutenant General Roland Kather, the German commander of KFOR, NATO's Kosova peacekeeping force. "I think there will be no change until early 2008, and then we'll have to look at how far we have come," he added. NATO currently has 16,500 soldiers from 36 countries stationed in Kosova. Also on January 8, Lieutenant General Kather said KFOR is prepared to counter any violence that might arise in Kosova in the run-up to a decision on the province's final status, AFP reported the same day. UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari is scheduled to unveil his status proposal shortly after Serbia's January 21 general elections. "KFOR will respond strongly against any individuals or groups of individuals tempted to undermine peace and security," Kather said. "KFOR will be everywhere, strong, quick, and determined if necessary," he added. Kather said KFOR has the ability to deploy across Kosova as required. BW

Police in Macedonia said on January 7 that they seized more than 400 kilograms of cocaine hidden in a truck near the border with Kosova, AP and UPI reported the same day. Police arrested the driver on suspicion of drug smuggling. Police said the cocaine, valued at more than 40 million euros ($54 million), was the largest amount of drugs ever seized by Macedonian authorities. Police discovered the cocaine in 60 paint containers hidden in a truck with Macedonian license plates at the border town of Blace. "This is high-quality Venezuelan cocaine," police spokesman Ivo Kotevski told AP. He said the truck picked up the drugs in the Montenegrin port city of Bar and entered Macedonia through Kosova. The truck's final destination was Greece. BW

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and the Council of Europe on January 8 repeated appeals to Albanian politicians to resolve the deadlock over local elections, AP reported the same day. "We urge the leaders of all political parties to...demonstrate the highest possible degree of responsibility in the search for an agreement. This is in the clear interest of Albania and its international reputation," said a joint statement. Both organizations plan to send a mission to Albania later this week. In December, opposition parties decided to boycott the January 20 local elections, claiming that the governing coalition, led by Sali Berisha's Democratic Party, is preparing to engage in fraud (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006). The head of Albania's election commission said on January 6 that political infighting is preventing the elections from taking place on January 20 as scheduled (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2006). BW

Also on January 8, Albanian President Alfred Moisiu called on both sides in the election dispute to find a compromise, AP reported the same day. "It is intolerable that Albania and its national interests are held as a pawn by political individuals...who put their personal political interests above everything else," Moisiu said in a statement. Moisiu has reportedly failed to convene a meeting of the two parties, AP reported. The government and the opposition have agreed in principle to postpone the local elections until February 18. For the new date to become official, parliament must vote on it and Moisiu must sign a decree. BW

Russia's chief health officer said on January 6 that Moldovan wines will return to the Russian market over the next two months, ITAR-TASS reported the same day. In November, Russia agreed to lift a ban it imposed on Moldovan wines in March (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28 and November 30, 2006). "Rather intensive talks with Moldova are going on," said Gennady Onishchenko, head of the Federal Service for the Protection of Consumer Rights and Human Welfare. Onishchenko added that large quantities of Moldovan wine will not enter the Russian market. Instead, wine will be imported "by individual firms with a good credit history." He added that unscrupulous firms flooded Russia's market with poor-quality wine in the past. "I am not a specialist in wine, but the experts whom I trust say there are really good brands of wine in Moldova. The problem is that the amount of false, low-quality wine delivered to Russia exceeded all limits," he said. BW

In 2006, Gazprom came under fire internationally for its tactics of bumping up the prices Russia's neighbors must pay for gas. Recently, a number of articles in the Russian press have echoed that criticism, arguing that Gazprom's tactics have damaged Russia.

On December 25, 2006, the "Kommersant" daily attacked the gas monopoly, claiming that by abandoning the sale of cheap gas to the CIS countries in 2006, Gazprom weakened Russia's position in the post-Soviet space. All it did, the article argued, was strengthen the position of the gas monopoly.

Writing in "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on January 2, Sergei Karaganov, head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policy think tank, said: "The unexpectedly rapid increase in Russia's international weight frightened many people, partly because we succumbed to the temptation to grow giddy with success and sometimes acted arrogantly.... In this context, mistakes have to be paid for particularly dearly. The manner in which we shut off the gas to Ukraine, which tapped into the European sense of political weakness and energy vulnerability, provoked a disproportionate reaction."

Sustained international and domestic criticism of Gazprom (and the Kremlin) could force the gas giant into changing its tactics. Some Western financial firms, such as Bear Stearns, are already advising clients to sell their Russian shares for fear of political instability in the country.

Considering that almost 40 percent of the Russian stock market consists of shares in Gazprom and the state oil monopoly Rosneft, any suggestion that they might find themselves in trouble in 2007 is sure to rattle investors. Other factors could also lead to Gazprom taking a softer approach in 2007.

The presidential election on February 11 in Turkmenistan could bring a measure of change. Gazprom and Ukrainian energy companies are carefully following developments there, waiting to see if the new regime will continue with the gas deals approved by late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov.

After Russia, Turkmenistan is the second-largest exporter of natural gas in the CIS. In recent years, Turkmenistan has supplied Ukraine with much of its gas needs, although Ashgabat is now exporting most of its excess gas to Russia.

Industry experts have criticized Turkmenistan's gas deals for being opaque. If Turkmenistan can be persuaded to increase transparency in its energy sector, then Gazprom and Ukraine could be forced to renegotiate their deals and a new round of competition for Turkmen gas would ensue.

In the case of Azerbaijan, Gazprom might have fewer cards left to play. Faced with a steep price hike, Azerbaijan announced that it will not buy any Russian gas in 2007. Baku has increased domestic gas production in order to cover its needs.

And in the longer term, planned pipelines, for instance the Trans-Caspian gas pipeline, would bring Caspian -- and most likely Central Asian -- gas to markets, bypassing Russia.

But it's unclear whether a weakened hand will mean Gazprom will listen to its critics. There is the real possibility that the Kremlin will remain intransigent, believing that strong-arm tactics have worked to Russia's benefit -- and will continue to do so.

Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay, accompanied by Afghan counterpart Rangin Dadfar Spanta, arrived in the southern Afghan city of Kandahar on January 7, "The Toronto Star" reported on January 8. MacKay said he was in Kandahar -- where around 2,500 Canadian military personnel are serving in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) -- to "look at all the good work that's being done." MacKay said he discussed the issue of the Afghan-Pakistani border, which Kandahar abuts, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on January 7. MacKay also indicated that he will travel to Pakistan after his Afghan visit, where he will pressure Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf to try harder to stop the flow of military material into Afghanistan from Pakistan and prevent Taliban from using Pakistani territory as a safe haven. MacKay said that "repetition and blunt talk" will be employed in Islamabad. "I suspect strongly that you're going to see this [pressure on Pakistan to control the border] coming from all countries...whether it's aerial surveillance, fencing, [or] border guards." Canada lost 36 soldiers in 2006 to attacks by militants whom many believe are supported from across the border in Pakistan. AT

Pakistan is reportedly asking for Canadian support as a means of gaining NATO backing for its plan to partially fence and mine its northwestern border with Afghanistan, Islamabad's "The Nation" reported on January 8. While Pakistan has already tasked its military with work on ways to secure the border through fencing and mining, the report adds that Islamabad believes support from NATO "would go a long way in the materialization" of the plan. Afghan officials say they oppose the fencing and mining of the border, which many Afghans consider illegitimate. Pakistan's announcement in December that it intends to carry out the plan has led to further deterioration of already strained relations between the two neighboring countries (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 29, 2006 and January 8, 2007). AT

Pakistani Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam told a news conference on January 8 in Islamabad that her country is not seeking NATO support for its plan to partially fence and mine its border with Afghanistan, the Indian news agency PTI reported. "We have not sought anyone's support, and we don't have any intention of seeking support. This [fencing and mining] is something we are considering inside our territory on our own," Aslam said. AT

Afghan Information and Culture Minister Abdul Karim Khorram, addressing a meeting of officials of private media outlets in Kabul on January 7, said that private media can win a wider audience by broadcasting programs in line with Shari'a law and Afghan traditions, state-run Afghanistan National Television reported. Khorram said that some commercial outlets are airing programs that contradict Afghan traditions. Afghanistan's current law on mass media was decreed by President Karzai in December 2005 -- just days before the inauguration of the National Assembly (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," May 7, 2006), and the National Assembly indicated in October that it will review the law to ensure it conforms more closely to Afghanistan's customs and religious sensitivities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 19, 2006). Media freedom has been among the most visible achievements in post-Taliban Afghanistan, but conservative critics have tried on numerous occasions to curtail such freedoms, often in the name of religion. AT

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei told a congregation in Qom, central Iran, on January 8 that Shi'a and Sunnis must remain united against "enemy" attempts to divide them, and he vowed Iran would not be cowed by a hostile coalition led by Great Britain and the United States, ISNA reported. He said that "colonial powers led by America" will divide Shi'a and Sunnis to resist the "Islamic awakening" led by Iran. Arab states, he said, should consider "Islamic dignity and the power of the Islamic Republic" as their support in resisting the United States and its regional ally, Israel. He said that if as "certain analyses, signs, and reports" may indicate, "dirty" Great Britain and the United States are forging an anti-Iranian coalition that is to include unspecified Arab states, that coalition would "be no good." He added that such an alliance existed when Iraqi President Saddam Hussein attacked Iran in 1980 with what Iranian officials often say was Western approval and support, but "they could not do a thing." Khamenei said if "certain Arab and Islamic states" think they can win Israel's "satisfaction" by "forming an alliance with America and Great Britain and imposing sanctions" on Iran for its nuclear program, "they have made a political mistake." Iranians will never forego their "right" to have nuclear power, he said. VS

Kianush Sanjari, the author of a website log who has been jailed since October 8 in Tehran's Evin prison, was recently released and told RFE/RL's Radio Farda on January 8 that he was mistreated in detention. Sanjari was jailed several times for activism or dissent, and was 17 years old the first time he was arrested following 1999 student demonstrations in Tehran, Radio Farda reported. He told the radio that the charges against him were not clear, but may be related to the content on his website. He was taken in October to Evin prison's Section 209, where political detainees are kept and have allegedly been abused at times, RFE/RL reported. He said he was slapped "very hard" several times when arrested recently and told he would be executed. He added that certain restrictions do not allow him to fully reveal the conditions of his detention, though he said he was in solitary confinement for over a month. It was not immediately clear when he will appear in court. Meanwhile, Dr. Hesam Firuzi was also arrested and taken to Evin prison on January 6, charged with helping a "fugitive" who was his patient, ILNA and Radio Farda reported on January 6 and 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2007). Firuzi's wife, Mahta Bordbar, told Radio Farda on January 8 that she has spoken by phone to her husband in Evin's section 350. He was arrested for two days on October 8, apparently for discussing Batebi's condition in prison, Radio Farda reported. VS

Abdullah Ramezanzadeh, a deputy head of the reformist Islamic Iran Participation Front, told ISNA on January 8 that reformers reached their minimal goals in the December 15 elections, and should build on the unity he said brought them electoral success. Ramezanzadeh said reformers had sought in the elections (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," January 2, 2007) to show that "the government does not presently reflect the majority of society." He said reformers should work to forge a coalition of reformist parties that would field their various candidates on a single list in the upcoming parliamentary elections. He said this would require reformists finding "more points of agreement" to expand and consolidate their coalition. His own party, he said, "senses danger" over certain economic, political, and foreign policies "and we are trying to expand our coalition to remove this danger." Ramezanzadeh said the successful vote in the election for Expediency Council chief Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani -- a centrist political veteran sometimes seen as a counterweight to radical right-wingers associated with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad -- showed that Rafsanjani's detractors had failed to discredit him with the public, ISNA reported. VS

Mohammad Nabi Habibi, secretary-general of the conservative Islamic Coalition Party, said on January 8 that his party should "reconsider" unspecified methods in response to events in Iran, but said this had nothing to do with recent elections in December, the Mehr news agency reported. He said the party will retain its "basic principles," and stressed that December's nationwide elections for a key clerical body and municipal councils were a success. Some reformist commentators have said separately that conservatives use new and deceptive names at election times in a bid to regain the support of skeptical voters, especially since the rise of reformists since the 1997 election of President Mohammad Khatami. Abdulvahed Musavi-Lari, of the leftist Militant Clerics Association, told ISNA on January 5 that some conservative groups "are concerned that if people knew the reality of their mind and ideas and role" they would not vote for them. Hussein Kashefi of the Participation Front told ISNA the same day that "radical groups" on the right "appear at elections with various names" and must adopt "clear identities." VS

Bushrah al-Khalil, a member of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's defense team, said on January 7 that Hussein's body was physically abused after the execution, "Al-Watan" reported the same day. Al-Khalil said that the defense team plans to file a lawsuit against the Iraqi government before the International Court of Justice (ICJ). "We have sent letters to the United Nations and Amnesty International to this effect," al-Khalil said. "The United Nations has acted, but not as much as one would have expected. Its action was confined to an appeal while we, the defense team, expect it to issue a binding resolution against the Iraqi government just as it does with other governments." She did not specify what form of abuse was perpetrated against Hussein's body, but she insisted that once the lawsuit is filed with the ICJ, the defense team will ask to examine the body to reveal the extent of the abuse. Furthermore, al-Khalil said she has obtained a list of those who were present during the execution, a list she claims includes two of Hussein's sworn enemies, Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim and radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. SS

During the January 8 session of the Anfal trial, Chief Judge Muhammad al-Uraybi al-Khalifah dropped all charges against former President Hussein, who was executed on December 30, international media reported the same day. "The court received a letter from the Iraqi High Tribunal on January 7 concerning the execution of defendant Saddam Hussein," al-Khalifah said. "The court has decided to stop legal proceedings against defendant Saddam Hussein, according to Article 304 of the Iraqi Criminal Procedure Code issued in 1971." Prosecutor Munqith al-Farun presented an audiotape during the proceedings purportedly containing Hussein's voice approving the use of chemical weapons against a crowd of Kurds. "I will take responsibility for using the chemical weapons," the voice said. "No one can direct the strike without my approval." Hussein's six codefendants face charges of genocide and crimes against humanity for their alleged roles in the killing of an estimated 180,000 Kurds in 1987-88. SS

Human Rights Watch on January 8 urged the Iraqi government not to execute Barzan Ibrahim al-Tikriti and Awad al-Bandar, two former senior Hussein-era officials, international media reported the same day. "The execution of these two, however heinous the crimes involved, is cruel and inhuman punishment that will only drag a deeply flawed process into even greater disrepute," said Richard Dicker, director of the organization's international justice program. On January 6, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged the Iraqi government to grant a stay of execution for the two men (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2007). Meanwhile, SCIRI leader al-Hakim on January 8 called for the swift execution of al-Tikriti and al-Bandar. "We demand in the name of the Iraqi people that the prime minister and the government accelerate the carrying out of the execution of those criminals who have been sentenced," he said. The government postponed the scheduled January 4 execution of al-Tikriti and al-Bandar until after the Eid al-Adha festival, which ended on January 6 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 5, 2007). SS

Ba'ath Party spokesman Abu Muhammad on January 8 called on all party members inside and outside Iraq to pledge their allegiance to the party's new leader, Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, and to continue the resistance against the occupation, the London-based "Al-Quds al-Arabi" reported the same day. "Mujahed comrade Izzat al-Duri is the one who represents the party and its legal legitimacy because he had occupied the post of deputy secretary-general of the Iraq Command before the occupation," Muhammad said. "He represents the legitimacy of the Iraqi state, which is the legitimacy of the valiant resistance in all its patriotic, nationalist, and Islamic factions." Muhammad also said that the party is open to reconciliation with everyone except "the Zionist entity" (Israel) and those who have committed crimes against the Iraqi people and their homeland. SS

The Iraqi Oil Ministry announced on January 7 that it is moving to establish a federal oil council that will oversee all of Iraq's oil resources, KUNA reported the same day. "The council's task is to develop oil fields, and supervise and approve oil projects and deals to be hammered out with foreign companies," Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani said. "The council is to be the top oil watchdog in Iraq, as it will work out and run the country's oil policy." Al- Shahristani said the council will be chaired by either Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki or his deputy for economic affairs, Barham Salih. Oil Ministry spokesman Asim Jihad said the council will include representatives from the Oil, Finance, and Planning ministries and from the Central Bank of Iraq, as well as representatives from the regional Kurdish government. SS

Armed gunmen ambushed a bus carrying workers to Baghdad International Airport on January 8, killing at least 15 and wounding 15 others, international media reported the same day. An Interior Ministry source said that the attack took place in the Al-Amiriyah neighborhood in western Baghdad. The airport is under the jurisdiction of the Transportation Ministry, which is controlled by followers of radical Shi'ite cleric al-Sadr. SS