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Newsline - January 10, 2007

Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his government on January 9 to discuss a possible reduction in output by Russian oil companies after the ongoing tit-for-tat energy dispute between Russia and Belarus led to a halt in oil supplies to several European countries, for which Minsk and Moscow blame each other, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8 and 9, 2007, and Part II). Putin said it is necessary "to discuss with the Russian oil-producing companies the possibility of reducing oil output in connection to problems linked to the transit of our oil through Belarusian territory." He added that it is necessary to continue negotiations with Belarusian officials to shield Western consumers from the effects of the dispute, but also said it is necessary to protect national economic interests. Putin argued that "we must protect the interests of the Russian companies, which clearly are facing certain losses, and ensure an equal approach in delivering oil to foreign markets and think about a range of measures to minimize those losses." Putin also said that Russia's economy will lose some $3.3 billion over natural-gas agreements with Belarus, including $1.3 billion for the state budget and $2 billion for Gazprom, RIA Novosti reported. He added that "that is the price Russia will have to pay for a transition to market relations," saying that this also amounts to direct support for "our Belarusian colleagues." Putin also called on his government "to work out a package of measures to protect the national economy. These measures should deal with all aspects of mutual relations with our partners, in this case, with the Belarusian partners." On January 10, the daily "Vedomosti" and reported that the government is preparing a package of measures to increase the pressure on Belarus, including the imposition of stiff customs duties on goods that currently enter Russia duty-free. PM

Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref said in Moscow on January 9 that Belarus must cancel its recently imposed transit fee for oil shipped from Russia before the Russian government will agree to talks on resolving the crisis, Russian news agencies reported. Gref argued that "there are two steps that the Belarusian government must take. First, it must cancel the customs duty on the transit of Russian oil.... Second, it must resume the transit to European countries. These are our unconditional demands, which are not negotiable." Later that day, however, Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko said at least some form of negotiations has begun, ITAR-TASS reported. He refused to elaborate on the status of the talks, saying that Gref's ministry is conducting them. Khristenko added that "when there are results, you will learn them from the negotiators." Gref said that the meeting with a visiting Belarusian delegation was simply a "preparation for talks," adding that the "situation is now completely in the hands" of the Belarusians, reported. In Budapest, Hungarian Economy Minster Janos Koka announced on January 10 that he has "freed strategic oil reserves" to enable the energy company MOL to continue refining without interruption, reported. PM

Industry and Energy Minister Khristenko said in Moscow on January 9 that "the risks affecting the oil-transit situation are very serious," Russian news agencies reported. He suggested that other means could be used to circumvent Belarus and remove it from Russia's energy routes if need be. In the short term, greater use could be made of rail and river transportation. In the longer haul, the capacity of the projected Russo-German Nord Stream pipeline, formerly known as the North European Gas Pipeline, could be increased, and work could be speeded up on the recently launched East Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil-pipeline project, which will transport oil from eastern Siberian fields to Japan and South Korea, with an eventual extension to China. Khristenko stressed, however, that "there is no magic wand to switch transit routes over just two days' time." The daily "Komsomolskaya pravda" asked rhetorically on January 9 whether Belarus "has declared an oil war on Russia." PM

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country holds the rotating EU Presidency and chairmanship of the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries, said after a meeting in Berlin on January 9 with EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso that the interruption of energy deliveries "destroys trust again and again, and therefore you cannot build really trustworthy cooperation in an untroubled way," German and international media reported. Merkel, who will meet with President Putin in Russia on January 21, added that "this is why we surely will say to our Russian partners and also to Belarus that consultations are the minimum [a partner is entitled to expect] when there are difficulties, and I believe that [such consultations] must become the norm." She noted that "Russia is a partner of the European Union. We have a strategic partnership with Russia," but added that oil-supply cutoffs are "not acceptable when there is no consultation of any kind when there are such occurrences." Barroso was in Berlin with his commissioners for a meeting with the German leadership. He told reporters that even though "there is no immediate risk to supplies, it is not acceptable...for either supplier or transit countries to take measures that impact on their partners without consultation." He added that "the situation adds urgency to our drive to boost our common energy policy. It is another demonstration...that we need a common energy policy." The commission is scheduled to unveil its plans for such a policy on January 10. Merkel also stressed on January 9 the importance of reviewing energy policy, which has already led in Germany to a discussion of possibly reviving the nuclear power industry. The German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" commented on January 10 that the oil cutoff shows that "it is not really a clever idea" to increase energy dependency on a country whose suppliers act on the basis of power politics. The paper noted that there is no sense in praising the former Soviet Union's reliability as a supplier now that the situation has changed considerably. The daily asked rhetorically, "what is one to make of a partner to whom it is apparently all the same whether it ruins its reputation simply to discipline or punish Georgia or Belarus?" The Moscow daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on January 10 that Merkel has become cooler lately in her attitudes toward Russia. PM

Managers of Evraz, which is Russia's largest steel maker, said in a statement on January 9 that the U.S. authorities have concluded that there is no threat to national security in Evraz's planned purchase of the U.S. firm Oregon Steel Mills for $2.3 billion, and reported on January 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2006). The final announcement of the deal is expected on January 12. Roman Abramovich -- who is the outgoing governor of Siberia's remote Chukotka Autonomous Okrug, politically close to the Kremlin, and reportedly Russia's richest man -- agreed on June 19 to buy a 41 percent stake in Evraz. PM

Mayor Yury Luzhkov has withdrawn accreditation from Internet journalists seeking to cover municipal affairs, and reported on January 10. The Moscow authorities have not officially confirmed the decision, but a reporter for said that he was informed of it recently when he was not allowed to attend a meeting of the city government. noted that "this is not the first time" that the Luzhkov administration has sought to "bring order to journalistic circles." PM

Two resistance fighters blew themselves up in their car on January 9 after being cornered by police in the village of Verkhniye Achaluki, north of Nazran, and reported. The Chechen resistance website confirmed the two deaths. Police launched a pursuit of the car after the militants opened fire on police in Nazran earlier the same day. It is unclear whether police sustained any casualties in that shoot-out. LF

The Adygeya branch of the NGO Cherkess Congress, which also has branches in Kabardino-Balkaria and Karachayevo-Cherkessia, has been informed that Cherkess NGOs' collective appeal to President Putin to recognize as genocide the mass killing of Circassians in the Russian Empire in the 18th and 19th centuries has been passed to the office of the presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District, reported on January 9. But an official from that office told that it is not competent to rule on such matters, and has in turn asked the regional branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences to give an assessment. Cherkess Congress Deputy Chairman Zaur Dzeukozhev said that the Academy of Sciences has already issued an expert statement on the killings in response to the analogous appeal addressed by Cherkess NGOs to the Russian State Duma in July 2005, which the Duma rejected (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 10, 2006). That ruling has not, however, been made public, according to Dzeukozhev. LF

Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov chaired a commemoration on January 9 of the 50th anniversary of the USSR Supreme Soviet decree reconstituting the Checheno-Ingush ASSR, the government website and reported on January 9 and 10, respectively. The Checheno-Ingush ASSR was abolished following the deportation in February 1944 of the Chechens and Ingush to Central Asia on the order of Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Speakers at the gathering stressed the role of CPSU General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev in denouncing the deportations (in his famous "secret speech" to the 20th CPSU Congress in 1956) and enabling the Chechens to return from exile. It was announced that monuments will be erected in Grozny to Khrushchev and to Muslim Gairbekov, who chaired the committee to restore the republic's status. It is not clear whether any politicians from Ingushetia attended the session in Grozny. Chechen parliament speaker Dukvakha Abbdurakhmanov recently proposed recombining the two republics to form a single federation subject, but Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov has consistently rejected such proposals (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10, 2002; October 15 and 23, November 3, and December 30, 2003; January 22, 2004; and January 31, 2006 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," September 18, 2006). LF

Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian told a press conference in Yerevan on January 9 that Armenia hopes the planned Nabucco pipeline that would export natural gas from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan via the Caucasus and Turkey to Europe, could provide Armenia with an alternative source of natural gas, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Turkey, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania signed a formal agreement in June 2006 on construction of that pipeline. Construction is set to begin in 2008 and be completed by 2012. The European Investment Bank will finance some 30 percent of the estimated $5.8 billion construction costs; the World Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development have also declared readiness to help with funding. One section of the pipeline would run under the Caspian Sea to Baku, where it would link up with the recently launched South Caucasus pipeline that transports gas from Azerbaijan's offshore Shah Deniz field via Tbilisi to Erzerum. Although Russia objected in the early 2000s on ecological grounds to construction of any trans-Caspian gas pipeline along the seabed, Russia's Gazprom has expressed interest in the Nabucco project. Oskanian said no "practical steps" have yet been undertaken to ensure Armenia's involvement in the project, but that "negotiations are going on, and we are trying to be involved in those discussions in order to ensure the diversification of our gas supplies." Azerbaijan Deputy Foreign Minister Tahir Tagizade was quoted by on January 10 as saying he cannot figure out which country Armenia could be discussing such involvement with. Tagizade stressed that any regional cooperation between Armenia and Azerbaijan is contingent on a solution to the problem of the Azerbaijani territories currently under Armenian occupation. LF

More Azerbaijani political parties have come out against the sweeping price hikes announced by the Tariffs Council on January 8. The Union of the Intelligentsia issued a statement on January 9 expressing concern that the increased prices for gasoline, electricity, and gas will result in a concomitant rise in the price of bread and other essential goods, reported, while Azerbaijan's Way announced on January 9 plans to picket the Economic Development Ministry building on January 16 to protest the increased prices. The Karabakh Liberation Organization argued that the price hikes will undermine people's sense of patriotism, and it called on refugees and displaced persons to resort to civil disobedience in the event that the government fails to rescind the price increases. Former Prime Minister Ali Masimov compared the price increases with the economic "shock therapy" of the early 1990s, reported. He argued that if the Azerbaijani leadership considers it necessary to raise prices to world standards, it should first raise the minimum wage. Meanwhile, economic experts sought to justify the price increases. Tariffs Council secretary Elshan Asadov pointed out to on January 10 that even after the recent increase, gasoline prices in Azerbaijan are still lower than in "most" other CIS states. Mubariz Ahmedoglu, director of the Center for Political Innovations and Technology, told on January 9 that the price increases were necessary to avert "very high inflation" which would have brought about "economic collapse" and had a far greater impact on the population at large. He added that Azerbaijan's population "is not as poor as it appears at first glance," as many people seek to hide a large part of their income from the state. LF

There have been no "negative" changes in former Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev's health over the past year, National Security Ministry spokesman Arif Babayev was quoted as saying by on January 9. Babayev recalled that a special commission of 12 experts examined Aliyev in December at his lawyer's request and concluded that he is "almost perfectly healthy." But opposition parliament deputy Jamil Gasanli, who heads a committee to protect Aliyev's rights, has objected that the experts' public assessment did not accurately reflect Aliyev's health condition. Gasanli suggested that the experts were subjected to pressure by the security ministry, according to on December 14. Aliyev was dismissed in October 2005 and arrested on charges of plotting the overthrow of the Azerbaijani leadership. During the 14 months he has spent so far in pretrial detention, his lawyers have said on numerous occasions that he is suffering serious health problems (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27 and 29, 2005, and January 4, 11, and 31, and April 27, 2006). LF

The Ossetian drivers who blocked the main highway linking Russia and Georgia to protest Russian officials' refusal to allow them to bring shipments of Georgian tangerines into Russia abandoned that protest on January 9, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 2007). Russia imposed a ban last year on imports of Georgian agricultural produce, citing health concerns. North Ossetian Prime Minister German Shtadler said two criminal cases have been opened in connection with the border blockade, which lasted for almost three weeks. LF

Murat Nurgazhin, head of the Aerospace Committee at Kazakhstan's Education and Science Ministry, told Interfax on January 8 that his country has ended a ban on the launch of Russian Dnepr rockets from Kazakhstan. The ban was instituted after a rocket crashed on launch in July 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 27, 2006). "The Kazakh government commission signed all the necessary documents related to the accident and test launches of Dnepr [rockets] from Baikonur are permitted as of the beginning of 2007," Nurgazhin said. DK

The parliamentary faction of the pro-presidential Nur Otan Party has approved the candidacy of Deputy Prime Minister Karim Masimov for the post of prime minister, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported on January 9 quoting an unidentified member of parliament. Nur Otan deputies met on January 9 to discuss the issue but made no official comment on the outcome of the meeting, Khabar reported. "We discussed the make-up and structure of the government, and definitely the candidate [for the premier's post]," faction head Amzebek Zholshybekov said, "but who [the president] proposes to parliament tomorrow -- that's his prerogative. We only expressed our opinion." DK

Kazakh prosecutors have filed criminal charges against 21 people, mainly officials, in connection with an HIV outbreak in Southern Kazakhstan Province that caused the deaths of eight children (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2006), Interfax-Kazakhstan and Khabar reported on January 9. The Prosecutor-General's Office announced that the charges include "negligence, bribe-taking, extortion, fraud, and large-scale misappropriation," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Eighty-four children and 12 mothers were confirmed HIV-positive in the spring of 2006, and officials identified blood transfusions as the likely cause of infection. DK

Temir Sariev, an opposition member of parliament, told a news conference in Bishkek on January 9 that National Security Service (SNB) officials removed him from a Bishkek-Istanbul flight on January 8, reported. Sariev said that he was carrying $10,000 in a bag to purchase ingredients for his brother's cheese-processing business, and that he joked to SNB officers that he was carrying $100,000. Sariev charged that customs officials, not SNB officers, should have handled the matter, and he refused to sign any document containing the figure $100,000. But a source in Kyrgyzstan's State Customs Inspectorate told news agency that Sariev was in violation of the law even if he was carrying only $10,000. The source said that while Kyrgyz citizens can take up to $10,000 out of the country, they must declare amounts in excess of $3,000. Sariev was one of the organizers of a large antigovernment demonstration in November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 2, 2006). DK

Uzbek tax authorities have charged the employees in the Andijon office of the U.S.-based NGO Agricultural Cooperative Development International and Volunteers in Overseas Cooperative Assistance (ACDI/VOCA) with failing to declare $3 million in a 2004-05 microcredit program, Interfax reported, quoting a source in the Uzbek Tax Committee. "Employees at the ACDI/VOCA office admitted to all of the violations that were revealed and signed a document confirming them," a Tax Committee spokesman said. "The authorities are now deciding whether or not to order the ACDI/VOCA office to pay fines." DK

In Moscow on January 9, a Belarusian government delegation including Deputy Prime Minister Andrey Kabyakou and Deputy Economy Minister Uladzimir Naydunou failed to begin talks on a compromise over the duties that each country has imposed on Russian oil transiting Belarus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8 and 9, 2007), Belapan reported. Naydunou blamed the collapse of the talks on the Russian side's lack of preparedness. "Russia has not yet decided on its position for talks," he said. Russia has rejected the duty Belarus imposed on Russian oil and has accused Belarus of siphoning off 79,000 tons of crude oil destined for European consumers. Naydunou argued that Belarus has partially paid for the oil contracted for January. Belarus has a contract for the supply of 310,000 tons of oil in January, he said, and paid $40,000 under the contract. Naydunou said that Belarus has taken the oil it paid for. AM

Belarus's Justice Ministry has issued an official warning to the opposition Belarusian Party of Communists (PKB) following a check into the membership of the party's local organizations, Belapan reported on January 9. According to the ministry, the check did not reveal more than 200 members of the PKB, while legislation requires at least 1,000 members and chapters in four of country's six regions as well as in the city of Minsk. The ministry ordered the PKB to address the deficiency by February 5. Syarhey Vaznyak, a member of the PKB Central Committee, said that the PKB's legitimacy after the inspection is beyond doubt. He also described the investigation as illegitimate. "The check was not conducted by Justice Ministry officials, as required by law, but by district police officers, the heads of housing maintenance agencies, street sweepers, KGB officers, and representatives of prosecutor's offices," Vaznyak said. "It is evident that a member of the party could freely refuse to answer a question about his membership in the PKB, when asked by a district police officer," he added. AM

On January 9, the Verkhovna Rada overrode President Viktor Yushchenko's veto on the extension of the moratorium on land sales with 67 votes more than the 300 required, Interfax reported the same day. The extension of the moratorium was backed by the "anticrisis coalition," as well as 120 deputies from the opposition Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, Yushchenko's ally in the Orange Revolution, and five deputies from the pro-presidential Our Ukraine caucus. "The Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine has extended the existence of the black market of land in Ukraine," Our Ukraine leader Vyacheslav Kyrylenko said. Arseniy Yatsenyuk, first deputy head of the Presidential Secretariat, said the Verkhovna Rada decision may be challenged in the Constitutional Court. AM

Oleksiy Ivchenko, a deputy in the pro-presidential Our Ukraine caucus and former head of Naftohaz Ukrayiny, the state-owned oil and gas monopoly, described Belarusian energy policy as incorrect, Interfax reported on January 9. "The main mistake of Belarus, as well as Moldova, was the fact that they gave their strategic gas-transportation systems to Russia," Ivchenko said. Ivchenko also described Belarus's current policy toward Russia as ineffective. This policy, he said, should be implemented in time, as Ukraine did in early 2006, and as the result, the Ukrainian gas-transportation system remained under Ukraine's ownership. "Moreover, Ukraine got the most efficient and best price for gas -- $95 [for 1,000 cubic meters] and the highest gas-transit rate," he added. AM

EU High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana has said that both Prishtina and Belgrade should see a proposal for Kosova's final status by February, B92 reported on January 9. "The Serbian elections will be held on January 21...Martti Ahtisaari, representing the [UN] secretary-general, has decided to present his plan for a potential solution to the interested parties after the Serbian elections. For this reason, the mediator's position will be known to both parties by early February at the latest," Solana said. Unconfirmed media reports citing unidentified diplomatic sources have said that Ahtisaari, the UN special envoy, will present his status proposal to the Contact Group on January 26 in Vienna, and then to Serbia and Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 5, 2007). BW

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said stability in the Balkans depends on a solution for Kosova and that the European Union will do everything in its power to prevent a new conflict, UPI reported on January 8. Germany took over the EU Presidency on January 1. "We will have to deal with Kosovo right at the start of the year," Steinmeier was quoted by the weekly "Bild am Sonntag" as saying. "The upcoming decision about its future status is closely linked to stability in the Balkans. The EU, which will take over responsibility from the UN, will do everything in its power to prevent any new conflicts with Serbia." The EU is slated to take over from the UN Mission in Kosova after the province's final status is decided. "It will cost money and we will need people," Steinmeier said. "But you only need to recall the horrors of the Balkan wars in the 1990s to know that stability in the Balkans is of great importance and deserves our complete engagement." BW

A Bosnian politician has said that if Kosova wins independence, Kosovar Serbs could be moved to the Republika Srpska, B92 and FoNet reported on January 9. Bosnian lawmaker Sadik Ahmetovic said that a deal already exists between Belgrade and Banja Luka. According to Ahmetovic, Kosova's Serbs would be moved to areas near the Drina River "in order to secure a Serbian majority there," Hina reported. Bosnian television reported that Serbs could be relocated to Zvornik, Vlasenica, and Bjeljina. BW

A court in Bosnia-Herzegovina on January 9 entered a not-guilty plea on behalf of war crimes defendant Pasko Ljubicic after he refused to enter a plea himself, Reuters reported the same day. Ljubicic, a former Bosnian Croat military policeman accused of murdering and persecuting Muslims during Bosnia's 1992-95 war, was transferred from the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in September to stand trial in Bosnia. "In the period from January to July 1993, he participated in a widespread and systematic attack on the Muslim civilian population of the Vitez and Busovaca municipalities," prosecutor David Schwendiman said. The main charge relates to an April 1993 raid on the village of Ahmici in which more than 100 civilians were killed and their houses burned down. Ljubicic, who has Croatian citizenship, turned himself in to Croatian police in 2001 after spending a year in hiding. BW

During a visit to Belgrade City Hall on January 9, Boris Tadic said the Serbian capital should serve as a model of development for the rest of the country, B92 reported the same day. "Belgrade is not merely the capital and the administrative center, it is Serbia's economic and social hub and its development will be followed by the entire country," Tadic, who heads the Democratic Party (DS), said. He added that parts of Belgrade, most notably airports, river ports and highways, "need further investment." BW

Albania's state-owned power company said on January 9 that it is seeking to increase electricity imports to avoid a shutdown of its main hydropower stations, AP reported the same day. Andi Beli, head of the Albanian Electro-Energy Corporation (KESH), said a lack of rain has dried up reserviors at hydropower plants in the country's north. Albania's daily electricity consumption is nearly double the 8-10 million kilowatt-hours it is able to produce. KESH has imposed daily power cuts of up to 12 hours throughout the country. The only "way out" of the crisis is to "increase imports," Beli said, adding that KESH is seeking to buy 9 million kilowatt-hours from neighboring Greece. BW

Despite its wealth of oil and natural-gas reserves, Iran has faced a gas crunch as people turn up the heat this winter. Partial or total energy cutoffs were reported in 11 provinces, with residents of colder western provinces worst-affected, and exports to Turkey were suspended for five days.

The National Iranian Gas Company issued a statement on January 2 warning of shortages and asking Iranians -- including Tehran residents -- to moderate their consumption or face cuts. There were energy shortages in 11 provinces, with partial or total cuts that include Kurdistan in western Iran, the northwestern Zanjan Province, and the provinces of East and West Azerbaijan.

Officials have blamed rising consumption and delays in unspecified projects for the shortages. Deputy Oil Minister Hasan Kasai told ILNA on January 1 that gas consumption rose by 45 percent over last winter. Authorities have in the past lamented Iranians' wasteful use of natural gas, electricity, gasoline, and water. And some have blamed the problem on state subsidies that keep those prices low.

Iran also suspended natural-gas exports completely to Turkey on January 3-7, after determining that its 40-day reduction was not enough, Radio Farda and AFP reported.

Iran signed a deal in 1996 to supply up to 10 billion cubic meters of gas a year to Turkey by 2007. Turkey has been receiving natural gas since 2001 through a pipeline running from Tabriz in northwestern Iran to Ankara.

In western Iran, the energy cuts led to protests. In Saqqez, in Kurdistan Province, residents gathered outside the district governor's office on January 4 to protest eight days without sufficient gas supplies. From there, some 200 protesters went to the city council, then to the town's central square, by which time they numbered about 1,000, according to Protesters demanded that the government resolve such fundamental problems instead of attending to its high-profile nuclear program.

Fakhredin Heidari, the parliamentary representative for Saqqez and Baneh, wrote to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on January 3 to complain about the situation. He reminded Ahmadinejad that on his last visit to Saqqez, the president responded to public outcry by promising that shortages would not happen again "this year." The lawmaker recounted the death of a family of five due to a faulty heater that they were forced to use because of a lack of gas.

Heidari asked whether Ahmadinejad would respond similarly if it were his family and that of the oil minister who had to spend the night in the cold. He also accused gas authorities of "giving away" natural gas to states who side with Iran's opponents in the nuclear standoff, leaving none for Iranians.

Heidari struck a note that the president himself has played in many of his speeches since taking office 1 1/2 years ago -- that of social justice. The lawmaker questioned the justice of a situation in which "the negligence of some officials" leaves Saddez residents "shivering in the cold" or burning to death in their homes.

Lawmaker Amin Shabani, from Sanandaj in Kurdistan Province, argued on January 5 that Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh should be questioned in parliament if the gas shortages continue -- particularly in the colder western provinces. He said many western areas have experienced weeks of gas shortages or cutoffs.

Shabani said that such areas are living "entirely the opposite" of Ahmadinejad's reported campaign pledge to bring "oil to the people's tables" and oil wealth into Iranian homes. He said gas exports should be cut until domestic needs are met. He invited Oil Minister Vaziri-Hamaneh to visit Kurdistan "one day" and "feel the cold...and properly answer how helpless people are to live" in near-freezing temperatures without gas, gasoline, or oil.

The crisis appears to have eased for now. Lawmaker Shabani said recently that there are currently sufficient supplies for the city of Sanandaj, and intermittent but less severe cuts in Saqqez and Baneh, according to ILNA on January 8.

But Shabani also warned ominously of a "100 percent possibility that with another cold wave, people in cold regions will face a fuel crisis." He accused the oil minister of fulfilling just half of his pledges to help avoid fuel shortages.

Shabani also took up the challenge to the Ahmadinejad administration, saying the public expects a government that "takes pride in...understanding issues close-up, to have traveled to the region" as the crisis unfolded, ILNA reported.

Canadian Foreign Minister Peter MacKay told his Pakistani hosts in Islamabad on January 9 that his country opposes the use of land mines to prevent the Taliban and other militants from crossing the Afghan-Pakistani border, CBC News reported. "We want to be cooperative and we want to be constructive in coming forward with solutions that we think are better alternatives" to Islamabad's plan to partially mine and fence its northwestern border with Afghanistan, McKay told a joint news conference alongside his Pakistani counterpart, Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri. McKay said his country opposes the use of mines because of its obligations under the Ottawa Convention banning such weapons. "We are not backtracking on our desire to control the border," Kasuri said. Kabul opposes the fencing and mining of the border, which many Afghans consider illegitimate. Pakistan's announcement in December that it intends to carry out the scheme has led to a further deterioration of already strained relations with its neighbor (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 29, 2006, and January 8, 2007). During his visit to Islamabad on January 9, Foreign Minister McKay agreed to provide Pakistan with assistance for monitoring and "selective fencing" of the Afghan-Pakistani border, Pakistan's government-run PTV reported. "Fencing, I think, is part of the solution, particularly in high-traffic areas; and there have been experiences with fencing that have been very effective," McKay said, according to Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) on January 9. Kabul has complained that Islamabad does too little to stop terrorist activities in Afghanistan -- and even has accused its neighbor of supporting the Taliban -- but the Afghan government has opposed any formal demarcation of the disputed border (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," February 28, 2006). Pakistani Interior Minister Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao said in Islamabad on January 9 that the fencing of the Afghan border in Pakistan's southwestern Baluchistan Province will be completed in July, KUNA reported. Sherpao added that other segments of the 2,600-kilometer border between the two countries will also be fenced. The report does not discuss mining the border. AT

Hundreds of residents of Daikondi Province held a protest on January 9 to condemn the Indian-made film "Kabul Express" which reportedly contains comments deemed offensive by Hazaras -- the ethnic group to which most residents of the province belong -- Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Protestors demanded that the Afghan government bring the filmmakers involved in producing "Kabul Express" to court. In a separate incident, a gathering handed a memorandum to the Indian embassy in Kabul on January 8, demanding that the film be banned in India, Associated Press of Pakistan reported. Afghan authorities have already banned the film from being shown in Afghanistan, while the film's director Kabir Khan has claimed that the copies of his film seen by Afghans are pirated, suggesting that they contain scenes not available in the original version of the film (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 5 and 8, 2006). AT

Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said in Tehran on January 9 that "we do not insist on" taking steps to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), and "for that reason will take various other routes," IRNA reported. Larijani, Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said "we hope they do not do anything" obliging Iran to reduce ties with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), referring to Western powers' pressure on Iran to curb sensitive nuclear fuel-production activities. "They must not force us so the level of cooperation with the [IAEA] is reduced," he said, adding that Iran has already "reconsidered" its cooperation in light of the "unreasonable and irrational" treatment of its dossier. Before, he said, Iran had "extensive" cooperation pursuant to the additional protocol to the NPT allowing closer checks of its installations. But "today the level of cooperation is not based on the additional protocol." He said the NPT is a "good law" if it is implemented "fairly," and Iran wishes to pursue cooperation with the IAEA. He added that there are "various ways" of downgrading ties with UN inspectors without leaving the NPT. "It is not a matter of zero or 100," he said. VS

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki met in Tehran on January 9 with United Arab Emirates (U.A.E.) Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zaid al-Nuhayyan, discussing bilateral ties and regional affairs, ISNA reported. Mottaki said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei was not referring to a specific state when he mentioned the alignment of some Arab states with Western powers hostile to Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 9, 2007). He said Khamenei had merely cautioned Arab states against enemy moves to sow discord between Muslim states. "We can see an example of such measures in Iraq, where in spite of the peaceful coexistence of various ethnic groups, unknown hands are trying to create divisions," he said. Khamenei made his remarks "for the vigilance" of regional states, he said. "No particular state is at issue, and his remarks were merely a warning to prevent discord," he added. He reiterated that Iran's Bushehr nuclear plant conforms to advanced construction and security norms and would not threaten neighbors in the Persian Gulf. Both sides agreed Iran and the U.A.E. have good working relations. Al-Nuhayyan said Iran is a "neighbor, friend, and important element in the region." While Iran may have "differences" with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, he said, these "would never turn to enmity." Iran and U.A.E. member states are involved in an ongoing dispute on the ownership of certain Persian Gulf islands. VS

Fada Hussein Maleki, the secretary-general of the Iranian Antidrug Headquarters, said in the northeastern city of Mashhad on January 9 that the government has given provincial governors full power to fight drug abuse and trafficking, under the supervision of his headquarters' supervisory board, Mehr reported. Addressing a workshop on preventing addiction, he said "extensive public participation" in fighting drug abuse is important: "public hatred and society's sensitivity toward the spread of drugs must increase." He said the state has spent large amounts of money on public information campaigns, but "the yield or results of the activity of some cultural bodies in this respect has been very low or nil." He blamed foreign powers in Afghanistan for not stopping the spread of poppy cultivation, which he said has increased from an annual 200 tons under the Taliban to 6,000 tons now. Prosecutor-General Hojatoleslam Qorban Ali Dorri-Najafabadi, speaking the same day in Tehran, also said more education is needed to inform families of the dangers of drug use and to reduce crime in general, ISNA reported. He said about half of Iran's prison population is in jail for drug-related offenses. VS

Foreign affairs observer Hasan Shariatmadari told RFE/RL's Radio Farda on January 8 that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's radical discourse is fanning Sunni-Shi'ite divisions in Iraq, the region, and inside Iran and may -- with Iran's nuclear program -- cause regional insecurity and crises. He says some Sunnis have interpreted the execution of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein as a "plot by Shi'ites against Sunni Iraqis," and believe Shi'ites, who dominate Iraq's government, did this "as Iran's lever. But this has increased the scope of Sunni enmity with Iran." He said the president's incendiary rhetoric against Israel and the United States is a potential security threat to regional governments afraid that "the Muslim masses of the Middle East will be attracted by Mr. Ahmadinejad's deceptive statements." He also criticized "unwise" domestic policies in Iran, which he said may promote interconfessional discord. VS

A new unauthorized video showing former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's body shortly after he was executed appeared on the Internet on January 9, international media reported the same day. The 27-second video, apparently taken with a mobile-phone camera, begins by showing Hussein's covered body on a stretcher. Then the sheet is removed to reveal his head sharply twisted to one side with a gaping bloody wound to his neck. Voices are also heard in the background in Arabic saying, "hurry up, hurry up." This is the third unauthorized video to be released since Hussein was executed. An earlier camera-phone video, released shortly after Hussein's execution, showed guards and witnesses taunting him moments before he was hanged (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3, 2007). That footage sparked outrage among Iraqi Sunnis, who criticized the undignified manner in which the execution was carried out. Prime Minister al-Maliki launched an investigation into how the unauthorized video was taken and distributed. The government announced on January 3 that it has arrested two guards in connection with the unauthorized execution video (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 5, 2007). SS

President Jalal Talabani on January 8 urged Iraq's neighbors not to interfere in Iraqi internal affairs, KUNA reported the same day. Talabani made the comments during a meeting with Turkey's special representative to Iraq in Al-Sulaymaniyah. He said the relationship between Iraq and Turkey should be based upon mutual respect, nonintervention in domestic affairs, and understanding that the oil-rich city of Kirkuk has a special status. Meanwhile, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan said on January 9 that Turkey would not stand by while Iraq's Kurds seized Kirkuk, Reuters reported the same day. "There are efforts to alter the demographic structure of Kirkuk. We cannot remain a bystander to such developments," Erdogan told members of his ruling Justice and Development Party during a televised address in parliament. Turkey has accused Iraqi Kurdish leaders of deliberately increasing the Kurdish population of Kirkuk, in an effort to ensure that the city votes in a referendum in favor of being incorporated into the semiautonomous Kurdish region. The referendum is to take place sometime in 2007. SS

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a report on January 9 warning that the scale of internal displacement in Iraq is beyond the capacity of humanitarian agencies, including the UNHCR, the UN Integrated Regional Information Networks reported the same day. The report warned that a larger humanitarian crisis is looming in Iraq than previously anticipated by aid agencies, and UNHCR appealed for $60 million in emergency aid from the international community to assist the thousands of Iraqis displaced because of violence. The organization added that the longer the displacement continues, the more difficult it will become, as the internally displaced and their host communities in Iraq run out of resources. Furthermore, UNHCR said that there are now approximately 2 million Iraqis living outside the country as refugees, while a further 1.7 million live within Iraq as displaced persons. The organization said the latter figure could reach 2.3 million by the end of 2007. SS

U.S. and Iraqi forces on January 9 clashed with suspected insurgents in the Haifa Street area in central Baghdad, international media reported the same day. The Iraqi Defense Ministry said that more than 50 insurgents were killed and 21 were captured, including several foreign fighters. The government has said that the area along Haifa Street has long been a Sunni insurgent stronghold, and the area previously housed many senior Ba'ath Party officials under the former regime. "This would never have happened were it not for some groups who provided safe havens for these terrorists. And as everyone knows, the former Ba'athists provided safe haven and logistics for them to destabilize Iraq," government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said. However, Khalaf al-Ulayyan, the secretary-general of the Front for National Dialogue, told Al-Jazeera satellite television on January 9 that "we received appeals from people in Haifa Street where U.S. warplanes and helicopters bombed their houses. This led to a mass killing of women and children, as well as mass destruction." SS

Unidentified gunmen on January 9 kidnapped a group of Iraqi pilgrims returning from the hajj, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported the same day. Alaa Makki, a member of the Sunni-led Iraqi Islamic Party, said he received calls from people returning from the hajj saying that some of the kidnappers wore police uniforms. "Some pilgrims phoned us and asked for our help before the police forced them to hang up. We hold the Iraqi government completely responsible for the safety of the pilgrims," Makki said. Sunni Waqf head Ahmad Abd al-Ghafur al-Samarra'i told Al-Sharqiyah television that most of those kidnapped were teachers at the Sunni Islamic University. "This is a plan to harm our people, kidnap our sons, and destroy our community," he said. SS

A Moldova-registered Antonov-26 cargo plane carrying Turkish construction workers crashed near a U.S. military airport in Balad on January 9, international media reported the same day. A Turkish Foreign Ministry spokeswoman said that the cause of the crash was heavy fog. The plane took off from the Turkish city of Adana and was chartered by the Turkish construction company Kulak. Adana Governor Cahit Kirac told CNN Turk television that 29 Turks and an American were among the passengers; and the crew included three Moldovans, a Russian, and a Ukrainian. Iraqi Transport Ministry spokesman Ahmad al-Mussawi told AFP that the ministry has launched an investigation into the cause of the crash. SS