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Newsline - February 7, 2007

President Vladimir Putin said at a February 6 Moscow meeting with members of the Russian Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs (RSPP) that economic development must now move away from concentrating on oil and gas exports in favor of "value-added manufacturing" and an "innovation economy," Britain's "Financial Times" reported on February 7. Putin told the businessmen that "Russian business has a significant resource base for growth," news agencies reported. He added that "the state is trying to ensure the stability of legislation and a favorable investment climate. And I hope business has also appreciated the advantage of strict compliance with the existing rules and tax discipline." Putin argued that "opportunities have been created for taking coordinated action in order to use the country's natural resources more efficiently and to reorient the economy toward an innovative way of development.... We need to take qualitative steps to move from the simple extraction of natural resources to their complete processing." The daily "Izvestia" wrote on February 7 that Putin called for a "rebranding of the Russian economy." The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" argued that the government continues to postpone decisions on the "key questions" that really affect the business community, such as the lifting of import duties on technical equipment that is not produced in Russia. PM

Defense Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said in the State Duma on February 7 that Russia must diversify its economy if it is to be able to defend itself, Interfax reported. He argued that "we will fail to guarantee our defense capacity and will not become a competitive country in today's highly competitive world" without paying more attention to developing industry, particularly the "knowledge-intensive industries." Ivanov added that "defense is only part of the problem. In fact, the issue is more profound. It is high time we gave up oil and gas addiction." PM

Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko told a press conference on February 6 that "fantasies about cartels and 'gas OPECs' are products of a sick imagination," Reuters reported. He added that "constant expansion of our contacts with consumers, as well as other producers, is aimed at improving reliability, strengthening energy security, and minimizing risks." In a similar vein, Mikhail Margelov, who chairs the Federation Council's Foreign Affairs Committee, said that "Iran has proposed to Russia the setting up of a gas equivalent of OPEC, but my prediction is that we are unlikely to become a member of a gas OPEC," RIA Novosti reported. Margelov stressed that "we preserve our freedom of action by not joining [a gas] OPEC. Russia needs to be able to maneuver freely on the global natural gas market." President Putin said on February 1 that forming a gas producers' cartel "is an interesting idea, and we'll think about it." Many Russian and foreign media interpreted that comment as leaving the door open to the possible formation of a gas cartel, which Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei proposed to Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29 and 31, and February 1 and 2, 2007). On February 6, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said that Gazprom is expanding gas supplies throughout Russia but lacks the money to extend its pipeline network to cover the entire country, the daily "Vedomosti" reported on February 7. PM

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who is President Putin's special envoy to the EU, told reporters in Moscow on February 6 that the EU should tread warily in seeking to settle any "frozen conflicts" in the former Soviet space, Reuters reported. He said that "if you want to make a contribution to finding an effective form of resolving these conflicts, let's do it together without creating problems for each other and not acting behind the other's back.... The EU is, in principle, in agreement with this, but on the ground it does not always work out that way." An unnamed EU official told the news agency that "the more the EU enlarges, the more we have a common neighborhood," with Russia. He added that Brussels expects Moscow to be a "responsible actor" in the conflict zones and to respect each country's territorial integrity. Following a visit last month to the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, EU special representative to the South Caucasus Peter Semneby said the EU is considering how to draw those regions into its European Neighborhood program as part of a broader effort to build trust between the breakaway regions and the central Georgian government. PM/LF

Defense Minister Ivanov said in the State Duma on February 7 that Russia is developing its own radar and missile-warning systems and has set up the first station near St. Petersburg, Interfax reported. He stressed that "we plan to continue building such stations so that we do not depend on anyone, including, let me put it frankly, on our allies in some military political blocs. We should...control everything ourselves." He also said it was a mistake for Russia to give up medium-range missiles, adding that "only we and the United States do not have the right to have such weapons. It would be good if we had such weapons." On February 6, the head of the Foreign Ministry's policy-planning department, Aleksandr Kramarenko, was quoted by Interfax as saying that Russia wants a binding agreement with the United States in which Washington confirms that its planned missile-defense system is not a threat to Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 2007). He stressed that "Russia is committed to continuing dialogue with the United States to reach legally binding deals that would guarantee that military potentials of both sides are not targeted against each other." PM

A judge in Novorossiisk on the Black Sea recently found several activists of the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Novorossiisk Human Rights Committee guilty of holding a meeting without notifying the authorities, reported on February 6, citing the daily "Novye izvestia." The judge also imposed small fines on the activists, two visiting German NGO members, and the principal of the school in whose office the Russian and German NGO members met over tea to discuss projects aimed at promoting ethnic tolerance. A group of police and a television crew from a local station interrupted the tea party. The police then checked the papers of everyone present and charged them with holding an unsanctioned rally. Britain's "The Daily Telegraph" reported on February 7 that "pro-democracy groups immediately condemned the ruling -- the first made under internationally criticized legislation passed [in 2006] to restrict the freedoms of civil society -- as an attempt by the Kremlin to stifle free speech in Russia.... The verdict, with its echoes of the Stalinist era when Russians were forbidden from meeting foreigners, has provoked outrage among nongovernmental organizations." PM

Jailed former Yukos oil major CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky said in a statement on February 7 that the new charges filed by the authorities against him in Chita are a "shameful farce," reported. He predicted that the authorities will nonetheless quickly convict him on the basis of "falsified evidence...and testimony by perjurers" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5 and 6, 2007). PM

Mukhu Aliyev convened a meeting on February 5 in Makhachkala of senior officials, including parliament chairman Magomedsalam Magomedov, Security Council Secretary Akhmed-Nabi Magdigadjiyev, and Deputy Prime Minister Nizami Kaziyev, to discuss the implications of the failed February 3 attempt to assassinate Interior Minister Lieutenant General Adilgirey Magomedtagirov, regnum ru reported on February 6. Three police officers died in that attack (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007), which Aliyev argued would not have taken place had police succeeded in apprehending the perpetrators of an earlier, similar attempt to kill Magomedtagirov last summer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 9, 2006). Addressing a February 1 meeting to evaluate the work of the police and security services in 2006, Magdigadjiyev said that the number of terrorist attacks and attacks on police fell by 50 percent during that year compared with 2005, and that 60 "terrorists" were killed and 145 members of "illegal armed formations" apprehended, reported on February 2. On February 6, unidentified perpetrators opened fire in Khasavyurt on the car of the district's deputy police chief, Raip Ashikov, injuring three policemen, one of whom subsequently died, and reported. Ashikov was not in the car at the time of the attack. LF

Police in Ingushetia's Malgobek district have detained two residents of the village of Sagopshi suspected of participating in a shoot-out with police and security forces in the town of Malgobek on February 3, reported on February 6. Police found the bodies of one man and one woman in the apartment and concluded that two other militants managed to escape from the building (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). LF

Mayrbek Murtagamov, a senior official in Chechnya's southern Vedeno district responsible for security issues, was seriously injured by a bomb that exploded outside his home on February 7, reported. LF

The Chechen Audit Chamber established last year has calculated that over 1.9 billion rubles ($71.7 million) allocated by the federal government for reconstruction of the republic's war-shattered infrastructure has been either embezzled or misspent, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on February 7. Announcing that figure, Audit Chamber Chairman Lomel Yakhyayev avoided direct accusations of theft, nor did he cite any specific cases of the misuse of budget funds. LF

Nikol Pashinian, who is editor of the opposition paper "Haykakan zhamanak" and a member of the Aylentrank (Alternative) public initiative launched in late 2006 by supporters of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, suggested at a press conference on February 5 that international organizations monitoring the May 12 parliamentary elections take a new approach, Noyan Tapan reported. Specifically, Pashinian suggested that instead of visiting the maximum number of polling stations as OSCE/UN monitoring missions generally do, the monitors should select 100 polling stations and observe the proceedings there from the time the polls open until the vote count is completed. Doing so, and comparing the results at those polling stations with the official results reported from others, would give a clearer indication of where and to what extent the outcome was falsified, Pashinian argued. He further suggested that international organizations should buy up all airtime offered for election-related broadcasts on Armenian television channels and make that airtime available to those political forces that cannot afford to pay for it. Announcing the launch of Aylentrank three months ago, former government official Vahagn Khachatrian, told journalists that Ter-Petrossian has endorsed it, according to "Lragir" on November 27 as reposted by Groong. LF

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza was quoted on February 7 by as saying the ongoing delays to exporting gas from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz Caspian field will not reflect negatively on Azerbaijan's reliability as an alternative source of natural gas for Europe. Azerbaijan was scheduled to begin the uninterrupted export of gas from Shah Deniz via the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum pipeline in December (three months later than originally planned), but the flow of gas was suspended after several days due to problems with one well, resumed on January 15, but was then again suspended due to "technical problems," Caucasus Press reported on January 23. The British daily "The Guardian" on February 5 quoted a spokesman for BP as admitting there is a problem with the first well, but that such glitches are "not unusual for a new project." Neighboring Georgia is counting on receiving gas supplies from Shah Deniz this winter rather than pay the $235 Gazprom is now charging Azerbaijan and Georgia per 1,000 cubic meters of natural gas. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili, together with Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili and parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze and other senior officials, met for two hours on February 6 with the leaders of three parliamentary opposition factions, Caucasus Press reported. Issues discussed included Georgia's bid for NATO membership, the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, foreign policy, and unspecified security issues. Opposition Republican party leader David Berdzenishvili described the meeting as "useful for both sides," despite their diverging views. He noted specifically that the Georgian leadership remains opposed to quitting the CIS. LF

Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko, who returned to Tbilisi in late January four months after being recalled to Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 19 and February 1, 2007), assured journalists on February 6 that "Russia has never questioned Georgia's independence, territorial integrity and sovereignty," and that it wants to see Georgia "an independent, sovereign, and neutral state," Caucasus Press reported. Kovalenko denied that Russia harbors any designs on the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which have raised the possibility of becoming "associate members" of the Russian Federation, but at the same time he underscored the need to respect the interests of all Georgia's ethnic minorities. He called on Tbilisi to take "reciprocal steps," first and foremost by abandoning "anti-Russian rhetoric," in response to Moscow's desire to build "neighborly" and "mutually beneficial relations." LF

Ivo Petrov, who is deputy head of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG), met on February 6 in Sukhum(i) with Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, reported. Petrov was quoted as telling journalists after the meeting that he shares Bagapsh's concern over the recent escalation of tensions in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district, in particular the kidnapping on February 3 of Gali election commission chairman David Sigua, who is reportedly being held by police in the west Georgian town of Zugdidi. Petrov also said OSCE and International Committee of the Red Cross representatives have visited Fridon Chakaberia, a Gali village official arrested in Zugdidi in early December and remanded in pre-trial detention for two months on drug charges, which the Abkhaz side claims were fabricated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2006). Earlier on February 6, Bagapsh issued an address to the population of Gali pegged to the local elections to be held on February 11. In that address, Bagapsh accused the Georgian authorities of condoning murders and kidnappings in order to fuel tensions in Gali and prevent the integration of displaced Georgians who seek to return there. LF

Darigha Nazarbaeva, a parliamentary deputy and the daughter of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, told journalists on February 6 that rumors that her husband, Rakhat Aliev, was involved in an incident involving Nurbank are "yet more fictions," "Kazakhstan Today" reported. The wives of two former Nurbank directors have alleged that in the course of a recent management shakeup their spouses were the victims of pressure tactics possibly linked to Aliev, who is also Kazakhstan's deputy foreign minister, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The news agency noted that Darigha and Rakhat's son, Nurali Aliev, recently joined the bank's board of directors. Further complicating the picture, a number of high-ranking police officials have been arrested in connection with a January 31 attack on Nurbank's main office in Almaty, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. On February 5, the opposition parties Naghyz Ak Zhol and the Social Democratic Party issued a statement expressing concern at media reports of Rakhat Aliev's involvement in the Nurbank crisis and calling for an investigation, Zonakz reported. DK

Robert Simmons, the NATO secretary-general's special representative for the Caucasus and Central Asia, met with Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov in Astana on February 6 to discuss progress on Kazakhstan's Individual Partnership Action Plan with NATO, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Addressing parliamentary deputies the same day, Simmons said, "I want to say that we do not consider our relations with Kazakhstan as competition with other states or organizations." Simmons stressed that Kazakhstan's participation in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan) "has no impact on our relations with Kazakhstan." DK

Kazakhstan's recently registered Social Democratic Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 26, 2007) issued a statement on February 6 calling for the registration of the opposition parties Alga and Atameken, reported. The statement voiced concern at delays in the parties' registration and called on the Justice Ministry to register them as a sign that all citizens have equal political rights. DK

President Kurmanbek Bakiev made the first appointments to Kyrgyzstan's new government on February 6 after parliament approved the new government's structure (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2007), Kabar and RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Daniyar Usonov and Dosbol Nur-uulu were appointed as deputy prime ministers under newly approved Prime Minister Azim Isabekov. Usonov has been serving as deputy prime minister, and Nur-uulu has been serving as acting education minister. Bolotbek Nogoibaev was a new appointment as interior minister, while acting Defense Minister Ismail Isakov retained that portfolio, Marat Kayipov returned as justice minister, and Oktomkhan Abdullaeva was picked to serve as labor and social-protection minister. Murat Sutalinov was reappointed to chair the National Security Committee, a job that he initially took up in October after a scandal involving drugs planted on an opposition politician who was briefly detained by Polish authorities at Warsaw airport. DK

Tajikistan's Justice Ministry has denied a request by Sayidjafar Ismonov to be recognized as the leader of the Democratic Party, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on February 6. Ismonov filed the request on the basis of a January 14 party congress that charged Masud Sobirov, the officially recognized leader of the party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 2, 2006), with inaction and removed him. But a Justice Ministry spokesman told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that the January 14 congress was held in violation of the party's charter and Tajik law, and that the ministry will continue to recognize Sobirov as the party's legitimate leader. DK

REPORT SAYS JAILED TURKMEN OFFICIALS MOVED TO HOUSE ARREST reported on February 5 that a number of former high-ranking Turkmen officials have been moved from prison at Ovadan-Depe to house arrest. The report, which quoted anonymous sources and could not be confirmed, said that Yolly Gurbanmuradov, a former deputy prime minister who was jailed for corruption in 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 25, 2005), was among those transferred to house arrest. The report attributed the transfer to the former officials' ability to make use of ties to the authorities and suggested that they could be released after Turkmenistan's February 11 presidential election. Deutsche Welle has reported in recent days that prisoners were being moved out of Ovadan-Depe to other locations, although no independent confirmation has been available. DK

Protesters staged demonstrations in London, Stockholm, Moscow, Bishkek, and other cities on February 5 to bring international attention to legal ambiguities about the term in office of Uzbek President Islam Karimov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 23, 2007) and to call for the release of political prisoners in Uzbekistan, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Shohida Yoqub, one of the protest's organizers, told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that demonstrators called for the release of Umida Niyozova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2007), Gulbahor Rahimova, Mutabar Tojiboeva (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 2006). DK

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said in an interview with Reuters on February 6 that the recent gas-and-oil price hikes by Russia were "barbaric actions" taken toward Belarusians who, he added, are "practically one and the same people" as Russians. Lukashenka asserted that the idea of a union state with Russia is still on his agenda, but stressed that Belarus will never become a part of Russia. "There are increasing imperial tones to Russian policy," the Belarusian leader said. "And I believe that this aspect of the policy of the Russian leadership is dangerous not just for Belarus.... And the reason behind that is the huge funds coming into Russia from sales of oil, gas, and other natural resources. But it won't always be like that. Our time will come." JM

President Lukashenka in the same interview with Reuters rejected the possibility of democratizing public life in Belarus. "All the demands on Belarus on human rights and democratization, made at the instigation of the Americans, were tantamount to saying that we should dismantle our political system. And it is also understood throughout that the current president is illegitimate and should step down," Lukashenka noted. He stressed that he wants "to sort out" relations with the West, but simultaneously noted that doing so is impossible because of the travel ban on Belarusian officials imposed by the EU and the United States. According to Lukashenka, the opposition to his rule in Belarus is a group of "renegades" and mercenaries paid by the West. He also suggested that, his health permitting, he will remain in politics beyond his third presidential term that ends in 2011, when he will be 56. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on February 6 overwhelmingly endorsed a bill banning the privatization, sale, and lease of the country's gas-pipeline system as well as any other changes to the state control over it, Ukrainian media reported. The measure was supported by 430 deputies out of 436 present in the session hall. The vote, spearheaded by the opposition Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, was a response to the recent statement by Russian President Vladimir Putin that Ukraine had proposed to unify its gas-transportation system with that of Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 2007). JM

Viktor Yushchenko has asked the parliament to approve Viktor Korol as head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), Interfax-Ukraine reported on February 6, quoting the presidential press service. Korol is a lawmaker of the pro-presidential Our Ukraine bloc. From 1995-96, Korol was a deputy interior minister and head of the criminal police, from 1996-98 he served as first deputy head of the tax police. JM

Journalist Aleksandr Kosvintsev of the Russian newspaper "Novaya gazeta" has asked for political asylum in Ukraine, Interfax-Ukraine reported on February 6, citing to the press service of the Lviv Oblast Council. Kosvintsev claims that he has been persecuted by Russian law enforcement bodies after conducting a journalistic investigation into "criminal activities" by Kemerovo Oblast Governor Aman Tuleyev. "After reading his articles in the Russian press, it is becoming clear that the corrupt Russian authorities have decided to punish the independent journalist. We know the real state of the free press in Russia, and that is why we are ready to help the Russian journalist," Lviv Oblast Council Chairman Myroslav Senyk commented on Kosvintsev's application for political asylum. JM

Kosovar Serb community leaders on February 6 rejected UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari's proposed political settlement for the UN-administered province, Radio Television Serbia reported. The Association of Serbian Municipalities and Communities in Kosovo-Metohija, as Serbs refer to Kosova, reportedly rejected all aspects of the plan put forward on February 2. The association said Ahtisaari has overstepped his mandate and is proposing the creation of another Albanian state in the Balkans. This is the first collective statement issued by the Kosovar Serb leaders. Only one Kosovar Serb leader, Oliver Ivanovic, met with Ahtisaari when he presented his plan, and Ivanovic restricted his immediate comments to describing the document as "vague" and in need of further discussion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). The association's statement comes amid increasing talk about secession or the need for a partition of the predominantly Albanian-populated Serbian province, as well as warnings of renewed conflict. Analysts in Serbia have also warned that Kosovar Serbs could migrate to the rest of Serbia, potentially affecting the delicate ethnic balance in the very mixed region of Vojvodina in northern Serbia. Vojvodina is now home to many of the Serbian refugees displaced by conflicts associated with the break-up of Yugoslavia. AG

Three ethnic Albanian groups, including veterans of the 1999 war, on February 6 expressed their opposition to the Ahtisaari plan, the Internet news service KosovaLive reported the same day. Representatives of the veterans of the former Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), and Smajl Latifi, leader of the National Movement for the Liberation of Kosova (LKCK), argued the deal does not respect the wishes of the population of the province. Similarly, activists of the Self-Determination (Vetevendosje) movement said the plan "disrespects" the will of the province's population. Among other complaints, they allege that under the plan Kosova's parliament cannot declare independence, that Serbs would retain control of one-third of the country, that predominantly Serbian-populated municipalities would enjoy greater powers, and that the plan only considers Serbian Orthodox sites as cultural-heritage sites. Self-Determination supporters will hold a rally in Pristina on February 10, a meeting the movement called before Ahtisaari presented his plan on February 2. Serbs have been called to rally in Mitrovica on February 9. Both ethnic Albanians and Serbs have warned of a new war in the contested region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2 and 6, 2007). AG

Montenegrin officials on February 6 issued their first official comments about Kosova's final status since UN envoy Ahtisaari outlined his proposals on February 2, local media reported. President Filip Vujanovic told Radio Montenegro that Podgorica wants a "viable solution" for Kosova, a comment that reiterates statements made before Ahtisaari presented his plan. A leader of hard-line members of the Kosovar Serb community, Milan Ivanovic, criticized Podgorica for its silence in an interview published on February 6 by the Montenegrin daily "Dan." Ivanovic said Podgorica is hiding its head in the sand, and he warned that Montenegro, which voted in May 2006 to end its union with Serbia, risks becoming part of a Greater Albania. Ethnic Albanians make up 5 percent of Montenegro's 630,000-strong population. AG

After another round of failed talks on police reform in early February, Bosnia-Herzegovina's chief EU negotiator, Igor Davidovic, has warned that failure to reach a decision within weeks could derail the country's hopes of starting preaccession talks with the EU soon. In comments reported by the "Dnevni avaz" newspaper on February 4, Davidovic said the country's hopes of opening talks with the EU on a Stabilization and Association Agreement by the end of June require an agreement on police reform by the end of February. Bosnia's two autonomous regions currently have separate police forces, funded from separate budgets. The daily "Slobodna Bosna" on February 1 quoted unnamed sources as saying the prime minister of the Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska is coming under pressure to sack the head of the region's Interior Ministry. The paper implied the pressure is coming from the international community and is due to the Republika Srpska's failure to arrest war crimes indictees. AG

The claimant to the Albanian throne, Leka Zog, on February 3 publicly cut his ties with two of Albania's political parties, the daily "Gazeta Shqiptare" reported on February 4. Zog joined the leadership of the Movement for National Development in mid-2005, but retained strong informal ties to the Movement for Legality party, which in 1997 sponsored a referendum to reinstate the monarchy. The motion was voted down by a two-thirds majority. Zog, who questioned the result, was subsequently sentenced in absentia to prison on sedition charges. He was pardoned in March 2002. Neither party is expected to win significant support when Albanians vote in local elections on February 18. Zog, who was born two days before Italian troops invaded Albania in April 1939 and ousted his father, returned to Albania in 1997. AG

A team of officials from the Council of Europe on February 6 wrapped up what they described as a "positive" two-day visit to Moldova to investigate claims that newborn infants have been illegally given to adoptive parents. The rapporteur for the human rights watchdog, Ruth-Gaby Vermot-Mangold, said in a statement issued by the Council of Europe on February 6 that "before coming to any final conclusions concerning the situation here, I need to gather additional information, including from other countries." The team, which visited maternity wards and orphanages and met with Moldovan officials and nongovernmental organizations, is due to present its findings at the end of the year in a report to the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly. The fact-finding mission was prompted by claims that newspaper advertisements in Moldova are targeting unmarried mothers who might be willing to sell their children for illegal adoption. Vermot-Mangold has in the past investigated the purported theft of several babies from their mothers in Kharkiv, Ukraine, hours after their birth. AG

Iranian politicians have welcomed proposals to form an international natural-gas producers' organization -- similar to the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). They argue that cartel members could exercise greater control over natural-gas prices. Several politicians believe such an organization would stabilize the price of gas and enhance Iran's political power through greater revenues and closer ties with Russia, a gas producer seen as a strategic ally against unfriendly Western countries.

One of the proponents of creating a gas cartel is Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who discussed the idea with Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov in Tehran on January 28. Russian officials are reportedly interested, though perhaps not in an OPEC-style cartel. Iran and Russia are believed to hold half of the world's natural-gas reserves.

Mohammad Reza Bahonar, Iran's deputy speaker of parliament, said in Tehran on February 2 that a "gas OPEC" would have many benefits for Iran and other producers. He pointed out that exporting gas is more costly than exporting oil, as gas must be liquefied for transport or piped, ISNA reported.

Iranian Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh said in Tehran on February 2 that liquefaction requires technology that some producer countries lack, while natural gas can only be piped to customers in nearby countries, Dow Jones reported.

Several members of Iran's parliamentary Energy Committee concurred on February 2 that international prices for gas have yet to reflect its "real" value.

Shirvan representative Hossein Afarideh, a member of the Energy Committee, told ISNA "the future of energy is in gas" and producers "can definitely not control many prices" without a cartel.

Another committee member, Hossein Nejabat, pointed out the political importance of a cartel. He said in Tehran on February 2 that with oil slowly running out and "the energy issue" a key instrument in the "management and control" of international affairs, Iran must work to form this cartel. The future of energy, he said, is in "petrochemical products and, especially, in gas," the daily "Aftab-i Yazd" reported.

The political view was stated clearly on February 3 by Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh, a member of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee. He told ISNA that "when the world is becoming daily more dependent on energy," the formation of a "gas OPEC" can give producers and exporters a "strategic position." He urged officials to start studying the mechanics of forming such a cartel, so that the issue is no longer a "general discussion." Another committee member, Hamid Reza Haji-Babai, said the cartel would "forestall the authoritarianism" of Western countries and would be a "center of power to resist the Western powers', and especially America's, economic and political pressures," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported the next day.

Akbar Torkan, the managing director of the South Pars Oil and Gas Company, told the Mehr news agency on February 3 that gas exporters must not "harm each other any more with unsuitable competition." He said producers could maximize benefits through "constructive cooperation" and that this is the best time for Iran and Russia to cooperate on gas exports, Mehr reported.

One of the problems Iran faces in this regard is its considerable domestic consumption. As with oil, cheap subsidized gas boosts demand; and gas is subject to wasteful consumption.

Tehran-based academic Ali Khorram asked on February 3 if Iran could play a decisive role in a gas cartel "considering its [large] domestic consumption and the fact that a major part of Iran's gas is injected into oil wells to get oil for export," reported. A recent cold spell led to fuel shortages around the country.

Another problem is Russia's seeming reluctance to form an OPEC-style cartel and preference for looser cooperation, the daily "Etemad" reported on February 5. It stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin reacted coolly to a proposal for a such a cartel made months ago by Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, apparently at the June 2006 meeting of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which Ahmadinejad attended as an observer.

On February 2, Oil Minister Vaziri-Hamaneh said all gas producers, and especially Russia, would have to support the formation of a gas cartel for the idea to materialize, and Russia is sending "conflicting signals," Dow Jones reported. The agency reported that Iran has for some years sought to bring gas producers together. In 2001, Tehran hosted the Gas Exporting Countries Forum in Tehran, which reportedly discussed pricing and marketing issues.

Mohammad Karim Rahimi, a spokesman for President Hamid Karzai, told reporters at his weekly news conference in Kabul on February 6 that Karzai has sent the amnesty bill passed by the lower house of the Afghan National Assembly to legal experts for review, the state-run Bakhtar News Agency reported. The Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) passed a resolution on January 31 granting blanket amnesty from prosecution for human rights violations to all sides who participated in the war in Afghanistan, which lasted more than two decades, prompting sharp international criticism and calls on Karzai to reject the bill (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2 and 5, 2007). Under Afghan law, any bill approved by the Wolesi Jirga goes to the upper house, the Meshrano Jirga (Council of Elders), then to the president, who can sign it into law or reject it, Rahimi explained. While Rahimi did not say how Karzai plans to act regarding the amnesty bill, he said that Afghan and Islamic law dictate that no one has the right or authority to forgive a criminal other than the victim of that crime or people harmed by the crime. "We assure our people that the president will not take any action against the constitution," Rahimi said, adding that the "government will never surrender to pressure in implementation of the constitution," Pajhwak News Agency reported on February 6. Since the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Karzai has appeared reluctant to seriously consider a systematic mechanism to address the grave human rights abuses by various regimes and warlords since the late 1970s. The absence of any such system allowed individuals accused of abuses to stand for election to the National Assembly in 2005. AT

Afghan National Security Directorate (NSD) has arrested two commanders of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hizb-e Islami in Nangarhar Province, the state-run Radio Afghanistan reported on February 6. Authorities have so far refused to identify the two men by name. The suspects were reportedly arrested on the basis of tips from individuals currently in custody. Radio Afghanistan reported that the men were in possession of explosives and arms and confessed that they were planning to carry out attacks at Hekmatyar's behest. Hekmatyar served briefly as Afghan prime minister in the mid-1990s and participated in many of Afghanistan's internecine conflicts. He is currently thought to be in an unofficial alliance with the neo-Taliban and allegedly has links to Al-Qaeda. AT

Qari Mohammad Yusof, purporting to speak for the Taliban on February 6, rejected a deal concerning Musa Qala in Helmand Province, Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. The Taliban took control of Musa Qala in early February, several months after U.K. forces serving with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) struck a deal with local elders and left Musa Qala after suffering higher-than-expected casualties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2006). Mohammad Yusof, speaking with AIP on February 4, offered a new peace deal with ISAF over Musa Qala in which foreign and Afghan forces would stay out of the region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). When asked by AIP why the Taliban reversed itself over the peace offer, Mohammad Yusof said the initial offer was made to prevent civilian casualties but that after "a great deal of deliberation, the Taliban leadership understood that the opposite side does not respect agreements" and as such there will be no negotiations "or agreements signed in the future." The Afghan government has warned the Taliban to withdraw from Musa Qala. AT

Eid Mohammad, a senior member of Paktiya Province's "singer's union," was killed in Zarmali district on February 5, Radio Afghanistan reported on February 6. Eid Mohammad, who was a musician with more than two decades of experience, had been warned to stop playing music and singing. According to the report, "insurgents" were responsible for his death. The Taliban banned music during their rule, but the group has not claimed responsibility for Eid Mohammad's death. It is unclear who warned Eid Mohammad to stop singing and playing music. AT

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini condemned in Tehran on February 6 the "terrorist" kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad on February 4, and blamed the United States for the incident, agencies reported. His ministry summoned the Iraqi and Swiss ambassadors separately that day to convey its protest, ISNA reported. The Swiss Embassy acts as the U.S. interest section in Iran. Husseini said Iran's second secretary at the embassy in Baghdad, Jalal Sharafi, was kidnapped "by a group of people associated with the Defense Ministry working under the supervision of American forces in Iraq," ISNA reported. He said, "America's actions in Iraq are...foolish and disruptive," and will harm "diplomatic interactions and practices around the world." He said U.S. forces are responsible for the "life and well-being" of the diplomat. Iranian Ambassador to Iraq Hasan Kazemi-Qomi added on February 6 that the kidnappers have no connection with the Iraqi Defense Ministry and the incident occurred "under the supervision of a body overseen by the Americans," Mehr news agency reported. The United States denies any involvement in the kidnapping. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad said on February 6 that it is "aware" of the reported kidnapping and is investigating, reported on February 7 (see Iraq below). VS

Iran has reportedly installed more than 300 centrifuges underground in its nuclear complex in Natanz, AP reported on February 5, citing unnamed diplomats with connections to to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in Vienna. It did not say when the centrifuges were installed. The move is seen as defying the December 23 UN resolution calling for a halt to enrichment and related activities within 60 days of that date. The latest installation may be part of the 3,000 centrifuges Iranian officials have said will be installed in Natanz, which would take Iran closer to its stated goal of enriching uranium on a large scale to make nuclear fuel. The centrifuges have apparently been installed as two "cascades" of 164 centrifuges each, AP quoted unnamed IAEA diplomats and a U.S. official as saying on February 5. The centrifuges may now be tested by spinning them without uranium hexafluoride gas, which is used to enrich uranium. VS

AFP reported on February 6 that Iran may draft a "shadow" budget based on lower forecasted revenues -- for the Persian year that begins on March 21 -- in anticipation of an unspecified "extraordinary" event. That might include UN sanctions against Iran because of its nuclear program. Ali Asgari, deputy head of the Management and Planning Organization, said this budget will assume Iran has oil revenues equivalent to less than $30 per barrel, AFP reported. VS

General Pervez Musharraf said in Ankara on February 6 that the Middle East and Persian Gulf will suffer from the persistent "dark clouds" affecting Iranian-U.S. relations, and their differences "must be resolved by political means," IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2007). He spoke after meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one day after leaving Tehran. Musharraf has visited several Mideast countries to discuss regional problems. He said Iran is "an important country in the region and the Islamic world" and plays "an important role" in regional developments. Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki was in Morocco on February 5 and 6, where he met with officials including his counterpart Muhammad Benaissa in Rabat, agencies reported. The two countries signed a memorandum of understanding on February 5 to maintain regular contacts to discuss bilateral issues and international affairs, reported on February 6. VS

The New York-based Human Rights Watch is to give seven Iranian writers its Hellman/Hammett grants, awarded annually to writers working under government pressure or difficult political conditions, Radio Farda reported on February 6. Forty-five writers worldwide will receive the grants this year, Radio Farda reported. Radio Farda cited Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, as saying that 2006 was a tough year for Iranian writers. Iranians due to be awarded the grants are Ali Ashraf Darvishian, Shahram Rafizadeh, Ruzbeh Mir-Ebrahimi, Arash Sigarchi, Ali Afshari, Ensaf Ali Hedayat, and Hasan Zare-Zadeh Ardeshir, Radio Farda reported. It noted that all have been arrested and spent time in jail in recent years except for Darvishian, the 65-year-old author of some 20 books that have been subject to censorship and publication bans in the past four years. The other prize winners have angered Iran's government for articles on the Internet or in the press or for their investigations into human rights abuses, Radio Farda reported. VS

Iraqi and Iranian officials confirmed on February 6 that some 30 gunmen wearing Iraqi Army uniforms abducted an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad two days earlier, international media reported. Officials said Jalal Sharafi, the Iranian Embassy's second secretary, was abducted from his car in Baghdad's central Al-Karradah district. An official with the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Sharafi was heading out to check on the planned opening of a branch of the Iranian state-owned Bank Melli. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini blamed U.S. forces for the kidnapping, saying it was carried out by Iraqi forces linked to Iraq's Defense Ministry, which works under the supervision of U.S. forces. An unidentified Iraqi official also said the kidnappers were part of an Iraqi Army unit that reports directly to the U.S. military. U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver said no U.S. forces or Iraqi troops under U.S. supervision were involved in the abduction. "We've checked with our units and it was not an MNF-I [Multinational Forces -- Iraq] unit that participated in that event," Garver said. SS

The Iraqi Higher Committee for the Normalization of Kirkuk has decided to relocate thousands of Arabs living in Kirkuk, "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on February 5. The committee ruled that Arabs who moved to Kirkuk as a result of the former regime's Arabization policies would be returned to their places of origin in central and southern Iraq and given compensation, including plots of land and approximately $15,000 each. Iraqi Justice Minister Hashim al-Shibli said the decision is not final and needs to be approved by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. "The matter is related to us insofar as passing the resolution," al-Shibli said. "As for implementation, it is the purview of the relevant executive bodies." Kurdish lawmaker Mahmud Uthman welcomed the decision, but expressed skepticism that it will be implemented. "Even if the decision has been made, I do not know how it will be implemented, given the dire state of the city," he said. A referendum in Kirkuk is to be held in 2007 to determine whether the province will be part of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. The Arab Republican Union (ARU), an organization representing Arabs living in Kirkuk, rejected on February 5 the decision to relocate thousands of Arabs from the city, dpa reported the same day. Muhammad al-Khalil, a leading member of the ARU and of the normalization committee, denounced the proposal and threatened to resign from the committee. "We reject these new decisions and consider them forced migration," he said. Meanwhile, more than 1,000 prominent Arab figures and tribal leaders gathered in Kirkuk on February 4, where they rejected the notion of the city being assimilated into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, "Al-Zaman" reported on February 5. Prominent tribal leader Sheikh Abd al-Rahman Munshid al-Masi said, "We as Arabs and as Turkomans are looking at all possible choices, including the use of force to defend our history." Arabs and Turkomans have frequently voiced their opposition to Kirkuk being annexed into the Kurdish region. SS

In parliament on February 4, speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani read a joint statement from several Iraqi tribes urging the government to investigate the incidents that led to the deaths of some 200 people during a January 28 battle near Al-Najaf, Al-Sharqiyah satellite television reported the same day. The tribes contend that the government carried out a campaign to hide the truth regarding the battle and to shift the blame onto "fictional groups," an apparent reference to the Army of Heaven. Members of the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance walked out of the parliament session in protest after al-Mashhadani read the statement. Several lawmakers urged parliament to form a tribunal to investigate the incident, similar to the one that sentenced former President Saddam Hussein and two of his senior aides to death for the killing of 148 Shi'a from Al-Dujayl, "Al-Zaman" reported on February 4. Prominent Shi'ite cleric Ayatollah Ahmad al-Hasani al-Sarkhi called for an official government inquiry into "the circumstances that led to the deaths of women and children," "Al-Zaman" reported on February 6. SS

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh announced on February 6 that the Iraqi government will not deport Arabs and foreigners as part of the new Baghdad security plan, KUNA reported the same day. "The government has no intent to take measures against Arabs and foreigners in Iraq, with the exception of those who violate laws or aid terrorist cells," al-Dabbagh said. His statement was a response to Major General Jihad al-Jabr's demand that the Iraqi government do so, claiming that investigations have proven that many foreigners are involved in car bombings and other attacks in Iraq. Deportations, al-Jabr suggested, would reduce terrorist attacks in Iraq. SS

Approximately 200 Iraqi refugees staged a sit-in outside the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Damascus on February 5, international media reported the same day. An Iraqi government official said Syria is making life difficult for Iraqi refugees by granting Iraqis entering Syria only 15-day visas. Reportedly, some Iraqis were told to leave Syria for 30 days before returning. The Syrian government rejected any criticism that it is treating Iraqi refugees unfairly. Syria said it has taken measures to deal with the influx of Iraqi refugees, but it did not offer any details. SS