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Newsline - February 13, 2007

President Vladimir Putin arrived in Saudi Arabia's capital, Riyadh, on February 11 with a delegation of businessmen, including representatives of Gazprom, LUKoil, and state arms trader Rosoboroneksport, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30 and 31, 2007, and "Russia: Putin To Take His Message To The Persian Gulf,", February 9, 2007). He told a meeting of Russian and Saudi businessmen on February 12 that "we know all too well how fast the world economy is developing and how much energy it needs now and will need in the future. And that means that [Russia and Saudi Arabia] are not competitors but allies, not competitors but partners in the development of the world's energy markets." LUKoil already has a major presence in the kingdom. Saudi Arabia is the world's largest oil exporter, followed by Russia. Putin on February 12 offered Russian assistance in developing railways and nuclear energy in Saudi Arabia. In December, that kingdom and five other states on the Persian Gulf announced that they will study the possibility of setting up a joint nuclear program. The Russian daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on February 13 that the Russian delegation expects to conclude an arms deal with Saudi Arabia that could be as high as $1 billion and include 150 T-90S tanks. The daily "Vedomosti" noted on February 13 that Saudi businessmen let their Russian guests know that increased trade will depend largely on Russia's cutting tariffs on Saudi imports and otherwise improving the business climate. Putin's three-day trip, which also includes stops in Qatar and Jordan, is widely seen as an attempt by Russia to extend its influence in predominately Sunni Muslim areas of the Middle East that are traditional allies of the United States. It is also part of an effort to promote good relations between Moscow and other important energy producers. PM

President Putin said in Doha, Qatar, on February 12 that experts from both countries will meet at a natural-gas conference in Qatar's capital in April to discuss the possibility of setting up a OPEC-style gas cartel, Britain's "Financial Times" reported on February 13. He said that Russia has not rejected the idea of a cartel and that he himself recently called the proposal "interesting." Putin added that "whether we need a cartel, whether we will create such an organization, is [another matter]. But of course we should coordinate our activities with other producers." He warned that gas producers should "not repeat the mistakes of other cartel-type organizations" but did not elaborate. Speaking on February 1, he seemed to leave the door open to the possible formation of a gas cartel, which Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei recently proposed to Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29 and 31, and February 1, 2, and 7, 2007). Russia also recently concluded some gas deals with Algeria, another major producer. But Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko told a press conference on February 6 that "fantasies about cartels and 'gas OPECs' are products of a sick imagination." The "Financial Times" wrote on February 13 that "energy experts have said a cartel would be difficult to create in gas because it is more difficult to transport than oil, and the market is dominated by contracts running for 20 years or more." Russia has the world's largest natural-gas reserves, followed by Iran and Qatar. PM

In further reactions to President Putin's belligerent foreign-policy speech in Munich on February 10, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said that "we should take [Putin] at his word," reported on February 12. Bild added that "this was the real Russia of now, and possibly in four or five years' time it could go further in this direction." Referring to planned negotiations for a new EU-Russia comprehensive cooperation pact to replace the current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement, which runs out later in 2007, Bildt stressed that "we have to have a dialogue with Russia but we must be hard-nosed and realistic. We must stand up for our values." Angelika Beer, who is a member of the European Parliament for Germany's Greens, said of Putin's remarks: "I do not see how we can negotiate a new partnership pact on this basis.... We need Russia for energy and [for a settlement in] Kosovo. He knows that. But perhaps he is going over the top." NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer voiced disapproval as well: "Who should be worried that democracy and the rule of law is coming closer to their border?... I can't hide my disappointment. I will not hide my disappointment" at Putin's speech. The "International Herald Tribune" suggested on February 13 that Putin's remarks are a lesson to Western leaders not to make concessions to him without driving a hard bargain in return. But Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" noted on February 13 that no German leader publicly challenged Putin's anti-Western remarks at the Munich conference, and that some Germans there actually agreed with him in private that Russia is "threatened" by the United States. The paper suggested that many in Germany have come to feel so dependent on Russian energy supplies that they practice "appeasement" in dealing with Moscow, a development that has not escaped the Kremlin's attention. German Russia expert Alexander Rahr wrote in Moscow's state-run daily newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" of February 12 that "many" at the Munich conference agreed with Putin. Rahr added that "the West's behavior toward Russia is rather arrogant." PM

On a state visit to Germany in connection with the Munich security conference, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves told German journalists on February 10 that President Putin is now using the same tone in speaking to the United States and Western Europe as he has with "the new EU members" for years, Deutsche Welle reported. Ilves called on the EU to think twice about future relations with "a country that considers democracy on its borders as a threat, or despotism inside its borders as a source of stability." Ilves argued that many of Russia's problems with its neighbors stem from the fact that Russia has never really come to grips with its totalitarian past and the injustices Russia committed toward others. He suggested that Putin's glorification of the KGB and Soviet secret services, for which he worked, would be comparable to today's German federal police and intelligence services honoring the Gestapo as their predecessor. On February 13, Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus said in a statement that the EU should formulate a common position toward Russia regarding energy and democracy, dpa reported. PM

The Foreign Ministry said in a statement dated February 12 that it would like the U.S. government to clarify a recent statement made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates before Congress regarding uncertainty in Russia and its possible impact on U.S. military planning, and the daily "Kommersant" reported on February 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9 and 12, 2007). Gates's statement was widely interpreted in the Russian media as a call for the United States to be prepared for a possible armed conflict with Russia. But Mayak Radio argued on February 9 that he did not call directly for preparing for a war with Russia. The broadcast noted that he only suggested that Americans should get ready not only to fight terrorism, but also to conduct large-scale military operations with mass regular armies like Chinese or Russian ones. PM

Britain's "Financial Times" of February 13 wrote that "Bermuda is seeking to liquidate nine companies owning billions of dollars of Russian telecommunications assets as part of an effort aimed at protecting the island's reputation as a leading financial center." The paper added that the companies have been "linked" to Information Technologies Minister Leonid Reiman, "an ally of President...Putin." The website stressed the link between the companies, Reiman, and the Kremlin in its coverage of the story. The British daily wrote that the case is expected to shed new light on the often questionable privatization process in Russia in the 1990s. PM

Officials of the television station NTV cancelled a program scheduled for February 11 about the life of oligarch Roman Abramovich, who is one of Russia's richest men and reportedly politically close to the Kremlin, the daily "Kommersant" of February 13 and reported. No reason was given for dropping the program, which was the second in a series, the first installment of which was reportedly popular. PM

Activists with the Committee of Soldiers' Mothers said in St. Petersburg on February 12 that an unspecified number of male soldiers there contend they were forced into prostitution by senior officers, "The Moscow Times" of February 13 and reported. The daily added that the list of clients whom the young men were given include an unnamed retired general in the Federal Security Service (FSB) and a former colonel. The activists said that the young men were beaten if they did not comply. Military prosecutors said they are investigating the allegations. Interior Ministry spokesman Vasily Panchenkov rejected the charges, saying that the activists' aim was not to "defend the rights of military personnel but to discredit the armed services." This is not the first time in post-Soviet Russia that accusations of forced prostitution of conscripts have been made. PM

Pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov convened a meeting of senior security and law-enforcement officials on February 12, and reported on February 12 and 13, respectively. Adam Demilkhanov, deputy prime minister responsible for law enforcement and a close associate of Alkhanov powerful arch rival, Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, did not attend. At that session, Alkhanov expressed concern over "rumors of imminent personnel changes," meaning ongoing press speculation that he will soon be constrained to resign (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," February 5, 2007 and "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2007). Alkhanov condemned unnamed members of the clergy for fuelling those rumors, an allusion to criticism of Alkhanov expressed last month by former Shariat Court judge Sultan Mirzayev. Without mentioning names, Alkhanov went on to criticize the growing gulf between rich and poor, which he fears could lead to Chechen's "moral degradation." He also criticized "the cult of personality and idealization of one person," a clear reference to Kadyrov, whose portraits are prominently displayed in Grozny, and who is widely believed to have amassed a huge fortune from extorting kickbacks and from the illegal sale of Chechen oil. Alkhanov's close ally, Social and Economic Security Council Chairman German Vok, said that the possibility of naming Kadyrov administration head is not under discussion, reported. Vok argued that Kadyrov is not competent to serve as prime minister or even deputy prime minister, and that "anyone with a sense of self-respect" would have resigned before going public with insulting comments about Alkhanov as Kadyrov has done. Vok further argued that Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov should also be replaced as he is totally subservient to Kadyrov. LF

Meeting on February 12 in Yerevan with visiting Council of Europe officials, Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian expressed reservations about specific aspects of the government-sponsored bill on reforming the judicial system, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported, quoting a statement released by Hovsepian's press service. That bill, drafted by Justice Minister David Harutiunian, would transfer from the Prosecutor-General's Office to the police and other security agencies responsibility for conducting pretrial criminal investigations. Parliament is to vote on the bill next month. Harutiunian told RFE/RL on February 7 that the government plans to begin implementing the reform in June, and that criminal investigators currently employed by the Prosecutor-General's Office will be offered alternative employment with the police or the National Security Service. LF

The majority National Movement-Democrats parliament faction ruled on February 13 by a vote of 134 in favor and 24 against to postpone, for the second time in two months, a planned vote on the proposal by the opposition Democratic Front faction that Georgia should formally withdraw from the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2006). One of the faction's leaders, David Berdzenishvili, told Caucasus Press on February 12 that remaining within the CIS is "incompatible with Georgia's Euro-Atlantic aspirations." But parliament Chairwoman Nino Burdjanadze said on February 13 that Georgia will wait for the most auspicious moment to withdraw from the CIS. Georgian State Minister for Economic Reform Kakha Bendukidze similarly told Ekho Moskvy last month that Georgia considers it advantageous to remain a CIS member at least for the time being. LF

Voters in Georgia's breakaway unrecognized republic of Abkhazia voted on February 11 in local elections, Georgian and Russian media reported. A total of 268 candidates competed for 169 seats on local councils. Interfax on February 11 quoted Abkhazia's Central Election Commission as saying that the poll was valid, and that turnout was "high" in the capital, Sukhum(i), and in seven other districts. Local administrator Ruslan Kishmaria was quoted by ITAR-TASS as saying turnout in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion, the prewar population of which was predominantly Georgian, was 62 percent, but ethnic Georgian members of the Abkhaz government in exile told Caucasus Press on February 12 that the Georgian population of Gali boycotted the poll, and that as a result turnout did not exceed 23 percent. The website on February 13 quoted Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as saying the vote in Gali was invalidated due to the "heroism" of the local Georgian population. The election results are to be made public on February 14. LF

After visiting polling stations Gali Raion on February 11, Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh said the Abkhaz leadership does not consider it expedient to resume talks with Georgia until Abkhaz citizens Fridon Chakaberia and David Sigua are released, reported. Chakaberia was abducted in December and Sigua, an election official, earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2006 and February 7, 2007). Bagapsh blamed both abductions on the Georgian security service. LF

Marat Sultanov, speaker of Kyrgyzstan's parliament, told a news conference in Bishkek on February 12 that he has asked U.S. officials for more information on the United States' payments for its air base in Kyrgyzstan, reported. Noting that U.S. officials estimate total annual aid to Kyrgyzstan, including compensation for the base, at $150 million, Sultanov said, "We asked them to explain and indicate concretely where this aid goes, since we sort of receive it, but we don't see it." Sultanov also questioned the need for a large contingent of U.S. forces since "the Afghanistan issue is quieting down." Sultanov said that his talks with U.S. officials also touched on the December shooting death of a Kyrgyz citizen at the U.S. air base in Kyrgyzstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2006), Interfax reported. Sultanov met with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Richard Boucher and Pentagon officials on January 30. DK

Prime Minister Azim Isabekov has signed a resolution cutting the number of staff who serve the country's cabinet by 20 percent, Kyrgyz Television and reported on February 12. The government's press service said that the measure is intended to boost efficiency. DK

President Kurmanbek Bakiev has signed a decree appointing Zamir Moldoshev chairman of Kyrgyzstan's Border Service, Kabar reported on February 12. Moldoshev previously served as first deputy defense minister. Bakiev signed another decree removing Zakir Tilenov from his post as head of the Border Service. DK

Tajikistan's Interior Ministry announced on February 12 that police stopped a car carrying nearly 200 kilograms of illegal narcotics, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The car was loaded with 54 kilograms of heroin and 155 kilograms of opium. The seizure, which took place on the Dushanbe-Khujand highway on February 11, was the largest so far this year, Avesta reported. Three people were arrested. Police officials told the news agency that the drugs were bound for Russia. DK

Ukraine's ICTV Television reported on February 12 that acting Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov won 95 percent of the vote in the February 11 presidential election. The report could not be independently confirmed. Turkmen Central Election Commission Chairman Murad Karriev told ITAR-TASS on February 12 that there will be no second round, suggesting that a clear winner has emerged in the first round. Berdymukhammedov, who was named acting president in the wake of President Saparmurat Niyazov's death in December (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2006), was widely expected to win the election. DK

Jesus Lopez-Medel, a member of a delegation from the OSCE's Parliamentary Assembly to Turkmenistan, told Spain's "ABC" newspaper that the February 11 presidential election was a "farce," the Turkmen opposition website Gundogar reported on February 12. "The Turkmen presidential election was more like a play than an election, a farce instead of the citizens' real participation in the electoral process," Lopez-Medel said. "Everything was decided in advance, and the voting was just for appearances." Another delegation member, Joao Soares, told Reuters on February 11, "They may hardly be called elections and they were absolutely not free and fair." Meanwhile, OSCE Chairman in Office and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said that he hopes for increased dialogue between the OSCE and Turkmenistan, the organization reported in a February 12 press release. "We are ready to help in all areas where the OSCE is active, whether in the political-military dimension, environmental and economic matters or human rights," Moratinos said. "For that purpose, the OSCE field center in Ashgabat should play a useful role." DK

President Islam Karimov told a cabinet meeting on February 12 that Uzbekistan's GDP rose 7.3 percent in 2006, official news agency UzA reported. Karimov delivered a report stating that industrial production rose 10.8 percent, agricultural production 6.2 percent, services 19.3 percent, and construction 12.8 percent. The rate of inflation in 2006 was 6.8 percent as opposed to 7.8 percent in 2005, Interfax reported. "The high economic growth figures, the drop in inflation, and improvement in the lives of citizens are a result of deeper reforms and the liberalization of the economy," Karimov commented. DK

Alyaksandr Lukashenka suggested in an interview with the Moscow-based radio station Ekho Moskvy on February 12 that the U.S. missile defense system is intended "to lock all the doors around us," the Ekho Moskvy website reported. "Don't think that the [global] crisis will develop toward breaking up the American empire and their policy," Lukashenka said. "They are doing everything possible to lock all the doors around us. There is Turkey, a NATO member in the south. And Georgia, where fashionable hospitals are today at every airfield in order to receive American aircraft and establish the same missile defense system there. It is [allegedly] against Iran, but radars can look in all directions. And missile launching pads can be turned in all directions. I am behaving incorrectly with regard to the Russian leadership, but I can't stand any longer this bedlam and inactivity." JM

President Lukashenka said in the same interview with Ekho Moskvy that those expecting an abrupt change in his foreign policy following the recent energy-price row with Russia have "miscalculated." "They thought that I, in view of my emotional character, will immediately begin to break and crush everything and will tomorrow install this pro-American [missile-defense] system near Smolensk. But it hasn't happened that way. Therefore, there is no turn here." At the same time, Lukashenka suggested that the door to the West has not been locked for him completely. "Now we will be using every opportunity to improve relations with the West. Why should we go on cursing each other?" he asked rhetorically. JM

Yuliya Tymoshenko, head of the eponymous opposition bloc, said at a news conference in Kyiv on February 12 that she would like to have early parliamentary elections preceded by the adoption of a new constitution, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "Were a referendum to be held on the dissolution of parliament, it would yield positive results and a minimum 60 percent of voters would vote to disband it," Tymoshenko asserted. She did not elaborate on how the current legislature could be disbanded to make new elections possible. JM

The Romanian Foreign Ministry has requested that Ukraine demonstrate restraint in populating the tiny Serpents Island in the Black Sea, Interfax reported on February 12. "Bucharest insistently advises Ukraine to refrain from attempts of establishing artificial settlements in a territory that is a subject of dispute between the two states," the ministry said in a recent statement. Romania and Ukraine have been in litigation before the Hague-based International Court of Justice since 2005 over the delimitation of their maritime border around Serpents Island (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 17, 2006). Ukraine regards the island as an area entitled to its own territorial waters while Romania sees it as a cliff without such a right. The island has an area of 1.5 square kilometers and a population of some 80 people, including lighthouse keepers, naval surveyors, biologists, and geophysicists. The Ukrainian parliament passed a resolution last week giving the name Bile to the settlement on the islet. JM

Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic has said the EU is holding out the prospect of a resumption of preaccession talks, but on condition that Serbian leaders form a government swiftly, Radio Television Serbia reported on February 12. Speaking on February 11, Draskovic said the capture of fugitive war crimes indictee Ratko Mladic is no longer a condition. The EU in May 2006 suspended talks on a Stabilization and Association Agreement after Serbia failed to meet a deadline to capture Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 4, 2006). However, there have been growing signs that the EU may end the linkage (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9, 2007). Draskovic was speaking before meeting with EU foreign ministers in Brussels on February 12. In a statement after that meeting, EU foreign ministers called on Serbia to form a government committed to reform and a European future, Reuters reported. They also called for "concrete and effective action" to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). However, there were no formal linkages made to preaccession talks. "In practical terms" a government committed to reform "means the EU wants to see a new police chief, a new interior minister, and a new intelligence network," AP quoted Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot as saying. AG

Fatmir Rexhepi, the interior minister of the Kosovar government, resigned on February 12 following the death of two protesters in demonstrations against the UN's proposal for the province's future status. Rexhepi told local media that he felt a "moral responsibility" to resign, local and international media reported the same day. He did not suggest that the police responded inappropriately. An earlier Interior Ministry statement cited by the KosovaLive news agency on February 12 said that police "acted within their powers," echoing earlier statements by the government and the UN police commander (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2007). The government has ordered an independent inquiry. The team leading negotiations on the status of Kosova has blamed the violence on the organizers of the rally, the radical Self-Determination movement, the Albanian-language paper "Koha ditore" reported on February 12. A February 12 report by KosovaLive news agency said doctors in the central hospital in Prishtina denied reports that a third protester had died. One man is in a stable but critical condition. The violence has raised the specter of a broader conflict if a UN plan for the region is accepted in its current form (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). Ethnic Albanian radicals argue that the UN should grant Kosova outright independence, while ethnic Serbian community leaders have rejected the proposal in its entirety (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2007). There have been warnings from both sides of the ethnic divide of a fresh conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2 and 6, 2007). The violence has already had an impact on Kosova's international efforts to win support for its independence: Prime Minister Agim Ceku postponed a planned February 12 visit to China, one of the two permanent members of the UN Security Council to have voiced opposition to the imposition of a solution on the Serbian authorities. AG

Prosecutors in Montenegro have launched an investigation into 12 former Yugoslav soldiers for their alleged role in the slaughter of 21 Kosovar Albanian refugees between March and May 1999, RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service and local media reported on February 12. A judge at the court in Bijelo Polje, Milorad Smolovic, said most of the suspects are Montenegrins, but some are Serbian citizens, AP reported. The soldiers include officers and reservists. The refugees, who included children and old people, were fleeing the war in Kosova when they were killed. An estimated 16,000 ethnic Albanian refugees remain in Montenegro, and ways to facilitate their return to Kosova were the subject of a February 7 meeting between Kosovar Deputy Prime Minister Lutfi Haziri and the head of the Office for Refugees in Montenegro. Montenegro and Serbia were part of the same state in 1999 and shared an army, but the republic's government was critical of Serbia's crackdown on separatists and ethnic Albanians in Kosova. Montenegro has maintained an essentially neutral stance on the UN blueprint for the future of Kosova, calling for a "viable" solution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2007). Human rights groups have criticized Montenegro for failing to address accusations of crimes committed against Bosnian Muslim refugees during the 1992-95 war. AG

Bosnia-Herzegovina's War Crimes Chamber on February 12 sentenced a Bosnian Serb, Predrag Miskovic, to eight years in prison for crimes committed against civilians in the Grbavica district of Sarajevo during the 1992-95 war, Bosnia-Herzegovina Radio 1 reported the same day. Miskovic was arrested in March 2006. On February 12, Human Rights Watch praised the War Crimes Chamber for making "considerable progress in bringing perpetrators to justice." However, it said the court needs to do more to explain its work and clarify how it selects cases for prosecution. The War Crimes Chamber, which was established in early 2005, has also taken on five cases referred to it by the Hague-based ICTY. Also on February 12, special police forces in the Bosnian Serb autonomous region, Republika Srpska, raided the home and business of a local banker suspected of helping war crimes indictee Stojan Zupljanin evade capture. Republika Srpska Interior Ministry spokeswoman Tamara Despenic told Reuters that Radovan Bajic is suspected of helping Zupljanin "through financial and other means." Bajic said he believed the main reason for the raid was a 300,000-Bosnian-mark ($204,000) loan his bank gave in 2004 to a company run by Zupljanin's son, Reuters reported. Zupljanin is one of six Serbs or Bosnian Serbs still wanted for trial by the ICTY. His alleged crimes were committed against both Muslims and Croats in western Bosnia. AG

The new government of the breakaway region of Transdniester was sworn in on February 12, the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS reported the same day. The new cabinet is largely the same as the old government, with the key portfolios -- foreign affairs, state security, defense, and the economy -- all being kept in the same hands. The previous government of Transdniester, which broke away from Moldova in 1992 after a short but bloody conflict, resigned after President Igor Smirnov was elected for a fourth term in elections in December. Smirnov, who moved from his native Russia to Moldova in 1986, has been in power since 1990. In late January, Transdniester's Supreme Soviet revoked earlier decisions to back the formation of a federation or confederation with Moldova, the English-language "Tiraspol Times" reported on February 1. AG


A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- posted a statement on February 12 claiming the capture of the Washir district of Helmand Province by the "mujahedin of the Islamic Emirate" as a result of nighttime attacks. The posting claims that 20 "mercenary soldiers" -- a term frequently used by the Taliban for the Afghan National Army -- have been captured along with three "pick-up" vehicles, and that a local council and a Shari'a court will determine the fate of the captured soldiers. The website claims that the "mujahedin" captured the district in an earlier attack, but for tactical reasons evacuated their forces. Residents of Washir have claimed that around 300 Taliban rebels captured the district and detained a number of policemen, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on February 12. However, Helmand security commander General Nabi Jan Mullahkhayl denied that the Taliban have captured Washir. The Afghan Interior Ministry press office in Kabul told AIP that it has no information regarding Washir. Taliban fighters have been in control of Musa Qala, a district immediately north of Washir, since early February (see item below). Washir is sparsely populated, but the main highway between Kandahar and Herat passes through the district. AT

Helmand Province Governor Asadullah Wafa has proposed talks with the Taliban but has not yet received a response, Tolo Television reported on February 12. Andrew Edwards, speaking for the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), told reporters in Kabul on February 12 that his office favors talks between the two sides. It is unclear whether the proposed negotiations will focus only on Musa Qala, which the Taliban overran in early February, or on the broader Taliban insurgency in Helmand. The Taliban have rejected talks on Musa Qala and vowed to fight to maintain control of the town (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 7, and 12, 2007). AT

Defense Secretary Robert Gates met with Pakistani President General Pervez Musharraf during a one-day trip to Rawalpindi on February 12, Islamabad's PTV reported. Musharraf reportedly told Gates that the problems of extremism and terrorism are homegrown in Afghanistan and that the Taliban are infiltrating Pakistan from Afghanistan. Musharraf stressed the need for the repatriation of Afghan refugees, claiming that terrorists and militants use the refugee camps in Pakistan as hiding places. Before leaving Pakistan, Gates told reporters that Pakistan is "playing a very constructive role" along the Afghan border, the official Associated Press of Pakistan reported on February 12. Commenting on negative statements by commanders from NATO states in Afghanistan, Gates said that "negative comments are never productive" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2007). Gates said the United States is in Afghanistan "for a long haul" and thanked Musharraf for "Pakistan's help in the war on terror." Kabul and Islamabad, two key counterterrorism allies of the United States, are at odds as Afghanistan blames its neighbor for supporting the militants. AT

Ottawa has requested Germany to purchase 20 Leopard 2 A6 main battle tanks for operations in Afghanistan, "Der Speigel" reported on February 12. Since the Canadians have asked for M-series main battle tanks that Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, the German manufacturer of the main battle tanks, cannot deliver on time, Ottawa has asked to lease tanks from the German military for two years. The M-version of Leopard 2 A6s reportedly offer increased protection against mine blasts. Canada has troops in southern Afghanistan, mainly in Kandahar Province. Ottawa's interest in the advanced tanks could signal a shift toward a more aggressive military policy there, with an expectation of increased conventional engagements. Meanwhile, the Defense Committee in the Canadian Senate on February 12 unveiled a 11-point strategy on Canada's military involvement in Afghanistan, "The Toronto Star" reported. The committee calls for deployment of more than 300 additional police and military trainers to Kandahar and criticizes NATO members have not contributed to the Afghan mission. The committee warns that if more troops and equipment are not delivered to the field as requested by commanders, Ottawa might have to rethink its commitment to stay in Afghanistan until 2009. AT

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki told ISNA on February 12 that national unity is the appropriate response to foreign pressures over its nuclear program, and he said foreign powers would exploit any mixed signals from Iran on the issue. "It is the people's extensive presence that will change Westerners' conduct," Mottaki said, referring to a mass march the previous day to commemorate the 1979 Islamic Revolution. "They started an extensive psychological operation a month ago, [saying] that we shall attack," Mottaki said. He added that Iran must continue its "lawful path" and state its positions, "which are straightforward and transparent, to the world." Talks, he said, are really to clarify each side's reasoning and positions. "I think insisting on rational...positions and publicizing them will lead them to say [that] Iran is right, even in their resolutions." Separately, EU foreign ministers agreed on February 12 on rules for implementing a ban on the sale to Iran of parts and material that could be used in its nuclear and missile programs, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2007). The ban follows an earlier EU ministerial agreement and December's UN resolution targeting Iran's program. VS

Alaeddin Borujerdi, the head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told IRNA on February 12 that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is breaking its own rules with its recent decision to cut technical aid to Iran's nuclear program. "Technical collaborations are part of the [IAEA's] duties" as "stressed" in its charter, Borujerdi said. He said the decision, reported by news agencies on February 9, "weakens" the "principle of the [IAEA's] existence" as a global body, and that IAEA Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei should not "sacrifice" IAEA rules to "political relations." Iran will not "wait for the agency's technical aid," Borujerdi added. On February 12, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said in Tehran that the IAEA maintains some cooperation with Iran, which shows "Iran's activities are peaceful," ISNA reported. He said December's UN resolution forced the IAEA to reduce its cooperation, "which means the basis of cooperation is juridical and legal, and the basis of interruption is political." Iran would consider any proposal over its program, "even [fuel-making] suspension, within the framework of negotiations," while an unspecified "Swiss proposal" could be considered "if it assures Iran's rights," ISNA quoted Husseini as saying. VS

The Guardians Council, which vets Iran's laws on constitutional and religious grounds, has rejected as unconstitutional a bill that parliament backed on January 23 to hold the next parliamentary and presidential elections concurrently, Radio Farda reported on February 12, citing Fars News Agency. The move would have required the present parliament to sit for an extra year, so elections for the presidency and legislature could be held in the Persian year to March 20, 2010, Radio Farda reported. VS

Intelligence Minister Gholam Hossein Mohseni-Ejei said in Qom on February 9 that Iran has identified 100 U.S. and Israeli spies "in frontier regions," although he did not give details of any measures taken against them, Fars reported. Mohseni-Ejei said "the enemies" have sought to train spies in Iran, but his ministry has identified and arrested "all the people" who have sought at an unspecified time to leave Iran, ostensibly for "educational courses, with the aim of attending espionage courses." Other reports suggested he was referring to a recent travel ban imposed on two activists invited to attend a seminar at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5 and 9, 2007). Iranian officials apparently stopped the activists after they found out about "America's new plot" -- a February 6-7 seminar at MIT whose topics reportedly included the role of federalism in democratization, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on February 10, citing Mehr. Mohseni-Ejei added in Qom that "there is no specific report [or] plan" of "a possible [U.S.] military attack on Iran." He also said 80 people are being prosecuted for alleged financial corruption, but added that "we cannot reveal their names" while their dossiers are being processed. He added that three members of a purported "oil mafia" have been arrested, but divulged no further details. VS

An Iraqi court sentenced former Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan on February 12 to death by hanging for the "premeditated murder" of dozens of Al-Dujayl residents following a failed assassination attempt against then-President Saddam Hussein in 1982, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Ramadan was sentenced to life in prison following his conviction in the Al-Dujayl trial in November. The conviction was upheld on appeal in December, but the sentence was toughened at the February 12 appeal. Ramadan will have one more chance at appeal, Reuters reported. He has denied any role in the Al-Dujayl incident. KR

Two German nationals are feared missing in Iraq, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced on February 12, Reuters reported. Steinmeier said the two, missing since February 6, may have been abducted by force. A ministry spokesman said the German government is "taking all the necessary steps" to find the two, but did not elaborate. The "Der Tagesspiegel" newspaper identified the two as the 60-year-old wife of an Iraqi doctor and her son; the two reportedly have dual Iraqi-German citizenship. Meanwhile, citing government sources, the German daily "Bild" reported that the kidnappers have threatened to shoot the hostages. KR

Sheikh Abd al-Rahman al-Asi, head of the Arab Grouping for Kirkuk's Tribes, told Al-Jazeera television on February 11 that the decision by the Iraqi Higher Committee for the Normalization of Kirkuk to return Arabs brought to Kirkuk under Saddam Hussein's Arabization campaign to their homes in central and southern Iraq reflects the Kurdish position and does not take into consideration the opinions of Arabs or Turkomans living there (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," February 9, 2007). Al-Asi contended that Kirkuk was never a Kurdish city and thus should not be incorporated into the autonomous Kurdistan region. He said his group wants "Kirkuk to be for all Arabs, Turkomans, and Kurds, far away from sectarian and ethnic considerations," and he called on Iran, Turkey, Syria, and the United Nations to intervene and help solve the issue. KR

Kurdistan regional parliament speaker Adnan al-Mufti told Al-Jazeera in a February 12 interview that "only a minority" of Arabs and Turkomans living in Kirkuk object to the implementation of the normalization committee's decision. "Some Arab brothers who were in the city before 1968 have fears. We understand some of these fears, but all should abide by the constitution," al-Mufti said. He said that "many" Arabs and Turkomans living in Kirkuk have said they support Article 140 of the constitution calling for Arabs moved to Kirkuk under the Arabization campaign to be returned to their homes. Asked about the position of Turkomans, al-Mufti said: "If Article 140 is implemented and the inhabitants of the city decide to join the [Kurdish] region, Turkomans will be the second [-largest] community in the region and will enjoy all the rights enshrined in the Iraqi Constitution and the Kurdistan constitution," including having a deputy prime minister in the regional government. He denied that Kurds have forged passports to claim residency in the city, and he said the committee overseeing the issue is headed by the justice minister, who is an Arab. "There is transparency and things are done in front of the whole world," al-Mufti said. KR

Prince Turki al-Faysal, former Saudi ambassador to Washington and chairman of the King Faysal Center for Islamic Research and Studies, told London-based "Al-Hayat" that sectarian violence in Iraq harms Arab and Muslim states, the daily reported on February 11. "All of us will be affected by the increase in any sectarian escalation in the region," he said. Regarding sectarian violence, al-Faysal said: "What is happening in Iraq today is not a sectarian war, as much as it is a political war that dons the garb of sectarianism. The fact is they are politicians who want to achieve political aims and objectives by using a sect, be it Sunni or Shi'ite, or by using ethnicity, be it Arab or Kurdish, and here lies the danger: that the sect or ethnicity becomes the instrument through which politicians aspire to achieve their goals." KR