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Newsline - February 14, 2007

President Vladimir Putin visited Amman, Jordan, on February 13. After three hours of closed-door talks with King Abdullah, he read a statement to reporters in which he renewed his call for "a broad international conference in the Middle East" with an agenda including "the Palestinian and the Lebanese and the Syrian tracks," "The Moscow Times" reported on February 14. The Jordanian monarch, for his part, said that he and the Russian president "agreed that negotiations toward the establishment of a viable, independent Palestinian state should be accelerated." A statement released after Putin's meeting with Abdullah said they signed agreements on encouraging investment and two commercial deals: one between Russia's AvtoVAZ car maker and a Jordanian car maker, and another on the possible assembly in Jordan of Russian KA-226 general-purpose helicopters, Reuters reported on February 13. Later on February 13, Putin met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas at Amman's airport. Putin told Abbas he hopes sanctions against the Palestinian government will be lifted soon. Putin's visit to Jordan was the third and final stop on a tour of the Middle East that also included Saudi Arabia and Qatar (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2007). He said he is "very pleased" with the results of his Middle East trip, ITAR-TASS reported on February 13. JB

During his visit to Jordan, President Putin defended and reiterated the harsh criticism of U.S. foreign policy he made at the 43rd annual Munich Conference on Security Policy. In a speech to the conference on February 10, he accused the United States of attempting to "implement a unipolar concept of the world" and imposing its system "on other countries essentially in all areas: in economic, political, and humanitarian matters" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2007). "I am convinced what I said in Munich is what is happening," Putin said in Amman, reported on February 14. Russia, he added, has been listening to what its "partners" have been saying on various subjects for more than 10 years. "We are very patient and very tolerant, but we have the feeling that they do not understand us," he said. "Certain partners are increasingly promoting themselves, have begun using a nonexistent threat in order to beat additional money out of the U.S. Congress for defense -- for the military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, the building of an expensive ABM [antiballistic-missile system]. This is not our problem. Why the anti-Russian card is used to resolve domestic political problems is unclear." JB

Semyon Vainshtok, who heads the pipeline monopoly Transneft, said on February 13 that the Russian government is expected to decide "within a month" on whether to build a new oil-export pipeline to the Baltic port of Primorsk, bypassing Belarus, Bloomberg reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2007). Reuters reported that when asked how long it would take to build the pipeline, which could eventually pump 1 million barrels of oil per day, Vainshtok answered: "Eighteen months is way too long. If a government decision is made, the time frame of the construction will be very tight, even by Transneft's standards." Transneft cut supplies to Belarus for three days in January after Minsk demanded a transit fee for oil shipments in retaliation for Moscow's decision to end fuel subsidies. Vainshtok also suggested that a pipeline spur to Lithuania's Mazeikiu refinery, closed since August, may never reopen. Transneft said it suspended supplies to Mazeikiu, the largest refinery in the Baltic states, because of a leak. However, some observers believe the stoppage was Russia's response to Lithuania allowing a Polish company, PKN Orlen, to buy the refinery, which several Russian oil firms had hoped to acquire. JB

Russia's Supreme Court on February 13 rejected an appeal by Andrei Vavilov, a Federation Council member and former deputy finance minister, of its ruling last month finding him guilty of criminal activities in a case dating back 10 years, the tabloid "Tvoi den" reported on February 13. The Supreme Court ruled last month that Vavilov's involvement in the notorious case of a $231 million MiG-29 fighter-jet deal with India back in 1997 entailed large-scale fraud and gross abuse of office, "The Moscow Times" reported on January 12. In early 1997, Vavilov, who was then a deputy finance minister, ordered federal funds transferred to buy bonds that were then to be deposited in a Unikombank account held by MAPO, the builder of MiG fighters. The money allegedly never arrived in MAPO's Unikombank account, but was instead diverted to other banks, including MFK, a Uneksimbank affiliate. Vavilov left the Finance Ministry to become MFK's president in May 1997. Later that year, the Prosecutor-General's Office opened a criminal case into the alleged embezzlement. MAPO's former general director, Aleksandr Bezrukov, was arrested in 1998, but released and cleared of all charges the following year. In 2000, prosecutors ended their investigation of Vavilov, citing a lack of evidence. Vavilov has denied any wrongdoing. The daily "Vremya novostei" reported on February 14 that the statute of limitations on the MiG case expires in April, and that the Prosecutor-General's Office will probably not be able to complete the case before then. The newspaper speculated, however, that prosecutors may use the case as a pretext for lifting Vavilov's immunity from prosecution as a Federation Council senator and then prosecuting him for "a whole series of 'fresher' criminal cases in which he also figured." Vavilov's lawyer Aleksandr Muranov, meanwhile, told "Vremya novostei" that he believes the Supreme Court's rejection of his client's appeal in the MiG case was "unlawful," and that they plan to appeal to the Supreme Court's Presidium. "Tvoi den" reported that Vavilov is recovering from an unspecified illness in a U.S. hospital. JB

The prosecutor's office of the Moscow Military District is investigating the beating of a serviceman in a unit of Interior Ministry troops deployed in the city of Reutov near Moscow, Interfax reported on February 13. Andrei Baryshkin, a conscript from Vologda Oblast, suffered serious internal injuries after being beaten by a more senior soldier. An aide to the Moscow Military District's military prosecutor, Natalya Zemskova, told RIA Novosti on February 13 that that Lance Corporal Yevgeny Kopytov kicked Baryshkin in the stomach on February 2, but that the victim did not report the attack. After falling ill, Baryshkin was rushed to the hospital and his spleen was removed. Separately, authorities in Sverdlovsk Oblast are investigating the apparent suicide of a 22-year-old serviceman, reported on February 13. According to the Volga-Urals Military District prosecutor's office, the incident took place on the night of February 8-9 in a unit of airborne troops located in the city of Asbest. The soldier, Yevgeny Malakhov, shot himself in the chest while on sentry duty. The Committee of Soldiers' Mothers said in St. Petersburg on February 12 that male soldiers there claim they were forced into prostitution by senior officers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2007). Meanwhile, Andrei Sychyov, the private whose legs and genitals had to be amputated after he was forced to squat for hours while being beaten and whose case became emblematic of hazing in the Russian armed forces, told the tabloid "Tvoi den" that he plans to write a book about his experiences, "The Moscow Times" reported on February 14. JB

The State Council of the Sakha Republic (former Yakutia) approved on February 14 by a vote of 47 in favor and 14 against with three abstentions the candidacy of outgoing Prime Minister Yegor Borisov to head the republic's new government, reported. The government resigned following Vyacheslav Shtyrov's inauguration on January 27 for a second presidential term (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 29, 2006). Proposing Borisov on February 13, Shtyrov noted his "solid experience" and said there is no better candidate. Borisov noted Yakutia's economic leadership within the Far East Federal District despite the harsh climatic conditions and sparse population. He singled out as priorities raising living standards and reducing unemployment. LF

North Ossetia's Prosecutor German Shtadler told colleagues on February 13 that he has asked Russia's prosecutor-general to order the closure of the independent website, the daily "Kommersant" reported on February 14. Shtadler explained that numerous journalists in North Ossetia have complained that the Ingush site engages in inciting interethnic hatred; his assistant Yelena Nekhayeva told "Kommersant" that an independent evaluation of materials posted on found "indications of xenophobia with regard to Ossetians, Russians, and Jews." systematically posts materials about Ingushetia's claim on North Ossetia's Prigorodny Raion and the plight of Ingush displaced persons forced to flee their homes there during the fighting of October-November 1992, but it has also featured calls for rapprochement between the two ethnic groups (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, October 2 and 23, and December 13, 2006). The owner of, Magomed Yevloyev, told "Kommersant" that the Moscow prosecutor's office checked the site's content last summer in response to a request from the government of North Ossetia, but found no postings it considered reprehensible. Yevloyev added, however, that since then the site has posted materials from the Ingush-language journal "Dosh" concerning the 1992 violence in Prigorodny Raion, some of which feature graphic photos of the victims. He expressed confidence that the Russian prosecutor-general will be unable to take any action against the site as it uses a server in the United States. LF

The North Ossetian parliament's council has rejected a request by relatives of those killed during the Beslan school hostage taking in September 2004 to ask Yury Savelyev, a member of the Federation Council's commission to probe the circumstances of the hostage taking, to brief the North Ossetian parliament in their presence on his conclusions, reported on February 13. The North Ossetian parliamentarians agreed they will discuss Savelyev's findings, which have been posted in installments on the Internet, after studying the Federation Council's final report on the hostage taking, which differs in key respects from Savelyev's findings. Savelyev concluded after talking to surviving hostages that the number of hostage takers was far higher -- between 58 and 72 -- than the officially promulgated figure of 32, of whom only one is said to have survived. LF

Dukvakha Abdurakhmanov, who is speaker of the lower chamber of the pro-Moscow Chechen parliament and a close associate of Chechen Prime Minister Ramzan Kadyrov, told on February 13 that the power-sharing treaty signed in 2005 between the federal center and the Republic of Tatarstan, and which the Russian State Duma approved on February 9, is not suited to Chechen conditions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2007). Abdurakhmanov argued that as Chechnya needs to rebuild its infrastructure almost from zero, for a "transition period" of the next 15 years it needs a free economic zone, the right to exploit its subsoil resources (meaning in the first instance oil), and exemption from all federal taxes. He recalled that work on a draft power-sharing treaty between Russia and Chechnya was suspended following the death in 2004 of pro-Moscow administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov (Ramzan Kadyrov's father), and work on it resumed "only last year" (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," October 25, 2004 and January 28, 2005 and "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2006). In a seeming contradiction, Abdurakhmanov then said that if that treaty is not finalized "very soon," it will no longer be needed as Chechnya will have become "a dynamically developing republic." LF

An unidentified attacker shot Andrey Khanin, leader of the local chapter of the Terek Cossacks, three times in the head as he was leaving a gym in his hometown of Novoaleksandrovsk in Stavropol Krai late on February 13, reported the following day. Mikhail Serkov, leader of the Stavropol Terek Cossacks, said Khanin began receiving threats after he launched an investigation into suspected violations by a local food-processing plant of environmental legislation. LF

Opposition politicians in Armenia continue to criticize as a government ploy to muzzle them the high tariffs announced last week by private television stations for political broadcasts in the run-up to the May 12 parliamentary election, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2007). Even parliament Deputy Rafik Petrosian from the majority Republican Party of Armenia parliament faction described the tariffs, which range from 80,000 drams to 130,000 drams ($365) for one minute of airtime, as "very high," and suggested they should be lowered. Meanwhile, the main Yerevan-based private television companies have rejected opposition allegations that they acted at the behest of the Armenian authorities in setting tariffs so high that the opposition would not be able to afford them. Of Armenia's 29 local television stations, 18 have decided not to air any election campaign-related advertising. LF

Ombudsman Elmira Suleymanova has visited former Economic Development Minister Farhad Aliyev and former Health Minister Ali Insanov in the Security Ministry pretrial detention center where they have been held since their separate arrest in October 2005, and reported on February 14. Both men have been rejected the charges against them of plotting to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership, and both have complained of a serious deterioration in their health (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 4, 11, and 31, March 15, April 27, and December 1, 2006 ). According to Suleymanova's office, neither complained about the conditions in which they are being held or claimed to have been subjected to mistreatment or violence. LF

The Georgian government has taken a "political decision" to raise in the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights Russia's mass deportation last fall of Georgian citizens from the Russian Federation, Georgian parliamentarian Nika Gvaramia said on February 13, Caucasus Press reported. One week earlier, on February 6, Caucasus Press quoted Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze as telling the daily "Rezonansi" that "we will file a law suit if we are confident that we shall win the case," implying that the government had not yet taken the decision to do so. Kavtaradze said on February 13 that his ministry has already questioned 450 deportees. Also on February 13, Zurab Pataradze, who is Georgian consul-general in Russia, told the Georgian parliament that harassment of and pressure on Georgians resident in Russia has eased somewhat since last year, Caucasus Press reported. LF

The Georgian delegation to UN-mediated talks currently under way in Geneva on resolving the Abkhaz conflict has unveiled a new package of proposals aimed at confidence building and restoring peace and security in the Abkhaz conflict zone and at resuming peace talks, Caucasus Press reported on February 14 quoting the office of the Minister of State for Conflict Resolution. The details of those proposals have not been made public. Direct talks between the two sides were suspended last summer following the Georgian incursion into the Kodori Gorge, and Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, said on February 11 that Abkhazia will not return to the negotiating table until the Georgian authorities release two Abkhaz officials abducted over the past two months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2007). LF

Aslan Musin, deputy prime minister and ministry of economy and budget planning, told an expanded session of the Kazakh cabinet on February 13 that he is concerned about the state of the country's fast-growing economy, Kazinform reported. "Every year, budget expenditures are growing," Musin said. "The population has significant funds that don't go toward financing projects or modernizing the economy, but mainly go to inflating the 'bubble' on the real-estate market." DK

The Kyrgyz newspaper "Agym" published Interior Ministry information on February 13 indicating that 20 organized-crime groups are active in Kyrgyzstan, reported. One Bishkek-based group has a core membership of 25 people but can mobilize 200 armed men if necessary, the newspaper claimed. The report noted that some groups control substantial business holdings and have powerful protectors among the country's political elite. DK

Kyrgyz Finance Minister Akylbek Japarov announced on February 13 that Kyrgyzstan receives $17.4 million from the United States annually for the rent of a U.S. air base outside Bishkek, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and the news agency reported. Japarov told parliament that until 2006, Kyrgyzstan did not receive any money from the United States for the lease of the base. President Kurmanbek Bakiev said before mid-2006 negotiations with the United States that Kyrgyzstan would like to receive $200 million for the facility (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2006). DK

Aigul Ryskulova, head of the Committee on Migration and Employment, told a news conference in Bishkek on February 13 that the situation on Kyrgyzstan's job market "has been officially recognized as a crisis," reported. According to the Internet newspaper "Tazar," an officially sponsored study in 2006 found that the unemployment rate is 16.8 percent, or 9.8 percent of the economically active population. The study found that 424,400 employable Kyrgyz citizens are looking for work. The study also determined that the outflux of labor migrants in 1990-2006 was 547,000, with 60 percent of whom were from Bishkek or Chuy province. DK

Tohirjon Rahmatov, a senior officer with Tajikistan's National Security Committee, was one of the three people arrested in connection with a massive drug bust on February 11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2007), RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported on February 13. The report said that Rahmatov was part of a drug ring that was smashed by the country's Interior Ministry. A criminal case has been opened and an investigation is in progress. DK

Murad Karriev, head of Turkmenistan's Central Election Commission, announced on February 14 that acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov won the country's February 11 presidential election with 89.23 percent of the vote, reported. None of the five other candidates garnered more than 4 percent of the vote. Berdymukhammedov was sworn in the same day at a session of the People's Council, AP reported. Turkmen television claimed that the inauguration was attended by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. After the inauguration, members of the cabinet tendered their resignations, although Berdymukhammedov said that they will stay on as acting ministers until the formation of a new cabinet, Altyn Asyr television reported. DK

Although he promised to "dedicate myself to the legacy" of the late President Saparmurat Niyazov, Berdymukhammedov pledged in his inauguration speech to the People's Council to carry out reforms he discussed before the election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 5, 2007), AP reported. Berdymukhammedov promised to extend access to the Internet to Turkmen citizens, develop private business, and improve health care. He also said that he will extend grade-school education to 10 years from the current nine, RIA Novosti reported. DK

Alyaksandr Lukashenka said in Minsk on February 13 that Belarus is ready for mutually beneficial cooperation with Europe, Belapan reported, quoting official sources. Lukashenka was receiving credentials from a group of new foreign ambassadors, including several from EU countries. While accepting credentials from the French ambassador, the Belarusian president noted that the two countries share many approaches to pressing international issues. "Belarus's interest in stepping up relations with the French Republic is, above all, based on its significant role in Europe's political and economic life," Lukashenka added. While speaking to the new ambassador of Spain, Lukashenka suggested that the two countries should concentrate their efforts on developing and diversifying bilateral trade and organizing an exchange of business delegations on a regular basis. "Spain's growing role in European and world organizations, the level of economic development it has achieved, are major preconditions for stepping up Belarusian-Spanish relations," Lukashenka said. JM

Lithuanian President Valdas Adamkus told journalists in Washington, D.C., on February 13 that Lithuania has offered Belarus help in finding alternative sources and routes of energy supplies, BNS and dpa reported. Adamkus said Belarus can use Lithuania's Klaipeda oil terminal and railways to ship oil from Venezuela, Norway, or elsewhere. "Belarus is affected as much as Ukraine by the manipulations of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. This is not aimed at supporting the [ruling] regime but rather responding to the needs of the Belarusian people," Adamkus noted. The Lithuanian president added that he discussed such an oil-supply possibility for Belarus during his meetings with U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman. JM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko attended the inauguration ceremony of Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov as Turkmenistan's new president in Ashgabat on February 14, Interfax-Ukraine reported. According to Yushchenko's press service, during talks after the inauguration, the two leaders agreed that Turkmenistan will remain Ukraine's strategic gas provider. Ukraine is to import at least 55 billion cubic meters of gas from Central Asia in 2007, mostly from Turkmenistan, at a price of $130 per 1,000 cubic meters. JM

Serbia's parliament will on February 14 meet for the first time since inconclusive elections on January 21. The key item on the agenda will be a vote on a government-drafted resolution critical of a UN proposal on the future of the UN-administered province of Kosova. A draft of the resolution reprinted by local media rejects all aspects of the plan that "violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Serbia as an internationally recognized state," and says that the UN proposal "illegally [lays] the foundations for the creation of an independent state on the territory of Serbia." Passage of the resolution would also renew the mandate of Serbia's negotiating team, which is to attend talks in Vienna on February 21. A belief that this may be Serbia's last chance to insert changes to the plan is adding to the sense of urgency. Serbia is still trying to form a coalition government, and while almost all of the many political parties are united in opposing the UN's plan, there are differences over how hard a stance should be taken. Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has urged ties to be restricted with any country that recognizes Kosova as independent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2007). Concern over the direction of the next government and Serbia's stance on Kosova has led to a number of high-level meetings between EU and Serbian officials, during which there have been indications that the EU may resume preaccession talks if Serbia agrees on a reform-minded, pro-Europe government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 8 and 13, 2007). Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Draskovic on February 12 stressed the importance of Kosova in forging Serbian attitudes to the EU. In comments reported by the Italian news agency AKI on February 13, Draskovic said, "every country has a point beneath which its dignity can't sink," adding that "if a nation is humiliated, it is difficult to expect Euro-enthusiasm." A poll published in the Serbian newspaper "Blic" on February 10 found that 56 percent of Serbs would support the "partition of Kosovo," with the Serb-dominated north being incorporated into Serbia and the remainder of the predominantly ethnic Albanian province being granted limited sovereignty. The strongest support for partition was among moderates. The poll also found that 55 percent opposed risking international isolation by adopting a hard-line stance. AG

Prime Minister Agim Ceku told reporters on February 13 that the police used "excessive force" to quell unrest at a February 10 protest against the UN's plan for the region. Ceku said that "the fact that two citizens died is sufficient proof that police might have used excessive force," Radio Television Kosovo reported. The violence, which is now the subject of an investigation, triggered the resignation on February 12 of Interior Minister Fatmir Rexhepi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2007). The government previously said the UN-led police force responded appropriately to an attempt by supporters of the radical Self-Determination (Vetevendosja) movement to breach a police cordon around government buildings in the provincial capital, Prishtina. The police acknowledged for the first time on February 13 that rubber bullets were fired. The two victims died of wounds to the head, the deputy head of the UN Interim Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), Steven Schook, said. Around 80 people were injured in the clash. Schook expressed support for the region's police commissioner, Stephen Curtis, saying he is "doing a great job." A judge in Prishtina on February 13 ordered the organizer of the protest, Albin Kurti, to be detained for 30 days, local media reported on February 14. AG

UNMIK deputy head Schook added that foreigners were involved in the violence. "I am deeply disturbed by some of the recruitment outside Kosovo to participate in this demonstration," Reuters quoted him as saying on February 13. "I don't want to mention the countries right now. We think there are more than one. We had customs checking the buses coming in and this is part of the investigation." Kosovar politicians warned before the demonstration that violence could hold back Kosova's ambitions for independence, a view repeated since February 10 by Prime Minister Ceku and the leader of the opposition, Hashim Thaci. That message was reiterated by Schook, who said: "This is not the time for violent demonstrations against democratic principles. The Unity Team [Kosova's negotiators at talks on the province's future] has spoken, the government has spoken, and we are going down a path." Schook met on February 13 with Ceku and Thaci to discuss how to limit the fallout from the clashes and prevent further violence. AG

A judge in Belgrade has ordered the arrest of a former commander of an elite Serbian police unit linked to war crimes in Kosova, AP reported on February 13. The judge, Vesko Krsajic, said on February 13 that Goran Radosavljevic, also known by his wartime name Guri, failed to show up at the trial of two former Serbian soldiers charged with the execution of three Albanian-American brothers who fought as volunteers with ethnic Albanian separatists. AP said it is unclear whether Radosavljevic was wanted as a suspect or as a witness. Radosavljevic is believed to have fled Serbia in 2006. During the court's February 12 session, a brother of the slain Americans, Fatos Bytyqi, claimed Radisavljevic knew that the brothers were U.S. citizens before they were executed. Radosavljevic went on to become a colonel general and is credited with playing a critical role in preventing bloodshed when opposition supporters ousted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in October 2000. AG

The possibility of a third party boycotting the Macedonian parliament appears to have been averted after a small party in the governing coalition withdrew a proposal to impose time limits on contributions to parliamentary debates. The Makfax news agency quoted Liljana Popovska, the leader of Democratic Renewal of Macedonia, as saying on February 12 that she listened to the voice of reason in shelving the proposal. The dispute had deepened deep-running tensions between the leading opposition party, the Social Democratic Union (SDSM), and the government. It also threatened to exacerbate a political situation already complicated by a parliamentary boycott by two ethnic Albanian parties (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2007). EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn on February 8 expressed concern at the "constant political tensions in Macedonia," echoing disappointment in Brussels that the pace of change in Macedonia has slackened (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1 and 9, 2007). Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski is currently on a two-day trip to Brussels, the latest in a string of high-level contacts between EU officials and Macedonian leaders in recent weeks. AG

Former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati, a foreign affairs adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was in Moscow on February 8-9 for talks on Iran's controversial nuclear program. Iran considers Russia a partner in international affairs and for its nuclear activities, which it is under international pressure to curb until Western powers are assured that they are not a front for bomb-making activities.

Furthermore, Russian President Vladimir Putin reportedly favors a recent proposal by International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director-General Muhammad el-Baradei for a "time out" that would allow for a simultaneous freeze of UN sanctions and uranium-enrichment activity by Iran, providing a chance for negotiations to take place.

The UN Security Council voted on December 23 to give Iran 60 days to suspend uranium-reprocessing and -enrichment activities, which could create fuel for both civilian and military use, or face economic sanctions.

Velayati's visit came on the heels of a trip to Tehran by Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov. Officially, Velayati was to give Russian officials President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's written replies to messages Ivanov conveyed from Putin to Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Khamenei, the Iranian daily "Etemad" reported on February 10.

Accompanied by Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari, Velayati met with Ivanov, Putin, and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Velayati told Iranian television on February 10 that his visit was a "strategic" response to the Ivanov visit, which he said clearly indicated Russia's desire to boost ties with Iran, Fars reported on February 11.

Putin told Velayati on February 8 that he is pleased there is "mutual dialogue at a working level" between Iran and Russia, ISNA reported.

Foreign Minister Lavrov asked that Iran show its goodwill and give a "positive response" to help resolve the nuclear dispute, AP reported. But Velayati told Iranian television on February 10 that "relations between Iran and Russia are far more active, comprehensive, and profound than [simply] dealings over the nuclear dossier." And he added that "Russia believes Iran has a right to have peaceful nuclear energy, while another group of countries -- including America -- opposes this right," Fars reported.

Velayati added that "we expect...Moscow to make every effort to prevent the approval of another [UN Security Council] resolution against Iran." He added that Iran is unhappy that Russia voted for the December 23 UN resolution but, "to be fair," Russia "diluted" the resolution's contents and worked to postpone the resolution against Iran, IRNA reported on February 11.

Velayati added that his visit was a turning point in bilateral ties, and "after this trip we witness its positive effects in Russia's and Mr. Putin's personal positions," IRNA reported. He said Putin's criticism of U.S. policies at the Munich Conference on Security Policy on February 10 and Russian "tests without fuel" at the Bushehr nuclear plant are some of the early fruits of his talks in Russia.

Iranian parliamentarian Darius Qanbari, a member of the parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said in Tehran on February 9 that Velayati is not opposed to the "time-out" offer from the IAEA, an idea also supported by Russia. "Iran is ready for a limited suspension provided there is goodwill on the other side," quoted Qanbari as saying. He welcomed Velayati's visit as part of a flexible diplomacy that he said Iran should adopt, using experienced officials such as Velayati, who served as Iranian foreign minister from 1981-97.

Iran has been using a number of different voices to express its foreign-policy positions. Velayati appears to be a new addition to the officials involved in handling Iran's nuclear dossier. They include, among others, President Ahmadinejad; Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani, who is considered the ranking nuclear negotiator; Atomic Energy Organization chief Gholamreza Aqazadeh; Alaeddin Borujerdi, the head of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee; and Foreign Ministry officials.

The use of so many different officials in dealing with the nuclear program issue has been confusing at times and has led to contradictory statements sometimes being issued. One example was when 3,000 centrifuges were reported to have been installed in the Natanz uranium-enrichment plant -- only for another official to quickly say that they had not been installed.

Velayati's trip was considered to be of such great importance that one legislator, Javad Jahangirzadeh, who is on the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, came out to say that he believes Velayati and Larijani do not have contradictory positions on the nuclear issue, reported. Jahangirzadeh emphasized that both are working toward the resumption of negotiations.

Whatever the various Iranian officials' roles on the issue, it is clear that the recent visits by top Iranian and Russian officials to each other's capitals for high-level talks have been consistently interpreted by Tehran as reflecting Moscow's support for its nuclear program.

More than 300 British troops serving with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) supported by units from the Afghan National Army on February 12 "cleared a large area" in Kajaki district in Helmand Province of Taliban militias, an ISAF press statement reported on February 13. The "clearance was part of an ongoing operation to create a safe-zone around Kajaki Hydro-Electric Dam" and to make it possible for engineers to work on the dam, which is not fully functioning, the statement said. Around 60 compounds were cleared in an area "which has been the site of regular enemy mortar attacks" since December, it added. The statement said ISAF suffered no casualties. Helmand's security commander, Nabi Mullahkhayl, claimed on February 13 that 15 Taliban fighters were killed in three days of firefights in Kajaki district, AP reported. A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- on February 13 announced that three British main battle tanks were destroyed and two vehicles were captured in heavy battles between British forces and "mujahedin of the Islamic Emirate" in Kajaki. The website reported that only four "mujahedin" were injured in the four-hour battle. Helmand Governor Asadullah Wafa claimed on February 11 that around 700 Al-Qaeda members entered his province with the aim of targeting reconstruction projects like the Kajaki Dam (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2007). AT

Rangin Dadfar Spanta, speaking in Kabul on February 13, criticized comments attributed to the office of the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) about peace talks between Afghan government officials and militants in Helmand Province, Tolo Television reported. Andrew Edwards, speaking for UNAMA, was quoted as telling reporters on February 12 that officials in Helmand have initiated negotiations with the Taliban there, adding that his office favors addressing the problems through negotiations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2007). Spanta said he is unaware of any peace talks in Helmand, adding that UNAMA does not have the authority to make such comments. UNAMA's Kabul office indicated that there was a misrepresentation of the comments by Edwards, who discussed talks between government officials in Helmand and tribal leaders, not militants. President Hamid Karzai's stated policy is that the door for reconciliation remains open to any government opponents who abandon militancy and respect the constitution. However, talks with neo-Taliban elements have failed to significantly curb the insurgency and Kabul has appeared sensitive to the topic of negotiations, particularly if they have involved parties outside the Afghan government. Earlier in February, Spanta said he was "happy" that the "suspicious" agreement between British forces operating in Helmand and locals in Musa Qala was rendered null when Taliban fighters took control of the town (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2007). AT

Pakistani Foreign Office spokeswoman Tasnim Aslam told a weekly news conference on February 12 that Islamabad has not abandoned its decision to mine part of its border with Afghanistan, Karachi daily "Dawn" reported on February 13. During a recent trip to Berlin, Pakistani Foreign Minister Khurshid Kasuri reportedly told his German hosts that Islamabad decided to drop its the mining plan out of respect for European wishes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9, 2007). Kasuri was quoted in Berlin as saying his country will go ahead with the plan to fence portions of the disputed border. Aslam responded to the quote by saying they "may just be media reports." Aslam said that the fencing program would begin in the North-West Frontier Province, followed by Baluchistan. Afghanistan has rejected the construction of any form of barrier by Pakistan along its border with Afghanistan despite its complaints that Pakistan is failing to curb cross-border militant activity. The crux of Kabul's rejection of fences or other barriers is that such measures would presumably lend legitimacy to a boundary that Afghanistan does not officially recognize. AT

Gholam Dastgir Azad, the governor of Nimroz Province in southwestern Afghanistan, claimed that Iran has erected a wall along portions of the frontier bordering Kang district, Tolo Television reported on February 13. Azad said the wall is built on Iranian territory, 500 meters from the Afghan frontier. Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Satar Ahmad Bahin said that since the "wall is erected inside the Iranian territory, it is not the Afghan business," Tolo reported. "We have nothing to do with it," Bahin added. Kabul's total rejection of any barriers on the Pakistani-Afghan border -- even if on Pakistani territory -- and its reported acceptance of barriers by Iran could present diplomatic and legalistic obstacles to Afghanistan's policy of opposing the Pakistani plan. AT

A security official from the southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province told IRNA on February 14 that "five of the terrorists and main culprits in the Zahedan bombing have been arrested" in connection with the bomb attack earlier in the day on a bus in the provincial capital that killed 18 soldiers traveling on board, news agencies reported. Initial reports suggested that motorcyclists shot at the bus as it drove along a Zahedan boulevard, forcing it to stop before a booby-trapped car exploded nearby, AFP reported. Soltan Ali Mir, director-general for security at the Sistan va Baluchistan provincial governorate, told IRNA that "two of the terrorists" were arrested immediately by locals and "agents"; they were said to have been carrying grenades and cameras. Mir said three other suspects were arrested later. Sistan va Baluchistan, bordering Pakistan, is a notorious banditry and security trouble spot. Mir told IRNA that agents separately shot dead on February 13 an "agent" of "recent insecurity in Sistan va Baluchistan and member of a terrorist group," without elaborating. Zahedan parliamentary representative Hossein Ali Shahriari told parliament on February 14 that "cold-hearted bandits and traffickers headed by global arrogance" were responsible for the bombing, ISNA reported. "Is security for the people too much to ask? Why does our foreign diplomacy not respond firmly to [Pakistan,] whose territory has become a refuge for bandits and enemies of the system?" he asked. VS

Iranian lawmakers approved on February 13 Gholam Hussein Elham as the new minister of justice, IRNA reported. Of 252 legislators in the chamber, 130 voted for him, 101 voted against, and 23 cast neutral votes, the agency reported. Elham, a former judiciary spokesman and the acting justice minister in recent weeks, now formally succeeds Jamal Karimi-Rad, who died in a car crash on December 28. IRNA stated that Elham was born in the Persian year 1959-60, has a doctorate of law from the Tarbiat-i Modarres (Teacher Training) University in Tehran, and has been the government spokesman and secretary to President Mahmud Ahmadinejad since 2005. The agency listed other positions Elham has occupied in the post-1979 Islamic government, including an ongoing membership of the Guardians Council, a body of constitutional jurists and advisory positions with the judiciary. Ahmadinejad praised Elham in parliament on February 13 as "pious, resolute, and revolutionary," and "enjoying the confidence of the three branches," ISNA reported. Some legislators objected to his remaining a member of the Guardians Council while holding a minister's post; Semnan representative Hasan Sobhani called such status unconstitutional and said it will undermine the principle of separation of powers, IRNA reported. VS

One day after stating that Iran would talk about all aspects of its contested nuclear program, including the suspension of uranium enrichment -- part of the atomic fuel-making process -- Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Husseini said in Tehran on February 13 that "the subject of suspension is not acceptable under any condition." He stressed that Iran's program is legitimate, as shown by its ongoing cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Separately, Gholamreza Aqazdeh, the head of the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization, told ISNA on February 13 that Iran's nuclear program is "stabilized" and its progress now makes it impossible for Western powers to stop it. "The only way left is interaction, and I believe the West has no choice...but to reach a political interaction with Iran, and there is no way but negotiations." Iran is ready to reassure the world over its activities, he said, "and they are obliged to recognize Iran's rights," ISNA reported. He said unity in Iran over the nuclear issue "will have a great effect on the international approach to Iran" and that Western media have failed in their attempt to convey a "message of several voices" emanating from Iran. VS

Manuchehr Mottaki discussed regional issues, including Iraq, in Tehran on February 13 with his Kuwaiti counterpart Muhammad Sabah al-Salim al-Sabah, ISNA reported. Mottaki told reporters after the meeting that "all regional countries must join hands and take measures for security in Iraq, or as Muhammad al-Sabah said, close the gates of Hell," ISNA reported. He said he and al-Sabah agreed there should be no foreign intervention in Iraq or "disconcerting religious actions in the name of Shi'a and Sunnis." Al-Sabah said, "We know Iran's efforts to establish stability and security in Iraq are sincere," ISNA reported. He said fighting between Shi'a and Sunnis "could open the gates of Hell to the entire region," adding that both Iran and the region would benefit from an end to the "plot" in Iraq. Al-Sabah said Iran's peacemaking role in the region -- "especially the role it played in Lebanon" -- show that "Iran gives importance to the region's stability." Mottaki said the two sides signed cooperation agreements on support for investors, agriculture and water-resources management, and to form a joint economic committee headed by the two states' foreign ministers, ISNA reported. VS

Purported robbers took high-tech equipment from the Tehran offices of Iran's reformist former president, Mohammad Khatami, on February 10 or 11, Radio Farda reported on February 13, citing Iranian media. The offices, located in an affluent section of northern Tehran, were the headquarters of two bodies founded by Khatami: the Baran Foundation, a social and cultural think tank, and the Dialogue of Civilizations Institute, which purports to promote international friendship. They were robbed of audiovisual equipment, all telephones, and some computers, apparently overnight on February 11-12, Radio Farda reported. February 11 was a public holiday in Tehran. "This theft took place the night before or on February 11, when no employee...was present," Radio Farda quoted the Baran public-relations office as saying. Employees reportedly entered their offices early on February 12 to find doors broken and documents scattered on the floor. Khatami initially had the institutes' offices inside the Saadabad compound in northern Tehran -- a private park and former summer residence of several monarchs and princes -- but President Ahmadinejad's government obliged him to relocate, Radio Farda reported. VS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki issued a statement to the media on February 13 detailing new aspects of the Baghdad security plan, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. The statement was read to the media by Lieutenant General Abbud Qanbar Hashim, commander of Baghdad operations. The announcement said that Iraq's border crossings with Syria and four crossings with Iran will be closed for 72 hours; the Al-Shib border crossing with Iran will be partially opened after one week and completely opened within 60 days. All other border crossings are closed until further notice. Qanbar will oversee Defense and Interior ministry forces operating in 10 areas of the capital. The statement detailed special powers granted to Qanbar under the security plan. The commander will report directly to al-Maliki, who chairs the so-called crisis cell. KR

Prime Minister al-Maliki's statement noted that anyone caught violating the orders detailed in the statement will face the harshest punishment under the law. Among the orders is a provision banning civilians, including current permit holders, from carrying weapons on the street. The statement said an 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew will soon be enforced. Al-Maliki also ordered anyone occupying homes of displaced people to vacate the premises within 15 days or prove they have permission to be there. Committees will be established to verify property documents to ensure their authenticity. The statement also noted that vehicles with tinted windows will be confiscated and legal action will be taken against anyone keeping government vehicles at home without permission. KR

The Al-Qaeda-affiliated group Islamic State of Iraq posted a statement to several jihadist websites on February 13 asking media organizations to stop referring to it as "Al-Qaeda in Iraq" and instead to use the group's official name. "The Islamic State has made it clear on more than one occasion that the brothers of the former 'Al-Qaeda Organization in Iraq' have become part of the State's army, which is formed from dozens of brigades and thousands of fighters from other jihad groups," the statement said. The group identified other jihadist groups that have joined the Islamic State as: brigades of the Islamic Army in Iraq, the Mujahedin Army, the Al-Fatihin Army, the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, the 1920 Revolution Brigades, and the Jihadist Leagues, in addition to the groups that belonged to the Mujahedin Shura Council. The council, headed by now-deceased Al-Qaeda leader Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, announced it was changing its name to the Islamic State of Iraq in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006). KR

U.S. government sources contend that Iraqi Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has fled Iraq for Iran, Western media reported on February 14. Officials speculated that al-Sadr left fearing he would be targeted during the Baghdad security plan -- an unlikely theory, since he is based in Al-Najaf. A second theory proffered is that al-Sadr fled to escape conflict from within his militia. London-based "Al-Hayat" first reported the apparent disappearance of the cleric on February 7, saying the talk on the street in Al-Najaf is that al-Sadr fled to Iran. Militia leaders told "Al-Hayat" they expect most of their Baghdad-based leadership to be arrested or liquidated under the Baghdad plan. A pro-Ba'athist website posted on February 1 what it claimed is a January-dated letter from Prime Minister al-Maliki's office proposing that high-level members of al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army should hide in Iran. Meanwhile, al-Sadr aides continue to deny the cleric has fled, and insist that he remains in Iraq. KR