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Newsline - February 28, 2007

Hamas leader Khalid Mish'al and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov concluded talks in Moscow on February 27 without any apparent modification in the Palestinian group's hard-line attitude toward Israel, Russian and international media reported. Lavrov said he supports lifting an international aid embargo against the Palestinian Authority, which is Russia's long-standing position. But Mish'al said Hamas is not prepared to recognize Israel -- a condition of Israel, the United States, and the EU for lifting the embargo. The Quartet for Middle East peace (Russia, the United States, the EU, and the UN) says the Palestinian government must also renounce violence and adhere to previous peace agreements. Mish'al nonetheless gave Lavrov assurances that his fighters will halt missile attacks and other acts of violence against Israel. Lavrov said that "Israel must refrain from the use of force on the Palestinians' territory and...Hamas must use all the authority it stop the firing of...missiles at Israel. We have received confirmation [from Hamas] that such steps will be taken." In Jerusalem on February 27, a spokeswoman for Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert criticized Lavrov's position on lifting sanctions as being neither "the international community's stand nor the Quartet's stand." Russia believes that the international community should negotiate with Hamas because it won the January 2006 elections and hence is a legitimate political force in the region. A Hamas delegation visited Moscow in March of that year but did not show signs of willingness to revise that group's hard-line stance toward Israel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 8, and 15, and April 19, 2006, and January 31, 2007). PM

The Finnish Environment Ministry announced on February 27 that it wants the consortium behind the projected Russo-German Nord Stream gas pipeline connecting those two countries via the Baltic Sea to provide more details of its plans and their possible environmental impact, dpa reported. Finland wants an assessment of the "methods employed to level the seabed in the Gulf of Finland" where the pipeline would pass Finland, and further information as to why the current route was chosen over possible alternatives. The Finnish authorities want to know how the consortium plans to deal with munitions and chemical weapons lying on the seabed along the proposed route. Poland and the Baltic states oppose the project on political and economic grounds. Sweden is against it for environmental reasons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24 and December 20, 2006, and January 9, and February 8 and 15, 2007). PM

U.S. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell told a U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on February 27 that "the march to democracy has taken a back step in Russia," news agencies reported. He added that Russia's political course has become "less of a democratic process" than Washington previously assumed was the case, including the succession to President Vladimir Putin, whose current term expires in 2008 and who is constitutionally barred from seeking a third one. McConnell noted that "those that [Putin] is listening to are extremely conservative and very suspicious of the United States. [They] interpret things through a lens that portrays Russia as the downtrodden, or [that indicates that] we're trying to hold them back to the advantage of the United States." Commenting in Moscow on February 28 on the hearing, Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, noted that one of the American participants said that Putin is scheduled to leave office in 2007, RIA Novosti reported. Kosachyov argued that such a mistake shows how poorly informed U.S. policymakers are regarding Russian affairs. PM

The A Just Russia party held its founding congress in St. Petersburg on February 26, the daily "Vedomosti" reported on February 27. The paper reported that "the congress bore a strong resemblance to similar events in the Soviet era. President Putin sent his congratulations. [Party leader and Federation Council Speaker Sergei] Mironov personally read the message aloud, and the congress responded with an ovation. Mironov delivered a speech, solemnly promising to defend the workers and fight 'big capital.' He explained the 'main sensation' of the congress to journalists afterwards: 'A Just Russia will only promote socialist values and ideas.'" Political scientist Yury Korgunyuk told the daily that A Just Russia is "a pale shadow of the [openly pro-Kremlin] Unified Russia [party], which is itself a pale shadow" of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. A Just Russia was founded in October 2006 through a merger of Motherland (Rodina), the Russian Party of Pensioners, and the Russian Party of Life. It claims to have 376,000 members, 81 regional branches, and plans to field candidates in all 14 regional legislative elections on March 11. The party is widely seen a "manufactured opposition" set up by the Kremlin to attract left-of-center voters (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30 and November 15, 2006). PM

The court in Vladivostok's Leninsky Raion decided on February 28 to "temporarily" relieve of his duties Vladivostok Mayor Vladimir Nikolayev, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2007). On February 27, prosecutors charged him with abuse of office in connection with a land-sale scandal. Nikolayev was on a business trip at the time of the hearing and was represented by his attorney. He calls the charges politically motivated. PM

Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner Thomas Hammarberg told acting pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov during talks in Grozny on February 27 that during a visit earlier that day to a detention center, numerous detainees complained to him that they have been mistreated or tortured, and the daily "Kommersant" reported on February 27 and 28 respectively. Hammarberg concluded that the use of torture is not confined to "isolated cases" but constitutes "a complete system." Kadyrov for his part professed to be likewise concerned at the use of torture, which he blamed on the Russian Interior Ministry forces deployed in Chechnya. Nurdin Nurkhadjiyev, who is human rights commissioner within the pro-Moscow Chechen administration, asked Hammarberg to raise with the Russian leadership the responsibility of Russian forces for such abuses. Meanwhile, several prominent Chechen and Ingush human rights activists told on February 27 that they have not been invited to meet with Hammarberg during his visit to Grozny. LF

Testifying on February 27 to the North Caucasus Military Court, Eduard Ulman said he received explicit telephone orders from a superior officer, Major Aleksei Perelevsky, in January 2002 to execute five Chechen civilians detained in the village of Day in Shatoi Raion during an operation to apprehend Chechen field commander Khattab, reported. Ulman's men opened fire on the car in which six Chechens were traveling, killing one of them, and on his command subsequently shot the other five in cold blood and burned their bodies and the vehicle. Juries acquitted Ulman, Perelevsky, and two other officers in April 2004 and May 2005, but the Russian Federation Supreme Court overturned both acquittals, and in April 2006 the Russian Federation Constitutional Court ruled on the basis of a formal request from then pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Alu Alkhanov that a jury trial is inappropriate in cases involving war crimes committed in Chechnya (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 20 and 23 and June 17, 2005, and November 14, 2006). LF

The talks among prominent Armenian opposition parties on forming an alliance to participate in the May 12 parliamentary ballot have not yet yielded an agreement, but the differences between the participants are "tactical" rather than ideological, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on February 27, quoting Suren Sureniants, a leading member of former Prime Minister Aram Sargsyan's Hanrapetutiun party. Hanrapetutiun is consulting with the National Democratic Union (AZhM) headed by Vazgen Manukian (also a former premier), the Zharangutiun party headed by Raffi Hovannisian, who served as foreign minister in 1992-93 under President Levon Ter-Petrossian, and Ter-Petrossian's Armenian Pan-National Movement on forming an election bloc (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," January 12, 2007 and "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2007). Two leading members of Stepan Demirchian's People's Party of Armenia (HZhK) said in parliament on February 27 that the HZhK will run separately in the ballot, as did Democratic Party of Armenia leader Aram Sarkisian, Noyan Tapan reported. Earlier reports indicated that the HZhK too might align with Hanrapetutiun, the AZhM, and Zharangutiun. LF

Former Health Minister Ali Insanov pleaded not guilty on February 27 to charges of embezzlement, accepting bribes and abuse of his official position,, and reported. The trial of Insanov and 10 other former ministry employees opened on February 15 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2007). Insanov on February 27 branded the proceedings "Stalinist" and said the charges against him were fabricated by fellow members of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party of which he was one of the original founders. As on February 22, on February 27 journalists from independent and opposition media outlets were not allowed into the courtroom. LF

Following talks on February 27 with visiting Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso described as "impressive" the reforms implemented in Georgia over the past three years, RFE/RL's Brussels correspondent reported. Barroso said the EU will continue to support Georgia, but at the same time he made clear that cooperation will be limited to the framework of the EU's European Neighborhood Policy. Saakashvili also met on February 27 with EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs and with NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer. De Hoop Scheffer too praised Georgia's reforms, adding, however, that "there are also still points of concern." He repeatedly declined to make any predictions about when Georgia might qualify for a NATO Membership Action Plan, the final stage before a formal invitation is issued to join the Alliance. Saakashvili, who construed very cautiously phrased comments made by de Hoop Scheffer at the Munich security conference on February 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2007) as a cast-iron promise of NATO membership by 2009, said on February 27 Georgia "is on track" for NATO accession. LF

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an extended interview published in "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on February 21 and 28 that "we have warned Georgia, and those...who actively encourage Georgia to join NATO, that we shall not permit this." Lavrov said that in addition to the crucial need to preserve stability in the South Caucasus, Russia is motivated by its "responsibility" for the tens of thousands of residents of the unrecognized republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia who have acquired Russian citizenship. He denied that the distribution of Russian passports in those unrecognized republics is part of a broader campaign to undermine Georgian sovereignty, arguing that after the conflicts in those republics were "frozen," the regions in question remained outside the Georgian judicial system. Their citizens, deprived of social support from Tbilisi, then appealed to Russia for help, Lavrov explained. He further claimed that Romania, now an EU member, is similarly distributing passports to citizens of Moldova. Lavrov said the return last month to Tbilisi of Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko was a response to unspecified "changes" in the approach of the Georgian leadership. He added that any further improvement in bilateral relations will be contingent on Georgia's future steps with regard to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, specifically, on the signing of protocols on the nonresumption of hostilities. Lavrov described Georgia's refusal over the past year to sign such pledges as inexcusable. LF

Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov met with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Astana on February 27 to discuss oil and gas cooperation, Kazinform and Interfax reported. Mammadyarov told journalists after the meeting that the two discussed Kazakhstan's interest in the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas pipeline, Kazinform reported. "Azerbaijan is launching the Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum gas pipeline this year from a field on the Caspian Sea," Mammadyarov said. "The Kazakh side is also interested in this pipeline." Mammadyarov said that the two countries are currently discussing the technical details of shipping Kazakh gas through the pipeline because "there are many questions in the area of tariffs, customs duties, and the establishment of technical parameters." DK

Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov signed decrees on February 27 appointing the governors of two provinces, Tajik Television reported. Rakhmonov appointed Ghaybullo Afzalov governor of the country's southern Khatlon Province, and Abduqohir Nozirov governor of the northern Soghd Province. DK

Tajikistan limited the supply of electricity to households and organizations in the capital of Dushanbe to 17 hours a day starting on February 26, ITAR-TASS reported. The limitations, which were brought about by a drop in power generation at the Norak power station because of low water levels in the station's reservoir, will remain in effect until mid-March. The report noted that the country's other regions receive only four to six hours of electricity a day from October to March. DK

Ovezgeldy Ataev, a former speaker of Turkmenistan's parliament, has received a five-year prison term in a closed trial, reported on February 27. Ataev was reportedly convicted of driving his fiancee to commit suicide for reasons of "tribal animosity." Ataev had been next in line to succeed former President Saparmurat Niyazov when the latter died suddenly in December, but Ataev was sidelined, paving the way for the appointment of acting President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov, when a criminal case was opened against him (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 22, 2006). DK

An international group of intellectuals has appealed to Uzbek President Islam Karimov for the release of jailed rights activists Umida Niyazova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30 and 31, 2007), Mutabar Tojiboeva (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 2006), and Gulbahor Turaeva, reported on February 27. Noting that "the decision that the country's executive, legislative, and judicial organs will make depends on your word," the signatories called on Karimov "to use your power and influence for humanitarian purposes." The appeal stressed that the International Red Cross has been denied access to the three women and that they are reportedly under "psychological and physical pressure" in detention. Signatories included Russian writer Andrei Bitov, French philosopher Andre Glucksmann, German songwriter Wolf Biermann, and Russian rights activist Sergei Kovalev. DK

Aleksei Kanurin, an activist of Russia's ultra-right Movement Against Illegal Immigration, has recently inaugurated a campaign called "Lukashenka-2008" to propose Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka as a candidate for Russia's 2008 presidential election and launched a special website to promote this idea, Russian and Belarusian media reported on February 27. Kanurin said in an interview published on the website that Lukashenka has not been consulted about the campaign. "We do not need [such a consultation], our task is to create the situation in which people, including Alyaksandr Ryhoravich [Lukashenka], will have a choice," Kanurin added. Asked how Lukashenka, who does not have Russian citizenship, could be allowed to run in the 2008 presidential election in Russia, Kanurin said it is a "technical issue." "Representatives of this movement have not yet contacted the president's press office to talk about their initiative or their priorities and goals. That is why I personally do not have a firm opinion about this initiative," Lukashenka's spokesman, Pavel Lohki, told Belapan on February 27. JM

The U.S. administration on February 27 imposed financial sanctions on another six Belarusian government officials for what it sees as their role in rigging the 2006 presidential election in Belarus, Reuters and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The executive order, announced by the U.S. Treasury Department, prohibits Americans from doing business with the six officials and freezes their assets under U.S. jurisdiction. "Those who commit human rights abuses and political repression have no place in civil society. We will continue to target Belarusian officials who abuse their positions to steal from their people and to suppress democracy and freedom," Reuters quoted Adam Szubin, director of the U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, as saying. The six officials targeted by the sanctions include Prosecutor-General Pyotr Miklashevich, Education Minister Alyaksandr Radzkou, and Information Minister Uladzimir Rusakevich. Washington imposed similar sanctions on 10 Belarusian government officials, including President Lukashenka, in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, 2006). JM

Viktor Yanukovych said in an interview with the German business daily "Handelsblatt" on February 27 that the United States should have consulted Ukraine and Russia over its plans to establish a missile-defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. The interview appeared on the eve of Yanukovych's official visit to Berlin. "The deployment issue should have been discussed with everyone in advance, including Russia and Ukraine. Only after there has been a comprehensive European discussion, a dialogue between East and West Europe, should a decision be taken. Europe should not be divided again like it was before the Iraq war," the German daily quoted Yanukovych as saying. Yanukovych also said that the involvement of Poland in the U.S. missile-defense plan "did not help bilateral relations." In what appeared to be an indirect reference to Yanukovych's interview, President Viktor Yushchenko said the same day that individual countries have the sovereign right to make decisions on the deployment of the U.S. missile-defense system, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. "Therefore, the Ukrainian authorities should not make comments on this issue in an easy-going way," Yushchenko added. JM

A rally organized in Belgrade to protest against the UN's blueprint for Kosova attracted 15,000 Serbs, international and local media reported on the day of the rally, February 27. The location of the rally -- outside the U.S. Embassy -- underscored a common belief in Serbia that the plan is being driven by Western powers, while banners urging "Russia, Use Your Vote" highlighted the opinion that the fate of the plan rests with Moscow, which could use its veto when the proposed settlement is presented to the UN Security Council in late March or April. Russia has stated that it opposes any imposed solution, but has not said that it will use its veto (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 12, and 22, 2007). Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on February 27 reiterated Moscow's concerns. "Frankly, we are worried at the absence of any desire to meet the legitimate concerns of Belgrade," news agencies quoted him as saying. The rally was also attended by Kosovar Serbs. Belgrade gave Serbian civil servants in the province a day off and schools were closed to enable those who wanted to do so to attend the rally. The demonstration was supported by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica and by Serbia's most popular party, the nationalist Serbian Radical Party (SRS). According to the Belgrade broadcaster B92, the SRS on February 24 called for Serbia to withdraw from the UN if the Security Council supports the plan, whose author, Martti Ahtisaari, is currently holding consultations with representatives from Belgrade and Prishtina. The demonstrators delivered a letter of protest to U.S. Ambassador Michael Polt. AG

General Roland Kather, the commander of NATO-led peacekeepers in Kosova (KFOR), said on February 27 that he is convinced that the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK) was not responsible for a February 20 explosion in Prishtina that targeted UN vehicles, the online news service KosovaLive reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, 2007). A group calling itself the UCK claimed responsibility for the attack, but the original UCK, an ethnic Albanian guerrilla group, was disbanded in 1999 under NATO supervision following NATO's successful intervention to end a Serbian crackdown in the province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2007). Kather was speaking in Pecs, scene of an explosion that on February 26 damaged vehicles belonging to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). However, the agency report does not indicate whether Kather commented on the Pecs incident (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2007). AG

The international community decided on February 27 to extend the mandate of its representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina by a year, news agencies reported the same day. The decision by Bosnia's Peace Implementation Council (PIC) extends the mandate to July 2008. The current high representative, Christian Schwarz-Schilling, said the reason was concern about Bosnia's political stability and the possible local impact of the pending decision on the future of Kosova, agencies reported. The Office of the High Representative (OHR) was established in 1995 to oversee Bosnia's efforts to rebuild itself in the wake of the 1992-95 war and was supposed to close its doors this June. The PIC did not alter the powers of the high representative, who, under powers conferred in 1997, can sack officials and impose legislation. Nor did it name a new high representative to replace Schwarz-Schilling, who announced in late January that he will step down in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31, 2007). The PIC includes EU, Balkan, Middle Eastern, and North American states, as well as Russia, which Schwarz-Schilling said opposed the extension. The decision received a mixed response from Bosnian politicians. Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of the Serbian autonomous region, said on a February 27 talk show on Republika Srpska Radio-Television that "it is no longer possible to impose any kind of solutions in Bosnia-Herzegovina" and that "the Dayton agreement [which ended the war] is being implemented significantly, with the exception of arrests of war crimes suspects." Bosnian Prime Minister Nikola Spiric said he does not object to the mandate being extended, but warned it could limit local politicians' incentive to compromise, Reuters reported on February 27. However, the head of the country's three-member presidency, Nebojsa Radmanovic, told the Bosnian Serb news agency SRNA on February 27 that the other two members of the presidency, Haris Silajdzic and Zeljko Komsic, supported the extension. Radmanovic said, "my position is the complete opposite, which is that the OHR and the international community have helped a great deal in the past 11 years, but the time has come for the OHR to leave Bosnia-Herzegovina at this time and juncture." AG

EU foreign ministers on February 27 agreed to slash the EU military force in Bosnia from 6,000 to 2,500, news agencies reported. The cut was agreed in December, but a final decision was delayed due to fears of renewed violence in nearby Kosova, whose final status is currently being discussed. The cuts will be phased in by June. The EU force (EUFOR) took over peacekeeping responsibilities from NATO in 2004. At its peak, after the Dayton accords that ended the 1992-95 war, the NATO force numbered 60,000. EUFOR's mandate from the UN ends in November. AP reported that EUFOR troops will be concentrated in the capital, Sarajevo, but will maintain monitoring posts across the country and a rapid-reaction force. Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dodik told Republika Srpska Radio-Television on February 27 that "the European Commission's decision to withdraw part of the EU forces from Bosnia-Herzegovina shows that they believe that the situation here is stable." AG

Up to 10,000 Bosnians on February 27 held a rally in central Sarajevo to protest against a February 26 ruling by the UN's highest court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), that cleared Serbia of genocide charges in connection with Belgrade's support for Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26 and 27, 2007). Bosnia-Herzegovina public radio reported that the organizers submitted demands by more than 20 organizations representing the victims of the war. The demands included a call for outlawing denial that genocide was committed during the war. The demonstrators were reportedly chiefly war veterans, former camp inmates, and civilian victims. In Croatia, parliament speaker Vladimir Seks said on February 26 that he is "very disappointed," telling Croatian television that "not only that justice has not been executed, but injustice has been served." Croatia has also filed a case against Serbia with the ICJ. Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic said it is "extremely important that it was accepted that there was no basis for Montenegro to stand trial." The suit was brought against both Serbia and Montenegro, which at the time was still part of the same state as Serbia. In comments aired by Bosnia-Herzegovina Radio 1 on February 26, Vujanovic stressed that the ICJ ruled that the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica of 8,000 Bosnian Muslims constituted genocide, adding that Montenegro "has always clearly seen that as genocide." Newspapers in Slovenia agreed that the court's ruling will leave the victims unsatisfied and leaves unanswered the question of who was to blame for crimes committed in Bosnia. "Dnevnik" on February 27 called the crimes "a sin without sinners," while "Vecer" said the ruling says the crimes are "everybody's fault and nobody's." AG

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said on February 26 that government lawyers are studying the ICJ's ruling, which he described as a "a pretty complex opinion," but, in comments released by the State Department, he also said that Washington's initial reaction is to "encourage the people of the region to use this as another opportunity to proceed down the pathway of reconciliation and healing of the historical divides and some of the grievous wounds that have occurred over the past years in the region." The EU on February 26 welcomed the ICJ ruling. Javier Solana, the EU's foreign-policy chief, was quoted by as saying that "the verdict will help to close a page of history which was dramatic, painful and damaging to many people," adding that he appreciates very much that there is "no collective punishment" in the ruling. Germany, which currently holds the rotating EU Presidency, on February 26 called on Serbia "to use the judgment as a further opportunity to distance itself from the crimes by the regime of the then Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic," news agencies reported. AG

Germany's call echoes one made by the ICJ, which criticized Serbia for "failing to fully cooperate with the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and to hand over war crimes fugitives, including Ratko Mladic," the Bosnian Serbs' wartime military commander. Serbian President Boris Tadic said on 26 February that he intends to ask the Serbian parliament to adopt a declaration condemning the crimes committed in Srebrenica. Mladic was the commander of the Bosnian Serb forces that occupied Srebrenica. Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dodik on February 27 called on Mladic and his civilian commander, Radovan Karadzic, to give themselves up to the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. In comments to Republika Srpska's public television channel, Dodik said: "Who are they? Who are they for a whole nation to suffer for them, both in the Republika Srpska and in Serbia, because a certain Mladic has decided that he does not want to surrender and go to court? Or Karadzic? And then they say -- I love the Serbian people. The hell they love us. They are pushing us into ever deeper problems." In May 2006, the EU suspended preaccession talks with Serbia due to its failure to capture Mladic. However, there have recently been signs that the EU may no longer view the capture of Mladic as a precondition for the resumption of talks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9 and 13, 2007). AG


The government of Pakistan has granted a six-week repatriation period for Afghan refugees currently residing in Pakistan, the Associated Press of Pakistan reported on February 27. Afghans who did not register with the Pakistani government will be able to return to Afghanistan with UN financial assistance from March 1 to April 15. UN spokesman Adrian Edwards has called insecurity and unemployment the main barriers to repatriation of Afghan refugees from neighboring countries, Bakhtar News Agency reported on February 27. The 12th tripartite meeting between Afghanistan, Iran, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) began on February 27. The UNHCR estimated that 4.8 million Afghans have returned to the country since 2002, but that 3.5 million Afghan refugees remain in Iran and Pakistan alone. A UN report concludes that 1.4 million Afghan refugees have returned from Iran since 2002, with 920,000 registered refugees still living there. UN aid is available for Afghan citizens who voluntarily return, and those who do not return by April 15 will be subject to the laws of their new host country. CJ

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recently proposed a plan to improve security along Afghanistan's borders with Iran and Pakistan, IRNA reported on February 27. UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa outlined the plan to Pakistan's ministers of the interior and counternarcotics during a recent visit to Islamabad, indicating that "drug traffickers cooperate better than the regional governments." Costa stressed that Afghanistan's neighbors "have a vested interest in stopping the flow of drugs," and he noted that Iran has taken important steps to prevent drug trafficking. The security plan calls for patrols on both sides of Afghanistan's border, joint training exercises between security forces, the creation of border liaison offices, and improved radio-communication systems. The plan stresses the need for improved freight-container security and efforts to intercept the transporation of chemicals used in the production of heroin. Costa emphasized the importance of better information sharing among states, saying that "this is a regional problem that requires a regional solution with the support of all those who have a stake in controlling drugs and preventing instability." Afghan, Pakistani, and Iranian representatives have been invited to further discuss the plan at a meeting on March 1. CJ

Private militias in the relatively quiet northern regions of Afghanistan continue to arm themselves despite continued government efforts at disarmament, AP reported on February 27. Residents there reportedly cite the need to protect themselves due to widespread criminal activity and a general distrust of police. International organizations have sought since the ouster of the Taliban regime to promote disarmament of militias in northern Afghanistan, many of whose members are from the United Front (aka Northern Alliance). Recent UN-Afghan efforts to continue disarming those groups has faltered, with an estimated 2,000 illegal armed groups still active across the country. Western officials say arms dealers are purchasing weapons in the north and smuggling them to the south, where Taliban insurgents are most active. CJ

A suicide bombing at the gates to the Bagram Air Base on February 27 killed at least 14 people and coincided with a visit by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, RFE/RL's Afghan Service and news agencies reported. News agencies quoted a purported Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, as saying that the Taliban carried out the attack; another purported Taliban spokesman, Mullah Hayat Khan, claimed that the bomber knew Cheney was visiting the airfield and sought to target him. Cheney arrived at Bagram on February 26 for a meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai to discuss the anticipated Taliban spring offensive. Heavy snow postponed that meeting, which took place on February 27 despite the bombing. Cheney held a similar meeting with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad on February 26. Kabul and Islamabad have long argued over who is responsible for securing the region around their common border. U.S. President George w. Bush has announced an increase of 3,200 troops to Afghanistan and requested additional NATO troops, and recently asked the U.S. Congress for an additional $11.8 billion to provide further assistance in Afghanistan over the next two years. CJ

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said on February 27 that Iran is ready to discuss its nuclear program with "all relevant parties without any precondition," referring to Western powers' demand that Iran halt fuel-making activities before talks can begin, ISNA reported. He said during a Tehran conference that Iran hopes there will be no second UN resolution against it, after Resolution 1737 passed on December 23. Iran is willing to "declare" all the stages of its nuclear activities, "fuel production and power stations," and "make all state and private companies of other countries partners in relevant areas of nuclear activity," as assurances of the peaceful nature of its program, he said. Mottaki said Iran's activities are presently monitored by UN cameras, and inspectors can visit "when they want." No report by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) concluded that "Iran is deviating in its atomic activities, and this means a full compliance...with inspections," he said. "But they say this deviation may occur in the future. Does that possibility not exist for other countries?" He stressed that Iran has a right to make its own nuclear fuel, and that the suspension demand is "illegal, illegitimate, and based on a nonpolitical strategy that will not be realized." VS

In a letter, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has named new members of the Expediency Council, a key political arbitrating body, IRNA reported on February 27. The term is five years. The council chairman continues to be Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, and the body will include the heads of the three branches of government and members of the Guardians Council, a body of senior jurists. Khamenei said ministers, government-agency heads, and parliamentary committee chiefs will attend the council when their organizations are being discussed. Persons identified as permanent members include Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani; former Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati; conservative politician Habibollah Asgaroladi; Mohammad Hashemi, Rafsanjani's brother and a former state television chief; Finance Minister Davud Danesh-Jafari; Mir Hossein Musavi, a prime minister in the 1980s; Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Reyshahri, a cleric and a founder of Iran's Intelligence Ministry after the 1979 revolution; the present deputy speaker of parliament, Mohammad Reza Bahonar; and Hojatoleslam Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri, a conservative cleric and speaker of parliament in the 1990s. Former President Mohammad Khatami is not on the list. VS

Three members of the Islamic Iran Graduates Organization were arrested in Gilan Province on February 22, apparently during a presidential visit, Radio Farda reported on February 27, quoting organization spokesman Abdullah Momeni. Two were later released on bail, ISNA reported. The group comprises university graduates who are former members of the Office to Consolidate Unity (Daftar-i tahkim-i vahdat [DTV]), Iran's main umbrella student group. Radio Farda reported that Intelligence Ministry officials arrested Babak Mehdizadeh, Arash Bahmani, and Kuhzad Esmaili in the group's offices in Gilan on February 22, although Abdullah Momeni told ISNA on February 27 that Mehdizadeh was then released on bail and Esmaili was released after an unspecified third party acted as a personal guarantor. Momeni told ISNA they should not have been arrested since the Graduates Organization has an activity permit from the Interior Ministry and the arrested were not formally charged. Momeni told ILNA earlier that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad pledged "kindness" to Iranians when elected in 2005, but that his visit to the province was seemingly causing a curtailment of civil liberties, Radio Farda reported on February 27, without dating his remarks. VS

The wife of Hasan Sarahi, an editor who worked on the writings of the late Ayatollah Mahmud Taleqani, published an open letter, apparently on February 25, asking officials to inquire about her husband, who has been missing for almost a year, Radio Farda reported on February 27. Taleqani was a prominent and moderate figure in the 1979 revolution but soon fell out of favor with postrevolutionary authorities. His daughter, AzamTaleqani, has intermittently been an aspiring candidate on liberal lists in various elections, and is usually disqualified by electoral authorities. She runs the Ayatollah Taleqani Cultural Institute, where Sarahi worked. In her letter, Siadat stated that her husband disappeared from home on April 3, 2006, and she has inquired in vain with various bodies including the Greater Tehran police, the Tehran Revolutionary Court, and the coroner's office. Radio Farda reported that Sarahi's disappearance was first reported by Azam Taleqani, who said evidence indicated he was kidnapped while alone at home and that nothing was stolen. Remarks she made to ILNA months ago suggested that she suspected the involvement of "rogue" elements in the Iranian state who have allegedly killed or kidnapped writers or dissidents in past years, Radio Farda reported on February 27. VS

Iraq has invited representatives from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council to attend the March meeting of foreign ministers of neighboring states in Baghdad, the Foreign Ministry announced on February 27. Security will be the main topic on the agenda. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told Al-Jazeera television in an interview the same day that the government has spent months trying to convince the parties to sit at the table together in Iraq. "We stressed the need to hold the meeting in Baghdad, even if it is held on the level of experts and undersecretaries of the Foreign Ministries. Iraq has proposed ways to overcome the regional countries' hesitation to invite the ambassadors of the five permanent Security Council member order to break the ice and establish a mechanism for more comprehensive dialogue," he said. KR

Foreign Minister Zebari told Al-Jazeera on February 27 that the purpose of the meeting is to extricate Iraq from regional and international conflicts. Asked what he hopes to achieve through the talks, he said: "We want Iraq to change from being a contentious issue in the conflict of interests among the neighboring states, the Iraqi government, and big powers, including the United States, to an issue where interests converge and unite. This can take place by sitting together and discussing things." He added that the meeting is meant as a starting point and is "an attempt to break the ice" with regard to the positions of the countries involved. The Iranian news agency IRNA reported that deputy foreign ministers will attend a preparatory meeting in Baghdad on March 12 ahead of the planned conference. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Senate Appropriations Committee on February 27 that the United States will attend the meetings. "We hope that all governments will seize this opportunity to improve the relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region," "The Washington Post" on February 28 quoted her as saying. U.S. officials have reportedly said the State Department will likely send Iraq envoy David Satterfield to the March meeting; Rice will likely attend the second meeting slated for April to be held elsewhere in the region, "The New York Times" reported on February 28. KR

Iraqi security forces have captured a terrorist cell responsible for producing chlorine bombs in the Al-Anbar Governorate, London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported on February 27. An unidentified Interior Ministry source told the daily that the cell members were arrested in Al-Fallujah earlier this week. The official said information indicates that a similar cell is operating in the Diyala Governorate north of Baghdad. The official added that some 1,500 insurgents have fled from Baghdad to Diyala, and many of the insurgents have links to the outlawed Ba'ath Party. He also contended that the Ba'athists are cooperating with Al-Qaeda to manufacture chemical bombs. KR

Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Gul labeled remarks by Kurdistan Region President Mas'ud Barzani "irresponsible," the Anatolia news agency reported on February 27. Barzani told NTV Online in an interview published on February 26 that "Iran and Turkey should get used to the idea that the Kurds have a right" to their own independent state. "It is impossible for us [Kurds] to accept a cross-border operation or to remain a spectator in such an operation. We put emphasis on the sovereignty of our country as much as Turkey puts emphasis on its sovereignty, and we safeguard our sovereignty," the Kurdish leader said when asked about the possibility of Turkish military intervention in Iraq against the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants holed up in the mountainous area along the border. In response, Gul told reporters: "While the region, and especially Iraq, has been passing through a critical period, and while Turkey is following a constructive and embracing policy, making such statements are examples of irresponsibility." Turkish political leaders have called for possible talks with Iraqi Kurdish leaders in recent days, while Turkey's military leadership has threatened military intervention in Iraq. KR