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Newsline - March 1, 2007

Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrei Krivtsov said on February 28 that Russia cannot accept recent comments by U.S. Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell that it is backsliding on democracy, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). Krivtsov stressed that "as a former Sovietologist...McConnell has old, outdated assumptions. His judgment is groundless, and is contrary to the character and state of Russia-U.S. relations." McConnell previously said that "those that [President Vladimir 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." PM

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview published in the state-run daily newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on February 28 that Washington tends to take a unilateral approach to resolving issues it deems important and dictate to other countries rather than treat them as partners, reported. Lavrov added that Putin's February 10 speech in Munich, which was widely regarded outside Russia as unusually aggressive toward the United States, constituted "nothing new." He argued that President Putin's comments reflect views that he and other Russian officials had expressed previously, and that "a majority" of Russia's foreign "partners" share Putin's opinions. He did not give specifics (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and 13, 2007). Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" wrote on February 27 that the Kremlin's recent assertiveness in foreign policy stems from its renewed self-confidence thanks to its oil and gas wealth and from its perception that the United States is overextended abroad and hence weakened. The paper added that recent Russian behavior suggests that Western countries should reexamine their assumptions that Russia avoids challenges to the status quo and confrontation, supports only multilateral approaches in international relations, backs arms control, and has come to terms with NATO expansion. The Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" quoted one Russian expert on February 28 as saying that Russia will not become a member of the EU or NATO and hence is destined to be an "independent center of power" governed by its own rules. A second contributor pointed out that Putin has now made it clear that he seeks to avoid a situation in which any single power or "world order...can threaten Russia's existence." A third expert argued that Putin's speech shows that Russia will not allow itself to be surrounded by states or weapons hostile to its interests and wants the United States to recognize Moscow's sphere of influence in its own immediate neighborhood. A fourth writer noted that Russia has only itself to blame for the Western presence in CIS countries, because Moscow never came up with its own coherent strategy for the region. Several contributors suggested that Russia has made itself economically and strategically vulnerable by its dependence on oil and gas exports, but also that it is now a power that foreigners have to take into account. PM

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov discussed nuclear and other forms of economic cooperation in Tokyo on February 28, news agencies reported. Abe told reporters that "we agreed that the our two nations' economic relations need a lot of improvement and still hold a lot of potential. For a start, we have agreed to begin talks on a Japan-Russia nuclear power plant deal" as part of a nuclear cooperation pact, reported. Russia wants to enrich uranium used at Japan's many nuclear facilities and reuse it in Russian plants. Fradkov assured potential Japanese investors that "we are prepared to deal with and resolve various concerns...[such as] bureaucracy, corruption, and lack of law enforcement." Abe noted that 15 business deals were concluded during the two-day visit by Fradkov and a large delegation. Abe also said, however, that the two sides need to resolve the outstanding territorial issues dividing them. The two countries never concluded a peace treaty ending World War II because of a decades-old dispute over the four Russian-held southern Kurile Islands. Relations between Moscow and Tokyo have been strained in recent months, primarily because of a fatal incident involving Japanese fishermen and Russian border police in August 2006 and Russia's behavior in the dispute over the Sakhalin-2 natural-gas project, which affected the Japanese companies Mitsui and Mitsubishi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 22, September 20, and December 15 and 22, 2006). But the Moscow daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on February 28 that Tokyo now, in practice, separates the territorial issue from economic ones and increasingly invests in Russia. The paper added that Japanese companies recently agreed to "participate in building a large oil refinery on Russia's Pacific coast, at the end of the Eastern Siberia-Pacific Ocean export pipeline, which is currently under construction. The new oil refinery will have an annual capacity of 20 million tons of oil, and will cost [up to] $7 billion to build." Japan is anxious to tap into the natural resources of the Russian Far East, which also attract China and South Korea. PM

Mikhail Margelov, who chairs the Federation Council's International Relations Committee, said in Moscow on March 1 that his recent visit to Iran led him to believe that Tehran might use its nuclear energy program to produce an atomic weapon, reported. Margelov added that his talks with top Iranian officials, including the foreign minister, gave him the impression Iran is "not excluding any variant" for the development of its nuclear program. He noted that his interlocutors avoided giving him direct answers to questions about a possible nuclear weapons program, RIA Novosti reported. Margelov said that political atmosphere in Tehran "smells of gunpowder," Interfax reported. He added that "there is tension in the Iranian political elite, and that was apparent at every meeting." Margelov said he believes that "the Americans do not rule out a strike on Iran. It may be a targeted strike.... An incursion in Iran will be the political death of U.S. President George W. Bush." He stressed that "neither bombings nor incursions will solve the problem" posed by Iran's nuclear program. PM

A spokesman for Russia's Jewish Communities Federation (FEOR) said on February 28 that it condemns recent remarks by Council of Muftis of Russia co-Chairman Nafigulla Ashirov, who called Israel a "malignant tumor," reported. Ashirov reportedly made that statement at an unspecified rally to protest Israeli excavation works near Jerusalem's Al-Aqsa Mosque, which triggered massive criticism throughout much of the Muslim world. The FEOR spokesman told Interfax on February 28 that comments such as Ashirov's are "absolutely unacceptable, because they go entirely against the human truth, including the Muslim truth, and because religious leaders bear double responsibility for the words spoken.... Instigating conflicts and wars is at absolute variance with a cleric's mission. Hopefully, the leaders of the country's Muslim communities will not leave such statements without a commentary and will distance themselves from them." PM

Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov said in London on February 28 that he stands behind his decision not to allow a gay-pride march in Russia's capital, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2007). Referring to his earlier remark that gay-pride parades are "satanic," Luzhkov said that Russia is "a little bit different" from the West in its views of homosexuality. Russian gay activists are suing him for libel over the "satanic" statement. Luzhkov made his remarks on February 28 at a joint press conference with the mayors of London, Beijing, Paris, and Berlin. The Parisian and Berlin mayors are openly gay. Luzhkov also said that he wants to turn Moscow's numerous gambling halls into libraries. Under legislation passed in 2006, thousands of Russian casinos and slot-machine halls will be shut down and moved to four special zones across the country, all outside cities. The often remote sites were selected for several reasons, including their proximity to regions such as the Far East and Middle East, in hopes of attracting visitors. Russia's existing gambling venues will begin closing this summer and continue through to 2009. The Russian Orthodox Church and numerous nongovernmental organizations have criticized gambling as a major social problem. PM

Interior Ministry and FSB forces early on February 28 surrounded and then opened fire on a house in the settlement of Tyube on the northwestern outskirts of Makhachkala, killing two suspected members of an illegal armed formation, and reported. One of the dead men was identified as a native of Daghestan's Shamil Raion. It was at least the fourth such police operation since the beginning of this year. LF

The leaders of the Hanrapetutiun and Zharangutiun parties and the National Democratic Union (AZhM) admitted on February 28 that they failed during last-ditch talks the previous evening to agree on terms for creating a bloc to participate in the May 12 parliamentary elections, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). They did not offer any explanation for that failure. Hanrapetutiun leader and former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian said Hanrapetutiun will not form an alternative alliance with the Armenian Pan-National Movement of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian, but will almost certainly run independently. AZhM chairman Vazgen Manukian said his party may boycott the election; Vartan Khachatrian, the nominal chairman of Zharangutiun, which was founded by former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, said that party has not yet decided whether to participate in the election independently. Meanwhile, 18 deputies from the outgoing parliament have announced their intention to seek reelection under the majoritarian system, Noyan Tapan reported on March 1. LF

Ambassador Yury Merzlyakov, who is the Russian co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution of the Karabakh conflict, has disassociated himself from comments attributed to him by Nizami Bakhmanov, who heads the Azerbaijani community that fled Nagorno-Karabakh at the onset of the conflict. Merzlyakov was quoted on February 27 by, and on March 1 by, as saying that he considers it inadvisable for the Karabakh Azeris to return to their abandoned homes "the day after a peace agreement is signed." Merzlyakov argued, referring to unspecified precipitous repatriation in the Balkans, that careful preparation, including the rebuilding of war-damaged infrastructure, should precede any mass return. Bakhmanov on February 23 claimed Merzlyakov commented to him that he considers the co-existence of Armenian and Azerbaijani communities side by side in Nagorno-Karabakh "impossible," reported. Bakhmanov similarly deplored the Minsk Group co-chairs' reluctance to meet with him, although on their regular visits to Armenia and Azerbaijan they hold talks with Arkady Ghukasian, president of the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh Republic. LF

Deputies reached agreement on February 27 on the creation of a group, comprising parliament faction heads and chaired by speaker Nino Burdjanadze, that will examine and suggest amendments to existing legislation on private property, Georgian media reported on February 27 and 28. The opposition New Rightist faction earlier demanded the establishment of a commission to investigate recent cases of the eviction of Tbilisi residents from apartments said to have been purchased illegally and the demolition of reportedly illegally built commercial structures. Burdjanadze declared on February 27 that both Georgian citizens and foreign investors "should have 100 percent guarantees that their property rights will be respected," Caucasus Press reported. LF

Georgian media reports of exchanges of fire in Sukhum(i) between supporters of Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, and his rival and vice president Raul Khadjimba are untrue, Bagapsh's spokesman Kristian Bzhania told journalists on February 28, and reported. Bzhania also rejected opposition allegations that Bagapsh seeks to secure the election on March 4 of a parliament that is loyal to the executive (see upcoming "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 2, 2007). LF

In his annual report to parliament, President Nursultan Nazarbaev outlined on February 28 his vision of Kazakhstan's national priorities and stressed the need for a strategy to ensure economic competitiveness, Interfax and ITAR-TASS reported. Nazarbaev noted that the ongoing goal of doubling the country's 2000 gross domestic product by 2008 is "quite attainable," but called for the further "demonopolization" of the economy, specifically identifying the energy, railway, and electricity sectors. He added that economic integration within regional groupings such as the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), the Eurasian Economic Community (Eurasec), and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) remains a top priority. Commenting on political reform, Nazarbaev said that Kazakhstan will continue to pursue "our own model" of gradual democratization not based on "a copy of foreign experience or an abstract theory," but defined by "the needs of our society and Kazakhstan's realities." Unlike previous years, the presidential address was not televised live but was recorded prior to its broadcast. RG

In a press conference in Astana on February 27 following a meeting with Kazakh President Nazarbaev, visiting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Southern and Central Asia Richard Boucher welcomed "the process of political reforms" in the country, AKIpress and Kazakhstan Today reported. He added that the United States supports efforts "to promote diversification of the Kazakhstan economy and to help with development of small and medium enterprise in the country." Boucher also said that he and Nazarbaev discussed "issues of regional stability" and reviewed bilateral counternarcotics programs and antiterrorism assistance. RG

Feliks Kulov accused recently appointed Deputy Prime Minister Daniyar Usenov on February 28 of paying some $300,000 in bribes in exchange for support for his promotion, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Kulov leveled the accusation in an interview with the Kyrgyz "Delo No" newspaper. He also accused other lawmakers of accepting bribes to reject his own nomination as prime minister. Kulov joined the opposition to President Kurmanbek Bakiev on February 14, after losing his post when Bakiev failed to reintroduce his candidacy to parliament after two negative votes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2007). At that time, Kulov also accused Bakiev of violating the "tandem" agreement according to which Kulov gave up his presidential bid and supported Bakiev for the presidency in 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 16, 2006). RG

The editor of the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry's official "Betme-Bet" newspaper, Bakyt Seyitov, announced on February 28 that Interior Minister Bolotbek Nogoibaev has ordered a 20 percent reduction in his ministry staff as the first step in a broader reform effort aimed at modernizing the Interior Ministry, AKIpress reported. Other measures expected to be introduced soon include higher standards for training and hiring and making merit and professional achievement the main criteria for promotions. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Bishkek, Gianni Buquicchio, the secretary of the Council of Europe's "European Commission for Democracy through Law" program, announced on February 28 that the European Union will grant 3 million euros ($4 million) to Kyrgyzstan to assist its efforts to reform its penal system and strengthen its courts, according to AKIpress and the website. Buquicchio is in Bishkek to present his commission's report on the new constitution signed into law by President Bakiev in January. RG

Pavel Konev, an assistant to Russian Major General Aleksei Zavizyon, the commander of the Russian base in Tajikistan, announced on February 27 the opening the day before of a five-day military exercise at the Lohour training grounds located 20 kilometers southeast of Dushanbe, Asia-Plus reported. The exercise, comprising units from the rapid-deployment force of the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), includes simulated combat maneuvers in both mountainous and desert terrain and "a special combat operation against illegal militant groups intruding from a neighboring state." Participating infantry units will also complete a 300-kilometer forced march from Lohour to the Mumirak training grounds in the Khatlon region near the Tajik-Afghan border. The complete exercise is to involve some 500 military personnel, along with armored vehicles, artillery, air-defense batteries, and ground-support aircraft, and will close on March 2 with a final phase at the Mumirak training grounds featuring live-fire missions with ground-attack aircraft and combat helicopters. Russia first established the 201st military base in Tajikistan in 2004 with a contingent of several thousand personnel from a motorized infantry division stationed in Tajikistan. RG

Syarhey Sidorski told journalists in Minsk on February 28 that if stakes in Belarusian enterprises are offered for sale, they will be sold at market prices, Belapan reported. "If someone wants to buy Belarusian enterprises dirt cheap, it won't happen," Sidorski said. "For instance, we were told that Beltranshaz [Belarus's gas pipeline network] costs $300 million, but the Dutch bank ABN AMRO estimated its assets at $5 billion," he added. Sidorski's comments follow last month's media reports that the Belarusian government has drawn up a list of large industrial enterprises, stakes in which may soon be offered for sale to foreign investors. The planned privatizations are reportedly intended to ensure an export surplus in Belarus's foreign trade in 2007. The list of companies include the Babruysk-based tire company Belshyna, the Navapolatsk and Mazyr oil refineries, three petrochemical companies in Navapolatsk, Hrodna, and Mahilyou, the Hrodna-based Azot fertilizer plant, the Beltelekom telephone company, and the Minsk Automobile Plant (MAZ). JM

Two amended codes dealing with acts punishable under administrative law and with judicial procedures come into force in Belarus on March 1, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. According to the government, the codes were adjusted to meet European standards in the judicial branch. However, some Belarusian lawyers and human rights defenders say the new codes simultaneously toughen penalties for minor offenses. In particular, the maximum arrest term for an offence punishable under administrative law was increased from 15 to 25 days. "I have an ambivalent feeling about these codes," human rights defender Valyantsin Stefanovich told RFE/RL. "Indeed, many things have been regulated [properly]. For example, a person may be taken to court only following a court decision. But I'm worried about three other things: Now offenses punishable under administrative law carry a penalty of up to 25 days in jail, arrested people may not receive parcels, and it is actually impossible to appeal against a court decision putting a person under arrest." JM

Vasyl Kyselyov, deputy head of the parliamentary caucus of the ruling Party of Regions, told journalists in Kyiv on February 28 that he intends to submit to the Verkhovna Rada on March 2 a draft bill on holding simultaneous early presidential and parliamentary elections this coming fall, Ukrainian media reported. "We see that the situation is getting out of control, including the president's control," Kyselyov said at a news conference. "Therefore I, as a people's deputy, am working out a draft bill, or a draft resolution, on simultaneous early presidential and parliamentary elections in the fall, approximately on September 30," he added. Roman Zvarych, President Viktor Yushchenko's representative in the Verkhovna Rada, commented later the same day that Yushchenko is not considering early parliamentary elections. Zvarych said there are currently no legal grounds for holding such elections. Zvarych explained that early legislative elections could be held if the ruling coalition broke up or the Constitutional Court ruled that the 2004 amendments to the constitution were illegal. Under the Ukrainian Constitution, early parliamentary elections may be called for only by the president. The constitution also stipulates that an early presidential ballot may be held only after the incumbent president has resigned or died, has been unable to perform his duties because of his health, or has been impeached by parliament. JM

Viktor Yanukovych met with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on February 28, Ukrainian and international media reported. At a news conference following their talks, Merkel said integrating Ukraine is not on the European Union's agenda for the moment. Yanukovych said the talks focused on drafting a new Ukraine-EU cooperation agreement to replace the current one, which expires in 2008. "Most importantly, we have received a signal that the doors of the European Union are open for Ukraine. And this will be stated in the new agreement [on relations between Ukraine and the EU] for the next 10 years," Yanukovych added. JM

Serbian negotiators at talks on the future of Kosova called on February 28 for the creation of a Serbian force to protect Serbian cultural and religious sites in the predominantly ethnic Albanian province, Serbian media reported the same day. Under a plan drawn up by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, the sites would be protected by international troops and an exclusion zone established around them. Responsibility would subsequently be passed to local Kosovar police forces, supported by international troops. A Serbian negotiator, Leon Kojen, told the Belgrade broadcaster B92 that "we proposed that at least the most important churches, monasteries, and other cultural sites be protected" by international troops and Serbian police. B92 reported that the Serbian team did not state the precise size of the police force, but Kosovar television reports suggested that Belgrade wants a 800-strong force. The Serbian proposal is part of a broader effort by Belgrade negotiators to retain as much Serbian control over Kosova as possible, including the retention of Serbian sovereignty and the creation of a Serbian autonomous region in Kosova. AG

The UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) said on February 28 that five ethnic Albanians have been charged over their involvement in anti-Serbian riots in 2004. Three days of violence in March 2004 left 19 people dead, displaced roughly 4,000, destroyed hundreds of homes, and destroyed or damaged several dozen Serbian Orthodox monasteries and churches. A UNMIK spokesman, Neeraj Singh, told news agencies that the charges include arson and looting. "In addition, there are another 11 suspects, 10 of them juveniles, who are still under pretrial investigation on suspicion of involvement in the burning of several buildings in Kosovo Polje," near the capital, Prishtina. Singh said the indictment was filed last week. So far, 26 people have been found guilty of involvement in the violence, which was the worst since the UN assumed responsibility for the contested region in 1999. AG

The Serbian authorities have arrested four people in connection with the killing of three American-Albanian brothers in 1999, a spokesman for Serbia's war crimes prosecutor told news agencies on February 28. No other details were provided. Earlier reports in the Serbian media suggested five former or serving police officers were arrested on February 25. It is not clear whether the suspects include Goran Radosavljevic, a former commander of an elite Serbian police unit linked to war crimes in Kosova, whose arrest was ordered on February 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 14, 2007). Radosavljevic is thought to have fled Serbia in 2006. Two former Serbian soldiers went on trial in November charged with the execution of the three brothers, Argon, Mehmet, and Ilaj Bytyqi, who disappeared in mid-1999. Their bodies were found in a mass grave in 2001. The indictment against the men currently on trial says that the brothers were jailed after illegally entering Serbia, released, but then picked up by secret police, and then shot. The Bytyqi brothers left the United States in order to fight with ethnic Albanian guerrilla forces against Serbian troops in Kosova. Serbia's head of police at the time, Vlastimir Djordjevic, is suspected of having ordered the Bytyqi killings. He has been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which believes he is in hiding in Russia. Russia says that information provided to it about Djordjevic's whereabouts is wrong (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9, 2007). AG

The head of Kosova's telecommunications regulator, Anton Berisha, on February 28 survived an apparent assassination attempt, local media reported the same day. A police spokesman quoted by the Belgrade broadcaster B92 said it was a "miracle" that none of the four people in the car in which Berisha was traveling was wounded. Berisha was on his way from the capital, Prishtina, to the western town of Pecs when his car came under fire from two gunmen. Speaking to Radio-Television Kosova, Berisha said a number of "hysterical stories" in the media about a tender for the province's second mobile-phone license led to the attack. The license was awarded on February 21 to a Slovenian operator, Telekom Slovenije, and a local partner, Ipko, after the winner of the tender, Kosmocell, failed to raise the 81 million euros ($107 million) it offered when it won the tender on February 6. Telekom Slovenije will pay 75 million euros. AG

The government of the Bosnian Serb autonomous region, the Republika Srpska, on February 28 issued an apology for crimes committed during the 1992-95 war, local and international news agencies reported the same day. On February 26, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) cleared Serbia of genocide charges connected to its support for Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Immediately after the ruling, Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik said that "all institutions have to apologize to those who have lost their lives, to the victims, and their families" during the war, particularly in Srebrenica, where some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were massacred (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, 2007). Dodik subsequently called in strong terms for the commander of Bosnian Serb troops at Srebrenica, Ratko Mladic, to give himself up for trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). In its official February 28 apology, the Republika Srpska government said: "Bosnia's future necessitates that the victims of the last war, their families and friends, regardless of their ethnicity, receive the deepest apologies. The government of the Republika Srpska is doing precisely that." However, the position of Bosnian Serb politicians has long been that war crimes were committed by all sides, and that position was underscored in the statement, in which the Bosnian Serb government "calls on the representatives of other Bosnian nations to do the same in order to secure a better future for all the citizens of this country." Serbian President Boris Tadic is also pushing for the Serbian government in Belgrade to issue an apology for the massacre at Srebrenica (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). A presidential adviser, Jovan Simic, on February 28 told the Belgrade broadcaster B92 that parliament needs to condemn the massacre unequivocally. "Should Serbia fail to do this, it will no longer have any grounds to refer to international law concerning other situations," Simic said. "We are at a point where we need to decide whether we indeed respect international law, whether we respect the most important legal institutions or not, whether we are a part of the global system, or have decided to take a different road. This is an issue of political maturity." AG

The Bosnian Muslim member of Bosnia-Herzegovina's three-member Presidency, Haris Silajdzic, on February 28 said that anti-Muslim sentiment in Europe contributed to the ICJ's decision not to find Serbia guilty of genocide. The ICJ is the UN's highest court. "Europe is more inclined to the fascism of Serbian territorial expansionism than to democracy championed by the Bosniaks [Bosnian Muslims]," the Croatian news agency Hina quoted Silajdzic as saying. Silajdzic, who said he no longer wanted to use diplomatic language about the ruling, accused the international community, and particularly European states, of being unfair and inconsistent in their treatment of Bosnia during and after the 1992-95 war, saying that the ICJ ruling is merely an extension of a policy based on prejudice against Muslims. Silajdzic said, however, that the ruling clears the way for the adoption of a law in Bosnia that would prohibit denial that genocide was committed. In its ruling, the ICJ referred to the massacre at Srebrenica as an act of genocide. In a February 26 interview on Bosnia-Herzegovina Federation TV, Silajdzic said he will push for Srebrenica to be "taken out of the administrative organization of the Republika Srpska" and for a change to the constitution. The ruling "means that we will have to abolish the consequences of genocide. That is our obligation. I am primarily referring to the current organization of the country, which is a direct consequence of genocide. A new constitution must reflect the multiethnic character of the society of Bosnia-Herzegovina, as it had been for hundreds of years," Silajdzic said, adding that "some parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina have become ethnic apartheids, which is not sustainable." AG


British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett arrived in Kabul on February 27 for several days of meetings with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other senior officials, AFP reported. A spokesman for Beckett told AFP that the trip is aimed at "underlin[ing] United Kingdom commitment to Afghanistan" and discussing the "next steps," including reconstruction and counternarcotics efforts. Karzai welcomed Britain's pledge to commit additional troops, but further details of their meeting were not immediately available. Before arriving in Afghanistan, Beckett met with Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in Islamabad. Britain recently announced it will commit an additional 1,400 troops to Afghanistan, most of whom will probably be deployed to Helmand Province. CJ

A suicide bombing outside a police station eastern Afghanistan's Khost Province on February 27 killed one policeman and injured seven other people, the Bakhtar News Agency reported on February 28. The attacker first attempted to enter the police station, and then detonated his explosives after struggling with a guard at the door. Gul Mohammad Din Mohammadi, director of the Khost Civil Hospital, said four of those injured by the blast were treated at his facility and are in satisfactory condition. On February 27, the Afgha News Agency suggested that the Taliban was behind the attack. CJ

Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zmaray Bashari announced at a recent news conference in Kabul that police officers will receive salary increases, the Bakhtar News Agency reported on February 28. The pay hike is the result of a reform program within the Interior Ministry aimed at fighting corruption and will be implemented in the coming months. Bashari said a police colonel's monthly wage -- currently 3,500 afghanis ($71) -- will increase to 18,000 afghanis (about $360). The head of the Reforms Commission, Nazar Mohammad Nekzad, told Pajhwak Afghan News that salary increases will vary depending on an officer's experience and other factors. CJ

An Afghan teacher has been beheaded by militants who claimed the man was a spy for the United States, AP reported on February 28. The teacher's body was found along a road near Jandola, a town in South Waziristan, according to an unnamed local official. The region is a haven for Taliban supporters and militants, who are suspected of harboring Al-Qaeda fighters. AP noted that several people have been killed in the Afghan-Pakistani border region in recent years after being accused by militants of spying for the United States or assisting Pakistani authorities. CJ

Yahya Rahim-Safavi, the commander of Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), said in Orumieh, on February 28 that "with the pursuit and destruction of bandits, members of the little counterrevolutionary groups" in northwestern Iran are "surrounded" in a strip along the Iran-Turkey border, and "the circle around them is...[getting] tighter every moment," Fars and IRNA reported. He was speaking at the funeral of several soldiers killed in a helicopter crash, reported on February 26, which officials suspect might have been shot down by members of the Kurdish militant group Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK). Rahim-Safavi said 13 members of the IRGC and the army, including senior officers, died in the crash. He said "three leading members" of PJAK were killed in clashes with Iranian troops in the Sarvi district near Orumieh on February 27, IRNA reported. Safavi said the United States is spending "millions of dollars" to equip "little groups" against Iran, and the "Zionists" are training such groups in northern Iraq. Majid Mirahmadi, a deputy head of the Basij militia, which is affiliated with the IRGC, said on February 26 that Iran's northwestern frontier zone is "one of the most infected areas and a safe area for terrorists," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on February 27. VS

National police chief Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam told a press conference on February 28 that four police officers were killed the previous day in clashes with bandits in the Sistan-Baluchistan Province, Radio Farda reported. Four other police officers were taken hostage. Local parliamentarian Hossein Ali Shahriari, who is from Zahedan, told ILNA the same day that two officers were killed in the shootout, one injured, and four taken hostage. Ahmadi-Moqaddam said "seven policemen" engaged in a shootout on February 27 in the Magur district with "bandits" "who entered Iranian territory from the Pakistan border, and who fled to that country after the clash." He did not know who the armed men were. He said Iran will complete plans to seal its southeastern frontier with Pakistan in the Persian year that begins on March 21, and a 70-kilometer dike due to be finished at an unspecified time "will solve the problem of this area." Shahriari told ILNA the security situation in Sistan-Baluchistan is "fragile" and local people "feel very insecure." He said the state needs to spend more money on security, "following recent moves by bandits and American mercenaries, led by world arrogance, to make frontier provinces, especially Sistan-Baluchistan, insecure." VS

New-York based Human Rights Watch denounced on February 27 the prosecution of at least nine women it stated are being tried for attending a peaceful rally last year, and it asked the judiciary to halt proceedings against them, according to a statement from the organization. The women are being tried for a gathering on June 12, 2006, in which women protested against discriminatory laws. The meeting was violently dispersed by police (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2006). The judiciary is to prosecute five participants on March 4 who are charged with acting against national security and participating in an illegal gathering. They are Nushin Ahmadi Khorasani, Parvin Ardalan, Susan Tahmasebi, Shahla Entesari, and Fariba Davudi-Mohajer. At least four others have been similarly charged, though no date has been set for their trials, reported. Separately, independent journalist Mashallah Shamsolvaezin told ISNA on February 27 that unidentfied people violently broke up a meeting in Gorgan, in the northern Golestan Province, where he had begun to speak. He did not give a date for the aborted meeting. He said "a group" had previously issued a statement to publicize its dissatisfaction that the meeting was going to be held and with his speech, an event that was organized by the provincial Press House. VS

Mahmud Ahmadinejad arrived in Khartoum on February 28 where he met and discussed bilateral ties and international affairs with President Omar al-Bashir, ISNA reported. Ahmadinejad said that "the greatest injustice in history" is being done to the Palestinians, and "forceful powers" have expelled them from their land and exerted "the heaviest pressures" on them for the past 60 years. Both presidents called for the departure of foreign troops from Iraq. Ahmadinejad said "now that Iraq has a constitution, parliament, and government," the presence of foreign troops is to "dominate that country and pave the way for greater control over the Middle East." He said the United States must stop making "mistakes" in Iraq, as "repeated mistakes" have led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis. He commented that the United States and Israel "are angry" with the Lebanese, presumably for what he termed their "proud resistance" to Israeli attacks in July, and "the collapse of the myth of [Israel's] invincibility." He said before leaving Tehran that the aim of his trip is to enhance bilateral ties. He was accompanied by Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki and Agriculture Jihad Minister Mohammad Reza Eskandari, ISNA reported. VS

Selim al-Hoss, a former Lebanese prime minister, was in Tehran on February 27 to discuss regional politics and the situation in his country with Iranian officials, including parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel and Supreme National Security Secretary Ali Larijani, news agencies reported. Haddad-Adel told al-Hoss that Iran has been working with Saudi Arabia to resolve the crisis in Lebanon, where the Shi'ite group Hizballah and its allies have demanded the removal of the pro-Western government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora. Iran, Haddad-Adel said, is following events in Lebanon "with sensitivity," IRNA reported. Al-Hoss said Lebanon is akin to a "volcano about to explode," and would have done so had it not been for the "initiatives and sensible conduct" of Hizballah chief Hassan Nasrallah. Larijani said after his meeting that Iran hopes al-Hoss's trip will help resolve problems in Lebanon, adding that Iran backs his "ideas and initiatives," IRNA reported. VS

White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters at a February 28 briefing that the United States will not enter into direct talks with Iran and Syria at the Iraq neighbors meeting, slated to be held in Baghdad on March 10. "There will not be bilateral talks between the United States and Iran, or the United States and Syria, within the context of these meetings. These are organized by the Iraqis and these are on issues that are pertinent to Iraq," Snow said. "As for whether the United States has changed its policy dramatically, it has not," he added, citing several instances in recent years where the United States has participated in multilateral meetings with Iranians on issues of common concern. Asked why the United States will attend, given its positon on Iran and Syria, Snow said: "Iraq is trying to develop capacity politically, diplomatically, economically. [It] doesn't do that by itself, and it does need interaction and support from a wide variety of nations. We've seen it with the Iraq Compact on the investment side. And you want to make sure what they build is strong and vigorous a capacity on the diplomatic side as possible, as well. They invited us and we're coming." KR

Iranian, Syrian, and Turkish officials are expected to attend the March 10 Baghdad meeting, according to February 28 media reports. The Syrian official news agency SANA quoted a Foreign Ministry source as saying that Syria will attend the meeting. "Discussions with the United States over Iraq constitute a partial step in the right direction, which is represented by dialogue over all the problems of the region because they are interlinked," the source told SANA. Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani said that Iran will take part in the conference if doing so will help Iraq's interests, Mehr news agency reported. Asked about the U.S. attendance, Larijani said, "We believe regional countries can solve the Iraq problem and there is no need for the presence of extra-regional countries." "The New Anatolian" quoted Turkish diplomatic sources as saying that Turkey will send a representative to the meeting. Meanwhile, Mikhail Margelov, the chairman of the Russian Federation Council's International Relations Committee, has suggested that Russia might act as a mediator between the United States, Syria, and Iran at the meeting, ITAR-TASS reported on March 1. KR

Ali al-Dabbagh told Al-Sharqiyah television that the Iraqi government must deal with militias immediately, the news channel reported on March 1. Calling all militias and groups carrying weapons "outlaws," al-Dabbagh said: "There are some groups that cause a problem...just for the sake of poltiical opposition. To be more frank, the existing Shi'ite militias are fighting each other, but I cannot put these miltiias and Al-Qaeda -- which seeks to destroy the individual, the region, and all that is human -- on the same scale. They are both outlaws; I do not discriminate between them. But if the Bagdhad security plan...fails to find a way to disband the militias, it will be faulty and incomplete. The militias are threatening the poltiical system in Iraq. The situation in Iraq will not stabilize as long as weapons are out of the government's control." KR

President Jalal Talabani sent a message to the people of Kurdistan, saying he is in good health, according to the text of the statement, posted on the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan website on February 28. "I would like to reassure [the people of Kurdistan] that I am in good health and, God willing, I will return to them and we will together continue our long struggle until we achieve victory...with the efforts of the freedom fighters, Kurdistan people, the Almighty God, all those loyal to our people and friends at home and abroad. I assure you that I am in good health and my health improves day by day," Talabani said. Physicians treating Talabani have reportedly said he is responding well to treatment and his condition shows a clear improvement, the Amman-based "Jordan Times" reported on March 1. The daily reported that the president is suffering from exhaustion in addition to a lung and sinus infection. KR

Foreign Minister Taro Aso announced on March 1 that Japan will host a conference for Iraqi lawmakers and Japanese legal experts in Tokyo later this month, Kyodo World Service reported. Japan wants to assist with the development of Iraq's judicial and administrative capacity, officials said. Aso told reporters at the announcement that Japan is determined to deepen its political and economic commitment to Iraq and the region. He cautioned that sectarian violence and extremism could spread across the region if steps are not taken to stop the bloodshed and build national reconciliation in Iraq. KR

U.S. forces have six months to restore order in Iraq, according to advisers to U.S. commander General David Petraeus, London's "The Guardian" daily reported on March 1. The advisers, described as combat veterans who are experts in counterinsurgency, have reportedly concluded they have six months to change the security landscape in Iraq or face a Vietnam-style collapse in political or public support, according to the daily. "They know they are operating under a clock. They know they are going to hear a lot more talk in Washington about 'Plan B' by the autumn -- meaning withdrawal. They know the next six-month period is their opportunity. And they say it's getting harder every day," an unidentified senior administration official familiar with the group said. The daily identified the main obstacles facing Petraeus's team as: insufficient troops on the ground; an anticipated increase in violence in southern Iraq; morale problems in light of greater casualties; and a failure of political support in Washington and/or Baghdad. KR