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Newsline - March 5, 2007

Lieutenant General Igor Khvorov, who commands Russia's long-range bombers, said on March 5 that his forces are on "standby and ready to accomplish any mission at any place on the globe when the order is given," Interfax reported. He noted that his aircraft do not carry nuclear warheads. Khvorov criticized as ineffective the planned U.S. missile defense, saying that its possible sites and silos in Poland and the Czech Republic would be vulnerable to strikes by Russian bombers, which could either neutralize them electronically or destroy them physically, RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 23 and March 2, 2007). General Pyotr Deinekin, a former commander in chief of the Russian Air Force, said, however, that the deployment of U.S. missile-shield elements in Eastern Europe "enables the Americans to considerably expand their possibilities for reconnaissance and for eliminating Russian missiles in the initial stage of their flight trajectory." He added that Russia "should now expect the deployment of [U.S.] intermediate- and short-range missiles in the former countries of the Warsaw Pact, including in the Baltic states." Deinekin believes that, in response, the Russian General Staff should "calmly take adequate measures not only to contain, but to actively eliminate those facilities as well, including with the use of" long-range bombers. PM

Sergei Oznobischev, who is the director of the Institute of Strategic Evaluations and deputy chairman of the Russia-U.S. Association, was quoted in the daily "Vremya novostei" of March 2 as saying that there are many people within the U.S. political establishment who want a dialogue with Russia on the basis of common interests in specific policy areas, including President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who "know enough" to avoid ideological debates or try to interfere in Russian domestic affairs. Oznobischev does not believe that recent "aggressively anti-Russian rhetoric" by some unnamed U.S. political figures indicates a return to the Cold War era. By contrast, Viktor Kremenyuk, who is deputy director of the Institute of the United States and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences, believes that Russophobia is spreading in the United States. He said that "U.S. politicians are competing to see who can smear Russia most.... There was a time when Americans were interested in Russia as a strong partner with vast natural resources, nuclear arsenals, and undeniable achievements in space exploration. This attraction has vanished. Most Americans now view Russia as a backward, totalitarian society, a state where laws do not work." He added that U.S. politicians have accordingly come to regard pursuing "friendship with [President Vladimir] Putin as costly in terms of domestic politics." PM

Aleksandr Maryasov, who heads a regional department in the Foreign Ministry, said on March 5 that Russia is willing to discuss the resumption of arms deliveries to Afghanistan during the upcoming visit of the Afghan defense minister, RIA Novosti and reported. Maryasov noted that "President [Hamid] Karzai and the Afghan government have asked Russia to resume supplies of military equipment in light of increasing Taliban and Al-Qaeda activities." Russia stopped delivering weapons to Afghanistan in 2005 in order to "avoid duplication" of U.S. arms supplies to that country, Maryasov said. Moscow continues to provide equipment, vehicles, spare parts, and other nonlethal aid to Kabul under a 2002 agreement. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on February 23 that Russia and Afghanistan have worked out terms to "settle" Afghanistan's $10 billion debt to the former Soviet Union. PM

Despite an official ban, an estimated 3,000 people demonstrated in central St. Petersburg on March 3 against President Putin's government, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. The protest was organized by Other Russia, a broad umbrella group that includes radical leftists, like National Bolshevik Party leader Eduard Limonov, as well as former chess champion Garry Kasparov and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov. The protesters charged that Putin has stifled civil liberties in the run-up to the 2007 legislative and 2008 presidential elections, and they called for the repeal of recent electoral legislation aimed at narrowing the options available to voters. Several hundred demonstrators broke through a security cordon and marched along the city's main avenue before riot police armed with truncheons moved in, detaining over 100 people. RFE/RL reported that special police forces beat demonstrators, grabbing their flags and banners. St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko said that the authorities will not tolerate "unrest and pogroms in the streets." Local elections in St. Petersburg are slated for March 11. Kasparov announced a demonstration for April 19 in Moscow. PM

Chancellor Angela Merkel was quoted on March 5 by the daily "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" as saying in response to a question about Russia that new shareholders in EADS, the parent company of Airbus, should not be admitted to its powerful shareholder pact. She called only for "closer cooperation in aircraft construction" with Russia. In the fall of 2006, Russia's state-owned Vneshtorgbank confirmed that it holds a stake of just over 5 percent in EADS. But Merkel and the management of EADS, which seeks lucrative U.S. defense contracts, blocked Russian plans to acquire blocking rights and a seat on the board (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, and October 10, 11,13, and 23, 2006). Russia's United Aircraft Company (OAK) seeks a strong foreign partnership to modernize Russia's moribund aerospace industry, which London's "The Times" once described as a "glorious junkyard." PM

In a statement posted on March 5 on the resistance website, Chechen Republic Ichkeria President and resistance commander Doku Umarov argued that all North Caucasus Muslims who have reached maturity are bound to join the jihad against Russian hegemony. Umarov said they should create military jamaats that, in turn, should coordinate their military activities among themselves. Those Muslims who are materially well-off have an obligation to fund the jihad and to provide for the families of shahids, Umarov said. Muslims serving in the enemy's law-enforcement agencies, but who still fear the wrath of Allah, should abet the resistance by providing information and ensuring that they can move freely on territory controlled by the enemy, he said. Musa Mukozhev, ideologue of the Kanardino-Balkar jamaat, released a similar statement five months ago arguing that jihad against nonbelievers is the personal duty of every individual Muslim (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 25, 2006). Umarov also said that due to financial constraints, the resistance cannot accept into its ranks all those young men who wish to join, and they are therefore forming separate jamaats both in Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus that operate autonomously. He said that following the death last year of his predecessor, Abdul-Khamid Sadullayev, and of field commander Shamil Basayev, unspecified resistance military structures have been reorganized, "plans have been amended, tactics changed, [and] communication and coordination between separate groups of mojaheds and sectors has been strengthened." LF

Following his confirmation on March 2 by the pro-Moscow Chechen parliament as republic head (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2007), Ramzan Kadyrov traveled to neighboring Ingushetia in the company of Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov and presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak to discuss unspecified aspects of socioeconomic and cultural cooperation between the two republics, the independent reported. In video footage posted on that website, both men stressed the importance of good-neighborly relations between their respective republics. Over the past year, one of Kadyrov's close associates has on several occasions advocated recombining Chechnya and Ingushetia to form a single federation subject (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," June 21, 2006 and "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31, 2006), and Russian expert Sergei Markedonov predicted in a March 2 interview with that lobbying for such a merger will intensify now that Kadyrov has become Chechen leader. In a March 4 interview with the TV channel Vesti 24, Kadyrov called for a new amnesty for Chechen resistance fighters, reported. According to official data, some 439 Chechen fighters took advantage of an amnesty proclaimed following Basayev's death in July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17 and September 22, 2006, and January 16, 2007). LF

Two people were killed on March 2 and four injured in an exchange of fire in Daghestan's Dakhadayev Raion between supporters of the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) and of Unified Russia, reported on March 5. Magomed Aliyev (Unified Russia), who is incumbent raion head and is seeking a second term in the upcoming local elections, has since gone into hiding. His challenger in the ballot, Nukh Nukhov (SPS), is one of those injured. LF

Reporting to the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic parliament on March 2 on the work of the republic's Interior Ministry since he was named to head it in February 2005, Nikolai Osyak said its work has improved, but that due to underfunding in 2005 and 2006 local police officers went unpaid for up to six months, reported. But President Mustafa Batdyev claimed that, on the contrary, in 2006 the ministry received 82.5 million rubles ($3.14 million), more than the 69.3 million rubles allocated. He called for an audit of how those funds were spent. Parliament deputies rejected Osyak's assessment of his ministry's performance, especially with regard to cracking down on car thefts and gambling, and they formally addressed a request to federal Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev to conduct an independent evaluation. LF

A total of 27 individual political parties and one election bloc submitted lists of candidates to Armenia's Central Election Commission by the March 3 deadline to participate in the May 12 parliamentary elections under the proportional system, Noyan Tapan and Arminfo reported. The opposition Orinats Yerkir (Law-Based State) party headed by former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian reportedly registered the largest number of candidates (131). The combined number of candidates competing for the 90 mandates to be allocated under the proportional system is 1,497, Noyan Tapan reported. During talks in Yerevan on March 2 with Armenian Prime Minister Andranik Markarian and other senior officials, EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus Peter Semneby warned that Armenia risks jeopardizing an important opportunity to build closer ties with the EU if it fails to ensure that the May 12 vote is free, fair, and democratic, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

Speaking in Yerevan on March 2 after his talks with Markarian, EU Special Representative for the South Caucasus Semneby also affirmed the EU's support for the ongoing efforts by the OSCE Minsk Group to mediate a settlement of the Karabakh conflict, according to Arka on March 2 as reposted by Groong. On March 3, Semneby was quoted by as expressing implicit reservations with regard to the GUAM group of states' initiative to raise the Karabakh issue in the UN General Assembly. Semneby commented that doing so would distract attention from the "main issue" of seeking a solution to the conflict (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 22 and December 7, 2006, and February 20, 2007). LF

A coffin containing the remains of Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who was elected Georgian president in May 1991 and ousted seven months later, was discovered on March 3 at an undisclosed location in Grozny following a search ordered by Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov, Caucasus Press and reported, quoting Gamsakhurdia's son Tsotne and his widow Manana Archvadze-Gamsakhurdia. Gamsakhurdia fled to Chechnya following his ouster, and died in late December 1993 under circumstances that remain unclear. The precise location of his grave in the grounds of his home in Grozny was reportedly impossible to establish in the wake of the destruction wrought by two successive Chechen wars (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21 and 26, 2007). In London, however, Chechen Republic Ichkeria representative Akhmed Zakayev has expressed doubts that the remains discovered are indeed those of Gamsakhurdia, reported on March 5. Zakayev said Gamsakhurdia's remains were disinterred at the beginning of the 1994-96 war and reburied in a safe location known only to himself and a handful of other people. LF

The parliamentary elections in Georgia's unrecognized breakaway republic of Abkhazia were valid, with voter turnout estimated at 47.25 percent, Central Election Commission Chairman Batal Tabagua announced after the polls closed on March 4. Only in one constituency in the northern coastal town of Gagra was turnout below the minimum 25 percent. Preliminary results indicated, however, that candidates were elected only in 18 of the 35 single-mandate constituencies, and that a runoff vote will be needed in the remaining 17 constituencies, reported. Of the 18 candidates elected, at least 11 represent the three political forces -- United Abkhazia, Aytayra, and Amtsakhara -- that support incumbent President Sergei Bagapsh, while five represent opposition parties, according to on March 5. As with previous Abkhaz elections, the international community does not recognize the vote as legal and valid. LF

According to an unnamed Kazakh Emergency Situations Ministry official, police seized a truck in Astana early on March 3 that was carrying highly radioactive material, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The police transported the radioactive material to the Nuclear Physics Institute in the town of Alatau for burial on March 5 in "a special dump." The Emergency Situations Ministry identified a "metal pipe" as the source of a high level of radioactivity but reported that the "cargo does not pose a threat to the environment." The incident demonstrated the prevalence of radioactive material throughout Central Asia, a Soviet legacy. RG

A meeting of the Kyrgyz cabinet in Bishkek on March 3 ordered an investigation of foreign companies operating in Bishkek's "free economic zone" for possible connections to state corruption, according to the Kyrgyz news agency The cabinet decision follows recent reports suggesting that some foreign firms acquired preferential treatment based on "corrupt connections" with unnamed former state officials. RG

Meeting in Bishkek on March 3, the Kyrgyz cabinet eased restrictions on foreign workers in local markets, according to The Kyrgyz government had previously imposed restrictions that banned virtually all "foreign nationals" from working at local markets, a move that mainly affected the large but uncounted number of Chinese workers. The decision to suspend the ban until January 2008 is to be followed by an official study of the viability of requiring foreigners to apply for an annual quota of 5,000 work permits. While some officials express concern that the imposition of any restrictions on foreign workers or retailers may have a negative effect on trade relations with China, others have suggested imposing a sharp increase in the registration fee for foreign workers to 100,000 soms (about $2,000). According to unofficial government estimates, at least 8,000 "foreign nationals melt into" the local population and disappear "without trace every year after arriving in Kyrgyzstan." RG

A delegation of officials from the Eurasian Development Bank (EDB) arrived in Dushanbe on March 2 for a three-day visit, Asia-Plus reported. Led by EDB Chairman Igor Finogenov, the officials met with Tajik President Imomali Rakhmonov and Central Bank Chairman Murodali Alimardonov the same day to discuss Tajikistan's application to join the EDB. Finogenov announced after the meeting that the bank will open a new office in Dushanbe in the coming months. The EDB, which is based in Almaty and has offices in Moscow and St. Petersburg, was established in January 2006 by Kazakhstan and Russia to facilitate investment, resolve trade disputes, and expand regional trade throughout the former Soviet Union (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 13, 2006). RG

President Rakhmonov met on March 1 in Dushanbe with Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) Secretary-General Nikolai Bordyuzha, who came on four-day official visit, Asia-Plus reported. Bordyuzha and Rakhmonov discussed the security situation in neighboring Afghanistan and reviewed plans to increase Tajikistan's role within a broader CSTO effort aimed at countering the drug trade emanating from Afghanistan. Tajikistan formally assumed the rotating chairmanship of the CSTO the same day, according to In a press conference after the meeting, Bordyuzha said the situation in Afghanistan is a priority for the security organization, describing it as a threat to the entire Central Asian region but criticizing NATO for "showing no interest in cooperating with the CSTO in fighting drug trafficking." The visit coincides with the opening of a five-day military exercise in Tajikistan involving units from the CSTO rapid-deployment force (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2007). The CSTO is comprised of Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, and focuses on regional security threats such as drug trafficking, terrorism, and organized crime. Members have also pledged to provide immediate military assistance to one another in the event of an attack. RG

The opposition Belarusian Social Democratic Party (BSDP) reelected Alyaksandr Kazulin as its leader at a convention in Minsk on March 4, Belapan reported. There were no other nominees for the post. Kazulin, rector of Belarusian State University between 1996 and 2003, was elected chairman of the BSDP in July 2005. He was a candidate in Belarus's 2006 presidential election. Kazulin was arrested during a police crackdown on a peaceful postelection demonstration on March 25, 2006, and subsequently sentenced to 5 1/2 years in a correctional institution on charges widely believed to be politically motivated. He went on hunger strike from October 20 to December 11, 2006, to protest what he called the illegal reelection of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka to a third term and to draw the UN Security Council's attention to the situation in Belarus. He reportedly lost more than 30 kilograms during the protest. The jail administration has exempted Kazulin from work until April and put him on a special diet as he recovers from his fast. JM

Ukraine and the European Union launched negotiations in Brussels on March 5 on a new cooperation accord to replace the current one, which expires in 2008, dpa and UNIAN reported. "This is an important step to have Ukraine come closer to us, and it will send a signal of our wish to deepen relations with Ukraine," EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said following a meeting with Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Andriy Veselovskyy. "I want to reiterate that this enhanced agreement will be drafted within the framework of European Neighborhood Policy," Ferrero-Waldner noted, adding that the new agreement will not prejudge any possible developments in relations between Ukraine and the EU. She said the new cooperation agreement could help lead to a deal on free trade between the EU and Ukraine. But she added that talks on this issue will begin only after Ukraine is accepted into the World Trade Organization. JM

Fears that a March 3 rally by ethnic Albanian opponents of the United Nations' plan for the province could end in a repeat of the violence that resulted in the deaths of two protesters on February 10 proved unfounded. Local media put the number of protesters at around 4,000, more than the 3,000 who attended the February 10 demonstration. The UN police force this time did not raise barriers along the protest route, in the capital Prishtina, and the demonstrators made no attempt to storm government buildings, as police believe they tried to do on February 10. The Kosovapress news agency reported, though, that at one stage demonstrators threatened to break through a police cordon around the headquarters of the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK). The organizers, the Self-Determination (Vetevendosje) movement, on March 2 warned they would try to break through any cordons placed by the police. Radio-Television Kosova reported on March 2 that a leader of a Self-Determination branch in eastern Kosova was arrested that day, but it is unclear if the reason was connected either with Self-Determination or with the Prishtina rally. In the run-up to the rally, Macedonia tightened its borders with Kosova in an attempt to prevent ethnic Albanians joining the Prishtina rally. The deaths at the February 10 rally triggered the resignations of Kosova's interior minister and the UN police chief (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 13, 14, and 15, 2007), and an investigation is under way into the conduct of both the UN and local police. Earlier warnings that violence could jeopardize Kosova's bid for independence were underlined by President Fatmir Sejdiu in a televised address on March 1, during which he urged Kosovars not to take part in the rally. AG

During the rally itself, a Self-Determination leader, Glauk Konjufca, accused President Sejdiu of "servility toward foreign forces," as well as attacking the plan proposed by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari as an attempt to maintain international control of the region and to give undue rights to the Serbian minority, local media reported. Konjufca claimed that Ahtisaari's plans contain to "a great degree Serbian plans for the partition of Kosova" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). "We are hostages of Serbia. We are hostages of just 5 percent of the population," he said. Serbs are usually said to account for one in 10 of the population. Konjufca also protested against the treatment of activists arrested at the February 10 rally, including the movement's leader, Albin Kurti, saying that they face "frequent provocations" such as being "offered meals containing Serbian produce." AG

In an interview published by the German daily "Die Welt" on March 3, a senior member of Belgrade's negotiating team at talks on the future of Kosova has accused the author of the UN plan for the contested province of bias. Slobodan Samardzic said Ahtisaari favors Prishtina. However, he did not suggest that Belgrade will withdraw from the talks, and he said the talks are not "pointless." Ahtisaari has also been criticized by Dusko Celic, a member of Belgrade's legal team. In an interview published by the Serbian newspaper "Glas javnosti" on March 1, Celic said that the Serbian team was not "unduly" worried by the ethnic Albanian team's frequently "extremely rude" rejection of Belgrade's "numerous amendments," but "what did worry us was the attitude of Ahtisaari, who is stubbornly avoiding opening real negotiations." Ahtisaari invited representatives from Belgrade and Prishtina to Vienna for consultations on his plan, which gives Kosova many of the trappings of statehood but does not mention independence and envisages international oversight (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). Ahtisaari wrapped up the first round of consultations on March 2, saying that both sides clung to their opening positions. However, he said he will incorporate some amendments that will then be discussed at the next round of talks, which begin in Vienna on March 10. Those will be the last talks before Ahtisaari presents his proposal to the UN Security Council. Radio-Television Kosova on March 4 quoted the current chair of the Security Council, the South African ambassador, as saying the UN will address the issue of Kosova in April. AG

Bosnia-Herzegovina Radio 1 on March 3 quoted U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns as saying that the country can no longer be organized along the lines set out in the Dayton peace agreement and that the time has come to build a modern democratic state on different lines. Burns's comments, made to a meeting of foreign ministers from Southeastern Europe in Croatia on March 1, were hailed by Bosnia's most senior Muslim political leader, Haris Silajdzic, who seized on them as support for his case that Bosnia's constitution needs to be changed. In a statement quoted by BH Radio 1 on March 3, Silajdzic said that a new constitution should "annul the results of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide on which the Dayton constitutional structure is based," a reference to the postwar creation of the autonomous region for Bosnian Serbs, Republika Srpska. In the week since the International Court of Justice (ICJ) cleared Serbia of genocide in Bosnia but called the slaughter of roughly 8,000 Muslims at Srebrenica an "act of genocide," Silajdzic, a member of Bosnia's three-member Presidency, has called for Srebrenica to be separated from the Republika Srpska and, more generally, for Republika Srpska to be abolished (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 27, 28, and March 1, 2007). Another Bosnian Muslim leader, Sulejman Tihic, said on March 3 that the ICJ ruling underscored the belief of his Party of Democratic Action (SDA) that "the Republika Srpska is no more, either in name or in the sense of the area Republika Srpska that [Republika Srpska] Prime Minister Milorad Dodik speaks about." In a seemingly intractable dispute about police reform, Dodik is insisting that the Republika Srpska should retain its own police force, while other political leaders believe that there should a national police force divided along cantonal lines rather than along the lines of the autonomous regions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 23 and 26, 2007). AG

Legal teams from Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Netherlands representing the families of the victims of Srebrenica are expected to file charges in April against the Netherlands and the UN for their alleged responsibility for the killings in Srebrenica, the Sarajevo-based daily "Dnevni avaz" reported on March 2. They are reportedly planning to file for damages totaling roughly $1.4 billion. "Dnevni avaz" says the lawyers will try to prove that Dutch troops assisted units of the Bosnian Serb Army. At the time of the massacre in 1995, Srebrenica was nominally a "safe area" under the protection of Dutch troops, but the 400 lightly armed Dutch troops allowed Bosnian Serb forces to take control of the city after threats by the Bosnian Serbs and after NATO aircraft aborted a bombing mission against Bosnian Serb positions. AG

Croatian and Bosnian government ministers failed to resolve a set of long-standing disputes when they met for two days of talks in Zagreb on March 1 and 2, the Croatian news agency Hina reported. The main issues were the demarcation of the countries' borders, the division of Yugoslav-era property, and construction of a bridge connecting the Croatian peninsula of Peljesac with Bosnia, according to Nebojsa Radmanovic, a member of Bosnia's tripartite Presidency. Radmanovic was joined at the Croatian-Bosnian Intergovernmental Council meeting by the two other members of Bosnia's Presidency. Among the borders at issue are the status of the islands of Veliki Skolj and Mali Skolj. Radmanovic said that the attitude toward the islands' status "is changing, in our opinion, to the detriment of Bosnia-Herzegovina," adding that Croatia has produced new documents regarding the disputed islands. Discussions over ownership rights over parts of the Croatian port of Ploce were reportedly particularly complex. While diplomats stressed that relations are "good" and "neighborly," Croatian President Stjepan Mesic said relations between the two countries are passing through a period of "unsatisfactory stagnation." AG

Opposition members of the Podgorica municipal council have attacked a March 1 decision to make Croatian President Mesic the Montenegrin capital's first honorary citizen, TV Crna Gora reported the same day. The objections raised in what was described as a "stormy debate" center on Mesic's alleged conduct during the war between Croatia and the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Jovo Pajovic of the Socialist People's Party, formed by supporters of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, said Mesic contributed to "the breakup of our common state," accusing him of saying, "I have done my job, Yugoslavia no longer exists." Serbian politicians in 1991 controversially sought to prevent Mesic becoming president of Yugoslavia. Mesic subsequently returned to Croatia, where he opposed the policies of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Miodrag Besovic of the Serbian List said Mesic "has by his political activities caused much trouble and pain for the Serbian people and is directly responsible for the bloody breakup" of Yugoslavia. Similarly, Nebojsa Batricevic of the Movement for Change said that "the culprits and organizers of the war, the promoters of the war are exactly those who have given and [been] offered this recognition." The mayor of Podgorica, Miomir Mugosa, defended Mesic's role in the 1990s and stressed Mesic's efforts to stimulate trade with Montenegro. The decision to grant Mesic honorary citizenship is part of a broader improvement in relations between the two neighboring countries in recent months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 9 and 16, 2007). AG

The recent heated exchange of words between the Moldovan and Romanian governments continued on March 3, with Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin accusing Romania of "brutally" imposing its standards on Moldova. In comments to Moldovan television reported on March 3 by the Russian news agency ITAR-TASS, Voronin said that "since the moment Moldova declared its independence, Romania has been primitively imposing Romanian standards on us both from the outside and from the inside. They are doing this brutally and by force," he said, adding that "when we oppose this, they say: how dare you!" The Moldovan president said, "we want to be the masters in our own house and we do not accept the persistent imposition of Romanian standards," and he rejected Romania's offer to defend Moldovan interests in the EU, saying that his country "does not need any such defense." Moldova has recently clashed with Romania for not recognizing Moldovans as an ethnic minority and over a Romanian court's decision to clear Romania's pro-Nazi wartime leader Marshal Ion Antonescu of the charges for which he was executed in 1946 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2007). Romanian Foreign Minister Mihai Razvan Ungureanu on February 27 accused Moldova of nurturing "political fantasies" and engaging in "sterile polemics." AG

Almost a year after banning Moldovan meat, Ukraine's hygiene and veterinary authorities on March 3 gave permission for Moldovan meat to enter the country, the Moldovan news agency IPN reported. Ukraine's chief veterinary officer, Ivan Bisyuk, said that the decision followed an inspection in mid-January of meat-processing factories in Moldova. Moldova was one of three countries barred from exporting meat to Ukraine on March 26, 2006, after reported flaws in documentation. The other two were Belarus and Poland. Russia lifted a ban on Moldovan meat on January 25 after 20 months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2007). Despite the bans, IPN reported that Moldovan meat production rose 15 percent in 2006, to 98,000 tons. AG

Iraq's cabinet last week endorsed a draft oil and gas law for the management of oil resources and an equitable distribution of revenues. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki hailed the achievement, telling reporters on February 26 that with the endorsement of the draft law, the government "lays the foundation stone for building the state." The law will now be submitted to parliament for ratification before it takes effect later this year.

Seen as a compromise between Sunnis, Shi'a, and Kurds, the law calls for the distribution of oil revenues to the governorates or regions based on population numbers, and grants regional governments or oil companies the right to draw up contracts with foreign companies for the exploration and development of new oil fields.

Regions will be allowed to enter into production-sharing agreements with foreign firms, and a federal Oil And Gas Council will be established to oversee such agreements, holding veto power over the regional governments.

The council will be comprised of the ministers of oil, treasury, planning, and cooperative development; the director of the Central Bank; a minister representing each region; a representative from each governorate not belonging to a region; executive managers from related petroleum companies, including the Iraqi National Oil Company and the Oil Marketing Company; and maximum of three experts specializing in petroleum, finance, and economics appointed to five-year terms. The council will be responsible for setting oil and gas policy.

The draft law also distances Iraq from its historical state-controlled production path. Oil production in Iraq under Saddam Hussein was nationalized, as in other regional oil producers. By allowing for production-sharing agreements, Iraq will break the regional model, a move that could limit state control over resources. But production-sharing agreements will also allow Iraq to rehabilitate its oil sector more quickly -- thereby enriching the national coffers -- than were it to go the nationalization route.

Proponents of the law say it is a good compromise agreement that represents the interests of all Iraqis. Ashti Hawrami, the Kurdistan Region's minister for Natural Resources, noted on the regional government's website that provisions calling for pooled revenues to be redistributed according to population numbers aim to satisfy the needs of all Iraqis.

Hawrami said the regional government is pleased that it will retain the power to sign contracts for the development of oil and oil resources in the region. Such contracts will still be subject to the approval of the federal Oil and Gas Council.

Hawrami said the five contracts already signed by the Kurdistan Region government and foreign contractors will be reviewed by an independent panel of experts that will be appointed by the Oil and Gas Council following its establishment to ensure that standards set by the draft law are met.

Asked about the status of Kirkuk, Hawrami said the draft provides for the Iraqi National Oil Company to manage current producing fields -- no further activities will take place until after the planned referendum on the status of Kirkuk.

He contended that while the regional government is afforded greater powers over oil and gas through the Iraqi Constitution, it chose nonetheless to take a pragmatic approach to accommodate all parties.

With regard to the Kurdistan Region Petroleum Act, Hawrami said the act will be amended to bring into line with the draft federal law and the revenue-sharing law before it is presented to the Kurdistan National Assembly. The Kurdish parliament is expected to vote on it around the same time the federal laws are presented to the Iraqi National Assembly, Hawrami said.

The draft law has no shortage of critics. The website of the General Union of Oil Employees in Al-Basrah posted a statement by Hasan Jum'ah Awwad al-Asadi, the anti-American head of the Federation of Oil Unions in Al-Basrah, dated February 9 claiming the draft law represents U.S. interests in Iraqi oil.

Al-Asadi criticized production-sharing agreements, saying such contracts threatened Iraq's sovereignty over its natural resources and would only lead to the fleecing of national wealth. He also contended that privatization of the oil industry would not be accepted by the Iraqi "street." The union has called for legislation to reinvigorate the Iraqi National Oil Company and make it responsible for shouldering the responsibility for oil policy.

A recent gathering in Amman of former oil-industry experts from Iraq called for oil and gas contracts concluded with foreign companies to be submitted to parliament for approval. As it stands under the draft law, the Oil and Gas Council has the authority to approve such contracts.

With regard to the council, detractors have said its composition will reflect the sectarian divisions of the Iraqi government, and hence will lead to regional and sectarian agendas negatively influencing national economic policy.

In addition, the ambiguity of some clauses in the draft -- for example, calling for the publishing of the details of contracts of "significant" value -- raises concerns over transparency, critics argue.

Detractors also say the law will diminish central control over the management of natural resources, which could have disastrous consequences. However, the draft law includes several provisions calling for environmental responsibility and respect for natural resources. Companies that damage natural resources will be held to account to both the government and affected citizens.

The fact that the draft law was endorsed by the cabinet, which is comprised of representatives of the leading political parties, increases the probability that it will be ratified by parliament, but it is by no means a guarantee.

Political parties -- both Sunni and Shi'ite -- could easily use the draft as a bargaining chip to gain political concessions from the government. The possibility of Sunni opposition to the draft may have been tempered, however, by recent findings that suggest there are immense oil and natural-gas reserves in Sunni-populated areas once thought barren.

At least 10 civilians were killed and around 25 others injured when U.S. forces opened fire after a suicide attack on their convoy in Nangarhar Province on March 4, the Kuwait News Agency reported. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zmaray Bashari said in Kabul that a suicide bomber targeted the U.S. convoy along the main road from Kabul to the Pakistani border town of Torkham, with militants firing on the convoy afterward, to which U.S. soldiers retaliated. A statement issued by U.S. forces in Kabul described the attack as a "complex ambush" and expressed regret for civilian casualties. A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- on March 4 announced that a "heroic mujahid of the Islamic Emirate" carried out a "sacrificing" attack against "NATO invader" forces, destroying two main battle tanks and afflicting heavy casualties on their occupants. It went on to say that "invading American" forces, in their "usual style," fired upon civilians, "martyring" a number of them. It seems that as part of their psychological tactics, the neo-Taliban are planning attacks in proximity to civilians in order to cause casualties either during the attack or preferably as a result of counterattacks. AT

An angry crowd, reported to have numbered at least several hundred people, blocked the main road from Torkham to Jalalabad, the provincial capital of Nangarhar, on March 4 in protest to the killing and wounding of Afghan civilians by foreign military forces, the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. The protesters reportedly chanted slogans against Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the United States. AIP put the number of civilian deaths at eight (see above). Meanwhile, in a statement released by his office, Karzai strongly condemned the deaths of the civilians as well as the suicide attack against coalition forces in Nangarhar, the official Bakhtar News Agency reported on March 4. Karzai also ordered an investigation into the incident. Civilian casualties were also reported on March 5 in Kapisa Province, north of Kabul. Deputy Governor Sayyid Mohammad Daud Hashemi said nine Afghans were killed in their home by a NATO air strike overnight. The Interior Ministry confirmed there was fighting in Kapisa but could not confirm the casualties. AT

Two Royal Marines attached to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) were killed in a rocket attack in the Sangin district of Helmand Province on March 3, the British Defense Ministry's website ( reported on March 4. While no one has claimed responsibility for carrying out the attack, Helmand remains one of the strongholds of the neo-Taliban. AT

Speaking for the Taliban, Qari Mohammad Yusof on March 2 "strongly" denied reports alleging the arrest of Mullah Obaidullah Akhund in Pakistan, AIP reported. "The reports on Mullah Obaidullah's arrest are only rumors. From my information it is a totally false and baseless rumor," he told AIP. According to Mohammad Yusof, Obaidullah -- who was the defense minister of Afghanistan during Taliban rule -- is in Afghanistan, not in Pakistan. Obaidullah is one of the two chairmen of the Taliban leadership council, Mohammad Yusof explained. Two Pakistani intelligence officials confirmed reports of Obaidullah's arrest in Pakistan, "The Washington Post" reported on March 3. According to the unnamed officials, Obaidullah was arrested hours after U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney made a visit to Islamabad on February 26. It was "pure coincidence and our good luck that we found...Obaidullah within 24 hours of Cheney's visit," said a Pakistani intelligence official. AT

Iran's Intelligence Ministry reported on March 4 that "some journalists" were arrested "in one of the country's provinces," allegedly for working to implement "separatist" aims with the backing of foreign powers, ILNA reported, citing a fax sent by the ministry. Those arrested reportedly admitted to distributing or publishing "divisive" material serving "extremist ethnic" ideas. The agency reported that they received "considerable sums in dollars" every month from abroad to do this. Separately, Hussein Ali Shahriari, a parliamentarian from the southwestern Sistan-Baluchistan Province, deplored on March 4 the Iranian Foreign Ministry's inability to persuade Pakistan to extradite Abdulmalik Rigi, a Sunni radical considered responsible for banditry and murders in the province, and who Shahriari said is hiding in Pakistan, ILNA reported. "Unfortunately our Foreign Ministry is incompetent and our foreign minister has the role of a tourist," he said. He added that "aggressive and ineffective" diplomacy has failed to persuade Pakistan to implement an extradition treaty for criminals between Iran and Pakistan. He said "we should target Rigi's base in Pakistan," the way Shahriari said Iran previously bombed a Mujahedin Khalq Organization base in Iraq, or "complain through the UN and the [International Criminal Court] at The Hague." VS

Security agents arrested between 27 and 40 female activists demonstrating against state restrictions outside the Tehran Revolutionary Court on March 4, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media. The demonstrators gathered to protest against security pressures and the repeated summoning of activists for interrogation by state security officials, and there was some violence as the gathering was broken up, Radio Farda reported. The broadcaster cited the reformist daily "Etemad-i Melli" as reporting the arrests of 40 activists outside the same court on the same day who were protesting against the trial of five female activists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2007). It was not immediately clear if the arrested were part of the same protest, or if the two protests coincided. Those protesting against the trial included relatives of defendants. Many of the arrested were reportedly taken to a detention center in northern Tehran that usually houses persons arrested for vice or public-indecency offenses, Radio Farda quoted an unnamed witness as saying. ILNA reported on March 4 the first day of the trial of the five female activists in Branch 6 of the Tehran Revolutionary Court. The women are charged with engaging in publicity against Iran's government, acting against national security, and participating in an "illegal" gathering last year. VS

Kazem Jalali, the rapporteur of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said in Tehran on March 4 that Russia is looking for a pretext to delay the delivery of fuel to the nuclear power plant being built in Bushehr, ISNA reported. He said fuel was supposed to arrive in Bushehr already, and that the delivery of the fuel would save the plant from "possible violations." He said "if we had made agreements with other states on the construction of other nuclear plants, it would have been better than the situation the Russians have created with Bushehr." He was referring to recent delays in construction, reportedly due to a disagreement between Tehran and Moscow over payments. "Unfortunately there were serious delays in the completion of the power plant, and complementary agreements were repeatedly written and completion and operation were delayed," he said. Jalali added that Iranian citizens were already suspicious of Russia and that the delays are allowing these feelings to worsen. He said Moscow is now taking action on Iran "with due regard for international conditions." VS

Iran's parliament approved on March 4 the outlines of the government's proposed budget for the Persian calendar-year that starts on March 21, AFP reported. The report said 136 legislators attending an evening session voted in principle for the proposed revenues and spending sums in the budget, while 67 voted against and 13 abstained. The vote passed despite recent criticism about government forecasts of its revenues. The proposed budget is worth about $248 billion, representing a 19.6 percent year-on-year rise in expenditures, IRNA and AFP reported. Deputies will debate details of money allocations. Mohammad Reza Mirtajeddini, a legislator who spoke against the draft, deplored the expanding budget for state-sector firms, and asked in the March 4 debate if this is the way to implement recently unveiled plans for large-scale privatization, ILNA reported. "Can one tackle poverty with subsidies?" he asked. The parliamentary research center also expressed doubt that the government could earn 52 percent of its revenues from taxes and sources other than crude oil sales in the next budget year, and observed that it had only managed to earn 30.5 percent of its revenues from taxes in the first nine months of the current Persian year, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on March 5. VS

An estimated 500 Iraqi Army officers attended the Officers' Conference for National Reconciliation sponsored by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office in Baghdad on March 4. Addressing the conference, al-Maliki told attendees: "If we want to reach the shore of safety, stability, sovereignty, and the building of the homeland, all our efforts must be geared to this end," Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Rashid Majid al-Nasiri, director-general of the Iraqi cabinet's Dissolved Entities Department, told attendees that recruitment centers will be opened in all governorates to recruit specialists who can contribute to the development of the military, security, and engineering efforts of the government. Al-Nasiri said some 85,000 members of the former Iraqi Army, dissolved under the Coalition Provisional Authority, have been returned to their jobs. "More than 99 percent of the members of the present army are from the former army," he said. Al-Nasiri added that the new Iraq has room for all those who want to serve their people and country. KR

Iraqi Brigadier General Abd al-Karim Khalaf, director of the National Command Center at the Interior Ministry, announced the arrest of a senior leader of the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq, Muharib Abdallah Latif al-Juburi, in Al-Dulu'iyah, north of Baghdad, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on March 5. Al-Juburi, who reportedly uses the alias Abu Abdallah, is a deputy to the group's head, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi. The Islamic State of Iraq was established by deceased terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Mujahedin Shura Council in October 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006). KR

In a statement posted on the Internet on March 4, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq claimed it has killed 18 Interior Ministry officers whom it abducted last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 2, 2007). The group posted a video allegedly showing the uniformed officers being killed execution-style. The group said the men were killed after the Iraqi government failed to meet its demands. "The legal court of the Islamic State of Iraq in the Diyala Governorate has ordered the implementing of God's verdict against those apostates who sold their religion at a cheap price and violated the honor of Sunnis in Iraq," the statement said, referring to the alleged February rape of a woman reportedly identified as a Sunni Arab (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20 and 26, 2007). KR

The Islamic State of Iraq vowed in a March 2 Internet statement that the objective of its current "military" campaign is to kill 2,000 Iraqi security troops to avenge the alleged rapes of two Iraqi women. The Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization's "ministry of war" issued the statement, saying the "avenging the honor campaign" was launched in response to the call of their leader, Abu Umar al-Baghdadi. "The ministry of war would like to announce that this military campaign will continue and will not stop until the number of casualties suffered by the...police, commandos, public-order forces, Al-Dajjal [anti-Christ, an apparent reference to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi] Army, and others reaches 2,000. 1,000 casualties for each of the sisters whose honor was violated," the statement said. KR

Ibrahim Gambari of Nigeria has been named UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's special adviser on the International Compact with Iraq, according to a March 2 press release on the UN's website. The compact aims to help the Iraqi reconciliation process through political, economic, and social development over five years; it was launched in July 2006. Gambari's previous appointments include chief of the UN's political affairs department, special adviser on Africa, and head of the UN Mission in Angola. KR