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Newsline - March 8, 2007

The Brussels-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) International News Safety Institute (INSI) said in its report "Killing The Messenger" that 88 journalists were killed in Russia between 1996 and 2006, placing it second only to Iraq in the number of killings of media representatives during those years, and the daily "Kommersant" reported on March 7. Russia was followed by Colombia, the Philippines, and Iran. The survey concluded that two journalists died violently each week across the world during the period under review. INSI Director Rodney Pinder said that the situation of journalists in Russia is particularly serious. He referred specifically to the October 2006 killing of investigative reporter Anna Politkovskaya, which has not been solved, and the recent death of "Kommersant" military expert Ivan Safronov, who fell from a fifth-floor window on March 2 under unexplained circumstances (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6 and 7, 2007). The INSI study noted that most slain Russian journalists were the victims of apparent contract killings and that the guilty parties are rarely, if ever, caught. On March 6, the Brussels-based NGO the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) called on the Russian authorities to provide a "thorough and transparent investigation" of the Safronov case, reported. IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said that "the authorities should not rush to conclusions. This death again raises great concern over the safety of journalists in Russia, but there should be a completely open-minded investigation without any foregone conclusions." PM

Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Saltanov was quoted by Interfax in Moscow on March 7 as saying that the international Baghdad conference slated to open on March 10 could lead to a gathering of foreign ministers that could "promote a collective search for ways to settle the crisis" in Iraq. He added that "we have always supported a collective [approach]. We believe that...holding the meeting in Baghdad in the framework of preparing for a conference of foreign ministers on Iraq can help [resolve] the issue." Saltanov argued that the March 10 meeting should be more than an exchange of opinions and should serve as a "substantial and objective discussion of all aspects" of the Iraqi situation. He stressed that a "strong international component" is essential for ending the crisis in Iraq. PM

Sergei Karaganov, who heads the influential Foreign and Defense Policy Council (SVOP), a conservative Russian think tank, wrote in the state-run daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" of March 7 that President Vladimir Putin's February 10 speech in Munich "seems likely to be recognized as a historic event, and not because it allegedly announces a transition to a Cold War. Only idiots or blatant Russophobes believe that. This speech, with all its harsh truths, put an end (for the time being, at least) to hopes of establishing a new and more civilized world based on partnership, or even a quasi-alliance of civilized great powers against trends that pose a threat to all: nuclear weapons proliferation (probably unstoppable now), terrorism, and the spread of failed states. Neither will we have a common energy policy at this stage." Karaganov argued that "the Munich speech does not mean that Russia rejects cooperation on these and other problems. Putin simply stated, directly or indirectly, that the world's leaders have failed" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and 13, and March 1 and 7, 2007). Karaganov believes that "military force has returned to its traditional place in the system of international relations.... Provocateurs feel free to act as they please. This was recently demonstrated in Lebanon, and it's being demonstrated every day in Iraq. Against this background, stupid plans to deploy obviously ineffective missile-defense systems in Central Europe also seem like an act of provocation.... The United States will flee from Iraq, inevitably. But correcting the Iraq error by withdrawal will not create a more just or more manageable world. It's already clear that the collapse of America's unipolar aspirations will not lead to an effective multipolar world; it will lead to chaos." He added that "the coming era of Cold Peace, which we are entering after 15 years of euphoria over the end of the Cold War and the international community's abject failure to create any effective system of managing international relations and security, will be more dangerous in many respects than the Cold War itself." Karaganov stressed that Russia must "rely on itself, growing truly strong." PM

On March 7, the U.S. Federal District Court in New York found Vladimir Kuznetsov guilty of laundering over $300,000 to help companies win contracts related to the UN's former oil-for-food program in Iraq, international media reported. Kuznetsov was a Russian Foreign Ministry official who headed a powerful UN General Assembly budgetary committee prior to his arrest in 2005. He will be sentenced on June 25 and could face up to 20 years in prison. Kuznetsov's partner in the bribe-taking exercise was Aleksandr Yakovlev, a former UN procurement officer with a Russian diplomatic passport. He pleaded guilty in August 2005 to taking over $1 million in bribes and helped U.S. government officials uncover the extent of the scheme. PM

The pro-Kremlin Unified Russia faction in the State Duma decided on March 7 to call for the resignation of Health Minister Mikhail Zurabov if he fails to solve within two weeks a series of supply problems in the subsidized medicine program, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. On March 5, Federation Council Speaker Sergei Mironov -- a close ally of President Putin -- also called for Zurabov to resign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 23, 2007). Zurabov said on March 7 that he is prepared to take responsibility for the problem if that is what the public wants, reported. He stressed that the problem has deep-rooted financial origins and will not be resolved quickly. PM

Commenting on a deal for exclusive broadcasts between the Russian Football Union and the satellite television station NTV Plus, President Putin said on March 7 that Russian soccer fans have the right to watch games free of charge on television, news agencies reported. Putin said the deal would "rob" fans by requiring them to "spend money to buy equipment and pay fees." Putin asked First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev to look into the situation. PM

Ramzan Kadyrov named on March 7 as Grozny's new mayor Muslim Khuchiyev, who since January 2006 served as first deputy head of the presidential and prime minister's apparatus, and reported. Khuchiyev, who was born in 1971, is a graduate of Moscow State University's journalism faculty. He worked for a while as a businessman in Moscow, returning in 2004 to Chechnya, and served from August 2004-January 2006 as press secretary to Kadyrov's predecessor, Alu Alkhanov. Khuchiyev was one of two alternative candidates for the post of republic head whom presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak proposed to President Putin last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2007). On March 7 he stepped down as head of the regional chapter of A Just Russia, reported. LF

Bernard Fassier, who is the French co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group, met on March 7 in Yerevan with Armenian President Robert Kocharian to discuss preparations for the upcoming meeting in Geneva between the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. No details were made public. Fassier traveled to Yerevan on the same plane as Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian (who was returning from a working visit to the United States) and took the opportunity to discuss the peace process with him. At their previous round of talks in Moscow in January, the two foreign ministers discussed the implications and details of unspecified basic principles for resolving the conflict that Kocharian and his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev agreed on in Minsk last November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 24, 2007 and "End Note," February 20, 2007). The chances of a further meeting between the two presidents before the Armenian parliamentary elections in May remain unclear. LF

Police in Baku forcibly dispersed a group of activists who sought on March 7 to picket the Iranian embassy to protest discrimination against Iran's Azeri minority, and reported on March 7 and 8, respectively. Police detained between five and 10 picket participants. The Baku municipal authorities previously refused permission for the picket, which was organized by the opposition Azerbaijan National Independence Party. LF

In a March 6 interview with, Mubariz Qurbanly, who is a deputy executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party (YAP), denied that criticisms of YAP by former Health Minister Ali Insanov have triggered a crisis within the party's ranks. Qurbanly affirmed that "all 400,000 members of our party are united around our leader, President Ilham Aliyev." On February 15, the first day of his trial on charges of large-scale embezzlement and abuse of his official position, Insanov alleged that he is being persecuted on political grounds by persons who he claimed have "hijacked" YAP (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2007). YAP's press center promptly denied the allegation of political persecution, according to on February 16. Insanov further claimed to have raised millions of dollars to help fund YAP, of which he was one of the original members, along with now deceased President Heydar Aliyev. On February 28, Insanov announced that he has joined the ranks of the political opposition, reported the following day. A second YAP deputy executive secretary, Siyavush Novruzov, denied on February 15 that Insanov ever made any donations to party funds, and on March 2, commenting on Insanov's announcement that he has now aligned with the opposition, Novruzov quoted derogatory remarks he said Insanov made in the past about prominent opposition leaders. LF

The coffin believed to contain the remains of deceased former President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, which were recovered in Grozny on March 3, has been transported to Rostov-na-Donu for forensic examination by Russian Defense Ministry experts, Georgian media reported. Georgian Justice Minister Gia Kavtaradze and Konstantine Gamsakhurdia, Zviad's son from his first marriage, have both called for international experts, including from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, to participate in that examination. The daily "Akhali taoba" reported on March 7 that Tsotne Gamsakhurdia, Konstantine's half-brother, has given a blood sample for DNA analysis. Also on March 7, Konstantine Gamsakhurdia flew to London to meet with Chechen envoy Akhmed Zakayev, who in an interview posted on March 8 on the resistance website disassociated himself from Russian media statements attributed to him in which he expressed doubt that the remains discovered in Grozny were indeed Gamsakhurdia's (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2007). Meanwhile, it is unclear where Gamsakhurdia will finally be laid to rest: his widow wants him to be buried in the churchyard of the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Tbilisi, but since it remains unclear whether his death was by murder or suicide, the Georgian Patriarchate has not yet granted permission for him to be interred in consecrated ground, Caucasus Press reported on March 8. LF

Boris Chochiyev, who is first deputy prime minister of Georgia's unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, said on March 7 that what Georgian officials characterized as new and revised proposals for resolving the standoff between South Ossetia and the central Georgian government are neither new nor acceptable, Caucasus Press reported. Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Merab Antadze presented those proposals to Chochiyev in Tskhinvali on March 6 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2007). Chochiyev added that the South Ossetian side in turn is drafting new "constructive proposals" that it plans to present to all parties involved in the process of negotiating a solution to the conflict. They include Russia and the Republic of North Ossetia, together with the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Mission in Georgia. LF

Yulia Isakova, a journalist with Astana's Era TV channel, is suing Culture and Information Minister Ermukhammet Ertysbaev for moral damages after he prevented a crew from Era TV from filming a March 2 event, "Kazakhstan Today" reported on March 7. Isakova, who is asking for a symbolic one tenge (less than $0.01) in damages, said, "My professional rights, as well as the media law, were violated." The Union of Journalists of Kazakhstan recently called for Ertysbaev's resignation in connection with the incident involving Era TV (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 2007). DK

Oi-Talbek Osmonov, head of the National Security Committee's Bishkek department, told Kabar on March 7 that security services in the Kyrgyz capital have been put on high alert after tips of possible terror attacks. Osmonov called on Bishkek residents to be vigilant but to avoid panic. Noting that international terror groups such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan have issued threats against Kyrgyzstan, Osmonov said, "At this stage, the priority for security officials is the fight against external threats, not domestic problems." DK

Turkmen Education Minister Khydyr Saparliev has said that the "Rukhnama," the potpourri of history and philosophy authored by former President Saparmurat Niyazov, will remain a "core subject" in the country's school curriculum, Interfax reported on March 7. Nevertheless, Saparliev said that recent educational reforms will give Turkmen students a chance to study abroad. Saparliev said that the "major goal of the reform is to rearrange and refine the national educational system so that it gives opportunities for maximizing the potential of the young generation." DK

Mikhail Fradkov met with Uzbek President Islam Karimov in Tashkent on March 7 to discuss bilateral cooperation, particularly in the energy sector, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Russian natural gas company Gazprom and oil company LUKoil are in the process of investing $2.5 billion into Uzbekistan's energy sector, the official news agency UzA reported. Karimov noted that bilateral trade volume rose 42 percent year-on-year in 2006 to $3 billion. Both Fradkov and Karimov praised the current state of Russian-Uzbek relations. Accompanying Fradkov on his visit were Boris Aleshin, the head of Russian industrial agency Rosprom; Konstantin Romodanovsky, the head of the Federal Migration Service; and Gazprom and LUKoil executives. Aleshin told journalists in Tashkent on March 7 that Russia and Uzbekistan have signed an agreement to set up an aviation joint venture called UzRosAvia in which Russia will hold a minimum 51 percent stake, Interfax reported. Aleshin said, "The firm has been established for the repair of Mi-8 and Mi-24 helicopters, primarily in the interests of the armed forces of Uzbekistan and other states," ITAR-TASS reported. Russian arms exporter Rosoboroneksport will be one of the firms involved on the Russian side, while the Uzbek side will include the Tashkent Aviation Factory and the Chirchik Repair Factory, Finmarket reported. Aleshin said that the joint venture will be the first of its kind in the CIS. Romodanovsky, for his part, told journalists in Tashkent on March 7 that Russia and Uzbekistan will conclude agreements in a month and a half to regulate labor migration from Uzbekistan to Russia, reported. Romodanovsky said the agreements will cover readmission, migrant workers' rights, and illegal migration. According to Romodanovsky, official statistics put the number of Uzbek migrant workers in Russia at 102,658, with unofficial estimates running as high as between 1-1.5 million. DK

Andrei Sharonov, deputy Russian minister of economic development and trade, said in Tashkent on March 7 that Uzbek officials expressed frustration during talks at the slow implementation of projects by Russia's Gazprom, reported. Sharonov said, "The Uzbek party is very content with cooperation with LUKoil, but at the same time it claims that Gazprom has fallen behind schedule on some of the projects on the development of new fields." Uzbek officials said Gazprom has invested only $30 million of the $300 million it was supposed to have invested by this time in the development of new gas fields in Uzbekistan. Sharonov noted that Gazprom only received a license to develop the fields in December 2006 and began work in January. DK

United Civic Party leader Anatol Lyabedzka told Reuters on March 7 that the nationwide congress of democratic forces planned for mid-March will be put off for at least one month. "The congress has been put off for a number of reasons linked to organization and technical matters. No new date has been named, but it could take place in mid-April," Lyabedzka said. A controversy about the congress among the Belarusian opposition has erupted after former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich announced last month that he will not participate. Milinkevich said he objects to the idea of a rotating chairmanship in the coalition of opposition forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15 and March 2, 2007). JM

Representatives of the Netherlands did not take part in a Belarusian-sponsored meeting on trafficking in women and girls held at the UN headquarters in New York on April 4 because of the participation of Belarusian Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau, Belapan reported on April 7, quoting Dutch media. The Dutch government's move reportedly followed a request from the parliamentary faction of the Dutch social-liberal party Democraten 66 (D66). Both the United States and the European Union placed Navumau on their travel ban lists for his suspected involvement in the 1999-2000 disappearances of opponents of Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. JM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and his Polish counterpart Lech Kaczynski told journalists after their talks in Plock, Poland, on March 7 that they are planning to hold an energy summit in May with the participation of the presidents of Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, and Georgia, Polish and international media reported. The summit is to be devoted to bringing Caspian oil to Poland and further to Europe via Ukraine and Georgia. Kaczynski said both countries are strongly committed to the extension of the Odesa-Brody oil pipeline to Plock in Poland in order to ship Caspian oil to Europe. "I would like to emphasize with great satisfaction that we confirmed the practical implementation of this project. We see the logic of continuing political working contacts connected with this project," Polish Radio quoted Yushchenko as saying in Plock. JM

The European Commission said on March 7 that it will give Ukraine 494 million euros ($650 billion) in 2007-10 in an aid package to push political reforms in the country and make it adapt its energy market to European energy needs, dpa reported. In particular, the funds are intended to strengthen good governance and democratic institutions as well as improving the judiciary system in Ukraine. The EU's aid package is meant for the implementation of a new EU-Ukraine cooperation deal, talks on which were launched on March 5 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2007). JM

Initial reactions to amendments made to the UN's blueprint for the contested province of Kosova echo the response to the original plan, with Belgrade rejecting and Prishtina welcoming them, local and international media reported. One of Belgrade's top negotiators, Slobodan Samardzic, told Radio-Television Serbia that the changes, which were presented to the negotiating teams on March 7, are "small [and] really unimportant," and therefore inadequate because they failed to meet Belgrade's demand that Serbia should retain sovereignty over Kosova. Details of the revised plan will not be made public until March 10. The party of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), said through its spokesman, Andreja Mladenovic, on March 7 that the changes made the revised plan "worse" than the original proposal, and that the plan "converges with the position of the Albanian separatists." By contrast, Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu said that an "initial analysis" suggested the changes are "correct" and the new document "positive," with "no major changes that could modify the plan's essence," local and international media reported. The Belgrade broadcaster B92 and an Albanian-language paper, "Express," reported that the biggest change focuses on the way in which Kosova's constitution can be adopted and amended. "Express" quoted an unnamed diplomatic source as saying other changes are minor, relating to institutional cooperation with Serbia, refugees, missing people, and property issues. The reports therefore suggest Ahtisaari has retained the fundamental features of the plan, which confers the substance and trappings of statehood on Kosova but does not use the term "independence" and stipulates that the region would remain under international supervision (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007). The last round of consultations on the plan will be held on March 10 in Vienna. Serbian President Boris Tadic has already confirmed he will attend, B92 reported, but it is unclear whether he will be accompanied by Kostunica. The entire Kosovar Albanian leadership is expected to travel to Vienna. AG

The party of acting Prime Minister Kostunica, the DSS, has added another demand in talks about the formation of a new coalition government by insisting that the prime minister and president should come from different parties, B92 reported on March 7. DSS official Milan Parivodic called this "a fair distribution of responsibility," and suggested that this may be the party's key personnel issue, saying that "if this principle is agreed on, then we may see eye to eye on other personnel issues regarding the next government." The presidency is currently occupied by Boris Tadic of the Democratic Party (DS), which emerged from January's elections as the second-largest party in parliament, with 64 seats. The DSS has 47 seats in the 250-member parliament. B92 noted that another potential member of the coalition, the G17 Plus bloc, which has 19 seats, backs the DSS's demand. Talks between the DS and DSS were due to have been held on March 7, but were postponed by a week because the DSS wanted, according to its spokesman, to meet with other small parties. The DS and DSS have so far agreed on five issues -- sovereignty over Kosova, pro-EU policies, cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), anticorruption measures, and poverty reduction -- but there are major differences of degree in their positions on Kosova, the ICTY, and the EU. AG

Media in Kosova devoted substantial coverage on March 7 to a report by police inspectors that was critical of the response of Kosova's local police force to violence at a February 10 demonstration. The rally ended with the deaths of two protesters. Until now, most attention has focused on the conduct of the UN's police contingents, who were responsible for firing the rubber bullets that killed the demonstrators (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 13, 14, and 15, 2007). In the report, issued on March 7 by the Kosova Police Inspectorate, police commanders are criticized for failing to provide clear guidance, with the result that the local police force was passive during the demonstration, failing to control protesters after they started removing police barriers. The report calls for additional training and regular retraining for police officers. It also calls for the local police to be given greater responsibility for handling demonstrations. The UN retains overall command of police in the region, and local police officers are more lightly equipped than their UN peers. The deaths triggered the resignations of Kosova's interior minister and the UN's police commander, Stephen Curtis. On March 2, the families of the dead demonstrators filed a lawsuit against Curtis. AG

A Catholic bishop in Kosova, Bishop Dode Gjergji of Prizren, says construction of a new cathedral named after Mother Teresa of Calcutta will begin after Easter, the Catholic news agency reported on March 6. Mother Teresa, who is being considered for sainthood for her efforts to alleviate the suffering of the poor in Calcutta, one of India's most populous cities, was born in what is now Macedonia but her parents were ethnic Albanians. Her mother came from modern Kosova and her father from modern Albania. Gjergji said the project has the support of the Kosovar government and its majority Muslim population. The main avenue in Prishtina, Kosova's capital, is named after Mother Teresa. Gjergji said that Kosova's 60,000-strong Catholic community enjoys "good communication" with other groups in Kosova and "a normal life." AG

Bosnian Serb police raided several sites on March 7 in an effort to track down one of the six remaining Serbian war crimes suspects wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), local and international media reported the same day. The suspect, Stojan Zupljanin, served during the 1992-95 war under the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and is wanted for crimes committed against both Muslims and Croats in western Bosnia. Police searched houses, a company office, and a hotel in Banja Luka, the autonomous region's largest city, and in the village of Maslovare. The properties are owned by Zupljanin's cousin, Slobodan Zupljanin, a prominent businessman. Among the items confiscated were computers, CDs, and disks, the news agency SRNA reported. In February, Bosnian Serb police raided the home and business of another local businessman suspected of helping Zupljanin (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2007). The raid comes at a particularly sensitive time politically, after a UN court's decision ruled that the massacre of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995 was "an act of genocide" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26 and 27, 2007). Bosnian Serb leaders on March 7 issued a statement rejecting the notion of collective guilt for Srebrenica and rejecting Bosnian Muslim calls for the abolition of the Bosnian Serb autonomous region, Republika Srpska. In the statement, carried by local media, they condemned the calls as "malicious and damaging efforts to impose collective guilt" and to change Bosnia's constitution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 27, 28, and March 1, 2, 5, 6, and 7, 2007). The Republika Srpska authorities have sought to portray war crimes as acts of individuals and have called for Mladic and Karadzic to give themselves up to the ICTY (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2007). AG

Moldova on March 7 accused Romania of undermining Moldova's "national security and the principles of state" by easing the process by which Moldovans may obtain Romanian citizenship, local and international media reported the same day. Chisinau said in a statement that Bucharest's citizenship policy and its "unwillingness to sign a basic political treaty and a border treaty" with Moldova confirm Romania's "real intentions." Under a law passed in 1999, any Moldovan able to prove that he/she or his or her parents were born in territories belonging to Romania before World War II has the right of citizenship. Most of Moldova was part of Romania before it was annexed by the Soviet Union both during and after the war. Romanian President Traian Basescu declined to comment on the Moldovan government's statement, but said Romania's policy toward Chisinau remains unchanged. Basescu recently called for the citizenship-application process to be simplified. Romania says that 800,000 Moldovans have submitted applications for citizenship. Moldova's population is estimated to be 3.4 million. Chisinau accused Romania of starting to "actively aggravate the issue of Romanian citizenship for Moldovans precisely at the point that Bucharest was told it will join the EU." Following Romania's admission into the EU in January, anyone holding a Romanian passport is free to travel without a visa within the 27-member bloc. The dispute appears to have affected a second issue, the issuing of visas to Moldovans. Moldovan Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan said on March 7 that Chisinau has now decided not to let Romania open consulates in two other Moldovan towns, as Moldova believes that "additional consulates are not necessary." Romania's accession to the EU meant that Moldovans could no longer travel to Romania without a visa. AG

One of five Uyghurs transferred from U.S. detention to Albanian custody in May 2006 has told the Albanian newspaper "Shekulli" that the group's hopes for a fresh start have so far failed to materialize. Abu Bakr Qasim said that "we were promised that within a very short time, about two months, we would be able to start a new life," but "nothing has been done" in the nine months since their arrival. They continue to live in a camp, have been given only a three-month language course, and only recently received identity papers. Qasim said that the issue of identity papers removed fears that the Albanian authorities might return them to China, but Qasim believes there is little prospect that he will see his family again, including twins born after he left China. In the interview, published on March 4, Qasim catalogued abuse by U.S. prison officials in Afghanistan but said that, though a fellow Uyghur was badly beaten in Guantanamo, he was not "mistreated" during his years at Guantanamo. Qasim and his fellow Uyghurs were found innocent by a military tribunal in May 2005, but were detained, in easier conditions, for a further year. Qasim and his fellow Uyghurs were picked up in 2001 while trying to cross from Afghanistan into Pakistan. He said that when the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan began, they were visiting a Uyghur village in Afghanistan while waiting for Turkish officials in Pakistan to process a visa application. Qasim left China fearing arrest due to his membership in a Uyghur separatist movement. AG

Yuliya Tymoshenko, one of the most visible and dynamic symbols of the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, ended her first visit to the United States in 10 years by confidently proclaiming that she has secured the support of the U.S. government to help her build democracy in Ukraine.

Her whirlwind tour of Washington began with an appearance at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on February 28.

Her message to policymakers in Washington, including meetings with Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was that she and her political party, the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc, remain the strongest democratic alternative in Ukraine to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's pro-Russian Party of Regions.

The former prime minister devoted much of her speech at the CSIS -- and, indeed, her visit to Washington -- to Ukraine's relations with Western institutions. In particular, she spoke about her party's objective of gaining European Union membership.

However, that same day, German Chancellor Angela Merkel poured cold water on these aspirations, telling Yanukovych in Berlin that the best Ukraine could hope for in the foreseeable future would be a free economic zone between Ukraine and the EU. Merkel indicated that EU membership was not likely for the next 10 years.

For now, Ukraine looks likely to remain in the European Neighborhood Policy (ENP), an EU foreign-policy framework designed to increase integration of countries on the union's borders.

Even the most pro-Western Ukrainian politicians have rejected the ENP as being unfair and discriminatory -- or as some have dubbed it, "the EU doctrine of separate but equal."

There could be other options, though. Tymoshenko told the audience at the CSIS that Yanukovych's deputy prime minister, Mykola Azarov, recently revived the old alternative plan to EU membership -- that Ukraine join with Russia in the Single Economic Space. Tymoshenko said that she is opposed to this plan.

But with Belarus currently estranged from Moscow and the Central Asian states engaged in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, it is not clear what the Kremlin intends to do with the original Single Economic Space plan.

The second major focus of Tymoshenko's message in Washington dealt with Ukrainian energy security and her criticism of RosUkrEnergo, the Swiss-based gas intermediary company, which is responsible for deliveries of natural gas to Ukraine from Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.

Tymoshenko was openly hostile to the activities of RosUkrEnergo and warned her audiences that this company is intent upon establishing full control over the Ukrainian energy market.

An uncomfortable moment for Tymoshenko came during her briefing at the CSIS when a journalist asked her why she had not visited the United States in over 10 years, and whether this failure was in any way connected to her relationship with former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who was found guilty in a U.S. court on money-laundering charges in June 2004. The journalist asked whether she was afraid of being arrested upon entering the United States. Tymoshenko parried the question, saying that her appearance in the United States was proof that all is well.

In the first indictment of Lazarenko by the U.S. Justice Department, Tymoshenko and her company, Unified Energy Systems of Ukraine, are named as co-conspirators of Lazarenko and she was accused of giving him a substantial bribe. The charges linking Tymoshenko to Lazarenko were later dropped from Lazarenko's indictment as they were not deemed to be within the jurisdiction of a U.S. federal court.

The Afghan National Army (ANA) captured a Taliban commander, identified as Mullah Mahmud, in Kandahar Province on March 7, the Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press reported. Mullah Mahmud was reportedly involved in the training of suicide bombers in Kandahar's Panjwai district. The commander was reportedly trying to evade the ANA by wearing a burqa. The Taliban have not commented on the report. AT

The Italian government has confirmed that Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo has been abducted by the Taliban, the Turin daily "La Stampa" reported on March 7. "We are faced with a talking partner who is not a group of bandits who may be acting for ransom," Italian Foreign Minister Massimo D'Alema said, adding that the circumstances of Mastrogiacomo's abduction are "slightly more complex." Mastrogiacomo, who works for the Rome-based "La Repubblica," went missing along with his two Afghan guides on March 4 in southern Afghanistan. On March 6, the Taliban announced the capture of a British journalist and two Afghans, accusing them of being spies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2007). The Taliban have claimed that Mastrogiacomo has been arrested rather than abducted. A website purporting to represent the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan -- the name of the country under the Taliban -- reported on March 6 that "the mujahedin of the Islamic Emirate" have captured "one British and two Afghan spies" in Helmand Province. According to that website, "Dankil" (presumably Mastrogiacomo) said that he was recruited by British soldiers stationed in Helmand to be a spy. The "Leadership Council of the Islamic Emirate" will decide on the fate of the three hostages, the website added. AT

Kabul has finalized all of the preparations for a proposed regional "peace jirga" and can hold the meeting within four weeks if the Pakistani side is also ready, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on March 7. The "peace jirga" -- officially known as the Jirga for Regional Peace and Prosperity -- hopes to rely on tribes from both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border to stop terrorism and militancy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and was proposed by Kabul and Islamabad after Pakistan signed a peace deal with local tribes in North Waziristan in September (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," November 7, 2006). The idea of the joint Afghan-Pakistani meeting was reportedly discussed by Karzai and his Pakistani counterpart, General Pervez Musharraf, in a meeting in Washington in September. The "peace jirga" was slated to be held in Kabul in January but was postponed for unknown reasons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2006). AT

Singaporean Defense Minister Teo Chee Hean has indicated that his country will send a small deployment of troops to aid New Zealand's Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Bamiyan Province, the website of New Zealand's government reported on March 7. New Zealand worked together with Singapore in East Timor, New Zealand Defense Minister Phil Goff said, adding that Singapore's decision to join his country in Bamiyan "will further strengthen" the two countries' defense relations. New Zealand currently has 108 personnel working in Bamiyan. AT

Great Britain, France, and Germany, the so-called EU Troika that has in the past negotiated with Iran over its contested nuclear program, presented the governing board of the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) with a statement on March 7 deploring Iran's hastened progress to industrial-scale nuclear-fuel production and urging Iran to accept an IAEA proposal for a "time-out" -- a suspension of relevant activities in return for suspended UN sanctions, Reuters reported. The proposal would allow a resumption of talks on Iran's program, which Western states suspect might be a cover for future bomb-production activities. The statement deplored recent moves by Iran to curb IAEA inspections and its refusal to allow cameras in the Natanz uranium-enrichment plant, and observed that Iran has acted in a way that demonstrates no intention to alleviate Western concerns. The governing board was also expected to vote on cuts proposed by the IAEA secretariat to IAEA technical aid to Iran, in line with UN sanctions imposed in December. Iran's envoy to the IAEA, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, told the board meeting on March 7 that sanctions and the "Security Council route" are illegal and "entirely separate from the path of negotiations and long-term cooperation," IRNA reported. VS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini on March 6 rejected as "unconstructive and discriminatory" the EU's approach to Iran's nuclear program and decried its perceived failure to consider "Iran's evident and recognized rights," IRNA reported. Iran maintains its right to make nuclear fuel. Hosseini urged the EU to "think of ways and methods" to help resolve "misunderstandings and possible concerns" while safeguarding Iran's rights. Use of the UN Security Council contravenes the wishes of the international community regarding Iran's dossier -- especially the Non-Aligned Movement and Organization of the Islamic Conference -- and contradicts the EU's stated wish to resume talks with Iran. Iranian parliamentary speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel said in Tehran on March 7 that "parliament will certainly change the situation" if Security Council powers pass further resolutions targeting Iran, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on March 8. He was presumably referring to the approval of laws further restricting Iranian cooperation with IAEA inspectors. "We want them to return to the negotiating table and resolve this problem with rational talk," he said. VS

Hossein Zolfaqari, a deputy commander of Iran's police force, said on March 7 that "90 percent" of those arrested in western and northwestern Iran in connection with militant violence there in late February were foreigners, Radio Farda reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 1, 2007). Zolfaqari did not state the nationalities of those arrested. Iranian forces have reportedly been fighting alleged members of the Party of Free Life of Kurdistan (PJAK), a militant Kurdish group. Zolfaqari said that after PJAK activities in February, security forces began extensive operations to suppress the group in which "three of the group's commanders" were killed. He identified one of them as Afat, whom he described as a "regional commander," Radio Farda reported. Zolfaqari said the sweep included a "regional-cleansing" operation designed to find hidden militants that led to numerous arrests. In Tehran on March 7, Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi said " problems on the frontiers are in the northwest of [Iran], where the enemy has had movements and raised sleeping serpents here and there," ISNA reported. He said Iranian security forces have foiled "many plots," and further "planning" would improve "the situation on the frontier." VS

Dissident former prisoner Akbar Ganji told Radio Farda that Iran has a "monarchy" comparable to the regimes of the late Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi or Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines in the 1970s, the station reported on March 5. Ganji said Iran's polity relies on soldiers to make up for a lack of public support. "The presence of the military in politics is such now that some people think there is a military dictatorship in Iran," he said. He said people can today see members the Basij militia, a force affiliated with the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), outside mosques, on the streets, and at universities, and "that means intelligence and security forces have been placed everywhere beside you, to watch over you." He said professional and representative interest groups can help civilians assert their rights in Iran. Separately, former President Mohammad Khatami told a party gathering in Tehran on March 7 that political pluralism is beneficial for Iran and party politics is a necessity, ISNA reported. Political competition would create "a better environment," he said, "[but] sometimes a government comes along and decides it is not good to have many parties and newspapers, which is very frightening indeed." He added, "Whoever we are, we cannot object to democracy." VS

At a March 7 press briefing in Damascus broadcast on Al-Iraqiyah television, Iraq's Sunni Arab vice president, Tariq al-Hashimi, told reporters that he has conveyed his concerns over Iranian interference in Iraq to Syria's president and vice president during meetings in Damascus this week. "I am confident that the Syrian Arab Republic will not relinquish its pan-Arab role for which it is historically known," al-Hashimi said. He said he will make his country's apprehensions regarding Iranian interference known when he meets with Iranian leaders in Tehran next week. Syrian Vice President Faruq al-Shar'a was asked at the same briefing if he expects a U.S.-Syrian dialogue at the March 10 meeting of Iraq's neighbors in Baghdad. "We have not reached that point because the aim [of the meeting] is helping Iraq and the Iraqi people.... We hope that a horizon will open up so that this major issue can be solved," al-Shar'a said. KR

Al-Hashimi also told reporters on March 7 that in his meetings with Syrian leaders, including President Bashar al-Asad, it was clear "our analysis of the situation [in Iraq] was identical and we had a common vision of the way to address the chaotic situation" there, Al-Iraqiyah reported. Elaborating, al-Hashimi said that both sides agreed that Iraq needs to activate its national reconciliation plan, "which still needs two things." The first is to include elements currently opposed to the process, namely, what he called "national resistance" groups. The second issue relates to the government granting a general amnesty for detainees in Iraqi prisons, al-Hashimi said. The Iraqi daily "Al-Zaman" reported on March 7 that al-Hashimi has asked Syrian authorities to help open a channel of dialogue with Iraqi Ba'athists based in Syria. Al-Hashimi acknowledged the Arab Socialist Ba'ath Party in his opening remarks at the press briefing as one of the groups with which he had a useful dialogue while in Syria. KR

U.S. General David Petraeus, the commander of the U.S.-led forces in Iraq, told reporters on March 8 at his first press briefing since assuming command in February that insurgent attacks have increased since the Baghdad security plan was launched, AP reported. Petraeus said U.S. forces should move to Diyala Governorate north of Baghdad to battle insurgents. It is widely assumed that the majority of Sunni Arab insurgents headed to Diyala in recent weeks to elude the Baghdad security plan. Asked if additional U.S. troops are needed to help enforce the security plan, Petraeus said: "Right now we do not see other requests [for troops] looming out there. That's not to say that some emerging mission or emerging task will not require that, and if it does then we will ask for that," Reuters reported. KR

Defense Secretary Robert Gates told reporters in Washington on March 7 that there are positive signs the Baghdad security plan is working, according to a transcript posted on the Pentagon website. "There are some very preliminary positive signs of things going on. No one wants to get too enthusiastic about it at this point; we're right at the very beginning. But I would say that based in terms of the -- whether the Iraqis are meeting the commitments that they've made to us in the security arena, I think that our view would be so far, so good," he said. Gates said that General Petraeus has requested some 2,000 additional military policemen to help oversee detainees. Petraeus "anticipates that as the brigades come in and as the Baghdad security plan is implemented that...they will pick up a significant number of additional detainees, and he wants more military police to help with that," Gates said. General Peter Pace, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the same briefing that the Iraqi government has identified three more governorates for which it is ready to assume responsibility. Iraq plans to take over security responsibility for all of its 18 governorates by November. KR

Radi al-Radi, the head of Iraq's Commission on Public Integrity (CPI), told the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" in an interview published on March 8 that corruption is at an all-time high in Iraq, and far worse than it was under Saddam Hussein's tenure. "There are eight ministers and 40 director-generals against whom corruption charges have been brought and they have all fled abroad," al-Radi said, adding that some $8 billion in public funds has been embezzled. KR

King Abdullah II told members of the U.S. Congress on March 7 that the key to resolving the Iraq crisis lies in finding a just peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to a transcript of the speech published in the "Jordan Times" on March 8. "The entire international community has vital decisions to make about the path forward, and how to ensure Iraq's security, unity, and future. But we cannot lose sight of a profound reality. The wellspring of regional division, the source of resentment and frustration far beyond, is the denial of justice and peace in Palestine," he said, calling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict the core issue. Abdullah said that Muslims around the world question Western values of equality, respect, and universal justice because of the conflict. "Sixty years of Palestinian dispossession, 40 years under occupation, a stop-and-go process, all this has left a bitter legacy of disappointment and despair on all sides," he noted, adding that the region is looking to U.S. leadership to resolve the crisis. KR