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Newsline - March 20, 2007

A fire in a retirement home in the city of Eisk in the Kuban region of Krasnodar Krai killed 62 people, with another 34 hospitalized, RIA Novosti reported on March 20. The news agency quoted a Krasnodar Krai law enforcement source as saying that many of the deaths and injuries were a result of smoke inhalation. Citing sources in the federal Emergency Situations Ministry, RIA Novosti reported that the home was inspected for fire safety twice in 2006, the last time in December, and that six out of the more than 30 fire-safety violations that were discovered had not yet been corrected. A ministry spokeswoman said that the facility had been fined for the violations. In addition, the fire station nearest to the retirement home is located 50 kilometers away -- a violation of "existing norms" requiring that a fire station be located no more than 3 kilometers from any population center. Separately, a methane-gas explosion in the Ulyanovsk mine in the city of Novokuznetsk in Kemerovo Oblast on March 19 killed at least 106 miners, with 93 others rescued, reported on March 20. AP on March 20 quoted Kemerovo Oblast government spokesman Sergei Cheremnov as saying that company officials and safety experts, along with a British citizen and his interpreter, were in the mine examining a British-made hazard-monitoring system just before the blast occurred. Kemerovo Oblast Governor Aman Tuleyev was quoted by ITAR-TASS as saying the families of the dead will each receive at least $25,000 in compensation. JB

Russia has informed Iran that it will withhold fuel for the nearly completed Bushehr nuclear power plant unless Iran suspends uranium enrichment as demanded by the UN Security Council, "The New York Times" reported on March 19. Citing anonymous European, U.S., and Iranian officials, the daily reported that the ultimatum was delivered in Moscow last week by Russian Security Council Secretary Igor Ivanov to Ali Hosseini Tash, Iran's deputy chief nuclear negotiator. "The New York Times" quoted a senior Bush administration official in Washington as saying: "We're not sure what mix of commercial and political motives are at play here. But clearly the Russians and the Iranians are getting on each other's nerves -- and that's not all bad." It also quoted a senior European official as saying: "We consider this a very important decision by the Russians. It shows that our disagreements with the Russians about the dangers of Iran's nuclear program are tactical. Fundamentally, the Russians don't want a nuclear Iran." Ivanov told a Moscow think tank on March 18 that the issue of Iran's nuclear program should not be used as "instrument of pressure" or a pretext to interfere in Iran's internal affairs, but he also said that Iran "needs to stop work to enrich uranium." However, Ivanov called the Bushehr nuclear-power-plant project an "independent issue" that is separate from Iran's attempts to develop nuclear weapons and is being carried out "under the strict control" of the International Atomic Energy Agency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007). Meanwhile, the Russian official daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on March 20 that U.S. financial authorities are threatening to close the correspondent accounts of Russian banks in the United States as part of an effort to cut off financing for the nuclear programs of Iran and North Korea. JB

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said that Russia "has no right to quarrel with the Islamic world, not to mention allow anybody to make it quarrel with the Islamic world," Interfax reported on March 19. According to the news agency, Lavrov told a session of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy think tank on March 18 that Russia and other major countries like China and India have opted for a "unifying policy" that "should become the key factor and guarantee against a civilizational rift in the world." The West, meanwhile, is losing its monopoly on globalization processes, he said. Lavrov also warned against ignoring chances to resolve conflicts and crises, including those in the Middle East, which serve as a breeding ground for terrorism and extremism. "Perhaps it should be understood that a lot could be done by settling the Middle East crisis, abandoning the policy of force, and taking measures that would help really resolve the poverty problem," he said. Attempts to ignore the reality of a multipolar world and act unilaterally have failed, Lavrov said. In this context, he cited Iraq and Iran, and also said it is unclear how the situations in Sudan and Somalia will develop. JB

Commenting on the fourth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, Anatoly Tsyganok, head of the Military Forecasting Center of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis, said that coalition forces have not been able to achieve the goals they had going into the operation, RIA Novosti reported on March 19. "Weapons of mass destruction and chemical weapons, which were the main targets of the operation, were not found in Iraq, [and] the democratic rearrangement of Iraq, at the end of the day, did not work out," he said. "And if the war ended with 137 dead American soldiers, now the American losses in Iraq exceed 3,000 killed, [with] around 75,000 wounded and more than 20,000 deserters." (It should be noted that "USA Today," citing Pentagon records, reported in March 2006 that "at least 8,000" members of the all-volunteer U.S. military have deserted since the start of the war in Iraq, but that the overall desertion rate has "plunged" since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.) Tsyganok said the war in Iraq has shown that "an army must train not for pitched battles, but for carrying out local warfare against guerrilla units." Leonid Ivashov, vice president of the nationalist Academy of Geopolitical Studies, said the current situation in Iraq represents a military and political defeat for the United States, RIA Novosti reported on March 19. He suggested that this situation presents opportunities for Russia. "The Iraq conflict has influenced the situation in the world, has left many issues that need to be resolved," he said. "At the same time, much depends on Russia.... Russia can become one of the leaders of a multipolar world -- a world of stability and security." JB

Moscow's Timiryasevsky district court on March 19 convicted six men on charges of selling forged VIP license plates of the type used by state officials, as well as large-scale fraud, document forgery, bribery, and complicity to commit a crime. The men received prison sentences ranging from two to seven years. RIA Novosti, citing the Federal Security Service (FSB), reported on March 19 that the group produced, handled, and sold such forged documents as special permits, Interior Ministry certificates, state license plates, special entrance passes to the Kremlin and the presidential administration, and entrance passes to central Moscow for large vehicles. Reuters reported on March 19, that prosecutors said the gang sold special number plates and passes with a flashing blue light -- known in Russia as a migalka -- for as much as $200,000. The daily "Vremya novostei" reported on March 20 that the gang's leader, Vyacheslav Gaspl, an Estonian citizen who was also charged with organizing a criminal group and illegally crossing the border, received the harshest sentence -- seven years in a strict-regime prison colony. Former Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR) employee Aleksei Tarasov was sentenced to five years in prison, former Moscow traffic police officer Mikhail Motoriko received a four-year prison sentence, and a former federal Interior Ministry colonel, Mikhail Shapatin, received a 2-1/2-year prison sentence. Sergei Stepashin, chairman of the Russian Audit Chamber, told a conference of law enforcers in Veliky Novgorod on February 22 that the recruitment of retired members of Russian military intelligence (GRU), FSB, Interior Ministry, and other power-wielding agencies by criminal and quasi-criminal structures is becoming "a huge problem for Russia," RIA Novosti reported. JB

The Tyva (Tuva) Republic prosecutor has opened a criminal case into the alleged falsification of the outcome of the elections for a new republican Khural (parliament), reported on March 20. The Kyzyl city election commission annulled the October 8 vote in five single-mandate constituencies in which candidates from the Russian Party of Life (RPZh) won election. The Tyva Supreme Court annulled that ruling, but the Russian Supreme Court upheld the RPZh candidate in only one constituency. Tyva Republic Election Commission Chairman Mongush Sholban told on March 16 that the commission has annulled the results of the March 11 repeat vote in three constituencies where the RPZh candidates apparently won election, and validated the outcome only in one constituency where a candidate from the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia won. Sergei Mironov, leader of the A Just Russia party, which recently subsumed the RPZh, has condemned that decision and on March 17 five members of the Tyva branch of the RPZh declared a hunger strike to protest it. Meanwhile, Tyva Republic head Sherig-oola Oorzhak's term in office expires on April 11, but President Putin failed to propose Oorzhak's candidacy to the Khural for a further term by the March 7 deadline, according to on March 20. The paper speculated that even when Putin does so, the 14 Unified Russia Khural deputies may be unable to muster the required minimum 17 votes to approve Oorzhak's candidacy. LF

Chechen Republic Ichkeria President and resistance commander Doku Umarov issued a decree on March 3 naming veteran field commander Supyan Abdullayev his vice president, the resistance website reported on March 19. Abdullayev was born in November 1956 in Kazakhstan, graduated from Grozny State University, studied Islamic theology in Chechnya and Daghestan, and in the late 1980s was one of founders of the Islamic Renaissance Party. He fought with the Islamic battalion that routed the attempt by pro-Moscow Chechen and Russian forces on November 26, 1994 to take Grozny, and as a member of that battalion for the duration of the 1995-1996 war, participating in the recapture of Grozny in August 1996. After his election as president in January 1997, Aslan Maskhadov named Abdullayev deputy minister for Shari'a security. Abdullayev has fought since October 1999 first as deputy commander and then as commander of the Djundullah Islamic brigade. LF

Pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov told journalists in Grozny on March 19 that the remaining groups of resistance fighters in Chechnya will be crushed within the next two months, according to RIA Novosti as cited by In May 2005, Kadyrov claimed that there were only a few dozen resistance fighters left and that they did not represent a threat to stability, while in March 2006 he said that all Chechen resistance formations had been smashed, and that only a handful of "odious figures" remained active, whose death or capture was "a matter of time" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 12, 2005 and March 13, 2006). Russian Deputy Interior Minister Colonel General Arkady Yedelev told the same press conference on March 19 that there are currently 37 militant bands operating in Chechnya with a combined strength of up to 450 men. On February 2, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" published an interview with Yedelev in which he gave the number of militant groups as 46, with a total strength of 450 men. LF

Daghestan Interior Ministry troops and special forces backed by armored personnel carriers launched a special operation early on March 19 in the village of Gimri in Untsukul Raion but failed to apprehend a group of militants, who escaped into the surrounding forest, Russian media reported. Gimri is one of numerous enclaves within Daghestan whose inhabitants do not recognize the authority of the republican leadership. LF

Yerevan police confirmed on March 19 that activists for two rival pro-government parties, Prime Minister Andranik Markarian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK) and Prosperous Armenia (BH), which was founded 15 months ago by wealthy businessman Gagik Tsarukian, had "a minor dispute" in Yerevan's Erebuni district four days earlier while campaigning for the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 12, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Media reports on March 17 claimed the standoff between the two rival groups degenerated into a mass brawl, and that President Robert Kocharian convened an emergency meeting of police and security officials later on March 15 to evaluate the implications of the incident. A senior HHK official on March 19 accused the opposition Orinats Yerkir (OY) party headed by former parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian of provoking the clash, an accusation that OY Deputy Chairman Mher Shageldian rejected as "absurd," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

President Kocharian and his Iranian counterpart Mahmud Ahmadinejad met on March 19 in the small town of Agarak on the border between their respective countries to inaugurate a pipeline that will provide Armenia with natural gas from Iran, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Work on the 40-kilometer pipeline began in late 2005 and was financed primarily by a $34 million loan from the Iranian government that Yerevan will repay in electricity supplies. Initial throughput capacity will be 400 million cubic meters per year, rising to 2.3 billion cubic meters once a second leg of the pipeline on Armenian territory is completed. Kocharian hailed the inauguration as "a new page" in bilateral relations, while Ahmadinejad said he sees "no impediments" to the further harmonious development of bilateral ties. LF

Parliament deputies voted on March 19 to strip independent legislator Guseyn Abdullayev of his immunity from prosecution, and reported on March 19 and 20 respectively. Abdullayev engaged in an exchange of insults in the parliament chamber on March 16 with pro-government lawmaker Fazail Agamaly, who sought to interrupt his criticism of Prime Minister Artur Rasizade's annual address (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007). There are conflicting reports on whether the two men came to blows. Police detained Abdullayev in Baku later on March 19 en route for the OSCE office, and the Narimanov District Court remanded him in pre-trial custody for two months on charges of assault and hooliganism. Opposition politicians and human rights activists have denounced his arrest, reported. LF

Ali Insanov, who was dismissed as health minister in late October 2005 and arrested on suspicion of plotting to overthrow the Azerbaijani leadership, was permitted to consult with his lawyer on March 19 and consequently abandoned the indefinite hunger strike he began two days earlier, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007). Insanov is currently on trial on separate charges of embezzlement and abuse of his official position. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili met on March 19 in the village of Kurta in the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia with Dmitry Sanakoev, whom the Georgian population of the region elected as "president" in a November 2006 ballot not recognized by the international community as legal and valid, Caucasus Press and reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2006). Saakashvili lauded Sanakoev as a hero and patriot, having announced in his annual address to the nation last week his intention of beginning consultations with Sanakoev in a bid to resolve the standoff between the central Georgian government and the largely Ossetian population of South Ossetia. LF

A second round of voting took place on March 18 in the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia in 17 constituencies where no candidate won a majority in the parliamentary ballot two weeks earlier, and reported on March 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5, 2007). Voter turnout averaged a little over 50 percent, and in some constituencies reached 75-80 percent, according to Central Election Commission Chairman Batal Tabagua. In contrast to the first round of voting, not a single international observer was present. The three parties that back President Sergei Bagapsh -- United Abkhazia, Amtsakhara, and Aytayra -- control at least 21 of the total 35 mandates. Speaking on March 19, Bagapsh proposed amending the election law to introduce a mixed majoritarian-proportional system, reported. LF

Interior Ministry spokesman Bagdat Kozhakhmetov told a briefing in Astana on March 19 that a clash the day before in the village of Malovodnoe in Almaty Province that resulted in three deaths was not linked to ethnic strife, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Kozhakhmetov stated that while individuals of both Asian (ethnic Kazakhs) and Caucasian (ethnic Chechens) descent were involved in the incident, an investigation is ongoing. He noted that according to Kazakhstan's media law, any suggestion that a particular conflict is based on ethnic strife is seen as an attempt to foment ethnic discord. Eyewitness reports to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service by some of those involved in the incident, however, suggested it may have been an interethnic conflict. Meanwhile, a local police official told Interfax-Kazakhstan on March 19 that the conflict, which reportedly involved hundreds of young people, "may have a national basis.", a Russia-based website, in a March 19 report, accused Kazakh media of a cover-up. (For more, see "Kazakhstan: Shoot-Out In Village Leaves Three Dead,", March 19, 2007). DK

The Kyrgyz Prosecutor-General's Office has filed a formal request with U.S. authorities to allow U.S. soldier Zachary Hatfield to stand trial in Kyrgyzstan on murder charges, Kabar reported on March 19. A Kyrgyz investigation has concluded that Hatfield, who shot and killed a Kyrgyz citizen at a checkpoint at the United States' Manas Air Base on December 6 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2007), committed homicide. The report noted that under a December 14, 2001 basing agreement, U.S. service personnel at Manas Air Base possess diplomatic immunity and are under U.S. jurisdiction. DK

President Kurmanbek Bakiev issued a decree on March 19 dismissing Prosecutor-General Kambaraly Kongantiev from his post, the president's website ( reported. RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported the following day that Kongantiev's successor will be Elmurza Satybaldiev, who previously held the post of deputy chairman of the State Committee on National Security. Opposition lawmaker Azimbek Beknazarov recently called for Kongantiev's removal for his failure to complete an investigation of the deaths of six demonstrators in Aksy District in 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 18 and 19, 2002). DK

Temir Sariev, an opposition lawmaker and member of the opposition For Reforms movement, announced on March 19 that President Bakiev is ready to institute constitutional reforms and create a national unity government, reported. Sariev said he informed the president that a planned opposition demonstration on April 11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007) could have serious consequences if Bakiev fails to embark on timely reforms. Sariev said, "The president promised to do everything to maintain stability, even if these reforms will reduce his authority." Sariev said that he has informed fellow members of For Reforms of his meeting with Bakiev and that the For Reforms leadership will meet with Bakiev again on March 21. DK

The Tajik authorities have shut down dozens of unregistered mosques in Dushanbe, Avesta and Regnum reported on March 19. Dushanbe prosecutor Qurbonali Muhabbatov told Avesta that unregistered mosques have been asked to register or face closure. The news agency noted that 57 mosques have been temporarily shuttered in Dushanbe's Sino district alone. Regnum reported that over 3,000 mosques now function in Tajikistan, and that up to 90 percent of them lack registration. ITAR-TASS noted that President Imomali Rakhmonov told a meeting of owners of small businesses recently, "Enough building of mosques, better that you build schools for your children." DK

Turkmen citizens stripped of their pensions under President Saparmurat Niyazov will once again receive pension payments starting on July 1, reported on March 19. In a March 18 broadcast on Turkmen TV, Social Security Minister Gurbandurdy Kakaliev said that "people who worked in agriculture and all our citizens whose pensions were cancelled will begin receiving pensions again." noted that a recently adopted law on social security struck down a number of earlier laws passed in the period 1992-2006. Pension changes in early 2006 reportedly ended or reduced pension payments for an estimated 100,000 Turkmen citizens (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 3, 2006). DK

Several dozen people arrived at Minsk's October Square on the evening of March 19 to commemorate the protests that began there following the deeply flawed presidential election a year ago, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The demonstrators included Syarhey Kalyakin, leader of the Belarusian Party of Communists; Anatol Lyabedzka, chairman of the United Civic Party; and Anatol Lyaukovich, acting chairman of the Belarusian Social Democratic Party (Hramada). Riot police pushed out the demonstrators from the square into a side street, where they dispersed. There were reportedly no arrests. In March 2006, the protests on October Square against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's third term lasted four days, until riot police raided the tent camp built on the square and arrested some 300 protesters, who were subsequently sentenced to 15 days in jail in most cases. JM

The Minsk City Executive Committee has banned opposition forces from staging a demonstration on October Square on March 25, Belapan reported. On March 25, popularly called Freedom Day, the opposition was planning to mark the 89th anniversary of the short-lived 1918 Belarusian People's Republic, which was crushed by the Bolsheviks. One of the organizers of the Freedom Day rally, former opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich, told Belapan that the authorities proposed that the opposition hold a rally on a square on the city's outskirts. "We'll discuss several scenarios, as people will anyway be gathering on October Square and everything will depend on the behavior of the police and authorities," Milinkevich said. "My personal opinion is that the decision [on the ban] is illegal and we cannot obey illegal decisions." JM

The Verkhovna Rada on March 20 rejected the candidacy of Volodymyr Ohryzko for the post of foreign minister, Ukrainian media reported. Ohryzko was supported by 195 votes from the opposition Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine. He needed at least 226 votes to be approved. It was the second time that the candidacy of Ohryzko, submitted by President Viktor Yushchenko, was rejected by the legislature. The first failed vote on Ohryzko took place on February 22 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2007). After the vote on March 20, the lawmakers from the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine left the session hall. On March 19, President Yushchenko held consultations with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz, and parliamentary leaders on Ohryzko's confirmation but apparently failed to persuade the ruling coalition to support his nominee. JM

Yuliya Tymoshenko, head of the eponymous political bloc, said during consultations between parliamentary leaders and President Yushchenko on March 19 that a group of unidentified persons in parliament is working to expand the ruling majority into a constitutional majority of at least 300 votes by way of bribery, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "I can tell you that I spent this weekend talking to deputies," Tymoshenko said. "Each of them told me that groups had been formed at the parliament, and from $3 million to $8 million had been offered alongside official positions for family members. They are offering everything, and 300 votes are being actually handpicked. Is this democracy?" she added. Parliamentary speaker Moroz said earlier this month that a majority of 300 deputies will be formed in the Verkhovna Rada in two months. The Ukrainian parliament currently has five caucuses: the Party of Regions (186 deputies), the Socialist Party (31), and the Communist Party (21), which form the ruling majority; the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc (186) and Our Ukraine (79), which are in opposition. JM

The head of the UN's Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), Joachim Ruecker, told the UN Security Council on March 19 that an early decision on the status of Kosova would benefit both ethnic Albanians and Serbs, and that clarity would enable Kosovar Serbs "to gather the strength to take the decision they must take: to accept the hand extended to them by the Kosovo institutions and become an engaged part of Kosovo's society." The report on Ruecker's presentation comes from UNMIK's press service; the meeting itself was held behind closed doors. Ruecker was in New York to provide his assessment of the situation in Kosova, which forms part of a package of opinions being considered by senior UN officials and member states as they deliberate on the final status of the UN-administered Serbian province. Ruecker said that the Kosovar government has reached out to Kosovar Serbs "not without success," but that living standards for the Kosovar Serbs have not improved. A major reason is that "many Kosovo Serbs are unwilling to participate in Kosovo's institutions or to accept the opportunities offered by the government and municipalities." Ruecker accused Belgrade of threatening Kosovar Serb civil servants and of creating "an objectively unjustified climate of fear" by "statements discouraging returns and politicizing security incidents." Ruecker said that there is now "a window of opportunity," with the Kosovar government showing a "steady" willingness for reform and the prospect of integration into the EU proving "a powerful impetus to further progress." He said that he fears a failure to act swiftly on the proposal drawn up by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari could make a sustainable solution impossible. The Kosovar Albanians and Kosova's other communities need, he said, "to feel secure that the future they and their leaders are building is permanent and is sustainable after nearly eight years of international administration." The Ahtisaari plan envisages the full transfer of responsibility for governance to the Kosovar government, with an EU-selected international representative retaining veto rights and an international security presence being maintained in the region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5 and March 12, 2007). AG

Ruecker's assessment was dismissed promptly and sharply by Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, international media reported on March 19. Churkin condemned the report as "extremely one-sided" and Ruecker as "blind in one eye," adding that "an international representative office has no right to be so one-sided," RIA Novosti reported. Churkin said Ruecker "read a sermon to the council," and reiterated Russia's objections to the Ahtisaari plan, which have culminated in calls for a resumption of open-ended talks mediated by a new UN envoy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007). "The New York Times" reported on March 20 that, when asked if Russia is threatening to veto the plan, Churkin said, "veto is a very big word so I don't want, of course, to use it before the day comes to take a vote." This is in line with previous noncommittal statements by senior Russian officials. International media reported that the U.S. ambassador, Alejandro Wolff, called Ruecker's assessment "balanced [and]objective." AG

In an interview published by the German daily "Die Welt" on March 19, former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright criticized U.S. President George W. Bush for paying too little attention to Kosova. "There was no systematic work to give the Kosovo government tasks and to help officials there to stand on their feet," Albright said. She expressed support for independence for Kosova, as has a former colleague in the Clinton administration, Richard Holbrooke (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007). Meanwhile, the disclosure of a comprehensive critique of Western policy in a confidential report commissioned by the German government paints a gloomy picture of the region's future. German government views are particularly important at present, as Germany currently holds the EU's rotating Presidency. Britain's "Sunday Telegraph" reported on March 17 that, in the paper, the Institute for European Politics accuses the UN and NATO of systematically suppressing criticism in a bid to present Kosova's development as a success. The institute, a long-established think tank based in Berlin, also accuses the two international organizations of mismanagement and corruption, adding that it believes they have been infiltrated by organized crime syndicates. More broadly, the institute's paper predicts "violent riots and even revolution-like developments" if Kosova is declared independent. The study's authors believe that Kosovars' hopes of rapid prosperity after independence will be dashed and that some of their anger will be turned against the international community's presence in the region. It casts doubts on the possibilities of democratic progress, and argues that there is no such thing as a functioning multiethnic society "outside the bureaucratic phrases of the international community." This falls within a broader pattern of what the study describes as the "ostrich politics" of denial on the part of Western powers. UN and EU officials have not responded. The study also contends that the European Union's security strategy leaves it ill-prepared for the security challenges that would emerge from an independent Kosova. AG

Bosnia-Herzegovina moved on March 16 to establish closer ties with NATO by signing an agreement on the exchange of information, local media reported. The agreement, which was signed during a visit to Sarajevo by NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, came almost exactly four months after Bosnia joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program, a first stage toward membership. A NATO statement on March 19 described the agreement as "a standard procedure with all countries that join the Partnership for Peace program." De Hoop Scheffer described Bosnia's path toward NATO membership as "a long and winding road," but said, "there is only one recipe for lasting security and stability in this region and that is Euro-Atlantic integration." Reform of the military has progressed more smoothly than in other areas, but Bosnia's prospects for membership will depend on reform across the range of Bosnia's institutions. De Hoop Scheffer particularly highlighted the need for reform of the police and the constitution and cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, areas also spotlighted in a damning report by EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn on March 14 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). The main issue relating to the military mentioned by the NATO chief was, reportedly, the defense budget, but neither official statements nor media reports detailed NATO's concerns about the budget. NATO has previously called for more to be spent on defense, and questions have been raised locally about salary inequalities and restrictions on local decision making relating to the defense budget. AG

The head of an internal police auditing team, Ljubomir Cvorovic, said an investigation has discovered that some suspected terrorists suffered injuries during custody, "but the inspectors do not know how those injuries were inflicted," the daily "Vijesti" reported on March 16. Cvorovic told "Vijesti" that he has recommended the case be transferred to prosecutors because of inconsistencies. "We are surprised because some [of the alleged victims] say that the police treated them correctly, while others say that it acted almost like a criminal gang. Some of the detainees say that they have been beaten up yet no injuries can be diagnosed, while others say they have not been beaten yet they have bruises." Human rights organizations and local media have accused the Montenegrin police of abuse and torture of some of the 17 ethnic Albanians arrested and accused of plotting a terrorist attack on the eve of Montenegro's first parliamentary elections, in September 2006. Three U.S. citizens were among those arrested. Amnesty International in October reported that five of the men allege they were the victims of abuse, including repeated beatings. One man had a hood placed over his head and another had a gun put to his head. Recent critical coverage in the local media of what has become known as the Eagles' Flight operation includes a March 13 report in the daily "Dan" that one of the men beaten was 87 years old, a detail not featured in Amnesty's October report. In late January, local media quoted police as saying they have increased protection provided to the special prosecutor involved in the case, Stojanka Radovic, after an unnamed foreign intelligence service warned that Radovic might be a target. The source of the threat was named as the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). The UCK was disbanded under NATO supervision in 1999, but a group calling itself the UCK claimed responsibility for an attack on the UN in Kosova on February 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21, 2007). Albanians make up just 5 percent of Montenegro's population of 630,000, but some local analysts warn that calls for secession will emerge in some border regions heavily populated by ethnic Albanians if Kosova gains independence. AG

A court in the breakaway region of Transdniester on March 19 sentenced a man to 20 years in prison for causing an explosion that killed two people on a trolleybus in August 2006, the news agency Basa reported the same day. The convicted man, Sergei Kapustin, is reported to have admitted his guilt and to have asked the court to shoot him rather than sentence him to 25 years in prison, the term demanded by prosecutors. Basa suggested that the explosion was an accident, and that Kapustin intended to use his homemade explosives to attack the home of a former employer who had recently laid him off. The explosion was the second in the space of five weeks in the summer of 2006. In the first incident, in July, eight people died and dozens were injured when an explosion ripped apart the minibus in which they were traveling. It remains unclear who was responsible for that incident. AG

Figures published on March 19 by Moldova's official statisticians suggest production of wine and spirits in Moldova has slumped, the Basa news agency reported the same day. Basa's report of the figures is confused, but the double-digit decline will raise serious concerns for the economy as a whole, as wine is Moldova's chief export. Production has been affected in part by the introduction of new quality-control restrictions by Moldova, which now requires all exported wine to be bottled. Privately owned wine producers on March 17 called on the government to help ease what they called an "unprecedented crisis" by, among other things, easing such restrictions, Basa reported. But the principal factor has been a Russian ban on imports of wine imposed in March 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006, and January 29 and March 13, 2007). Russia agreed to lift the ban in November 2006, but exporters continue to encounter problems reaching the Russian market. Moreover, Russia has imposed quality controls that mean "conditions for export to Russia will be tougher than those imposed by the EU," Basa quoted Andrei Gurin, a senior state inspector, as saying on March 17. Recent figures indicate that Russia's bans on Moldovan wine -- as well as on its meat, fruit, and vegetables -- resulted in Russia losing its traditional position as Moldova's chief trading partner (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). Widespread problems reported by vintners include large unsold stocks, debts, and closures. AG

Four years ago, few Iraqis could have imagined they would find themselves in the Iraq they see today, a country full of questions. Can the Sunnis and Shi'a make peace? Can the insurgency be defeated? When will it be safe for millions of Iraqis displaced by violence to return home?

Over the past year, tens of thousands of Iraqis have fled their homes due to violence and threats. The flight has compounded sectarian divisions, with Sunnis seeking refuge in predominantly Sunni areas of the country. Meanwhile, the Shi'a have gone south, and Kurds to the north. As of February, there were an estimated 1.7 million Iraqis displaced from their homes inside the country.

Two million more have sought shelter in neighboring states, the majority going to Syria and Jordan. Their flight has been called the largest Arab exodus in the Middle East since the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

The past year has seen the installation of the country's first post-Hussein permanent elected government. Led by Shi'ite leader Nuri al-Maliki, the "national unity" government, like its predecessors, was formed through lengthy negotiations between Iraq's Sunni, Shi'ite, and Kurdish coalitions. Ministerial posts were divided among political blocs to reflect the percentage of parliamentary seats won in the election, causing some Sunni Arab politicians to protest the cabinet's sectarian composition.

As the year progressed, Sunni Arab parties complained they were participating in a government that was united on paper only -- though members of their parties held cabinet positions, they were powerless in the face of growing Shi'ite dominance.

Tensions between Iraq's Sunni and Shi'a communities were heightened following the February 22, 2006, bombing of a Shi'ite shrine in Samarra. There is little doubt that the escalating tensions undermined government efforts towards national reconciliation.

As Iraqis pass the four-year mark, former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi is reportedly lobbying several political parties in an effort to break apart the current ruling blocs in favor of a new national front that would support the establishment of a national-unity government -- which would purportedly be more open to the participation of Sunni Arab "resistance" groups currently outside the government.

Such a plan would allow for the return of former Ba'ath Party members to the political scene in Iraq. Allawi has argued that the majority of party members joined the Ba'ath Party as a means of getting ahead, but were not personally loyal to Saddam Hussein. The controversial plan would likely have the support of some, but not all Iraqis.

Prime Minister al-Maliki committed his administration last year to reviewing the work of the de-Ba'athification Commission.

Commission Director-General Ali Faysal al-Lami said plans were drawn up in November that would allow all but the highest echelon of Ba'ath Party members to return to their jobs. Thus far, the plans have stalled.

Al-Maliki sponsored the Officers Conference for National Reconciliation in Baghdad on March 4 in an effort to entice some 500 former military men to rejoin the Iraqi Army. Rashid Majid al-Nasiri, director-general of the Iraqi cabinet's Dissolved Entities Department, told attendees that some 85,000 members of the former Iraqi Army, which was dissolved under the Coalition Provisional Authority, have been returned to their jobs, and the new Iraq has room for all those who want to serve their people and country.

Critics have said the government's invitation is not enough. Sunni parliamentarian Salih al-Mutlaq criticized the Shi'a-heavy army, telling RFE/RL earlier this month: "[It's like] asking a former professor to come and be a student for his student. Those [former] army leaders, they have their dignity and they are proud. They defended the country for so long. They cannot come back and be under some people who even do not have the qualification of being an officer. You know the way they brought or they established this army? They [came] with the services of the Badr Brigades [the former armed wing of SCIRI, which has reportedly been dissolved] in Iran, and they gave them promotions according to [the length of] their service in Iran. No self-respecting leader from the previous army will accept to come and work under this leadership."

Iraqi media have reported this week that al-Maliki may make other gestures to Sunnis outside the political process soon. The U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus made similar comments last week, but offered no details. According to media reports, the prime minister is rumored to be preparing to offer a pardon to insurgents willing to lay down their arms and join the political process.

While the Kurdistan region has thrived economically, areas of the south have continued to falter in recent months. Critics have long said that the failure of the post-Hussein governments to stabilize the country was due to simplistic approaches that sought to address certain aspects of security, while ignoring others. The U.S. military, working alongside the Iraqi government, has taken steps in recent months to forge a more comprehensive approach.

The U.S. administration announced in November that it would boost its support for local governments in Iraq through provincial-reconstruction teams. The teams, which have operated in Iraq since 2005, help encourage political and economic development on the local level.

According to coalition reports, the majority of Iraq's 18 governorates remain free of violence, with instability mostly confined to the Baghdad, Al-Anbar, Diyala and Salah Al-Din governorates.

The provincial-reconstruction teams are just part of a push by the Iraqi government to encourage economic development. Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi appealed to UN member states last week to contribute to the rebuilding of Iraq through the International Compact with Iraq. The compact, launched in July, seeks to assist the Iraqi reconciliation process through political, economic, and social development over five years.

Ibrahim Gambari, the UN secretary-general's special adviser on the compact, told reporters after the March 16 meeting, "We cannot wait until every situation is settled on the security aspect before we move to support the government of Iraq...."

The cabinet also approved a draft oil and gas law in February for the management of oil resources and an equitable distribution of revenues. Al-Maliki told reporters on February 26 that with the endorsement of the draft law, the government "lays the foundation stone for building the state."

The law, which has yet to go before parliament for ratification, has been criticized by former government officials and some Sunni Arab groups who claim it will lead to the pilfering of Iraqi assets by the West.

Slow but steady progress is being made on the security front, boosted by the killing of Al-Qaeda leader in Iraq Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi in June. Al-Qaeda remained a formidable challenge, as did Shi'ite militias, which set on a path of retribution following the Samarra bombing.

The Sunni-Shi'ite bloodbath that played out on the streets of Baghdad left scores of civilians dead. According to the Interior Ministry, some 1,089 civilians died in September, compared to 769 in August and 1,065 in July. Much of the violence was attributed to Shi'ite death squads, some of which were linked to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army.

Two important initiatives were launched in October. The first, initiated by tribal leaders in the Al-Anbar Governorate and backed by Baghdad, sought to confront Al-Qaeda elements operating in the western region. The second, a joint operation by Iraqi and British forces, targeted militias operating in the southern governorate of Al-Basrah. Both initiatives have improved security on the ground, but stability remains an ongoing challenge.

Coalition and Iraqi forces launched the Baghdad security plan in mid-February, which by all accounts appears to be progressing well. Coalition commanders report a dramatic decline in the number of terrorist attacks and crime in recent weeks, but caution that it will take several months to secure the capital.

Security will remain a challenge due to the lack of support from neighboring states. Iraq's leaders called on its neighbors during the March 10 meeting in Baghdad to live up to earlier commitments on border security.

As in the past, neighboring states vowed to take steps in support of the government, and pledged to help develop a comprehensive plan at a follow-up meeting slated to be held next month. A key precondition for some will be the government's ability to provide a greater role for Sunnis outside the political process, and a recognition by al-Maliki's government and the United States of the necessity of their role on the regional stage.

The Taliban on March 19 released Italian journalist Daniele Mastrogiacomo, a correspondent for "La Repubblica," in exchange for five Taliban members, international news agencies reported. The Taliban abducted him with his two Afghan colleagues in southern Afghanistan on March 4, charged them with spying for British forces in the country, and demanded that Italy withdraw its forces from Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 8, 12, and 19, 2007). Shahabuddin Atal, speaking for Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah, said on March 19 that Mastrogiacomo was released in exchange for former Taliban spokesmen Ustad Yaser and Mufti Latifullah Hakimi, Dadullah's brother Mansur Ahmad, and two commanders named Hamdullah and Abdul Ghafar, Pajhwak Afghan News reported.. There are conflicting reports on whether Mastrogiacomo's Afghan translator, Ajmal, was also released. Mastrogiacomo -- who was born in Pakistan -- said he saw the Taliban decapitate his driver, Sayyed Agha. According to Atal, no one has asked for his body to be returned. Yaser and Hakimi (also known as Abdul Latif Hakimi) were arrested in August and October 2005, respectively, in Pakistan. AT

Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi said in Rome on March 19 that he "is delighted to confirm" that Mastrogiacomo is in an emergency hospital in southern Afghanistan and is "in good health," Rome's RAI Television Network reported. Paris-based Reporter Without Borders issued a statement on March 19 expressing its relief at the news of the release, adding that "nonetheless it is regrettable that his [Mastrogiacomo's] release came about only after the death of his Afghan driver and the release of Taliban prisoners." Afghan President Hamid Karzai, traveling in Germany, said on March 19 that his government did what it could "to help [gain] the release of the Italian journalist," AFP reported. AT

The Afghan government admitted on March 20 that it freed Taliban prisoners in exchange for Italian journalist Mastrogiacomo, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Karim Rahimi, a spokesman for President Karzai, said the exchange was an "exceptional measure" that will not be repeated. Rahimi did not say how many Taliban prisoners were exchanged. Taliban commander Mullah Dadullah has said the trade involved five Taliban members. Rahimi also confirmed that Mastrogiacomo's Afghan driver was beheaded by the Taliban. He said the fate of Mastrogiacomo's Afghan translator remains unclear. Earlier on March 20, residents of Helmand demonstrated against the exchange of Taliban members for a foreigner. The protesters include Hamayoon, the brother of Mastrogiacomo's driver, who was beheaded. "We have gathered here because the Italian journalist has been released. But his two [Afghan] colleagues have not. We don't know whether [the Italian journalist] is a Muslim or if the other two are. But this infidel was exchanged with some people and was released. But the others have disappeared." RS

A suicide bomber detonated his car close to a three-vehicle U.S. embassy convoy in the Afghan capital on March 19, killing an Afghan bystander and injuring several U.S. personnel, international news agencies reported. A website identifying itself with the Taliban posted a report on March 19 claiming responsibility for the attack. "A hero mujahedin of the Islamic Emirate, Asadullah, a resident of Khost Province" in southeastern Afghanistan, "drove his explosive-laden vehicle into" into the U.S. convoy, the website reported. The "Islamic Emirate" was the official name of Afghanistan during the rule of the Taliban. The website reported that two U.S. vehicles were set ablaze in the attack but did not provide any casualty estimates. AT

Taliban militants cut off the ears of four Afghan truck drivers on March 17 in Nuristan Province, the Islamabad daily "The News" reported on March 19. The drivers were delivering supplies to NATO and U.S. military bases in the area. A Taliban commander requesting anonymity said that the drivers were warned not to transport supplies to foreign forces and their ears were cut off because they had not listened to earlier warnings. The Taliban set ablaze the trucks along with the supplies. AT

The presidents of Iran and Armenia, Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Robert Kocharian, respectively, inaugurated on March 19 a 40-kilometer pipeline due to export natural gas from Iran to Armenia, Iranian agencies reported. This section appears to be the first section of a longer pipeline, and exports are likely begin in a few months, Fars news agency reported. The pipeline extends from the border to the Armenian town of Kajaran. It cost $33 million to build and was jointly financed by the two states; it is to undergo "final tests" before becoming operational "in the coming months," Fars added. Radio Farda cited IRNA as putting the cost of the project at $120 million. The pipeline is to transfer 300 to 400 million cubic meters of natural gas to Armenia "in the first stage," though the Fars report indicated that this was part of a longer pipeline, 90 miles in length (about 145 km). It stated that at full capacity it could transfer 2.5 billion cubic meters of gas. Iran and Armenia have reportedly agreed on the transfer of an annual 1.8 million cubic meters of gas to Armenia in exchange for Armenia supplying Iran with three kilowatts of electricity for every cubic meter of gas received, Fars and IRNA reported. VS

Abbas Araqchi, the deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs, reiterated in a meeting in Tehran on March 19 with foreign ambassadors that Iran has "an undeniable" right to access peaceful nuclear energy and taking its nuclear dossier along the UN "Security Council path" is "mistaken and unconstructive," Mehr agency reported. Araqchi said the history of past decades shows the Security Council has been ineffective in a number of Mideast crises. He claimed the council has been -- and is being -- manipulated by "America and a few Western countries." He said the repeated "violation of numerous and valid agreements" in past decades concerning Iran's nuclear program by Western parties, "especially...Germany, France, and Canada," has led Iran to "move toward self-sufficiency in this regard." He reportedly gave details about the reputed broken contracts. Araqchi said the UN Security Council has two options: negotiate with Iran to resolve outstanding problems or choose "confrontation and pass new resolutions...which America wants and which will be met with Iran's appropriate responses." He said Iran is "entirely prepared" for either talks or confrontation, Mehr reported. VS

Mustafa Mohammad-Najjar told senior ministry officials in Tehran on March 19 that Iran will work to improve its defenses in the next Persian year by improving the quality of equipment and weaponry and working on "intelligent" defenses, IRNA reported. He said self-sufficiency in producing armaments has made UN sanctions "ineffective," referring to sanctions being imposed on Iran because of its nuclear program. He said the ministry will begin a "six-part plan" called "Payman" (Pact), designed to ensure that Defense Ministry programs are implemented "in an intelligent and targeted manner and within a set framework." The plan, he said, determines the ministry's long-term goals and will assess the performance and progress of ministry departments. Payman has been approved by Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and will be implemented "as precisely as possible" in the next Persian year beginning on March 21, he said. Mohammad-Najjar said the state of Iran's defenses is "better" than in past years and, "with this preparedness, nobody will dare attack" the country, IRNA reported. VS

Shadi Sadr and Mahbubeh Abbasqolizadeh, two women's rights activists detained in Tehran since March 4, were released on bail either on March 18 or 19, Radio Farda reported on March 19, citing remarks made to ISNA by Sadr's lawyer Mohammad Mostafai. Sadr was released after depositing bail worth 200 million tumans (about $200,000); Abbasqolizadeh's bail was 250 million tumans. Both were arrested while protesting outside the Tehran Revolutionary Court over the trial of four other female activists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 15, 2007). Mostafai said the charges against Sadr were acting against national security, disrupting public peace, and refusing to obey police orders, Radio Farda reported. Abbasqolizadeh faces similar charges. On March 15, judiciary officials sealed the offices of the two NGOs founded by the two activists, the daily "Etemad-i Melli" reported on March 17. Sadr has formed the Rahi Institute, which gives women free counselling and information on women's rights, and Abbasqolizadeh, the Work Training Center, the daily reported. Separately, ISNA reported on March 19 the release of another detainee, former student Ahmad Batebi, for Iranian new-year holidays. Batebi was arrested for his involvement in 1999 student riots in Tehran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 31 and February 22, 2007). His father, Mohammad Baqer Batebi, told ISNA he was released on March 17 for 20 days. VS

U.S. President George W. Bush said on March 19, the fourth anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, that it is too early for U.S. forces to "pack up and go home," and he urged the American people to be more patient with the progress of the war, international media reported the same day. "It could be tempting to look at the challenges in Iraq and conclude our best option is to pack up and go home," Bush said. "That may be satisfying in the short run, but I believe the consequences for American security would be devastating." Bush warned that if U.S. forces were to pull back before Baghdad was secured, chaos could spread out across Iraq and engulf the entire region. "The terrorists could emerge from the chaos with a safe haven in Iraq to replace the one they had in Afghanistan, which they used to plan the attacks of September 11, 2001," Bush cautioned. He also warned against expecting quick and easy results from the Baghdad-centered security plan aimed at securing the Iraqi capital and the western Al-Anbar Governorate. "The Baghdad security plan is still in its early stages and success will take months, not days or weeks," Bush said. SS

U.S. General David Petraeus, the commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, said during a BBC interview on March 18 that the new "surge" policy to stem sectarian violence in Baghdad and the Al-Anbar Governorate showed "encouraging signs", but insisted that he will have a better idea of the plan's success once all the troops have been deployed in the coming months. "By early June, we should then have everyone roughly in place -- and that will allow us to establish the density in partnership with Iraqi security forces that you need to really get a good grip on the security situation," Petraeus said. However, he stressed that he does not want to give an impression of being "overly optimistic," and insisted that he would be candid if he believed the operation was not effective. "I have an obligation to the young men and women in uniform out here, that if I think it's not going to happen, to tell them that it's not going to happen, and there needs to be a change," Petraeus added. SS

Taha Yassin Ramadan was hanged early in the morning on March 20 for crimes against humanity, international media reported. Badi Arif, a lawyer representing former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tariq Aziz, said Ramadan's family contacted him to appeal to President Jalal Talabani to stop the execution. "The execution is not legal or correct," Arif said, adding there should be a 30-day period between the final sentence being passed and the execution being carried out. Initially, the Iraqi High Tribunal sentenced Ramadan on November 14 to life in prison for his role in the killing of 148 Shi'a in the town of Al-Dujayl in 1982. The conviction was upheld on appeal in December, but the tribunal sentenced Ramadan to death by hanging on February 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2007). On March 15, the Iraqi Court of Cassation upheld the tribunal's death sentence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007). SS

At least 14 Iraqis were killed and 30 others injured on March 19, when series of bomb blasts struck the northern oil-rich city of Kirkuk, international media reported the same day. Kurdish officials said a total of five blasts were reported: three car bombs and two roadside bombs. According to Kurdish police commander Brigadier General Sarhat Qadir, one car bomb targeted the local headquarters of the Iraqi National List, the political party of former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi; another targeted a government building; and the third exploded along a commercial street. Qadir said the two roadside bombs targeted Iraqi police and army patrols. Violent attacks in Kirkuk have increased in recent months as the inhabitants of the governorate prepare for a census and referendum sometime this year to determine whether the governorate is to be integrated into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. SS

King Abdullah II of Jordan received Kurdistan region President Mas'ud Barzani on March 19 in Amman and reiterated Jordan's support for Iraq's unity and called for harmony among the Iraqi people, the Petra news service reported the same day. "Jordan will continue to offer all forms of support the Iraqi people need at this stage in order to help them overcome the difficult situation they are going through and to assist them to regain their vital role in the region and the world," Abdullah said. He also stressed the importance of the Kurds' role in trying to enhance Iraq's security and to build a better future for the Iraqi people. In response, Barzani applauded Abdullah for his support of Iraq and said the Kurds are eager to strengthen their ties with Jordan and other Arab states. SS

Iraq's Finance Ministry announced on March 19 that it has recovered some money embezzled by the government of former President Saddam Hussein, KUNA reported the same day. Finance Minister Baqir Jabr al-Zubaydi indicated that Swiss authorities recently agreed to transfer ownership of shares of a Swiss company, which owned one of the palaces belonging to the former Iraqi regime in southern France, to the Iraqi government. The shares were administered by Khalaf al-Dulaymi, the former director of the Iraqi intelligence service's "special projects" branch, and under direct instructions from the former Ba'athist regime. Al-Dulaymi reportedly was in charge of numerous Iraqi front companies that moved funds abroad for the Hussein regime, and he is believed to have fled with millions of dollars after the former regime fell. Al-Zubaydi said the Finance Ministry is trying to reclaim al-Dulaymi's frozen bank accounts in Switzerland. He also said the ministry is making efforts to gain the release 4 million euros ($5.2 million) frozen by the French government and to have the money transferred to a fund to help rebuild Iraq. SS