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Newsline - March 23, 2007

Konstantin Kosachyov, who heads the Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote in Britain's "Financial Times" of March 23 that President Vladimir Putin's Munich speech on February 10 was not a declaration of a new Cold War against the United States, as many observers have suggested (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and 13, and March 1, 2007). Kosachyov argued that Putin said only that Washington should "return to the multilateral framework [because] Russia is still ready to cooperate on common problems on a multilateral basis." Kosachyov added that "Putin posed questions that Russia has asked many times without receiving any answers.... Even after [Putin's] speech, we are still getting no answers." He argued that "a basic question is whether the U.S. will be prepared in future to use military force or the threat of military force without a United Nations Security Council decision.... We have seen what happened in Kosovo and Iraq. We want to know whether the U.S. has drawn conclusions from these events and whether such events could be repeated any time we disagree in the Security Council." Kosachyov also wrote that "another question is what will happen to strategic stability when we do not know what is happening to U.S. warheads that are being dismantled -- whether they will be utilized, destroyed, or stored. Next, what will happen with conventional forces in Europe?" He also mentioned the long-standing Russian objections to the proposed U.S. missile-defense program. He warned that a "crisis" could ensue if Russia does not receive "answers to its questions." Kosachyov noted that "there is a big debate about [such issues] now, in both NATO and the EU. Many countries are dissatisfied with U.S. attempts to devise a solution on a bilateral basis, because such attempts render senseless the very constructive NATO-Russia dialogue we have had for many years." Washington, however, has repeatedly sought to address these and similar concerns. Some German media recently pointed out that Russia and some European politicians sympathetic to it have ignored Washington's message and sought to portray the United States as aggressive in hopes of exacerbating divisions in the EU and NATO (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2007). On March 23, RIA Novosti wrote that Washington seeks to "contain Russia" through the missile-defense program. PM

Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany told Ekho Moskvy radio after discussing energy and other issues with President Putin in Novo-Ogaryovo on March 22 that Hungary might participate in both the Russian Blue Stream gas-pipeline project and the EU's proposed Nabucco pipeline, "The Moscow Times" reported on March 23. The Hungarian leader added: "why shouldn't we receive half [of our gas] from one source and the other [half] from the other? But no decision has been made yet, because neither project exists in its final version." Gyurcsany recently announced a decision to opt for Blue Stream on the grounds that it "already exists" whereas Nabucco is "a dream." Critics charged that his government is already too close to Russian business interests and that it would be breaking EU solidarity over a common energy policy if it opted for a Russian pipeline rather than one sponsored by the EU (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). PM

Officials of EADS, the parent company of Airbus, said in a statement on March 22 that it has signed a letter of intent with the Russian state-owned flag carrier Aeroflot to buy 22 of the proposed Airbus A350 medium-sized, long-haul aircraft instead of Boeing's 787 Dreamliners, Britain's "Financial Times" reported from Frankfurt, Germany, on March 23. The contract with Airbus is worth a list price of $4.4 billion, before expected large discounts are deducted. Delivery of the A350s is expected to take place between 2014-17. In the meantime, Aeroflot will lease an unspecified number of Airbus A330 jets, with delivery starting in late 2008. EADS also said that, in order to help secure the deal, it agreed to outsource 5 percent of the design and manufacture of the A350's frame to Russia's state-run United Aircraft Company (OAK). EADS currently faces labor problems in France, Germany, Spain, and Britain as a result of its plans to cut up to 10,000 jobs. In the fall of 2006, Russia's state-owned Vneshtorgbank confirmed it holds a stake of just over 5 percent in EADS. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the management of EADS, which seeks lucrative U.S. defense contracts, subsequently blocked Russian plans to acquire blocking rights and a seat on the board (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 10, 2006, and March 5 and 16, 2007). PM

Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref told top officials of his ministry on March 23 that Russia's airline industry needs to be further consolidated through state-sponsored mergers, Interfax reported. Gref also said Russia should establish a system of national airport hubs and develop low-cost airlines. Russia's first low-cost airline, whose CEO is an American, began operations on January 29. In mid-2006, Gref announced the "consolidation" of several regional carriers. St. Petersburg's Pulkovo Airlines recently merged with Rossiya Airlines. The moves aimed at consolidation are in keeping with the trend under President Putin for key branches of the economy to be concentrated in large state-run "vertical" corporations, which Andrei Illarionov, who is a former Putin economics adviser, and the "Financial Times" have described as a "corporate state" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31, 2006, and January 30, 2007). On March 22, Putin signed several decrees aimed at consolidating the declining ship-building industry into a single state-run company, as has already been done in the aircraft and automobile industries, reported. First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov recently noted that the order books for Russia's remaining shipyards are full with orders from the military, dpa reported on March 22. PM

The Chechen resistance website confirmed on March 23 Russian media reports of the previous day that Tahir Batayev, commander of the northeastern front of the Chechen resistance forces, was killed on March 21 in a shoot-out in Gudermes with federal forces. A Kumyk by nationality, Batayev was born in May 1973 in Sholkovskaya in northeastern Chechnya and graduated from the law faculty of the Chechen-Ingush State University. He fought in the 1994-96 war, and since the resumption of hostilities in 1999 headed one of the subunits of the Sholkovsky jamaat. He was named in January 2006 to head the northern front, subsequently assuming command of the consolidated northeastern front. Also on March 23, and reported that Rustam Bashayev, identified as a courier between resistance groups in three districts of northwestern Daghestan that border on Chechnya, was killed in a special operation by federal forces early that morning in the town of Khasavyurt. LF

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov has signed a directive expanding the area of the North Caucasus designated as the field of the ongoing "antiterrorist" operation, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on March 23. Servicemen deployed in that region are entitled to hazardous duty pay. Such payments were introduced in January 2006 for some servicemen in Chechnya. As of July 1, 2007, contract servicemen at the bases in Botlikh (Daghestan) and Zelenchuk (Karachayevo-Cherkessia) will also receive them. LF

Visiting North Ossetia on March 22, Ravil Gainutdin, who is chairman of the Council of Muftis of Russia, told North Ossetian Prime Minister Nikolai Khlyntsov that he opposes plans to build an Orthodox church on the site of the Beslan school largely destroyed during the September 2004 hostage taking, and reported. He argued that as Muslims too consider the hostage taking and killings a cause for grief, it would be more appropriate to build a nondenominational memorial complex. Khlyntsov advocated leaving the decision to the relatives of those killed. Most Ossetians are Orthodox, but some are Muslims. LF

A spokesman for Syunik Governor Surik Khachatrian has denied that Khachatrian issued any orders to prevent election campaigning in his region by former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian's National Democratic Union, Noyan Tapan reported on March 23. On March 20, Manukian described to journalists in Yerevan how he was consistently harassed during a campaign visit to various towns and villages in Syunik last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2007). LF

Visiting Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice signed a memorandum of understanding in Washington on March 22 on cooperation in the energy sphere, Reuters and reported. The memorandum focuses specifically on construction of new gas pipelines, including one from Turkey via Greece to Italy and the so-called Nabucco Turkey-Bulgaria-Romania-Hungary-Austria pipeline, to facilitate the export to Europe of natural gas from Azerbaijan's Shah Deniz Caspian field. The memorandum also stressed the importance of "help[ing] Europe bolster its energy security by diversifying its natural-gas supplies," according to a State Department statement cited by Reuters. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili cancelled at the last minute on March 22 a planned visit to those districts of Georgia south of Tbilisi where the population is overwhelmingly Azerbaijani, and instead traveled to Armenia for a private visit to spend the day skiing with his Armenian counterpart Robert Kocharian at the resort of Tsakhkadzor, Caucasus Press and reported. Saakashvili was to have met with representatives of Georgia's 500,000-strong Azeri minority to congratulate them in connection with the Nourouz spring holiday. LF

High-school students congregated on March 21 outside the Supreme Court in Tbilisi, and some 300 students aged from 12-17 gathered on March 22 outside the parliament building, to protest the Appeals Court's failure on March 19 to annul the prison sentence handed down one year ago on 14 year old Giorgi Tserekidze for attempted murder, Georgian media reported. On January 6, 2006, Tserekidze quarreled with his mother and stole two kitchen knives, later using one of them to inflict a superficial wound on a market trader. He was initially sentenced to 10 years imprisonment; the Appeals Court on March 19 reduced that sentence to seven years. "The Messenger" on March 21 quoted Education Minister Kakha Lomaya as decrying the protest on the grounds that schoolchildren should not get involved in politics. LF

A spokesman for Kazakhstan's Interior Ministry announced on March 22 that police have arrested around 50 people for involvement in a clash in the village of Malovodnoe on March 18 that left three people dead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007), "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Bagdat Kozhakhmetov said that a number of criminal cases, including murder cases, have been opened. Kozhakhmetov said that police units are conducting round-the-clock patrols in the village. Deputy Interior Minister Alik Shpekbaev is in Malovodnoe supervising an investigation that is expected to take up to two months. Meanwhile, on March 21 members of a Chechen family involved in the clash charged in an interview with Channel 31 that police failed to intervene when their family came under attack by a mob. DK

Former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, who now heads the opposition movement United Front For A Worthy Future, told the Russian nerwspaper "Vremya novostei" in an interview published on March 22 that "the majority of Interior Ministry employees" support the front. "We are also supported by 800 retired police officers, and that's just in Bishkek and Chuy provinces," Kulov added. The group plans to hold a demonstration in Bishkek on April 11 calling for reforms (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). Kulov said that he is sure that the authorities "will not decide to use force." He warned, however, paraphrasing a line by the poet Rasul Gamzatov, "If there's a shot from a pistol, they'll get in return a shot from a cannon. Because to shoot at the people will be tantamount to signing their own death sentence." DK

In an interview published in "Vremya novostei" on March 22, President Kurmanbek Bakiev ruled out the use of force against protesters, but warned that the authorities will maintain order. "We learned a lot from the lessons of Aksy [where six demonstrators died in 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 18 and 19, 2002)], and we will never use force against peaceful people," Bakiev said. "At the same time, we will never allow disturbances and riots. If someone decides to do that, they will receive a sharp pushback." Bakiev also stressed that it is not too late for negotiations. "I'm ready to discuss any topic, including constitutional reform," he said. DK

Kyrgyzstan's parliament has ratified an agreement on coordinating counterterrorism measures among the member states of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO: China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan), RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported on March 22. National Security Committee Chairman Murat Sutalinov told parliament that the agreement on the Regional Antiterror Structure will create a common database on terrorist organizations and their sources of financing, reported. Sutalinov stressed that the agreement contains provisions for information exchange to improve law-enforcement coordinating among SCO members. DK

Kyrgyzstan's opposition has prepared a draft constitution for discussion with President Bakiev, the news agency reported on March 22. The news agency made available a copy of the text (, which it reportedly received from lawmaker Kubatbek Baibolov, a member of the For Reforms opposition movement. Constitutional reform is a key opposition demand in the planned April demonstration. In November, parliament passed a new constitution that aimed to reduce the president's powers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 9, 2007), but amendments passed in late December increased the president's authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 3, 2007). DK

Aleksei Silantev, first deputy head of Tajik national electric company Barqi Tojik, told Asia Plus-Blitz on March 21 that Tajik and Uzbek engineers decided at talks in Tashkent last week to revive a regional power grid linking Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. "We are talking about a [500-kilovolt] power transmission line with a total length of about 370 kilometers, linking the Turkmen Mary power station with the Uzbek Qoraqol power station," Silantev said. This link could then be used for power imports to Tajikistan, which has recently suffered electricity shortages (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). Turkmen representatives did not attend the talks, but Silantev said that they have expressed a willingness to export electricity to Tajikistan. The target date for the restoration of the regional power grid is September 2007. DK

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli arrived in Ashgabat on March 22 for talks on diversifying export routes for Turkmen natural gas, Interfax reported. A spokesman for the Georgian presidential administration told the news agency that Noghaideli and Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov "will discuss issues related above all to the import of Turkmen gas to Georgia and prospects for the eventual attachment of the [planned] Trans-Caspian Pipeline to the South Caucasus Baku-Tbilisi-Erzerum pipeline." Also on March 22, Kazakh Energy Minister Baktykozha Izmukhambetov arrived in Ashgabat for energy talks, Turkmenistan's Altyn Asyr television reported. DK

On March 22, police officers detained several dozen activists of the youth democratic movement in Minsk and the provinces, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. In most cases, the detainees were warned that they may be punished under administrative law if they take part in the rally the opposition has planned for March 25 to mark Freedom Day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2007). Apart from warnings by police, Belarusian courts have recently resorted to jailing some youth activists, routinely charging them with the use of obscene language in public, to prevent their participation in the March 25 demonstration. On March 22, a district court in Minsk sentenced Barys Haretski, an activist of the opposition group Youth Front, to 12 days in jail on obscenity charges. The same day, a court in Pinsk sentenced Belarusian Popular Front activist Alyaksandr Ramanovich to five days in jail on similar charges. In an apparent attempt to distract the attention of young people in Minsk from the March 25 opposition rally, the city authorities have announced an open-air concert to be staged in the capital on the same day at noon. JM

Parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Moroz announced on March 23 that five lawmakers from the Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and six lawmakers from Our Ukraine have recently changed sides and joined the ruling majority of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party, Ukrainian media reported. Meanwhile, the ruling coalition, which was until recently known as the "anticrisis coalition", announced the same day that it has renamed itself the national-unity coalition. In total, 256 deputies in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada were registered for the session on March 23. The Yuliya Tymoshenko Bloc and Our Ukraine have boycotted parliamentary sittings for the past two weeks, participating only in debates on some issues and in some votes. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on March 23 dismissed Health Minister Yuriy Polyachenko and replaced him with his deputy, Yuriy Haydayev, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Parliamentary speaker Oleksandr Moroz told deputies that Polyachenko will assume the position of an "executive of a medical scientific center." Polyachenko was appointed health minister in August 2006 under a quota of cabinet jobs assigned to Our Ukraine. When Our Ukraine switched to the opposition to Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's cabinet in October 2006, Polyachenko refused to tender his resignation. JM

The Verkhovna Rada on March 22 preliminarily approved a resolution expressing concerns over plans to deploy a proposed U.S. antimissile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic, Ukrainian media reported. The draft resolution states that the implementation of these plans poses a threat to Ukraine's national security and the lives of millions of Ukrainian citizens, adding that "in the event of the use of antimissile weapons...[there is a] possibility of damage, with serious consequences for the population [and] important national economic facilities, including nuclear power plants in the country." The final wording of the resolution is to be approved next week. The adoption of the draft resolution followed a debate in which Deputy Defense Minister Leonid Polyakov argued that the U.S. missile-defense plans do not pose any threat to either Ukraine or Russia. JM

Russia's ambassador to Serbia, Aleksandr Alekseyev, defended Moscow's opposition to a UN plan for the final status of the Serbian province of Kosova ahead of crucial talks at the Security Council, B92 reported on March 22. Alekseyev also denounced statements by Western officials suggesting that Russia's rejection of an independent Kosova could trigger violence there. "We notice that the number of such statements is increasing. Their tone, unfortunately, resembles shouting more and more," he said. "That worries us; I have to say this openly. Instead of looking for solutions, [they're] looking for someone to blame," he told B92 in an interview. On March 21, EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn warned that any delay in settling Kosova's status could provoke violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2007), while Russia has been asking for additional negotiations between Kosova's ethnic Albanian majority and Belgrade. The Security Council will on March 26 hear details of the UN's plan, which foresees independent statehood under some form of international supervision, and will debate whether to endorse it the following week; Moscow has signaled it could use its veto to prevent a Security Council resolution. "I am convinced that using a veto cannot be the goal of any country's foreign policy, Russia included," Alekseyev said, echoing comments made by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2007). "Therefore, we propose avoiding a situation where someone might resort to the veto. That is why we advocate continued talks." Should any attempt be made to impose a solution unacceptable to either of the parties, he said, "we will not allow such a solution to pass the Security Council," adding that unilateral recognition of Kosova's independence -- a move some EU countries have reportedly been mulling in the event that the UN plan fails in the Security Council -- would trigger "chaos" in the region. TV

The authorities in Bosnia-Herzegovina have stripped 367 suspected Islamic radicals of foreign background of their Bosnian citizenship, the Sarajevo daily "Oslobodjenje" reported on March 22. The move resulted from an ongoing review, begun nine months ago, by an ad hoc commission of some 1,500 suspected Islamic radicals who fought in the 1992-95 war on the side of Bosnia's Muslim-dominated government, often in special units that were only loosely controlled by the Bosnian Army. Thousands of foreign fighters married Bosnian women and settled in the country after the war, and many were subsequently naturalized, often under dubious conditions. Many Bosnian consulates abroad handed out travel documents to foreigners whose connection to the country was often tenuous. Naturalized Bosnians found to have breached immigration rules have now had their citizenship revoked. The Bosnian government has said it will deport anyone whose passport has been revoked, but "Oslobodjenje" reported that many of the people affected have disappeared. The 367 include 72 Turks, 31 Egyptians, 30 Algerians, 37 Tunisians, 23 Sudanese, 21 Syrians, 14 Jordanians, 10 Iraqis, and 10 Saudi Arabians, and an assortment of other nationalities, according to the newspaper. Between the outbreak of war in 1992 and January 2006, some 16,000 foreigners, including around 1,500 from Asia and Africa, were granted Bosnian citizenship. TV

Bosnian police have arrested the wartime commander and deputy commander of a detention camp run by Bosnia's Muslim-dominated army during the 1992-95 war, Reuters reported on March 22. Bosnia's state prosecution office said Nisvet Gasal and Musajb Kukavica have been arrested on suspicion of war crimes against ethnic Croats in the central Bosnian town of Bugojno. Bosnian Muslims and Croats were allies during the first year of the war in Bosnia but fought a brutal conflict in 1993-94; Bugojno was one of its flashpoints. Dozens of Croatian civilians and prisoners of war were reported killed in detention camps there, and some 20 are still missing. Gasal and Kukavica are the first Bosnian Muslims arrested in connection with crimes against Croats in Bugojno. According to local media, Gasal was the commander of a detention camp in Bugojno's Iskra stadium and Kukavica was his deputy. TV

Almost half a year after the general elections of October 2006, a new government for the Muslim-Croat Federation, one of the two autonomous regions that make up Bosnia-Herzegovina, was sworn in on March 22, local and international media reported the same day. But on March 23, the top international overseer in Bosnia, the Office of the High Representative (OHR), suspended the new government because the standard vetting procedure has not yet been completed, according to FENA. "The OHR is concerned that there has been an attempt to manipulate the vetting process," a statement on the OHR's website said, pointing out that the results of the procedure would have been known in a matter of days. The OHR has the power to vet candidates for public office at the central level and in the two autonomous regions, the Muslim-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska, each of which has its own president, government, and parliament. Bosnia's central government was formed in early February, and the government of the Bosnian Serb republic in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 20, 2006, and February 12, 2007). The new federation government was to be headed by Nedzad Brankovic of the mainly Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and to include representatives from all of Bosnia's largest parties, with the notable exception of the multiethnic Social Democrats. TV

A district court in the eastern Croatian town of Osijek has convicted two former Croatian soldiers of war crimes against ethnic Serbs, local media reported on March 22. Fred Margus and Tomislav Dilber were sentenced to 14 and three years in prison, respectively, for their treatment of Serbian civilians during operations around Osijek in 1991. Margus was found guilty of shooting and killing two Serbian civilians and seriously injuring a third, who was a minor at the time, and of the abduction, torture, and killing of five more civilians. Margus and Dilber were also convicted of the murder of another Serbian civilian, Savo Pavitovic, whom they dragged from his car to a field, where Dilber shot him. Since the first bullet failed to kill Pavitovic, Margus ordered Dilber to "finish him off," according to local media; when Dilber could not bring himself to do it, Margus did it himself. TV

Richard Holbrooke, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and chief architect of the Dayton peace accords that ended the Bosnian war, remains a leading commentator on foreign affairs in the United States. Holbrooke recently discussed Kosova, Russia, and Georgia with RFE/RL.

RFE/RL: In an article published in November 2006, you argued that Georgia has become the stage for a "blatant effort at regime change, Russian-style." Do you still view the situation in the same manner?

Richard Holbrooke: I was hopeful that the temperature was going down in Georgia and then last week there was this airplane incident, helicopters attacking. So, I don't know what's going on, I'm not in touch with the people in Georgia right now, but I remain concerned about the situation because they are still blockading some exchanges between Georgia and Russia. They should make this a normal border again.

RFE/RL: You've said that Georgia's President Mikheil Saakashvili is exactly the type of leader the United States and the European Union should support. What makes you so confident in his abilities?

Holbrooke: My support for Saakashvili is based on what he's achieved. Nobody's perfect and there are certainly problems with Georgia. But when he took over, the country was bankrupt. The electrical system didn't work, the people were stealing the place blind, and government officials weren't even being paid. Now it has growth. It has a balanced budget. It's an amazing achievement. It has nothing to do with the fact that he was American-educated.

RFE/RL: Is the United Nations an effective forum for Georgia to seek solutions for its problems with Russia?

Holbrooke: The UN is not dealing with Georgia very much because the Russians don't want to discuss it at the UN much.

RFE/RL: Is there a possibility for a trade-off, for example, if the United States makes some concessions to Russia on Georgia in the UN, then Russia would go along on issues that are important to Washington, such as the North Korean or Iranian nuclear standoffs?

Holbrooke: I do not believe the United States should or will make concessions about Georgia. I certainly would oppose that. Georgian territorial integrity is important, the Russians should stop supporting the breakaway illegal regimes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and Georgia should be allowed to develop on its own.

RFE/RL: Regarding Kosovo, will it get independence or not?

Holbrooke: Of course, Kosovo will become independent. It's inevitable. But the Russians are encouraging the hard-liners in Belgrade by opposing the [Martti] Ahtisaari plan and that is very unhelpful. And if the Ahtisaari plan is not approved by the UN Security Council when it comes up for decision next month, there will be violence in Kosovo, and that will be the consequence of Russian actions, and they should be held fully accountable for that if it happens. And in "The New York Times" today[March 19], [Russian] Ambassador [to the UN] [Vitaly] Churkin is quoted as attacking the Ahtisaari plan and calling for a new mediator to replace Ahtisaari. That is really the wrong thing to do.

RFE/RL: What are the options for Russia with regard to Kosovo?

Holbrooke: I don't think, I hope they won't veto [at the Security Council]. Russia's option, the correct option for Russia is to insist on safeguards for the Serb minority in an independent Kosovo.

At least 40 suspected Taliban were killed in counterinsurgency operations in the Greshk district of Helmand Province on March 22, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The fighting was part of the ongoing Operation Achilles, launched jointly by the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Afghan security forces in early March in northern districts of Helmand (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2007). The Taliban still control several districts in northern Helmand despite the operation, which involves some 4,500 ISAF and 1,000 Afghan troops. AT

Officials from the Netherlands and the United States expressed criticism of reports that the Afghan government exchanged Taliban prisoners for hostage Daniele Mastrogiacomo, a correspondent for "La Repubblica" who was released by the Taliban on March 19, AP reported on March 21. "When we create situations where you can buy the freedom of Taliban fighters when you catch a journalist, in short term there will no journalists anymore," Dutch Foreign Minister Maxime Verhagen said during a March 21 visit to Kabul. John Mellott, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, was quoted as saying that the United States "does not make concessions with terrorist demands. End of story." Taliban fighters under the command of Dadullah abducted Mastrogiacomo, translator Ajmal Naqshbandi, and driver Sayyed Agha on March 4 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21 and 22, 2007). The Taliban reportedly exchanged the Italian journalist for five of its members after beheading Agha. "If things are done to save a human life,... this is a positive thing," Mastrogiacomo said. Afghan government officials said the swap was made on an "exceptional" basis and will not be repeated. Some Afghans have expressed anger that their government does not appear to have tried as hard to win Naqshbandi's release. AT

Estonian Defense Minister Jurgen Ligi has terminated the participation of an intelligence team that was working with British forces as part of ISAF, BNS reported on March 21. News reports claim the intelligence team was withdrawn from Afghanistan because the British sidelined it. Chief spokesman for the Estonian General Staff, Major Peeter Tali, confirmed that the team is back in Estonia, adding that the decision to terminate the mission in Afghanistan was classified. AT

The death toll from fighting on March 21 in the South Waziristan autonomous tribal area along the border with Afghanistan has risen to 110, the Karachi daily "Dawn" reported on March 22. The clashes have pitted local Pashtun tribes against Uzbeks reportedly associated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2007). There are an estimated 1,000 Uzbeks in Pakistan's tribal areas. "There is fighting going on and bodies are lying around," a local administrative official told the daily. South Waziristan administrator Husaynzada Khan told "Dawn" that the situation is a "tribal uprising against Uzbeks" as local Pashtuns say that "Uzbeks are no longer required" in their region. The Uzbeks are holdovers from when the Taliban ruled in Afghanistan. While some were in the Pakistani tribal regions, most are believed to have crossed into Pakistan during the counterterrorism campaign against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2002. Locals have blamed Uzbeks for killing an Arab Al-Qaeda affiliate and for bringing crime to Wana, the administrative capital of South Waziristan. The Pakistani government has denied interference in the clashes. AT

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad said in Tehran on March 22 that "the conduct of certain powers has deprived the [UN] Security Council of its role," IRNA reported. He told the press after visiting a health clinic that such "conduct of some powers" will primarily harm those powers because "they themselves have made up these mechanisms, and if they do not respect their own law, they have no credibility left." The Security Council could vote in the coming days on whether to impose a second set of sanctions on Iran, following those approved in December, over Iran's refusal to heed UN calls to end sensitive atomic fuel-making activities. Ahmadinejad said the council could serve humanity, but is preoccupied with promoting its own interests. Ahmadinejad said the "enemy" is making a "lot of noise" over Iran's nuclear program, but "they know they cannot do anything in practice." He said the date of his planned trip to address the UN Security Council "is still not clear." VS

U.S. Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman has told Indian officials that his country opposes a planned gas pipeline to transport Iranian gas through Pakistan to India, Radio Farda reported on March 22, citing news agencies. Bodman said on March 22 that he has told that "the highest levels" of Indian government that the United States fears Iran will use the revenues generated by the pipeline to develop weapons of mass destruction, Dow Jones reported. Iran has dubbed the project the "peace pipeline" for its purported contribution to more peaceful relations between India and Pakistan. Bodman said the pipeline would damage U.S. and international interests. Dow Jones reported that the 2,600-kilometer pipeline, which could cost some $8 billion to build, would provide Iran with an outlet for selling some of its 812 trillion cubic feet of estimated gas reserves. "If it is allowed to go forward, in my judgment, this will contribute to the development of nuclear weapons" by Iran, Bodman told Dow Jones on the sidelines of a conference. He had suggested on March 20 that the pipeline would not harm U.S.-India ties, Radio Farda reported. It added that India hopes to buy an annual 5 million tons of liquefied gas from Iran from 2009, for 25 years. VS

Alaeddin Borujerdi, a legislator and head of parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, told ISNA in Tehran on March 22 that the "Americans are once more targeting our national unity." He was referring to various incidents of unrest, attributed in Iran to separatists, militants, or bandits in Iran's southeastern, western, and northwestern frontier zones in recent months. Iranian officials have accused foreign powers of encouraging or aiding elements fighting Iranian security forces on frontier zones. "In the past two years, they have made widespread...efforts, by inciting ethnic and religious problems in...various provinces, to strike" at Iran's "successes," Borujerdi said. He added that "all the forces of world arrogance, headed by America and Great Britain," have failed "in these plots." He separately accused Washington of abusing UN Security Council powers to "violate" Iran's "right, and these measures are against international regulations and rules." He said Iran's parliament, and its National Security Committee, will take into account the Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's March 21 comments that Western powers have violated international laws in dealing with Iran and that Iran could do the same (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 22, 2007). Borujerdi told ISNA the committee will closely examine Khamenei's comments. VS

Iranian naval forces began war games in the waters of the central and northern Persian Gulf, off Iran's Bushehr province, on March 22, testing homemade weaponry, Radio Farda and news agencies reported. The maneuvers were dubbed "Power" and are due to last until March 30, AFP reported on March 22. They are undertaken by the regular army's naval forces. The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) has its own navy, although it was not immediately clear if those forces are participating. Radio Farda reported the use of missile-launching craft, larger battle cruisers, and air-to-ground and ground-to-air missiles, presumably either from ships or the coastline. A locally made submarine said to be suited to the gulf's waters was also "successfully tested," Radio Farda quoted commander Sajjad Kuchaki as saying (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 8, 2006, and March 14, 2007). Kuchaki said the exercise will test weaponry produced by the Iranian Defense Ministry and verify Iran's "defensive capacity" for safeguarding "the waters of the Persian Gulf." Kuchaki said the maneuvers will also test "electronic warfare" and guided-missile firing systems, while surface and underwater targets will also be fired on. The maneuvers are designed to show the United States Iran's deterrent capabilities, Radio Farda quoted unspecified experts as telling Reuters. VS

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made an unannounced visit to Baghdad on March 22 and met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, international media reported the same day. On his first trip to Iraq since he took office in January, Ban came to discuss the International Compact for Iraq, the five-year reconstruction plan for the country announced on March 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2007). Al-Maliki said that Ban's visit was an indication that Iraq is on a road to stability. "We consider it [the visit] a positive message to the world in which you [Ban] confirm that Baghdad has returned to playing host to important world figures because it has made huge strides on the road toward stability," he said. Ban said that his meeting with al-Maliki was positive, and he pledged continued UN support for Iraq. "I'm confident that we'll be able to see, in the near future, a more prosperous and secure...and a healthier future for the Iraqi people and government," Ban said. The news conference was briefly interrupted when a rocket landed outside the prime minister's office, causing Ban to duck behind his podium. Both men were unharmed and shortly resumed their news conference. SS

U.S. forces on March 21 released Sheikh Ahmad al-Shibani, a top aide to Muqtada al-Sadr, at the behest of Prime Minister al-Maliki, international media reported on March 22. Al-Shibani was in U.S. custody for more than two years after being arrested for carrying illegal weapons during the uprising in the Shi'ite holy city of Al-Najaf in September 2004. At the time of his arrest, some U.S. officials described al-Shibani as a major threat to Iraq's security, but upon his release, a U.S. military spokesman said al-Shibani could play a positive role in Iraq. "In consultation with the prime minister and following his request, coalition leaders determined that Sheikh Shibani, who was detained since 2004, could play a potentially important role in helping to moderate extremism and foster reconciliation in Iraq," Lieutenant Colonel Christopher Garver said. In 2006, an Iraqi court dismissed weapons possession charges against Shibani, but U.S. forces continued to detain him. SS

During an interview with "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on March 22, Salih al-Mutlaq, the leader of the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, said that the current Iraqi government is unable to bring about stability, and he called for early elections. Al-Mutlaq said the successes that are being achieved with the Baghdad security plan are only temporary and widespread violence will return once U.S. forces withdraw from Iraq. He stressed that only a political program that includes marginalized Iraqis could bring about true stability. "I am convinced that the current government cannot lead Iraq to stability and development; we need changes and everybody, including the U.S. administration, will realize after a short while that the political solution we espouse is the best," al-Mutlaq said. He said the role of religious parties should to be curtailed and called for the formation of a secular-oriented government made up of competent technocrats. Al-Mutlaq pointed to the National Salvation Front, a coalition of 32 political parties including the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, as a more viable alternative than the current government, because it rejects sectarianism and embraces national unity. SS

Nechirvan Barzani, the prime minister of the Kurdistan regional government, said on March 22 that Kurdish demands are not being met and the Kurdish people are losing patience , AFP reported the same day. "We demand a fair share of resources of the country, the issue of Kirkuk to be resolved democratically, freedom to share reconstruction funds, and freedom to democracy and political rights," Barzani said. "It is our natural right to share resources and we must have access to the budgetary process," he added. Concerning the contentious issue of oil-rich Kirkuk, Barzani said, "Whatever is taken by force should be returned peacefully and democratically." He was referring to the "Arabization" policies of the former regime, when thousands of Kurds and non-Arabs were driven from Kirkuk or were relocated and replaced with Arabs from the impoverished south. The Iraqi Constitution stipulates that Kirkuk is to conduct a census and referendum sometime in 2007 to determine whether the governorate is to be integrated into the semi-autonomous Kurdish region. SS

Hundreds of insurgents stormed a prison in the town of Al-Miqdadiyah, northeast of Baghdad, on March 21 and freed 33 prisoners, the "Gulf Daily News" reported on March 22. Allawi Farhan, the mayor of Al-Miqdadiyah, said there were approximately 200 insurgents using an array of weapons, and he described the operation as well-planned and highly sophisticated. The insurgents detonated a car bomb to seal off the eastern road to the prison and a roadside bomb to block the southern road, impeding the arrival of reinforcements. When U.S. and Iraqi reinforcements finally arrived, they were ambushed by the insurgents, who then set fire to a police station, courthouse, and 20 police vehicles before escaping. Iraqi officials said 18 policemen and 10 insurgents were killed. SS

During an interview with "Al-Zaman" on March 22, Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir Muhammad Jasim al-Ubaydi said he is under political pressure to restructure the ministry based on party quotas. However, Jasim indicated that he rejected this pressure, stressing that he is completely independent and does not take orders from any political party. He also criticized corruption in the ministry, saying, "Salaries were being paid to fictitious names in a number of military units." Jasim said he is keen to tackle this issue and that a cabinet-level committee has been formed to introduce reforms in the ministry. SS