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Newsline - April 17, 2007

On April 16, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov said on Ekho Moskvy radio that opponents of President Vladimir Putin will continue their protests despite the violent suppression by police of peaceful gatherings in Moscow and St. Petersburg the previous weekend, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2007). He said that the opposition movement "March of Dissent's actions as a form of mass protest will, of course, continue. We will try to compel the authorities to stop acting like they did before, so that they allow and ensure order in accordance with our laws." He stressed that the protesters observed the law, but the authorities "infringed our rights and deprive us of our rights to rally, demonstrate, and march." Kasyanov said that his colleagues in the protest movement told him that "the present authorities are immoral and they are capable of doing anything, but I did not believe them. The events of yesterday and the day before yesterday showed to me that I was wrong, unfortunately." He added that "all those people who gave illegal orders, those people who illegally banned the march, those people who ordered law enforcement bodies to carry out illegal orders, including beating up people, will have to take responsibility [for what they did]." PM

On April 17, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on state-run, English-language Russia Today television that police "overreacted" in suppressing the protests in Moscow and St. Petersburg, news agencies reported. He added, however, that the main role of the police was to "ensure law and order." Peskov said that the rallies were "extremely marginal" and that foreign media exaggerated the extent of the crackdown. President Putin has not commented publicly on the protests. But St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko on April 16 ordered law enforcement organs to "thoroughly" investigate reports of police abuse, news agencies reported. Russia's human rights ombudsman, Vladimir Lukin, said he is willing to look into complaints filed by demonstrators. PM

The daily "Kommersant" wrote on April 16 that the violent suppression of the protests showed "the dangers inherent in calling for a Putin-free Russia.... The opposition has never been dispersed so brutally before." The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" noted on April 16 that the violence shows that the authorities are afraid of the opposition despite the results of some recent local and regional elections and public opinion polls, which show clear majorities for President Putin's policies. The paper added that "Russia's conservative voters approve of [the authorities'] anti-Americanism, the state's strong hand, and removing 'idle talkers' from the political stage [by changing electoral legislation]. The authorities are appealing to those voters," but the tactic could backfire. The daily believes that "the strength of an argument...should be proved in open debate.... We all know what happens when demand for fairness and justice becomes more relevant than anti-Americanism. Think back to perestroika." The daily "Novye izvestia" wrote on April 16 that the violent suppression of peaceful protests is "something we've seen before." The paper suggested that the authorities decided to make an example of Other Russia and its protest because the movement is small and includes elements that are easily provoked. But, the daily asked, "what is the point of it all? What's wrong with a few thousand citizens walking...with banners and placards?" The paper warned that "in taking fright at the Other Russia, the authorities forget that Another Russia really is out there. It's the Russia that's tired of this endless mockery of the law, common sense, and elementary justice. That Russia that doesn't vote, and doesn't approach the police or the courts for help, because it's convinced (justifiably) that they're all corrupt. Until the first blood is shed, that Russia will not rise up. Therefore, Comrade Bosses, you shouldn't allow matters to reach extremes." The mass-circulation "Moskovsky komsomolets" published an article on April 16 entitled "all power to the OMON" riot police. It argued that the violent suppression was senseless and a blow to Russia's image. The paper noted that "Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov can continue to be eloquent in accusing the Western media of bias, but when journalists standing outside the protest area are struck by police batons, they're more likely to trust their own senses than even the most eloquent minister." PM

In Washington on April 16, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said the United States is "deeply disturbed by the heavy-handed manner" in which the Moscow and St. Petersburg rallies were broken up, news agencies reported. She drew attention to what she called "an emerging pattern of use of excessive force" by the Russian authorities and their "intolerable" behavior. In Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel's spokesman Thomas Steg called the crackdown "excessive." He added that "assaults on the media...are unacceptable." A German television correspondent was among those beaten and detained on April 15 in St. Petersburg. But a spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry, which is controlled by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), expressed on April 16 only "worry and concern" over the crackdown. Many leaders of the SPD favor close ties to Russia and are regularly critical of the United States (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 1, 2006, and February 20 and March 7, 2007). In Brussels on April 16, EU spokeswoman Christiane Hohmann said EU foreign ministers will raise the violent suppression of the protests at talks with Foreign Minister Lavrov in Luxembourg soon. PM

Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov said in Moscow on April 16 that Washington's failure to allow North Korea access to its funds frozen in a Macau bank is preventing the implementation of a February accord aimed at terminating Pyongyang's nuclear program, international media reported. North Korea had until April 14 to shut down its nuclear reactor, but said it will not do so because of a delay in the release of its $25 million, frozen under U.S. sanctions. In Washington, State Department Sean McCormack said that Russia's assessment is "just not an accurate description of the situation." He added that it is "clear that this is an issue with the North Koreans and their banker" because the funds have already been unfrozen. PM

President Putin signed a decree on April 16 to merge oil-product-pipeline monopoly Transnefteprodukt with crude-oil-pipeline monopoly Transneft, "The Moscow Times" reported on April 17. The state will hold at least 75 percent in the firm, which is one of several large state-run "verticals" being set up under Putin in various sectors of the economy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, 2007). "There's no obvious economic benefit to combining the pipeline operators, although it satisfies the Kremlin's feeling that bigger is better,'' said Roland Nash, chief strategist at Renaissance Capital, the daily added. It noted that Transneft is already the world's largest oil-pipeline system and supplies much of Europe with crude. Transnefteprodukt carries one-third of all Russian light-petroleum-product shipments. The remaining two-thirds of Russia's light products and almost all its fuel oil are delivered by rail. PM

Konstantin Pulikovsky, who heads Russia's safety watchdog Rostekhnadzor, said in the Kemerovo Oblast city of Novokuznetsk on April 17 that a system designed to prevent miners from working in unsafe conditions was turned off before the March 19 explosion at the Ulyanovsk coal mine there, which left 110 miners dead, Interfax reported. Rostekhnadzor's investigation concluded that, before the explosion, someone knowingly tampered with the system that monitors methane-gas levels so that the system would show a lower level than actually existed and hence be less likely to automatically shut down operations. A deputy to Pulikovsky said that a list has been prepared of 42 people responsible for the accident, including nine managers, who are among those who died in the blast, RIA Novosti reported. The report, which holds the mining company Yuzhkuzbassugol responsible, has been passed on to state prosecutors. A union leader said in a broadcast of the state-run Vesti-24 television channel that miners know that work in a high-risk environment is much better paid than where safety standards are high (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 21, 22, and 27, 2007). reported on April 17 that antidrug investigators have found evidence of drug use among the miners in Ulyanovsk. Kemerovo Oblast in western Siberia has a population of just under 3 million people, 70 percent of whom are urban. It is an important industrial region, particularly for coal and metallurgy. PM

Dmitry Medvedev toured the towns of Grozny, Gudermes, and Argun on April 16 to assess the extent of post-conflict reconstruction, and the Chechen Republic government website reported. At a subsequent meeting with senior Chechen officials, Medvedev said it is time to move from reconstruction -- which he termed impressive -- to the implementation of specific national projects, including expanding the limited opportunities for young people to acquire vocational training. Health Minister Shaid Akhmadov noted the chronic shortage of both modern medical equipment and medical personnel. Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov argued that in allocating funds to finance national projects, Moscow should take into account the fact that Chechnya "has been through two terrible wars." LF

Police in Baku took swift action on April 16 to disperse a planned protest action outside the Interior Ministry building by some 10 members of the Azerbaijani opposition youth group Dalga, reported. The participants wanted to protest the April 12 extradition to Iran of Iranian Azeri activist Hadi Musavi, a member of the Movement for the National Awakening of Southern Azerbaijan. Musavi was arrested in 2004 for his political activities. After his release, he traveled in January 2006 to Azerbaijan, where he applied for refugee status. That application was rejected. LF

Satiricist Mirza Sakit Zahidov, who was sentenced in October 2006 to three years' imprisonment on drug-possession charges widely believed to have been fabricated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2006), began a hunger strike on April 16 to protest prison authorities' repeated rejection of his requests for medical treatment, Azerbaijani media reported. The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders appealed to the Azerbaijani authorities earlier this month for Zahidov to be granted adequate medical care (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3, 2007). Meanwhile, some 80 inmates serving life sentences at Azerbaijan's notorious Gobustan prison began a new hunger strike on April 14 to demand their sentences be commuted to a maximum of 15 years' imprisonment, and reported on April 16 and 17, respectively. Two similar protests over the past two years proved unsuccessful (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 8, 2005, and July 24, 2006). LF

Meeting on April 13, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution prolonging for a further six months, until October 15, the mandate of the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG). The resolution further noted the concern expressed in his most recent (April 3) report by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon over the tensions generated by the as yet unsolved artillery attack during the night of March 11-12 on villages in the upper Kodori Gorge. It called on both sides to resume dialogue, and to comply fully with earlier cease-fire agreements, but it did not, however, clarify whether, as leading Abkhaz politicians claim, Georgia is in violation of the May 1994 cease-fire agreement by not withdrawing from Kodori the Interior Ministry personnel it deployed to the area in July 2006 (see "Caucasus: Are Georgia, Abkhazia Pursuing Diverging Agendas?", January 31, 2007). The resolution further urged both sides to finalize a package of agreements on the non-use of violence and on the return to their homes, initially in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali Raion but later also to other parts of Abkhazia, of refugees and internally displaced persons, including the generation born outside Abkhazia. At the same time, the resolution stressed "the importance of close and effective cooperation between UNOMIG and CIS peacekeeping forces as they currently play an important stabilizing role in the conflict zone." Georgia is actively lobbying for the Russian peacekeepers' withdrawal from the conflict zone and their replacement by an international contingent. LF

Speaking to reporters in Astana, U.S. Ambassador to Kazakhstan John Ordway said on April 16 that the United States will provide new military equipment to the Kazakh armed forces within the next three months, according to Interfax. The new U.S. equipment consists of two military helicopters and 17 specially modified, off-road Hummer vehicles. RG

After arriving in Astana on an official visit, Lithuanian Foreign Minister Petras Vaitiekunas met on April 16 with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Interfax reported. Vaitiekunas said the meeting centered on "cooperation in the energy sector, [and] in the sphere of the diversification of energy routes and achieving energy security." Vaitiekunas also delivered a formal proposal from the Lithuanian government calling for the construction of "an oil terminal and a network of filling stations" in Lithuania. Vaitiekunas further elaborated on the plan in a meeting with Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov. Masimov noted that Astana is "counting on" Lithuanian support for Kazakhstan's bid to join the World Trade Organization (WTO). In a separate meeting with Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin later the same day, Vaitiekunas also reaffirmed his country's backing of Kazakhstan's bid to chair the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009. RG

Several thousand opposition demonstrators gathered for a sixth day of rallies in Bishkek on April 16, demanding that Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev resign, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Asia-Plus reported. Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev met late in the day with opposition and moderate lawmakers to discuss changes to the country's constitution. The chairman of parliament's committee on constitutional law, Iskhak Masaliev, told RFE/RL after the meeting that Bakiev is said to be ready to accept a new draft of the constitution and rescind a version he has already sent to parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 11 and 13, 2007). Demonstrators on April 16 voiced frustration over a delay in the previously announced start of a parliamentary debate over the new constitutional amendments, after deputies formally requested that Bakiev nominate three new judges to the Constitutional Court before debate on the amendments. Demonstration organizers announced that they plan to continue the rallies until at least April 19 in order to maximize the pressure on the Kyrgyz government. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Bishkek, the former head of Kyrgyzstan's National Security Service, Kalyk Imankulov, announced on April 16 that he has joined the opposition movement led by former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, according to the website and AKIpress. Imankulov added that his decision to defect to the opposition stemmed from an attack on his son-in-law the previous day, which he defined as "a political act of intimidation." He also said that "previously I was in favor of peaceful resolution of issues, but now I am sure that there will be no progress unless President Bakiev resigns." Imankulov alleged that Kyrgyz authorities are planning to provoke a clash with protesters to create a pretext for the use of force to disperse the ongoing rallies. Imankulov was promoted from deputy to chairman of the Kyrgyz National Security Service in a cabinet reshuffling by former President Askar Akaev in early 2002 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 22, 2002). RG

President Bakiev has issued a decree appointing Medet Sadyrkulov as the new head of presidential administration, the news agency reported on April 16. Sadyrkulov previously held the same position for former President Akaev and, more recently, was in charge of the prime minister's office. Sadyrkulov replaced Myktybek Abdyldaev, who resigned on April 13, ITAR-TASS reported. In April 2006, Sadyrkulov was acquitted by a Bishkek court in a criminal case that charged him with illegally transferring some $420,000 from the state budget to Akaev in December 1999 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27, 2006). RG

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on April 15-16 paid a visit to India, Belapan reported. Lukashenka met with Indian Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Vice President Bhairon Singh Shekhawat, and President Abdul Kalam. Lukashenka described India as one of Belarus's main foreign partners along with Russia and China. "We have the opportunity to rely on the potential of these countries for securing our independence and sovereignty," he said. "The peculiarity of our relations with India is that they are based on scientific and technical cooperation. It is science, not trade that is moving in front," Lukashenka added. AM

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) announced on April 16 it has established that $12 million in property was transferred to an unemployed close relative of Judge Syuzanna Stanik, the deputy head of the Constitutional Court, Interfax reported. "It has been established that one of the close relatives of the judge purchased during the past year land plots in Kyiv, Yalta, nonresidential premises in Kyiv, Lviv, Yalta, and expensive cars," SBU acting head Valentyn Nalyvaychenko told reporters. According to the SBU, a joint venture operating on the gas and oil market transferred 500 square meters of property in downtown Kyiv to the same relative of the judge. Nalyvaychenko said the SBU is looking into "why and how property [and] real estate worth almost $12 million was transferred to a close relative who has not worked for a long time." Judge Stanik denied on April 16 the SBU accusations, Interfax reported the same day. Stanik described reports on property transfers to her relative as "a plot to disrupt a meeting of the Constitutional Court," which is scheduled to examine the constitutionality of the presidential decree dissolving parliament. Stanik also accused SBU acting head Nalyvaychenko of violating in his statement the Ukrainian Constitution and the Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. "The Ukrainian president has already drawn up, or perhaps, signed his decree on my resignation," Stanik said in a statement. AM

President Viktor Yushchenko met on April 16 in Kyiv with the heads of law enforcement agencies and called on them to implement systematically his decrees, in particular the one dissolving the Verkhovna Rada, Interfax reported. "Don't waste time. The president has endorsed the decree. I expect you to implement that decree efficiently. It is your function to demonstrate to [Ukraine's] 48 million citizens that the law works in Ukraine and that the fundamental human right to vote will be realized," Yushchenko said. Yushchenko also asked the Prosecutor-General's Office to formulate a clear-cut position on decisions by some regional councils to formally reject his decree dissolving the parliament. AM

In a statement issued on April 16 and reported by the Croatian news agency Hina the same day, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Carla Del Ponte, rejected "in the strongest terms, allegations that the [prosecutor's office] is in any way involved in 'concealing documents' from the International Court of Justice or in any 'deal' whatsoever with the Belgrade authorities." The statement follows the publication on April 15 of a letter written by Geoffrey Nice, the chief prosecutor in the trial of the late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic at the ICTY, to the Croatian newspaper "Jutarnji list" in which he wrote that Del Ponte struck a deal with Belgrade which Belgrade used to conceal evidence of Yugoslavia's involvement in the 1990s wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. In his letter, Nice said that Del Ponte personally agreed to Belgrade's request to withhold some documents against his advice. Nice argued that the concession to Belgrade was unnecessary. This accusation echoes similar charges leveled in "The New York Times" on April 9 against the UN's top court, the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in which unnamed sources argued that documents that the ICJ allowed Serbia to withhold could have resulted in Serbia being found guilty of genocide in Bosnia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 10, 2007). In the event, Serbia was merely found guilty of not acting to prevent the "act of genocide" at Srebrenica, where 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were slaughtered (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and 28, and March 2, 6, 7, 13, and 15, 2007). In its statement, the ICTY prosecutor's office said it "has no authority or involvement in proceedings before the International Court of Justice" and that it is the responsibility of the ICJ to determine what evidence it will consider and to request documents it deems necessary. Croatia is currently considering whether to continue with a case it brought before the ICJ charging Serbia with genocide. AG

Kosova's political leadership, including President Fatmir Sejdiu and Prime Minister Agim Ceku, on April 15 signed a declaration setting out the government's priorities for the first 120 days of its rule, should the UN Security Council back a UN-drafted proposal granting the province supervised independence from Serbia. As listed by the Kosovar Albanian newspaper "Koha ditore" on April 16, the priorities reflect the obligations imposed in the UN plan drawn up by former Finnish President Martti Ahtisaari and other commitments already made (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5 and March 8, 2007). The declaration was chiefly notable for the forum at which it was signed, a two-day conference in New York attended by numerous senior serving or former Western diplomats and by former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who gave the keynote speech. AG

A former Macedonian interior minister and a former senior police official went on trial at the ICTY on April 16 for their role in the murder of seven ethnic Albanians in August 2001, local and international media report. One of those killed was a 5-year-old, the BBC reported. Johan Tarculovski, a police commander, is accused of masterminding and leading the attack, while prosecutors argue that Ljube Boskovski, as interior minister, had "superior responsibility" for the police action and failed to punish the officers involved. Both men have pleaded not guilty. The indictment describes the operation, in the village of Ljuboten, just north of Skopje, as "organized, systematic, and pervasive." During the operation, allegedly launched in retaliation for the deaths of eight Macedonian soldiers killed by a land mine, police also beat fleeing villagers and destroyed 14 houses and a number of other buildings. On the first day of the trial, prosecutors showed a video of Boskovski watching the police rampage from a distance of several hundred meters, AP reported. The trial was then adjourned until May 7, as anticipated. The MIA news agency says that the trial of the two men, who have been in The Hague since March 2005, is expected to last 11 weeks. The case is the only one of five investigations into the six-month conflict between ethnic Albanian guerrillas and Macedonian security forces to have been brought to The Hague. The four other cases relating to the conflict are being handled by the Macedonian authorities, but the daily "Dnevnik" wrote on April 12 that unconfirmed reports suggest only two of them will be taken up by the courts. AG

Serbian prosecutors on April 15 announced that they have begun investigating war crimes allegations against three Kosovar Albanian, AFP reported the same day. The three men -- who have been named as Sabit Gecaj, Hisen Muhalj, and Sokolj Rama -- are accused of kidnapping a Serbian police officer whose body was later found in a well. The prosecutors have asked for the body of the victim, Ivan Bulatovic, to be exhumed for an autopsy. Bulatovic was travelling on a train through Kosova when he was abducted in May 1998, early in the conflict between ethnic Albanian rebels and Serbian troops. At the time, the suspects were all members of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), which was disbanded under UN supervision after NATO intervened to end the fighting. Arrest warrants have been issued for the three men, but reports did not indicate where the three suspects are currently thought to be. Most ethnic Albanians suspected of war crimes are currently outside Serbia's jurisdiction. Authorities in UN-administered Kosova have yet to comment. Serbia's Supreme Court on April 5 upheld a 13-year sentence against a Kosovar Albanian for his role in the murder of a Romany wedding party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2006, and April 10, 2007). AG

Bosnia-Herzegovina's war crimes tribunal on April 16 jailed a Bosnian Serb for 5 1/2 years for raping a Muslim woman during the country's three-year civil war, Bosnia-Herzegovina Radio 1 reported the same day. Radmilo Vukovic was found guilty of repeatedly raping a woman from the village of Miljevina after Bosnian Serb forces overran the eastern region of Foca in June 1992. The region gained notoriety during the war for its "rape camps." In another recent case related to events in Foca, the ICTY on April 4 jailed a former Bosnian Serb policeman, Dragan Zelenovic, for 15 years for nine rapes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 5, 2007). Zelenovic's case gained particular prominence as his indictment was the first to charge rape and sexual enslavement as a crime against humanity. In recent years, the ICTY has begun to transfer war crimes cases to the region, reflecting the emergence of local war crimes tribunals and the ICTY's pending closure. The ICTY will stop bringing cases to trial in 2008 and will formally close in 2010, when the last appeals are heard. AG

In an article for the daily "Blic," the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) representative in Serbia, Harald Hirschhofer, on April 13 called on Serbia to make its central bank truly independent and to demonstrate that it is capable of developing and maintaining strong economic policies. "The alternative to macroeconomic self-discipline is not worth considering," he wrote. Hirschhofer also warned that "until membership of the eurozone is secured, Serbia faces the discipline of a much tougher referee than the IMF (or the EU) -- the financial markets." He continued: "When they see policies going seriously wrong, financial crises occur. These crises are very painful to citizens.... And though such events 'blow the whistle' and stop the 'game', they by definition do so too late to prevent the crisis." In March, the IMF urged Serbia to change its macroeconomic policies dramatically, but the IMF's traction in Serbia appears to have weakened as the government has backed down on many terms of a loan deal. Hirschhofer indicated he fears the governorship of the central bank could be given to a political appointee in ongoing talks to form a new government. It is now almost three months since parliamentary elections. Bozidar Djelic, a senior figure in the the Democratic Party, which is expected to head the government, said on April 12 that he expects Serbia to have a new government by the deadline set by the constitution, May 14. With that deadline nearing, there is increasing speculation about early elections. An opinion poll published in early April indicated that two-thirds of Serbs would prefer to have a government in place rather than to hold fresh elections. AG

Serbia's Foreign Investment Agency on April 13 warned that investment in the country has slumped because of political instability, B92 reported the same day. In another expression of concern at the state of Serbia's economy, the head of Serbia's independent trade-union movement, Branislav Canak, told journalists that Serbia's economy "has not improved" since the war-riven years of former President Slobodan Milosevic's rule in the 1990s and "is not improving." In an interview published by "Glas javnosti" on April 10, Canak said that "as many as 100,000 workers do not get their salaries for several months at a time." AG

Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski on April 14 signaled that he is willing for a second ethnic Albanian party to join the government, the MIA news agency reported the same day. Gruevski said that he has argued "from the start" for the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD) to join the government. In his comments, he listed no preconditions and did not indicate how probable an agreement is, though he said that "most probably the government's program is acceptable to them [the PPD]." The Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh), which is part of the governing coalition, has been urging the government to bring a second ethnic Albanian party into the government, initially calling for the inclusion of the largest Albanian party, the Democratic Union for Integration (BDI) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 9, 2007). The drive for greater representation reflects the contention by ethnic Albanian parties that the government is not fully observing the terms of the Ohrid peace agreement, which ended the six-month conflict in 2001. The PDSh and the PPD are also seeking to forge a united Albanian front but those efforts appear to have floundered, with local media reporting that the BDI on April 9 rebuffed an overture by the two other parties. AG

Tens of thousands of Albanians on April 13 crowded into Tirana's central square for a rally called in support of the media, local media reported. The international media watchdog Reporters Without Borders estimated the crowd at about 100,000 people. The country's media and opposition accuse Prime Minister Sali Berisha of launching a politically motivated campaign against the media, sections of which he has repeatedly accused of being in hock to the mafia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12, 2007). A commentary in "Gazeta Shqiptare" on April 14 contrasted the occasion to a celebration by a similarly sized crowd when Berisha was elected president in March 1992. "During these years of pluralism, nobody has proven capable of engendering so much hostility among such a broad range of Albanian society as Prime Minister Berisha," the commentator wrote, and, in an apparent warning, claimed that "the defeat [Berisha] suffered in his savage battle with the Albanian media in the mid-1990s marked the beginning of the end of his regime." Albania is currently in a politically sensitive period: local elections were held in February, and parliament is due to elect a new president in June. Berisha's chief opponents, the Socialists, emerged victorious from the local polls, but are riven by worsening divisions ahead of the presidential vote (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 9 and April 11, 2007). AG

The insurgent group Islamic Army in Iraq spoke for several armed groups when it criticized the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq last week for recent operations against home-grown Iraqi insurgent groups. The Islamic Army claimed Islamic State assassinated more than 30 of its members after the Islamic Army refused to join the Islamic State -- a "super group" that includes the Mujahedin Shura Council, formerly led by Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi, and other smaller armed jihadist groups.

The Islamic State appears to have begun its campaign for dominance among armed groups in Iraq more than two months ago. Perhaps motivated by the need to establish dominance on the ground after losing support from locals in Al-Anbar Governorate in recent months, the Islamic State attempted to seize control over areas of Diyala Governorate, including Ba'qubah and surrounding villages. According to some reports by insurgent leaders, the Islamic State sought to drive out insurgent groups that refused to come under its umbrella through a campaign of murder and intimidation. It unleashed similar reprisals on the local population.

The situation unnerved Iraqi insurgent groups. Whereas they had once been united in a common cause with Al-Qaeda -- to drive coalition forces from Iraq-- now they were forced to take a stand against it. Echoing the position of other armed Iraqi groups, the Islamic Army appealed to Islamic leaders, members of the Iraqi resistance, Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, and fighters for the Islamic State of Iraq to address transgressions carried out by the Islamic State, which it said violate Islamic law.

The Islamic Army's April 5 statement accused the Islamic State of attacking citizens, pillaging homes, and stealing civilians' money. It also said the group has banned satellite television and requires women to wear a full face veil, which the army argues makes them vulnerable to harassment and possible assault by the Iraqi police and National Guard.

The statement claimed that the Islamic State has also attacked members of the Al-Mujahedin Army in Iraq, the Iraqi Resistance Movement-1920 Revolution Brigades, the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army, and the Islamic Front for Iraqi Resistance.

The Islamic State has a track record of such abuses. Under al-Zarqawi, its predecessor organization -- Tanzim Qa'idat Al-Jihad fi Bilad Al-Rafidayn (Al-Qaeda Organization of Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers) --routinely violated the so-called rules of jihad, and flagrantly ignored warnings by Sunni clerics that it had crossed the line.

Leaders from several insurgent groups have acknowledged in the Arab press that although they disagreed with the Islamic State's tactics for months, they refrained from criticizing the Al-Qaeda organization in order not to present a divided front to the world. Their common goal of driving multinational forces from Iraq was enough to silence their opposition to the group's rogue tactics.

Its targeting of their members was enough to break their silence. It may also be enough to drive Islamic State from Iraq once and for all. "As for fighting to kick [multinational forces] and those collaborating with them out of the country, we support [Islamic State] in this regard," Mahmud al-Zubaydi, a spokesman for the 1920 Revolution Brigades, told Al-Arabiyah television in an April 9 interview. "However, we are against [their policy] of killing civilians, bombings, indiscriminate attacks, and attacks on the mujahedin groups in the country."

Iraqi insurgent groups opposed to the Islamic State have struggled over the decision to fight the Al-Qaeda-affiliated group. Abu Hudhayfah, a leader from the 1920 Revolution Brigades, told the London-based "Al-Hayat" in a March 31 interview that the Islamic State's assassination of a prominent Brigades leader last month "left the resistance groups with two options: either fight Al-Qaeda and negotiate with the Americans, or fight the Americans and join the Islamic State of Iraq, which divides Iraq." He called both options "bitter."

"Al-Hayat" quoted "gunmen disloyal to Al-Qaeda" as saying that "the leaders of the so-called Islamic State of Iraq have left the resistance with limited options and have changed the conflict map and turned it into a sectarian conflict," thereby embarrassing the resistance.

This, however, gives grounds for optimism. Iraqi insurgent groups like the 1920 Revolution Brigades and the Islamic Army in Iraq, though they claim to be Islamist in nature, are also nationalist. Unlike Al-Qaeda, their goals do not traverse Iraq's borders, and they would be loath to allow any group, whether or not they identified with its goals, to destroy the state.

Moreover, the Islamic State, unlike the other groups, is primarily composed of foreign fighters. And, whereas other insurgent groups set their primary goal as driving multinational forces from Iraq, al-Zarqawi set his organization's goals as dual: driving out foreign forces and declaring war on the Shi'a, which he claimed were propped up by Iran. Several Iraqi insurgent leaders have stated clearly in recent weeks that they stand opposed to Iran, but hold no agenda against Iraq's Shi'ite community.

The dilemma of whether to negotiate with the United States or not has already led to a split between factions within the 1920 Revolution Brigades. Those that opposed negotiations left the Brigades to form the Islamic Resistance Movement in Iraq-Hamas.

Ordinary citizens need little prompting to oppose the violence that the Islamic State has unleashed on Iraq, and their active opposition would be key to driving the Al-Qaeda organization from the country. Just as the leaders in Al-Anbar did, Iraqis in Diyala, where it appears the Islamic State has now headquartered itself, would need to take action. Should they choose to do so, it is clear the Iraqi government would support the initiative as it did in Al-Anbar. Should local leaders be joined by Iraqi insurgent groups, their chances of success would be even greater. Moreover, driving Al-Qaeda from Iraq could be the starting point for reconciliation between the Iraqi government and armed Sunnis.

It is likely the rationale of armed groups operating in Iraq over the past four years has been that once their own conflict with U.S. and Iraqi forces was resolved, they could easily drive Al-Qaeda out of Iraq. It's clear that there is little love for Al-Qaeda among Iraq's Sunni Arab population. The reason Iraqis support the Islamic State and give it shelter is because it fights the U.S.-led coalition. The lesson the Islamic State should have drawn from its experience in Al-Anbar Governorate was that the impunity it enjoyed should not be misinterpreted as allegiance.

One lesson of the past four years is that time is of the essence if one is to deal effectively in matters pertaining to the insurgency. The Islamic State's presence in Diyala Governorate poses a threat not only to the governorate's inhabitants, but to Kurds and Baghdadis living in the areas that flank Diyala. Recent reports indicate that the Islamic State is massing militants in and around Mosul, close to the border with the Kurdish region.

Meanwhile, members of Ansar Al-Islam are apparently regrouping and launching attacks on the Iran-Iraq border in the Kurdish city of Penjwin, northeast of Al-Sulaymaniyah. Should they be aligned with the Islamic State -- and they probably are, in light of reports of al-Zarqawi's ties to Ansar -- the consequences could prove disastrous for the Kurds, who have seen relative peace and prosperity in recent years.

A suicide bomber blew himself up outside a police training ground in the northern Afghan city of Konduz on April 16, killing up to 10 policemen and wounding at least 24 others, AFP reported. The attacker approached the front of the training ground on foot as officers were conducting their regular morning exercises, according to Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary. Purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi told AP by telephone that the Taliban was responsible for the attack, but that claim could not be independently verified. Militant violence is uncommon in Konduz, but the April 16 blast was the third suicide attack and the second attack against police officers in three days. JC

Afghan Foreign Minister Rangin Dadfar Spanta on April 15 reiterated President Hamid Karzai's pledge that the country will no longer conclude deals with hostage takers, Reuters reported the same day. On April 14, the Taliban released a videotape showing two recently abducted French aid workers pleading for their lives and the lives of three Afghan colleagues (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2007). Several weeks earler, Kabul freed five Taliban fighters in exchange for an Italian journalist (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007). The Taliban killed two Afghans kidnapped along with Italian Daniele Mastrogiacomo. "If we do it once or twice, it will become a procedure," said Spanta. He further expressed concerns that kidnapping could become an "industry" for Taliban fighters if authorities swap Taliban prisoners for hostages, RFE/RL reported. The United States, Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands all have denounced hostage exchanges. JC

A new report released on April 16 by New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) claims that insurgents in Afghanistan are increasingly targeting civilians, Reuters reported the same day. In its report, titled "The Human Cost," the group accuses the Taliban and other insurgents of committing war crimes. In 2006, insurgents killed 669 civilians, the heaviest annual toll since 2001, AP reported. The report also cites figures showing an increase in suicide bombings in the past three years from two in 2003 to almost 140 in 2006, and states that the overwhelming number of victims were civilians although the targets were primarily military. HRW noted that militant forces were not the only parties responsible for civilian deaths, and that at least 230 civilians were killed during coalition and NATO operations last year. The data underline the continuing dangers facing Afghans more than five years after the U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power. JC

Afghanistan's economy will grow by nearly 12 percent this year despite a renewed offensive by Taliban militias in recent months, Finance Minister Anwar ul-Haq Ahadi said on April 16, according to Reuters. During a conference at the Brookings Institute in Washington, Ahadi said that Afghanistan's Western-backed government is succeeding in increasing revenues and attracting foreign investments despite the growing insurgency. The growth forecast is boosted by a 30 percent increase in tax receipts to over $715 million. The minister recognized Afghanistan's opium production as a source of conflict, but said the narcotics trade now comprises 27 percent of GDP as opposed to 35 to 40 percent a few years ago. Ahadi urged foreign donors to sustain aid flows to maintain these gains and suggested the money be channeled through the state budget to ensure it is spent on economic development as well as security. JC

Iranian news agencies reported on April 15 and 16 that 15 students from the Mazandaran University in northern Iran have been detained in connection with suspensions, a protest, and a previous arrest, although university authorities say authorities failed to inform them. reported on April 16 that the students were "kidnapped" by possible plainclothes security agents on the night of April 15-16. It added that they had previously protested over the detention of another student, Bijan Sabbagh. The 15 were apparently among a group of 25 students who protested outside the offices of the head of the Mazandaran University on April 15 over the suspension of three students, as reported by ILNA. A university admissions and security official identified as Halimi said on April 15 that the three students have been suspended for a term for insulting university officials and repeatedly breaking university rules, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 16. On April 16, a student identified as Salehi also told ISNA that 15 students were "arrested" either in the university or at home, and he described the state of the university in recent days as "disorderly." University officials have said they were not informed of these arrests and are investigating. The Allameh Branch of the Office to Consolidate Unity, part of a national student grouping, issued a statement on April 15 backing the three students and deploring the infiltration of "plainclothes" agents onto the campus. VS

ISNA reported that an unspecified number of students from the Shiraz Agriculture and Natural Resources College Darab Unit, in the southern Fars Province, protested on April 16 over the conduct of university officials and their alleged indifference to unspecified student demands. It was not immediately clear if this was a faculty in the larger Shiraz University or a separate college. An unnamed student told ISNA that "none of the university's classes were held" on April 16 and that "students want the university's situation to be clarified." Separately, some 500 Shiraz University students gathered on campus on April 15 to protest the government's reported decision to fill the Sivand Dam in Fars Province, which many Iranians fear will damage local archeological sites (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2007). Their protest was designed to coincide with the start of a tour of the Fars Province by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad on April 16. Ahmadinejad told a crowd in Marvdasht in Fars on April 16 that the Sivand Dam would start to be filled "this week," "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on April 17. Energy Minister Parviz Fattah confirmed that operation on April 16 and said archeologists have until the end of the week to complete any excavation work, Radio Farda reported, citing IRNA. VS

Following intermittent wage protests by Iranian teachers, plainclothes security agents arrested Ali Akbar Baghani, the secretary-general of the Iran Teachers Association, a nationwide teaching union, while he supervised an exam in a Tehran classroom on April 16, ILNA reported. Baghani was previously arrested on March 14, along with five other members of the Teachers Association, and released on March 28, ILNA reported, although a previous report gave March 7 as the date of his arrest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 9, 2007). ILNA also named members of the Teachers Association whom it said were arrested on April 11 and 14 in Tehran and who are still being held as the deputy head of the Teachers Association Hamid Purvosuq, Mahmud Bagheri, Mohammad Taqi Fallahi, Ali Asghar Montajabi, Mohammad Reza Rezai, and Alireza Akbari-Nabi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 12, 2007). An education official in the city of Kerman in southeastern Iran told ISNA on April 16 that an unspecified number of teachers in one or two schools in the city refused to teach that day and cited officials' disrespect for teachers as the reason. The parliamentary representative for Sanandaj in the Kurdistan Province, Hushang Hamidi, also told ILNA on April 16 that an unspecified number of teachers went on strike in his province, apparently in response to calls for a strike by the Teachers Association. confirmed on April 16 that an unspecified number of teachers went on strike in "western areas" of Iran on April 15 and 16. VS

Nahid Keshavarz and Mahbubeh Hosseinzadeh, two women's rights activists arrested while gathering signatures for a nationwide petition in a Tehran park on April 2, were conditionally released on April 15, the daily "Etemad" reported on April 17, citing their lawyer Nasrin Sotudeh. She said a bail of 20 million tumans -- a little under $22,000 -- was set for them and Keshavarz's husband was named as a guarantor, presumably making him legally responsible for the payment of that bail sum (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 3 and 12, 2007). VS

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said on April 15 that Iranian authorities are investigating the case of Parnaz Azima, a Radio Farda journalist whose passport was confiscated in January, preventing her from leaving the country, news agencies reported. Hosseini said he only recently found out about the case. Azima went to Iran on January 25 to visit her sick mother, and her passport was confiscated at Tehran airport. She was asked in the course of subsequent interviews with Iranian officials to cooperate with Iranian intelligence and security agencies, and she refused, Radio Farda reported. Azima reportedly had a similar problem in 2006, when her passport was confiscated for several weeks, the broadcaster added. RFE/RL President Jeffrey Gedmin asked Iran on April 13 to return Azima's passport and allow her to return to work in Prague, RFE/RL reported. Separately, a Tehran court has given women's rights activist Azadeh Forqani a two-year suspended prison sentence, for taking part in a Tehran protest against gender inequalities in Iran in June 2006, Radio Farda reported on April 11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2006). VS

A two-day conference sponsored by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on Iraqi displaced persons opened in Geneva on April 17, international media reported. The UNHCR said it will urge the 450 participants from more than 60 governments and international and nongovernmental organizations to do more to help ease the refugee crisis, beginning with Great Britain. Some 1.9 million Iraqis are now displaced inside their country and up to 2 million others have fled abroad, making the refugee crisis the largest displacement of people in the Middle East since the conflict triggered by the creation of Israel in 1948, the UNHCR said. "But we certainly intend and hope that this conference will contribute to raising the awareness of the world to the humanitarian crisis that faces Iraq and Iraqi refugees as a result of the difficult security situation in their country," Radhouane Nouicer, the director of the Middle East and North Africa bureau of UNHCR, said. He noted that the conference will also address the need to protect Iraqi refugees from forcible repatriation, as well as bad treatment or hunger or deprivation by host states. KR

In an April 16 appeal to the United States and European Union, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Norwegian Refugee Council asked U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair to take the lead in Europe by resettling Iraqi refugees, AP reported on April 17. The appeal acknowledged U.S. pledges to resettle 7,000 Iraqis, but said that Britain "has done nothing to allow Iraqi refugees displaced by the conflict the chance to resettle in the U.K. -- including people who have shown great loyalty and service to the U.K. in Iraq." Amnesty International asked Western states in a separate statement to set up resettlement programs for Iraqis that go beyond "token numbers." KR

An Iraqi refugee in Saudi Arabia told RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on April 16 that some 88 Iraqis remain stranded in what was Rafha Camp with no electricity, no food, and no humanitarian aid, after Saudi officials closed the camp 10 months ago. The UNHCR began repatriating refugees from Rafha to Iraq in 2003. Others were transferred to third countries. Although Saudi Arabia has asked the remaining Iraqis to leave, the UNHCR reportedly told them they could stay because they have refugee status. The Iraqi said neither the UNHCR nor the Saudi authorities are helping the stranded people. He said the Iraqis, because they have no money or food, must rifle through the trash every day to feed their children. The UNHCR has continued to promise to find a resolution to the problem, he noted, but nothing has been done. The refugee's claims have not been independently verified. KR

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's office said in an April 16 statement that he "welcomes" Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's decision to hand over responsibility for the six cabinet portfolios given up by al-Sadr supporters to the government, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 2007). The statement praised al-Sadr for recognizing the pitfalls of sectarianism in the government and said the six positions will be reassigned according to competence rather than according to sectarian quotas. The statement reiterated al-Maliki's position on the withdrawal of multinational forces, saying it will happen when Iraqi security forces can competently assume responsibility for security in all 18 governorates "in accordance with the policy statement of the national-unity government and what was agreed upon within the [Shi'ite bloc] United Iraqi Alliance." KR

British troops intercepted two teams planting roadside bombs west of Al-Basrah on April 13, according to a U.K. Defense Ministry press release. The statement noted that the teams were clearly observed placing improvised explosive devices and running command wires across roads. At least eight militiamen were killed by the soldiers. Multinational Division-Southeast spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Kevin Stratford-Wright said operations against rogue militiamen will continue to target the militias' leadership, operatives, and weapons stocks. KR

A U.S. military investigation into an apparent friendly-fire incident on April 16 has shown that three men thought to have been Iraqi police officers were suspected insurgents, according to an April 17 press release. Coalition forces warned Iraqi police operating in Al-Ramadi of a planned operation prior to and immediately before the April 16 raid. During the course of the operation, ground forces were subjected to heavy small-arms fire from armed men in two buildings and returned fire. One of the wounded identified the gunmen as Iraqi police and it appears that some gunmen were using a vehicle that resembled a police vehicle. The investigation later found the dead gunman dressed in traditional Arab dishdashas, not police uniforms, the statement noted. KR