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Newsline - May 9, 2007

Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 9 presided over a military parade on Red Square in Moscow and congratulated the people of Russia on the 62nd anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany, RIA Novosti and reported. Putin said Victory Day, celebrated in Russia on May 9, is the dearest holiday not only for citizens of Russia, but also for the people of the former Soviet Union, the countries of Europe, and the entire planet. The BBC commented on its website that May 9 is a celebration that seems to grow in importance in today's Russia, with Tsarist and Soviet symbols standing together as part of a resurgent Russian patriotism. FF

President Putin in his speech on Red Square on May 9 cautioned against any attempts to "obliterate the memory of those who died in the Great Patriotic War" and to desecrate monuments to war heroes, RIA Novosti reported. The lead-up to 9 May has seen increasing unease in Russia's relations with its neighbors, in particular with countries that were part of the Soviet Union. Moscow reacted with fury when a Soviet-era war memorial, the Bronze Soldier, was removed from the center of Estonia's capital last month. The move was denounced as "blasphemy" and "sacrilege". The use of religious language indicates that the victory on Nazi Germany is considered sacred in Russia, and that. questioning it in any way is seen as an attack on a national faith, the BBC commented. Growing unease is noticeable also in relations with the European Union. NATO and the European Union have defended Estonia in the dispute over the war memorial, and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on May 7 strongly criticized them for their stance, saying they were supporting countries that show no respect for the memory of Soviet soldiers and attempt to rewrite history. FF

Russian Railways announced on May 8 that its train services between St. Petersburg and the Estonian capital, Tallinn, will be cancelled as of May 26 for commercial reasons, Interfax reported. The move, which was announced and denied several times during the day, was confirmed when the state railway operator said that the small number of passengers makes this service unprofitable, Ekho Moskvy radio reported. The report also quoted the Estonian partner of Russian Railways, Go Rail, as saying that the commercial reasons for the Russian decision are unclear. Russia's Economic Development and Trade Ministry meanwhile said on May 8 that it is not drafting proposals to impose trade sanctions on Estonia, Interfax reported. The news agency quoted Deputy Economic Development and Trade Minister Vitaly Savelyov as saying that the ministry is not working on such proposals and has not received instructions to do so. FF

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights said on May 8 that the Russian authorities are seeking to disbar lawyer Karina Moskalenko for filing complaints in the European Court of Human Rights about alleged violations, AP reported. Moskalenko is one of the lawyers of jailed oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky. She also defended former chess champion Garry Kasparov after he was detained during a protest last month. Russian prosecutors have requested that Moskalenko be disbarred on the grounds that she allegedly violated the norms of professional ethics, failed to assist a client adequately, and obstructed investigations. Moskalenko's Center for International Protection has brought dozens of rights cases to the European Court of Human Rights, more than 20 of which have resulted in rulings against Russia. The International Helsinki Federation said the request to disbar Moskalenko will be heard by a Moscow City Bar committee later this month or next month, but no date has been announced. FF

Russia's Foreign Ministry on May 8 denied a report by Amnesty International that Russia has shipped arms to the Sudanese province of Darfur, Interfax reported. The ministry said that Russia fully abides by the provisions of resolutions of the United Nations Security Council, which ban arms shipments to Darfur. The Amnesty International report charged that China and Russia violate the embargo and ship arms to Darfur which are used against civilians. China, the biggest foreign investor in Sudan, has also denied the Amnesty accusations, Reuters reported. The Amnesty report said "the bulk" of the arms used in Darfur and Chad were transferred from China and Russia, with Sudan importing $83 million in arms from Beijing and $34.7 million in military equipment from Moscow in 2005, AP reported. It also said Khartoum was using planes painted white to make them look like UN aircraft to bomb and carry out surveillance in Darfur. Sudan has rejected the charges. China and Russia are permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. FF

Issa-hadji Khamkhoyev convened a meeting of senior Muslim clergymen on May 7 to discuss measures to deter young men from forcibly abducting their hoped-for brides, the website reported. He advocated extending to other districts of the republic the practice, introduced with some success in the village of Psedakh, of imposing heavy fines on young men who abduct girls to force a marriage to which the bride's parents would otherwise not have consented. Two months ago, a young man who abducted a girl at her request to prevent her parents marrying her off to an older man she did not love, but returned her untouched to her family the same day, was brutally beaten up by the girl's relatives, who filmed the beating and sent the footage via mobile phone throughout Ingushetia, according to on March 14. The young man was reportedly hospitalized with a nervous breakdown; the girl was married off immediately to her elderly suitor. The website subsequently claimed to have received "thousands" of e-mails commenting on the incident, most of which expressed support for the thwarted bridegroom. LF

Pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov dismissed on May 8 as untrue the claim made by dozens of prominent British political and cultural figures in an open letter to Russian President Putin published in "The Independent" the previous day that egregious human rights violations continue in Chechnya, the official website reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). LF

Alexander Arzoumanian, who served as Armenian foreign minister from late 1996-early 1998, was taken into custody late on May 7, two days after National Security Service officials confiscated some $55,400 they found during a search of his apartment, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on May 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). Arzoumanian and former Territorial Administration Minister Vahan Shirkhanian have both been charged with money laundering, reportedly on behalf of a Russian citizen of Armenian descent whom both men admit to having met with recently in Moscow. Noyan Tapan on May 7 quoted Shirkhanian as accusing the Armenian authorities of trying to terrorize the opposition in the run-up to the May 12 parliamentary election. At a meeting on May 8, Armenian opposition representatives expressed concern over Arzoumanian's arrest, which National Democratic Union Chairman Vazgen Manukian argued creates a dangerous precedent for the present regime, according to Noyan Tapan. Last fall, Arzoumanian launched a movement named Civil Disobedience that, according to the weekly "168 zham" on November 28, is rumored to be financed from Russia. LF

The Georgian authorities have arrested two ethnic Azerbaijani citizens of Georgia in Tbilisi in connection with the March 2005 slaying of Azerbaijani opposition journalist Elmar Huseynov, reported on May 7, citing unnamed police sources. The two men, Tahir Khubanov and Teymuraz Aliyev, were identified as suspects shortly after the killing, and international arrest warrants issued for them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 5 and 20, 2005). In July 2006, former Interior Ministry staffer Haji Mammadov claimed in testimony at his trial that he masterminded Huseynov's killing at the behest of disgraced former Economic Development Minister Farxad Aliyev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 28, 2006). Aliyev's trial on corruption charges is scheduled to open on May 15. LF

Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili told his visiting Estonian counterpart Toomas Hendriks Ilves in Tbilisi on May 7 that Georgians are shocked by the violent response by Russians in Estonia to the relocation from central Tallin of a Soviet memorial to World War II dead, Caucasus Press reported. Saakashvili said that "we should all assist Estonia in creating a strong democratic society and in preventing undemocratic activities." On May 8, the Georgian parliament adopted a resolution similarly condemning the backlash to the relocation of the monument, including protests outside the Estonian Embassy in Moscow. The resolution expressed support for all measures taken by the Estonian government to restore order. LF

Eduard Kokoity, de facto president of the unrecognized breakaway republic of South Ossetia, warned on May 7 that his regime will not resume talks with the central Georgian government until Tbilisi abjures any further contacts with Dmitry Sanakoyev, Caucasus Press and the daily "Kommersant" reported on May 7 and 8, respectively. South Ossetia's Georgian minority elected Sanakoyev its "president" in a ballot last November that neither the Georgian authorities nor the international community recognized as legal and valid. The Georgian parliament passed last month in the first and on May 8 in the second reading a bill drafted by President Saakashvili creating a "provisional" administration in South Ossetia that is intended to legalize Sanakoyev's position (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007 and April 10, 2007 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," March 30, 2007). Sanakoyev is to address the Georgian parliament on May 11, at which juncture he will be formally named head of the new temporary administration, Caucasus Press reported on May 8. LF

Lieutenant General Sultan Sosnaliyev, a Kabardian who served in the mid-1990s and then again from 2005 as Abkhaz defense minister, has resigned at the age of 65, reported on May 8. Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh praised Sosnaliyev as a "legendary figure" and "a great Caucasian patriot" and thanked him for his work in raising the professionalism and combat readiness of the unrecognized republic's armed forces. Bagapsh has not yet named a new defense minister. LF

Kazakh Foreign Minister Marat Tazhin met on May 8 with officials at the U.S. State Department and members of Congress during an official three-day visit to Washington, Interfax reported. Tazhin discussed issues of regional security and reviewed his country's nonproliferation efforts. Meeting with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steven Mann, Tazhin discussed the implementation of several agreements, concluded during Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev's September 2006 visit to Washington, that cover a range of measures from anticorruption efforts to energy cooperation. In a press release issued in Astana by the Kazakh Foreign Ministry, Senator Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana), was quoted after meeting Tazhin as hailing Kazakhstan as a "responsible and reliable member of the world community and a consistent supporter of nuclear nonproliferation." RG

In a press conference in Almaty, Kazakh Central Bank Deputy chairwoman Gulbanu Aymanbetova reported on May 8 that Kazakhstan's foreign debt has risen sharply, from $42.6 billion in 2005 to $73.8 billion at the end of 2006, according to Interfax. She noted that the sharp increase in the country's external debt was "mainly due to the banking sector's borrowing." She added that the foreign debt of the Kazakh banking sector grew by more than $18 billion in 2006, reaching a total of $33.3 billion at the end of the year. RG

Speaking at a ceremony in Astana marking a national military holiday, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev announced on May 7 that Kazakhstan plans to implement a major modernization of its armed forces and will purchase "the world's best" weapons, Interfax and AKIpress reported. Nazarbaev said the Kazakh Army will "take measures to increase the quality of the troops' combat readiness as well as their level of military and mobile readiness." He added that modern weapons systems and advanced equipment will be procured for the Kazakh armed forces, including "high-precision weapons, modern radio-electronic warfare devices," and "air-defense missiles, radar, and modern communication systems." He acknowledged a need to transfer the technological advances from the "growing Kazakh role in space exploration" to the military, and singled out the expansion of naval power in the Caspian Sea as a priority for the Kazakh Navy. The announcement follows Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov's recent formulation of a new military doctrine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007). RG

Kanat Seytkulov, a regional prosecutor in Mangystau district, announced on May 7 that a criminal investigation has been opened into the mass deaths of seals along parts of the country's Caspian Sea shoreline, Interfax reported. According to official figures released the day before, 885 dead seals have been discovered along the Caspian shore, with most of the deaths occurring in April. Although the exact cause of the deaths has not yet been determined, theories range from global warming to energy-related pollution as the main causes (see: "Caspian Sea: Seal Deaths Highlight Species' Predicament," April 13, 2007, RG

A five-day seminar organized by the U.S. military's Central Command opened on May 7, providing operational training for Kyrgyz military police and representatives from the Kyrgyz Emergencies Ministry, AKIpress reported. The seminar on the role of military police also includes specialized training on peacekeeping missions. With the U.S. military utilizing the country's Manas airbase outside of Bishkek for operations in Afghanistan, U.S. armed forces have also increased the training provided to the Kyrgyz military in recent years (see "U.S. Military Commander Visits Kyrgyzstan," July 25, 2006, RG

Tajik President Emomali Rahmon on May 8 met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad during an official three-day visit to Iran, ITAR-TASS and Asia-Plus reported. Rahmon called for the expansion of relations, and identified the areas of hydroelectricity, transportation, and industry as Tajikistan's priorities for attracting greater Iranian investment. With the overall volume of bilateral trade increasing annually and having surpassed $500 million last year, Tajikistan plans to construct a new border trading terminal to facilitate greater turnover. The Tajik president arrived in Tehran from Qatar, where he concluded a series of bilateral agreements focusing on trade and investment in the energy and mining sectors (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). RG

An Uzbek appeals court in Tashkent on May 8 revised an earlier sentence imposed on independent journalist and rights activist Umida Niyazova, changing her prison term to a three-year suspended sentence, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Another Tashkent court sentenced Niyazova a week before to a seven-year prison term after she was found guilty of illegally crossing the Uzbek border, distributing materials that threaten public order, and smuggling (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 20 and May 2 and 4, 2007). According to the terms of the appeals court ruling, Niyazova will be subject to constant police surveillance and must report regularly to the Uzbek police for the term of her suspended sentence. RG

The Youth Front, an unregistered opposition organization, held a conference in Minsk on May 7 at which delegates elected Dzmitry (Zmitser) Fedaruk as the group's leader and Ales Korban as his deputy, Belapan reported. The conference also adopted a charter saying that the Youth Front's key tasks include uniting young people on the basis of Belarusian ideals and Christian values, and building civil society based on the principles of democracy and a free market. The Youth Front is planning to apply for official registration. "We've drawn up registration documents for a second time, because we want to protect our activists from criminal prosecution for acting on behalf of an unregistered organization," Youth Front activist Barys Haretski told Belapan. Fedaruk, Haretski, and three other activists of the Youth Front -- Aleh Korban, Anastasiya Palazhanka, and Alyaksey Yanusheuski -- are facing criminal prosecution on charges of acting on behalf of an unregistered organization under an article of the Criminal Code that carries a prison sentence of up to two years. Last November, Youth Front activist Zmitser Dashkevich was sentenced to 18 months in jail on the same charge. JM

There have been mixed signals in Ukraine regarding the work of the anticrisis working group set up after last week's agreement between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych to hold early parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007), RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on May 9. Presidential Secretariat deputy head Ivan Vasyunyk said on May 8 that the working group has agreed on a draft parliamentary resolution to hold early elections, and decided to create a commission to prepare amendments to the constitution. Meanwhile, Our Ukraine leader Vyacheslav Kyrylenko said the same day that the Socialist Party and Communist Party have taken a "destructive" position and are blocking talks on the preparations for new elections. Both parties consider President Yushchenko's decrees on the dissolution of the Verkhovna Rada illegal and reportedly want a change in the constitution that could allow the legislature to dissolve itself. There is also no agreement between Yushchenko and the ruling coalition on the date of early polls. Yushchenko reportedly wants to hold snap elections "as soon as possible," while the ruling coalition proposes holding them in the fall. JM

The Ukrainian Emergency Situations Ministry said on May 7 that an explosion earlier the same day destroyed a 30-meter section of the Urengoi-Pomary-Uzhhorod pipeline transporting Russian gas across Ukraine to Europe, Ukrainian and international media reported. The cause of the explosion, which occurred near the village of Luka in Kyiv Oblast, has yet to be determined. The damaged pipeline is one of three main pipelines carrying Russian natural gas via Ukraine to the European market, with an estimated capacity of 1 million cubic meters per day. According to the Ukrainian Emergency Situations Ministry, supplies through the line were interrupted, but the ministry activated a bypass pipeline to continue transporting natural gas. Officials in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Romania have reported normal gas flows following the accident in Ukraine. The European Commission called on Ukraine on May 8 to upgrade its pipelines. "A similar accident occurred in the same section of the same pipeline in 2001.... The Commission considered that additional proof that Ukrainian networks -- or at least part of the network of pipelines supplying gas to the European Union -- need to be overhauled," Reuters quoted Ferran Tarradellas Espuny, a spokesman for Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs, as saying. JM

In a tense session stretching overnight from May 7 into 8, the Serbian parliament elected as its speaker a staunch nationalist, Tomislav Nikolic, a move that immediately roused concern both at home and abroad. Local media reported on May 8 that Nikolic won the country's third most powerful post with the support of his party, the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), as well as the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) founded by Slobodan Milosevic, and the moderate nationalists of the Democratic Party of Serbia coalition (DSS-NS ), which is led by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. In all, Nikolic won 142 votes in the 250-member chamber. The SRS vehemently opposes cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and Nikolic has also said of the EU that "nothing good came from there." The party's founder and official leader, Vojislav Seselj, is currently on trial in The Hague for war crimes committed during the Balkan wars of the 1990s. Nikolic, who served as deputy prime minister in the late 1990s, is the first senior official from the Milosevic regime to gain a key government post since Milosevic's ouster in October 2000. The parliamentary debate was marred by insults, with Serbian broadcasters reporting that the DSS effectively accused President Boris Tadic's Democrat Party (DS) of treason, that the Radicals claimed the DS robbed the state, and that the DS attacked the Radicals as murderers. After the vote, fears were immediately expressed that Nikolic, a onetime gravedigger, could temporarily bury Serbia's hopes of integration with the rest of Europe. Tadic, whom Nikolic has called a "traitor" for his Western leanings, called Nikolic's elevation "very harmful to the state," local media reported on May 8. Nikolic insisted he is "no danger to Serbia," concluding: "Trust me that, given my age, 55, I long ago forgot how to make a mistake." AG

The election of Nikolic also raises the prospect that the same three parties that supported his election may now form a government. Nikolic's election as speaker was preceded by the breakdown of talks between Serbia's pro-democracy parties after 3 1/2 months of intermittent efforts to forge a coalition. The stark divisions revealed by the parliamentary debate on Nikolic's candidacy appear to reduce the chances of any last-minute reconciliation, as does the decision by the G17+ bloc to boycott talks with the DSS-NS to protest its support for Nikolic. The bloc's leader, Mladjan Dinkic, said it will not enter talks as long as Nikolic remains parliamentary speaker, Radio-Television Serbia reported on May 8. The length of Nikolic's tenure depends on whether a government is formed by May 14, at which point the constitution requires new elections to be called. The DSS's coalition partner, New Serbia (NS), has on several occasions said it would support a minority SRS government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 27 and May 7, 2007). However, the SRS has denied holding talks and, according to a FoNet wire report on May 8, Nikolic said after his election that "we are not going to form a government without elections, we will not serve in someone else's government, we will not support anyone's minority government, and we will not seek anyone's support for a minority government of ours." Early elections could take several months to arrange, during which time it is quite possible either that the UN will grant Kosova independence or Kosova will declare independence unilaterally. That raises the specter of violence in Kosova and a simultaneous power vacuum in Belgrade, both of which, local analysts believe, could boost nationalists' electoral hopes. However, Nikolic's election also underlines that nationalists already command a majority in parliament, and a preference for early elections would therefore raise questions about the nationalists' motives. The SRS itself has 81 seats, well short of the 126 needed for an outright majority. Together, the SRS and the SPS control 97 votes. AG

The EU's commissioner for enlargement, Olli Rehn, on May 8 described the Serbian radicals' new power as "worrying," adding, in comments to international media on May 8, that "Serbia has to choose between the nationalist past and a European future." Rehn urged the DS, the G17+, and the DSS-NS to "make one final effort in order to form a government and respect the will of the Serbian voters." He also stressed Serbia's importance to the region as a whole, saying that the fragility of Serbia's democratic development is endangering the Western Balkans' integration with the EU. The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, on May 7 appeared to back Serbian President Tadic on the issue on which coalition talks foundered on May 6, control over security and law-enforcement agencies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). According to an AFP report from May 7, Solana told a European Parliament committee that Tadic is "determined" to cooperate with the ICTY, which has been demanding the capture of the Bosnian Serbs' wartime military commander, Ratko Mladic. "For this he needs to have the cooperation of the nation's security services... (and) intelligence services," Solana said. In the debate that preceded Nikolic's election as parliamentary speaker, a leading figure in the DSS, Milos Aligrudic, quoted Solana's statement to corroborate claims that Tadic's Democrat Party is taking its orders from abroad. AG

During his first session as chair of the Serbian parliament, on May 8, Nikolic said that Serbia should seek closer ties with Russia rather than the West, AP reported the same day. "Russia will find a way to bring together nations that will stand up against the hegemony of America and of the European Union," Nikolic said. He continued, "I hope that a majority in Serbia will strive for membership of such an organization, not of the European Union." Nationalists have long resented the EU and the United States, but Russia's support for Serbia's position on the future of Kosova has caused otherwise pro-Western leaders to forge closer ties with Russia as well. Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Alekseyev on May 8 met with Nikolic to let him know that Russia is "always ready to cooperate with Serbia and strengthen ties on all levels," AP reported, though, in comments carried by the Serbian broadcaster B92, he emphasized that Nikolic's appointment is an internal matter for Serbia. AG

The Council of Europe on May 8 voiced concern at the choice of Nikolic as Serbia's parliamentary speaker in a statement that highlights the most immediate international challenge posed by the new power enjoyed by Serbian nationalists. Serbia is due on May 11 to take over the chair of the Council of Europe, Europe's top human rights organization. However, according to a May 8 report by AP, the council decided on May 8 that "given the current political circumstances" it will not hold celebrations in Belgrade on May 12 to mark Europe's Flag Day. "We are not going to interfere in a domestic political situation, but... the person elected as speaker of parliament comes from a party run by an indicted war criminal and whose values are not in line with the Council of Europe's values," spokesman Matjaz Gruden said. Serbia's foreign minister, Vuk Draskovic, on May 7 described Serbia's chairmanship of the Council of Europe as "crucial," the Serbian broadcaster B92 reported the same day. In comments made to the Tanjug news agency on May 7, Draskovic emphasized the need for Serbia to cooperate with the ICTY and stressed Serbia's historical credentials, saying that "Europe is the historic and civilizational home of Serbia and of the Serbian people and this is why the symbolic slogan of our six-month presidency will be One Europe, Our Europe." However, he also said "we support the Europeanization of Serbia but are firmly against any partition," a reference to the possibility of independence for Kosova. AG

Details of the possible issues that could be included in the UN Security Council's resolution on the future of Kosova are beginning to emerge and among them, Reuters reported on May 8, is a Russian clause on "the necessity to continue negotiations." That position underscores the continuing gap between Russian, U.S., and European views on Kosova's final status. Reuters said that a draft proposal drawn up by the United States and European members of the Security Council includes 13 "possible elements of a new UN Security Council resolution on Kosovo." These include an endorsement of recommendations made by the UN envoy to Kosova, Martti Ahtisaari, that Kosova should be granted independence under EU supervision, and a call for "urgent" progress to facilitate the return of refugees. Russia's alternative draft stresses "the necessity to continue negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina with balanced international mediation primarily focused on protection of minority rights." An unnamed senior British official quoted by the British "Financial Times" on May 7 said that he expects a UN resolution not to declare Kosova independent but to give it a "platform" for independence, by giving it the right to join international organizations. That would free Russia both to refuse to recognize Kosova and to avoid taking the "quite...big step" of blocking a resolution on "what is fundamentally a European issue." AG

A leading Kosovar diplomat, Veton Surroi, said that Kosova has secured the backing of another UN Security Council member for the UN blueprint granting independence to Kosova, the news service KosovaLive reported on May 5. After meeting with Peruvian Deputy Foreign Minister Hugo de Zela on May 5, Surroi claimed that Peru will support the plan drawn up by Ahtisaari as it is the only proposal that enjoys support as the basis for a new resolution. He added that a recent fact-finding mission to Kosova by UN ambassadors has convinced Peru "of the progress made since the conflict [in 1998-99] and of its European context." Surroi was speaking at the end of a tour of Latin America, during which he also claimed to have secured the support of Panama, another Security Council member (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). To pass, the plan requires Russia and China not to veto the plan, and a total of nine votes. The extent of support for the proposal is unclear, and Surroi's claims about Peru's and Panama's support do not appear to have been corroborated yet. With the votes of the United States, EU states, Panama, and Peru, the plan drawn up by Ahtisaari would have the backing of eight of the council's members. An unnamed senior British official quoted by the British "Financial Times" on May 7 said that the Ahtisaari plan has the support of 11 or 12 of the 15 countries on the council. AG

The Croat member of Bosnia-Herzegovina's three-member Presidency, Zeljko Komsic, on May 4 said that Bosnia will follow the position of the EU on the future of Kosova, the news agency SRNA reported the same day. The EU and its permanent members of the UN Security Council, Britain and France, have made clear that they support supervised independence for Kosova, as outlined in a settlement proposed by UN envoy to Kosova Ahtisaari (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5 and March 8, 2007). The statement by Komsic, made during a visit to Serbia, throws a spotlight on the position of the Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb-dominated autonomous region. Leaders of the Republika Srpska have in the past threatened to hold a referendum on independence and accused the international community of double standards over Kosova. However, its prime minister, Milorad Dodik, has in recent months said his government will do "everything to preserve peace and stability in the Republika Srpska's territory, no matter what decision on Kosovo is made" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19 and 20, 2006, and January 5 and 26, and April 12, 2007). Serbian Foreign Minister Draskovic on April 26 questioned how the West can support independence for Kosova while rejecting independence for the Republika Srpska (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2007). AG

Albanian law enforcement agencies have seized 428 kilograms of heroin, the Balkan website Balkan Insight reported on May 5, describing this as Albania's single largest haul of heroin. It is unclear when the drugs were seized or the source of the drugs. However, 90 percent of drugs passing through Albania are said to come from Southeast Asia. In other operations reported by the Albanian media this year, police have netted at least another 85 kilograms of heroin. The chief homegrown drug is cannabis. The news agency ATA reported Interior Minister Bujar Nishani as saying on April 20 that the Albanian authorities have succeeded in reducing cannabis cultivation "substantially" this year. AG


The Afghan National Assembly's Meshrano Jirga (Council of Elders) on May 8 approved the "National Reconciliation Bill," which calls for negotiations with the Afghan Taliban and other opposition groups, Kabul-based Tolo Television reported. According to Aminullah Mozafari, first secretary of the Wolesi Jirga (People's Council), the "Afghan Taliban only fight the government, but the so-called Pakistani Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters fight the government and are also the enemies of our people and our country." The bill now goes to the Wolesi Jirga for debate. The 14-article bill also calls for a ceasefire in the country, and makes reference to Pakistani "interference" in Afghanistan's internal affairs. It proposes a ban on broadcasts of movies and TV programs considered, "immoral," un-Islamic, or contrary to Afghan beliefs and cultural values. The inclusion of a restriction on media in the reconciliation bill is apparently an attempt to respond to Taliban accusations of growing immorality in Afghanistan. Earlier this year, the National Assembly passed a bill granting blanket amnesty for human rights violations to all sides in more than two decades of fighting in Afghanistan. The bill offered the same amnesty to Taliban fighters if they stopped opposing the Afghan government (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," March 16, 2007). AT

Colonel John Nicholson, the commander of a U.S. military unit deployed in eastern Afghanistan, has apologized to the families of more than a dozen civilians killed in a gun battle on a road in Nangarhar Province on March 4, AP reported on May 8. Speaking to reporters in Washington via video conference from Afghanistan, Nicholson read a statement addressed to the families of victims, calling the incident a "terrible, terrible mistake," and asking for Afghans' forgiveness. "I stand before you today, deeply, deeply ashamed and terribly sorry that Americans have killed and wounded innocent Afghan people," Nicholson said. The incident has incurred the wrath of the public as well as condemnations from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and the Afghan National Assembly (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 6, 2007). Nicholson said that families of victims were given $2000 for each death, "not [as] a legal claim per se," but as a symbol of sympathy. Abdul Hadi, a man who lost two relatives and whose car was badly damaged, said on May 8 that the compensation he received did not even cover the cost of repairing his car, Mashhad-based Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported. AT

The Afghan Defense Ministry announced on May 7 that an Afghan National Army (ANA) soldier who killed two U.S. servicemen had suffered from a psychological condition for which he had been hospitalized twice, state-run Afghanistan National Television reported. The shooting on May 7, in which two other U.S. servicemen were wounded, occurred outside the top-security Pol-e Charkhi prison on the outskirts of Kabul. The prison is being refurbished to house Afghans currently held at the U.S. detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The U.S. servicemen were working as mentors to ANA forces who provide security at the prison. Other ANA troops killed the shooter (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). AT

At a news conference in Kabul on May 8, Afghan Foreign Minister Dadfar Rangin Spanta said President Karzai has sent a letter to his Iranian counterpart, Mahmud Ahmadinejad, about Iran's forced repatriation of Afghan refugees, Ariana TV reported. "In view of Afghanistan's vulnerability in terms of security, for several reasons, economic, social, diplomatic, and political, I want to stress that ... [Iran's policy of forced repatriation of Afghan refugees] will definitely have a negative impact" on Kabul-Tehran relations, Spanta said. Since April, Iran has stepped up its policy of forced repatriation of what it claims are illegal refugees, Herat-based Radio Sahar reported on May 8. Shamsuddin Hamed, head of the Herat Refugee Department, said that out of approximately 17,000 Afghans expelled from Iran in recent weeks, more than 2,500 were holding legal documents for their stay in Iran. Hamed claimed that on occasion, Iranian officials have torn up refugees' valid documents before deporting them. AT

Iran on May 8 accepted an addition to the agenda of a UN nonproliferation conference, dropping its objections to the agenda's wording, news agencies reported. Iran's earlier objections had blocked multilateral talks designed to eventually tighten international nonproliferation rules (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). The conference in Vienna from April 30 to May 11, attended by 130 state signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), is setting the agenda for more detailed annual discussions up until 2010, when the NPT will be formally reviewed. Iran had objected to wording in the agenda that focused on NPT nonproliferation obligations more than on the treaty's calls on nuclear powers to disarm; that focus, officials argued, potentially opened the way for legal pressures on Iran over its alleged violation of the nonproliferation regime. Iran accepted the inclusion of a footnote to the agenda, proposed by South Africa, which called for attention to all NPT provisions, effectively including the disarmament of current nuclear powers, AFP reported. Iran's envoy to the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Ali Asghar Soltanieh, said Iran accepted the footnote to show "goodwill and flexibility," AFP reported. The agency cited an unnamed Western diplomat as saying in Vienna on May 8 that Iran was pressured to accept the agenda by allies in the nonaligned movement. VS

The Group of Eight leading industrial powers may favor more pressures on Iran from June if it does not meet UN demands to curb sensitive nuclear activities such as uranium enrichment, Reuters reported on May 8, quoting unnamed diplomats in Berlin. The diplomats said the G8 countries may approve a draft statement on nonproliferation at the next G8 summit, to be held in June 6-8 in Heiligendamm, Germany. The draft statement calls for "further pressures" on Iran if it refuses to comply with two UN Security Council resolutions, passed last December and March, demanding that it halt uranium enrichment and related activities, Reuters reported. Negotiators from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany -- the 5+1 powers, which are also G8 members -- may also discuss the wording of a new Security Council resolution against Iran on the sidelines of the June summit, Reuters reported. VS

Hussein Musavian, a former Iranian nuclear negotiator suspected of espionage, was freed on bail in Tehran on May 8, while investigations continue, the Mehr agency reported. Radio Farda and news agencies separately cited Iran's Intelligence Minister Gholamhussein Mohseni-Ejei as saying in Tehran on May 8 that Musavian's case is "security-related," and investigations are at a preliminary stage. He said two other unnamed people have been summoned to the ministry for questioning. Some observers in Tehran have speculated that the case may be political and an attempt to pressure Musavian's political ally and patron, Expediency Council chief Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Musavian recently worked in the Expediency Council's Strategic Research Center with another key former nuclear negotiator, Hasan Rohani. All three are considered moderate conservatives and are veteran members of the post-1979 political establishment. Rafsanjani on May 7 said "the truth will soon be clarified" regarding Musavian's case, Radio Farda reported. VS

An unnamed researcher who worked, and allegedly spied, in the parliamentary research center in Tehran was jailed for three years and fined by a Tehran court on May 6, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on May 7, quoting an "informed source." The convicted researcher has appealed the sentence, and the case is to be referred to a review court. The head of the parliamentary research center, Ahmad Tavakkoli, said the researcher was arrested "last winter," the daily added. He said then that the researcher had started working in the research center in 2001-02 and allegedly passed information to "hypocrites," the term often used in Iran to refer to a militant leftist opposition group, the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO). The MKO has members in Iraq and some European states, and is designated as a terrorist group by Iran and the U.S. State Department. VS

Iranian parliamentarians rejected a motion presented on May 8 for a simple increase in gasoline prices, amid uncertainty about the feasibility of a two-tier pricing plan for gasoline due to take effect on May 22, ILNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 26, 2007). One hundred and eight legislators voted against the motion and 66 for it. The two-tier pricing system is designed to curb excessive gasoline consumption that has forced Iran's government to spend billions of dollars every year on gasoline imports. It was approved earlier as part of the state budget for the Persian year to March 20, 2008, and the May 8 motion was presented as a budget amendment. The two-tier system would measure drivers' consumption through "smart cards," and would charge them higher prices after a monthly maximum for purchasing subsidized gasoline has been exceeded. The cards are still being distributed. The head of the parliamentary Energy Committee, Kamal Daneshyar, told ISNA on May 8 that the new system would probably be delayed, as the plan has "flaws," and requires more "tests" and the distribution of smart cards has not been completed. VS

In an interview with CNN on May 7, Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi said that unless Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government implements key amendments to the Iraqi Constitution by May 15, he will resign and call on the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc in parliament, to suspend all political activity. "If the constitution is not subject to major changes, definitely, I will tell my constituency frankly that I made the mistake of my life when I put my endorsement to that national accord," al-Hashimi warned. Specifically, he called for constitutional guarantees that Iraq not be split into Kurdish, Shi'a, and Sunni federal states, which he believes would leave the Sunni Arab population at a great disadvantage. Many Sunni Arabs were persuaded to vote in the 2005 election with promises that the constitution would be amended. The Iraqi Accordance Front has 44 seats in parliament, and its withdrawal would be seen as a major blow to al-Maliki's efforts to ease Shi'a-Sunni tensions and foster greater Sunni participation in the political process. SS

Iraqi lawmakers announced on May 6 that they were debating whether to shorten their two-month summer recess in an attempt to pass important legislation that could ease sectarian tensions, "Gulf Times" reported on May 7. U.S. officials have expressed hope that Iraqi lawmakers will not go into recess without passing legislation such as a bill intended to equitably divide Iraq's oil wealth, and another reversing the de-Ba'athification process. In response, several Iraqi lawmakers bristled at what they perceived as blatant U.S. interference in Iraq's internal affairs. "If there is a need... parliament should cancel the holiday or reduce it," said Mahmud Uthman, a member of the Kurdish Alliance. "As for the American intervention, I reject this. It is unreasonable and unacceptable." Nasr al-Rubay'i, the head of Muqtada al-Sadr's political bloc in parliament, said the bloc has agreed that recess should be either shortened or cancelled. "For the interests of the Iraqi people, I think we should cancel it, but not as a response to the American Congress," said al-Rubay'i. Abbas al-Bayati, a member of the United Iraqi Alliance, warned that hastily passing laws without adequate time for discussion could create problems in the future. SS

Radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr has reportedly begun purging from his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, renegade members who have been involved in sectarian attacks, "Al-Hayat" reported May 8. Sheikh Abu-Ja'far al-Ibadi, a militia leader, said, "the process aims to isolate the harmful elements -- leaders and individuals who sought to exploit their position inside the [Al-Sadr] Trend." Another militia leader, Haj Abu Kirar, said that al-Sadr has become increasingly concerned with some of the rogue elements and in certain instances ordered Imam Al-Mahdi Army units to confront them. "The groups that do not act on al-Sadr's orders have become strong, possess many weapons and funds, and are capable of engaging in armed clashes with any party that seeks to confront them," Kirar said. He noted that al-Sadr is trying to persuade the leaders of the rogue groups to pledge full allegiance to him or be expelled. SS

The top U.S. commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, said on May 7 that he is very concerned that a recent army report found many U.S. soldiers would not report a member of their unit for killing or wounding Iraqi civilians, AP reported the same day. He stressed that the U.S. military will redouble its efforts to identify potential for abuse among soldiers and anticipate problems related to combat stress. "We can never sink to the level of the enemy. We have done that at times in theater and it has cost us enormously," Petraeus said, apparently referring to the torture and abuse of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison. Petraeus also said he is drafting a memo that would examine issues of battlefield ethics more closely. He said the military must ensure that its members have "a moral compass," adding, "Anything we do that violates that is done at considerable peril." The report also found that 10 percent of those surveyed acknowledged that they had mistreated Iraqi civilians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). SS

The International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) announced on May 7 that it will substantially increase its operations in Iraq, international media reported the same day. The organization's director of operations for the Middle East and North Africa, Beatrice Megevand-Roggo, said at a news conference in Geneva that the agency will increase its efforts to assist some 660,000 internally displaced persons in Iraq. "People directly affected by the crisis are finding it increasingly difficult to cope. The ICRC is therefore stepping up its work to be able to better respond to needs throughout the country," said Megevand-Roggo. The ICRC will "focus on improving health care, the water supply, and sanitation services," she added. Megevand-Roggo said the organization will ask for an increase in funding from international donors to $75 million, nearly three times as much as the agency requested last year for Iraq. In addition, she noted the ICRC plans to open new offices in the Al-Najaf and Al-Anbar Governorates, and increase its number of expatriate staff to 69. SS

A suicide car bomb struck a busy market in the holy city of Al-Kufah on May 8, killing 16 and wounding more than 70, international media reported. In response, local officials sealed off Al-Kufah and the nearby holy city of Al-Najaf, as well as imposing a vehicle ban near all religious shrines. Al-Kufah is a major religious center for Shi'ite pilgrims, and a power base for radical Shi'ite cleric al-Sadr. Meanwhile, on May 7, Iraqi security forces foiled an attempt to sabotage an oil pipeline in northern Iraq, international media reported. Colonel Muhammad Ahmad, a spokesman for the 3rd Iraqi Army division, said Iraqi forces discovered 350 kilograms of dynamite under a section of pipeline in the Al-Kasak area in the northwestern Ninawa Governorate. He added that four suspects were later arrested. SS