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Newsline - June 25, 2007

. President Vladimir Putin attended a one-day energy summit of Balkan leaders in Zagreb, Croatia, on June 24, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 15 and 22, 2007, and "Russia: Kremlin Eyes Balkan Energy Routes,", June 22, 2007). Croatian President Stipe Mesic organized the meeting of the leaders of Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Slovenia, and Serbia. Putin sought to bolster Russia's presence in the Balkans as a dominant energy provider and discussed plans to link Russia's Druzhba and Croatia's Adria oil pipelines. He also used the opportunity to review bilateral relations with several regional leaders and promote his views on the future of Kosova (see Part 2 below). In recent years, Russians have invested heavily in Montenegro and Serbia in particular. Russian businessmen often receive a warm welcome in a region generally in need of investments and frustrated by its slow progress toward EU integration. PM

President Putin said in Zagreb on June 24 that Gazprom and the Italian company ENI signed a memorandum the previous day "on the possible construction of a new gas-transportation system under the Black Sea," Russian and international media reported. He added that "this is an important project that holds much promise and which will help improve the energy situation in Europe as a whole. And we are very glad that not only the Italian government supports this project, alongside the Russian government, but also the commission of the European Union." Putin stressed that "all states of Southeastern Europe must be provided with guaranteed access to energy resources.... [Russia] is one of the world's leaders in the production and delivery of energy [and will try to] do everything to solve the energy problems of the region," Putin said. He pointed out that in 2006, Russian gas deliveries to the Balkans and to Southern Europe amounted to 73 billion cubic meters, while the figure for oil shipments was 59 million metric tons. Putin suggested that "Russia's relations with Balkan partners have traditionally been based on mutual sympathy and common spiritual values." In reality, however, Russian and Soviet relations with individual Balkan states have been guided by self-interest, which has often involved playing one Balkan state against another. PM

"The Moscow Times" reported on June 25 that on June 22, "Gazprom bought TNK-BP's stake in the troubled Kovykta gas field for a knockdown price in a landmark deal that ends years of wrangling over BP's flagship project in Russia" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 12 and 22, 2006, and February 12, March 13, and May 22, 2007). The paper added that "the buyout underlines the Kremlin's determination to consign foreign oil firms to the role of secondary partners in the country's energy sector. Plans for an investment partnership among Gazprom, BP, and TNK-BP, which were signed as part of the deal, could help Gazprom overcome Western resistance to its ambitions abroad" and provide a "strategic ease Gazprom's entry into the British market." TNK-BP will sell its 62.9 percent stake in the firm holding Kovykta's development license to Gazprom for up to $900 million, which the daily described as "a paltry sum for a majority share in a project due to be worth some $20 billion when it is completed." PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in a televised interview on June 23 that "isolating" the radical Palestinian movement Hamas could lead to civil war in the Palestinian territories, Russian media reported. He called for negotiations between Hamas lawmakers, who he said are duly elected and hence "legitimate," and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas. Moscow has received Hamas delegations twice since the group won the Palestinian legislative elections in January 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 8, and 15, and April 19, 2006, and January 31 and February 28, 2007). President Putin noted on January 31, 2006, that "the Russian Foreign Ministry has never recognized Hamas as a terrorist organization, but that does not mean we support and accept everything Hamas does and all the statements it has...made." PM

Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev said on June 22 that his agency thwarted terrorist attacks during several recent international summits hosted by Russia, Russian news agencies reported. He referred to attacks allegedly planned for the Group of Eight (G8) summit in St. Petersburg in July 2006 and the Russia-EU summits in Sochi in May 2006 and Samara in May 2007. He did not elaborate. Patrushev stressed that "preventive actions allowed us to thwart the plans of gang leaders to carry out terrorist attacks and cause damage to Russia in the international arena." PM

Russian police on June 22-23 arrested 42 people following what they called coordinated attacks on people from the Caucasus and Central Asia, RFE/RL's Russian Service and reported. Members of the Moscow city police said that right-wing and anti-immigrant extremists were behind running battles in three Moscow locations. Police spokesman Anatoly Latovetsky said one Armenian man was hospitalized with stab wounds. Mayor Yury Luzhkov said in a televised statement that "any display of chauvinism, xenophobia, or nationalism will be harshly put down in our capital, on the basis of the constitution...on the basis of the law." But Aleksandr Belov, who heads the xenophobic Movement Against Illegal Immigration, blamed people from the Caucasus for starting the fight and attacking innocent Moscow residents. He added that "Luzhkov has been [in office] too long. He has lost control of the city," news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 12, and 14, 2007). PM

The Russian Prosecutor-General's Office has tasked a local prosecutor's office in Rostov-na-Donu with investigating whether three former Military Intelligence special forces (Spetsnaz) personnel who disappeared in April may have been abducted or murdered, and the daily "Kommersant" reported on June 22 and 25 respectively. The three men failed in mid-April to appear in court in Rostov-na-Donu where they were on trial for the killing of six Chechen civilians in January 2000; they were found guilty and sentenced in absentia earlier this month to between 11 and 14 years' imprisonment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13 and June 14, 2007). "Kommersant" quoted radical Russian politician Dmitry Rogozin as saying he believes the three men have been abducted, and pro-Moscow Chechen human rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev told journalists in Grozny on June 22 that the Rostov-na-Donu prosecutor's office has issued orders to search the homes of relatives of the persons the three men killed to establish whether the three are being held hostage in southern Chechnya. Pro-Moscow Chechen officials rejected that hypothesis as "complete and utter rubbish." LF

The trial of Karabakh war veterans Zhirayr Sefilian and Vartan Malkhasian will open in Yerevan on July 2, Noyan Tapan reported on June 22. The two men were arrested in December on charges, which they deny and claim are politically motivated, of plotting to overthrow the Armenian leadership in the run-up to the May 2007 parliamentary elections (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11 and 12, 2006). LF

Visiting Yerevan on June 21-22, Robert Simmons, who is the special representative of the NATO secretary-general for the South Caucasus and Central Asia, discussed with President Robert Kocharian, Prime Minister and former Defense Minister Serzh Sarkisian, and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian implementation of the Individual Partnership Action Plan (IPAP) Armenia signed with NATO in late 2005, Noyan Tapan reported. Simmons described implementation as successful, and said NATO will continue to support reform of the Armenian defense sector. Armenia does not aspire to NATO membership, but for years has sought closer cooperation with the alliance and has provided personnel for peacekeeping operations under NATO's aegis. LF

The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) ruled in the Netherlands on June 23 that the qualifying matches between Armenia and Azerbaijan for the Euro 2008 soccer championship will not take place, reported. The two countries have been at odds for more than a year over the optimum venue for the games, which were tentatively scheduled for September 8 and 12, 2007: Azerbaijan wanted them held on neutral territory on the grounds that it would be difficult to guarantee the safety of the Armenian players on Azerbaijani territory, while Armenia did not object to the matches taking place in Armenia and Azerbaijan (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," April 11, 2006 and "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 2006). LF

Speaking on June 22 at a graduation ceremony for young army officers, Ilham Aliyev said Azerbaijan plans to begin production of its own armaments by the end of this year, the daily reported on June 23. He also argued that Azerbaijan should launch an all-out military, diplomatic, economic, and propaganda offensive against Armenia which, he continued, will not be able to withstand "that combined attack," partly because Armenia "does not have the military manpower" to defend the entire front line. LF

Speaking to Georgian journalists in Moscow on June 22, Russian Ambassador Yury Popov said Tbilisi has not yet formally informed Moscow of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili's decree withdrawing from a joint agreement signed in December 2000 on funding reconstruction in the South Ossetian conflict zone, ITAR-TASS reported on June 23 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2007). Also on June 22, South Ossetian Minister Boris Chochiyev accused Georgia of having done nothing since the so-called Rose Revolution of November 2003 to implement the 2000 agreement. He argued that that failure demonstrates that Georgia is a "failed state," as "international agreements cannot be cancelled unilaterally," according to a statement released by the South Ossetian Press and Information Committee. Chochiyev predicted that "Russia will continue fulfilling the obligations it has assumed." LF

The Kyrgyz National Security Committee on June 22 formally filed criminal charges accusing a Kyrgyz parliament staff member of engaging in espionage, AKIpress reported. The female parliamentary staffer, identified as Jypara Arykova, was arrested on June 19 with an unspecified "foreign national" while reportedly in the act of exchanging classified information (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2007). Kyrgyz parliamentarian Marganbek Samakov announced that the woman has "ties with China" and is suspected of spying for Chinese intelligence services for several years, according to Asia-Plus. The suspect worked for seven years in the Kyrgyz parliament's press section, but had never been granted access to classified information. RG

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov issued a presidential decree on June 22 ordering the seizure of a secret state fund established by his predecessor, the late Saparmurat Niyazov, AP reported the same day. The move is linked to a broader effort of the new Turkmen government to trace and recover wealth suspected of having been moved out of the country during Niyazov's reign. With the same decree, the Turkmen president also established a special commission to audit the fund, which is reportedly managed by unnamed German banks. RG

Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov met on June 22 in Ashgabat with Igor Makarov, president of the Russian Itera energy group, according to the Turkmen government website Berdymukhammedov reviewed Itera's current operations in Turkmenistan, including its work restoring oil wells, providing technical assistance in the gas sector, and constructing and maintaining pipelines. The Itera official also presented a proposal seeking to expand operations in the offshore Turkmen sectors of the Caspian Sea and suggested the formation of "working groups" to work out the details of the new project. Berdymukhammedov also formally approved Itera's bid to invest some $600 million for the construction of a new carbamide plant in western Turkmenistan. RG

The founding conference for the Minsk city chapter of the pro-government Belaya Rus (White Rus) association was held in the capital on June 22, Belapan reported. Syarhey Piharau, a member of the Minsk City Council, told journalists that Belaya Rus's ambition is to become the largest nongovernmental organization in the country. "It should fill the gap between the government and the millions of Belarusians who implement the decisions made by the country's leadership," Piharau added. The Minsk-based organization's presiding board includes Yury Azaronak, deputy head of the National State Television and Radio Company; Syarhey Dubavik, head of the journalism department at Belarusian State University; House of Representatives members Halina Yurhyalevich and Halina Palyanskaya; and Mikhail Batura, rector of Belarusian State Computer Science and Electronics University. Founding conferences for the regional branches of Belaya Rus were held in Vitsebsk, Homel, and Brest earlier this year. JM

Former presidential bodyguard Mykola Melnychenko, whose alleged secret recordings in the office of former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma were made public in November 2000, said in an interview with Channel 5 on June 24 that he is ready to publicize those of his tapes that feature current President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, Ukrainian media reported. When Melnychenko was allegedly making his recordings, Yushchenko was the head of the National Bank and subsequently prime minister, while Yanukovych was the governor of Donetsk Oblast. "Let's set up a group of several experts, make a transcript [of the tapes], and publish a separate book or a brochure," Melnychenko said. "If Viktor Andriyovych [Yushchenko] or society need us to really show [his] face and if Viktor Andriyovych is not against it, I can heed this [need]," Melnychenko said. "I think we can do this not only with Yushchenko but also with Viktor Fedorovych [Yanukovych] and other politicians." At the same time, Melnychenko noted that his tapes do not contain "anything that could compromise Viktor Yushchenko very strongly." Melnychenko left Ukraine in September 2000, following the kidnapping of Internet journalist Heorhiy Gongadze. In April 2001 he was given political asylum in the United States. Melnychenko returned to Ukraine in 2005. The authenticity of his tapes, which indicate that Kuchma and other officials from his entourage might have been involved in the murder of Gongadze, has not been confirmed definitively. JM

Russia's ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, on June 22 underlined Moscow's rejection of a new UN draft resolution on Kosova's position by saying Russia will not participate in expert consultations on the draft scheduled for June 25, Serbian media reported on June 22-23 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, 2007). The draft envisages a 120-day period of bilateral talks between Serbia and Kosova's ethnic-Albanian leaders, at the end of which, if the talks were inconclusive, a UN proposal freeing Kosova to declare independence would be adopted. The draft is a modification of the proposal for supervised independence for the UN's envoy to Kosova, Martti Ahtisaari. Churkin objected to the principle of "automaticity," saying the talks would not be "genuine negotiations." That assertion was countered by Belgium's ambassador to the UN, Johan Verbeke, who said: "This is not automaticity, this is a default clause. That is to say that we go for genuine negotiations among the two parties, we see what these negotiations give, we evaluate them in depth on the basis of the report of the [UN] secretary-general, and then we see whether whatever agreement came out is, indeed, an improvement over what is currently on the table -- and that is, of course, the Ahtisaari package." AG

EU foreign ministers on June 21 once again voiced their support for a British and French UN resolution on Kosova, Balkan media reported on June 22 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, 2007). Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel said that one of the proposals discussed by EU foreign ministers at the meeting, which preceded a summit of EU leaders, was for Serbian and Kosovar leaders to hold the talks in Brussels. No decision was made. In comments carried by the news website "Balkan Insight," Rupel stressed that "the Kosovo issue is not a Russian problem, and it is not a U.S. problem. It is a European problem, therefore we should stand up to our responsibilities." According to media from the region, Rupel said the EU is prepared to support some adjustments to the UN's Ahtisaari plan, saying that an "Ahtisaari plus" package "would enhance the rights of Serbs in the province, and protection of religious sites." Slovenia assumes the EU's six-month rotating Presidency in January. Radio-Television Serbia on June 22 quoted Rupel as saying that EU foreign ministers expressed significant disagreements. Another key player in the region, Greece, also backed new talks. Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyanni, who has opposed the imposition of a solution on Serbia, claimed that "the new Serbian government is now really willing to negotiate, therefore we must give them this opportunity" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, 2007). AG

Serbian President Boris Tadic said on June 22 that Belgrade is ready to enter fresh talks on the future of Kosova and indicated that it is prepared to compromise, Reuters reported the same day. "Belgrade's basic position is maintaining Serbia's territorial integrity," he told a meeting of the Council of Europe ambassadors held in Belgrade. "At the same time, we believe that in further talks we could reach a compromise solution that would be acceptable to all." Tadic did not indicate on what terms Serbia is prepared to enter talks, but Russia's decision to reject the UN draft resolution suggests Serbia continues to oppose any deadline on talks. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica on June 21 called for the UN resolution to be dropped, saying it violates the UN charter, Serbian and Kosovar media reported on June 21-22. Serbia has repeatedly called for new talks but has been predominantly critical of proposals made by France and subsequently at the UN by France and Britain that Serbia should enter talks that would, if inconclusive, result in Kosova's independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, 2007). Serbia's minister for Kosovo, Slobodan Samardzic, reiterated that view on June 24, saying, according to B92, that "as long as Ahtisaari's plan is referred to as a way out, there will be no chance of a resolution." Serbia and Russia have been coordinating their policies and, in the latest sign of solidarity, a statement issued on the Serbian government website after a June 22 meeting between Kostunica and Russian Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu praised the two countries' "shared" policy. AG

Russian President Vladimir Putin on June 24 urged Balkan leaders to trust Russia's economic intentions in the Balkans, local and international media reported the same day. Putin, who was speaking at an energy summit in Zagreb, highlighted trust as a key issue, saying, according to AFP, that Moscow is "convinced that to deepen our contacts in energy we need to strengthen mutual trust," continuing, "For that we need transparency, the rule of law and the absence of any discrimination in the openness of markets." He underlined that Russia is committed to "the highest ecological standards" and argued that Russian companies' environmental record in the Caspian Sea is higher than that of Western companies. Putin said Russia's aim is to make a "zone of stability and security" in the Balkans. The summit did not discuss the future of Kosova, a key issue for stability in the region. Russia has aligned itself with Serbia, while most other states in the region have either backed a UN plan granting Kosova independence or sought to maintain a neutral position. AG

Russian President Putin used his platform at the Zagreb energy summit to promote a number of energy projects in the region. A key proposal is the creation of what, according to Interfax, Putin described as a "Black Sea electricity energy ring that would link all European countries in the Black Sea region." For that to happen, Putin called for "a project to synchronize the energy systems of Western, Central, and Southern Europe with the energy systems of the CIS and the Baltic states," which would, he said, enable Europe and Russia to "formulate the main aspects of a common energy market." Putin said Russia wants to become more deeply involved in projects to update generation capacity in the Balkans. Another proposal is to link Russia's Druzhba and Croatia's Adria oil pipelines, a project that has remained on the drawing board since 2002, in part because of ecological concerns. Russia is currently promoting plans to build an oil pipeline between Burgas in Bulgaria to Alexandroupolis in Greece and to lay a gas pipeline under the Black Sea. Russia and its partners signed a formal agreement in March to build the Burgas-Alexandroupolis pipeline (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 16, 2007), and Russia's Gazprom and Italy's ENI agreed on June 23 to undertake a feasibility study of the Black Sea project. Separate EU plans envisage a pipeline -- known as Nabucco -- through the Balkans that would bring gas from the Caspian Sea and Central Asia and a Pan-European Oil Pipeline running from the Romanian Black Sea port of Constanta to Italy, while the United States is the chief sponsor of an oil pipeline -- the AMBO project -- that would link Bulgaria and Albania. AG

Meeting with the chairman of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Presidency on June 24 during a regional energy summit in Zagreb, Russian President Putin said Russia views Bosnia as a "top-priority partner," RIA Novosti reported the same day. Putin also told his Bosnian counterpart, Nebojsa Radmanovic, that he wants to boost Russia's trade and economic cooperation with Bosnia. Radmanovic, for his part, told Putin the problem of Bosnia's wartime debt for Russian gas has been "90 percent resolved," and that he hopes it will be settled once and for all in the coming months. He noted Russia's key role in international affairs and welcomed Russian investments in the region, especially in Bosnia's Republika Srpska. Earlier this year, the state-owned Russian oil company Zarubezhneft bought majority stakes in Bosnian oil refineries, a lubricant producer, and a fuel retailer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2007), all in the Republika Srpska. Referring to the purchase, Radmanovic told Putin that it was "of exceptionally great importance to Bosnia-Herzegovina." TV

President Putin also held meetings in Zagreb with Montenegrin President Filip Vujanovic and Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski. According to ITAR-TASS, Putin described economic ties with Montenegro as "modest," but said he is pleased with a recent increase in Russian investment. The Russian tycoon Oleg Deripaska has acquired significant interests in Montenegro, but the Montenegrin parliament and government recently halted his bid to gain control of a state-owned coal mine and power plant (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007). Putin said Russia's relationship with Macedonia is "friendly," while, according to ITAR-TASS, Crvenkovski described relations with Russia as "a top priority." Crvenkovski in March praised the "very high level" of relations with Russia, and said there is no "either-or" in Macedonia's bid to bolster ties with Europe and Russia simultaneously. Both Montenegro and Macedonia are seeking to join NATO and the EU. While Macedonia has given its clear support for Kosova's independence, Montenegro has restricted itself to calling for a "viable" solution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 1, 10, and 31, and June 20, 2007). The Kosovar daily "Zeri" reported on June 25 that Putin called on Macedonia to be less vocal in its support for Kosova's independence. AG

Two soldiers in the international peacekeeping force in Kosova, KFOR, died on June 22 in separate road accidents, international media reported the same day. A Ukrainian peacekeeper died and three other soldiers were injured, two of them seriously, in a road accident near the northern town of Leposavic, AP and Ukrainian media reported on June 22. Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko said there was no link to "military activities," Interfax-Ukraine reported on June 22. The nationalities of the injured men have not been disclosed. In the other accident, one Swiss soldier was killed and five others were injured when their armored personnel carrier overturned, AP quoted Swiss and KFOR officials as saying. Three of the injured have since been discharged from the hospital. No other details of the accident are available. AG

Serbian President Tadic on June 24 apologized to Croats who were affected by the 1991-95 war, Croatian and Serbian media reported the same day. "I apologize to all the members of the Croatian people whom were made unhappy in the name of my people and, on behalf of my people, I take responsibility for that," Tadic said in an interview with Croatian national television. Tadic, who was in Zagreb attending the energy summit, did not mention a lawsuit that Croatia has lodged with the UN's top court alleging that Serbia was guilty of genocide during the war. The International Court of Justice in February rejected a similar case brought by Bosnia-Herzegovina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 27, and 28, 2007). The last president of Serbia and Montenegro, Svetozar Marovic, and his Croatian counterpart Stjepan Mesic exchanged apologies in September 2003 in what was until that point the most significant apology since 2000, when Milo Djukanovic, then president of Montenegro, told Mesic that he was sorry for "all the pain, suffering, and material losses that were inflicted upon [Croats] by any Montenegrin" in the 1991 conflict in the city of Dubrovnik. Mesic, who remains the president of Croatia, in 2000 said that "everyone should apologize to everyone" in the Balkans. AG

According to reports in the Montenegrin media on June 23-24, prosecutors in the Italian town of Bari plan to charge Milo Djukanovic, the former Montenegrin prime minister, with involvement in cigarette smuggling. Prosecutors reportedly also intend to bring to court a former finance minister, Miroslav Ivanisevic; Montenegro's former trade attache to Italy, Dusanka Pesic-Jeknic; and another 10 people. The charges were dismissed on June 23 by Djukanovic's Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS). The party's spokesman, Rajko Kovacevic, reiterated the party's longstanding view that the allegations are politically motivated, the news agency Mina reported on June 23, while Ivanisevic and Pesic-Jeknic told the daily "Vijesti" on June 24 that the accusations are groundless. Ivanisevic, who now heads the State Auditing Office, told "Vijesti" that all cigarette transactions were recorded, "every fee was collected, and all the money spent in line with our state policy and decisions." He denied any knowledge of an account in Cyprus containing 500 million euros ($673 million) that Italian investigators have reportedly found and linked to the alleged cigarette-smuggling ring. Media reports implicating Djukanovic in cigarette smuggling first emerged in mid-2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 3 and 7, 2003). While in office, Djukanovic also had to weather allegations that he was involved in a human-trafficking ring (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20 and 23, 2002, January 28, 2003, and February 22, 2007). He subsequently won a libel case against an opposition leader in July 2004, but that victory too proved contentious, with the media questioning the independence of the judge because of her refusal to admit defense witnesses or documents in the trial (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7, 2004). Djukanovic remains the head of the DPS and the DPS leads the ruling coalition; however, Djukanovic has chosen to remain outside government. AG

The Russian government has issued orders to open up the Russian market for Moldovan wines, the Moldovan news agency BASA quoted Russian President Putin as telling his Moldovan counterpart Vladimir Voronin on June 22. A ban imposed on wine imports was, for the Moldovan economy, the most serious of a series of bans that Russia imposed on Moldovan goods after May 2005. The wine industry, Moldova's key export industry, says Russia's decision has left it in crisis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2007). Russia has this year lifted bans on imports of Moldovan meat, vegetables, and fruit (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2007). Putin first agreed to reopen the Russian market to Moldovan wine in November 2006, but imports remained frozen (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30, 2006, and January 29 and March 13, 2007). All the restrictions on Moldovan food and drink were imposed on health and quality grounds, but Moldova linked them to disputes over energy pricing and the future of the breakaway region of Transdniester. Voronin, who was on a one-day visit to Moscow, reiterated that Moldovan wine now meets Russia's tightened quality-control requirements. He also said that supplies of gas from Russia are currently satisfactory. Putin said that economic ties between the two countries "have not been bad, generally speaking." It is not clear what time period he was referring to, but the bans have resulted in Russia losing its position as Moldova's chief trading partner (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 15, 2007). AG

As the U.S. troop surge in Iraq moves into its fifth month and shows only a slight improvement in reducing insurgent attacks, the U.S. military has announced a new approach. On June 11, "The New York Times" reported that Washington is planning to arm some Sunni militant groups who said they would be willing to fight alongside coalition and Iraqi forces against Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

This tactic has been employed before in Iraq with a great degree of success, but arming Sunni groups that have in the past opposed the Iraqi government and even attacked U.S. forces is filled with risks.

U.S. military commanders have argued that they tested the tactics of arming Sunni Arab groups in the once-restive Al-Anbar Governorate where Al-Qaeda in Iraq had a firm foothold. The governorate was considered the most dangerous place in Iraq. However, Sunni tribal groups that once considered Al-Qaeda in Iraq an ally have turned on the group because of its indiscriminate killings and its imposition of an austere repressive version of Islam.

Sunni tribal leaders, given weapons and money by the Iraqi Army, recruited thousands of men to fight alongside Iraqi government forces against Al-Qaeda in Iraq. The result, says General David Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, is that violence in the Al-Anbar governorate has declined precipitously.

"What's taken place in Al-Anbar is almost breathtaking," Petraeus told CNN on June 8. "In the last several months, tribes that turned a blind eye to what Al-Qaeda was doing in that province are now opposing Al-Qaeda very vigorously. And the level of violence in Al-Anbar has plummeted, although there clearly is still work to be done."

The U.S. military now plans to arm other Sunni groups, primarily in the Diyala and Salah Al-Din governorates where Washington believes Al-Qaeda has taken root, in the hopes that the same results will follow.

While this tactic might be successful in thwarting Al-Qaeda in Iraq, it has the potential to undercut the Iraqi government and its armed forces. The tacit message that this approach sends is that after four years, U.S.-trained Iraqi forces are still incapable of controlling the country.

The new approach could also undermine Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki who has opposed arming Sunni groups. In a June 16 "Newsweek" interview he said the tactic might be destabilizing and the responsibility for arming any group should lay with the Iraqi government, not the United States.

"They [the U.S. military] make mistakes by arming tribes sometimes, and this is dangerous because this will create new militias," al-Maliki said. "We want to arm some tribes that want to side with us, but on the condition that we should be well aware of the tribe's background and sure that it is not connected with terror. It should be under the control of the [Iraqi] state and we should have guarantees that it will not turn into a militia."

Moreover, for years the United States has stressed that one of the main impediments to establishing security in Iraq has been the presence of illegally armed militias. Arming Sunni groups, essentially creating militias, completely undercuts the aforementioned objective and undermines the legitimacy of the Iraqi government forces.

Washington has repeatedly stated that only Iraqi government forces should be allowed to carry weapons. Therefore, this approach endorses illegally armed groups and gives justification for figures such as radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr to maintain their militias.

There are certainly obvious benefits of arming Sunni Arab groups to combat Al-Qaeda in Iraq, as the Al-Anbar model has shown. In fact, thESE tactics are currently being employed in Operation Arrowhead Ripper, the offensive against Al-Qaeda in Iraq launched on June 19 in the Diyala Governorate. "The Washington Post" reported on June 21 that several Sunni groups that in the past have fought against U.S. forces -- including the 1920 Revolution Brigades, the Mujahedin Army and the Islamic Army -- are now working alongside Iraqi and U.S. forces against Al-Qaeda in Iraq in Diyala.

The groups are now under an umbrella organization called the United Jihad Factions Council and have been issued special insignias to distinguish them from Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters. Preliminary signs indicate the operation as being a success as more than 40 suspected Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters have been killed in the first two days of the offensive.

However, the new tactics are fraught with risks and the short-term gains that may come with vanquishing Al-Qaeda in Iraq may in time be overshadowed by rising ethnic and sectarian tensions among the Shi'a, Sunnis, and Kurds. In Al-Anbar Governorate, the population is exclusively Sunni, so the issues of sectarianism inherent in arming Sunni groups were largely absent. The intense dissatisfaction and animosity the Sunni tribes felt toward Al-Qaeda in the region were easily tapped by the United States and a partnership of convenience resulted without significant risk of blowback.

However, Diyala Governorate -- with its sizable Shi'ite and Kurdish populations -- presents an altogether different set of issues. Armed Sunni groups may be perceived as a threat by the Shi'a and Kurds, who may in turn acquire arms of their own, increasing the likelihood of Iraqi-on-Iraqi violence.

Moreover, if Al-Qaeda in Iraq is removed from the theater, how will the Sunnis then be disarmed? It is highly unlikely these groups will voluntarily lay down their weapons. Indeed, with Al-Qaeda in Iraq out of the way, the Sunni groups may realize that their relationship of convenience with the coalition has run its course and resume their battle of liberation against the U.S.-led "occupation," only perhaps this time with better arms and tactics.

Finally, given the spiraling sectarian violence, providing arms to Sunni Arab groups that have in the past viewed the Iraqi government as illegitimate could be seen as a step toward an all-out civil war that could ultimately lead to the partitioning of the country. While the Sunni groups may have changed their position and turned on Al-Qaeda in Iraq, they have steadfastly maintained their opposition to the Iraqi government and the presence of foreign troops in the country.

Mahmud Uthman, a Kurdish legislator, warned of this in an interview with "The Washington Post" on June 18. "They [Sunnis] take arms, they take money, and in the future they will be a problem," he said. "Politically, they are still against the Americans and the Iraqi government."

Arab militants who fled Afghanistan following the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 are returning with a renewed eagerness to fight coalition and Afghan forces, AP reported on June 24, citing former CIA official Michael Scheuer and other analysts. Scheuer said militants in Iraq and Afghanistan feel victory is near and see parallels with the stalemating of the Soviet Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which led to its withdrawal. Andrew Black of Thistle Intelligence Group says the fight in Afghanistan is alluring " to recruits because the enemy is well defined," as opposed to Iraq, where the West is mixed up in the sectarian violence between the Sunnis and Shi'a. Afghan Army General Ghulam Mustafa Ishaqzai, who commands troops patrolling near the Pakistan border, told AP that he has noted an Arab influx over the last year. JC

A NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) spokesman said on June 23 that foreign forces killed approximately 80 suspected insurgents in the previous 24 hours, AFP reported. Most of the purported militants were killed in an attack on a group of men spotted just inside the Pakistan border that was believed to be preparing to attack a base in Paktika Province, ISAF spokesman Major John Thomas said. The insurgents fired on a coalition aircraft as it conducted reconnaissance to confirm the rebels' presence, Thomas added. The coalition responded with air and artillery strikes in a coordinated operation with Pakistan. Major Donald Korpi, ISAF spokesman for eastern Afghanistan, said that "up to 60 Taliban were killed," a figure undisputed by Thomas, who did not cite any casualty numbers. In a separate incident, coalition and Afghan troops killed nearly 20 militants in a seven-hour battle on June 22 in Kandahar Province, the coalition reported. JC

A German Defense Ministry spokesman said on June 24 that German authorities received advance information about a purported plot to attack Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung during a visit to Afghanistan earlier in the month, AFP reported. Ministry spokesman Thomas Raabe told reporters that Jung's security team learned of a possible attack immediately following the minister's visit to Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on June 6. The tip, which came just as Jung was due to travel from Karzai's palace to the airport, indicated that Jung's convoy would be attacked along the road. Raabe said the German Army subsequently changed the minister's travel route and took other precautions, on which he did not elaborate. Aside from meeting with Karzai, Jung also visited German troops during the trip. JC

A British soldier was killed by an explosion in southern Afghanistan's volatile Helmand Province on June 24, the BBC reported. Four other servicemen were wounded. The explosion occurred at approximately 10 a.m. as the soldiers were traveling with a military team to survey an area for a new road intended to link several villages in the Babaji district in Helmand Province. A spokeswoman for Britain's Defense Ministry could not comment on whether the explosion was caused by an improvised explosive device and said the incident is under investigation, AFP reported on June 24. Shortly afterward, soldiers fatally shot one man and wounded another when they failed to stop their vehicle at the security checkpoint near the incident site despite multiple warnings by soldiers, the BBC reported. The soldier's death raises the number of U.K. troops killed in Afghanistan since 2001 to 61. JC

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told a Tehran press conference on June 24 that there is no longer any point in discussing a possible suspension of Iranian uranium-enrichment activities, saying that "the matter at hand now is...the recognition of Iran's right to enrichment," Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media. Western powers want Iran to halt nuclear fuel-production activities including uranium enrichment, because of their potential bomb-making applications. Iran insists it has a legal right to produce nuclear fuel. Hosseini was responding to the question whether Iran's top nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, and the EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, discussed enrichment during talks in Lisbon on June 23. Hosseini said Iran is trying to prevent another UN resolution, and that "we feel" more parties among EU states now support dialogue with Iran, ISNA reported. Hosseini said if Iran's talks with Solana are allowed to yield results, Iran could within 60 days provide the International Atomic Energy Agency with answers to outstanding questions about its program, ISNA reported. VS

Parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel said in parliament on June 24 that Britain has shown its "wickedness" in politics by deciding to bestow a knighthood upon novelist Salman Rushdie, who is widely believed among Muslims to have insulted the Prophet Muhammad in his novel "The Satanic Verses." Haddad-Adel said Iran's late revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, condemned Rushdie to an "eternal death" in a 1989 edict, ISNA reported. It was not immediately clear if this meant the ayatollah's fatwa is valid in the eyes of Iranian officialdom; Iran has officially distanced itself from the fatwa, which damaged Anglo-Iranian ties for several years. Haddad-Adel asked if Rushdie's novel has in some way served Britain or humanity that he should be rewarded now. Has the "fugitive apostate" done anything to "reduce the pain of innocent Iraqi children being massacred by British and American soldiers?" he asked in parliament. The decision to knight the author demonstrates nothing but Britain's "blind hostility and pure mindlessness," he said. This "dead man," he added, cannot be revived with titles, ISNA reported. VS

Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal has told the Saudi daily "Al-Watan" in Paris that his country's position on Iran's nuclear program is based on "regional realities," ISNA reported on June 24. Al-Faisal warned that any "military option" in the Middle East would affect the interests of all regional states. Saudi Arabia opposes "the policy of fuelling tensions, and follows a policy of peace," he said. He said he hopes the Middle East will be a region free of nuclear weapons. Persian Gulf states have in the past expressed concern over Iran's nuclear program. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini said in Tehran on June 24 that Iran has invited Saudi King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz for a visit, though a date for the visit has yet to be set, ISNA reported. Mahmud Mohammadi, a member of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee also told ISNA in Tehran on June 23 that cooperation with Arab states is a policy priority for Iran, ISNA reported. Mohammadi said it is Arab states that have thus far shown reluctance to cooperate closely with Iran. VS

The Palestinian Authority's intelligence chief, Tawfiq al-Tirawi, has accused Iran of aiding Hamas forces in Gaza and playing a "big role" in the recent expulsion from Gaza of Fatah forces loyal to President Mahmud Abbas, AFP and Radio Farda reported on June 24. He said Iran has trained dozens of Hamas militiamen, that Hamas coordinated its assault on Fatah forces with Iran, and that "Iran has been informed of every step," AFP reported. The agency cited Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri as rejecting the assertions. AFP reported that Egypt's foreign minister, Ahmad Abu al-Ghayt, made similar accusations against Iran last week, accusing Tehran of encouraging Hamas to seize Gaza. In Tehran, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini said Iran is surprised by Abu al-Ghayt's comments. Hosseini said influential regional states should encourage Palestinian groups to engage in dialogue, ISNA reported on June 24. He said Iran warned that sanctions against the Hamas government would create tensions and said "some countries" accuse Iran "senselessly" instead of opposing "irrational sanctions" against the "national-unity" government in Palestine, ISNA reported. VS

The Iraqi High Tribunal on June 24 sentenced Ali Hasan al-Majid, the former secretary-general of the northern bureau of Iraq's Arab Ba'ath Socialist Party and a cousin of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, to death for his role in the 1988 Anfal campaign against Iraqi Kurds, international media reported the same day. Al-Majid, also known as Chemical Ali, was convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes for ordering the Iraqi Army and security services to use chemical weapons against the Kurds during the campaign, in which prosecutors maintained up to 180,000 were killed. Two other defendants were also sentenced to death -- former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad al-Tai and Hussein Rashid Muhammad, former deputy director of operations for the Iraqi armed forces. Two other officials -- Farhan Mutlaq Salah, former head of the Iraqi military intelligence's eastern regional office and former director of military intelligence, Sabir al-Duri -- were sentenced to life in prison. Charges against Taher Tawfiq al-Ani, former governor of Mosul and head of the Northern Affairs Committee, were dropped due to insufficient evidence. SS

Prior to the sentencing, Khalil al-Dulaymi, lead defense lawyer for al-Majid and his five co-defendants, denounced the trial and called on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to stop it because of serious "errors," international media reported on June 24. "I appeal to the UN secretary-general to quickly intervene and save the six accused from execution in the Al-Anfal trial," said al-Dulaymi. "The six are prisoners of war and their trial by the Iraqi High Tribunal was marred by errors and violations of the law." Meanwhile, the International Center for Transitional Justice issued a statement saying that while the trial was a historic day for the Kurds, it was marred by political interference and fell short of international fair-trial standards. Human Rights Watch (HRW) issued a statement on June 22 saying that the trial was riddled with procedural flaws. HRW said it "raised concerns about vague charges, which made it difficult for the defendants to prepare their case, and the inability of the defense to call witnesses, who feared for their security." SS

Two major Sunni political blocs, the Iraqi Accordance Front and the National Dialogue Council, announced on June 23 that they will suspend all participation in the Iraqi parliament until Mahmud al-Mashhadani is reinstated as speaker, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Sheikh Khalaf al-Ulayyan, one of the leaders of the Iraqi Accordance Front, said al-Mashhadani's dismissal by the Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance was "an unfair decision based on the dictatorship of the majority." Al-Mashhadani was voted out by 113 of 168 parliament members during the June 11 session after several incidents in which he and his bodyguards were accused of physically attacking fellow lawmakers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 11, 2007). For his part, al-Mashhadani said during a June 13 press conference that he was unfairly removed, adding that the Council of Representatives did not give him a chance to explain the incidents and threatening to take the Iraqi government to court to win back his post. SS

During an interview with Al-Sharqiyah television on June 24, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari expressed concern that weapons being given to Sunnis tribes by the United States to combat Al-Qaeda in Iraq may eventually be used against Iraqi and coalition forces (see End Note below). "It is good to get the tribes to face Al-Qaeda terrorists and foreign fighters that come to Iraq to kill our people," Zebari said. "It is an excellent idea. But this issue has to be organized so that those groups that are being provided weapons will not turn on us and [the coalition]." In addition, he noted that this plan was being implemented by the United States without any consultation or coordination with the Iraqi government. In a June 16 interview with "Newsweek," Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned that arming Sunni tribes might inflame the security situation by creating new militias (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 18, 2007). In contrast, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi said on June 23 that he supports the idea of arming Sunni tribes to fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq, but stressed that this plan should be "based on a host of measures and controls," state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. He said foreign and Iraqi forces alone cannot solve Iraq's security problems, but the Iraqi people themselves must cast aside sectarian and political differences to assist in bringing about security. "The involvement of laypeople, be they tribesmen or non-tribesmen, in security activities is extremely necessary," al-Hashimi said. "However, this must be done in accordance with agreed controls. I support this plan. But, I also support the implementation of this plan in accordance with agreed controls." In addition, he emphasized that these measures and controls should be supervised by the Iraqi government. SS

The Iraqi parliament voted on June 23 to extend its current legislative session by one month to July 30 in an attempt to finalize several draft laws, international media reported. Wa'il Abd al-Latif of the Iraqi National List told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television that the decision to extend the session aims to finalize approximately 50 draft laws, including a bill on the sharing of oil revenues. He said 103 of 140 members voted for the extension, essentially cutting the summer recess in half. However, Iraqi lawmakers denied that their decision was the result of U.S. pressure. Several U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Vice President Dick Cheney, urged Iraqi lawmakers to postpone their summer recess and concentrate on passing legislation. Some Iraqi lawmakers denounced what they perceived as blatant U.S. interference in Iraq's domestic affairs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 9, 2007). SS