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Newsline - June 27, 2007

Speaking in Moscow on June 26 following talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer urged moderation in NATO-Russian relations, calling on all sides to "lower the volume," international media reported. De Hoop Scheffer added that "in this already fairly complicated discussion, it is advisable to lower the volume a bit. As it is with your iPod, if you put the volume too high, it will in the long run damage your ears. If you do that in international diplomacy, you might in another sense damage your ears." De Hoop Scheffer said that Putin's recent threats to retarget Russian missiles at sites in Europe if Washington goes ahead with its planned missile-defense shield "do not have a place" in diplomatic relations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 19 and 26, 2007). The atmosphere between Moscow and Washington in particular has been frosty since Putin delivered an aggressive speech in Munich on February 10, which many commentators described as the start of a new Cold War. Russian officials deny that they want a return to the confrontation of that era but have not toned down harsh anti-American rhetoric, despite an informal pledge in May to do so (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, May 16, and June 1 and 4, 2007). Britain's "The Economist" recently described Putin's Soviet-style rhetoric as "neurotic bluster." PM

NATO Secretary-General de Hoop Scheffer said in Moscow on June 26 that "there is no alternative to a good and healthy Russia-NATO relationship because NATO cannot do without its important partner Russia, and I think I can say that Russia cannot do without NATO," international media reported. He also called on Moscow not to abandon its commitment to the 1990 Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) in retaliation for the U.S. missile shield, saying this would be "a very negative development." De Hoop Scheffer said he urged Putin to swiftly allow a vote on a UN Security Council resolution granting Kosova internationally supervised independence. He argued that "we should continue discussions on subjects where we do not see eye-to-eye, be it Kosovo, be it missile defense, be it the [CFE] Treaty. That is what the [NATO-Russia Council] is for. It's not only to say how much we agree, but it is also for a serious, open, and frank discussion about where we do not agree." PM

In an article marking 10 years of formal NATO-Russian relations and five years of the NATO-Russia Council, Russia's nationalist "RBC Daily" suggested on June 26 that "relations between Moscow and NATO countries are far from cordial and are steadily getting worse." The paper suggested that, at best, the relations between Russia and the Atlantic alliance can be described as a "poor peace." The daily "Gazeta" commented on June 26 that Putin's meeting with de Hoop Scheffer was only "a formality, since missile-defense debates have reached the point where only Presidents Putin and [George W.] Bush can settle the matter and will hopefully do so when they meet in the United States" on July 1-2. The paper noted that de Hoop Scheffer "attended a conference in St. Petersburg, entered into public debates with Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov, and invited Russian military inspectors to visit the planned U.S. missile-defense site in Poland." The daily quoted Defense Ministry spokesman Vyacheslav Sedov as saying that "even if the inspections take place, they will not allay our fears. We keep asking [the Americans] to specify exactly which threat their system is intended to counter, but they never give us a clear answer. Who is threatening them? We all know that references to Iran and North Korea can be dismissed." According to former Colonel General Leonid Ivashov, who once headed the Defense Ministry's International Department and is currently vice president of the nationalist Academy for Geopolitical Problems, the United States "will never impart to us any vital information about the radar or missiles. [De Hoop] Scheffer's invitation is a simulation of cooperation, in the hope that we will fall for it," "Gazeta" added (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2007). The daily "Vremya novostei" on June 26 quoted former top Soviet foreign-intelligence official Gennady Evstafiev as saying that post-Cold War "Moscow acted on the assumption that NATO would eventually transform itself into a military-political organization aimed at reinforcing European security. Unfortunately, that was the last thing NATO itself wanted. In other words, it broke its promise to Russia" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 26, 2006). He added that "we can only maintain a 'bitter friendship' with NATO.... NATO has its own games to play. Even if it doesn't regard Russia as an enemy, it surely sees Russia as an uncertain and somewhat frightening ally." PM

"The Moscow Times" reported on June 27 that "a group of opposition activists recently visited 25 printing houses before finding one willing to publish a newspaper calling for an anti-Kremlin street protest." The paper added that "it may get even tougher if a bill on extremism, which comes up for a crucial second reading in the State Duma [on June 29] is passed into law. The bill introduces fines for printers and publishers that distribute literature deemed extremist." Critics have long charged that the government's campaign against "extremism," which has been in effect since at least 2006, is primarily a tool for silencing the opposition. According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on June 26, the approved federal budget for 2008 allocates about $114 million of taxpayers' money to support two state-run publications, namely the daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" and the magazine "Rodina." "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted several media experts who said that "these funding plans breach every law of the free market and are unconstitutional as well." The subsidies will also enable "Rossiiskaya gazeta's" weekly supplement "Nedelya" to be distributed free of charge to pensioners, whom "Nezavisimaya gazeta" describes as "the most disciplined group of voters." PM

The Moscow City Duma voted overwhelmingly on June 27 to approve a fifth term for Mayor Yury Luzhkov, five days after he was formally nominated by President Putin, reported. Following his reelection for another four-year term, Luzhkov said that he considers "the high position of mayor of the capital to be a tool to achieve those goals of development that Moscow and Muscovites need. We are confident we will achieve these goals." noted that social inequalities in the capital are on the rise and that Luzhkov will have his work cut out for him if he is to keep his promise of achieving more social justice. The often outspoken Luzhkov has been in office since 1992 and is one of the founders of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, which has a large majority in the Moscow Duma. Putin said on June 5 that he does not want Luzhkov to leave office until he solves some important problems facing Muscovites. Those issues include providing affordable housing and obtaining justice for investors who lost their housing investments in scams. Putin added that, once these problems are solved, "we will return to the question of changing your job" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 6, 2007). PM

The Saratov Oblast Duma rejected on June 26 by a vote of 22 in favor and 21 against with two abstentions Valery Parfenov, the candidate proposed by Federation Council speaker Mironov to represent the oblast in the Federation Council, the dailies "Kommersant" and "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on June 27. Parfenov, a career Komsomol and then Communist Party functionary from Kuybyshev who subsequently served as a Russian diplomat, is virtually unknown in Saratov; he needed a minimum of 26 votes to win approval. The post of senator for Saratov has been vacant since December 2005. Mironov rejected two successive candidates proposed by the oblast Duma, Transport Minister Aleksei Ushamirsky and businessman Aleksandr Mileyev. LF

Two suspected militants were killed during the course of a special operation in Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, early on June 27, Russian media reported. One of the two men was subsequently tentatively identified as Ruslan Odizhev, who was held for a while at the U.S. Guantanamo Bay detention center but subsequently released. An arrest warrant was issued for him in June 2006 in connection with the attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik in October 2005, which he was suspected of having organized. on June 27 noted that two other former Guantanamo inmates, Ravil Gumarov and Timur Ishmuratov, both Tatars, were arrested in April 2005 and confessed under torture to having blown up a gas main. At their trial in September of that year, they refused to testify and a jury acquitted them, but the Republic of Tatarstan prosecutor's office persuaded Russia's Supreme Court to overturn that acquittal. The two men were sentenced in May 2006 after a retrial. LF

A delegation of ambassadors to Moscow from member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference arrived on June 26 in Grozny, where they reportedly expressed amazement at the extent of reconstruction of the city's war-shattered infrastructure, according to Pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov said he hopes the Arab world will consider participating in the ongoing reconstruction process. He assured the visiting ambassadors that the war in Chechnya was waged not against individual human beings but "international terrorism" in the form of unnamed "powerful forces" that sought to dismember Russia, and he vowed that there will never again be hostilities on Chechen territory. LF

Police in the town of Kizlyar in northern Daghestan used force on June 26 to disperse a group of some 300 former residents of the village of Borozdinovskaya in Chechnya's neighboring Shatoi Raion, Russian media reported. The villagers, who are mostly Avars, fled Borozdinovskaya in July 2005 following a punitive raid by uniformed men believed to be members of the Russian Defense Ministry's Vostok battalion. The servicemen killed one villager and took with them 11 more men who then disappeared without trace (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 22, 23 and 24 and July 25, 2005). The villagers refused to enter into a discussion with Shatoi representatives who sought to persuade them to return to Borozdinovskaya. They demanded clarification of the fate of the 11 missing men and compensation for having been constrained to abandon their homes. LF

Under an agreement signed in Moscow on June 26 between Japanese Ambassador to Russia Yasuo Saito, UN Development Program Representative Marco Borsotti, and North Ossetian government official Vladimir Tapolov, Tokyo will provide some $3.7 million towards a UN program for providing assistance to displaced persons in North Ossetia and expediting their integration among the local population, Interfax reported. There are an estimated 110,000 displaced persons in North Ossetia, compared to a permanent population of 650,000. It is not clear whether the assistance is intended primarily for Ossetians who fled Georgia in the early 1990s, or for Ingush victims of the interethnic violence in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion in October-November 1992, or for both groups. LF

Deputies approved on June 26 by a vote of 94 in favor with seven against and seven abstentions the five-year action program unveiled last week by the new government formed in the wake of the May 12 parliamentary election, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2007). That program promises good governance, continued economic growth of at least 8 percent annually, and a reduction from the present 30 percent to 12 percent by 2012 of the number of Armenians living under the poverty line. It further singles out as priorities national security, sustainable development, education, and eliminating the huge discrepancy in living standards between Yerevan and rural areas. Addressing lawmakers, Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian called for a crackdown on tax evasion and corruption, with no exceptions made on grounds of family or friendship ties. The program was challenged by U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, leader of the seven-person Zharangutiun (Heritage) opposition parliament faction that voted en masse against the bill. Hovannisian asked Sarkisian point-blank to explain precisely how the government will deliver on its promises. Sarkisian refused, demanding an apology from Hovannisian for circulating the full text of the program prior to the debate. LF

The Armenian Helsinki Association on June 26 formally accused police of torturing to death Levon Ghulian, a restaurant owner summoned to police headquarters on May 9 in connection with a brawl he witnessed, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Police said at the time Ghulian died on May 12 from injuries sustained when he fell from a window at police headquarters, and a formal police investigation confirmed that statement; Ghulian's family, however, believe he was beaten and tortured (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 15, 16 and 23, 2007). A forensic expert affiliated with the Armenian Helsinki Association concurred with that hypothesis, saying that in the 10 years during which he has performed autopsies on torture victims, he has never seen such extensive injuries. At the same time, he acknowledged that conclusion was based only on photographs, not on an examination of Ghulian's body. LF

Azerbaijan's Communications and Information Technology Ministry has presented to President Ilham Aliyev a proposal to create one or more "regional innovation zones" on Azerbaijani territory, Minister Ali Abbasov announced on June 26, reported. The proposal, apparently intended to thwart Armenia's emergence as a South Caucasus information technology center, encompasses "unparalleled" customs and tax breaks and financial incentives that, in tandem with reconstruction of the telecommunications infrastructure, would help establish Azerbaijan as the regional market for computer hardware and software. LF

Dmitry Sanakoyev, whom Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili named last month to head a pro-Georgian provisional administration in the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, appealed on June 26 to the European Parliament in Brussels to support Georgia's proposed solution to the ongoing conflict between South Ossetia and the central Georgian government, Georgian media reported. That solution entails the ouster of de facto South Ossetian President Eduard Kokoity, whom Georgia regards as a Russian puppet, and formal recognition of Sanakoyev's parallel administration. Sanakoyev argued that the only way out of the existing deadlock is direct dialogue between the Georgian and Ossetian people and the "neutralization" of unspecified "internal and external destructive forces." He said the people of South Ossetia want "genuine, European autonomy" on the lines of that enjoyed by the Alto Adige region within Italy, according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on June 27. U.S. Ambassador to Georgia John Tefft was quoted on June 27 by Interfax as telling journalists in Tbilisi that Sanakoyev's Brussels speech constituted "an important step toward restoring Georgia's territorial integrity." But in the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, de facto Deputy Foreign Minister Alan Pliyev claimed that the region's entire population reacted with disapproval to Sanakoyev's speech which, he continued, served only to compound mutual hostility, reported on June 27. LF

Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, named Lieutenant General Merab Kishmaria on June 26 to the vacant post of defense minister, reported. Kishmaria, who was born in 1961, is a veteran of both the Soviet war in Afghanistan and the 1992-93 war in Abkhazia, during which he commanded the Eastern Front. He was named first deputy defense minister in 2005. Sultan Sosnaliyev, a Kabardian who served as Abkhaz defense minister from May 1993-96 and then again from 2005, stepped down in April on reaching his 65th birthday. Also on June 26, Bagapsh convened a meeting of the republic's Security Council to discuss additional security measures during the summer tourist season, including increased patrols on the main north-south highway, reported. LF

Kazakhstan's Nur Otan ruling party on June 26 said Senate speaker Kasymzhomart Tokaev; Almaty Mayor Imangali Tasmagambetov; and Kayrat Kelimbetov, the chairman of the board of the state-owned Kazyna Sustainable Development Fund, have joined its ranks, Interfax-Kazakhstan and Kazakhstan Today reported on June 26. Addressing young party activists in Almaty on June 25, Tasmagambetov explained his decision by saying he fully supports the recent political changes initiated by President Nursultan Nazarbaev, the official Kazinform news agency reported on June 26. In the wake of constitutional changes that increase the prerogatives of the legislature but allow Nazarbaev to seek reelection without restriction, the president on June 20 dissolved the elected lower chamber of parliament and decreed that early legislative polls will take place on August 18. JCP

The head of Kazakhstan's Committee on Combatting Drug Trafficking, Maratkali Nukenov, said on June 26 that the Interior Ministry has seized more than 4 tons of illicit drugs since the beginning of this year, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Addressing journalists in Astana, Nukenov said cooperation between Kazakhstan and neighboring states has helped dismantle a number of criminal rings specialized in drug trafficking. He said Kazakh law-enforcement agencies last year confiscated 23 tons of narcotics and registered some 12,000 drug-related crimes. Nukenov also estimated the number of officially registered drug addicts in Kazakhstan at 55,000 -- including 40,000 who are dependent on heroin. JCP

Kyrgyz human-rights campaigners on June 26 picketed the Interior Ministry's headquarters and other Bishkek public buildings to mark UN International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, reported. No government official met with the demonstrators, who demanded that Kyrgyzstan ratify the 2002 Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and recognize the rights of victims of ill-treatment to file complaints with the UN Committee Against Torture. Among the protesters were relatives of Bektemir Akunov, the opposition activist who died in police custody in April. Also on June 26, rights activists in the southern Kyrgyz city of Jalal-Abad launched a campaign to collect signatures in support of victims of torture, reported. JCP

Turkmenistan's Russian-language media have changed the spelling of the president's name, the Moscow-based reported on June 26. It said the name of the president in the Russian language is now being spelled Berdymukhamedov, instead of Berdymukhammedov. said that "to avoid confusion" it will comply with what appears to be the new official spelling. Turkmenistan's official TDH news agency introduced the changes on June 25, the "Neitralny Turkmenistan" newspaper reported the following day. JCP

President Berdymukhamedov on June 25 briefed visiting World Health Organization (WHO) Director for Europe Marc Danzon on steps undertaken to improve his country's health-care system, and TDH reported the same day. The men discussed ongoing cooperation between Ashgabat and the WHO. Berdymukhammedov told Danzon that four reproductive-health centers, similar to the one that already exists in Ashgabat, will be opened next year in Turkmenistan's regions. Danzon reportedly praised Turkmenistan for eradicating poliomyelitis through mass vaccinations of children. Also on June 25, Berdymukhamedov discussed bilateral cooperation in Ashgabat with Evan Feigenbaum, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, Interfax and reported the following day. Berdymukhamedov told Feigenbaum that his administration is interested in developing an "apolitical" and "pragmatic" partnership with the United States. He also said Turkmenistan could export part of its natural-gas output through a future Trans-Caspian pipeline. Washington sees this planned underwater conduit as a way to loosen the dependence of Central Asian energy producers on Russia's transportation network and ensure steady natural-gas flows to Europe. The presidents of Russia, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan on May 12 agreed to build another gas-export pipeline along the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea. JCP

Officials with the regional administration of Bukhara, in southern Uzbekistan, on June 26 denied independent media reports that Governor Samoidin Khusenov is under arrest. Interfax on June 26 quoted an unidentified regional official as saying Khusenov is working "as usual" and as describing those reports as "hoaxes." on June 25 reported that Khusenov was placed under house arrest after Uzbek President Islam Karimov criticized him during a recent trip to Bukhara. The Asia Plus news agency on June 26 quoted a Bukhara regional official as saying Khusenov is still at his post and that Karimov has offered him a chance to "amend" his ways. Khusenov has been governor of Bukhara since 1996. JCP

Uzbek law-enforcement agencies on June 26 publicly burned 424 kilograms of heroin, 300 kilograms of opium, 50 kilograms of marijuana, 2 kilograms of hashish, and unspecified volumes of other drugs, Interfax and the independent reported. The burning took place in Tashkent in the presence of journalists and international observers. National Security Service (SNB) spokesman Olimjon Turakulov said Uzbek law-enforcement agencies have destroyed nearly 40 tons of seized narcotics since 1994. Turakulov said that 22,400 drug abusers were being treated medically in Uzbekistan last year and that an estimated 45 percent of the country's officially registered 6,500 HIV-infected people are drug addicts. However, reported speculation that those official figures are significantly deflated. Interfax quoted a June 26 SNB press release as saying the drug situation in Uzbekistan represents a "real threat" to both national security and public health. JCP

The Central Election Commission (TsVK) on June 26 denied registration to a group that hoped to change the country's fixed-term labor-contract system, Belapan reported. The group -- led by Henadz Fyadynich, leader of the Belarusian Union of Electronics Industry Workers -- needed TsVK registration to launch a campaign to initiate changes to labor laws that would scrap the fixed-term contract requirement for employees. The group planned to collect 50,000 signatures, which would make it possible to put the issue on the agenda of the Chamber of Representatives, Belarus's lower legislative chamber. The TsVK argued that the group's founding conference in May was attended by 246 people, while at least 248 were required for the 495-strong group to be registered. The TsVK also said the changes to labor laws proposed by the group are inconsistent with the constitution and other regulations. Fyadynich told journalists later the same day that he will continue pushing amendments to the contract system, which he described as "slave-like." President Alyaksandr Lukashenka introduced a short-term contract system for employees of state-owned businesses in 2004, replacing the previous life-term one. The system has been extensively criticized by the Belarusian opposition and independent trade unionists, who assert that the government uses it to dismiss independent union members and opposition political activists. JM

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych told journalists in Kyiv on June 27 that the early elections scheduled for September 30 are necessary for Ukraine, Ukrainian media reported. "It is necessary to hold elections under these circumstances," he said. "There is no other way for the state, but they must be held exclusively on the basis of the law and the constitution. The country and 47 million people cannot live and suffer under the circumstances of a political crisis and a blockade of the work of parliament." Yanukovych also asserted that "90 percent" of the May 27 political deal he made with President Viktor Yushchenko and parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz to resolve the political crisis in Ukraine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007) has already been implemented. Simultaneously, Yanukovych noted that his Party of Regions has not yet adopted formal decisions to take part in the early polls or to compile its election list. Yanukovych also revealed that he will soon go abroad to complete treatment on his leg. Ukrainian media reported that Yanukovych underwent knee surgery in Spain in May. JM

NATO said on June 26 that it is prepared to prevent a Serbian nationalist militia from marking the 618th anniversary of Kosovo Polje, a battle in 1389 that destroyed the medieval Serbian state and ushered in five centuries of Ottoman rule over Kosova. "KFOR will not accept any kind of paramilitary structures," German General Roland Kather told the national broadcaster Radio-Television Kosovo on June 26. He warned the militiamen that "should they come, it should be very clear to them that it is our mission to immediately intervene -- and we will do so." Kather added there is no indication that the St. Tsar Lazar Guard, which was formed in late April, will join Kosovar Serbs at the site of the battle just a few kilometers from the Kosovar capital, Prishtina (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, and May 7, 2007). Recent reports in the Kosovar media have varied in their predictions of the number of militiamen who might attend, with figures ranging from dozens to hundreds. Local media reported on June 25 that police in Kosova on June 24 arrested two Kosovar Albanians for distributing flyers in which an ethnic-Albanian militia, the Albanian National Army (AKSh), warns the St. Tsar Lazar Guard that "we are waiting for you with bullets." The importance of the battle to contemporary Serbian identity was highlighted in 1989, when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic used the 600th anniversary to transform himself from a Communist Party leader into a champion of Serbian nationalism. The Serbian news agency FoNet reported on June 25 that two Serbian government ministers are due to attend the commemoration: Slobodan Samardzic, the minister for Kosovo-Metohija, as Serbs refer to Kosova; and Radomir Naumov, the minister for religious affairs. The Serbian news agency Tanjug on June 24 reported that Western supporters of independence for Kosova are preparing to bring a resolution on Kosova's status before the UN Security Council on the anniversary, an assertion that seems unfounded but that would, if accurate, heighten anti-Western sentiment within Serbia. The anniversary will be followed on June 30 by another potentially combustible gathering, a rally called by the Self-Determination (Vetevendosja) movement to demand independence for Kosova. A previous protest march, in February, resulted in a clash with UN police and the deaths of two demonstrators (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and 15, March 26, and April 5 and 19, 2007). AG

Following its purchase in December of the publicly owned Bosnian Serb mobile-phone operator (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 7, 2006), Serbia's Telekom Srpske has now appointed a new general director and renamed the company M:Tel, local media reported. Under new management, M:Tel will be offering free mobile roaming in Serbia and Montenegro for all customers, according to the Banja Luka daily "Nezavisne novine." Telekom Srpske, which is controlled by the Serbian state, paid 646 million euros ($850.6 million) for a 65 percent stake in the company, a record for privatizations in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the single largest such transaction by a Serbian company to date. Around 100 million euros from the sale will go into a special development fund managed by the government of Republika Srpska, the Bosnian Serb region in Bosnia. TV

Soldiers from the European Union's peacekeeping mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina (EUFOR) on June 22 discovered a weapons cache on Mount Trebevic on the outskirts of Sarajevo, FENA reported the following day. Members of EUFOR's Italian battalion found more than 200 bullets, 17 hand grenades, and two rifles, according to the report. The Sarajevo Canton police are investigating. Peacekeepers and local police have come across similar caches numerous times; they are often, though not always, remnants of the 1992-95 war in Bosnia. TV

In the ongoing trial of Serbian paramilitaries before the Special War Crimes Court in Belgrade over abuses committed in the Bosnian town of Zvornik, the court on June 26 viewed television footage showing the deportation of Bosnian Muslims from two outlying villages, local media reported. The footage, first shown on Serbian state television in June 1992, shows the deportation of more than 1,800 civilians, who were brought by bus to the nearby Serbian town of Sabac and from there to Hungary. Zvornik is a town on the Bosnian side of the Drina River, which forms the border between Bosnia and Serbia. The area was the scene of some of the most thorough and brutal "ethnic cleansing" in the first months of the Bosnian war in 1992. The trial began in November 2005 after the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague had handed responsibility for the case to the Belgrade special court, the first such case to be referred by the ICTY to Serbia. The accused include four members of the so-called Yellow Wasps, a paramilitary unit, who are charged with the killing of 22 civilians and the expulsion of 1,822 others. A fifth member charged with the same crimes died in custody. The commander of the territorial defense in the region and the top official of the Bosnian Serb crisis staff in Zvornik are accused of knowing about the crimes and doing nothing to stop them. Prosecutors from Bosnia and Serbia are working together in the investigation of war crimes in Zvornik (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29, 2007). Many mass graves containing the remains of Zvornik residents have been discovered over the years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 12 and December 5, 2006). TV

Arben Xhaferi announced on June 25 that he plans to step down as leader of the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh), a member of the governing coalition and Macedonia's second-largest ethnic-Albanian party. Local media reported that Xhaferi cited health concerns as the reason for his decision, as well as the need for fresh leadership. Xhaferi has headed the party for 14 years. The PDSh will select a successor at a congress later this week. Xhaferi has already backed his deputy, Menduh Thaci, who he said, "has an extraordinary sense for politics and great political experience." Citing a party spokesman, the news website Balkan Insight reported on June 26 that Thaci will be the only candidate. Assuming that is the case, Thaci, who has assumed an increasing amount of responsibility within the party over the past year, will take over the leadership at a difficult time for the party. The PDSh recently threatened to withdraw from the government after Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski struck a deal with the largest ethnic-Albanian party, the Union for Integration (BDI), that put the PDSh on the back foot, as the BDI secured more concessions through the deal than the PDSh achieved in government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29 and 31, and June 11, 2007). The deal was widely seen as a coup for the BDI and as a blow to the PDSh. The PDSh is also no longer the only ethnic-Albanian party in government, following the entry of the Party for Democratic Prosperity (PPD), the third-largest party representing the Albanian minority, which accounts for roughly 30 percent of the population (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, 2007). AG

Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski on June 25 denied that his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, urged Macedonia to change its position on the status of Kosova when they met on June 24. In comments aired on national television on June 25, Crvenkovski said both sides simply outlined their differing positions on Kosova. Reports in the Serbian and Kosovar media indicated that Russia exerted unspecified pressure on Macedonia to alter its position, which calls for an international consensus in support of a UN proposal to grant Kosova independence. In public comments on June 25, Crvenkovski also urged the international community to maintain a long-term police and military presence in Kosova, arguing that the Kosovar authorities will not in the near term be capable of ensuring the rule of law to international standards. Russia is exploring energy projects with Macedonia, but at present its economic leverage over Macedonia is limited. Crvenkovski said on June 24 that bilateral trade in 2006 amounted to $500 million, an increase of 30 percent on the year, but called Russia's $15 million of investment in 2006 "insignificant." Putin said Russian companies are prepared to invest more than $180 million in Macedonia over an unspecified period if "they find good partners." AG

A former leading politician in Moldova's autonomous region of Gagauz-Yeri, Ivan Burgudji, was sentenced on June 22 to 12 years in prison for embezzling 81,900 lei ($6,600), the BASA news agency reported on June 23. The charge relates to a stint in 2001-02 as Gagauz-Yeri's representative in Tiraspol, the capital of the unrecognized breakaway region of Transdniester. Burgudji, a former chairman of the legislature of Gagauz-Yeri, has been embroiled in numerous legal and political battles over the past 17 years. Burgudji, who was one of the founders of the breakaway Gagauz republic in 1990, was arrested and jailed after Gagauz-Yeri accepted autonomy within Moldova at the turn of 1994. Then, in 2002, as a legal official in the Gagauz parliament, he helped foil a referendum organized, according to the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), "with the support of the Moldovan central authorities to oust the region's governor." Subsequently, in March 2002, he was, according to the OSCE, "beaten and apprehended in his unidentified civilians allegedly carrying automatic guns" and then disappeared. Several days later, a judge in Chisinau ordered his arrest on charges that he said were "secret" and Burgudji reemerged in police custody. Burgudji was eventually sentenced, in June 2003, to five years in prison for abuse of power and hooliganism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12 and 14, April 10 and 26, and July 3, 2002, and July 28, 2003). That sentence was later lowered to three years. He was also banned from occupying state posts for five years. He was released in June 2004, but in December 2006 he was arrested again after reentering Moldova from the breakaway region of Transdniester, where he had settled. According to Amnesty International, he was initially told that he was being detained because of an incident in October 2005 in which someone allegedly threw a grenade, but was then charged with misappropriating funds under an article that carried a possible sentence of 10 to 25 years in prison. AG

The current war in Chechnya, which began in the fall of 1999, has, to a far greater degree than the 1994-96 conflict, been accompanied by systematic, widespread, and egregious human rights violations committed by both the Russian military and pro-Moscow Chechen forces.

Russian and international human rights watchdogs have compiled detailed dossiers chronicling blanket search operations; arbitrary arrests; abductions for ransom; and the use of torture against, and even the summary execution of, persons suspected of sympathizing with or abetting resistance forces.

By far the most widespread abuse is that of the abduction of Chechen noncombatant civilians, a practice that Russian ombudsman Vladimir Lukin described in 2004 as "the main [human rights] problem" in Chechnya, and which the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in 2005 designated "a crime against humanity."

Both HRW and Amnesty International have documented dozens of individual cases in which survivors describe the abuses to which they were subjected by their abductors, or family members chronicle their efforts to locate, and secure the release of, the "disappeared."

Forming a comprehensive picture of the extent of forced disappearances and attempting to identify the perpetrators is difficult in light of relatives' reluctance either to jeopardize their efforts to locate and secure the release of their loved ones, or to invite retribution by naming those persons believed to be responsible.

Citing data collected by the Russian human rights center Memorial that monitors only roughly one-fourth of the total area of Chechnya, HRW estimated in early 2005 that between 3,000 and 5,000 people were snatched in Chechnya in the five years since October 1999. Some of those apprehended were subsequently released, many after having been subjected to torture; others disappeared without trace.

Chechen websites have, in addition, reported cases in which children have been apprehended and killed and their internal organs removed -- presumably to sell for transplant -- before the mutilated bodies were dumped.

In the run-up to, and during the early years of the second Chechen war, the abduction cases that made headlines were generally those involving foreigners snatched for ransom by radical Chechen militants. But more recently, the victims have been overwhelmingly Chechens. Russian and Chechen human rights activists say that at least three agencies have resorted to such abductions: the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Russian federal forces, and the various pro-Moscow Chechen police and security forces.

The first documentary evidence of the Russian military's involvement in such human rights abuses surfaced in early 2003. It took the form of a confidential report compiled by Chechen Prosecutor-General Vladimir Kravchenko, who concluded that dozens, if not hundreds of federal soldiers and police were systematically engaging in the abduction and murder of civilians, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on April 16, 2003.

At the same time "Le Monde" and "La Liberation" published what they claimed were extracts from a Chechen government report on such abuses. Russian officials immediately denied that any such Chechen government report existed. But according to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," the statistics cited by Kravchenko and the two French newspapers were very similar.

Statistical data for the period from early 2002 until March 2007 compiled by analysts writing for the website show two clear trends: a dramatic decline in the total number of abductions, from 544 in 2002 to 323 in 2005, 187 in 2006, and 16 for the first three months of this year.

It also shows parallel declines in the number of those abducted who are never found, either dead or alive (from 372 in 2002 to 128 in 2005, 63 in 2006, and three in 2007), and also in the number of persons found dead (81 in 2002, 25 in 2005, 11 in 2006, and one so far in 2007).

While the number of abductions reported on Chechen territory has apparently declined, the figure for neighboring Daghestan has increased sharply.

But the number of persons freed or ransomed grew from 91 in 2002 to 155 in 2005, but then fell to 94 in 2006 and 10 in 2007. The figure cited by for the number of abductions in 2004 -- 450 -- is slightly higher than the estimate for the same year by Memorial cited in the HRW report referred to above.

But's figure for 2003 (498) is lower than that Interfax attributed to pro-Moscow Deputy Prime Minister Movsur Khamidov in February 2004. On that occasion, Khamidov said 581 people were abducted in Chechnya the previous year, of whom 127 disappeared without trace, but he added that in some cases, relatives of Chechen resistance fighters may have reported their menfolk as having been abducted in order to deflect suspicion.

At the same time, Khamidov admitted that some abductions are the work of the police or security forces. Svetlana Gannushkina of the Presidential Human Rights Commission estimated in December 2003, that the majority of such abductions are carried out by pro-Moscow police or members of the presidential security service then headed by Ramzan Kadyrov, the son of then pro-Moscow Chechen administration head Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov.

Over the past few years, since the Russian authorities launched the process of "Chechenization" that entailed transferring primary responsibility for reimposing "order" in Chechnya from the Russian Interior Ministry to the various pro-Moscow Chechen police and security forces, the proportion of human rights violations, including abductions, that can be attributed to the latter has grown incrementally.

A secret detention center in Grozny In early 2005, Colonel General Arkady Yedelev, who at that time headed the combined federal forces in Chechnya, was quoted by "Russky kur'er" as admitting that "we have evidence" that both law-enforcement personnel and federal soldiers are involved in abductions, while Chechen Prosecutor-General Kravchenko estimated that up to 10 percent of such crimes are the work of those agencies.

In an apparent attempt to shield his former subordinates from accusations of engaging in human rights abuses, former Chechen Interior Minister Alu Alkhanov, who was elected Akhmed-hadji Kadyrov's successor in September 2004, four months after Kadyrov was killed by a terrorist bomb in Grozny, said in August 2004 that police engaged in "special operations" should not wear masks, Interfax reported.

But subsequent bans on the wearing of masks, and on the use of vehicles with tinted glass windows or without license plates, were frequently ignored, and did little to restore the trust of the Chechen population in the law-enforcement agencies. In April 2005, at Alkhanov's behest, the Chechen government established an interdepartmental commission tasked with searching for persons reported missing. At the same time, Alkhanov deplored the very modest percentage of abductions -- just 8 percent -- in which the perpetrators are apprehended and brought to trial.

Memorial's Oleg Orlov was quoted by on May 24 as corroborating the decline in abductions in Chechnya since the beginning of 2007, a trend he attributed to orders issued to the various pro-Moscow Chechen security forces in January by Ramzan Kadyrov, then first deputy prime minister to desist from such abuses. Those orders were presumably part of a broader campaign to craft a new, more benevolent and less threatening image of the younger Kadyrov. But Kadyrov's personal reputation for sadism, and countless instances of police indifference at best to human suffering, and at worst arbitrary brutality, make a mockery of his repeated professed commitment to protecting the population's basic human rights.

While the number of abductions reported on Chechen territory has apparently declined, the figure for neighboring Daghestan has increased sharply. At a press conference in Moscow on June 15, members of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG) cited data for southern Russia as a whole, and for Daghestan. That data showed 68 reported abductions in Daghestan in 2006, compared with 12 in North Ossetia, 10 in Ingushetia, and five each in Karachayevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria, reported on June 18.

By contrast, there have been nearly 20 abductions in Daghestan "over a very short period" this year, according to MHG chair Lyudmila Alekseeva. Meanwhile, in Ingushetia, which unlike Chechnya has not been the scene of constant fighting in recent years, abductions of young men appear to have begun in 2002, the year that former FSB General Murat Zyazikov succeeded Ruslan Aushev as president.

The International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights issued a press release in June 2005 giving the number of reported abductions of Ingush during the three preceding years as one in 2002, nine in 2003, and 37 in 2004. Ingushetia's deputy prosecutor Rashid Ozdoyev, who became alarmed by and set about investigating such disappearances, collecting evidence of police involvement in 40 such cases, vanished himself without trace in March 2004, and is believed to have been detained and executed.

One of the participants in the multiple attacks by Chechen and Ingush militants on police targets in Ingushetia in June 2004 admitted that it was the disappearance, and his failure to discover the fate of, his brother that impelled him and hundreds of other young men to join the Chechen-led armed resistance. And coinciding with those June 2005 raids, Amnesty International released a report on human rights violations in both Chechnya and Ingushetia that registered "dozens" of disappearances in the latter republic in the early months of 2004 alone.

The Russian website on March 1 quoted Magomed Mutsolgov, who heads an organization that seeks to help relatives of persons who have been abducted, as citing a figure of 145 such disappearances in Ingushetia. He added that in most cases the perpetrators were members of the Combined Group of Forces deployed in the North Caucasus.

The United Nations released a report on June 26 asserting that while global levels of drug addiction have fallen, Afghanistan's opium production is soaring, increasing nearly 50 percent in the last year, AP reported. "The production and consumption of cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines, and ecstasy have stabilized at the global level -- with one exception," the "2007 World Drug Report" said, AFP reported. The exception is Afghanistan's production of opium, which increased from about 4,500 tons in 2005 to about 6,700 tons in 2006. Afghanistan supplies 92 percent of the world's opium, up from 70 percent in 2000 and 52 percent a decade earlier, the report found. UN Office for Drug and Crime Executive Director Antonio Maria warned that Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province, a stronghold of the Taliban insurgency, is becoming the world's biggest drug supplier. Afghan Counternarcotics Minister Habibullah Qaderi on June 26 vowed that police and the justice system will soon begin to cope with the issue of the country's booming opium production effectively, AFP reported the same day. Qaderi added, however, that there is no silver bullet to solve the problem. At an event to mark the United Nations' day against drug use and trafficking, Qaderi said the narcotics issue cannot be solved in a year or two in a war-torn country like Afghanistan that has no proper infrastructure. As development proceeds, along with police and judicial reforms, the government anticipates future reductions in drugs production, Qaderi said. He added that Afghanistan is not considering using chemical spraying to eradicate opium-poppy fields. The United States has pushed Afghanistan to use such methods, but the Afghan government has resisted, primarily due to concerns about the potential impact on people's health (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8, 2007). JC

An international organization has urged incoming British Prime Minister Gordon Brown to take a new approach to Afghanistan during his first days in office to forestall a Taliban resurgence, AFP reported on June 25. Senlis Council President Norine MacDonald warned Brown in a statement that to follow "Bush-style polices" in Afghanistan would mean dealing with the kind of "unmanageable chaos that is now seen in Iraq." Despite good intentions, the statement continued, Afghan citizens have real grievances, such as civilian deaths from NATO bombings, lack of food aid, and forced eradication of poppy crops without any alternative crops. "The Taliban are taking advantage of our errors and are using these grievances to become an increasingly legitimate political movement in southern Afghanistan," MacDonald said. Brown, who took over for Prime Minister Tony Blair as leader of the governing Labour Party on June 24, did not indicate his stance on Afghanistan. JC

Iranian drivers were forming long queues at gas stations in the capital, Tehran, and elsewhere late on June 26, after the government suddenly announced it would start implementing a long-discussed fuel-rationing plan from midnight, agencies reported on June 27. Private cars are now allowed to use 100 liters of gasoline a month, for which Iranians will pay $0.11 a liter, while taxis can use 800 liters and government vehicles are entitled to 300 liters a month, agencies reported, citing Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh, who spoke on television on June 26. Many drivers were reportedly angered by the sudden announcement, with reports of disturbances at some gasoline stations. The rationing plan, which is a ratified part of Iran's 2007-08 budget, is intended to drastically cut the sum spent annually to import fuel, which is sold to drivers at subsidized rates. Iranians were paying about $0.09 a liter until recently. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told a seminar in Tehran on June 26 that "we have to reconsider the method and scope" of the fight against drugs trafficking, IRNA reported. Ahmadinejad blamed the world's dominant "systems" of government -- meaning Western powers -- for the drugs problem. He told an event to mark Antidrugs Day that "profit-seeking powers and materialist and profit-worshiping-management" systems are undermining the resolve of states and peoples to combat the scourge of drugs. In addition to the profits drugs trafficking can generate, he said, "there are political motivations behind them." He vowed Iran will pursue its fight in spite of obstruction by "corrupt and forceful powers," because "saving the life of a single human being is of great importance to us." He said that for example, Western powers are in Afghanistan "on the pretext of fighting drugs trafficking," but noted that opium production has increased there. He dismissed the need for Western intervention in the region and said regional states can work together to combat this "sinister phenomenon," IRNA reported. VS

A representative of the Palestinian Hamas party identified as Abu Usama attended a closed session of Iran's parliament on June 26 and presented legislators with a report on the recent fighting in Gaza between the Hamas and Fatah factions, ISNA reported. Parliament speaker Gholam Ali Haddad-Adel said afterward that Iran recognizes the Hamas government because "we support the votes of the majority of" Palestinians. He deplored fighting between Palestinian factions and "currents moving toward compromise with Israel." He said Iran is ready to help "resolve the crisis and strengthen solidarity" in the Palestinian territories, ISNA reported. VS

Iran's Intelligence Ministry believes former Iranian diplomat Hussein Musavian passed state secrets to foreign parties, Radio Farda reported on June 26, citing legislator Kazem Jalali and the Fars news agency (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 7, 2007). Jalali informed reporters of Intelligence Minister Gholamhussein Mohseni-Ejei's statements regarding the case offered during a meeting with parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Committee. Jalali said the minister informed the committee that Musavian, who is presently free on bail, has been questioned three times, as have other persons. Musavian most recently worked in the research center of the Expediency Council. Legislators asked the minister why Musavian was free on bail when facing such serious charges, and why he was allowed to go back to the Expediency Council building while being investigated. Mohseni-Ejei said Musavian wasn told not to return there or go anywhere he might have access to confidential documents, Radio Farda reported. VS

Government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham said in Qom on June 26 that the "reconstruction" administrations of Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani in the 1990s were a time of selfish money making and indifference to the people, ISNA reported. He said Iranians should be told the facts about their governments "so they know who is working for them and who the traitors are." He said the "accumulation of wealth, worldly values, and indifference to society were all the rage in the reconstruction period." The period Elham referred to followed the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, when Hashemi-Rafsanjani's two presidential terms instituted mild economic-liberalization policies. These continued under his reformist successor, Mohammad Khatami, until 2005. In an apparent reference to reformists, Elham said: "Foreign powers were betting on flatterers coming to power. These people touted political reforms, political development, and human rights." He said the 2005 election of President Ahmadinejad paved the way for the implementation of "Islamic and popular laws" and the guidelines set out by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. He contrasted the Ahmadinejad government's tolerance for criticism with the Khatami government, which Elham said engaged in the "character assassination" of critics, ISNA reported. VS

Former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi said in Tehran on June 26 that he expects "lively" parliamentary elections in Iran next year, though he is confident "discussions and dialogue will be carried out under peaceful conditions," IRNA reported. Karrubi runs the National Trust Party, which he formed in 2005 after leaving the moderately reformist Militant Clerics Assembly. Iran plans to hold elections for the eighth parliament since 1979 in March 2008. Karrubi said his party will field its own candidates, although "naturally 90 percent of those on the reformists' list will be on our list." Karrubi was speaking at a prayer hall in Jamaran in northern Tehran, on the sidelines of a commemorative service for the late Ayatollah Mohammad Fazel-Lankarani. VS

Another cleric attending the same service in Jamaran was a former vice president who has since turned blogger, Mohammad Ali Abtahi, IRNA reported. Abtahi expressed hope that fewer electoral aspirants will be disqualified before the polls, as they have in past elections. He welcomed recent remarks by Abbas Ali Kadkhodai, the spokesman of the Guardians Council, the body which vets aspirants, who recently told IRNA that he hopes disqualifications will be minimized. Reformists note that the council disqualifies more of their candidates on various legal pretexts, and they accuse the council of bias in favor of conservatives. Abtahi said fewer disqualifications would reduce "the extensive challenges that existed" in previous polls. Reformers are to form a joint electoral headquarters in the second half of July, Hussein Marashi, a member of the centrist Executives of Construction, told IRNA after the 26 June service. VS

An arrest warrant has been issued for Iraqi Culture Minister As'ad al-Hashimi on terrorism charges, Al-Arabiyah satellite television reported on June 26. Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the warrant is based on information from several people who said al-Hashimi ordered the killing of Sunni lawmaker Mithal al-Alusi's two sons in Baghdad in 2005. "The culture minister was a mosque imam then," al-Dabbagh said. "Several people confessed that the planning and orders were given by the incumbent minister." Meanwhile, Xinhua reported the same day that Iraqi security forces raided al-Hashimi's home and arrested six of his bodyguards, but that al-Hashimi was not at home at the time of the raid. Al-Alusi also told Xinhua that al-Hashimi was involved in the June 25 Al-Mansur Hotel bombing that killed four Sunni tribal sheikhs from the Al-Anbar Salvation Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26, 2007). "I knew that al-Hashimi's guards have been captured for killing two of my sons, but I want to disclose that security sources told me that al-Hashimi and his guards are also responsible for the attack on the Al-Mansur Hotel yesterday," al-Alusi said. Police did not confirm these allegations. Al-Hashimi is a leading member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a component of the main Sunni political bloc, the Iraqi Accordance Front, and al-Alusi is the leader of the Sunni-led Al-Ummah (Nation) Party. SS

During a June 25 press conference, U.S. Brigadier General Dana Pittard warned that Iraqi forces will need a minimum of two years before they are ready to assume full responsibility for their country's security, "The Washington Post" reported on June 26. Pittard, commander of the Iraq Assistance Group, the team that advises Iraqi forces, warned against setting any sort of timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal. He pointed to Diyala Governorate, where thousands of U.S. and Iraqi forces are currently battling Al-Qaeda in Iraq elements, to illustrate the risks of drawing down U.S. forces too hastily. He said the decision to cut U.S. forces in Diyala by two-thirds from 2005 to 2006 and allow Iraqi troops to take over came "way too soon." He said Diyala descended into chaos when Iraqi forces were too overwhelmed to take on the Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters, Sunni insurgents, and Shi'ite militias that had become entrenched in the governorate. The lesson, he said, is: "Do not draw down too quickly when we think there's a glimmer of success. It will take time." SS

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) announced on June 26 that it has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Iraqi government to help rebuild the Al-Askari Mosque, the revered Shi'ite shrine in Samarra that was badly damaged in two separate attacks, KUNA reported the same day. The UN Development Group Iraq Trust Fund pledged to provide $5.4 million, and the Iraqi government said it will contribute $3 million to fund the project. "Respecting cultural heritage is one of the fundamental principles of the reconstruction process for a country such as Iraq, and a decisive step toward national reconciliation," said UNESCO Director-General Koïchiro Matsuura. UNESCO said reconstruction of the shrine will begin as soon as security conditions are guaranteed and will continue for 10 months. Muhammad Djalid, director of the UNESCO Iraq office, and Haq Al-Hakim, an adviser to Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki for reconstruction and environment affairs, signed the agreement on June 25 in Amman, Jordan. The Al-Askari Mosque's minarets were destroyed in an attack on June 13 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 13, 2007). In February 2006, a bomb attack destroyed the mosque's golden dome, setting off a wave of sectarian violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). SS

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued an urgent plea to the international community on June 26 to aid the more than 1,000 Palestinian refugees stranded at the Al-Walid refugee camp along the Iraqi-Syrian border, international media reported. The aid agency warned that many of the Palestinians at the camp are ill and their conditions are quickly deteriorating as summer temperatures continue to rise. "There is an urgent need for medical care, as well as an immediate humanitarian solution, and we are urging countries in the region, and further afield, to help end their suffering," UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis said. Pagonis also indicated that many of the refugees are being threatened and harassed by armed men, who are also preventing aid agencies from providing assistance to Palestinian refugees. The UNHCR has estimated there are more than 1,400 Palestinians stranded along the border, many unable to cross into Syria, which has repeatedly said that it is already overburdened with refugees. SS

A Jordanian Foreign Ministry official said on June 26 that the Hashemite kingdom will host a conference of countries sheltering Iraqi refugees sometime in July, AFP reported. "Regional countries, mainly Jordan, Syria, and Iraq, as well as the United Nations, will take part in the conference that will discuss ways of helping these states cope with burdens caused by Iraqi refugees," the unidentified official said. The decision on holding the conference was made during a meeting between Jordanian Foreign Minister Abdallah Khatib and his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari, in Amman on June 26. Jordan has repeatedly warned the international community that the influx of Iraqi refugees has created a huge strain on its economy. The Jordanian Interior Ministry says the approximately 750,000 Iraqi refugees are costing Jordan an estimated $1 billion a year. SS

The U.S. military announced in a statement on June 25 that Iraqi forces arrested two suspected Al-Qaeda in Iraq cell leaders during a June 24 operation south of Baghdad. "The two detainees are involved in improvised explosive device attacks on Iraqi and coalition forces, death-squad activities against local civilians, housing foreign fighters, transporting weapons, and running a medical clinic for wounded terrorists," the statement said. The soldiers also seized a cache of weapons and a sizable amount of cash at the scene. The statement added that the operation was aimed at disrupting terrorist networks in the Jihad-Shurta areas, as well as attacks against Iraqi and coalition forces. SS