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Newsline - July 18, 2007

Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Grushko said on July 17 that Russia will announce "very soon...[its] targeted and adequate" reaction to British measures in response to Moscow's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the prime suspect in the 2006 London poisoning death of former Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 12, 13, and 17, 2007). Grushko added that Russia "will take into account the interests of ordinary citizens: tourists, participants in cultural and scientific exchanges, and members of the business community. We do not want them to suffer as a result of London's political actions." He argued that "Russia...[previously] requested the extradition [from Britain] of 21 Russian citizens, including [self-exiled oligarch Boris] Berezovsky, who has called for the overthrow of the current government in Russia.... None of them has been extradited. Had Russia taken the same path [of expulsions] that was chosen by London, I think the British Embassy [in Moscow] would have lost 80 diplomats by now." Grushko suggested that Russia might now find it difficult to cooperate with Britain in some areas of mutual concern, such as fighting terrorism. He also said that "Britain will appeal to EU solidarity. We hope that common sense will prevail within the EU and that its members will not give in to attempts to turn relations between Russia and the EU into a tool to achieve unilateral political goals. These have nothing in common with the EU's and Russia's real partnership interests." In London, a spokesman for the Foreign Office said that no retaliation by Russia would be justified. PM

Speaking in Berlin during British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's visit on July 16, Chancellor Angela Merkel noted the seriousness of the issues involved in the Litvinenko case and expressed understanding for Britain's position, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on July 18. She also noted Russia's importance for the EU member states and said she hopes that the dispute will be resolved soon. Some unnamed officials at the Foreign Ministry, which is controlled by former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democrats (SPD), believe that London "overreacted" in expelling four Russian diplomats and tightening some visa procedures, Britain's "The Guardian" reported on July 18. The paper suggested that "Britain failed to win the immediate, concerted response it was seeking [from other EU member states]. The Foreign Office had wanted a quick statement from the Portuguese, who hold the EU Presidency, that would express a united European position.... But late [on July 17], the Portuguese prime minister, Jose Socrates, had been unable to find a consensus among his fellow leaders." The daily noted that a statement might come soon, "but the delay may have weakened its impact. Meanwhile, the Portuguese foreign minister, Luis Amado, repeatedly emphasized that the matter was 'a bilateral issue' between Britain and Russia." France, however, strongly supports London's position. The London daily quoted Katinka Barysch, deputy director of the London-based Centre for European Reform, as saying that "at some point, the EU needs to stand up and say: 'Russia can do whatever it wants in Russia, but on our territory you have to play by our rules.'" Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, argued that Britain has been less successful than Russia in persuading its European partners of the merits of its case. "Quite a lot of people are convinced by the Russian argument that we lecture them about the rule of law, and now we're asking them to overrule their own constitution," he said. The Russian Constitution prohibits the extradition of Russian citizens. Britain's "The Times" wrote on July 17 that "while many world leaders might privately applaud the British move, few would envy being engaged in a scrap with President [Vladimir] Putin, who has earned the reputation as one of the toughest players on the global stage." PM

Natural Resources Minister Yury Trutnev said in Moscow on July 17 that there is no reason to review agreements with British companies working in Russia. He argued that it does "not make sense to impose restrictions that would affect the investment climate" in connection with the Lugovoi extradition dispute, international media reported. Viktor Kremenyuk, who is deputy director of the Institute of United States and Canada of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said the Kremlin should avoid escalating the conflict by responding with more expulsions or other sanctions. He also questioned why the British government has taken that course. Kremenyuk said he "cannot understand why the British government has decided to turn this more or less usual criminal case into a political one. Why does one former KGB officer killing another deserve this attention?" Several British media outlets called attention on July 18 to the relatively low-key public statements by some Russian officials in comparison to the tough language in some Russian dailies on July 17. "Izvestia" wrote on July 17 that Britain already has its hands full fighting terrorists and does not need to open a "second front" against Russia. "Vremya novostei" suggested that "London is deliberately aggravating" relations that are already bad. PM

On July 18, Britain's "The Times" reported that two Royal Air Force Tornado fighter jets scrambled the previous day to intercept two Russian Tu-95 "Bear" intercontinental bombers apparently headed for Scotland from the Kola Peninsula. The Bears were shadowed by two F-16 fighter jets of the Royal Norwegian Air Force and turned back for home before reaching British airspace. The paper noted that there was no clear connection between the incident and the Lugovoi affair, but added that such incidents are unusual. The daily wrote that "the Russian military engaged in some old-fashioned saber-rattling," and that "the spirit of the Cold War returned to the North Atlantic once again." The Russian website pointed out on July 18 that Bears "are a symbol of the Cold War." On July 18, Colonel General Aleksandr Zelin, who heads the Russian Air Force, said that the two Bears were on a normal training mission and not heading for British airspace, Interfax reported. He added that Russian long-range aviation "is getting back on its feet" following what he called difficulties stemming from a fuel shortage. PM

"The Moscow Times" on July 18 quoted unnamed Estonian politicians and diplomats as saying that President Putin deliberately snubbed Tallinn by inviting Finnish President Tarja Halonen and Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany to a Finno-Ugric festival in Saransk on July 19, but no top Estonian official (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2007). Estonia will be represented by the cultural attache of its embassy in Moscow. Marko Mihkelson, chairman of the Estonian parliament's European Affairs Committee, told the Moscow daily by telephone that this is another attempt by the Kremlin to drive a wedge between EU member states. He said that "it seems quite obvious that the people who wrote the invitations did not just forget Estonia but left it out on purpose." Estonia, Finland, and Hungary are the only three countries with mainly Finno-Ugric populations. PM

The daily "Novye izvestia" wrote on July 17 that it has "obtained a copy of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau report on youth extremism in Russia...[which says that] Russia has 141 active youth groups of an extremist nature, with a total of around half a million members" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24, 2006, and July 16, 2007). The study demonstrates that "extremist youth groups exist in all major cities, their numbers are growing, and they are becoming more organized and politicized. The Levada Center polling agency confirms that such an upswing in extremist attitudes among young people has not been recorded since 1988." The Moscow Human Rights Bureau report suggests that the groups "are mostly concentrated in large cities in the Central, Northwestern, and Urals federal districts. The Moscow region and St. Petersburg have particularly high numbers of extremists." PM

Presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District Dmitry Kozak told journalists on July 17 that the existence of an organized group in North Ossetia that routinely abducts Ingush in retaliation for the September 2004 school hostage-taking in Beslan is just one of several possible explanations for those disappearances, according to RIA Novosti as summarized by Kozak's deputy Suleiman Vagapov recently publicized that hypothesis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2007). Kozak, however, suggested that some abductions could have been staged, given the speed with which the relatives of the abducted person are informed of what has happened, reported, but he added that it is "too early to jump to conclusions." Kozak also said that a special group has been established composed of federal and local prosecutor's office and Interior Ministry officials to investigate abductions in the border region between North Ossetia and Ingushetia. Meanwhile, the human-rights organization Memorial has addressed separate open letters to North Ossetian President Taymuraz Mamsurov and Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika asking them to take immediate measures to investigate the unending series of abductions of Ingush in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion and Vladikavkaz, reported on July 18. LF

Four policemen were killed and up to eight more injured early on July 18 when an explosive device detonated in the gymnasium of a school in the town of Kizilyurt where they were exercising, Russian media reported. LF

During a public debate in Yerevan on July 17 with Nikol Pashinian, one of the leaders of the opposition Aylentrank (Alternative) movement, Armen Ashotian, who is a leading member of Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), said there can be no doubt that Sarkisian will win the presidential election due in early 2008, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Incumbent President Robert Kocharian is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive term. Pashinian for his part argued that Sarkisian could win only if the election outcome is rigged, but at the same time he admitted that the opposition will only be able to prevent that scenario if it closes ranks behind a single candidate. Aylentrank favors former President Levon Ter-Petrossian who, however, has not indicated any interest in trying to make a political comeback nine years after his forced resignation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 15 and July 9, 2007). LF

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Ross met in Baku on 16-17 July with presidential administration head Ramiz Mehtiyev, Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov, OSCE Office head Jose Luis Herrero, and opposition and human-rights activists, and reported. During his talks with Azerbaijani officials, Ross focused on what HRW termed the marked deterioration in recent years with regard to media freedom in Azerbaijan, and he called on President Ilham Aliyev to pardon and release the seven journalists currently serving prison terms. At the same time, he said their release alone would not serve to bring about the desired improvement. Ross also met with Interior Minister Ramil Usubov, to whom he complained about the widespread torture of suspects by police, reported. Ross said that his organization has extensive data on such mistreatment, but that only in a handful of instances has legal action been taken against the policemen responsible. LF

The daily "Rezonansi" on July 17 published an open letter to President Mikheil Saakashvili from a group of journalists concerned at the implications of a new law prohibiting video recordings and photo coverage of ongoing trials. The signatories recall that Saakashvili headed the parliament's Constitutional and Legal Affairs Committee in 1997 when parliament first enacted legislation permitting such coverage and incurred criticism for supporting that innovation. They appealed to Saakashvili to veto the law, which the parliament passed in the third and final reading on July 11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12, 2007), saying that by doing so he would prove his commitment to democratic principles and...freedom of expression." LF

The leaders of five Georgian opposition parties -- the New Rightists (aka New Conservatives), the Republican Party, the Conservative Party, the Labor Party, and Industry Will Save Georgia -- signed in Tbilisi on July 16 a memorandum calling for fundamental changes in the existing election law, Caucasus Press reported. They advocated that the number of parliament deputies be reduced from 235 to 150, of whom 50 would be elected in single-mandate constituencies; that political parties be permitted to nominate members of the central and regional election commissions; and that the threshold for parliamentary representation under the proportional system be lowered from 7 to 5 percent. Conservative Party leader Kakha Kukava reasoned that those proposals, if implemented, would help to create equal conditions for all parties and candidates in the parliamentary and presidential elections to be held in the fall of 2008. LF

Some 1,000 people congregated on July 17 outside the Tbilisi Municipal Administration building to protest the doubling of public transport tariffs on July 1, an increase in gas prices, and the abolition of some social benefits, Caucasus Press reported. The protest was organized by the opposition groups Kartuli Dasi (Georgian Group), Tavisupleba (Liberty), and Chven Tviton (We Ourselves). LF

At a press conference in Astana, Lubomir Kopaj, the head of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election-observer mission, announced on July 17 the opening of an official office in Kazakhstan, ITAR-TASS reported. The initial OSCE presence comprises 19 experts and 36 long-term observers based in Almaty and Astana, with some of the more than 400 short-term observers to be deployed in the regions once they arrive in Kazakhstan. In separate comments at a press conference in Astana, Vladimir Garkun, the deputy head of the CIS election-monitoring mission, also announced on July 17 the establishment of a formal office in the country. The CIS team includes another 400 observers preparing to monitor the August 18 elections to the Mazhilis, or lower house of the Kazakh parliament. In a special ceremony in Astana the same day, Central Election Commission Chairman Kuandyk Turgankulov formally welcomed the CIS monitors, promising that "state bodies and volunteers will provide [all] the necessary logistic and technical support," and invited them to attend meetings of the election commission. The CIS mission is to be formally led by Vladimir Rushailo, CIS executive secretary and former head of the Russian National Security Council. The Central Election Commission has already initiated the accreditation process for foreign observers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 13, 2007), following a formal request for an ODIHR observer mission to monitor the election (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 2, 2007). RG

The deputy head of the Tajik state railway agency, Narzikhon Zaripov, accused Uzbekistan on July 16 of causing widespread delays along Tajikistan's 950-kilometer railway network, according to Asia-Plus. Speaking to reporters in Dushanbe, Zaripov explained that some 94 percent of all trains arriving in Tajikistan suffer from varying delays resulting from "long, unauthorized inspections" conducted by the Uzbek authorities. All international rail routes entering and exiting Tajikistan run through Uzbekistan, making the Tajik railway network seriously vulnerable to any delays on the Uzbek side of the border. The same day, another Tajik Railways official, Vladimir Sobkalov, informed journalists in Dushanbe that Tajikistan is actively seeking investors interested in financing the modernization of the rail system and the purchase of new diesel locomotives. He noted that the Chinese are especially interested in acquiring a dominant share of the country's railway network, although he warned that such a proposal "is unacceptable for Tajikistan," adding that Tajikistan is also negotiating with other companies, including Ukrainian investors. Tajikistan's rolling-stock includes some 1,800 cargo cars, 342 passenger carriages and 57 diesel locomotives, although many remain in serious need of repair and modernization. RG

President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov arrived on an official two-day state visit to China on July 17 and met with Chinese President Hu Jintao the same day, ITAR-TASS and Turkmen Television reported. During the meeting with his Chinese counterpart and other senior officials, the Turkmen president discussed measures aimed at expanding bilateral economic cooperation and reviewed plans for the construction of a natural-gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to China. Most significantly, Berdymukhammedov signed a contract with China's largest oil company, China National Petroleum Corporation, for the export of 30 billion cubic meters of Turkmen natural gas annually to China for a 30-year period, AP reported. Prior to his arrival in Beijing, Berdymukhammedov hailed the visit as an "important event in the implementation of the main priorities of Turkmenistan's foreign policy" and pledged to begin exporting oil and gas to China by 2009. The visit is Berdymukhammedov's first to China since assuming the presidency in February 2007, but is a follow-up to a preparatory state visit to China by late President Saparmurat Niyazov in April 2006, which resulted in several preliminary bilateral agreements at the time (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 4, 2006). Turkmenistan, which holds the world's fifth-largest natural-gas reserves and has substantial oil resources, is seeking to reduce the over 70 percent Russian share of Turkmen gas exports by diversifying energy ties to China and with a possible gas pipeline to Pakistan and Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 9, 2007). RG

Acting at the request of an Uzbek warrant submitted to Interpol, Czech police detained two Uzbek refugees on July 3, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on July 17. The two refugees, Omanullo Maqsudov and Zohid Mirzaev, were among hundreds of Uzbeks who fled the violence in May 2005 in the eastern city of Andijon. Rights groups have accused Uzbek security forces of firing indiscriminately on unarmed participants in those protests. The two men were detained while crossing the Czech-German border and are currently being held in the western Czech city of Plzen. Lawyers for the refugees told RFE/RL's Uzbek Service that the Uzbek authorities have 40 days to provide necessary documents proving that the detainees have committed a crime before a Czech court can rule on an Uzbek extradition request. A similar case occurred in November 2001, when prominent Uzbek opposition leader and poet Muhammad Solih was briefly detained by Czech police acting on an Uzbek extradition request despite the fact that he had been granted political asylum in Norway and was only in the Czech Republic to attend a conference (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 30 and December 11 and 12, 2001). RG

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on July 17 dismissed Stsyapan Sukharenka as chairman of the State Security Committee (KGB) and Vasil Dzemyantsey as KGB first deputy chairman, Belarusian media reported. The presidential press service said Sukharenka and Dzemyantsey were dismissed "in connection with their transfer to other jobs." Sukharenka assumed the post of KGB chief in December 2005. During the presidential election campaign in 2006 and shortly afterward, Sukharenka became known for his heavy-handedness in dealing with opposition protests and activists, whom he publicly denounced as terrorists. Sukharenka's job was given to Yury Zhadobin, who was head of the presidential protection service until his new assignment. JM

Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Ihor Krol told Interfax on July 18 that the situation in the area of the toxic phosphorus spill in Lviv Oblast has been brought under control. Krol announced that six children with symptoms of injuries to their respiratory organs were hospitalized in Lviv, while 59 more children have been sent to other health centers. He added that rescue teams are continuing to spray water on the damaged train tanks and insulate them from exposure to the air with foam. On July 16, a freight train carrying poisonous yellow phosphorus in tanks from Kazakhstan to Poland derailed near the settlement of Ozhydiv in Lviv Oblast, and several tanks caught fire after the phosphorus leaked out. Deputy Prime Minister Oleksandr Kuzmuk commented on July 16 that the accident was the most serious environmental catastrophe in Ukraine since the 1986 Chornobyl blast, but later backtracked on this remark. The Health Ministry reported on July 17 that 14 people involved in the decontamination efforts at the site of the derailment were hospitalized. More than 800 people living in the area were evacuated. JM

The EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, said on July 17 that he expects Serbia and Kosova to hold talks even if efforts to resolve Kosova's final status move beyond the UN, international media reported. A draft resolution formally presented to members of the UN Security Council on July 17 includes a call for fresh talks, as Serbia and Russia have demanded, but Russia has indicated it would veto the resolution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 16 and 17, 2007). Serbia and Russia object to the time limits imposed on talks and the resolution's origin in a UN proposal to grant Kosova independence. Solana indicated that the resolution will nonetheless soon be put to the vote at the UN, saying that "I don't think we have a long time" to reach a resolution on Kosova's future within the UN. In New York, Western ambassadors on July 17 indicated that they will put a resolution to the vote at the UN Security Council "very soon," which Britain's deputy ambassador, Karen Pierce, told AFP means "within, let's say, the next 36 hours." Solana did not outline the format of the proposed talks, but said he expects EU diplomats will need to "shuttle between" Serbia and Kosova. That suggests the formal roundtable negotiations seen in earlier UN-brokered talks are unlikely in the initial phases of discussions. The Kosovar daily "Zeri" recently claimed that Western powers are considering holding an international conference on Kosova in September. AG

The EU's Solana also said that talks with Serbia and Kosova will "probably" be "under the aegis of the Contact Group," an informal six-member group of countries that has sought to coordinate diplomatic efforts in the Balkans since the mid-1990s, AFP reported on July 17. "I'm sure there will be an agreement among members of the Contact Group to open a process of negotiations," Solana said. The transfer of responsibility for a solution from the UN, where Russia holds veto rights, to the Contact Group, where Russia has no veto, could offer Russia a diplomatic route out of the impasse. However, Russia's willingness to engage with other members of the Contact Group is increasingly open to question. British Deputy UN Ambassador Pierce told AFP on July 17 that "we used to have a very cooperative relationship with the Russians on the Balkans through the Contact Group," but she said the Russians "no longer seem to want to work through the Contact Group and bring this to a managed conclusion." The Contact Group is due to meet in Berlin on July 25. AG

Kosova's president, Fatmir Sejdiu, said on July 17 that the UN should seek "alternative routes" to decide the future of the UN-administered Serbian province, local and international media reported. "If there is no solution through the UN Security Council -- a very quick solution -- alternative routes should be sought, but in cooperation with the international community," Sejdiu said. Another member of the five-member team negotiating the region's future on behalf of Kosovar Albanians, Hashim Thaci, indicated that he believes it is already time for an alternative approach, telling journalists on July 17 that the UN "has failed to find a solution for Kosova's status" and that "the role of the UN Security Council has been weakened." Neither commented on the prospect of further talks outside the UN, but they and other members of the negotiating team have in the past said they believe the previous UN-brokered talks exhausted the possibilities for compromise. Serbia has not indicated how it would react if the EU were to withdraw the issue of Kosova's future from the UN. But at a press conference held after a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said on July 17 that "any further talks between the Serbian government and representatives of the Albanian majority in the province [of Kosova] would not need a new resolution to take place." Kostunica repeated a recent refrain of Serbian diplomats, saying there is plenty of scope for "an unconventional solution in the form of a compromise," but he gave no hints as to what that compromise might be. AG

In his first official visit to Bosnia-Herzegovina, the speaker of the Serbian parliament, Oliver Dulic, on July 17 told the parliament of the Bosnian Serb-dominated region of Republika Srpska that "the economy is the key word that is expected to determine our future relations" and that "realism, not emotions" should be the cornerstone of relations, the Bosnian news agency SRNA reported. Dulic was visiting a day after the Serbian parliament discussed the ratification of an Agreement on Special and Parallel Ties, which Serbia signed in September with the Republika Srpska (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, 2006, and June 13, 2007). Ratification of the agreement is due to go to the vote on July 19. Members of Serbia's largest parliamentary and nationalist party, the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), oppose ratification on the grounds that the agreement does not lay the foundations for a joint state and halts military cooperation, Serbian media reported on July 16. The Republika Srpska, which relied heavily on Serbian practical support during the 1992-95 war and on its diplomatic support since the conflict, is critically dependent on the Serbian economy both for imports and exports. The Republika Srpska imported almost three times as much from Serbia as it exported to Serbia in 2006, according to Serbian statistics. AG

During his visit to Banja Luka, Serbian parliament speaker Dulic said that any attempt to connect the status of Kosova with the future of the Republika Srpska would harm the interests of the Republika Srpska, Radio-Television Serbia reported on July 17. Leaders of the Republika Srpska have in the past threatened to hold a referendum on independence if Kosova is granted independence from Serbia, and they have accused the international community of double standards in its attitudes toward Kosova and the Republika Srpska. However, the region's prime minister, Milorad Dodik, has been more reticent this year, emphasizing instead that his government will do "everything to preserve peace and stability in the Republika Srpska's territory, no matter what decision on Kosovo is made" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19 and 20, 2006, and January 5 and 26, April 12, and May 9, 2007). Dulic made clear in Banja Luka that Serbia accepts Bosnia as a single state. Meanwhile, in Vienna, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic on July 17 said that the proposal to grant Kosova internationally supervised statehood amounts to "nothing other than the forced partition of Serbia," international media reported. AG

Kosova's police force said on July 16 that it identified 19 victims of human trafficking during the first half of 2007, the news service KosovaLive reported. A police spokesman, Veton Elshani, said the number does not indicate any rise in the trend, but he noted that prostitution is growing more common. Nine of the victims came from Kosova itself, and another six from Albania. AG


British officials on July 16 said that they have intercepted weapons being transported into Afghanistan from Iran, the first instance of British acknowledgement of possible Iranian support for the Taliban, Bloomberg reported on July 17. In Parliament, Defense Secretary Des Browne said that British troops interdicted a shipment of arms bearing markings "suggesting they are of Iranian origin" crossing the border from Iran into Afghanistan. The U.S. government first suggested in April that Iran has supplied the Taliban with weapons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18, 2007) and U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in June that weapons of Iranian origin were undoubtedly flowing into Afghanistan, though he stopped short of accusing Iran's government of involvement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 5, 2007). Brown echoed Gates' sentiments, but added that the Iranian government must take responsibility for the flow of arms out of the country. JC

A former insurgent commander, Ilyas, together with 38 of his men surrendered their arms and joined the government of central Kapisa Province on July 16, Pajhwak Afghan News reported the same day. Over the past seven years, Ilyas, a former commander of the Hizb-e Islami party of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, conducted antigovernment activities in Afghanistan alongside Taliban militants. Ilyas and his men surrendered their arms, including rockets and land mines, to officials of the Disarmament of Irresponsible Armed Groups program in Kapisa, said Najibullah Mujaddidi, deputy head of the Commission for Strengthening Peace and Reconciliation. Ilyas is the first rebel commander in Kapisa Province to join the government, Mujaddidi said, adding that Ilyas reiterated his commitment to a positive role in Afghanistan's reconstruction. Ilyas told Pajhwak that he joined the government after realizing the futility of fighting, but said he would fight foreign troops again if they do not withdraw. JC

The United Nations World Food Program (WFP) announced on July 17 that the United States has donated $26 million to provide food assistance in Afghanistan, according to a WFP press release the same day. Rick Corsino, WFP country director for Afghanistan, said that the donation will assist millions of Afghans, including those affected by natural disasters, such as floods, drought, and landslides, as well as those displaced by fighting. The contribution will also aid the unemployed, Corsino added. Some 48,000 metric tons of wheat will be distributed through a range of WFP projects funded by the donation, including the "Food-for-Work" program in which communities are paid in food to build or repair infrastructure. Food will also be distributed prior to winter, during which hundreds are Afghans have restricted access to resources. These programs are helping the Afghan people "build a better future," said Tony Banbury, WFP's regional director for Asia. JC

The U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan William Wood said on July 17 that Afghanistan's opium-poppy harvest set a new record this season as expected, despite intense efforts to eradicate the crop, AP reported the same day. Preliminary data show that Afghan poppy farmers have harvested 457,135 acres this year, nearly 50,000 more acres than in 2006, Wood said. Opium-production profits are believed to fuel Taliban fighting in Afghanistan, as well as contribute to widespread heroin addiction among Afghan citizens and government corruption. Wood expressed his strong support for forced eradication, such as the U.S.-led poppy spraying in Colombia, but noted that there is "not yet an international consensus" on the practice. Afghan President Hamid Karzai has previously stated his opposition to crop spraying due to fear the chemicals could harm livestock or contaminate crops and drinking water (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8, 2007). JC

The head of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., Lee Hamilton, has rejected in a statement any confessions Haleh Esfandiari, a member of the center currently detained in Iran, may have made under detention, Radio Farda reported on July 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2007). Hamilton said Esfandiari, who has been accused of subversive activities, has been kept in solitary confinement and her confessions, which Iranian television is showing on television on July 17 and 18, are illegitimate and "ludicrous," Radio Farda reported. Esfandiari is one of several Iranian-American researchers or correspondents currently detained and accused of various hostile acts against the Islamic republic. Some observers believe her broadcast confessions may be a good thing -- a prelude to her release in a manner similar to another academic detained in the past in Iran, Ramin Jahanbegloo, CNN reported on July 17. VS

An Iranian finance official, Ahmad Nurani, told reporters in Ankara on July 17 that Iran will sell gas to partners in the Nabucco gas pipeline, which is planned to pipe gas from the Caspian region and Middle East to Europe, via Turkey, Bulgaria, Hungary, and Austria, Reuters reported. The Nabucco project is expected to cost 4.6 billion euros ($6.3 billion) and pipe 31 billion cubic meters of gas per year to Europe, though not before 2015. The preliminary agreement is in a memorandum of understanding signed on July 13 by Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler and Iranian Oil Minister Kazem Vaziri-Hamaneh. It also includes agreements for the Turkish Petroleum Corporation to produce 20 billion cubic meters of natural gas in three phases from the South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf, and another to use Iran as a transit route to export Turkmen natural gas, presumably by Turkish parties, Reuters reported. VS

Tehran police chief Ahmad Reza Radan told ISNA on July 14 that the nationwide police drive to assure public decency and security on the streets has not ended, and police will increase the number of agents on the streets from July 23 to confront offenses such as disrespect for the norms of Islamic dress, Radio Farda reported on July 15. Radan said police will be visiting shops selling "unsuitable" clothes in Tehran. The drive began on April 21, and has apparently led to the detentions of dozens of violent criminals or rapists, some of whom have been sentenced to death. Radan said more agents will be deployed to arrest drug addicts and criminals. Another offense Radan said police will be on the lookout out for is boys with "deviant" hairstyles, ISNA reported. He said these hairstyles are "derived from deviant Western models that are not in keeping with the norms of our society." People cannot appear in public as they please, he said, because society is not a private domain. He added that boys with "deviant" hair will be asked where they had their hair cut, ISNA reported. VS

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki told the press in Tehran on July 17 that Iranian and U.S. diplomats may hold a second round of talks on Iraqi security "in the near future," following the first round held in Baghdad on May 28, IRNA reported. He said Iraqi officials have requested another round of talks but that Iran asked the United States to convey its request for talks through the Swiss Embassy in Tehran, which handles its interests in Iran in the absence of formal diplomatic ties. It was not immediately clear if the request has been made, but Mottaki said Iran will take a "positive view" of it once it is. He said Iran would consider "any proposal" that might be made on its nuclear dossier, responding to a reporter's question on a reported proposal by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Muhammad el-Baradei, on direct Iran-U.S. talks to help resolve the dispute over Iran's nuclear program. VS

At a joint press conference on July 17 with Foreign Minister Mottaki, visiting Omani Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Allawi said Oman is confident the Bushehr nuclear plant Iran and Russia are building on the Persian Gulf coast meets security standards, and that it is not necessary for gulf envoys to inspect the site, ISNA reported. He said that "from what we have heard from Iranian officials" and with the assurances of the IAEA, "this reactor, which has not yet started working, is sufficiently secure." Some Persian Gulf states have expressed concerns over the environmental impact of the plant. Allawi said Oman lacks the technical staff to inspect the site anyway. He added that members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Oman, and the Arab League have begun studies "at the highest levels" on the peaceful use of nuclear power, "as Iran is doing. This is enough to create confidence that this is the right of all countries and is no danger to anybody," ISNA reported. He said Iran and GCC members already cooperate on security issues, but expressed hope that bilateral agreements between Iran and these states will turn into a collective agreement covering the fight against "terrorism and trafficking and all the things harmful to regional interests." VS

The Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council issued a statement on its website on July 16 strongly condemning the triple bombings in the northern city of Kirkuk that killed 85 people and wounded more than 240 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2007). The Shi'ite group blamed the attack on takfiris (unbelievers) and Saddamists. "As we strongly condemn the heinous crime that was inflicted on the people of Kirkuk, we call on our Iraqi government and security agencies to strike against the rotten heads of those terrorists and uproot this evil from our dear land," the statement said. Meanwhile, the Sunni-led Muslim Scholars Association issued a statement on its website on July 17 also condemning the bombings, but blamed them on U.S. forces and the Iraqi government. The association "condemns those criminal acts and holds the occupation forces and the current government fully responsible for them." It calls on the Iraqi people to be aware of the plots of their enemies that "aim at targeting their unity and common history." SS

Kurdistan region President Ma'sud Barzani said on July 17 that the July 16 triple bombing in Kirkuk was meant to impede the city's normalization process, the Kurdish daily "Khabat" reported. "Obviously, the enemies and terrorists will try by all means to impede the process of the normalization of Kirkuk and other areas of Kurdistan as well as putting obstacles to the implementation of Article 140 of the new federal Iraqi Constitution," Barzani said. "We call on the dear residents of Kirkuk to be resilient against the plotters' aims and to try to maintain the atmosphere of brotherhood and coexistence in the city in order to prevent any irritation and tension that would only serve the enemies' interests," he added. Article 140 calls for a three-step process of normalization, a census, and finally a referendum to be held at the end of 2007 to determine whether Kirkuk is to be integrated into the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region. The city's Arab and Turkoman communities have demanded that the referendum be postponed, saying that thousands of Kurds have flooded Kirkuk in an effort to alter the city's demographic makeup. SS

Masked gunmen wearing police uniforms raided a village in the Diyala Governorate on July 16 and killed at least 29 people, including women and children, international media reported on July 17. An Iraqi military spokesman, Colonel Raghib Rawi al-Umayri, said that "dozens of gunmen disguised as Iraqi Army troops, but in civilian vehicles, stormed Al-Dwailiyah village" north of the provincial capital Ba'qubah. He said most of the victims were members of a Shi'ite tribe and he blamed the attack on Al-Qaeda-linked fighters who have been fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces in the governorate. On June 19, U.S. and Iraqi forces launched Operation Arrowhead Ripper, a major security operation against Al-Qaeda-linked groups in the region (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 20, 2007). SS

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) announced on July 17 that the rate at which Iraqis are being displaced since the bombing of the Al-Askari mosque in February 2006 has not abated, and the situation is fast becoming a crisis, international media reported. The attack on the mosque, a revered Shi'ite shrine in Samarra, resulted in a wave of sectarian violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006). According to the IOM's mid-year review on displacement in Iraq, the country is "experiencing the worst human displacement in its history, with almost 2.2 million persons displaced within its borders and an additional 2 million who have fled the country to the surrounding region." The organization warned that the mass displacement is fast becoming a regional and ultimately international crisis. IOM spokeswoman Jemini Pandya told reporters that on average, 60,000 Iraqis have fled their homes every month since the start of 2007, mainly due to sectarian violence, joint U.S.-Iraqi military operations, and general lawlessness. SS

The U.S. military announced on July 17 that a senior Al-Qaeda in Iraq leader in Mosul was captured during a security operation the same day. The military said that the suspect, whose name was not released, was recently promoted within the organization after coalition-led security operations created several vacancies in the group's command structure. Intelligence reports indicated that the suspect was "responsible for mortar and sniper attacks against Iraqi forces and a December attack against coalition forces." "We're putting continuous pressure on Al-Qaeda in Iraq leaders and their networks," U.S. military spokesman Major Marc Young said. "We will continue attacking these networks so Iraqis can live peacefully, without fear of vicious terrorist attacks," he added. SS