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Newsline - July 20, 2007

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on July 19 that he expects that "Russian-British relations will develop normally" despite the ongoing dispute following 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 18 and 19, 2007). Putin added that both sides are "interested in the development of these relations.... But it is necessary to balance our actions with common sense, to respect the legal rights and interests of our partners, and then everything will develop in the best way. I'm convinced that we will cope with this minicrisis, too." On July 19, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said that Russia is responding to Britain's recent measures against it "in a mirror-like fashion." He added that "four British Embassy staff members in Moscow are now persona non grata and should leave the territory of the Russian Federation within 10 days." Kamynin said Russia will also stop issuing visas to British officials and halt counterterrorism cooperation with Britain. He argued that "Moscow does want a rift with London. The position assumed by the new Labour government toward Russia is based on anything but common sense or pragmatism, so inherent to Britons, or respect for law." Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Lisbon on July 20 that "we understand that when a new government comes to power in any country, it is seeking to find its place, so to speak, seeking its own line. Therefore, I can, to a large extent, see in what is happening also the factor of a new government." In London on July 19, Russian Ambassador to Britain Yury Fedotov repeated Moscow's previous warning to EU member states not to become involved in what he called a "bilateral" dispute. A BBC commentator said on July 20 that the most important Russian sanction against Britain is the one involving visas, because in practice there is little cooperation on counterterrorism. The Russian daily "Vedomosti" on July 20 described Putin's statement and the Kremlin's response to Britain as "mild." PM

Following Moscow's announcement of the expulsion of four U.K. diplomats and some additional sanctions, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said in London on July 19 that "we are now studying those [Russian] measures very carefully to ensure that we understand the details," international media reported. He added that "we are disappointed that the Russian government should have signaled no new cooperation in the case of the extradition of...Lugovoi for the alleged murder of...Litvinenko. We obviously believe that the decision to expel four embassy staff is completely unjustified." Miliband said the government is "much heartened that, over the last 36 hours, across the international community, European countries, the EU as a whole, and the United States should have put out such positive statements about the need to defend the integrity of the British judicial system, and that is something that we will be taking forward with the international community over the next days and weeks." In Brussels, an unnamed "senior diplomat" for the Portuguese EU Presidency said on July 20 that "we have expressed concern at Russia's refusal to cooperate constructively with Britain, but we are trying to limit things and avoid it snowballing," Reuters reported. PM

On July 19, the Russian daily "Kommersant" noted the attention paid recently by the British media to an alleged plot against the life of self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky and the approach of two Russian strategic bombers toward British airspace (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 18 and 19, 2007). The paper wrote that "the scare stories about...Berezovsky and Russian bombers are also intended to consolidate public opinion in Europe by demonstrating that taking action against Moscow isn't just a whim on the part of the new cabinet and youthful Foreign Secretary...Miliband, but a policy that Britain has been forced to adopt." The daily added that "the British political elite is displeased with Russia's policy as a whole, and the new prepared to talk about this out loud." "Kommersant" stressed that "the fact that London is pursuing escalation indicates the start of a new phase in Russia's foreign policy. The Kremlin's chief antagonists in Europe used to be EU neophytes Estonia and Poland, but now influential London is becoming Moscow's chief antagonist, calling on EU colleagues to take a tougher approach to Russia. Having this kind of rival will be far more dangerous for Russia." The Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" wrote on July 20 that "any of Russia's actions in the international arena that do not comply with the wishes and demands of the United States and [EU] are automatically declared [in the West] to be wrong and detrimental for our country and its interests." The paper noted that, according to the unnamed U.S. critics, "we have already been expelled from the ranks of democracies and classified as an authoritarian state.... [President] Putin shouldn't have said what he said [on February 10] in Munich. It only made the Europeans more inclined to reinforce their alliance with the [United States], and brought us to the brink of a Cold War with the West." "Izvestia" also quoted the critics as saying that "Russia should not threaten to deploy missiles targeted at the new U.S. bases in Europe.... Russia's political class suffers from 'pathological anti-Americanism,' along with a lack of self-confidence inherited from the 1990s, and all this is expressed in the form of continual attacks on America." PM

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg was quoted in Britain's "Financial Times" on July 20 as saying that Russia wants to regain the superpower status the Soviet Union once had in determining Europe's future. He said that in five to 10 years, "maybe Russia will be a threat once more.... In the last few months, there have been some rather surprising occurrences" in Russian foreign policy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12 and 21, 2007). He charged that Moscow's aim is to be able to "achieve the same status [vis-a-vis America] that the former Soviet Union had. Then the two of them, Washington and Moscow, would be the two to decide European issues. I am very sorry, but we consider that is our affair, too." Schwarzenberg acknowledged that Russian policy planners tend to think more in the long term than do their Western counterparts. But he suggested that Russia is repeating a fundamental mistake of the Soviet Union by devoting its energies to "prestige and...military might instead of investing in civil infrastructure. With this strategy, I am afraid that Russia will once again end up as a giant with feet of clay." PM

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who has presidential ambitions, said recently that it is crucial that the March 2008 presidential election be fair, or else the first "signs of revolution" could appear within the following three to four years, "Novaya gazeta" reported on July 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12, 2007). Britain's "The Independent" reported on July 20 that declared presidential candidate and Arkhangelsk Mayor Aleksandr Donskoi was recently "arrested and dragged from his home in his underwear by masked men who broke down the door of his apartment. He was carried out, dressed only in a white sweatshirt and his underpants, with local media on hand to record his humiliation. He appeared in court [on July 19], held inside a cage, to face corruption charges." The paper noted that Donskoi "has become the latest politician to find out the hard way what it means to run for the Russian presidency in an unscripted bid to replace...[President] Putin." Donskoi previously said that he has been subject to various forms of harassment by the authorities since announcing his candidacy in October 2006 (see "Russia: Mayors In The Crosshairs As 'Power Vertical' Gains Force,", June 21, 2007). PM

Deputy Industry and Energy Minister Andrei Dementyev told the cabinet on July 19 that measures to complete the recently launched East Siberia-Pacific Ocean oil pipeline project are "on hold" until at least 2015 or even 2017, pending the development of fields in eastern Siberia, "The Moscow Times" reported on July 20. The pipeline will transport oil from those fields to Japan and South Korea, with an extension to China (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007). Earlier predictions suggested that the project could be completed as early as 2015. The "first phase" of the pipeline, which starts near Irkutsk and ends at Skovorodino in Amur Oblast near the Chinese border, is nonetheless expected to be finished in 2008, and Interfax reported on July 20. The second phase will connect Skovorodino with Perevoznaya Bay. Russian oil deliveries to oil-hungry China are currently made by rail, which limits their volume, even if new fields are eventually explored and developed. PM

The Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) ordered Russia on July 19 to pay 3,000 euros ($4,137) to former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Mikhail Trepashkin in compensation for the inhuman conditions in which he was kept in solitary confinement in October-December 2003, reported. Trepashkin, a trained lawyer, was detained in October 2003, shortly before he planned to represent the family of a victim of the Russian apartment-building bombings in summer 1999, on a charge, subsequently dropped, of illegal possession of a gun. Trepashkin told in September 2005 he is certain those bombings were perpetrated by the FSB. He was sentenced in 2004 to four years' imprisonment for divulging state secrets, released on parole in August 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 20, 2004 and January 18, 2005), but then taken into custody again two weeks later. His lawyer said earlier this month that Trepashkin is currently being held in "life-threatening" conditions in a pretrial detention center in Yekaterinburg (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 3, 2007). The European Court still has to rule on two subsequent appeals by Trepashkin, one challenging his original sentence and a second protesting the conditions in which he was being held. LF

Armen Aghayan, who is political secretary of the Defense of the Liberated Territories organization established last year, again denied on July 19 that two leading members of that organization, Zhirayr Sefilian and Vartan Malkhasian, sought to overthrow the Armenian authorities by force, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Aghayan said attempting to do so would have been "suicidal." Sefilian and Malkshasian were arrested in December 2006; their trial opened in Yerevan on July 2. Both men claim the charges against them were politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 12, and 20, 2006, and July 3, 2007). LF

According to preliminary results made public on July 20 by the election commission of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, former National Security Service head Bako Sahakian won the previous day's presidential ballot with 85.4 percent of the vote, and Interfax reported. His main challenger, Deputy Foreign Minister Mais Maylian, won 12.2 percent. None of the three other candidates polled more than 1.5 percent. Voter turnout was 77.36 percent. The region's election commission pledged to examine 19 separate complaints of fraud submitted by Maylian. Speaking in Stepanakert on July 19, both Sahakian and outgoing President Arkady Ghukasian rejected as "black PR" and "dirty political techniques" Maylian's allegations of procedural violations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 19, 2007). Sahakian, 46, was born in Stepanakert. After serving in the Soviet army he worked for nine years in a Stepanakert factory, then in 1990 he joined the unofficial Karabakh Self-Defense Army, of which he became a deputy commander. From 1997-99 he served as an aide to then-Armenian Interior and National Security Minister Serzh Sarkisian, who is now prime minister and the front-runner to succeed Robert Kocharian as Armenian president next year. In 1999 he was named Karabakh interior minister, and two years later, National Security Service head. LF

The Georgian Foreign Ministry on July 20 issued a statement welcoming Moscow's announcement the previous day that the Russian Consulate in Tbilisi will resume issuing student, business, and transit visas to Georgian citizens, Caucasus Press reported. The issuing of most categories of visas to Georgians was suspended in late September 2006 in retaliation for Georgia's arrest of four Russian military officers on charges of espionage. LF

Merab Antadze resigned on July 19 as Georgian minister for conflict resolution and was simultaneously reappointed to the post of deputy foreign minister that he held until his appointment as minister one year ago, Caucasus Press reported. President Mikheil Saakashvili named to succeed Antadze, who has taken a consistently hard line with regard to the South Ossetian conflict and the role of the Russian peacekeeping force deployed in the conflict zone, Davit Bakradze, who is 35 and heads the Georgian parliament's committee on Euro-integration. Bakradze was quoted by on July 19 as telling the Georgian television channel Mze that he will welcome congratulations on his new appointment once Georgia's long-standing conflicts are resolved and the ministry he now heads is abolished. LF

Kyrgyz police detained Osh Oblast Deputy Governor Kushbak Tezekbaev on July 20 on suspicion of having embezzled over 1 million soms ($26,000) sent by the Moscow city authorities as aid for persons made homeless in an earthquake in early 2006, and reported. Five separate criminal cases have been opened against Tezekbaev. A former high-school sports teacher, Tezekbaev was named to his post following the so-called Tulip Revolution in March 2005 during which he organized protests against then-President Askar Akaev. Tezekbaev's relations with his superior, Osh Governor Zhantoro Satybaldiev, are strained, according to LF

The lower chamber of Tajikistan's parliament approved on July 18 amendments to the Criminal Code that designate the circulation of slander or offensive language via the Internet a criminal offense, and reported on July 19. The amendments must now be approved by the upper legislative chamber and signed into law by President Emomali Rahmon. LF

Addressing a government session in Ashgabat on July 19, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov said his two-day visit to China earlier this week was "extremely constructive" and removed all "unsolved problems" in the sphere of cooperation in the oil and natural-gas sector, Interfax reported. During that visit, Berdymukhammedov and his Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao signed an agreement under which Turkmenistan will export to China 30 billion cubic meters of gas annually for a period of 30 years, beginning in 2009 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2007). But "Izvestia" on July 19 queried whether Turkmenistan can increase gas extraction in order to meet that pledge, given its parallel commitment to double exports of gas to Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 6, 2006). LF

The Uzbek authorities have refused accreditation to Mihra Rittman of the human-rights watchdog Human Rights Watch (HRW) and demanded that she leave the country, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported on July 19. HRW official Rachel Denber said on July 19 that the organization has appealed to the Uzbek government to reverse that decision. She added that refusal to do so will make it "very hard for the government to demonstrate that it genuinely is trying to create a better atmosphere for human-rights organizations." LF

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on June 20 indirectly confirmed that he dismissed Stsyapan Sukharenka as chairman of the Committee for State Security (KGB) and Vasil Dzemyantsey as deputy chairman because of the assault by KGB officers last week on Zyanon Lomats, chairman of the State Monitoring Committee, Belapan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 19, 2007). "I believe that the prosecutor-general and the present leadership of the KGB and the Interior Ministry will clarify what happened [with Lomats] within the framework of a criminal case," Lukashenka said while introducing the new KGB chairman, Yury Zhadobin, to the KGB staff. "I will not tolerate the creation of tensions in the country, a situation in which people, especially high-ranking officials who should work without disturbance, are afraid to make decisions or, God forbid, are afraid to walk on the street," Lukashenka said. Lukashenka also criticized the KGB for what he described as frequent information leaks and "a decrease in professionalism in every area of the KGB's work." "If the leadership of the committee cannot ensure efficient operation, this means that it's time to take a job that requires a smaller amount of responsibility and stand down in favor of others. These are the motives behind the president's decision to change the leadership of the KGB," Lukashenka said. JM

A three-day rock-music festival called Basovishcha began on July 19 in a forest near the town of Grodek in Bialystok Voivodship, northeastern Poland, Polish media reported. Basovishcha is an annual music event organized in mid-July by the Belarusian Association of Students, an organization representing Poland's Belarusian minority. The first festival was staged in 1990. Although not overtly political, Basovishcha offers its stage primarily to young opposition-minded Belarusian musicians and performers blacklisted in Belarus for political reasons. The festival draws several thousand music fans from Poland and Belarus each year, and is practically the only high-profile music event where Belarusian music-lovers can see their favorite performers onstage. This year's Basovishcha, the 18th consecutive festival, features more than 30 bands, mainly from Belarus, but also several from Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland. Radio Racja, a Belarusian-language radio station based in Bialystok, broadcast several hours of live performances from the festival on July 19, and is doing the same on July 20. Radio Racja's programs are available online at JM

President Viktor Yushchenko on July 20 convened a session of the National Security and Defense Council (RNBO) in Crimea, where he is vacationing, to discuss the rescue operations at the site of a train derailment earlier this week. The train was carrying toxic yellow phosphorous, and the fire sparked by the derailment has led to the hospitalization of 146 people poisoned by the fumes, Ukrainian media reported. The session, chaired by Yushchenko, was attended by Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, First Deputy Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, RNBO Secretary Ivan Plyushch, presidential staff chief Viktor Baloha, cabinet ministers, and regional governors. "We have to mobilize ourselves...and ensure a full cleanup after this accident," Yushchenko told journalists. Meanwhile, Yuriy Lutsenko, a leader of the pro-presidential election bloc of the Our Ukraine and Self-Defense parties, has called for the dismissals of Transport and Communications Minister Mykola Rudkovskyy and Emergency Situations Minister Nestor Shufrych, blaming them for the accident and insufficient rescue efforts. JM

Veton Surroi, one of the five Kosovar Albanian leaders involved in talks on the future of Kosova, said on July 19 that the Serbian province should declare independence this year. Surroi, whose comments were reported by the local media, said "it is important that we set dates," a view echoed the same day by Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku. The possibility of setting a specific date for a declaration was discussed by Surroi, Ceku, and the other members of the negotiating team -- known as the Unity Team -- when they met on July 18, the daily "Koha ditore" reported on July 19, citing a government spokeswoman, Ulpiana Lama. No agreement was reached at that meeting, however. A declaration of independence in December would fit the timeline currently emerging as the consensus view of Western powers. The United States, the EU, and Europe's veto-wielding members of the UN Security Council are currently calling for 120 more days of talks between Belgrade and Prishtina, with or without a UN resolution, and are on the verge of putting a resolution to the vote at the UN Security Council despite very strong indications that Russia will veto any proposal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 16, 17, 18, and 19, 2007). AG

Two days before Veton Surroi's comments, U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told the BBC that Kosova will gain its independence by the end of this year "either at the UN Security Council or through other mechanisms." The theme was reiterated on July 19 by Burns' boss, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who told reporters that Kosova will gain its independence from Serbia "one way or another," adding that "the United States is absolutely committed to that." However, unlike Burns, Rice did not give any date. Burns told the BBC on July 17 that the United States will "keep the promise given to the people of Kosovo" that it will gain independence from Serbia. Washington "will not allow anyone to come in the way of Kosovo's independence," he continued. Burns was critical of Russia, the chief champion of Serbia's position, saying that the United States "has so far postponed the independence of Kosovo with the aim of accommodating Russia's concerns...but Russia has not been constructive." Burns refused to accept any connection between Kosova's status and other aspects of the currently fraught relationship between the West and Russia, and stressed that "the countries that have a vital interest in Kosovo are European countries and the U.S.; Russia has no troops on the ground and it hasn't had troops for several years now." Members of Kosova's Unity Team are reportedly due to meet with Rice for talks on July 23. AG

An adviser to Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, Vladeta Jankovic, dismissed the comments by U.S. Undersecretary of State Burns, telling Serbian national television on July 18 that "it is obvious that for him, being constructive means unconditional agreement with Washington and nothing else." Jankovic averred that the United States' only argument in support of Kosova's independence appears to be "the fact that the United States promised [independence] to the Albanians," a position which, he argued, could be highly destabilizing. "If all legal, political, and moral reasons can fall before some precarious, legally unfounded promises made by a major power, then the whole international order should be in fear," Jankovic said. On a similar note, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic told reporters on July 19 that "imposing the independence of Kosovo to Serbia outside the Security Council is a guarantee to destabilize the Western Balkans." Jeremic was speaking during a trip to Lisbon that coincided with a visit to the Portuguese capital by U.S. Secretary of State Rice. The two did not meet. AG

The Bulgarian government issued a report on July 19 that indicates that over half of those seeking Bulgarian citizenship in 2006 were Macedonians, the news agency Makfax reported. The statistics show that 8,240 of the 13,476 applications in 2006 were submitted by Macedonian citizens. Moldovans also applied in large numbers (2,467). It is not clear how much larger these figures are than those for 2005, nor is it clear what influence Bulgaria's accession to the EU in January 2007 may have had. AG

The Netherlands has invested more in Moldova than any other country since 1994, the Russian business news service RosBusinessConsulting reported on July 16, citing an unnamed source in Moldova's investment agency. The scale of investment by Dutch companies, $218 million, amounts to 22 percent of the total amount invested in Moldova between 1994 and March 2007. Russia ranked second, with $120 million or 12 percent. The key Dutch investor is EasEur Holding B.V., which has bought assets in the oil industry. AG

Reports of a possible cease-fire declared by rebel leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have emerged in Afghanistan, but close allies of the mujahedin-era prime minister say it's a ruse and insist his armed opposition continues to the Afghan government and international security forces.

Meanwhile, an RFE/RL Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent reports that a purported Taliban pamphlet in Helmand Province indicates disunity among Taliban commanders over who should lead the movement's operations in Afghanistan.

Reports that Hekmatyar declared a cease-fire are based on a statement purportedly signed by Hekmatyar himself. Hekmatyar has made no public appearance to confirm or reject its authenticity.

But a longtime political ally of Hekmatyar who now serves as his spokesman says the cease-fire declaration is bogus. Haroun Zarghun told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan on July 19 that Hekmatyar has not declared any cease-fire. He said the declaration appears to be part of a conspiracy to damage Hekmatyar's political reputation in Afghanistan.

Afghan government officials say they remain unsure of the authenticity of the cease-fire declaration. Hekmatyar has said in the past that he will not join the political process in Kabul until all international forces have left Afghanistan.

The statement has been aired by a private television channel and is being circulated in Kabul. It says members of Hekmatyar's militant Islamic Hizb-e Islami movement have "stopped and refrained" from killing other Muslims and destroying the country in order to participate in "political activity."

Ahmed Rashid, a Pakistani journalist and author of the book "Taliban," said on July 19 that he is skeptical that all Hizb-e Islami fighters would heed such a cease-fire in the absence of a videotaped declaration by Hekmatyar himself. "Obviously, if it's true, it would be an enormous boost to the government of Afghanistan," Rashid said. "But Hekmatyar has blown hot and cold many, many times in the last few years. Just three months ago, he came out first talking about a possible rapprochement with the regime and then saying he would never have a rapprochement. So we really don't know where he stands at the moment. And I think that unless it becomes clearer -- possibly with Hekmatyar himself appearing in some kind of video announcing a cease-fire -- unless it becomes clearer, I would be still very skeptical that all of Hizb-e Islami would stop fighting."

Hekmatyar's Hizb-e Islami is the larger and more radical of two Islamist mujahedin movements with the same name, which translates as "Party of Islam." The origins of Hekmatyar's group were in the Muslim Youth movement of the 1960s that opposed the secularization of Afghan society and the emergence of Marxist groups at Kabul University.

Forced underground during the 1970s and 1980s, Hekmatyar fled to Pakistan, where he fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan by carrying out isolated raids. Those raids later developed into the kind of modern guerrilla warfare that helped end the Soviet occupation.

After the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Hekmatyar's movement and the Jamiat-e Islami movement of Burhanuddin Rabbani became the major protagonists in the battle for Kabul during the early 1990s, when much of the Afghan capital was destroyed. Hekmatyar concluded an alliance with Rabbani in May 1996 and briefly held the title of Afghan prime minister.

It was the conservative Islamist Hekmatyar's measures that prohibited the broadcast of music from Kabul Radio and television before the rise of the Taliban. Hekmatyar also ordered women to wear strict "Islamic" dress before he and Rabbani were expelled from Kabul by the Taliban.

After the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, Hekmatyar continued to wage war as a renegade figure, fighting against Afghan government and the international security forces in Afghanistan.In 2006, Hekmatyar appeared in a video aired on the Arabic language Al-Jazeera television station and declared he wanted his forces to fight alongside Al-Qaeda.

Quariburahman Sayyed, a close ally of Hekmatyar who was his spokesman until the 1990s, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that he doubts the authenticity of the cease-fire declaration. "The way I know Hekmatyar, it is not likely that he will compromise his demand for foreign forces to leave Afghanistan," Sayyed said. "He has always insisted that foreign forces should leave Afghanistan first and then he would talk to the government."

On July 15, the Afghan Defense Ministry announced that 30 fighters aligned with Hizb-e Islami had laid down their weapons and agreed to cooperate with the government.

In southern Afghanistan, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported signs that divisions are emerging between Taliban commanders. RFE/RL on July 18 obtained a pamphlet purportedly signed by Taliban commanders from Helmand Province that criticizes Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar and his leadership council. The pamphlet, known as a "Taliban night letter," was distributed to tribal elders in Helmand after the Taliban Leadership Council reportedly met in Quetta, Pakistan, earlier this month and decided to put non-Afghan Al-Qaeda fighters in charge of Taliban operations.

"We criticize the decision of Mullah Mohammad Omar," said a copy obtained by a tribal elder who read its contents to RFE/RL but requested anonymity. The pamphlet continued: "We don't accept any other commander. If they continue on this path, we will leave the movement. We only want to carry out jihad against Americans and this is our wish. And we will fight until the end against foreign troops. But the decision of the leadership council in Quetta was a wrong decision. They want to appoint Uzbek or Chechens instead of a Taliban commander. And Mullah Mohammad Omar, you should know that Pashtuns never want to be slaves. We will not accept a Chechen or Uzbek commander. It is still unclear whether Uzbeks and Chechens are good Muslims. Death is better than accepting their commands. If this happens, we will stop and leave everything to Mullah Omar."

Rashid says he does not believe that Mullah Omar and other members of the Taliban leadership would agree to allow non-Afghans to guide their movement -- even though Al-Qaeda has a clear behind-the-scenes role in supporting the Taliban.

"I think there's a huge disinformation campaign -- probably being carried out by NATO and the Americans -- in order to present Mullah Omar in a light in which he is seen as being just a tool of Al-Qaeda and foreigners," Rashid argues. "Many Afghans would be prepared to buy that. Certainly, the Taliban propaganda is being countered now very decisively by a NATO-American counterpropaganda offensive. So we have to take all of this with a pinch of salt."

Taliban spokesman Qari Yusof has dismissed the pamphlet, telling RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that it was "propaganda."(Contributors to this report include RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Saleh Mohammad Saleh in Helmand and Ahmad Takal in Prague.)

Officials confirmed on July 19 that Taliban militants have kidnapped two German nationals and several of their Afghan colleagues, news agencies reported. Conflicting reports gave the number of kidnapped Afghans as between two and six. The Germans, reported to be engineers working on a dam project, were kidnapped by armed men while they were traveling on a highway in Wardak Province, AP reported. AFP quoted Interior Ministry spokesman Zemeri Bashary as saying the Afghan authorities have launched a search operation, but he said it is unclear who was behind the abduction. Purported Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told AFP by phone from an undisclosed location that he could not confirm Taliban involvement. The news web site Adnkronos International reported, however, that Taliban militants who claim to be holding the hostages called Pajhwak Afghan News and threatened to kill the captives if authorities continue to search for them. JC

The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) announced on July 19 that five explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) have been found in Afghanistan this year, but it said the sophisticated bombs do not appear to come from the same source as those used in Iraq, Xinhua News Agency reported. EFPs are a type of explosive device capable of penetrating armored vehicles. Colonel Tom Kelly, a deputy chief of ISAF counterexplosives operations, told a press conference in Afghanistan that no EFPs have been found in Afghanistan before this year. But he said that ISAF does not see a link between the EFPs found in Iraq and those found in Afghanistan, which he said have "their own unique signature." He added that most militants in Afghanistan seem to lack access to the complex technology needed to construct EFPs. U.S. and NATO officials have previously expressed concern that EFPs may be entering Afghanistan via Al-Qaeda elements in Iraq, Pakistan, or Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 5 and 20, 2007). In particular, U.S. State Department officials have stated that the United States has "irrefutable evidence" that arms shipments to Afghanistan are coming from Iran's government, an allegation both Iran and Afghanistan have dismissed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 15, 2007). JC

A suicide bomber blew himself up on July 19 outside a police station in northeastern Afghanistan, one of the first known suicide attacks outside of the Taliban's southern stronghold, the BBC reported. Badakhshan provincial police chief General Aqa Nur Kyndoz said the bomber detonated an explosive device worn on his body outside the main police station in the town of Faizabad during rush hour, AFP reported. At least one civilian was killed, and approximately 27 others were reported injured, eight of them critically. The Taliban did not immediately claim responsibility for the incident, but Kyndoz blamed the blast on "enemies of the peace," a term typically used by Afghan authorities to refer to the Taliban. Taliban militants carry out almost daily attacks in southern and southeastern Afghanistan, but northern Afghanistan has remained relatively peaceful in comparison. JC

The provincial council in Afghanistan's northern Parwan Province warned Governor Abdul Jabbar Taqwa on July 19 that its members will resign en masse unless the government puts an end to corrupt practices, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Farid Shafaq, the head of the provincial council, told Pajhwak that certain government bodies are stealing from public resources and ignoring the issues plaguing citizens in Parwan, and that the council will resign unless changes are made. Governor Taqwa said the council's allegations are not unusual, and that similar complaints have been made in other provinces as well. Taqwa said he is working to address the council's concerns. JC

The International Transport Workers Federation (ITF) urged Iran to release Mansur Osanlu, the leader of the Tehran bus drivers' union, in a July 18 statement issued in London. The ITF vowed to continue international efforts to pressure Tehran to release Osanlu, who was detained in Tehran on July 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12, 13, and 16, 2007). The ITF condemned Osanlu's "gangster-style arrest and subsequent imprisonment" on unspecified charges, and welcomed the fact that the matter has been raised in public by EU External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, reported. ITF General Secretary David Cockraft said Iran has been harassing a "valiant man," and called on Tehran at least to "allow him access to his family, a lawyer, and a doctor." VS

Yahya Rahim Safavi, the head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), told corps personnel in Zahedan, in Sistan-Baluchistan Province, that the revolutionary guards and the Basij, a militia affiliated with the IRGC, must firmly respond to "insecurity and banditry" in the province, IRNA reported on July 19. The province is a route used by traffickers moving into Iran from Afghanistan and Pakistan, and is notoriously dangerous. Rahim Safavi said IRGC troops have been sent to Sistan-Baluchistan to help ensure lasting security, and that this will require knowing the local territory and "the enemy." He said, "Sistan-Baluchistan is a very strategic region, and the country's communication route with Pakistan and Afghanistan," as well as a link with Central Asia. VS

The Fars news agency quoted "informed sources" on July 19 as saying that the president of the Assembly of Experts -- a body of clerics tasked with supervising the supreme leader's office -- is in a coma at a Tehran hospital. Fars reported that Ayatollah Ali Meshkini had been in poor health for some time, and his condition deteriorated recently, culminating in "shocks" early on July 19. Meshkini is also the Friday prayer leader for Qom, south of Tehran. Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the chairman of the Expediency Council Chairman and a vice president of the Assembly of Experts, visited Meshkini on July 19, ISNA reported, but it didn't say whether Meshkini was capable of talking. VS

Intelligence Minister Gholamhussein Mohseni-Ejei told the press in Tehran on July 18 that a hypothetical Al-Qaeda attack on Iran "will not happen," ISNA reported. He was presumably referring to a reported threat, made on July 8 by Abu Umar al-Baghdadi, the head of the Islamic State in Iraq, that his group is ready to wage war on Iran because of its alleged support for Shi'ite militias in Iraq. Speaking to the press after a cabinet meeting, Mohseni-Ejei also addressed the televised "confessions" of Haleh Esfandiari and Kian Tajbakhsh, two Iranian-American scholars currently detained in Iran for allegedly subversive activities. He said that Iran's judiciary gives "no legal weight" to the scholars' televised statements. He did not elaborate. VS

Following the same cabinet meeting in Tehran, Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar said Iran's defense and military production sectors are close to "self-sufficiency," and Iran will soon reveal details about a new fighter jet called "Azarakhsh," "Etemad-i Melli" reported on July 19. He said sanctions on Iran have not affected the defense manufacturing sector, and Iran's armaments exports have even increased. He expressed hope that the Iranian Foreign Ministry will pursue diplomatic efforts to improve Iran's ties with Persian Gulf states, and pave the way for security cooperation with those countries. Comparing Iran with Israel, he said that Iran is "at the height of its strength" while Israel is relatively weak, and he dismissed the ability of the Jewish state to strike at Iran. "We do not see the Israeli army having the ability to harm" Iran, he said. Iran does not recognize the state of Israel, which is one of the chief critics of Iran's nuclear program. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has re-appointed Amir Mansur Borqei, a vice-president and former head of the now-dissolved Management and Planning Organization, as vice president for planning and strategic supervision, ISNA reported on July 18 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 12, 2007). The dissolution of the state budgeting body is seen as a move to bring economic planning and annual budgeting under direct presidential control. VS

Sunni lawmakers from the Iraqi Accordance Front ended a five-week boycott of parliament and returned to work on July 19, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. The boycott ended after Sunni legislators reached an agreement with their Shi'ite and Kurdish counterparts that paves the way for ousted parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani to return to his position. Al-Mashhadani will reportedly oversee a few parliament sessions before resigning. According to a July 20 report by "The New York Times," the speaker may take a sizeable pension and retirement benefits when he formally leaves. Al-Mashhadani was removed as speaker after he ordered his guards to physically attack another lawmaker in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 11, 2007). The subsequent boycott by Sunni lawmakers imposed a stranglehold on the parliament, which was unable to pass legislation due to a lack of quorum. A smaller Sunni front in parliament, the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, which holds 11 seats, is continuing to boycott parliament sessions. Al-Mashhadani on July 19 called on parliamentarians from the front to return to work. KR

Iraqi Accordance Front head and lawmaker Adnan al-Dulaymi addressed parliament during the July 19 session, calling on representatives to work in solidarity "to salvage Iraq from the catastrophe which has befallen it," Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Al-Dulaymi said the agreement to end the standoff should serve "as a first step toward resolving Iraq's problems." He added: "We should all seek to resolve problems through understanding and not through stipulating conditions. We should demonstrate solidarity for the sake of Iraq and Iraq's unity and resources. This is a responsibility that we should all shoulder." Regarding al-Mashhadani, al-Dulaymi said he hopes the parliament speaker will use reason and wisdom when carrying out his duties. KR

Abu Muhammad al-Zubaydi, the head of the political bureau of the insurgent group known as the Al-Rashidin Army, told London-based "Al-Hayat" that his group has been active in Iraq since late March 2003, the daily reported on July 19. Al-Zubaydi described his group's structure in detail, saying it has special wings for military training and weapons training, as well as a sophisticated intelligence network that gathers, analyzes, and verifies information. It also has a so-called surveillance unit, which monitors the movements of U.S. forces. "These are all linked to the general staff that plans and times the attacks," al-Zubaydi said. He added that the group rejects the political process in Iraq, and refuses to be lured into disputes with other insurgent groups. Al-Zubaydi said his group does not subscribe to sectarian or takfiri ideology, which labels other Muslims as infidels, saying: "We are opposed to Al-Takfir. We do not practice it and we do not believe in it." The group also rejects the killing of civilians "under any pretext." "Al-Hayat" reported that the insurgent group differs from other insurgent groups in its outlook for a future Iraqi government. Whereas other groups claim to support the establishment of an Islamic state in various forms, the Al-Rashidin Army believes Iraqis should agree together on what type of state will serve their religion, their country, and future generations. KR

Abu Muhammad al-Zubaydi talked about the Al-Rashidin Army's media presence and the importance of the Internet to his group, "Al-Hayat" reported on July 19. Al-Zubaydi would not give specifics when asked about the average number of operations carried out by his group, except to say that "operations are carried out daily and some of these are filmed and posted on the army's Internet site." He added, "the Al-Rashidin Army's Internet site attracts thousands of readers and this figure is constantly rising." He noted that several regional satellite channels have aired a recently produced video by the group that depicts attacks on U.S. forces, and said a new video is in production that will show "the qualitative operations that the army has carried out." He added that the Al-Rashidin Army began posting a monthly series on its activities at the start of 2007. RFE/RL has recently released a report on the use of the media by Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq ( KR

Denmark said it secretly airlifted some 200 Iraqi translators and other workers along with their families out of Iraq this week, Reuters reported on July 20. The Iraqis are expected to seek asylum in Denmark. "Out of concern for the interpreters and their families' security as well as the security of the Danish base in Iraq, the Defense Ministry has chosen to inform the public after the interpreters and others had left Iraq," a Danish Defense Ministry statement said. The move comes ahead of the August withdrawal of some 470 Danish ground forces from Iraq. KR