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Newsline - July 24, 2007

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer was quoted by London's "Daily Telegraph" on July 24 as saying that Russia's "confrontational tone" is unhelpful and that it not always easy to work with Moscow because of different opinions on key matters. He added that NATO and Russia have "fundamental differences of opinion" on the U.S. missile-defense initiative, the final status of Kosova, and the Conventional Forces in Europe Treaty. De Hoop Scheffer called Russia's fears on missile defense "unfounded" and disagreed with Moscow's objections to NATO's eastern enlargement. He asked the Kremlin rhetorically: "Why should you be worried about the rule of law and democracy coming closer towards your borders?" The secretary-general said that "nobody wants a new Cold War," even though President Vladimir Putin's words and actions often recall that era. De Hoop Scheffer noted that Russia is nonetheless still a NATO partner, and that the Atlantic alliance and Moscow must work together to fight terrorism and nuclear proliferation and to help countries in need. PM

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said in London on July 23 that Russia should extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the prime suspect in the 2006 poisoning death of former Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 18, 19, 20, and 23, 2007). "It is very important that the world understands this -- that you cannot have people assassinated on British soil and then discover that you wish to arrest someone who is in another country and to be not in a position to do that," Brown said. "We cannot tolerate a situation where all the evidence is that not only was one person assassinated, but many other people were put at risk." He added that "we want the Russian authorities even at this stage to recognize that it is their responsibility to extradite for trial the Russian citizen who has been identified by our prosecuting authorities." The Russian state-run daily newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta" of July 24 quoted Mikhail Margelov, who is chairman of the Federation Council's International Affairs Committee, as saying Britain and Russia are experiencing "a diplomatic chill." "London has approached the polonium incident entirely in accordance with British customs: a British citizen was poisoned on British territory, a Russian citizen is suspected of committing the crime, so hand over the suspect. And if your constitution does not permit that, you had better reinterpret your constitution to suit us," Margelov said. "Moscow's reasonable response is: you Britons do not even have a constitution of your own, which is why you treat other constitutions so lightly. Why don't you reinterpret your judicial procedures to suit us?" Margelov said he does not "think this war of words will affect the whole range of Russian-British relations." "They have been established for many years, and they've seen worse," he said. "Diplomacy wars do affect interstate contacts, of course. But in our day and age, this influence is not all-encompassing." PM

In Geneva on July 23, chief negotiator Maksim Medvedkov and other Russian officials began five days of meetings aimed at advancing the country's 14-year-long effort to join the World Trade Organization (WTO), international media reported. The talks in Geneva are expected to concern Russia's commitments on customs fees and regulations, industrial subsidies, and import restrictions. The meetings are classified only as "informal" because Georgia and some other states continue to oppose Russia's entry into the WTO. PM

Russian Transportation Minister Igor Levitin was quoted by the Riga Russian-language daily "Chas" as saying Russia plans to export all of its refined oil products from its own ports, Reuters reported on July 23. The news agency said that this is "a first official signal that Moscow has placed a ban on such exports via Estonia, partly for political reasons" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2007). Levitin noted that Russia now has an increased export capacity from its own new ports near St. Petersburg, which makes the Estonian route uneconomical. He added, however, that political considerations are also a factor in Moscow's decision. "We will send strategic cargoes, such as energy products, through our own terminals," he said. PM

Sergei Mironov, who is chairman of the Federation Council and a leader of the pro-Kremlin A Just Russia party, said in Novosibirsk on July 23 that he expects President Putin to open the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games in the capacity of chief of state, Interfax reported. Mironov added that he expects unspecified "drastic changes in the political and party structure of 2008-11.... We will drastically reconsider many things, including current [electoral] laws." Mironov argued that everything Putin has done "is oriented toward the people." "I do not doubt that citizen Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin will be the main initiator and mover of these positive processes" in the coming years, he said. Mironov has repeatedly called for a change in the constitution to enable Putin to run for a third term when his current mandate expires in 2008. Putin says he will not seek such an amendment, but wants the law changed at some point after 2008 to extend presidential terms from four to up to seven years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 30, April 18, May 29, and June 5, 2007). PM

Sergei Ivanov, who is a first deputy prime minister and a leading contender in the 2008 presidential race, said at the summer camp of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi at Lake Seliger on July 21 that Western opinion is not all that matters in today's world, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). Referring to the Lugovoi controversy, he argued that "unfortunately, in our country the entire external world is taken to mean the West alone. This is a great mistake." Ivanov noted that "we have China and India as well. They can hear us and see our points.... There is little hope that the Western world will [take a completely positive view of] Russia at the moment or in the distant future. Those who are big are never liked, and we are no exception." PM

Dmitry Medvedev, who is similarly a first deputy prime minister and a leading contender in the 2008 presidential race, said at the Nashi summer camp at Lake Seliger on July 21 that the Russian ruble should be made "one of the global reserve currencies," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). He argued that the U.S. dollar remains the "most powerful currency in the world...but is not safe in a crisis." Medvedev suggested that an unspecified situation might arise in which Russia, with its vast territory, might join with China and "some other Asian countries to discuss [establishing] a regional reserve currency.... It may be the [Chinese] yuan, but it is in our interest that it be the ruble." He said that "today we have complete domestic convertibility of the ruble and are close to speaking of its external convertibility. There are no obstacles to the transfer of money back and forth." PM

The Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat) reported on July 23 that the average Russian monthly income rose in June to $544, rising above the $500 mark for the first time, Reuters reported. The news agency attributed the rise to the "trickle-down effect" from booming oil and gas sales. The agency reported that the average monthly income when President Putin took office in 2000 was only $50. It added that "wages are climbing by 20-27 percent annually and have jumped 750 percent in the past eight years." Chris Weafer, who is chief strategist with Alfa-Bank in Moscow, told Reuters that one part of the Russian economy "is the section benefiting from $650 billion in investment [which] created more than 100,000 millionaires in the Moscow region. Then there's the other Russia, which is huffing and puffing and struggling to catch up, with heavy bureaucracy and industries that haven't benefited from the energy boom." PM

Some of Russia's leading academics, among them two Nobel Prize winners, sent an open letter to President Putin on July 23 expressing concern about the growing influence of the Orthodox Church, news agencies reported. In the letter, which was published in several national newspapers, the signatories say this threatens to erode the separation of church and state. The fresh concern about the Church's influence -- which has been steadily increasing since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991 -- was triggered by a proposal to teach Orthodox studies as part of the standard school curriculum, and to recognize theology as an academic discipline. PM

On July 23, President Putin signed into law a measure merging the Chita Oblast and the Agin-Buryat Autonomous Okrug into a new region, which will be called Zabaikal Krai, the daily "Kommersant" reported on July 24 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12 and July 9, 2007). Voters in the two federation subjects approved the proposal in a referendum in March. The State Duma passed the bill on July 5, and the Federation Council followed suit on July 11. The Moscow daily noted that "the new territory will be created on March 1, 2008. There will be a transition period through 2010 during which local bodies of authority will be formed. The Russian president must nominate the territory's governor no later than 35 days before it is formed. On October 12, 2008, elections will be held for members of the new territory's legislative assembly" (see "Analysis: The Future Of Russia's 'Ethnic Republics,'", April 21, 2006). PM

One police officer was killed during the evening of July 23 and a second seriously injured when unidentified gunmen opened fire on their patrol vehicle in the village of Srednie Achaluki, north of Nazran, reported. L

Armen Babadjanian, editor of the opposition newspaper "Zhamanak Yerevan," "temporarily suspended" on July 21 the hunger strike he began the previous day to protest the rejection of his application for release on parole, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on July 23. His lawyer, Nikolai Baghdasarian, told RFE/RL that Babadjanian met on July 21 with a Justice Ministry official and with the director of the Nubarashen prison where he is serving a 3 1/2 year prison term for draft evasion. Babadjanian claims he would not have been brought to trial had his paper not published articles critical of the Armenian government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27 and 28, July 3 and 7, and September 11, 2006). LF

In a statement released on July 23, the Armenian Foreign Ministry rejected as "disingenuous and...contrary to modern political values" claims by several countries and international organizations that the July 19 presidential election in the unrecognized Nagorno-Karabakh republic was neither legitimate nor valid, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The statement noted that OSCE documents on the Karabakh conflict state explicitly that elected officials from that republic should participate in talks on resolving the conflict. It also pointed out that "in other areas of the world, in places where final political status and settlement are also absent, such elections are...supported, promoted, observed, and recognized." LF

Police in Baku resorted to violence on the evening of July 22 to prevent members of the opposition youth organization Dalga from staging a protest on Fountains Square to mark International Press Day, reported. Two Dalga members were injured and several detained by police for several hours. LF

The chairman of the Georgian parliament's Interim Commission on the Restoration of Territorial Integrity, Shota Malashkhia, on July 23 challenged former Minister for Conflict Resolution Gogi Khaindrava to account for some 1.3 million euros ($1.79 million) provided by the European Commission for rehabilitation of the South Ossetian conflict zone, Caucasus Press reported. Since his dismissal one year ago, Khaindrava has aligned himself with the Equality Institute, which has repeatedly criticized the Georgian authorities. He was instrumental in launching a petition calling for the release from jail of former intelligence chief Irakli Batiashvili. Khaindrava dismissed as ridiculous Malashkhia's accusations of embezzlement, which he attributed to an attempt on the part of President Mikheil Saakashvili to undermine his reputation. LF

Kazakhstan's leading television stations, all of which are owned by people loyal to the authorities, have refused to air election-campaign clips prepared by the opposition Social-Democratic Party of Kazakhstan, party leaders Amirzhan Kosanov and Bulat Abilov told journalists in Almaty on July 23, reported. The clips were subsequently posted on Abilov said the party has lodged a complaint with the Central Election Commission. The parliamentary elections are scheduled for August 18, and Kazakhstan's chances of securing the OSCE chairmanship for 2009 are contingent on the election campaign, voting, and vote count being internationally acknowledged as free, fair, and transparent. LF

The Education Ministry released on July 23 a preliminary assessment of the measures and timeframe required to switch from the Cyrillic to the Latin alphabet, as proposed in October 2006 at a session of the Assembly of Peoples of Kazakhstan by President Nursultan Nazarbaev, and RBK reported on July 23 and 24, respectively (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2006). The ministry calculated the transition would be implemented in five stages over a period of 12-15 years and would cost an estimated $294 million. Republishing existing textbooks and classical literature in the new alphabet would take an additional 20-30 years. LF

Tajik First Deputy Interior Minister Sharif Nazarov told a press conference in Dushanbe on July 23 that during the first six months of this year his ministry detained seven members of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who confessed during questioning to having planned terrorist attacks in crowded public places, RFE/RL's Tajik Service and Russian media reported. The detainees were found to have ammunition, detonators, and a small quantity of explosives. LF

Under an agreement that took effect on July 23, Uzbekistan has acquired for $80 million the U.S. gold producer Newmont Mining's 50-percent stake in the bankrupt Zarafshan-Newmont joint venture, Interfax reported. The joint venture was launched in 1992, but was declared bankrupt last year following a claim by the Uzbek authorities for $49 million in back taxes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 4 and October 3, 2006). Three successive attempts by Tashkent to sell Newsmont's stake by auction with a starting price of $140 million failed to raise a single bid. LF

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on July 23 fired the heads of some major state oil and gas companies as Belarusian officials were holding talks at the Gazprom headquarters in Moscow over an unpaid gas debt of some $500 million, Belapan and Reuters reported. Uladzimir Mayorau replaced Dzmitry Kazakou as head of the Beltranshaz gas-pipeline operator. Uladzimir Zubkou took over from Mikalay Vasilevich as director of the Belarusian Oil Company, and Valery Kazakevich replaced Alyaksandr Barouski as head of the Belarusian State Petrochemical Industry Concern (Belnaftakhim). Barouski was arrested in May and subsequently charged with embezzlement, abuse of office, and disclosure of secret information (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26, 2007). Lukashenka reportedly tasked Kazakevich with restoring "iron order" at Belnaftakhim. Under a contract signed on December 31, 2006, between the Belarusian government and Gazprom, Belarus has to pay $100 for 1,000 cubic meters of Russian gas in 2007, compared with $46.68 during the previous 2 1/2 years. Gazprom allowed Belarus to pay 55 percent of the contract price in the first six months of 2007. Minsk promised to pay off the accumulated gas debt by July 23, but failed to do so. JM

Police arrested Pavel Sevyarynets and Alyaksey Shein, leaders of the opposition youth movement, in Minsk on July 23, Belapan reported. Shein told the agency in a telephone call from a district police office that the two men were apprehended by plainclothes police who said the youths were suspected of being involved in an apartment robbery. Sevyarynets and Shein were reportedly carrying some 150 flyers advertising the opposition's July 27 events marking the 17th anniversary of Belarus's State Sovereignty Declaration. RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported that the two leaders, along with a group of detained opposition youth activists, are to stand trial on July 24. JM

The Constitutional Court on July 23 received a petition from 46 lawmakers questioning the legality of President Viktor Yushchenko's June 5 decree that set early parliamentary elections for September 30, Ukrainian media reported. The petition concerns Yushchenko's third decree on early polls; in April the Ukrainian president set snap elections twice, for May 27 and June 24, but subsequently canceled these decisions. Presidential adviser Stepan Havrysh, who was appointed a judge of the Constitutional Court by Yushchenko in May, commented on July 23 that the Constitutional Court is unlikely to examine the petition any time soon, adding that the court is inoperative because its judges are on vacation. Havrysh acknowledged that the court could hold an emergency session convened by its chairman, but said such a possibility is unlikely. "Such an [emergency] session would mean that the Constitutional Court challenged the political stability in Ukraine," the "Ukrayinska pravda" website ( quoted Havrysh as saying. "Moreover, I cannot imagine how -- given the political and legal accord on pre-term elections signed by three political leaders [on May 27] in order to lay constitutional foundations for the polls -- the court might accept such a petition for examination," he added. JM

The Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) has confiscated 174.5 kilograms of heroin in one of the country's largest-ever narcotics-smuggling cases, Ukrainian and international news agencies reported on July 23, quoting an SBU spokesman. The heroin was transported by a truck originating in Iran. The SBU arrested its driver, a Turkish national, shortly after the vehicle arrived in the Ukrainian port of Illichivsk by ferry from the Georgian port Poti. The heroin, with a street value of some $20 million, was concealed in a false bottom in the truck's trailer. The seizure reportedly was possible due to cooperation between the SBU, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, and Turkish law-enforcement bodies. JM

Kosova Prime Minister Agim Ceku on July 23 assured U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that Kosova's political leadership will "remain close partners of both the United States and the European Union in bringing the independence process to a close," a Kosovar spokesman, Skender Hyseni, told international media. An unnamed senior U.S. official quoted by Reuters said Ceku stated that Kosova will not declare independence unilaterally in November and that Rice urged Kosovar leaders to be patient, while also underscoring Washington's commitment to Kosova's eventual independence. On July 20, Ceku said November 28 is his preferred date for independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). Also on July 20, Western powers decided to move the focus of diplomatic efforts from the UN to the six-member Contact Group that has for the past decade spearheaded international efforts in the Balkans. The group comprises the United States, Russia, and four European states. The group is due to meet on July 25. EU foreign ministers discussed Kosova at a meeting on July 23, ahead of which ministers from a several countries stressed the need for European unity, international media reported. AG

The mayor of Prishtina, the Kosovar capital, on July 23 declared a state of emergency in response to fears that soaring temperatures could strain supplies of drinking water, local media reported. Reservoirs that feed the drinking-water system are reportedly 7-8 meters lower than usual. Temperatures of more than 40 degrees Celsius have produced scores of fires across the province in recent days, but only Prishtina has announced a state of emergency. Forest fires are also raging in central and eastern Serbia, prompting Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac on July 22 to ask Bulgaria and Greece for help. However, both countries face similar challenges themselves: temperatures are at record highs across Bulgaria, while Greek authorities have ascribed at least 15 deaths to the heat, which also sparked a devastating forest fire near Athens. Sutanovac told local media that Serbia might ask Austria, Germany, and Russia for help. AG

President Vladimir Voronin said on July 21 that Moldova intends to call for international assistance to cope with the effects of a severe drought, local and Russian media reported. Some 80 percent of Moldova's farmland has been affected by three dry months in which, according to experts, rainfall has been half the normal level. Temperatures are currently 3-4 degrees Celsius higher than normal. This follows a relatively dry autumn and winter. The drought is the worst since 1946-47, Voronin told parliament. The Agriculture Ministry says losses already exceed $80 million, and experts quoted by the news agency IPN on July 23 predicted a "catastrophic" harvest. The last drought, in 2003, slashed the harvest by 75 percent. The president predicted that humanitarian supplies of grain will be needed, called for a modernization and expansion of the country's Soviet-era irrigation system, and won the support of parliament for the lifting of VAT and import tariffs on cereal crops. "We won't permit a situation in which our national food security might suffer," Voronin said, promising strict control over the prices of bread. AG

The director of the Bosnian Serb police, Uros Pena, told the Sarajevo daily "Dnevni avaz" of July 19 that some police officers might have been involved in the atrocities following the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995. "I admit that some police officers may have participated in the genocide, but I cannot say with certainty that they did," he said. Asked about an official list of hundreds of police allegedly present in or around Srebrenica during the genocide, Pena said, "I cannot assert that none of them participated in the genocide, but it is equally unbelievable that all of them were involved." He said any serving officer found to have been involved should be punished. Earlier this month, High Representative Miroslav Lajcak fired 36 Bosnian Serb police officers in connection with their suspected involvement in crimes at Srebrenica (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2007). Meanwhile, two senior members of the European Parliament, Doris Pack and Hannes Swoboda, told Bosnian officials that reform of the country's police structures needs to be agreed by September, Bosnian state broadcaster BHT-1 reported on July 19. Police reform is the main obstacle to the conclusion of a pre-accession agreement with the EU; the Bosnian Serbs insist on keeping their entity forces, while the original plan foresaw functional regions cutting across entity borders. TV

The chairman of Belarus's State Security Committee (KGB) was dismissed on July 17 -- just days after the KGB publicly boasted of its success in uncovering a spy ring it said was supplying secrets about Belarusian and Russian defense interests to Poland.

Stsyapan Sukharenka assumed the post of KGB chief in December 2004, some two months after a rigged constitutional referendum that allowed President Alyaksandr Lukashenka -- the man who would eventually dismiss him -- to run for president for an unlimited number of terms. At the time, it was rumored that Sukharenka's predecessor, Leanid Yeryn, lost his job as a result of a friendly conversation he had with a group of activists opposed to Lukashenka's apparent attempts to become president-for-life.

Sukharenka was generally seen as a man who would not permit himself such "liberal gestures" toward the opposition. And he lived up to his reputation in full during the presidential election campaign in 2006, when he publicly denounced Lukashenka opponents as terrorists.

The KGB chief also became notorious for his televised assertion that opposition activists were planning to use dead rats to contaminate Minsk water supplies during the presidential polls in March 2006. He never succeeded, however, in identifying the alleged saboteurs.

So why the sudden ouster? Activist Mikalay Statkevich, who spent nearly two years in prison for organizing anti-Lukashenka protests shortly after the 2004 constitutional referendum, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service that it was Sukharenka's lack of professionalism and heavy-handedness in dealing with opponents of the regime that eventually led to his dismissal.

"Sukharenka didn't shine intellectually," Statkevich said. "In general, the Lukashenka era saw the intellectual and professional capabilities of the KGB deteriorate. I say this as a person whom they've worked against. At this point, [their methods] have become extremely coarse -- planting things like narcotics, provoking scuffles, jailing young people. That's the level they operate at."

But Svyatlana Kalinkina, deputy editor in chief of the opposition-minded "Narodnaya volya" daily, said Sukharenka's sacking may be a result of clan rivalry within Lukashenka's entourage.

"I think there were a number of reasons [for Sukharenka's dismissal]," Kalinkina said. "It occurred because there are plans to consolidate the KGB by subordinating a number of [security] structures from the border troops and the presidential protection service to it. It also may have occurred because of an ongoing clan war, which at any given time sees some people gaining victory over others."

One theory popular among Belarus's nonstate media is that the Interior Ministry is engaged in a permanent power struggle against the KGB. Proponents of this theory see Sukharenka and his first deputy, Vasil Dzemyantsey, who was also fired by Lukashenka on July 17, as the latest victims in this conflict.

In a terse article published in June on the Russian news site, it was reported that the Belarusian Interior Ministry had arrested an unidentified group of KGB officers on corruption charges.

And last week Belarusian non-state media reported a bizarre event that seems to confirm there is a bitter power struggle between the KGB and the Interior Ministry being waged behind Lukashenka's back. According to these reports, State Monitoring Committee Chairman Zyanon Lomats was beaten in Mahilyou on July 12 by eight men who claimed to be officers of the Interior Ministry. They were subsequently arrested by city police. Seven attackers turned out to be KGB officers, and one was an officer of the Security Council of Belarus. The assault on Lomats was reportedly a provocation staged by the KGB in order to compromise Interior Minister Uladzimir Navumau.

On July 20 Lukashenka indirectly confirmed that he dismissed Sukharenka and Dzemyantsey because of the attack on Lomats. "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 while introducing the new KGB chief, Yury Zhadobin, to the KGB staff.

But Lukashenka simultaneously criticized the KGB for its overal poor performance, including its staff in the provinces. "Local staff often don't know what to find themselves to do and walk around puffing out their cheeks, working with the help of old, Soviet methods. They call themselves chekists. They have long turned from chekists into shepherds," Lukashenka fumed.

Sensing troubles ahead, Sukharenka apparently tried to salvage his image by publicly disclosing on July 16 that the KGB had uncovered a spy ring working for Poland.

But Sukharenka's moment of glory was short-lived. Russia's "Kommersant" daily reported on July 17 that it was Russia's Federal Security Service (FSB) that had put Belarus's KGB on the trail of the spies. According to "Kommersant," a Russian national who was part of the ring spying on a Russian-Belarusian joint air-defense system confessed to the FSB, which passed the information on to the KGB in Minsk.

Other observers have even more radical conclusions, saying Moscow provoked the revelations about the spy case, which had remained undisclosed for many months. If that was the case, it might have been because Moscow hoped to prevent Belarus from mending its fences with Poland and embarking on a more independent foreign policy than Russia would like.

Kalinkina believes that is a credible theory.

"Many Russian and Belarusian publications confirmed that the [spy] scandal was provoked by Russia," Kalinkina said. "It was provoked at a time when it could coincide with all the events linked to the deployment of the [U.S.] antimissile defense system in Poland and Russia's withdrawal from the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe treaty. The spies themselves were detained as early as this past winter. It's likely that in this case, the Belarusian KGB and Stsyapan Sukharenka were playing a Russian game. And it is likely that in Belarus these days, [such games] are not as welcome as they were before."

Sukharenka's replacement, Yury Zhadobin, is a career military officer with no prior experience in the KGB. Zhadobin is seen as a transitional figure who will most likely be replaced in the fall, when Lukashenka is expected to decide on a new configuration for Belarus's security services.

That decision may bring an answer to the question of who won the war between the Interior Ministry and the KGB. But it may also clarify who will become the president's main adviser on security policy -- Security Council Secretary Viktar Sheyman, or the president's son, Viktar Lukashenka.

Sheyman is the last high-ranking government official remaining from Lukashenka's election team in 1994, at the start of his presidential career. Viktar Lukashenka, who is just 31 years old, was appointed to the Security Council in January 2007, automatically gaining status equal to that of the KGB chief or interior minister. His father gave him the task of supervising Belarus's security and law-enforcement agencies.

To observers who enjoy connecting the dots, Sukharenka's dismissal is generally perceived as a gain for Viktar Lukashenka and a loss for Viktar Sheyman, who was seen as having close ties to the ousted KGB chief.

And there are also speculations that Lukashenka is planning to go as far as to merge the KGB and the Interior Ministry into a single security megabloc and put his son, Viktar, in charge of it.

U.S.-led coalition and Afghan forces have killed more than 50 suspected Taliban militants in a two-day battle in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province, officials said on July 23, according to AP. The battle erupted on July 22 after suicide bombers in an explosives-laden car attempted to attack soldiers while rebels opened fire from nearby compounds, a coalition statement said. Insurgents tried unsuccessfully to shoot down coalition aircraft with surface-to-air missiles, it added. Coalition forces responded by dropping four bombs during the engagement, which left "more than four dozen" insurgents dead according to an Afghan National Army (ANA) count, AFP reported. No civilians were reported killed in the battle, but the statement accused the Taliban of "deliberately" hiding and firing from within civilian houses. JC

South Korea has added Afghanistan to the list of banned countries included in a law that takes effect on July 24, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Han Hye-Jin told AFP on July 23. The list formerly included only Iraq and Somalia. South Koreans violating the travel ban may face up to one year in prison or a fine of up to 4 million won ($3,200). South Korean officials on July 23 announced new laws to penalize unauthorized travel by its citizens to Afghanistan, including the possible imposition of prison sentences, AFP reported that day. The move comes as a response to the current hostage crisis in Afghanistan, in which 23 South Korean Christian aid workers are being held by Taliban militants who have threatened to kill them unless Kabul frees 23 imprisoned rebels (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). The Foreign Ministry has urged the estimated 200 South Korean civilians still in Afghanistan to leave the country. JC

While the numbers and nationalities of hostages in Afghanistan seem to be accurate, the demands and death threats received from Taliban fighters are often contradictory, "The International Herald Tribune" reported on July 23. In two ongoing hostage situations, one involving two Germans and their five Afghan colleagues and another involving 23 South Koreans, purported Taliban spokesman Qari Yousef Ahmadi has repeatedly issued new deadlines and demands. Ahmadi also gives inconsistent accounts of the state of the hostages, announcing on July 21 that both Germans and their Afghans colleagues had been executed, but reporting on July 23 that only one German is dead and all five Afghans are alive. The constant misinformation hinders hostage negotiations, said Ghazni police chief Ali Shah Ahmadzai, as the Taliban do not appear to have a single viewpoint or decision maker. As a result, negotiations have produced no results. JC

Four U.S. soldiers were killed in a roadside-bomb explosion on July 23 in eastern Afghanistan, and two NATO soldiers died battling suspected Taliban militants in the south, AP reported. The roadside device detonated as the U.S. soldiers were carrying out a combat patrol in Paktika Province, said Paktika Governor Mohammad Ekram Akhpelwak. A Norwegian special forces officer was killed during a gunfire exchange with suspected insurgents while conducting reconnaissance with Afghan security forces in Logar Province, Reuters reported. A sixth soldier, whose nationality was not given, was killed in the south, according to U.S. Major Chris Belcher, a coalition spokesman. According to an AP count, the six deaths bring to 114 the number of coalition soldiers killed in Afghanistan in 2007, including 54 U.S. service personnel. The special forces officer was Norway's second soldier killed in Afghanistan. JC

Iran is allowing citizens to use 100 liters of subsidized gasoline per month for private vehicles and is banning the sale of additional gasoline at free-market prices, Radio Farda and the Fars news agency reported. The move is part of Iran's drive to reduce gasoline consumption, and officials maintain that millions of liters a day have been saved since the restrictions were imposed in late June. Critics have urged the government to set a higher price at which Iranians could buy gasoline above their quota. A government official charged with coordinating the implementation of restrictions, Ali Akbar Mehrabian, told an informal session of parliament on July 22 that ambulances and military transport will have unrestricted access to gasoline. He said some other vehicles, including taxis, some government vehicles, and couriers, will have a higher monthly quota to be determined in coming weeks, Fars reported. Radio Farda cited newspaper reports in recent weeks claiming that many people who use their cars as informal taxis or to earn a living in other ways have effectively become unemployed. Mehrabian said the average daily gasoline consumption in the three weeks following the imposition of restrictions was 58 million liters, down from an average of 76 million liters previously. He said Iran is saving 18 million liters of gasoline, worth some $730 million, every day, Fars reported. VS

The Assembly of Experts, a body of senior clerics that elects and theoretically supervises Iran's supreme leader, has again become a focus of attention in the wake of media reports that its president, Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, is in poor health, Radio Farda noted on July 20. This is the fourth Assembly of Experts since the 1979 revolution, and speculation, denied by Iranian officials, that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might have experienced health problems in recent months, has led observers to attach particular importance to this assembly and the power balance within it. Radio Farda predicted that the death of Meshkini could set off a contest for the chair of the assembly between right-wing radicals and moderates, represented, respectively, by Mohammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi and Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani. Radio Farda stated that while Rafsanjani has in the past expressed views favorable to a more accountable and even collective type of office at the peak of the Iranian polity, that position is weak compared to a radical current inclined toward making the supreme leader an even more absolute and unquestioned political and religious personality. It added that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's inclinations could help determine which view comes to dominate the Assembly. VS

Iranian clerics have condemned the religious edicts reportedly issued by Sunni clerics in Saudi Arabia, approving or endorsing the destruction of Shi'ite Muslim shrines in Kerbala in Iraq and in Damascus, Iranian agencies and press reported on July 22 and 23. IRNA reported on July 23 that edicts "attributed" to "extremist" muftis or religious authorities in Saudi Arabia and reportedly endorsed by the kingdom's ranking mufti urge or permit the destruction of the shrines in Kerbala of Husayn and Abbas, grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad and revered by Shi'a, and of Zeinab, the prophet's granddaughter, in Damascus. Shi'a revere the prophet's family and descendents, while Sunnis generally disapprove of shrines and the cult of saints and the dead as pseudo-polytheistic practices. Grand ayatollahs Lotfullah Safi-Golpayegani and Naser Makarem-Shirazi denounced the edicts on July 23 as divisive and conducive to violence. They called on Saudi authorities to react, ISNA reported. "How can the Saudi government permit some of its nationals to issue fatwas for murder and assassination and destruction, and make the world unsafe," Ayatollah Makarem-Shirazi asked in his statement. VS

Behnam Farhudi, a member of the State Committee for Harm Reduction (Komite-ye keshvari-yi kahesh-i asib), which works on the treatment and rehabilitation of addicts, told ISNA on July 23 that some 200,000 intravenous-drug addicts could start a "third wave" of HIV infections in the country through unprotected sexual activity. He referred to the first and second waves of AIDS infections in Iran as stemming from blood transfusions and needle sharing by addicts. Now he warned there is a potential for a "catastrophe" because of the presence of some 200,000 intravenous-drug users, 5 to 25 percent of whom he estimated are HIV-positive. He added that Iran has some 1.2 million drug addicts, many of whom the state cannot access for treatment and who therefore might turn to needle sharing. He said the state must devote billions to curb the spread of AIDS. He added that there is a "direct link" between "the AIDS epidemic, sexual relations, and drug injection." ISNA cited the latest Health Ministry figures for HIV-positive Iranians as 15,758, of whom 3.7 percent contracted the virus through sex. VS

U.S. and Iranian officials met in Baghdad on July 24 for a second round of talks aimed at supporting the Iraqi government, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. The meeting, hosted by the Iraqi government, was attended by U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart, Hasan Kazemi-Qomi. Iraqi state-television channel Al-Iraqiyah cited Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's address to the two sides at the start of the talks. Al-Maliki reportedly told both sides Iraq is keen on good relations with all parties. He added that Iraq does not want to interfere in the affairs of others, just as it does not want others to interfere in Iraq's internal affairs. Meanwhile, an Iraqi source attending the meeting told AP that an argument broke out early on between Crocker and Qomi after the U.S. ambassador claimed Iran is training and supplying Shi'ite militiamen to target coalition forces. Qomi reportedly responded by saying the United States has no proof to back up the claim. Iranian sources have said the status of five Iranian diplomats detained by U.S. forces in Iraq since January will also be high on the meeting's agenda. KR

The Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq denied in a July 23 Internet statement that one of its members, Khalid al-Mashhadani, had been captured by multinational forces in Iraq. U.S. Brigadier General Kevin Bergner told reporters at a July 18 press briefing in Baghdad that coalition forces arrested Khalid Abd al-Fattah Dawud Mahmud al-Mashhadani, also known as Abu Shahid, on July 4. Al-Mashhadani reportedly cofounded a virtual organization called the Islamic State of Iraq. Bergner quoted al-Mashhadani as saying the effort was "an attempt to put an Iraqi face on the leadership of Al-Qaeda in Iraq." Bergner said part of the ruse was to concoct a fake Iraqi leadership for the Islamic State, headed by a fictitious character named Abu Umar al-Baghdadi. Al-Mashhadani reportedly confessed that al-Baghdadi does not exist. The Islamic State of Iraq called the report "nothing more than lies with no basis in fact." The statement claimed the United States lied "in an effort to cover up the failure of its campaign of Crusades in the land of Islam and to counter the increasing discomfort the...administration continues to feel before its soldiers, its people, and the whole world while they wait for the fictitious report to be presented" by General David Petraeus in September. KR

The Islamic State of Iraq announced in a separate July 23 Internet statement that it is winning its battle against U.S. and Iraqi forces in Diyala Governorate. The statement said the events taking place in Diyala occurred "because of a rejectionist-Crusader agreement and with the blessings of the Hashemite faction from the infidel 618 Front [a reference to the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front]. They have waged an attack against the land of Diyala, as well as against several other regions in the Land of the Two Rivers. However...their attacks will reap only humiliation, as was the case in past attacks." The Islamic State criticized media coverage of the situation in Diyala, claiming the media exaggerates U.S. and Iraqi gains. It also told supporters that the Islamic State's so-called ministry of defense has determined that U.S. and Iraqi forces are "very few in numbers" around Ba'qubah, adding that U.S. and Iraqi forces have not "advanced 1 meter into Diyala" Governorate. The statement also claimed that "many" Iraqi soldiers have refused to serve in Diyala out of fear they would be killed by the Islamic State. KR

Abdallah al-Juburi, the former governor of Diyala, has been arrested by U.S. and Iraqi forces for allegedly coordinating efforts between Al-Qaeda in Iraq, the defunct Ba'ath Party, and the Iranian resistance group Mujahedin Khalq (MKO), "Al-Hayat" reported on July 23. Al-Juburi was also charged with taking part in killings and extortion. According to Fu'ad al-Ta'i, a journalist based in the governorate, al-Juburi headed an Al-Qaeda cell in Sa'diyah al-Jabal. Al-Juburi served as liaison between the MKO and members of the Al-Jubur tribe in exchange for money and protection. Iraqi officials issued an arrest warrant for al-Juburi in October 2005 on charges of corruption and aiding terrorism. At the time, media reports indicated he had fled Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 26, 2005). KR