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Newsline - July 25, 2007

President Vladimir Putin on July 24 said Britain is treating Russia like a "colony" by suggesting that Russia change its constitution to enable the extradition of Andrei Lugovoi, the prime suspect in the 2006 London poisoning death of former Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, Russian state-run television reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23 and 24, 2007). Speaking to representatives of a pro-Kremlin youth group at the presidential residence in Zavidovo, northwest of Moscow, a visibly angry Putin charged that the British authorities "are making proposals to change our constitution that are insulting for our nation and our people. It's their brains, not our constitution, that need to be changed." He added that London "forgets that Britain is no longer a colonial power and that Russia was, thank God, never their colony." Putin charged that "in London, about 30 people sought by our security services are wanted for very serious crimes. [The British authorities] have not lifted a finger or even thought of extraditing them. They do not extradite anyone hiding on their soil, including those suspected of terrorism. But from other countries, including ourselves, they make impossibly high demands." The mass-circulation daily "Komsomolskaya pravda" noted on July 25 that Putin also told his young guests that he regrets that some Russian women are reluctant to have children. He stressed that men have responsibility for their families' welfare. The paper noted that Putin enjoys working at Zavidovo, which was also a favorite home of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev. PM

On July 24, Ekho Moskvy radio reported that a new poll taken in the Russian Federation by the respected Levada Center shows that 46 percent of respondents agree that the West is trying to solve its problems at Russia's expense and "damages Russia's interests whenever a convenient opportunity arises." About 76 percent said that Russia is a Eurasian state that should follow the path of "its own historical development." Some 47 percent called on President Putin to be tougher in his dealings with U.S. President George W. Bush. PM

Nobel Prize-winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said in an interview published in the German weekly "Der Spiegel" on July 23 that he recently accepted a State Award for lifetime humanitarian achievement from President Putin, after declining similar honors in the past, because the State Award was proposed by a group of "leading experts" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and June 13, 2007). Solzhenitsyn said of Putin's secret service background that "he was an officer of the intelligence services, but he was not a KGB investigator, nor was he the head of a camp in the Gulag. As for service in foreign intelligence agencies, that is not a negative in any country -- sometimes it even draws praise. [Former U.S. President] George Bush Sr. was not much criticized for being the ex-head of the CIA, for example." Solzhenitsyn charged that in unnamed former communist countries, "the new generation is only too happy to voice grievances and level accusations, with present-day Moscow a convenient target. They behave as if they heroically liberated themselves and lead a new life now, while Moscow has remained communist. Nevertheless, I dare hope that this unhealthy phase will soon be over." He said Russia will need "time and experience" to develop democracy, but argued that Putin has been a far better president than his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin. Solzhenitsyn believes the "worship" of the West that characterized the Yeltsin years began to change in 1999 because of "the cruel NATO bombings of Serbia." He charged Western countries with being cynical and hypocritical in their dealings with Russia. He also suggested that the United States rejected Moscow's "helping hand" after September 11, 2001, and that Europe's policy toward Russia is driven by "fears about energy." Solzhenitsyn argued that the West will need Russia as an ally in the future and is unwise to spurn its offers of cooperation now. PM

Ivan Istomin, who heads Energoprogress, a subcontractor of the Russian state-owned firm Atomstroieksport, which is building the Bushehr atomic power plant for Iran, said in Moscow on July 25 that the project will not be finished before autumn 2008, or about one year behind its original schedule, Russian news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, April 18, and June 21, 2007). Russia has delayed completion on the grounds that Iran is behind on its payments. Russian officials have also complained publicly about difficulties in negotiating with their Iranian counterparts. The United States and some other Western countries oppose the project on the grounds that it could help Iran develop a nuclear weapons program. PM

The Regional Development Ministry will present a plan in September that will go beyond President Putin's current national project on housing and ensure that every family in the Russian Federation will have its own house or apartment by 2025, the daily "Kommersant" reported on July 25. The plan will involve building an additional 2 billion square meters of housing. The ministry also proposes adjusting the terms of mortgages and housing loans to encourage all but the poorest people to aspire to home ownership. The daily quotes some officials of construction companies as saying that Russia does not have the equipment or personnel to realize such an ambitious building plan. The four national projects are designed to make radical improvements in agriculture, education, health care, and housing. PM

Oleg Chernysh, who is a prosecutor in Tula Oblast south of Moscow, said on July 24 that the ethnically motivated protests near Venyov in the northeast of the region on July 22 were the work of some of the same people involved in unrest in the Karelian city of Kondopoga in 2006, Interfax reported. Chernysh added that "we cannot allow Karelia to be replayed in Tula Oblast and will use all resources at our disposal to prevent ethnic strife." Police chief Vladimir Ulyanov said that the protests, which involved about 100 people, took place following a killing that some locals blamed on an ethnic Armenian. Ulyanov added that the killer has since been identified and has "nothing to do with the...Armenian community." Ulyanov noted that the xenophobic Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI) was involved in the protests. The DPNI played a central role in the Karelian disturbances, which were driven at least in part by resentment from ethnic Russians over the highly visible role of migrants at markets. The Kondopoga violence has been variously described as hooligan, ethnic, criminal, a popular reaction against corruption, or the result of outside manipulation. PM

Six of a group of between nine and 15 resistance fighters were killed in fighting on July 23-24 in the village of Tevzen-Kala in Vedeno Raion with the Vostok Chechen batallion, which is subordinate to the Russian Defense Ministry, Russian media reported. One Vostok serviceman was killed and three injured. Also on July 23, Chechen resistance fighters ambushed Russian servicemen in the village of Germenchuk in Shali Raion, southeast of Grozny, killing three and wounding five Russians, the resistance website reported. On July 24, resistance fighters targeted Russian Interior Ministry forces near the village of Gukhoy in Itum-Kale Raion, injuring one contract serviceman, reported. LF

In a televised appeal on July 24, the family of Vakha Vedzizhev, the cleric and unofficial adviser to President Murat Zyazikov who was shot dead in his car three days earlier (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007) have asked the killers to explain their motives, presumably in hope of avoiding a blood-feud revenge killing, ingushetiya ru reported. They also promised a reward to anyone who reveals the killers' identity. LF

Kabardino-Balkaria Republic (KBR) President Arsen Kanokov attended a July 24 session of the district council in the mountainous western Elbrus Raion at which a Balkar, Kurman Sottayev, was elected local government head, reported. Sottayev was born in exile in Kazakhstan in 1955 and is a trained economist and a member of the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party. Kanokov acknowledged that the republic's mountain regions experience severe problems in terms of lack of amenities and limited employment opportunities, and he stressed that Elbrus receives 25 percent of the republic's total investment. Meeting the same day with youth activists, Kanokov criticized the unauthorized protest meeting convened by Balkars in Nalchik on July 14, saying that such gathering "do not help solve problems," reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 16 and 23, 2007). Kanokov said the republic's government is working to resolve the issues raised at that meeting. LF

Speaking on July 24 at a roundtable discussion in Nalchik, senior KBR Interior Ministry official Feliks Efendiyev said the number of suspected radical Islamists in the republic has risen since the October 2005 attack by militants on police and security facilities in Nalchik, and increasingly includes Slavs, and reported. He said police have compiled a list of some 500 suspected radicals among a total of more than 5,000 practicing Muslims. But Khazretali Dzasezhev, head of the KBR Muslim Spiritual Board, questioned the figure of 500 "radicals," pointing out that police who monitor attendance at mosques may easily add to the list of suspected "radicals" young men of moderate beliefs. State Committee for Youth Affairs head Boris Pashtov pointed out that the police are currently the sole agency engaged in battling religious extremism, and he urged local authorities to assume greater responsibility for doing so. In neighboring Karachayevo-Cherkessia, police arrested two suspected religious extremists in Adyge-Khabl Raion on July 24 and confiscated arms and ammunition, reported. LF

Lieutenant Colonel Rasim Muradov was formally charged on July 23 with bribery and exceeding his authority, reported on July 24. Muradov incurred the wrath of the Azerbaijani authorities, first by requesting to retire after 21 years in the armed forces and then, when that request was refused, by renouncing Azerbaijani citizenship and seeking political asylum abroad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 9 and 19, 2007). On July 22, Muradov complained that the commander of his unit, which is deployed in Nakhichevan, consistently sought to pressure him, and that he was about to be hospitalized for health problems, reported. LF

The Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office has refused to extradite to Azerbaijan two ethnic Azerbaijani Georgian citizens suspected of the March 2005 shooting in Baku of journalist Elmar Huseynov, Caucasus Press and reported on July 24 and 25 respectively. The Georgian side said officials from the Azerbaijani Prosecutor-General's Office currently in Tbilisi failed to present any new evidence to substantiate their suspicions that the two men were involved in the killing. It is not clear whether the two men whose extradition Baku is seeking are those named as suspects, and for whom Interpol issued arrest warrants, shortly after the murder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 2005). One year ago, disgraced former senior Azerbaijani Interior Ministry official Gaci Mammadov claimed to have personally gunned down Huseynov at the behest of Economic Development Minister Farxad Aliyev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2006). Aliyev was dismissed from that post in October 2005 and arrested on suspicion of plotting a coup d'etat. He is currently on trial on corruption charges. LF

Georgian officials have taken issue with specific points of the most recent quarterly report on the situation in Abkhazia by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. That report, dated July 18, was submitted to the UN Security Council on July 23. Ban noted that at a meeting with Abkhaz and Georgian government representatives in Bonn in late June, UN Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guehenno expressed concern that Georgia's decision to open a patriotic camp for young people at Ganmukhuri close to the cease-fire line could fuel tensions between the two sides or even lead to a resumption of hostilities. Ban's report specifically called on the Georgian government to move the camp away from the conflict zone, stressing that "civic and political activities...should be carried out in a manner that does not allow for misunderstanding, miscalculation, and subsequent violence." Ban also expressed concern at recent reports of the presence of unidentified armed men in the lower Kodori Gorge (see "Georgia: Is Armed Conflict Brewing?", July 2, 2007). Georgia denied any knowledge of or connection with those persons. Shota Malashkhia, who heads the Georgian parliament's Interim Commission on the Restoration of Territorial Integrity, argued in Tbilisi on July 24 that the Ganmukhuri camp is an essential component of President Mikheil Saakashvili's peace plan for Abkhazia, and to close it would be to sabotage that plan, Caucasus Press reported. Kote Gabashvili, who chairs the parliament Commission on Foreign Relations, accused Ban of caving in to Russian pressure. Georgian Foreign Minister Gela Bezhuashvili and newly appointed Conflict Resolution Minister Davit Bakradze said the UN should concentrate on "major issues," such as the repatriation of Georgian displaced persons, according to Caucasus Press on July 25. In Sukhum(i), Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba said on July 24 that Ban's report adequately reflected Abkhazia's concerns, reported. He expressed satisfaction that Ban advocated the closure of the Ganmukhuri camp. Also on July 24, the Georgian Defense Ministry posted on its website ( a breakdown of the 1 billion laris ($602.8 million) it plans to spend this year, Caucasus Press reported. President Saakashvili said in Tbilisi the same day the increase in defense funding will make it possible to increase to 200,000 the number of trained reservists Georgia could mobilize in the event of a conflict. LF

The Kazakh Prosecutor-General's Office issued a statement on July 24 noting several media outlets' violations of the provisions of the Election Law relating to media coverage of election campaigns. The statement was posted the same day on The statement noted that any summary of the findings of opinion polls must identify the agency that conducted the poll in question and the margin of error, and it identified the publications "Altyn Gasyr," "Vzglyad," "Alma-Ata Info," "Taszhargan," "Svoboda slova," and "Zhas Alash" as having failed to do so. The statement said unnamed media outlets have violated the law by electioneering prior to the formal start of the campaign. It also stressed the need to refrain from any statements that insult a candidate or political party, or from publishing election programs that advocate violence, undermine contitutional order or the country's territorial integrity, or promote enmity or discord between different social, religious, or ethnic groups. The opposition Social Democratic Party recently complained that television stations loyal to the authorities refused to screen its campaign ads, which highlight social injustices, including the huge discrepancies between rich and poor in Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24, 2007). LF

Campaigning formally began on July 24 for the local government elections in Kazakhstan scheduled for August 20, two days after the parliamentary vote, reported. Acccording to Central Election Commision Chairman Kuandyk Turgankulov, 8,744 of a total 9,128 would-be candidates have been registered for the ballot, which is the equivalent of 2.6 contenders for each local council seat. Competition is fiercest in Almaty, where in some districts between five and 10 candidates will contest each seat. LF

At a ceremony in Dushanbe on July 25, Russia formally presented the Tajik Air Force with four Albatros L-39 jets that can be used both for training and combat, Asia Plus-Blitz reported. Lieutenant General Oleg Latipov of the Russian Defense Ministry's department for military-technical cooperation estimated the value of Russian military assistance to Tajikistan since early 2006 as between $15 million-$16 million. LF

A Tajik government delegation headed by Energy and Industry Minister Sherali Gulov met with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on July 24 in Ashgabat, and reported on July 25. Tajikistan hopes to reach an agreement with Turkmenistan under which the latter will provide 1.5 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity to compensate for the anticipated shortfall this winter in supplies from Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. In both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, reservoirs are so low that the output of hydroelectric power stations has been seriously affected. LF

President Islam Karimov on July 20 signed a decree, made public four days later, on the planned privatization of nearly 1,000 state-owned enterprises, reported on July 24. Karimov noted that the private sector already accounts for over 75 percent of GDP, but that it is nonetheless expedient to proceed with the sale of further enterprises, especially in the chemical, electro-technical, construction materials, and agricultural machine-building sectors. Special provisions will be made for privatizing cotton-ginning plants. LF

Belarus on July 24 asked Russia for more time to pay its $500 million gas debt to Gazprom, Reuters reported. Minsk missed a July 23 deadline to pay the debt accumulated since Gazprom increased the gas price for Belarus from $46.68 to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters as of January 2007. A delegation led by Belarusian Energy Minister Alyaksandr Azyarets held a second day of gas-debt talks at the Gazprom headquarters in Moscow on July 24, without results. "We are asking for a delay.... We will obviously have to pay a fine, which is also currently being discussed," Andrey Zhukau, a spokesman for Azyarets, told Reuters. Commenting on the talks, a Belarusian independent economics expert, Yaraslau Ramanchuk, said: "Gazprom has again found out what it's like to do business, Belarusian style. You have to pretend to be poor, sick, and unfortunate -- and at the end of the day wangle some kind of advantage." The Belarusian National Bank's current reserves are said to stand at $3 billion. JM

Police in Minsk arrested at least 10 young opposition activists over the past two days and charged them with "petty hooliganism," RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on July 24. The Belarusian opposition is planning to stage an unauthorized rally in the capital, Minsk, on July 27 to mark the 17th anniversary of Belarus's Declaration of Sovereignty, and young opposition activists, primarily members of the unregistered Youth Front, have been distributing and posting opposition leaflets with information about the event. On July 24, district courts in Minsk jailed Pavel Sevyarynets and Alyaksey Shein for 15 days each, Valyantsin Sakalouski for 10 days, and Yury Volfsan for seven days. More trials are expected on July 25. JM

On July 24 on European Square in Kyiv, the Our Ukraine/People's Self-Defense election bloc started a campaign of collecting signatures in support of its proposal to strip lawmakers of their immunity from prosecution, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Several of the bloc's leaders -- Yuriy Lutsenko, Vyacheslav Kyrylenko, Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko, and Mykola Katerynchuk -- were the first to sign the document. Addressing those present on the square, Lutsenko said the cancellation of parliamentary immunity is "the key to changing and improving Ukrainian society." Lutsenko noted that officials involved in corruption often hide from justice behind parliamentary immunity. JM

First Deputy Foreign Minister Volodymyr Ohryzko said on July 24 that Russia's Black Sea Fleet, currently deployed in Crimea, will have to leave after the end of 2017, as established in a 1997 agreement, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Ohryzko's pronouncement seems to be a response to an interview with former Russian Black Sea Fleet commander Igor Kasatonov, publicized by Russian media on July 23, in which Kasatonov predicted that the fleet would remain in Crimea beyond 2017. "I think that Sevastopol will remain the main base of the Black Sea Fleet beyond 2017," Kasatonov said. "[The 1997] agreement will be extended or replaced with a new one, one that will be in effect for a longer period. The Black Sea Fleet will be in Sevastopol for as long as Russia needs this." JM

A survey conducted by the Yaremenko Ukrainian Institute for Social Studies and the Social Monitoring Center found that 57 percent of respondents are against Ukraine's accession to NATO, while 19.9 percent support the country's membership in the alliance, Interfax-Ukraine reported. The survey, answered by 2,014 Ukrainians between July 10 and 18, also found that 24.7 percent of Ukrainians believe Ukraine should join the European Union, while 43.4 percent support a Ukrainian union with Russia and Belarus, and 27 percent believe Ukraine should build balanced relations with the EU and Russia. JM

The Serbian parliament on July 24 overwhelmingly approved a government-sponsored resolution rejecting any move toward independence for Kosova, local and international media reported. Of the 232 lawmakers present, only 12 voted against the resolution, with another three abstaining. The resolution warns that unilateral recognition of Kosova's independence would have "unforeseeable consequences for regional stability," and calls on the government to respond "immediately and energetically" to such moves by any government. During the eight-hour debate leading up to the vote, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica told deputies that "any unilateral recognition would represent a policy of force and legal violence." The vote followed the withdrawal by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France of a draft UN Security Council resolution on Kosova's status, a move hailed by Kostunica as "an important victory for Serbia and a result of the joint policy of Serbia and Russia aimed at protecting the UN Charter and defending our state's sovereignty and territorial integrity" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). Kostunica went on to say that "an even more difficult battle" now lies ahead. The vote came on the eve of a meeting scheduled for July 25 in Vienna by representatives of the Contact Group, comprising Russia, the United States, and four EU countries. The Contact Group is now expected to be the main venue for diplomacy regarding Kosova in the coming months, following the withdrawal of the draft Security Council resolution. TV

In a review of Bosnia-Herzegovina's economic performance, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) applauded the country's fourth consecutive year of stable economic growth, which saw real gross domestic product (GDP) increase by 6 percent in 2006, but the fund also called on the country to tackle overregulation and an overbearing bureaucracy. "The good economic performance offers an opportunity to tackle long-standing distortions that currently limit the economy's long-term growth potential: the large and inefficient public sector, segmented labor market, and overregulated business environment," the IMF said in a public statement following consultations with Bosnia, adding that the country is a regional laggard in terms of structural reform. It also noted that Bosnia's performance has been helped by a conducive international environment, with low interest rates and high prices for metals -- a key Bosnian export. Reforms in some sectors had a considerable impact, the review found; industrial production and steel and aluminum exports benefited from foreign investment, while the introduction of a value-added tax contributed to a positive fiscal picture in 2006. The privatization of domestic banks and the entry of foreign banks into the market helped strengthen the financial sector. TV

NATO's top intelligence officer in Afghanistan, Canadian Brigadier General Jim Ferron, says the tribal nature of the dominant Pashtun population makes the Taliban insurgency difficult to contain.

Speaking to a small group of journalists over a video link from Kabul on July 19, Ferron also said NATO believes the insurgency's roots are in the economic deprivation prevalent in Afghanistan, and not in implacable religious fundamentalism.

At the midpoint of his yearlong stint as chief intelligence officer of NATO's International Stabilization Force for Afghanistan (ISAF), Ferron readily admits there is little that is tangible or clear-cut about the problems he's grappling with.

Given the complexity and hermetic nature of Afghan society, NATO officials say there is no hard data on the number of insurgents, their precise composition, or motives.

Ferron says NATO is "very concerned" about the possible financial support, training, and ideological guidance the Taliban movement might be providing to what he describes as "traditional" Afghan insurgents. But he adds the caveat that NATO "does not have enough of an understanding" of the specifics of this relationship.

Much of what NATO has to go on is limited to deductions from basic facts. Ferron repeatedly highlighted the importance of the fact that Pashtun society, which provides most recruits to the Taliban, straddles the Afghan-Pakistani border and traditionally pays little heed to the frontier.

"As we all know, the Afghan insurgency is essentially a tribal-based organization, and tribes -- and this is not a political statement about borders -- but tribes, such as the Pashtun, do not recognize borders," he said.

"They base their movement along traditional lines and along their historical culture. So the fact that we see the insurgency moving across the Pakistan-Afghan border is not secret, [the question] is how we interdict or how we stop that," Ferron concluded.

Ferron said that puts Pakistan in an immensely influential position. He said Afghanistan is likely to be affected by the events that have followed the recent storming by Pakistani forces to wrest the Red Mosque from militants barricaded inside. Ferron said Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf has promised NATO to follow up the siege of the Red Mosque with further initiatives against the frequently Pashtun insurgents.

Ferron said that the insurgents -- mostly concentrated in North and South Waziristan along the border with Afghanistan -- face a choice: They must either fight the Pakistani Army or cross over to Afghanistan.

Ferron said NATO is ready if they choose the second option. But Ferron also warned that the spillover of a growing radicalization of ethnic Pashtuns in Pakistan into Afghanistan may be unavoidable if it allowed a "stranglehold" on one region.

"So, if you take a communications network which is a tribal network -- and [given] that the Pashtuns are tribal, something that would be in effect in Pakistan, [that is] the 'Talibanization' [referred to in the question] -- if it does have an opportunity to take a stranglehold or to become stronger in one region, there is a definite potential that it moves stronger throughout that entire 'Pashtun belt,'" Ferron said.

Ferron identified the rejection of Western influence as an important motivating factor in the mostly Pashtun-derived insurgency in southern and eastern Afghanistan.

"If you take the component parts of these combatants and this theater, there are certainly those elements which have an ideological basis, an ideological belief, that what is happening in their country does not meet with their ideals in terms of governance, and, yes, I'll say religion," he said.

But Ferron quickly qualified this by saying he does not like to use the term "fundamentalism." He also emphasized that there are many Pashtuns who have not joined the insurgency.

Ferron said he believes the deeper causes of the insurgency are social in nature -- poverty, lack of economic opportunities, and insufficient levels of education. He says these factors might trump ideological fervor when it comes to the motives of the young men joining the insurgency.

"Who is 'the enemy' in Afghanistan? Who is 'the enemy'? 'The enemy' is illiteracy, it's poverty, it's unemployment," he said. "It is the social factors that do not allow a vibrant economy. So when you have young men, primarily, who may or may not be in a Pashtun tribe, [and who] have nothing else, they go potentially to the insurgency motivated by money, not necessarily by an ideological foundation."

Ferron said opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan further complicates matters. For many farmers, poppy growing constitutes their livelihood and, faced with the eradication drive, they have two options -- give up their livelihood or fight for it.

Ferron noted that if they fight, the poppy farmers automatically become insurgents from NATO's point of view. He said poppy growers, the criminal gangs trafficking heroin, and the Taliban live in a "symbiotic relationship." They all may have different aims, but they all need money to achieve them, and that is why all need the drug trade.

Ferron observed that in Afghanistan's north, the insurgency is mostly "criminal" in nature, linked to the interests of drug traffickers.

(Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels.)

Dignitaries and relatives on July 24 said their final goodbyes to the last king of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zahir Shah, who died on July 23 at the age of 92, AP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). The coffin carrying the "Father of the Nation," as he was called, wrapped in the Afghan flag, was transported from the presidential palace to a mosque in Kabul, where a short prayer was read. It then was taken on a gun carriage pulled by an armored military vehicle to a hillside tomb, adorned with decorative red carpets. Announcing the king's death on July 23, President Hamid Karzai called Zahir Shah a "symbol of national unity." Zahir Shah became king in 1933 at age 19 and ruled for 40 years before he was ousted in a coup in 1973. His rule, characterized by a neutral foreign policy and conservative liberalization, was viewed by many Afghans as a golden age preceding years of conflict and Taliban rule. JC

Tribal elders on July 24 were continuing to negotiate with Taliban militants over 23 South Korean hostages, "The New York Times" reported on July 25. Talks between the militants and tribal elders, who are working with the Afghan and South Korean governments, continued past the evening deadline on July 24 without an announcement of a new deadline, Voice of America reported. The Taliban has twice extended the deadlines they had set, threatening to kill the Koreans unless their demands were met by the Afghan government. Their demands include the release of 23 imprisoned Taliban members and the withdrawal of 210 South Korean soldiers from Afghanistan. Some 1,000 Afghans on July 24 demonstrated in the city of Kandahar against the kidnappings, which they denounced as un-Islamic, RFE/RL reported. The 23 Koreans, most of them female Christian aid workers, were abducted on July 19 while traveling through Ghazni Province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). JC

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband arrived in Kabul on July 24 for a two-day visit to underline Britain's support for Afghanistan despite ongoing violence and insecurity there, AFP reported. In a statement, Miliband said his visit is intended to demonstrate Britain's commitment to helping Afghanistan succeed in the post-Taliban era, particularly through its assistance in improving security. According to the British Embassy in Kabul, Miliband will visit British troops in the southern province of Helmand, a Taliban stronghold and the site of frequent insurgent violence. Miliband also paid tribute to the late Afghan king. Miliband's visit is his first to Afghanistan since being named to the post on June 28. JC

The Italian provincial reconstruction team (PRT) opened a new pedestrian bridge over a river in the Ingil district of Afghanistan's western Herat Province, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on July 23. Herat Deputy Governor Al-Haj Mir Abdul and PRT commander Colonel Roberto De Masi inaugurated the bridge together with several religious leaders and village elders. The 6-meter bridge in Qauaria Noghra village is intended to provide safe access to school for the local children, and to allow residents to safely cross a river that is often flooded or impassable during winter. The Italian PRT planned, financed, and oversaw the 16,000-euro ($22,000) construction by a local Afghan contractor over a one-month period. The Italian PRT has completed several infrastructure projects in recent months, including a 9-kilometer pipeline in Herat Province that provides fresh drinking water to local residents, according to a NATO press release issued in June. JC

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) are to visit Iran's heavy-water installation near Arak on July 30, according to plans announced after talks between the two sides in Vienna on July 24, agencies reported. Javad Vaidi, a deputy head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, told ISNA that the two sides discussed the "modalities" of clarifying for the IAEA certain aspects of Iran's contested nuclear program, which Western states suspect might eventually be used to make weapons. Heavy water is used in one type of nuclear-fuel production process, and Iran is building a reactor in Arak that will be served by the heavy-water plant. Vaidi said Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani is to resume talks on Iran's nuclear program with EU foreign-policy chief Javier Solana in Tehran on August 20, ISNA reported. VS

Chief nuclear negotiator Larijani spoke by phone on July 24 with EU envoy Solana, his main interlocutor in ongoing nuclear talks. Solana is the EU high representative for common foreign and security policy and represents the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany, the powers currently pressuring Iran to curb its nuclear-fuel production activities. A deputy head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Abdulreza Rahmani-Fazli, told IRNA the two envoys discussed the "time and place of their next round of talks." VS

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki told the French daily "Le Monde" in Tehran on July 24 that Iran's renewed cooperation with the IAEA is strengthening the international will to find a peaceful solution to the standoff over its nuclear program, in spite of the "brutal tactics and unilateralism" of the United States. Mottaki dismissed the possibility of a U.S. attack against Iran over its nuclear program, saying the United States is too weak to strike Iran. He said 170,000 U.S. troops cannot assure the security of Iraq "or even themselves," and the United States "is not in a position to inflict a new war on the American taxpayer. That of course does not stop some people beating on the drums of war." Mottaki suggested the United States should instead consider "why their different plans for the region" have failed. Another round of UN sanctions on Iran, he said, would "mean a confrontation scenario, the end of the search for a solution to the nuclear issue. It goes without saying that will lead to measures," Mottaki said, without specify what measures he meant. Sanctions, he said, "have never affected this country's decisions," quoted Mottaki as saying. VS

Mottaki told "Le Monde" that Iraq must have the necessary authority to assure its own order and security, and dismissed charges that Iran is encouraging violence in Iraq. Iran has helped with Iraq's reconstruction and "revival" in the past four years, he said. Regarding Lebanon, Mottaki said any solution to the political crisis there must consider the presence of "two major political forces." The Shi'ite militant group Hizballah, he said, is an "influential political force" in Lebanon, and "very much appreciated by the people. [Its] logical and wise." He also dismissed suggestions that Iran is supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, and effectively blamed the West and its allies for the rise of regional extremism. Mottaki said that "terrorist groups have appeared in Afghanistan due to Western [influence] and under the effect of petrodollars." Western influence in Afghanistan may have made sense when Afghan mujahedin were fighting the Soviets in the 1980s, he said, but it has "institutionalized a kind of extremism in this part of the world." He said Iran wants security in Iraq and Afghanistan, and "we think there is no alternative to [President Hamid] Karzai" besides "civil war." To assist Karzai and Afghanistan, he said, Iran has sent fewer Afghan refugees home than it would have liked, reported. VS

The families of three detained university students have written an open letter to Iran's judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, accusing the authorities of resorting to "physical and psychological abuse" against the detainees, Radio Farda reported on July 24, citing the Tehran media. The three students of Tehran's Amir Kabir University -- Majid Tavakkoli, Ahmad Qassaban, and Ehsan Mansuri -- were detained following the publication in March of university journals deemed insulting to Islam (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 10 and June 18, 2007). The students denied being involved with the impious publications. The families told Ayatollah Shahrudi that they learned about the incidents of abuse from two meetings they had with the detainees, and from other detained students who were recently released. The families alleged that the detained students were interrogated for 24-hour periods by a rotating seven-member team; were interrogated in the middle of the night; and had to share prison cells with "dangerous" individuals, presumably common criminals. How much "torture and pressure can a 22-year-old take?" the letter asked. Ayatollah Shahrudi has denounced forceful interrogation methods, and he issued a directive on prisoners' rights, ratified by parliament, in 2004 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," May 17, 2004). VS

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker announced at a July 24 press conference in Baghdad that the United States and Iran have agreed to form a joint committee that will meet regularly to address the security situation in Iraq, international media reported. "We discussed ways forward and one of the issues we discussed was the formation of a security subcommittee that would address at an expert or technical level some issues relating to security, be that support for violent militias, Al-Qaeda, or border security," Crocker said. He said details of who will participate in the committee and when it will meet will be finalized in the coming days. However, he stressed that no progress on Iraq's security can occur unless Tehran stops its alleged training and arming of Shi'ite militias. "The fact is, as we made very clear in today's talks, that over the roughly two months since our last meeting we've actually seen militia-related activity that could be attributed to Iranian support go up, and not down," Crocker said. Reports indicated that the second round of the U.S.-Iran talks was tense, with Crocker and his Iranian counterpart, Hasan Kazemi-Qomi, engaging in a heated exchange about the U.S. accusations. For his part, Kazemi-Qomi said that Iran is in fact helping with Iraq's security, but he said Iraqis are being "victimized by terror and the presence of foreign forces" on their territory. SS

During a July 24 interview with Al-Arabiyah satellite television, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh described the second round of U.S.-Iran talks as "acceptable," and expressed hopes that the new committee will convene shortly. "Naturally, we hoped for more success, but I can describe the success achieved today as acceptable," al-Dabbagh said. "It is hoped that the committee, which was formed today, would meet tomorrow or sometime soon to discuss these complaints and accusations leveled by the U.S. administration and the Iranian government," he added. Al-Dabbagh also stressed that improved relations between the United States and Iran would benefit Iraq. "Building good relations between the United States and Iran benefits us, the Iraqis, and the region, as it helps defuse tension. We do not want Iraq to be an arena for settling scores," he said. SS

Craig Johnstone, the deputy director of the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), told the United Nations Integrated Regional Information Networks on July 22 that Jordan and Syria have made progress in assisting Iraqi refugees. Johnstone made his comments after a recent trip to Jordan and Syria and meetings with officials from both countries. He said he hopes Jordan will pass or amend legislation to allow Iraqi refugees greater access to education and medical facilities. Currently, Jordan has refused residency for a large number of Iraqi refugees, thereby restricting their access to domestic services. "Within the next week or two [the Jordanian government] will issue some decree that will ameliorate the situation for the refugees," Johnstone said. He praised Syria's policy of allowing more Iraqi refugees into the country, but expressed concern for the 1,400 Palestinians stranded at makeshift camps along the Syrian-Iraqi border. Johnstone described the situation at the Al-Tanf and Al-Walid camps as "desperate." "The victims are in dire straits; medically in dire straits; in terms of water and food in dire straits. This is not a happy picture," he warned. Johnstone also urged the international community to do more to help Jordan and Syria cope with the influx of Iraqi refugees. SS

Members of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) walked out of the July 24 session of the Kurdish parliament, as lawmakers were about to discuss the latest draft of the oil and gas law, the PUK website reported. A PUK lawmaker, Arez Abdallah, said the members walked out after parliament rejected a motion by the party to delay discussion of the draft law. "We called for the postponement of the session on the draft oil bill, but the request was rejected. We withdrew from the session in order to make some amendments and to investigate the draft further, because the legislation is crucial," Abdallah said. He also stressed that such important legislation should not be debated during an extraordinary session held while parliament is officially in recess. The parliament's recess began on July 1 and is scheduled to end in early September. SS

Militias belonging to Shi'ite religious parties in southern Iraq have compiled a list of approximately 3,000 former Ba'athists who are targeted for assassination, "Al-Zaman" reported on July 24. Many of those on the list are suspected of being involved in former dictator Saddam Hussein's suppression of the Shi'ite uprising in the south in March 1991. An unnamed security source told the paper that militias in the governorates of Al-Basrah, Dhi Qar, and Maysan have prepared a list of 3,000 Iraqis scheduled for execution based solely on suspicion, and before any of them were brought to trial. The source also said that in certain instances, militias have raided the homes of suspected Ba'athists, coerced them into admitting their guilt, and then executed them. Scores of former Ba'athists have reportedly been killed in Iraq's south, and many have fled the region or gone into hiding. SS

An Iraqi Interior Ministry source said on July 24 that police found 18 bodies dumped in different areas of Baghdad, the independent Voices of Iraq news agency reported. The source said the majority of the bodies were found in the Al-Karkh neighborhood, many of them with gunshot wounds to the head. U.S. and some Iraqi officials have often blamed Shi'ite militias for killing unidentified victims and dumping the bodies. The number of bodies found in and around Baghdad declined steeply after the U.S. troop surge began in February, but the numbers have recently begun to rise again. Meanwhile, Voices of Iraq reported the same day that a senior Iraqi Army officer was assassinated in Baghdad. According to an Interior Ministry source, Brigadier Kamal Tahr Hasan was killed by unknown gunmen while riding in his car in the neighborhood of Al-Kadhimiyah. The source gave no further details. SS