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Newsline - July 31, 2007

Garry Kasparov, the former world chess champion who now heads the opposition United Civic Front, told RFE/RL's Russian Service by telephone on July 30 that his organization is doing all it can to help secure the release of journalist Larisa Arap from detention in a Murmansk psychiatric clinic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30, 2007). Kasparov said that "we're following the situation very closely now. We have a lawyer [in Murmansk] and we're trying to find out how we can help Larisa using the legal means available to us. Of course, we're going to fight for her just as for hundreds of other friends and colleagues who are confronted with the arbitrary rule of the current regime." Kasparov added that "we understand very well that our means [for defending Arap] may be limited. We can continue filing complaints to courts. Many such cases reach [the European Court of Human Rights in] Strasbourg, where Russia loses cases continuously. However, our capabilities may be limited today." The German weekly "Der Spiegel" of July 30 described the Strasbourg court as a "beacon of hope" for Russians, many of whom have little confidence in their own judicial system. More Russian citizens file cases in Strasbourg than citizens of any other country belonging to the Council of Europe. President Vladimir Putin has called many of the resulting court rulings politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27, March 26, and June 20, 2007, and "Council of Europe: Moscow Confronted With More Cases From Caucasus,", January 23, 2007). PM

After a July 30 meeting in Moscow with Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Russia supports Abbas "as the legitimate leader of all Palestinians," international and Russian media reported. Lavrov added that "we support all of your steps aimed at restoring stability, restoring the unity of the Palestinian people, and continuing the peace process from those positions." The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Lavrov stressed "the importance of normalizing the situation in Palestine as soon as possible," reported. The ministry added that "in the prevailing critical situation, a schism of Palestine into two isolated entities should be prevented by all means.... Lavrov emphasized the necessity of restoring Palestinian unity through dialogue between all political forces. This will create favorable conditions for the renewal of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process on a solid international legal basis, the ultimate aim of which will be the creation of a sovereign, viable, and territorially integral Palestinian state." Abbas told his hosts that "the support of Moscow is of great importance to us." Russia's backing for the embattled Abbas is crucial because Moscow is the only major power outside the Middle East that maintains relations with his rivals, the radical Islamic Hamas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28 and June 19 and 29, 2007). In June, Russia called for the "normalization" of political life in the West Bank and Gaza and appealed to the two rivals to engage in "wide-ranging dialogue." Abbas is scheduled to meet with President Putin on July 31. PM

The daily "Kommersant" reported on July 30 that Abbas's chief goal during his three-day visit is to persuade President Putin to give full backing to Abbas's Fatah against Hamas. Abbas told the state-run English-language broadcaster Russia Today on July 30 that Hamas's seizure of power in Gaza in June "was a coup, a rising against the law." The daily "Vremya novostei" wrote on July 30 that "Abbas's real authority extends only over the West Bank, where foreign aid is still being delivered. The isolated Gaza sector is sliding into a humanitarian crisis." The paper quoted professor Anatoly Yegorin, who heads the Russian-Arab Dialogue Center of the Russian Academy of Science's Oriental Studies Institute, as saying that Abbas "is certain to raise the question of aid in the form of arms and training for the [Palestinian National Authority's] security and law-enforcement agencies, but the results of talks on those issues are unlikely to be made public." The paper noted that Hamas leader Khalid Mish'al recently told Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov by telephone that "Hamas is firmly in favor of unity among the Palestinian people under the leadership of...Abbas." PM

The chairman of the State Duma's Foreign Affairs Committee, Konstantin Kosachyov, said in Moscow on July 31 that as in the past, Russia will invite observers from several international organizations to monitor the December elections to the State Duma, Interfax reported. He added that "as a Russian politician, I am deeply convinced that we must invite international observers to our elections. Certainly, first of all, from those international organizations of which Russia is a member state. This is primarily the Council of Europe and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe [PACE], the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe [OSCE], the CIS Interparliamentary Assembly, the Interparliamentary Union, and others." Kosachyov said he is "confident that we will be able to ensure maximum cooperation with our foreign partners, that the monitoring of Russian elections will be objective, and that we will be able to achieve a common conclusion on the basis of these election cycles, namely that the elections in Russia are honest, fair, and legitimate." He made the statement at a joint press conference with PACE head Rene van der Linden. PM

"The Moscow Times" on July 31 quoted Vladimir Yuzhakov, an aide to Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Naryshkin, as saying that Naryshkin is promoting a pilot program aimed at stopping corruption by paying civil servants for not taking bribes. The $9 million program will undergo a trial run in 11 government institutions and 19 regions, starting in the fall. Yuzhakov told the daily that "under the program, all officials who come into contact with the public will have their regular work contracts torn up. They will then face a choice: they can sign a new, instantly terminable contract that permits greater oversight of their work but also offers a better compensation package. Alternately, they can look for a new job." A recent poll conducted by the respected Levada Center suggested that corruption remains a top concern of Russians and hence could be exploited by politicians in the upcoming legislative or presidential elections. Yuzhakov described corruption in Russia as "systemic." The daily quoted critics of the plan as saying that it is pointless because it involves "the corrupt checking up on the corrupt." Another critic suggested that Naryshkin unveiled the plan as a publicity stunt aimed at furthering his own purported ambitions for the March 2008 presidential race. PM

Unidentified gunmen opened fire early on July 31 in Ingushetia's Malgobek Raion on a bus transporting police officers from Vladikavkaz to Mozdok, reported. One policeman died in the attack and three were wounded. LF

The prosecutor in the trial of three Karabakh war veterans charged with plotting to overthrow the country's leadership demanded on July 30 that they be jailed for up to three years, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Two of the three men, Zhirayr Sefilian and Vartan Malkhasian, established in late 2006 a group named Union of Armenian Volunteers that planned to campaign for peaceful regime change and opposes any solution to the Karabakh conflict that would entail territorial concessions to Azerbaijan. They were arrested in early December; the third man, Vahan Aroyan, was arrested in late December after police allegedly found an arms cache near his home. All three men deny the charges against them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 12, and 20, 2006, and July 2, 2007). Prosecutors failed to demonstrate his connection with Sefilian and Malkhasian. The prosecution demanded three-year prison terms for Sefilian and Aroyan and 2 and 1/2 years for Malkhasian. LF

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Bryza, who is also the U.S. co-chairman of the OSCE Minsk Group engaged in mediating a settlement of the Karabakh conflict, met in Yerevan on July 30 with Armenian President Robert Kocharian, Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, and parliament speaker Togran Torosian, Armenian and Azerbaijani agencies reported. Bryza was quoted as telling journalists that in light of the presidential elections due in Armenia in early 2008 and in Azerbaijan in the fall of 2008 he does not foresee a swift solution to the conflict, even though the Minsk Group co-chairs are "close" to crafting a settlement proposal that would reconcile the apparently mutually contradictory principles of the inviolability of territorial integrity and the rights of nations to self determination. Bryza also stressed that independence for Kosova cannot and should not be regarded as an assertion of the supremacy of the right to self-determination and as a precedent for similarly bestowing independence on Karabakh and the other unrecognized breakaway republics on the territory of the former USSR. He acknowledged that the continued uncertainty over Kosova's final status will inevitably affect the Karabakh peace process. "I sense...that everybody involved with wondering whether or not the Kosova process will have an impact on Karabakh. So maybe the leaders are going to decide that they want to...take some time to think things through and get a better feel for how the political situations play out over the next few months," RFE/RL's Armenian Service quoted him as saying. Bryza is due to meet in Moscow on August 2 with the French and Russian Minsk Group co-chairs; the Armenian and Azerbaijani foreign ministers will not be present at that meeting. Bryza will then travel to Baku. Speaking in Baku on July 30, First Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov expressed doubt that anything substantive would result from the co-chairs' Moscow meeting, but nonetheless expressed the hope that they will make "a serious and decisive attempt," and that Armenia's leadership will avail itself of the time-out he claimed Kocharian requested and make "positive changes" in its negotiating position, reported. Azimov further argued that before the end of this year, efforts should be launched to create appropriate security conditions to enable the former Azerbaijani community of Nagorno-Karabakh to return to their homes. LF

In a July 31 interview published in the Russian daily "Vremya novostei," Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze predicted that if Russia implements plans, reported in the Russian media, to build cement factories in the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia that would provide construction materials for building facilities in Sochi in the run-up to the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, the international community will respond by boycotting the games in the same way that it boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan the previous year. Burjanadze earlier threatened that Georgia would respond to any such Russian move by intensifying its campaign to delay Russia's accession to the World Trade Organization, according to Caucasus Press on July 26. The Georgian Foreign Ministry has sent an official note to its Russian counterpart requesting official clarification of the media reports, Caucasus Press reported on July 27. But Russian Ambassador to Georgia Vyacheslav Kovalenko has denied that Russia would implement any such plans without the explicit approval of the Georgian government, according to on July 27. De facto Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba was quoted on July 27 by the Abkhaz website as saying that Burjanadze's threat demonstrates Georgia's true attitude toward Abkhazia. "Any attempt at the economic or social development of Abkhazia elicits annoyance from Georgia. The Georgian authorities' traditional policy toward Abkhazia is to strangle it, destroy it, and inflict suffering on its people," Shamba said. LF

Speaking to reporters at a press conference in Astana, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov threatened on July 30 to "reexamine" an international contract with the Italian energy company Eni to develop the Kashagan oil field, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. According to Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Baktykozha Izmukhambetov, Masimov's warning comes in response to an announcement last week by Eni that it intends to delay production of the offshore Caspian field until 2010, rather than to abide to the initial production target of 2008. That announcement angered Kazakh officials as it is the second time that Eni has delayed the start of production in the Kashagan field, considered to be one of the world's largest oil deposits. Masimov justified his threat by saying that "we consider changes to the timetable" for the start of production "as a change to the contract itself," adding that "we will respond correspondingly." RG

Kazakh Interior Ministry spokesman Bagdat Kozhakhmetiov confirmed on July 30 that Kazakh security forces have arrested a former banker for radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Saidhussein Murtazaliyev, 33, was arrested in the western Kazakh town of Aktobe sometime last week, on the basis of an outstanding arrest warrant issued by the Russian regional authorities in Tomsk Oblast. Murtazaliyev is being held in custody while awaiting a Kazakh court ruling on his extradition to Russia. He was allegedly the personal banker and financial adviser to the radical Chechen field commander, whose death in an explosion in Ingushetia was announced a little more than a year ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2006). RG

During a meeting of cabinet ministers conducted via video conference, Prime Minister Masimov ordered on July 30 the implementation of an environmental impact study of the Kambarata-1 and Kambarata-2 hydroelectric power stations in Kyrgyzstan, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. He specifically called for the study to address the issues of the plants' effects on the water balance in the Central Asian region, and on the water table of southern Kazakhstan in particular. The construction of the Kambarata hydroelectric power stations first started as far back as 1986, with less than one-third of the construction completed to date. Masimov also issued a separate order during the July 30 meeting calling for the start of talks between relevant Uzbek and Kyrgyz ministries aimed at creating a single unified electric-power grid among the three countries. RG

In an official statement released in Bishkek, the Kyrgyz president's office on July 30 ordered the Prosecutor-General's Office and the Health Ministry to conduct an official probe into whether doctors' negligence led to an outbreak of HIV among residents of the Noorkat district, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and Kabar reported. The investigation comes in the wake of reports that 11 people, including nine children and a medical worker, in the southern district were infected with HIV due to "irresponsible medical care," AKIpress reported. The case is similar to an incident last month in neighboring Kazakhstan when a district court there sentenced 17 doctors and medical workers to prison terms of up to eight years after finding them guilty of negligence in administering transfusions of tainted blood to some 120 children, 10 of whom have subsequently died of HIV/AIDS (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2006, and March 19 and June 28, 2007). RG

The editor of the independent weekly "Odam orasida" (Among the People), Khairulla Khamidov, criticized on July 30 the Uzbek authorities for closing down his newspaper for "breaches of the media law," AP reported. The weekly newspaper, with an estimated circulation of roughly 24,000 in Tashkent, was well-known for its coverage of controversial issues such as homosexuality and prostitution from an Islamic viewpoint. It was first launched in February. The closure is seen as part of a broader trend by the Uzbek authorities to rein in the country's independent media. RG

A district court in Minsk on July 30 jailed 19-year-old Franak Vyachorka for seven days, finding him guilty of "petty hooliganism," Belapan reported. Franak Vyachorka, the son of Belarusian Popular Front Chairman Vintsuk Vyachorka, was arrested on July 27 as police blocked opposition activists from holding a rally in Minsk to mark the 17th anniversary of the adoption of Belarus's Declaration of State Sovereignty. Also on July 30, another Minsk district court jailed opposition youth activist Yaraslau Hryshchenya for 15 days. Hryshchenya, who was also arrested on July 27, was convicted of uttering obscenities in public. When they were arrested, both Vyachorka and Hryshchenya were wearing stickers advertising the unsanctioned rally. JM

Belarusian Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski told journalists on July 30 that his government expects to receive a stabilization loan from Russia "soon," adding that experts are now considering the terms of the loan, Belapan reported. Sidorski was commenting on his talks with Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov in Moscow earlier that day. Belarus asked Russia for a loan of $1.5 billion after the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom more than doubled gas prices for Belarus as of January 2007. Last week, Russian Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin announced that the Russian government has preliminarily approved the stabilization loan to Belarus, but did not reveal its amount (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30, 2007). Meanwhile, Belarusian economic expert Leanid Zaika told Belapan that Sidorski and Fradkov apparently failed to reach an agreement on the loan. Zaika predicted that Belarus's request for a loan will have to be settled by the presidents of both countries. JM

Parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz has scheduled an emergency parliamentary session for August 7-10, Interfax-Ukraine reported on July 31. The session is expected to cover an extensive agenda, including amendments to the constitution, bills passed by the Verkhovna Rada after June 5, and laws regulating presidential elections. Moroz initially planned to convene such a session on July 31, but he changed his mind following a July 30 meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. Yanukovych is the leader of the Party of Regions, the largest force in the parliamentary majority, which also includes the Communist Party and the Socialist Party. Lawmakers from the pro-presidential Our Ukraine and Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc gave up their parliamentary seats in early June, in order to enable early polls in the fall. President Viktor Yushchenko on June 5 scheduled preterm elections for September 30, and does not consider the current Verkhovna Rada a legitimate legislative body. JM

Slovenia hopes that when it assumes the EU's rotating Presidency it will be able to end the impasse over Kosova's future by offering Serbia EU-candidate status, the "Financial Times" reported on July 30. The newspaper cited "officials in Ljubljana" as its source but also quoted Slovenian Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel as saying, "I have never felt as confident as I feel now dealing with my colleagues from Serbia." It did not say whether Rupel's confidence relates to the possibility of a breakthrough in talks on Kosova. The EU on July 29 appointed a German diplomat, Wolfgang Ischinger, to mediate for the EU in upcoming talks on Kosova's final status (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30, 2007). However, Slovenia will be in a position to exert a critical influence on EU policy from January 2008, when it assumes the leadership of the EU next year. Failure to decide on Kosova's future before Slovenia assumes the EU Presidency would be a disappointment for Western powers and for Prishtina: the EU hopes an imminent round of talks will last just 120 days and will result in a decision; the United States says it wants a resolution this year; and Kosovar leaders are currently discussing the possibility of declaring independence in November or December. AG

Hungary's prime minister, Ferenc Gyurcsany, said on July 30 that the EU and NATO may have no choice but to circumvent the United Nations and recognize Kosova as an independent state, local and international media reported. "If Kosovar Albanians lose hope of independence in the near future, then we will be faced with a crazy security challenge within a week," warned Gyurcsany, who reiterated the views of EU, U.S., and NATO leaders that "the emancipation of Kosovo is an unstoppable process." UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has issued similar warnings of instability. Gyurcsany, who met Russian President Vladimir Putin in mid-July, said that "frankly...we [the EU] are not going to have an agreement" with Russia about Kosova's future. Russia has been Serbia's strongest ally and its opposition to Kosovar statehood prompted the EU's leading powers and the United States in mid-July to abandon hopes of a UN resolution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 23, 2007). Since then, comments by the United States and EU states have focused on upcoming bilateral talks between Belgrade and Prishtina, while stressing longer-standing views that Kosova should be independent and that a decision may need to be made outside the UN Security Council. Possible divisions emerged on July 25, when, according to Serbian media, Austrian Chancellor Alfred Gusenbauer told the Austrian daily "Kurier" that he advised "caution," saying that a decision on the status of Kosova should be made by the UN Security Council. AG

Serbia's chief war-crimes prosecutor on July 30 charged a former army officer, Vladimir Kovacevic, for his role in the shelling in 1991 of the historic Croatian city of Dubrovnik. Kovacevic, a onetime captain who served as a senior officer during the seven-month siege of Dubrovnik, has been treated in a Serbian military psychiatric facility for "paranoid psychosis" since May 2007. His illness spared him from being sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), while two of his superior officers were jailed on similar charges: General Pavle Strugar to eight years in prison and Admiral Miodrag Jokic to seven years. It remains unclear when Kovacevic will be brought to trial. Four other officers in the Yugoslav People's Army and the late Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic were charged by the ICTY for their role in the siege, but Strugar and Jokic remain the only two men to be sentenced for the sustained attack on Dubrovnik. Kovacevic was initially indicted by the ICTY in 2001 and was arrested in Serbia in 2003. In the same July 30 statement, the Serbian prosecutor's office charged Kovacevic on the grounds that "units under his command, shelled Dubrovnik indiscriminately, in which at least two civilians were killed and three more were injured." The statement also noted that "six sites from the UNESCO Heritage List in Dubrovnik, as well as 46 other buildings, were destroyed in shelling" in December 1991. AG

Nine Serbs were killed on July 27 when a 38-year-old migrant worker recently returned from Austria went on the rampage in the eastern village of Jabukovac, local and international media reported on July 27-29. Reports suggest that the victims, who ranged in age from 15 to 60, were all shot randomly. The suspected gunman, Nikola Radosavljevic, was arrested on July 28 at the graveside of his parents, where he had apparently attempted to commit suicide. Radosavljevic was placed in hospital under police guard. The victims were buried on July 29. Two people survived the attack with serious injuries. Reports suggest Radosavljevic began his killing spree after an argument with his wife. AG

Montenegrin Prime Minister Zeljko Sturanovic said on July 30 that the Montenegrin authorities barred a Serbian bishop, Filaret of Milesevo, from entering the country at the request of the ICTY and of the EU, the news agency Beta reported. Sturanovic said Filaret's name featured on a list of people accused by the ICTY of helping war criminals evade capture, and it was his inclusion on the ICTY's list -- and an EU statement in mid-April that "encourages" nonmember states "to apply restrictive measures" against indicted war criminals -- that prompted Montenegro to prevent Filaret crossing its border. Sturanovic was responding to questions in parliament. Filaret tried to enter the country on July 8, but news of the incident surfaced only on July 20. Sturanovic did not specify whom Filaret is thought to have helped, but the ICTY at one time thought that the Bosnian Serbs' wartime political leader, Radovan Karadzic, had found refuge in Orthodox churches. A recent operation to capture the Bosnian Serbs' military commander, Ratko Mladic, appeared to center on a monastery close to Belgrade. AG

The prime minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina's ethnic-Serbian-dominated entity, Milorad Dodik, said on July 27 that a commemoration of an antifascist uprising in World War II should be a reminder to Bosnia's Serbs that their "only and true fatherland" is the Republika Srpska, the daily "Glas Srpske" reported on July 28. Dodik was speaking at a ceremony in Milica Gaj to mark the first shots of a long-running guerrilla campaign against fascist allies of Nazi Germany and against Nazi troops. Speeches at the ceremony also drew attention to those who died in death camps sited in modern Bosnia and run by Croatian fascists. In April, Dodik used an anniversary at the largest concentration camp, Jasenovac, as a counterpoint to charges that the Bosnian Serbs were, as a group, guilty of genocide, and his comments at Milica Gaj had a similar contemporary political resonance as he underscored the regional government's opposition to suggestions that the Republika Srpska should lose its autonomous status (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 25, 2007). As well as centralizing Bosnia's political system, such a move would mark the abandonment of the constitutional arrangement in force in Bosnia since the war ended in 1995. A recent survey suggested that ethnic Serbs are overwhelmingly opposed to political centralization, but also indicated that the majority accept the idea that the Republika Srpska is part of Bosnia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 29, 2007). Along with Poland, the former Yugoslavia was one of the bloodiest theaters of World War II. AG

The prime minister of Macedonia, Nikola Gruevski, said on July 28 that Skopje will stop "begging" Belgrade for permission to celebrate the anniversary of a nationalist uprising on the territory of modern-day Serbia, local media reported. Macedonia's decision comes in the wake of protracted and so far fruitless efforts to gain permission to hold a ceremony on August 2 at a monastery at Prohor Pcinjski. The ceremony would have marked the 104th anniversary of the Ilinden Uprising by Macedonians, Bulgarians, and other local ethnic groups against their Ottoman Turk rulers. Gruevski linked the "undignified" dispute to a long-running clash between the Macedonian and Serbian Orthodox churches. Serbian Orthodox leaders have refused to recognize the Macedonian Orthodox Church as a church, while the Serbian Orthodox Church, which has been allowed to register in Macedonia, complains of persecution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23 and May 23, 2007). The importance of the Ilinden Uprising, which persisted for several months but was eventually quashed with the loss of approximately 15,000 lives, continues to be seen in contemporary Macedonian politics, as two of the country's political parties incorporated the name of the rebels' organizers, the Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (VMRO), into their names. AG


Afghan police on July 31 said they have found the bullet-riddled body of one of the 22 remaining South Korean hostages held by suspected Taliban rebels in central Afghanistan, international media reported. Alishah Ahmadzai, the police chief of Ghazni Province, said the body was found in the Orzo area of Andar district. The South Korean Foreign Ministry identified the victim as Shim Sung-min, reported to be aged 29. Taliban militants announced the previous day that they killed a male hostage after the expiration of the deadline they had set for the government to release eight imprisoned militants, AFP reported. Taliban spokesman Qari Yusof Ahmadi told AFP that the government paid no attention to several deadlines set by the group, prompting them to kill the hostage. Ahmadi said if the Taliban does not receive a positive reply to its demands about the release of Taliban prisoners by the morning of August 1, then "we will start killing other hostages." He said the Taliban will first kill the group's men, then the women, and described the July 30 killing as the first phase of consecutive executions. The government has ruled out a prisoner exchange and urged the militants to release the hostages, citing Islamic and Afghan tradition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30, 2007). On July 25, Taliban militants killed the leader of the aid workers, 42-year-old Presbyterian pastor Bae Hyung-kyu (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2007). JC

The Afghan Ministry of Agriculture and Food said on July 29 that Afghanistan is heading for an environmental crisis if the government and international donors continue to ignore widespread ecological damage, the Integrated Regional Information Network reported. Over 26 years of armed conflict, mismanaged natural resources, population displacement, and poor governance have contributed to Afghanistan's impending environmental crisis, said Abdul Rahman Hotaky, chairman of the Afghan Organization for Human Rights and Environmental Protection. More than 80 percent of Afghanistan's land is susceptible to soil erosion, according to a ministry report. In the last two decades, Afghanistan has lost over 70 percent of its forest, while cultivating less than 50 percent of its farmland, the report said. According to specialists, Afghan governments in recent years have focused only on national security and stability while paying little attention to environmental damage. JC

The Mine Action Program for Afghanistan (MAPA) on July 31 said it completed 31 minefield and battlefield-clearing tasks in July, Pajhwak Afghan News (PAN) reported. In a statement, MAPA said it cleared more than 900,000 square meters of minefields and more than 6 million square meters of battlefields in its efforts to achieve the Ottawa Convention benchmarks on landmine removal. A total of 30,548 pieces of unexploded ordnance, including 118 antipersonnel mines and 35 antitank mines, were destroyed during MAPA's work. The newly cleared land can be used for farming or housing, the statement said. MAPA also said it taught approximately 100,000 Afghan citizens nationwide, including recently returned refugees, about the risks of mines. An umbrella organization comprising partners of the United Nations Mine Action Center for Afghanistan, MAPA has cleared more than 1 billion square meters of minefields and battlefields throughout Afghanistan since 1989. JC

A British Royal Marine died on July 29 during coalition operations in Afghanistan's volatile southern provinces, the British Defense Ministry announced on July 30, according to AFP. The marine's death is the fourth for the British military in Afghanistan in five days, bringing to 68 the number of U.K. soldiers killed there since the U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban in 2001. A ministry spokesperson said the marine's relatives have been informed and further details on the attack will be released within a day, the BBC reported. Britain has approximately 7,000 troops serving in the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan, the highest number of foreign troops there after the United States, and is expected to expand its force to 7,800 by the end of the year. The majority are stationed in Helmand Province, a Taliban stronghold and poppy-producing region. JC

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told a Tehran press conference on July 30 that Iran owes nothing to the Russian contractor building the Bushehr nuclear plant on Iran's southern coast, and has met "all its commitments regarding the Bushehr" plant, ISNA reported. Russia has repeatedly cited unpaid debts as the cause of repeated delays in completing the plant's construction. Regarding the Russian claims, "Iran has declared it can examine them in the framework of negotiations," Hosseini said. He added that an Iranian team is scheduled to go to Russia for talks, without giving details. Referring to the standoff over Iran's nuclear program, Hosseni said the Security Council powers that have so far pressured Iran to suspend its program are showing increasing "realism," and that those supporting a negotiated agreement are now in a stronger position. He said a "technical" approach to the nuclear issue will ensure "the process is easily resolved," and further UN sanctions would only complicate the dispute. Meanwhile, an "informed" but unnamed government source told IRNA that inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visited a research reactor in Arak, central Iran, for five hours on July 30. The inspection follows recent agreements between Iran and the IAEA under which Iran has agreed to help clarify some of the agency's outstanding questions on its contested program, IRNA added. Iran had earlier denied inspectors access to the Arak heavy-water plant following the ratification of a UN Security Council resolution in March sanctioning Iran for its nuclear program. VS

Ayatollah Ali Meshkini, the president of the Assembly of Experts, the body of clerics that elects and ostensibly supervises Iran's supreme leader, died on July 30 in a Tehran hospital, the Fars news agency reported. He had been in the hospital receiving dialysis and treatment for respiratory problems, and apparently died of kidney failure. A funeral service is reportedly scheduled for August 1 in Tehran, after which his body is to be taken to Qom, northcentral Iran. The goverment declared an official day of mourning on August 1, agencies reported. An unnamed member of the Assembly of Experts told Fars on July 30 that the deputy heads of the assembly, assisted by the assembly's presidium, will assume the president's duties until the next session of the assembly, when a new leader will be elected. He did not say when the next session will be held. VS

Iranian reformists and liberal politicians gathered at the home of a detained student activist in Tehran on July 29 and denounced the Iranian government's treatment of 19 detained students and other activists, Radio Farda reported, citing, the web site of the Iran Graduates Organization (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10, 2007). The reformists met at the house of the father of Abdullah Momeni, the group's spokesman and a former member of the Office to Consolidate Unity, a nationwide student grouping. Addressing the group, writer Babak Ahmadi asked why Iran's government is "afraid of its own people" and "wants to create fear in people's hearts." He added, however, that "they are right to be afraid of us," and accused Iran's government of using "Stalinist methods, such as forced confessions, humiliation, and pressure" against detainees. Mohammad Maleki, the first head of Tehran University after the 1979 revolution, spoke out against government coercion used to pressure detainees into giving forced confessions, and said that "even in the [1980s] these confessions were without credibility, and people did not believe them." Iran has on many occasions publicized the alleged confessions of detainees, most recently in the case of two detained Iranian-American scholars whose statements were broadcast on television (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 19, 2007). Other speakers expressing support for the detained students and graduates included Kurosh Zaim of the liberal and secular National Front of Iran; Ibrahim Yazdi of the Freedom Movement of Iran, a liberal party close to some reformist circles; and Hashem Aghajari, a member of the reformist Islamic Revolution Mujahedin Organization, Radio Farda reported. VS

Iran earned about $11.45 billion from crude oil sales in the first three months of the Persian year that began on March 21, Fars reported, citing "information obtained from the Central Bank." It added that this constituted a drop of about 3 percent year-on-year. Iran exported $9.134 million in petrochemicals and gas-related products in the same three-month period, Fars added. It reported that in the first two months of the Persian year, Iran spent $1.77 billion of its revenues from crude oil sales on importing gasoline for cars. VS

The Iraqi National Assembly began a one-month recess on July 31, despite U.S. demands that they cancel their vacations to push through pending legislation, including the draft oil law and revisions to the de-Ba'athification process. Parliamentarians have said they are required by the constitution to to take a month-long break in the summer. They had planned a two-month break, but reduced it to the minimum one-month recess earlier this month. Government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh defended the decision, telling Al-Sharqiyah television on July 30: "Iraqis are not happy that the parliament will go into recess, but it is constitutional. Many deputies do not want to go into recess, but it is constitutional." The parliament will return to work on September 4, two weeks before U.S. General David Petraeus is slated to report to the U.S. Congress on progress of the Baghdad security plan. KR

Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi reportedly told British Ambassador to Iraq Dominic Asquith that the Sunni-led Iraqi Accordance Front will follow through with its threat to withdraw from the government, according to a July 31 press release on the Iraqi Islamic Party's website. Al-Hashimi said he is convinced that Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will not meet the Accordance Front's conditions for remaining in government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30, 2007). Meanwhile, al-Maliki told the pro-Sunni Arab television channel Al-Baghdadiyah on July 30 that he may support early elections in Iraq. The channel reported that al-Maliki said he would welcome any measure that helps improve the political and security situation in Iraq, including a call for early elections. Al-Maliki also voiced disappointment with the Accordance Front for its threat to suspend participation in the cabinet and parliament, Al-Baghdadiyah reported. The Shi'ite-led United Iraqi Alliance said in a statement posted to its website on July 30 that it has formed a committee to hold dialogue with the Accordance Front and examine the demands the front has put forward, the statement noted. KR

Fifty Kurds were arrested in the northern Iraqi city of Dahuk for waving the Iraqi flag following the Iraqi national soccer team's defeat of Saudi Arabia in the Asian Cup final, dpa reported on July 31 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30, 2007). The press agency cited a police source as reporting the arrests. "The Kurdish security forces seize anybody carrying the Iraqi flag, even for one hour," the source said. Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani has banned the flying of the Iraqi flag at government offices and buildings, claiming he opposes displaying the Saddam Hussein-era flag. Instead, the Kurdish region's flag is flown in the governorates of Irbil, Al-Sulaymaniyah, and Dahuk. KR

A two-day conference hosted by the World Health Organization (WHO) addressing the plight of refugees and their host states ended in Damascus on July 30 with participants agreeing that more work needs to be done to assist the refugees and their host states, international media reported. The Mideast and Africa director of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), Radhouane Nouicer, said that each day some 2,000 Iraqis cross the Iraq-Syria border, or some 60,000 a month. The UNHCR said 10,000 Iraqi families in Syria need immediate assistance. AP reported that the world body may begin providing a monthly stipend of $80-$100 to support the families. KR

Oxfam International said in a report published on July 30 that one-third of Iraq's population is in need of emergency humanitarian assistance. The report is based on information obtained from the Iraqi government and humanitarian and civil-society organizations working with Oxfam. Seventy percent of Iraqis lack access to water, compared with 50 percent in 2003, while 90 percent of the country's hospitals lack basic medical and surgical supplies, Oxfam said. The report said unemployment and hunger acutely affect Iraq's 2 million internally displaced people, many of whom are homeless. It put the number of Iraqis in desperate need of food aid at 4 million. KR

Israel has agreed to allow some Palestinian refugees who had fled Iraq to return to the West Bank and reunite with their families there, "Ha'aretz" reported on July 30. The daily reported the decision as a gesture of goodwill toward Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad. Forty-one Palestinians will be allowed to enter under the agreement, while 10 Palestinians were denied entry and reunification with their families in Gaza. Some 30,000 Palestinians were living in Iraq when the regime of Saddam Hussein fell in 2003. Following the war, Palestinians came under increasing threats because of their former ties to the Hussein regime. Thousands fled but were stranded along Iraq's borders with Syria and Jordan, often with little or no aid from the international community (see RFE/RL Newsline," April 24, 2007). KR