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Newsline - August 14, 2007

The Prosecutor-General's Office, the Federal Security Service (FSB), the Interior Ministry, and the Emergency Situations Ministry launched an investigation after an explosion late on August 13 derailed the Neva Express train running from Moscow to St. Petersburg, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. Doctors arrived on the scene within 20 minutes of the derailment, which took place near the village of Malaya Vishera in Novgorod Oblast. In a statement, Russian Railways said 25 people were hospitalized after the accident, and 35 others received treatment at the scene. Officials of the Prosecutor-General's Office says it believes the explosion was caused by a homemade bomb with the power of about 2 kilograms of TNT. Witnesses reported hearing an explosion before the train derailed. On August 14, FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev called President Vladimir Putin, who is visiting the Republic of Tyva (Tuva), to brief him on the incident and the investigation, RIA Novosti reported. Putin has personally taken charge of the investigation, reported. Patrushev told reporters that "we have been able to significantly reduce the...number of terrorist attacks. Nevertheless, the threat of extremism and terrorism has not been removed once and for all," Interfax reported. RIA Novosti noted that if the train had been going faster, it could have been thrown from a bridge, which would have led to a far greater number of casualties. There is no indication as to who may have planted the bomb. Chechen President and resistance commander Doku Umarov said five months ago that the Chechen resistance does not target Russian civilians. PM

Yury Savenko, the president of Russia's Independent Psychiatric Association, told RFE/RL's Russian Service on August 13 that there is no basis to confine opposition activist and independent journalist Larisa Arap to a psychiatric hospital, where she has been held near Murmansk since early July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30 and 31, and August 1 and 10, 2007). He stressed that Arap's condition has never posed any threat "to herself or to other people." Savenko and his colleagues examined Arap last week. Arap claims authorities placed her in the hospital in retaliation for a statement she gave to a newspaper, alleging that patients at a psychiatric clinic were beaten and sexually abused. Her family maintains that she is being forcibly held and drugged. PM

Senator Vyacheslav Popov said on August 13 that the Northern Fleet needs more ships, Interfax reported. Popov's statement followed recent remarks by Navy commander Admiral Vladimir Masorin that the Russian fleet should have a "permanent presence" in the Mediterranean Sea, as it did in Syria during the Cold War (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11 and August 3 and 7, 2007). Popov, who is a former commander of the Northern Fleet, said that "all of the Northern Fleet's bases, including the main base at Severomorsk, are north of the Arctic there is no need to build additional bases there" in response to Canada's plans to expand its military presence in the Arctic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 3 and 13, 2007). Popov added that the new ships should not be small frigates but "blue-water frigates and destroyers, as well as nuclear-powered submarines." PM

The Russian daily "Kommersant" reported on August 13 that Russia could double its coal exports to Germany by 2018, when that country plans to close its last coal mines because of high costs. The German firm RAG has already opened talks with three Russian suppliers for up to 50 million tons of coal per year, in addition to what Germany currently imports from Russia, which would mean $1.3 billion in additional income for Russian exporters. Russia's total coal exports to Western Europe currently stand at about 50 million tons annually, most of which goes to Germany and Britain. The daily noted that Russian coal exports to Germany entail high shipping costs, which help make Australian and South African coal more competitive than the Russian product on the German market. PM

Zukhra Tsipinova, who was married for five years to Anzor Astemirov (aka Amir Seyfulla), now a leader of the so-called Kabardino-Balkaria jamaat, has written to President Putin, Russian Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika, and presidential human-rights commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova to protest continued victimization and harassment by the police and security services, reported on August 13. Tsipinova explained that she married Astemirov, then a "law-abiding citizen," in 2000 and divorced him in 2005, since when she has been unaware of his whereabouts. She said she learned of Astemirov's putative involvement in militant activities, including the October 2005 attacks on police facilities in Nalchik (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," October 17 and November 14, 2005) only from the media. She remarried in May 2007 and moved with her new husband to Adygeya. Her husband was arrested five days later, and security officials have said they will release him only if she divulges Astemirov's whereabouts. Tsipinova asked Putin to intervene on her behalf and that of her six-year-old son, who has been expelled from several kindergartens because of his father's terrorist reputation. On August 2, reported that the Interior Ministry of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic has offered a reward of 3 million rubles ($117,354) for information leading to Astemirov's capture. LF

Lebanese-born Karabakh war veteran Zhirayr Sefilian, who was sentenced last week to 18 months' imprisonment for possession of a pistol presented to him as a gift by the former commander of the armed forces of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2007), on August 13 described as "violence" his treatment during the eight months since his arrest in December 2006, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Sefilian warned the Armenian authorities that "violence begets violence," and warned that he and two colleagues sentenced with him will not "remain silent" during the run-up to next year's presidential election. Sefilian was acquitted of plotting to overthrow the Armenian leadership in the run-up to the May 2007 parliamentary ballot, but his former comrade-in-arms Vartan Malkhasian received a two-year prison term on the same charge. LF

Nine journalists from the twin newspapers "Gyundelik Azerbaycan" and "Realny Azerbaijan" submitted on August 13 to the U.S. Embassy in Baku individual requests for political asylum, reported. In June, 18 journalists from the two papers submitted to several Western embassies in Baku a collective request for political asylum abroad (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 13, 2007). LF

Accompanied by several government ministers, Emomali Rahmon arrived in Baku on August 13 on a two-day official visit, Russian and Azerbaijani media reported. Following talks with his Azerbaijani counterpart Ilham Aliyev, Rahmon told journalists that the two countries plan to raise bilateral trade turnover from last year's level of $131 million to $500 million, and that Azerbaijan will send a group of experts to Tajikistan to prospect for oil. Aliyev said Azerbaijan has plans for investment in Tajikistan, but did not elaborate. The two presidents signed a joint declaration registering their shared position on economic integration and bilateral and regional cooperation, according to Also signed were intergovernmental agreements on trade; avoiding dual taxation; science and technology; education; and communications. Rahmon also met on August 14 with Azerbaijani Prime Minister Artur Rasizade and parliament speaker Oktai Asadov. LF

Vano Merabishvili dismissed on August 13 as "horsefeathers" the allegation made two days earlier by Russian First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov that Georgia "staged" the August 6 incident in which a military aircraft dropped or jettisoned a missile on a village west of Tbilisi, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 13, 2007). The television station Rustavi-2 quoted Minister for Conflict Resolution Davit Bakradze on August 13 as attributing Ivanov's comment to his "personal hatred" of Georgia. Also on August 13, a commission of international experts began their investigation into the missile incident, reported. Meanwhile, the Georgian delegation to the OSCE released a lengthy statement stressing that Russia has not yet responded to Tbilisi's request for an explanation of the missile incident. It noted the emergence of "a clear and present danger to Georgia's sovereignty" and suggested that the incident portends "a well-planned military operation against Georgia." It underscores Tbilisi's expectation that the OSCE will "express its resolute position on this issue and spare no efforts to prevent a dangerous escalation of events that would pose a threat to Georgian and wider European security." LF

Mukhtar Dzhakishev, the head of Kazatomprom, Kazakhstan's state nuclear-fuel company, announced on August 13 that Kazatomprom has purchased a 10 percent stake in the U.S. nuclear firm Westinghouse from Japan's Toshiba Corporation, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. According to an agreement signed in Almaty by Dzhakishev and Toshiba executives Atsutoshi Nishida and Norio Sasaki, Kazatomprom will pay Toshiba $540 million to secure the stake in Westinghouse, which specializes in the construction of nuclear power plants. Toshiba recently concluded an agreement with Kazatomprom to engage in joint nuclear-plant construction projects involving the transfer of uranium-processing technology from Toshiba and Westinghouse to Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 10 and 16, 2007). During a visit to Kazakhstan in May, Japanese Trade and Industry Minister Akira Amari announced that Japan plans to import up to 40 percent of the uranium it uses from Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2007). RG

Kazakh Interior Ministry spokesman Baghdat Kozhakhmetov said on August 13 that "there are still chances" for a successful challenge to Austria's refusal to extradite Rakhat Aliev, the former son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. At a press conference in Astana, Kozhakhmetov said Kazakhstan intends to challenge the Austrian court's ruling by bringing an "appeal to a higher court, as well as international courts." A court in Vienna earlier in the month ruled against the extradition request for the return of Aliev, who until recently served as the Kazakh ambassador to Austria (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 9, 2007). The spokesman added that Kazakh officials are "perplexed" by the court ruling and vowed to "secure Aliev's extradition," noting that "if Aliev tries to go to another country using his documents, he will be detained and handed over" to the Kazakh Interior Ministry. Aliev faces criminal charges of corruption, money laundering, and kidnapping in Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 6, 13, and 19, 2007). RG

The Kazakh Central Election Commission on August 13 posted a formal document refuting criticism issued earlier this week in an interim pre-election report by the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) election-monitoring mission, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. The commission's 26-point response specifically disputed the ODIHR mission's portrayal of Kazakh President Nazarbaev's recent regional tours as an effort to persuade local residents to vote for the ruling Nur Otan party, arguing that the report distorts events. The commission also noted that the president spoke in his capacity as "leader of the [Nur Otan] party," which "does not go against Kazakh law," and argued that "the president did not call on citizens to vote specifically for the Nur Otan party, but for a political party which would meet their personal interests and those of the whole society and the country." The response closed by stressing that "in any democratic country, the head of state has the right to directly address members of the party that he leads." Kazakhstan is holding elections on August 18 for seats in the lower house of the Kazakh parliament, or Mazhilis. RG

In a statement released in Bishkek, the leadership of Kyrgyzstan's Green Party vowed on August 13 to appeal a Bishkek district court's ruling that sentenced party leader Erkin Bulekbaev to 10 days in prison, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported. Bulekbaev, a television journalist, was arrested on August 10 while filming a police operation at the Issykul Investbank building in Bishkek (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 13, 2007). The arrest of Bulekbaev, who is also a member of the opposition United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan, triggered a small demonstration on August 11 by protesters accusing the Kyrgyz authorities of overreacting and demanding Bulekbaev's immediate release. RG

Tajik media-rights activist Amrullo Nizomov announced on August 13 in Dushanbe that a new organization of journalists has been formed to "serve as a bridge" between "young student journalists" and the Tajik media, Asia-Plus reported. Nizomov added that the new group, called the Organization for Developing Young Journalists, has been formally registered with the Tajik Ministry of Justice and received an official endorsement from the Journalists' Union of Tajikistan. Nizomov said "the main goal of the organization is to unite young journalists," and that it also seeks to "organize meetings between young people and professional journalists to try to help them with employment at national media outlets," and plans to "issue a monthly newspaper, which will publish young authors." The announcement comes one day after Tajik media-rights groups and journalists urged President Emomali Rahmon not to sign a new media law that would authorize courts to jail journalists for up to two years if they are found guilty of libel or insults in their writing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 13, 2007). RG

In an interview on Turkmen Television on August 13, Turkmenistan's former chief Islamic cleric, or mufti, Nasrullah ibn Ibadullah, expressed gratitude for a recent presidential pardon repealing a 2004 sentence imprisoning him for 22 years on charges of treason. The 60-year-old Ibadullah, who served as the chief mufti from 1996 to 2003, pledged to "work and serve" the Turkmen people and the country's "esteemed president," Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov. He also said that he accepted a post as an adviser to the state Council for Religious Affairs immediately after his August 10 pardon (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 10, 2007). Ibadullah was a strident critic of late President Saparmurat Niyazov, and openly clashed with him over the death sentences handed to people convicted in secret trials for their alleged involvement in a purported assassination attempt against Niyazov in 2002. RG

Andrey Hiro, the head of the Belarusian Foreign Ministry's consular department, told journalists on August 13 that Belarus hopes the European Union will enter talks with Minsk in the near future on easier two-way travel, Belapan reported. Hiro said Minsk unilaterally simplified visa rules for EU nationals "as much as possible" three years ago, but the EU's response to the move did not satisfy the Belarusian side. In particular, Hiro pointed out that an EU citizen can obtain a Belarusian entry visa upon arrival at a Minsk airport, whereas Belarusian nationals can get a visa to a country participating in the Schengen agreement only by applying to that country's embassy. JM

Some 2,000 supporters of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) rallied in front of the Central Election Commission (TsVK) offices in Kyiv on August 13, urging the top election body to register the list of BYuT candidates for early parliamentary elections on September 30, Ukrainian media reported. The TsVK refused to register the BYuT party list last week, arguing that it does not include the exact addresses of the candidates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 13, 2007). The BYuT claims that Ukraine's election legislation does not require that political parties supply the full addresses of their candidates. A district court in Kyiv is expected to rule on the controversy on August 14. President Viktor Yushchenko, in a statement publicized on August 13 by his aide Maryna Stavniychuk, urged the TsVK to "return voluntarily" to the issue of registering the BYuT candidates, without waiting for a court decision. The TsVK has 15 members -- seven nominated by the president and eight by the ruling coalition of the Party of Regions, the Socialist Party, and the Communist Party. The eight TsVK members nominated by the ruling coalition issued a statement on August 13 slamming the BYuT for "gross, overt pressure" and "groundless accusations." JM

A military court in Zhytomyr has sentenced one military sergeant to seven years and another to five years in prison, finding them guilty of killing a recruit, Oleksandr Rybka, at a military training center in Chernihiv Oblast, Interfax-Ukraine reported on August 14. The court also ruled that the military unit to which Rybka was drafted has to pay 200,000 hryvnyas ($40,000) to his mother and $50,000 hryvnyas to his sister in compensation. Rybka had served in the army for just 20 days. Shortly after he took his oath of enlistment on November 27, 2006, Rybka was kicked to death by the two 20-year-old sergeants. Ten days before his death, Rybka reportedly sent a letter to his mother, asking her to help get him out of the army. JM

The failure of authorities in Kosova to capture the killers of two Serbian boys in the four years since their murder is "proof that Kosovo is not ready to be democratic," the Serbian news agency FoNet quoted Serbian President Boris Tadic as saying in a statement issued on August 13 to mark the anniversary of the crime. The victims, Ivan Jovovic and Pantelija Dakic, were among a group of boys who came under fire while they were swimming in a river near the village of Gorazdevac in western Kosova. Four others were injured. Tadic urged the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) and Kosovar Albanian leaders to halt what he described as the spread of extremism in Kosova. A reward of 1 million euros ($1.36 million) offered by UNMIK failed to lead to the killers' capture. According to a report by the Serbian broadcaster B92 on August 13, the Kosovar police say they have taken statements from 75 people and searched 100 houses during their investigations. AG

A leading ethnic-Albanian party in Serbia's Presevo Valley warned on August 11 that Belgrade's decision to tighten security in the southern region after a spate of shootings risks antagonizing the local population and destabilizing the region. Mitat Saqipi, a spokesman for the Democratic Party of Albanians (PDSh), the leading party in the valley's largest town, Presevo, told the Kosovar news service KosovaLive that the measures are fostering a sense of insecurity and fear in the local community. Serbia on August 9 stepped up patrols along a stretch of Serbia's border with Kosova that runs through the valley. Belgrade has not disclosed other details of its security measures. "The situation as it is reminds one of an emergency situation even though no emergency has been declared," Saqipi said. The heightened security measures follow a police clash with an armed group that robbed cars traveling on a road leading into Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2007). One person was killed in that clash. Three other local Albanians were killed in early August in two separate incidents that local police said at the time had no political motive. "The incidents could have political implications because of the sensitivity of the area and we want to act to prevent that," a Serbian government official, Rasim Ljajic, told Serbian media on August 9. Presevo, which borders Kosova and is overwhelmingly populated by ethnic Albanians, was the site of an insurgency in 2001, two years after NATO intervened to halt the separatist conflict in Kosova. Ljajic also called for greater coordination with international forces stationed in Kosova, saying that "only joint cooperation and partnership make sense in such a situation." AG

The head of a regional branch of Serbia's Radio-Television TNT, Stefan Cvetkovic, said on August 9 that he has received an anonymous death threat. There was no indication as to the reason for the threat, but according to the broadcaster B92, Cvetkovic described it as "a continuation of threats being aimed at me; everything is done with the intention of frightening me and trying to make me stop publishing documentation and arguments about criminal activity." Cvetkovic said he previously received milder threats from police officers who were fired, in his words, after "they were seen snorting a white, powdered substance." Cvetkovic, who works in the northern border town of Bela Crkva, said he does not know if the police have launched investigations into any of the incidents. Local media report that one governing party, G17 Plus, has condemned the threats against Cvetkovic. Also on August 9, the Independent Journalists' Association of Serbia (NUNS) criticized the Serbian authorities for failing to provide information about investigations into the murders of journalists Radislava Vujasinovic in 1994, Slavko Curuvija in 1999, and Milan Pantic in 2001, B92 said in a separate report. The dangers faced by journalists in Serbia were highlighted once more in April when the home of a prominent journalist, Dejan Anastasijevic, was attacked with a grenade (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16 and May 4, 2007). Police swiftly arrested and then released several men. There has been no information about the Anastasijevic case since. The daily "Politika" on August 13 reported that a survey commissioned by NUNS found that journalists in Serbia consider their profession to be risky, poorly respected, politicized, censored, very badly paid, and corrupt. AG

The commander of EU peacekeeping forces in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rear Admiral Hans-Jochen Witthauer, has warned Brussels against a hasty withdrawal of troops. The Serbian news agency Tanjug quoted him as telling Austrian reporters on August 12 that he "would be very cautious" about changing troop levels. EUFOR's mission was scaled back this spring from about 6,000 to 2,500 troops, a move that the EU and Witthauer said reflected greater stability in the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, March 14, April 4, and May 22, 2007). Subsequently, in May, Witthauer described Bosnia as being "in a state of heightened political uncertainty," but added that "not a single incident or problem that cropped up in the past few years has provoked significant reactions." Witthauer has previously identified reforms of Bosnia's constitution and its various police services as prerequisites for greater stability there (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 10, 2007). AG

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on August 10 expressed concern at "serious weaknesses and loopholes" in the country's criminal justice system following the escape of a prisoner on August 7. Milorad Milakovic, an ordinary criminal, was temporarily free "on leave" when he escaped. Earlier this year, a convicted war criminal, Radovan Stankovic, escaped while being taken from prison to a local dentist, and a suspected terrorist, Branko Zelenika, escaped while being taken to a detention center (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29 and June 1, 2007). Neither has been recaptured. All three were in the Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska at the time. The OSCE noted that "the rules for leave have been recently tightened in the cases of those convicted of war crimes or of trafficking in narcotics," and said that the rules should also be restricted for those convicted of human trafficking, one of the crimes for which Milakovic was jailed. The OSCE added that Bosnia should cooperate more closely with other countries to prevent prison breaks. AG

Macedonia's political parties on August 13 noted in a subdued manner the sixth anniversary of the peace deal that ended a six-month conflict with ethnic-Albanian separatists. In a statement carried by the news agency MIA, the governing parties, which include two ethnic-Albanian parties, underlined their commitment to the "full implementation" of the peace deal, the Ohrid Agreement. The deal boosted the rights of ethnic-Albanians and set up a framework for them to become more integrated into Macedonian society. In comments carried by the news agency Makfax, Radmila Sekerinska, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), on August 13 praised the agreement for restoring peace and stability in the country, but added that "because of the bad situation in parliament, there is still no official position as to how we will treat this day." Two ethnic-Albanian parties boycotted parliament for nearly four months this year in large part because of the government's alleged failure to act on the Ohrid Agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 29 and May 22 and 29, 2007). "Unfortunately, the quarrels are becoming louder as to whether the Ohrid Treaty is fully realized or not, and how we should end that chapter of Macedonian history," Sekerinska said. One of the lawyers who helped draft the agreement, Vlado Popovski, told MIA on August 12 that 70 percent of the agreement has been implemented, and said that "significant progress has been made in terms of the equitable representation of non-majority communities." Full implementation of the agreement is a key condition for Macedonia's potential NATO and EU membership. Macedonia hopes NATO leaders will decide in April 2008 to invite it to join the alliance. In a statement carried by the news agency MIA on August 6, the U.S. ambassador in Macedonia, Gillian Milovanovic, said Macedonia has made "big progress" since 2001. AG

Work at Albania's largest mine ground to a halt on August 13, as miners went on strike following the second fatal accident this summer. The news service Balkan Insight said one man, a union leader, died in the accident on August 11 at the Bulqiza mine in northern Albania. Over 600 miners gathered at a rally on August 13 to demand better safety conditions and to call for a 50 percent pay hike and proper contracts. The victim, Zamir Hysa, had reportedly written to Prime Minister Sali Berisha just days before his death asking the government to force the mine's owners, the Swiss-Russian consortium Darfo, to improve conditions at the mine. In June, another accident at the mine caused two deaths and brought miners out on strike for weeks. Thirty went on hunger strike, with four eventually being hospitalized in critical condition. Darfo representatives initially said the two died as a result of negligence, but two company engineers were subsequently arrested for failing to adhere to safety regulations. Another accident at the mine earlier this year cost one miner his life. Bulqiza produces chromium, Albania's largest export in the communist era and still a major source of income for the country. AG


Taliban militants on August 13 handed over two female South Korean hostages, both reported to be ill, to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) after 25 days of captivity, the Times Online reported. The web site reported that Taliban militants dropped off the two women, identified as Kim Kyung-ja and Kim Ji-na, in the Andar district in Ghazni Province near the site where 23 South Korean Christian aid workers were kidnapped last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 21, 2007). The women were then brought to ICRC representatives by a tribal elder involved in brokering the deal, which came after lengthy negotiations between government officials and the Taliban. The details of the exchange are unknown, although the ICRC confirmed in a statement that it played a key intermediary role in the negotiations, AFP reported. The Taliban captors killed two male hostages after negotiations stalled in July. JC

Defense Secretary Des Browne on August 13 defended Britain's military presence in Afghanistan, arguing that a "long-term commitment" is vital to preventing the emergence of terrorist training camps, "The Guardian" reported. Browne praised U.K. forces for doing an "exceptionally good job" and credited the 7,700 troops in Afghanistan with ensuring the "best future" for a country plagued by decades of violence. Browne acknowledged the discouraging growth of poppy production, believed to be funding the Taliban insurgency in the south. He added that a main challenge for British troops is helping to build sustainable communities and local governments capable of maintaining the progress made by foreign troops in defeating the rebels, the BBC reported. Browne's remarks follow the death of another British soldier on August 11. JC

An Afghan official announced on August 13 that the government has established a copyright enforcement board, in a significant step for intellectual-property rights in a country struggling to the maintain rule of law, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Mohammad Yousaf Rajabi, the head of policy and legal affairs at the Ministry of Commerce, told Pajhwak that the board is tasked with registering intellectual property, including patents for inventions, copyrights, and trademarks, in an effort to prevent violations by "unscrupulous elements." The board, which will be inaugurated on August 15, will include members of the Supreme Court, representatives from the Science Academy at Kabul University, and officials from the ministries of justice and foreign affairs. Copyright violations and other intellectual-property infringements are common in Afghanistan. A draft law on intellectual-property violations has been sent by the Ministry of Commerce to the Ministry of Justice for evaluation. JC

Justice and Judicial Commission Secretary Muhammad Sarwar Jawadi said on August 13 that Afghanistan's lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga, has approved a recently signed prisoner-exchange agreement with Iran, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Jawadi told reporters that the 19-point agreement allows for the transfer of prisoners to relatives or government authorities in their home countries. The majority of Afghans imprisoned in Iran have been arrested for petty crime and sentenced to less than five years in prison, Jawadi said. Afghanistan's parliamentary commissions on justice, judiciary affairs, and international affairs, whose officials deliberated the details of the agreement with Iranian officials last year in Tehran, approved the accord before passing it on to the Wolesi Jirga. Iran's parliament has already approved the agreement. The agreement must be adopted by Afghanistan's Meshrano Jirga, or upper house, before it can take effect. JC

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) on August 13 announced it will assist in constructing new homes for nearly 10,000 exiled Afghan families returning home, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. At a press conference in Kabul, UNHCR spokesman Nadir Fahard said the refugees, returning primarily from Pakistan and Iran, will receive the aid through the UN's Shelter for Refugees program, which provides refugees across the country with the construction materials and tools necessary to build houses in their home districts. Fernando Arocena, head of the International Organization for Migration, voiced concerns over the security situation in Afghanistan's southern provinces of Farah and Nimroz, where refugees returning from Iran often face violence in addition to unemployment, lack of shelter, and food shortages. On August 10, the UNHCR requested an additional $10 million from international donors to cover the costs of repatriating approximately 400,000 Afghan refugees this year. JC

Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Bahin told Radio Farda on August 13 that ministry officials and diplomats from Iran's consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, are investigating the fatal shooting of Afghan nationals by Iranian border guards. Four young Afghans were reportedly gunned down on August 11 as they tried to cross into Iran from Herat. Radio Farda cited regional police official Rahmatullah Safi as saying that the bodies were recovered on August 13, and that Afghan border police lodged a formal protest over the deaths with Iranian security and police officials. VS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini says Iran is examining the results of recent talks between U.S. and Iranian diplomats in Baghdad, as well as conversations between Iran's top nuclear negotiator Ali Larijani and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, ISNA reported on August 13. Speaking on Iranian television, Hosseini said a fourth round of Iranian-U.S. talks on Iraqi security will likely take place at the same level as the third round, held on August 6 among specialist diplomats below the level of ambassador. He said that during three rounds of talks this year with U.S. envoys, Iran pointed out the "duties" of occupying forces in Iraq, as well as the "roots" of the violence there and potential solutions. He said Iran's intention is to help bring security to Iraq, adding that "there is no horse-trading" between Iran and the United States during the security talks. Hosseini said deputies to Larijani and Solana will resume nuclear talks on August 20, ISNA reported. VS

Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi said ministry officials met in Tehran on August 13 with members of the Guardians Council, the body that supervises elections and must confirm results, to discuss using computerized voting in parliamentary elections set for March 14, 2008. Purmohammadi said ministry officials and Guardians Council members agreed in principle on computerized elections, but will meet again to discuss technical details. He said the ministry intends for voters to use their national identity numbers -- printed on identity cards -- instead of using birth certificates, adding that this would reduce queues and prevent fraud. Purmohammadi said candidates might also be able to register through a web site, allowing the authorities to investigate their backgrounds in line with the law and exchange relevant information on aspiring candidates through the site. He added that the ministry is still working on the precise details of the new procedures. Purmohammadi said about 140-150 state officials, some 30 of whom are from the Interior Ministry, have so far resigned from their positions in order to run for parliamentary seats. VS

The Guardians Council has appointed five of its own members as the central election supervisory board tasked with coordinating the nationwide oversight of elections next March, council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodai told the press in Tehran on August 12. The central board will comprise Kadkhodai himself, Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, Hojjatoleslam Sadeq Larijani, Hojjatoleslam Abbas Kabi, and Mohammad Reza Alizadeh, IRNA reported. VS

Prosecutor-General Qorbanali Dorri-Najafabadi has urged Iranian security, judicial, and police officials to remain vigilant in combatting organized crime, cross-border trafficking, and international terrorism, "Kayhan" reported on August 13. Dorri-Najafabadi called for tighter controls at Iran's borders, and for illegal arms and ammunition to be confiscated nationwide. He said that "sustained" security in Iran depends on a tough response to arms trafficking, which he said is "mainly rooted outside the country's borders." He urged international bodies to help fight arms traffickers and international terrorists "not with slogans but with action," by collaborating with national governments. VS

National security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i met with Jordanian security officials in Amman on August 13, international media reported. Al-Rubay'i said the main purpose of his trip was to coordinate security and intelligence with Jordanian officials and to find ways to alleviate the suffering of displaced Iraqis living in the kingdom. "We are trying to ease the suffering of the Iraqis regarding the issue of their residency permits, passports, visas, finding ways for economic support, and extending humanitarian assistance to those who are in need of assistance," he said, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on August 13. Al-Rubay'i described Jordan as a "main ally" in the fight against terrorism adding that he will share "political and security files" with the Jordanian security services during the two-day meeting, Al-Arabiyah television reported. Meanwhile, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Al-Arabiyah in an August 13 interview: "Jordan is exposed to dangers coming from Iraq. Jordan is also worried about terrorist acts and terrorist groups that currently use Iraq as a base to move to neighboring states." He said the government hopes the talks with Jordan will eventually lead to greater security cooperation with neighboring Syria. KR

Unidentified gunmen killed a chieftain from the Al-Jubur tribe in Kirkuk on August 13, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Sheikh Muhsin Abdallah Hasan al-Sabil al-Juburi was killed in the attack, while his daughter and brother were injured. Al-Juburi was reportedly killed because of his close ties to the U.S. military. Meanwhile, a chieftain from the Al-Dulaym tribe was killed outside his home in Al-Fallujah on August 13. Security sources told Al-Sharqiyah that Sheikh Fawwaz Saddah Sarih, chieftain of the Albu Khalifah tribe, was attacked and killed by masked gunmen. Tribal leaders from the Al-Ghazalat tribe in Al-Najaf announced that they have formed an armed force to fight Al-Qaeda in the Al-Nukhayb district of Al-Najaf, after four tribesmen were abducted there in recent days, "Al-Zaman" reported on August 13. KR

Some 16,000 U.S. and Iraqi troops launched Operation Lightning Hammer on August 13 to target Al-Qaeda and other insurgent cells operating in the Diyala River valley, according to an August 14 press release by the U.S.-led coalition. The operation falls within the coalition's Phantom Strike operation. The operation began with a late-night air assault on targeted locations to capture or kill Al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents, the statement said. "Our main goal with Lightning Hammer is to eliminate the terrorist organizations throughout the MND-N [multinational division-north] and show them that they truly have no safe haven -- especially in Diyala," said Major General Benjamin Mixon, the commander of Task Force Lightning and MND-N. KR

Meanwhile, U.S. and Iraqi forces in central and southern Iraq have announced in recent days the arrest of several high-level insurgents from Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army. Iraq Army and U.S. Special Forces detained an unidentified high-value Al-Mahdi Army "special groups facilitator" in an August 12 raid, the U.S.-led coalition announced on August 14. The suspect allegedly launders money through a humanitarian organization that he operates, and uses the funds to recruit foreign fighters, traffic weapons from Iran to Iraq, and train Al-Mahdi Army militiamen. Twelve Al-Mahdi insurgents, including a brigade commander, battalion commander, two company commanders, and one leader of an extrajudicial killing cell, were detained in an August 13 raid in Baghdad. Coalition forces also captured a key financier of the "special groups" forces, which are apparently Shi'ite militiamen linked to Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' Quds Force. The special groups insurgents are suspected of killing Iraqi citizens, directing attacks against coalition forces, and promoting sectarian violence, an August 13 press release stated. Computers and documents were also seized in the raid. Six other Al-Mahdi Army insurgents were detained in an August 12 Iraqi-U.S. special-forces operation in Baghdad. KR