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Newsline - August 20, 2007

President Vladimir Putin said on August 17 during military exercises in the Ural Mountains that Russian strategic bombers have resumed regular long-range flights after a hiatus of about 15 years, Russian and international media reported. He announced that "today, 14 strategic bombers took to the air from seven airfields across the country, along with support and refueling aircraft. In 1992, Russia unilaterally ended flights by its strategic aircraft to distant military patrol areas. Unfortunately, our example was not followed by everyone." Putin stressed that "flights by other countries' strategic aircraft continue, and this creates certain problems for ensuring the security of the Russian Federation. [Russia's] patrolling will take place in areas of busy shipping and [areas important for the] economic activities of the Russian Federation." He said that "starting today, such tours of duty will be conducted regularly. We proceed from the assumption that our partners will view the resumption of flights of Russia's strategic aviation with understanding." Putin argued that "our pilots have been grounded for too long. From what I know, they are happy to be starting a new life." He did not mention the United States by name, but regular strategic bomber flights by the U.S. and Soviet air forces were standard practice during the Cold War. Russian strategic bombers recently flew to the fringes of British airspace and over the Pacific in the direction of the U.S. base at Guam (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 11, July 18, and August 9 and 10, 2007). PM

Major General Pavel Androsov, who commands Russia's long-range aircraft, told a Moscow press conference on August 18 that his pilots carried out about 50 missions over the Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic oceans, as well as the Black Sea, Interfax reported. The planes involved were an unspecified number of Tupolev Tu-160 (White Swan or Blackjack) bombers, Tu-22M (Backfire) bombers, and propeller-driven Tu-95 (Bear) bombers, as well as Ilyushin Il-78 (Midas) tankers, Sukhoi Su-27 (Flanker) fighters, and MiG-31 (Foxhound) fighters. Androsov said that the White Swans and Bears spent up to 13 hours airborne at a time, flying at speeds of up to 900 kilometers per hour. He noted that "21 NATO fighters are recorded to have approached our aircraft in the course of the flights. They accompanied us for more than five hours. We are planning regular flights because they are the main form of training for the crews of strategic and long-range bombers." On August 19, state-run television reported that an unspecified number of aircraft resumed flights from the carrier "Admiral Kuznetsov" after an unexplained two-year hiatus. The "Admiral Kuznetsov" is Russia's only remaining operational aircraft carrier and has reportedly been plagued by technical and funding problems in recent years. The Soviet-era carriers "Minsk" and "Kiev" are now tourist attractions in China, while the "Varyag" is being used by the Chinese Navy for training and study purposes as Beijing prepares to build a blue-water fleet of its own. PM

Norwegian Air Force Brigadier General Ole Asak said in Oslo on August 17 that 11 Russian military planes carried out maneuvers west of Norway earlier the same day in the biggest show of Russian air power in the Norwegian Sea since the early 1990s, AP reported. He added that Norway scrambled F-16 fighter jets to observe and photograph the Russian planes, which included strategic bombers and early-warning aircraft. Asak noted that "we haven't seen that kind of activity in a very long time.... It was quite impressive to see." He said that Oslo considers the maneuvers to be a "statement" of Russia's military power, as well as testimony to Moscow's "higher interest in the high north." PM

In Crawford, Texas, White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said on August 17 of the Russian strategic flights that "militaries around the world engage in a variety of different activities," news agencies reported. He added that "it's not entirely surprising that the Russian Air Force, the Russian military, might engage in this kind of activity." In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that "if Russia feels as though they want to take some of these old aircraft out of mothballs and get them flying again, that's their decision." PM

Britain's "The Guardian" reported on August 18 that the Russian authorities took BBC World Service Russian-language broadcasts off the air as part of the ongoing diplomatic row between the two countries, which stems from Russia's refusal to extradite Andrei Lugovoi, the prime suspect in the 2006 London poisoning death of former Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 25, and 27, 2007). The daily noted that Moscow's Bolshoye Radio, which was the BBC's last Russian FM rebroadcaster, received a notice on August 16 to stop the transmissions or lose its license. The station stopped the rebroadcasts the following day. The BBC called the authorities' decision "highly irregular and extremely disappointing." The British daily noted that "Yevgeny Strelchik of Rosokhrankultura, the federal media regulator, said the shutdown had nothing to do with the Kremlin. He told 'The Guardian': 'Why do you bother calling me now when this happens to the BBC? When the same thing happens to Russian media like Ekho Moskvy [radio], you don't react. This process [of terminating rebroadcasting agreements] has been going on for at least two years. It's a question for radio partner stations, not for us.' He then hung up." PM

Speaking on August 18 on Russia's Vesti television channel, Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin dismissed as "absolutely absurd" the proposal unveiled the previous day by the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi to subject to international monitoring traffic through the Roki Tunnel that links the Russian Federation with Georgia's breakaway republic of South Ossetia, Interfax and reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 17, 2007). In Tskhinvali, South Ossetian Minister for Special Assignments Boris Chochiyev, who is a co-chairman of the Joint Control Commission tasked with monitoring developments in the conflict zone, said the U.S. proposal runs counter to international law, reported on August 18. He pointed out that the tunnel does not lie either in the immediate conflict zone or the broader area patrolled by the Joint Peacekeeping Forces. LF

Russian Deputy Prosecutor-General Ivan Sydoruk on August 17 endorsed the findings of his office's investigation into the October 13, 2005, multiple attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik, the capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, the websites and reported on August 17 and 18, respectively. Those findings named among the organizers of those attacks four prominent Chechen resistance figures who were killed months or even years before they occurred: Khattab (killed in April 2002), Abu al-Walid (killed by a bomb in 2004), Abu Dzeit (killed in February 2005) and President Aslan Maskhadov (killed in March 2005) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 30, 2002, April 19, 2004, and March 8 and 9, 2005). Other prominent militants named by Sydoruk as having played a key role in the Nalchik raids are Shamil Basayev, who claimed to have helped organize the attacks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 17, 2005), and Anzor Astemirov, aka Amir Seyfullah. The aim of the attackers was said to have been the creation by force of an independent Islamic state in the North Caucasus. The trial of 59 persons accused of participating in the fighting is due to open next month. LF

Unidentified gunmen opened fire during the night of August 17-18 on a police post on a bridge near the town of Tyrnyauz in Kabardino-Balkaria's Elbrus Raion, killing one of the two officers manning it, reported on August 18. An explosive device detonated on the bridge shortly afterward, but caused only minimal structural damage. Two police officers have been killed in Kabardino-Balkaria in the past three months in attacks for which the self-styled Mujaheds of Kabarda and Balkaria have claimed responsibility (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2007). LF

Buynaksk Deputy Prosecutor Magomed Batdalov, who was captured last month by a militant group, is still alive, reported on August 17, quoting members of his family (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30, 2007). But Batdalov's relatives at the same time denied media reports that they are negotiating his release. LF

Speaking at a press conference in Yerevan on August 17, Ararat Zurabian said the former ruling Armenian Pan-National Movement (HHSh) of which he is board chairman will name former President Levon Ter-Petrossian as its candidate for the presidential ballot due in early 2008, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Zurabian predicted that opposition parties will fail to align behind a single candidate to challenge Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian. He characterized former Prime Minister Vazgen Manukian, who lost to Ter-Petrossian in the September 1996 ballot that was rigged to ensure Ter-Petrossian's reelection and has been identified as a possible challenger next year, as "a very serious politician," but added that unlike Ter-Petrossian, Manukian has no chance of winning. Since his resignation under pressure in February 1998, Ter-Petrossian has avoided any political involvement until he embarked in recent weeks on a series of meetings in towns across Armenia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 13, 2007). He has not yet made any public statement about his imputed elections plans, but Zurabian said on August 17 that he "strongly believes" Ter-Petrossian will agree to run. LF

The management of Azerbaijan's notorious Gobustan jail rejected on August 17 as untrue media reports that between two and five men serving life sentences slashed their wrists or throats in a suicide attempt, reported. Over 80 prisoners serving life sentences at Gobustan have launched repeated protests in recent years to demand those sentences be commuted to a maximum of 15 years' imprisonment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 8, 2005, July 24, 2006, and April 17, June 26, and July 3, 2007). LF

Consultations in Tbilisi between Georgian and Russian experts investigating the August 6 incident in which an unidentified aircraft violated Georgian airspace and dropped or jettisoned a missile on the village of Tsitelubani, west of Tbilisi, ended on August 17, Georgian media reported. At a press conference later that day, Russian Air Force Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Igor Khvorov said Russia has been unable to confirm that one of its aircraft violated Georgian airspace, and that it is up to Georgia to determine who dropped the missile. Khvorov said the information provided by the Georgian side was insufficient to enable his team to help their Georgian colleagues clarify the incident. Russian ambassador-at-large Valery Kenyaikin claimed that "there are forces in Georgia that are not controlled by the central authorities and that are capable of staging such a provocation," but he did not identify them, Caucasus Press reported. Kenyaikin said the Georgian claim that the aircraft entered its airspace from Russia "is collapsing," Interfax reported. Also on August 17, Georgian Deputy Defense Minister Batu Kutelia accused the Russian experts of providing only "fragmentary" information and of seeking to stall the investigation, Caucasus Press reported. Meanwhile, OSCE Chairman in Office and Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos has appointed former Croatian Foreign Minister Miomir Zuzul as his personal representative to the ongoing investigation into the missile incident, according to a statement posted on August 17 on the OSCE's website ( LF

Deputy Defense Minister Ibragim Gassiyev rejected on August 18 as untrue and "the stupidest thing I ever heard" media reports that members of the unrecognized republic's armed forces are fleeing en masse across the border to North Ossetia, reported. On August 16, reported that South Ossetian servicemen were deserting to protest chronic delays in paying their wages. Gassiyev, however, denied any such problems, adding that those servicemen are ready to defend their homes and families even without pay. LF

Based on preliminary results from the August 18 elections for a new lower chamber of the Kazakh parliament released in Astana, Kazakh Central Election Commission Chairman Kuandyk Turgankulov announced on August 19 that the ruling Nur Otan (Light of the Fatherland) party led by President Nursultan Nazarbaev garnered 88 percent of the vote, with a turnout estimated at 65 percent of the country's 8.9 million voters, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. Candidates from the pro-government party easily defeated their opposition rivals, with the two leading opposition parties each failing to even surpass the minimum 7 percent needed for parliamentary representation. Despite an election that featured candidates from seven different parties, the Nur Otan party won every seat in the new 107-seat Mazhilis. The elections were moved up two years ahead of schedule after Nazarbaev dissolved the Mazhilis (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 21, 2007), but only after it abolished all presidential term limits (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2007). According to the recently amended constitution, the formerly 77-seat Mazhilis will now consist of 107 deputies, with 98 of them elected on party slates and nine elected by the Assembly of the Peoples of Kazakhstan. The amendments also endow the Mazhilis with significantly more authority, including the naming of the prime minister. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Astana on August 19, the head of the OSCE election-observer mission, Canadian Senator Consiglio Di Nino, said that the elections "reflected welcome progress" and "continue to move Kazakhstan forward in its evolution toward a democratic country," according to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and Interfax-Kazakhstan. Di Nino also noted, however, that a number of international standards were not met, including problems with the vote count, explaining that "after the polls closed it became difficult to get a clear picture, especially about the way the results coming from different polling stations were aggregated." The OSCE posted an official accompanying statement on its website ( that pointed to "a combination of restrictive legal provisions" that hinders the development of "a pluralistic political party system" and decreases "accountability of elected representatives to voters" in Kazakhstan. Ambassador Lubomir Kopaj, the head of the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) long-term election-observation mission, further stressed that the reform of election legislation, which was interrupted by the early elections, needs to be resumed as soon as possible. He also commented that "I have never seen a democratic country with [only] one party in the parliament." The conduct of the election has been widely accepted as a crucial prerequisite for the success of Kazakhstan's bid to assume the rotating OSCE chairmanship in 2009. RG

One of the leaders of the Kazakh opposition Ak Zhol (Bright Path) party, Burikhan Nurmukhamedov, said on August 19 that his party does not recognize the election outcome, arguing that his party has "been receiving reports" about electoral irregularities and voting "falsifications," RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. According to the official results issued by the Central Election Commission, Ak Zhol garnered about 3.25 percent of the vote, well below the 7 percent threshold needed to enter parliament, although Nurmukhamedov argued that the party's own surveys indicated that it won about 12 percent. Amirzhan Kosanov, a leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party, which officially received 4.6 percent of the vote, also said on August 19 that the election results resembled "the Soviet Union, with a one-party system just like the Communist Party," but stressed that "the fight will go on." Two other opposition parties, the Auyl (Village) party and the Party of Patriots, garnered 1.58 and 0.75 percent of the vote, respectively, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. RG

The former son-in-law of Kazakh President Nazarbaev, Rakhat Aliev, called on August 17 for the disqualification of the ruling Nur Otan party from the August 18 elections to the lower house of parliament, RFE/RL's Kazakh Service reported. In an open letter to Kazakh Prosecutor-General Rashid Tusupbekov and to the Organization for Security and Cooperation n Europe's (OSCE) election-observer mission in Kazakhstan, Aliev argued that Nur Otan has illegally spent $100 million on campaign expenses from a "secret fund." Aliev is wanted in Kazakhstan on criminal charges ranging from kidnapping and murder to corruption and money laundering (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 6, 13, and 19, 2007) but remains in self-imposed exile in Vienna, where he once served as the Kazakh ambassador. He was recently freed from detention in Vienna after an Austrian court rejected a formal Kazakh extradition request for his deportation to Kazakhstan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 9, 2007). RG

Kazakh President Nazarbaev on August 17 welcomed Chinese President Hu Jintao at the Astana airport at the start of an official two-day state visit, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Hu, arriving in Kazakhstan after the close of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in neighboring Kyrgyzstan, met later on August 17 and again on August 18 with Nazarbaev and senior officials to sign a set of bilateral agreements, including an accord on economic and trade cooperation and for greater investment in the energy sector. Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov also met on August 17 with China National Petroleum Corporation President Jiang Jiemin and agreed to several unspecified measures "further developing energy cooperation between Kazakhstan and China." Jiang also announced plans to increase investment in developing and modernizing Kazakhstan's energy infrastructure. RG

In an interview in Astana with a Russian television station, President Nazarbaev called on August 17 for Russian President Vladimir Putin to "follow my example" by "ignoring foreign criticism and staying on as president," AKIpress reported. Nazarbaev added that "I do not understand why the Russian president has to finish his presidency and leave" office, noting that "a president should do what his people and state need," discounting foreign criticism as "secondary." The 67-year-old Nazarbaev has served as the leader of Kazakhstan since the country gained independence in 1991, and earlier this year successfully pushed through constitutional reforms effectively removing all limits on his right to hold the presidency indefinitely (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 21, 2007). RG

In a letter to Kyrgyz Interior Minister Bolotbek Nogoibaev, Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu protested on August 17 the use of Uzbek police to help provide security for the recent Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Bishkek, AKIpress reported. Bakir-uulu quoted a recent statement published in the Kyrgyz press in which Nogoibaev revealed that "representatives" from the Uzbek Interior Ministry served as "an additional force" to provide security for the SCO summit. Bakir-uulu criticized that move, saying that it may have led to "violations of the rights and freedoms of people and citizens in the Kyrgyz Republic." Responding to the criticism, the Interior Ministry issued a formal statement later the same day denying that Uzbek personnel played any security role during the summit. The SCO summit was held on August 16 near Bishkek (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 17, 2007) and involved several measures aimed to enhancing security, including a ban on all daytime flights at the Manas International Airport and a decision to "temporarily ban" local residents from carrying any arms or weapons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 10 and 15, 2007). RG

In a speech before the Bishkek Press Club, Emil Aliev, one of the leaders of the opposition Ar-Namys (Dignity) party, vowed on August 17 to resume joint demonstrations together with the opposition United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan bloc led by former Prime Minister Feliks Kulov, AKIpress reported. Aliev vowed that the opposition is "moving up to a new level of work" and noted that the opposition has also "prepared a petition for the Constitutional Court to repeal the constitution." Kulov was selected as the Ar-Namys party's prospective presidential candidate for the July 2005 election before he withdrew and promised not to oppose acting President Kurmanbek Bakiev in that election in return for the premiership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 12 and 16, 2005). RG

The Supreme Court in Dushanbe on August 17 sentenced two Tajik citizens who spent six years incarcerated at the U.S. military's detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to 17-year prison sentences, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The sentencing of the two 26-year-old men, identified as Muqit Vohidov and Ruhniddin Sharopov, follows their conviction of illegally crossing the border and being members of the outlawed Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the Avesta website reported. Supreme Court Judge Musammir Uroqov told reporters that Vohidov and Sharopov illegally crossed the Tajik border into Afghanistan in early 2001 to join IMU fighters. Both men were detained in Afghanistan in 2002 by U.S. Army Special Forces and were repatriated to Tajikistan from Guantanamo in March 2007. In a similar case, a Tajik court sentenced Ibrohim Nasriddinov, also a former Guantanamo inmate, last March to a 23-year prison term on murder and weapons charges and charges of belonging to both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2007). The Foreign Ministry has recently announced that some 10 Tajik citizens have been returned to Tajikistan after being released from detention at the Guantanamo facility in recent years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 8, 2007). RG

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on August 17 that the Belarusian economy and financial system will not be affected by the Russian gas-price hike that occurred in January, Interfax and Belapan reported. Lukashenka was visiting his native twin villages of Kopys and Aleksandryya on the River Dnyapro to inaugurate a newly built bridge. "Our financial system is 'unstable' only for home-bred opposition economists. Our economy will not collapse because of the gas-price increase," Lukashenka assured journalists. National Bank of Belarus Chairman Pyotr Prakapovich, who accompanied Lukashenka on the trip, noted that the recently announced decision to abandon pegging the Belarusian ruble to the Russian ruble is a mere technicality (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 2007). "It used to be that the Belarusian ruble was pegged to two currencies at once, that is, to the Russian ruble and to the U.S. dollar, but we've learned from experience that a peg to just one currency is more efficient. There's no politics here or bias against Russia or the Russian Central Bank," Prakapovich said. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko told journalists on August 17 that the abolishment of immunity from prosecution for parliamentary deputies should be tackled by a new legislature following the early polls on September 30, Ukrainian media reported. Yushchenko was responding to a question about Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych's proposal last week to convene a special session of the Verkhovna Rada before election day and to do away with legal immunity not only for legislators, but also for other government officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 15, 2007). "The cancellation of deputies' immunity is not a show for me. This decision depends on parliament. That is why I call on everybody, regardless of their [political] color, to respect their society. If the issue of stripping deputies of their immunity has become so popular among all political forces, then after September 30 a session of the Ukrainian parliament should consider [it]," Interfax-Ukraine quoted Yushchenko as saying. He added that any meeting of the "powerless parliament" ahead of September 30 would have no legal force. JM

The Central Election Commission (TsVK) on August 17 and 18 refused to register more than 30 groups set up by the opposition Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) to collect signatures in favor of a constitutional referendum, Ukrainian media reported. The referendum initiative was opposed by TsVK members nominated both by the government and the president. "I was quite surprised by the position of our partners from [pro-presidential] Our Ukraine, who coordinated their actions with the [pro-government] Party of Regions in passing this decision. I would like to meet with the president as soon as possible to discuss this grave fact with him," Yulia Tymoshenko told journalists on August 18. "The TsVK members are not independent, they are appointed to pursue the interests of parties and groups. Out of the 15 members of the TsVK, nine shamelessly banned people from collecting signatures," she added. The BYuT has proposed holding such a referendum, if technically possible, simultaneously with the early parliamentary elections on September 30. Among nine questions offered for the referendum, the BYuT reportedly wants to ask Ukrainians if they prefer a presidential or a parliamentary form of government and if they want to elect and dismiss judges by popular vote. JM

The deputy head of the UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK), Steven Schook, on August 16 authorized the Central Election Commission to begin preparations for local and parliamentary elections to be held. Schook added in a press release that the UNMIK will set a date for the elections "by the first week of September." Previous comments by UNMIK officials have suggested the elections will take place in November (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30, 2007). Schook reiterated earlier statements that plans for elections may be changed if the elections threaten to affect the course of talks on Kosova's future. Schook said that "the legislative framework for the holding of elections is being finalized and will be promulgated before the end of this month." It is uncertain whether ethnic Serbs will come out to vote, but the daily "Zeri" quoted on August 17 a more moderate leader of the community, Oliver Ivanovic, as saying that "I believe Serbian political entities in Kosovo will not repeat the mistake of 2004, when over 90 percent boycotted elections" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 9, 2007). The process of registering political parties will reportedly continue until September 7. The most high-profile radical Kosovar Albanian group, Self-Determination (Vetevendosja), has already said that it will not take part in the elections, the daily "Kosova sot" reported on August 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 13, and 14, 2007). A leader of the movement, Glauk Konjufca, gave assurances, however, that Self-Determination does not plan to disrupt the elections. These would be the third elections held in Kosova since the UN assumed responsibility for the Serbian province in 1999. AG

Seven prisoners escaped on August 18 from a jail near the Kosovar town of Istok, local media reported. Police spokesman Veton Elshani said the group was led by Faton Hajrizi, who Elshani said is best-known to the public as a suspect in the murder in 2000 of a Russian member of the international peacekeeping force in Kosova. The Serbian news agency B92 reported, citing an unnamed source, that the prisoners were helped by a group of armed men who opened fire at security guards. AG

Intelligence reports suggest that Al-Qaeda sympathizers in Bosnia-Herzegovina are probably providing shelter, money, and false documents for its members, a senior U.S. diplomat, Raffi Gregorian, said in an interview with the Bosnian daily "Dnevni avaz" on August 17. Gregorian, who is the deputy to the international community's high representative in the country, Miroslav Lajcak, asserted that Al-Qaeda has direct links with a number of foreigners who fought with the Bosnian Muslim army during the 1992-95 conflict and subsequently settled in the country, but added that they are active supporters rather members of terrorist cells and underscored that the Bosnian government has shown its commitment to fighting terrorism. In a move widely seen as an effort to counter fears of Islamist extremism, the Bosnian government in April revoked the citizenship of some 367 Bosnians (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 23, April 12, and June 28, 2007). It is unclear how many of them fought with the Bosnian Muslim army. In a report dismissed by the Bosnian government, the U.S. State Department on May 2 concluded that in 2006 Bosnia showed "notable signs of increased local operational capability to combat terrorism and terrorism finance," but "remained a weak state...with multiple semi-autonomous centers of power, vulnerable to exploitation as a terrorist safe haven or as a potential staging ground for terrorist operations in Europe" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 3, 2007). The head of EU peacekeeping forces in Bosnia, Admiral Hans-Jochen Witthauer, has said that while nothing leads him to conclude there is a direct danger of terrorism in the country, Bosnia is potentially fertile ground for terrorists (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, May 22, and August 14, 2007). AG

The political leaders of Bosnia-Herzegovina's ethnic-Serbian community have reacted angrily to a call by Germany's ambassador, Michael Schmunck, that the country, which is divided politically and administratively along essentially ethnic lines, should be transformed into a unitary state. Milorad Dodik, prime minister of the Republika Srpska, on August 17 criticized Schmunck's remarks as an unacceptable interference in Bosnia's internal affairs, local media reported. In an interview published in the Croatian newspaper "Vecernji list" on August 16, Schmunck said that the current debate on constitutional reform should focus on creating a unified state with which all Bosnians can identify. Another senior ethnic-Serbian leader, Nikola Spiric, the head of Bosnia's federal government, said on August 17 that strengthening the country's central institutions does not require the creation of a unitary state and that the abolition of the Republika Srpska would have a highly detrimental impact on the country. The television channel TV Hayat reported on August 16 that some Bosnian Serb politicians have called for Schmunck to be declared persona non grata. AG

Four aides to Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani have been killed in Al-Najaf over the past two months, raising many questions as to the safety of Iraq's supreme Shi'ite leader and the motives of the perpetrators of the attacks.

According to media reports, aides to Iraq's three other grand ayatollahs have also been threatened. "The assassination operations are organized and big resources are allocated [to carry them out], which makes it difficult to accuse any local side of being behind" the attacks, the assistant director of the office of Muhammad Bahr al-Ulum, Muwaffaq Ali, told the London-based "Al-Hayat" last week.

Sources in Al-Najaf have told RFE/RL that nongovernmental-organization and civil-society leaders have also been targeted for assassination in and around the holy city of Al-Najaf in recent months. Police and local residents say it is unlikely that any one group of perpetrators are responsible for the killings.

Ali al-Najafi, son and spokesman for Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi, told "Al-Hayat" that the attacks have prompted senior ayatollahs to question the allegiance of employees and volunteers, many of whom arrived in Al-Najaf before the 2003 war and stayed on, assuming duties that put them in close contact with the senior clerics, the newspaper reported on August 11.

Al-Najafi said that Al-Hawzah (seminary) students have also received threats from unknown persons, prompting the ayatollahs to arrange for scores of students to leave Iraq to study at hawzahs in Lebanon and Syria.

Meanwhile, Hazim al-A'raji, an aide to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, told "Al-Hayat" that recent assassinations of police personnel in Al-Najaf targeted those officers involved in the January security operations against the Army of Heaven. At the time of the incident, Iraqi officials accused the group of planning to storm the city of Al-Najaf, seize the holy shrine of Imam Ali, declare that Al-Mahdi had returned, and assassinate senior Shi'ite clerics, including Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani.

But Sunni media reported that the operation actually targeted Shi'ite tribesmen from the Al-Hawatimah tribe opposed to Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs. When another Shi'ite tribe, the Al-Khaz'al tribe, came to the defense of the Al-Hawatimah tribe and fighting escalated, Iraqi security forces called in U.S. air support, which led to 263 deaths and 500 injured. Both tribes were fiercely opposed to the Shi'ite-led government's close ties to Iran.

The tribes were also opposed the two main parties comprising the ruling United Iraqi Alliance -- the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (now the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council) and the Al-Da'wah Party -- which control Al-Najaf and its security forces.

Among the aides to al-Sistani who have been killed in recent months was Sheikh Rahim al-Hasnawi, a representative of the cleric in the city's Al-Mishkhab district. Al-Hasnawi was gunned down outside his home by unidentified assailants on June 6.

Then on July 20, Abdallah Falak, the financial manager of al-Sistani's office, which collects a religious tax known as khoms, was stabbed to death in his office. The tax brings in hundreds of thousands of dollars a year and is used to fund Al-Najaf seminaries and charities.

Falak's killing caused alarm amongst al-Sistani's inner circle, not just for its brutality, but because the crime was carried out inside al-Sistani's compound in Al-Najaf. The compound was thought to be impenetrable, and the killing occurred just yards from the ayatollah's personal residence.

On August 1, Iraqi authorities announced the arrest of Haydar Abbud Musa, Falak's personal servant. Citing Al-Najaf officials, Al-Sharqiyah television reported that the knife used to kill Falak and $170,000 stolen from the office were found in Musa's possession at the time of the arrest, although other sources in the holy city said that the money in Falak's safe was not touched during the attack, and that the key to the safe was still in its place when police arrived to investigate the murder.

Another aide to al-Sistani, Kazim al-Budayri, who was in charge of protecting the Imam Ali Shrine, was gunned down along the Al-Kufah-Al-Najaf road days after Falak's killing. Al-Budayri served as a personal guard to al-Sistani before his appointment to guard the shrine, one of the holiest to Shi'ite Muslims.

On August 2, Sheikh Fadil al-Aqil, a representative of the ayatollah, was gunned down outside his home. Then on August 6, a bomb went off at the entrance to the Al-Mustafa Cultural Institution in nearby Al-Hillah, a foundation funded by al-Sistani.

Those inside Al-Najaf's inner circle of Iraq's senior ayatollahs are surely questioning why those around al-Sistani have been targeted. The most obvious answer is that someone is trying to send a message to the cleric.

A host of possible perpetrators exist, and as local officials admit, it may be difficult to identify the source behind the attacks. All agree however, that the perpetrators are well-trained and well-funded.

The fact that Iraq's most senior Shi'ite religious leaders have been critical of the government and its failures is reason enough for certain parties to target them.

Al-Sistani has gone to great lengths to distance himself from Iraqi politics in the post-Hussein era, and is rarely seen in public. However, Iraq's Shi'ite leaders visit him regularly to inform him of changing political events and to seek his blessing for their programs and positions. For one to be able to say that al-Sistani "blesses" a political plan or program brings immense credibility to the project at hand.

The cleric and other senior ayatollahs are also seen as the voice of moderation in Iraq, calling for unity among Shi'a and Sunnis. In recent months, however, the representatives of senior ayatollahs who often convey the positions of the ayatollahs through their Friday Prayer sermons have criticized Iraq's Shi'ite leaders, questioning their commitment to the Iraqi people.

For example, cleric Ahmad al-Safi, an al-Sistani representative in Karbala, criticized political leaders in late June for their inability to bring security to the country. During a Friday Prayer sermon on June 29, al-Safi asked why, after $19 billion was put into building up Iraqi security forces, that security remains elusive. He criticized security forces for their inability to secure the borders, and called on politicians to take their positions seriously and end sectarianism. A week later, he called on politicians to stop hiding in the Green Zone and get out among the people.

Other possible perpetrators are Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, or loyalists/breakaway supporters of Muqtada al-Sadr. The Shi'ite cleric has riled Al-Najaf's clergy over the past 4 1/2 years because of his behavior and threats -- both direct and indirect -- against the Al-Najaf hierarchy.

Iran is another likely suspect in the targeting of Al-Najaf's senior religious leaders for a number of reasons, such as al-Sistani's unwillingness to involve himself in the political process, following the Vilayat-i faqih model of Iran's clerical government, or the cleric's criticism of foreign interference in Iraq.

There is also the age-old rivalry between Qom and Al-Najaf as the center of Shi'ite Islam. Should Al-Najaf return to its standing as the center of Shi'ism, Iran's influence, both political and religious, will be tremendously reduced. Already, Qom has arguably lost millions of dollars due to the reopening and expansion of Shi'ite seminaries in Iraq since the fall of the Hussein regime, not to mention tourist dollars.

Moreover, the criticism by senior ayatollahs of Iraqi political developments and the direction in which the country is heading is troublesome for Iran, which continues to work to spread its influence across southern Iraq.

Growing fractures within the Shi'ite community have also contributed to the targeting of religious figures, politicians, academics, and security officials in central and southern Iraq. Intra-Shi'a rivalries, particularly between al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army and Al-Badr forces loyal to senior Shi'ite leader Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, appear to be escalating again.

As the groups vie for power and control, and continue to clash over their vision of a future Iraq, killings will continue, and the religious establishment may not be immune from this battle.

"We are going to witness an escalation of this conflict...the Shi'a were never united, the question now is who's going to represent the Shi'a," Mustafa al-Ani, an analyst with the Dubai-based Gulf Research Center, was quoted by the "Christian Science Monitor" on August 13 as saying. For Iraq's Shi'ite clerics, that reality has already hit home.

Afghan police on August 19 freed a German woman abducted in Afghanistan the day before, only hours after she appeared in a video asking her government to secure her release, AP reported. Interior Ministry spokesman Zemari Bashari said that police freed the 31-year-old aid worker and arrested her kidnappers in a raid in west Kabul near where she was abducted on August 18 while dining with her husband. A spokeswoman for the German Foreign Ministry in Berlin confirmed that the woman, identified as Christina Meier, is safe in the German Embassy in Kabul. Hours before her rescue, the private television network Tolo TV broadcast a video in which Meier was shown wearing a head scarf and asking for Berlin to "do what it can" for her release. Kabul's head of police criminal investigations, Ali Shah Paktiawal, would not say who was responsible, but ruled out Taliban militants. JC

President Hamid Karzai led Afghanistan's Independence Day celebrations on August 19, calling on young people to ensure their freedom through education, while warning of those still plotting against the country's self-rule, AFP reported. At a gathering of around 10,000 people in Kabul's sports stadium, an enthusiastic Karzai encouraged Afghanistan's youth to "spend every second of their lives learning," and called on the crowd to repeat after him, "we want to learn and live better." He condemned a Taliban attack of August 18, in which 15 people died, denouncing "the killing of innocent people" and warning the crowd against those still plotting against the country's independence. The day's celebrations included a military parade by the Afghan National Army and police currently being trained by international coalition forces. Afghanistan was never a full British colony, but London dictated its foreign affairs under a treaty until August 19, 1919. JC

Taliban militants have been demonstrating a new media savvy in Afghanistan, running what some experts believe to be an Al-Qaeda-crafted media campaign, AFP reported on August 19. A string of recent hostage crises has created opportunities for the extremist group to command headlines and promote their press campaign. On August 11, in the group's first press conference in over five years, Taliban spokesmen addressed journalists in the streets of Ghazni Province regarding the ongoing South Korean hostage situation, sparking outrage from local officials. Other tactics include releasing videos of distraught hostages to international television networks to stir public emotion and put pressure on foreign governments to react to Taliban demands. Part of the group's communications success is due to Kabul's weak media strategy, said Afghan journalist and parliamentarian Shukria Barakzai. Taliban information frequently arrives before government statements, media analyst Aunohita Mojumdar said, though it is often inaccurate and exaggerated. JC

A NATO soldier was among 24 people killed in two days of Taliban-related violence across Afghanistan, AFP reported on August 19. The soldier died on August 19 after a bomb struck a convoy he was escorting in southern Afghanistan, a spokeswoman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said. A roadside bomb blast outside the city of Ghazni on August 18 killed two policemen and injured two others, while two Taliban fighters were killed in a firefight also in Ghazni, a police official said. On August 18, a suicide bomber exploded his car on a highway linking Kandahar and Helmand provinces, killing four security guards and injuring three others, Helmand police chief Mohammad Hussein Andiwal said. Taliban spokesman Yusof Qari Ahmadi claimed responsibility for the attack on the group's behalf. A major suicide attack in Kandahar Province on August 18 killed 15 people and injured 26. JC

Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai told a gathering in Isfahan, central Iran, on August 19 that the United States would isolate itself, not Iran, by pushing for more UN sanctions and punitive measures against Iran, IRNA reported. Rezai said the United States plans to include the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) in its list of terrorist organizations, while it was the IRGC that defeated the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, a man "the West is proud to have overthrown." He asked how a force that defended its homeland against invaders and yielded "martyrs" in that defense can be labeled a terrorist group. Rezai commanded the IRGC in the latter years of the 1980-88 war against Iraq. VS

A military helicopter crashed in Iran's northwestern West Azerbaijan Province on August 18, killing six members of the IRGC, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news reports. The copter crashed in the Piranshahr district near the border with Iraq, reportedly due to bad weather or possibly after being shot at by guerrillas, Mehr news agency reported. An unnamed member of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a Kurdish militant group active between Turkey and northern Iraq, separately told AFP the helicopter was shot down by an Iranian-Kurdish group called "Hayat al-Hurr." AFP also reported that 15 Iranian troops were killed in armed clashes with the Kurdish group. Iranian officials have not confirmed that report, it added. Fazel Mirani, the secretary-general of Iraq's Kurdistan Democratic Party, told Radio Farda that Iran has recently undertaken military operations against the PJAK, a separatist Iranian group reputedly related to the PKK, in western frontier areas, but that operations have so far only consisted of ground bombardments, not infantry battles. He said some locals in the affected districts have had to flee their homes. VS

A deputy head of the state privatization organization, Mehdi Aqdai, told Mehr on August 18 that Iran will privatize 21 state-sector oil and related firms in the coming months, though he didn't specify whether shares will be sold to the public on the stock exchange. Aqdai said the firms will be privatized in the period from late August 2007 to late February 2008. He said firms to be privatized will include the Petropars and Petro Iran oil companies, two refineries in Isfahan and Tabriz, the Semnan, Hamedan, Zanjan, and Chaharmahal va Bakhtiari gas companies, and several petrochemicals firms. "All the government's shares in these companies will be transferred to the private sector," he said. VS

Armed bandits attacked cars on the Chabahar-to-Iranshahr road in the southeastern Sistan va Baluchistan Province on August 19, burning vehicles and taking drivers hostage, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media. Mohammad Javad Asna-Ashari, apparently a colonel in the IRGC, told IRNA that the bandits took two drivers hostage "and it is not clear if anyone or several people" were killed in the attack. Citing official sources in Sistan va Baluchistan, Mehr news agency reported that the number of hostages could be between five or six, and 20. Reuters reported on August 19 that as many as 30 people may have been taken hostage. Mehr quoted officials as blaming the attack on the Jundullah, a Sunni group officials have linked to Al-Qaeda, and which has engaged in attacks in the province, apparently moving between Iran and Pakistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 16, 2007), Radio Farda reported. VS

Iran hanged three convicted rapists on August 19 in the town of Saveh, southwest of Tehran, Reuters reported, citing IRNA. Reuters reported that at least 34 people have been executed in Iran since mid-July, following an anticrime drive in recent months. The "Kayhan" daily reported separately on August 19 that a kidnapper -- convicted on charges of "spreading corruption on earth" and being an enemy of God and religion [muharib] -- was hanged early on August 18 in a prison in Zahedan, in Sistan va Baluchistan. The executed man, Sanaullah Mirbaluchzehi Mirabadi, took part in an armed kidnapping and "created fear and terror across the city," "Kayhan" quoted an unnamed Zahedan judiciary official as saying. The daily separately reported on August 19 the execution "soon" of a Tehran man convicted of assaulting 11 women and killing two of them since 2005. The man, named as Ali M., was arrested on February 4, tried, and sentenced to death, with the Supreme Court confirming the sentence, according to Ismatullah Jaberi, a Tehran penal courts judge. The convict admitted in court that he hated women, "Kayhan" reported. VS

Iranian police have arrested 90 traffickers who allegedly smuggled drugs through Iran to other countries including Dubai, China, and Southeast Asian states, Iranian newspapers reported on August 19. The head of the country's counternarcotics police force, Hamid Reza Hosseinabadi, told the press in Tehran on August 18 that 85 members of the gang were variously from Mozambique, Nigeria, and Ghana, two were Pakistani, and one an Iranian, "Kayhan" reported. He said they were arrested separately in Tehran and various provincial airports, and sought to smuggle drugs they had swallowed. The drugs included heroin, cocaine, crack, and "crystal," Hosseinabadi said, adding that 1.7 kilograms of cocaine and about 46 kilograms of heroin have been taken from the gang. He suggested that 52 others have been arrested in airports in Tehran, and in provincial cities close to Iran's frontiers -- Mashhad, Tabriz, Ahvaz, and Abadan -- since March, yielding about 54.8 kilograms of heroin and crystal, "Kayhan" reported. VS

Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki traveled to Damascus on August 20 for three days of meetings with Syrian officials, Iraqi media reported. Syrian state news reported that the meetings will focus on political, economic, and security issues. Al-Maliki met with Turkish and Iranian leaders two weeks ago. Al-Maliki is expected to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Vice President Faruq al-Shar'a, and other officials. Members of al-Maliki's delegation include the ministers of trade, interior, oil, and water resources, AP reported. KR

Al-Muthanna Governor Muhammad Ali al-Hasani was killed on August 20 when his vehicle hit a roadside bomb between Al-Rumaythah and Samawah, international media reported. A curfew has since been imposed on the southern Iraqi governorate. Al-Hasani is the second southern governor to be killed in the past two weeks by a roadside bomb. Al-Qadisiyah Governor Khalil Jalil Hamzah and his police chief were killed on August 11 when their vehicle hit a roadside bomb. Both al-Hasani and Hamzah were members of the Shi'ite political party Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. KR

The Presidency Council convened a meeting on August 18 with the participation of Prime Minister al-Maliki and Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. Government spokesman Nasir al-Ani told reporters following the meeting that the preparatory committee charged with working to resolve outstanding issues presented a report to the council and proposed "satisfactory solutions" to some outstanding issues. Al-Sharqiyah television quoted unidentified officials who attended the meeting as saying one proposal was to rename the de-Ba'athification law as the "accountability and justice law." The officials said more contentious issues will be addressed at the meeting of the political council for national security, which was slated to be held on August 19 but was apparently delayed. Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi told Al-Jazeera television on August 18 that the Iraqi Accordance Front "has new options, and we have a vision for dealing with the escalating political situation." He added that the front may soon propose a new political project to create national unity. KR

Sunni Arab Vice President al-Hashimi and Shi'ite Vice President Adil Abd al-Mahdi toured Iraqi prisons on August 17 to review prison conditions and speak with detainees, Iraqi media reported. A number of parliamentarians also took part in the tour. According to an August 18 press release posted to al-Hashimi's Iraqi Islamic Party's website, he told detainees that he is working to secure the release of those not charged with a crime. The press release said the Sunni leader also met with the head of the criminal court, who told him that the court reviews six or seven cases a day. Al-Jazeera television broadcast footage of al-Hashimi meeting with detainees in the Al-Tasfirat prison in Baghdad. One detainee told al-Hashimi that he has been in prison for two years and has yet to be given access to a lawyer. The man clamed that security forces stole his car, his money, and his wife's jewelry. Inmates also told the delegation that they are not allowed to see their families, according to Al-Jazeera. KR

Interpol has issued a "red notice" notifying states worldwide that an arrest warrant has been issued by the Iraqi government for Saddam Hussein's daughter Raghad. A similar arrest warrant has been issued for former Iraqi Vice President Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on August 18. The charges against Hussein and al-Duri relate to terrorism, and crimes against innocent civilians. Saddam Hussein's wife, Sajidah Khairallah Tulfah, was also listed as wanted. Arrest warrants were first issued for the women last year. Both women are believed to be currently in Amman, where Raghad permanently resides. Raghad Hussein's lawyer, Badi Arif, told Al-Arabiyah television in an August 18 interview, "From the legal point of view, Interpol cannot extradite Raghad or ask any Arab or non-Arab government to extradite a person without a trial and without clear legal procedures." KR