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Newsline - August 24, 2007

Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Malakhov said in Moscow on August 23 that the U.S. and Russian defense ministers will meet at an unspecified date in October to continue discussions of the proposed U.S. missile-defense system, Russian news agencies reported. He reaffirmed that President Vladimir Putin's offer to operate jointly an early-warning radar system near Qabala (Gabala) in Azerbaijan is contingent upon the United States abandoning plans to place 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, July 3, and August 17, 2007). Russian, U.S., and Azerbaijani experts are due to begin "consultations" on Gabala early next month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 22, 2007). "A fundamental condition of the implementation of our proposals is the rejection by the United States of the deployment of missile-defense bases in Europe and the placement of antimissile-strike facilities in space," Malakhov said. In Washington on August 23, State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos criticized a recent statement by Austrian Defense Minister Norbert Darabos of the Social Democratic Party (SPO) that the U.S. missile-defense plans amount to a "provocation" against Russia, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2007). Gallegos said Darabos was reviving "unnecessary and old Cold War debates." "We view the Cold War as being over," Gallegos said. "Such comments are not helpful, and we now face a new strategic environment that requires us to move beyond Cold War thinking." He added that "the proposed system under discussion with Poland and the Czech Republic is solely defensive in nature and is directed at emerging threats from the Middle East. We've been open and transparent with all EU and NATO allies on this, and we'll continue to do so. We are discussing missile defense with the Russians." In Prague, Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg said on August 23 that Darabos is "mistaken" in his assessment, CTK reported. Schwarzenberg stressed that missile defense "has never been a provocation but a measure ensuring the future security of Europe and its allies.... Unfortunately, and I regret it, armament continues in our vicinity and also in other countries." PM

Gennady Melikyan, who is first deputy chairman of Russia's Central Bank (CBR), said in Nizhny Novgorod on August 23 that Russian banks have "borrowed too heavily on international markets...raising potential risks for the country's consumer-lending boom amid a global credit crunch," Britain's "Financial Times" reported on August 24. He noted that Russian banks "could face certain difficulties" if the U.S. dollar recovers. He added nonetheless that "we have about five times more [reserves] than we need to ensure the stability of our monetary system." Melikyan suggested that the banks should redirect themselves toward domestic markets to reduce the share of foreign currencies in their liabilities, the Russian daily "Kommersant" reported on August 24. The paper noted that "foreign liabilities of Russian credit institutions to nonresidents totaled $110 billion as of April 1, 2007." The figure one year earlier was only $57.2 billion. PM

Authorities in Arkhangelsk Oblast recently launched an investigation into an incident that took place on August 14, in which two drunken Army officers allegedly beat conscript Sergei Sinkonen into a coma at the Plesetsk cosmodrome, Ekho Moskvy radio and Reuters reported on August 23. The two officers reportedly struck Sinkonen repeatedly on the head with belts. He is not expected to recover. It is not clear why the incident was not reported earlier. Hazing is widespread in the Russian military, which is also plagued by problems ranging from poor food and clothing to the forced hiring out of conscripts as laborers or prostitutes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17 and February 13, 14, and 21, 2007). PM

Russia's Council of Muftis said in a statement on August 23 that it opposes proposals to make obligatory the study of the Orthodox religion in state schools, Interfax reported. Such courses are currently mandatory in some, but not all, regions. The council called for "balanced and acceptable decisions" in this area. The statement added that "regrettably, destructive ideas are being forced occasionally on the public, which carries the danger of disturbing peace and harmony. The question of whether the basis of Orthodox culture should be taught in schools, which has been under discussion for several years, should not be [in and of itself] a destructive idea." The debate about the role of Orthodoxy in society received a fresh impetus when some leading academics, among them two Nobel Prize winners, sent an open letter to President Putin on July 23 expressing concern about the growing influence of that church (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31, 2006, and July 24 and August 9, 2007). In their statement on August 23, the muftis also called for a "halt to insinuations against Muslim organizations, which defend their legitimate rights in our multiconfessional society." The constitution requires the separation of church and state, but the public role of the Orthodox Church has been on the rise in recent years, including in the military. Legislation on religion recognizes Orthodoxy, Islam, Judaism, and Buddhism as "traditional" religions in a move aimed at limiting the activities of the Roman Catholic Church and Western-based evangelical groups, which thrived in the years immediately following the collapse of communism. PM

Sergei Pogorelov, who is deputy head of archeological research at the Sverdlovsk Oblast's center for preserving historical and cultural monuments, was quoted by Interfax and NTV television on August 23 as saying in Yekaterinburg that archaeologists believe they have found the long-missing remains of Tsarevich Aleksei and Grand Duchess Maria, who were children of Russia's last tsar, Nicholas II. The tsar's family and some of their retinue are believed to have been executed by Bolsheviks on July 17, 1918. A recently declassified document written by Yakov Yurovsky, the commander of the execution squad, indicates that the bodies of Aleksei and Maria were burned and buried in a pit separately from the other victims. Pogorelov said the latest excavations were based on Yurovsky's description of the burial site. Pogorelov added that forensic tests on the remains indicate that they are those of a boy and a girl about the same age as Aleksei and Maria. What many believe to be the remains of the rest of the royal family and their retinue were exhumed at another site in the area in 1991. On August 24, representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate said the newly found remains must be thoroughly studied before they can definitely be classified as those of the two royal children, Interfax reported. In Yekaterinburg, prosecutors launched an investigation on August 24 into the discovery of the remains, reported. PM

Federal Migration Service Deputy Director Vyacheslav Postavin said on August 23 that Russia has no plans to deport Georgian nationals currently resident in the Russian Federation, Interfax and Caucasus Press reported. Earlier on August 23, Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Giorgi Mandjgaladze told journalists in Tbilisi the Georgian government would take "appropriate measures" in the event of any such deportation, Caucasus Press reported. Some Georgian media outlets have speculated that a new wave of deportations comparable to that of October 2006 may be imminent. LF

Robert Kocharian traveled to Sochi on August 23 for talks there with Russian President Putin, Russian media reported. "Novye izvestiya" reported on August 24 that the talks focused on energy cooperation, including the price Armenia will pay for Russian gas in 2009. It is not clear whether the transfer of power due early next year from Kocharian to his successor as president was also discussed. Noting the imminent 10th anniversary of the signing of a treaty on friendship and cooperation between the two countries, Putin characterized bilateral relations in the political sphere as those between "allies," and praised the steady increase in bilateral trade turnover, which grew by 70 percent during the first six months of this year to reach $337 million, according to "Rossiiskaya gazeta." Meanwhile, a shipment of some 300 tons of Russian military equipment removed from the Russian military base at Batumi, Georgia, was due to reach Armenia on August 23, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. LF

Unidentified gunmen opened fire on August 23 on an OMON special police convoy returning from Daghestan's Untsukul Raion to their base in Buinaksk, reported. Two police were killed in the attack and a further seven injured. Two Russian service personnel were killed six months ago on a similar attack, for which Daghestan militants claimed responsibility, on a Russian armored column (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 12, 2007). LF

Gunmen opened fire at midday on August 23 in a drive-by shooting on an Interior Ministry patrol post in the village of Troitskaya, but failed to inflict any casualties, and reported. Two police were injured in a similar attack on the same post the previous day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2007). "Nezavisimaya gazeta" observed on August 24 that the operation launched last month to locate and apprehend militants in Ingushetia has failed to yield the desired results, despite the deployment to that republic of an additional 2,500 Interior Ministry troops (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 26, 2007). LF

In response to complaints from public organizations in North Ossetia, Moscow's Kuntsevo district prosecutor's office has opened a criminal case against the website for allegedly inciting interethnic hatred in a recent posting, and the daily "Kommersant" reported on August 23 and 24, respectively. The website regularly posts articles discussing the aftermath of the violence in North Ossetia's disputed Prigorodny Raion in October-November 1992, during which tens of thousands of Ingush were forced to flee to neighboring Ingushetia. Few of them have managed to return. Magomed Yevloyev, who owns the site, told "Kommersant" the charge is illegal because the article in question merely cited extracts from a North Ossetian publication. The site's deputy editor, Magomed Aushev, similarly told that the Kuntsevo prosecutor had no grounds to open a case against the site as it is registered not in Russia, but in a European country he did not name. Yevloyev is a Kuntsevo resident. Earlier this month, the Ingushetian newspaper "Serdalo" published a letter, apparently signed by Ingushetia Prime Minister Ibragim Malsagov and parliament chairman Makhmud Sakalov, calling for the closure of The website claimed on August 12 that Sakalov denied any connection to that request and said his signature on the letter was forged. LF

Acompanied by the interior and transport ministers, several parliament deputies, and his wife Mehriban, President Ilham Aliyev visited Azerbaijan's Neftcala and Hacyqabul districts on August 23, and reported. Aliyev said in Neftcala that the poverty level in Azerbaijan has declined from 49 percent to 20 percent and the average monthly income is now $215, but that he is nonetheless still not satisfied with overall social conditions. Aliyev noted that Azerbaijan's economy is one of the fastest expanding in the world, and that this year for the first time the volume of domestic investment has exceeded foreign investment. He stressed the importance of political stability, vowing that Azerbaijan will never revert to the "chaos and instability" of the early 1990s. Noting that the military budget for 2007 exceeds $1 billion, Aliyev said that "now we shall try to restore control over the occupied territories" Azerbaijan lost to Armenia in 1992-94. LF

The Foreign Ministry of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia released a statement on August 23 claiming that two aircraft entered Abkhaz airspace almost simultaneously from Georgia late the previous day, overflying the Kodori Gorge and the Gali Raion, Caucasus Press reported. The ministry construed those alleged incursions as proof that Georgia has no interest in resolving its conflict with Abkhazia peacefully. Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba was quoted by "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on August 24 as warning that Abkhazia will shoot down any Georgian aircraft that enter its airspace in future. In Moscow, Russian Armed Forces Chief of Staff Colonel General Yury Baluyevsky dismissed as "hallucinations" Georgian claims that an aircraft entered Georgian airspace from Russia on August 22, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2007). Meanwhile, OSCE special representative Miomor Zuzul, a former Croatian foreign minister, met in Moscow with Russian Foreign Ministry personnel who briefed him on the findings of Russian experts who traveled to Georgia last week to investigate the circumstances under which an unidentified aircraft entered Georgian airspace from Russia on August 6 and fired a Russian-manufactured missile, Caucasus Press reported on August 24 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 20 and 22, 2007). LF

Kazakhstan's Auyl party released a statement on August 23 alleging widespread procedural violations, including multiple voting and ballot-box stuffing, during the August 18 elections to the Mazhilis, the lower chamber of parliament, reported. The party appealed to President Nursultan Nazarbaev, whose Nur Otan party is the only party to win representation in the new legislature, to order a recount of the votes, noting that "creation of a multi-party parliament is an essential precondition for stability." Also on August 23, leading members of the Social-Democratic Party told journalists in Almaty that an analysis of the 2,433 (of a total 3,559) protocols of which the party has copies shows that it won at least 10.9 percent of the vote, rather than the 4.6 percent registered by the Central Election Commission, Interfax reported. The minimum required to win parliamentary representation is 7 percent. Alikhan Baimenov, chairman of the moderate opposition party Ak Zhol that according to official returns polled 3.27 percent of the vote, told journalists in Astana on August 23 that Ak Zhol has begun consultations with other opposition parties " to hammer out a common position," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported (see also "End Note" below)LF

Valery Patsulo, a former Defense Ministry staffer, and State Committee for National Security employee Aleksandr Grib have been arrested on charges of treason, Russian media reported from Bishkek on August 24. To judge by their names, both men are Slavs; they were reportedly engaged in spying for Russia. LF

Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov chaired a cabinet session on August 22 at which he complained of shortcomings in the energy, transport, and construction sectors, reported. He ordered the officials responsible to take the necessary measures to complete infrastructure development of the port and city of Turkmenbashi; to prepare plans for the reconstruction of Ashgabat International Airport, where it is impossible to see the runway from the control tower; to ensure that all towns and villages can receive national radio and television broadcasts; and to train young architects capable of creating a national school of architecture. LF

Police officers on August 23 raided a private house near Minsk that was hosting a performance by an unregistered theater company called Free Theater, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The official reason given for the raid was an alleged bomb planted in the house. The police officers left the house after checking the identities of all actors and spectators. A day earlier, in their first raid on Free Theater (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2007), police detained some 50 actors and spectators. On that day, the official reason for the raid was an alleged anonymous telephone call complaining that there were bangs and noise heard in the house hosting the performance. Belarusian philosopher Valyantsin Akudovich told Belapan that the arrest of actors and spectators on August 22 was an unprecedented event even by Soviet-era standards. "This goes over the line. The police are watching every step that Free Theater takes. It's impossible to imagine that a performance by an unregistered theatrical company could lead to arrests in a European country," Akudovich noted. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko said on Sofiyskaya Square in Kyiv on August 24, during an official ceremony devoted to the 16th anniversary of Ukraine's independence, that he is planning to set up a body to draft a new constitution, UNIAN reported. "We are beginning a constitutional renewal. I am initiating the formation of a National Constitutional Council that will prepare a new version of the Constitution of Ukraine," Yushchenko said. He stressed that the new constitution should be approved in a nationwide referendum. JM

President Yushchenko on August 23 met with Yulia Tymoshenko, the head of the eponymous political bloc, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported, citing the presidential press service. Yushchenko advised Tymoshenko against seeking a constitutional referendum on September 30, simultaneously with early parliamentary elections set on that day. "If we hold a constitutional referendum on election day, as has been proposed, the referendum may be viewed as illegitimate. Our work will be futile after a court rules that [holding the referendum within such a short term] contradicts the law on referendums," Yushchenko reportedly told Tymoshenko. Last week, the Central Election Commission refused to register groups set up by the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) to collect signatures in favor of a constitutional referendum. Among nine questions proposed for the referendum, the BYuT wanted 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 Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has sent a note of protest to the Russian Foreign Ministry concerning a statement by Vladimir Lysenko, a counselor at the Russian Embassy in Ukraine, about the status of Crimea and the temporary deployment of the Russian Black Sea Fleet on Ukrainian territory, Interfax reported on August 23. Speaking in Kyiv earlier the same day, Lysenko reportedly announced that if Ukraine increases pressure on the Russian Black Sea Fleet based in Sevastopol, Russia might initiate a revision of the 1997 Russian-Ukrainian Treaty, in which Russia recognizes Ukraine's sovereignty over Crimea. Kyiv said such statements attempt to infringe on the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and demanded an official explanation from Moscow. Kyiv threatened that if Lysenko's words are confirmed, the diplomat will be expelled from Ukraine. JM

According to a survey held by the Sotsiovymir polling agency last month among 2,100 Ukrainians, 35 percent of respondents said Viktor Yushchenko is the best president in Ukraine's 16 years of independence, Interfax-Ukraine reported on August 23. Former President Leonid Kravchuk (1991-94) and former President Leonid Kuchma (1994-2004) were given the best rating by 17 percent and 16 percent of respondents, respectively. The poll also established that Volodymyr Lytvyn, with backing of 43 percent, is deemed the best Ukrainian parliamentary speaker and Viktor Yanukovych, with 34 percent support, the country's best prime minister. JM

The United States on August 23 rejected allegations by several Serbian ministers that Washington wants to transform Kosova into a puppet state for NATO, calling the accusations "baseless and unhelpful rhetoric" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 20, and 21, 2007). U.S. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos said Washington does not believe the statements "represent the official view of the Serbian government," AFP reported. The accusations were leveled by four ministers and several advisers to Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, all of whom belong to the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), one of the three governing parties. However, only one official, a relatively minor figure of the leading government party, the Democratic Party (DS), has so far criticized the DSS statements. The DSS ministers argued that the plan for supervised independence drawn up by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari "grants NATO direct authority and gives it limitless power in a reputedly independent state." Gallegos dismissed that interpretation. "Calling the Ahtisaari plan for Kosovo a NATO state is quite a stretch," he stated. AG

Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, whose country currently holds the rotating Presidency of the EU, said he doubts Belgrade and Prishtina will reach agreement on the future of Kosova, Serbian and Kosovar media reported on August 22 and 23. Amado made his comments during a tour to Belgrade and Prishtina, which he was visiting to gain a sense of the position on the ground ahead of a meeting of EU foreign ministers scheduled for September 8. Amado reiterated that the EU views the status of Kosova as primarily a European matter, saying "the issue of Kosovo is a problem in the heart of Europe" and "the EU is the key to bridging the gap between the two sides." "It is difficult to expect any good solution in this process without a heavier engagement of the EU," Amado added. However, he gave no indication what position the EU might take if the current round of talks produces no result. AG

The head of Germany's liaison office in Prishtina, Eugen Wollfarth, told Radio-Television Kosova on August 22 that Europe currently has no Plan B if talks fail. Wollfarth said, though, that it is the EU that "will ultimately decide" the future of Kosova if there is no negotiated solution. The day before, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters, "I do not think about what will happen if [the current round of talks] does not lead to a solution." German diplomats head the UN Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK) and the EU's representation in talks on Kosova's future. Merkel was speaking during her first official visit to the Hungarian capital, Budapest. After meeting Merkel, Hungarian Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany stressed the importance of the EU in resolving Kosova's status. "If the EU wants to play an active role in global processes then we should be able to respond to challenges in our own region," he said. Gyurcsany said Hungary's role is to ensure that the international community does not forget that there needs to be peace and stability in Serbia as well as Kosova, the Hungarian news agency MTI reported. Gyurscany is due to visit Serbia in late September to meet with Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica. AG

Despite uncertainty about Kosova's future, the EU is preparing to set up a mission in Kosova to replace the current mission run by the United Nations. The head of the EU planning team, Casper Klynge, told Kosovar media on August 22 the EU is "in the middle of planning the future EU mission in Kosovo" and "experts are working full-time in order that the EU mission becomes operational as soon as the moment arrives." The preparations are based on a plan for Kosova drawn up by UN envoy Ahtisaari, who led 15 months of fruitless talks between Belgrade and Prishtina before submitting his recommendations to the UN in March. However, Serbia rejects the Ahtisaari plan as the basis for discussions, objects to Ahtisaari's main recommendation -- that Kosova should be granted independence under EU-led supervision -- and some Serbian ministers have recently criticized the role given to international troops (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16, 20, and 21, 2007). AG

The four largest ethnic-Hungarian parties based in the northern Serbian province of Vojvodina agreed on August 21 to form a united platform in municipal and provincial elections, the Serbian daily "Vecernje novosti" reported on August 22. The four parties -- the Alliance of Vojvodina Hungarians (SVM), the Democratic Party of Vojvodina Hungarians (DSVM), the Hungarian Civil Alliance (MGS), and the Democratic Community of Vojvodina Hungarians (DZVM) -- reached the agreement in Budapest, where they were celebrating the 1,007th anniversary of Hungarian statehood. The head of the DZVM, Sandor Pal, said: "We readily agreed that the idea of a joint ticket was good and should be tested on September 30 in by-elections in [the town of] Becej." At present, Hungarian parties hold 12 of the 120 seats in the Vojvodina provincial assembly. Pal predicted the alliance could increase that number to 19 or 20, and could raise Hungarian represtentation in the 250-member national parliament from three to as many as six. AG

A senior figure in Bosnia-Herzegovina's State Investigation and Protection Agency (SIPA) has said Serbia has failed to take "any concrete measures" to capture a Bosnian Serb who in May escaped from a prison in Bosnia's Republika Srpska. Dragan Lukac, SIPA's deputy director, said his organization knows that Radovan Stankovic is currently hiding in Serbia, but added that his exact whereabouts are unknown, the Bosnian daily "Dnevni avaz" reported on August 20. Stankovic was serving a 20-year sentence for war crimes when he escaped from a security van taking him to a dental appointment outside the Foca prison (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, June 1, and August 14 and 23, 2007). SIPA is reportedly close to concluding its investigation into how Stankovic managed to elude his nine armed guards. AG

According to an opinion poll published on August 21, just 4 percent of Moldova's population believe the country's secessionist region, Transdniester, should be granted independence, the news agency BASA reported. A majority (65 percent) want Transdniester, which has enjoyed de facto independence since 1992, to be fully reintegrated into Moldova with no major change in its status. The poll, which was conducted by the the Chisinau Institute of Marketing and Polls IMAS as part of its Political and Social Barometer program, found that 12 percent believe Transdniester should be granted autonomous status and 7 percent believe a federation is the way forward. Nearly one-third (32 percent) believe Russia is capable of settling the conflict; 23 percent believe that the conflict is solvable with the help of the European Union. AG

Experts say the August 18 elections that created a one-party parliament in Kazakhstan could affect Astana's bid to chair the OSCE in 2009 and harm the country's image as a Central Asian leader. But, the director of studies at Freedom House, Christopher Walker, told RFE/RL there is still a significant role for the political opposition to play in Kazakh society.

RFE/RL: Some experts say the outcome of the Kazakh elections reflects the Kazakh people's will and shows that voters have no confidence in the opposition.

Christopher Walker: I think the larger issue in the Kazakh context is whether all of the key elements that are ingredients for fair and open elections were present in the Kazakh case. That is to say, over the course of the election process, were there opportunities for all of the parties to have access to mass media in a balanced and equal way? Were there also limits on state-administrated resources that didn't give the dominant, incumbent power unfair advantages? I think in these cases -- as in previous elections -- there were very serious questions raised about these sorts of critical issues by, for example, the OSCE and other observers.

So it is really a larger question of whether voters in the country are able to make an informed choice and have no real restrictions on their on their choices -- and I don't believe that is the case in Kazakhstan.

RFE/RL: Is there any role left to play for the Kazakh opposition between now and the next election campaign?

Walker: I think there certainly is. The opposition in Kazakhstan should be playing a meaningful role in scrutinizing the performance and the activities of the ruling powers in the country. This becomes increasingly difficult under the current circumstances. I think, at this point, they have to find whatever space is possible there to play this rightful role. But there is no question that has become increasingly difficult and, naturally, to the detriment of ordinary Kazakh citizens.

RFE/RL: Would the Kazakh election results that created a one-party system in the country affect Astana's bid to win the OSCE chairmanship in 2009?

Walker: I think it is fair to say that if these elections had met international standards, they would not -- in and of themselves -- have argued for the OSCE chairmanship for Kazakhstan. I think the fact they did not meet these standards makes it clear that -- at least at this time -- Kazakhstan should not hold the OSCE chairmanship.

RFE/RL: Could the way Kazakhstan conducted the parliamentary elections have any impact on the rest of Central Asia?

Walker: I think the challenge in the immediate region and for a number of other post-Soviet republics is that the parliaments are not playing the sort of role they could and should be. And, as I mentioned earlier, I think the role for parliaments in these highly controlled presidential systems, where the executive power is so dominant, is to open the door for political space through a parliamentary setting. And already in many of the countries in Central Asia, you have a situation where the parliaments are unable to play a meaningful role in having an independent voice and scrutinizing the actions of the executive. This is to the detriment of these countries' developments.

I think to the extent that Kazakhstan has been looked to as a leader in the region by the outside world, this is a disappointment in terms of having no voice whatsoever in the new parliament for any opposition parties.

A German engineer taken hostage by Taliban militants in southwest Wardak Province over a month ago appeared in a video on Afghan television on August 23, pleading to his family and the German government to help secure his release, Reuters reported. The man, who identified himself only as Rudolph B., was kidnapped on July 18 along with one other German national and five Afghans by Taliban insurgents, who are demanding the removal of 3,000 German troops from Afghanistan. In the video, the man is shown lying on the ground on a black sheet, coughing and clutching his chest in front of a mountainous background. Exhorted by an off-camera voice, the man speaking in broken English said the Taliban is attempting to talk with the Afghan government and the German Embassy, but time is running out. One of the five Afghan victims also appeared on the video and pleaded with President Hamid Karzai to take action on the hostages' behalf. "We Afghans demand the Karzai administration's help to release us because of our children," he said, standing with a group of men. The other German hostage was shot by his captors in July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 3, 2007). JC

Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer on August 23 announced an increase of 115 million Australian dollars ($94 million) in reconstruction assistance to Afghanistan, bringing Australia's total foreign aid commitment to $367 million. Part of the funds will be used for an education campaign aimed at combating Islamic extremist propaganda to reduce the Taliban's influence, Downer said. He added that the Afghan government is still unable to maintain a "strong enough footprint around the country." While assisting people in reconstruction is important, he added, having good aid programs is also critical to "winning the hearts and minds campaign." There are no plans to increase the number of Australian troops stationed in the country beyond the present 970, he added. The Taliban-led insurgency maintains a stronghold in the south and in Helmand Province in particular, where officials believe record-breaking poppy production finances the rebels' operations and media campaigns. JC

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has asked the Pakistani government to hold off on closing an Afghan refugee camp in the Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), fearing that such a hasty return of refugees may cause a humanitarian crisis, the Integrated Regional Information Network reported on August 23. More than 100,000 Afghan refugees have been ordered to leave the Jalozai camp by August 31 in accordance with a decision to close the camp and four others in 2007. However Salvatore Lombardo, a UNHCR representative in Kabul, says the agency is concerned that a "sudden return of Afghans from the camp...may turn into a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan." Repatriation now would not allow sufficient time for returnees to reintegrate and rebuild homes before the winter months. Other refugee groups have expressed concern over the ability of the overstretched security forces to provide protection to the returning refugees. "The response community in Afghanistan is already exhausted by the humanitarian crisis in the country.... Appropriate mechanisms do not exist to deal with more returns at this stage," said Ann Kristin Brunborg of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in Afghanistan. According to a June UNHCR study, insecurity, a lack of shelter, and limited economic opportunities are the top three concerns for approximately 84 percent of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan who are hesitant to return to Afghanistan. More than 3.16 million Afghans have been repatriated from Pakistan since 2002, while more than 2 million refugees have been registered to live in Pakistan until December 2009. JC

Twenty-six people, including three civilians, have been killed in a new wave of violence across Afghanistan, Reuters reported. Ten Afghan security guards escorting a logistics convoy for U.S. forces on August 23 were killed in a Taliban ambush in southern Afghanistan. Mohammad Salimgt, head of the convoy security detail, said the attack occurred somewhere on the main highway in Zabul Province. A roadside-bomb attack killed three Afghan civilians and wounded 14 others in Helmand Province, the local police chief reported. Elsewhere, 12 Taliban fighters and one Afghan soldier were killed in fighting, according to a statement of the Afghan Defense Ministry. The past months have marked the worst period of violence since the U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban in 2001. JC

Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari, recently released on bail from a Tehran jail, cannot leave the country yet, her lawyer Shrin Ebadi told AP, Radio Farda reported on August 23. Ebadi said the authorities have not returned Esfandiari's passport. Esfandiari has been accused of activities against the state, but has been released on bail of over $300,000 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 22, 2007). Radio Farda reported that Esfandiari's family are concerned about her mental health following months of confinement. A date is now to be set for Esfandiari's trial, Ebadi said. Another lawyer for Esfandiari, Mohammad Seifzadeh, told Fars on August 22 that her release on bail allows her to leave the country, "though if the court summons her for questioning, she has to attend." VS

Government spokesman Gholamhussein Elham told the press on August 22 that the International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) recent talks in Tehran did not produce a commitment to stop uranium enrichment, "Iran" reported on August 23. Halting uranium enrichment, a part of the nuclear fuel production process, is a key Western demand for Iran. Elham said that stopping enrichment would be a step backwards, adding that there can be no dialogue if Iran is expected to "put aside" its rights. He said a third set of UN Security Council sanctions would not harm Iran. "If there is any question of economic harm, those issuing the sanctions will also be harmed," Elham said. The United States envoy to the IAEA Gregory L. Schulte said in Vienna on August 22 that "we understand there are real limitations" to Iran's recent agreement with the IAEA, and accused Tehran of trying to divert attention from its "continued development of bomb-making capabilities," AP reported. Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said on August 23 that the United States, which has expressed disappointment at the recent agreement on inspections between Iran and the IAEA, is pursuing the same "irrational and unfair course" it has "since the start." Hosseini said that those who have followed Iran's talks with the IAEA have expressed satisfaction with the results so far, Fars agency reported. VS

Javad Vaidi, a deputy head of Iran's Supreme National Security Council and a top nuclear negotiator, said on August 21 or 22 that the two sides have agreed on the "modalities" of IAEA inspections of Iranian sites intended to clarify outstanding questions about Iran's atomic program, "Kayhan" reported on August 23 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 21 and 22, 2007). Vaidi held talks with IAEA Deputy Director-General Olli Heinonen in Tehran on August 21. He said Iran and the IAEA now have a "working program" on "how to address remaining issues," including a list of all issues of concern to the IAEA, a timetable for resolving those questions, and measures to be taken by Iran and the IAEA within a set time frame. "Iran is serious in wishing to resolve issues, and has no intention of wasting time," he said. Vaidi said negotiators are still discussing a date for the next meeting between Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani and the chief European nuclear negotiator, Javier Solana, "Kayhan" reported. VS

Alaeddin Borujerdi, the head of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, said in Tehran on August 23 that Iran's dossier must be sent back to the IAEA governing board from the UN Security Council for its swift resolution, IRNA reported. He made the comments during a meeting with the Chinese ambassador to Iran, Liu Zhentang. The two discussed bilateral ties, and Liu affirmed China's readiness to cooperate on more projects like those China has undertaken in Iran: the construction of a motorway between Tehran and the northern Caspian coast, the development of the Yadavaran oil field in Khuzestan, southwestern Iran, and the construction of an aluminium plant in southern Iran. Iran recently released two Chinese nationals arrested in July for taking pictures of sensitive sites in central Iran, agencies reported on August 20, citing a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 17, 2007). The statement called the arrests a misunderstanding, reported. VS

The Iranian Defense Ministry has announced the development of a 900-kilogram "smart" bomb, to be unveiled in the coming days, which can be fired from Iranian fighter jets, agencies reported on August 23. The reports did not give details on the guided missile's "smart" capabilities. Iran has sought to develop a homegrown defense and weapons industry intended to make the country as self-sufficient as possible in military equipment. The bomb -- dubbed "Qased," or messenger -- can be deployed by Iran's F-4 and F-5 jets, sold to Iran in the 1970s by the United States, AP reported. VS

Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad-Najjar told reporters in the southern port of Bushehr on August 23 that states in the region must work together to assure the Persian Gulf's security, and he called for foreign troops to leave, IRNA reported. Mohammad-Najjar said the presence of foreign forces is at the root of problems in the region, and that without them, states could assure the gulf's security and coexist peacefully. "Right now Iran's armed forces are at the height of their power and readiness on land, in the air, and at sea, and are...watching the movements of foreign forces," he said. Mohammad-Najjar added that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) can be entrusted with the security of the Persian Gulf and that "some very good plans have been made to assure the [Gulf's] security better than before." Iranian weapons, he added, are designed to secure peace in the Gulf, and are not directed against neighboring states. Mohammad-Najjar said Western powers are concerned by the "active diplomacy" of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad "because it defuses their false rumors and publicity" about Iran. He said Iran's recent diplomatic efforts have included more than 100 trips by the president, foreign minister, and cabinet members to states in the region, and defined those efforts as "very high interaction, détente, convergence, peace...and friendship among regional states," IRNA reported. VS

Three students detained over the publication of allegedly impious journals at Tehran's Amir Kabir University in March are reportedly to be formally charged with "insulting sacred values [muqaddasat]," ISNA reported on August 22. Ahmad Qassaban, Ehsan Mansuri, and Majid Tavakkoli deny they were involved in the journals' publication, and their relatives say they were mistreated or pressured to confess to the charges while detained at Tehran's Evin prison (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 15 and 16, 2007). An indictment is to be issued and their cases are to go to the Tehran Revolutionary Court in the coming days, ISNA reported. VS

The Iraqis List, led by former Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, is due to announce its "full withdrawal" from the government in the next 24 hours, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on August 24. The news channel quoted sources from the party as saying that some members may remain in the government as independents. Another source told Al-Sharqiyah that the list intends to dismiss any minister who refuses to comply with the withdrawal. A number of members have said in recent weeks that they do not agree with Allawi's position on some issues. Allawi's party holds 25 of the 275 seats in parliament. CNN reported on August 23 that Allawi has hired U.S. lobbying firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers to launch a public relations campaign in the United States in support of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's ouster. The firm has already sent a mass email to congressional staffers with the subject line "A New Leader in Iraq," promoting Allawi as a successor to al-Maliki. KR

Sami al-Askari, an aide to Prime Minister al-Maliki, told the Ilaf website that certain Gulf states are working to destabilize southern Iraq, the website reported on August 23. Al-Askari maintained that the unidentified state or states contacted tribal leaders and individuals and paid them millions of dollars to undermine security and stability, in an effort to show that Shi'ites, given their divisions, are incapable of forming a federal region in southern Iraq. He added that Iraqi security forces have detained a network of Iraqis who confessed that Gulf states paid them to carry out attacks against certain Shi'ite figures, with the goal of making the attacks appear to be the work of rival Shi'ite groups. The operations sought to pit the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) against the Imam Al-Mahdi Army of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, al-Askari said. Asked about the current political crisis, al-Askari said that al-Maliki is contemplating the formation of a new government in which two Sunni-led blocs, the Iraqi Accordance Front and the Iraqis List, may not be represented. He insisted, however, that the new government would include Sunni Arab ministers, Ilaf reported. KR

Insurgents from the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq attacked the village of Kan'an near Ba'qubah on August 23, killing a Sunni sheikh who had cooperated with multinational forces, international media reported. A street battle broke out after the attack on sheikh Yunis Abd al-Hamid's mosque and three houses, leaving 10 Al-Qaeda insurgents and 22 other Iraqis dead. Al-Qaeda gunmen kidnapped eight women and seven children as they fled the scene. According to Reuters, some 200 insurgents took part in the attack. Locals told several media outlets that the sheikh was targeted because he was trying to organize an armed group affiliated with members of the 1920 Revolution Brigades to fight the Islamic State of Iraq. But a spokesman for the brigades, Abdallah Salman al-Umari, told Al-Jazeera television on August 23 that the brigades are not present in Kan'an and have no links or agreements with the Iraqi security forces. Muslim Scholars Association spokesman Muhammad Bashar al-Faydi claimed in an interview with Al-Jazeera that the group that was fighting the Islamic State of Iraq in Kan'an is a breakaway faction of the 1920 Revolution Brigades. KR

Iraq's Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi arrived in Ankara on August 23 for talks with Turkish leaders, AFP reported. The Turkish government said the talks will focus on all aspects of bilateral relations, including security and energy policy. Al-Hashimi was scheduled to have dinner with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and was slated on August 24 to meet with Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul, who has been nominated to be Turkey's president. "We are grateful to our Turkish brothers for their support," al-Hashimi said upon his arrival to Turkey, the Anatolia news agency reported. KR

A Shi'ite woman testifying at the trial of 15 former officials from the regime of Saddam Hussein said that Ali Hasan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali," threw her two sons from a helicopter during the brutal crackdown on a Shi'ite uprising in 1991. Laila Kathum said al-Majid, who was in charge of security in southern Iraq at the time of the intifada, arrested her two sons himself. "The army detained my two sons, my brother, and my niece on March 3, 1991," Kathum testified. "Nine days later my brother and niece were released and told me that Ali Hasan al-Majid had executed my two sons." Kathum quoted her niece as saying al-Majid tied the two men's legs with heavy bricks and threw them out of a helicopter into the Persian Gulf. Prosecutors allege that the 15 men on trial oversaw the killing of up to 100,000 Shi'ites during the rebellion, which followed the 1991 Gulf War. KR

Iraq will soon resume oil exports to Jordan, Jordanian Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Khalid al-Shraydah announced on August 23, international media reported. Al-Shraydah said the oil will be trucked into Jordan from northern oil fields in Kirkuk under an Iraqi security escort. He added that the initial imports will be limited to 10,000 barrels a day, with an eventual target of 100,000 barrels per day. Prior to the 2003 war, Iraqi oil, sold at a subsidized rate, accounted for nearly all of Jordan's energy imports. Al-Shraydah did not say how much Jordan will pay for the oil. KR