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Newsline - August 28, 2007

President Nicolas Sarkozy told a meeting of French ambassadors in Paris on August 27 that "Russia is imposing its return on the world scene by playing its assets, notably oil and gas, with a certain brutality," the "International Herald Tribune" reported on August 28. Sarkozy said that Russia's new assertiveness comes at a time "when the world, particularly Europe, is hoping for an important and positive contribution from [Russia] toward settling the problems of our age." Departing from his prepared text, Sarkozy added: "When you are a great power, you should not use brutality." After meeting on June 7 on the margins of the Group of Eight (G8) countries in Heiligendamm, Germany, with President Vladimir Putin, Sarkozy characterized those talks as "frank, since we discussed all the issues: Chechnya, the woman journalist [i.e., the 2006 killing of Anna Politkovskaya], human rights, [and] homosexuals' rights. We did so calmly, without any aggression involved" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8, 2007). As is typical of his political style, Sarkozy stressed the importance of finding solutions and moving forward. His predecessor, Jacques Chirac, courted Putin as part of an anti-U.S. front that also included then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. PM

Prosecutor-General Yury Chaika said at a Moscow press conference after meeting with President Putin in Moscow on August 27 that Chechen and other criminals, renegade security officers, and unnamed forces outside Russia were responsible for the October 2006 Politkovskaya killing, Russian and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27, 2007). He also blamed those purported culprits for the 2004 murder of journalist Paul Klebnikov and the 2006 killing of Central Bank official Andrei Kozlov. Chaika said "the person behind all of this is the leader of a Moscow criminal group, an immigrant from the Chechen Republic engaged in criminal business and specialized in carrying out contract killings. I want to mention right away that, unfortunately, retired and acting members of the Interior Ministry and the federal security services took part in shadowing and gathering information on Politkovskaya. They, too, have been arrested." Chaika argued that "concerning the motives for the murder, the investigation's results lead us to the conclusion that only individuals located outside the Russian Federation could have an interest in eliminating Politkovskaya. This is particularly advantageous for those people and structures who seek the country's destabilization, the change of constitutional order, the creation of a crisis in Russia, the return to the previous administrative system when money and oligarchs decided everything, the discrediting of government leaders, and the bringing down of external pressure upon our country's leadership." Prior to the press conference, Chaika announced that 10 unnamed people are under arrest in connection with the case. Ten names, reportedly of those arrested, appeared on on August 28. PM

Britain's "Financial Times" wrote on August 28 that "journalists at 'Novaya gazeta,' Politkovskaya's paper, said they are bewildered that Chaika had made such a sweeping conclusion before the case had gone to court. "We are disconcerted that Chaika has essentially just repeated the words of the president," said Roman Shleinov, head of the newspaper's investigations desk. "Either the president predicted the case so well that he knew everything beforehand, or Chaika is fixing the case to suit the president." The British daily quoted Shleinov as adding that "blaming troubles on an external enemy is exactly what happened during Soviet times. But it seems to me the problem lies a little closer to the country itself." Russian and international media noted on August 27 that Chaika's statement appears to be the first public admission by a high-level official of the involvement of security personnel in contract killings. reported on August 28 that the references to forces abroad most likely meant self-exiled tycoon Boris Berezovsky, who is a frequent target of official criticism. "Novaya gazeta" wrote on August 28 that "it is too early to talk about Politkovskaya's murder being solved." The paper added that evidence continues to be gathered, including by its own journalists, and that guilt or innocence will be determined in court. "Novaya gazeta" noted that the killing was "expensive. It's too early to talk about those who ordered this murder, [especially with parliamentary] elections coming up" in December and a presidential vote in March. The daily added that "besides, we don't have guarantees that real [contractors'] names will be mentioned in the indictment. And that wouldn't be investigation's fault." "The Wall Street Journal In Europe" on August 28 quoted Politkovskaya's former editor, Dmitry Muratov, as saying that Chaika made "a political statement for a political purpose...advantageous for the leaders of this country." The mass circulation "Moskovsky komsomolets" noted on August 28 that the charge of "a provocation from especially serious." The paper quoted Politkovskaya's son, Ilya Politkovsky, as saying that hasty judgments about the case could lead to it collapsing in court "like a house of cards." On August 28, Interfax quoted opposition politician and former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov as saying in Yekaterinburg that the linking of three murders "looks like a political game." PM

"The Wall Street Journal In Europe" on August 28 quoted Berezovsky as calling Chaika's comments "psychopathic" and saying the Kremlin was behind the murder. wrote on August 28 that, according to Chaika's statements, "a lot of firepower [was brought] to bear against one unarmed 48-year-old woman. One of the basic rules of covert operations designed to destabilize a major power is to try not to be caught. Involving 10 people in this conspiracy is not only excessive, but downright dangerous." The article added that "the arrests sanitize Putin and make his continued presence in the leadership all the more urgent.... The charge against foreign intelligence agencies has not been made. If it arises, an important threshold will have been crossed." PM

Murad Musayev, a lawyer for one of the three Moscow-based Chechen brothers -- Tamerlan, Djabrail, and Ibragim Makhmudov -- arrested in connection with Politkovskaya's murder, told kavkaz-uzel. ru on August 27 that there is no evidence linking his client -- whom he didn't identify specifically -- with the killing, and that his client did not even know prior to his arrest who Politkovskaya was. The daily "Kommersant" on August 28 quoted Musayev as claiming his client has been repeatedly physically abused during questioning, including being hit around the head with a bottle. Musayev said the investigation has reportedly concluded that the three Chechens had no personal grievance against Politkovskaya, but simply agreed to kill her for "a large sum of money." Speaking on August 27 in Jordan, where he arrived the previous day on a working visit, pro-Moscow Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov said it was "high time" the law-enforcement organs turned their attention to the three Chechen detainees, reported. Three months ago, the French daily "Liberation" quoted former Russian Army Major Vyacheslav Ismailov, now a journalist with Politkovskaya's paper "Novaya gazeta," as claiming that her murder was ordered by two senior pro-Moscow Chechen officials, and as quoting Kadyrov as having told close associates that those who masterminded the killing did so on orders from the Federal Security Service (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, 2007). LF

President Putin signed a decree on August 27 setting up 41 posts for police officials in Russian embassies in unspecified countries, the daily "Kommersant" reported on August 28. The officials will cooperate with their foreign colleagues in combating transnational crime. PM

Conscript Sergei Sinkonen died in a hospital on August 27 as a result of injuries he reportedly received on August 14 at the hands of two drunken officers at Plesetsk Cosmodrome, Russian and international news reported from Moscow (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24, 2007). Sinkonen was allegedly found abandoned in a dog kennel on the base on August 15 in serious condition. Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov personally took charge of the investigation in an apparent effort to demonstrate that the authorities intend to put an end to hazing, which is widespread in the Russian military and has led to several well-publicized scandals. PM

Chechen Interior Minister Ruslan Alkhanov rejected on August 27 as "gross fabrications and inventions" intended to undermine confidence in the pro-Moscow leadership rumors that the Chechen resistance plans to launch a major attack on Grozny on September 1, reported. At the same time, Alkhanov admitted that security precautions have been intensified in the run-up to the start of the school year on September 1. The resistance website reported on August 27, citing, that Grozny residents are fleeing the city. RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service could not confirm those reports, but noted that residents are leaving the city because of the extreme heat. In recent months, the resistance claims to have expanded and strengthened its control of the southern regions of the republic, and on August 4, Chechen Republic-Ichkeria President and resistance commander Doku Umarov convened a meeting of amirs of the Central Front in Grozny, reported on August 6. LF

Meeting on August 27 with people who have recently been elected mayor for the first time, Mukhu Aliyev singled out as their most important priority combating political and religious extremism, according to a press release by his office posted on He singled out the Untsukul Raion as being particularly vulnerable to political extremism. Untsukul is the birthplace of Imam Shamil, leader of the 19th-century resistance to the tsarist Russian conquest, and has recently been the scene of clashes between armed groups and security forces. Aliyev also urged new mayors to work more actively to improve social and economic conditions, and warned them against the temptation to abuse their official powers, noting that the heads of the Kumtorkala, Lak, Serokala, Nogai, and other districts have been fired for such abuses. LF

Businessman Khachik Manukian, who represents Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia (HHK), was elected to the Armenian parliament on August 26 in a constituency in the central town of Talin, raising to 65 the number of seats the HHK controls in the 131-mandate legislature, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on August 27. Manukian garnered 44.2 percent of the vote, defeating three rival candidates. He was narrowly elected from the same constituency in the May 12 parliamentary ballot, but renounced his mandate in response to allegations of vote-rigging voiced by his main rival, Talin Mayor Mnatsakan Mnatsakanian. Mnatsakanian, who is supported by the Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia) party headed by oligarch Gagik Tsarukian, polled 27.7 percent in the August 26 repeat vote, and said he will not challenge the outcome. But another rival candidate, U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, chairman of the opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) party, slammed the official results, which showed him as winning only 3.4 percent of the vote. In an August 27 press release, Hovannisian described the vote as "fundamentally unfree and unfair, with a variety of government levers and resources being applied to voters in inappropriate and sometimes unlawful fashion." LF

Asked at a press conference in Baku on August 27 whether Azerbaijan would choose cooperation with NATO rather than with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), Xazar Ibragim, the head of the Azerbaijan Foreign Ministry press service, said that while Baku is interested in cooperating with the SCO, it has no plans to join that grouping, reported. He dismissed as inaccurate the perception that the two organizations are rivals. On August 25, Interfax quoted presidential administration international affairs department head Novruz Mammadov as telling ATV that Azerbaijan is interested in cooperation with the SCO because it groups together "major states." Mammadov added that President Ilham Aliyev is considering the timing of any formal overture to the SCO. LF

Georgian Deputy Foreign Minister Merab Antadze met in Tbilisi on August 27 with diplomats from four of the five member states (France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, but not Russia) of the Group of Friends of the UN Secretary-General for Georgia, Caucasus Press reported on August 28. Antadze deplored what he termed "aggressive" statements by Sergei Bagapsh, president of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, during military exercises last week that reportedly involved some 6,000 servicemen backed by combat helicopters and war planes. Bagapsh vowed on August 23 while watching the maneuvers that Abkhazia will bring the upper, currently Georgian-controlled reaches of the Kodori Gorge under its control, according to a statement on Echoing a Georgian Foreign Ministry statement released on August 25, Antadze further accused Russia of directly supporting the breakaway regime in Sukhum(i) and specifically of helping to plan last week's war games. Speaking in Moscow on August 25, Russian Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Andrei Vorobyov denied that Russia played any part in the military exercises in Abkhazia, RIA Novosti reported. LF

Political organizations in the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia appealed in an August 27 statement to the international community to support the republic's aspiration to "independence and sovereignty," reported. They also requested that the international community objectively evaluate what they termed the "criminal activities" of the present Georgian leadership, and dismissed successive Georgian peace initiatives as aimed at "depriving the people of South Ossetia of their freedom, victory, and future." Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Davit Bakradze responded to that appeal the same day by advising the South Ossetians to take a more realistic view of the situation and join in the process of conflict resolution, Caucasus Press reported. Also on August 27, the South Ossetian authorities briefly detained and then released several journalists from the television stations Mze and Rustavi-2 who sought to cover the detention in South Ossetia of three Georgians, who have likewise been released, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Kazakh Environmental Protection Minister Nurlan Iskakov announced on August 27 that the Kazakh government has shut down operations at the offshore Kashagan oil field for three months due to alleged violations of environmental-protection laws committed by the project operator, Interfax-Kazakhstan and ITAR-TASS reported. Iskakov said the move was necessitated by concerns that continued operations at the Kashagan field may cause "irreparable environmental damage." The project is headed by the Italian energy group Eni, a subsidiary of Italy's Agip. The head of the Kazakh Finance Ministry's Customs Control Committee, Serzhan Duysebaev, reported on August 27 that a criminal case has been initiated over alleged evasion of customs tariffs and levies by several unnamed senior Eni executives. The Italian company has been coming under increasing pressure from the Kazakh authorities over mounting problems, most recently when operators shifted the target date for the start of production from 2008 to late 2010 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31 and August 22, 2007) and raised cost projections from $57 billion to $136 billion. The rights to develop the Kashagan oil field were first granted in early 2004 to an international consortium led by Agip that included British Gas, ExxonMobil, Shell, Total, ConocoPhillips, and Inpeks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2004). The Kashagan field holds between 7 billion and 9 billion tons of proven reserves, making it the single largest oil field discovered in the last three decades and the fourth- or fifth-largest in the world (see "Factbox: Caspian Sea Hydrocarbons,", October 25, 2005). RG

Dinu Patriciu, the chairman of Romania's Rompetrol energy company, announced on August 27 the sale of a majority of its shares to Kazakhstan's state-owned KazMunaiGaz firm, according to RFE/RL's Romania-Moldova Service. The deal, which involves the sale of a 75-percent share of the Romanian firm for $3.6 billion, is the latest in a series of moves by Kazakhstan's state-owned energy groups to increase their role as major energy producers beyond the Central Asian region. If the sale is approved by the European Commission, it will effectively double KazMunaiGaz's refining capacity and provide access to some 630 petrol stations held by Rompetrol across seven European countries. Rompetrol is the second-largest petroleum company in Romania. RG

In an announcement released in Astana on August 27, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov confirmed the appointment of Sauat Mynbaev as the country's new energy and mineral resources minister, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The 44-year old Mynbaev, the current head of the Samruk state asset-management firm, replaces Baktykozha Izmukhambetov, who has served as energy minister since January 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 20, 2006). In a second appointment, Berdibek Saparbaev was named on August 27 as the new minister of labor and social protection. Saparbaev previously held the post of a deputy minister of economy and budget planning. He replaces Gulzhan Karagusova, who was recently elected to the new Mazhilis, or lower house of parliament. The third appointment was the promotion on August 27 of Umirzak Shukeev, the governor of the South Kazakhstan Region, to the post of deputy prime minister, replacing Aslan Musin, who was also recently elected to the Kazakh parliament. RG

Kazakh Interior Ministry spokesman Bagdat Kozhakhmetov announced on August 27 the seizure of "a variety of illegal weapons" discovered by police during a search of the home of Mukhtar Aliev, a prominent former minister, according to RFE/RL's Kazakh Service and ITAR-TASS. Aliyev, a former health minister, is the father of Rakhat Aliev, a former son-in-law of Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev who faces criminal charges ranging from kidnapping and murder to corruption and money laundering (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 4, 6, 13, and 19, 2007). Police investigators are reportedly testing the weapons to see if they were used in the alleged abduction of and assault on two senior officials of Nurbank, which the younger Aliev controlled until the authorities recently seized it, along with several of his other business interests. The younger Aliev remains in self-imposed exile in Vienna, where he once served as the Kazakh ambassador. Mukhtar Aliev, who is also a distinguished member of Kazakhstan's Academy of Sciences, was recently prevented by police from boarding a flight from Astana to London (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2007). RG

The head of the local government in Tajikistan's Vanj district, Ghairatshoh Pirov, announced on August 27 the imposition of a new ban on a small Islamic group, RFE/RL's Tajik Service reported. The so-called Mavlavi religious group is accused of initiating "unsanctioned gatherings" and trying to restrict civil liberties by coercing local residents to adopt strict religious-based dress codes. The group came under close scrutiny from the Tajik authorities after several members returned to Tajikistan following their completion of Islamic studies in Iran and Pakistan. RG

Russian Ambassador to Belarus Aleksandr Surikov suggested in an interview with Interfax-West on August 27 that Russia might consider deploying nuclear weapons in Belarus in response to U.S. plans to operate a missile shield in Europe. "All this depends on the level of our political integration, as well as on the views of experts, diplomats, and the military -- [whether it is] necessary and possible, when and how. I have in mind facilities linked to nuclear weapons," Surikov said. Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Vanshyna said later the same day that Belarus already hosts Russian military facilities, adding that officials in Minsk and Moscow have so far held no discussions on a nuclear deployment. "Time will tell whether such a discussion will take place," she noted. Former Belarusian Supreme Soviet speaker Stanislau Shushkevich offered a critical view. "Russia is more and more turning back to the positions of the former USSR, wanting to be an empire that could threaten the world with nuclear warheads," Shushkevich, who signed the accord on the dissolution of the Soviet Union and another on withdrawing nuclear missiles from Belarus in the early 1990s, told RFE/RL's Belarusian Service. "Only someone considering political suicide would start talks on deploying nuclear weapons," Anatol Lyabedzka, leader of the opposition United Civic Party, was quoted by Reuters as saying. "A majority of Belarusians would oppose this," JM

President Viktor Yushchenko has sent a petition to the Constitutional Court challenging the constitutionality of the election-law provision that imposes limitations on voting by those who traveled abroad before the September 30 parliamentary election, Ukrainian media reported on August 27. According to the election-law amendment adopted in June, three days before the election Ukrainian border guards must compile a list of those Ukrainians who have left the country since August 2 and have not returned. The border authorities are obliged to submit the names to appropriate local election commissions, which strike them from the list of eligible voters. Election experts have pointed out that this scheme, apart from posing immense difficulties in its implementation, could disenfranchise many voters who return to Ukraine within three days of the election. Yushchenko reportedly argues in his petition that the law providing for the compulsory removal of citizens from voter rolls is a direct violation of their constitutional right to vote. JM

Verkhovna Rada head Oleksandr Moroz told journalists in Kyiv on August 28 that the Ukrainian legislature will hold a session on September 4 "regardless of circumstances," UNIAN reported. "I appeal to all deputies [to come to the Verkhovna Rada], since the constitution provides for opening a parliament session on the first Tuesday in September," Moroz said. Moroz announced on July 23 that he wants to hold a parliament session on September 4 to discuss issues connected with the cancellation of immunity from prosecution for lawmakers, impeachment of the president, and rights and functions of local self-government bodies. Meanwhile, President Yushchenko expressed his conviction on August 27 that the Verkhovna Rada will not convene on September 4. Yushchenko, the opposition Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc, and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc deem the current parliament illegitimate. JM

In a speech given on August 27 at a conference in Bled, Slovenia, on EU enlargement, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic argued that discussions about Kosova's future should be reframed and placed in the context of EU enlargement. "Unless we address this thing in a broader context of a European future for the Balkans, we are going to get ourselves in exactly the same situation as in July -- that we cannot work out a compromise solution," Jeremic warned. He called on Europe to offer candidate status to countries in the region immediately. "This would energize the countries, ending the politics of business as usual," he said. "If Europe starts to hesitate, we risk losing [domestic] support." Serbian officials have previously noted the danger that EU backing for independence for Kosova would weaken public support for EU membership, and Jeremic implicitly raised the possibility of another danger -- damage to the credibility of democracy -- when he said, "I really believe it is possible to find a solution for the Kosovo status that is not going to destroy the prospects for democracy in Serbia and the Western Balkans." The EU's mediator at the talks on Kosova, Wolfgang Ischinger, indicated on August 12 that Serbia's and Kosova's prospects of EU membership are in part dependent on the course of the talks. "Coming closer to the EU, associating themselves with the values and the constitutional beliefs of the European Union depends on their ability to reach an agreement here," Ischinger said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 13, 2007). Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica has accused "many officials, many politicians" from EU countries of making an "indecent offer" of EU membership in exchange for independence for Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2007). AG

Balkan media reported that Foreign Minister Jeremic on August 26 walked out of an official dinner at the EU conference to protest not being allowed to respond to a speech given by the UN's envoy to Kosova, Martti Ahtisaari. Jeremic denied the claims on August 27, saying he left the dinner early to attend a prearranged meeting. Serbian television and the Croatian news agency Hina cited unnamed sources as saying Slovenian officials had promised Jeremic he would be able to respond to Ahtisaari, but the UN envoy threatened not to address the two-day conference if that were the case. During his speech, Ahtisaari said 15 months of negotiations had failed to resolve Kosova's status and that "it is high time to move from the conflict-management phase to the endgame," because Kosova's current position is untenable. "Doing nothing is not an option," AFP quoted Ahtisaari as saying. "Kosovo is and should be primarily a European issue," and implementing a solution will "require a strong and consistent European [Union] position." Serbia has rejected outright Ahtisaari's recommendation that Kosova be granted "supervised independence" and insists that the former Finnish president's plan for Kosova cannot be used as the basis of discussions about the disputed region's future, a position that, according to Serbian media, Prime Minister Kostunica reiterated on August 25. The latest -- and possibly final -- round of talks on Kosova's status enters a new phase on August 30, when delegations from Belgrade and Prishtina will meet with mediators in Vienna (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27, 2007). Ahtisaari is playing no role in the talks. AG

The hosts of the conference on EU enlargement, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Jansa and Foreign Minister Dimitrij Rupel, assured Balkan leaders that enlargement will be one of the key issues for the country during its six-month presidency of the EU, which begins in January. "The Western Balkans belong to Europe.... Now is the time to make our promises a reality," Rupel said on August 26 at the start of the conference, which was entitled "European Union 2020: Enlarging And Integrating." Rupel predicted that one of the key problems facing Slovenian diplomats will be defining the final status of Kosova. Kosovar Albanian leaders hope the United States and the EU will recognize Kosova as an independent state after mediators submit a report to the UN on December 10, but commentaries in the local media are increasingly talking about the possibility of a resolution being delayed until 2008. The Slovenian news agency STA on August 27 cited Rupel as saying that it is a "$65,000 question" whether the EU will remain united about Kosova. In a comment that reflected the EU's current policy, Rupel expressed support for the Ahtisaari plan, saying: "I don't see any other policy as coherent and as full of new ideas." Serbian Foreign Minister Jeremic urged Slovenia to push the enlargement agenda. "It is natural that it should be a country from the region championing the region's cause in the EU," Jeremic said in comments carried by STA. Jansa and Rupel cited protection of the environment, global security, global economic development, and the fight against poverty as other priorities. AG

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) on August 24 condemned a spate of attacks on Roma in Serbia and called for greater government action. Roma in a slum district in Belgrade have responded to the attacks, the destruction of a number of slum dwellings, and racist graffiti by setting up vigilante group. A police investigation has yet to lead to any arrests. AG

Croatia's Interior Ministry said on August 24 that Bosnia-Herzegovina Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj was granted Croatian citizenship in 2006, the Croatian news agency Hina reported. The statement came in response to a report by the Bosnian weekly "Slobodna Bosna" on August 23 that alleged Alkalaj had "begged" his Croatian counterpart to help him gain Croatian citizenship in March. Alkalaj, whose ethnic background is Jewish rather than Croatian, has in recent months been the target of criticism by Bosnian Serb ministers and politicians, in part because of his questioning of the current dual-citizenship agreement with Serbia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 29, and August 3, 8, and 23, 2007). "Slobodna Bosna," which is based in Sarajevo, said Alkalaj based his application on his ownership of a house near Dubrovnik. AG

The Catholic archbishop of Sarajevo, Cardinal Vinko Puljic, has called on Croatia to offer "more explicit" support for Bosnian Croats. In an interview published by the daily "Oslobodenje" on August 26, Puljic said, "in its effort to join the European Union, Croatia was very reserved toward Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina." However, Puljic added that he has noticed a shift in Croatia's policy. "Lately Prime Minister [Ivo] Sanader has been taking a clearer position at international meetings, asking that international principles apply also to Croats in Bosnia-Herzegovina," he said. Puljic also argued for Croatia to continue to allow Bosnian Croats to vote in Croatian elections, an issue that has triggered heated political debate in Croatia this summer (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 12, 2007). Puljic gave the interview following a meeting with Sanader in Zagreb on August 24, at which discussion centered on the position of ethnic Croats in Bosnia. After that meeting, Sanader appeared to support the right of Bosnia's ethnic Croats to vote in Croatian elections, saying, according to Croatian media, that "all who have Croatian citizenship are equal before the law regardless of whether they live in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, Germany, America, or in Zagreb." President Stjepan Mesic argued during his campaign for a second term in office, in early 2005, that only those who live and pay taxes in Croatia should have the right to vote. AG

The international community's second most senior official in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Raffi Gregorian, has called on the Bosnian authorities to freeze the assets of all members of the family of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leader. "We have been debating for years now about adopting a law on the freezing of assets, and I believe it is high time we took some concrete steps to make that happen," Gregorian told reporters on August 25 during a visit to Karadzic's house in Pale. Karadzic has eluded international troops and local police forces in the region since 1995. Gregorian argued that Karadzic's family is part of a network of supporters helping Karadzic. The homes of members of Karadzic's family in both Bosnia and Montenegro have been raided this year. AG

Kavir National Park is a semi-arid, protected zone in north-central Iran that is home to several rare native and endangered species. It includes some 4,000 square kilometers that stretch within 120 kilometers of the capital, Tehran. Its habitats include desert and steppe that provide homes to hyenas, gazelles, Persian leopards, and Asiatic cheetahs, which Iranian conservationists are battling to protect. The area has been protected since 1964-65 and was declared a national park and biosphere reserve under the monarchy in 1976.

The daily "Etemad" reported recently that two Iranian Oil Ministry projects would affect the entire area of the park. The ministry reportedly envisages digging for oil and storing gas under the reserve in two projects that would require building pipelines and saltwater canals throughout the park.

But "Etemad" added that those plans have yet to receive the approval of Iranian environmental authorities. The daily said the ministry has had to postpone one oil-exploration project because of resistance from local environmental authorities. The ministry's proposed activities would involve blasting, the digging of exploratory wells, and the construction of pipelines.

"Etemad" and ISNA quoted the head of an Iranian conservation project for the Asiatic cheetah as saying that the injection of 4 billion cubic meters of gas under the national park would force large amounts of saltwater to the surface. That would destroy the park's soil and, presumably, vegetation. The conservationist warned that such actions would spark desertification in an area where water is already scarce. He said the projects would damage ongoing or planned ecotourism projects in the Kavir National Park.

A former head of the state environmental authority for Tehran Province, Mohammad Hasan Pirasteh, said the park's ecosystem has already been damaged by military exercises, construction of military bases, disrespect for environmental "norms" -- perhaps by seasonal hunters permitted to use the park -- and unspecified "exploitation" of the terrain. Tehran academic and wildlife specialist Esmail Kahrom called the area "very sensitive and important" and cautioned that "if this habitat is destroyed, it is like destroying a house on top of its inhabitants." He argued that "when we commit ourselves in the world to name an area a protected area, it means the area is entrusted to nature alone" and went on to say that "oil exploration and gas storage in the Kavir National Park [would] damage [Iran's] international commitments."

The Kavir park situation is not exceptional in Iran. Earlier this year, the government decided to divert water in connection with the Sivand Dam in the southern Fars Province -- against the protests of environmental and heritage activists and at the risk of damaging nearby archaeological sites and grazing grounds.

And the daily "Etemad-i Melli" lamented on August 26 that the government has given the go-ahead for the construction of petrochemicals plants and a refinery in three provinces along the northern Caspian coast. It cited two petrochemical projects in the Golestan and Gilan provinces and a refinery in Mazandaran and expressed alarm that "the location of those projects is none other than the forest and the swamp!" It reported that the petrochemical plant in Gilan -- which it said is on hold -- would destroy 120 hectares of forest if it resumes. Seven to eight hectares have already been razed to start the project.

Hossein Akhani, a botanist and academic from Tehran University, has written a long appeal to the head of the state Environment Organization, Fatemeh Vaez-Javadi, to point out the damage to soil, water, and the health of local residents that the Golestan project would cause. Akhani wrote that the swampland of Sufikom, near the planned plant, would dry out and become a dust bowl, "Etemad-i Melli" reported. He wrote that the Golestan petrochemicals plant might generate jobs and money for some, but it would destroy the local environment and lead to long-term and more generalized poverty and sickness for locals. He compared it to the destruction of the Aral Sea in the 1970s by Soviet planners who used that sea's waters to irrigate cotton crops in Central Asia.

Akhani urged Vaez-Javadi to consider the problems that petrochemical pollution has caused to residents of Bandar Abbas in southern Iran and in Tehran. He urged a reconsideration of some of the plans for northern Iran. Akhani said that such projects in his birthplace of Arak have polluted the air and water, and hurt local farming. He suggested that industrialization and the degradation of the environment in Arak have led to rising crime and other local problems.

Akhani noted that "the government and parliament [have] concluded that one has to prevent senseless fuel consumption" and went on to ask why the state is not using the savings from the recent national fuel restrictions to develop agriculture, instead of producing pollutants. "Which is more important," Akhani asked, "food security or the construction of a petrochemicals complex whose technology is foreign and [whose profits] may also go into their pockets?"

The newspaper did not report whether the Environment Organization leadership has replied. But it pointed out that President Mahmud Ahmadinejad's government recently lifted a long-standing ban on large-scale and polluting projects on Iran's northern Caspian coast.

"Etemad-i Melli" reported separately that 270 cases of birth defects were registered over a six-month period in the port of Mahshahr in the southwestern Khuzestan Province -- possibly due to oil and related pollutants flowing into the Persian Gulf. The newspaper reported that officials accept that the pollution of local waters is a factor in increased sterility among men and women in Khuzestan, but it noted the lack of any action from the state. It claims that if "anywhere else in the world...a small town and in a period of six months almost 270 children were born with birth defects and sometimes without a head, the country would be thrown upside down and some officials forced to resign." But "Etemad-i Melli" said that "amazingly, this...disaster has occurred in Iran...without [officials] paying much attention."

These cases, and Iran's relentless pursuit of what the government asserts is a purely civilian nuclear program, highlight the importance that the state assigns to large-scale infrastructure and development projects. The scale, purpose, and seemingly unstoppable advance of such initiatives are at times reminiscent of Soviet or Chinese projects of the 20th century. Indeed, one might plausibly argue that environmental degradation is characteristic of authoritarian governments with leftist leanings, where the state takes a preeminent role in economic development. These recent Iranian moves suggest an ongoing commitment to state-generated industrial development and a rejection -- bordering on contempt or willful ignorance -- of some of the concerns of the early 21st century -- in this case, the environment.

These recent reports also reveal contradictions in the nature of Iran's polity and development. Such projects are ostensibly aimed at benefiting the "people." But one might wonder what their real motive is, if people become sick.

For a polity that declares its concern for piety and the afterlife and praises the culture of martyrdom, it shows an uncommon predilection for earthly prosperity and wasteful development models. Destruction of the environment to produce fuel, plastics, and consumer goods while enhancing the state's capacity to generate cash is surely materialism in one of its most insidious forms.

Given these reports, it seems ironic that Ahmadinejad should have compared, as he did on August 25, Iran's nuclear program to the "confrontation of the culture of the Islamic revolution with the arrogant and material world." His government seems determined to earn cash and put oil money on people's dinner tables -- as he has pledged -- even if swaths of the country are turned into toxic junkyards in the process.

The United Nations announced on August 27 that Afghanistan's opium harvest has risen by a record 34 percent, making the country the supplier of 93 percent of the world's heroin, AFP reported. According to the UN Office of Drugs and Crime 2007 Annual Opium Survey, the Taliban-infested Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan has become the world's largest source of illicit drugs. "No other country has produced narcotics on such a deadly scale since China in the 19th century," despite multimillion-dollar endeavors by Britain and the United States to halt the country's opium trade, the report said. The production of opium, estimated at 8,200 tons in 2007, helps finance logistics and arms supplies for the Taliban-led insurgency, which has achieved a record level of violence in recent months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27, 2007). About 80 percent of opium poppies are grown in regions of the country where instability is the worst, primarily along the border with Pakistan, said the survey. JC

Residents of Helmand, Afghanistan's embattled southern province are complaining about the new threat posed by land mines in several districts, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on August 27. Akhtar Muhammad, a Greshk district resident, claims mines have been laid within several villages and along district roads. Many inhabitants, displaced by the clashes between insurgents and government forces, have been killed as they try to return home. Sangin resident Noor Khan told Pajhwak how her cousin, a woman, and a child were killed instantly by a land mine on their way back to the district after being forced to flee to Greshk by the deadly clashes in recent months. Afghan and NATO forces accuse Taliban militants of placing the mines to hamper reconstruction efforts and as countermeasures to government military operations. JC

A spokesman for the U.S. military said on August 27 it regrets any offense caused by a recent public-relations exercise in which it distributed soccer balls inscribed with the name "Allah," AP reported. The military dropped the balls from a helicopter to children in eastern Khost Province on August 24. At least one of the balls showed a Saudi Arabian flag featuring the Islamic declaration of faith in Arabic script, including the names of Allah and the Prophet Muhammad. As Muslims revere any printed material bearing the name of Allah, his prophet, or verses of the Koran, villagers reacted strongly to the ball, said Khost Governor Arsalah Jamal. "The distribution of soccer balls was done in the spirit of good will, something that we hoped would bring Afghan children some enjoyment," said a coalition forces spokesman, Sergeant Dean Welch. The coalition regrets "any disturbance" caused by the gesture, he added. JC

Three U.S. and two Afghan soldiers were killed in a Taliban ambush near the Pakistan border on August 27, while another NATO soldier was killed in a different ambush in a separate region of Afghanistan, AFP reported. A U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the five soldiers were killed in an early morning ambush in Konar Province. Coalition spokesman Sergeant Welch confirmed the incident, but declined to specify the number of casualties. Konar authorities added that the incident involved "intense fighting," during which two foreign and seven Afghan soldiers were injured. Elsewhere, one soldier with the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was killed and another injured when their convoy came under small-arms fire in a separate ambush in Pakista Province, according to ISAF spokeswoman Christine Nelson-Chung. Nelson-Chung did not provide further details or the soldiers' nationalities. Meanwhile, the Dutch Defense Ministry announced that a Dutch sergeant was killed by a suspected Taliban-planted bomb, also on August 26. A second Dutch soldier was wounded in the attack. Six foreign soldiers from several of the 37 countries comprising the ISAF force have been killed over the past two days, as the coalition death toll for 2007 approaches its highest since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001. JC

French President Nicolas Sarkozy told a gathering of diplomats in Paris on August 27 that he believes a "nuclear-armed Iran" is "unacceptable," reported. Sarkozy affirmed France's support for current international initiatives regarding Iran's atomic dossier, which he summarized as "combining incremental sanctions with openings, if Iran chooses to respect its obligations." The combination of punitive measures and incentives, he said, is the only means of "escaping a catastrophic alternative: an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran." He referred to negotiations with Libya and North Korea as successful processes that have led those states to abandon their nuclear programs, and said, "Iran has much to gain by engaging in serious negotiations with the Europeans, the Americans, the Chinese, and the Russians." Sarkozy termed the impasse over Iran's atomic dossier "probably the most serious" crisis "weighing on the international order" at present. Sarkozy said France maintains "a frank dialogue with Iran" that has proven useful "on many occasions," reported. VS

Iranian Defense Minister Mustafa Mohammad-Najjar told state television on August 26 that Iran would use its 900-kilogram "smart" bombs on anyone attacking the country, agencies reported. He was speaking at the unveiling of a mass-production line for the Qased or Messenger bomb (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24, 2007). Reports indicate that the bomb can be guided and fired from Iran's F-4 fighter jets, but few details have been given on the weapon. Mohammad-Najjar said Iran's defensive doctrine is based on "comprehensive defense" and deterrence, and stressed Qased was designed and built by Iranian Defense Ministry technicians and personnel. "The Qased smart bomb and other Iranian missiles, bullets, and ammunition will land on the heads of those who wish to violate and attack this land," ISNA quoted him as saying. VS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told a press conference in Tehran on August 27 that "terrorists and traffickers are exploiting the presence of foreign troops in Iraq and an atmosphere suited to sabotage, and continue to be active on" Iran's frontiers with Iraq, ISNA reported. "A large amount of arms has entered...Iran from Iraq, and a large number of [Iranian] agents have been martyred fighting traffickers and terrorists on the...border," he said. "Likewise terrorists have been very active in recent months in northern Iraq." Hosseini urged joint efforts by Iraq and Iran to "remove the possibility of their establishment in these areas," but did not specify who the terrorists were. He said that reports Iran has been bombarding parts of northern Iraq in recent days are being examined. "What we see, however, is that insecurity in Iraq has repeatedly made [Iran's] frontiers and border provinces unsafe," he said. Hosseini said the Iranian and Iraqi foreign ministries are working to bring stability to the frontier, and expressed hope the implementation of the 1975 Algiers Accord will resolve most border-related disputes between them. VS

Intelligence Minister Gholamhussein Mohseni-Ejei said in Tehran on August 26 that students, or people pretending to be students, should not contact unspecified U.S. officials, or the state will take measures against them, Mehr agency reported. "We are not going to object to students stating their views," he said, "but...some people enter the university environment under the name of students and damage the student atmosphere and insult" religious values. "We shall deal with people who are not students," he said. He said the state would also respond to "people who in the name of students...have contacts with White House statesmen outside the country" in a bid to "damage" Iran's government. It was not immediately clear if he meant the dissenting students are outside Iran. He stressed no students have been detained for their beliefs. He urged students not to "allow the penetration of these people" into the student environment, but to engage in debates in "healthy student settings," Mehr reported. VS

Radio Farda reporter Parnaz Azima, who is currently prevented from leaving Iran and accused of engaging in anti-Iranian propaganda through her news reporting, may now face subversion charges, Radio Farda reported on August 26, citing her lawyer, Mohammad Hussein Aqasi. It was not immediately clear if he was speaking to Radio Farda or an Iranian agency. Aqasi said the charge against Azima in a bill of indictment is now "acting against the security" of the Iranian state by working for Radio Farda and "publishing material against the system." He said she might also be charged with having a satellite dish and receiver, which are illegal in Iran, and which were allegedly confiscated from her mother's home in Tehran. Aqasi said Azima's dossier uses an article in the Islamic Penalties Law on antistate propaganda to make the new charges against her, and added the dossier cites the need for her to remain in Iran for an indefinite period. This, he said, corroborated his suspicion that this is a political case related to Iran-U.S. hostilities. He said a simple judicial dossier would have led to a court decision by now, Radio Farda reported. VS

Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi on August 27 called on the Iraqi government to protect Kurdish citizens from shelling operations carried out by neighboring states, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Al-Hashimi said in a statement released by the Iraqi Islamic Party, which he heads, that the nearly two weeks of shelling is unjustified. He said the Iraqi government is obliged to take action to secure the areas under attack and reduce casualties. Kurdish officials have said Iran has bombed several villages Tehran suspects of sheltering Iranian Kurdish militants. Meanwhile, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported on August 27 that Kurds demonstrated outside the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan headquarters in Irbil to protest Iranian and Turkish shelling of villages outside Al-Sulaymaniyah and Dahuk. Iranian government spokesman Gholamhossein Elham denied on August 22 that Iran had dropped leaflets warning Kurdish villagers to evacuate the area ahead of a planned military operation, Reuters reported the same day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 22, 2007). Elham refused to comment further on Iranian operations in the area, except to say: "Iran is ready to deal with groups that jeopardize the security of the people in the region without hurting civilians," the news agency reported. Turkey has denied taking part in the shelling, but Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul last week voiced possible Turkish support for a cross-border operation by Iran, reported on August 27. KR

Kurdistan Satellite television on August 28 carried a live broadcast of the Kurdistan regional parliament's extraordinary session to discuss the reported shelling of Iraqi Kurdish villages by Iran and Turkey. Regional parliament spokesman Tariq Jawhar told Al-Iraqiyah in an August 27 interview that the central government has said little about the shelling. "We have not yet heard any official Iraqi reaction [to the shelling] except for the statements made [on August 26] by the prime minister to the effect that the Iranian and Turkish shelling and operations violate Iraq's sovereignty.... [We] hope the Iraqi government will take practical measures and demand the Iranian and Turkish sides halt their military operations." Prime Minister al-Maliki told reporters at an August 26 press briefing in Baghdad: "The bombardments by Iran and Turkey are violations of Iraq's sovereignty. We will not allow these violations, but this must come through diplomatic channels. We will inform our brothers in Turkey and Iran about that through the Foreign Ministry." KR

U.S. President George W. Bush reportedly telephoned Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki on August 27 to voice support for the newly announced agreement among the five leading political parties in government, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told state-run Al-Iraqiyah television in a same-day interview (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27, 2007). Bush stressed that Iraq's security is an integral part of the region's security, adding that he supports all the steps al-Maliki has taken. In addition, Bush "expressed relief at [the August 26] agreement, which can settle a lot of the political tensions which Iraq is witnessing at the moment. [Bush] said he fully supports all the steps which the political leaders agreed on," al-Dabbagh said. Referring to U.S. criticism aimed at al-Maliki's administration, al-Dabbagh said: "The United States is witnessing an election year.... Therefore all cards and political themes are employed [by competing politicians]. Because Iraq lies in the core of is natural for rivals to exploit the Iraqi file." KR

Coalition forces plan this week to begin releasing some detainees who have not been charged with crimes, according to an August 27 Multinational Force-Iraq press release. The statement did not say how many detainees will be released under the agreement, which seeks to expedite the reconciliation process, except to say that releases will continue through the end of Ramadan on October 13. Umar al-Juburi, head of the Iraqi Islamic Party's Human Rights Bureau, announced the release of 1,700 detainees on August 23. Meanwhile, "Al-Mashriq" on August 25 cited Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi as saying some 6,000 detainees will be released in the coming days. KR

The press release also announced the launch of Operation Lion's Paw, which will develop education, medical, and legal programs to ensure detainees are prepared for their release and reintegration into society. Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, who toured detention facilities last week and signed an agreement with leading parties in Iraqi government on August 26 that calls for speeding up detainee releases, praised the plan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 20 and 26, 2007). "Extremists have been very successful at spreading their ideology to economically strapped Iraqis with little to no formal education," al-Hashimi said. "I am very pleased with the efforts of the coalition and all of the positive things they are doing to prepare the detainees for release." The statement also announced the launch of the Pledge and Guarantor Program, which allows detainees to pledge that they will maintain good behavior upon release, with a guarantor, presumably a tribal leader or other sponsor, overseeing the detainee's reentry into society. The program will include the participation of the Iraqi courts. KR

U.S. Rear Admiral Mark Fox told reporters at an August 26 press briefing in Baghdad that as U.S. and Iraqi forces clear Diyala Governorate of Al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorists, commerce and economic development are beginning to recover in the area. Fox cited the reopening of the Ba'qubah Public Flour Mill, saying Baghdad sent 560 tons of wheat in a 21-truck convoy to the mill on August 16 to be processed and distributed to the local population through the public distribution system. "The mill is capable of producing 200 tons of finished flour per day and will employ about 100 mill workers, several truck drivers, all of which will aid the local economy," Fox said. He added that the Iraqi Army last week delivered 49 billion Iraqi dinars (approximately $38 million) to the Diyala Governorate to pay the salaries and pensions of nearly 70 percent of local residents, or 1.3 million residents. Fox told reporters: "Joint operations between coalition and Iraqi security forces are now double compared to this time last year, while total attacks -- that is attacks against civilians and security forces -- are at their lowest levels since August 2006." KR