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Newsline - August 30, 2007

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso was quoted by the French daily "Le Figaro" on August 29 as saying that the future of the EU's relations with Russia will depend on the quality of its democracy, Reuters reported. Barroso argued that "the fact that our relations are not good does not mean that [the EU's] strategy is bad. It can mean that [Russia] is experiencing internal problems. We must [nonetheless] first remain firm in our...respect for human rights." He noted that it is "strange" that there are so many murders of journalists that are never solved in a country where the security forces are so strong. He stressed that he hopes that the EU's policy toward Moscow will enable Russia "to move forward. President [Vladimir] Putin is the most European of all the leaders of an outside country I have met." PM

Britain's "Financial Times" reported on August 30 that "Russian energy companies' ambitions to expand in the [EU] may be curbed by plans to be considered by the European Commission. In a confidential working paper, the commission suggests a series of measures to restrict foreign companies' access to the EU's energy sector, and in particular the gas and electricity-transmission networks." The daily noted that "one option to be considered is a 'reciprocity clause' that would keep out countries such as Russia or Saudi Arabia, where European companies face severe restrictions on investment. The proposals are linked to the commission's plans to increase competition in the European energy market -- to be published on September 19 -- in an attempt to ease fears about consequences of liberalization" and possible foreign takeovers in the EU's energy market (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27 and 29, 2007). The paper pointed out that, of all the options under consideration, "the weakest proposal would give the commission the right closely to examine any potential buyer. The toughest measure would declare the European energy sector a 'strategic industry,' thereby excluding most countries from outside the EU from investing in it." Gazprom and other Russian energy firms are keen to acquire assets in Europe at a time when new restrictions have been introduced on foreign investments in the Russian energy sector and some foreign energy firms have been effectively forced out of existing contracts. PM

On August 29, Defense Minister Sergei Serdyukov sacked Major General Konstantin Chmarov, who was acting head of the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Arkhangelsk Oblast, where conscript Sergei Sinkonen received injuries on August 14 at the hands of two drunken officers, which led to his death on August 27, the state-run daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on August 30 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 24, 28, and 29, 2007). Serdyukov expressed his "sincere condolences" to Sinkonen's parents. The daily reported that Sinkonen's body was flown by a military helicopter to his home region near Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Republic of Karelia, on August 29 and buried with military honors the same day. The paper suggested that the ongoing investigation into the incident will be very thorough, and that the fate of those found responsible for the killing "will not be one to be envied." The Gazprom-owned daily "Izvestia" reported on August 30 that the investigation is expected to lead to "a big purge" of officers. Some Russian commentators noted that the attention Serdyukov has shown to the case, including the sending of condolences and granting of military honors, stands in contrast to the behavior of his predecessor, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who tended to play down hazing incidents. PM

Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who heads the small opposition Russian People's Democratic Union, said in Yekaterinburg on August 29 that he will put forward a "100-day action plan" if he is elected president in March, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30, and August 13 and 28, 2007). "I would like to stress that it will not be a development plan for the country, but a presidential action plan. Laws will not be changed, but the spirit of the country's life will change," he said. His party has not endorsed anyone for the December parliamentary elections because, he argued, "these are going to be phony elections, not real ones. These elections should be ignored. If there is no union of all opposition forces, then participation in elections can do no good." The news agency reported that about 40 people turned up for Kasyanov's rally at a hotel. Outside, protesters from the pro-Kremlin youth groups Nashi (Ours) and the Young Guard staged a counterdemonstration. They were dressed in medical uniforms and "offered to escort Kasyanov to the airport" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 22, July 23 and 24, and August 15, 2007). PM

Federation Council speaker Sergei Mironov, who heads the pro-Kremlin party A Just Russia, and Aleksei Mitrofanov, a former deputy chairman of Vladimir Zhirinovsky's Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), said at a Moscow press conference on August 29 that Mitrofanov has decided to leave the LDPR and join Mironov's party as a candidate for the State Duma elections in December, Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 24, 2007). Mitrofanov stressed that his former party is "in a political ghetto. Unless something changes, there will be no reason [for it] to continue political activity. I'm absolutely certain that the LDPR has a chance to overcome the 7 percent barrier [to get into parliament] because it is internally stable, but what then? Once again, it won't be able to pass a single amendment to the budget. Once again, [the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia] party will have 300 seats, while the LDPR will have only 55 seats." He added that Russia is "on the way to a two-party system," and that A Just Russia is the best guarantee against a "political monopoly" by Unified Russia. PM

Unidentified gunmen opened fire on the evening of August 29 in Nazran on a BMW car, killing two men in a drive-by shooting, Russian media reported. According to, the two were servicemen; the Russian television station NTV identified them as border guards, while reported that they were members of the Federal Security Service (FSB). LF

Speaking at a press conference in Moscow on August 29, Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov dismissed as "an information war" media reports that the security situation in Ingushetia is deteriorating, reported. He complained that the media show no interest in reporting positive trends, such as the fact that Ingushetia leads federation subjects in terms of the volume of construction. Zyazikov also claimed that the slaying six weeks ago of a Russian teacher and two of her children has been solved, and that the perpetrators have been apprehended, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 19, 2007).

The Ingushetian office of the Federal Registration Service has launched a second probe of the activities of the Chechen Committee for National Salvation, just days after that organization submitted the final documentation requested during a probe that began several months ago, on August 29 quoted committee chairman Ruslan Badalov as saying. Badalov criticized the bureaucratic pressure as an attempt to close down his NGO, which provides material assistance and legal advice to thousands of displaced persons. LF

Robert Kocharian has written to former Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul to congratulate him on his election as president, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on August 29. The text of the message was not made public. Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, who has met on several occasions in recent years with Gul, sent a similar message. Analysts in Yerevan do not anticipate any fundamental change in Turkish foreign policy as a result of Gul's election since, as Giro Manoyan of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun pointed out, foreign policy is the prerogative of Turkey's government, not of the president. LF

The number of people who died when a multistory building under construction in Baku collapsed on August 28 has risen to 11, and at least eight people are believed to be still trapped in the debris, reported on August 30. The cause of the collapse is believed to be violations of safety regulations, according to Emergency Situations Ministry official Kamil Bagirov. That ministry earlier warned the company in charge of construction about egregious violations. On August 29, Deputy Prime Minister Abid Sharifov told journalists that all high-rise buildings under construction in Baku will be inspected, and work on buildings for which the required permission has not been issued will be halted, reported. Construction of all high-rise buildings in Ganja, Azerbaijan's second-largest city, has been likewise suspended and a seven-man commission established that will inspect buildings under construction to ensure they comply with technical requirements, reported. LF

President Mikheil Saakashvili has named Health and Social Security Minister Lado Chipashvili Georgia's ambassador to the Czech Republic and transferred David Tkeshelashvili, currently minister for environmental protection and natural resources, to take over that portfolio, Caucasus Press reported. Tkeshelashvili will be succeeded as environment minister by his deputy, David Chantladze. The outgoing ambassador in Prague, Kakha Sikharulidze, will return to Tbilisi to the post of deputy foreign minister. Chipashvili has long been perceived as incompetent, and his dismissal has been rumored for many months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2006 and January 29, 2007). LF

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli told a cabinet session on August 29 that the state budget for 2007 is being increased by 450 million laris ($271.7 million), of which the Defense Ministry is to receive an additional 320 million laris, Caucasus Press reported. He said the money will be spent on bringing the armed forces into line with NATO standards, and noted that defense spending is currently equal to between 4 and 4.5 percent of gross domestic product (GDP). But former Foreign Minister Salome Zourabichvili argued that defense spending in fact accounts for a far higher share of GDP, and asked rhetorically "who are we planning to fight?" She argued that the government should increase social spending instead. Zourabichvili also condemned as inappropriate comments made by President Saakashvili the previous day during a church service to mark the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin, Caucasus Press reported. Saakashvili claimed that the Holy Virgin has intervened miraculously to protect Georgia on numerous occasions, including preventing the explosion of a grenade thrown at U.S. President George W. Bush in Tbilisi in May 2005 and of the Russian missile that landed near the village of Tsitelubani, west of Tbilisi, earlier this month. LF

Deputy Foreign Minister Merab Antadze said on August 29 that during a meeting two days earlier with Russian Ambassador Vyacheslav Kovalenko, he reaffirmed Georgia's readiness for dialogue with Russia "at any level," Caucasus Press reported. He added that he handed to Kovalenko a formal note registering concern at increasing Russian support for the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Antadze also expressed confidence that the international community will evaluate "objectively" the findings of two separate groups of international experts who investigated the August 6 firing by an unidentified aircraft of the missile that landed in Tsitelubani. Those probes established that the missile was of Russian manufacture and that the Georgian armed forces do not have planes capable of launching such a missile (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 16 and 22, 2007). LF

In an opening address at a nonproliferation conference in Astana, State Secretary Kanat Saudabaev noted on August 28 that Kazakhstan voluntarily gave up the world's fourth-largest nuclear arsenal and said the time has come to "fundamentally reform the whole system of the nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction," Interfax-Kazakhstan and Kazinform reported. Saudabaev added that Kazakhstan believes that it is the "responsibility of all countries, including nuclear powers, to reduce [the amount of] nuclear weapons, and destroy their arsenals gradually and completely," and he stressed that only the "universal renunciation of nuclear weapons can ensure peace and security." In another address, newly appointed Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Sauat Mynbaev further noted the country's "great potential" for developing "peaceful nuclear energy," pointing to the recent acquisition of a share of the U.S. nuclear-power-plant maker Westinghouse by the Kazakh state-run energy company Kazatomprom for $540 million (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 14, 2007). Mynbaev also said that although Kazakhstan possesses some 21 percent of the world's natural uranium reserves, the country "strictly complies" with the global nonproliferation regime, Kazakhstan Today reported. RG

An unnamed official of the Kazakh National Security Committee (KNB) announced on August 28 that 12 residents of Kazakhstan's Zhambyl and South Kazakhstan regions have been stripped of their citizenship for their "involvement in illegal armed gangs in the Middle East," according to Kazakhstan Today. The Kazakh nationals reportedly had ties to the People's Congress of Kurdistan (Kongra-Gel), an outlawed group labeled by the Kazakh authorities as a separatist terrorist organization since 2004. The KNB official further said that some 40 Kazakh nationals "from various ethnic groups left for mountainous regions of southeastern Turkey, Syria, Iran, and Iraq" to join the Kurdish group between 1995 and 1999. RG

Speaking at a news conference in Bishkek on August 29, the head of the Kylym Shamy (Torch of the Century) human-rights center, Aziza Abdyrasulova, criticized the law against torture as ineffective, noting that the use of "torture has not stopped in Kyrgyzstan because no one is held accountable" for its use, AKIpress reported. Abdyrasulova went on to say that Kyrgyz police officers regularly assault detainees and "act with impunity." She pointed to the relevant articles of the Criminal Code, which provide punishment for the use of torture, as ineffective and noted that human-rights activists and journalists are routinely denied access to institutions holding the detainees. Abdyrasulova added that "another reason why it is difficult to fight torture in Kyrgyzstan" is that human-rights monitors are harrassed by police when they discover that law-enforcement officers have broken the law (see "Kyrgyzstan: Women Activists Report Increasing Harassment," August 3, 2007, Abdyrasulova is a member of a special working group on torture prevention formed within the presidential human-rights commission, which has recently called on Kyrgyzstan to ratify an optional protocol of the UN Convention Against Torture. RG

Kyrgyz parliament speaker Marat Sultanov has been expelled from the Kyrgyz-Russian Slavonic University for missing too many classes, the website reported on August 28. Sultanov, who was enrolled as a law student in the university's 2 1/2- year distance-learning program, appealed on August 28 to be reinstated as a first-year law student, citing his job as speaker as the reason for his absences. RG

A statement released by the office of President Emomali Rahmon announced on August 29 that Tajikistan has formally revoked a contract with Russia's RusAl aluminum company for the construction of a major hydroelectric power station, Avesta and ITAR-TASS reported. The statement explained that the cancellation of the contract also includes the "annulment" of the October 2004 agreement on "long-term cooperation" with RusAl (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2004), although no precise reasons were given. According to the contract, RusAl agreed to construct the Roghun hydroelectric power station, the largest such facility in Tajikistan, with a planned generation capacity of 13 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity. Sharifkhon Samiev, the head of the national electrical power company, said in April that Tajikistan plans to create an international consortium to complete the construction of the Roghun power station (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 23 and 27, 2007). RG

The head of the National Committee for Women's Affairs in Tajikistan's Sughd region, Nazira Ghafforova, announced on August 29 plans to donate part of a local hospital to a shelter for battered women, according to RFE/RL's Tajik Service. The move will allow the expansion of the facility, which is run by the U.S.-funded Gulrukhsor local women's support group and provides refuge, medical assistance, and counseling for several dozen victimized women and their families. The facility is the first of its kind in Tajikistan, and since its opening in the city of Khujand in 2005 has assisted over 60 victims and has also established a 24-hour domestic-violence hotline. Ghafforova explained that domestic violence is not uncommon in Tajikistan, but noted that victims are hesitant to seek help. RG

Foreign Minister Rashid Meredov met on August 29 with Uzbek officials in Tashkent to prepare for Uzbek President Islam Karimov's upcoming state visit to Turkmenistan, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Although the exact date of the visit has not yet been decided, Meredov reviewed a set of bilateral agreements on energy, transport, tourism, and agriculture that are expected to be signed by the two presidents as a centerpiece of their meeting. RG

Ina Kuley told Belapan on August 29 that in October Polish universities will accept at least 63 Belarusian students who encountered problems with studying in Belarus because of political persecution. Kuley, who is the wife of Belarusian opposition leader Alyaksandr Milinkevich, chairs the Solidarity committee providing assistance to Belarusians who have suffered for political reasons. Kuley said that in the selected group, 44 students were expelled from Belarusian universities on politically motivated charges, while 19 were subject to other forms of political harassment. In March 2006, the Polish government launched the Kastus Kalinouski educational-assistance program, under which more than 200 young Belarusians who were punished for their participation in opposition activities and protests were enrolled in universities in Poland last year. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko said on August 29 that the registration of a separate list of candidates for the September 30 parliamentary elections by a splinter group from the Pora Party does not benefit the democratic movement, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "I know there are many forces that would not like to see Ukrainian democrats united.... Their goal is to misinform the people, to tell them that the democratic forces are divided," Yushchenko noted. The Pora Party was initially in the pro-presidential Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense (NUNS) bloc, but a splinter group led by Yaroslav Hodunok managed to register a separate list of candidates under the party's name on August 28. Hodunok told journalists in Kyiv on August 30 that he is ready to withdraw his list from the election campaign if the NUNS and the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) sign a political agreement on forming a postelection coalition without the participation of the Party of Regions, UNIAN reported. Hodunok alleged that some "oligarchs" from both the NUNS and the BYuT are conducting secret negotiations with the Party of Regions in order to create a broad coalition after the elections. Ukrainian commentators believe that the separate election bid by the Pora Party may significantly impair the election chances of the NUNS and the BYuT, thus benefiting their rivals. According to Ukraine's election law, only parties gaining over 3 percent on the vote qualify for parliamentary representation. The votes cast for parties below the 3 percent threshold are in effect wasted and not taken into account during the distribution of parliamentary seats. JM

Macedonian Foreign Minister Antonio Milososki has dismissed local media reports that Macedonia's admission to NATO could be delayed by uncertainty over the future of Kosova. "We are certain that Macedonia will celebrate the membership invitation at next year's NATO summit in Bucharest [in April 2008] together with...Croatia and Albania," Milososki said on August 29, the news agency MIA reported. The Kosovar media is increasingly speculating that no decision will be made this year, while the danger that the election of a new Russian president, scheduled for March 2008, could also have an impact on the timing of a decision has also been aired. The UN administrator in Kosova, Joachim Ruecker, has already made it clear that the timing of local and parliamentary elections in Kosova is partly contingent on the state of negotiations, and the Serbian government has said that it could push back the date of local and presidential elections for the same reason. Ongoing discussions about changes to Serbia's election law and to its administrative regions are also factors that could determine the date of the Serbian votes. However, a spokeswoman for Serbia's largest governing party, Jelena Markovic of the Democratic Party, told the daily "Dnevnik" on August 28 that her party believes that, at the least, the presidential election should be held this year. AG

President Branko Crvenkovski on August 28 gave a mixed assessment of the Macedonian government's first year in office, which it completed on August 26. According to MIA, Crvenkovski praised the governing coalition for boosting Macedonians' "faith in the future," for "the introduction of greater discipline" on the fiscal front and in other areas, and for its "resolve" to fight crime and corruption. However, he lamented that "judicial reforms are totally blocked," and condemned it for spending promises "that may be a sign that the government is abandoning reform." The television channel A1 said he also criticized the government for showing "no willingness" to fill some key diplomatic posts. "Basically, in the year when it is of utmost importance for us to have good diplomatic relations with the EU and NATO members, we are marking time," Crvenkovski continued, referring to Macedonia's hope to win admission to NATO in 2008. In their assessment of the past year, the governing parties highlighted their success in lowering taxes, raising public-sector wages, and fighting crime and corruption. The opposition focused its criticism on a lack of judicial reform, the lack of dialogue between the government and the opposition, and tensions that led to a boycott of parliament by ethnic-Albanian parties earlier this year. The tenure of many of Macedonia's ambassadors ends in September. Macedonia is currently in the process of buying buildings in 15 European cities to serve as embassies and consulates. Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski said on August 21 that the cost is expected to come to 40 million euros ($54.7 million), Makfax reported. AG

The Serbian daily "Blic" has reported, citing government sources, that a range of ambassadorial appointments are being held up by divisions between the government's two largest parties, the Democratic Party (DS) and the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS). The key point of contention is the posting to Italy, "Blic" noted on August 27. DS objections to a DSS nominee prompted the DSS to withhold support for nominees to the ambassadorships in Belgium, Greece, and Slovenia. Belgium is currently a member of the UN Security Council, which may decide the future of Kosova, and Slovenia will assume the EU Presidency in January. A similar dispute has meant that Serbia has had no ambassador in Montenegro since its former federal partner declared independence in mid-2006. The indications are that the parties have now reached agreement on that posting. A former Serbian diplomat quoted by "Blic" warned that the disputes could "send a message to the potential host countries that these are inconsequential people," ensuring "they will have a much harder time lobbying for Serbia's interests." AG

Serbia's agriculture minister, Slobodan Milosavljevic, said on August 28 that trade -- for all products -- between Croatia and Serbia has increased to $550 million in 2006 and should top $600 million this year, the Croatian news agency Hina reported. Most of the trade is in Serbia's direction, but Milosavljevic's Croatian counterpart, Petar Cobankovic, said that Serbia increased its exports to Croatia by an estimated 37 percent in the first half of this year. The two men were speaking on August 28 at the start of three days of talks. They were expected to discuss efforts to boost trade and to limit the impact of this year's drought, and resolve the future of a herd of prized horses. The two agreed that the herd of Lipizzaner horses should be returned, but Milosavljevic said that "how and how many Lipizzaner horses" will be returned will be determined in two weeks' time, after officials count and appraise the condition of the horses. The herd has been decimated since being moved from Croatia to Bosnia and, eventually, to Serbia for safe keeping during the wars of the 1990s, but the number of horses that remain is unclear (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 7, 2007). It is unclear whether Croatia will accede to a demand by the owner of the horses' current stables that Croatia pay $300,000 for costs incurred for the horses' upkeep. AG

Two of the leading politicians involved in the ongoing talks on the future of Kosova noted recently that the discussions are likely to lead nowhere. There are perhaps some other basic points regarding Kosova that have become obscured in the heated debates of recent months and are worth recalling.

Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku and Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, who are members of the rival delegations scheduled to begin talks in Vienna today, said recently on separate occasions that they doubt the negotiation process will lead to a compromise settlement. Some prominent diplomats from outside the Balkans have made similar statements in recent weeks. Indeed, it has often been pointed out in the regional and international media that if a compromise were possible, someone probably would have hit upon it long ago.

Any final settlement will most likely be determined primarily by two facts on the ground. The first is that Kosova has a 90 percent ethnic-Albanian majority that does not want anything to do with Serbia as a result of the 1998-99 conflict. On the basis of the principles of self-determination and majority rule, all Kosovar Albanian political parties insist on independence. They stress that any discussion of Kosova's future must proceed from the realities that stem from the war, during which tens of thousands of Albanians were forced to flee their homes and many Kosovars died.

Another legacy of that conflict is the profound suspicion on the part of many Kosovars that the brutal policies of Serbian forces there would not have succeeded to the extent that they did without the political support and "human intelligence" supplied by the province's Serbian minority.

The mistrust between the two ethnic groups is, in fact, mutual and deeply rooted. Like their fellow Serbs in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina at the start of the 1990s, Kosova's Serbs fear becoming a minority in a state they do not control; many fled their homes at the end of the war for that reason. The Albanians worry that Belgrade and its backers in Moscow want to drag the status talks out indefinitely in the hope that the Western powers will lose interest in the Balkans and that Serbian forces can then return to the province.

The circumstances of the war and the tense aftermath it produced have led to what might be called the second truth, namely that Kosova is in practice partitioned into Serbian and Albanian sections, the existence of scattered enclaves notwithstanding. At the urging of Belgrade, most local Serbian politicians have boycotted Kosova's nascent state institutions, including the parliamentary seats reserved for them. Instead, parallel structures have been set up in northern Mitrovica and other parts of northern Kosova, despite frequent admonitions by the international community that such structures are "illegal." Kosova's Serbs look to Belgrade rather than to Prishtina for their political cues.

Officially, none of the parties involved in negotiations supports a de jure partition of Kosova. This is true of the Kosovar Albanians and of Serbia, as well as of the international "troika" of the United States, the EU, and Russia. In practice, however, all concerned know that partition is a possible option. Wolfgang Ischinger, who is the German diplomat representing the EU in the talks, recently made hints to that effect, although he subsequently denied that partition is under consideration.

UN envoy for Kosova Martti Ahtisaari said in Bled, Slovenia, on August 26 that the international community must not allow Kosova to become another "frozen conflict," but instead must act on the plan he put forward for supervised independence. Belgrade and Moscow both reject any form of independence and argue that the Ahtisaari plan is "dead." But Jeremic hinted at the same gathering as Ahtisaari that the EU might "energize" the regional political process if it were to offer candidate membership status to all the countries there.

In fact, there has been much media speculation in recent months that Belgrade takes the tough line that Kosova must "remain" Serbian only as a maximum negotiating position. According to this view, Belgrade's real aim is to obtain a fast track toward EU membership and possibly a partition of Kosova that would leave it in effective control of the Serbian-dominated north. Brussels' long-standing position is that membership is not a prize that is awarded on the basis of political considerations but is the result of completing a lengthy and clearly defined process.

Ischinger has made it clear that Serbia's and Kosova's future relations with the EU will depend on the outcome of the current talks. He, Ahtisaari, and Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, whose country currently holds the rotating Presidency of the EU, have all said in recent days that Kosova "must be primarily a matter for the EU."

Brussels will need to come up with some concrete offers to the countries of the region if such statements are not to be remembered as an idle boast, like the words of Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos at the beginning of the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991, when he said that "the hour of Europe" has come. Kosovar Albanian commentators in particular also stress that the EU cannot expect to continue to delay a settlement in Kosova or impose an unwieldy political structure on it, as Brussels did on Serbia and Montenegro in an arrangement that lasted only from 2003-06. Those Albanian commentators also note that only the United States has the full confidence of the Kosovars on security matters and that the Albanians will insist on a continuing U.S. military and civilian presence.

The Taliban on August 29 freed 12 of 19 South Korean aid workers being held captive in Afghanistan's central Ghazni Province in what appears to be the beginning of the end of a six-week hostage crisis, RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan reported. Three women were handed over in the morning to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the village of Qala-e Kazi in Ghazni, near where the original group of 23 aid workers was abducted while traveling by bus on July 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 21, 2007). Four other women and one man were released around midday, and another four women were freed in the evening. The release of the remaining hostages appears to be in progress. The ICRC, a key mediator in the negotiations between the Korean government and the hostage takers, said Taliban officials were thus far fulfilling their part of the agreement made on August 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007). In exchange for the hostages' return, Seoul has agreed to withdraw all 200 of its noncombat troops from Afghanistan by the end of the year -- as it had previously stated it would -- and to prohibit Korean Christians from conducting missionary work there. The families of the hostages in Korea reacted joyously to the news of the agreement, but expressed sympathy for the two male hostages killed by the captors in July in an attempt to force their demands (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31, 2007). The recent increase in kidnappings of foreigners, highlighted by the Korean hostage crisis, has caused concern among international aid groups and governments that the Taliban is strategically adopting abduction as a primary tactic in its insurgency campaign against the Afghan government and Western forces. The insurgents are still holding hostage one German and four Afghans also kidnapped in July (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 20, 2007). JC

A new University of California, San Diego study that focused on describing the prevalence of HIV and hepatitis B and C in Afghanistan has raised concerns that increasing high-risk behavior may result in an HIV epidemic there, the "Science Daily" reported on August 29. Although the findings show that HIV prevalence among injected-drug users in Kabul is low, they also reveal that the rates of injection-drug use and dangerous sexual behavior, as well as the incidence of hepatitis C infection, are disturbingly high, which could foreshadow a rise in HIV rates. A major obstacle to intervention programs is lack of funding, said Dr. Saifur Rehman, manager of the HIV/AIDS Control Program of the Afghan Public Health Ministry, adding that "it is important to educate the public about this looming problem in Afghanistan." Between June 2005 and June 2006, researchers studied 464 injected-drug users in Kabul at the Voluntary Counseling and Testing Center at the Central Polyclinic in Kabul. Common high-risk behavior among Afghan males participating in the study included sharing syringes (50 percent), paid sex with women (76 percent), and sex with men or boys (28 percent). The rapid rise of HIV prevalence in Central and South Asia is due largely to the soaring rates of injected-drug use fueled by Afghanistan's record-breaking production of opium. JC

Four civilians and two Afghan soldiers were killed on August 29 when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowded marketplace in Afghanistan's Paktika Province, AFP reported. Paktika Governor Mohammad Akram Khepelwak said that approximately 12 others were wounded in the attack, the second suicide blast in as many days in the volatile region near the Pakistani border. A suicide bomber killed three NATO soldiers building a bridge in Paktia Province on August 28 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007). Afghan soldiers shopping in the bazaar appear to have been the intended targets of the attack, according to reports. Clashes between the Taliban and coalition and Afghan forces are escalating across southern Afghanistan, where the U.S.-led coalition recently killed more than 100 insurgents in Kandahar Province (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007). JC

Some experts have questioned the viability of the timetable and "modalities" Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) have agreed on for inspections of Iran's nuclear installations, "The New York Times" reported on August 29 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007). David Albright, the president of the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, a research body, said the plan does not allow the IAEA to verify claims Iran is making on the resolution of outstanding questions on its program, nor does it give the IAEA "access to people, documents, sites," reported on August 28. He said the deal also deprives the IAEA of the "right to ask follow-up questions," presumably on issues Iran says are resolved. The daily quoted another observer, Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, as saying that the agreement, which the IAEA posted on its website on August 27, is "superficial" and allows for a prolonged process of inquiry lasting months, which could lead to potentially "incomplete and misleading answers from Iran." The daily observed that this is of concern to Western powers, as Iran meanwhile continues to enrich uranium. Enrichment is part of the nuclear fuel-production process, which Iran says it will use only for electricity generation or research. The agreement may also undermine the present shared support of UN Security Council powers for a new round of sanctions, quoted "a senior French official" as saying. VS

Saudi authorities have begun fingerprinting Iranian pilgrims heading for Mecca and are keeping their passport information for later reference, in apparently new security measures against Iranians, reported on August 29, citing the Fars news agency. Fars reported that two groups of pilgrims, including students arriving in Saudi Arabia on August 27, were fingerprinted at Jeddah airport, and that "this year" Saudi authorities have begun to keep passport information of Iranian pilgrims entering the kingdom. The agency described this as an "unfitting" way to treat Iranian pilgrims and observed that fingerprinting is for terrorists and criminals. It stated that Iranian and Saudi pilgrimage officials have only recently discussed the issue of the alleged and occasional discourteousness shown to Iranians. It reported that Hojatoleslam Mohammad Mohammadi-Reishahri, the Iranian supreme leader's representative in Iran's Hajj and Pilgrimage Organization, and the head of that body, Mustafa Khaqsar-Qahrevardi, have recently traveled to the kingdom for this reason. Khaqsar-Qahrevardi discussed the treatment of Iranian pilgrims with a Saudi official on August 27, Fars reported. VS

An unspecified number of environmentalists protested outside Iran's Environment Organization in Tehran on August 27 over the recent deaths of some 2,000 flamingo chicks in a lake in the Bakhtegan national park in Fars Province, Radio Farda reported. The flamingos have died as the lake has dried up, turning into a salty mud patch, in part apparently due to the construction of the Sivand dam nearby (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 16, 17, and 20, 2007). Radio Farda reported that the activists came to Tehran from the northern and central provinces of Gilan and Isfahan, respectively, and protested against the government's alleged indifference to the state of the environment. Two hours into the demonstration, a deputy head of the Environment Organization, Delavar Najafi, came out to talk to the protesters and blamed the problems they referred to on the former government of Mohammad Khatami. He told them it is no use blaming the present government, Radio Farda quoted demonstrator Payam Ehtesabian as saying. Ehtesabian said this government's environmental record is worse than the previous government's. Article 50 of Iran's constitution forbids economic activities that irreparably harm the environment. VS

Two Iranian Kurds sentenced to death for their alleged antistate activities apparently began a hunger strike more than 45 days ago to protest their prosecution process and detention, Radio Farda reported on August 28, citing their lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht. Nikbakht said Adan Hasanpur and Abdulvahed Butimar may not actually be executed for the charge for which they were convicted -- fighting God and religion (muhariba) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 3 and 6, 2007). The two are reportedly journalists, but Nibakht and Iranian authorities have said they were prosecuted for other activities. Butimar allegedly smuggled 650 Kalashnikov cartridges and 57 "bullets" -- presumably rockets -- for RGP rocket launchers, but Nikbakht said Butimar denies any affiliation with separatist or militant groups. He said Hasanpur was sentenced on charges including contacting people in Persian-language media working outside Iran, helping two fugitives escape Iran, being found with a GPS orientation device, and taking down "details" of nine Iranian military bases or sites. Hasanpur's relatives have rejected the charges; his sister Leila Hasanpur told Radio Farda he is an "independent journalist" without affiliations to political groups and that he was charged while detained. VS

Sunni Arab Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi responded to critics within his constituency on August 29, saying it is his responsibility to take every opportunity to negotiate with the government for greater Sunni Arab rights, according to a statement posted on the Iraqi Islamic Party's website. "We are facing a political and security dilemma in Iraq. The situation is very volatile. If there is a chance to reform the situation, then we should make use of such a chance to the greatest extent possible, without hesitation," al-Hashimi said. He added that it would be unreasonable to miss an opportunity to negotiate reforms "out of a fear that" critics will condemn him for sitting at the table with people whom they consider to be their adversaries. "The people whom I sat with are dear brothers. We in the authority might disagree or agree. However, this should not hinder the aspired reform plan. We should end the suffering of the Iraqi people as soon as possible," al-Hashimi said. KR

Regarding the status of the talks, al-Hashimi said Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has "a six-page agenda dealing with" the Iraqi Accordance Front's "legitimate demands." "There is still a big agenda that the government should fulfill," al-Hashimi added. Regarding the September report that U.S. General David Petraeus will present on the status of the surge operation in Iraq, al-Hashimi said: "I do not care about the September report. I said on more than one occasion that the September report and this media [frenzy] about the timing reflect a U.S. agenda has nothing to do with us." KR

Prime Minister al-Maliki fired Karbala's police chief, Major General Salih Khazal al-Maliki, on August 29 and took control of the police operations center following the previous days' clashes that left some 50 dead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007), KUNA reported the same day. The prime minister also reportedly fired 1,500 police officers. Defense Ministry spokesman Staff Major General Muhammad al-Askari told KUNA the firings are meant to send a message that incompetence will not be tolerated. KR

Two aides to Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani were kidnapped on August 29, KUNA cited local citizens as saying. The aides, identified as Sheikh Abd al-Mahdi al-Karbala'i, and Ahmad al-Safi, were kidnapped in areas adjacent to the shrines of Imam al-Husayn and his brother al-Abbas, which are under the control of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army. Al-Sharqiyah television quoted Ali Kazim, a spokesman for the media office of the two shrines, as saying gunfire damaged the domes and minarets of both shrines, as well as a power generator. KR

Muqtada al-Sadr ordered his militiamen on August 29 to suspend their activities until further notice, international media reported. The cleric said in a statement read by aide Hazim al-A'raji on Al-Iraqiyah television that the suspension of activities will be "without exception, to restructure the army in a manner that will preserve the prestige of this ideology for a period not exceeding six months." Al-Sadr aide Ahmad al-Shaybani said the ban "includes suspending the taking up of arms against occupiers," "New York Times" reported on August 30. However, "The Washington Post" quoted sources close to al-Sadr as saying: "This [freeze] does not cover all military activities [by the militia] because there are violations being done by the occupation forces every now and then and we expect that these violations will continue in the future, and in these cases the Al-Mahdi Army members will defend themselves." The daily quoted Hadi al-Amiri, a leader of the Al-Mahdi Army's rival, the Badr Organization, as saying the Karbala fighting was the work of "undercover Ba'athists [who] were trying to create strife and draw the matter into a Shi'ite-versus-Shi'ite battle between the al-Sadr followers and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council," to which the Badr Organization belongs. Al-Amiri denied that those involved in fighting Al-Mahdi militiamen on August 29 belonged to his party or the Badr Organization. KR