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Newsline - September 12, 2007

President Vladimir Putin "accepted the resignations" of Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov and his government on September 12, about three months ahead of the December 2 parliamentary elections, Russian and international media reported. Fradkov said that he decided to resign because of "the approaching major political events in the country and the desire to give the president full freedom in making decisions, including personnel." Putin said that "the country is nearing parliamentary elections to be followed by presidential elections [on March 2].... We all need to think together about building the power and governing structures so that they can better meet the needs of the pre-election period, and prepare the country for the time after parliamentary and presidential elections." Fradkov held office since 2004 but was widely seen as a caretaker prime minister working in the shadow of the powerful president. The media speculated for months that his departure was not far off. The daily "Vedomosti" suggested on September 12 that First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, who is a leading contender for the presidency, will soon replace Fradkov as prime minister. During a visit to Kamchatka on September 5, Putin criticized Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref. On September 6, Fradkov noted that Putin's criticism of the government and some individual ministers "is justified.... The president's criticism is sufficient for us to make some administrative conclusions" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5 and 6, 2007). PM

Colonel General Aleksandr Rukshin, the deputy chief of the Russian Armed Forces General Staff, said in Moscow on September 11 that Russia has created the world's most powerful vacuum bomb, as lethal as a nuclear weapon, Russian state-run television reported. Rukshin said the bomb causes widespread devastation but does not contaminate the environment. He described it as "environmentally friendly, compared to a nuclear bomb." Rukshin said the new bomb has "no match in the world" and is currently being tested at an unspecified military site by being dropped from a Tu-160 (White Swan or Blackjack) strategic bomber. He added that its introduction does not violate any international agreement to which Russia is a signatory, and that "Russia is not starting a new arms race." The television report noted that the bomb's main destructive effects are inflicted by a second stage after the initial explosion, which ultimately results in "an ultrasonic shockwave and incredibly high temperatures. All that is alive merely evaporates." Rukshin said that the bomb will enable Russia "to safeguard our state's security and fight international terrorism in any circumstances and in any part of the world." On September 12, RIA-Novosti quoted unnamed NATO officials in Brussels as saying that the Atlantic alliance does not comment on such developments, and that new military technologies are constantly being developed around the world. An official told the news agency that NATO learned about the test from the media. The United States has used similar "thermobaric" bombs in eastern Afghanistan. In 2002-03, Washington developed its current Massive Ordinance Air Blast (MOAB), or "Mother Of All Bombs," as the successor to the BLU-82 "Daisy Cutter." PM

The daily "Kommersant" and reported on September 12 that the website of the town of Sarov in Nizhnegorodskaya Oblast on the Volga briefly posted and then took down an announcement of the visit of Captain Sergei Kroshkin of the submarine Sarov. The report noted that the Sarov is under construction in Severodvinsk as part of a secret project, codenamed 20120, to build a submarine capable of remaining under water for very long periods thanks to new technologies. Sarov is a center of the nuclear-weapons industry and the site of a famous Russian Orthodox monastery. Reuters reported that a Navy spokesman declined to comment on the "Kommersant" story. PM

Peter O'Brian, who heads a group of Rosneft's financial advisers, said on September 11 that the firm will not renew its contract to supply crude oil to the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC) when the agreement expires in 2010, the daily "Kommersant" reported on September 12. Rosneft gave CNPC an unspecified discount from the Brent market price in order to obtain funds from the Chinese firm to buy out Yuganskneftegaz in 2004. The pact stipulated that Rosneft would supply 4 million tons of crude in 2004 and 8.88 million tons annually between 2005-10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007, and End Note, below). PM

Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov recently approved a program, estimated to cost $109 million and to be implemented by 2012, aimed at improving local infrastructure along the Volga and in western Siberia in order to entice back some of the 2 million or more ethnic Germans who left the former Soviet Union after 1991, Deutsche Welle and "The Moscow Times" reported on September 7 and 12 respectively. In 2006, President Vladimir Putin made public a package of measures aimed at reversing Russia's demographic decline by encouraging emigrants to return home. The new measures are also directed at convincing the relatively few remaining ethnic Germans to stay. The German government, which has spent much money on integrating its former Soviet citizens and has a demographic problem of its own, is not happy about the latest Russian efforts to lure them back. Some of the emigrants say that Moscow's measures are too little and too late. They note that the Kremlin has not restored the Volga Germans' autonomous republic near Saratov, abolished in 1941 by then-Soviet leader Josef Stalin. Kremlin officials concede that they face an uphill struggle in convincing their former countrymen to return, but stress that Moscow is planning for the long term. Some emigrants are reportedly considering Russia's offer, citing homesickness, problems in integrating into German life, and difficulties in finding jobs in line with their professional qualifications. Many young emigrants have their own clubs and discos in German cities, which they share with other former Soviet citizens rather than with local Germans. PM

Transneft head Semyon Vainshtok announced on September 11 that he will leave his post and take over the state corporation being set up to organize the 2012 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi, "Vedomosti" and other media reported. The state plans to spend $12 billion on the event, and leading Russian billionaires including Oleg Deripaska, Roman Abramovich, and Vladimir Potanin are investing heavily in regional infrastructure as well. "Vremya novostei" speculated that Putin himself might take over the Olympic organizing committee after he leaves office next year. RC

"Kommersant" reported on September 11 that Vainshtok's transfer is the beginning of a major shake-up at the federal level that was decided before President Putin traveled to Kamchatka earlier this month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). During that trip, Putin sharply criticized the government for failing to accelerate regional development. Shortly thereafter, Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov said the criticism was "justified" and merited "some administrative conclusions" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7, 2007). "Vedomosti" wrote on September 12, citing an unidentified source "close to the presidential administration," that First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov will be named prime minister in the coming days. The daily noted that Ivanov has appeared with Putin numerous times in recent weeks, while First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, also considered a possible successor to Putin, has only appeared in public with the president once. The report speculated that Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko and Agriculture Minister Aleksei Gordeyev could be removed soon and that Gordeyev might be named governor of Stavropol Krai or Ryazan Oblast. RC

The Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) is continuing to debate who will top the party's list of candidates for the Duma elections as the party's national congress, set for September 21, approaches, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on September 11. According to reports, the list will be headed by party leader Nikita Belykh and party cofounder Boris Nemtsov, but the third spot remains open. Nemtsov told RFE/RL he hopes the third spot will be given to a woman, "first of all as a sign the country is civilized and, second, as a sign of the humanization of Russian life in general." The party is rejecting rumors that the Kremlin has been pressuring it to exclude from its list Republican Party co-Chairman and Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov, an outspoken critic of the Kremlin. "For one thing, the Kremlin doesn't give hints," SPS political council member Boris Nadezhdin told RFE/RL. "There is an absolutely concrete list of names of people who cannot be shown on television. And there are a lot of people on it -- [former Prime Minister Mikhail] Kasyanov is there, [Other Russia leader Garry] Kasparov is there, and all the rest. But the Kremlin does not, thank God, run our party." Ryzhkov told RFE/RL he believes the SPS wants to include him but that it "must act within the framework created by the Kremlin." "As far as I can tell, the Kremlin has no desire to allow representatives of the real opposition to participate in the upcoming elections," Ryzhkov said. RC

New Samara Oblast Governor Vladimir Artyakov has spent his first 10 days in office and his administration is expected to boost the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on September 11 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 27, 2007). Artyakov is a member of the party's local political council and will head the party's regional list in the upcoming Duma elections. "Vladimir Artyakov is a creature of the Kremlin, and therefore he will work primarily for the party of power," local political commentator Yevgeny Molevich told RFE/RL. Artyakov, who is a former general in Russian military intelligence, appointed former KGB and Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Ivan Mironov, who headed security under Artyakov when he was director of AvtoVAZ, as deputy regional prime minister in charge of relations with state organs and institutions of local self-government. According to RFE/RL, Unified Russia national General Council Chairman Vyacheslav Volodin and "representatives of the presidential administration" are expected to travel to Samara this month. The local administration has reportedly been ordered to secure 40 percent of the vote in the December Duma elections for Unified Russia. The party polled just 32 percent in the oblast in December 2003. RC

The investigation into the March 2 death of "Kommersant" military correspondent Ivan Safronov has been closed, "Kommersant" reported on September 12 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6 and 7, 2007). Moscow prosecutors ruled the death a suicide. Safronov is believed to have fallen from a window in the stairwell of his Moscow apartment building from a height between the fourth and fifth floors. According to the daily, Safronov's family does not believe he committed suicide. The paper maintains that the investigation was cursory and that prosecutors did not take seriously the theory that he might have been killed because of his journalistic activity. "Kommersant" Deputy Editor in Chief Ilya Bulavinov said prosecutors did not question any of Safronov's contacts or investigate any of the stories he was working on at the time of his death. He said he believes the prosecutor's task was to "observe the formalities," rather than determine the truth. RC

A number of mayors of leading Russian cities have found themselves under political or legal assault in recent weeks, prompting speculation that Moscow is seeking greater local control in the run-up to the December 2 Duma elections, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on September 11. Yakutsk Mayor Ilya Mikhalchuk unexpectedly resigned on September 10, although his term was not set to expire until March 2008. Mikhalchuk had a political falling out with Sakha Republic Governor Vyacheslav Shtyrov sometime in 2002. During the 2003 Duma elections, the republic voted solidly for the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party in party-list voting, but Mikhalchuk was able to secure wins for some of his own allies in the single-mandate districts. Mikhalchuk will reportedly take up a post in the noncommercial fund Gazprom-ipoteka. Meanwhile, a criminal case was opened on August 31 against Vologda Mayor Aleksei Yakunichev for abuse of power and bribe taking. His office was searched and his computer and mobile phones confiscated the same day, RFE/RL reported. Local politician Mikhail Surov of A Just Russia told RFE/RL that he believes the order to move against Yakunichev came from Moscow and was not supported by Vologda Oblast Governor Vyacheslav Pozgalev. Earlier this month, Arkhangelsk Mayor Aleksandr Donskoi was convicted of forging a diploma and engaging in illegal commercial activity (see"RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007 and "Russia: Mayors In The Crosshairs As 'Power Vertical' Gains Force,", June 21, 2007). RC

Gazprom has made a bid to boost its stake in Mosenergo, the electrical utility serving Moscow, "The Moscow Times" reported on September 12. Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov confirmed the bid, which could boost Gazprom's stake in the utility to 75 percent. The natural-gas giant has been seeking to become a major player in the country's electricity sector as Unified Energy Systems (EES) is broken up and privatized (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 2007). Gazprom has purchased majority stakes in two other regional EES spin-offs (OGK-2 and OGK-6) and has pooled its assets in the sector with the Siberian Coal and Energy Company (see "Russia: Could Gazprom Become 'Coalprom'?,", February 19, 2007). However, the state-controlled company's expansion plans are hampered by its $40 billion in outstanding debt. RC

September 12 was Family Contact Day in Ulyanovsk Oblast, according to a decree issued by Governor Sergei Morozov, Russian and international media reported (see " Russia: In One Region, A Special Day For Family Planning,", September 11, 2007). The holiday comes exactly nine months before the June 12 federal holiday Russia Day and is intended to highlight the country's demographic crisis. According to Morozov's office, employers are being asked to give workers the day off so that they can participate in events sponsored by the government that are intended to promote family values. Families who have babies on the June 12 holiday will be eligible for prizes including cars and cash awards, RFE/RL reported. Valery Yelizarov, the director of the Center for the Study of Population Problems at Moscow State University, told RFE/RL Russia's population has fallen from 148.5 million in 1993, to 142 million today. RC

The security services in Ingushetia announced on September 11 that the recent spate of killings in that republic were perpetrated by a band of young militants recently recruited by three Arab emissaries of Al-Qaeda, "Vremya novostei" and the Chechen resistance websites and reported on September 12. The Arabs are said to have paid individual fighters between $2,000- $5,000 for each assault. The Ingush security service claimed to have evidence suggesting that the militants are merely using Ingushetia as a base from which they plan to launch a major attack elsewhere in the North Caucasus, possibly in the neighboring Kabardino-Balkaria Republic. Also on September 11, Interfax quoted an unnamed source as estimating that there are currently between 80-100 armed militants under the command of Chechen Republic Ichkeria President and resistance commander Doku Umarov in Ingushetia. The source further claimed that the majority of the "bandits" responsible for the recent attacks in Ingushetia infiltrated that republic from Chechnya and elsewhere in the North Caucasus. LF

Gagik Tsarukian, whose Bargavach Hayastan (Prosperous Armenia, BH) party is a member of the ruling coalition, told journalists in Yerevan on September 11 he does not plan to run in the presidential election due in early 2008, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. But Tsarukian declined to express unequivocal support for an anticipated presidential bid by Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, pointing out that Sarkisian's Republican Party of Armenia has not yet selected Sarkisian as its presidential candidate. BH is widely seen as a possible future support base for incumbent President Robert Kocharian, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive presidential term, but is nonetheless believed to want to continue to play a key role in Armenian politics. LF

Armenia's Court of Appeals on September 11 ordered the arrest of Gagik Hakobian, owner of the Royal Armenia coffee-packaging company, after he failed to show up for an August 20 session at which the Court of Appeals was to rule on an appeal by prosecutors against the acquittal of Hakobian and Royal Armenia deputy director Aram Ghazarian of smuggling and tax fraud, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The two men were arrested in October 2005 after publicly accusing customs officials of soliciting bribes to understate the value of the coffee they imported. They went on trial earlier this year, but were acquitted (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 26 and October 14, 2005, and July 17, 2007). Hakobian told RFE/RL he failed to attend the August 20 court hearing because he is in Spain undergoing urgent medical treatment. LF

The consultations planned for September 15 between Russia, the United States, and Azerbaijan over the possible joint use by Russia and the U.S. of the Qabala (Gabala) radar station in central Azerbaijan have been postponed, and reported on September 11. Jonathan Henick, U.S. Embassy spokesman in Baku, said the talks will probably take place in late September; he did not reveal the composition of the U.S. delegation. Azerbaijani Foreign Ministry spokesman Xazar Ibragim told on September 12 that the delay was due to "technical reasons," and that Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov will head the Azerbaijani delegation. In late June, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed joint use of the Qabala facility, which is capable of monitoring possible missile launches from Iran, as an alternative to U.S. plans for developing a missile-defense system that would include stationing 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar base in the Czech Republic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2007). LF

Gela Bezhuashvili met in Washington on September 11 with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to discuss U.S.-Georgian relations, the process of Georgia's integration into Euro-Atlantic structures, and the situation in Iraq, where Georgia has some 2,000 peacekeeping troops, Caucasus Press reported. Bezhuashvili met later the same day with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who affirmed Washington's support for Georgia's hopes to progress from Intensified Dialogue with NATO to a Membership Action Plan, which constitutes the final phase before an official invitation is extended to join the Alliance. LF

Russian peacekeepers at the Megvrekisi observation post in the South Ossetian conflict zone detained two Georgians without reason on September 11 and took them to Tskhinvali, capital of the unrecognized republic of South Ossetia, Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution Davit Bakradze told journalists in Tbilisi later that day. Bakradze also claimed the personnel at the Megvrekisi post are not empowered to check motorists' documents. A Russian spokesman for the Joint Peacekeeping Force, Yury Vereshyak, was quoted by RIA Novosti as saying the two Georgians assaulted the Russian peacekeepers during an argument; the two men were nonetheless released later on September 11. LF

Kazakh Energy and Mineral Resources Minister Sauat Mynbaev said on September 11 that Kazakhstan welcomes "an open dialogue" to resolve a dispute with an Italian-led consortium over operations at the Kashagan oil field in the Caspian Sea, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Mynbaev stressed Kazakhstan's commitment to "the principle of the stability of investment projects," but warned that problems with the development of the offshore oil field should "not to be politicized." Mynbaev met earlier that day with Paolo Scaroni, the head of Eni, a subsidiary of Italy's Agip energy group. In late August, the government suspended operations at the Kashagan oil field for three months due to alleged violations of environmental-protection laws and consistent delays and cost overruns by the Italian-led consortium in charge of operations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, 2007). Relations between the Kazakh authorities and Eni executives have also been strained by Eni's decision to push back the start of production at the oil field from 2008 to late 2010 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 31 and August 22, 2007). The total projected cost for operating the Kashagan field has also spiked from initial estimates of $57 billion to $136 billion. RG

Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov met in Astana on September 11 with a visiting Chinese parliamentary delegation led by He Luli for talks on expanding trade and cooperation, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Masimov stressed the need to increase Kazakh investment in China, and welcomed plans to bolster cooperation in developing new technologies and increasing China's investment in "promising projects" in Kazakhstan's transport, tourism, textile, and space sectors. In a separate meeting with Kazakh Senate speaker Qasymzhomart Toqaev, the Chinese officials also proposed measures to deepen bilateral parliamentary cooperation "in order to achieve new levels of strategic partnership between Kazakhstan and China," according to Kazakhstan Today. During a visit to Beijing by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in late 2006, the two sides concluded a set of important agreements, including accords on the proposed Atasu-Alashankou oil pipeline and the establishment of a railway link near the Khorgos border crossing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20, 2006). RG

The Kyrgyz State Committee for National Security on September 11 announced the arrest of a prominent leader of a terrorist group that was allegedly planning to assassinate "high-ranking Kyrgyz officials," RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIpress reported. The security committee said that police detained Jamaliddin Abdumajitov, an Uzbek citizen, along with an unidentified number of associates in the southern Kyrgyz region of Jalal-Abad on August 21. After an extensive interrogation, the suspect reportedly confessed that he was "preparing terrorist attacks in both Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan." The 28-year-old suspect attempted to explode a live grenade during his arrest, Kyrgyz television reported. He is believed to be a leader of an Islamist terrorist group, and has also been linked to a May 2007 explosion at a newspaper in the city of Osh and to the killing of a Kyrgyz traffic policeman in July 2006, ITAR-TASS reported. RG

A NATO delegation arrived in Bishkek on September 11 for a round of talks with officials from several ministries and state agencies to discuss the country's future participation in a wide range of NATO programs, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service and AKIpress reported. A spokeswoman for the Kyrgyz Ministry of Defense, Aizada Igibaeva, said the three days of talks are focusing on Kyrgyz participation in NATO's Partnership for Peace (PfP) Planning and Review Process, which will "provide a basis for identifying and evaluating forces and capabilities which could be made available for multinational training, exercises, and operations with NATO forces." Kyrgyzstan has been a member of the PfP program since 1994. RG

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov on September 11 welcomed visiting Kazakh President Nazarbaev to Ashgabat at the start of an official two-day state visit, according to RFE/RL's Turkmen and Kazakh Services. The two presidents discussed plans to construct a new railway link connecting Kazakhstan with Turkmenistan and Iran, and are expected to discuss a proposed natural-gas pipeline running along the Caspian coastline that would export Turkmen natural gas to Russia via Kazakhstan. The two leaders announced that they concluded a set of new agreements during the first day's meeting, including detailed plans for bilateral cooperation in the areas of culture, education, and public health, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. RG

Tursunbay Utemuradov, the head of a local branch of the independent Human Rights Society of Uzbekistan, was released from jail late on September 10 after paying a fine of more than 4.6 million Uzbek soms (roughly $3,650), RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. Utemuradov was arrested in early July and still faces criminal charges of resisting arrest, interfering with a police investigation, and forging documents. Prosecutors have demanded an eight-year prison sentence if he is convicted. RG

Uladzimir Kanaplyou, the chairman of the Chamber of Representatives, has tendered his resignation, Interfax reported on September 11. Kanaplyou reportedly explained that his health no longer allows him to perform his duties. Kanaplyou was a key supporter of presidential candidate Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 1994 and his main aide in 1994-96, after Lukashenka was elected president. Kanaplyou became the chairman of Belarus's lower house in November 2004. "I don't think that Alyaksandr Lukashenka has had a closer associate than Kanaplyou," political commentator Alyaksandr Fyaduta, who was Lukashenka's aide in 1994-95, told RFE/RL's Belarus Service. "And if he has been dumped -- now, before the [2008 legislative] elections -- it has been done with a single purpose: to prevent Kanaplyou from influencing the formation of a future parliament. Because the future parliament will have only one manager -- a successor [to Lukashenka]." Fyaduta suggested that Lukashenka is preparing his son, Viktar, for the post of speaker of the Chamber of Representatives in order to subsequently make him a successor to the presidency. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko told journalists in Dnipropetrovsk on September 11 that he will reveal the role of "many politicians" in his 2004 dioxin poisoning after the official investigation is complete, Interfax-Ukraine reported. "I think you'll be astonished to learn about the role and mission of many politicians, including Ukrainian ones, in my poisoning," Yushchenko said. In an interview published by the "The Times" of London, Yushchenko accused Russia of hampering the investigation into his poisoning, and suggested that Moscow may be sheltering suspects involved in it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 2007). Russian Ambassador to Ukraine Viktor Chernomyrdin said he is surprised at Yushchenko's allegations. He noted that he only learned from the press that Russia apparently has the ability to block the investigation. "Why should we investigate it? Sort it out yourselves. You're always looking for someone hindering you," Chernomyrdin said. JM

Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych said at a meeting with voters in Melitopol, Zaporizhzhya Oblast, that high turnout in the September 30 preterm elections will guarantee a victory for his Party of Regions, UNIAN reported. "We have to take part in the September 30 polls to a man; we have to achieve the highest possible turnout. If we lose, that untalented team will once again come to power and ruin the country's economy," Yanukovych said. "I believe that the working people of Ukraine will speak decisively and that September 30 will become the day of the ultimate end of the hopes [of the Orange Revolution parties]. And there will not be Orange lawlessness in the country any longer. Nor will there be the populists who are pulling the country into an abyss," Yanukovych added. A poll held jointly by the Yaremenko Institute of Social Studies and the Social Monitoring agency on September 6-9 among more than 2,000 respondents found that 88 percent of Ukrainians intend to vote on September 30. JM

Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik has criticized the United States for saying it would back a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosova. Plassnik said unilateral statements of commitment are "not helpful" at this stage. Kurt Volker, a U.S. principal deputy assistant secretary of state, said on September 7 that "if Kosovo unilaterally declares independence, the United States will recognize that independence, as, we believe, will others, since that is the only solution for the Balkans." Volker's statement was difficult for EU diplomats both in content and timing, as EU leaders have repeatedly called for Kosova not to act unilaterally and because Volker made his comment just as EU foreign ministers were emerging from a meeting calling for unity. The EU has also been seeking to present the future of Kosova as primarily a matter for Europe. The EU's mediator in Kosova talks, Wolfgang Ischinger, on August 31 declared that his fellow mediators from the United States and Russia have "expressly accepted" that Europe is the "primus inter pares" in the mediating team (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). That assertion was, however, indirectly challenged by Russia's mediator, Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko, who, according to Serbian media, declared on September 9 that Kosova's status should be decided not by the EU but by the UN Security Council. Efforts to resolve Kosova's status through the UN foundered in July on Russia's insistence on a solution acceptable to Serbia. AG

Washington's support for a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosova has been greeted with anger in Serbia. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica on September 9 characterized the United State's approach as a "policy of force" and an "open threat" to force independence through in contravention of international law and "in the crudest possible manner" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). In response to a call for clarification by the Serbian government on September 9, the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade said on September 10 that Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Volker's comments were "wrongly interpreted in the media" and that "the United States is prepared to accept any outcome to which the parties agree." It added, though, that the current round of talks is not open-ended and that "Kosovo's status needs to be clarified promptly" after the talk's mediators submit a report to the UN secretary-general on December 10. The U.S. clarification was widely seen as inadequate in Serbia, and Kostunica's office criticized it for not containing a denial that the United States would recognize Kosova's independence. However, according to the Serbian broadcaster B92, an adviser to Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, Dusan Lazic, said on September 11 that Belgrade should move on and focus on the talks on Kosova's future, "even though the [U.S.] response does not seem to be enough." The daily "Glas javnosti" reported on September 10 that commentators believe the U.S. comments have "pushed local pro-Western forces into a corner." AG

The Kosovar daily "Koha ditore" claimed on September 11 that Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica is telling European diplomats that Serbia would be prepared to accept the partition of Kosova. It cited "a highly reliable source." The paper asserts Kostunica has been bypassing the Foreign Ministry and has instead been using a "personal envoy," Vojin Lazarevic, a businessman who is a sponsor of Kostunica's party. Serbia's Ministry for Kosovar Affairs dismissed the claim as "nonsense" and refused to make any further comment, the news agency FoNet reported on September 11. Foreign Minister Jeremic told Reuters on September 11 that he doubts the story has any substance. Lazarevic's office told Reuters it is preparing to issue a formal denial. AG

Kosova's Serbs will not take part in local and parliamentary elections due to be held in the disputed province on November 17, Serbia's Minister for Kosovar Affairs Slobodan Samardzic said on September 11, the news agency dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4, 2007). Samardzic did not provide details. The question now is whether the roughly 100,000 Serbs in the province will heed Belgrade. The Serbian community boycotted the last elections, in 2004, but some of its members are reluctant to repeat what some moderates believe was a mistake that left Serbs isolated. Politicians in Belgrade have also differed on whether a decision to participate should be made by Belgrade or by Kosova's Serbs (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 9, 2007). The Kosovar Albanian daily "Kosova sot" on September 6 quoted a moderate Serb leader, Oliver Ivanovic, as saying he expects the region's Serbian parties to make a definite decision soon, and as adding, "I believe we will be part of elections to be held this year." However, in the days since, local media have reported that the leader of the harder-line wing of Kosovar Serb politics, Milan Ivanovic, has reiterated his view that participation would be a major mistake, and has demanded an urgent meeting with the government in Belgrade because of the "extremely dramatic and uncertain" situation in Kosova. AG

A U.S. soldier serving with the international force in Kosova, KFOR, was killed when his car skidded off a road near the Kosovar capital Prishtina late on September 9, local and international media reported. Another three U.S. soldiers were injured, and are said to be in a stable condition. The U.S. military has not named the victim, but has said all the men involved in the crash were working in the air force. Two peacekeepers, one Ukrainian and one Swiss, died in two separate road accidents on the same day in June (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). AG

The Belarusian authorities have refused to comment on allegations that Belarus provided shelter to the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leader Radovan Karadzic, who is wanted by the UN's war crimes tribunal (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). The claims appear in a newly published book by a former press officer at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Florence Hartmann, who said in an interview with the Bosnian daily "Dnevni avaz" on September 9 that "at the end of 1997 the Russians -- at the request of the great powers -- transferred [Karadzic] to Belarus, where he stayed for a few months." Elsewhere, Hartmann refers to the "great powers" as the United States, Britain, and France. "Anybody can write anything," a Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maryya Vanshyna, told the news agency Belapan on September 11. "We do not comment on books." Belapan quoted the president's office as saying "such information is real news for us, as well as for other Belarusians." Hartmann's chief accusation, as she formulated it in her interview with "Dnevni avaz," is that "there has been a very clear and systematic failure to have [Karadzic and the military commander Ratko Mladic] arrested because the great powers refused to have them arrested." AG

The EU's enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, and its foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, have again underlined that the EU will not sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Bosnia-Herzegovina unless its leaders agree to reform the country's police forces. The statements, made on September 10, followed meetings with the international community's high representative in Bosnia, Miroslav Lajcak, during which Rehn and Solana backed proposals for police reform that Lajcak presented to party leaders in late August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31 and September 4 and 10, 2007). AG

Twenty-five men charged with war crimes have gone on hunger strike, Bosnia-Herzegovina's judicial authorities announced on September 10. This is the second time the detainees have refused food this year, local media reported. The first hunger strike significantly disrupted hearings in the country's war crimes court in January. The detainees argue that they should be tried under the laws of the former Yugoslavia, which punish war crimes with a maximum sentence of 15 years. Under Bosnian law, they now face a maximum term of 40 years. AG

Opposition parties in Macedonia have called on Interior Minister Gordana Jankulovska to resign because of the "deteriorating" security situation in the country. The calls were made during a parliamentary debate hastily scheduled in the wake of an ambush that left one policeman dead and two injured (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). The ambush appears to have been carried out by relatives of a convicted terrorist who escaped from prison for several weeks. Opposition members also pointed to a mysterious confrontation with a former ethnic-Albanian guerrilla leader as evidence that the security situation is worsening (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). Five years have passed since Macedonia's central authorities and ethnic-Albanian separatists signed a peace agreement, but the impasse over Kosova's final status has heightened tensions and led to increased security measures in Macedonia. Jankulovska said the killers of the policemen were members of a criminal gang and were not politically motivated. Radmila Sekerinska, the leader of the opposition Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM), questioned Jankulovska's confidence that Macedonia is secure, saying that Kosovar and international officials in August seized 90 kilograms of explosives that they believe were to be smuggled into Macedonia. In late August, a series of assessments by government agencies concluded that the security situation in Macedonia is stable. AG

Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski on September 11 appointed Viktor Dimovski, Macedonia's ambassador to Serbia, as the new director of the Macedonian Intelligence Agency, the news agency Makfax reported. Dimovski has served in senior positions in the Interior Ministry and also as deputy foreign minister. Dimovski's predecessor, Kire Naumov, resigned on August 29 after 14 months in office, citing "personal reasons," including a desire to continue his education and to take on jobs "incompatible with the office of Intelligence Agency director." His departure was clouded by claims in the daily newspaper "Dnevnik" that an unnamed intelligence agent gave Bulgarian security services files detailing the plans and current operations of undercover agents of the Intelligence Agency. Sources cited by the newspaper said the data was enough to uncover Macedonia's entire intelligence network. At the time, a government spokesman, Ivica Bocevski, described the "Dnevnik" allegations as "a flagrant fabrication." AG

The United States, China, Japan, and host Australia took center stage at the September 8-9 summit of the loosely organized, 21-member Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Sydney. Russia's participation received slight mention outside the domestic media, except for the huge bilateral trade deals that President Vladimir Putin concluded in Indonesia and Australia before the summit began. Commentators noted that Russia's role in the region centers primarily on energy and weapons.

On September 6, Putin and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed agreements in Jakarta worth well over $1 billion for Indonesia to purchase Russian military equipment, including jet fighters and submarines. The two presidents also witnessed the signing of agreements valued at a total of $4 billion between the Indonesian mining company Aneka Tambang and Russia's RusAl, and between the state-owned oil company Pertamina and LUKoil.

In Sydney the following day, Putin and Prime Minister John Howard signed a controversial deal for Australia to supply uranium to Russia for use in civilian nuclear reactors. Critics charged that Russia lacks sufficient transparency for Australia to be sure that the uranium is not being used for military purposes or reexported to countries such as Iran or Syria. Observers also noted that the Australian imports would enable Russia to free up some of its own uranium for export to such countries. But Putin and Howard argued that Russia will observe its international obligations and that there is no cause for concern.

Putin met with U.S. President George W. Bush on September 7 to discuss major bilateral and world issues and to invite the American leader to go fishing in Siberia. After meeting on September 8 with Chinese President Hu Jintao, Putin said that "a great dawn in Russian-Chinese relations" began recently and that "Russian policy toward China will not change in the coming years."

On September 9, Putin endorsed plans for an Asian-Pacific free-trade zone and thanked APEC leaders who backed Russia's plans to host the 2012 summit in Vladivostok.

In the run-up to the summit, some international and Russian media wrote that "Russia is back" in regional affairs and will be a "formidable Pacific player." Some cited the recent flight of a few ageing Cold War-era bombers in the direction of the western Pacific island of Guam to illustrate their point. Others recalled remarks First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov made in 2006 to the effect that Russia is as much an Asian power as it is a European one. Aleksandr Medvedev, who is Gazprom's deputy CEO in charge of exports, said in Sydney that "it's no secret that we want to be the biggest supplier of natural gas to the Asia-Pacific region."

But even where energy is concerned, Russia's ambitions in the Pacific Rim area might seem a bit fanciful. It has many eager customers for its oil and gas, but also difficulties in developing fields and constructing pipelines in order to satisfy the competing demands of countries like China, Japan, and South Korea. It has timber and other natural resources, as well as plentiful and relatively inexpensive weapons, but lacks the economic dynamism and widespread high-tech culture that have given many APEC countries their high growth rates or grounds for optimism for the future. Most observers agree that strategic transformations are under way in the region, but those changes are driven by economic growth and technology, not by flights of antiquated bombers. China's economy alone is 2 1/2 times the size of Russia's and growing at a much faster pace.

Nor does the Pacific region seem to be at the center of Moscow's attention. Although Putin has often spoken warmly about expanding ties to China and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov's recent major speech on Russia's external relations made it clear that the United States and Europe remain Moscow's chief priorities. Its economic ties are not particularly impressive by APEC regional standards. For example, the volume of Sino-Russian trade is 2 percent of China's total foreign trade, or one-tenth the amount of China's trade with the United States.

About 20 years ago, one expert argued that the Soviet Union was geographically part of the Asia-Pacific region but not "socially" integrated into it. Although much has changed since the collapse of the USSR, that comment might still seem valid today. Recent Russian legislation aimed at expelling foreigners from markets, including those in cities and towns in the Far East, has led to thousands of Chinese traders returning home. This has meant the loss of some of the Chinese businesspeople and their networks that provide much of the driving force for commerce around the Pacific Rim.

In fact, many Russians seem to view the dynamic Pacific region as a threat rather than as a source of opportunity. Concerns about a Chinese demographic menace in the sparsely populated Far East are not difficult to find in the Russian media. About 7 million Russians face 77 million Chinese in the three provinces across the border, and more than one Russian commentator has noted that nature abhors a vacuum. Putin said in the Far East in July 2000 that "if we don't take concerted action, the future local population will speak Japanese, Chinese, or Korean."

Russia's position in the APEC region appears marginal. A glance through recent years of the Hong Kong-based monthly "Far Eastern Economic Review" reveals mention of Russia's role there only in passing in articles dealing with larger issues. Specialized articles on the regional impact of China, India, Japan, or the United States abound, but none on Russia. And even its future as a supplier of weapons seems open to question: of the three once-prized Soviet aircraft carriers that have been sold to China, two are now being used as tourist attractions, and the third may be destined for the same fate.

Afghanistan's government on September 11 said terrorism remains a daily threat to its citizens and to democratic development six years after the September 11, 2001, attacks, AFP reported. Presidential spokesman Homayun Hamidzada told reporters that Afghanistan has made significant achievements, yet the threat from terrorism still remains, as evidenced by the deadly suicide attack in a crowded marketplace only a day earlier, in which at least 28 people were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). This incident in restive Helmand Province shows that "if terrorism is not addressed, if it is not dried up at its roots, it'll threaten peace and stability in the country and the region," he said. Hamidzada cited a new United Nations report that estimated that 80 percent of the men who carry out suicide attacks in Afghanistan are trained or equipped in Pakistan, adding that "once again, here we see where the roots of terror are based" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders are believed to have fled into Pakistan during the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 and from there have continued to organize the insurgency against the government and Western militaries. Meanwhile, another suicide bombing in Helmand on September 11 destroyed a convoy delivering supplies to NATO troops, killing two Afghan civilian drivers and wounding eight others, the Interior Ministry said. JC

The Taliban on September 11 vowed in a statement to launch a new series of attacks on the government and Western forces throughout the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, AFP reported. Reading the statement to AFP by telephone, Taliban spokesman Qari Yusof Ahmadi said an operation code-named "Nasrat," Arabic for "victory," would include suicide bombings, roadside explosions, and other attacks "throughout the country" during Ramadan, which begins on September 20. On September 10, Ahmadi said the extremist group is ready for peace talks offered by President Hamid Karzai. The group expressed distrust in the government's offer, despite presidential spokesman Hamidzada's reaffirmation of the offer on September 11, including a pledge that the government would not arrest any of the Taliban negotiators. According to an AFP count, more than 5,000 people have been killed in insurgency-linked violence in 2007. Most of the violence has taken place in the southern and eastern areas bordering Pakistan. JC

Prime Minister Stephen Harper said on September 11 that he will not abandon the mission in Afghanistan, despite public backlash over the deaths of 70 Canadian troops deployed there, Reuters reported. "As 9/11 showed, if we abandon our fellow human beings to lives of poverty, brutality, and ignorance, in today's global village, their misery will eventually and inevitably become our own," Harper said in a speech to Australia's parliament. "The cause is global and necessary," Harper added in an attempt to garner support for a parliamentary mandate to extend the mission beyond February 2009. Harper's minority Conservative government has said it will not continue the mission beyond that date without such a decision, as citizens remain divided over extending the deployment of the 2,500 troops in Afghanistan. In a joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister John Howard, Harper said he hopes citizens support the mission of the troops stationed in Afghanistan until the newly trained Afghan security forces are capable of acting independently, instead of setting an arbitrary deadline to withdraw. "We should work towards that objective, rather than a particular arbitrary time" to ensure Canada does not abandon the people of Afghanistan, he argued. JC

A new water reservoir completed on September 10 in Afghanistan's northern Samangan Province is expected to benefit over 5,200 people, including students, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The project will provide clean drinking water to eight villages of the Rubatak area in Aibak, the provincial capital, and a nearby school, officials said. Javid, the head of the rural rehabilitation department in Samangan, said the $134,000 project was funded by the Ministry of Rural Rehabilitation and Development. Eight other reservoirs are expected to be built in as many additional villages in the area, he added. Elsewhere in the southern Helmand Province, officials also inaugurated a new building for the Department of Land erected by the British provincial reconstruction team (PRT) at the cost of $95,000. Helmand Governor Asadullah Wafa expressed appreciation for the assistance of the British PRT, but added that Helmand is in need of further help to repair and reconstruct additional infrastructure. JC

Interior Minister Mustafa Purmohammadi says Iran is pursuing a fight against terrorists "from across the border," and that "terrorist ambushes" have killed and injured a number of Iranian policemen in "recent days," IRNA reported. Speaking in Tehran on September 11, Purmohammadi said "global arrogance is...turning to these old activities after despairing on other fronts," in a reference to Iranian allegations that the United States supports rebels or militants in Iran's border areas. He said there have been successes against these groups "in cases where adjacent countries cooperate." Separately, Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Mohammad Reza Baqeri on September 9 or 10 accused the United States of backing the PJAK, a Kurdish separatist group that has battled Iranian forces in Iran's west and northwest, "Kayhan" reported on September 11. Baqeri was attending a conference in Baghdad on Iraqi security (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 10, 2007). He said PJAK is "armed with a variety of light Western weapons," and that Iran expects Iraq to do what it can to "resolve this problem." He added that Iran will resist "terrorists trying to enter" its territory. "We have a long experience of fighting with terrorist groups and have made many sacrifices for this, and we know how to confront these groups," he said. VS

President Mahmud Ahmadinejad has praised Iran's Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) as standard-bearers of "monotheism and God worship," and referred to the "fear and terror" Iran's enemies feel at its mention, the Fars news agency reported. Speaking in Tehran on September 11, Ahmadinejad said certain "forceful countries" previously exerted pressure on Iran through such plans as the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, which allows for closer checks of Iran's nuclear and other installations. "Regrettably, some internal elements encouraged them to increase the pressures on Iran," Ahmadinejad said. Iran has suspended the protocol's implementation in protest against UN sanctions imposed on it for its nuclear program. Ahmadinejad has in the past criticized Iran's previous nuclear negotiating team and the allegedly conciliatory foreign policy of former presidents Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami. Ahmadinejad repeated that Iran has gained access to nuclear technology without making concessions to Western states. The IRGC commander, Mohammad Ali Jafari, separately said that Iran has identified "all the weak points" of the United States in Iraq and Afghanistan, and "consolidated" its defensive capabilities accordingly, AFP reported on September 11, citing Iranian state television. Jafari said Iran would give a "decisive" response to any U.S. attack. His predecessor as head of the IRGC, Yahya Rahim Safavi, said last week that the United States may not know how vulnerable its troops in Iraq are, and added that Iran has "accurately identified all their camps," AFP reported on September 11. VS

Gholamreza Aqazadeh, the head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, told the press in Tehran on September 11 that the Bushehr atomic plant Russia is building in southern Iran is 95 percent complete. Aqazadeh said the authorities will inform the public in a month about the date when Russia will send fuel and the plant will start operating, ISNA reported. He said the problems with the Bushehr construction project cited by the Russian contractor are not "contractual," but instead are due to the lengthy time frame of the project. "The contractor is saying it cannot continue to work according to the contract due to financial losses," he said. Iran says it has paid all its debts to the Russian contractor, and many politicians have expressed displeasure at what they see as unjustified delays in the project's conclusion. Aqazadeh said the Russians agree "Iran has no commitments" outstanding, and a joint committee is discussing the project. "I hope when these talks are finalized we can announce the results," he said. He added that the delays are not for political reasons, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin has promised President Ahmadinejad the plant will be finished. Asked if Iran would curtail its cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) if another UN resolution is made against it, he said, "one has to distinguish between speeches and publicity...and what is written down on paper." VS

Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki said in Tehran on September 11, before a planned trip to Moscow, that "we do not accept the time-out proposed by [IAEA chief] Muhammad el-Baradei," IRNA reported. The proposal envisages a suspension in sensitive nuclear fuel-making activities by Iran in exchange for a halt to further UN sanctions. Mottaki said Iran's program is "not for show," but is intended to generate electricity. He said Iran does not seek nuclear bombs as these "are no longer useful;" if atomic bombs were effective, he said, they would have prevented the Soviet Union's collapse. "Today America is in a quagmire, though it has the most atomic bombs," he said. He added that Iran has enhanced its cooperation with international bodies to demonstrate the peaceful nature of its program and counter Western suspicions. "We had to go through this period, both to clarify our position and to reveal their mischievous outlook," IRNA reported. VS

Foreign Minister Mottaki said on September 11 that there is no date yet for the next round of U.S.-Iranian talks on Iraqi security, ISNA reported. Iranian and U.S. envoys have held three rounds of talks in Baghdad so far, intended to discuss insecurity in Iraq and possible solutions. He told ISNA that the Kurdish militant group PJAK, which he said has a presence in Germany, is trying to disrupt Iran's good relations with the authorities in Iraqi Kurdistan and "somehow create a crisis in the region's development." Mottaki said Iran has asked Germany for explanations of the group's presence there. Mottaki said separately that Iran will soon start discussing a possible free-trade agreement with member states of the Gulf Cooperation Council, ISNA reported. VS

Iranian judiciary spokesman Alireza Jamshidi told the press in Tehran on September 11 that detained U.S.-Iranian national Kian Tajbakhsh will soon be released on bail, Fars reported. Tajbakhsh is one of several Iranian scholars whom Iran has accused of discreetly working to undermine its polity. Tajbakhsh -- a consultant at the Open Society Institute -- has apparently not been formally charged, Radio Farda reported on September 11. Fars noted that he was arrested four months ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, 2007). VS

Iraqi national security adviser Muwaffaq al-Rubay'i told reporters at a September 11 press briefing in Baghdad that the government welcomes the assessments on Iraq presented to the U.S. Congress by General David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 2007). "The Iraqi government welcomes the report and believes that the issuance of such assessments underscores the extent of the transparency used in assessing the situation," al-Rubay'i said. He added, "We highly value the large sacrifices our friends in the coalition have offered. These sacrifices paved the way for victory and security in Iraq." Al-Rubay'i praised the U.S. commitment to building democracy in Iraq. Giving his own brief assessment, he said the Iraqi government has made tangible progress toward democracy. But he added that "we have to admit that we are facing extremely large challenges and obstacles that stand against our victory over the forces of terrorism and extremism [that] try to return us to the past and to the darkness of dictatorship and slavery." Referring to Sunni Arab factions that have withdrawn from the government, al-Rubay'i said: "We have to admit that confidence among some entities is still lost and the forces of terrorism and extremism...are trying to benefit from this and block any attempt to build confidence among" various sects. He added that the government's slow progress reflects a desire to achieve lasting reconciliation. KR

National security adviser Al-Rubay'i told reporters at the September 11 briefing that Iraqi politicians remain committed to establishing a true national unity government. "The government will continue to support the Iraqi tribes in order to create an Iraqi national identity and to deny the terrorists and extremists safe haven among our population," he said. Regarding de-Ba'athification, he noted that thousands of civilian and military officials who were dismissed from their jobs after the fall of the regime have now returned to work. Al-Rubay'i added that the economy has begun to grow, and local trade is flourishing in several governorates. Seven of Iraq's 18 governorates are now under the control of Iraqi security forces, he added. The budget for the armed forces is the largest in the post-Saddam Hussein era, exceeding the contributions of coalition forces, and the preparedness of Iraqi armed forces continues to improve. "Now we have about 500,000 policemen and soldiers trained in accordance with the most modern military training techniques.... Eighty percent of the Iraqi Army personnel have reached a high level of preparedness," he said. Al-Rubay'i also referred to the government's "Iraq First" national security strategy, which he called "a general framework for the attainment of national dialogue among all entities of the Iraqi people, state institutions, and civil society institutions." KR

Iraqi Planning Minister Ali Baban on September 11 returned to work following a meeting with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, ending a two-month absence, Iraqi media reported. Baban is a member of the Iraqi Islamic Party, a part of the Iraqi Accordance Front, which has withdrawn its ministers from al-Maliki's government. Baban told Al-Sharqiyah television in a same-day interview that his decision was based on professional reasons that have "nothing to do with any political considerations." He said al-Maliki had informed him that the Planning Ministry's investment program has slowed in his absence. "More than $10 billion was allocated to the investment plan for this year. The planning ministry is in charge of coordinating, following up, and monitoring the implementation phase. The prime minister told me that the implementation process is not going as rapidly as it should and that my two-month absence has play a role in this. He asked me to take over again on a temporary basis at least in order to avoid further delays," Baban said. KR

Sunni Arab leaders from the Iraqi Accordance Front criticized Planning Minister Baban's decision to return to the government in interviews with Al-Sharqiyah television on September 11. Umar Abd al-Sattar told Al-Sharqiyah that the front will hold Baban accountable for his actions. Meanwhile, front leader Khalaf al-Ulayyan called Baban's decision a "complete surprise," saying it is a huge embarrassment to the front and weakens the front's stand. He said Baban's decision was a "dangerous" one, which he likened to "an act of high treason," and called on the minister to reconsider. The Iraqi Accordance Front pulled out of the government on August 1, citing Prime Minister al-Maliki's refusal to meet the front's 11 demands, including the release of Sunni detainees who have not been charged with crimes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2007). KR

Representatives aligned with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr threatened to pull out of the United Iraqi Alliance on September 11, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. Al-Sadr spokesman Salah al-Ubaydi told reporters at a press briefing in Al-Najaf that lawmakers were discussing a possible pullout with the cleric because the bloc is not satisfied with the government's performance. Al-Ubaydi said the government has failed to achieve the minimum requirements in terms of security and public services. He also criticized the United Iraqi Alliance, saying the two major parties in the alliance, Prime Minister al-Maliki's Islamic Al-Da'wah Party and the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, are monopolizing power and practicing a "double standard" policy. Al-Ubaydi criticized those parties' decision to join ranks with the leading Kurdish parties in parliament to form the so-called moderates' front, saying the two Shi'ite parties should have consulted all the parties in the alliance before reaching such an agreement. KR

The UN World Health Organization (WHO) announced on September 10 that more than 7,000 cases of acute diarrhea have been reported in northern Iraq, indicating that more than 2.8 million people are at risk from exposure to cholera. The WHO is currently implementing emergency measures in the governorates of Al-Sulaymaniyah, Irbil, and Kirkuk to contain the epidemic, which has already claimed at least 10 lives. WHO technical officer Omer Mekki said that sewage leaking through cracked water pipes in Kirkuk and exposure to polluted water in Al-Sulaymaniyah sparked the outbreak, which quickly spread to nearby Irbil "because of the close geographic proximity," a September 10 UN press release noted. "We still need different materials to control this pandemic, such as drugs and medical supplies, diagnostic and enteric disease bacteriology kits, water testing kits, awareness and communications tools and equipment," Mekki said. The WHO has already distributed some 10,000 posters to educate the community on the dangers of contaminated water. But the continuous movement of people and cargo, poor sanitary conditions, and high temperatures may increase the possibility of the disease spreading to other areas, including to Baghdad, the press release noted. KR