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Newsline - October 15, 2007

Interfax on October 14 quoted a "trustworthy source in one of the Russian special departments" as saying that "according to information received from several sources located outside Russia," an assassination attempt against President Vladimir Putin is being planned for his upcoming trip to Iran. According to Interfax, the source said that "several groups" have been formed of persons prepared to die in an attack on the Russian president. Putin is scheduled leave Germany on October 15 after two days of talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel to attend a summit of Caspian Sea littoral states on October 16 in Tehran, where he is also scheduled to meet with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad. Interfax quoted an anonymous Putin aide as refusing to comment on the reported assassination plot but saying that Putin was informed about it. The presidential press service also refused to comment on the report, but confirmed Putin has been told about it. Asked by a reporter about the alleged assassination plot prior to the start of his working lunch with Merkel in Hattenheim outside Wiesbaden, Germany, on October 15, Putin waved the questioner off and replied, "Later," reported. Russia's "Kommersant" daily reported on October 15 that while there are no plans to cancel Putin's trip to Iran, a final decision will be made following consultations with Iran's special services. Kremlin deputy spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Tehran later on October 15 that the Kremlin has no information that Putin has changed his travel plans because of the reported plot. "According to the schedule, the president is arriving tonight," Peskov said. "We have no information that he is changing his plans." JB

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini, denied that a plot to assassinate President Putin has been uncovered, AP reported on October 14. "These sort of reports are completely baseless and in direction with psychological operations of enemies of relations between Iran and Russia," Hosseini said in a statement. Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported on October 15 that "certain Western media" have "reported a rumor about a possible assassination plot against Putin" during his trip to Tehran. IRNA added: "Also earlier some sources had reported about efforts made by the Zionist and Western intelligence services to overshadow Putin's visit to Tehran to attend the important summit of the Caspian Sea littoral states." State Duma Security Committee Chairman Vladimir Vasilev, for his part, told Russia's Vesti-24 television station on October 14 that the information about the assassination plot should be taken seriously, reported. "Russia today is playing a very significant role in the combined international efforts to counteract terrorism," Vasilev said. "Everyone knows the Russian president's position on this issue." Vasilev said he hopes that the reports about the assassination plot will be verified as a result of "international cooperation" between "special services," and that appropriate steps are taken. State Duma Security Committee member Gennady Gudkov told Vesti-24 he is not surprised by the report of a plot to assassinate Putin in Iran. "Unfortunately, there are many organizations and movements of an extremist and anti-Russian orientation in the world today that would like to settle accounts with President Putin," Gudkov said, adding that "there are also such organizations, representing radical Islam, in Iran." Gudkov said the special services' information about a plot to kill Putin in Iran have "a high level of reliability" and that steps should be taken to forestall it. JB

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a speech at the Russian Military Academy of the General Staff in Moscow on October 13 that the United States and Russia confront similar security challenges and that he would like to create a "climate of trust and transparency" as both countries take on critical "geopolitical issues of the day," RFE/RL reported. Gates said the United States would not put bases in Georgia and Ukraine, but criticized Russia for arms sales to Iran and Syria -- a message he reportedly also delivered in meetings with Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov and other officials. Gates' speech came on the second and final day of the visit he and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made to Moscow, with the two also meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov prior to leaving Russia. Rice and Gates met with President Vladimir Putin on October 12. During two days of talks, the two sides failed to bridge any of their significant differences. Putin reiterated that Russia may quit the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF), which bans U.S. and Russian short- and medium-range nuclear missiles in Europe, unless the treaty is expanded to cover other countries. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said on October 12 that the two sides have failed to resolve their ongoing dispute over U.S. plans to deploy elements of a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic. Russia also refused to budge from its unwillingness to back U.S.-led sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, RFE/RL reported on October 13. JB

Following a meeting with a group of Russian human-rights activists in Moscow on October 13, U.S. Secretary of State Rice said that the "concentration of power" in the Kremlin is stifling Russia's transition to democracy. "In any country, if you don't have countervailing institutions, the power of any one president is problematic for democratic development," AP quoted Rice as telling reporters in Moscow after meeting with the eight human-rights activists at the residence of the U.S. ambassador in Moscow. "I think there is too much concentration of power in the Kremlin. Everybody has doubts about the full independence of the judiciary. There are clearly questions about the independence of the electronic media and doubts about the [State] Duma." Rice said she talked to the activists about "how they see coming months," adding that how the State Duma elections in December and the presidential election next March are held "will have an effect on whether Russia is making the next step on toward democracy." According to AP, Rice earlier said she hopes the efforts of rights activists would promote "the rights of individuals to liberty and freedom, the right to worship as you please, and the right to assembly, the right to not have to deal with the arbitrary power of the state." In a second meeting with business, media, and civil-society leaders, Rice said she is "especially interested" in discussing Russia's political and economic "evolution," AP reported. "Russia is a country that's in transition and that transition is not easy and there are a lot of complications and a lot of challenges," she said. "If Russia is to emerge as a democratic country that can fully protect the rights of its people, it is going to emerge over years and you have to be a part of helping the emergence of that Russia." JB

The group of Russian human-rights activists that met with U.S. Secretary of State Rice in Moscow included Lyudmila Alekseyeva of the Moscow Helsinki Group, Tatyana Lokshina of the Demos Center, and Aleksandr Brod of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau. Alekseyeva told Rice that her organization saw "the purposeful construction of an authoritarian society and an onslaught on the people's rights, elections turning into farce, and human rights and opposition organizations are experiencing pressure," Interfax reported. RFE/RL quoted Alekseyeva as saying, "I told Rice that Russian human-rights activists would like Western leaders visiting Russia and meeting Russian leaders to raise human-rights issues not only in private conversations but also publicly." Lokshina told Interfax that among the issues discussed during the meeting with Rice were the state of Russian civil society, the law on nongovernmental organizations, and "Russian antiextremist legislation, which can be used as a weapon against the political opposition." They also discussed "the problem of weak democratic institutions, the problem of freedom of speech, and the situation in the judicial system," as well as the situation in the North Caucasus, which, Lokshina said, "remains highly explosive, particularly in Ingushetia and Daghestan." JB

Brod of the Moscow Human Rights Bureau said that while some participants in the meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Rice spoke about "authoritarianism" and a human-rights "crisis" in Russia, he could not "paint everything in dark colors," and did not agree that "democracy flourished here in the 1990s" but is now in retreat. "And not everything is ideal in America; we see protests against the war in Iraq, violations of human rights from the direction of power structures, the infringement of human rights in the war against terrorism," he said, adding that "we should not lecture each other or get into complaining about how everything is bad, but [should] coexist and help each other." Brod said that during the meeting with Rice he proposed setting up a U.S.-Russian public forum because "it is easier for nongovernmental organizations to come to an understanding" than politicians, who are stymied by certain "bureaucratic" factors and "old grievances." Likewise, Russian Human Rights Ombudsman Vladimir Lukin, who also attended the meeting with Rice, said that any discussion of human rights should take the form of a "dialogue" rather than a "lecture." Tatyana Lokshina of the Demos Center said that the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay and allegations of abuse at the U.S.-run Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have dented Washington's authority on human rights, Reuters reported on October 13. "When the United States criticizes, the Russian authorities say, 'Look what is happening on your patch,'" she said. JB

The state-controlled pipeline monopoly Transneft announced on October 15 that Nikolai Tokarev has been named the company's general director, the website of "Kommersant" reported. Tokarev was previously general director of Zarubezhneft and in 1999-2000 served as Transneft's vice president for security and foreign economic relations. In the 1970s and 1980s, Tokarev served in the KGB, leaving the Federal Security Service (FSB) in 1993. He served in East Germany at the same time as Vladimir Putin. In the mid-1990s, he served in the presidential administration's property-management department together with Putin. Tokarev replaces Semyon Vainshtok, who will head the state company being created to organize the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). RC

FSB Lieutenant General Yury Nyrkov has been named deputy chairman of the newly formed Investigative Committee (see "Russia: Powerful New Investigative Body Begins Work,", September 10, 2007), "Vremya novostei" reported on October 12. The little-known Nyrkov is the first of an expected total of 12 deputy chairs to be named. He previously headed the human-resources department of the FSB. RC

Unknown hooligans vandalized a hall in Vladivostok where Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) Political Council member Boris Nemtsov planned to meet with voters on October 12, "Novy region" reported the next day. The vandals poured formaldehyde on the seats in the first few rows of the hall, creating a strong odor that forced the cancellation of the event. The Vostok-Media press agency reported that the foul-smelling substance was creosote. A local SPS representative said that the city administration, which owns the hall, has not filed a criminal complaint and the police are not investigating the incident. Nemtsov was able to meet briefly with voters in the hall on October 13. He has met with difficulties in campaigning in other cities as well (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 12, 2007). RC

President Putin has nominated Bryansk Oblast Governor Nikolai Denin for another term, even though his current term does not expire until 2008, reported on October 13. Denin asked Putin for a vote of confidence last month, according to local media reported. Denin is heading the Unified Russia party list for Bryansk Oblast. Putin's nomination is expected to be confirmed by the regional legislature within a few days. RC

Preliminary hearings got under way on October 11 in a custom-built courtroom in Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, in the trial of 59 men accused of participating in the multiple attacks on police and security facilities in the city on October 13, 2005, and "The Moscow Times" reported on October 11 and 12, respectively. The defendants are charged with terrorism, banditry, participation in an armed insurrection, and murder. Of the estimated 200 attackers, 92 were killed in the fighting, which radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev claimed to have helped plan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 17, 2005). LF

In a statement posted on the Chechen resistance website on October 12, an unnamed representative of the Ingush sector of the Caucasus Front announced that the resistance Shariat Court has amnestied Uruskhan Zyazikov, the elderly uncle of Ingushetian President Murat Zyazikov, on the occasion of the Muslim festival marking the end of Ramadan. Uruskhan Zyazikov, who was snatched by gunmen six months ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2007), was taken to his native village of Barsuki and released outside the village mosque late on October 11. The website claimed members of the president's entourage told unnamed Russian sources that no ransom was paid to secure Zyazikov's release, but on October 12 cited other officials close to Murat Zyazikov as saying that a ransom was indeed paid in installments over the past three months. LF

The Russian Supreme Court on October 11 upheld the sentences handed down in December 2006 by the Supreme Court of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR) on 16 men in connection with the murder in October 2004 of seven shareholders in a disputed cement plant, and reported on October 11 and 13, respectively. The KChR court found eight of the defendants, including Ali Kaitov, the former son-in-law of KChR President Mustafa Batdyev, guilty of the killings and the remaining eight of concealing the crimes. Kaitov received a 17-year prison term; his associates Azamat Akbayev and Temirlan Bostanov, who actually committed the murders, were sentenced to life imprisonment (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27, 2006). LF

Meeting in Yerevan on October 10, some two dozen political and public organizations affirmed their support for former President Levon Ter-Petrossian's anticipated candidacy in the presidential ballot due early next year, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on October 12. Opposition Hanrapetutiun party leader and former Prime Minister Aram Sargsian explained that the purpose of the meeting was to orchestrate a "serious support base" for Ter-Petrossian's nomination by a civic initiative, rather than a specific political party. LF

The Justice Council appealed on October 12 to President Robert Kocharian to dismiss Yerevan district Judge Pargev Ohanian for alleged "serious violations of Armenian law" in some two dozen civil and criminal cases, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Those violations do not, however, include Ohanian's controversial acquittal in July of two businessmen charged with fraud after accusing customs officials of corruption. Ohanian told RFE/RL on September 18 that he believes the disciplinary action against him is retaliation for that acquittal, but Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian explicitly denied any connection (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19 and 25, 2007). LF

Abdurahman Vezirov formally denied on October 10 having given an interview to the website, of which various Azerbaijani media reproduced extracts, reported. In that imputed interview, Vezirov, who was removed from the post of first secretary of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan in the wake of the January 1990 Soviet military intervention in Baku that killed some 130 people, was quoted as praising President Ilham Aliyev as a stronger leader than his father and predecessor Heidar Aliyev, whom Vezirov reportedly characterized as unable to break free of Soviet mentality. The interviewee further advised Ilham Aliyev to conduct a thorough purge of his entourage. The online daily on October 11 quoted Mubariz Gurbanli, deputy executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, as branding Vezirov's comments "clearly prejudiced." "A nonentity like Vezirov does not have the right to pass judgment on such a great man as Heidar Aliyev," Gurbanli commented. Vezirov has lived in Russia since 1990. LF

The ruling council of the Musavat party voted on October 12 in favor of participating in the presidential election due in October 2008, and named its chairman, Isa Qambar, as its presidential candidate, reported. Qambar refused to accept the outcome of the October 2003 presidential ballot, in which according to official returns he polled 13.97 percent of the vote, compared with over 76 percent for Ilham Aliyev. The Azadliq bloc, which Musavat quit in early 2006, may boycott the 2008 presidential ballot unless the election law is amended to preclude the possibility of falsification. Other opposition parties began talks several months ago on the possibility of aligning to back a single opposition challenger to the incumbent president, but have not yet reached any agreement on doing so. LF

The Georgian Interior Ministry released on October 11 its report on the clash on September 20 between Abkhaz border guards and Georgian special-forces troops, Caucasus Press reported. According to that report, the Georgian forces were deployed on September 19 to intercept a group of armed men spotted two days earlier near a highway under construction in the Kodori Gorge, and early on September 20 located the group, some of whom opened fire with assault rifles and grenade launchers. The report stressed that "only those members of the group who put up armed resistance were killed." Seven Abkhaz taken prisoner after the shooting have been charged with illegal possession of weapons, belonging to an illegal armed group, and attempted premeditated murder. On October 12, the UN Observer Mission in Georgia (UNOMIG) posted on its website ( the preliminary findings of its own probe into the shootings, which noted discrepancies between the Abkhaz and Georgian versions of what happened (see "End Note," "RFE/RL Newsline," September 24, 2007). Those findings confirmed Abkhaz claims that the shooting took place on Abkhaz territory, rather than in the Kodori Gorge as Tbilisi claims, and that the two men killed -- both Russian citizens serving on contract as instructors with the Abkhaz security forces -- were shot dead at point-blank range. In Sukhum(i), Abkhaz Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba on October 12 said the findings of the UN investigation will help Abkhazia secure international support for its efforts to secure the release of the seven border guards, Caucasus Press reported. Meanwhile, in his most recent (October 3) report on the situation in Abkhazia to the UN Security Council, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recommended extending the so-called security zone along the de facto border between Abkhazia and the rest of Georgia northwards as far as the Kodori Gorge. Shamba was quoted by ITAR-TASS on October 9 as saying that proposal meets Abkhaz interests. He added that the two sides should discuss the proposal and once agreement is reached, the formal mandates of both UNOMIG and the Russian peacekeeping force deployed under the CIS aegis in the conflict zone should be amended. For the past year, the Abkhaz authorities have refused to resume talks with Tbilisi until the Georgian Interior Ministry troops deployed to the Kodori Gorge in July 2006 are withdrawn. LF

Over 300 people demonstrated on October 13 in the northern Kazakh town of Kostanai to protest against a recent increase in prices for basic foodstuffs, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The demonstration was organized by the local branches of the opposition National Social Democratic Party (NSDP), the People's Communist Party and Pokoleniye, a group advocating on behalf of pensioners. Gennady Vlasov, a local leader of the NSDP, explained that the opposition is "defending the interests of pensioners, students, and businessmen." At the close of the rally, participants submitted a resolution to local officials urging the authorities to adopt immediate measures to reduce prices. The national leaders of the opposition parties, together with the Auyl (Village) party, recent called for the government to resign due to its failure to resolve the recent price increases (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 12, 2007). RG

At a press conference in Astana, Nursultan Nazarbaev said on October 12 that electricity tariffs will be increased and called on the Kazakh people "to be economical with energy resources," according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. The president explained that "we use more" electricity than necessary and "our industry uses three to four times more electricity than developed countries because of the fact that tariffs for electricity and hot and cold water are low in our country." He added that the "low tariffs do not allow energy companies to replace and modernize their tangible fixed assets," noting that the government will "force" energy companies "to gradually increase electricity tariffs." RG

In a press release issued in Almaty, Kazakhstan's state-owned nuclear-energy company, Kazatomprom, announced on October 12 the formation of several new joint ventures with China's Guangdong Nuclear Power Holding (CGNPC) and the Chinese National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) focused on exploiting uranium deposits in Kazakhstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. In addition to extracting natural uranium, the joint ventures will also allow Kazakh investment in the Chinese nuclear-energy industry. The announcement comes in the wake of a recent acquisition of a share of the U.S. nuclear-power-plant maker Westinghouse by Kazatomprom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 14, 2007). Kazakhstan possesses some 21 percent of the world's natural uranium reserves. RG

The newly installed mayor of the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, Dabiyar Usenov, announced on October 12 that the Kyrgyz opposition Green Party will be banned from holding a planned demonstration protesting recent price increases, AKIpress reported. Usenov explained that the planned October 19 demonstration would "interfere" with a planned "students' day" rally. He further defended the ban on the demonstration on the grounds that it would disrupt preparations for the national referendum on a set of constitutional amendments scheduled for October 21. Usenov, who was appointed Bishkek mayor by President Kurmanbek Bakiev on October 10 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2007), offered the Green Party leadership an alternative site for their rally but only after October 26. The leader of the Green Party, Erkin Bulekbaev, said that the planned protest was driven by the fact that the country is "stricken by an acute food crisis" and warned that with "an unprecedented rise in prices for bread and other vital products, the authorities are simply obliged to channel all their efforts to help the poor and vulnerable members of society in our country and provide for compensations by significantly increasing pensions and wages." RG

Kyrgyz State Secretary Adaham Madumarov met on October 12 in Bishkek with the Organization FOR Security and Cooperation In Europe (OSCE) high commissioner for national minorities, Knut Vollebaek, and discussed issues related to the rights of ethnic minorities in the country, the website reported. Madumarov defended his government's policies regarding national minorities and said that the OSCE should recognize Kyrgyzstan as "a model state" in terms of defending the rights and alleviating problems facing "ethnic minorities." He further added that according to the Kyrgyz Constitution, "no ethnic group is persecuted or restricted for not knowing the national language" and noted that "members of various ethnic groups work in the Kyrgyz parliament and hold various senior government posts," Kyrgyz television reported. Vollebaek expressed concern over "problems in teaching ethnic minorities the Kyrgyz language," but praised a Kyrgyz proposal to establish a minimum 15 percent quota for parliamentary representation of ethnic minorities. In a separate meeting with Education and Science Minister Kanybek Osmonaliev, he also called on Kyrgyz officials to provide Uzbek-language schools with textbooks and supplies, although Osmonaliev pointed out that the problem is rooted in the different alphabets, reminding the OSCE official that Uzbek textbooks published in Uzbekistan use the Latin script, while Kyrgyzstan uses the Cyrillic script. Vollebaek also met on October 12 with the head of the regional administration in the southern Osh region, Governor Jantoro Satybaldiev, and reviewed the situation facing minorities in rural areas outside the capital. RG

Speaking at the opening session of a meeting of the Russian-Kyrgyz intergovernmental commission, Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of the Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency (Rosatom), said on October 12 that Russia has began allocating funds to finance a large cleanup effort of several uranium-waste sites in Kyrgyzstan, ITAR-TASS reported. He added that Russia is also engaged in working with Kyrgyz experts in modernizing and improving waste-storage facilities housing the uranium "tailings" and welcomed international support for the effort. There are roughly 25 Soviet-era uranium-waste dumps located at several mines throughout Kyrgyzstan. Following a separate meeting with Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev the same day, Kiriyenko also announced that Russia plans to begin a project to construct an aluminum production complex in three different regions in Kyrgyzstan, noting that "each of these projects will closely coordinate with the development of power engineering" in the country. Atambaev also told reporters on October 12 that Kyrgyzstan has offered a debt-swap deal to Russia, offering Moscow a package of state shares in the Dastan defense plant in exchange for the cancellation of debt owed to Moscow. The offer proposes to sell about 37 percent of state shares in the plant to Russia for about $30 million in exchange for the write-off of some $150 million in Kyrgyz arrears. RG

A special ceremony held at a military firing range outside of Dushanbe on October 12 marked the start of a special OSCE project to destroy stocks of outdated Soviet-era rocket accelerators, Asia-Plus reported. The OSCE project, which is also financed by contributions from France and the United States, seeks to destroy 108 C-75 rocket accelerators, maintained by the Tajik Defense Ministry. To date, Tajikistan has destroyed about 15 percent of the rocket fuel itself, but the OSCE was invited by the Tajik government to cooperate in completing the disposal. The head of the OSCE center in Dushanbe, Ambassador Vladimir Pryakhin, told reporters that the OSCE recently completed a similar disposal project in Armenia, where the OSCE converted several hundred tons of mixed rocket fuel into harmless fertilizer. RG

According to a newly amended law on foreign investment published in the official Turkmen press on October 12, Turkmenistan has lifted several important restrictions on foreign investment, including a new provision granting "foreigners" the right to purchase local companies, financial securities, and land, AP reported. Noncitizens were previously only allowed to make such purchases through partnerships or joint ventures with local state-owned companies. RG

Turkmen state television reported on October 12 that Turkmenistan plans to introduce a new national currency by 2009, ITAR-TASS reported. The new renominated currency will also replace the image of former President Saparmurat Niyazov with Turkmen historical figures on all currency. RG

Several thousand demonstrators took part in the European March for Freedom on October 14 in Minsk to press for closer links between Belarus and the EU, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Disobeying the city authorities' ban on the march in downtown Minsk, some 2,000 people went to October Square and marched several kilometers along the capital's main thoroughfare, Independence Avenue, to the Academy of Sciences, where another group of demonstrators gathered. "Belarus will be in Europe. We'll build a country that we won't be ashamed of. A free, fair, and real one," opposition presidential candidate Alyaksandr Milinkevich told the crowd in front of the Academy of Sciences. Other speakers urged the government to fulfill the 12 conditions that the EU has set for Minsk before it can join the European Neighborhood Policy. The conditions, publicized in November 2006, include holding free and fair elections, giving the opposition access to the state media, ensuring freedom of association, releasing political prisoners, and abolishing the death penalty. After marching from the Academy of Sciences to Bangalore Square on the city's outskirts, the demonstrators dispersed without any arrests being made. Police detained several dozen opposition activists last week in an apparent attempt to prevent them from participating in the October 14 demonstration. Belapan reported that at least 25 of them were jailed on charges of using obscene language in a public place. JM

Speaking to a group of Russian journalists in Minsk on October 12, President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said the increased gas and oil prices imposed by Russia at the beginning of the year have made Belarusian companies uncompetitive in the Russian market, Belapan reported. "Our products are not competitive in your country. In order to compete, we have to pay people here paltry wages, and one has to work in cold conditions in winter to cut costs. Are these normal relations? They are not," Lukashenka said. "Since they raised the price contrary to our agreements, we [must] also increase the price of services that we provide to Russia to offset this blow somehow. What is so unusual about this? And why does the Russian leadership criticize me? I'm dealing with an issue of survival," he added. Lukashenka also condemned Russia for not giving a stabilization loan to Belarus, which he said that Moscow offered in the first place. "All right, thanks, we agreed. [But] sometime later they started depicting us as fools who allegedly asked for money from the Russian Federation," he said, adding that Belarus will have no problems in obtaining loans from other countries. JM

In his comments to Russian journalists, President Lukashenka said that Russia has no allies but Belarus in its objections to U.S. plans to establish elements of a missile-defense shield in the Czech Republic and Poland, Belapan reported. "Who can you rely on here? On Ukraine, which wants to be in NATO? On the Baltic states and Poland, which already are in NATO? Do you have armed forces to contain [attacks], apart from the Belarusian army, west of Moscow?" Lukashenka said. He stressed that it was his idea to integrate the military forces of both countries, saying that he made such a proposal to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and then convinced Russian President Vladimir Putin to sign an agreement on a joint force. "I was thinking not only about myself and the Belarusians, but also about how our union state commitments would be met within the framework of the Belarusian-Russian Union. I thought that we should defend our territory together and the land that once fed us with cheap hydrocarbons," Lukashenka said. In the case of a European conflict, he added: "We would die for Russia here. We cannot let tanks advance [across Belarus] toward Moscow." JM

President Lukashenka also told Russian journalists that he is skeptical about any official efforts to curb the hard-drinking culture deeply rooted in Belarus, Belapan reported. "I don't believe that there will be a time when Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarusians stop drinking. This is our national tradition," the Belarusian president asserted. "We say that it's better to drink low-alcohol beverages, but we will drink anyway. It's inevitable," he added. Lukashenka revealed that he is not an alcohol lover. "I don't like beer at all. It has a bitter, nasty taste for me," he said. But Lukashenka also confessed that he has to drink in his role as president. "I'm not saying that I don't drink; how can a president not drink? Just imagine that there are presidents sitting around a table -- they are not just drinking, but drinking well, especially those from ex-Soviet countries." Lukashenka recalled his drinking sessions with former Russian President Yeltsin, recalling that it took him days to recover afterward. JM

President Viktor Yushchenko on October 12 issued a decree establishing October 14 as a day of commemoration of the 65th anniversary of the formation of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), Ukrainian media reported. The UPA, created by the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, pursued the ideal of an independent Ukraine and fought German, Soviet, and Polish troops during World War II and after the war's end. A monument to the leader of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, Stepan Bandera, was unveiled during a rally in Lviv on October 13. Rallies were also held in Kyiv and Simferopol on October 14 to mark the UPA anniversary, during which scuffles broke out between adherents of rightist and leftist parties. JM

The Ukrainian Emergency Situations Ministry said on October 15 that 14 people were killed in a gas explosion in an apartment block in Dnipropetrovsk on October 13, Ukrainian media reported. Eight people, including two children, are listed as missing, while 17 have been hospitalized with injuries suffered in the blast. JM

Political leaders from Kosova and Serbia met on October 14 for the latest round of direct talks on Kosova's final status. Neither side appears to have changed their position in any way. "We stand where we stand," said Serbia's minister for Kosovar affairs, Slobodan Samardzic, while Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu said, "the Kosova side rejected entirely the Serbian position," Reuters reported on October 14. Speaking on October 14 prior to the talks, the EU's mediator at the talks, Wolfgang Ischinger, said that the negotiations in Brussels and an upcoming meeting scheduled for October 22 in Vienna represent "a decisive phase" in discussions as "we will see if we can make some real progress." He did not indicate what might happen that it there were no real progress. "We have now crossed the halftime mark and time is also becoming an important element," noted Ischinger, who used as his benchmark December 10, the date when the mediators are due to submit a report on their progress to the UN secretary-general. Kosova and Western powers view December 10 as marking the end of talks, while Serbia and Russia insist they should continue until a deal is reached. Going into the Brussels meeting, both sides were downbeat about the prospects of a breakthrough and both blamed the other side for a lack of willingness to consider compromise. Following weeks of preparatory work by the three international mediators, Kosovar and Serbian leaders began holding face-to-face talks in September. Each meeting has lasted a matter of hours. In early October, Ischinger suggested that, in addition, it might be advisable to hold a conference that would bring them together for several days. There has, however, been no progress on that idea so far. AG

The EU's Ischinger suggested on October 14 that Serbia might be more willing to reach a deal on Kosova's status if the EU were to remove visa requirements on Serbian citizens sooner "rather than later," Reuters reported. "That could be helpful in the overall context of these negotiations," he said. The EU recently simplified and cheapened the visa process for a range of Serbs -- including businessmen and academics -- but has given no indication that it will end visas. Similarly, Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has called on the EU to offer Serbia incentives as a means of facilitating a deal. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica maintained in July that in private "many officials, many politicians" from EU countries made an "indecent" offer linking EU membership with recognition for Kosova's independence. However, the European Commission has consistently sent the message that there is and should be no linkage between Serbia's future in the EU and Kosova's future. (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 17, 2007). AG

Bosnia-Herzegovina's leaders have again failed to reach an agreement on reform of Bosnia's various police forces. The latest deadline, October 15, was the second deadline set by the international community's new representative in Bosnia, Miroslav Lajcak, who assumed his position in July. "We were hoping for a miracle, but a miracle didn't happen," Lajcak told reporters after the latest round of talks collapsed on October 11, dpa reported. "We don't have an agreement, we don't have a chance, a hope for an agreement, and we don't have a chance that this country is going towards Europe," Lajcak said. Police reform is now the key obstacle to Bosnia taking the first step towards EU membership, signing a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA). Lajcak's first deadline was September 30, but a last-minute deal by the key protagonists, the Republika Srpska's prime minister, Milorad Dodik, and the Bosnian Muslims' representative on the three-member presidency, Haris Silajdzic, was subsequently rejected by other parties and also by Lajcak. A later proposal, this time presented by Bosnian Croat parties, was broadly welcomed by Lajcak's office, which said on October 11 that "our first impression of the paper is positive." The proposal reportedly contained many of the suggestions put forward by Lajcak and, subsequently, by Dodik and Silajdzic. Information available so far suggests that the key issues were the continued existence of a separate Republika Srpska police force and overall control of police affairs. Dragan Covic, the leader of the largest Croatian party, the Croatian Democratic Community (HDZ), told local media that the key message is that "we did the worst thing for you, the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina." AG

It is unclear what will now happen about talks on police reform and, more broadly, about Bosnia-Herzegovina's EU ambitions. According to the daily "Dnevni avaz," Lajcak said that he will now discuss the situation with EU foreign ministers on October 15, but refused to give details. Much will depend on a meeting of the Peace Implementation Council, a group of 55 countries overseeing Bosnia's postwar recovery that has given Lajcak extensive powers to force through legislation and sanction political leaders. The leader of the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), Sulejman Tihic, said after meeting with Lajcak on October 9 that Lajcak warned him that sanctions could be imposed, which, according to the daily "Nezavisne novine," Tihic said he believed "will include punishing individuals, and parties, and restoring much broader powers to the Office of the High Representative." AG

Anyone who provides information leading to the capture of the Bosnian Serbs' wartime commander, Ratko Mladic, will be entitled to a bounty of 1 million euros ($1.4 million), the Serbian government declared on October 12, Reuters reported. Serbia's National Security Council, which reached its decision on October 11, also offered rewards -- of 250,000 euros each ($354,000) -- for two other men wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Stojan Zupljanin and Goran Hadzic. Zupljanin was a close associate of Mladic in Bosnia, while Hadzic was a leader of Serbian separatists in Croatia, but both are also Serbian citizens. The council said it is not offering a reward for the capture of the one other man indicted by the ICTY, Radovan Karadzic, as he does not hold Serbian citizenship. The EU has conditioned Serbia's relationship on the capture of Mladic. ICTY officials believe Mladic and Hadzic are in Serbia and officials in Bosnia recently said that Zupljanin is in the Republika Srpska, but there have been no recent indications where Karadzic is. The National Security Council is headed by President Boris Tadic. In 2002, the United States offered rewards of $5 million each for the capture of Karadzic and Mladic. AG

The population of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Republika Srpska, most of whom are Serbs, should vote on December 9 for a president to replace Milan Jelic, who died in office on September 30 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 1, 2007), the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network reported on October 11. The decision, which was made by Bosnia's Central Election Commission on October 11, goes some way to clarifying the constitutional uncertainty about procedures in such circumstances by ruling that there is no need for the region's two vice presidents, the Bosnian Muslim Adil Osmanovic and the Croat Davor Cordas, to face reelection. Most Bosnian Serb parties argued that they should be forced to run again. Uncertainty remains, though, about the Republika Srpska's decision to elect Igor Radojicic as an interim president. Bosnian Muslim and Croat parties have moved to prevent his assumption of the position on two grounds: firstly, that, as a Montenegrin rather than a Serb, he is not a member of Bosnia's three major ethnic groupings, who, under the treaty that ended the 1995-96 civil war, share the country's top positions; and, secondly, that Radojicic should be ruled out because of a conflict of interest, because he is also the speaker of parliament. The region's Constitutional Court has yet to rule on their objections. AG

Bulgaria and the EU on October 12 agreed to postpone the resolution of a dispute over the use of spellings in Cyrillic, international media reported, a decision that opens the way for the EU and Montenegro to sign a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) on October 15. Bulgaria had refused to sign the SAA unless the "euro" was written as "evro" in its text of the document as there is no "eu-" sound in Slavic languages. In the text of Bulgaria's accession treaty with the EU, the "euro" was written as "evro," which the EU subsequently described as an oversight that should be rectified. EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn described Bulgaria's insistence as "regrettable," saying it risked undermining the EU's credibility in the western Balkans. A number of other countries with comparable transliteration problems -- including Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, and Slovenia -- have complied with the EU's demand for uniformity, but Bulgaria is the union's first state to use the Cyrillic alphabet. Speaking before the breakthrough, Montenegrin Deputy Prime Minister Gordana Djurovic told reporters that she was "depressed" and "surprised" by Bulgaria's position. However, Bulgaria has assured the Montenegrin government that "this controversy is not connected to Bulgarian-Montenegrin relations and that it is, instead, a matter of principle," Djurovic was quoted by the news agency Beta as saying on October 12. AG

A former head of Montenegro's military intelligence agency, Momir Stojanovic, says that an ethnic-Albanian militia, the Albanian National Army (AKSh), is active in Montenegro as well as in Kosova. The AKSh has been known in neighboring Kosova for over five years, but it emerged from the shadows on October 3 in a filmed patrol in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2007). In an interview published by the daily "Dan" on October 12, Stojanovic claimed that the AKSh has branches in Ulcinj, a southern coastal town, and in Plav and Gusinje, towns in the north of the country, as well as in Kosova, Macedonia, and Albania. He believes that "at any given moment, militant Albanians can arm 30,000 men." Stojanovic did not provide corroborating sources. Stojanovic is a senior member of the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), the Montenegrin offshoot of the party of the late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic. The SPS maintains that ethnic-Albanian radicals entertain hopes of creating a Greater Albania in the western Balkans. AG

Early last month, 13 participants in a Moscow demonstration to mark the third anniversary of the Beslan tragedy were detained and taken to court. Earlier this month, more than 10,000 pro-Kremlin youth activists gathered in the center of Moscow to celebrate President Vladimir Putin's 55th birthday. The two incidents are clear illustrations of the Russian state's two-pronged policy on demonstrations as the country's election season moves into high gear.

The clampdown on non-Kremlin-friendly demonstrations has been going on for over a year now, an important part of the administration's strategy for marginalizing all opposition. On September 30, the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Legal Team issued a statement decrying the government's restriction of the right to demonstrate. Legal Team said that almost all opposition demonstrations in 2007 were either banned or dispersed and that the government had succeeded in associating protest in the public mind with violence and arrests. In late September, state-owned Rossia television aired a prime-time "special report" in which it was claimed that opposition demonstrators routinely provoke the police into attacking them.

Moreover, Legal Team noted that penalties for participating in demonstrations have become more severe. While in the past it was normal to receive an administrative fine, now detainees are often sentenced to 15 days in jail following summary legal proceedings that do not ensure their rights.

The statement said detainees are rarely given access to counsel or allowed to call witnesses and that sentencing is often based exclusively on police reports. Activists with the NGO told "Kommersant" that Moscow had adopted a policy of granting permission for opposition demonstrations only in areas far from the center of town and noted that provincial cities have followed suit.

According to the activists, Moscow authorities have not given permission for a single opposition-organized march all year, authorizing only rallies in remote locations. Aleksei Kozlov, an activist with the Groza movement, told "Gazeta" that Aeroflot, Russian Railways, and other state-controlled transport companies routinely provide information about the movements of activists around the country to the police. "

At stations and airports, people who are on these lists are detained by police and questioned," Kozlov said. Legal Team expert Natalia Zvyagina told "Kommersant" that pro-Kremlin groups routinely ask for and are granted permission to hold multiple demonstrations at high-visibility locations, and that the authorities use these permissions as an excuse to deny permission to opposition groups.

As traditional rallies and demonstrations become increasingly problematic, opposition figures have been forced to adopt guerrilla tactics that, while often clever, give the impression of frivolousness. "Since demonstrations and pickets have been banned, the [Union of Rightist Forces, or SPS] has developed a new technology of civic protest," SPS campaign chief Anton Bakov told on October 11. "We are moving to actions in stores and on public transport."

A few hundred SPS supporters today converged on a Moscow supermarket that is part of a chain owned by Unified Russia supporter and State Duma Deputy Vladimir Gruzdev as part of an action intended to draw attention to rising prices for foodstuffs. Of course, it is even more easily justified for the authorities to crack down on actions of this sort staged in private businesses and public-transport locations.

However, in Russia today not all demonstrations are equal. Pro-Kremlin groups -- especially the youth groups Nashi, Youth Guard, and Mestnye (Locals) -- carry out demonstrations without hindrance all over the country. Opposition leader Garry Kasparov and Mikhail Kasyanov routinely face disruptive pickets and demonstrations when they attempt to make public appearances.

Last month, Nashi picketers blockaded the entrance to a resort outside Moscow where Kasyanov was scheduled to give a speech. On October 11, Nashi activists in Rostov-na-Donu staged a demonstration at a book presentation by SPS Political Council member Boris Nemtsov, handing out "dollars" from Nemtsov's "overseas protectors."

The crackdown on public demonstrations is just one of the most visible and blatantly unconstitutional ways in which the authorities are strictly controlling the political environment in Russia in order to manufacture a false consensus in the upcoming elections. Moreover, it shows how thoroughly the police and courts have been subordinated to the task of achieving the political ends of the Putin administration.

The latest Levada Center opinion poll shows Unified Russia with some 68 percent support. On October 11, Putin held a closed-door meeting with the heads of all of Russia's regions. The process of generating a landslide is under full steam.

Six Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers were killed on October 13 in Kandahar Province by a suicide attacker riding a motorcycle, the Karachi-based "Dawn" newspaper reported on October 14. The attack took place in Spin Boldak, a town on the Afghan-Pakistani border. Two ANA soldiers and five civilians were injured in the attack. Taliban spokesman Qari Yusof Ahmadi claimed responsibility for the attack on behalf of the insurgent group, but put the death toll higher, saying that at least 10 ANA soldiers were killed. HM

Suspected Taliban militants beheaded Mawlawi Saleh Mohammad, a prayer leader in the Arghandab district of Zabul Province, on October 13, Pajhwak Afghan News reported the next day. Saleh Mohammad was kidnapped on October 12 by armed men. A purported Taliban commander, Mawlawi Abdul Hadi, told Pajhwak that Saleh Mohammad was killed because he was spying for Afghan government forces. HM

President Hamid Karzai has rejected claims made by the Pakistani military that Afghanistan is assisting tribal fighters battling Pakistani government forces, state-run Afghanistan National Television reported on October 13. Referring to the escalation of violence in the Pakistani tribal region of North Waziristan, Karzai said that there may be links between the insurgency in Pakistan and the rebels fighting his own government. But he insisted that Kabul does not assist the Pakistani insurgents, and that Afghanistan does not have the extra weapons or money to provide such assistance. HM

Hundreds of villagers demonstrated in Konar Province on October 13 in protest against an alleged incident of U.S.-led coalition forces burning copies of the Koran, AFP reported. The incident allegedly occurred in the village of Kodu during a raid by U.S.-led coalition forces. U.S. Army spokesman Major Chris Belcher said that while coalition forces have operated in the region, they "didn't desecrate any religious articles." The U.S. military has promised to investigate the allegations, AFP reported on October 14. "We respect your religion," U.S. Army Captain Jason Coughenour told residents. "We will launch an investigation and find out who has burnt the Koran. If it has been done by an American, we will punish him." HM

Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei urged Arab states on October 13 not to participate in planned Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and said such talks have always harmed Palestinian interests, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media. Khamenei was speaking at congregational prayers to mark the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. He asked how Arab states could take part when the "Palestinian people" are rejecting the talks. A U.S.-sponsored peace conference is scheduled for November, and Israeli and Palestinian leaders and diplomats have been meeting to discuss some of the themes of the conference. Khamenei said the Palestinians have voted for a government that had "resistance" as its "slogan" -- meaning the Hamas government that controls Gaza -- and peace talks are an attempt by the United States to "save" Israel. He also expressed opposition to any plans, as proposed by the U.S. Senate, to divide or change Iraq's structure, saying, "this has nothing to do with America and Iraqi officials and people have expressed their opposition, and the Islamic world is opposed to the issue." VS

An Iranian policeman was killed early on October 12 and a soldier "gravely" wounded in gunfights between Iranian forces and separatists or guerrillas of the Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan (PJAK), an ethnic-Kurdish group with apparent links with Turkey's Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), Radio Farda reported on October 14, citing ISNA. The PJAK reportedly claimed it had fired on the troops. The PJAK has been attacking positions of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps in western provinces near Iraq in recent months, prompting Iran to bombard parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, where it says PJAK guerrillas are based. Iran has also accused the United States of aiding the PJAK and seeking to foment ethnic discord on its frontiers, Radio Farda noted. VS

Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai told a reception in Tehran on October 10 that Iran is not trying to fill a power vacuum in Iraq, the daily "Etemad" reported on October 14. His remarks were interpreted as a reference to previous remarks by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who said Iran would fill the vacuum left by the departure of coalition forces. He was addressing a dinner hosted by the Iran-Iraq Friendship Society, headed by former Supreme National Security Council spokesman Ali Aqamohammadi. Rezai said it seems to him that the United States is interested in prolonging certain regional crises for another 60 or 70 years, to prevent the region's development. "Our first task is not to help the crisis, and Shi'ite nations should not target the Sunni states." He said that "taking part in the crisis" is effectively to move to the side of "America, the West, and Israel." Iran, he said, should seek to promote regional friendship, though he warned that Iran's enemies should not be "taken lightly or underestimated." Aqamohammadi told the reception the "occupiers will leave Iraq one way or another," after which Iran has a "plan" for Iraq's reconstruction "in the framework of the thesis of friendship." The reception was attended by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister for Arab and African Affairs Mohammad Reza Baqeri, Iraqi Ambassador to Iran Muhammad Majid al-Sheikh, and Nazim Dabbagh, the envoy of the Iraqi Kurdistan regional government. VS

Ali Akbar Velayati, a former foreign minister and currently a foreign-policy adviser to the Iranian supreme leader, recently told a reception in Tehran that Western powers are looking to push another resolution on sanctions against Iran's nuclear program through the UN Security Council, though he said the West would find other pretexts for harassing Iran if it were to relent over its nuclear program, "Etemad" reported on October 14, citing ISNA. The daily did not say when he made the comments, but the report suggested Velayati was speaking on October 10 or 11, in the closing days of Ramadan. Velayati said the West would pressure Iran over ballistic missiles or alleged rights violations, in the absence of a nuclear case. "This dossier is presently on the Western states' agenda for referral to the Security Council, and they ratify another resolution against Iran's peaceful nuclear activities, even if it is removed from the ideal" resolution envisaged. Velayati said a glance at the Middle East indicates "we are facing a future full of adventure, and the main adventurer here is America." VS

Emadeddin Baqi, the head of the Association in Defense of Prisoners' Rights in Iran, was reportedly to appear in the security section of the Tehran Revolutionary Court on October 14 or 15, apparently to answer questions over previous writings critical of Iran's polity, ISNA reported. His lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht, told ISNA on October 13 that this is the third time he has been summoned in recent weeks or months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 25, 2007). VS

Transport Minister Mohammad Rahmati has said the government is drafting a comprehensive transport plan that is to invest money in various areas of public transport, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on October 14, citing Rahmati's undated remarks to ISNA. Rahmati suggested railways may be a priority in the plan, which he said will be finalized and unveiled by March 2008. He said Iran's governments should have invested in railway infrastructure in the years since the 1979 revolution, when asked about the country's underdeveloped railways. He added that Iran has effectively been under sanctions since the 1979 revolution. He blamed sanctions in part for an increasing number of flight delays in the summer; repairs of U.S.-made parts to some planes were not possible, as "no country is permitted to fix American instruments and parts on our planes," he said. He added that demand for flights also rose in the summer as people decided to fly, not drive, to holiday destinations, due to gasoline restrictions imposed in June. This, he said, provoked "disorganization in flights." Rahmati said state-owned Iranian airlines are "loss-making," and referred to the government's privatization plans for the sector. He said the government has given two unnamed airlines and possible privatization candidates until March 2009 to reform their structures and raise ticket prices, to facilitate their purchase by the private sector. VS

Turkish officials remained adamant that they will seek parliamentary approval this week for a military incursion into Iraq to root out Turkish-Kurdish militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Dan Fried and U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman held talks at the Turkish Foreign Ministry in Ankara on October 12 that centered on Iraq as well as the passage of a U.S. congressional committee resolution last week labeling the killing of Armenians nearly 100 years ago as "genocide," which the Bush administration has criticized. Turkish Chief of Staff General Yasar Buyukanit told the daily "Milliyet" that U.S.-Turkish relations are at an all-time low, and suggested that any military incursion into Iraq could not further damage the relationship between the two allies. Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told members of his political party on October 12 that Turkey will do as it sees fit when it comes to dealing with the PKK, the Anatolia news agency reported the following day. "Nobody asked anybody's permission while coming from tens of thousands of kilometers away to hit Iraq. We do not need anybody's advice regarding a military operation into the north of Iraq," Erdogan said during a speech in Istanbul. KR

Iraq-based Kurdistan Satellite TV reported on October 14 that Turkey has fired more than 200 mortar rounds into Iraqi Kurdish villages, including Amadiyah. It identified some 16 villages shelled by the Turkish military. Isma'il Muhammad, head of the Amadiyah administrative district, told the television station: "Turkish artillery fired about 150 mortar shells into our region" on October 13, setting off several fires in the area. There were no reported casualties. The areas being shelled lie within the Dahuk Governorate, and are located about an hour's drive north of Dahuk city. KR

Two Syrian Orthodox priests were kidnapped in Mosul on October 12, international media reported. They were identified as Pius Affas and Mazin Ishuwa. The men were kidnapped while en route to a funeral, Archbishop Basil George Casmusa told AP. The archbishop said no ransom has been demanded as yet. Casmusa was kidnapped himself in 2005, but released a day later. Syrian Orthodox priest Paulos Iskandar was kidnapped in October 2006. Despite reaching an agreement with his family on a ransom, the priest's captors beheaded him and dismembered his body, dumping it on the roadside in Mosul three days later. Pope Benedict XVI issued an appeal at the Vatican on October 14 for the release of the kidnapped priests. "I call on the abductors to rapidly liberate the two clerics and I reiterate that violence does not resolve tensions," the pope said. KR

Ammar al-Hakim, the son of Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, said the Shi'a must expedite the establishment of a southern region in Iraq according to the federalist model, Iraqi media reported on October 13. Speaking to followers following the recitation of the Eid Al-Fitr prayer, al-Hakim said: "We should work toward establishing regions and implementing the federal system in Iraq. From this holy place and on this holy day, I call on the sons of our people to establish their regions, starting from the establishment of the southern Baghdad region to the establishment of other regions, especially since this system serves Iraq's interests." Al-Hakim also said that he opposes the establishment of permanent foreign military bases in Iraq. Regarding his father's health, al-Hakim said the elder leader was too ill to lead the Eid Al-Fitr prayer. Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim returned to Iraq last week from cancer treatment in Tehran. Ammar al-Hakim has been leading SIIC in his father's absence. Ammar al-Hakim contradicted Iranian press reports when he said in an October 10 interview published on his party's website that his father would return to Iran for continuing treatment following the holiday. Iranian media reported that the elder al-Hakim's treatment has ended (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2007) KR

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr lashed out at al-Hakim's call for the establishment of southern federal regions, AFP reported on October 14. Al-Sadr spokesman Salih al-Ubaydi told the news agency that the position of al-Sadr and his followers remains firm. The cleric has stood in opposition to federalism since the constitution was drafted in 2005. "After the U.S. Congress voted to divide Iraq, it is clear that insisting on applying federalism in the current tragic Iraqi situation is a flirtation" with the congressional resolution, al-Ubaydi told AFP. KR

Munir Haddad, a judge for the Court of Cassation, which is reviewing the sentences of those found guilty in the Anfal trial, told Al-Iraqiyah television on October 13 that the death sentence against former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim will likely be carried out in the coming days despite the revelation by a former U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) agent that Hashim worked with the agency in planning a coup against Saddam Hussein in the 1990s (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 17, 2007). "We heard statements [about Hashim's alleged cooperation with the CIA] from many Iraqi officials -- not from Americans -- including the president of the republic [Jalal Talabani] and the president of the Iraqi Kurdistan region [Mas'ud Barzani]. Many politicians said that Sultan Hashim wanted to carry out a military coup. The court made its decision. Had the U.S. or Iraqi politicians said something at that time [of the original trial] and had Sultan Hashim provided evidence, it might have been a reason for reducing his sentence," Haddad told the news channel. KR

Former CIA agent Rick Francona revealed Hashim's relationship with the CIA, which came through then-Iraqi opposition leader Jalal Talabani, NBC reported on October 12. Although Francona could not confirm that Hashim did in fact work with the CIA, he said Hashim was approached by the agency at Talabani's urging. Francona told NBC News on October 12 that executing Hashim would set a bad precedent. "If Sultan Hashim was willing to cooperate with us, if he did cooperate with us, now he finds himself facing Iraqi justice -- it just doesn't seem right to me," Francona said. "I think we owe him the benefit of the doubt, and at least get his sentence commuted to life imprisonment." Francona added: "This sets a really bad precedent for people who are willing to cooperate with the United States. If they're willing to cooperate with the United States, and then, they find themselves justice in their own country, why would anybody cooperate with us in the future?" President Talabani has said he opposes the death sentence for Hashim. Talabani is opposed to the death penalty and also refused to sign execution papers for Saddam Hussein. Hashim and three other former Hussein regime leaders were found guilty of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity for their roles in the 1987-88 Anfal military campaign that killed more than 180,000 Kurds (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 11, 2007). KR