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Newsline - October 16, 2007

President Vladimir Putin arrived in Tehran on October 16 on the first visit to Iran by a Kremlin leader since Josef Stalin went to the Iranian capital in 1943. Putin is holding talks in Tehran with the leaders of Iran and the other three Caspian littoral states -- Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan -- to try to reach an agreement on a convention determining a new legal status for the Caspian Sea and its potentially lucrative offshore energy fields. A settlement could open the way for a pipeline under the Caspian to transport Central Asian gas to Europe, bypassing Russia, "The Moscow Times" reported on October 16. Putin was also to meet with both Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, news agencies reported. JB

During a joint news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Wiesbaden, Germany, on October 15, President Putin said that Iran's nuclear program will be among the topics he will discuss with Iranian leaders, ITAR-TASS reported. "We do have instances where problems of this kind were solved peacefully," Putin said. "Quite recently, we had a situation around North Korea but we showed patience and persistently sought solutions to it.... We must do just the same thing in Iran's case, too." Putin added: "It's a totally unpromising business to try and scare Iranian leaders or the Iranian people. They don't feel frightened, believe me." According to ITAR-TASS, Putin reiterated that the Iranian nuclear problem could be resolved only by political and diplomatic means, and said that Russia will try to maintain "direct contacts" with the Iranians while continuing to work "in cooperation with partners from the United States and Europe in the name of a common objective." Merkel told Deutsche Welle on October 15 before her meeting with Putin that she strongly supports finding a diplomatic solution to the issue of Iran's nuclear program, but added that "we also need to be ready to impose further sanctions if Iran does not budge." JB

During his October 15 news conference in Germany, President Putin downplayed a report by Interfax, based on a source apparently from one of Russia's intelligence services, that terrorists were planning an attempt on his life during his visit to Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 15, 2007). "Of course I am going to Iran," Reuters quoted Putin as saying. "If I listened to all of the different threats and the recommendations from the special services, I would never leave home." Since the Interfax report appeared on October 14, observers have been debating its veracity and what prompted it. Reuters on October 15 quoted former ORT television anchorman Sergei Dorenko as saying the putative plot made Putin "look like a hero" if he went ahead with his trip to Iran. Nikolai Zlobin, director of the Russian and Eurasia Project at the World Security Institute in Washington, told Reuters he thinks the report on the alleged assassination plot was the handiwork of "some groups" in Russia's elite that "are trying to show Putin that he has to be more careful, more balanced." Zlobin said these groups want Putin "to recognize that his departure from office in March could destabilize Russia," the news agency reported. Likewise, RFE/RL noted that alleged plots against the Russian president may help solidify public support for Putin before his second and final constitutionally mandated presidential term ends next year (see "Russia: Alleged Plot To Kill Putin In Iran Overshadows Landmark Trip,", October 15, 2007). Political commentator Georgy Bovt told Reuters that the report may have had some substance, but that the Kremlin manipulated it for domestic political purposes, given that "information of this type would have never been reported by news agencies without the permission of the president's press office." JB

In a piece published by the "Yezhednevny zhurnal" website on October 15, political commentator Yulia Latynina suggested that the alleged plot to kill Putin in Iran was one of many reported assassination and terrorist plots that Russia's special services claim to have foiled in a bid to make themselves indispensable to Putin and to make Putin dependent on them. Latynina cited, among other things, a speech that Federal Security Service (FSB) Director Nikolai Patrushev delivered to the Federation Council on June 22 in which he claimed his agency thwarted terrorist attacks planned for the Group of Eight (G8) summit in St. Petersburg in July 2006 and the Russia-EU summits in Sochi in May 2006 and Samara in May 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 25, 2007). "Around Putin are people who are not good at doing business...who are not good at running the government," Latynina wrote. "These people are only good at one thing -- fighting enemies, and if there are no enemies, then they must be invented. The more enemies that you expose, the more stars you receive and, above all, the more the president will depend on you, because you and only you can save his life from assassination attempts at the summits in St. Petersburg, Sochi, Samara, and now in Iran." Latynina predicted that the number of such "averted attempts" on Putin's life will increase as the 2008 presidential election approaches. JB

Russia's "Kommersant" daily suggested on October 16 that the reported assassination plot against Putin was part of a Russian effort to make the Iranian government more amenable to a compromise on its nuclear program. The newspaper noted that the original Interfax report of the alleged plot was followed by rumors that Putin might cancel his visit to Tehran. "When the rumors about the visit being canceled proved to be untrue, they probably breathed a sigh of relief in Tehran," the report in "Kommersant" said. "After all, Vladimir Putin was invited to Iran by President Mahmud Ahmadinejad personally, and a breakdown of the visit would have been a severe blow to [Ahmadinejad]. On the contrary, the fact that the Russian president arrived in Tehran in spite of everything disposes the Iranian leader toward tractability during the impending difficult negotiations, at which Vladimir Putin will be persuading [Ahmadinejad] to compromise with the West on Iran's nuclear program." JB

During President Putin's visit to Tehran, Iran and Russia may sign a deal to supply Iran's military with 50 RD-33 turbo-jet engines produced at the Chernyshev Moscow Machine Works for Russian MiG-29 fighters, "Kommersant" reported on October 16. According to the Russian daily, Iran will use the engines for its new Azarakhsh (Lightning) supersonic jet fighters, which Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar recently announced will soon enter mass production. According to "Kommersant," experts estimate the deal to be worth $150 million. JB

Several leading cultural figures on October 16 published an open letter asking President Putin to remain in office for a third term in the government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta." The letter was signed by sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov, and artist Albert Charkin, who claimed to be speaking in the name of the 65,000 members of the "artistic community of Russia." It credits Putin's "wise public policy" for Russia's artistic revival, for achieving "social stability," and for "raising the homeland's authority in the world." Ignoring the constitutional ban on a third term for Putin, the artists say that "Russia needs your talent as a state actor and your political wisdom." RC

A new poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM) found that 33 percent of Russians definitely plan to participate in the December 2 Duma elections, while another 33 percent said they will "probably" participate. Based on this VTsIOM forecast voter turnout at about 50 percent, significantly lower than the figure of 60 percent that the Central Election Commission has been expecting. Thirty-nine percent said the Duma elections will be "honest," and 57 percent said the same about the March 2008 presidential election. However, more than 60 percent of respondents said they have little or no interest in politics in general, and that figure was even higher among respondents aged 18 to 24. RC

A new poll released by the Levada Center on October 16 found that 30 percent of Russians consider the CIA a terrorist organization, while 32 percent said the CIA is not involved in terrorism. Seventy percent of respondents said the United States should not carry out preemptive strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities, while 8 percent said it should. Thirty-eight percent said Moscow should continue cooperating with Tehran on nuclear-energy issues, while 34 percent said this work should stop. RC

The fight against corruption in the regions has been dramatically stepped up in recent months, reported on October 16. According to the report, Irkutsk Oblast Deputy Governor Sergei Voronov is being investigated on suspicion of bribe taking, as is the former head of the oblast's Roads Department, Viktor Bushev. A spokesman for the Prosecutor-General's Office was quoted as saying more than 700 corruption cases have been filed against officials so far this year. The website noted that Novgorod Oblast Deputy Governor Nikolai Ivankov resigned earlier this year after a 2003 corruption case against him was reopened. Tolyatti Mayor Nikolai Utkin was arrested in May, the same month a case was filed against Arkhangelsk Mayor Aleksandr Donskoi. Analysts cited attributed the crackdown to the approaching legislative and presidential elections, predicting that further actions against mayors and governors should be expected. RC

The Moscow branch of the Yabloko party on October 15 inflated a giant bear-shaped balloon outside the headquarters of the Unified Russia party to protest alleged special treatment being given by city authorities to party activist and Duma Deputy Vladimir Gruzdev, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. According to Yabloko, Gruzdev's retail chain Sedmoi kontinent has been given ownership of some 65,000 square meters of downtown retail space. Activists say dozens of small businesses are being closed down as a result. RC

Some details about the mysterious September 30 death of Tomsk businessman Igor Vakhenko are beginning to emerge, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on October 15. According to an investigation, Vakhenko was detained by police at a carwash on September 29 and was killed while in police custody the following day. Investigators say that police threw Vakhenko's body out of a fourth-floor window and then buried it in a nearby forest. According to investigator Sergei Mironov, police had no reason for detaining Vakhenko and it is likely they did so at the request of a business competitor. Vakhenko was co-owner of a gold-mining firm. An uncertain number of police officers have been charged in connection with the killing, and local authorities have promised a complete investigation. RC

A group of unidentified gunmen opened fire on October 14 on a Russian family in Karabulak, northeast of Nazran, killing Nikolai Kortikov and his daughter-in-law Zoya, and seriously injuring Kortikov's wife Tatyana, reported. Their neighbor, Valentina Nemova, died later of her injuries in hospital. It was the fourth fatal attack on Russians in Ingushetia within the past three months. LF

The Armenian Court of Appeals ruled on October 15 to deny a bail request for a prominent businessman, RFE/RL Armenian Service reported. Gagik Hakobian, the largest stakeholder in the Royal Armenia coffee company, served nearly two years in prison on controversial fraud charges but was later acquitted by a lower court, only to be arrested again earlier this month. Defending the ruling, Appeals Court Justice Suren Ghazarian explained that the court feared that Hakobian could "obstruct" the trial and even go into hiding if released on bail. Hakobian has been embroiled in a heated dispute with the government since he first accused customs officials of extortion and corruption. Hakobian and Aram Ghazarian, a fellow Royal Armenia senior executive, were acquitted in July of fraud and tax-evasion charges brought against them after they publicly accused senior customs officials in 2005 of soliciting a bribe in return for undervaluing the raw coffee they imported. The judge who handed down that acquittal, Pargev Ohanian, is currently facing disciplinary proceedings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 14, 2005, and July 17 and September 12 and 19, 2007). After returning to Armenia from Spain where he reportedly underwent medical treatment following his acquittal, he was rearrested by police after prosecutors issued a fresh arrest warrant citing his failure to attend its hearings on the high-profile case (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 4, 2007). RG

An unnamed official of the Armenian Ministry of Transport and Communications announced on 15 October that two companies are the leading bidders in an international tender for the management of the Armenian state railway network, Arminfo reported. The two companies, the Russian state-owned Railway and the Indian company RITES, have each successfully passed through the prequalification stage and have submitted their offer packages. The final winner of the tender will be announced in January 2008 and, according to a government decision, will take control of the Armenian railway system under concessionary management for a 30-year period, with the right for a contract prolongation for another 20 years. The managing company will have to pay $10 million in an initial investment and invest another $170 million in the modernization of the railway network, including the purchase of new trains and the development of the rail infrastructure, according to the terms of the tender. RG

After arriving in Yerevan on an official visit, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli met on October 15 with his Armenian counterpart, Serzh Sarkisian, to discuss ways to expand bilateral trade and increase greater foreign investment in each country, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. In comments during a joint press conference after the meeting, both leaders said that they agreed to form a "common investment environment," explaining that both countries will "start working on presenting Armenia and Georgia as a single investment and trade entity to investors." Noghaideli also presided over a meeting of the Georgian-Armenian intergovernmental commission on economic cooperation. According to official Armenian statistics, bilateral trade increased by some 16 percent for the first half of 2007, but only reached a modest $51 million, representing only about 3 percent of Armenia's overall foreign trade for the same period. RG

A draft state budget for 2008 was presented to the Georgian parliament, the Civil Georgia website reported on October 15. Planned spending for defense and security remained the two largest areas of state spending, with the draft budget recommending over 922 million laris ($558 million) for defense and almost 400 million laris ($242 million) for security-related programs. Defense spending is projected to reach some 4.7 percent of the country's expected gross domestic product (GDP) next year, although still less than actual defense spending last year. The 2007 state budget was initially set for only about 392 million laris, although two separate budget supplemental measures increased actual defense spending to nearly 1.3 billion laris (approximately $765 million) for all of 2007. RG

Following his arrival in Tehran on an official state visit to Iran, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev met on October 15 with Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The two leaders signed a set of new bilateral agreements, including an accord on cooperation in tourism and regarding maritime trade, mainly between the Iranian ports of Anzali and Amirabad and the Kazakh port of Aqtau on the Caspian Sea, and new details regarding a proposal to construct a railway line connecting the two countries through Turkmenistan. Speaking to reporters at a joint news conference following the meeting, Ahmadinejad vowed to increase trade with Kazakhstan fivefold, from the current level of $2 billion to a target of $10 billion. In the energy sector, the Iranian president also said that he discussed the possible joint construction of an oil refinery and details concerning a "swap" in oil trade with Nazarbaev. For his part, Nazarbaev sought to increase the sale of Kazakh grain to Iran and expand Iranian investment in Kazakhstan's machine-building, infrastructure, transport, and telecommunications sectors. The Kazakh president is due to participate on October 16 in the second summit of the Caspian littoral states, hosted by Iran. RG

Kurmanbek Bakiev was elected on October 15 to lead a new political party, according to RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service. He was elected by over 1,000 delegates at a founding party congress of the new Ak Jol Eldik Partiyasy (Best Path Popular Party) in Bishkek, the website reported. The move comes just prior to the constitutional referendum set for October 21, which is set to lead to new parliamentary elections. Only last month, Bakiev said that "as the head of state," he "must treat equally all the political parties" and vowed that "I cannot and have no right to be the leader of any" political party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 27, 2007). But prior to that statement, he also pledged to form "a new political force" in the country (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2007). RG

Opposition deputies on October 15 strongly criticized the election of President Bakiev as the leader of a new political party, saying that he "has no right to lead a party," AKIpress reported. Parliamentarian Temir Sariev, one of the leaders of the Ak Shumkar party, explained that the creation of the new Ak Jol Party was another "sad example of creating ruling parties," with members that "are united neither by the idea nor by interests of Kyrgyzstan" but created solely because "they just want to serve one person." Another deputy, Isa Omurkulov of the opposition Social Democratic Party, also criticized the formation of the new pro-government party and dismissed rumors that his party will field candidates in an electoral alliance with Ak Jol in the widely expected new parliamentary elections, adding that the party, which is led by Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev, "will run for parliament independently," the website reported. Omurkulov added that Bakiev's decision is a "major mistake," because "no new political party can become genuinely recognized and respected among the public and the voters during one [or] two months." RG

In a dramatic about-face from its earlier decision, the Turkmen authorities removed on October 12 a new readers' comments feature that it previously touted as an example of freedom of information only two days earlier, RFE/RL reported. The decision removed the feedback option for the Turkmen government's official website, Altyn Asyr (The Golden Age), or, thereby blocking the posting of unsolicited comments by viewers. Although only about 15 comments were posted to the website during the two days posts were allowed, several offered mild criticism of former President Saparmurat Niyazov and one called on President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov to release all political prisoners held in Turkmen prisons. RG

An unnamed Ashgabat-based official of the Russian MTS telecommunications company announced on October 15 that the company plans to start offering mobile Internet services in Turkmenistan beginning next month, Reuters reported. The telecommunications sector in Turkmenistan remains seriously underdeveloped, with Internet penetration limited to only about a few hundred regular users. MTS currently has about 250,000 mobile-phone users in Turkmenistan, while its main domestic rival, Altyn Asyr GSM, has about 43,000. The country's sole Internet provider, Turkmentelekom, prevents private users from accessing a number of opposition and media websites. RG

The Uzbek Central Election Commission formally validated on October 15 the right of five political parties and one public group to nominate a candidate in the December 23 presidential election, AFP reported. All five of the political parties support the government and to date, there are no opposition candidates registered to run in the poll. The Liberal Democratic Party recently announced that it intends to nominate incumbent President Islam Karimov for another term (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2007), although he is constitutionally prohibited from seeking a third term. He is the longest-serving leader within the former Soviet Union and has been in office since 1989, before his election as independent Uzbekistan's first president in December 1991. RG

The organizers of the opposition's European March for Freedom in Minsk on October 14 told journalists the following day that they are satisfied with how the demonstration went, Belapan reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 15, 2007). Viktor Ivashkevich, deputy chairman of the Belarusian Popular Front, estimated that some 5,000 people attended the demonstration. He criticized "radical youths" who, he said, did not march on the sidewalk but tried to block the traffic on Minsk's main thoroughfare. Meanwhile, a group of young opposition activists reportedly presented toy shovels and buckets to the organizing committee of the march, mocking what they saw as the opposition's submission to an official order to take a different route and march toward People's Friendship Park on the capital's outskirts, where Minsk residents walk their dogs. "These small shovels and buckets are a symbolic present for you to pick up dog droppings in the park," Belapan quoted one anonymous young activist as saying. Belarusian Popular Front Chairman Vintsuk Vyachorka, commenting on the young activists' dissatisfaction with the march, said the opposition's "routine work is not as intoxicating as the feeling of freedom when you block traffic." JM

The organizers of the Social March, scheduled to take place Minsk on November 4, have invited senior government officials to meet with them to discuss the demonstration and the issue it seeks to highlight -- the loss of state benefits for many social groups, Belapan reported on October 15, quoting Belarusian Party of Communists Deputy Chairman Valery Ukhnalyou. Ukhnalyou said that invitations have been sent to Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski, presidential-administration deputy head Natalia Pyatkevich, and Leanid Kozik, the leader of the Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus. Earlier this month, opposition leaders handed the Belarusian National Assembly some 40,000 signatures on a petition against the upcoming abolition of many state benefits (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 3, 2007). The bill cutting social benefits passed in May and is to take effect as of January 2008. JM

The Central Election Commission (TsVK) on October 15 announced official results of the September 30 preterm elections, Ukrainian media reported. The Party of Regions won 34.37 percent of the vote (175 seats), the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc 30.71 percent (156 seats), the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc 14.15 percent (72 seats), the Communist Party 5.39 percent (27 seats), and the Lytvyn Bloc 3.96 percent (20 seats). Out of nearly 39 million eligible voters, 23.3 million people took part in the ballot (62 percent). TsVK Deputy Chairwoman Zhanna Usenko-Chorna told journalists that "there are no legal grounds" to doubt the official election results. Meanwhile, Socialist Party lawmaker Yevhen Filindash told Interfax-Ukraine that some 3.5 million Ukrainians residing abroad were included on the voter lists, significantly influencing the final vote count. The Socialist Party complained about this to the Higher Administrative Court last week, but the court rejected the complaint, reportedly arguing that it does not consider election violations committed before the voting day. It is not clear whether the Socialist Party, which narrowly failed to overcome the 3 percent voting threshold, is going to take any further legal action against the TsVK. JM

The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc on October 15 initialed an accord on forming a parliamentary coalition and a new government, Ukrainian media reported. The former Orange Revolution allies jointly control 228 votes in the 450-seat Verkhovna Rada -- just two votes above the number needed to pass most legislation. The accord is to be finalized on the first day of the inaugural session of the Verkhovna Rada, which has not yet been scheduled. "Let me just say clearly that the election has led to a change in parliament. Power has changed hands in Ukraine and we have achieved the result we had hoped for," Yulia Tymoshenko commented on the power-sharing deal. "The parliament is new, those in power are new, and the democratic team has grounds to reform all sectors of life so that people feel tangible changes in the country," she added. According to unconfirmed reports, Tymoshenko is to be nominated as prime minister by President Viktor Yushchenko, while cabinet portfolios are to be distributed on a 50-50 basis between the two blocs. The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc is to take charge of the cabinet's economic portfolios, while the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc will run the ministries dealing with defense, security, and culture. JM

Serbia's cooperation in the hunt for war criminals "has improved, but it's not enough," Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), told reporters on October 15. Del Ponte was speaking after presenting her conclusions to a gathering of EU foreign ministers in Portugal. "We need more activity from Serbia, from Belgrade, to have in particular [Ratko] Mladic," the military commander of the Bosnian Serbs during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. "I insist that Mladic is within the reach of Belgrade, and it is a question of political will to have Mladic," she said. The Swiss prosecutor said that Serbia's decision to offer a $1 million reward for information leading to Mladic's capture is "an encouraging sign," but that Serbia's own efforts to find Mladic and the three other men wanted by the ICTY -- Radovan Karadzic, Goran Hadzic, and Stojan Zupljanin -- are "slow," "without results," and "irresolute." Del Ponte gave her first positive appraisal of Serbia's cooperation in June, but Belgrade indicated that she might give a poorer assessment on this occasion. AG

The assessment of ICTY chief prosecutor Del Ponte had been awaited with concern by Serbia, as the EU has conditioned the possibility of signing a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA) with Serbia on Mladic's capture. However, Del Ponte's statements did not prompt an immediate decision by the EU. Instead, the chairman of the meeting of EU foreign ministers, Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, told the international media that "we will continue our discussion and evaluation of all the information that was delivered to us" by Del Ponte on October 25, when the EU will hold an informal summit in Lisbon. Before then, Del Ponte will make a fresh visit to Belgrade to meet with Serbian officials. It is unclear why Del Ponte should be returning so soon after her last trip to Belgrade, in early October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 2007). EU Enlargement Commission Olli Rehn told reporters that Del Ponte's views will be "very strongly taken into account" when the EU decides about signing an SAA with Serbia. Del Ponte's declaration that cooperation with Serbia has improved prompted Rehn to say that "Serbia's cooperation is now at a level which can be described as half-full rather than half-empty." AG

Montenegro on October 15 became the fourth western Balkan state to sign an SAA with the EU. "The signing of this agreement is a significant milestone on Montenegro's road towards the EU," international news agencies quoted Portuguese Foreign Minister Amado as saying. The SAA is the first major hurdle that would-be members of the EU must clear on the path to membership. The next is to become a candidate member of the EU, which Montenegrin Prime Minister Zeljko Sturanovic told reporters his country hopes to achieve next year. Croatia, Macedonia, and Albania have all signed SAAs with the EU. Montenegro's hopes of signing the agreement suffered a late but temporary setback when Bulgaria threatened to refuse to sign the agreement over the EU's policy of refusing to accept alternative spellings of "euro" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 15, 2007). Bulgaria, the first EU state to use the Cyrillic alphabet, argues that counties that use Cyrillic should be allowed to use their traditional spelling, "evro." AG

Lulzim Basha is one step closer to a criminal prosecution for corruption after Albania's chief prosecutor on October 15 urged parliament to strip him of immunity, AP and local media reported. The chief prosecutor, Theodhori Sollaku, believes Basha may have been guilty of impropriety when in October 2006, as transportation minister, he awarded a major, 418 million-euro ($595 million) road-building contract to a U.S.-Turkish consortium. No date has yet been set for parliament to vote on Sollaku's proposal. Relations between the Democratic Party, of which Basha is a member, and Sollaku have long been strained, and President Bamir Topi, a Democrat, urged Sollaku to resign late in September. Topi has the power to sack Sollaku, but, after a meeting with a European Parliament delegation on October 8, he said it should be parliament that decides Sollaku's future. At issue are Sollaku himself and the constitution, which imposes no time limits on a chief prosecutor's tenure. Democrats would like to see the chief prosecutor serve fire-year terms. Sollaku, who has been in office since 2002, has been subject to a parliamentary-commission investigation into his assets, alleged abuse of office, and suspected links to organized crime. AG

Italian guards off the coast of Brindisi on October 11 seized a speedboat that, according to local media reports, was carrying 16 Albanian migrants. Human trafficking remains commonplace in Albania and speedboats were traditionally a mode of transport popular with traffickers. However, the use of speedboats has declined since the Albanian government imposed a three-year ban on them in 2006. In another similar incident, reported in April, 22 migrants destined for Italy were captured in a speedboat taking them to Montenegro, which, according to the Albanian media, is increasingly being used as a jumping-off point for illegal migration into Western Europe. Albania serves both as a source and as a transit country for human traffickers. Among those arrested this year by Albanian police are Turkish and Chinese criminals. AG

The Croatian parliament and government have condemned the ICTY for the "inappropriately low and inadequate sentences" passed down on three ethnic-Serbian officers of the Yugoslav People's Army involved in the massacre of 264 Croats and other non-Serbs. One, Mile Mrksic, was jailed for 20 years; a second, Veselin Sljivancanin, was given five years; and a third, Miloslav Radic, was cleared of the killings, which were committed in the village of Ovcara, outside the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 1, 2007). The massacre is the single biggest crime committed against Croats since World War II. The Croatian parliament's resolution, passed on October 12, said the verdicts demonstrate "disrespect towards historical truth" and disregard for "the well-proven connections between the command of the Yugoslav People's Army and the political leadership in a criminal pattern for mass destruction and ethnic cleansing." The assembly's declaration was followed, on October 15, by a speech by Prime Minister Ivo Sanader at the UN General Assembly in which he criticized the decision by the UN-mandated ICTY and wondered why the Geneva Conventions, which govern the conduct of war, were ignored by the court. He also said the court should have addressed the three men's roles more broadly. "Even though all three of the accused were involved in numerous war crimes in Vukovar and eastern Slavonia, the prosecution limited their indictment to only the best-known and documented massacre in Ovcara," the news service quoted Sanader as saying. "The prosecution may have expected that the crimes committed on Ovcara to be enough for the maximum sentence, but that did not happen." Croatian resentment of the court goes beyond this case and is long-standing, with much of the focus being on the ICTY's decision to prosecute Croatian military commanders for campaigns in 1995 that resulted in the mass exodus of the country's Serbian minority. Croatia's government has promised to support the officers in court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 31, 2007). AG

One of NATO's highest-ranking officers in Afghanistan says the alliance's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) won't be able to secure the country before the Afghan National Army achieves full strength "in three to four" years' time. Speaking on October 11 to journalists via videolink from Kabul, ISAF Chief of Staff and German Major General Bruno Kasdorf also said most of the responsibility for stabilizing Afghanistan rests with other international organizations, like the United Nations and the European Union.

NATO appears increasingly on the defensive in attempts to stabilize Afghanistan. But Kasdorf offered a spirited defense of the achievements of Western forces in that country. He cited ISAF's military successes in fighting insurgents, as well as growing access to education, health care, and jobs for the general public. Kasdorf blamed what he called the "mainstream media" for complicating ISAF's job with its "negative" and "alarming" coverage of events in Afghanistan -- all of which, he said, served to "give a false impression of an all-out war."

Kasdorf also conceded that many of the benefits of the ISAF presence are limited to about two-thirds of the country -- the relatively stable north, west, and center -- but not the Taliban-contested south and east.

He said the problem is a "desperate" lack of troops, and challenged NATO states to rectify the situation. "With 40,000 troops, ISAF has not [what] is really required to ensure security throughout this big country, [which] is more than twice as big as Germany, for instance," he said. "So we desperately need all the contributions from the different member nations of NATO."

But with a seeming lack of resolve among contributing Western states, there is little hope that ISAF troop levels will rise. Instead, Kasdorf went on to say, ISAF and Afghanistan will continue to be hamstrung in the south and the east. "Since we haven't got enough forces, we can ensure security only in certain areas," he said. "We do hope that we have enough forces available at the latest in three to four years for all of Afghanistan when the Afghan national security forces have been built up and trained."

Kasdorf also said NATO and allied troops would be well served by better equipment, although their adversaries in Afghanistan are generally armed with much less advanced weaponry.

While ISAF struggles to hold territory in the south in the absence of a strong Afghan military or police presence, Kasdorf said two important elements must wait: reconstruction and governance. He said ISAF's main job -- facing down the insurgency -- accounts for just "20-25 percent" of the total task in Afghanistan. Kasdorf suggested that the rest of the work must be done by international organizations like the UN and the European Union.

Kasdorf, who is also Germany's highest-ranking military official in Afghanistan, defended Berlin's reluctance to send troops to the volatile south. He described German forces as being "optimized" for service in northern Afghanistan, and said it would "make no sense" to dislocate them to the south.

Kasdorf characterized the Taliban insurgency as Pashtun-derived, with its leaders recruited mostly on the Pakistani side of the disputed border. He said Taliban foot soldiers are mostly recruited with promises of cash or through intimidation. But Kasdorf suggested that many locals worked with insurgents out of ignorance of ISAF's goals. In an attempt to reduce popular resentment among a predominantly illiterate population, ISAF is setting up its own network of radio stations and is also handing out "wind-up radios" to reach listeners in areas with poor infrastructure.

He said ISAF is also trying to reach locals in restive areas in "traditional ways," by working through elders and other community leaders. But he said there is room for improvement in ISAF's work in that area. "What we also do is [that] we work with the Afghan government to use, to take advantage of, the traditional ways of communicating -- to talk through the maleks, through the mullahs, and by taking also advantage of the mosques," he said. "That is the way you reach the people. But it is tough, and we [could do it] better."

Kasdorf stressed that ISAF continues to see military success as its main deterrent against Taliban recruitment in the east and south of the country.

(Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels.)

The United Nations envoy to Afghanistan, Tom Koenigs, said on October 15 that the number of violent incidents there has increased by approximately 30 percent in the past year, Xinhua news agency reported the next day. Addressing members of the UN Security Council in New York, Koenigs said the UN has documented 606 roadside bombings and 133 suicide attacks this year, a 50 percent increase from the 88 suicide attacks recorded at the same time last year. Worse yet is the significant increase in civilian casualties, Koenigs said, adding that at least 1,200 civilians have died in violent incidents since January. Despite the media attention given to suicide attacks, Koenigs said the largest threat to civilians is the "ongoing campaign of intimidation, abduction, and execution being carried out by antigovernment elements against all those seen to have a connection with the Afghan government or the international community." He challenged Kabul and international forces operating in Afghanistan to combat this campaign and to develop an "integrated political-military strategy" to overcome increased violence and establish lasting peace in Afghanistan. JC

The German parliament on October 12 approved the mandate extending its military mission in Afghanistan, despite intense disagreement across party lines and opposition from the public, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on October 13. Nearly 80 percent -- 453 out of 580 -- of parliament members voted in favor of continuing Germany's military engagement in Afghanistan, where approximately 3,000 German troops are currently serving. There were 48 abstentions and the majority of those voting against the mandate were members of the Left Party, the main opposition party. The Left Party has engaged in months of debate with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who openly and repeatedly called for parliament to extend the mission (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 13, 2007). Under the newly passed mandate, a ceiling of 3,500 troops to be deployed was set and the six Tornado reconnaissance jets already in Afghanistan will remain. According to a poll published in the German newspaper "Koelner Stadt-Anzeiger" on the day of the vote, 61 percent of Germans opposed the extension of the mandate. JC

A would-be suicide bomber killed his three siblings and mother when she attempted to stop him from carrying out the attack and accidentally triggered his suicide vest, according to police officials in southern Afghanistan, AP reported on October 16. Interior Ministry spokesman Zemari Bashari said the explosion occurred on October 14, but Juma Gul Himat, police chief in Oruzgan Province where the incident took place, said it happened on October 15. Bashari said the would-be attacker studied at a madrasah, or religious school, in Pakistan prior to returning to his home in central Oruzgan Province, where he gave his family $3,600 and announced that he planned to carry out a suicide attack. According to surviving family members, the mother physically confronted her son to stop him from going through with the attack while he was already wearing the suicide vest, accidentally triggering the explosive device in the struggle. JC

Despite efforts by Afghanistan's government and international human-rights organizations, arranged marriages between children as young as age 3 still continues in certain areas of the country, particularly in rural areas where poverty and lack of education are pervasive, AP reported. According to UNICEF, approximately 16 percent of Afghan children are married before they are 15. There is also evidence that increasing poverty, brought on by years of conflict and insecurity, is pushing down the average marriage age even further in severely impoverished areas, as the girl's family in an arranged marriage gets a "bride price" of double the per capita income for a year or more, according to the World Bank. "The engagement happens before birth in some cases," said Orzala Ashraf, founder of Humanitarian Assistance for Women and Children in Afghanistan. Forced marriages most often lead to unhappiness, which in turn causes men in arranged marriages to take second wives of their choosing as permitted by Islamic law. Women, however, must remain in the union and are often exposed to violence from their husbands and their in-laws if they complain or resist, leading many women to commit suicide as a last resort to escape (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 22, 2007). While the minimum legal age of marriage in Afghanistan is 16 for girls and 18 for boys, child marriages still account for nearly half of all marriages, according to the United Nations. JC

At a meeting with Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev in Tehran on October 15, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the conference of Caspian Sea heads of state on October 16 will be an opportunity for littoral states to improve ties, IRNA reported. He said it is natural that some countries "including America" will oppose this collaboration of neighbors, but Iran will cooperate with regard for regional, Islamic, and its own interests. Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, who met with Nazarbaev earlier, attended the meeting. Nazarbaev also visited the Iranian National Library, and said he is delighted to see his books and photograph there. He said that "Kazakhstan's door is open to Iranians," IRNA reported. VS

President Ahmadinejad told the press in Tehran after meeting with Nazarbaev that Iran, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan plan to build a railway with a highway alongside it connecting their countries, IRNA reported. He told the press he discussed bilateral cooperation with the Kazakh president in several areas including oil and gas, construction of a joint refinery, the transit of oil and gas and swap deals, and unspecified joint investment projects. VS

Expediency Council Secretary Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani stated his support on October 15 for parties as a "rational way to attain democracy in any country," and a "means of association for the people," IRNA reported. The former president was addressing the House of Parties, a representative body of official Iranian parties in the Interior Ministry. He said parties can teach people about the importance of their participation in public affairs, while "the negation of parties, which is a preliminary for negating the people," would not benefit Iran's political establishment. His comments contrast with remarks President Ahmadinejad and some of his cabinet members have made, which have been seen in Iran as conveying their distaste for parties. "Those who attribute an opposition to party politics these days to" the late revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, "are doing an injustice to" his "lofty ideas," Hashemi-Rafsanjani said, adding that Khomeini helped parties financially. Hashemi-Rafsanjani referred to recent calls for unity by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei and said unity "will not come about with rude comments and the violation of people's rights." He said free and "healthy" elections would help consolidate the political system. Iran is scheduled to hold parliamentary elections in mid-March 2008. He said that "the slightest violation in the elections" is unjust and a "sin" for violating Iran's Constitution, which is derived from religious laws. VS

Politicians and rights activists gathered on October 13 in the Tehran house of detained student Ehsan Mansuri, reported. They included members of the national student umbrella group, the Office to Consolidate Unity, liberals, labor activists, and members of the reformist Participation Front. Mansuri, a student of Tehran's Amir Kabir University, was arrested months ago with Ahmad Qassaban and Majid Tavakkoli on charges of helping to publish sacrilegious student journals in March; they have denied this, and relatives allege they were tortured in prison to confess (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 15, 16, and 24, 2007) Mansuri's father read a report on October 13 on their condition in prison and said they have been moved out of Evin prison's Section 209 -- the security and political wing -- into an ordinary section, where he complained they may have to mix with common criminals, reported. The head of the Tehran judiciary, Alireza Avai, met with Mansuri, Qassaban, and Tavakkoli on October 9, Radio Farda reported. He said he has given judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi a verbal report of allegations that they were tortured in prison. He said there will be no written report on the matter. Student activist Arman Sedaqati told Radio Farda that the interview and report are unlikely to make a positive difference in their cases, but he welcomed the fact that the judiciary chief should be informed of "what low-ranking interrogators and torturers inside Evin prison and its Section 209 have inflicted on students." Separately, has reported the arrest by security agents on October 14 of student Yaser Goli; he was detained outside the Azad (Free) University in the city of Sanandaj in the western Kurdistan Province. He was banned months ago from continuing his postgraduate course as a "starred" student -- meaning a student marked by authorities as an alleged and potential troublemaker. His whereabouts are unknown, the website added. VS

The head of the Association in Defense of Prisoners' Rights in Iran, Emadeddin Baqi, was arrested on October 14, after being called into court to answer questions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 15, 2007), ISNA reported on October 15, citing a statement from his family. The statement explained that Baqi was questioned at the security department of the Tehran Public and Revolutionary Court over charges of engaging in publicity against the Iranian political system and publishing confidential state documents in speeches or lectures on prisoners. The head of that judiciary department then set bail for Baqi at a little over $50,000, but the family's statement added that officials from Evin prison then arrived at the court claiming that Baqi had pending a one-year, suspended prison term that has to be served now. It added that he was sentenced for public remarks made several years ago critical of the Guardians Council, a body of clerics. The statement explained that Baqi faces another set of charges for which he has been given a three-year sentence currently going through an appeals process, ISNA reported. Baqi went to jail in 2000-03 for writings concerning the state of human rights in Iran. VS

About 75 liberals and members of the Iran Freedom Movement, a party the Iranian state refuses to recognize, were reportedly prevented by state agents from holding congregational prayers in a Tehran hall on October 13 to mark the end of the month of Ramadan, reported on October 14. They held the prayers at the house of party chief Ibrahim Yazdi; he later spoke to the gathering and said it is "ugly" for the Islamic republic to prevent this prayer when it was allowed under the monarchy. The Freedom Movement was one of the parties that played an active role in the 1979 revolution, and briefly enjoyed cordial relations with Ayatollah Khomeini and revolutionary clerics. Yazdi was briefly a revolutionary prosecutor and foreign minister in the early postrevolutionary government, before gradually becoming a state critic. He told the prayer gathering that "they never bothered...[late party leader Mehdi] Bazargan for praying under the shah." He said security forces have over the last two weeks threatened to arrest party members. "They said, 'we will take you all away in minibuses,' so I told them I don't mind taking a bus ride. They took pictures and films this morning. They should archive the films and frame the pictures as souvenirs." Yazdi said it is preposterous for the state to declare prayer meetings illegal. "We had never heard of such things before," he said. Why, he asked, has the state harassed Sufi or mystical orders (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," October 17, 2006)? "There is a flourishing current of religious enlightenment, and state officials know this and want to stop it," Yazdi said. Whichever direction Iran's government looks, he said, it "finds the ideas of the Freedom Movement," by which he presumably meant liberal and progressive religious ideas. VS

Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi is due in Ankara on October 16 to discuss Turkish plans for a possible military incursion into Iraq to rout Turkish-Kurdish militants from the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The Turkish government asked its parliament on October 15 to grant permission to launch a large-scale incursion into Iraq sometime in the next year. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on October 16 that parliamentary approval of the plan does not necessarily indicate an incursion will take place, Reuters reported. "I sincerely wish that this motion will never be applied. Passage of this motion does not mean an immediate incursion will follow," Erdogan said. Turkish government spokesman and Deputy Prime Minister Cemil Cicek said on October 15 that the motion sent to parliament only "targets the PKK alone" and not Kurds in Iraq in general, the Anatolia news agency reported the same day. He said the motion calls for an unlimited number of raids over a one-year period. "We hope that the Turkish parliament will approve the motion for a cross-border operation. Hopefully, we will establish peace in the north of Iraq and in Turkey without the implementation of the motion," he added. KR

Turkey has apparently closed its airspace to a number of Kurdish charter airlines that provide service between Europe and Irbil, Iraq, the Firat news agency reported on October 15. According to the report, several airlines shifted their routes through Cyprus and Syria to avoid Turkish airspace. As a result, the airlines raised the price of tickets, though it is not known by how much. Turkey closed its airspace to Kurdish airlines at the start of October, but reversed the ban last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 4, 2007). KR

UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Guterres said in Brussels on October 16 that a possible Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq might spark a mass refugee crisis, Reuters reported. "The northern governorate or Kurdistan...has been the most stable area of Iraq," Guterres said. "It is an area also where you find Iraqis from the south and central Iraq who came seeking security. I can only express our very deep concern about any development that might lead to meaningful displacements of population in that sensitive area." In its latest figures released on October 11, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center said that there are around 2.25 million people displaced inside Iraq, up from 1.2 million prior to February 2006. Another 2 million have been displaced outside Iraq, mainly in Jordan and Syria. KR

Militants suspected of being associated with Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army attacked Camp Echo, a U.S. base in Al-Diwaniyah, on October 15, killing four civilians and wounding 14 others, including two U.S. soldiers. An Iraqi military official said fighters from the Al-Mahdi Army fired four mortar rounds at Camp Echo, which serves as the main U.S. and Polish forward operating base in the area, Reuters reported. The militants later fired nine rounds at a small patrol base manned by Iraqis and Polish troops. U.S.-led forces fired back with six or seven artillery rounds, and both sides traded small-arms fire, the official said. Ali al-Mayyali, an aide to al-Sadr, claimed that security in Al-Qadisiyah Governorate has lapsed since Governor Hamid al-Khudayri, a member of the rival Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, assumed his post in August. KR