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Newsline - October 19, 2007

President Vladimir Putin said on October 18 during his three-hour "Direct Line" radio and television question-and-answer broadcast that "Russia has sufficient strength and means to protect its interests on its territory and in other regions of the world," and Russian media reported. He was responding to a request from a Siberian mechanic to comment on a statement, allegedly made several years ago by former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, to the effect that Siberia has too many natural resources to belong to one country, namely Russia. Putin replied that he is not familiar with the alleged comment, but added that "such ideas occupy the minds of certain politicians. This is a kind of political erotica, which perhaps can give some people pleasure but is unlikely to yield any results." He did not elaborate. Russian media have sometimes suggested that populous and dynamic China has its eye on Siberian territory and resources (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," September 12, 2007). In his remarks on October 18, however, Putin seemed to have the United States in mind because he added that Iraq is an excellent example of "such thinking" about acquiring the resources of other countries. He argued that one of Washington's goals in Iraq "was to establish control over the country's oil reserves." He called Iraq "a small country with enormous reserves that is hardly capable of protecting itself." Putin stressed that "Russia, thank God, is not Iraq" and can defend itself. He argued that the Americans should acknowledge that "fighting against the people [of Iraq] is a pointless task," and should set a date for their own withdrawal lest "the Iraqi leadership...not hurry to develop their own armed forces and law enforcement." Putin also said that "together with other members of the international community, Russia is taking steps to resolve [the Iranian nuclear] issue by peaceful means, in the interests of the whole international community, and for the good of the Iranian people." He argued that "direct dialogue leads to success faster than a policy of threats and sanctions." He called Iran a "very important partner" of Russia in the energy sector. PM

President Putin also noted in his marathon television and radio broadcast on October 18 that "developing relations with the former republics of the Soviet Union is the top priority of Russia's foreign policy," and Russian media reported. He added that "the levels of our trade and cooperation in various fields of the economy are so high that if there is any damage done in those fields, it can cause whole industries to stop." He said that he hopes that "whatever government is formed in Ukraine and whatever political platform it is based on, objective reality will push our partners to develop cooperation with the Russian Federation." The United States, however, was clearly his top priority in his discussion of Russia's foreign relations (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," September 6, 2007). He noted that the two countries are seeking ways to resolve differences over the proposed U.S. missile-defense program, saying that "the latest contacts with our American colleagues show that they have indeed given some thought to the proposals we made and they are looking for a solution to the problems and for ways to ease our concerns." He warned nonetheless that Russia will retaliate if its interests are not respected, adding that "such steps are being prepared and we will take them. Where we should station what, that is for specialists of the Russian military's General Staff" to decide (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 9, 2007). In Warsaw on October 18, Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski said that Poland can help protect itself against Russia by hosting components of the U.S. missile-defense project, Reuters reported. He said that missile defense "will boost our security.... We have to remember that we are in a state of permanent threat. The Russians have not accepted the changes since 1989, and it is obvious that they consider us as within their sphere of influence." PM

Using a teleprompter throughout his radio and television broadcast on October 18, President Putin gave a detailed summary of his plans for the modernization of the military, including the development of new nuclear weapons, and Russian media reported. He stressed that "we will develop missile technologies, including completely new strategic complexes.... Our plans are not simply considerable but grandiose. At the same time, they are also realistic." He said that "we will not only focus on all components of the nuclear triad, meaning the Strategic Missile Forces, strategic aviation, and nuclear submarines, but also on other kinds of weapons.... A weapons-development program leading up to 2015 has been approved for the development of all armed services and branches." Putin said Russia will start building a fourth Borey-class strategic nuclear submarine in 2008. He noted plans to modernize the strategic Tupolev Tu-160 (White Swan or Blackjack) and Tu-95 (Bear) bombers, which were developed decades ago and resumed regular long-range flights in August after a hiatus of about 15 years (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 4 and 7, 2007). Putin said that Russia hopes to have a "new generation fighter" aircraft in service by 2015. Also on October 18, military officials announced the successful launch of a RS-12 Topol intercontinental ballistic missile (SS-25 Sickle) from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Arkhangelsk Oblast to a target on Kamchatka near the Pacific Ocean, RIA Novosti reported. PM

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in Washington on October 18 that he is not alarmed by President Putin's statements earlier that day on modernizing Russia's military, news agencies reported. Gates said Russia is making use of revenues from higher oil prices to underscore Putin's central message that "Russia is back" and intends to play a major role on the world stage. Gates noted that Russia spends only about 10 percent of what the United States does on defense. Also on October 18, State Department spokesman Tom Casey said that the United States hopes that Putin "conveyed the concerns of the international community" during his recent talks with Iranian leaders in Tehran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 17, 2007). Referring to Putin's remarks on Iraq during his October 18 television and radio broadcast, Casey said that "U.S. troops are in Iraq at the invitation of the sovereign Iraqi government.... The fact that Russia disagreed with the [U.S] decision to go into Iraq in the first place is certainly no surprise. The fact that they continue to have problems with it isn't either." Britain's "Financial Times" wrote on October 18 that during their recent visit to Russia, Gates and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Russian officials that Washington is willing to delay "switching on" its proposed missile-defense system until both sides agree that there is a threat from Iran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 15, 2007). PM

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert paid a brief visit to Moscow on October 18 to discuss Iran with President Putin, the Russian daily "Kommersant" reported on October 19. The paper added that the trip was agreed on October 10 but was not announced before Putin returned from his recent visit to Tehran. The daily suggested that Putin shared some of the findings from his trip in an effort to maintain a diplomatic balance between Israel and Iran. Britain's "Financial Times" wrote on October 19 that some unnamed Western diplomats believe that Putin is seeking to become the "chief mediator in the long-running standoff between the West and Iran." The paper quoted Kremlin deputy spokesman Dmitry Peskov as saying that the substance of Putin's talks in Iran "is too complicated and too sensitive to be made public." The Russian daily "Vremya novostei" wrote on October 18 that Western leaders are interested in finding out what Putin learned in Tehran. The paper suggested that he might discuss the matter with U.S. President George W. Bush by telephone "very soon." The daily "Gazeta" argued on October 17 that Putin supports Iran's allegedly civilian nuclear program and is not "engaging in shuttle diplomacy" to deliver Western proposals to Tehran. PM

Speaking to reporters on October 18, following his televised question and answer session, President Putin commented on an article that appeared earlier this month in "Kommersant" that was authored by Federal Antinarcotics Committee Chairman Viktor Cherkesov, reported on October 19. In that article, Cherkesov warned that a "war" has broken out among the so-called chekisty (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 10, 2007). Putin said that he has not read Cherkesov's article, but emphasized that "no one is above the law" and said that if everyone understood that, there would be no problem. He said, "things would be much worse if we allowed those who work in the law-enforcement organs to have the illusion that no one is controlling their work." Putin said that he considers it "incorrect" to discuss such matters in the media, adding that the courts are the proper venue for resolving matters of law. RC

During his meeting with reporters on October 18, Putin said he believes the results of his two terms in office have been "better than expected," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported. Asked when the country's political, economic, and social systems will be able to work independently, without "manual control," Putin answered only in 15-20 years and compared Russia's situation to that of the United States as it emerged from the Great Depression in the 1930s. "In the years when the United States was coming out of the Great Depression, much was done 'manually,' which part of the elite did not like," Putin said. "But the results of that were that the United States emerged from the crisis, which benefited the elite and all citizens of the country." Putin also said directly that "in 2008 there will be another person in the Kremlin." Likewise, he seemed to dismiss speculation that he intends to restructure the political system in order to enable himself to rule the country as prime minister. "I don't think it would be right to take any powers, rights, or duties away from the government or to load it with extra ones," Putin said, RFE/RL reported. "We don't need to create a dual executive branch. I'm against cutting down the powers of the president." "Nezavisimaya gazeta" correspondent Natalya Melnikova said that when she asked a senior Kremlin aide earlier this month whether Putin was serious when he said on October 1 that he might consider becoming prime minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 2, 2007), the aide answered, "You shouldn't take the chief's words so literally." Putin called for creating a "more effective system of interaction among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches," "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported. Asked if he has regrets because it was his last question-and-answer session as president, Putin said: "There is nothing to regret. We need to build plans for the future. That is what I am doing." RC

During his national question-and-answer session on October 18, President Putin assured the country that the economy is sound and that there will be no financial crisis during the upcoming political transition, Russian media reported. Putin noted that foreign debt is down and state reserves are at a record high of $434 billion. He added that unemployment has fallen to 5.7 percent. RC

Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov on October 18 ended the practice of allowing journalists to monitor cabinet sessions as they occur, "Izvestia" and other Russian media reported the next day. Zubkov is returning to the practice of former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who allowed journalists to monitor only his opening remarks, and then encouraged ministers to speak with the press following cabinet sessions. Center for Political Information analyst Aleksei Mukhin told "The Moscow Times" that the change might be because of Zubkov's habit of speaking sharply to ministers. "We have seen on TV how rudely he began treating ministers at his first government meetings and how female members of the government reacted," Mukhin said. "I believe that as Zubkov deals with the current spike in inflation and food prices, his language at the meetings will get even more rude." Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Aleksei Kudrin told journalists after the October 18 session that the cameras were turned off in order to encourage a more frank discussion. "When there are cameras, a sense of camaraderie does not allow us -- so to speak -- to air our dirty laundry," Kudrin said, according to "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on October 19. RC

Deputy Prime Minister Kudrin on October 18 told journalists that inflation this year will not be 8 percent as forecast but will probably be nearly 10 percent, "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on October 19. Kudrin attributed the jump in inflation to an increase in the in-flow of capital, which he said is running at about $30 billion more than last year. The Russian version of "Newsweek" magazine reported this week that milk prices have risen 16.5 percent over the last year, while butter prices have increased 20.3 percent and meat is up 7.4 percent. During his nationally televised question-and-answer session on October 18, President Putin said the government is selling grain from reserves to help combat the increases. The government has also reduced import duties for dairy products. "The Moscow Times" reported on October 19 that the Federal Antimonopoly Commission is investigating Russia's six largest dairy companies on suspicion of price fixing. Analyst Masha Lipman told the daily that, with legislative and presidential elections approaching, the government's solution to the inflation problem will be to spend money rather than carry out unpleasant and difficult reforms. RC

The Duma on October 18 passed in all three readings a bill to raise pensions by 300 rubles ($12) a month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2007), "Rossiiskaya gazeta" reported on October 19. Duma Deputy Speaker Oleg Morozov (Unified Russia) told the daily that the legislature's goal is to double pensions. "Our principle position is that a pension should ensure a worthy living standard, and we are steadily, step-by-step, resolving and definitely must resolve, this question." The increase must now be approved by the Federation Council and signed by the president. RC

"Rossiiskaya gazeta" also reported on October 19 that the Duma on the previous day voted to shift 300 billion rubles ($12 billion) out of the Stabilization Fund. Deputies voted to allocate 90 billion to the Investment Fund, 30 billion to capitalize the state company Rosnanotekh, and 180 billion to boost the capital of the state-owned Bank Razvitia. Deputies also allocated 340 billion rubles that had been received from the sale of Yukos shares. Some 240 billion were allocated for reforms of the state housing and communal-services sector and another 100 billion were added to the capital of Rosnanotekh. Leftist opposition deputies have been calling for an easing on restrictions on spending from the Stabilization Fund for a long time, but the government has opposed such spending, fearing it would cause a rise in inflation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 1, 2007). Deputy Prime Minister Kudrin in the past has opposed capitalizing state corporations with money from the Stabilization Fund. RC

In the course of his October 18 live televised press conference, President Putin fielded three questions from residents of the mountain village of Botlikh, where construction of a new Russian military base has been delayed by residents' protests, and reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 22, 2007). Putin praised the population of Botlikh for having opposed the advance into Daghestan in August 1999 of a contingent of fighters commanded by radical Chechen field commander Shamil Basayev, and he appealed to the villagers to resolve their differences with the military commanders of the base. Putin also pledged to improve local infrastructure, including schools, and to complete construction of a highway linking Botlikh with Makhachkala, and he singled out as a government priority creating new jobs both in Daghestan and elsewhere in the North Caucasus. LF

Former Federal Security Service (FSB) Lieutenant Colonel Pavel Ryaguzov has been formally charged with exceeding his authority in connection with the murder on October 7, 2006 of Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, reported on October 17 citing RIA Novosti. Ryaguzov is said to have provided former Achkhoi-Martan Raion administration head Shamil Burayev with the address of the apartment Politkovskaya rented in Moscow. Burayev, who was taken into custody last month and charged with being an accessory in the killing, has admitted knowing Ryaguzov but denies any connection with Politkovskaya's death (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17, 18, and 24, 2007). On October 8, Petros Garibian, who heads the investigation into the killing, was quoted by "Novaya gazeta" as saying that the identity of the killer is known, but that he has not yet been formally charged, nor have investigators succeeded in determining who commissioned the murder. LF

The Duma considered on October 18 in plenary session, but ultimately rejected, a proposal by former Colonel Viktor Alksnis (People's Union) that a state of emergency should be declared in Ingushetia, reported. Alksnis argued that "a war is under way in Ingushetia, ethnic cleansing, and Russians are being killed." Only seven deputies, including National Union leader Sergei Baburin, supported that proposal, however; the overwhelming majority voted against it. On October 10, the website quoted Interior Ministry troops commander Colonel General Nikolai Rogozhkin as stating that the 2,500 additional Interior Ministry servicemen deployed to Ingushetia in August have been withdrawn. Meanwhile, Russian Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliyev has appointed four new Ingushetian deputy interior ministers in order to improve the work of that ministry, reported on October 10. Three of the four are Slavs. Colonel Sergei Selivestrov was named first deputy interior minister and head of the criminal police, and Colonel Vadim Selivanov, Colonel Sergei Shumlin, and Magomed Gudiyev were appointed deputy ministers. LF

Russian Prime Minister Zubkov has signed a decree formalizing the creation in the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR) of a Nogai Raion, reported on October 18. The raion comprises five predominantly Nogai-populated villages with a total population of some 15,000, whose residents voted overwhelmingly in a referendum one year ago in favor of autonomy (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 22, October 11 and December 18, 2006). At the time of the 2002 Russian census, there were 14,783 Nogais in the KChR, which was 3.4 percent of the total population of 439,470. LF

Speaking in Yerevan, Gevorg Danielian announced on October 18 that the next mayor of the capital Yerevan will be appointed by an elected municipal assembly, but not through a direct election, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The planned reform effectively ends the long-standing tradition of the Armenian president naming the Yerevan mayor himself, in a practice unlike any other city or town, which holds a direct election for their local officials. Yet the move merely shifts the power of appointing the mayor from the president to the city council, suggesting some distance from the November 2005 constitutional amendment that stipulated that in the future, Yerevan be governed by an elected official. Although the reform awaits parliamentary consideration, Danielian said that there are still "several contentious" issues prior to the bill's presentation to parliament next week, but added that the government has decided to propose a new 55-member city council, endowed with the authority to "elect" the mayor. The minister further explained that the Yerevan city council would be comprised of members elected by voters under the system of proportional representation, meaning that only political parties would be able to field candidates. If adopted in its present form, the bill would also result in the dissolution of the elected administrations in the 10 administrative districts in Yerevan, currently run by elected mayors and "councils of elders." Instead, the newly redefined position of Yerevan mayor will be granted the authority to appoint personally district chiefs in the capital city. RG

Leading Armenian media figures and monitors expressed concern on October 18 over a recent move by the country's largest television media outlets to curtail their coverage of politically oriented news, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Prominent reporter Tatul Hakobian, who runs one of the most well-known press clubs in Yerevan, noted that events at his Urbat (Friday) press club "have not been covered by any television channel for the past five days," hinting that there may be a clear decision behind the move. Mesrop Harutiunian, a senior member of the Yerevan Press Club, a leading media association, added his concern, saying that "in the last few days, news conferences held by politicians and public figures have not been covered by any television company," and arguing that "the television companies could not have simultaneously made the same decision on their own." The move by Armenia's predominantly pro-government television stations included an end to the previous practice of providing regular coverage of news conferences featuring politicians and other public figures, interpreted as a sign that the authorities are seeking to restrict press freedom in advance of the February 2008 presidential election. RG

A delegation of senior Armenian officials led by Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian arrived on October 18 in Washington to attend the annual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and to meet with U.S. officials, Arminfo and Noyan Tapan reported. The delegation -- which includes the Armenian ministers of finance, economy, trade and economic development, and agriculture; the Armenian president's chief adviser for economic issues; and the chairman of the Central Bank, is also set to participate in a meeting of the bilateral Armenian-U.S. intergovernmental commission for economic development. Sarkisian met on October 18 with both U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Vice President Richard Cheney. The delegation is to travel to Los Angeles on October 19 to meet with leaders of the Armenian-American community and after a subsequent trip to Paris, will not return to Yerevan until after October 24. RG

Meeting separately in Paris, Armenian Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian and Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Elmar Mammadyarov discussed on October 17 with officials from the OSCE's Minsk Group the latest stage of the Nagorno-Karabakh peace process, Noyan Tapan and Turan reported. Both the Armenian and Azerbaijani ministers reviewed the outcomes from the previous round of OSCE-brokered talks and also discussed the upcoming return to the region by the OSCE mediators, set for October 24-27. The Russian and French co-chairmen of the OSCE Minsk Group, Yuri Merzylakov and Bernard Fassier, respectively, participated in the meeting, although the U.S. co-chair, Matthew Bryza, was unable to attend. RG

Peter Semneby, the European Union special representative to the South Caucasus, arrived on October 18 in Baku to meet with senior Azerbaijani leaders, Turan reported. Semneby met with President Ilham Aliyev and Interior Minster Ramil Usubov on the same day and is set to discuss the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict with Deputy Foreign Minister Araz Azimov on October 19, the second and last day of his visit. Following his closed meeting with the president, Semneby also met with several leading human rights activists, who provided him with a briefing on the political situation in the country prior to next year's scheduled presidential election. Semneby raised the issue of imprisoned journalists and told Azerbaijani leaders that the release of journalists is a main concern for the EU. He also said that proposed pipelines through the Caspian Sea are a priority, adding that "this system of pipelines will be of crucial importance as an alternative source of energy," and noting that "Azerbaijan is important for the European Union not only as an alternative energy provider, but also as an important transit country," according to the APA news agency. RG

In a welcoming statement delivered at an annual civil society forum in Astana on October 18, Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev praised Kazakh nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) for promoting democratic reforms and for helping "the state in developing human capital," according to Kazakhstan Today. The president's statement, which was read by State Secretary Kanat Saudabaev, went on to say that an "open and equal dialogue, which is being held as part of the forum, will ensure efficient cooperation between state bodies and NGOs," which, Nazarbaev said, has resulted in establishing "firm foundations for the development of civil society in Kazakhstan." He also noted that the government is currently considering a new five-year "blueprint for developing civil society," and stressed that "the nongovernmental sector is an entire area where the most active people work." He praised NGOs as having "large potential to work out breakthrough ideas" and as being "capable of providing the necessary assistance to the state in finding solutions to socially important issues." RG

Speaking at a defense industry plant in Astana, Kazakh Defense Minister Daniyal Akhmetov announced on October 18 that the monthly wages for professional soldiers will be doubled on January 1, 2008, to about 70,000 tenge ($580), ITAR-TASS reported. He added that specialists within the armed forces will be awarded a further 30 percent supplemental pay increase, and promised to improve housing for soldiers, stating that he is committed to resolving "the servicemen's housing problems within three years." Funding for military education and training is also expected to be increased substantially, to roughly 4.8 billion tenge ($40 million) in 2008. Akhmetov's pledge to raise salaries for professional servicemen follows his criticism last month of military recruitment efforts and retention, which he said hinder the development of "the armed forces and the pace of their reforms" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 6, 2007). Akhmetov has previously pledged that Kazakhstan will become an "advanced military power" within five years, and the focus on recruitment is part of a broader reform effort centered on the training and professional development of the Kazakh armed forces as a whole (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 22, 2007). President Nazarbaev has also vowed to purchase "the world's best" weapons, strengthen the armed forces, and formulate a new military doctrine (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 24 and May 9, 2007). RG

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev on October 17 announced the formation of a new state body, the "Council of Entrepreneurs," intended to bolster economic reform and help develop the country's emerging private sector, AKIpress reported. The director of the International Business Council, Talai Asylbekov, welcomed the announcement, adding that the new body will also help work on a revised tax code to "create competitive advantages for business." The council, which will be directly subordinate to the president's office, is also intended to "serve as a source of honest contribution of business into the public budget" and to help "finance schools and hospitals." Asylbekov added that "the further development and prosperity of business will stimulate economic growth and will contribute to the creation of new workplaces." In a related move to advance the country's reform program, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev's office sponsored a seminar on October 16 on the development of e-government. That seminar, organized by the "Internet Policy Civic Initiative," included staff from the Kyrgyz Ministry of Transport and Communications and formally identified several priority projects for the development of electronic and web-based state services. RG

Kyrgyz Defense Minister Ismail Isakov met in Bishkek on October 17 with a visiting delegation for the U.S. Defense Department led by a senior adviser from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Scott Schless, AKIpress reported. The U.S. military officials, in Kyrgyzstan on a two-day visit, reviewed bilateral cooperation programs and discussed "a broad range of security and defense" issues, including new measures aimed at strengthening Kyrgyz defense reforms. The visit is a follow-up to a meeting late last month between Kyrgyz Foreign Minister Ednan Karabaev and U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman, which resulted in a new agreements on expanding cooperation in counterterrorism operations and on operations from the Manas Air Base in support of coalition forces in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 1, 2007). RG

Kyrgyz Central Election Commission Chairwoman Klara Kabilova on October 17 reported on preparations for the upcoming national referendum on a set of government-drafted amendments to Kyrgyzstan's constitution, AKIpress reported. Kabilova pledged that "the voting process, counting, and summing up voting results at all stages of the referendum will be open and transparent to the highest possible degree under the control of numerous observers, representatives of political parties, and the public." She added that some 110 international observers have been certified to observe the October 21 referendum, joined by "no less than 10,000 local observers and journalists." In a separate development, Bakyt Nurdinov, the head of the Kyrgyz and Central Asian Muslim Congress, complained that the proposed constitutional amendments are "unsatisfactory" and called on the government to revise the constitutional provision defining Kyrgyzstan as "a sovereign, unitary, democratic, law-governed, secular, and social state." The Islamic leader argued that the term "secular" denies Kyrgyzstan's "national culture and Muslim customs and traditions," Kyrgyz TV reported. RG

In an announcement in Bishkek on October 17, Edil Baisalov, the executive secretary of the opposition Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, said that the party intends to stand alone in the parliamentary elections expected after the referendum, according to AKIpress. Baisalov explained that although "many small parties [may] join us," the party is a "political force" that "does not intend to stay in opposition for the sake of opposition itself." He further added that, unlike other opposition parties, the Social Democratic Party stresses the issues of "poverty alleviation, corruption, health-care reform [and] increased competitiveness," rather than the "distribution of powers between the president and parliament as the main idea of political struggle." RG

Uzbek President Islam Karimov arrived on October 18 in Turkmenistan at the start of an official state visit, RFE/RL's Turkmen Service and Turkmen TV reported. Karimov met on the same day with Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov and reviewed plans to expand bilateral relations, and discussed a project to upgrade a natural gas pipeline transporting Turkmen gas to Russia through Uzbekistan. The two leaders also held talks on plans to build a new pipeline to China that will pass through Uzbek territory. Karimov told reporters in Ashgabat that "regional security" is his "number one priority," but also said he is determined to forge a new trade agreement aimed at expanding trade between the two countries, which amounted to a mere $48 million for the first seven months of this year, according to Uzbek TV. Karimov heralded his visit to Ashgabat as "a new stage of Turkmen-Uzbek relations" that marks a departure from earlier tensions between the two countries. Relations were earlier marred by the Turkmen government's accusation that Uzbekistan was complicit in an alleged attempt to assassinate former Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov in November 2002. Turkmen forces later raided the Uzbek Embassy in Ashgabat and expelled the Uzbek ambassador; Ashgabat also sent troops to the border with Uzbekistan and closed checkpoints there for almost a month. Although Karimov and Berdymukhammedov met earlier this year, those meetings were limited to multilateral settings, such as SCO and CIS summits, making this their first bilateral meeting. RG

President Alyaksandr Lukashenka on October 18 invited Japan to submit a proposal for the construction of Belarus's first nuclear power plant, Belapan and Reuters reported, quoting the government news agency Belta. "We consider Japan as a state that could build the safest reactor in the world," Lukashenka told the Japanese Kyodo news agency. "We would very much like to work with Japan, if it proposes a project that is the best in terms of costs, quality, and other criteria," he added. According to Lukashenka, the project, estimated to cost $2.5 billion-2.8 billion, could be inaugurated in 2010 and completed in 2014 or 2015. He added that the Belarusian government is currently considering three groups of foreign companies -- U.S.-Japanese, French-German, and Russian -- as potential contractors for the construction of the plant. JM

Speaking on the sidelines of a congress of the European People's Party in Lisbon on October 18, President Viktor Yushchenko told journalists that reforms in the Ukrainian military should take place exclusively within the framework of the National Program for the Development of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, which was adopted for the years 2006-2011, Ukrainian news agencies reported. Yushchenko was responding to a question about the declared intentions of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc to abolish the draft as of 2008 and make the Ukrainian army a professional force as of 2009 after they form a new government. The pledge is part of the coalition deal the two blocs initialed earlier this week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2007). "I'd like to tell my political friends and colleagues: They may develop certain visions at their level or they may not, but today I'd advise them to follow the 'National Program for the Development of the Ukrainian Armed Forces,'" Yushchenko noted. The program stipulates that Ukraine will start switching to a fully professional army in 2010. Yulia Tymoshenko attended Yushchenko's news conference in Lisbon, but she did not comment on his statement. JM

A unilateral bid for independence by Kosova would result in a "frozen conflict," with Serbs in the north refusing to accept the legitimacy of a government in Prishtina, Serbian President Boris Tadic warned on October 18 in an interview given to Austrian newspapers. "First of all, the Kosovo Serbs would not recognize any such independence -- no doubt about that. And how would the Albanians implement their rules in those areas where Serbs make up a majority of 90 percent?" the daily "Kurier" quoted Tadic as saying. The news agency dpa quoted Tadic as making similar comments on October 16 to an audience in Vienna. Political leaders from Belgrade and Prishtina are due to meet in Vienna on October 22 for the next round of direct talks. Kosovar and Serbian leaders, as well as international mediators, have all said there is only a slim chance of a compromise agreement being reached by December 10, the date that Kosova and Western powers believe should mark the end of talks on Kosova's future. Serbia is offering Kosova "95 percent" autonomy, an offer reiterated by Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic in an interview published by AP on October 17. AG

Kosova's prime minister, Agim Ceku, has fueled speculation that Kosova is prepared to declare independence unilaterally, telling reporters in Prishtina on October 18 that "I always think it is fairer to ask forgiveness for an action rather than ask permission for an action." In their public statements so far, Kosova's leaders have said they want "to coordinate" a declaration of independence "with the international community," while underscoring that independence should be declared shortly after December 10, when Kosova and Western powers say negotiations about Kosova's final status should be concluded. According to Reuters, Ceku said Kosova would like to win the backing of the UN Security Council, but "more and more we see this will not happen." The threat of a Russian veto in July halted efforts to resolve Kosova's status within the framework of the Security Council. AG

The Serbian government's offer of a reward of $1 million for information leading to the capture of the head of the Bosnian Serbs' wartime army, Ratko Mladic, has resulted in a number of fresh leads, Rasim Ljajic, the Serbian minister heading the hunt for Mladic, told Serbian television on October 17. However, the calls, which were anonymous, have yet to lead to "results," he added. The reward was described as an "encouraging" sign of Serbia's desire to capture Mladic, the chief prosecutor of the UN war crimes tribunal, Carla Del Ponte, said on October 15, but her overall assessment of Serbia's cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was that it is "slow" and "irresolute." That appraisal elicited surprise and disappointment from Serbian politicians, but Serbia's war crimes prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, said on October 18 that it is "not as bad as the media made it out to be," the Serbian broadcaster B92 reported. Speaking after visiting Brussels, where he met with the EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn, Vukcevic said that Serbia is closer to initialing a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU than it was before, and he predicted that the agreement will be signed shortly after Del Ponte makes a return visit to Belgrade on October 25. B92 quoted Del Ponte's spokeswoman, Olga Kavran, as saying that the media's coverage of the ICTY prosecutor's statements was "significantly more harsh and negative than the actual assessment." In news that may be related, the news agency Beta reported that military police on October 17-18 searched army barracks in Pancevo and Zrenjanin. There has been no confirmation that the searches were connected with the hunt for Mladic, who is thought to have been sheltered in the past by members of Serbia's armed forces. AG

An ethnic-Serbian freelance correspondent for Voice of America (VOA), Vesna Bojicic, was attacked in her apartment in Caglavica on October 16, VOA and local media reported. A statement issued by Serbia's Association of Independent Electronic Media (ANEM) and reported by FoNet on October 18 said that Bojicic has recently been the object of "numerous" threats. Bojicic told VOA she was attacked in the middle of the night by a man wearing a black uniform and a balaclava, who criticized her "attachment to Albanians." AG

A court in Belgrade on October 17 opened the trial of a Kosovar Albanian, Sinan Morina, accused of involvement in the murder of eight Serbs, local and international media reported. The killings occurred in July 1998, at the outset of fighting between Kosovar Albanian guerrillas and Serbian forces. The eight were among 25 bodies found in April 2005 in a cave near the village of Opterusa in northwestern Kosova, an area heavily populated by Serbs. Other charges against Morina include torture, rape, and the destruction of homes and religious sites. Morina, who pleaded not guilty, told the court he was en route from Albania to Germany at the time of the killings. Prosecutors believe that Morina, who was arrested in Montenegro in December 2006, was a member of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK). A Serbian court in 2000 jailed three Kosovar Albanians for their roles in crimes committed in the Opterusa area. AG

Bosnian authorities have arrested one Bosnian Muslim and charged another with war crimes committed during the country's civil war. Suljo Karajic, who was arrested on October 17, is suspected of crimes committed between August 1994 and February 1995 against fellow Bosnian Muslims -- prisoners of war and civilians -- in areas surrounding the towns of Buzim and Velika Kladusa, the news agency SRNA reported. The area was part of the Autonomous Province of Western Bosnia, a secessionist region whose Bosnian Muslim leadership cooperated with ethnic Serbs and Croats against the Bosnian Muslims' central government. In another unrelated case, Suad Kapic was charged on October 18 with killing four Bosnian Serb prisoners of war in 1995 in the village of Dabar in the northwest of the country, local and international media reported. Kapic was arrested on September 19. AG

Roughly a dozen former Dutch peacekeepers and their families returned on October 17 to Srebrenica to meet with the families of the victims of the massacre that occurred after the Dutch peacekeeping force abandoned the UN-designated "safe haven." Local and international media reported that the reception they received from relatives of the roughly 8,000 victims of the UN-recognized "act of genocide" ranged from wary to openly hostile, while the former peacekeepers expressed helplessness, remorse, and anguish. During the trip, the former peacekeepers and their families visited the site of a mass grave that is still being excavated. The controversy over the Dutch forces' role in the Srebrenica tragedy triggered the collapse of the Dutch government in 2002 and prompted the victims' relatives to bring an ultimately unsuccessful claim for damages against the Dutch government this year. AG

The Greek government announced on October 17 that it will not offer Macedonia financial support in the next extension of a program that funds reconstruction projects throughout the Balkans, Greek and Macedonian media reported. Greek Deputy Foreign Minister Theodoros Kassimis said that the decision was made because "the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia" -- as it insists Macedonia should be known -- "has not applied for such an extension." Kassimis acknowledged that Skopje has submitted an application, but used its constitutional name, the Republic of Macedonia. "Since Greece does not recognize the country by that name, the Foreign Ministry considered the letter as not having been received," Kassimis said. Macedonian Finance Minister Trajko Slaveski shrugged off Greece's move, saying it has been offering nothing but "virtual" assistance for the past five years, the news agency Makfax reported. "I won't talk and think about something that didn't exist," he said, adding that Greek aid has not figured in Macedonia's budgeting. AG

The European Commission has offered Albania another 200 million euros ($285 million) to bolster its efforts to reform its economy and judiciary and alleviate poverty, local and international media reported on October 18. The EU has given Albania, which has a population of 3.2 million, $1.7 billion since 1991, making it Albania's biggest donor. The latest aid comes from a fund in the EU's 2007-09 budget earmarked for would-be members of the EU, and many of the targeted uses -- to reform the judiciary and the civil service, to build up democratic institutions, to improve human and minority rights, and to ease the adoption of EU legislation -- address issues that are key elements in accession talks. Albania is one of four western Balkan states to have signed a Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU. AG

Albania's public debt now amounts to 54 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), the news service Balkan Insight reported on October 18. This is its highest level ever, but remains within the 60 percent limit that the EU accepts for would-be members of the eurozone. All new EU states are required to pledge eventually to adopt the euro. The debt -- 4.4 billion euros in total ($6.3 billion) -- amounts to 1,225 euros ($1,749) per capita. Albania reportedly expects the debt to rise to 4.7 billion euros ($6.7 billion) in 2008. AG

He's one of Russia's richest men, an oligarch whose industrial empire stretches from mining and media to a stake in London's famed Arsenal football club. But if Alisher Usmanov seems to have everything he could want, appearances may be deceiving. After all, the Uzbek-born billionaire is widely seen as a possible political heir to Islam Karimov, Uzbekistan's authoritarian president.

Over the past two decades, the Russian tycoon, who hails from one of the Uzbek capital's most prominent legal families, has amassed a fortune that is estimated at more than $5.5 billion. Yet outside the former Soviet Union, little was known of the portly 54-year-old until last summer, when Usmanov suddenly seized headlines in Britain and elsewhere with a series of sensational stories -- not all to his liking.

In Britain, Usmanov seemingly took the easy route to instant notoriety: In August, he went on a buying spree of shares in former English Premier League champion Arsenal, raising his stake in the team to 23 percent. In doing so, Usmanov put himself in a position to launch a takeover of the storied club, and became an instant target of criticism by English fans concerned about the future of the "Gunners."

Around the same time in Russia, Usmanov was winning praise for donating the entire collection of artwork of the late cellist Mstislav Rostropovich to the Constantine Palace in St. Petersburg, a presidential residence and venue for international summits. The works, which carried a reported price tag of $40 million, seemed to signal a desire to please President Vladimir Putin, whom Usmanov has called "a blessing" for Russia.

But back in Britain, there was more bad press. On his Internet blog, Craig Murray, an outspoken former British ambassador to Uzbekistan, made a series of allegations about Usmanov's business affairs and his alleged financial ties to Gulnara Karimova, Karimov's eldest daughter. Murray also called Usmanov a convicted criminal in reference to his 1980 imprisonment for fraud, extortion, and rape. Usmanov, who says he was framed, calls himself a "political prisoner" who was later pardoned by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

Murray's blog sparked a legal storm in Britain, which boasts some of the world's toughest libel laws. Usmanov's lawyers succeeded in having Murray's post taken down, citing libelous charges. Then, Usmanov launched a charm counterattack, flying several British reporters on his private jet for interviews at his retreat outside Moscow. The result was a series of profiles in the British press that portrayed Usmanov as an enlightened tycoon hard done by both the Western media and the Soviet system. "All my life I've been confronted with prejudiced people who are determined to turn me into a stereotype -- a Central Asian thief," he told "The Times" of London.

The billionaire may not, however, have anticipated the unintended consequences of his legal and media offensive. In recent weeks, a flurry of blogs and websites has popped up to post Murray's original criticisms as well as other scathing remarks about the Uzbek-born billionaire. If Usmanov had sought to silence his critics, the effect of his actions has been to shine an even brighter light on his controversial story.

Which is what Murray continues to do. "It's true that Russia is something of a gangster state now where the mafia in alliance with the KGB and former KGB operators really control the state," Murray later told RFE/RL. "And this has enabled a small number of people to become ridiculously wealthy billionaires through seizure of state assets -- like the state's mineral resources -- for which they did not, in fact, pay a single penny. They simply, effectively, stole them. And Usmanov is one of that class of oligarchs."

Not that any of this has mattered back home. In fact, Usmanov's London buying spree as well as the latest brouhaha surrounding his alleged conduct have largely been ignored by the media both in Russia and in his native Uzbekistan.

The tycoon himself says he has little to do with Uzbekistan. A Russian citizen, Usmanov says his ties to his native land are limited to annual pilgrimages home to visit his parents' grave. Yet many people, including Murray, are convinced that Usmanov harbors significant ambitions regarding his Central Asian homeland.

Murray says Karimov and his family would like Usmanov to succeed the president, who is largely reviled in the West as one of the most oppressive leaders in the former Soviet sphere. Of course, any such move does not appear imminent, even if Uzbekistan is set to hold presidential polls in December. That's because while Karimov is barred by the constitution from running for a third term, he is widely expected to change the law or hold a referendum to stay in office -- a common practice in the neighborhood.

"I've been aware for at least the last three years that Alisher Usmanov was looked on favorably by the Karimov family as a possible, eventual successor when President Karimov decides to give up in -- what Karimov hopes -- won't be for several years," Murray says. "But the Karimov family has been very keen to find a successor who they trust will not take all the money and all the industries and properties away from the Karimov family."

Yevgeny Volk, who heads the Nasledie think tank in Moscow, says it is too early to speculate about a possible successor to Karimov. But he agrees that Usmanov would be a likely contender to take over when the 71-year-old strongman passes on. "I think [Usmanov] needs power because -- first of all -- he still is a stranger in Russia to some extent," Volk says. "With his [ethnic] origin and roots, he belongs to the Uzbek nation. I think his political ambitions could be realized in Uzbekistan."

But it's not just his native roots, as displayed in the gilded Central Asian vases that line the halls of his retreat on the Moscow river, that would make Usmanov the right man for the job. Usmanov, a senior adviser to Gazprom and president of one its subsidiaries, is arguably part and parcel of the Kremlin's inner circle.

Because Russia and its energy firms still play a significant role in Tashkent's affairs, Usmanov could be uniquely poised to eventually take over in the Uzbek capital with pivotal backing from Moscow. "Usmanov's latest steps show his efforts to create a rapport with Russian leaders and demonstrate his loyalty," Volk says. "His purchase of Rostropovich's collection for a significant amount of money is a kind of investment in exchange for the Russian elite's support for his future ambitions."

Like British-based Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich, who also owns an English soccer club, Usmanov is believed to operate freely in large part due to his support for Putin. In 2006, Usmanov bought the Russian newspaper "Kommersant," which once belonged to Putin's staunch critic and London exile, Boris Berezovsky. The newspaper can be relied on by Kremlin leaders for a steady stream of positive spin.

Usmanov has never said publicly that he would consider entering politics. Nor has he made any political comments about Uzbekistan. There could also be official and legal barriers for Usmanov to run for the Uzbek presidency. His Russian citizenship and years abroad could work against his candidacy. But with Russia using energy clout to reassert hegemony over the lands of Moscow's former empire, there are few potential candidates better qualified to lead Central Asia's most populous country than Alisher Usmanov.

(RFE/RL's Uzbek Service contributed to this report.)

NATO's top commander in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General Dan McNeill, on October 18 accused the Iranian military with complicity in a shipment of advanced improvised bombs discovered in western Afghanistan in September, AP reported. The convoy, which contained "a number of advanced-technology, improvised explosive devices" similar to those found in Iraq, was intercepted coming into southern Helmand Province on September 5 by NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) troops (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17, 2007). "It is difficult for me to conceive that this convoy could have originated in Iran and come to Afghanistan without at least the knowledge of the Iranian military," McNeill told reporters in Kabul. McNeill, who commands the 40,000 troops under the ISAF, did not specify the type of weapons intercepted, but top Western military and government officials, including U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, have previously accused elements in Iran of supplying arms -- specifically explosively formed projectiles -- to the Taliban (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 5, 2007). This is the third time this year that ISAF troops have seized weapons shipments coming from Iran into southern Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 18 and June 5, 2007). Iran has denied the allegations, saying there is no reason for a Shi'ite-government like itself to support a fundamentalist Sunni movement like that of the Taliban. JC

Taliban insurgents on October 17 ambushed a U.S.-led coalition patrol in southern Afghanistan, wounding nine soldiers, AP reported the next day. A coalition statement said the militants attacked the patrol with heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades near Kandahar city. Coalition troops reacted with small-arms fire to "counterattack the enemy," the statement said, adding that none of the nine soldiers sustained serious injuries. There were no insurgent casualties reported. Elsewhere, in eastern Khost Province, four police officers were killed and three others wounded on October 18 when a roadside bomb exploded near a police vehicle, officer Sher Ahmad Kochi said. Over 600 people have been killed in militant attacks this year and more than 5,200 people have died as a result of violence related to the Taliban-led insurgency, according to an AP count based on official figures. JC

Afghanistan's Counternarcotics Ministry announced it will award $3 million to the northern Faryab provincial administration for reconstruction if it succeeds in eliminating poppy cultivation this year, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on October 17. Counternarcotics Minister General Khuda-e Dad made the pledge during a recent meeting in the provincial capital, Maimana, with local government officials, including Deputy Governor Abdul Sattar Bariz, and representatives from the British Embassy. Bariz confirmed the offer of a reward if the administration is able to meet the "zero level" target. Ministry spokesman Zalmai Afzali said the monetary reward is part of a new program launched by the Counternarcotics Ministry called "Initiation and Good Performance," in which the government will pay provinces between $300,000 and $500,000 if the regions are able to reduce poppy cultivation to zero. The initiative signals a new approach to poppy reduction by the Afghan government, which has continuously rejected appeals by the United States to use chemical spraying to eliminate the country's opium-poppy problem (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 8, 2007). Afghanistan is the world's largest supplier of opium, the key ingredient in the illicit drug heroin. JC

Four armed men on October 17 blew up two middle schools in the Shindand district of Afghanistan's western Herat Province, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Shindand district chief Haji Mohammad Alam said the men planted explosives in the Naderia Middle School for boys and the Mir Sadaat Middle School for girls around midnight, destroying several classrooms and educational materials. All the books were burnt and a classroom demolished in the boys' school, while two classrooms in the other school were destroyed, education department head Ghulam Hazrat Tanha said. Hundreds of children attend the two schools, although no one was killed or injured in the two blasts. Less than a day after the attack, officials in the Roye Do Aab district of northern Samangan Province completed construction of a Ministry of Education-funded school building there at a cost of $70,000. Deputy chief of the provincial education department Habibullah said the single level facility contains eight classrooms. Insecurity and violence, including targeted killings of teachers, education officials, and students, continue to plague the education system in Afghanistan, forcing schools to remain closed and children to stay at home (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 7 and October 10, and 18, 2007). JC

At a Washington press conference on October 17, President George W. Bush warned that a nuclear-armed Iran could provoke "World War III," news agencies reported. He said he has told "people that if you are interested in avoiding" this war, "it seems like you ought to be interested in preventing" Iran gaining access to bomb-making capabilities, reported on October 18. In Tehran on October 18, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said Bush's statements are a "threat to world peace," Fars news agency reported. He said they conveyed the "expansionist" and "ambitious" ideas of the "American neoconservatives" that would inevitably provoke more insecurity and "militaristic policies." Hosseini urged the United States to stop its "unilateralism," respect the international community's "desire to maintain peace" and security, and respect states' sovereignty, Fars reported. VS

Speaking to a gathering in Eslamshahr, outside Tehran, on October 18 to remember the "martyrs" of the 1980-88 war with Iraq, Expediency Council Chairman and former Iranian President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani said that the U.S. government takes its citizens' taxes, spends them on armaments, and "sends their...corpses to America as gifts," Fars reported. He asked where Iran's former enemies are -- the "people of Saddam [Hussein]," the "hypocrites" or Iranian Marxist militants who fought with Iraq against Iran in the closing stages of the war with Iran, "and those Americans who supported Saddam?" The late Iraqi dictator invaded Iran in September 1980. Rafsanjani said the "world joined hands" in the 1980s to topple Iran's revolutionary regime: "they had everything, but we were alone. What protected us was the justice of our cause." Iran, he said, was defending "the [1979] revolution and the Koran," and "God knows what would have happened to Iran" had thousands of soldiers not given their lives in its defense. These, he said, are not really dead, and he quoted the Koran: "God tells us, do not think those who are martyred have died. They are alive" and in God's company. VS

Iran on October 17 hanged three men convicted of kidnapping and rape in Shiraz, southern Iran, Fars reported, the same day that nine murderers were hanged in Tehran (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2007). The three were convicted of kidnapping, "disrupting public security," rape, "harassment," "lawlessness," and "fighting against God and religion," and were hanged on the purported spot where they committed their crimes. The Shiraz revolutionary prosecutor, Jaber Baneshi, told the press on October 17 that they recently kidnapped and "harassed" two women they had picked up in a fake taxi and taken to a local park or woodland; his remarks suggested they might have raped the two. Baneshi said women with loose head scarves or clothing considered indecent or suggestive are more likely to attract the attention of such criminals; modest clothing, he said, "is a woman's immunity." VS

The Association in Defense of Press Freedoms, an independent Tehran-based group, has written to Iran's judiciary chief, Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi, urging the judiciary to free press-related detainees, stop summoning journalists and writers, and change its approach to prosecuting members of the press, Radio Farda reported on October 18. The association also urged Shahrudi to arrest all those responsible for the "suspension of the legal and legitimate liberties of citizens." Association member Isa Saharkhiz told Radio Farda that the judiciary should at least inform the public if it cannot safeguard Iranian citizens' liberties in line with its duties. He said restrictions on the press have increased sharply in recent months, while the files of some people prosecuted previously have been reopened. He said Iran's worldwide position in terms of press liberties is sliding "even among the most backward countries in the world." Reporters Without Borders has ranked Iran 144th out of 169 countries in its "Worldwide Press Freedom Index 2007." VS

Mohammad Javad Akbarin, a liberal cleric and writer reportedly close to the reformist Participation Front, was arrested in Tehran's airport on October 17, Radio Farda reported on October 18, citing "informal" reports from Iran. He was about to board a flight to Beirut, where he is pursuing a Ph.D., and was arrested by state agents with a warrant from Iran's special clerical court. The same court jailed him in 2001 for allegedly impious or overly critical articles. In recent years he has written for a news and commentary website called, though it ceased to publish material from him in mid-March after he was questioned by a revolutionary court over articles he had written on women's rights. VS

During an interview with Reuters on October 18, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari called on Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters based in northern Iraq to leave immediately in order to avoid a military incursion by Turkish forces. "Our formal request is that they [PKK] leave Iraqi soil and leave Iraq for its people and do not bring us more problems than we're already suffering," Zebari said. Asked if he was giving the PKK a timetable to leave, Zebari responded, "As soon as possible." In addition, Zebari stressed that Iraq currently is unable to drive out PKK fighters because of limited military capabilities, since Iraqi forces are occupied battling militants elsewhere in Iraq. Several Kurdish army units have been deployed to Baghdad to help quell the insurgency. "We are not saying that we do not want to, or we are not ready to, it is only a matter of time," Zebari said. On October 17, Turkey's parliament authorized the military to launch cross-border operations to root out PKK fighters in northern Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2007). The authorization gave the Turkish military one year to complete its mission. SS

Foreign Minister Zebari warned during the same October 18 interview that a unilateral Turkish military incursion into northern Iraq would be a violation of Iraq's sovereignty that could destabilize the relatively calm semi-autonomous Kurdish region. "My expectation is that there will definitely be resistance, especially if the [Turkish] army enters populated areas, then there will be resistance from the peshmerga [militia] and the people there," Zebari said. However, Zebari stressed that he does not believe that Turkey will begin a major military incursion immediately; instead, he expects limited cross-border military operations in conjunction with targeted air strikes. "If something happens it is possibly going to be air strikes on some suspected PKK positions," Zebari said. "But to talk about a major military offensive and major cross-border incursion, that I do not expect," he added. He also called for greater diplomatic efforts between Ankara and Baghdad to resolve the PKK problem. Turkey has "a problem, we are ready to discuss it, talk about it and fulfill our commitments. But the starting point should be sitting at the dialogue table to agree on mechanisms," Zebari said. SS

The Kurdistan regional government (KRG) issued a statement on its website on October 18 calling for a direct dialogue with the Turkish government to avoid a military incursion into northern Iraq in pursuit of PKK fighters. "The KRG welcomes direct dialogue with Ankara on all issues of common interest or concern, including the PKK. An incursion would be detrimental to all Iraq, to Turkey and the Middle East," the statement said. The KRG denied that it is supporting PKK fighters and insisted that it wants to maintain friendly relations with Turkey. "We do not and will not allow our territory to be used by anyone to attack or undermine Turkey or any of our neighbors. We do not interfere in the internal affairs of Turkey, and we expect the same in return," the statement said. Meanwhile, Al-Jazeera satellite television reported the same day that thousands of demonstrators in the Iraqi-Turkish border town of Duhok took to the streets to protest possible military incursions by Turkish forces. In the Kurdish regional capital of Irbil, CNN reported that an estimated 10,000 protesters poured into the streets to condemn the Turkish parliament's decision to allow military operations. SS

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said during a news conference on October 18 that two former officials convicted of crimes against humanity for their roles in the Anfal campaign against Iraqi Kurds will be hung within "the next few days," Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. However, he refused to provide an exact date for the executions of Ali Hasan al-Majid, also known as Chemical Ali, and former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad. On October 17, "The New York Times" reported that the two men were moved to Al-Kadhimiyah Prison under U.S. custody and are awaiting imminent execution (see RFE/RL Newsline," October 18, 2007). Mirembe Nantongo, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, confirmed on October 18 that the two men are in U.S. custody, but refused to reveal where, due to security reasons. But an unnamed U.S. official told AP that the men are at Camp Cropper, a U.S. detention facility near the Baghdad International Airport, where Saddam Hussein was held before his execution. Al-Majid and Ahmad were sentenced to death on June 24 for their roles in the 1987-88 Anfal campaign that killed an estimated 180,000 Kurds. SS

A shooting involving a private security company east of Kirkuk on October 18 left three civilians wounded, international media reported the same day. Local police sources said three Iraqi civilians, including two women, were wounded when guards from a private security firm fired on a taxi that approached their convoy in Qarah Anjir. U.S. officials said the private guards were providing security for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and work for the British security firm Erinys. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said in a statement that the vehicle approached the convoy "at a high rate of speed" and guards from the security firm opened fire. "The private security team initiated escalating warning procedures under the Rules for the Use of Force, resulting in an alleged injury to a civilian occupant of the vehicle," the statement said. Scrutiny of private security firms has increased since the U.S. firm Blackwater USA shot and killed 17 Iraqis in Baghdad's Al-Nusur Square on September 16 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2007). SS

Koichiro Matsuura, the director-general of the UN's Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), issued a statement on October 18 condemning the ongoing killing of journalists and media personnel in Iraq, the UN News Service reported the same day. "The apparently systematic targeting of journalists in Iraq shows how disturbing it is for the warmongers to see their crimes exposed. This in turn highlights how important free and independent reporting is for the restoration of peace and democracy in Iraq," Matsuura said. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 54 journalists and media assistants have been assassinated in Iraq since the start of 2007. The International Federation of Journalists has said a total of 234 media personnel have been killed in Iraq since 2003. SS