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Newsline - October 26, 2007

Colonel General Nikolai Solovtsov said at his headquarters in Vlasikha near Moscow on October 26 that the Russian Strategic Missile Forces which he heads "will take adequate order to avoid the erosion of Russia's strategic nuclear power following the deployment by the [planned] U.S. missile-defense elements in Europe," and Interfax reported. He added that Russia's Topol-M, or SS-27, mobile and stationary missile systems are up to the task of "overcoming missile-defense systems.... We will closely follow the situation and take adequate measures" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 14, and October 19, 22, 23, and 25). In Noordwijk in the Netherlands on October 25, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov said after meeting with his NATO counterparts that Russia still does not accept the U.S. position on missile defense despite Washington's recent offers of concessions, international media reported. He argued that "we cannot agree on what was offered to us and are sticking to our position.... It seems to me [nonetheless] that the Americans are starting to better understand our concerns...and we welcome that." He added that talks will continue. Speaking to reporters en route back to the United States after the Noordwijk meetings, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said that Washington has made all the concessions it can on missile defense, news agencies reported. He added that "we've leaned about as far forward as we can. We've offered a lot, I want to see some movement on their part." Gates believes that "the question is whether the Russians are serious about partnering with us, or whether [they seek through negotiations] to try and stop us from going forward with the Czech Republic and Poland" to reach agreements about stationing components of missile defense in those two countries. PM

The Russian daily "Vremya novostei" wrote on October 25 that Washington will most likely go ahead with its missile-defense plans regardless of what Russia says. The paper quoted State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov as arguing that "Russia will have to retaliate" for missile defense. It also quoted Nikolai Zlobin, director of Russian and Asian Programs at Washington's World Security Institute, as saying that "Washington will accept only...Russia's consent to what the Americans have planned for Iran.... This latest [missile-defense] initiative is pure propaganda, something expected to silence [President George W.] Bush's critics in the United States itself. The White House needs an excuse to proceed with its plans, and Russia is a perfect scapegoat." The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on October 25 that Washington is determined to go ahead with missile defense and expects to finalize the necessary agreements with Poland and the Czech Republic in the course of 2008. PM

President Vladimir Putin said in Lisbon after meeting with Portuguese President Anibal Cavaco Silva on October 25 on the eve of the twice-yearly EU-Russian summit that he is opposed to "separatism" in Europe, but did not define that phenomenon, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 22, 23, and 25, 2007). Putin argued in reference to possible independence for Kosova: "look at what's happening in Europe. Don't you have enough problems in Spain, problems that may occur in Romania, problems that Belgium is facing now? And if you consider the whole region where Kosovo is located -- those other state formations that emerged after the breakup of Yugoslavia, and the Balkans as a whole -- aren't there enough problems of this kind in that region? Why continue to shake international law and promote separatism in Europe -- and in the post-Soviet space too?" He sharply criticized recent new U.S. sanctions against Iran, saying that one should not "aggravate the situation now, drive it into a dead end, and threaten [Iran] with sanctions or military action." The daily "Kommersant" reported on October 26 that Putin added that "not long ago, it didn't seem possible to resolve the situation with North Korea peacefully.... I think that running around like a madman with a blade in one's hand is not the best way to solve such problems." The paper added that the summit, which opened in Mafra on October 26, is not expected to accomplish much. It quoted an unnamed "high-ranking EU official" as saying that "this is probably the weirdest Russia-EU summit in recent times" because of the many problems and tensions that make any agreement unlikely. The paper noted that Putin will nonetheless use the summit to criticize Poland and the Baltic states to Western European leaders. On October 26, the daily "Izvestia" wrote that the summit will be dominated by energy issues and by the proposed new comprehensive cooperation pact to replace the current Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA), which runs out later in 2007. Both sides believe the new PCA should regulate energy matters, "Izvestia" noted. The daily "Vedomosti" noted on October 25 that "only promising option" for defusing Moscow-Brussels tensions is the "convergence" of Russian and EU businesses. PM

U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns was quoted by the BBC on October 26 as saying that Russia should stop selling weapons to Iran, and that China should stop investing there. He accused Russia of "aiding and abetting the Iranian government in strengthening its own military." Burns added that he rejects Russian criticism of new U.S. sanctions against Iran but hopes nonetheless that the UN Security Council, where Moscow and Beijing have vetoes, will agree to new international sanctions in November. "We want to be at the negotiating table, we want a peaceful resolution of this dispute. But to reinforce diplomacy, sometimes it has to have a tough side to it," he said. PM

On October 25 in Moscow, officials of Gazprom signed an agreement with Norway's StatoilHydro that gives the Norwegian company a 24 percent stake in an operating company that will plan, finance, and build the infrastructure for the first stage of development of the Arctic Shtokman gas field, international media reported. France's Total holds a 25 percent stake, while Gazprom retains a majority and the ownership of the field itself. Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller noted that Russia has huge gas reserves in the Barents Sea and that StatoilHydro has extensive experience in working in harsh Arctic environments. Kremlin deputy spokesman Dmitry Peskov described the deal as "a kind of political decision announced to the country" by the Kremlin. The decision ends the hopes of U.S. companies for a stake in the project. Development of Shtokman and other remote fields in inhospitable places is necessary for Gazprom if it is to meet its growing foreign and domestic commitments. PM

The European Court of Human Rights ruled on October 25 that Russia violated the rights of former Yukos CEO Mikhail Khodorkovsky's business partner, Platon Lebedev, by keeping him in custody from March 31-April 6, 2004, without the permission of a judge, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. The Strasbourg-based court also ruled that Lebedev's lawyers were unjustifiably excluded from a detention hearing, which "adversely affected his ability to present his case," Reuters reported. The court awarded Lebedev 3,000 euros ($4,300) in compensation and 7,000 euros (around $10,000) for legal costs. "The Moscow Times" reported on October 26 that Anatoly Kovler, a Russian judge on the Strasbourg panel, supported three of Lebedev's six complaints but joined two judges from Azerbaijan and Norway in voting against two other complaints. According to the English-language daily, the court unanimously rejected Lebedev's complaint that Russia failed to respect the right of petition. RIA Novosti on October 25 quoted a Russian Justice Ministry representative as saying that Russia will appeal the court's ruling. The ruling came on the fourth anniversary of the arrest of Khodorkovsky and Lebedev, who have now served half of the eight-year prison terms they received on charges of tax evasion and fraud (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2007). In Russia, prison inmates who have served half their sentences without receiving reprimands can be released on parole. However, RFE/RL's Russian Service quoted Khodorkovsky's lawyer Yury Schmidt on October 25 as saying that his client received a reprimand 10 days earlier from the authorities at the Chita pretrial detention unit where he is serving his term. Khodorkovsky allegedly failed to "hold his hands behind his back" while "coming out of the prison yard in the direction of his the prison rules require," Schmidt said. He added that the accusation against Khodorkovsky is false, but gives the authorities a pretext to deny him parole. Schmidt said that Lebedev, who is serving his term in the same Chita facility, has also received a reprimand. JB

The Communist Party (KPRF) has called on the Prosecutor-General's Office to launch a criminal case against Boris Gryzlov, the State Duma speaker and head of the main pro-Kremlin political party, Unified Russia, "Nezavisimaya gazeta" reported on October 26. Two Communist deputies in the State Duma, Vadim Solovev and Andrei Chupanov, charged that an article written by Gryzlov and published in the government daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on October 17 under the headline, "Putin will remain leader of Russia," violated Russia's anti-extremism law. The deputies singled out several sections of Gryzlov's article, including one stating that the State Duma election on December 2 will decide "the question of the country's leader," who, according to Gryzlov, "is, must be -- and will be -- Vladimir Putin." Putin, whose second and last constitutionally mandated term as president ends next year, has agreed to head United Russia's party list in the State Duma election and suggested he would serve as prime minister under certain circumstances. The Communist deputies cited other parts of Gryzlov's article, including his statements that "all means will be activated" to ensure that Putin continues to lead the country and that Putin's role "as leader will be firmly guaranteed by the Unified Russia party." They also cited Gryzlov's assertion that Unified Russia has "enough power," particularly in the parliament, to ensure that Putin retains power. "Nezavisimaya gazeta" quoted Solovev as saying that Gryzlov's article details the mechanisms that Unified Russia can use to keep "state power" in Putin's hands and thereby limit "the capabilities and rights of the future president." According to the newspaper, the Communists contend that "any attempts to guarantee Putin's status as 'leader of the country'...are deliberately unconstitutional and illegal" and that the "anticonstitutional, unlawful appeals" in Gryzlov's article may be realized by "unlawful means," including "violent acts." According to "Nezavisimaya gazeta," the KPRF has also filed a complaint with the Central Election Commission charging that Gryzlov's article contains illegal election agitation on behalf of Unified Russia. JB

The Moscow city authorities have granted permission for a "Russian March" to be held on November 4, which is National Unity Day, reported on October 25, citing the press service of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration (DPNI). Human rights activists expressed concern about the planned march, Interfax reported. "Such actions do not only harm the image of the country, but scare away investors and also contribute to a reduction in the number of foreign students studying in Russia," said Aleksandr Brod, the director of the Moscow Bureau for Human Rights. According to Interfax, Brod acknowledged that the authorities cannot legally prevent the march, but said they should carefully check the application submitted by the march's organizers and ensure that participants in the march do not violate the rights of others. "All of the organizers of such actions are known, [and] it is already difficult for them to use words about planning...some sort of cultural activities as a cover," Brod said. He added: "The cult of violence, words about how one nationality is superior to another, can bring about nothing good. All centers of negative ideology and inter-ethnic hatred should be blocked." JB

The government has approved a draft resolution regulating the activities of the State Youth Committee, the daily "Kommersant" reported on October 26. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov named Vasily Yakemenko, the head of the pro-Kremlin youth group Nashi, to head the committee (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 11, 2007). According to "Kommersant," the draft resolution states that the committee will maintain the federal registry of youth organizations and will have the power to distribute state and extrabudgetary funds among them. The newspaper reported that Yakemenko received 50 employees to work in the committee's apparatus (according to "Kommersant," he originally asked for "several hundred") and that the committee will receive roughly 53 million rubles ($2.1 million) for its upkeep for 2008. Yakemenko will also enjoy the status of a government minister and the right to have three deputies. JB

Recently appointed Regional Development Minister Dmitry Kozak outlined on October 25 to the Federation Council his proposals for restructuring the formal relations between the central government and the federation subjects, "Kommersant" reported on October 26. Kozak proposed liquidating subsidiaries in the regions of all central government ministries except those responsible for security and law and order and control, and devolving those responsibilities to the federation subjects, while forming more effective ways to ensure coordination between federal, regional and local bodies. Doing so, Kozak argued, would give the federation subjects a greater degree of autonomy. At the same time, Kozak argued in favor of greater supervisory powers for the presidential representatives to the federal districts. He described their role as important, and opposed any move to abolish that institution. (Kozak served from September 2004-September 2007 as presidential envoy to the Southern Federal District.) He also advocating giving the center greater authority to annul legislation adopted by the parliaments of federation subjects, and again proposed, as he first did in 2005, formulating a list of criteria by which to measure the effectiveness of governments of federation subjects in promoting economic development and progress. Kozak rejected Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov's proposal to draft a new federal law "On State Regional Policy," saying that "we have quite enough relevant legislation already." LF

In a statement posted on October 26 on the website of the Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI), Alla Dudayeva, widow of ChRI President Djokhar Dudayev, posed a series of questions to ChRI Information Service head Movladi Udugov in connection with the October 22 warning by ChRI Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev that Russia seeks to impel ChRI President and resistance commander Doku Umarov to proclaim a North Caucasus emirate and declare war on the entire world in the name of the region's Muslims (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 22, 23, and 25, 2007). Dudayeva asked Udugov to clarify when and by whom the state structure and constitution of the ChRI were changed; which North Caucasus republics have expressed the wish to be incorporated into the planned North Caucasus Emirate; and by whom Umarov was formally named amir of that formation. She also requests that in the event that reports of the proclamation of a North Caucasus emirate headed by Umarov prove to be untrue, Udugov should issue an official denial. LF

One police officer was killed and a second wounded on October 25 when militants opened fire on Daghestan Interior Ministry forces combing a forested area near the village of Adil-Otar in Khasavyurt Raion, and reported. Additional Interior Ministry and Russian Defense Ministry troops were deployed to the area and succeeded in killing one militant, who was subsequently identified as having fought earlier in southern Chechnya. LF

The heads of several of Yerevan's 10 administrative districts expressed objections on October 25 to a draft bill, unveiled by the government on October 18, that would abolish direct elections for their posts, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The bill would provide for the mayor of Yerevan, who is currently named by the president, to be chosen by a municipal council elected by the city's residents, and for the abolition of the elected administrations of the city's 10 districts. Their heads would in future be appointed by the city mayor. Davitashen Mayor Surik Ghukasian and his Ajapnyak counterpart Ruben Hovsepian both argued that the current system is preferable as elected mayors are directly accountable to their constituents. LF

The French, Russian, and U.S. co-chairmen of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Minsk Group that seeks to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict met in Yerevan on October 24 with Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, Armenian media reported. The talks focused on those points of the draft "basic principles" under discussion on which the conflict sides have not yet reached agreement; the mediators did not offer any new proposals, according to RFE/RL's Armenian Service quoted U.S. co-Chairman Matthew Bryza as saying prior to the meeting with Kocharian that the two sides are "very close" to a full agreement. At the same time, he estimated at less than 50 percent the chances that such agreement will be reached prior to the presidential elections due in both Armenia and Azerbaijan in 2008. Oskanian was quoted by on October 24 as saying the peace process is proceeding "normally" and that the co-chairs will return to Yerevan on October 27 to update the Armenian leadership on their talks in Baku. He added that repeated threats by Azerbaijani officials to resort to military force to restore Baku's control over the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh do not contribute to settling the conflict. The Karabakh conflict was one of the issues Armenian Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian discussed with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Washington on October 23, Noyan Tapan reported. LF

Addressing some 120 graduates from Georgia's Military Academy on October 25, Mikheil Saakashvili excluded the possibility of Georgia declaring itself a neutral state, Caucasus Press reported. He recalled that Georgia signed an agreement on neutrality with Russia in 1920, six months before the Red Army invaded and ended its existence as an independent republic. He said that Georgia plans to maintain "modern, not large, but well-equipped armed forces," and that it is committed to good neighborly relations with other states. Saakashvili added that Georgia is in the process of totally reequipping its armed forces with modern weaponry, "starting with small arms and ending with special electronic systems and aviation." LF

Georgian Minister for Conflict Resolution David Bakradze traveled on October 25 by UN aircraft to Sukhum(i), capital of the unrecognized republic of Abkhazia, for talks with de facto Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba that lasted two hours, rather than the planned 40 minutes, and after which the two ministers drank coffee together in a local cafe, the Georgian television station Rustavi-2 reported later the same day. Speaking after his meeting with Shamba, Bakradze announced that Georgia will release on September 27 seven Abkhaz border guards taken prisoner by Georgian special forces following a shooting incident on September 20 (see End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," September 24, 2007). Bakradze characterized that decision as a goodwill gesture by the Georgian side intended to pave the way for a resumption of dialogue. Shamba for his part told journalists that agreement was reached on resuming the weekly talks held in Chuburkhindji between Georgian and Abkhaz government representatives and representatives of the Russian peacekeeping forces and the UN Observer Mission (UNOMIG) to assess the situation in the conflict zone. In his most recent (October 3) update to the UN Security Council on the situation in Abkhazia, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern at the ongoing suspension of the weekly quadripartite talks and urged their resumption. LF

Kyrgyz presidential spokesman Nurlan Shakiev announced on October 25 that, "in order to conduct a thorough investigation right on the scene," President Kurmanbek Bakiev sent Omurbek Subanaliev, the head of the Security and Defense Department of the presidential administration, to Osh to lead the investigation into the October 24 murder of journalist Alisher Saipov, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2007). After the funeral, several dozen journalists, human rights activists, and civil society leaders marched to the offices of the regional security department in Osh to demand that police arrest those responsible for the murder. Saipov, 26, was an ethnic Uzbek widely known for his frequent criticism of the government of Uzbekistan in his articles. The U.S. Embassy in Bishkek and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) condemned the killing. In a statement released from Vienna, the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, Miklos Haraszti, said he was "shocked and saddened by the brutal assassination." "I trust the Kyrgyz authorities will pursue the investigation in a vigorous and transparent manner, so that the perpetrators can be brought to justice," Haraszti said, according to the website. RG

The head of a human-rights center in Bishkek announced on October 25 that Kyrgyz security forces have arrested Adilet Aytikeev, a leader of the Kandzhar (Dagger) opposition youth group, according to the website. Aziza Abdirasulova, the head of the Kylym Shamy human-rights center, said that Aytikeev earlier fled to Almaty, Kazakhstan, to avoid trial. After he initiated contact with the administration of the Kyrgyz-Turkish University Manas in Bishkek, a school official contacted the security service and the young man was arrested after he returned to the Kyrgyz university from Kazakhstan. The Kandzhar group is the former youth wing of the now-defunct opposition movement led by Feliks Kulov, the United Front for a Worthy Future for Kyrgyzstan, which was disbanded in September. RG

The Kyrgyz Central Election Commission (CEC) on October 25 formally registered the opposition Ata-Meken Party and certified that it can put forward candidates for the country's December 16 parliamentary election, the website reported. The Ata-Meken Party is the first political party to receive official certification for the election, as only three other parties have even submitted petitions seeking registration. The CEC has set October 26 as the deadline for parties to apply for registration. The leader of the Ata-Meken Party, Omurbek Tekebaev, recently formed a new alliance with the opposition Ak-Shumkar Party in an attempt to field a united party-list of opposition candidates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2007). Former deputy Omurbek Babanov, the leader of another major opposition party, the Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan, also announced on October 24 that the party will hold a series of regional meetings throughout the country in the coming weeks to mobilize support ahead of the election, according to AKIpress. The party's standing was recently bolstered by the new membership of former Kyrgyz Central Election Commission chairwoman Ainura Eshimova. RG

At a press conference in Dushanbe on October 24, Tajik Deputy Finance Minister Sherali Safarov reported that Tajikistan's external debt increased from $829.8 million to $1.07 billion over the first nine months of the year, amounting to 30.5 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), Asia-Plus reported. Safarov attributed the surge in debt to new loans from international financial institutions, including the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the Islamic Development Bank. Safarov added that for the same period, external trade increased by some 24 percent, totaling over $2.7 billion, although the overall trade balance remained negative, with imports of $1.67 billion compared to $1.09 billion in exports. Also speaking at the press conference, Jouma Eshov, the deputy head of the National Bank of Tajikistan, said that inflation has reached 12.4 percent, exceeding the government's target of 9 percent for the year. RG

A local leader of the Tajik Islamic Revival Party (IRPT) on October 25 again stated the party's decision to boycott a local parliamentary by-election in the Kulob region, Asia-Plus reported. The local party leader, Muhammadsharif Nabiyev, explained that unless the party is granted representation on local electoral commissions, it will urge its members not to vote and will not field any candidates. The special by-election in Kulob coincides with the December 16 national election for a new parliament, and was called following the death of Khumdin Sharipov, who represented the Kulob district in the lower chamber of parliament. RG

The Economy Ministry said on October 25 that between January and September, Belarus met 14 of the 19 key economic targets that were set in the government's economic and social development program for the year, Belapan reported. The government reportedly failed to meet planned targets for agricultural output, consumer goods output, and the reduction of imports. In particular, Belarus's agricultural output grew by 5.6 percent during the period, compared to the projected growth of 6 - 7.5 percent. According to the Ministry of Statistics and Analysis, Belarus had a $1.3 billion import surplus in foreign trade in goods and services in the first eight months of this year. JM

The Higher Administrative Court on October 25 rejected complaints by five Ukrainian parties against the results of the parliamentary elections announced earlier this month by the Central Election Commission (TsVK), Ukrainian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2007). The Socialist Party, the Progressive Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the Party of Free Democrats, and the Ukrainian Party of People's Trust alleged that the TsVK committed a number of violations while tallying the September 30 vote. The court decision opens the way for the formation of a new ruling coalition and a new cabinet in Ukraine, following a prolonged political standoff between President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych. The Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc have pledged to create a parliamentary majority immediately after the inauguration of the newly elected Verkhovna Rada. The date for the inauguration has not yet been set. JM

Ambassador Roman Shpek, the head of Ukraine's mission to the EU, told Interfax in Brussels on October 26 that by delaying Ukraine's efforts to integrate with Europe, the EU is applying "double standards." "If the EU's policy is based on values, then it should be the same policy toward all countries, primarily the ones on the European continent," Shpek said. "And if the EU says that its expansion policy is what has stimulated reforms in all 12 newcomers and in Western Balkan states, I see no reasons why such a stimulus cannot be used in the case of Ukraine. But when they tell us: 'you should reform first and then we'll see,' it means that such an approach is based on current interests, rather than values," Shpek said. JM

The chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Carla Del Ponte, returned to Belgrade on October 25 for a two-day trip that could prove critical to Serbia's hopes of taking its first important step towards the EU. This is the third trip that Del Ponte has made to Belgrade in four months. In the summer, Del Ponte gave her first positive assessment of Serbia's cooperation with the UN tribunal following Serbia's significant contribution to the capture of two war crimes indictee, but her latest appraisal -- given on October 15 -- described Serbia's approach as "slow," "irresolute," "unsystematic," and "without results" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16 and 17, 2007). It is not clear whether there is new information that Del Ponte hopes to ascertain during this trip. Local media reported, citing a Serbian government statement, that during the first day of her visit Del Ponte focused on trying to secure access to Serbian archival material. She met with Serbia's war crimes prosecutor and the minister heading Serbia's effort to capture men on ICTY's wanted list. She will meet Serbia's two leading politicians, President Boris Tadic and Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica, on the second day of her visit. "Del Ponte said she did not want to be an obstacle to Serbia's European integration, but she expected remaining fugitives to be caught as soon as possible," the government statement said. Serbia recently offered a reward for information leading to the capture of the Bosnian Serbs' military commander during the war, Ratko Mladic, which means that it has now offered a bounty for all four men wanted by the ICTY (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 15, 2007). It has in recent days also scoured military premises in its search for the men (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 22 and 24, 2007). AG

"Full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and the arrest of the four remaining indicted war criminals, is a precondition for the signing of a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA)," the European Parliament said in a statement issued on October 25. Cooperation "must rapidly lead to further results," it said. It also went some way toward quelling expectations that the ICTY's imminent closure -- it will accept its last cases in 2008 -- might end the search for the war crimes indictees, saying that "it would be necessary to consider extending the mandate" of the court. The EU halted SAA talks with Serbia in May 2006 over Belgrade's perceived lack of cooperation with the ICTY and made their resumption conditional on Mladic's capture. It eased that condition this year, resuming talks after Serbia formed a pro-EU government. The European Parliament also urged Serbia to confront its past "honestly" and to "adopt a declaration denouncing the genocide in Srebrenica." In other comments, the European Parliament highlighted "corruption, particularly in the police and the judiciary, [as] a serious problem" and, secondly, the poor functioning of the Constitutional Court. AG

In the wake of a move by the international community's representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Miroslav Lajcak, to speed up the passage of laws and reforms, Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica on October 25 elevated the preservation of Bosnia's Serb-dominated Republika Srpska to the status of one of Serbia's two national priorities, together with the preservation of Serbia's sovereignty over Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 22 and 23, 2007). On October 22, a spokesman for Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia claimed that Lajcak's measures "irresistibly" reminded him of the plan drawn up for Kosova by the UN's special envoy, Martti Ahtisaari (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2007). In comments quoted by the news agency Tanjug, Kostunica went further, explicitly connecting the two and arguing that the proposals of the two men are part of the same, broader project. "The measures of Lajcak and the Ahtisaari plan have the aim of annulling [UN] Resolution 1244 [which mandated the presence of international troops in Kosova in 1999, but recognized Serbia's sovereignty] and the Dayton agreement [which ended Bosnia's civil war], so that Kosovo could be proclaimed independent and the Republika Srpska abolished," he said. "This is an open violation of the basic interests of the Serbian nation." He did not, however, call for the Republika Srpska to be prepared to secede. Kostunica has also specifically accused the United States of wanting to turn Kosova into a "puppet state" of NATO and of urging Kosovar leaders not to compromise. Late on October 24, Serbian President Tadic met with Republika Srpska Prime Minister Milorad Dodik. Tadic made clear that Bosnia should remain a single state, saying, according to the news agency FoNet, that "Serbia unequivocally supports the territorial integrity of Bosnia-Herzegovina and its constitutional order based on the peace agreement in Dayton." At the same time, he effectively defended the Republika Srpska's position on constitutional matters, saying that the "the alteration of any principle requires consensus of all three constituent peoples." AG

The decision by Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica to make support for the Republika Srpska a national priority of Serbia was condemned on October 25 as "flagrant" interference in Bosnian affairs by the Bosnian Muslims' member of Bosnia's Presidency, Haris Silajdzic, Bosnian public radio reported. Silajdzic accused Kostunica of wanting to escalate the crises in Bosnia and in Kosova, and of using Bosnia to improve Serbia's negotiating position in talks on Kosova's future. Silajdzic's Croatian colleague in the three-member presidency, Zeljko Komsic, was also highly critical, saying Kostunica's "statement has finally revealed Belgrade's murky political games against Bosnia-Herzegovina." According to the news agency SRNA, Komsic warned Kostunica to "keep his hands off Bosnia-Herzegovina" because he "might receive a rap on his wrist and nose." Kostunica "should not forget how his predecessor [Yugoslav President Slobodan] Milosevic ended up," Komsic said. Kostunica was a key figure in the ouster in October 2000 of Milosevic, who died in the custody of the UN war crimes tribunal in March 2006. The third member of the presidency, the Serb Nebojsa Radmanovic, opposes Lajcak's initiative. In an interview published by the daily "Nezavisne novine" on October 23, Radmanovic claimed that Lajcak's measures are "retaliation" for the failure of talks on police reform, a key condition set by the EU before a SAA can be signed. At the same time, Radmanovic claimed, referring to the Office of the High Representative (OHR), that "there was obviously never any plan for Bosnia-Herzegovina to sign the Stabilization and Association Agreement." He also depicted police reform as a prelude to the abolition of the Republika Srpska's powers. Instead, he argued, it is the OHR that should be abolished. "Implementation of the Dayton agreement is almost complete, and the OHR does not have a single reason to remain here," he concluded. AG

The Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), which was founded by Milosevic, on October 25 called on the Serbian government to recognize the Republika Srpska as an independent state if Kosova gains independence, AP reported. The Republika Srpska, one of two autonomous regions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, is the successor to the independent state declared by Bosnian Serbs during Bosnia's civil war. The SPS is now a relatively minor force in Serbian politics, with the most popular nationalist party now being the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), but the SRS is a strong advocate of perceived pan-Serbian interests in Bosnia and Montenegro. Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dodik has not publicly linked the crises in Bosnia and Kosova, and he has vowed to prevent any possible violence in Kosova from spreading to Bosnia, though he opposes independence for Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 26, and August 21, 2007). However, in 2006, Dodik and other Bosnian Serb leaders threatened to hold a referendum on independence if Kosova were to gain independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 14 and 15, 2006). He appeared to dust off that threat in August, when he said that nobody can expect there to be no further territorial changes in the Balkans if Kosova declares independence from Serbia, and that "it would suit us if Kosovo declared independence and...several countries went on and recognized it" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2007). Since then, the political situation in Bosnia has worsened, with Dodik threatening that all Serbian politicians and officials will resign if the international community's representative in the country does not withdraw planned measures to speed up the passage of laws and reforms. AG

Russia has also weighed into the dispute over High Representative Lajcak's plans, blaming him for the deterioration in the political situation inside Bosnia-Herzegovina. Ambassador Konstantin Shuvalov told the daily "Nezavisne novine" in an interview published on October 24 that Lajcak has ignored the opinions of Russia and that his actions would be discussed "very seriously" on October 31, when the group of 55 countries and international agencies overseeing Bosnia's postwar reconstruction, the Peace Implementation Council (PIC), meets in Sarajevo. Shuvalov argued that Lajcak opted not to follow the PIC's decision that responsibility should be transferred from the state to local authorities, but instead for a "return to a maximal use of the mechanisms of outside influence." He also cast doubt on Lajcak's motives, saying that he has "allegedly" made his decision "for the sake of a more efficient functioning of the state." He added that Lajcak would have to offer "new arguments" to convince the PIC that he has not overstepped his mandate. Shuvalov noted that "the two previous high representatives," Paddy Ashdown and Christian Schwarz-Schilling, "had no objections" to the law governing the functioning of the federal government's cabinet. AG

A Voice of America (VOA) correspondent, Vesna Bojicic, who claimed to have been beaten in her home may not have been, police in Kosova believe. Bojicic, an ethnic-Serbian freelance journalist, reported being attacked in her home on October 16 by a masked man who criticized her "attachment to Albanians" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 19, 2007). However, Veton Elshani, a spokesman for the Kosova Police Service (KPS), told local reporters on October 25 that "based on initial investigations, KPS has reasons to believe that VOA correspondent Vesna Bojicic has issued false statements." He did not state the reasons. However, several media reports have cited unnamed sources that claimed that an inebriated Bojicic fought with a waitress shortly before the incident and later drove into a traffic sign. The news service Balkan Insight reported that Bojicic has denied the claims and said she has not been questioned by police. She will now be quizzed by the international police force in the region. Bojicic did not report the assault to the local police, a decision she justified, according to Balkan Insight, on the grounds that "this is the fifth attack against me, and in all previous four cases [the police] were incapable of doing their job." AG

Macedonia's Constitutional Court on October 25 ruled that the Albanian flag cannot be flown outside government and public buildings. It may, though, be flown outside local government buildings on public holidays, local media reported. All three of the court's ethnic-Albanian judges opposed the judgment, but the ruling was backed by the six others on the bench. Ethnic Albanians account for one-quarter to one-third of the population. In neighboring Kosova, where 90 percent of the population is ethnic Albanian, UN administrators have banned the Albanian flag from being adopted as the contested region's flag. AG

Some recent German media reports suggest that Germany and a critical mass of countries within the European Union are prepared to recognize an independent Kosova if the current round of Belgrade-Prishtina negotiations do not produce an agreement. The talks end on December 10, after which the Kosovar leadership has said it will declare independence if no deal is reached.

In fact, no breakthrough is generally expected in the latest negotiations, which the EU and Russia insisted on having despite U.S. and Kosovar Albanian objections that further talks are just a waste of time. During the summer, Washington made the concession to Brussels over negotiations but stressed that this was the last extension. The United States supports the demand by Kosova's 90 percent ethnic-Albanian majority for independence, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made clear on September 24. The United States, like UN special envoy Martti Ahtisaari and UN diplomat Kai Eide before him, argues that independence is the best way to bring stability to the region. According to this view, insecurity and a lack of clarity regarding the province's political status led to unrest in March 2004 and could lead to violence again.

Washington and Prishtina fear that Moscow and Belgrade want to prolong talks indefinitely in the hope that the Western countries will lose interest in the region and that Serbia can then try to reassert the control it lost over Kosova in 1999. In June of that year, NATO forces occupied the province after former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic's crackdown of 1998-99 forced several hundred thousand Kosovars to flee their homes.

In the run-up to the December 10 deadline, NATO and Russian defense ministers discussed Kosova on October 25, and EU leaders were expected to exchange views with Russian President Vladimir Putin at their twice-yearly summit on October 26. Shortly before those meetings, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made it clear that NATO is determined to carry out its mission to provide security in Kosova. This, of course, includes its deterrent role in preventing any return of Serbian forces.

The positions of Russia, the United States, NATO, Belgrade, and Prishtina on Kosova's future have, in fact, never been in doubt. The real question is whether the EU, which together with Russia and the United States makes up the international "troika" mediating the talks, will be able to overcome its internal divisions and formulate and stick to a coherent policy. This will be particularly important if the Kosovars declare independence soon after December 10, presumably with U.S. and British backing.

In recent months, there have been signs that a critical mass is emerging within the EU to support Kosovar independence if the latest talks lead nowhere. One important development during this time was the replacement of Jacques Chirac by Nicolas Sarkozy as president of France. As Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner recently put it, France's foreign policy is no longer determined by reflexive anti-Americanism. In just a few months, Sarkozy has reaffirmed internationally his reputation as a dynamic and determined leader who does not hesitate to break with old policies that no longer work. Perhaps more importantly, Kouchner himself is highly familiar with the situation in Kosova, having served as the UN's special representative there from 1999-2001. In short, France now seems likely to join the United States and Britain in recognizing an independent Kosova.

A second development that might have contributed to a growing support within the EU for Kosovar independence was the rejection by Russia and Serbia of the plan proposed by Ahtisaari, which calls for carefully supervised independence. In most of Europe, Ahtisaari's work was regarded as balanced, thorough, and worthy of the best diplomatic traditions of the UN. Moscow's and Belgrade's decision to reject it met with little understanding within the EU, particularly in the Nordic and those other countries where a UN label almost automatically commands respect.

A third factor is the apparent growing awareness within the EU that because Kosova is part of Europe, its future is primarily a European matter, and that a failure to form a unified EU policy on Kosova will mean that the bloc is incapable of speaking with one voice on anything in international affairs. In other words, Kosova is increasingly regarded by many as the make-or-break issue for a unified EU foreign policy.

On October 24, Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" published an interview with German Ambassador to Britain Wolfgang Ischinger, who represents the EU in the troika. He strongly defended holding the current round of talks, arguing that they have proved more innovative and fruitful than most observers expected. He noted that one approach to resolving the dispute over Kosova that has received attention recently is the model of the 1972 agreement between East and West Germany. On the basis of that treaty, Bonn and East Berlin established what in practice were diplomatic relations without, however, West Germany being forced to compromise its political and legal principles on the subject of German unity. Ischinger suggested that such creative statecraft might have its applications in the Balkans today.

But the most important aspect of Ischinger's interview was his insistence that the EU has moved in recent months towards a unified policy on Kosova. He argued that "for the first time in the history of the Kosovo conflict, the EU has become an actor in its own right and even the one with the most responsibility." Many would argue that Washington and Moscow will have the final say, as did the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" itself on October 18. But Ischinger stressed in his interview that Europeans increasingly believe that it is not acceptable that "in 2007, European crises are resolved in the United States."

The reasons for this belief are rooted in years of frustration since 1991 over the failure of the EU to help manage the breakup of former Yugoslavia without the political and military leadership of the United States. This frustration might be called a "Jacques Poos complex" after the foreign minister of Luxembourg who made the erroneous prediction in 1991 that the dissolution of Yugoslavia would be the "hour of Europe."

If Ischinger argued that the EU will take a unified approach to Kosova, some persistent but unconfirmed German media reports during the same week as his interview indicated that Berlin has already decided to join Washington, London, Paris, the Nordic capitals, and several others in recognizing an independent Kosova. If such statements attributed to unnamed German government officials by public broadcasters Deutschlandfunk and Deutsche Welle are true, it would mean that there is now a critical mass in the EU in support of such a step, despite the continuing objections of some smaller states like Greece and Cyprus, which are traditional supporters of Serbia.

Gert Weisskirchen, the parliamentary spokesman of the German Social Democratic Party (SPD), which controls the Foreign Ministry, denied on October 24 in an interview with Deutschlandfunk that Berlin has already made its decision. Instead, he said, "let's give diplomacy time." But as one German Balkan expert said to RFE/RL, "what would you expect [the government] to do? They obviously made the leaks but then denied them when confronted with a direct question."

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown on October 25 expressed frustration with NATO countries that are not fighting on the front lines of the conflict in Afghanistan, AFP reported. Brown said Britain wants to see "burden-sharing amongst different countries that have an interest in stopping the Taliban," noting that all member countries are resolute in preventing Afghanistan from becoming a "failed state again." British and other officials, including U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, have expressed disappointment and frustration with coalition countries unwilling to send troops to the front lines in Afghanistan's volatile south, from where the Taliban launches most of its military operations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2007). Brown made the remarks after talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who praised the joint efforts of the international community and his government, and declared that his country is ready to take on more responsibility to reduce the burden of western forces there. Earlier the same day, Paddy Ashdown, the former British international envoy to Bosnia-Herzegovina, said that NATO has "lost in Afghanistan" and warned of a sectarian war unless stability is re-established. Ashdown said failure in Afghanistan "will have serious implications internally for the security of our own countries." JC

Defense Secretary Gates on October 25 said that restrictions placed by governments on the location and activities their troops in Afghanistan put NATO forces at a "sizeable disadvantage," AFP reported. Speaking at a European military conference, Gates said, "the strings attached to one nation's forces unfairly burden others, and have done real harm in Afghanistan." Although he didn't name specific countries, Gates seemed to be responding to comments made earlier this week by German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung, who argued that the development work performed by Germany's 3,000 troops in northern Afghanistan is as important as combat operations in the south, where NATO troops are battling Taliban insurgents. Germany has offered more troops for Afghanistan in response to NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer's request for additional support, but only for nonmilitary missions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2007). Gates added that not only the Afghan mission is at risk, but the credibility of NATO overall if members fail to meet their troop commitments. JC

President Hamid Karzai on October 25 called on U.S. and NATO military leaders to stop using air strikes against insurgents in Afghanistan, citing the high civilian death toll, Reuters reported. Increasing civilian deaths as a result of western air strikes have prompted criticism from the international community, and continue to fuel resentment in Afghanistan and countries with troops in the coalition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30 and August 1, 2007). While the Afghan people can understand mistakes, Karzai said, "they cannot comprehend why there is still a need for air power" this many years into the conflict. The Afghan president said he "absolutely" wants fewer air strikes, adding that there are "alternatives to the use of air force." According to estimates by aid workers and Afghan officials, more than 370 civilians have been killed in NATO military operations in 2007, although the alliance disputes this figure. NATO is currently investigating claims that 13 civilians were killed in a bombing raid on October 22, in which 12 suspected militants also died (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2007). JC

Tribal elders and farmers came together on October 24 to rally against opium-poppy cultivation in Afghanistan's eastern Nangahar Province, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Demonstrators chanted "we will neither plant poppies nor allow their cultivation," before the protest transformed into a public meeting, led by local tribal elders who spoke out against the dangers of poppy farming. One resident, Haji Sher Baz Khan, accused the government of rejecting citizens' demands for alternative livelihoods and ignoring their willingness to cooperate with the authorities in efforts to eradicate the illicit crop. Chaparhar district residents, in a unanimous decision, pledged to provincial council Chief Fazli Hadi Shinwari to stop cultivating poppies. Anyone violating the agreement will be handed over to the government, local elder Syed Azim said. In support of the district's pledge, the provincial council established a 50-member jirga to ensure that poppies will not be grown anywhere in the district, Shinwari said. JC

Speaking in parliament on October 24, Manuchehr Mottaki dismissed recent rumors of his impending resignation, and said that he has his work laid out for the rest of the Persian year to next March, "Etemad" reported on October 25. The daily reported that some legislators, including members of the National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, are speaking with greater or lesser certainty about Mottaki's departure. He was in parliament on October 24 to answer questions from committee members, and later spoke to the press. Asked if he is in a position similar to that of former Supreme National Security Council secretary Ali Larijani two months ago -- when he apparently denied he was being pressured to resign -- Mottaki said the Foreign Ministry has full trust in the government's foreign policy and is doing its work accordingly. He attributed the rumors of his resignation to the fact that elections are approaching and this "naturally" increases public criticism of ministers. President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told the press in Tehran on October 24 that Mottaki is busy and "lively," and that the resignation issue is currently irrelevant, "Iran" reported on October 25. Ahmadinejad said rumors of Mottaki's resignation might have been caused by his appointing a first deputy minister, Alireza Sheikh-Attar, who will presumably be the acting minister in Mottaki's absence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2007). VS

Government spokesman and Justice Minister Gholamhussein Elham told a gathering of Basiji, or volunteer militiamen, near Qom in northcentral Iran on October 25 that Iran's power is beneficial to world peace, Fars reported. Elham was speaking at maneuvers involving some 10,000 members of the Basij militia in government ministries, and said their operations are a "symbolic" expression of support for the Islamic Republic. Iran's regime, he said, is at the height of its powers, and the world's "downtrodden" are now released from the "yoke of arrogance" and feel "solidarity and pride." Elham said threats against Iran have increased, but "they are less effective than at any time" before. Elham said that U.S. plans to isolate Iran have backfired, and that instead the United States is "moving toward isolation." But he urged Iranians to remain vigilant in the face of the enemy's diverse threats. He asked the Basijis to vote responsibly in parliamentary elections set for next March, to "counter the enemy's soft war," Fars reported. VS

The Guardians Council, the body of jurists that determines whether legislation conforms to Iran's constitution and religious laws, has indicated it may reject certain opinions of a key political arbitration body, the Expediency Council, Radio Farda reported on October 22, quoting Guardians Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodai and the Fars news agency. The Expediency Council, led by former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, can arbitrate between the Guardians Council and parliament in disputes over legislation. Iran's supreme leader has also entrusted the Expediency Council with supervising the government's due implementation of long-term state policies and development plans. Kadkhodai said the Expediency Council's opinions on Article 44 of the constitution -- which calls for large-scale privatization -- constitute expert opinions, but are not binding. Some in Iran see the Expediency Council and its interpretive powers as a power base for Hashemi-Rafsanjani, considered a moderately conservative cleric. Council members have criticized Ahmadinejad's government for its slow implementation of privatization policies and its economic policies in general. The Guardians Council, and secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati in particular, are perceived as favoring the Ahmadinejad government. The Expediency Council recently asked the Guardians Council to back the Expediency Council's opinions on Article 44 policies. Kadkhodai said the Expediency Council's own rules allow it to give opinions to the Guardians Council on whether or not the government is duly implementing state policies, "and the Guardians Council acts in line with its prerogatives," Radio Farda reported. VS

The Islamic Students' Association of Amir Kabir University in Tehran issued a statement on October 24 calling for the release of three students jailed for several months for their alleged role in the publication last March of purportedly impious student journals, Radio Farda reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16 and 18, 2007). Ali Azizi, a former association member and member of the nationwide student grouping Office to Consolidate Unity [DTV], told Radio Farda that the student group seeks an objective examination of the "forged publications" and the cases of the detained students -- Ahmad Qassaban, Majid Tavakkoli, and Ehsan Mansuri. He said the detentions stem from the state's determination to eliminate any independent student movement at Amir Kabir University, starting with banning the Islamic Students Association and closing its building. He said the government then proceeded to create an atmosphere of intimidation, seeing that the ban itself would not put an end to the independent student union. Radio Farda reported that many observers in Iran interpret these pressures as a response to Amir Kabir students heckling President Ahmadinejad when he spoke to them on December 11, 2006. Azizi said the three detainees have been subject to the "most intensive psychological...and physical pressures in prison." He said their families noted signs of torture on their faces and necks when they visited them in prison. Iran's government has rejected the torture allegations. Twenty student journals from different universities in Iran intend to publish blank pages as a protest against the arrests, Radio Farda reported on October 24. VS

Recently detained reformist cleric Hojjatoleslam Hadi Qabel has gone on trial and faced four sessions at the special clerical court in Qom, his son Ruhollah Qabel told ISNA on October 24. Ruhollah Qabel said he and his family met with Hojjatoleslam Hadi Qabel for an hour on October 24 before the fourth and perhaps last session of his trial. He did not comment on the charges, but expressed the hope the court will acquit his father (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 9, 2007). VS

The Turkish military issued a statement on October 25 saying that its forces foiled a major attack by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) fighters near the Iraqi border. The statement by the Turkish General Staff said that a large contingent of PKK fighters were preparing to attack the Yesilova border outpost along the Turkish-Iraqi border when they were repelled by Turkish forces. In the ensuing firefight, 30 PKK fighters were killed and Turkish forces continued to conduct search operations in the area. The statement did not indicate whether Turkish forces suffered any casualties. "As has been the case in the past, the Turkish Armed Forces continue at present and will continue in the future to fulfill the task that falls on it to secure the country's integrity and...tranquility courageously and at the cost of life and blood," the Turkish military said in a statement. This was the second PKK attack on Turkish positions in four days. On October 21, a PKK ambush at a Turkish border town left 12 Turkish soldiers dead (see RFE/RL Newsline," October 22, 2007). Turkey has threatened to conduct cross-border military operations inside northern Iraq to root out PKK fighters. SS

A high-level Iraqi delegation arrived in Ankara on October 25 to discuss ways to deal with PKK fighters based northern Iraq, the Anatolia News Agency reported the same day. The 11-member Iraqi delegation is led by Defense Minister Abd al-Qadir al-Ubaydi and includes senior members of the Iraqi Interior and Foreign Ministries as well as representatives from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party. Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan has said he expects a strong effort from the delegation to help solve the PKK problem. "I told Baghdad that the delegation must come with concrete proposals, that the visit would be futile otherwise," Babacan said. "We need more than just words." SS

Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani on October 25 called on PKK fighters based in Iraq to refrain from carrying out attacks on Turkish positions, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. He stressed that the Kurdistan regional government will not allow any group to use Iraqi territory to launch attacks on any of Iraq's neighbors. On October 24, the Kurdish Parliament issued a statement condemning the Turkish Parliament's decision to allow the Turkish military to launch cross-border attacks into northern Iraq, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported the same day. Kurdish Parliament Speaker Adnan Mufti said the Kurdish Parliament "stresses the need to adhere to the international principles showing respect for the national sovereignty and territorial integrity of any state, as well as for not interfering in other states' domestic affairs. Accordingly, we hereby denounce the Turkish Parliament's resolution in question as it is viewed as an unjustifiable violation of the Kurdistan region's security and of Iraq's sovereignty." SS

Iraqi parliament speaker Mahmud al-Mashhadani announced on October 25 in Damascus that Syria will help mediate the ongoing crisis between Iraq and Turkey regarding the PKK, international media reported. "There is a mediation project that will be announced when its conditions are completed," al-Mashhadani said. He spoke after meeting with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Syrian Vice President Faruk al-Shara. The Syrian mediation effort is seen as a way to mend a rift that has recently developed between Baghdad and Damascus. On October 22, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani criticized al-Assad for expressing support for Turkish military incursions into northern Iraq, saying that Turkey has the right to defend itself against terrorism (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, 2007). Separately, Syrian Interior Minister Basam abd al-Majid said that Syria will do all it can to help the approximately 1.4 million Iraqi refugees inside Syria. An Iraqi official accompanying al-Mashhadani told SANA that there are hopes that the two sides will form a joint committee to deal with the refugee crisis. SS

At an October 25 joint press conference with U.S. Lieutenant General Ray Odierno, Iraqi Staff Major General Abud Qanbar announced that terrorist attacks have dropped dramatically in the Iraqi capital since the implementation of the Baghdad security plan on February 14, KUNA reported. Qanbar said violence against civilians has dropped by 59 percent; attacks against Iraqi forces by 62 percent; assassination attempts by 70 percent; and car bombs by 65 percent. Odierno indicated that the reduced violence is mainly due to reconciliation among warring tribes in and around the capital. He also said that by the end of 2007, Iraqi forces will be able to handle 50 percent of the law enforcement operations in Baghdad. SS

Major General Abd al-Jalil Khalaf, the police commander of the southern city of Al-Basrah, escaped an assassination attempt on October 24, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. Khalaf and his bodyguards came under fire as they were getting into their vehicles near a busy market in the center of Al-Basrah. Khalaf said that several armed men, some carrying machine guns, opened fire and used bystanders as cover. The attack wounded two of his bodyguards. Khalaf said two of the gunmen were captured after the shooting. SS