RUSSIA ASKS FOR MORE ELECTION OBSERVERS...
State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov has asked the heads of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) to increase the number of observers each group is sending to monitor the December 2 Duma elections by 25, raising the number of monitors in each group from 30 to 55, the daily "Gazeta" reported on November 20. The newspaper quoted State Duma Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Konstantin Kosachyov as saying that the request for additional observers from the three organizations was aimed at making up for the shortfall in election observers that resulted from the decision by the OSCE's Office For Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) not to send its 70-person observer team after its members failed to receive visas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 19, 2007). However, "Gazeta" quoted a member of Russia's Central Election Commission, Igor Borisov, as saying that the request for more observers from PACE, the OSCE PA, and the CIS had nothing to do with ODIHR's decision. JB
...AND HINTS THE OSCE MAY NOT BE INVITED TO PRESIDENTIAL VOTE
The head of Russia's Central Election Commission, Vladimir Churov, said on November 19 that in the wake of ODIHR's decision not send observers to monitor the December 2 Duma elections, Russia is reviewing whether to invite OSCE observers to monitor the presidential election next March, the "Financial Times" reported on November 20. The newspaper also quoted Churov as saying on November 19 that there is "a political component" to the ODIHR decision to cancel its observer mission. The daily quoted Churov as saying the group applied for visas only last week, and that the visas were issued via a fast-track procedure on November 15, the day before the cancellation. The "Financial Times" reported that Churov reiterated "suggestions" from Russia's Foreign Ministry attributing political significance to the fact that ODIHR's pullout came immediately after its head, Christian Strohal, visited Washington. JB
U.S. AND RUSSIA REACH AGREEMENT ON PLUTONIUM DISPOSAL PLAN
U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman and Russian Federal Atomic Energy Agency Director Sergei Kiriyenko have signed a joint statement outlining a plan to dispose of 34 metric tons of surplus plutonium from Russia's weapons program, AP reported on November 19. According to the news agency, the joint statement outlines a plan under which Russia agrees to modify its fast-neutron reactors so that they can burn the plutonium while ensuring that additional plutonium will not be produced. For its part, the United States, which will also dispose of 34 tons of excess plutonium from its weapons program, will continue to help Russia pay for the construction of a plant to turn the plutonium into a mixed oxide fuel for its reactors. The two sides will also cooperate in researching and developing a more advanced reactor that could speed up the disposal process. AP quoted Bodman as saying in a separate statement that the agreement "reflects measurable progress towards disposing of a significant amount of weapons-grade plutonium in Russia." Newsru.com reported on November 29 that 68 metric tons of plutonium is enough to produce around 10,000 nuclear warheads. JB
IRAN SEEKS TO BUY RUSSIAN PASSENGER PLANES
Iran has started negotiations to purchase 30 Tupolev passenger aircraft worth more than $1 billion, Reuters reported on November 20. The news agency quoted "a source with knowledge of the deal" as saying the deal is likely to be completed by the end of the year. It also quoted Andrei Lipovetsky, a spokesman for Ilyushin Finance, which is selling the planes, as saying the company has "started talks to deliver a new order of aircraft," but he refused to comment further. According to Reuters, the deal "would greatly embarrass Western powers," which are trying to persuade Russia and China to tighten sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program. JB
LEBANON'S SAAD HARIRI DUE TO MEET WITH PUTIN
Lebanese parliamentary majority leader Saad Hariri is set to arrive in Moscow on November 20 for talks with President Vladimir Putin, amid a political standoff in Lebanon, RIA Novosti reported. The news agency noted that Lebanese lawmakers are set to vote on a new president on November 21, two days before incumbent pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud's term expires. However, the opposition and the ruling anti-Syrian coalition have not yet agreed on a candidate. In an interview published on November 19 in the daily "Vremya novostei," Hariri, the son of former Lebanese Premier Rafiq Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, said that "Russia, which maintains friendly ties with Lebanon as well as with Syria and Iran...could dissuade those countries from interfering in our domestic affairs, and from activities that complicate the situation in Lebanon." Meanwhile, "The Jerusalem Post" reported on November 19 that Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Sultanov visited Damascus on November 18 in an effort to convince Syrian President Bashar Assad that Syria should attend a Middle East conference set to take place in Annapolis, Maryland, in late November. JB
RUSSIAN COMMUNISTS PREPARED TO PROTEST ELECTION RESULTS
The Communist Party has announced that it plans to hold public demonstrations beginning on the evening of December 2 if the official preliminary election results do not correspond with its "alternative vote count," gazeta.ru reported on November 20. The party plans to apply for permission to hold rallies on December 3, 4, and 5. The party also hopes to send observer teams of 40-50 people to each of the country's 95,000 polling stations. Party leaders fear the Kremlin will falsify the results to reduce the Communist Party's share of the vote and its seats in the new Duma. The website quoted party officials as saying they expect to receive no less than 20 percent of the vote and believe they could poll as high as 40 percent. Political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told the website the party's support is "25-27 percent," adding, "but they won't receive such a result." The latest Levada Center poll showed the party with 14 percent support (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, 2007). RC
HIGH COURT REJECTS RIGHTISTS' COMPLAINT AGAINST PUTIN
The Supreme Court on November 20 rejected a suit by the Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) claiming that President Putin has unlawfully used his official position to campaign for the Duma, RIA Novosti reported, quoting SPS leader Nikita Belykh. No reason for the rejection was provided. The SPS has come under a sustained assault by the authorities throughout the country in recent weeks, in a campaign that has included the impounding of its campaign materials and a raft of defections of the party's Duma candidates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2007). Meanwhile, Ilya Yashin, the head of the youth wing of the Yabloko party, has filed a complaint with the Central Election Commission charging that the creation of the website http://www.zaputina.ru qualifies as campaigning and must be paid for by the Unified Russia election fund, gazeta.ru reported on November 20. Yashin has asked the commission to issue a warning to Putin, who heads the Unified Russia list of candidates for the December 2 Duma elections. Yashin said he also plans to open an anti-Putin website at the address http://www.protivputina.ru. RC
STUDENTS CLAIM THEY ARE PRESSURED TO ATTEND PRO-KREMLIN RALLIES
A group of students from the Kolomna Pedagogical Institute has published an open letter alleging that they have been compelled over the last three years to participate in demonstrations held by pro-Kremlin youth groups, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on November 20. According to the students, professors at the institute have been "advising" students to attend rallies sponsored by Nashi and Mestnye, which they claim is a violation of their constitutional rights. One student, who was identified only as Marina, told RFE/RL that professors have said they are acting under pressure from the Education Ministry. She also said the students have been told that such demonstrations will become more frequent in the final days before the Duma elections and in the run-up to the presidential election in March 2008. A spokeswoman for Mestnye refused to comment on the allegations. RC
PUTIN URGES ORTHODOX TO VOTE
President Putin met in Moscow on November 19 with Russian Orthodox Patriarch Alexy II and other church leaders to mark the 90th anniversary of the restoration of the Moscow Patriarchate, "The Moscow Times" and other Russian media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 16, 2007). Putin used the opportunity to urge Orthodox believers to vote in the December 2 elections. During the meeting, Aleksy proposed the creation of a public council on morals, which would in particular combat "vicious behavior" in mass-media programs. Putin presented Aleksy with a relic that is believed to be a fragment of a robe worn by Jesus and has until now been in the Kremlin collection. The relic will now be housed in Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral. RC
GOVERNMENT SETS UP NEW BODY TO MONITOR ITSELF
Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov has created a government commission that will be charged with evaluating the work of federal and regional executive-branch bodies, "Novyye izvestia" reported on November 20. Zubkov signed the order creating the commission on November 14. The new commission will replace a 3-year-old body that monitored the effectiveness of budgetary spending. That agency and the new commission are headed by Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandr Zhukov. Political analyst Aleksei Makarkin told the daily that it is unclear "whether the commission can effectively investigate and make decisions or whether this will be yet another bureaucratic structure." RC
FORD WORKERS IN PETERSBURG WALK OFF THE JOB
The Ford automotive plant outside St. Petersburg has been shut down by a labor action, gazeta.ru reported on November 20. Workers left the plant at midnight and plan to remain off the job until their demands for more money are met. Some 1,500 workers are employed at the plant. The factory's administration has said there will be no talks before November 26. According to the website, workers at a Renault facility in Moscow have set up a sympathy picket line in the capital. The Ford workers conducted a warning labor action on November 7 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2007). RC
CHECHEN PARLIAMENT IN EXILE APPEALS FOR UNITY
The parliament of the unrecognized Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI), which recently assumed the powers of president in the wake of Doku Umarov's proclamation of a North Caucasus Emirate (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30 and November 7, 2007), has issued an appeal in both Chechen and Russian to the Chechen people to desist from criticism of its actions, which, it claims, are intended to protect Chechen statehood. The appeal, posted on November 20 on the ChRI website chechenpress.info, called in particular on Chechen religious scholars, or alims, to maintain unity, presumably meaning not to support Umarov's declaration of jihad against not only Russia but also the United States, Great Britain, and Israel. Meanwhile, the Shariat Committee subordinate to the ChRI representation abroad released a statement on November 19, posted on chechenews.com, saying it has begun to consider a November 2 request by ChRI Foreign Minister Akhmed Zakayev that it deliver a legal assessment of Umarov's pronouncement. Zakayev has since submitted his resignation from that post to ChRI parliament chairman Zhaloudi Saralyapov, chechenpress.info reported on November 20. LF
SUSPECTS IN POLITKOVSKAYA KILLING REFUSED BAIL
The Moscow City Court has rejected appeals for bail by three Chechens currently held in pre-trial detention on suspicion of involvement in the killing of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya on October 7, 2006, kavkaz-uzel.ru reported on November 19. The three Chechens are Magomed Demelkhanov and Tamerlan and Ibragim Makhmudov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 28, 2007). LF
MILITANTS, POLICE CLASH IN KABARDINO-BALKARIA
One policeman was killed and two seriously injured late on November 19 in an exchange of fire with unidentified gunmen in Khasanya, on the southwestern outskirts of Nalchik, Russian media reported. Two policemen have been killed in similar shootings since mid-July, and a police patrol car was damaged by a landmine explosion in Nalchik in September (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30, August 20, and September 13, 2007). LF
ARMENIAN PRIME MINISTER LAMBASTES ELECTION RIVAL
Serzh Sarkisian on November 19 responded to statements made by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian at a mass rally in Yerevan three days earlier, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Ter-Petrossian, who is considered Sarkisian's most formidable challenger in the presidential election scheduled for February 19, 2008, refuted in considerable detail earlier accusations by Sarkisian and incumbent President Robert Kocharian that his administration's economic policies "ruined" Armenia. Ter-Petrossian also appealed to opposition parties to back his presidential bid, and vowed that if he wins the February 2008 ballot, he will step down after three years. Commenting on that offer on November 19, Sarkisian said Ter-Petrossian "probably thinks that three years is enough to surrender Karabakh." Major opposition parties reacted coolly to Ter-Petrossian's appeal for support, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on November 19. To date, only his Armenian Pan-National Movement and the extra-parliamentary People's Party of Armenia headed by Stepan Demirchian have expressed support for his candidacy, together with some 10-12 smaller opposition groups. LF
AZERBAIJANI PRESIDENTIAL ADVISER DENIES JOURNALISTS JAILED FOR PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITIES
Presidential apparatus head Ramiz Mehtiyev, a former ideology secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Azerbaijan, told journalists in Baku on November 19 that none of the nine journalists currently serving prison terms in Azerbaijan was sentenced for his professional activities, day.az reported. Ali Ahmedov, the deputy executive secretary of the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party, similarly argued on November 6 that the fact that some journalists encounter "problems" does not mean that media freedom does not exist in Azerbaijan. He said the purpose of the media is "to serve lofty ideals, rather than to insult a man's honor and dignity," according to zerkalo.az on November 7. Meanwhile, the staff of the opposition daily "Azadlyg" plans to raise 11,000 manats ($12,926) to secure the release on bail of the paper's editor, Ganimat Zaxid, who was arrested on November 10 and sentenced the following day to three months' pre-trial detention on apparently fabricated charges of assault and grievous bodily harm (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2007). LF
GEORGIA DEPLORES LACK OF DEMOCRACY IN RUSSIA
The Georgian Foreign Ministry released a statement on November 19 responding to comments made by a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman on November 15 on the situation in Georgia, Caucasus Press and the Russian daily "Kommersant" reported on November 19 and 20 respectively. The Russian spokesman dismissed the pre-term presidential ballot called by incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili as a "farce" intended to ensure that the current leadership retains power, adding that the Georgian authorities are clearly counting on low voter turnout to facilitate falsification of the election outcome. It accused the Georgian leadership of engaging in open Russophobia, and noted that a patrol by the UN Observer Mission in Georgia failed to confirm Georgian allegations of the illicit deployment of Russian tanks and armor to Abkhazia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2007). The Georgian Foreign Ministry response argued that Moscow has no right to pronounce in advance on the outcome of the Georgian presidential ballot, especially as the Russian authorities have made it impossible for the OSCE's Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights to monitor the December 2 elections to the Russian State Duma. It further stated that there is no longer "even a trace of the democratic process" in Russia. LF
DIALOGUE BETWEEN GEORGIAN AUTHORITIES, OPPOSITION DEADLOCKED
The ongoing talks between representatives of the Georgian parliamentary majority and the National Council comprising 10 opposition parties resumed on November 19, but failed to narrow the differences between the two sides, even though the authorities offered to compromise on unspecified issues, according to parliament speaker Nino Burdjanadze, Caucasus Press reported on November 20. No date has been set for further talks. Gia Tortladze of the Conservative Party was quoted by kavkaz-uzel.ru as saying that the authorities continue to reject outright the opposition's two key demands: allowing the independent television company Imedi, which has been stripped of its broadcasting license for three months, to resume broadcasting, and the release of all political prisoners. LF
FORMER GEORGIAN COMMUNIST PARTY HEAD TO RUN FOR PRESIDENT
Avtandil Margiani, who served from late 1990 until early 1991 as first secretary of the Communist Party of Georgia and under Eduard Shevardnadze as deputy prime minister from 1992-1995, announced on November 19 that he will run in the pre-term presidential elections scheduled for January 5, 2008, Caucasus Press reported. Margiani said that if elected, his primary objective will be to improve relations with Russia. He added that United Georgia, the umbrella group of some 11 parties that he heads, was not invited to join the opposition National Council because it is perceived as too pro-Russian. He proposed that all presidential candidates swear a solemn oath to make good on all their campaign promises and undergo an evaluation of their physical and mental health, lenta.ru reported. LF
KAZAKH SPEAKER MEETS WITH VISITING EU ENVOY
The speaker of the upper house of the Kazakh parliament, Kasymzhomart Tokaev, met in Astana on November 19 with the EU's special representative for Central Asia, Pierre Morel, to discuss "prospects for bilateral cooperation and how to further expand a comprehensive dialogue between Kazakhstan and the EU," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Morel is heading a delegation of EU officials from the so-called EU troika and is visiting Kazakhstan as part of the broader EU strategy of engagement in the region. Tokaev also requested that the EU expand its support for "interparliamentary cooperation" and stressed that it is important to expand collaboration at the interparliamentary level. He also told the delegation that Kazakhstan is "committed" to deepening relations with the European Union. An OSCE summit on November 29-30 that will consider Kazakhstan's application to assume the rotating chairmanship of the OSCE in 2009. RG
KYRGYZ ELECTION COMMISSION BEGINS ACCREDITATION OF INTERNATIONAL OBSERVERS
The Kyrgyz Central Electoral Commission began on November 19 the process of accrediting international observers to monitor Kyrgyzstan's December 16 parliamentary election, AKIpress reported. An unidentified commission official noted that applications to observe the election have already been received from the CIS, the International Republican Institute, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR). The commission also adopted a resolution to establish polling stations in foreign embassies to enable Kyrgyz citizens residing abroad to participate in the voting. The commission reported that, to date, polling stations have been established in nine major Russian cities with large Kyrgyz populations, including Moscow, Yekaterinburg, Novosibirsk, and St. Petersburg. Kyrgyz citizens will also be able to vote at polling stations in the Kazakh cities of Astana and Almaty. RG
KYRGYZ PREMIER MEETS WITH SOUTH KOREAN LEADERS
On the first day of an official visit to South Korea, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev met with the Korean Parliament Speaker Lim Chae-jung on November 19 to discuss the planned establishment of a new "Korea and Central Asia" interregional forum, according to AKIpress. In a formal meeting with South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, Atambaev signed a new bilateral investment treaty and an economic-cooperation agreement. Atambaev also discussed related measures of bilateral cooperation, including plans to hold several joint culture and education events, as well as the Kyrgyz goal of attracting greater levels of Korean investment in the country. Atambaev is on a three-day visit to South Korea. He is the first Kyrgyz prime minister to visit Korea since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries in 1992. Korean investment in Kyrgyzstan has increased from $200 million in 2005 to $340 million in 2006, driven largely by Korean interest in developing Kyrgyz natural resources such as uranium, gold, and tungsten. RG
UZBEK ELECTION COMMISSION APPROVES KARIMOV'S PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDACY
Meeting in Tashkent on November 19, Uzbekistan's Central Election Commission formally approved the candidacy of incumbent President Islam Karimov for the December 23 presidential election, RFE/RL's Uzbek Service reported. With no opposition party even registered in Uzbekistan, commission Chairman Mirzoulugbek Abdusalomov also announced the registration of three other candidates, all of whom are staunchly pro-government figures. The other candidates are Aslidin Rustamov and Dilorom Toshmuhamedova, members of the pro-government People's Democratic Party and Party of Justice, respectively, both of whom are currently serving as deputy parliamentary speakers. Toshmuhamedova is the country's first-ever female candidate for president. The other candidate, Akmal Saidov, heads a parliamentary commission on democratization and civil society and leads the National Human Rights Center. Abdusalomov said that two other applicants failed to collect the required signatures from 5 percent of the country's estimated 16 million eligible voters. The commission decision to approve Karimov as a candidate allows him to seek a new seven-year presidential term despite a constitutional ban on third terms. Karimov supporters argued that the holding of two national referendums in 1995 and 2002 rendered at least one of his two presidential terms inapplicable. Karimov, who will turn 70 in less than two months, was formally nominated by the Liberal Democrats, one of only five registered political parties in Uzbekistan. He as served as Uzbekistan's president since 1989 and, in his last reelection, secured another term with nearly 92 percent of the vote, although a subsequent referendum extended the presidential term from five years to seven. RG
BELARUSIAN VENDORS RALLY AGAINST PLANNED RESTRICTIONS
Over 2,000 market vendors on November 19 attended a rally in Minsk against President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's decree imposing more restrictive conditions for running businesses, Belapan reported. Under the decree, starting from January 1, 2008, certain small-business owners will be barred from hiring employees other than three family members. The demonstrators adopted a resolution demanding a meeting with Lukashenka. They also requested that Lukashenka ask the Belarusian Constitutional Court to examine the legality of the restrictions. Market vendors have already made unsuccessful attempts to push for a court hearing by appealing to Prime Minister Syarhey Sidorski, both chambers of the Belarusian legislature, and the Supreme Court. "The grievances of entrepreneurs are turning into the grievances of people encountering red tape and irresponsible bureaucrats," Anatol Shumchanka, the chairman of the Perspektyva vendors' association, told the rally. AM
DEATH COUNT RISES TO 88 AFTER UKRAINE MINE BLAST, ANOTHER 12 MISSING
The death toll has risen to 88 after the November 18 gas blast at the Zasyadko coalmine in Ukraine's Donetsk region, while rescuers continue to search for another 12 people, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on November 20. President Viktor Yushchenko declared November 20 a day of national mourning in Ukraine. The disaster is the worst tragedy in the Ukrainian coal-mining industry in the post-Soviet era. In a similar disaster in 2000, 80 miners were killed at the Barakov coalmine in the Luhansk region. Relatives of the Zasyadko victims on November 19 broke through a security cordon and burst into the building where a government committee was investigating the cause of the gas blast. The relatives accused the authorities of concealing information from the public. The Ukrainian government has offered 13 million hrynyas ($2.6 million) in total compensation for the families of the dead miners. AM
EU CALLS ON UKRAINE TO CANCEL VISAS FOR ROMANIANS AND BULGARIANS
European Commission spokeswoman Christiane Homann said on November 19 that Ukraine should cancel its visa requirements for the EU's two newcomers, Romania and Bulgaria, before the EU ratifies an agreement on a simplified visa regime for Ukrainians entering the Schengen zone, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The European Parliament recently adopted simplified rules for Ukrainians to obtain visas to Schengen countries, but the final approval will be made by the European Parliament. Romania and Bulgaria, whose citizens need visas to enter Ukraine, threatened to block the ratification of the agreement. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said on November 18 that Ukraine will cancel visa requirements for Romanians and Bulgarians only when the EU ratifies and implements its simplified visa agreement with Ukraine. AM
HOOLIGANS PROVOKE DISPUTE BETWEEN UKRAINE AND RUSSIA
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry has protested against acts of vandalism committed by the members of the Eurasian Youth Union, who attempted to destroy an exhibition at a Ukrainian cultural center in Moscow dedicated to the 1932-33 Great Famine in Ukraine, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported on November 19. Three men on November 17 entered the exhibition, titled "Declassified Memory," and started to tear up the photographs on display, claiming that there was no famine in Ukraine. They were seized by visitors and handed over to police officers who arrived 15 minutes later. The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry called the incident a "profanity" against the memory of millions of victims of the famine and against Ukraine itself. The Russian Foreign Ministry has said that Ukraine's reference to the 1932-33 famine as "genocide" is "a unilateral distortion of history." Ukraine is seeking to have the Great Famine recognized at the international level as an act of genocide against Ukrainians. AM
EU URGES CAUTION ON KOSOVA...
EU foreign ministers on November 19 urged Kosova's incoming government not to rush to declare independence unilaterally, warning that an "unmanaged" move to independence would spark problems in northern Kosova and Bosnia-Herzegovina, according to international reports. Speaking at a regular gathering of EU foreign ministers, Luxembourg's Jean Asselborn said the victor in the November 17 parliamentary elections, Hashim Thaci, "knows what the score is and that a unilateral declaration of independence would be a very bad thing" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, 2007). Thaci said after his unofficial election victory that he wants Kosova to declare independence "immediately" after international talks end in December. Asselborn added that EU ministers "are trying to do all we can to convince the Kosovars not to proceed with a unilateral declaration of independence." Instead, Britain's minister for Europe, Jim Murphy, said a declaration by Kosova should be "coordinated by the international community." "We need a soft landing rather than a big crash," Sweden's Carl Bildt said, adding that "the Balkans is a rather fragile place." Kosova may already enjoy "de facto" independence, Bildt said, but "I don't think Kosovo wants to be independent from the international community," noting at the same time that Kosova will rely on international help for many years. Bildt added that Thaci, who has said he intends to lead the new government, "has to understand there is a difference between being a politician in opposition and a responsible prime minister." The EU's concern about a unilateral bid for independence by Kosova is longstanding, but the issue has been given extra urgency by the elections in Kosova and by the imminent conclusion, on December 10, of scheduled talks on Kosova's status. The EU believes negotiations should end at that point, but Serbia and its chief supporter, Russia, maintain that talks should last until Prishtina agrees to a compromise satisfactory to Belgrade. AG
...BUT NEW KOSOVAR LEADER IS INSISTENT
Hashim Thaci, the unofficial victor in the November 17 parliamentary elections in Kosova, has reasserted his determination to lead Kosova to independence in an interview published by the German daily "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" (FAZ) on November 19. Critically, though, AP reported that on November 19 he also reiterated his longstanding position that any future decisions should be coordinated with the United States and Europe, and Britain's "The Guardian" quoted a UN official in Kosova as saying that "he's listening to the Americans very carefully. [The Americans] are shooting for mid-January" as a date for a declaration of independence. In addition, in his interview with the "FAZ," Thaci stressed the importance of having "an international civilian mission in the country, as well as NATO," and described the role of the United States as "irreplaceable." While those reports and Thaci's comments may allay some of the EU's concerns about a unilateral move, Thaci also made clear to the "FAZ" that Kosova's political leaders would occupy the driving seat. Kosova "will take the decision about its own independence and I expect international support for this," he said. "We cannot wait until all states are ready to recognize us," he said, in a reference to the EU's efforts to achieve a unified position. He also rejected the notion that agreements reached over Hong Kong's status or between northern and southern Cyprus could provide models for achieving a deal with Serbia. "All these ideas have no substance," he said. EU leaders "know what Serbia also knows: that independence is the only solution." Like Thaci, all Kosovar Albanian leaders insist on early independence for Kosova. In opposition, Thaci consistently stressed the need for Kosova to have international backing in its push for independence. AG
EU INCREASINGLY RESIGNED TO LACK OF UNITY ON KOSOVA...
Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado said on November 19 that the EU will continue to pursue "all the possibilities to have a common position" on Kosova, but the meeting of EU foreign ministers brought fresh indications that the bloc is resigned to not achieving unity. Britain's Europe minister Murphy said that "well over 20" of the bloc's 27 states "want to recognize Kosovo" as an independent state, "but we haven't got to 27 yet." Nonetheless, he argued that individual EU states, not the EU as a whole, ultimately bear responsible for recognizing an independent Kosova, and that the EU's foreign ministers have "made it clear that they will make their own assessment," Deutsche Welle reported. Murphy did not name those reluctant to recognize Kosova as a state. However, Cyprus, Greece, and Romania are openly opposed, and Slovakia and Spain are known at least to harbor major reservations. The growing sense of urgency in the EU was heightened by statements by the German and Austrian foreign ministers. Germany's Frank-Walter Steinmeier said Berlin is preparing for "possible alternatives" to "a negotiated and agreed solution" to Kosova's status, while Austria's Ursula Plassnik said EU ministers need to begin giving serious thought to "the possibility that there will be no agreement" between Belgrade and Prishtina. AG
...BUT WILL LEAVE 'NO STONE UNTURNED'...
Despite the indications that individual EU countries are preparing for the failure of talks and a unilateral move by Kosova, EU foreign ministers made clear they are determined to continue trying to broker a diplomatic breakthrough between Belgrade and Prishtina. "We feel that no stone must go unturned," Reuters quoted France's Europe Minister Jean-Pierre Jouyet as saying. The value of continued efforts to break the impasse was stressed by Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado, who said "I think we still have to wait until the very last minute" for any agreement. Reports suggest the EU is now resting its hopes chiefly on continuing to promote a "status-neutral" agreement between Prishtina and Belgrade that would leave the issue of Kosova's status unresolved but would effectively enable Kosova to operate as an independent state. Such a deal would be modeled on a series of agreements in the 1970s that paved the way for a normalization of ties between East and West Germany but did not preclude the possibility of a later reunification. However, in a report published on November 20 in Britain's "The Guardian," based on statements by unnamed UN officials in Kosova, EU diplomats also suggests that "the EU and the Americans will offer Kosovo's Albanian leaders prompt recognition of independence, sometime in January." The EU has repeatedly stressed that it sees Kosova's status as primarily an issue for Europe rather than Russia and the United States, a position reiterated on November 19 by British Europe Minister Murphy. "This is a European challenge -- it is not one we can ask the United States to solve for us," he said. In other comments on November 19, the EU's mediator in the talks on Kosova's future, Wolfgang Ischinger, put the EU's role in perspective. "The EU was never in the driver's seat," he said. "It was in the back seat," while Serbs and Kosovar Albanians drove. Nonetheless, he said, the efforts to secure a deal have "given the EU a new sense of ownership and responsibility for the future of Kosovo." AG
...AS TALKS ENTER FINAL WEEKS
In a briefing given to EU foreign ministers on November 19, the EU's Kosova mediator Ischinger signaled that the possibilities of a breakthrough have all but disappeared. "In 100 days, we have explored almost every humanly known option for squaring the circle of the Kosovo status issue," Ischinger said. In other comments underlining the efforts made by the "troika" of international mediators, Ischinger said that "the troika process, even if it were terminated today, has not been window dressing.... Regardless of how exactly this process will end...it is clear no one will be able to say that this was not a meaningful and intense and working negotiating process." Ischinger on November 20 will join his colleagues, Russia's Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko and the United States' Frank Wisner, in Brussels to lead the latest round of direct talks between Belgrade and Prishtina. Reuters quoted Portuguese Foreign Minister Luis Amado as saying on November 19 that Ischinger will float a "status-neutral" proposal to regulate ties. Another report, by AP, suggested that Ischinger will also try to get the two sides to agree on practical cooperation in the areas of education and trade as part of a final deal, a focus that again suggests the core issue -- whether Kosova should be a state -- will be left to one side. Serbia's deputy prime minister, Bozidar Djelic, indicated on November 19 that Belgrade will again stress that Hong Kong could be the inspiration for a solution (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 25 and November 6, 2007). "Certain elements of the organization of Hong Kong could be taken as an example, not as a model, but as examples," AP quoted him as saying. The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said on November 19 that there will "still be two rounds" of talks after the November 20 meeting, one in Vienna and the last in Brussels. Solana will be among those who will meet Kosova's and Serbia's political leaders on November 20. AG
POLITICS TRIGGER ECONOMIC 'HYSTERIA,' INFLATION IN BOSNIA...
Political instability is sending the price of staple foods soaring, causing "market hysteria," the governor of Bosnia-Herzegovina's central bank, Kemal Kozaric, warned on November 16. Speaking to Reuters after reports surfaced of shortages in Sarajevo and of Bosnians stockpiling cooking oil, flour, and sugar, Kozaric said "global increases in wheat and oil prices partially contributed to the latest hike, but the political situation has had a major impact on the atmosphere at the market." He continued, "the messages that politicians are sending out have a powerful effect and have created market hysteria." Political tensions have been high in Bosnia throughout the year. A ruling in February by the UN's highest court on Serbia's role in Bosnia's civil war fed into long-running disputes about the country's constitutional make-up and about EU-ordered reforms, and subsequent efforts by the international community's representative in the country, Miroslav Lajcak, to drive through reform of the police and to reform Bosnia's political decision-making process have taken tensions to new heights. Some analysts argue that political tensions are now greater than at any point since the war ended, and there are fears that Bosnian Serbs may seek to secede, possibly using independence for Kosova as a further justification. AG
...PROMPTING INTERVENTION BY BOSNIAN REGIONAL GOVERNMENT
The alarm caused by the price increases and fears of food shortages prompted the government of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Muslim-Croat Federation to announce on November 16 that it will release basic foodstuffs from its reserves and increase shop inspections in an effort to stem alleged profiteering. According to the news service Balkan Insight, the Muslim-Croat Federation's Statistical Office reported on November 15 that in October alone the price of cooking oil leapt by 14.7 percent and butter by 10.1 percent. October also saw large hikes in the price of milk (5 percent), flour (3.7 percent), and bread (2.3 percent). In the country's other autonomous region, the Republika Srpska, trade unionists are reportedly urging the local government to introduce a flat VAT rate for basic food products. AG
INTERNATIONAL TROOPS LAUNCH NEW RAID IN SEARCH FOR KARADZIC
EUFOR troops, supported by local police officers and members of Bosnia-Herzegovina's state intelligence agency, searched the home of a Bosnian Serb businessman on November 19 in a further attempt to locate Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leader and a suspected war criminal. According to local media, Dragan Sojic is an associate of a former president of the Republika Srpska, Mirko Sarovic, whose home was raided in September and who was questioned on November 1 by investigators from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 24 and November 5, 2007). The raid was carried out at the request of the ICTY. During the four-hour search of Sojic's home in Pale, EUFOR reportedly seized two computers and a mobile phone as well as a number of other small items. While AFP described Sojic as a "prominent businessman," the news service Balkan Insight said he works for "the Construction Bureau" of the Republika Srpska, a now-autonomous region governed by Bosnian Serbs that was conceived as an independent state by Karadzic and his supporters during the war. AG
KOSOVA INDEPENDENCE DECLARATION MORE LIKELY IN WAKE OF ELECTIONS
The Democratic Party of Kosova (PDK), led by the former Kosovar Albanian guerrilla leader Hashim Thaci, has won the breakaway province's parliamentary elections, according to initial returns.
The results make a unilateral declaration of independence by Kosova more likely, sparking concerns in the European Union about the ramifications of such a move.
With results from 90 percent of polling stations counted, independent election monitors say Thaci's PDK came in first with 34 percent of the vote.
The long-standing governing party, the Democratic League of Kosova (LDK) founded by the late pro-independence icon Ibrahim Rugova, came in second with 22 percent -- a sharp drop from the 45 percent the party won in the 2004 elections.
Thaci, the former political leader of the Kosova Liberation Army (UCK), is now widely expected to become prime minister. Current Prime Minister Agim Ceku, a former UCK commander who does not have a party of his own, is stepping down.
Speaking to cheering supporters in the capital Pristina, Thaci said the PDK's victory marks the beginning of a "new century" for the province, which is officially part of Serbia but has been run as a UN protectorate since 1999. The vote, said Thaci, "showed that Kosova is ready to move forward toward freedom and independence."
Likewise, PDK Vice President Hajredin Kuqi said the party has "worked intensively for change" and is ready to lead the province.
Vehbi Miftari, a spokesman for the second-place finisher, the LDK, says his party recognizes "the validity of these elections" and will respect the results.
Despite the PDK's win, it will not be able to form a government on its own.
In an interview with RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service, political analyst Baton Haxhiu said a coalition with the LDK is likely.
"I think that despite their competitive relations in the past, the PDK and LDK will form a coalition," Haxhiu said. "There will not be a government without an agreement between the two biggest political parties."
According to Haxhiu, a coalition agreement would depend on reaching agreement on key government posts like the foreign affairs and defense portfolios, the presidency -- which is currently held by the LDK's Fatmir Sejdiu -- and on Pristina's local government.
"If in these three elements an agreement is reached, then the rest will be easily achievable," Haxhiu said.
Despite internal differences between Kosova's ethnic Albanian parties, they are all united in their drive for independence -- and the sooner, the better.
Thaci says parliament will declare independence from Serbia "immediately after December 10," the date when mediators from the United States, the European Union, and Russia are due to issue a report on efforts to reach a compromise between Serbia and Kosova's 90-percent ethnic Albanian majority.
Officials say there is no hint of a deal being reached. Belgrade has offered broad autonomy within Serbia, but Kosova's leaders say they will settle for nothing less than full independence.
European Union foreign ministers on November 19 urged Kosova not to rush toward independence. The United States backs independence for Kosova, but the EU is divided on the issue.
Germany, Spain, Slovakia, and Romania have been hesitant to back a unilateral declaration of independence.
EU ministers meeting in Brussels said on November 19 such a declaration could prompt Kosova's Serbian minority to secede and the Serbian half of Bosnia-Herzegovina to proclaim statehood as well, sparking massive destabilization in the Balkans.
"Kosovo should be independent, but it shouldn't be an unmanaged, unilateral declaration," Jim Murphy, Britain's European affairs minister, said today. He also urged the EU not to allow Russia to block statehood, as it has done in the past.
Likewise, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt said he believes Thaci understands "that there is a difference between [being] a politician in opposition and being a responsible prime minister" and will act accordingly.
"Kosovo is already de facto independent from Serbia," Bildt said today. "I don't think Kosovo wants to be independent from the international community -- they want to be defended, protected by NATO, they want to be supported in every other way by the European Union."
Wolfgang Ischinger, a German diplomat who is heading negotiations between Belgrade and Pristina, is due to meet Serbian and Kosova Albanian officials in Brussels on November 20.
Kosova's status issue has a broader impact beyond the Balkans. Many separatist regions -- including the post-Soviet frozen conflicts of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transdniester -- are looking to Kosova as a model for how their own issues may be resolved.
Kosova's elections were marred by low turnout, as only 45 percent of the 1.5 million eligible voters cast ballots.
Kosova's Serbian minority boycotted the election to protest the independence plans. Many ethnic Albanian voters -- weary of politicians' inability to address widespread poverty and corruption -- chose to skip the vote as well. Unemployment in the province is estimated at 60 percent.
Political analyst Blendi Fevziu told RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service that Kosovar Albanians are deeply disappointed in their leaders.
"The low turnout of the voters is undoubtedly connected with a huge disappointment with political elite in Kosova," Fevziu said. "This disappointment has come not only because the status issue -- which in the end is not in the hands of the Kosovars -- has been prolonged so much. It also comes from a very difficult economic situation and poor management in general."
Council of Europe observers called the turnout "alarmingly low," adding that it revealed "a profound dissatisfaction among the population."
UN REPORT SAYS GUNFIRE KILLED MOST IN AFGHAN BOMBING
Amid conflicting reports on the aftermath of the devastating suicide bombing in Afghanistan's Baghlan Province on November 6, the UN Department of Safety and Security stated in a preliminary report on November 19 that that gunfire accounted for a large number of those killed and wounded, according to a copy obtained by AP. The report asserts that bodyguards assigned to protect the lawmakers started shooting "deliberately and indiscriminately" after the blast, killing or wounding as many as two-thirds of the total number of victims, most of them schoolchildren. Adrian Edwards, the UN spokesman in Afghanistan, cautioned that "what you are seeing at the moment represents part of the picture only. What hasn't been resolved is that there are widely diverging, contrary views on this, and until those have been resolved, there is no complete finding." The report also charged that further investigations "are being hampered by restrictions on witnesses and officials," and criticized the Afghan government for failing to identify who was responsible for the attack. MM
SUICIDE BOMBER TARGETS NIMROZ PROVINCE GOVERNOR, KILLS SIX
A suicide bomber set off his explosives outside the governor's office in the southwestern province of Nimroz on November 19, killing six policemen and the governor's son, Bakhtar News Agency reported. Governor Ghulam Dastagir Azad, who escaped injury, declared, "I was the target of the suicide attacker." Fourteen people were wounded in the bombing. Qari Yusof Ahmadi, a Taliban spokesman, claimed responsibility for the attack. In neighboring Helmand Province, suspected Taliban militants attacked a government security post on November 19, killing two police officers and wounding four others. MM
U.S. TO AID AFGHAN JUDICIAL REFORM
The United States announced on November 16 that it is launching an initiative to strengthen the judicial system in Afghanistan through the formation of public-private partnerships, Pajhwak Afghan News reported on November 19. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is slated to formally launch the program in December. The program marks the first time that the United States has gotten involved in justice-system reform in Afghanistan; previous efforts have been led by Italy. "The partnership will allow [U.S.] firms to demonstrate their commitment to improving the justice system in Afghanistan by funding low-cost, high-impact projects promoting women's rights, access to justice, legal aid, professional development, and other important justice-related activities," according to a State Department statement. It added that the partnership will be co-chaired by Thomas A. Schweich, the U.S. coordinator for counternarcotics and justice reform in Afghanistan, and Robert O'Brien, the former U.S. alternate representative to the UN. MM
NOBEL LAUREATE EBADI FORMS U.S.-IRAN 'PEACE COMMITTEE'...
Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi told Radio Farda in Tehran on November 19 that she is forming a "provisional peace committee" to help reconcile Iran and the United States. The two states have had cool relations since Iran's 1979 revolution, and these have deteriorated over Iran's alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons and aspects of its foreign policy. Ebadi told the broadcaster that Iranians should remind both sides of their rights and duties within international law, stating that Iran cannot simply ignore UN resolutions on its nuclear program, while the United States does not have the right to "act outside international norms with Iran." Ebadi said the United States is looking for an excuse to "lay its hands on Iran's wealth and oil," and she deplored the "increasingly aggressive" discourse between the two states. Ebadi and several other public figures held a separate press conference that day at the Tehran premises of the Center for Human Rights Defenders. She said this was the group's first step in denouncing the threat of a war. Liberal politician Ezzatollah Sahabi told the gathering that an extremist right-wing faction in Iran is provoking the international community against the country. Another liberal, the head of the Iran Freedom Movement, Ibrahim Yazdi, said the United States has managed to forge an international anti-Iran consensus, and seems to be making "serious" preparations for a war with Iran, Radio Farda reported. VS
...EXPRESSES CONCERN OVER EXECUTIONS IN IRAN
Ebadi separately expressed concern over the continued use of capital punishment in Iran. She was speaking after the execution on November 15 of three convicted murderers, one of whom Ebadi said was 16 when he committed his crime, the killing of three children in 2005, Radio Farda reported on November 17 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, 2007). Ebadi told the broadcaster that judicial penalties are intended as correctional measures, and executing criminals means they cannot be rehabilitated. She said the Iranian government "unfortunately uses [executions] quite frequently," including for convicts under age 18. She said the number of convicts sentenced to death in the current Persian year since March is "several times" higher than the figures for previous years. Iran's conduct, she said, contradicts international rights conventions it has signed. Ebadi observed that Iran's penal code considers girls legally responsible for offenses from the age of nine, and boys from the age of 15. And yet, she added, a 16-year-old boy cannot leave the country without his father's permission. "So on the one hand the law believes people are not mature enough before the age of 18 to leave the country," but are responsible enough for their actions to face execution for certain crimes, Ebadi told Radio Farda. VS
IRAN COURT UPHOLDS TEENAGER'S DEATH SENTENCE
Iran's Supreme Court confirmed on November 19 the death sentence given earlier to a teenager named Ali who killed an eight-year-old, apparently after abusing him, in December 2005, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on November 20 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, 2007). The daily reported that Ali was 15 when he killed the boy. The last court session dealing with the case was on July 23, when a representative for the Tehran prosecutor called for a death sentence for Ali "given the coroner's report and the request of immediate relatives." Ali told the court that he took Ahmad to a ruined building when the younger boy began to swear and shout, and that Ali tried to silence him, accidentally suffocating him. The daily said the execution is only "a matter of time." The same Tehran court sentenced a 16-year-old named Khosro to death for stabbing his 20-year-old flatmate to death in a fight in July 2006, in Varamin, south of Tehran, ISNA reported. It was unclear if Khosro is 16 now or was at the time of the killing. His lawyer has told the investigating court that Khosro has a history of sleep-walking, and argued this might constitute insanity and allow for diminished responsibility for his crime. The Iranian Supreme Court has approved another death sentence given by a Tehran court to a man who killed a man he caught having sex with his wife at his home, in January 2004, ISNA reported on November 19. VS
VENEZUELAN PRESIDENT VISITS IRAN
President Hugo Chavez on November 19 held talks in Iran with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad and signed four cooperation documents, ISNA reported. The areas covered by the agreements were not reported. He said the total value of joint investment projects is now $4.6 billion, but added that "soon we will not be talking about the dollar because the dollar is falling." He said "we are seeing the fall of the dollar empire," and this, he added hopefully, might lead to the collapse of the "American empire." He observed good progress in various bilateral projects, including the formation of a joint bank and an industrial development fund, and the construction of various manufacturing and food production plants. Ahmadinejad told the press that Iran and Venezuela will "maximize" their international cooperation and work to promote world peace. VS
IRANIAN REFORMIST CONCERNED ABOUT SUFI WORSHIPPERS
Mehdi Karrubi, a former parliamentary speaker and the head of the reformist National Trust Party, wrote to Iranian Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi on November 17 to express concern at the beatings and arrests of Sufi dervishes in the western town of Borujerd and the destruction of their prayer hall, ISNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2007). He told Purmohammadi that the government has a duty to safeguard the rights of all Iranians, but stressed he does not defend "any particular set of ideas." Karrubi wrote that the dervishes, whose religious practices are disapproved of by conservative Shi'a clerics, are Shi'a Muslims and lawful citizens, and he questioned why their prayer hall was destroyed. He warned there would be anarchy in the country if individuals took the law into their hands and decided whom they could punish. The dervishes were reportedly attacked by Basiji militiamen, a state-affiliated paramilitary force sometimes used to quell disturbances. "Any corrective work must be peaceful. You cannot have people doing whatever they like and saying 'we are revolutionaries.' Then you would have neither judiciary nor religious laws," Karrubi wrote. VS
IRANIAN POLICE ARREST 'LOUTS'
Police have arrested eight people described as "prominent louts" in the Islamshahr and Karaj districts of Tehran Province, Tehran dailies reported on November 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 16, 2007). The detainees are suspected of involvement in extortion, theft, or drug crimes. "Jomhuri Islami" reported that this was the 11th local police operation against "louts" or "thugs" -- presumably in recent months -- and noted that the operations have led to "dozens" of arrests. Police Colonel Naser Sarkari told IRNA on November 18 that police also took in guns, ammunition, knives or machetes, and 51 kilograms of opium during the arrests. Fars news agency reported that the eight were among 16 suspects sought by police. It added that Karaj police also confiscated water pipes and smoking paraphernalia from two local tea shops that residents had identified to police as hangouts for local "troublemakers." Police told the owners to close down their tea shops and change their business. VS
FOREIGN CONTRACTORS ARRESTED IN BAGHDAD AFTER SHOOTING
Iraqi forces on November 19 arrested 42 security guards, employed by a foreign security firm, who were apparently involved in a shooting in central Baghdad that wounded an Iraqi woman, international media reported. Iraqi military spokesman Brigadier General Qasim al-Musawi said the foreign security guards "opened fire randomly on citizens" in the Baghdad neighborhood of Al-Karradah. Al-Musawi added that among those arrested were two Americans, 21 Sri Lankans, nine Nepalese and 10 Iraqis. The security firm in question was not identified, but initial unconfirmed reports suggested it is Italian. Meanwhile, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh stressed that those who were involved in the incident will be put on trial. "This is a message to security companies that no one is above the law. Those involved will be put on trial and the innocent will be released," al-Dabbagh said. The shooting was the latest in a series of incidents in which private security firms have injured or killed civilians. The most infamous occurred on September 16, when security contractors from the U.S. firm Blackwater killed 17 Iraqis in a shootout in Baghdad's Al-Nusur Square (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 18, 2007). That incident enraged Iraqis and prompted the Iraqi government to draft legislation amending a law created by the former Coalition Provisional Authority that grants foreign contractors immunity from prosecution in Iraq. SS
UN TO ASSIST IRAQ WITH RESETTLING REFUGEES AND INTERNALLY DISPLACED
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Iraq (UNAMI) issued a statement on November 18 saying that the UN will do everything it can to assist the Iraqi government in helping to resettle internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees. UNAMI noted that there are indications that a limited number of Iraqi IDPs and refugees have started returning to their homes. The organization said it will provide the Iraqi government with whatever assistance it needs to help current and future returnees. The UNAMI statement said assistance will include "providing technical advice; developing monitoring and data-gathering tools; encouraging the momentum of voluntary and safe return and providing capacity-building support to the Ministry of Displacement and Migration." SS
SHI'ITE LEADER MEETS WITH UN ENVOY
Ammar al-Hakim, the acting leader of the Shi'ite-led Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), met with the UN secretary-general's special representative for Iraq, Staffan de Mastura, in the southern holy city of Al-Najaf on November 19, the SIIC's website reported. During the meeting, al-Hakim noted that many different factions in Iraq view the UN and its role with trust, and called on the international body to expand its role in Iraq. In addition, he stressed the reduction in violence in recent months, and called on neighboring states to help improve the security situation in Iraq, noting that a secure Iraq would enhance regional stability. For his part, de Mastura said the UN will do all it can to help Iraq and its people. Al-Hakim is temporarily leading SIIC while his father, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, the bloc's permanent leader, is undergoing treatment for lung cancer. SS
THREE IRAQI SOCCER PLAYERS AND COACH SEEK ASYLUM IN AUSTRALIA
Three players and an assistant coach from Iraq's Olympic soccer team secretly left their quarters shortly after an Olympic qualifying game in Australia and sought asylum there, "The Guardian" reported on November 19. Tariq Ahmad, the head of the Iraqi Football Federation, said the four did not show up at the airport on November 19 for the team's scheduled departure. Assistant coach Sa'di Toma later informed team officials that he and the three players -- Ali Mansur, Ali Khidhayir and Ali Abbas -- are remaining behind to seek asylum in Australia. "It's because of the deteriorating security situation and violence against athletes in Iraq," Ahmad said. "We all face the same danger, but it doesn't mean one should so easily abandon his team and defame his country's reputation," he added. Ahmad said the decision by the four men will adversely affect the team's morale as it tries to qualify for the Beijing Olympics in 2008. The team is scheduled to play Lebanon and Syria later this week. The Iraqi national football team captured international headlines in July when it defeated heavily favored Saudi Arabia to win the Asia Cup (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 30, 2007). SS
U.S. ACCUSES PHOTOGRAPHER OF TERRORIST ACTIVITIES IN IRAQ
The U.S. military announced on November 19 that it will file a formal complaint with Iraq's Central Criminal Court against AP photographer Bilal Hussein, AP reported. At a press conference, Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morell accused Hussein -- who has been held in U.S. military custody for more than 19 months without charge -- of being a "terrorist media operative." "We believe Bilal Hussein was a terrorist media operative who infiltrated the AP. MNF-I [Multinational Forces-Iraq] possesses convincing and irrefutable evidence that Bilal Hussein is a threat to security and stability as a link to insurgent activity," Morell said. Hussein was arrested on April 12, 2006, after marines entered his house in Al-Ramadi and found bomb-making materials, insurgent propaganda, and a surveillance photograph of a U.S. military installation. AP President and CEO Tom Curley issued a statement expressing concern that Hussein's prolonged detention without charge is an indication that his legal rights are being abused. "The steps the U.S. military is now taking continue to deny Bilal his right to due process and, in turn, may deny him a chance at a fair trial," Curley said. Hussein was a member of an AP photo team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005. SS
IRAQI FORCES ARREST 35 GUNMEN IN MOSUL
Iraqi forces arrested 35 gunmen belonging to the Al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq on November 19 in the northern city of Mosul, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. An Iraqi military source said the arrests were the result of a large-scale security operation dubbed "Operation Scorpion Sting" in the Mosul neighborhoods of Al-Wahdah, Al-Intisar, Al-Mithaq, and Al-Bakr. The source added that Iraqi forces also seized a large cache of weapons and prison and military uniforms. SS