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Newsline - November 26, 2007

United Civic Front leader Garry Kasparov was detained on November 24 following a March of Dissent action in Moscow and sentenced to five days' detention for violating rules on demonstrations, RFE/RL's Russian Service and other media reported the same day. Police in Moscow on November 24 prevented an estimated 1,000-2,000 demonstrators from marching on the office of the Central Election Commission. In all, March of Dissent protests were held in some 40 Russian cities on November 24 and 25. In St. Petersburg on November 25, some 300 people were detained by police for attempting to hold a March of Dissent protest that had been banned by city authorities. Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leaders Nikita Belykh, Boris Nemtsov, and Leonid Grosman were among those detained and later released. Political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told RFE/RL that the number of anti-Putin demonstrators is insignificant compared to the wave of pro-Putin sentiment sweeping the county and said the authorities "are frightening themselves with the specter of an Orange Revolution." RC

U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said in a statement on November 25 that "the United States is concerned by reports of aggressive tactics used by Russian authorities against opposition protesters [on November 24] in Moscow and other cities," reported. He added that "we are particularly concerned by the arrests and detentions of leaders of the opposition, including [the United Civic Front's] Garry Kasparov, and call for them to be given proper access to legal counsel and fair treatment in processing. We will have more to say on this situation in the next days as developments warrant." White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe issued a similar statement. In Strasbourg on November 25, the Council of Europe's Secretary-General Terry Davis said that he is "very concerned about the arrests of...Kasparov, [former Union of Rightist Forces leader] Boris Nemtsov, and a number of their supporters in Moscow and St. Petersburg over the weekend," AFP reported. Davis added that Russia belongs to the 47-member council and has signed the European Convention on Human Rights guaranteeing freedom of assembly. He stressed that observing those commitments is a precondition for "a real democracy." PM

President Vladimir Putin said in Moscow on November 22 at a joint news conference with Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi that they support the recent agreement between Gazprom and Italy's Eni to set up a joint venture to draft feasibility studies for the long-planned South Stream pipeline, Russian media reported. Putin noted that "joint construction of a new gas transport system from Russia to Southern Europe through the Black Sea will allow up to an additional 30 billion cubic meters of Russian natural gas to be brought to European consumers." The $14.8 billion pipeline project is expected to be 900 kilometers long. Upon reaching Bulgaria, one branch of the system will run north to Germany and the other to Italy. Putin told journalists on November 22 that the project has "strategic significance to ensure energy security for Europe." On November 26, First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov said that Russia will not end Gazprom's monopoly by splitting it into separate companies to produce and distribute energy to the European market, as many in the EU want, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2007). He stressed that "nobody in Russia in their right mind would split Gazprom up." In apparent contradiction to remarks he made in September, Ivanov denied that Russia uses energy to bully its neighbors, saying that "why would we need to exert influence [on their] policies? They are free, sovereign states" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2007). On November 24, Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported that Gazprom CEO Aleksei Miller said in Moscow on November 23 that his company is planning to raise its prices from a current average of $250 per 1,000 cubic meters to $354. He echoed remarks by his deputy in charge of exports, Aleksandr Medvedev, who said that European customers should expect to pay between $300-$400 per 1,000 cubic meters by the end of 2008. The Frankfurt daily quoted Burckhard Bergmann, who is chairman of the German gas company EON Ruhrgas and an official of Gazprom, as denying that there will be any such price hikes. He stressed that the cost of gas is regulated by long-term agreements that link gas prices to those of other products, especially that of heating oil. PM

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview with the weekly "Itogi" that Russia hopes that the Middle East talks opening on November 27 in Annapolis, Maryland, will pave the way for a full-scale international conference on the region, and Interfax reported on November 26. He called for "a clear favor of an early restoration of the dialogue between Syria and Israel, and revitalizing of other channels" regarding a regional settlement. He stressed that the conference should involve "serious regional players," including the Arab League's committee dealing with peace issues. PM

First Deputy Prime Minister Ivanov said in a radio interview on November 26 that the United States recently sent Russia "a letter with proposals on the missile-defense shield," Reuters reported. He said that "we are ready for dialogue, but at the same time we are guided, of course, by our own national interests. If our partner places new military capabilities less than 200 kilometers from our borders at the Kaliningrad Oblast, we have to think about it." The news agency noted that "Ivanov's comment was more upbeat than earlier Russian reaction to the proposals." PM

Family and friends of former Russian security officer Aleksandr Litvinenko, who was killed by poisoning in London one year ago, said there on November 23 that they hold the Russian state responsible for his murder and want justice, international media reported (see End Note). Family attorney Louise Christian told a news conference that a British physicist helping the family with the case "concludes that it is highly likely that the polonium-210 [used in the poisoning] came from the Avengard plant, which is controlled by the Russian state, and...[that] it is almost certain, therefore, that the Russian government was involved in supplying the Polonium used to murder...Litvinenko." Christian also said that the Russian authorities have not yet "even...interviewed" Andrei Lugovoi, the prime suspect in the murder. Britain wants him extradited, but Russia refuses. Litvinenko's wife Marina said on November 23 that "I promise that one day, we definitely will know who is responsible for this [killing], because without this knowledge, we just can't feel we are safe." Self-exiled Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky told journalists that "Putin personally is responsible for this murder." PM

The daily "Vremya novostei" reported on November 22 that Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov has appointed Oleg Eskin as his seventh deputy; Eskin will be in charge of information technology and communications. The paper noted that "prior to this appointment, Eskin was an adviser to...Serdyukov. He is a civil servant, although his entire career has been associated with the security and law-enforcement agencies. As a conscript, he served in the Soviet KGB Border Guard Troops." The paper added that the new commander of the Airborne Troops is Lieutenant General Valery Yevtukhovich, who has held several important positions with the paratroopers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17, 2007). The Northern Fleet's new commander is Vice Admiral Nikolai Maksimov, who moves up from the position of deputy. The daily commented that "judging by these appointments, Serdyukov is maintaining his chosen style: his appointees to key posts are not armchair generals, but people with a good level of practical command experience." PM

Vladimir Kryuchkov, a veteran KGB foreign intelligence chief who headed the entire KGB from 1988-91, died aged 83 in Moscow on November 23 after a long illness, Russian and international media reported. He is best-known abroad for his role in the ill-fated August 1991 coup attempt against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, which cost the hawkish Kryuchkov his job. PM

November 26 was the last day for publishing opinion polls regarding the December 2 Duma elections, RIA Novosti and other Russian media reported. According to the final poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), Unified Russia can expect 63.8 percent, followed by the Communist Party with 7.3 percent, A Just Russia with 6 percent, and the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR) with 5.2 percent. VTsIOM is predicting a turnout of about 74 percent. The Public Opinion Foundation (FOM) is predicting 62 percent for Unified Russia, followed by the LDPR at 11 percent, the Communist Party at 10 percent, and A Just Russia at 7 percent. FOM is predicting a turnout of 59 percent. The independent Levada Center shows Unified Russia at 67 percent, followed by the Communist Party at 14 percent, the LDPR at 6 percent, and A Just Russia at 4 percent. Parties must receive 7 percent of the vote to win seats in the next State Duma. RC

A new poll commissioned by RFE/RL's Russian Service and the U.S.-based Intermedia Survey Institute and conducted by the Levada Center shows likely turnout for the December 2 elections growing compared to a similar poll taken late last month, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported. The new poll found that 65 percent of Russians say they are likely or certain to vote, up from 57 percent in October. At the same time, the percentage of Russians who say they think the elections will produce improvements for their lives fell from 52 percent to 42 percent and the number who say the elections won't change anything rose from 21 percent to 31 percent. RC

Two opposition figures in Tatarstan have published an open letter calling for a boycott of the December 2 Duma elections, reported on November 26. Tatarstan Public Center Chairman Rafis Kashapov and Farit Rakhimov, chairman of the Tatar Teachers public association, argued that honest elections are impossible in Russia, citing pressure on voters, manipulations of public opinion, state control of the media, and other factors. They argue that only by boycotting the elections can voters make a statement to the authorities and "prove that democracy cannot be managed." A boycott would "expose the rotten core of the Putin regime," the letter goes on to state. RC

Meeting in an extraordinary session on November 26, the Federation Council set the date of the country's presidential election for March 2, ITAR-TASS and other Russian media reported. Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov announced the same day that the campaign period for that election will be from February 2 until February 29. The period for nominating and registering candidates will be from December 12 until January 16, and the period for publishing campaign platforms will be from February 2 until February 10. Under election law, parties receiving at least 7 percent of the vote in the December 2 Duma elections will be able to register presidential candidates without gathering signatures. The presidium of the SPS on November 23 named party Political Council member Nemtsov as its candidate. That decision must be ratified by a party congress, scheduled for December 17. Other people who have announced plans to run for president include LDPR head Vladimir Zhirinovsky, Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky, Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, former Central Bank Chairman Viktor Gerashchenko, former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, United Civic Front leader Kasparov, and Duma Deputy Nikolai Kuryanovich. Kasparov, Kasyanov, and Nemtsov have all expressed a willingness to negotiate about the possibility of backing a single opposition candidate. "Vremya novostei" reported on November 26 that there has been speculation in recent days, including by Federation Council Chairman Sergei Mironov, that President Putin might step down before the Federation Council's bill on setting the election date is officially published. Under the law, that bill must be published within five days of being passed -- meaning by December 1 at the latest. Mironov and other analysts have argued that if Putin is not holding the office of president on the day that the election date is officially set, he would be eligible to run again for a third -- but technically not consecutive -- term. RC

A new poll by VTsIOM shows that Russians have weak confidence in the country's courts, RBK reported on November 26. Thirty-eight percent disagreed with the assertion that the courts are an effective system of defense, while 31 percent said the work of the courts is hindered by bribery and dishonesty. Twenty-three percent said the main obstacle to fairness is "pressure from the authorities." Two-thirds of those questioned said they would not turn to the courts if they felt their rights had been violated. RC

The Public Chamber on November 24 met in Moscow and approved 42 members as representatives on nongovernmental organizations, reported on November 26 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 1, 2007). The chamber approved 25 former members for additional terms, including singer Alla Pugachyova, sculptor Zurab Tsereteli, Norilsk Nickel magnate Vladimir Potanin, lawyer Genri Reznik, and pro-Kremlin journalists and analysts Nikolai Svandize, Vyacheslav Nikonov, Andranik Migranyan, and Aleksei Chadayev. Among the 17 newcomers are Nashi ideologist Boris Yakemenko and acting Russian Academy of Sciences Vice President Mikhail Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk is the brother of Yury Kovalchuk, a Petersburg banker with close ties to President Putin. Other newcomers include "Komsomolskaya pravda" Editor in Chief Vladimir Sungorkin, Duma Deputy Pytor Shchelishch (Unified Russia), and Union of Industrialists and Entrepreneurs Vice President Igor Yurgens. The Public Chamber will select another 42 members at a session scheduled for December 21-22, and the new chamber will hold its first session on February 1. The current members of the Public Chamber are expected to issue their final report on the state of civil society in Russia by the end of December. RC

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin met on November 22 in Moscow with Ambassador Jean Arnault, the special representative of the UN secretary-general for Abkhazia, according to The two men discussed the domestic political situation in Georgia, the situation in the Abkhaz conflict zone, and the prospects for resuming talks between the two sides on a peaceful solution to the conflict. Arnault met the same day with Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov. On November 23, Karasin met with UN Undersecretary-General for peacekeeping operations Jean-Marie Guehenno to discuss the same issues; Karasin stressed the need for Georgia to comply fully with the October 2006 resolution of the UN Security Council calling for the withdrawal from the upper Kodori Gorge of all armed personnel whose presence is not envisaged there under the terms of the May 1994 agreement on a cease-fire and the separation of forces (see "Caucasus: Are Georgia, Abkhazia Pursuing Diverging Agendas?", January 31, 2007). LF

Deputy Foreign Minister Karasin, Deputy Security Council Secretary Yury Zubakov, and former Tax Minister Gennady Bukayev, now an aide to the Russian prime minister, met in Moscow on November 22 with Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized breakaway republic of South Ossetia, and with two leaders of the Ossetian public organization Styr Nykhas, reported. The discussion focused on the situation in the conflict zone and the factors that hinder a peaceful solution to the conflict. The participants unanimously singled out as the primary obstacle to such a settlement the establishment by the Georgian government in the spring of 2007 of what they termed a "puppet" administration in South Ossetia headed by Dmitry Sanakoyev and Tbilisi's "ceaseless efforts" to persuade the international community to acknowledge Sanakoyev as the region's legitimate leader. They affirmed that the conflict can be resolved only by resuming negotiations in the existing format, which the Georgian leadership considers ineffective and seeks to revise (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2007). LF

Farid Babayev, head of the Daghestan chapter of the opposition Yabloko party, was shot and seriously injured by an unidentified perpetrator on November 21 at the entrance to the building in Makhachkala where he lived and died in hospital three days later, reported. Babayev complained several days earlier that Yabloko was deprived of the free airtime to which it was entitled in the run-up to the December 2 State Duma elections, and that in violation of the relevant legislation, the weekly newspaper "Molodezh Dagestana" failed to publish Yabloko's election program in its issue for November 16. Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev told journalists on November 22 that the attempt to kill Babayev was "a provocation" by "destructive forces" aimed at discrediting the republic's leadership in the run-up to the December 2 ballot, reported. He argued that the republic's authorities had no reason to try to eliminate Babayev as Yabloko has too few voters to pose a serious threat. Aliyev telephoned Yabloko leader Grigory Yavlinsky to express his regret over the shooting, the daily "Kommersant" reported on November 23. Sociologist Khadjimurad Kamalov told on November 22 that the shooting could have been orchestrated by any one of six alliances hostile to Aliyev in a bid to discredit him, while Daud Garakoyev, who coordinates Yabloko's activities in the North Caucasus, attributed the shooting to Babayev's human-rights activities, reported on November 24. Babayev was instrumental in publicizing the killing by police of a demonstrator in Dokuzpar Raion in April 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, 2006). "Kommersant" on November 23 quoted Makhachkala police as saying the gunman was clearly an amateur; they suggested Babayev was killed because of a financial dispute arising from his purchase of a house from a woman whose debtor subsequently laid claim to it. Meanwhile, Abdulgamid Emirgamzayev, who heads the Daghestan chapter of the A Just Russia party, was quoted by on November 23 as saying police are harassing his relatives and supporters in the run-up to the December 2 Duma elections, reported. LF

Armed security personnel detained three journalists from the Russian television station REN-TV in their hotel in Nazran late on November 23, together with Oleg Orlov of the human-rights organization Memorial, reported the following day. The four were driven with sacks over their heads to the outskirts of Nazran, threatened with execution and beaten, then abandoned in the snow; their cameras, mobile phones, and cash were confiscated, the daily "Kommersant" reported on November 26. The journalists were intending to cover the planned demonstration in Nazran on November 24 to protest the brutal killings in recent months by security forces of Ingush civilians, most recently a six-year-old boy, the website reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 13, 2007). quoted an unnamed source within the Ingushetian Interior Ministry as saying that the journalists were abducted by members of President Murat Zyazikov's personal bodyguard. Several hundred people congregated on the morning of November 24 at the city's main bus terminal, where they repelled four successive attempts by police to force them to disperse. Up to 100 protesters were detained, but most were later released; reports that police opened fire and injured some participants have not been independently confirmed. The protest broke up late in the afternoon of November 24. LF

Amirkhan Khidriyev, 30, and his brother Maksharip, 29, have been formally charged with terrorism in connection with the August 13 bombing of the Neva Express train that runs between Moscow and St. Petersburg, and reported on November 23 and 25, respectively. The two men were apprehended one month ago in the village in Ingushetia where they are employed as construction workers and taken to Novgorod Oblast. Both men can produce witnesses to testify that they were in Ingushetia on the day of the bombing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25 and November 2, 2007). LF

Zhalaudi Saralyapov, chairman of the parliament of the unrecognized Chechen Republic Ichkeria (ChRI), issued a decree on November 23 naming Akhmed Zayakev to head the new government, the websites and reported on November 23 and 24, respectively. Zakayev, who lives in London, has two weeks in which to name a new government. He stepped down one week ago as ChRI foreign minister, explaining to RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service on November 20 that it was incumbent on the parliament to name a new government following its temporary assumption of the powers of ChRI president (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2007). The parliament ruled earlier this month that Doku Umarov effectively relinquished the presidential powers by assuming the position of head of an emirate encompassing the entire North Caucasus (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30 and November 7, 2007). Meanwhile, the website, which supports Umarov, on November 26 questioned the legitimacy of Zakayev's appointment as premier on the grounds that only a handful of the original 57 members of the ChRI parliament elected in 1997 endorsed it. The website also reported on November 23 that Umarov has tasked the Security Service of the North Caucasus Emirate with investigating Zakayev's alleged "antistate activities." LF

Chechen Republic human-rights ombudsman Nurdi Nukhadjiyev issued a statement on November 21 condemning as a violation of the best traditions of the Russian armed forces the appointment of former Lieutenant General Vladimir Shamanov to a senior Defense Ministry post, Interfax and reported. Nukhadjiyev recalled that troops under Shamanov's immediate command committed atrocities against Chechen civilians and destroyed entire villages, and his name "became a term of abuse" in Chechnya. "Kommersant" on November 22 quoted Nukhadjiyev as saying that the majority of claims filed by Chechens against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg are from residents of districts that were controlled by Shamanov's troops. The human-rights group Memorial has likewise protested Shamanov's return to the Defense Ministry on the same grounds (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 14, 2007). LF

Six people died on November 22 and 17 were injured when an explosive device containing the equivalent of 500 grams of dynamite detonated in a bus en route from Nalchik, capital of the Kabardino-Balkaria Republic, to Vladikavkaz in North Ossetia, Russian media reported. The explosion happened at the border between the two republics. LF

A senior member of Armenian President Robert Kocharian's staff informed the opposition Zharangutiun (Heritage) party in writing on November 23 that its chairman, U.S.-born former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian, is not eligible to participate in the February 19, 2008, presidential election, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The letter recalled that Kocharian granted Hovannisian Armenian citizenship in 2001; Armenia's election law stipulates that presidential candidates must have been citizens of the Republic of Armenia for a minimum of 10 years prior to the ballot. Hovannisian has demanded that his citizenship be predated to 1992 when he arrived in Armenia to serve as foreign minister. The Armenian authorities similarly adduced Hovannisian's failure to met the citizenship requirement when barring him from registering as a presidential candidate in the February 2003 presidential ballot (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 16, 2003). LF

The Yerevan Press Club unveiled on November 22 the findings of its monitoring of media coverage during the previous month of preparations for the February 2008 presidential election, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Chairman Boris Navasardian told journalists the monitoring established that Armenian Public Television and Radio and the country's six largest private television networks demonstrated open bias, giving overwhelmingly positive coverage to Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian, while engaging in vicious criticism of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian. Navasardian was particularly critical of the first channel of Armenian Public Television, which he described as "a state within a state that operates beyond the law." The Yerevan Press Club has evaluated media coverage of successive elections in Armenia over the past 12 years. Incumbent President Kocharian, who is barred by the constitution from seeking a third consecutive presidential term, has endorsed the candidacy of Sarkisian, whose election victory is regarded by many observers as a foregone conclusion. Ter-Petrossian announced last month that he will participate in the ballot and has appealed to fellow opposition leaders for their support (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 29 and November 19, 2007). Aleksander Arzoumanian, who served under Ter-Petrossian as foreign minister from late 1996-early 1998, accused the Armenian authorities of imposing an information blockade on Ter-Petrossian by declining either to interview him or to invite him to participate in talk shows. LF

Meeting in southern Georgia on November 21, the presidents of Azerbaijan (Ilham Aliyev), Georgia (Mikheil Saakashvili) and Turkey (Abdullah Gul) presided over the beginning of construction of the $600 million Kars-Akhalkalaki-Baku railway linking their respective countries, Caucasus Press reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 16, 2006 and January 16, 2007). Saakashvili termed the project "historic," noting that it will give Georgia unimpeded rail access to Europe via Turkey and to Asia via Baku and trans-Caspian ferry. Saakashvili and Gul met separately the same day in Tbilisi on the sidelines of a Georgian-Turkish business forum at which two inter-governmental agreements were signed on establishing a free-trade zone and on avoidance of double taxation, Caucasus Press reported. Gul reportedly assured Saakashvili of his support for Georgia's territorial integrity and confirmed that while still prime minister, he refused to approve the issuing of a visa to Sergei Bagapsh, president of the breakaway republic of Abkhazia, who had hoped to pay an official visit to Turkey earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 30, 2007). LF

The Georgian Foreign Ministry has issued a statement accusing Russia of not fully complying with the agreements it assumed at the 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul to close its four military bases in Georgia, Caucasus Press reported on November 23 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 22, 1999). The statement claimed that while under that agreement Russia pledged to vacate the military base in Gudauta, Abkhazia, by July 1, 2001, it continues to maintain combat helicopters, armored vehicles, and several hundred military personnel there. The same statement characterized as "wholly destructive and negative" the activities of the Russian peacekeepers deployed in the Abkhaz and South Ossetian conflict zones. LF

As required by the Georgian constitution, Mikheil Saakashvili resigned as president on November 25, the same day that the parliament endorsed his November 8 decree setting preterm presidential elections for January 5, 2008, Georgian media reported. The presidential powers automatically devolve on to parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze. Caucasus Press on November 26 quoted Saakashvili as predicting in a television interview that "I am going to have a landslide and convincing victory" in the January election and as expressing confidence in his ability to eliminate "extreme poverty" in Georgia before his second presidential term ends. Formal registration of presidential candidates begins on November 26. Saakashvili said the temporary closure of the independent television station Imedi, the broadcasting license of which has been suspended for three months, was justified as the station was inciting civil unrest during the demonstrations in Tbilisi in early November, and he warned that it will be allowed to resume broadcasting only if its owners guarantee that it will abide by "certain principles" and not serve as "a weapon" in the hands of exiled Georgian oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili, reported. Patarkatsishvili too intends to run in the January presidential ballot. Thousands of Georgians attended a three-hour demonstration in Tbilisi on November 25 organized by the nine-party opposition National Council to demand that Imedi be permitted to resume both television and radio broadcasting immediately. LF

Deputies approved on November 22 by a vote of 155 in favor the candidacy of Lado Gurgenidze as prime minister, Georgian media reported. The opposition Democratic Front and Rightist opposition factions, with 15 and 10 members respectively, refused to participate in the vote on the grounds that the composition of the new cabinet is virtually identical to the outgoing one. Proposing Gurgenidze to head the new cabinet, which contains only two new appointees, parliament speaker Burjanadze said she is convinced of his professionalism, Caucasus Press reported on November 21. Gurgenidze told parliamentarians on November 22 that his immediate focus will be social issues, given that much of the population has not benefited from the considerable economic growth registered over the past four years. At the same time, he stressed that the focus on social issues, including doubling monthly pensions to 78 laris ($48), will not necessitate an "irresponsible" tax policy; he said taxes will be lowered "slightly" in 2009 and cut more significantly in 2010. Gurgenidze asked the parliament to delay for two weeks discussion of the draft budget for 2008, as it requires "some corrections." He pledged a strict monetary policy for 2008 in order to curb double-digit inflation, acknowledging that this will "temporarily" slow GDP growth. He nonetheless predicted that Georgia will attain the current level of development of Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia within two or three years. Gurgenidze also pledged that the government will work closely with parliament to resolve disputes over property rights. (The parliament passed a resolution on November 22 calling on state bodies to drop all investigations, and on courts to shelve legal proceedings involving properties privatized prior to April 2007, reported.) The two new cabinet ministers are Maia Miminoshvili (education), who replaces Aleksandre Lomaia, who has been named to head the National Security Council, and Koba Subeliani (refugees and accommodation). LF

Speaking at a joint news conference in Bratislava with visiting Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbaev, Slovak President Ivan Gasparovic pledged on November 21 that his country will support Astana's bid to assume the rotating chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2009, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Gasparovic said his country also supports Kazakhstan's application for a nonpermanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2011. Welcoming the announcement of Slovak support, Nazarbaev called "economic cooperation" the "main priority" and identified energy transport to Europe as an especially significant area of bilateral cooperation. Gasparovic identified tourism and the defense industry as two of the most important areas for expanding bilateral relations. After the OSCE deferred a decision on the Kazakh chairmanship bid last year, the issue is due to be considered by the 56 members of the OSCE at a meeting of foreign ministers in Spain on November 29-30. In a move timed to coincide with Nazarbaev's Slovak visit, the Kazakh lower house on November 21 ratified a treaty on double taxation that was first signed by Kazakh and Slovak officials in March. Nazarbaev and Gasparovic also signed several new bilateral agreements, including an accord on investment and an agreement to combat organized crime, terrorism, and drug trafficking. RG

After arriving in Romania from Slovakia, President Nazarbaev met in Bucharest on November 22 with Romanian President Traian Basescu, Kazakhstan Today and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Basescu reportedly told Nazarbaev that that Romania "unconditionally supports" Kazakhstan's candidacy for the OSCE chairmanship in 2009. Nazarbaev and Basescu signed two new agreements on cooperation in transportation, including an intergovernmental highway agreement and a protocol on cooperation between Kazakhstan's state-owned Aktau International Sea Trade Port and Romania's seaport administration of Constanta. Nazarbaev also met with Romanian Prime Minister Calin Popescu-Tariceanu and the speaker of the Senate, Nicolae Vacaroiu. RG

Continuing his tour of several European countries, Kazakh President Nazarbaev met on November 23 with Hungarian President Laszlo Solyom in Budapest and signed two new bilateral agreements, including an accord on economic cooperation and another concerning ties between the countries' Foreign Ministries, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Although Kazakhstan and Hungary had previously concluded an agreement on bilateral economic cooperation, that deal was invalidated by Hungary's accession to the European Union. Speaking to reporters at a joint press conference following his meeting with Nazarbaev, Solyom expressed strong interest in expanding "cooperation in the energy sector," with "joint transport and energy projects," and in "operating the East-West transport corridor." Solyom also expressed his support for Kazakhstan's attempt to become a full member of the World Trade Organization. RG

Speaking to reporters after his arrival in Bishkek on November 21, Nikolai Volchanov, the head of the election-monitoring team from the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), warned that "democratic and transparent elections are possible" only if the Kyrgyz authorities "have the political will," according to the website. Volchanov also praised the "level of cooperation" by Kyrgyz officials, and noted that the 270-person ODIHR team was invited to observe the December 16 parliamentary election by the Central Election Commission and the Foreign Ministry. He noted that "all concerned parties are happy to see us in Kyrgyzstan." The ODIHR mission, which will arrive in force in the next few weeks, will not only observe the ballot but also plans to monitor both the political campaign and media coverage in order to assess whether the parliamentary elections "meet OSCE standards and Kyrgyzstan's international commitments," AKIpress reported. RG

Speaking to reporters at the conclusion of a visit to the Korean Peninsula, Kyrgyz Prime Minister Almazbek Atambaev warned on November 20 of the "dangers of vote-rigging" in Kyrgyzstan's December 16 elections for a new parliament, AKIpress reported. He added that if the "election is held without vote-rigging and without the use of the state machinery, a powerful future lies ahead of us." But he also expressed concern that "if the authorities elect a one-party parliament," it may "undermine stability" in Kyrgyzstan. RG

Speaking at a press conference in Bishkek on November 21, the head of the Memorial human rights center, Vitaly Ponomarev, said the slaying of Kyrgyz journalist Alisher Saipov was "connected" to Uzbekistan's presidential election, according to the website. Ponomarev explained that unidentified "human rights activists" in Kyrgyzstan "received information from their Uzbek colleagues that there were political motives behind" the killing of Saipov and he accused the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry of hampering the investigation. Saipov, an ethnic-Uzbek journalist living in the southern Kyrgyz city of Osh, was shot dead late last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2007). Investigators initially suspected that Saipov was killed because of his extensive reporting on official corruption in Uzbekistan and because he was strongly criticized by the Uzbek state media and reportedly received death threats over his stories on Uzbekistan. Bakyt Seyitov, a spokesman for the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry, told RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service on November 21 that "sooner or later, Mr. Ponomarev has to have a responsible stance regarding his words that Uzbekistan's special services murdered [Saipov] in connection with the elections." He added: "It is hard to talk about such allegations without producing proof, for example, paper documents or electronic documents or records of the telephone conversations and such. That is why, for now, I cannot support his allegations, because this issue needs checking and proof." RG

The police chief in the Jalal-Abad region of Kyrgyzstan, Nurlan Temirbaev, reported on November 22 that a leader of the opposition Social Democratic Party was assaulted along with his son in the town of Kara-Kul early on November 21, the website reported. quoted Temirbaev as saying that four unidentified "suspects have been arrested" and face criminal charges of "hooliganism" stemming from the attack on Social Democratic Party co-Chairman Jusupjan Jeenbekov. Jeenbekov, who is a candidate on the party list for the December 16 parliamentary elections, served as the governor of the Talas region prior to joining the party formed by Prime Minister Almaz Atambaev. RG

Kyrgyz Ombudsman Tursunbai Bakir-uulu on November 22 urged the Central Election Commission to revoke its decision to impose a minimum election threshold, saying that it "infringes Kyrgyz citizens' rights," the website reported. The commission last month backed an amendment to the election code that imposes a new requirement for political parties whereby they must garner at least 5 percent of the vote nationally and 0.5 percent of the vote in each region in order to secure any seats in the new parliament. Bakir-uulu added that a commission decision on November 19 to maintain the threshold "grossly infringes not only the rights of political parties, but also those of voters." The leaders of 12 main political parties participating in the December 16 parliamentary elections recently demanded the abolition of the minimum national and regional thresholds for parties, arguing that they "would substantially reduce many parties' chances to win" seats in parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2007). President Kurmanbek Bakiev announced on November 23 that he would not meet with the party leaders and refused to discuss their appeal to overturn the threshold requirement. RG

After the Kyrgyz Central Election Commission refused to register the Communist Party for the parliamentary elections, party leader Klara Ajibekova threatened on November 24 to sue the electoral body, AKIpress reported. The commission based its rejection of the party's list of candidates on November 23 on the party's failure to meet the Electoral Code's requirement that at least 30 percent of each party's candidates be female. During that session, the commission approved the registered lists of parliamentary candidates submitted by the opposition Ar-Namys party but also rejected the party lists submitted by the Taza Koom party, led by former parliament speaker Taalaybek Bapanov, and a small party consisting of veterans from the Soviet-era war in Afghanistan. RG

During a meeting with his cabinet ministers and leading businessmen on November 21, Tajik President Emomali Rahmon called for greater investment in strategically important projects essential for the development of the country and stressed the "power-engineering and road-building" sectors as priority areas, according to the Avesta website and ITAR-TASS. Rahmon said a total of 53 government investment projects totaling some $1.3 billion are currently being implemented, of which over $250 million has already been invested in the construction and energy sectors since the start of 2007. But he stressed that "the development of small and medium-sized businesses is one of the basic purposes of our economic policy," and highlighted the need for entrepreneurs and businessmen to familiarize themselves with modern foreign technologies. Rahmon announced a follow-up meeting set for December and called on ministers and business leaders to report back on their efforts at increasing the overall level of "strategic investments," Asia-Plus reported. RG

Speaking to reporters in Ashgabat, Kazakh Prime Minister Karim Masimov reported on November 21 that the planned construction of a new rail link between Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan will start in 2009, ITAR-TASS and Kazakh Television reported. Masimov said the project calls for the building of a roughly 620-kilometer railway line that includes a 140-kilometer section in Kazakhstan to connect the Kazakh and Turkmen railway networks, with plans to continue on to Iran. Kazakhstan has pledged to invest some $150 million in the $620 million project. Masimov was in Ashgabat for a CIS summit meeting and to prepare for a meeting of the Kazakh-Turkmen intergovernmental commission set for the end of the month, during which a final agreement on the railway project is expected to be formally signed by representatives from Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. While in Ashgabat, Masimov also met on November 22 with Moldovan Prime Minister Vasile Tarlev to discuss measures to expand cooperation, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. Tarlev reportedly confirmed his country's "desire to buy gas" from Kazakhstan, but added that talks with Russia on the issue should come first. RG

A meeting of CIS prime ministers in Ashgabat concluded on November 23 with the signing of a new agreement on forming a special working group on "food security," ITAR-TASS and Turkmen Television reported. Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov also proposed that the CIS implement a large-scale project in the transport and communications sectors, centering on the creation of transport corridors, including railway and sea routes involving the Russian port of Astrakhan, the Turkmen port of Turkmenbasy, the Kazakh port of Aqtau, and the railway network linking Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan and running on to Iran. The CIS summit was hosted by Turkmenistan for the first time since 1993 and marks a change from the isolation imposed by late Turkmen President Saparmurat Niyazov that triggered the CIS to "downgrade" his country to "associate member" status in 2005. Berdymukhammedov formally opened the summit on November 22 and hosted a reception in the presidential palace in a sign of support for Turkmenistan's return to a more active role within the organization. RG

Meeting in Ashgabat on November 22 on the sidelines of the CIS summit, Turkmen President Berdymukhammedov and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Zubkov discussed bilateral energy relations in advance of special bilateral intergovernmental talks set for November 23, according to ITAR-TASS. Following that meeting, Zubkov said that Russia and Turkmenistan have agreed to formally sign a "final agreement" on the new Caspian natural-gas pipeline, designed to export gas from Central Asia through Russian territory. But Turkmenistan also demanded that the price for its gas be increased by some 30 percent by early 2008 to more greatly reflect current world gas prices. The planned Caspian gas pipeline is to be modernized to allow for the delivery of some 230 million cubic meters of gas daily, representing an increase of about 20 billion cubic meters of gas annually, according to AKIpress. The existing gas pipeline, first constructed in 1974, runs from Turkmenistan via Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan to Russia and currently pumps around 50 billion cubic meters of natural gas annually. RG

Incumbent Uzbek President Islam Karimov outlined his platform for the presidential election set for December 23 in a televised address on November 24, Uzbek Television reported. Karimov was recently nominated as the candidate of the Liberal Democratic Party (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2007), said that "protecting the interests of the middle class" is one of his "priority tasks," adding that "guaranteeing people's rights and freedoms" will remain as one of his "highest values." Three other official candidates, all of whom are staunchly pro-government figures, also presented their televised platforms, with Asliddin Rustamov, nominated from the People's Democratic Party, calling on November 21 for greater social reforms, with a special focus on "socially vulnerable groups," and strengthening policies to protect the environment. The Adolat Social Democratic Party's candidate, Dilorom Toshmuhamedova, the first-ever female presidential contender, presented a televised address on November 22 stressing the need to raise the role and status of women in Uzbek society. The last candidate, Akmal Saidov, who heads both a parliamentary commission on democratization and civil society and the National Human Rights Center, presented his program on November 23, pledging to "carry out stronger legal reforms to achieve democratic governance and build an open civil society in the country." The formal registration of Karimov as a candidate for reelection to another seven-year presidential term was justified by the Central Election Commission on the grounds that the holding of two national referendums in 1995 and 2002 rendered at least one of his two presidential terms inapplicable, thereby overcoming a constitutional ban on a third term. Karimov, who will turn 70 in less than two months, has 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

In an announcement in Geneva, the UN Committee against Torture on November 23 accused Uzbek police and prison guards of engaging in the "routine use of torture" and demanded a full investigation of several reports of torture, abuse and mistreatment of detainees, AP reported. The UN body further called on the Uzbek authorities to adopt a strict "zero-tolerance" approach to the use of torture. The UN committee, which consists of 10 independent rights experts, also said that it is concerned over numerous allegations that Uzbek military and security forces used excessive force against unarmed demonstrations during the clashes in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon in May 2005. RG

A UN General Assembly committee on November 21 voted 68 to 32 with 76 abstentions in favor of a resolution criticizing Belarus's human rights record and calling for an end to politically motivated persecution in the country, Belapan reported. The resolution was submitted by the United States, the European Union, Israel, Canada, Switzerland, and Japan. The document expresses concern "that the situation of human rights in Belarus in 2007 continued to significantly deteriorate." It cites the "severely flawed" presidential election in March 2006 "due to arbitrary use of state power" and the government's failure to ensure that local elections in January 2007 met international standards, including its use of intimidation and arbitrary registration standards to exclude opposition candidates. The document expresses "deep concern" at the government's continued use of criminal prosecution to silence political opponents, human rights defenders, and journalists. It calls on the Belarusian government "to release immediately and unconditionally all individuals detained for politically motivated reasons and other individuals detained for exercising or promoting human rights." In response, Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Papou pointed out that only a third of UN members backed the resolution. "We are certain that the resolution on Belarus adopted by the UN Third Committee has neither legal nor political grounds," he said. AM

Aleh Pralyaskouski, an aide to President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, on November 21 promised the leaders of four Belarusian rock bands informally banned from public performances that the ban might be removed, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported. A number of Belarusian musicians were banned from performing publicly in Belarus after they played at concerts during an opposition demonstration in 2004. Pralyaskouski reportedly promised the leaders of Palats, Krama, N.R.M., and Neuro Dubel that there would be no problems with concerts in Belarus and performance on state-run television if the musicians "do not get into politics." "That was an attempt by the authorities to use us, because the current political situation suggests that it is us who they need," Pit Paulau of the N.R.M. band said on November 23. "Nobody offered us 30 pieces of silver," he added, commenting on the avalanche of criticism from fans that followed the meeting with Pralyaskouski. AM

Ukraine's newly elected Verkhovna Rada finally held its opening session on November 23, Ukrainian media reported. The session was opened by former parliament speaker Oleksandr Moroz and later headed by Raisa Bohatyryova, the head of the committee preparing for the first session of a newly elected parliament. All political forces represented in the Verkhovna Rada formed their parliamentary factions, but the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT) and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc (NUNS) did not manage to create their planned parliamentary coalition. The BYuT and the NUNS have a slim majority in the parliament, but some representatives of the latter disagree with provisions of the coalition deal on changing to a fully professional army in 2009. During the session, outgoing Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych relinquished the powers of his cabinet, so a new government must now be formed within 60 days. Bohatyryova, who closed the session, scheduled the next meeting for November 29. The BYuT representatives said that Bohatyryova herself does not have the right to determine the date, and they promised to convene on November 27. AM

Events devoted to the commemoration of 75th anniversary of the 1932-33 Great Famine were held on November 24 across Ukraine, Ukrainian media reported. In a speech in Kyiv, President Viktor Yushchenko compared Bolshevik crimes to the crimes of Nazism, claiming that the two ideologies are united by a hatred for humanity. Yushchenko once again called for the recognition of the man-made famine in Ukraine as genocide and thanked all the parliaments around the world that have already done so. The famine, orchestrated by the regime of Soviet leader Josef Stalin, killed as many as 14 million people in Ukraine. Yushchenko intends to submit to the Verkhovna Rada a bill introducing criminal penalties for the public denial of the Great Famine. AM

Ahead of what is being touted as the final round of talks on the status of Kosova, the EU's mediator, Wolfgang Ischinger, has expressed pessimism about the prospect of a last-minute breakthrough. A compromise deal between Belgrade and Prishtina on Kosova's status would be "ideal," he said, "but alas, it does not look likely that we will achieve that by December 10," when the three mediators from the European Union, Russia, and the United States will submit a report to the UN's secretary-general. "The troika is trying to at least conclude a mutual cooperation accord," international media quoted Ischinger as saying on November 21. "Our aim in the troika [of international mediators], even if we didn't get a solution on Kosovo's status, was to get agreement on the relationship between Serbia and Kosovo, independent of how and when the status question was resolved," he said. Prishtina has in the past proposed a friendship treaty governing postindependence relations, but Serbia has insisted that the issue of independence must be central to discussions (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 19, 2007). Kosovar and Serbian leaders are meeting at a castle in Baden, near Vienna, on November 26 for three days of talks, the first time that they will have met for more than one day. The EU's foreign-policy chief, Javier Solana, said on November 19 that he expects further talks to be held in Brussels before mediators submit a report to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, but media reports suggest that the Baden meeting is the last time that the two sides' leaders will meet face to face (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2007). Serbia and Russia have in recent days renewed calls for talks to continue until a compromise solution is reached. The decision whether to extend talks will rest with Ban, the Serbian news agency Beta on November 24 quoted Solana as saying. The UN security-general has repeatedly said that a decision on Kosova's future is needed quickly in order to prevent the progress seen in Kosova over the past eight years unraveling (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 11, 2007). AG

Russia's mediator in the Kosova talks, Aleksandr Botsan-Kharchenko, has said that independence for Kosova could lead to the creation of a Greater Albania, the Serbian daily "Blic" reported on November 26. In a paraphrase of Botsan-Kharchenko's words, "Blic" reported that the Russian envoy warned that, "if things go out of control," he could not "exclude the possibility of the creation of a Greater Albania, which would be the result of unification of territories inhabited with Albanians." Kosova's population is overwhelmingly Albanian in origin, and one in every three or four members of Macedonia's population is an ethnic Albanian. Like Serbia, Russia has repeatedly warned that independence for Kosova would set a dangerous precedent, stoking separatism around the world, but it has not previously talked of a bid to create a Greater Albania, a deeply engrained fear held by Serbian nationalists. Botsan-Kharchenko is pessimistic about a breakthrough in talks, but said one is possible if Prishtina were to return to "normal logic." Neither Belgrade nor Prishtina show any sign of changing their positions or rhetoric. According to local and international media, Kosovar Prime Minister Agim Ceku said before the Baden talks that it is "up to Belgrade" to be "courageous enough to distance [itself] from the past and accept reality" and agree that "the only acceptable solution is independence for Kosova," while Serbian leaders accused Kosova of intransigence and a lack of initiative. Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said on November 25 that Belgrade will never recognize an independent Kosova, which he said would be "an illegal and rogue creation." AG

A Serbian paramilitary group on November 21 urged Serbian members of parliament to vote for war if Kosova gains independence, local and international media reported. Speaking to reporters after presenting deputies with "a call to go to war," the leader of the St. Tsar Lazar Guard, Hadzi Andrej Milic, warned that his group would enter Kosova unless "the Serbian Army and police immediately return to enclaves and protect the population in a peaceful way." He also offered the possibility of an alliance with the Serbian authorities, saying that he and his "at least" 5,000 men "are at the disposal of the Serbian military and police." The group plans to "set up a headquarters near Merdare", on Kosova's border, on November 28, the last day of scheduled direct talks between Belgrade and Prishtina. In June, it said it would rally at the site in Kosova of the battle of Kosovo Polje, a landmark in Serbian history, but was prevented from doing so by NATO forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 28 and 19, 2007). NATO has repeatedly stressed that it will suppress any violence in the region. Milic claimed, however, that the group could "launch rockets at Pristina from 80 kilometers," well inside Serbia's border with Kosova. The Serbian paramilitary group's threat was matched by a renewed promise by an Albanian militia group, the Albanian National Army (AKSh), to confront any incursion. Speaking of the Lazar Guard and other possible militia threats, the AKSh said that "these paramilitaries are no problem for us," AP reported on November 21. The self-declared head of the AKSh's political wing, Gafur Adili, told AP that the AKSh has fighters and supporters "in every corner of Kosovo, in every community, village, town, even in parliament, the old or the new one," and could call up 12,000 people to "defend this land to the last soldier." He added that the AKSh is already mounting patrols in northern Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5, 9, and 15, 2007). Local media regularly report low-level violence within Kosova. In the latest example, on November 25, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at a bus headed for Belgrade. No one was injured. The Serbian news agency Tanjug reported on November 26 that this is the third time a bus operated by the same company has been attacked, but gave no time period. Three of the 43 passengers were ethnic Serbs, the Kosovar Albanian daily "Koha ditore" reported on November 26. AG

Macedonian police found 18 rocket launchers on November 22 hidden near a village in an area of northern Macedonia populated chiefly by ethnic Albanians, local media reported the next day. The village, Prsce, is in the Tetovo area, which has been the site of a number of violent incidents in recent months, including an operation in which Macedonian forces killed six people, several of whom were fugitives from a prison in Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 9 and 25, and November 1, 8, and 9, 2007). AG

Three in every four Bosnian Serbs -- 77 percent -- believe that the Republika Srpska, an autonomous region that is home to most ethnic Serbs in Bosnia-Herzegovina, should secede and become an independent state if Kosova gains independence from Serbia. The results of the poll, which was conducted by a local polling agency, support claims made on November 17 by the region's prime minister, Milorad Dodik, that, if Kosova gains independence, it would be hard to explain to Bosnian Serbs why they should not follow suit (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2007). The poll coincides with the 12th anniversary of the Dayton peace accords, which created two autonomous entities in Bosnia. According to local media, an adviser to Dodik, Gordan Milosevic, sought on November 21 to lessen fears of secession, warning that such a move could seriously damage the autonomous region's economy. The news service EUObserver reported on November 22 that Milosevic dismissed as speculation rumors that the Republika Srpska is preparing a referendum on independence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2007). EU membership is the only realistic goal of the Republika Srpska's leadership, he said, a goal that precludes the secession. "What is the alternative?," he asked rhetorically. "We destroy Bosnia and then we create a world on our own?" AG

The U.S. ambassador to Bosnia, Charles English, on November 21 warned Bosnian Serbs against pushing to secede from Bosnia-Herzegovina, the news service Balkan Insight reported. "I say to Serbs: you must accept that secession of any kind -- political, economic, or symbolic -- will not improve your interests," he said at a conference held on the anniversary of the Dayton accords. He also said Bosnian Croats should forget about creating a third entity, as a further division of the already divided country "will never happen," and urged Bosnian Muslims to work with other communities. At the same time, he stated that the Dayton agreement was an "unfinished" document that "must be improved to provide minimum state functionality, which would enable this country to walk strongly on a self-preserving way to Euro-Atlantic integration." The Republika Srpska's leaders insist that the Dayton accords cannot be changed in any way that could undermine the guarantees that the agreement gave to Bosnian Serbs. The belief that pending reforms intended to streamline decision-making on the federal level infringe on guarantees given at Dayton has triggered a political crisis in Bosnia, prompting the federal prime minister to resign and Bosnian Serbs to threaten a boycott of the federal parliament and a mass resignation from posts in the federal civil service (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2007). AG

The government of the Republika Srpska marked the anniversary of the Dayton accords by opening a grandiose new government building in Banja Luka, local and international media reported. The 17-story building and neighboring office buildings cost 94 million euros ($139 million), roughly one-seventh of the region's annual budget of 630 million euros ($935 million). In all, the development is 49,140 square meters in size, almost four times as large as the square on which it stands. According to AFP, the cost of the building was on November 21 criticized by the region's largest opposition party, the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), as the "biggest theft of budget money since the creation of Republika Srpska." "That building symbolizes the arrogance of the false social democracy, with [Republika Srpska Prime Minister] Dodik finally erecting a monument to himself in Banja Luka," the news agency SRNA quoted the deputy head of the another opposition party, the Social Democratic Party (SDP), Slobodan Popovic, as saying. The ceremony was attended by Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica, who said the Republika Srpska, "now has a new headquarters which shows the progress of the Republika Srpska and the stability of its development." The Dayton agreement was formally signed on December 14, 1995. AG

Decisions by the West have led to "numerous crises" in the Balkans over the past 12 years, Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica stated in a November 21 commentary written to mark the 12th anniversary of the Dayton accords. His criticism of the West centered, however, on the most recent political storm in Bosnia-Herzegovina, which began when the international community's high representative, Miroslav Lajcak, announced plans to reform the federal decision-making process and strengthen the federal government. In his piece for "Vecernje novosti," which was titled "Saving the Republika Srpska and Kosovo," Kostunica said the reform was in fact intended to undermine the peace agreement that resulted in Bosnia's division into two regions, one dominated by ethnic Serbs and the other by Bosnian Muslims and Croats. Lajcak's initiative has prompted the resignation of the federal government's prime minister, a Bosnian Serb, and the threat of a parliamentary boycott and of mass resignations by Bosnian Serb officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2007). Bosnian Serbs argue that the measures will result in them being systematically outvoted, thereby breaching Dayton's power-sharing arrangements. "Bosnia obviously is in crisis, so it is obvious that these measures were wrong," wrote Kostunica. He called for Lajcak's measures either to be withdrawn or to be changed. "Unfortunately it is not the first time that the international community had bad judgment while making decisions in the Balkans, and such decisions have led to numerous crises," Kostunica added. The article underscores Kostunica's October 25 statement that the preservation of the Republika Srpska is one of Serbia's two national priorities, alongside a continuation of Serbia's sovereignty over Kosova. He based Serbia's strong backing for the Republika Srpska on the grounds that Western powers' policies in Bosnia, as in Kosova, are an "open threat to the Serbian people" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 26, and November 1, 2007). According to the news agency SRNA, in his speech to open the Republika Srpska's new government building in Banja Luka, Dodik described Kostunica as his "dear friend and a man who changed relations between the Republika Srpska and Serbia and contributed significantly to their [relations] being substantially more relevant and maintained." Serbia's relationship with the Republika Srpska, which languished after the ouster of Serbia's longtime leader Slobodan Milosevic, has grown closer in the past two years. AG

Croatian President Stjepan Mesic on November 20 accused Serbia of being a source of instability in Bosnia-Herzegovina as well as in Kosova. According to the Croatian news agency Hina, Mesic told a press conference that Serbia should follow Croatia's example in Bosnia. "Croatia will never see [Bosnia's two] entities as states within a state or accept their separation, and just like Croats in Bosnia must create their policy in Sarajevo, the authorities in Belgrade should give the same message to Serbs," he argued. Serbia is, he contended, advocating the same policies in the Republika Srpska as it has in Kosova, where ethnic Serbs boycotted parliamentary elections on November 17 at Belgrade's urging. In Kosova, "if [ethnic Serbs] entered institutions, they could contribute to making Kosovo multinational, democratic, and Europe-oriented," he said, but "if Belgrade [had] called on Serbs in Kosovo to vote, to enter institutions, they would then be a subject. This obviously doesn't suit Belgrade." The Croatian daily "Vecerjni list" on November 19 quoted Mesic as saying that, after his second term as president is over, he would "happily accept the job" of high representative in Bosnia provided "all parties in Bosnia-Herzegovina agree." His presidency ends in 2010. The mandate of the Office of the High Representative runs until June 2008. AG

EU and NATO troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina on November 22 conducted six fresh raids aimed at finding information that could lead them to the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leader, Radovan Karadzic. Three of the searches were carried out in the homes of his wife and two children in the Republika Srpska town of Pale. They also searched the offices of Karadzic's son-in-law, Branislav Jovicic, the home of his former driver, Ranko Cicovic, and the premises of a local company. The Western troops were supported by officers from the Republika Srpska police force. This is at least the fourth time this year that members of Karadzic's immediate and extended family have either been questioned or had their homes searched (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 20, March 19, and September 11, 2007). Karadzic's wife, Ljiljana, recently renewed calls for her husband to surrender, a possibility that her daughter Sonja, whose home in Pale was one of those raided on November 23, has dismissed as an option (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 5 and 25, 2007). The other family member whose home was raided, Aleksandar, was deported from Serbia in September when he went to visit his son in a Belgrade hospital (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 17, 2007). Ljiljana Zelen-Karadzic has in the past complained of a concerted campaign against her family, giving that as a reason for her calls for her husband to surrender. In recent weeks, international troops and local authorities have searched the homes of a former Republika Srpska president, Mirko Sarovic, and of a former associate of Sarovic, Dragan Sojic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 24 and November 5 and 20, 2007). Karadzic has now been on the run for 12 years. AG

As anticipated, the UN Security Council on November 21 unanimously agreed to extend the mandate of the EU's peacekeeping force in Bosnia-Herzegovina (EUFOR) by 12 months, local and international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19, 2007). Its mandate was to have run out on November 21. A perceived improvement in Bosnia's security situation prompted EU leaders in February to slash EUFOR's size from 6,000 to about 2,500 troops, but EUFOR's commander has since expressed fears that security could deteriorate, even mentioning the possibility of war (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 31, 2007). The Security Council's resolution also voiced concern at Bosnia's "very limited progress" towards EU membership and urged it to cooperate with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in its search for suspected war criminals. Republika Srpska Prime Minister Dodik on November 21 said that EUFOR is welcome to stay provided it plays a neutral role, the news agency SRNA reported. The neutrality of Western forces is sometimes questioned in the Bosnian Serb media and of late there has even been talk of NATO occupying Bosnia to resolve the current political crisis between the Republika Srpska leadership and High Representative Lajcak (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 21, 2007). EUFOR took over peacekeeping responsibilities from NATO in 2004, but many countries contributing troops to EUFOR are also members of NATO. The EU also has a police mission in Bosnia, which assumed oversight responsibilities from the UN in 2003. On November 19, Brussels extended its mandate by two years, until the end of 2009. AG

Just over a year ago, KGB defector Oleg Gordiyevsky received a phone call from his friend Aleksandr Litvinenko. Litvinenko, a former Russian security officer and fierce Kremlin critic, had fallen ill and was laid up in a London hospital. His health was deteriorating rapidly. Gordiyevsky, a former KGB officer who defected to Britain in the 1980s, says Litvinenko suspected foul play.

"He phoned me from the hospital and informed me of the circumstances. He said that he felt very poorly. Very, very poorly," Gordiyevsky recalls. "I said: 'what has happened? How did it happen? You must be poisoned.' And he said, 'Yes, it looks like I am poisoned.'"

Less than two weeks later, Litvinenko was dead from a lethal dose of highly radioactive polonium-210. On his deathbed, he accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of being personally responsible.

November 23 marked the first anniversary of Litvinenko's death, an event that roiled Britain's Russian emigre community, caused an enduring chill in Russian-British relations, and deepened the West's suspicion of Moscow. It also led to a climate of fear among Kremlin critics.

Litvinenko's widow Marina has confirmed that she will file suit with the European Court of Human Rights to force the Russian authorities to take responsibility for her husband's death. She joined Litvinenko's friends and family on the anniversary for a vigil outside the University College Hospital in London, where Litvinenko died.

The Litvinenko legal team said the same day that a private researcher hired by the family claimed to have located the source of the deadly polonium -- the Avangard Electromechanical Plant, a former nuclear-weapon-assembly facility located in the closed city of Sarov, in the Nizhny Novgorod region.

Litvinenko fled Russia in 2000 after claiming that the Federal Security Service, the main KGB successor, was behind the deadly September 1999 apartment-building bombings in Moscow and other cities. He became a British citizen in October 2006.

Longtime Russia-watcher Edward Lucas, the deputy international editor of "The Economist," calls Litvinenko's death -- which many have called the assassination of a British citizen on British soil by foreign agents -- a "game-changing event" that significantly altered Russia's relations with the West. "I think that the Kremlin lost its last threads of trustworthiness and credibility in the eyes of at least some Westerners who were prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt until then," Lucas says. "This was something that was so alarming, and so dangerous, and so brazenly rude as well."

British prosecutors announced in May that they were charging Russian businessman and former KGB agent Andrei Lugovoi with killing Litvinenko by spiking his tea with polonium-210 in a London hotel on November 1. Moscow, citing a constitutional prohibition, has refused to extradite Lugovoi -- who is now running for a seat in the State Duma and has been treated as a hero in Russia.

As a result of Russia's refusal to hand over Lugovoi, Britain in July expelled four Russian diplomats, sparking the tit-for-tat expulsion of four British diplomats from Moscow.

For his part, Lugovoi has alleged that Litvinenko was probably an agent with Britain's MI6, and said his death was "useful" to the British establishment, which had long sought to "humble and discredit Russia." "Britain's MI6, always invisibly involved in this scandal, has done and will continue to do all it can to sideline an objective investigation," Lugovoi told reporters in Moscow earlier this month.

Moscow has repeatedly and strenuously denied any involvement in Litvinenko's death. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has called suggestions of Russian involvement "pure nonsense."

The Kremlin's denials, however, have been met with widespread skepticism in the West. David Satter, author of "Darkness At Dawn: The Rise Of The Russian Criminal State," says the Kremlin's reaction to Litvinenko's killing and those of other critics have fueled suspicion. "Even if we argue, hypothetically, that the highest authorities are not responsible for these killings," Satter says, "they are definitely responsible for the way in which they have responded to these killings -- in the most callous and contemptuous way possible, with thinly disguised satisfaction over the death of their opponents."

Litvinenko's death came less than two months after another Kremlin critic -- journalist Anna Politkovskaya of "Novaya gazeta," who wrote extensively about human rights abuses in Chechnya -- was shot dead in her Moscow apartment building on October 7, 2006.

Lucas says that as a journalist he has noticed that in the aftermath of Politkovskaya's and Litvinenko's deaths, his contacts in Russia are becoming more reluctant to criticize the regime openly. "It is more difficult now to get Russians to talk critically on the record about what is going on, and that's a pity," Lucas says. "And I would say it is not quite as bad as Belarus, but I think twice before phoning someone up who I don't know and talking on their main phone line."

And Satter says he believes this was precisely the message the Kremlin was trying to send. "It does appear that elements in the Russian leadership are issuing a thinly veiled warning to real and potential critics of the regime that they may resort to these methods under certain circumstances," Satter says. "Under these circumstances, of course, it's clear that the level of security for anyone who is critical of Russia or who in some way crosses the Russian authorities, is not what it should be and even not what it was. And this is to a certain extent an aftermath of the Litvinenko case."

Former world chess champion and opposition leader Garry Kasparov, for example, has said that he only consumes food and drinks prepared by people he knows and trusts.

The jitters that followed the March 2007 shooting of Paul Joyal, an American security consultant specializing in Russian affairs, were indicative of the new climate of fear that followed the Litvinenko killing. Joyal was shot and wounded outside his home in Maryland days after he said in a televised interview that Litvinenko's death was a warning to all critics of the Putin government. There was initial speculation that the attack on Joyal might have been a Litvinenko-style hit in the United States.

"The fact that people were even considering the possibility [of Russian involvement] is itself an indication of how the atmosphere has changed," Satter says.

Police later determined that the shooting was a simple case of street crime, but Lucas says that given the circumstances, it was disturbing nonetheless. "I think people were quite alarmed when Paul Joyal got shot," he says. "It's not quite clear whether that was just street crime or something more sinister. But my feeling is that Politkovskaya was a warning to Russians; Litvinenko was a warning to emigres; and there is yet to be a warning to Westerners who say nasty things about Russia -- but I think it will come."

(Brian Whitmore is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Prague.)

Taliban fighters retaliated against local Afghan security forces on November 24 in an area near the city of Kandahar that was thought to have been cleared of insurgents just days earlier, attacking a police post and killing seven policemen and leaving several others missing, CanWest News Service reported. Canadian and Afghan Army soldiers had cleared the Arghandab district days before, reportedly killing 55 Taliban fighters. The district had been a quiet buffer for the provincial capital until it came under Taliban assault in early November after the death of a pro-government tribal leader, Mullah Naqib. On November 23, Brigadier General Peter Atkinson, the director-general of operations for the strategic joint staff of the Canadian forces, gave the Canadian parliament a positive assessment of ongoing operations in southern Afghanistan. Taliban spokesman Qari Yusof Ahmadi claimed his group's responsibility for the assault. An estimated 700 Afghan policemen have been killed in Taliban attacks on remote police posts this year. MM

"The Washington Post" reported on November 25 that a secret assessment by the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) rated progress in Afghanistan for 2007 as unsatisfactory against a wide range of strategic goals, despite numerous tactical gains against the Taliban insurgency, news website reported the same day. The judgment reportedly reflects the results of an in-depth review by the NSC of a series of projected strategic improvements for this year compared to 2006, including progress in security, governance, and the economy. The assessment asserts that only "the kinetic piece" -- tactical battlefield successes against Taliban insurgents -- has shown satisfactory progress, while there has been little improvement in other areas. The assessment's conclusions received varying responses from U.S. military and intelligence officials, hinting at internal differences on the nature of progress in Afghanistan. Intelligence analysts tend to emphasize shortcomings in terms of containing the insurgency, failing to counter illicit drug trade, and deteriorating governance, while the military analysts point to successive battlefield defeats by Taliban insurgents, according to "The Washington Post." MM

The Afghan Interior Ministry said on November 25 that up to 65 Taliban insurgents smuggling weapons were killed in a raid by Afghan and coalition forces the previous day in the Patan district of Paktia Province, near the Pakistani border, the Ariana Television Network reported. The ministry claimed that the group was smuggling weapons from Pakistan into Afghanistan on horses and in two cars. "Altogether, 76 Taliban were killed in separate air strikes by coalition forces," Din Mohammad Darvish, a spokesman for the local administration in Patan, said of the restive eastern provinces. The coalition forces could not confirm the number of casualties but validated a number of strikes in the region. MM

NATO's top military commander in Afghanistan, General Bantz Craddock, urged alliance members on November 25 to increase their investment in training and equipping Afghan army and police forces, and he identified the most pressing need as finding trainers, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Craddock said plenty of Afghan recruits are available to bolster Afghan security forces but there is a lack of training teams to embed with raw Afghan recruits and help transform them into stand-alone forces. "We are short maneuver battalions, we're short intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, [and] we're short enablers, helicopters, [and] lift," Craddock said. "But the best investment we can make right now is to train the Afghan national security forces to get a face out and to take over their own security requirements." Craddock and NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Sheffer visited Afghanistan on November 21-23. MM

The heads of a number of Afghan parliamentary committees participated in a joint session on November 24 to deliberate on the security situation in the country, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. Yunos Qanuni, the speaker of the Wolesi Jirga (People's Council), the lower house of the parliament, told reporters that similar sessions will last for several days and will include leaders from the upper house, the Meshrano Jirga (Council of Elders). The parliamentary leaders are likely to discuss proposals aimed at improving security, according to Qanuni, who described insecurity as the main concern among Afghan lawmakers. Qanuni claimed that security has deteriorated over the last six years. Meshrano Jirga Chairman Sibghatullah Mojaddedi accused elements of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of supporting the insurgency in Afghanistan and condemned widespread corruption in Afghan government departments. MM

Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad told a gathering in Tehran on November 25 that Middle East peace talks set to be held in Annapolis, Maryland, on November 27 have no public support and are merely a ploy to help Israel further its interests with Arab collaboration, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian news agencies. Ahmadinejad expressed regret that certain Arab heads of states will be at the Annapolis conference "because the profit in this type of summit will go straight into [Israel's'] pocket." He questioned who gave the participating countries permission to attend a conference and decide on the rights of Palestinians, Mehr news agency reported. Ahmadinejad said elected Palestinian officials -- presumably the Hamas administration in Gaza -- have already rejected the conference, which he said is aimed at strengthening Israel. Ahmadinejad said that if people in "arrogant countries and especially America" were allowed to have "more or less free elections" like the Palestinians in Gaza, they would vote out "the present rulers in the White House." Ahmadinejad also urged the United States to allow Iranian representatives to observe the next U.S. presidential election. VS

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in Tehran on November 25 that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has closed parts of the dossier on Iran's nuclear activities after receiving answers from Iran, news agencies reported. The same reports noted that the IAEA said Iran has given "consistent" answers on its program through recent cooperation but at the same time has encouraged greater candor. Hosseini told reporters that the IAEA has informed Iran in writing that questions are closed on Iran's interest in advanced P-2 centrifuges and the use of uranium metal, Reuters reported. The IAEA wanted to know why Iran was interested in P-2 centrifuges, which spin to enrich uranium more efficiently than older P-1 types -- to make fuel but also potential weapons-grade explosive material -- and about Iran's interest in turning uranium metal into spheres for nuclear weapons, Reuters reported. The IAEA is reportedly in the process of verifying Iran's answers. The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, Gholamreza Aqazadeh, told IRNA on November 24 that the IAEA is moving on to another issue, the provenance of traces of highly enriched uranium found at a technical university in Tehran. He said IAEA representatives are due to arrive Iran on December 10. Hosseini said Iran and IAEA representatives will hold talks in Tehran on December 11. VS

Foreign Ministry spokesman Hosseini said on November 25 Iran had nothing to do with a November 23 bombing that killed more than a dozen people at a Baghdad pet market, Radio Farda reported, citing Iranian media reports. U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith blamed the attack on an "Iranian-backed special groups cell" that had split from the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, the militia of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, currently in a truce with U.S. forces, news agencies reported. Hosseini said the United States is making contradictory statements, highlighting Iran's role in bringing down violence on the one hand and then stating "these positions" following "a few explosions." Hosseini said security in Iraq has improved whenever responsibility has been handed over to Iraqi forces. He said Tehran is currently examining a recent U.S. request for a resumption of bilateral talks on Iraqi security and will make an announcement on the date once it is set, Radio Farda reported. VS

The family of detained prisoners' rights activist Emadeddin Baqi (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 24 and 25, and November 7, 2007) met on November 22 with former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi, who promised to help Baqi through consultations, "Etemad-i Melli" reported on November 25. Karrubi, a left-leaning ally of former President Mohammad Khatami, has in the past sought to help liberals or dissidents who had run afoul of Iranian authorities through discreet consultations, with mixed results. Baqi's wife, Fatemeh Kamali-Ahmadsarai, told Karrubi that Baqi was for now being made to serve a one-year sentence in isolation while his charges warrant his being held in an ordinary prison wing and enjoying prisoners' rights that include visits. Karrubi reportedly told the family that he hopes Baqi will be released, and said judiciary officials could have questioned him -- apparently over articles and books he had written -- without arresting him. Karrubi said they should in any case respect Baqi's rights "as a convict or a suspect." He suggested Baqi could be transferred to an ordinary prison cell or the interrogator could even allow for his release on bail now that he has been questioned. "I shall continue my conversations and do everything I can within the bounds of the law to defend Mr. Baqi's rights, " Karrubi vowed. VS

An unidentified Iraqi official told AFP on November 24 that the Oil Ministry has "nullified" all oil deals signed by the Kurdistan regional government (KRG) and foreign firms. "They will not be recognized," the official said. He added that Oil Minister Husayn al-Shahristani said that the Baghdad government is "the only institution authorized to sign oil contracts before the approval of the oil law." Meanwhile, in an interview with Monte Carlo radio on November 23, al-Shahristani announced that Iraq's neighbors will prevent the KRG from exporting oil. "Iraq's neighboring countries will not allow Kurds to export oil, there is an understanding between Tehran, Ankara, Damascus, and Baghdad on this issue," he said. Al-Shahristani previously said that any foreign firm that signed deals with the KRG would be barred from doing any business with the Iraqi federal government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 16, 2007). Since the KRG passed its own petroleum law in August, it has signed 15 exploration and exportation contracts with 20 foreign firms. In a statement issued on November 24, KRG spokesman Jamal Abdullah condemned al-Shahristani's decision to nullify all contracts signed between the KRG and foreign firms, reported the same day. Abdullah said that this is just the latest attempt by the oil minister to scuttle deals signed by the KRG. "Whenever the KRG signs contracts with foreign companies, he [al-Shahristani] says those contracts are illegal, threatens to put sanctions on those companies and now he says the contracts should be canceled.... We consider those contracts that we signed with international oil companies legal," Abdullah said. He added that al-Shahristani does not have the authority to revoke the deals and stressed that whoever "thinks they are illegal, he can raise complaints to the Supreme Court in Baghdad." SS

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a statement on November 23 downplaying recent media reports that the thousands of Iraqi refugees returning to the country is a sign that Iraq is becoming more stable, and that large-scale repatriations will soon begin. The agency stressed that while the security situation in Iraq is improving, many Iraqi refugees who are returning are doing so out of necessity. According to a survey conducted by UNHCR staff in Syria, most of the Iraqi families interviewed said they are returning because they are running out of money and resources, have faced difficult living conditions, or because their visas have expired. On October 1, Syria imposed visa requirements on Iraqis entering the country requiring them to obtain visas from the Syrian Embassy in Baghdad, which are given only for "commercial, transport, scientific, or educational reasons." UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis said the agency is prepared to assist Iraqis who want to return, but she noted that current conditions are not appropriate to promote, organize or encourage the return of Iraqis en masse. "Presently, there is no sign of any large-scale return to Iraq, as the security situation in many parts of the country remains volatile and unpredictable," Pagonis said. The UNHCR believes that more than 1.4 million Iraqis have fled to Syria and 750,000 to Jordan since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. SS

The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (formerly the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) issued a statement on November 25 demanding that the sentences in the Anfal case be carried out, and stressing that failing to do so would damage the standing of the Iraqi judiciary, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. "We call for respecting the independence of the judiciary and urge political forces not to interfere in the sentences handed down against the convicts. We also urge the executive to carry out the sentences imposed on the [Anfal] convicts and to release detainees who were not proven guilty of any crime," the statement said. The comments are in reference to the stalled executions of former Ba'ath Party official Ali Hasan al-Majid, also known as "Chemical Ali"; former Defense Minister Sultan Hashim Ahmad; and Hussein Rashid Muhammad, the former deputy director of operations for the Iraqi armed forces. The three men were convicted and sentenced to death in June for their roles in the 1987-88 Anfal campaign, which killed an estimated 180,000 Kurds. According to the Iraqi Constitution, the three-member Presidential Council must sign off on the executions. However, two of the three members, President Jalal Talabani and Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi, have both refused to do so, creating a constitutional impasse. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki has repeatedly said the executions will take place even without the consent of the Presidential Council. SS

The U.S. military issued a statement on November 25 saying that its forces have arrested 24 Al-Qaeda in Iraq suspects in operations in central and northern Iraq. Many of them are believed to be involved with Al-Qaeda in Iraq's courier and media operations in the region. U.S. military spokesman Major Winfield Danielson said the arrests are a blow to the terrorist group. "Iraqi and coalition forces are hitting Al-Qaeda across Iraq, disrupting their terrorist networks. The Iraqi people are working with us, helping us find Al-Qaeda, to ensure a more secure future for their nation," Danielson said. Meanwhile, U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith issued a statement on November 24 accusing an Iranian-linked Shi'ite militia of carrying out the November 23 bombing of a Baghdad pet market that killed 13 people. "Based on subsequent confessions, forensics, and other intelligence, the bombing was the work of an Iranian-backed special groups cell operating here in Baghdad. The group's purpose was to make it appear Al-Qaeda was responsible for this attack." Smith said. He added that the purpose of the attack was to frighten the Shi'ite community into supporting the militias as protectors. The United States has repeatedly accused Iran of supporting and training Shi'ite militias in Iraq. SS

An Iraqi doctor working in the Al-Kadhimiyah teaching hospital in Baghdad said six new cases of cholera have been discovered in the Iraqi capital, "Al-Azzam" reported on November 25. The doctor also said that hospital officials believe that the latest cases might be an indication of a major cholera outbreak in Baghdad. On November 22, the Health Ministry said Iraq is facing a health catastrophe, with 80 new cases of cholera reported in Baghdad in the last two weeks alone. SS