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Newsline - January 2, 2008

President Vladimir Putin said in his annual New Year's address to the nation on December 31 that it was the support, trust, and efforts of ordinary Russians that made possible "everything that we have done together with you during the past eight years" of his two-term presidency, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 28, 2007). He stressed that "we have not only restored the territorial integrity of Russia, but once again we are able to feel we are a united people. And all these years we worked together to preserve our country, to transform it into a modern, free, and strong state able to provide its citizens with a comfortable life." Putin argued that "we have seen how, from year to year, Russia has been gaining in strength.... How our economy has been growing. How new opportunities have been opening up for the people." He noted that "we have not managed to do everything. But I am quite certain that the road the people have chosen for Russia is the right road and that it will lead us to success. We have everything [needed] to achieve our goal -- our great history, colossal resources, courage, and the industriousness and intellectual potential of our great nation." The daily "Komsomolskaya pravda" reported on December 29 that several highly decorated senior military commanders have proposed that Putin be awarded the Hero of Russia order for his achievements as president. The commanders noted that "from 1985 to 2000, our presidents only disgraced us by selling out the country's interests or through their ridiculous personal behavior. Whenever they got ready for a trip, we prayed that they would not disgrace our country once again." PM

Serbian Finance Minister Mladjan Dinkic was quoted by the Belgrade daily "Politika" on December 31 as saying that the Serbian authorities have "humiliated" their country by considering a deal from a Gazprom-led Russian business group to acquire Serbia's state oil monopoly, NIS, at a fraction of its market value, ostensibly for political reasons. He said that unnamed government colleagues told him it would be "indecent" to ask Russians to pay a fair market price. Dinkic said that Gazprom would reportedly acquire 51 percent of NIS for $588 million, which is half the initial estimated value of the company, without having to bid competitively. He argued that, in open bidding, NIS could bring the government several times what the Russians are offering, which he called "crumbs." As an incentive, Gazprom offered to build a branch of the proposed South Stream gas pipeline through Serbia. Dinkic said that he is not angry with the Russians, whom he called "great negotiators," but with his own colleagues, for what he called selling off Serbia's natural resources for only part of their value. In his New Year's message on December 31, Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said the government wants "to reach a strategic energy agreement with Russia." Dpa reported on December 31 that such a pact could be concluded by the end of January. Kostunica is a strong supporter of close ties with Russia and relatively cool toward Serbia's possible Euro-Atlantic integration. Russia's "RBC Daily" reported on December 27 that "Gazprom is shopping for assets in Serbia" and that the Serbian government is a willing partner. The daily published somewhat different figures from those given by Dinkic on the NIS deal and noted that Gazprom and Gazpromneft declined to comment on the report. The paper suggested that Gazprom's real interest is in the gas pipeline and a possible storage facility at Banatski Dvor. The daily wrote that Gazpromneft has little need for "Balkan refineries" and that LUKoil was until recently considered the main Russian bidder for NIS. Russian businesses and wealthy entrepreneurs have bought numerous industries and properties in Montenegro and Serbia in recent years, fueling a real-estate boom on the Montenegrin coast and in central Belgrade, the BBC reported on January 1. PM

Sergei Yastrzhembsky, who is President Putin's aide and special envoy to the EU, said on January 1 in Moscow that Russia expects to launch negotiations soon on a new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with the EU following Slovenia's assumption of that body's rotating presidency on January 1, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on January 2. The current PCA expired in December but was automatically extended for one more year in the absence of a new agreement. Poland previously blocked PCA negotiations because of a dispute over a Russian ban on Polish meat shipments, which has since been settled (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 29 and December 21, 2007). Yastrzhembsky said on January 1 that it is "psychologically" important for Russia that Slovenia now chairs the EU because Slovenia is the first Slavic country to hold that position. He noted that relations between Moscow and Ljubljana are free of problems and that the two countries are close partners. PM

Russia's Federal Military and Technical Cooperation Service said in a statement on December 28 that "the issue of the delivery of S-300 air-defense missile systems to Iran, raised by the media, is not a subject of current negotiations and has not been discussed with the Iranians," RIA Novosti reported. The statement added that "Russia and Iran are continuing to develop cooperation in the military-technical sphere in full accordance with international arms export regulations and obligations" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 27 and 28, 2007). PM

Anatoly Vilkov, who is the deputy head of Russia's cultural protection agency, Rosokhrankultura, said on December 31 that Russia will send paintings for a planned exhibition of Russian art in London because Britain has provided "immunity from seizure" to protect the works from being confiscated in connection with possible legal disputes, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20 and 21, 2007). The British order was issued on December 30 and took effect the following day. A Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said on December 31, however, that Russian officials are still studying the British order, ITAR-TASS reported. On January 1, a British Embassy spokesman said in Moscow that British Council offices outside the capital will open on January 2 despite an order by the Russian authorities that they remain closed, reported. The spokesman said it would be "very unwise" for the Russian authorities to "put at risk" the council's employees. It is not clear whether the offices in fact opened on January 2. Russia maintains that the council has no legal basis to operate outside Moscow, which the British authorities deny. Bilateral relations are at a low point in the continuing row over the 2006 London murder of former Russian security agent Aleksandr Litvinenko. PM

Experts and analysts within the business community expect economic reform and liberalization from First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, if he -- as widely expected -- becomes president in May, RBK reported on December 29. The news agency argued that an expected 2-3 percent jump in inflation this month and "problems that have accumulated with the national projects," which Medvedev currently oversees, will push him toward reform, while the possibility of conflict with the current ruling elite and an unwillingness to be seen to be departing from the course of President Putin could restrain him. Yunikon analyst Yelena Matrosova told RBK that Medvedev has played key roles in many major Putin-era reforms, notably a quiet but radical reform of the state-service system. Political Technologies Center Deputy Director Aleksei Makarkin contrasted Medvedev with Regional Development Minister Dmitry Kozak, whom he described as prone to high-profile, radical reforms. Makarkin also credited Medvedev with liberalizing the shareholding policies of Gazprom, of which Medvedev is chairman of the board. He said he expects Medvedev will work "in an evolutionary manner," in a way that will not make headlines. Makarkin said he expects Medvedev to undertake judicial reform and to "pass genuine anticorruption legislation." However, he said major change will have to wait until 2009, since the current year will be largely "lost for reform" because of the election in March and the ensuing transition of power. RC

The Supreme Court on December 28 rejected an appeal by Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky against a Central Election Commission (TsIK) decision barring him from participating in the March presidential election, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported the same day. Bukovsky's lawyer said that he will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court's presidium. The court did not give a reason for rejecting the appeal. According to Bukovsky's lawyer, the TsIK's decision not to allow Bukovsky to run for president is based on three points. First, the TsIK claims it has an Interior Ministry document attesting that Bukovsky has British citizenship. Bukovsky, however, claims merely to have permanent-resident status there. Second, the TsIK cited a provision of the election law that requires presidential candidates to have lived in the country for at least 10 years. Bukovsky's supporters note that neither Boris Yeltsin nor Vladimir Putin had lived for 10 years in the Russian Federation before they became president, since the country was only formed in 1991. Third, the TsIK disputes Bukovsky's claim that his profession is "writer." RC

President Putin on January 2 participated in the ceremonial opening of a ski resort near Sochi, the first newly constructed facility earmarked for the 2014 Winter Olympic Games, Interfax reported. The resort, called Krasnaya Polyana (Red Meadow), was built by the state natural-gas monopoly Gazprom. Putin told participants that the facility will become "a real competitor to foreign alpine-ski resorts." RIA Novosti reported that the resort can host some 8,000 visitors a year and has 14 separate ski runs with a total length of some 14,500 meters. The land on which the resort is built was provided by the city of Sochi and the Sochi National Park. RC

Human rights activists and other public figures have sent an open letter to St. Petersburg Governor Valentina Matviyenko to protest the eviction of the local branch of the liberal Yabloko party from its offices, RFE/RL's Russian Service reported on December 29. The 24 signatories said the eviction was a sign of "deep disrespect" for the citizens who voted for Yabloko in the December 2, 2007, Duma elections, and will "cause serious harm" to the city's civic life. Earlier, Matviyenko announced the city will lease the downtown building to a local business association. St. Petersburg activist Leonid Romankov told RFE/RL that Matviyenko's decision is deeply ironic, considering that Yabloko has been active in defending small business from the authorities. Fellow activist Olga Kurnosova told RFE/RL that the eviction is a political act because "the authorities do not want there to be a place in the center of the city, known to everyone, where people can go with complaints about violations of their rights." RC

Several hundred people blocked a major traffic intersection in Makhachkala on December 29 to protest a four-day power outage, reported. Resuming their protest on December 30, they demanded the resignation of city Mayor Said Amirov and of President Mukhu Aliyev, whom they blamed for repeated power cuts over the past three months. Police used force on December 30 to disperse the protest participants, injuring an unspecified number of them, but the protest resumed on December 31. Daghestan's Emergency Situations Ministry said on January 1 that electricity supplies to the districts affected have been restored, reported. LF

Following a hearing that lasted 11 days, Daghestan's Supreme Court on December 28 acquitted for the second time three men accused of various terrorist acts, including the murder in May 2005 of Minister for Nationality Policy, Information, and External Ties Zagir Arukhov, ITAR-TASS and reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 23, 2005). Magomedtagir Gashimov and Amirkhan Musayev were found not guilty of all charges of terrorism, attempted murder, and belonging to illegal armed formations; Jamil Kibedov was acquitted of killing Arukhov but found guilty of causing an explosion in Makhachkala in April 2005. The three men were tried and acquitted last year, but the Russian Supreme Court overturned that acquittal and ordered a retrial. LF

Lawyers for Russian Interior Ministry officers Sergei Arakcheyev and Yevgeny Khudyakov, who were sentenced by the North Caucasus Military Court on December 27 to 15 and 17 years in prison, respectively, for shooting three Chechen construction workers in cold blood in January 2003, have appealed those sentences, reported on December 28. The two men were first acquitted of the same charges in June 2004 after a five-month trial in which they pled not guilty. The Russian Supreme Court called in November 2004 for a retrial, but one year later a jury ruled that there was insufficient evidence to convict the two men, a verdict that the Supreme Court overturned in May 2006. The two went on trial for the third time in January 2007. LF

Between December 23-25, Chechen police accompanied by municipal officials forcibly evicted almost all the 800 displaced Chechens housed in temporary accommodation in Grozny's Oktyabr Raion, reported on December 27,citing the Chechen Committee for National Salvation. On December 27, Chechen Republic head Ramzan Kadyrov appealed to Chechens who fled the republic during the fighting of the past 13 years to return, assuring them that the Russian and Chechen governments will provide them with adequate living conditions, and the Chechen government website reported. LF

A young man identified as an Islamic militant detonated a hand grenade during a shoot-out with police in Cherkessk, the capital of the Karachayevo-Cherkessia Republic (KChR), on December 26, killing himself and one police officer, reported. A total of 12 police officers died in terrorist attacks in the KChR in 2005-06, but following a series of police operations last year targeting suspected militants, the republic's Interior Ministry announced in October 2007 that there was no danger of any further such attacks (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 6 and 7, 2007). LF

The Nalchik city prosecutor's office opened a criminal investigation on December 15 into the circumstances of the death one month earlier of Zeitun Gayev, reported on December 19. Gayev was detained on the outskirts of Nalchik on November 15 after police reportedly found weapons in his car; he is said to have jumped to his death from a fourth-story window during interrogation the following day (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 19 and 30, 2007). Kabardino-Balkaria's Interior Minister Major General Yury Tomchak denied on November 29 that Gayev was maltreated or tortured, but a subsequent autopsy established that the injuries that caused his death were inflicted between six and 12 hours before he died, according to on December 19. Gratuitous brutality by police under Tomchak's predecessor Khachim Shogenov was identified as one of the factors that impelled many young men to join the armed militants responsible for the multiple attacks on police and security facilities in Nalchik in October 2005 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 13 and 14, 2005, March 20, 2006, and February 2, 2007). LF

The U.S. Embassy in Yerevan rejected on December 27 claims by opposition media that opinion polls financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) are inaccurate and unreliable, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on December 28. The polls have been conducted regularly since March 2006 by pollsters from the Armenian Sociological Association (ASA) under the supervision of the U.S. Gallup Organization. Critics allege that the ASA has close ties to the Armenian government. They question specifically the findings of a recent survey showing that Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian is the clear favorite to win the February 19 presidential ballot, with his support increasing from 29 percent to 35 percent last month. By contrast, support for former President Levon Ter-Petrossian was estimated in single figures. Ter-Petrossian and Armenian Revolutionary Federation--Dashnaktsutiun presidential candidate Vahan Hovannisian have both questioned the reliability of those statistics. In related news, U.S. President George W. Bush has signed into law a congressional bill that will reduce by 23 percent, from $76 million to $58.5 million, U.S. economic aid to Armenia for the fiscal year 2008, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on December 28. LF

Ilham Aliyev signed a decree on December 28 pardoning 119 prisoners, of whom 114 have been released from jail, reported. Those released include six journalists; several more journalists are, however, still serving prison terms or being held in pretrial detention. The Organization for Security and Development (OSCE) hailed Aliyev's decree, but Azerbaijani human rights activists expressed disappointment that the only political prisoners to benefit from it were those who only had weeks of their sentence left to serve, reported on December 29. LF

Up to 10,000 people participated on December 29 in a rally in Tbilisi organized by the nine-member opposition National Council to demonstrate their concern lest the authorities seek to rig the outcome of the January 5 preterm presidential ballot to secure a second term for incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili, Georgian media reported. Also on December 29, Caucasus Press summarized the second interim report released by the OSCE Election Monitoring Mission, which covers the period from December 14-24. That report noted that the campaign has been "soured" by allegations that Saakashvili has resorted to vote-buying, intimidation, and the widespread use of administrative resources to promote his campaign, and it concluded that "some of these claims are credible." For its part, the Ambassadorial Working Group comprising the diplomatic representatives in Tbilisi of OSCE and Council of Europe member states has released a statement calling on all concerned to ensure that the January 5 ballot is free and fair and takes place in "an environment free of intimidation, where Georgian citizens can fully exercise their constitutional right to vote," Caucasus Press reported on December 31. LF

The prosecution in the trial of Rakhat Aliev, the former son-in-law of Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbaev, on charges of corruption, money laundering, extortion, and abduction has called for a 20-year prison sentence for Aliev and prison terms ranging from 10-17 years for four of his co-defendants, Interfax reported on December 29, citing "Vremya." The five are accused of abducting in late January 2007 two managers of Nurbank, which Aliev formerly owned, in an attempt to coerce them to turn over sizable property holdings (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 14 and 23, 2007). One of the two managers was later released; a body believed to be that of the second was found three months ago. All five men are currently in Vienna, where Aliev previously served as Kazakhstan's ambassador; the Austrian authorities refused a request for his extradition on the grounds that he would be unlikely to receive a fair trial in Kazakhstan. His trial in absentia began on November 8 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 9 and November 13, 2007). LF

Kurmanbek Bakiev delivered his New Year's address, posted on on January 1, standing outside in sub-zero temperatures near the new government building and presidential palace in Bishkek. Speaking first in Kyrgyz and then in Russian, Bakiev characterized 2007 as a year "rich in momentous events," and the December 16 elections to a new parliament, in which his Ak Jol Eldik (Best Path Popular) Party won 71 of the 90 mandates, as a "new page" in political life. He stressed that the country's leadership continued in 2007 to implement programs intended to lay the foundations for future progress and a "worthy life" for the population. At the same time, he acknowledged the negative impact of world economic developments, including specifically the sharp rise in food prices in recent months, adding that the government has drafted measures to preclude a repetition. Bakiev predicted that 2008 will bring an economic breakthrough and identified as priorities the strengthening of statehood and security and solving social problems. Bakiev's ousted predecessor, Askar Akaev, currently living in exile in Russia, for his part affirmed in his New Year's greetings that "Kyrgyzstan has emerged as a sovereign, democratic, stable state," the website reported on December 28. Akaev called on his compatriots to preserve their "historic optimism" and to continue the struggle for "the stable development of the country" and for human rights and freedoms. LF

Addressing a cabinet session on December 27, Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov identified gradual democratization and strengthening law and order as key priorities for the new year, reported on December 28. In the economic sphere, he singled out the transition to a market economy; developing new oil and natural-gas deposits; expanding the construction industry; improving transport infrastructure; and revamping the textile industry with a view to increasing exports. He further noted the need to bring national legislation into line with international law. In his New Year's address, Berdymukhammedov pledged measures to improve living standards, including unspecified increases in pensions and wages and a cut in the price of gasoline, reported on January 1. Berdymukhammedov has also signed a decree abolishing as of January 1 the ban imposed by his deceased predecessor, Saparmurat Niyazov, on the sale and purchase of foreign currency, AP reported on January 2. Berdymukhammedov said that move will put an end to black-market currency speculation and help to attract foreign investment. LF

President Islam Karimov's decree of August 2005 abolishing capital punishment in Uzbekistan took effect on January 1, Russian media reported, citing the press service of the Uzbek Supreme Court (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 2, 2005). Particularly brutal murders and acts of terrorism will in future be punished by lifetime imprisonment, but women, men over 60, and persons under 18 will be exempt. In addition, the power to issue arrest warrants has been transferred to the courts. LF

Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka said on December 30 that U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart will be the first person expelled from Belarus if Washington introduces new economic sanctions against Minsk, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. "She attends opposition gatherings and speaks about the possibility of economic sanctions against Belarus, fueling the situation," Lukashenka said. "Let the American ambassador mind her own problems, as she may leave her position in Belarus early," he added. In November, the U.S. Treasury Department froze all assets under U.S. jurisdiction belonging to Belarus's largest petrochemical company, Belnaftakhim, and its representatives, and forbade Americans from doing business with the company on the grounds that it is controlled by Lukashenka. Stewart said in December that the United States intends to impose economic sanctions against other Belarusian enterprises unless the authorities release political prisoners. AM

President Lukashenka on December 30 confirmed his intention to make business conditions the same for small-business owners and legal business entities, Belapan reported. Lukashenka said that small-business owners who do not have legal entity status sometimes employ up to 100 people and pay much less in taxes than similar enterprises operating as a legal business entities. "If you want to operate in this way, then please register your enterprise and pay all taxes," Lukashenka said. A presidential decree that came into force on January 1 bans certain small-business owners from hiring employees other than three family members. The restriction triggered protests among entrepreneurs, who demand that the limitations on employees be abolished. In another decree, Lukashenka gave small-business owners until March 1 to register their businesses as legal entities through a simplified procedure. AM

In his New Year's address to the nation on December 31, President Lukashenka said 2007 was "the most difficult year in the history of our young state," due to "extremely severe political and economic pressure, the imposition of various sanctions, and torrents of lies and misinformation," as well as a hike in energy prices, Belapan reported. "In order to divert attention from their domestic problems, the leaders of some countries suddenly became concerned about the situation in Belarus, ignoring the fact that this is a sovereign European nation, not a part of their own countries," Lukashenka said. "What such democratization leads to became clearly visible in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, as well as on the territory of the former Soviet Union," where, he said, unspecified countries have experienced "endless political intrigues, corruption, economic recession, and devastation." "But the most important thing is that these countries have become wholly dependent on their 'teachers,'" Lukashenka said. "They can't forgive us that Belarus...does not consent to become their puppet." AM

The 450-seat Verkhovna Rada on December 28 passed the draft budget for 2008, Ukrainian media reported. The bill was supported by 227 coalition lawmakers from the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc and the Our Ukraine-People's Self-Defense bloc, as well as eight lawmakers from the Communist Party. The Party of Regions and the Lytvyn Bloc factions did not attend the vote. The document projects revenues at 215.36 billion hryvnyas ($42.6 billion) and expenditures at 235.43 billion hryvnyas ($46.6 billion). The document comprises the budget itself and over 100 amendments regarding taxation and social legislation. The government explained that the budget deficit of nearly 105 billion hryvnyas made the amendments necessary. AM

Recognition of Kosova as an independent state would set a "dangerous precedent" for "international law and international security," former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev wrote in an article published by the state-run daily "Rossiiskaya gazeta" on December 29. Gorbachev also questioned plans for the EU to assume responsibility for overseeing Kosova, arguing that "for the first time in history, two organizations are trying to assume responsibility for the future of a country -- Serbia -- which is not a member of either of them." Since 1999, Kosova has been administered by the UN, while a NATO-led international force has provided security. "By destroying international law and replacing it with a poorly disguised tyranny, the proponents of this approach have certainly miscalculated the outcome of their actions," Gorbachev warned. AG

The speaker of Serbia's parliament, Oliver Dulic, has called local elections for May 11, the Serbian broadcaster B92 reported on December 30. The decision was made on December 29, two days before a constitutional deadline, and ends a prolonged period of uncertainty about the timing of both these and the presidential election. The presidential election will be held on January 20, eight days before a summit at which EU leaders are expected to clarify their positions on independence for Kosova (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 13, 2007). There had been speculation that local elections would be held on February 3, the date of the expected runoff in the presidential election. The May date for the local elections goes some way to addressing calls by some political parties for all elections to be postponed until the status of Kosova is resolved. AG

Nikola Spiric, 51-year-old ethnic Serb, was confirmed by the federal parliament on December 28 as the prime minister of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a post from which he resigned on November 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 2, 2007), the news agency SRNA reported. Spiric's return follows political breakthroughs on several key issues in the past two months, including the issue that prompted him to step down -- reform of decision-making procedures in the federal government and parliament (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 22, 2007). According to local media, Spiric told parliament that he will name his team by mid-January and that his priority is bringing EU membership closer by completing the formal adoption of a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA). In December, Bosnia initialled a preliminary SAA (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2007), the last country in the region to do so. Both Bosnia and Serbia now need their SAAs with the EU to be signed by EU leaders. "The initialing the SAA is proof that many things have changed since the time I resigned," Spiric told parliament. AG

Rajko Kuzmanovic was sworn into office as the president of the Bosnian Serb-dominated Republika Srpska on December 28. Kuzmanovic, a 76-year-old former lawyer, was elected to the post on December 9 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2007). Both Kuzmanovic and Spiric are members of the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats (SNSD), the largest party in the Republika Srpska and the most popular in the country. According to local media, Kuzmanovic, whose post is largely ceremonial, vowed in his inauguration speech to block any effort to weaken the powers of the Republika Srpska's institutions. AG


Taliban supreme leader Mullah Mohammad Omar has reportedly dismissed top southern commander Mansur Dadullah from his post for "insubordination and disobeying orders," according to a Taliban statement released to the media on December 29. Until his dismissal, Dadullah was the leader of the Taliban faction ideologically aligned with Al-Qaeda and formerly led by his older brother, Mullah Dadullah, who was killed by U.S. and Afghan forces in Helmand Province in May 2007. According to "El-Emerah," the Taliban's daily newspaper, Mansur Dadullah was "not obedient to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in his actions and has carried out activities which are against the rules of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan." Dadullah has reportedly denied being dismissed. "It is not true that Mullah Omar kicked me out of the Taliban," Dadullah was quoted as saying in Britain's "Daily Telegraph." "If he wanted me to leave the Taliban, he would send me a message and I would put down my weapons, because he is our top commander," Dadullah said. He claimed that he is the victim of a conspiracy by his enemies. MM

Spanish King Juan Carlos and Defense Minister Jose Antonio Alonso on December 31 paid a surprise visit to Spanish troops deployed in Herat Province in western Afghanistan, Bakhtar News and international media reported. While having lunch with the soldiers, Juan Carlos wished them success in their mission in the New Year so that they can "return to Spain with the fulfillment of your duty." Spain has contributed 700 soldiers to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan; four Spanish soldiers were killed in fighting there in the past year. Leaders from Australia, France, and Italy have recently visited their troops serving in Afghanistan, at the end of a year that witnessed increased Taliban attacks on ISAF and Afghan forces, resulting in rising casualties. MM

Taliban insurgents attacked a police checkpoint in the southern Kandahar Province on December 31, killing 16 police officers, Afghan and international media reported. Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Zemarai Bashary told AP that more than 850 police officers were killed in attacks and combat since the beginning of 2007, out of a force of some 73,000 officers nationwide. The past year has seen the highest level of casualties in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban in 2001, with militant attacks primarily targeting security forces, but resulting in many civilian casualties. More than 6,500 people -- mostly militants -- died in fighting in Afghanistan in 2007, according to an AP count based on figures from Afghan and Western officials. 2007 also saw the highest death toll for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion, with 110 soldiers killed. MM

A number of towns along Iran's northern Caspian coast reportedly had their gas supplies cut off in the last days of December, amid rising demand and falling winter temperatures. Iran's state gas supplier meanwhile threatened to cut supplies to North Khorasan Province in Iran's northeast, Radio Farda reported on December 31, citing Iranian agency reports. The shortages have forced shops and schools to close, and prompted protests outside gas company offices in some towns in the Caspian province of Mazandaran. The affected towns include Sari, Semnan, Shahrud, Gorgan, and Qaemshahr, all in northern or northeastern Iran. Radio Farda cited the daily "Tehran-i Emruz" as reporting on December 31 that a number of ministries and offices in Tehran also had their gas supplies cut in recent days for surpassing government-imposed consumption limits. The cuts may have been caused in part by an interruption of gas exports to Iran from its northern neighbor, Turkmenistan, which in turn prompted Iran to reduce its gas exports to Turkey, "Khaleej Times" reported on January 1, citing Fars news agency. An unidentified source told Fars that Iran has reduced the daily 20 million cubic meters it is contractually obliged to pipe to Turkey to 4 million-5 million cubic meters. However, the Turkmen Foreign Ministry released a statement on January 1 rejecting reports that Turkmenistan has completely suspended gas exports to Iran, reported. The statement quoted Petrochemical Industry and Natural Resources Minister B. Khodjamukhammedov as saying that exports have been reduced temporarily due to the need to carry out repair work on export pipelines. VS/LF

Iranian Supreme National Security Council Secretary Said Jalili has replaced three council members reportedly close to his predecessor Ali Larijani, AFP reported on January 1. Jalili appointed Mehdi Bokharaizadeh as head of foreign policy at the council secretariat; Ahmad Khaleqi as head of economic affairs; and Ahmad Khadem ol-Melleh as head of media affairs and communications, Radio Farda reported. Bokharaizadeh was previously a secretary of the strategic research center at the armed forces joint headquarters; Khaledi was a deputy trade minister and head of the state body monitoring consumer prices; and Khadem ol-Melleh was an IRNA chief and the news agency's representative at the UN in New York, Radio Farda reported. The new appointments replace three conservative figures and allies of Larijani, who resigned unexpectedly in October; Mohammad Nahavandian oversaw economic affairs, Abdulreza Rahmani-Fazli headed media and communications, and Ali Monfared oversaw foreign policy. VS

Former National Security Council chief Larijani, who is now the Iranian supreme leader's representative on the council, told the press in Cairo on January 1 that talks between Iran and Egypt are "rational and moving forward," IRNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 28, 2007). Larijani started his visit to Cairo on December 24, apparently as part of tentative moves to improve ties after almost three decades of antagonism between Iran's revolutionary regime and pro-Western Egypt. Larijani asked the press not to focus too much on current talks and to "allow the direction and atmosphere of talks to keep their natural form." He indicated that his discussions with Egyptian officials have covered "strategic subjects" and focused on the overall shape of relations rather than details. VS

Interior Minister Mostafa Purmohammadi said in Tehran on January 1 that his ministry is ready to hold "peaceful and reassuring" elections in March for Iran's eighth parliament since 1979, IRNA reported. Purmohammadi told the press after a meeting of provincial officials that election supervisors have already been appointed and the ministry is finalizing its choice of personnel overseeing the elections. He said the ministry has issued national identity cards, needed to vote, to some 42 million eligible voters, and that 98 percent of the some 43 million eligible voters will have their identity cards ready by the end of the Persian year to March 20. Purmohammadi separately said he favors the idea, discussed in Iran in the past, of moving the capital from Tehran, IRNA reported. He said the government of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is studying the idea, adding that the cost of changing capitals would be less than the money millions of Iranians would save by not having to travel to Tehran. Isfahan, in central Iran, has been suggested as one option due to its central location. The city was the capital of the Persian state in the 17th and 18th centuries. VS

Expediency Council chief and former President Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani told clerics in Tehran on December 31 that the March elections should be held in a "healthy environment" and that "we must not do anything to deepen grudges," Mehr reported. He told clerics belonging to the reformist National Trust Party, headed by former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi, that Iranians must be brought to the polls "by the right means" so they can show their loyalty to Iran's political system. Reformists have voiced concerns that the Guardians Council, a mainly right-wing body of clerics with a decisive say in election matters, will disqualify many of their proposed candidates. Separately, deputy speaker of parliament Mohammad Reza Bahonar told IRNA on January 1 that conservatives are trying to persuade certain prominent figures to run in the March elections. Some Iranian media have reported intractable divisions among the conservatives, who have sought to downplay the significance of the disagreements. Bahonar said politicians have suggested that Ali Larijani and former parliamentary speaker Ali Akbar Nateq-Nuri should be among the candidates. VS

Iranian police officers shot dead three "bandit chiefs" near Taibad in eastern Iran over a period of several days beginning on December 28, after tracking their entry from Afghanistan, ISNA reported. Hamid Fahimi-Rad, the police chief of eastern Khorasan-i Razavi Province, said one police officer was killed in a gun battle that erupted when police ambushed a group of drug traffickers on or after December 28. Some of them fled back to Afghanistan, Fahimi-Rad said. Police seized arms and ammunition and 56 kilograms of opium after searching the area. Separately, police or troops shot dead three "armed bandits" north of Kerman in southeastern Iran on an unspecified date, ISNA reported on December 31, quoting Abbas Atai, a deputy head of the Rasul-i Akram security base in eastern Iran. Police destroyed several vehicles belonging to the criminals, ISNA reported. VS

In a New Year's address to the Iraqi people, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki called 2008 the Year of Reconstruction, the state-run Al-Iraqiyah news channel reported on January 1. "The year 2007 has ended and we experienced sorrow and pain during this year. However, the Iraqis' determination, fraternity, and persistence to develop their country crowned the year 2007 with success and victory," al-Maliki said in a recorded statement. "As I said before, the year 2007 was the year of security and we succeeded in [establishing] it. We must all succeed as we decided that the year 2008 will be the year of reconstruction, economy, fighting corruption, and development," he added. Al-Maliki called on all political forces to unite and help meet the government's goals for 2008. KR

Medical tests in London have determined that Prime Minister al-Maliki is in good health, the Iraqi government announced on December 31. A statement released by al-Maliki's office called the results of undisclosed tests "good and very reassuring." Al-Maliki left for London on December 29, telling reporters that he had put off routine medical exams for some time. Al-Sharqiyah television reported on December 29 that al-Maliki has been battling diabetes and hypertension for several years. Sources close to the prime minister told the news channel on January 1 that al-Maliki will be discharged from a London hospital on January 3, and will probably return to Baghdad on January 5. KR

The Iraqi government will compensate families affected by violence in Diyala and Dahuk governorates, Al-Iraqiyah television reported on December 31. Prime Minister al-Maliki ordered that the Baghdad government will compensate the families of those injured or killed when a suicide bomber attacked a reconciliation meeting for tribal leaders and government officials in the village of Shifta in Diyala Governorate on September 24. Fifteen people were killed in the attack and some 36 injured (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 25, 2007). Each family of the wounded victims will be paid 1 million dinars ($824), while each family with a relative killed in the attack will receive 3 million dinars ($2,472). Meanwhile, families in Dahuk Governorate displaced as a result of a recent Turkish bombing campaign along the Turkey-Iraq border will also be compensated 1 million dinars. The government will also pay 1 million dinars to the families of people who were injured, and 3 million dinars to the families of those killed by the bombing campaign. Al-Iraqiyah reported that the government's assistance to Iraqi families in Dahuk Governorate will amount to some 450 million dinars ($370,828). KR

The Iraqi Oil Ministry announced on December 30 that monthly revenues from oil exports reached $4.9 billion in November, with oil selling at an average price of $83.87 per barrel. Ministry spokesman Asim Jihad said the exports averaged 1.6 million barrels per day from Al-Basrah and more than 300,000 barrels per day from Kirkuk in northern Iraq. The November exports mark a three-year high for Iraq. The ministry expects to increase crude exports to 2 million barrels per day in early 2008. KR

The International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said on December 31 that Iraq remained the deadliest country in the world for journalists in 2007, with 65 journalists and media workers killed there out of 171 who died in the line of duty worldwide. The IFJ reported that, with one exception, all media workers killed in Iraq in 2007 were Iraqi nationals. The organization said that 134 journalists were murdered or otherwise died violent deaths, while another 37 were killed in accidents. Somalia was the second-deadliest country for journalists, followed by Pakistan, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and the Philippines. The IFJ said the majority of media workers targeted in 2007 were working for national or regional media outlets and were killed in their own communities. "Many killers of journalists are just getting away with murder. Governments must take these issues seriously. Every case must be investigated. Those responsible must be punished," IFJ General Secretary Aidan White said. In 2006, the IFJ reported 177 journalists and media workers killed worldwide. KR