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Newsline - January 7, 2008

Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said on January 6 that Russia is still interested in hosting an international conference on the Middle East, but only if "stability is in the offing in that region," Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 27, 28, and 30, 2007). "The Russian Federation is not going to host the conference for the sake of mere formality," he noted. Although Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters on his plane while returning home from Annapolis on November 27 that Russia will host the next Mideast peace conference, it soon became clear that this is not yet a done deal. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on November 29 that Lavrov's proposal "received support" at the Annapolis gathering but he stopped short of saying that the plan is definite. On December 25, Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Yakovenko said the proposed Moscow conference will go ahead if "our interaction with our American partners and the other members of the [so-called Mideast] Quartet [is] fruitful." The quartet consists of the United States, Russia, the UN, and the EU. Yakovenko added that "the date, format, and agenda for the planned [conference] depend on developments in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations." On January 5, Yakovenko said that Russia is still interested in hosting a Mideast conference, RIA Novosti reported. PM

Aleksandr Medvedev, who is Gazprom's deputy CEO in charge of exports, said in Paris on January 5 that his company hopes to acquire a 10 percent share of the French gas market by 2013, Interfax reported. He repeated Russia's position that some of the EU's policies on energy security unfairly target Gazprom (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2007). The EU has long sought to persuade Moscow to ratify the EU's Energy Charter Treaty, which Russia signed in 1994 but never ratified, and whose Transit Protocol would require Russia to open up access to its pipelines. Medvedev said on January 5 that Gazprom does not have in mind any specific projects in France but will assess possible opportunities as they arise. On January 7, Britain's "Financial Times" reported that Gazprom wants to acquire natural gas in Nigeria, possibly for export in liquefied form. Nigeria is believed to hold some of the world's largest gas reserves, largely in areas already allocated to Western multinationals. The daily quoted an unnamed Nigerian oil official as saying that "the Russian government wants Gazprom to anchor the expanding relationship between Nigeria and the Russian Federation. They now have to come down to the detail of what they want to do. We are waiting for them." The British paper noted that "Russia's moves to tap Nigeria's huge energy reserves will send shivers through Western governments already concerned about a shortage of global gas supplies." PM

January 7 marked Orthodox Christmas, which was celebrated with church services across Russia, Russian media reported. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksy II led a service at Moscow's Christ the Savior Cathedral that was attended by First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, who is widely expected to succeed Vladimir Putin as president. Ekho Moskvy reported that Aleksy specifically wished Medvedev strength and courage in his work for the country. Putin celebrated Christmas in the town of Veliky Ustyug in Vologda Oblast, where he met with Grandfather Frost. The latter showed Putin a model of a residence that is being built for Grandfather Frost in Sochi, which is to be ready for the 2014 Winter Olympics there. RC

The Moscow subway system on January 7 opened its 175th station, Strogino, ITAR-TASS reported. According to the report, the station is the brightest and most spacious in the city's rapidly growing underground system. The network will now focus on expansion in the Mitino area, extending beyond the Moscow ring road and into the territory of Moscow Oblast. A detailed map of the system's expansion can be found at RC

The punitive operation launched in mid-December in the village of Gimri in Daghestan's mountainous Untsukul Raion may not be aimed solely at apprehending Islamic militants, RFE/RL's North Caucasus Service reported on January 4, quoting a government official who asked to remain anonymous (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 17, 18, and 28, 2007). He identified as responsible for the December 9 killing of former Daghestan parliament deputy Gazimagomed Magomedov (aka Gazimagomed Gimrinsky) (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 11, 2007) a group of young men led by Ibragim Gadjidadayev that formerly undertook various dubious commissions on behalf of Magomedov, but broke with him one year ago. Magomedov's death left his former proteges -- including Nurmagomed Aliyev, director of the hydroelectric complex Sulakenergo that receives huge sums in subsidies from the federal budget -- without a protector and vulnerable to blackmail, and the official said many Gimri inhabitants are convinced the ongoing crackdown is the direct consequence of an appeal for help from Aliyev to unidentified senior Russian officials to neutralize the group led by Gadjidadayev. Major General Sergei Chenchik, the Interior Minister officer in charge of the operation, was quoted as saying it will continue until all "terrorists" have been apprehended. Meanwhile, a strict curfew remains in force and residents are forbidden to leave Gimri. Meeting on December 28 with the presidential Council of Elders, Daghestan's President Mukhu Aliyev described Gimri and the neighboring villages of Untsukul and Balakhani as a hotbed of criminality and extremism and similarly warned that the crackdown will continue until the last militant has been apprehended, RIA Dagestan reported. LF

The number of serious or violent crimes committed in Armenia between January-November 2007 rose by 6.7 percent compared to the previous year, to 159, reported on January 3, quoting Armenia Today. Although the number of murders fell by 12 percent, the number of crimes in which a firearm was used rose by 22.7 percent, and the number of crimes directed against government officials by 36.8 percent. Statistics for the first six months of 2007 showed the total number of crimes committed falling by 9.3 percent compared to 2006. LF

Voters in Georgia went to the polls on January 5 in a preterm presidential ballot in which incumbent Mikheil Saakashvili sought reelection for a second term. Voter turnout was estimated at 56.17 percent, compared to almost 90 percent in the 2004 election that Saakashvili won with 96 percent of the vote. Shortly after polling stations closed on January 5, Minister for Conflict Resolution Davit Bakradze, who headed Saakashvili's election campaign, announced that exit polls involving 7,000 voters showed Saakashvili winning 53.8 percent of the vote, compared to 28.3 percent for his closest rival, businessman Levan Gachechiladze, who was backed by the nine-party opposition National Council. Businessman Badri Patarkatsishvili was in third place, with 6.2 percent, followed by Labor Party leader Shalva Natelashvili with 5.6 percent; David Gamkrelidze of the New Rightists with 3.6 percent; economist Giorgi Maisashvili with 0.9 percent; and Soviet-era dissident Irina Sarishvili-Chanturia with 0.4 percent, Caucasus Press reported. The remaining 28 percent of respondents refused to say for whom they had voted. Saakashvili early on January 6 characterized the vote as "a huge victory for Georgia," expressing his gratitude to all those who cast ballots, Caucasus Press reported. "We shall wait for the official result from the Central Election Commission, however the indications from independent exit polls conducted according to international standards show that we are winning in the first round," he added. Late on January 6, with some two-thirds of votes counted, Saakashvili was in the lead with 51.3 percent, followed by Gachechiladze with 27.32 percent; no data was available on the Central Election Commission website ( as of midday on January 7. Saakashvili needs 50 percent plus one vote in the first round to avoid a runoff. The presidents of Poland, Estonia, and Kazakhstan all congratulated Saakashvili on his reelection before the official preliminary results of the ballot were made public, Caucasus Press reported on January 6. LF

Opposition challenger Gachechiladze on January 6 denounced as falsified the findings of the exit polls, which were conducted by four media outlets with close ties to the government. He told several thousand supporters at a rally in Tbilisi on January 6 that while outside Tbilisi he polled 34 percent of the vote compared to 44 percent for Saakashvili, in the capital he has a big majority that puts him in the lead, reported. Gachechiladze vowed to protest the official results to the Central Election Commission, and called on supporters to reconvene in Tbilisi on January 8. Gamkrelidze, Maisashvili, and Natelashvili similarly refused to accept the official returns. Gamkrelidze congratulated Gachechiladze on garnering the highest number of votes in the first round, and he and Maisashvili called for a runoff between Saakashvili and Gachechiladze, while Natelashvili demanded that the vote be annulled and a repeat ballot held in two months, Prime News and reported on January 6. Observers deployed by the National Council registered hundreds of procedural violations on January 5, including intimidation of opposition representatives on district election commissions, Caucasus Press reported. Tina Khidasheli of the opposition Republican Party and Natelashvili's campaign manager, Giorgi Gugava, both claimed that Saakashvili supporters were being transported in buses from one polling station to another to enable them to vote more than once. A spokesman for Saakashvili's United National Movement admitted the party hired buses to transport voters to polling stations. LF

International observers deployed to monitor the run-up to the preterm ballot and the conduct of the vote concluded in a January 6 statement posted on the OSCE website ( that the election "was in essence consistent with most international standards for democratic elections." At the same time, the statement noted "significant challenges which need to be addressed urgently." Ambassador Dieter Boden, who headed the OSCE/ODIHR long-term monitoring mission, told a press conference that the election "was prepared in a professional manner, but we would do a disservice to Georgian democracy if we did not also speak out openly where it was not in line with OSCE commitments, such as cases of intimidation." The statement further noted that members of the Central Election Commission "acted in a partisan manner, not always observing the neutrality required of an election administration. The campaign was overshadowed by widespread allegations of intimidation and pressure, a number of which were substantiated. The implementation of social welfare programs was frequently combined with campaigning " for Saakashvili. Matyas Eorsi, who headed the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe monitors, observed that the election, although "clearly not perfect," provided an opportunity for "a democratic response to the recent political crisis." Both he and Marie Anne Isler-Beguin of the European Parliament called on the Georgian authorities to address urgently the shortcomings that marred the vote. In mid-December, Levan Berdzenishvili, a leading member of the opposition Republican Party, said the opposition would accept the outcome of the ballot as valid if international observers concluded it was free and fair (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 19, 2007). But Gachechiladze told supporters in Tbilisi on January 6 that "if the observers just close their eyes to everything that happened yesterday, that will be very bad for democracy in Georgia," Eurasianet reported. The National Council duly released a statement later on January 6 rejecting as unacceptable the verdict of the International Observer Mission, the independent television channel Mze reported. LF

In a statement posed on January 6 on its website (, the Russian Foreign Ministry noted that opposition representatives and NGOs reported "numerous" procedural violations during the January 5 ballot, violations that it commented were only to be expected given that the election campaign "can hardly be said to have been 'free and fair.'" The outrage expressed by opposition candidates over Saakashvili's claim before the preliminary results were made public to have won the ballot is therefore entirely understandable, the statement continued. It further quoted Western observers as describing the ballot as "a triumph for Georgian democracy" and dismissed that imputed conclusion as "superficial." LF

In addition to electing a new president, Georgians on January 5 also voted in nonbinding plebiscites on NATO membership and the timing of the next parliamentary elections. Quoting exit polls, "The Washington Post" on January 6 reported that 61 percent voted in favor of NATO membership and 63.6 percent want the parliamentary elections to take place in the spring, not the fall of 2008. LF

Nino Burjanadze has pardoned Sulkhan Molashvili and Davit Mirtskhulava, who served under former President Eduard Shevardnadze as Control Chamber head and energy minister, respectively, Caucasus Press reported on January 7. Molashvili was arrested in April 2004 and tried and jailed for nine years on charges, which he denied, of misappropriating state funds. He subsequently appealed his mistreatment during pretrial detention to the European Court of Human Rights. Mirtskhulava was arrested in December 2003 on similar charges and sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment; that term was reduced to six years in July 2006. LF

An unidentified Kazakh official said on January 4 that Kazakhstan will raise a quota on foreign labor in the country for 2008, the Russian news agency Regnum reported. According to the official, the government recently adopted a new regulation increasing the limits on the influx of foreign workers into Kazakhstan to a level of 1.6 percent of the roughly 7.5 million-strong labor force. The new limits will also impose specific restrictions on foreign workers across several categories, raging from low-wage unskilled laborers to white-collar managerial positions. The limits for 2007 were approximately half of the new quota, set at 0.8 percent of the overall labor force. Kazakhstan also announced on January 5 that it is ready to accept some 15,000 "ethnic Kazakhs" hoping to return to the country from abroad, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. RG

The Supreme Court on January 4 sentenced former military commander Mahmadahdi Nazarov to 15 years in prison for crimes committed during Tajikistan's 1992-97 civil war, Asia-Plus reported. In addition to Nazarov, also known as "Makhsum Mahdi," the court sentenced two of his associates, Murod Saidov and Mirzo Mulloev, to 14 years in prison each. Immediately following the sentencing, presiding Supreme Court Justice Salima Khojaeva reduced the prison terms by one-third, because of the general amnesty adopted by parliament in November 1998 for crimes committed during the civil war. As a former leader of the Popular Front, Nazarov was convicted of committing a number of crimes during the civil war, including the October 1992 murder of a popular Tajik singer, Karomatullo Qurbonov. He was first arrested in December 2006 and his two associates were detained in August 2007. RG

The chairman of the Uzbek human rights group Esguliq, Isroil Rizaev, announced on January 4 in Tashkent that Karim Bozorboev, a deputy chairman of the group, was freed from prison under a general amnesty commemorating the 15th anniversary of Uzbekistan's constitution, according to AP. Bozorboev was released after serving part of a six-year sentence for fraud after a trial widely condemned by rights activists and international observers. He was one of at least 15 Uzbek rights activists who contend that they have been assaulted, imprisoned, or subjected to forced psychiatric treatment since the May 2005 uprising in the eastern Uzbek city of Andijon. Bozorboev joined the human rights group in 2004 after resigning from a state-affiliated political party, saying he was disgusted by corruption among Uzbek officials (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2007). RG

The Belarusian police's migration department has notified Anatol Lyabedzka, the leader of the United Civic Party, that he is listed in the Interior Ministry's database of people barred from leaving Belarus, Belapan reported on January 4. The Belarusian authorities imposed the travel ban on Lyabedzka over the defamation case brought against him in 2004. Lyabedzka allegedly slandered Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka while appearing on Russian television. Belarusian investigators in 2004 suspended the proceedings due to the lack of cooperation from Russia, but did not close the case. The government introduced the travel-ban database on January 1, replacing permit stamps in passports. AM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on January 4 that "the former government has left an unprecedented inflation rate of 17 percent," RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Tymoshenko instructed the Economy Ministry, the Finance Ministry, the Agriculture Ministry, the Fuel and Energy Ministry, the State Tax Administration, and the Customs Service to work out "a precise plan of anti-inflation measures." Tymoshenko said that "the inflation processes should be immediately curbed" within the framework of requirements of Ukraine's accession to the World Trade Organization. AM

The party of Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica decided on January 3 that it will support the presidential candidate put forward by its coalition partner rather than the candidate of the government's largest party, local media reported. The decision by Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) to back Velemir Ilic, leader of New Serbia (NS), its coalition partner in parliamentary elections held in January 2007, appears to contravene the governing coalition's founding agreement, under which the DSS agreed to back the reelection of President Boris Tadic, whose Democratic Party (DS) is the strongest member of the governing coalition (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 14, 2007). There has been little high-level response from the DS so far. However, in general comments made in an interview with the broadcaster B92 on January 5, the speaker of parliament, Oliver Dulic of the DS, said that the ruling coalition is "the least stable since the days of the Democratic Opposition of Serbia," a wide alliance of parties that ruled Serbia from shortly before the ouster of President Slobodan Milosevic in 2000. Despite its internal tensions, the Democratic Opposition of Serbia survived in power until December 2003. Dulic likewise predicted that, for all its instability, the government will be able to "implement certain key parts of the manifesto around which it was formed" in May 2007. AG

Aleksandar Karadjordjevic, the son of the last king of Yugoslavia, called on January 5 for Serbia to become a constitutional monarchy, arguing that Serbia needs "a similar situation to the one in Norway, Denmark, and so on," where a monarchical system works "very well." Asked whether his weak command of Serbian rules him out as Serbia's sovereign, Karadjordjevic said "I know I've got a bit of a problem with Serbian, but I understand what Serbia needs:... Serbia has to be a democratic country, where the head of state is neutral, and not a member of a political party. Power is with the government, and is having free elections and moving on." Asked about the candidates in the presidential election to be held on January 20, Karadjordjevic said, "I get on well with [President] Tadic" and "I've got nothing against Tomislav Nikolic," an extreme nationalist who is Tadic's principal rival and also a strong opponent of any restoration of the monarchy. Karadjordjevic's father, Peter II, never regained the throne after leaving Yugoslavia to form a government-in-exile in 1941 and eventually settled in the United States, where he died in 1970. Karadjordjevic, who is 62, was born and raised in Britain and served in the British Army before entering business. He first visited Belgrade in 1991. He allied himself with the opposition to late President Milosevic in the 1990s, settled in the then-Yugoslavia in 2000 after Milosevic's ouster, was granted Yugoslav citizenship in 2001, and was restituted some of the family's property. AG

Hundreds of prisoners in a high-security prison in Kosova have ended a hunger strike after Kosovar President Fatmir Sejdiu personally intervened and promised a review of rules on amnesties and temporary releases, local newspapers reported on January 5. Some 480 of the 688 inmates went on hunger strike on December 29 to demand amnesties and reductions in their sentences, as well as the right to unrestricted visits and temporary leave, according to local and international media reports. The UN, which administers Kosova, on January 3 urged the prisoners to halt their strike, but described most of the prisoners' demands as "privileges,... not rights." A prisoner told the daily "Koha ditore" on January 4 that the strike has left "more than 100 a critical condition." In August, seven prisoners, including a number of convicted ethnic-Albanian terrorists and one Saudi-born terrorist, escaped from the same prison in Dubrava (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 20, 22, and 23, 2007). Two were subsequently recaptured in Kosova in October and another was killed in police operations in Macedonia in November, just days after a fourth fugitive was killed in Macedonia in a gun battle with unknown men (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 9, and November 5 and 9, 2007). AG

A member of an elite police unit was shot and killed on January 4 by unknown gunmen, local media reported. The attack, which injured two other officers, occurred on a highway on the outskirts of the capital, Skopje. The car believed to have been used by the gunmen was later found in the nearby village of Aracinovo, a stronghold of ethnic-Albanian rebels in the separatist conflict in 2001. There is as yet no indication who the gunmen were. This is the second time in recent months that a police officer has been killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 25, 2007). That death and other signs of unrest, coupled with the uncertainty over the future of neighboring Kosova, have stirred fears of renewed ethnic violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 5, October 31, and November 5, 2007). Macedonian ministers and the National Security Council have attributed the violence to "criminal groups and individuals," but have warned that it could be exploited for political reasons (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 5, 2007). The bloodiest incident of recent months, in which six people were killed, was the result of a police operation aimed at capturing a former militia leader (see above and "RFE/RL Newsline," November 8 and 9, 2007). AG

Two Bessarabian Orthodox priests have in the past week been denied entry to Moldova and two others are currently facing expulsion. All are Romanian citizens. Their difficulties began in December when one -- Ioan Bigea from the village of Vadul lui Isac -- was fined for not having a work permit and subsequently, on December 29, turned back at the border, the news service Forum 18 reported on January 4. Bigea was reportedly told he could not apply for a new work permit until after the Orthodox Christmas, which falls on January 6. Another Romanian priest, Constantin Dumitrascu from Larga Noua, a village in the southern Cahul district, was turned back from the border on January 3, the private television station ProTV reported the same day. Dumitrascu said no reason was given for refusing him entry. Bigea has worked in Moldova for 14 years and Dumitrascu for 10 years, and they say they have encountered no visa problems during that time, but new, tighter regulations were recently introduced. Two more priests from the Cahul district, Iulian Budescu and Ion Tivlea, also face expulsion, with Budescu due to leave by January 6 and Tivlea to follow after a court appearance on January 9, Forum 18 reported. ProTV said that Bigea, Budescu, and Dumitrascu believe that Moldova's largest religious community, the Moldovan Orthodox Church, is seeking to take over churches they built. An official of the Bessarabian Church, Deacon Andrei Deleu, told Forum 18 that only seven of the priests working in the church's 186 parishes are Romanian. The Moldovan Orthodox Church has 1,250 parishes. Officials from the Moldovan Orthodox Church and the Moldovan government have not commented. AG

The Bessarabian Orthodox priests' problems come just weeks after Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin appeared on national television and, according to Forum 18, threatened to revoke the church's right to registration. The threat came in response to a decision by the Romanian Orthodox Church, to whose patriarchy the Bessarabian Orthodox Church belongs, to establish three additional dioceses in Moldova under the control of the Bessarabian church. Speaking on November 30, Voronin called the move "a provocative scheme against us, against our independence and sovereignty, against our country, identity, and people. We cannot," he continued, "bargain with our faith and we cannot make it a prisoner of our politics." This is only one of several issues relating to Moldovan national identity that have marred relations with Romania over the past year(see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, August 23, and December 17 and 27, 2007). A church official quoted by Forum 18 on January 4 linked the dispute to what he described as the deliberate harassment of the head of the Bessarabian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Petru Paduraru, who was frisked and kept waiting for several hours at the border when he returned from Romania on December 26. The Moldovan Orthodox Church has won the support of the patriarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church, which does not recognize the Bessarabian Orthodox Church's legitimacy. The Moscow patriarch in October criticized his counterpart in Bucharest over the latter's decision to establish new dioceses and, according to the news agency Interfax, the synod of the Russian Orthodox Church on December 27 reiterated the church's anger at the Romanian Orthodox Church's refusal to back down. Moldova registered the Bessarabian Orthodox Church in 2001 only after being obliged to by the European Court of Human Rights, and Moldova's religious minorities have repeatedly criticized their treatment by the government. The Moldovan parliament passed a new law on religion in July, which, while more liberal, controversially stipulates that "property rights on buildings of worship belong to the religious communities that founded them." Since the law's promulgation, Forum 18 noted, little has been done to implement key institutional changes mandated by the new legislation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 1, 2007). AG


Clerics who are members of Afghanistan's influential Islamic Council reportedly met with President Hamid Karzai in Kabul on January 4 to demand a clampdown on a burgeoning private television industry that they say is spreading "immorality and un-Islamic culture," Afghan and international media reported. "The unrestrained programs on television have angered and prompted the [council] to react," the conservative council said in a statement to Karzai, according to a copy released to the news media. The statement pointed to the MTV-style "Afghan Star" show on Tolo TV that is modeled on the "American Idol" show as an example, alleging that "'Afghan Star'...encourages immorality among the people and is against Shari'a [Islamic law]." Over a dozen privately run television stations have sprung up in Afghanistan following the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, which banned television as un-Islamic during its rule from 1996 to 2001. MM

During the meeting with President Karzai, the Afghan clerics also expressed concern over the activities of some international nongovernmental groups that in their eyes are trying to spread Christianity among Afghans. The council warned in its statement of what they termed "catastrophe" if these activities are not prevented. "The council is concerned about the activities of some missionary and atheistic organs and considers such acts against Islamic Shari'a, the constitution, and political stability," the statement said. Ahmad Ali Jebrayeli, a member of both the council and the Afghan parliament, told Reuters on January 5 that reliable sources tell him that Christian missionaries are using NGO offices in Kabul and in other provinces as bases to convert the local population, alleging that "some NGOs are encouraging them [to convert], give them books [Bibles], and promise to send them abroad." In July 2007, Taliban militants took some 23 South Korean Christian missionaries hostage, killing two of them before releasing the remainder (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 31, 2007). MM

According to "The New York Times" on January 5, the Bush administration is considering a proposal to grant the Pentagon and the CIA authority to conduct covert operations in the tribal areas of Pakistan where Al-Qaeda and Taliban are gaining strength and destabilizing both Afghanistan and Pakistan. The plan was discussed by Vice President Richard Cheney, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and top White House national security aides on January 4 when they met at the White House to reassess U.S. strategy in the wake of the December 27 assassination of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto. In response to the report, Pakistani military spokesman Waheed Arshad said in Rawalpindi on January 6 that the Pakistani government will not allow the United States or any country to conduct covert military operations in its tribal areas, saying, "There have never been any operations other than by our own security forces and there will never be any operations other than our own security forces." The Afghan government frequently blames the sanctuary and support given militants in Pakistan's tribal areas for growing insurgency and instability in Afghanistan and the region. MM

Commerce Minister Mohammad Amin Farhang told journalists in Kabul on January 5 that Afghanistan is facing a shortage of wheat flour, and the international community should increase wheat supply to the country to alleviate the looming crisis, the Bakhtar news agency reported. Owing to the shortage of wheat flour in Pakistan, residents of many areas in Afghanistan, including the capital Kabul, are suffering from price hikes on basic commodities and a food shortage. Although the rise in the price of wheat flour was also caused by a hike in prices on the international market, the situation in Afghanistan is the direct result of an increase in prices of food items in Pakistan, the main route and supplier of food commodities, like wheat flour, rice, pulses, milk, cream, and sugar to Afghanistan. In recent months, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has also warned that mounting attacks on food convoys by Taliban militants are affecting the smooth and timely supply of food, warm clothes, and medicines to remote areas in Afghanistan that will be covered by snow and inaccessible for the coming three to four months. The spiraling prices and shortage of food, especially wheat, are fast becoming a concern for the government in a country where most people live below the subsistence level. MM

The daily "Afghanistan Times" reported on January 6 that two new programs, "Healthy Family, Happy Society" and "Law and Women," have been launched with the aim of eliminating violence against women and promoting women's rights in Afghanistan, the news website reported. Minister for Women's Affairs Hosn Bano Ghazanfar, said the "Healthy Family, Happy Society" campaign will be carried out by religious leaders in several provinces to promote awareness of women's rights, while the second program, "Law and Women," will be run by lawyers and prosecutors. "Lawyers and prosecutors will, by publishing posters and launching informative campaigns, highlight the right of women envisaged in the country's constitution and guaranteed by Islam," she said. Afghan women suffered enormous oppression under the Taliban regime and are still denied some basic human rights in Afghanistan's conservative society. MM

At his weekly press conference, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini told the press in Tehran on January 6 that Iran has no plans for now to restore ties with the United States, which were severed in 1979, Radio Farda reported. Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in Yazd, central Iran, on January 3 that the two countries might one day resume ties if these were beneficial to Iran. That is not presently the case, he said. Hosseini said there are no plans to resume ties while Washington continues "hostile" policies toward Iran; the United States and some Western allies are concerned by Iran's ongoing nuclear program and have accused it of playing a disruptive role in the Middle East. Hosseini said U.S. President George W. Bush's planned visit to the region is intended to isolate Iran. Bush is expected in Israel on January 9, and is to visit other states where he is expected to discuss Iran. "The numerous visits of American officials to the region are an attempt to make up for their failed regional policies," Hosseini said, adding that Bush has indicated "he wishes to control certain regional policies and interfere with certain regional states," ISNA reported. VS

The head of the parliamentary National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Alaeddin Borujerdi, has written to the government asking for more money for the defense sector in the 2008-09 state budget, ISNA reported. Borujerdi told the press in Tehran on January 6 that Iran has the smallest defense budget proportionate to its size and population and compared to regional states, "and one of the ways of removing America's threats in the region" is to increase defense spending, ISNA reported. He said U.S. policies in the Middle East have failed and President Bush is visiting the region to "disrupt" the "post-Christmas peace.... Bush is trying to restore his position in the region, with approaching elections in America." He said there can be no resumption of ties until the United States ends "hostile policies," including "ratifying a budget against Iran." He may have been referring to Congressional votes to support civil bodies or initiatives in Iran. He separately described as "unacceptable" Turkmenistan's reduced gas exports to Iran in the winter cold (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 2, 2007). VS

Hundreds of aspiring candidates for Iran's mid-March parliamentary polls began registering on January 5, with over 460 registering that day, Iranian and international media reported. Registration is to continue for a week, after which vetting authorities, including those appointed by the Guardians Council, a body of senior jurists, will check the eligibility of aspirants. The majority or a very large number of registrants are usually disqualified at this stage, prompting public objections and interfactional disputes that are rarely resolved. On January 6, the deputy interior minister for parliamentary affairs, Mohammad Hussein Musapur, asked people who know they are not eligible to compete under election laws not to register, IRNA reported. He said these people are covered by Article 30 of the parliamentary elections law, including persons convicted of acting against the Islamic republic or associated with the overthrown monarchy, or members of disbanded parties. Musapur said the Interior Ministry will soon provide official figures for the number of registrants. "The figures cited so far are for Internet registrations," he said, referring to the initial, computerized stage of the registration process. Registered aspirants must then go to local authorities with their printed registration forms. VS

Guardians Council spokesman Abbas Ali Kadkhodai told the press in Tehran on January 5 that the council and its supervisors will vet aspiring candidates in line with the law as they have done in past elections, "Kayhan" reported on January 6. "The law is the only yardstick" for the council in vetting aspirants, he said. A reporter observed that reformists are concerned that election agents from the Interior Ministry and Guardians Council-appointed supervisors share the same, conservative, political views. Kadkhodai said: "Our duty is not to resolve the concerns of people and parties. Our task is to implement the law." He added that the law allows representatives of candidates to witness voting and vote-counting at polling stations, provided they do not interfere in the electoral process. VS

Tehran's Evin prison has refused so far to free three inmates acquitted of charges against them and whose release has been ordered by the judiciary, Radio Farda reported on January 5, citing lawyer Mohammad Ali Dadkhah. Dadkhah, who represents Ehsan Mansuri, Majid Tavakkoli, and Ahmad Qassaban (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 20, 2007), told Radio Farda that the head of a Tehran court he recently visited has promised to discuss the matter with the Tehran judiciary chief. Dadkhah said he will take legal action against prison authorities if they do not release the three. It was not immediately clear why they were not released, though Dadkhah said prison authorities have confirmed they received the release order. The three were recently acquitted of charges of insulting religion and the Iranian president. VS

Iranian Intelligence Ministry agents shot dead five members of an "organized and armed drug-trafficking caravan" west of Jiroft, in southeastern Iran, on January 4, the Jiroft public and revolutionary prosecutor, Ali Maddahipur, told IRNA the next day. Two others who fled were later arrested, while others were injured in the shoot-out and are in hiding, he said. Agents have confiscated a total of 3.9 tons of opium in various stages of the operation, five army-type rifles, ammunition, and a vehicle. Another car belonging to the gang was destroyed, Maddahipur said. Police have separately confiscated 3.2 tons of opium and hashish in two separate operations in the Minab and Hajiabad districts in the southern Hormozegan Province, "Kayhan" reported on January 6, citing the provincial police chief, Mansur Dashti. He said police also arrested 10 traffickers and took two weapons from them. A convicted drug trafficker was separately hanged at an unspecified date in the prison in Gorgan in the northern Golestan Province, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on January 6, citing the provincial judiciary. The 53-year-old man was convicted of selling 5 kilograms of opium, for which he was sentenced to death, fined, imprisoned, and had his property confiscated. VS

Iran has appointed Ahmad Musavi as its ambassador in Damascus, and Abbas Araqchi as its ambassador in Japan, "Jomhuri-yi Islami" reported on January 6. The appointments were proposed by the foreign minister and approved by the president. Musavi was previously the vice president for legal and parliamentary affairs, and Araqchi the deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs. Separately, Ali Larijani, the supreme leader's representative on the Supreme National Security Council, was in Damascus on January 4 to discuss bilateral ties and the situation in Lebanon with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallim, IRNA reported. He arrived in Syria on January 3 and was to meet with President Bashar al-Assad and Vice President Faruq al-Shara, IRNA reported. VS

Three Iraqi soldiers were killed on January 6 as they tried to prevent a suicide bomber from blowing himself up in the middle of an Iraqi Army Day celebration in Baghdad, international media reported the same day. The celebration commemorated the 87th anniversary of the army's founding. According to a statement by the U.S.-led coalition, the bomber tried to detonate his explosives vest outside the neighborhood advisory council building in Karradah. "The selfless sacrifice of the three Iraqi soldiers should not be forgotten. These martyrs gave their lives so that others might live," spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Steven Stover said. "The valor and devotion to the mission displayed by these Iraqi soldiers embodies the character of the Iraqi Army, especially on the Iraqi Army Day." The coalition said two civilians were killed and four wounded in the attack. Other media quoted Iraqi police as saying nine civilians were killed and 12 wounded. KR

President Jalal Talabani and Kurdistan regional President Mas'ud Barzani told reporters at a January 5 press conference in Dukan that they have reached agreement on a number of issues regarding governance of the region, as well as on several political differences between the Kurdistan region and Baghdad. Asked about Kurdish relations with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, Talabani said, "We call for dialogue and talks with Nuri al-Maliki to reach a joint conclusion on the issues we need to agree on and are currently working on." He added that there "is no intention" to pull out of the government. Kurdish leaders sent a list of demands to al-Maliki last week. Kurdish parliamentarian Mahmud Uthman suggested in an interview with the Kurdish website "Sbay" on January 4 that the Kurdish Coalition may be forced to "revise its cards, its presence in the ministries, and its relations with the [Iraqi] parties" should its demands not be met. The demands reportedly included defining the region's borders, and a resolution of disputes between the region and Baghdad over oil, budgetary issues, and the peshmerga militia forces. Talabani also told reporters at the January 5 press conference that Kurdistan regional Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani will remain in his post. Under a power-sharing agreement between the two leading Kurdish parties, Barzani was to be replaced at the end of the year by a representative of Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan party. Talabani declined to provide further details to reporters, saying, "We will disclose these details later." Asked about the unification of the Kurdistan regional government, which was to have been completed several months ago, Barzani said: "We discussed this topic. The ministries will merge in the near future and there is no political reason [for the delay], just some technical issues." KR

Former Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Ja'fari is reportedly set to announce the formation of a new nonpartisan political alliance, Iraqi media reported in recent days. Al-Ja'fari told Al-Arabiyah television on January 4 that a "reorganization of ranks" is taking place in Iraq. "The previous lineup of opposition ranks before the downfall of the regime is not necessarily suitable for the stage that followed," he said. He said his alliance will not be influenced by sectarian policies or quotas. "It is not dictated to the people by some elite party, but has come as a reaction to the people's responsiveness to and interaction with it." He noted, however, that the new alliance will conform to the principles of his Islamic Al-Da'wah Party. Asked to comment on Prime Minister al-Maliki's attempts to forge national reconciliation, al-Ja'fari said: "Al-Maliki represents one side only, not all. Therefore, all sides, inside and outside the government, should move actively toward achieving national reconciliation." Asked why reconciliation efforts are delayed, he said, in an apparent reference to al-Maliki's leadership: "It could be related to the lack of seriousness, of clear visions, of weak relations, or a lack of a theory. National reconciliation is actually a theory that is based on a practical and realistic visualization as well as on field work by all sides." KR

Three churches and a convent were bombed in terrorist attacks in the northern city of Mosul on January 6, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Two of the churches, the Virgin Mary Church and the Chaldean St. Paul Church, were targeted by car bombs, which left four civilians injured. The outer walls and entrances of the churches were destroyed by the blasts. Meanwhile, two explosive charges went off outside the St. Maskanta Church, destroying its outer walls. Another explosive charge targeted the Catholic Nunnery. No injuries were reported in the latter two attacks. "The Washington Post" reported on January 7 that one of the sites bombed was an orphanage, not a church. KR

Unidentified gunmen kidnapped 13 members of an Iraqi tribal leader's family near Ba'qubah, Al-Sharqiyah television reported on January 6. The civilians were all relatives of Abd al-Wahhab al-Mindil, a chieftain of the Al-Ubayd tribe. Al-Sharqiyah reported they were kidnapped in their village of Al-Tahwilah outside Ba'qubah. Security sources said the gunmen were members of Al-Qaeda in Iraq who were angry over al-Mindil's plans to form an awakening council in his village. KR