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Newsline - February 7, 2008

Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov said on February 6 that Iran's recent test launch of a rocket raises "suspicions" about the real nature of Tehran's nuclear program, Interfax reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 5, 2007). He argued that the test "adds to general suspicions about Iran regarding its potential desire to build nuclear weapons.... Rockets of such range are one of the components of such a weapons system." Losyukov added that the Iranian move "worries" Russia. Iran said the rocket is meant to propel a research satellite into orbit by the end of 2009. The United States has called the rocket test "unfortunate." Russia has been skeptical about Iran's missile capabilities and criticizes Western officials who say that Iran is seeking to produce nuclear weapons. The daily "Vremya novostei" wrote on February 7 that "Victor Yesin, formerly of the Strategic Missile Forces Command, said that 'the Iranians have mastered the techniques of making liquid-fuel rocket engines, which allows them to aspire to construct ballistic missiles with a range of between 3,500 and 4,000 kilometers.' With the range like that, they will have no problems reaching Russia and other European countries." Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" on February 7 quoted Yesin as saying that Iran received help from China and North Korea in developing missile technology. PM

Luxembourg Finance Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, who is also prime minister and chairman of the Eurogroup of finance ministers, said on February 6 that Russia is wrong to restrict foreign investment while seeking to acquire overseas companies for itself, AFP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," September 20, 2007 and February 1 and 4, 2008, and "Russia: Pot Of Gold At The End Of The Stabilization Fund,", January 30, 2008). He argued that "it is unacceptable that while Russia's government-affiliated fund is sweeping into Europe, European companies are in a situation where they are unable to conduct similar activities in Russia. We should respect the principle of reciprocity." Juncker added that he plans to raise the general issue of sovereign wealth funds at a one-day meeting of world finance chiefs from the Group of Seven industrialized countries in Tokyo on February 9. He said that "it is dangerous to leave everything up to the market. It is necessary to take strong political action to strengthen surveillance and ensure transparency in financial markets." PM

President Vladimir Putin and his Uzbek counterpart, Islam Karimov, pledged closer ties at a meeting in Moscow on February 6, news agencies reported. The visit was the first trip abroad by Karimov since his controversial reelection in December. The two leaders agreed that the energy sector is "the most dynamic" area of bilateral economic cooperation. Putin added that he and Karimov discussed "strategic energy projects, including in the nuclear sphere." Putin noted that "we have confirmed our interest in timely implementation of agreements on the development of a gas pipeline network in the Central Asian region.... We are aiming for active cooperation with Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan." Karimov said that his visit "underlines once again the special relations between our two countries. Indeed, it underlines the high respect that Uzbekistan has for Russia." The Uzbek leader, whose reelection in December took place in disregard for the constitution, added that Putin should have called a referendum to extend his term in office. Karimov said that such a decision would have been "logical and correct" but acknowledged that his advice comes too late. "Kommersant" noted that Karimov praised First Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov as having done much for Russian-Uzbek relations, but was less enthusiastic in his comments about Putin's heir apparent, First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Russian and Uzbek officials signed an agreement to merge the Soviet-era Tashkent Aircraft Plant, which produces Ilyushin Il-76 cargo planes, into Russia's state-owned United Aircraft Company (OAK). Putin described Uzbekistan as "one of [Russia's] most important strategic partners" in the region. The daily "Nezavisimaya gazeta" wrote on February 6 that Karimov is just one of several CIS-member leaders who have met with Putin recently or are scheduled to do so soon. The paper argued that "in CIS countries that rely on Moscow, the hopes center on the idea that Putin will remain in power when Medvedev becomes president. Either way, all CIS countries make no secret of the fact that they are primarily interested in Russia as a possessor of strategic energy resources -- regardless of who its leader may be." PM

Thirty-seven percent of respondents in a poll conducted by RFE/RL's Russian Service, in conjunction with the Levada Center and the U.S.-based Intermedia Survey Institute, said they believe that the March 2 presidential election will be "honest," RFE/RL reported on February 7. Forty-five percent said they doubt it will be conducted fairly. Nonetheless, three-quarters of respondents intend to vote, leaving analysts to speculate that they see voting as a way of expressing loyalty rather than support. The percentage saying the election will be honest, however, grew from 18 percent in November. Asked about the public's attitude toward "honest" elections, Levada Center analyst Boris Dubin said: "In general, we have an awful moral climate and a poor social situation. These circumstances influence people and problems of the honesty or dishonesty of elections, of his own will, of influence from the mass media and so on begin to lose meaning and interest. And this can't bode well for the future." Moscow Carnegie Center analyst Nikolai Petrov noted the difference between the relatively high support for frontrunner First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev and the relatively low expectations that the elections will produce positive change and described the phenomenon as "an expression of paternalistic expectations." The complete survey results can be found at: RC

Numerous regional organizations called Russia-Forward! are being formed and headed by local pro-Kremlin activists, reported on February 6. The movements are similar in structure and purpose to the For Putin! organizations that sprang up late last year to bolster the president during the Duma election campaign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 16, 2007). According to the website, the Russia-Forward! movements plan to hold regional forums that will culminate in a national congress in Moscow just before the March 2 presidential election. First Deputy Prime Minister and presumed presidential successor Medvedev is expected to attend that event. According to analysts, the purpose of the movement is to generate personal support for Medvedev and to mobilize those voters whose endorsement local administrations or the pro-Kremlin Unified Russia party has not yet secured. Svetlana Makarova, an activist with the left-leaning pro-Kremlin A Just Russia party and an initiator of the Russia-Forward! movement, told the website that she believes Medvedev can poll better than the 64 percent that Unified Russia received in the December Duma elections. "Izvestia" reported on February 7 that, according to a poll by the All-Russia Center for the Study of Public Opinion (VTsIOM), Medvedev's support among voters has held steady at 63 percent for the last three weeks. RC

"Vedomosti" reported on February 7 that 84 public-reception centers have been set up across Russia by the presidential campaign of First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev. According to the report, the centers, which are staffed by students and volunteers, are tasked with identifying touching stories of injustice and forwarding them to the campaign's Moscow headquarters. The campaign may then use the stories to arrange highly publicized "personal interventions" by the candidate. RC

Former Yukos Executive Vice President Vasily Aleksanyan, who has been held in pretrial detention for over two years, will be transferred to a civilian clinic in Moscow for treatment of AIDS and related complications, RFE/RL and other media reported on February 7 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2008). One of Aleksanyan's lawyers told RFE/RL he had not yet received confirmation of the move. Human rights activists and the European Court of Human Rights have criticized the Russian authorities for failing to provide proper medical care to the 36-year-old lawyer. "Due to Russia's concern about its image, and especially in the run-up to the presidential election, this decision has been made," Human Rights Watch researcher Tatyana Lokshina told RFE/RL. Jailed former Yukos owner Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who last month launched a hunger strike in support of Aleksanyan's demand for treatment, announced on February 7 that he will cease his action, RIA Novosti reported. In an interview with the "Financial Times" on February 7, Khodorkovsky said the "lack of the rule of law, as a whole," is the biggest problem in contemporary Russia. Asked whether First Deputy Prime Minister and presumed presidential successor Medvedev can overcome this problem, Khodorkovsky said: "If you asked me how to get Russia out of this situation, I would be utterly lost. Tradition, and the state of people's minds, and the lack of forces able to [support] any movement towards the rule of law, everything's against [First Deputy Prime Minister and presumed presidential successor Dmitry Medvedev]. So...may God grant him the strength to do it. All we can do is hope." RC

Yevgeny Chivilikhin, the head of the Moscow Guild of Markets and Fairs, was shot dead outside his apartment building in the center of the capital on February 7, Russian media reported the same day. Police say it was an ordered, mob-style hit, with Chivilkhin being shot twice at close range and dying on the scene. He was the former president and co-founder of the Timiryazevsky shopping complex, one of the largest retail centers in Moscow. Several people associated with it have been attacked or killed since the mid-1990s. Chivilikhin himself was the target of a bombing in 2006, although he escaped without injury. RC

Aging rockers Deep Purple, reported to be First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev's favorite musical group, will perform at the Kremlin on February 11 to mark the 15th anniversary of the creation of state-controlled natural-gas giant Gazprom, Russian media reported on February 6. Medvedev, who is almost certain to become the next president of Russia, is the chairman of Gazprom's board of directors. RC

Speaking in Yerevan on February 6 after talks with Armenian President Robert Kocharian and Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, Slovenian Foreign Minister Dmitrij Rupel, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, told reporters that "we have found that the democratic atmosphere has progressed over the past year," RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. At the same time, both Rupel and EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner said they hope that the February 19 presidential election will be "competitive, free, and fair," describing the ballot as "an opportunity to further improve standards." Kocharian was quoted as having told the visiting EU officials that Armenia is "interested in holding really good elections in accordance with international standards." LF

On a one-day visit to Yerevan on February 6, Viktor Zubkov met with President Kocharian and with his Armenian counterpart Serzh Sarkisian, Russian agencies and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Both sides expressed satisfaction at the harmonious relations between the two countries: Zubkov described Armenia as "connected to Russia by a thousand threads," and both he and Sarkisian noted that bilateral trade soared in 2007 by 65 percent to some $700 million and may well exceed $1 billion in 2008. Several bilateral agreements were signed during Zubkov's visit, including one on joint efforts to upgrade security at the Medzamor nuclear-power plant. LF

A presidential election campaign rally on February 6 in the town of Artashat by former President Levon Ter-Petrossian was disrupted by heckling and stone throwing, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Seven or eight men also assaulted and injured one of Ter-Petrossian's bodyguards. Ter-Petrossian publicly blamed the disruptions on Hovik Abramian, the manager of Prime Minister Sarkisian's election campaign. President Kocharian has endorsed Sarkisian as his preferred successor, and Sarkisian is consequently regarded as almost certain to win the February 19 ballot. LF

Lado Gurgenidze expressed approval on February 6 of the proposal floated two days earlier by Russian President Vladimir Putin to create a new transport corridor linking Georgia and Russia via Daghestan, reported. Visiting the Botlikh military base in Daghestan on February 4, Putin proposed extending the Makhachkala-Botlikh-Tsumadin highway to the Georgian border with Dagestan in order to create a new transport corridor. Gurgenidze characterized Putin's proposal as an indication that the strained relations between the two countries are reverting to normal, Caucasus Press reported. Also on February 6, Tsumadin Raion administration head Magomed Kamilov told that at present the border is tightly closed and his district has no contacts whatsoever with Georgia. Isolated communities of some of Daghestan's ethnic groups live in eastern Georgia. LF

At a meeting in Astana examining the human rights situation within the police force, Kazakh First Deputy Prosecutor-General Ilyas Bakhtybaev reported on February 6 that criminal charges were brought against 49 police officers last year for "infringing the constitutional rights of citizens in the criminal process," including the unauthorized use of excessive force against detainees, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Bakhtybaev also noted that in an effort to reform and professionalize the country's law enforcement agencies, prosecutors released 751 "unlawfully detained people" in 2007. The roundtable meeting addressed issues related to the introduction of international standards for the prevention of torture in Kazakhstan. In comments following Bakhtybaev's report, the chairman of the presidential commission on human rights, Saginbek Tursunov, welcomed the reforms and noted that Kazakhstan is adopting significant steps to "better secure human rights." He added that Kazakhstan has "positively accepted" a set of recommendations from the UN Committee against Torture, including defining the concept of "torture" as a separate type of crime under the Criminal Code, but warned that the government needs to "work on such essential issues as expanding procedural authorities of lawyers, securing the rights of low-income groups for qualified legal assistance, developing mechanisms for exercising the rights of detained and convicted people to apply to independent physicians, [and] maintaining public control over the activities of penal institutions." Tursunov further highlighted the need for greater "legal education" of the population. RG

Speaking to reporters in Bishkek, Education Ministry official Salmarbek Asanov announced on February 4 that a group of about 1,000 teachers has sued the Kyrgyz government to recover some 2 billion soms ($55.5 million) in salary arrears, Kyrgyz Television reported. An estimated 65,000 school teachers have reportedly not been paid for several years, with a related shortfall in wages for some teachers dating as far back as 2003. Asanov said that the fundamental problem is that despite the adoption of legislation ensuring teachers' salaries, the state budget has consistently failed to allocate sufficient funding to cover the arrears. The lawsuit, filed in a Bishkek district court, follows a similar lawsuit by Interior Ministry staff in 2005 that successfully recovered about 90 million soms ($2.5 million) in back wages. RG

Myrza Dautov and Rysbai Jumabekov, the respective heads of the state-run television stations in the Batken and Jalal-Abad regions, announced on February 6 their support for an ongoing hunger strike by the employees of the Kyrgyz National Television and Radio Broadcasting Corporation (UTRK) in Bishkek demanding the resignation of the director, Melis Eshimkanov, AKIpress reported. In a related development, a petition signed by some 100 UTRK staff members was circulated on February 6 calling on President Kurmanbek Bakiev to support Eshimkanov, the website reported. Eshimkanov is a former opposition politician whom Bakiev named to head the channel in October (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 29, 2007). RG

Unidentified officials of the Turkmen Health Ministry announced on February 6 that President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov issued a decree calling for the establishment of a new AIDS prevention center in the Turkmen capital, Ashgabat, reported. The new $103 million facility, to be constructed by a Turkish firm, is to also include a tuberculosis prevention center, a centralized laboratory, and blood-testing facilities, as well as a center for the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases. The construction of the facilities is due to start in March, with a planned opening by October 2009. RG

Artur Finkevich, leader of the unregistered Youth Front organization, said on February 6 that his release from prison does not mean that Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka's regime is loosening its grip, Belapan reported. Finkevich was immediately released after the court that was considering his appeal reduced his term from 18 to six months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2008). "Yes, the authorities released me, but they simultaneously took repressive measures against other representatives of the opposition," Finkevich said. He also said that the government's concessions are a result of pressure from the public and the West, but "these still are small concessions" that do not constitute "a consistent course toward the liberalization of the regime." Also on February 6, U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Karen Stewart welcomed Finkevich's release and said that the United States hopes "to see the remaining political prisoners released." The United States considers three other people to be political prisoners: former presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, former legislator Andrey Klimau, and journalist Alyaksandr Zdzvizhkou. AM

Council of Europe Secretary-General Terry Davis on February 6 condemned the three death sentences recently carried out in Belarus, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. The previous day, Belarus's Supreme Court announced that Syarhey Marozau, Valery Harbaty, and Ihar Danchanka, sentenced to death for running an organized crime group, were executed by shooting (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2008). "I am saddened by the stubborn determination of the Belarus authorities to isolate their country from the rest of Europe. With the three executions carried out yesterday, they continue to flaunt their blatant disregard for the human values and achievements common to all other European countries," Davis said in a statement. He also said that although Belarus is not a member of the Council of Europe, which has banned the death penalty, it is a member of the United Nations, whose General Assembly has adopted a resolution calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions. AM

The Ukrainian government decided at its February 6 meeting to dismiss Valentyna Semenyuk, chairwoman of the State Property Fund, due to abuse of office, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The government also dismissed all of Semenyuk's deputies. Valeriy Pysarenko, a deputy chairman of the Verkhovna Rada's special monitoring committee on privatization issues and a member of the Yulia Tymoshenko Bloc (BYuT), said that the committee's inquiry into the operations of the State Property Fund revealed abuses that "caused significant damage to the state budget." The government appointed Andriy Portnov, another BYuT member, first deputy head of the State Property Fund. Portnov will also be the acting head of the fund. Meanwhile, Presidential Secretariat head Viktor Baloha said that Semenyuk's dismissal violates the constitution, which stipulates that the head of the State Property Fund is appointed and dismissed by the Verkhovna Rada at the suggestion of the prime minister. Baloha said that the government's desire to resolve urgent problems in the functioning of the fund are justified, but that Semenyuk's dismissal could provoke a new wave of parliamentary confrontation. AM

Verkhovna Rada speaker Arseniy Yatsenyuk said on February 6 that "the phantom of preterm [parliamentary] elections exists exclusively in analysts' imaginations," RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yatsenyuk believes that the Verkhovna Rada will manage on February 12 to resume its work. He was reportedly responding to Viktor Yanukovych, leader of the opposition Party of Regions, who at a meeting of Ukrainian shadow cabinet said he does not exclude the possibility of new preterm parliamentary elections, adding that the current composition of both the coalition and the parliament are ineffective. Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said that there are not sufficient grounds for holding early elections and accused the Party of Regions of destabilizing the parliament's work. Tymoshenko said that the Party of Regions has no real reason to block parliament and initiate early elections. The Verkhovna Rada has been deadlocked since last month over a disagreement between parliamentary factions on Ukraine's possible accession to NATO. AM

The EU has delayed the signing of a recently drafted agreement with Serbia, local and international media reported on February 6. The accord was to have been signed on February 7. The EU's enlargement commissioner, Olli Rehn, made plain that one person was to blame: Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica. "Kostunica not so long ago asked me to keep the European process moving forward and not to make any linkage between European Union integration and Kosovo's future," Rehn said. "I am disappointed that he has turned down his own commitment." Kostunica has himself accused the EU of linking the issues of Serbia's future in the EU and Kosova's future as a state, saying on February 5 that the EU is using "trickery" and that its offer of a deal "while at the same time sending a mission [to Kosova] to break apart our state is a deception aimed at getting Serbia effectively to sign its agreement to Kosovo independence" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2008). Rehn's thinly veiled comment was that "certain politicians are filing for divorce before marriage has even been agreed." The nature of the proposed deal itself reflected a recent deterioration in relations between Belgrade and Brussels, as well as underlying unresolved problems. Most of the EU's 27 members were willing to offer Serbia a fuller and more significant deal -- a Stabilization and Association Agreement (SAA), which is seen as the first step to membership -- but that possibility was ruled out both by Kostunica and by two EU members, the Netherlands and Belgium, which said Serbia has failed to deliver on its longstanding commitment to arrest suspected war criminal Ratko Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 4 and 29, 2008). As a result, EU foreign ministers on January 28 replaced the SAA with a new deal, which has been described as a "three-quarters SAA." Rehn said the EU remains ready to sign the new deal "once Serbia is ready," and underlined that the EU is still interested in lifting visa restrictions, despite "obstruction from some politicians." AG

Police in the Bosnian Serb-dominated region of Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Republika Srpska, on February 6 searched the homes of two former bodyguards of the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leader, Radovan Karadzic. The two, Goran Kovacevic and Milomir Batinic, are suspected of helping Karadzic avoid prosecution by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which is based in The Hague. There was no indication that police are any closer to identifying where Karadzic is hiding. Of the four men still eluding the ICTY, Karadzic has proved the most elusive, with officials from the ICTY and from across the region repeatedly saying they do not even know what country he is in. Karadzic's chief colleague, Bosnian Serbs military commander Mladic, is thought to be Serbia and his capture has long been a precondition for Serbia to establish closer ties with the EU. The lack of information about Karadzic has ensured that he has not become a key factor in any country's relationship with the EU. Over the past year, repeated raids have been conducted on family and friends of Karadzic, both in Bosnia and in neighboring Montenegro (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 2, 11, and 20, May 18, and November 20, 2007). AG

Police surrounded the largest plant of the industrial complex responsible for roughly half of Montenegro's industrial output after workers went on strike on February 5. An estimated 800 of the aluminum producer KAP's 3,000 staff joined the strike, which was called in a bid to halt a planned restructuring of part of the operation. The police officers were called in to prevent possible clashes after management sacked five workers. The reasons for their dismissal remain unclear, but the head of KAP, Joe Kazadi, has made a clear threat that strikers face the axe, with the news service Balkan Insight on February 5 quoting him as saying "those who want to work, may remain with KAP. Those who don't want to work are breaking regulations, and must be aware of the consequences -- it means that they don't need their jobs in the first place." Kazadi also gave no indication that he is prepared to accept another of the strikers' demands, a 30 percent wage increase. He said that wages at the plant have risen by 20 percent in the past two years, to 620 euros ($907) a month, taking employees' pay to roughly double the national average. Montenegro's largest employer, KAP is owned by the Russian aluminum giant Rusal, whose owner, Oleg Deripaska, is one of Russia's wealthiest men (see "RFE/RL Newsline," May 2, and June 5 and 13, 2007). AG

In a further sign of Albania's determination to woo international investors, half of Albania's government, including Prime Minister Sali Berisha, headed to Japan on February 5 to meet senior Japanese businessmen. The trip, which will last four days, will also include an audience with Emperor Akihito, local media reported. In an early sign that the visit has yielded some fruit, the Albanian government announced on February 6 that Japan will give it a soft loan worth $107 million to build sewage-treatment facilities. Last year, Albania launched an initiative -- under the tell-all slogan "Albania for one euro" -- that offered land and assets for token prices in return for substantial investment, and at the start of this year it slashed taxes to a flat rate of 10 percent (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 4, 2008). Another key element of the government's plans this year are the privatization -- by mid-year -- of the largest energy and financial companies still owned by the state (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 8, 2008). Berisha also recently announced plans to issue Albania's first euro-denominated government bond, a sign of his government's belief in the strength of the Albanian economy, and the government has recently unveiled plans to build new hydroelectric and wind power plants to help Albania's chronic and perennial problem of energy shortages (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2008). Major infrastructure projects -- such as an upgrade of Tirana airport -- are also under way or on the drawing board. However, controversy over alleged corruption in the largest project -- the extension of a road from the port of Durres to the Kosovar border -- has served to highlight Albania's endemic problem with corruption (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 4, 16, and 30, November 27, and December 28, 2007). A Transparency International survey, which ranked corruption by public perceptions, indicated last year that Albania is the most corrupt state in Europe outside the former Soviet Union. AG

Albania and Macedonia agreed on February 5 that their citizens should be free to travel across their borders, local media reported. The agreement, which will be formally signed later this month, allows stays of between 90 and 180 days without a visa being needed, local media reported. Until days ago, Macedonia had been planning to tighten, rather than loosen visa requirements (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 14, and February 4, 2008). The agreement includes a clause that makes it even easier for people living within a 20-kilometer radius of the border to cross the border: they will be able to travel without a passport, showing only their identification card at the crossing. AG


U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary David Miliband arrived in Kabul on a surprise visit on February 7, international media reported, and then flew south to inspect front-line areas around the city of Kandahar. In a symbolic show of unity, Rice and Miliband pressed reluctant NATO allies to share the combat burden in Afghanistan. NATO defense ministers began a meeting on February 7 in Vilnius, Lithuania, to discuss alliance commitments in Afghanistan and Kosova. "Frankly, I hope there will be more troop contributions and there needs to be more Afghan forces," Rice told reporters traveling with her on the flight from London. "We welcome the attention that's been given to the situation in Afghanistan over the last few weeks," Miliband said in London on February 6 ahead of the trip. "The challenges there are very large, and it's because the challenges are large that we are so committed to being there. Both of our countries are committed to our work in Afghanistan for the long term." OR

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has warned that if the NATO mission in Afghanistan fails to curb terrorism, Western countries could face further terrorist attacks, the BBC reported on February 7. Speaking before the NATO defense ministers' meeting in Vilnius, de Hoop Scheffer said he will call on alliance members to do more to equip and train the Afghan National Army, which he said is crucial to success there. "This is the front line in the fight against terrorism, and what is happening in the Hindu Kush matters, because if terrorism is not dealt with in Afghanistan, the consequences will be felt not just in Afghanistan and the region, but also in London, Brussels, and Amsterdam," he told the BBC. U.S. and British calls for greater troop contributions in Afghanistan from some NATO members have raised tensions within the alliance in recent days. But AFP on January 7 quoted a spokesman for de Hoop Scheffer as saying he wants to put an end to public debate on troop generation, and keep the discussion among the alliance's leadership during the two-day meeting in Lithuania. MB

South Africa's envoy to the UN, Dumisani Kumalo, on February 5 questioned the perceived haste of the UN Security Council permanent members to push through a third set of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear fuel-making activities, agencies reported. South Africa is a nonpermanent member of the council, which is examining a new sanctions resolution drafted by the 5+1 powers -- the five permanent members of the council and Germany. Kumalo said in New York that the council should wait until at least February 20, when, he said, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will report on Iran's cooperation in recent months in disclosing its nuclear activities, Reuters reported. A spokesman for the U.S. mission at the UN, Richard Grenell, said the international community has waited long enough, and that Iran has ignored two UN Security Council resolutions calling on Tehran to halt the production of nuclear fuel. The new sanctions would tighten travel bans and freeze the assets of certain Iranian officials, and restrict banking transactions with Iran. Russia and China have been reluctant to take a punitive approach toward Iran, but Reuters quoted Russia's UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin as saying on February 5 that Russia, like the United States, sees no point in waiting for the IAEA report before approving the third sanctions resolution. VS

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Aleksandr Losyukov told reporters in Moscow on February 6 that his country is concerned Iran's recent firing of a missile into space, AFP reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2008). Iranian officials have described the rocket as "exploratory," and say it was intended to pave the way for a satellite launch later this year. Losyukov said the rocket launch is of concern to other states and raises suspicions concerning Iran's "possible desire to create a nuclear weapon." In Israel, Mossad intelligence chief Meir Dagan informed the Israeli Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on February 4 that Iran may acquire nuclear bombs within three years, AFP reported. Israel has been skeptical of a 2007 U.S. intelligence report that stated that Iran probably stopped its suspected nuclear-weapons program in 2003 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 30, 2008). Dagan added that Iran will probably continue to supply the Hamas administration in Gaza with rockets intended for use against Israel. On February 5, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni asked EU parliamentarians visiting Jerusalem to push for tougher EU sanctions on Iran, Radio Farda reported, citing agency reports. She said the EU should not consider itself safe, as Iran is developing missiles with a 4,000-kilometer range, which she said are intended to carry "unconventional" warheads. VS

Reformist former President Mohammad Khatami said in Tehran on February 6 that the extensive disqualifications of reformist and independent would-be candidates ahead of mid-March parliamentary polls are a "disaster" and a threat to the Iranian political system, ISNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5 and 6, 2008). Many hopefuls -- mostly reformists and outspoken government critics -- have been disqualified either by Interior Ministry executive boards or by supervisory boards appointed by the Guardians Council, a powerful body of jurists and clerics. Candidates are always vetted before Iranian elections. Khatami said these bodies are effectively directing the voting process, and warned of a "process I believe will threaten the revolution, the system, and the credibility and best interests of society." Khatami was speaking on the sidelines of a memorial service for reformist politician Ahmad Borqani, who died on February 2 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 4, 2008). Reformist former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi, who also attended the service, told reporters afterward that reformists should take part in the March polls as far as they can. He confirmed that one prominent reformist whose candidacy has been approved, former Vice President Mohammad Reza Aref, has withdrawn his candidacy. Reformists have expressed dismay in recent days at the probable lack of any real competition in the polls. One disqualified hopeful is Ali Eshraqi, a grandson of the late revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, "Aftab-i Yazd" reported on February 7. The daily quoted Serajeddin Musavi, Eshraqi's friend and a member of the late ayatollah's office, as describing the disqualification as "bitter and unbelievable." Musavi described Eshraqi as a respected Tehran municipal official who has worked with several mayors, including centrist Gholamhussein Karbaschi, and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad when he was mayor of Tehran. VS

Ali Larijani, the supreme leader's representative on the Iranian Supreme National Security Council and a candidate in the parliamentary elections in March, said in Tehran on February 6 that a recently proposed list of right-wing candidates for Tehran is "not satisfactory," ISNA reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2008). Iranian media have recently reported the list of 30 candidates for Tehran drafted by the United Front of Fundamentalists, which is considered the main right-wing coalition for the elections. But observers have said the list seems to include mainly traditionalists and supporters of President Ahmadinejad, and few members of a sub-faction that includes Larijani and his allies, Expediency Council Secretary Mohsen Rezai and Tehran Mayor Mohammad Baqer Qalibaf. He said that "it is not a matter of the people here. But when you look at the composition, you see the result does not have the characteristics one was looking for." He said a good electoral list would inspire the public and include candidates with expertise, experience, and public credibility, ISNA reported. Conservative women's groups have also criticized the fact that the 30-member Tehran list includes just six women, and some have suggested that right-wing female politicians may draw up their own lists. VS

U.S. Rear Admiral Gregory Smith and Iraqi Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Muhammad al-Askari told reporters at a February 6 press briefing in Baghdad that Al-Qaeda in Iraq remains the biggest threat to security in the country. Nonetheless, Smith said there has been a 60 percent decrease in terrorist attacks since June 2007. In January, Iraqi and coalition forces killed or captured a total of 35 senior Al-Qaeda leaders. Smith said that before last June, only five women were known to have carried out suicide attacks, but that since that time, 10 women have been used in suicide attacks, four of them this year. Regarding the use of children in terrorist operations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2008), Smith said coalition forces found five videos in a December 4 raid depicting Al-Qaeda members training and indoctrinating a group of young boys. A raid near Al-Miqdadiyah on December 8 found a written proposal for an Al-Qaeda film using children to interrogate and execute victims, plant improvised explosive devices, and conduct sniper attacks. Smith said coalition forces are aware of as many as 5,000 websites associated with Al-Qaeda that he said often target young children (see "RFE/RL Report Reveals Extent Of Sunni-Insurgent Media Network," June 26, 2007).

Coalition forces working on information from Iraqi police and a group in the Sons of Iraq movement, formerly known as "concerned local citizens" groups, freed two hostages from an underground prison cell in Samarra on February 4, a U.S. military statement said on February 6. Al-Qaeda terrorists abducted the two men and stole a fuel truck from a gas station near Balad after the gas station refused to pay protection money to the terrorists. The two men were held captive for 15 days. They said some nine other Iraqis were also held captive, but they did not know what happened to the others. Five of the captives were members of a Bayji awakening council. KR

The Ministry of Displacement and Migration announced that more than 6,000 families forced to leave Iraq returned to their homes in Baghdad by the end of 2007, Al-Sharqiyah television reported. The ministry said the number was compiled with the help of the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and is based on the number of families registered with the ministry. Meanwhile, the IOM said in a February 1 report on its website that the ministry reported 9,657 internally displaced families, or 60,000 people, returned to Baghdad by the end of 2007. The Iraqi Red Crescent reported 46,000 people had returned to their homes in the capital between September and the end of 2007. The IOM said it found that significantly fewer Iraqis were displaced in 2007 than in 2006. "However, displacement continues to occur in some locations and the humanitarian situation of those already displaced is worsening," the report stated. A U.S. military official said this week that nearly 1,000 internally displaced Iraqis have recently returned to homes in Baghdad with the help of multinational forces, UPI reported on February 5. The Ministry of Displacement and Migration is currently drawing up plans to build residential compounds to house some of the 2 million internally displaced Iraqis, IRIN reported February 6. The ministry has not yet determined how many homes will be built. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees said in a February 6 report that many Iraqi refugees are returning home because their visas have expired and they can no longer afford to live abroad. The UNHCR said more Iraqis are fleeing to Syria than returning home, with an average of 1,200 Iraqis entering Syria every day compared with around 700 leaving. KR

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has begun rebuilding the two Al-Askari Shrines in Samarra. The Shi'ite shrines, which are housed in the same complex, were destroyed in bombings in February 2006 and June 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 2006 and June 13, 2007). Muhammad Djelid, who heads UNESCO's Baghdad office, said the first phase of reconstruction will last about 10 months, and will include clearing the area and designing the complex that will house the new shrines. UNESCO concluded an agreement last year to rebuild the complex at a cost of $8.4 million. The UN Development Group Iraq Trust Fund will provide $5.4 million to the project, while the government of Iraq will contribute $3 million (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 27, 2007). KR