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Newsline - February 8, 2008

Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk arrived in Moscow on February 8 for a one-day official visit. In a meeting with his Russia counterpart, Viktor Zubkov, Tusk said that Poland "sees no obstacles in creating good and friendly bilateral ties," RIA Novosti reported. ITAR-TASS quoted Zubkov as telling Tusk that "the Russian government is open to dialogue and ready to look for solutions that would lift Russian-Polish relations to a new stage." Tusk said ahead of the visit that his government intends to tackle other sensitive issues straining relations with Russia and that he wants Russia to treat these intentions seriously. Russian presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko said prior to Tusk's arrival in Moscow that the agenda for meetings with the Polish prime minister will include Russia-EU relations in the context of the start of talks on a new strategic partnership treaty with the European bloc, U.S. plans to deploy elements of its missile-defense shield in Poland, and the situation in the Balkans. Prikhodko rejected Tusk's proposal for an alternative to the Russian-backed Nord Stream pipeline, which will transport Russian gas to Germany across the floor of the Baltic Sea, saying it would be "very difficult" from an economic point of view and "much more costly," RIA Novosti reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2008). While in Moscow, Tusk will also meet with President Vladimir Putin and First Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. Prikhodko said Putin "will set out Russia's position" on missile defense, which "is no secret to Poland." JB

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview published on February 7 that U.S. plans to build a global missile-defense shield are an example of "imperial thinking" and suggested the United States is using the system to try to encircle Russia, AP reported. Elements of the missile-defense system "exist or will be built in Alaska, California, Northeast Asia," the leading Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" quoted Lavrov as saying. "If we look at a map, it's clear that all of it is concentrating around our borders. Most likely in the near future we are going to hear about hundreds, and maybe even thousands, of interceptors in various regions of the planet, including Europe." Lavrov brushed aside U.S. and Polish assurances that the system, which will include 10 interceptors in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic, is designed to protect the United States and Europe from Iran. He said that "such a threat does not exist" and that Russia is the only country in Eastern Europe with strategic ballistic missiles. "That's why you would have to be very naive to assume that the American missile-defense base in Europe is aimed against anything but Russia," Lavrov was quoted as saying. JB

Russia's Gazprom natural-gas monopoly announced on February 7 that it may cut supplies of Russian gas to Ukraine if Kyiv does not pay off its estimated $1.5 billion in gas debts by February 11, AFP reported. The news agency quoted Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov as saying that only supplies of Russian-produced natural gas will be affected, while those from Central Asian countries, which supply most of Ukraine's gas, will not. Still, reported on February 7 that exports of Central Asian gas to Ukraine at their current levels are insufficient to cover the country's needs, and that RosUkrEnergo, the Swiss-registered gas trader that supplies gas to Ukraine, has been buying gas from Russia at a premium -- $314.7 per 1,000 cubic meters -- to make up the shortfall. Gazprom stressed in a statement that a cutoff of Russian gas will not "impact on supplies to Gazprom's other customers in Europe." At the beginning of 2006, Gazprom cut all gas supplies to Ukraine in a pricing dispute, which disrupted supplies to the European Union. JB

Christian Strohal, director of the Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR), the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's (OSCE) election-monitoring arm, said on February 7 that it will not observe Russia's presidential election because of "severe restrictions" imposed by the Kremlin. According to AP, Strohal said in a statement that the time frame set by Russian authorities has already prevented monitors from observing many important parts of the election process, adding that an election "is more than what happens on election day." Russia's Central Election Commission agreed to allow the ODIHR to send up to 75 observers, up from the 70 originally invited, and begin its monitoring mission on February 20 rather than on February 28, as the commission had previously demanded (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2008). But Foreign Minister Lavrov said on February 7 that Moscow could not accept the ODIHR's demand to let the observers in the country by February 15. "Self-respecting countries don't accept ultimatums," AP quoted him as saying. Effective Politics Foundation head Gleb Pavlovsky told Interfax on February 7 that the OSCE's refusal to send observers "is an interesting and important signal simultaneously to us and to European structures that could be evidence of the start of the first phase of...a plan to declare the upcoming election illegitimate." He added that if this is the case, then the plan is aimed at "weakening the new president at the start of his work." Still, Pavlovsky said the demarche may simply be an attempt to put pressure on Moscow. "It is a signal from the structures that control the OSCE apparatus, [its] nomenklatura -- certain forces connected to the U.S. State Department," he claimed. JB

The Center for Journalism in Extreme Situations (CJES) on February 7 released its first report on media coverage of the March 2 presidential election. The report, which was posted on one of the CJES website, dealt with media coverage of the presidential campaign during the period from January 10 to February 1. It found that President Putin's chosen successor, First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev, has received more airtime on all monitored television channels than the incumbent president and that four of the five monitored channels gave Medvedev some 50 percent of their prime-time news coverage. Only the private REN-TV "showed a different portrayal of the campaign by allocating the bulk of its coverage to Mikhail Kasyanov" -- the former prime minister rejected as a presidential candidate by the Central Election Commission. According to the CJES report, the state's Channel One and Rossia channel, along with NTV television (which is owned by Gazprom, which chaired by Medvedev) gave Medvedev "exclusively positive and neutral coverage," while Kasyanov "was mainly criticized." Rossia, for example, devoted 49 percent of its political and election prime-time news coverage to Medvedev's activities, 81 percent of which was positive and 19 percent neutral. Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov received 6 percent of Rossia's coverage, and that coverage was overwhelmingly neutral in tone, while Kasyanov received 1 percent of Rossia's coverage, with that coverage "overwhelmingly negative in tone." TV-Tsentr, which is controlled by the Moscow city government, gave Medvedev as much as 58 percent of its political and election prime-time news coverage but the tone of the coverage was "more neutral than on the other two state-funded channels," the CJES report stated. JB

Contradicting the findings of the CJES's monitoring of media coverage of the presidential campaign, Central Election Commission Chairman Vladimir Churov said that former Prime Minister Kasyanov, whose registration as a candidate has been rejected by the commission, has received more mentions in the media than First Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev. "Independent research, which was congruent with our monitoring, has shown that...Kasyanov was in first place for mentions, and other candidates are mentioned a lot less," Churov told the Russian News Service radio station on February 6. Churov added that Medvedev is "nearly in third or fourth place" for media mentions. However, "Vedomosti" reported on February 8 that, according to the Medialogia research firm, Medvedev was mentioned 5,298 times between January 28 and February 3, while Kasyanov was mentioned only 951 times, fewer than any of the registered candidates. JB

In an interview with Britain's "Financial Times" published on February 7, jailed Yukos founder Mikhail Khodorkovsky expressed doubts that Russia's likely next president, Deputy Prime Minister Medvedev, will be able to undo the damage to the rule of law inflicted during the Putin era. "It will be so difficult for him, I can't even imagine," Khodorkovsky said. "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 him. So...may God grant him the strength to do it. All we can do is hope." Khodorkovsky said he plans to continue his hunger strike until Vasily Aleksanyan, the critically ill former Yukos vice president, is transferred from Moscow's notorious Matrosskaya Tishina pretrial detention center to a civilian hospital (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6 and 7, 2008). JB

Federal Prison Service deputy spokesman Valery Zaitsev announced on February 7 that Yukos Vice President Aleksanyan, who is terminally ill with AIDS-related lymphoma, will be transferred from a detention-center infirmary to a specialized civilian clinic for medical treatment "in the near future, "The Moscow Times" reported on February 8. "Now everything depends on the Moscow Health Department," Zaitsev said. "As soon as it is possible to determine where and how Aleksanyan will be treated, he will be transferred." On February 6, the Simonov Raion Court granted a health-related adjournment in Aleksanyan's trial for embezzlement and tax evasion but did not order his release from detention, saying that the issue of a transfer was one for doctors at the detention facility. Aleksanyan's lawyer, Yelena Lvova, told "The Moscow Times" that her client was given no information as to where and when he will be transferred and is currently only receiving medication for the tuberculosis from which he also suffers. "I wonder how long it will take now to implement the decision," she said. "Every day we lose makes the situation worse.... We began appealing for him to receive care in a specialized clinic four months ago. My guess is that they have had time to consider where this could be done." JB

"The Moscow Times" on February 9 quoted an aide to fugitive former Yukos co-owner Leonid Nevzlin as saying that Israeli officials mistakenly sent confidential files on Nevzlin and two other former Yukos co-owners, Mikhail Brudno and Vladimir Dubov, to the Federal Financial Monitoring Service, Russia's anti-money-laundering watchdog. Eric Wolf told the daily that the three submitted the records to Israeli authorities before the February 2007 tender for the Haifa Refinery, in which they became minority shareholders. Wolf called the mistake "catastrophic" and "unthinkable," noting that Russian authorities: "know all we do" and "could try to seize our assets, thwart a deal or do whatever they wish." Nevzlin, who left Russia in 2003, is wanted there on fraud and murder charges, which he denies. JB

Police killed two suspected militants in a shoot-out on February 7 in the village of Avadan in Dokuzpar Raion on the southern border with Azerbaijan and apprehended a third, reported. The three men are believed to belong to the group of fighters who avoided capture during a special operation in Suleiman-Stalsky Raion on February 3 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 6, 2008). Following that operation, police detained on February 6 in the village of Tselegyun a citizen of Azerbaijan suspected of belonging to an illegal armed formation, reported. Two police officers and one passer-by were injured on February 7 when police in Khasavyurt in northwestern Daghestan opened fire on two men suspected of having shot and wounded a police officer the previous day, reported on February 8. One of the militants was shot dead after he detonated a grenade; the second managed to evade capture. LF

The Grozny Garrison Military Court on February 7 handed down a three-year suspended sentence for "negligence" to Interior Ministry Troops Lieutenant Colonel Aleksei Korgun, reported. Korgun pled guilty to having given the command to open fire on March 24, 2007, on three women his patrol encountered near the village of Urdyukhoi in Shatoi Raion (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 27, 2007). The troops assumed, wrongly, that the women were militants. One of the women was killed and the other two injured; one is now permanently disabled. LF

Former President and opposition presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian wrote on February 7 to Armenia's Constitutional Court complaining of "insurmountable obstacles" created by the authorities to his campaign for the February 19 presidential ballot, and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on February 8. He mentioned specifically the negative coverage he has received over the past three months from Armenian State Television. Ter-Petrossian formally asked the court to remove those obstacles. The election law stipulates that the existence of such obstacles necessitates postponement of the ballot by two weeks. If after that time the obstacles have still not been removed, new elections must be scheduled after a 40-day interval. LF

Speaking at a press conference in Baku on February 7, the final day of a four-day visit to Azerbaijan, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) co-rapporteur for Azerbaijan Andreas Herkel deplored the divide in Azerbaijani society and called for dialogue in the run-up to the presidential election due in October in order to defuse tensions, and reported on February 7 and 8, respectively. Herkel said he succeeded in meeting with several imprisoned former officials and journalists jailed for their professional activities, including former Health Minister Ali Insanov, Ruslan Basirli, head of the youth organization Yeni Fikir, and independent journalist Eynulla Fatullayev. He argued that the composition of election commissions should be amended to reassure the entire population that future ballots will be free and fair. Herkel said that government officials have assured him that earlier plans to monitor internet access and usage have been shelved, reported. Herkel also said that he failed to reach agreement on all points he raised during talks with President Ilham Aliyev; he did not elaborate. LF

Georgian Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili told Interfax on February 8 that Russian security services "are perfectly aware" that there are no longer any Chechen fighters based in Georgia's Pankisi Gorge. The gorge served as a rear base for Chechen detachments between 2000-03. Utiashvili pointed out that representatives of a Russian interdepartmental committee visited Pankisi twice last year to meet with Chechen civilians who fled there during the early years of the second war. On February 7, Russian Border Protection Service first deputy head Lieutenant General Anatoly Zabrodin told Interfax that there are still an indeterminate number of Chechen fighters in Pankisi who may attempt to penetrate Russian territory in order to carry out terrorist attacks. Kote Gabashvili, chairman of the Georgian parliamentary committee for foreign relations, on February 8 branded Zabrodin's allegation a "provocation" intended to justify the Russian troop buildup on the border with Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. LF

Adilbek Jaksybekov, who is first deputy chairman of the ruling Nur Otan party, addressed a meeting on February 8 in Astana of persons selected to head the public councils the party has established in all regions of the country to target corruption, Kazakhstan Today and reported. Jaksybekov stressed that creation of the councils "is not just one more effort" to battle corruption, and that those bodies will be called on to identify cases of corruption and to mobilize public opinion to condemn them. LF

Prime Minister Igor Chudinov on February 8 endorsed the government's program of action for the coming year, reported. Chudinov stressed the need for more effective social spending, given that budget funding for that sector will not be increased; he noted that over 500,000 people, or 10 percent of the population, currently receive various allowances. The program also earmarks 1 percent of budget funding for developing tourism and for measures to develop the state language. Also on February 8, the Kyrgyz parliament approved in the second and third (and final) reading the budget for 2008, reported. Both anticipated revenues and expenditures have been raised by 8 million soms ($221,508) since the first reading one week ago (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2008). LF

Human rights activist Dilmurod Mukhitdinov has vanished after being released from jail on February 3 under the terms of an amnesty, reported on February 8, quoting the website Mukhitdinov was arrested for circulating statements criticizing the Uzbek authorities' crackdown in May 2005 on demonstrators in the city of Andijon and sentenced to five years' imprisonment. LF

The Belarusian government has issued a directive on procedures for inviting foreigners to take part in religious activities in Belarus, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on February 7. The directive requires foreign priests or lecturers at theological schools to be approved by the commissioner for religious affairs, and requires a number of documents confirming the education and job seniority of the candidate. Foreign priests and lecturers must also confirm their command of Belarusian or Russian, meaning that they will be allowed to conduct church services and lectures only in those languages. The religious affairs commissioner has the right to reject the application without providing reasons. Foreign priests make up about half of Belarus's clergy. AM

Belarusian Information Minister Uladzimir Rusakevich said on February 7 that Belarus will adopt a law regulating the use of the Internet, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported. Rusakevich said that a special interdepartmental committee has already started studying other countries' legislation on the Internet in preparation for drafting the Belarusian law. Belarusian President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2007 called for legislation to put an end to "the anarchy on the Internet." According to a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, 56 percent of Belarusians use Internet resources. AM

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko said on February 7 that "there will be no problems in natural-gas supplies to Ukraine," RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Tymoshenko was responding to a statement by Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov, who said that the Russian gas giant intends to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine on February 11 if Ukraine fails to pay its debts for gas already delivered, or fails to sign the required contracts and agreements for future deliveries. Former Fuel and Energy Minister Yuriy Boyko noted that "as of January 2008, Ukraine is consuming natural gas without signed documents," adding, "There are neither agreements nor payments. Such a situation cannot last for a long time." Tymoshenko pledged to solve "all these matters," and reiterated her intention to remove intermediaries from the gas supply process. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said that the Gazprom statement is a response to the Ukrainian government's recent announcements that it will exclude RosUkrEnergo from the gas-delivery scheme and revise prices for transportation across Ukraine's territory. AM

President Yushchenko on February 7 issued a decree reinstating Valentyna Semenyuk as chair of the State Property Fund, and reversing the government's dismissals of Semenyuk's deputies, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The previous day, the Ukrainian government dismissed Semenyuk and her deputies in connection with an inquiry into the operations of the State Property Fund (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 7, 2008). Yushchenko said the government's decision violates the constitution, which gives the government the right to nominate and dismiss the heads of central executive institutions, whereas the State Property Fund carries out state policy in the area of privatization, and decisions on its leadership therefore belong to the parliament. Prime Minister Tymoshenko said that the government will comply with the presidential decree, but added that she regrets that what she called "the serious corruption in the State Property Fund" will continue for some time. AM

Milo Djukanovic, the dominant figure in Montenegrin politics for the past 16 years, will take up the post of prime minister vacated on January 31 by Zeljko Sturanovic, the ruling ruling Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS) decided on February 6 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1, 2008), international media reported. Djukanovic served as Montenegro's president (once) and prime minister (four times) between 1991 and 2006. Sturanovic, who stepped down for health reasons, took over the premiership from Djukanovic in 2006, after Djukanovic led Montenegro to independence. Djukanovic has already said that the priority of his fifth government will be membership of the EU and NATO. The DPS's choice needs to be approved by parliament and by President Filip Vujanovic. Both are expected to be formalities, in part because Vujanovic is also a member of the DPS, which Djukanovic has continued to lead despite choosing to leave government in 2006. Since leaving office, Djukanovic has been plagued by international investigations into his alleged role in large-scale smuggling during his time in power (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 3 and 7, 2003, and June 25, and September 5 and 14, 2007). AG

Djukanovic's first task will be to form a new government as, under Montenegro's recently passed constitution, the government falls when the prime minister leaves office (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 22, 2007).There has been little indication as yet of possible changes, but the daily "Vijesti" reported on February 5, citing unnamed sources in "ruling circles," that some personnel changes are probable and that the number of ministerial portfolios may increase. "One of the options mentioned is to have the department for European integration as a ministry again," the paper wrote. Among the political figures who might be brought into Djukanovic's government is Svetozar Marovic, the DPS's deputy chairman and president of Serbia-Montenegro from 2003 to 2006. AG

The head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) mission in Kosova appears to be secure in his post despite a furor caused by his apparent doubts about the wisdom of independence for Kosova. Tim Guldimann won the backing of the chairman of the OSCE, Finnish Foreign Minister Ilkka Kanerva, who said on February 6 during a trip to Prishtina that "after I heard his 100 percent commitment to the OSCE's priorities and decisions, I have to trust him." However, it appeared clear that Guldimann received a strong warning, as Kosovar broadcasters reported that Kanerva underscored in public comments that "the OSCE has just one line, established in Vienna [the headquarters of the OSCE]...and there cannot be alternatives." Guldimann has been under fire from Kosovar media for saying in interviews to Swiss media that he opposes independence for Kosova because "it may pose a precedent for other breakaway territories." AG

The UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) has also made its concern known about Guldimann's comments. Speaking on February 6, UNMIK spokesman Aleksandar Ivanko said that UNMIK chief Joachim Ruecker has spoken "on several occasions to Ambassador Guldimann and told him that some of his statements are, let me put in this way, are slightly out of line with UNMIK policy." Ivanko said, however, that the UNMIK did not ask the OSCE to remove Guldimann. The Kosovar Albanian daily "Express" reported on February 6 that Guldimann was also coming under pressure from unnamed members of his staff, who argued that he "compromised the position of the mission by making his own, personal statements about independence." Guldimann, who took up his post in October 2007, insisted on February 6 that "it was a mistake when these statements were quoted as being my position. I referred to other positions in the context, not to my position. I have tried to convey this message, and I cannot say anything else." The UN Security Council has not voted on the future of Kosova, but Ruecker has pressed consistently for Kosova's status to be resolved and has repeatedly stressed that Kosova is ready to move on with the Ahtisaari plan. AG

Bosnia-Herzegovina's most famous film director, Danis Tanovic, announced on February 6 that he plans to establish a new political party. The party, which has yet to be named, would focus on highlighting corruption and improving living standards, local media quoted Tanovic as saying, but in a statement published in "Oslobodjenje" on February 6, Tanovic identified as his overarching aim his desire to end the popular belief that political change is impossible. Tanovic returned to Bosnia from France five months ago and said that his frustration with Bosnia's political tensions and deadlock forced him into a choice. "I have only two choices in such a situation, to leave this country with my family and to cure nostalgia with occasional visits here, or to try and change something," he said. The party intends to compete in local elections slated for this October. In 2002, Tanovic won an Oscar for the best foreign-language film for his black comedy, "No Man's Land," which was set during Bosnia's civil war. Tanovic's previous public political statements included a call made together with eight other film directors in December 2007 for the Bosnian government to do more to capture the Bosnian Serbs' wartime leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 21, 2007). AG

Serbia's relations with the EU are teetering on the brink of collapse after Belgrade spurned an EU offer to cement ties. In response to Boris Tadic's reelection as Serbia's president on February 3, the EU offered a cooperation treaty that would have reaffirmed Serbia's future in the bloc, and offered concessions linked to visas, trade, and educational exchanges. Tadic wants to pursue closer relations with the EU regardless of the fate of Kosova.

However, Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica said this week the EU's offer was made in bad faith and aimed at prizing Kosova from Serbia.

The EU issued a terse statement on February 7 calling on Serbia to sign the new agreement "in the following days." EU Enlargement Commissioner Olli Rehn said in Brussels on February 6 that Kostunica's decision goes against the will of the Serbian people. "I deeply regret the obstruction by certain politicians in Belgrade in blocking the signature tomorrow," Rehn said, referring to a planned meeting that Serbia called off. "In my view, they have really failed to hear the voice of the Serbian people who voted last Sunday in favor of Serbia's European future, in favor of better lives, better citizen's rights."

EU sources told RFE/RL that Serbia's government appears to be split on the issue, with Kostunica overruling coalition partners keen to develop ties with the EU.

The EU is likely to approve a 1,800-strong mission of legal and law enforcement advisers to Kosova when the bloc's foreign ministers meet on February 18. Rehn said that Kostunica's objections to the mission run counter to his earlier promises not to let Kosova affect Serbia's ties with the EU.

"Not so long ago, Prime Minister Kostunica asked me to keep Serbia's European integration process moving forward and not to make any linkages between the EU process and the Kosovo process. I am disappointed that he has turned down his own commitment," Rehn said.

Russia entered the fray on February 6, when its ambassador to the EU, Vladimir Chizhov, told journalists that Kosova will be "a thorn" in EU-Russia dialogue. Russia is blocking UN agreement on Kosova's independence.

A number of EU member states -- led by Spain and Cyprus-- are skeptical about Kosova's independence. But EU officials say the bloc's legal support mission to Kosovo will go ahead regardless of Serbia's objections.

However, there could be a snag if Russia succeeds in persuading UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon not to give the EU mission his support -- which Moscow will attempt to do, according to Chizhov. The EU is proceeding under the assumption that the mission will need a green light both from Pristina and the UN secretary-general.

(Ahto Lobjakas is an RFE/RL correspondent based in Brussels.)

At a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Vilnius on February 8, Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called on Kabul to boost support for Afghan security forces throughout the country, and said that "governance must visibly improve so that the Afghan people have trust in their leaders," AFP reported. "The police need robust support to develop and they need it now. The narco-economy must be replaced by a legal, sustainable economy. And the Afghan army must get more support from NATO nations and from partners, to stand on its own feet and defend its own country," de Hoop Scheffer said. The NATO meeting is taking place amid tensions among alliance countries as the United States and Britain call for more combat troops to fight resurgent Taliban militants, particularly in the south. No members of the alliance have come forward with offers of new troop deployments, but U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, addressing the Vilnius conference, denied there is a "crisis" within NATO, adding "I don't think that there's a risk of failure" in Afghanistan, the Bloomberg news agency reported on February 8. Meanwhile, Polish Defense Minister Bogdan Klich told the newspaper "Dziennik" in an interview published February 8 that he turned down a Canadian request to send Poland's 1,200 troops in Afghanistan to fight Taliban insurgents in volatile Kandahar Province. 'I didn't accept the proposal. This province doesn't meet our base-line criteria, which hinge on reducing the risks to our contingent," Klich said. MB

Diplomats in Vienna, where the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is based, say Iran has developed a faster centrifuge for uranium enrichment, AP reported on February 7. The centrifuges, known as the IR-2, are reportedly an adaptation of the advanced P-2 centrifuge, but the models are now only being tested and have not yet been used to enrich uranium gas. The agency quoted unnamed experts as stating that the development of the new centrifuge shows that Iran has combined information obtained from the international black market with domestic ingenuity. Iranian officials have repeatedly claimed that UN sanctions have merely helped Iranian industry and the defense sector to become self-reliant. The UN Security Council has passed two resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran for its refusal to stop uranium enrichment and related activities. Iran has ignored them and is pressing ahead in developing its nuclear fuel-making capabilities. VS

The French Foreign Ministry on February 7 expressed concern over Iran's recent missile test launch, which Tehran said was intended as preparation for launching a satellite into space (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 5, 2008). Ministry spokesman Pascale Andreani said France does not believe the missile had the capacity to go beyond the earth's atmosphere, and questioned the utility of the test launch for space applications. He reminded Iran that UN Security Council Resolutions 1696, 1737, and 1747 express the international community's concern over Iran's development of long-range missiles, AFP reported. VS

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) has asked Iranian judiciary chief Ayatollah Mahmud Hashemi-Shahrudi to overturn the sentences of death by stoning handed to three Iranians in recent weeks, Radio Farda reported on February 7. The sentenced were handed down to two sisters arrested in February 2007 and a music teacher arrested in December 2006, all allegedly involved in adultery, HRW reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 1 and 5, 2008). "The Iranian government is set to execute three of its citizens in a horrendously brutal manner," HRW deputy Middle East director Joe Stork said in a statement published on the group's website,, on February 6. The group reminded the Iranian government that it is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which calls for death sentences to be given only for very grave crimes in countries where it is used; HRW noted that adultery clearly is not among crimes with "lethal or other extremely grave consequences." Article 7 of the covenant stipulates that "no one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel...punishment," such as stoning. VS

The leader of the main parliamentary bloc in Lebanon, Saad Hariri, told political supporters on February 7 that a rally will be held on February 14 in Beirut to commemorate the death of his father, former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, three years ago, AP reported. The rally will also show foreign powers, specifically Syria and Iran, that "the Lebanese are united" against their meddling and "intimidation," Hariri said. Syria is suspected to have played a role in the 2005 assassination of Rafiq Hariri and of other pro-Western politicians in Lebanon since then. Iran and Syria support the Shi'ite Hizballah militia and its allies, but reject charges that they meddle in Lebanese affairs. Hariri told his supporters that "we are faced with the political and terrorist presence...of the Syrian and Iranian regimes, but we will not sit...and watch. If confrontation is our destiny, then we stand ready." He said the road to the Lebanese presidency must go through parliament, "not through Damascus, Tehran, or any other capital." Lebanese factions have sought to agree on a president since pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud stepped down last November, but have not reached a consensus. Iran's ambassador in Lebanon, Mohammad Reza Sheibani, on February 6 discussed Lebanese politics and Iranian technological advances with Lebanese Shi'ite parliament speaker Nabih Berry, the "L'Orient-le Jour" newspaper reported on February 7. Sheibani said Iran supports Arab League efforts to help resolve the crisis surrounding the Lebanese presidency, the newspaper reported. VS

The head of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC), Mohammad Ali Jafari, said in Tehran on February 7 that Iran has gone "beyond the phase of [facing] security or military threats or other threats," Iran's Fars news agency reported. He told a gathering of student members of the Basij militia -- affiliated with the IRGC -- that the resilience of the Islamic republic, the regime born of the 1979 revolution, is unequalled, and Iran should now prepare itself to spread the revolution abroad. "Our revolution has become global, and the time of the stabilization of the revolution is completed," he said. Jafari said that "Israel's defeat" after a month of air strikes on Lebanon in July 2006, in an unsuccessful effort to destroy the Hizballah militia, showed how "other nations are continuing the path of the revolution." He added that Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wants Iranians now to focus their efforts on scientific advances. VS

Tensions among competing Sunni Arab groups in Al-Anbar appear to be escalating, after Hamid al-Hayis, head of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council, threatened on February 7 to fight the Iraqi Islamic Party for control of the governorate. Al-Hayis is angry over the Islamic Party's hold on the governorate council. Following the decision last year by tribesmen to form awakening councils and join the fight against Al-Qaeda, al-Hayis and others contended they should be awarded seats on the governorate council, but the Islamic Party refused. Tensions increased after the Iraqi Accordance Front (Al-Tawafuq), to which the Islamic Party belongs, pulled its ministers from government, and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki offered the posts to members of the Al-Anbar Salvation Council (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 9, 2007). Al-Tawafuq contends that it has popular support because it was elected into government. The salvation council, which is comprised of local tribesmen, did not take part in the 2005 elections, and should it compete, would likely attract significant support in Al-Anbar. Islamic Party leader Abd al-Karim al-Samarra'i told Al-Jazeera television on February 7 that the tribesmen "are nobodies who do not have a presence or roots in Al-Anbar Governorate." He further claimed the tribesmen have "a shameful history," because they gave shelter to insurgent groups before 2007. Meanwhile, parliamentarians who are working on a draft law on provincial powers remain deadlocked over power-sharing issues between Baghdad and the governorates. The Kurdistan Coalition and the Shi'ite-led Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq want a decentralized system, while several other parties are calling for a strong central government. KR

Fu'ad Ma'sum, head of the Kurdistan Coalition in the Iraqi parliament, said on February 7 that the Kurds will not give up their demand for a 17 percent share of federal revenues under the annual budget, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. Sunni and Shi'ite deputies argue that the Kurdistan region is due about 13 percent, which they say accurately reflects the size of the Kurdish population. There has not been a national census since 1987. Planning Minister Ali Baban, a Kurdish independent, told Reuters on February 6 that he will issue a report on February 7 with a compromise figure showing Kurds represent 14.5 percent of the population. Baban said the figure was estimated on statistics available to his ministry, including the 1987 census. Ma'sum took issue with Baban's figure on February 7, saying the census was inaccurate due to the former regime's policies, and because some Kurdish areas were counted as belonging to Ninawah Governorate, south of the Kurdish region. Ma'sum also accused rival political blocs, which he did not name, of attempting to obstruct passage of the budget. The parliament was slated to vote on the budget in its February 7 session, but when legislators arrived for the session they learned the vote had been taken off the agenda, Al-Sharqiyah reported. KR

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced on February 7 that his August 2007 order instructing his militia to observe a six-month cease-fire remains in effect, Iraqi media reported the same day. A brief statement issued by the cleric's office said: "Any member of the Imam Al-Mahdi [Army] who commits a military act during the suspension period is hereby renounced and pronounced a dissident. Let it be known that gaining independence is our current goal." The independence presumably refers to the withdrawal of multinational forces from Iraq. KR

The Turkish chief of staff said in a February 7 press release that air strikes that began on February 4 to target Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) bases inside northern Iraq are continuing. The statement said the strikes hit 70 targets, "which were being used by [the PKK] only and which contained numerous facilities" belonging to the PKK. Forty-two shelters, six caves, 15 logistics facilities, and seven training facilities of the PKK were destroyed, the statement said. The Turkish military noted that it is still working to determine PKK losses as a result of the bombing campaign. Turkey has been bombing PKK separatists in Iraq for several months, and considers the group a terrorist organization. KR

Iraqi police reportedly disrupted a kidnapping attempt on members of an awakening-council security force in Baghdad's Ur neighborhood on February 7, the U.S.-led coalition said in a February 8 press release. The kidnapping attempt targeted six awakening-council patrolmen. Three of the men were rescued by police but another three were taken captive. The military press release reported that the incident began when a group of "armed members of the Arkan Hasnawi Special Groups militia cell surrounded an [awakening force] checkpoint, disarmed the guards, and forced them into waiting vehicles." National police arrived as the militia was fleeing the scene, and a gunfight erupted, allowing three of the captives to escape. Intensive efforts are under way to locate the other three captives. Hasnawi is a former brigade commander in the Imam Al-Mahdi militia. He has been linked to the kidnapping of Shi'ite and Sunni tribal leaders in Baghdad and Diyala, and according to the U.S. military, he has close ties to Iranian-supported terrorists operating in Iraq. Meanwhile, Iraqi police said on February 7 that three awakening-council members from the same family were killed in Diyala, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. The men were killed when an armed group stormed their house, ordered the women and children out, and killed the three men execution-style. The attackers then booby-trapped the house with the bodies inside, and detonated the building. KR