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Newsline - March 20, 2008

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in an interview published in the daily "Izvestia" on March 20 that the United States recently offered Russia "confidence-building measures" that will enable Russian monitors and monitoring equipment to determine that the proposed missile-defense system is not directed against Russia (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 18, and 19, 2008). Lavrov added that "we have managed to make Americans acknowledge that our concerns are not unfounded.... In such [military systems], what matters is the potential and not just the intentions." He did not say whether the proposal is enough to end Russian opposition to missile defense. Under the U.S. proposals brought to Moscow by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates this week, Russia reportedly will be able to use monitoring equipment and occasional visits by monitoring officials at the proposed radar site in the Czech Republic and at the interceptor base in Poland. Germany's "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on March 20 that Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek suggested recently that the U.S. proposal is acceptable to Prague because it does not involve a permanent Russian military presence on Czech territory. The daily also cited remarks by Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to the effect that the proposal is worthwhile if it makes Russia feel more secure. Critics charge that Moscow knows that missile defense is no threat, but uses the issue to bully its neighbors, try to split NATO, and obtain concessions from Washington on other issues. PM

The daily "Novye izvestia" noted on March 20 that the latest U.S. proposals brought unexpected momentum into the discussion on missile defense. The paper suggested that the recently announced replacement of U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Henry Obering by his deputy, army Major General Patrick O'Reilly, as head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency might have something to do with the emergence of the U.S. proposals and the subsequent positive movement on the missile-defense issue. The daily "Vremya novostei" commented on March 20 that the tone and atmosphere of bilateral talks on missile defense became much more cordial during the latest talks in Moscow than was the case before. The paper suggested that progress is now possible because the administration of President George W. Bush urgently wants to resolve several important strategic issues with Russia before Bush leaves office in January 2009. "Vremya novostei" also indicated that Russia now realizes that it cannot block missile defense and seeks instead to obtain face-saving concessions from Washington. PM

The daily "Vremya novostei" reported on March 20 that "Foreign Minister Lavrov's three-day tour of the Middle East began [on March 19] with a visit to Syria and a nasty surprise that stunned the Israelis and leadership of the Palestinian Autonomy...[namely] a meeting with Hamas leader Khalid Mish'al." Moscow is the only major power outside the Middle East that maintains relations with the radical Islamic Hamas (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, June 19 and 29, July 31, and November 29, 2007). The paper noted that "Russia's policy in the Middle East is rooted in the Soviet past. The Kremlin deals with all involved parties without exception," and that Hamas won the Palestinian elections in January 2006. Israel and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas previously criticized Moscow's ties to Hamas, but Russian officials responded that there will be no settlement in the Middle East without Hamas. On March 20, the daily "Vedomosti" took stock of the war in Iraq to mark the fifth anniversary of the outbreak of that conflict. The paper suggested that "the war in Iraq became a textbook trap of disparity between the means and the end for the United States and its allies. Their goal was never achieved. Continuation of the military campaign and justifying it are as difficult as are admitting the futility of the enterprise and getting out." PM

Law enforcement officers on March 19 raided the Moscow offices of TNK-BP, the oil company co-owned on a 50-50 basis by the British oil major BP and three Russian companies -- Mikhail Fridman's Alfa Group, Leonard Blavatnik's Access Industries and Viktor Vekselberg's Renova -- and then raided the Moscow offices of BP itself. Citing an unnamed TNK-BP employee, reported that those who raided TNK-BP's offices showing Federal Security Service (FSB) indentification. However, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry's Investigative Committee, Irina Dudukina, told RIA Novosti that the raid was being carried out by Interior Ministry investigators on the basis of a criminal case brought against the Sidanco oil company, which was bought by BP in 1997 and absorbed into TNK-BP in 2003. reported that the case against Sidanco was brought in April 1999 and involved charges of "premeditated bankruptcy." Dudukina said the officials were collecting documents, not conducting a search. However, "Vremya novostei" too reported on March 20 that the raids were conducted by FSB personnel. JB

"Vremya novostei" on March 20 examined possible motives behind the raids on the Moscow offices of TNK-BP and BP. "If the siloviki, our sources note, 'came for' the Russian half of TNK-BP, then it looks like an attempt to begin the process of transferring an oil asset to one of the state holding companies even before the presidential inauguration of Dmitry Medvedev," the daily wrote. "If the matter also concerns an 'encroachment' on the English share in TNK-BP, then it threatens to be a strong international scandal, the consequences of which may exceed even the Yukos case. And in that case, the matter will concern the image of both presidents at once -- outgoing [President] Vladimir Putin, who, as is well-known...gave his blessing to the deal between TNK and BP, and incoming [President] Dmitry Medvedev, who will have to start off his work with a reconciliation...with the world investment community." JB

The murder trial in absentia of former Yukos executive Leonid Nevzlin began in Moscow on March 19. "The Moscow Times" reported on March 20 that Nevzlin, who fled to Israel in 2003 and currently resides there, faces 11 charges, including murder and attempted murder, following a four-year investigation led by the Prosecutor-General's Office. Nevzlin has denied all the charges, claiming they are politically motivated. The daily "Kommersant" reported on March 20 that Nevzlin is accused of organizing five murders and six attempted murders for which former Yukos security chief Aleksei Pichugin has already been sentenced to life in prison. However, one of the targets of an attempted murder allegedly planned by Nevzlin, Viktor Kolesov, former chief of administration of the Yukos-controlled Rosprom, told the Moscow City Court he doubts Nevzlin was behind the 1998 attack in which he was beaten and robbed. Prosecutors allege Nevzlin ordered the attack on Kolesov because Kolesov's "professional growth" posed a threat to Nevzlin's "personal and professional interests." However, Kolesov told the court that Nevzlin could simply have had him fired from Rosprom. JB

"Vedomosti" predicted on March 20 that the administration of future President Medvedev, who will take office in May, will differ little from the current Kremlin administration, with Sergei Sobyanin remaining the head of the presidential administration and Vladislav Surkov staying on as a deputy presidential administration chief. The daily quoted a source "close to the presidential administration" as saying that no final decision has been made as to who will head the Kremlin administration, but that a "short list" includes Sobyanin, Surkov and Igor Shuvalov, an aide to President Putin who is close to Medvedev. However, "Vedomosti" quoted a source in Surkov's entourage as categorically denying the possibility Surkov will be named Kremlin administration chief. It also quoted a source "close to the Kremlin" who denied that Shuvalov will fill that post and said that Shuvalov will instead become head of the government apparatus, which serves the prime minister and his cabinet. Medvedev has said he will choose Putin to serve as his prime minister and Putin has said he will accept the job. "Vedomosti" quoted two sources in the presidential administration and two people "close to the Kremlin" as saying that the main figures currently in the Kremlin administration, including Sobyanin and Surkov, will keep their posts. The newspaper also quoted a Kremlin-connected "political technologist" as saying that Igor Sechin, the deputy presidential-administration chief often identified as the informal leader of the Kremlin "siloviki," will likely become head of the secretariat of the future prime minister and hold the rank of first deputy prime minister. JB

In remarks to the Federation Council on March 19, human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin expressed concern about the situation in Russia's correctional facilities, including the practice of violence "approaching the level of torture," reported. "Over the past 10 years, the situation in the penitentiary system has changed," Lukin told the Russian parliament's upper house, adding that some aspects of prison life have improved, with new facilities being built. "But, unfortunately, the situation is still difficult, as shown by the riots that occurred last year in several [prison] colonies, including colonies for minors," he said. According to Lukin, the main problem in these penal colonies is "violence sometimes approaching the level of torture" and that this situation "must be solved." In February, Lukin called conditions in Russian prisons "close to torture" and slander charges were brought against Lyov Ponomaryov, executive director of the For Human Rights NGO, for stating in a 2006 interview that Federal Corrections Service head Yury Kalinin is "the author of a sadistic system of torture" and describing Russia's network of 40 strict-regime prisons as "torture zones" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 26, 2008). noted that video footage showing OMON riot police severely beating inmates at a Sverdlovsk Oblast prison colony was posted on last month. JB

A criminal case on charges of abuse of his official position has been opened against Rady Burulov, who in January challenged Kalmykia President Kirsan Ilyumzhinov to resign (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 11 and 30, 3008), "Kommersant" reported on March 20. Burulov is said to have concluded a contract to supply heating oil to the city with a company founded by his father that is headed by his wife, and thus inflicted financial damage on the municipal authorities estimated at 698,000 rubles ($29,465). "Nezavisimaya gazeta" on March 7 predicted that in the wake of the strong showing in Elista in the March 2 elections to a new republican parliament of the combined Communist and nonparty opposition, Ilyumzhinov would find a way to dismiss and thus neutralize Burulov (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 2008). LF

Some 70 resistance fighters entered the village of Alkhazurovo in Urus-Martan Raion southwest of Grozny late on March 19 without encountering any resistance and launched an attack using grenade throwers and other arms, on the local government building, which was burned to the ground, the resistance website reported. They also engaged in a battle with pro-Moscow Chechen police in which no fewer than 13 police were killed and between seven and 10 wounded. A Chechen government spokesman told that eight militants were also killed; he said the total number of attackers was far smaller, between 10 and 15. LF

The Supreme Body in Armenia of the Armenian Revolutionary Federation-Dashnaktsutiun (HHD) issued a statement in Yerevan on March 19 calling on all parties represented in parliament to form a government of national unity, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The HHD argued that doing so is the only way to implement the "serious reforms" it says are needed to overcome the current standoff between the authorities and the opposition in the wake of the disputed February 19 presidential election and the subsequent clashes on March 1 between police and supporters of defeated presidential candidate and former President Levon Ter-Petrossian. Of the five parties represented in parliament, four -- the Republican Party of Armenia, Bargavach Hayastan, the HHD and Orinats Yerkir -- have recognized the official election returns, according to which Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian won the ballot with 52.8 percent of the vote, followed by Ter-Petrossian with 21.51 percent. The Zharangutiun (Heritage) party headed by former Foreign Minister Raffi Hovannisian has rejected the official results as falsified. Responding on March 19 to a question from Zharangutiun parliament deputy Zaruhi Postanjian, President-elect Sarkisian said a "detailed investigation" is needed before he takes any decision on granting an amnesty to participants in the March 1 clashes in Yerevan between police and protesters, Noyan Tapan reported. A second parliament deputy, Viktor Dallakian, has also proposed such an amnesty for persons who took to the streets on March 1 "to express their political views" but did not engage in violence (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2008). LF

Vartan Oskanian told the Armenian parliament on March 19 that Azerbaijan is seeking through the OSCE Secretariat to force the dissolution of the OSCE Minsk Group that for the past 16 years has been engaged in trying to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. The three states that co-chair the Minsk Group -- France, Russia and the U.S. -- released a statement in Vienna on March 19 reiterating that they support Azerbaijan's territorial integrity and do not recognize the independence of the republic of Nagorno-Karabakh. They also noted that "any peaceful and equitable solution of the conflict will require unavoidable compromises among the parties," and stressed the need to resume negotiations. Several small Azerbaijani political parties construed the abstention by those three states from the March 14 vote by the UN General Assembly on an Azerbaijani resolution "On The Situation In The Occupied Territories Of Azerbaijan" as a demonstration of pro-Armenian bias. Former Azerbaijani Foreign Minister Vilayat Quliyev, who an Armenian Foreign Ministry source has implied was at least partly responsible for the failure to make any headway toward resolving the conflict prior to his dismissal in the spring of 2004 (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," July 9, 2004), said on March 19 that the efforts of the Minsk Group are "useless," and that its approach to resolving the conflict has recently become "tendentious and one-sided," reported. LF

Mikheil Saakashvili met at the White House on March 19 with U.S. President George W. Bush, who praised Tbilisi's aspirations to NATO membership but did not express explicit support for Saakashvili's hopes that Georgia will be offered a Membership Action Plan at the April 2-4 NATO summit in Bucharest, "The Washington Post" reported. Meanwhile in Tbilisi, some 1,500 people staged a demonstration in March 19 outside the U.S. Embassy to demand that the United States drop its support for Saakashvili, whom they accused of falsifying the results of the January 5 preterm presidential ballot to secure his reelection for a second term. The protesters called on Bush not to shake Saakashvili's hand, Caucasus Press reported. The NGO Human Rights Watch appealed to Bush in an open letter "to emphasize the importance of justice and accountability" for the brutal police crackdown on peaceful demonstrators in Tbilisi on November 7. The open letter made the point that "a parliamentary commission is no substitute for a prompt and effective criminal investigation led by the Prosecutor-General's Office," and called on the United States to "promote justice in Georgia today as vigorously as it has championed Georgia's democracy in the past." LF

Inna Gudavadze, the widow of oligarch Badri Patarkatsishvili who died suddenly at his British home last month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13 and 14, 2008), released a statement on March 19 accusing the Georgian authorities of resorting to dubious means in a bid to take over the Imedi television channel which her late husband co-owned, Caucasus Press reported. She further accused the authorities of preventing the station from resuming broadcasting. Imedi's license was suspended following the November 7 crackdown; that ban was lifted several weeks later but the station again halted broadcasting on December 26 after the Georgian Prosecutor-General's Office accused Patarkatsishvili of plotting to overthrow the government. The National Communications Commission has till to rule on whether and when the channel may resume broadcasting, according to the "Georgian Times" on February 25. LF

The Mazhilis voted on March 19 to adopt minor modifications to a new bilateral accord on border security with Kyrgyzstan, prior to fully ratifying the agreement, AKIpress and Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The newly adopted amendments to the agreement, which was first signed by Kazakh and Kyrgyz leaders in Astana in July 2006 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 7, 2006), were limited to the language of the treaty and did not add any substantive changes to the accord. Although the parliamentary ratification of the agreement was subject to a rather long delay, its passage offers both countries an important new framework on border security, with specific cooperation for measures and joint efforts to combat proliferation, implement more extensive counternarcotics and counterterrorism operations, and fight human trafficking. The agreement further calls for increased surveillance, monitoring, and policing of several high-priority border areas, while also seeking mechanisms to ease delays in border crossing points and boost cross-border trade. RG

A spokesman of the Kazakh National Security Committee (KNB) confirmed to reporters on March 19 that senior security officials convened on March 18 a meeting of a high-level interagency counterterrorism body within the KNB to assess security plans, Kazinform reported. Participants in the meeting reviewed and assessed the ministry's performance in several security-related areas before discussing future operations plans, including a decision to offer assistance to China to help with security for the Olympic Games. The spokesman also announced that the interagency body adopted several plans to enhance and expand "measures on preventing spread of ideas of terrorism and religious extremism in the country's penal institutions." RG

Speaking at a press conference in Almaty on March 19, the chairwoman of the Almaty Helsinki Committee, Ninel Fokina, and Yevgeny Zhovtis, the director of the Kazakh International Bureau for Human Rights and Observance of the Law, accused Kazakh security forces of committing human rights violations, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. The two prominent activists added that they are "worried about a rising trend in violations of human rights" by the security services under the guise of "fighting terrorism and extremism." Fokina, whose group is affiliated with the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights, also expressed "anxiety about the fact that the constitutional principle of the supremacy of human rights in our country is increasingly giving way to the principle of the supremacy of national security interests." She attributed this trend to the 2005 adoption of measures endowing the security forces with greater powers to combat extremism and terrorism, and specifically identified the KNB, the Interior Ministry, and the Prosecutor-General's Office as the most serious violators and accused them of wielding their "extremely wide authority to control civil-society institutions under an excuse of fighting extremism and terrorism." RG

According to the findings of a recent public-opinion survey released in Almaty, the Kazakh National Association of Sociologists and Political Scientists announced on March 19 that President Nursultan Nazarbaev is "the most trusted" figure in the country, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. The poll, which was conducted last month using a survey sample of almost 3,000 respondents in 17 of the largest towns in Kazakhstan, indicated that "over half of surveyed citizens said they trusted the president," while no other leader, official, or institution was trusted by a majority of respondents. According to a press release issued by the association to accompany the report, the survey results also indicated that "people most probably trust, rather than do not trust" the ruling party Nur Otan (Light of the Fatherland) party and the KNB, although respondents indicated a serious mistrust of the National Bank, the government as a whole, the Supreme Court, and the Prosecutor-General's Office. The survey further found that the Interior Ministry, regional governors' offices and local authorities, and the Central Election Commission posted the most serious negative ratings among those surveyed. A similar survey released last week by the same group also revealed significant "discontent among the Kazakh population with the government and the local authorities," driven largely by sharp increases in prices for consumer goods, including fuel and food (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 13, 2008). RG

While on vacation in Germany, President Kurmanbek Bakiev on March 19 issued orders for the imposition of heightened security measures to ensure "public order" through the approaching holiday period, Kabar reported. The orders, issued in telephone conversations with the heads of all Kyrgyz law enforcement agencies, including Interior Minister Moldomusa Kongantiev, National Security Committee Chairman Murat Sutalinov, and Prosecutor-General Elmurza Satybaldiev, include restrictions on public gatherings, enhanced security in the regions, and a "security alert" in effect from March 20-25, covering the holiday period of Norouz and the recently adopted Popular Revolution Day, marking the third anniversary of the ouster of former President Askar Akiev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 14, 2008). In addition, the Kyrgyz Interior Ministry and police were also instructed to step up the monitoring of opposition and radical groups, according to the website. Recently, a number of other security restrictions have been introduced, including limits on demonstrations and greater powers for the traffic police to monitor and approve the use of loudspeakers in vehicles (see "RFE/RL Newsline," December 3, 2007). RG

The U.S. Embassy in Minsk said in a March 19 statement that it has temporarily stopped the issuance of visas because of the government's urgent request for staff cuts. "The U.S. government is in the process of reviewing the request made by the Belarusian Ministry of Foreign Affairs on March 17 that the U.S. Embassy in Minsk reduce its staffing," the embassy said. "Therefore, visa processing has been temporarily suspended while our resources are engaged addressing other priorities. Some visa appointments have been postponed. Further information will be provided once the extent of the U.S. Embassy's ability to provide visa services in Belarus has been determined." Diplomatic relations between Minsk and Washington have deteriorated due to the economic sanctions imposed by the U.S. Treasury Department against Belarus's largest petrochemical company, Belnaftakhim (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 18, and 19, 2008). In November 2007, the department froze all assets under U.S. jurisdiction belonging to Belnaftakhim and its representatives, and barred Americans from doing business with the company, which it says is controlled by President Alyaksandr Lukashenka. On March 7, Minsk recalled its ambassador to the United States, Mikhail Khvastou, for consultations and urged U.S. Ambassador Karen Stewart to temporarily leave Belarus, which she did on March 12. AM

President Lukashenka on March 18 called for a crackdown on widespread corruption in Belarus's customs service, Belapan reported on March 19. Lukashenka described the extent of corruption in the customs service as unacceptable. "This testifies to failures in the work of the State Customs Committee. Corruption has turned from a chronic disease into a cancerous tumor," Lukashenka said. He suggested that the main goals of the customs and border-control services are the creation of a strong barrier to international organized crime and the protection of Belarus's economic interests. "We must not close ourselves off from the rest of the world, but rather secure necessary conditions for Belarus's painless accession to the world economy," Lukashenka said. He also instructed the State Secretariat of the Security Council to "give a shake" to the security and law enforcement system, arguing that it is not doing enough to curb economic crimes. "Economic offenses still cause serious damage. Moreover, ill-considered, inconsistent actions during the detection and investigation of such crimes sometimes cause as much damage as the crime itself," Lukashenka said. "Law enforcement agencies are not working to prevent negative phenomena in this sphere, in particular to protect large-scale national projects and promising investment programs. The Interior Ministry, the KGB [Committee for State Security], the Department of Financial Investigations, the Department of Financial Supervision of the State Control Committee take a passive stance on the matter," he added. AM

Canada and nine of the newest NATO members from Central and Eastern Europe have signed an unofficial note asking NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer to offer Ukraine and Georgia a Membership Action Plan at the alliance's summit in Bucharest on April 2-4, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported, citing dpa. The countries -- Bulgaria, Canada, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia -- said that such a move would both reinforce stability and security in Europe, and become the logical continuation of current policies of cooperation toward Ukraine and Georgia, given the efforts these countries have already made in reforming their military and political institutions. Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko recently sent de Hoop Scheffer their second request for Ukraine to be given a Membership Action Plan, and also asked Germany and France to support Ukraine's Euro-Atlantic aspirations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 11, 14, and 18, 2008). Germany and France are the main European opponents of Ukraine's integration into NATO, claiming that there is insufficient support in the country for NATO membership. The first formal request for granting Ukraine a Membership Action Plan was sent in mid-January and triggered a crisis in the Ukrainian parliament that has lasted for over a month (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 5 and 6, 2008). AM

On March 19 court officials supported by special police removed the "tent camp" set up by some 30 Crimean Tatars on March 11 outside the Crimean parliament building, and RFE/RL's Tatar-Bashkir Service reported. No one was injured during the police action. The Crimean Tatars were demanding, as they have done for over a decade, that the republic's authorities allocate them land to build homes; they have threatened to disrupt the tourist season in Crimea this summer if that demand is not met. Meanwhile, Ukrainian President Yushchenko has cancelled a visit to Crimea scheduled for March 20 to inspect the ongoing efforts to clear the oil spilled in the Kerch Strait during a major storm in November 2007, reported. LF

Kosova's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said in Prishtina on March 19 that "on behalf of the Kosova government and the citizens of Kosova, I want to express my gratitude to the [neighboring] countries of Croatia, Hungary, and Bulgaria, which today decided to recognize the state of Kosova," RFE/RL's South Slavic and Albanian Languages Service reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 27 and March 6, 2008). He added that "this is the best proof and the most positive message to all other countries that have not yet recognized Kosova's independence.... Countries in the region are confident that the Republic of Kosova will be a factor of stability in the Balkans, and that it will contribute to peace, stability, and to increasing cooperation between countries in the region." In Zagreb on March 19, Croatian Prime Minister Ivo Sanader said at a news conference that he fully understands "this is a problem for Serbia, and a difficult one [at that].... This is one of the reasons why...we have waited until now [to recognize Kosova] and why we have consulted and discussed the issue with a number of international actors and with the Serbian government as well." Standing next to Sanader, the Hungarian Foreign Ministry's Senior State Secretary Marta Fekszi Horvath said that Hungary's "foreign-policy makers and the Foreign Ministry worked very hard to make sure this recognition would take place together with Serbia's neighbors. So we made a joint political statement together with our EU partner Bulgaria, and with Croatia." She warned Serbia against taking unspecified measures against its own Hungarian minority in response. In Athens on March 19, Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic said at a news conference with Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyianni that "any country that decides to recognize the illegal declaration of independence by Kosovo...thereby violates the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Serbia. And no country that unilaterally violates our country's sovereignty can expect to have the same good relations with us as before." He added that he wanted "to use this opportunity and appeal to countries in the region: do not violate the sovereignty and territorial integrity of your good neighbor by any unilateral action. Help us find a solution that allows us to live in peace and stability. Do not recognize Kosovo." According to, 32 countries officially recognize Kosova, with three more expected to do so soon. PM

UN Mission in Kosova (UNMIK) police returned on March 19 to mainly Serb-inhabited northern Mitrovica, from which they withdrew recently as a result of orchestrated violence against the UN and NATO, international media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 18, and 19, 2008). About 40 UNMIK police are expected soon to take up duties together with 80 local Kosova police, most of whom are ethnic Serbs. Bridge traffic between the two halves of the ethnically divided city resumed on March 19. A UN spokesman said that UNMIK received assurances from local Serbian authorities that UN personnel will not be attacked. PM

President George W. Bush signed a Presidential Determination on March 19 authorizing military aid to Kosova, which the United States was one of the first countries to recognize in February, international media reported. Kosova is now eligible to receive defense articles and services under the Foreign Assistance Act and the Arms Export Control Act, which require that the president determine that the aid "will strengthen the security of the United States and promote world peace." Each request by Kosova for assistance will be considered on a case-by-case basis. In an article entitled "The Serb Problem," "The Wall Street Journal" argued on March 20 that Kosova's emergence as an independent state "went off peacefully, except for the Serb outbursts [in the north].Outside military, diplomatic, and economic support will be crucial to Kosovo's future. Serb thugs in the streets, and Serb thuggery in international diplomatic salons, have succeeded in giving certain countries pause." The paper stressed that "Serbia did too much harm in the 1990s to get a free pass on its destructive behavior over Kosovo today. Fortunately, with every other country in its immediate vicinity opting for a future in the West, Serbia isn't strategically important. With NATO on the case -- and it will need to stay -- Serbia isn't a threat to Kosovo's sovereignty. The 16,000 NATO troops in Kosovo, as well as in a still unsettled Bosnia, are the first line of defense against Serb recidivism." PM

Vasile Tarlev, who has served as Moldova's prime minister since 2001, submitted his resignation on March 19 at a cabinet session attended by President Vladimir Voronin, saying it is time to give "new people a chance to work for the good of the country," reported. In the event that parliament approves, the entire cabinet must also resign. Serafim Urecheanu, who heads the Our Moldova alliance, the country's largest opposition party, hailed Tarlev's move, noting that he deferred consistently to Voronin and that his cabinet "has brought Moldova to the verge of economic collapse." Possible successors identified by include First Deputy Prime Minister Zinaida Greciani, Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Andrei Stratan, and Economy Minister Igor Dodon. The website further suggested that Voronin himself pressured Tarlev to step down as part of his long-term preparations for the parliamentary elections due next year. Voronin's Communist Party controls 56 of the 101 seats in the current parliament. LF


The Czech Republic has officially opened its own provincial reconstruction team (PRT) in the Afghan province of Logar, Czech Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Vlastimil Picek said on March 19, the CTK news agency reported. Picek and Deputy Defense Minister Martin Bartak attended the ceremony in Logar, as well as the provincial governor. Approximately 200 Czech soldiers, plus civilian agricultural, construction, and hydrology experts will operate in Logar. The Czech team is expected to complete some schools and hospitals begun by U.S. personnel. Picek said the security situation in the province is generally stable, but there are some districts where security is not good. The Czech PRT is to be in place for at least three years. After Lithuania and Hungary, the Czech Republic is the third new NATO member to have its own PRT. AT

Taliban militants have destroyed another mobile-phone antenna in the southern Kandahar Province, according to local official Mohammad Ahsan on March 19, Xinhua news agency reported the same day. "The enemies in their subversive activities attacked an antenna of a mobile [phone] company in the Loya Wala area, 5 kilometers north of Kandahar city, and destroyed it," Ahsan said. There were no casualties, he added. Nearly a dozen towers owned by telephone companies have been destroyed by Taliban insurgents since the insurgents warned the companies recently to shut down from dusk to dawn in the areas Taliban militants are active (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3 and 5, 2008). AT

According to an Interior Ministry statement on March 19, police have arrested three suspected terrorists in Afghanistan's western Herat Province, Xinhua reported. "These rebels who were involved in disrupting peace and stability were captured from Gazara district and a number of arms and ammunition, including four assault rifles, have been seized," the statement added, without providing further details. Police in the province killed two suspected insurgents and arrested another five on March 17, reportedly after they sabotaged a mobile-phone antenna, AFP reported on March 19. AT

NATO is concerned about the possible repercussions over a film by a right-wing Dutch member of parliament criticizing the Koran and has asked Afghan leaders for support, Reuters reported on March 19. Supreme Allied Commander Europe John Craddock said that insurgents could use the film to whip up anger against NATO troops in Afghanistan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 6, 10, and 18, 2008). "Yes, I think it is a concern...that they will take out their ire on all of those people such as the Dutch in Oruzgan Province," Craddock said. He told a news briefing at NATO headquarters in Kabul that "the problem is the extremists. They want to use this as a rallying point to their advantage." AT

Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey defended on March 18 the natural-gas deal Switzerland and Iran signed on March 17, and said Switzerland does not need permission from any state to ensure its energy independence, Television Suisse Romande reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline, March 17, 18 and 19, 2008). She said that there is a "good working relationship" between Switzerland's diplomacy and economy, and Switzerland is not giving Iran the wrong signal in its standoff with the United Nations over its nuclear program. The United States in particular has criticized the deal, which it says goes against the spirit of UN Security Council sanctions imposed on Iran to force it to curb sensitive nuclear activities. Calmy-Rey said the deal violates neither UN sanctions nor the United States' own Iran Sanctions Act. The deal is for Iran to export gas to Switzerland from 2011, through a 520-kilometer trans-Adriatic pipeline to be built by the Swiss firm buying the gas, Electricite de Laufenbourg (EGL), reported. Calmy-Rey was also criticized in Switzerland for donning a head scarf while in Tehran in line with Iranian laws. Swiss legislators called her a "submissive Madonna" and "antifeminist" on March 17 for covering her hair in a meeting with President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, Switzerland's "Le Matin" reported on March 18. Legislator Martine Brunschwig Graf said, "she did not have to wear that head scarf. She was not in any holy place, but doing politics," reported. Calmy-Rey has said she was merely respecting local customs and "it was not a sign of submission...I did not want to provoke an incident around a question that was not essential" during the trip, "Le Matin" reported. VS

Vice President Richard Cheney said in Muscat, Oman, on March 19 that the United States is not sure now whether or not Iran has restarted a suspected nuclear weapons program that it suspected Tehran may have stopped in 2003, AP reported. In the National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) report issued in December 2007, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Iran stopped its program to access or develop nuclear weapons in 2003. Cheney told ABC News in Muscat that the United States and its regional allies have to keep in mind that a "nuclear-armed Iran would be very destabilizing" for the region. Cheney said the NIE report confirmed that Iran has sought to acquire nuclear weapons, and "it would appear that they stopped that weaponization process in 2003. We don't know whether or not they've restarted." Cheney is on a 10-day Middle East tour. Oman allows the United States to use four air bases on its territory. VS

Former Iranian President Mohammad Khatami and former parliament speaker Mehdi Karrubi have called for a recount of votes cast in Tehran in the March 14 parliamentary elections, Radio Farda reported on March 19, citing Iranian media. Tehran has 30 seats, and authorities say at least 19 have already gone to conservative candidates (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 18, and 19, 2008). The two leading reformists have written to Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati -- effectively Iran's top election supervisor -- and asked for a random recount at some polling stations, citing concerns already raised by other reformists about the vote count. Disputes between the factions over counting and results are not uncommon at the close of Iranian elections; reformists have this time said they were not allowed to attend voting or counting in many polling stations, in spite of previous agreements. Majid Ansari, a reformist candidate who reportedly has just missed the 30th position in terms of votes, which would have given him a seat for Tehran, has said that "right from the start, they obstructed the presence of candidates' representatives at ballot boxes, and effectively we had representatives at less than 400-500 ballot boxes out of 4,000." He said state officials "illegally" expelled many reformist candidates' representatives from polling stations. Khatami and Karrubi observed in their letter that lingering doubts about the results announced in Tehran would -- if not resolved -- "harm the system and society," Radio Farda reported. VS

President Ahmadinejad said in Tehran on March 18 that the March 14 elections "disrupted the enemies' political lineup" and Iran will with God's help have more such "victories" in coming months, IRNA reported on March 19. He told security staff at the presidential office that all "summits" could be attained "if we all work for God." The leaders of the United States and Israel, he said in contrast, "will have a humiliating end like Saddam's fate," referring to executed Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Ahmadinejad reminded his audience that God did not create humans for "senseless activity" in life or to focus on "marginal affairs," but to discover an innate vocation to worship God, IRNA reported. VS

The Iraqi Presidential Council on March 19 approved a law allowing provincial elections to take place, international media reported the same day. On March 17, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney made a surprise visit to Baghdad to urge Iraqi leaders to make greater political progress. A press release by the council said, "there would be no changes to the law" and "[the Presidential] Council has exercised its right to review the law, delaying its implementation, and that it would now take effect." On February 27, the council's three members, President Jalal Talabani and Vice Presidents Tariq al-Hashimi and Adil Abd al-Mahdi, vetoed the law after failing to reach a unanimous decision on whether to approve it (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 28, 2008). The main sticking points were provisions in the legislation that allow the prime minister to remove regional governors from office. Abd al-Mahdi, who heads the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), vociferously objected to giving the prime minister more authority, instead demanding more power be placed in the hands of the governorate councils. The approval of the law paves the way for provincial elections, which the UN announced will take place on October 1 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 15, 2008). SS

The two-day reconciliation conference in Baghdad ended on March 19 with a final communique that "condemned terrorism and extremist ideologies, and urged the promotion of national unity," Iraqi media reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17 and 18, 2008). Tashin al-Shaykly, a spokesman for the conference, told "Voices of Iraq" that "The conference's preparatory committee, through the state's Ministry for National Dialogue, will table the recommendations reached by the conference participants to the council of ministers and parliament." Despite the positive statements emanating from the conference, several high-profile leaders and political blocs refused to attend. Muqtada al-Sadr's political bloc, Iyad Allawi's Iraqi National List, and the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc in parliament, all boycotted the conference. SS

During a March 19 visit to the Sunni-dominated Baghdad neighborhood of Al-Amadiyah, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki promised jobs for those Sunnis who are fighting Al-Qaeda in Iraq, international media reported. Al-Maliki said the government will "open the doors of all the establishments to welcome" the men who are fighting Al-Qaeda. Al-Amadiyah is known as an Al-Qaeda in Iraq stronghold and its residents have expressed loyalty and support for former President Saddam Hussein. "I am proud of the efforts of the sons of this neighborhood. We will welcome our sons who are challenging terrorism and injustice. They will have suitable jobs. What they have done is amazing," al-Maliki said. Thousands of Sunnis have allied themselves with U.S. and Iraqi forces as part of the awakening movement in an effort to root out Al-Qaeda in Iraq. SS

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner announced on French television on March 19 that France will take in approximately 500 Chaldean Christian refugees from Iraq, Kuwait's KUNA news agency reported. Kouchner also said that France will not refuse asylum to Iraqi Muslims, but stressed that nobody is taking in Iraqi Christians. Paris has a significant Chaldean Christian population and there have been growing calls to assist the Chaldeans in northern Iraq, who have been increasingly targeted. On February 29, Mosul Archbishop Bulus Faraj Rahhu was kidnapped outside the Holy Spirit Church in Mosul and his body was discovered two weeks later (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 3 and 13, 2008). Kouchner expressed hope that the Chaldean refugees will be in France within a week. The Chaldean church is an Eastern-rite denomination aligned with the Roman Catholic Church and it recognizes the authority of the pope. SS

An attack near the revered Imam Husayn Shrine in the holy city of Karbala on March 17 killed 52 people and wounded more than 75, Iraqi and international media reported on March 18. Karbala police chief Brigadier General Ra'yd Shakir said the bomb was planted by insurgents. However, several other local security and hospital officials said the attack was carried out by a female suicide bomber. Soon after the attack, officials imposed an indefinite curfew in the city. Karbala has been the scene of several high-profile violent incidents. In August 2007, bloody clashes between members of Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army and Iraqi policemen during a Shi'ite religious festival left 52 people dead (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 29, 2007). In April 2007, a suicide car bomb near the Imam Abbas Shrine killed more than 70 people and wounded nearly 160. SS

The U.S. military announced in a statement on March 19 that 17 suspected terrorists have been arrested in operations in the Tigris River Valley. The arrests were made during a March 18 operation targeting a suspected Al-Qaeda in Iraq weapons facilitator. In Ba'qubah, U.S. forces also arrested three suspected Al-Qaeda in Iraq fighters and discovered "a building containing homemade explosives, wires, markings, and other indications it was being made into a house-borne improvised explosive device." U.S. military spokesman Major Winfield Danielson said the arrests were another blow to Al-Qaeda in Iraq's operations. "Iraqi and coalition operations are systematically dismantling Al-Qaeda in Iraq's terrorist networks. Iraqi citizens have rejected Al-Qaeda's indiscriminate violence and corrupt ideology, and these terrorists have no place in Iraq's future," Danielson said. SS