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Newsline - March 26, 2008

TNK-BP confirmed on March 25 that 148 of its BP employees have been withdrawn from Russia because of visa issues. "The Moscow Times" on March 26 quoted TNK-BP spokeswoman Marina Dracheva as saying that the 148 BP employees "have been temporarily withdrawn from TNK-BP" due to "lack of clarity over their current visa status." The Oil Information Agency on March 24 quoted an "informed source" as saying that the 148 BP employees assigned to TNK-BP were having problems extending their visas but that it was a "temporary technical problem" that TNK-BP expected to resolve soon. Interfax quoted a source in "Russian power structures" as confirming that around 150 foreign TNK-BP employees were having problems extending their work visas because, among other things, some of them entered the country on business visas rather than work visas. The Interfax source said the employees' problems are strictly connected to Russian migration law and have nothing to do with politics or any "spy story" -- an apparent reference to Ilya Zaslavsky, a TNK-BP employee who, along with his brother Alexander, who heads the British Council's Alumni Club, has been charged by the Federal Security Service (FSB) with industrial espionage. Both have Russian and U.S. citizenship. The Moscow offices of TNK-BP and BP were searched on March 19 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2008). On March 21, the State Duma approved in a second of three required readings a measure restricting foreign investment in key sectors such as oil and gas, aerospace and mass media, AP reported. The legislation requires any private foreign company wanting to buy more than 50 percent of a company in any of 42 "strategic" sectors to obtain permission from a commission made up of Russian and security officials. JB

Russia's Interior Ministry said on March 25 that it is investigating "large-scale tax evasion" to the tune of $40 million involving Sidanco, an oil unit that TNK-BP liquidated in 2005 after merging it with other assets during a consolidation, Reuters reported. Following last week's raid on TNK-BP's offices in Moscow, a spokeswoman for the Interior Ministry's Investigative Committee, said the raid was carried out by Interior Ministry investigators on the basis of a criminal case brought related to Sidanco. reported that the case involving Sidanco was brought in April 1999 and involved charges of "premeditated bankruptcy." However, several media outlets reported that the raid on TNK-BP and a subsequent raid on BP's offices in the Russian capital were conducted by FSB personnel (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2008). Following the raids, the FSB announced it has charged a TNK-BP employee and his brother with industrial espionage. According to Reuters, the Interior Ministry said the tax-evasion case involving Sidanco was opened in mid-2007. The news agency noted that TNK-BP's other unit, Slavneft, which is co-owned by state gas firm Gazprom, is facing a separate tax-evasion probe. JB

Oleg Kochkin, the chairman of the Penza Oblast branch of Yabloko who is also chief editor of the opposition newspaper "Lyubimaya gazeta," has been arrested on suspicion of extortion for allegedly threatening to publish compromising material about a Penza resident and his relatives if the resident refused to pay Kochkin several million rubles, reported on March 25. According to the website, Kochkin could face seven to 15 years in prison if convicted of extortion. Yabloko denounced the case against Kochkin as politically motivated, comparing it to the case against St. Petersburg Yabloko leader Maksim Reznik, who was arrested on March 2 for allegedly insulting and assaulting police officers. A St. Petersburg court ordered Reznik's release on March 21, throwing out an earlier district court ruling ordering that he remain in jail for two months pending trial, "The Moscow Times" reported on March 24. Meanwhile, reported that nearly all of the copies of Kochkin's newspaper "Lyubimaya gazeta" published on March 19 were withdrawn from sale because they included a supplement that contained negative assessments of Penza Oblast Governor Vasily Bochkarev's record over the past decade. On March 24, the offices of "Lyubimaya gazeta" in Penza and the city of Kuznetsk were searched, with a computer server seized from the latter, reported. JB

Investigative Committee Chairman Aleksandr Bastrykin has come out against the idea of creating a single investigative committee analogous to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, reported on March 25. On March 18, "RBK Daily" reported that the idea of creating a Federal Investigation Service, an FBI-like body that would unite all of Russia's investigative bodies under one roof, had been agreed to in principle "at the highest level" and that the new body could come into being as early as this autumn. "RBK Daily" reported that either Bastrykin or another former classmate of President Vladimir Putin, Aleksei Anichin, head of the Interior Ministry's Investigative Committee, would be put in charge of the new body. According to the paper, either candidate would guarantee that the Kremlin would maintain maximal influence over the country's investigative organs. However, Bastrykin said during a March 25 press conference that he did not find the idea of a unified investigative committee "constructive," adding, "Bigger is not always more effective or better." Such a body would complicate the work of investigators and be difficult to manage, he said. "It's one thing to head a department in which there are 16,500 investigators, and another thing -- [one with] 120,000 people," quoted him as saying. In addition, Bastrykin said creating a "separate organ torn out" of the operational services of the Interior Ministry, Federal Antinarcotics Service, and FSB "is also wrong." The head of the Federal Antinarcotics Service's interagency and information activities department, Aleksandr Mikhailov, also rejected the idea of creating a single investigative committee, calling it "counterproductive," reported. JB

Sergei Kiriyenko, who heads the state nuclear energy agency Rosatom, and Egypt's Energy Minister Hassan Younis signed an agreement in Moscow on March 25, under which Russia will compete in a tender for Egypt's first civilian nuclear power station, Russian and international media reported. The tender is estimated at $1.5 billion-$2 billion. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Russian President Putin, and President-elect Dmitry Medvedev oversaw the signing. Egypt wants to build up to four nuclear power stations, and the international tender to build the first of them may come as early as later in 2008. The daily "Gazeta" noted on March 26 that "signing this agreement was the Egyptian delegation's main purpose in visiting Russia." After talks with Mubarak at the presidential residence at Novo-Ogaryovo, Putin said that Russian officials are consulting with the United States and Middle Eastern countries about holding an international conference on the Middle East in Moscow at an unspecified date (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17 and March 20, 2008). He stressed that "if this conference takes place, we want it to be a Moscow conference by definition. A meeting such as this should be an event in its own right." Putin added that "the main thing in our opinion is that the parties concerned stop the violence.... We urge both sides to look to the future and take this as their basis, rather than day-to-day preoccupations." Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently visited the Middle East to enlist support for the conference, which Russia sees as an affirmation of its role as a major player in regional and world affairs. Mubarak said that he looks forward to a Moscow conference in order to end the current "impasse" in the Middle East. According to "The Moscow Times" on March 26, he also said that "he found it difficult to distinguish...Putin from...Medvedev, eliciting a frown from Putin and chuckles from reporters." The daily described the remark as a "political faux pas, [which] cast a brief shadow over Mubarak's two-day visit." The daily noted that possible Russian arms deliveries to Egypt were also discussed, but added that it is not clear if there was any agreement. The United States has long been Egypt's main arms supplier. PM

The Norwegian shipbuilder Aker Yards ASA announced in Oslo and Rostock on March 25 that it has sold 70 percent of two German and one Ukrainian shipyards to the Russian investment group FLC West for $450 million, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" reported on March 26. The Baltic yards are located at Wismar and in the Rostock suburb of Warnemuende, while the Black Sea facility is at Mykolayiv. The yards will build specialized ships, especially for Russian oil and gas drilling and transport companies. The deal is expected to be finalized later in 2008. FLC West is based in Luxembourg, with the Russian state holding a 50 percent share, AP reported. The other 50 percent is held by a Cyprus-based group of private shareholders. PM

Citing unnamed "sources close to the investigation," Interfax and RIA Novosti reported on March 26 that a Russian Air Force Su-25 combat jet was accidentally shot down on March 20 near Vladivostok by a missile fired from another plane, killing the pilot of the first plane. The Defense Ministry has not confirmed the report but said that an investigation is under way. On March 26, Russian news agencies reported that "NATO jets in the region of Alaska escorted" two Tu-95 (Bear) long-range bombers within neutral airspace. In August 2007, President Putin announced the resumption of long-range strategic bomber flights (see "RFE/RL Newsline," August 23, 2007). In public statements, U.S. and NATO officials play down the significance of the Russian flights and the dispatch of NATO aircraft to "escort" the Russian planes (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 13, 2008). PM

President Putin signed a decree on March 26 replacing Colonel General Aleksandr Chekalin as first deputy interior minister with Lieutenant General Mikhail Sukhodolsky, reported. Sukhodolsky has been a deputy minister since 2005. Interfax reported that Chekalin has reached the unspecified mandatory retirement age for his post, which he held since 2004, and was transferred to another, unspecified job. PM

Armenian Prime Minister and President-elect Serzh Sarkisian traveled to Moscow on March 24 for separate talks with Russian President Putin and President-elect Medvedev, Armenian media reported. Sarkisian thanked Putin for his support both in the run-up to the February 19 presidential ballot and during the ensuing protests and violence, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He said he is determined "to do everything to establish stability..., consolidate society, and create an atmosphere of tolerance." He also assured Putin of his commitment to deepen and expand Armenia's already intensive economic and military cooperation with Russia. The pro-government daily "Hayots ashkhar" predicted on March 25 that Moscow's unequivocal expression of support for Sarkisian "is creating a firm basis on which Armenia can rely on and feel more confident in coping with possible international pressure" resulting from the police violence against opposition protesters in Yerevan on March 1-2. LF

A special investigator from the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office traveled late last week to Ufa where he met with Ural Rakhimov, who is director general of Bashneft and the son of Murtaza Rakhimov, Bashkortostan's president since December 1993, "Kommersant" reported on March 26. The investigator's questions to Rakhimov were apparently related to the case of Igor Izmestev, the former Bashkortostan senator apprehended by the FSB in Kyrgzystan in January 2007, and who is charged with organizing several murders and terrorist acts, including the killing of Rakhimov's financial adviser, Valery Speransky (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 18, 2007). LF

The bodies of two men and a woman killed by security forces on February 28 in Altiyevo on the northeastern outskirts of Nazran have reportedly been handed back to their families for burial with the internal organs missing, according to on March 25, quoting the Chechen Committee for National Salvation. The woman, Madina Ausheva, was reportedly pregnant. Security officials claimed that that the three were members of an illegal armed formation and opened fire on security forces who sought to detain them (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 29, 2008). Residents of neighboring houses denied the three resorted to firearms and expressed doubt that they had any links to the armed resistance. Under the controversial Russian law on terrorism, the bodies of "terrorists" are interred in unmarked graves, the location of which is not divulged to their families. Ausheva's brother Ruslan was similarly killed in June 2007 by security forces who claimed, without proof, that he headed an illegal armed formation (see "RFE/RL Newsline," June 18, 2007). LF

Opposition Hanrapetutiun party leader Aram Sargsian, who served as Armenian prime minister from November 1999-May 2000, was summoned on March 25 to the Prosecutor-General's Office and formally charged with organizing mass unrest and seeking to seize power, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. He was not taken into custody, but signed an undertaking not to leave Armenia. He told RFE/RL that he refused to testify. Sargsian backed the presidential bid of former President Levon Ter-Petrossian and played a key role in organizing the protests by Ter-Petrossian's supporters against the perceived falsification of the results of the February 19 presidential ballot. The official results proclaimed Prime Minister Serzh Sarkisian the winner with 52.8 percent of the vote, followed by Ter-Petrossian with 21.51 percent. Also on March 25, police arrested Arshak Banuchian, a deputy director of the Matenadaran institute of ancient manuscripts and likewise a committed Ter-Petrossian supporter, after searching his Yerevan apartment the previous evening, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. On March 24 and 25, residents of a village near the town of Hrazdan in central Armenia staged protest to demand the release from custody of local parliamentarian Sasun Mikaelian, a third prominent Ter-Petrossian supporter arrested in the wake of the March 1-2 violent clashes in Yerevan between police and Ter-Petrossian supporters, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Opposition journalists who sought to cover that protest were harassed by police who desisted only after the journalists telephoned the Yerevan office of human rights ombudsman Armen Harutiunian, whose staff came to their assistance. LF

The Giumri-based independent GALA television channel has succeeded over the past week in raising almost 27 million drams ($87,700) to pay a fine imposed on it on March 19 for alleged tax evasion, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Up to 10,000 residents of Giumri and the surrounding Shirak region donated money to enable the channel to avoid closure. One donor gave 5,000 drams, one-fifth of his monthly pension, while a second told RFE/RL: "GALA is the only Armenian TV station that had the courage to be independent of the government. I want my kids to grow up in a free country and to be able to freely express their views." GALA fell foul of the authorities last fall after it ignored instructions not to air footage of Ter-Petrossian's September 21 indictment of the Armenian leadership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 23, November 1 and 13, and December 5 and 20, 2007). LF

In line with an agreement reached during talks in Moscow in mid-February, flights between Moscow and Tbilisi resumed on March 25 after an 18-month break, Georgian and Russian media reported. Flights were suspended in the fall of 2006 when bilateral relations sharply deteriorated following the arrest in Tbilisi for espionage of four Russian Embassy employees (see "RFE/RL Newsline," October 2 and 3, 2006). "Kommersant" on March 26 quoted unnamed Russian Foreign Ministry officials as saying that Russia is currently considering lifting all visa requirements for Georgian citizens and resuming postal communications between the two countries. LF

In response to a personal appeal, the second in six days, by Georgian Patriarch Ilia II, representatives of the eight-party opposition National Council announced on March 25 the end of the hunger strike launched 17 days earlier, reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 10, 11, 17, and 25, 2008). At the same time, People's Party leader Koba Davitashvili told several thousand opposition supporters gathered outside the parliament building in Tbilisi that "we shall continue our struggle." He termed the rejection several hours earlier of the opposition's demands by President Mikheil Saakashvili "a declaration of war," and warned that if the authorities seek to rig the outcome of the parliamentary ballot scheduled for May 21 in the same way that he claimed they falsified the outcome of the January 5 preterm presidential ballot, "the opposition will call for a new revolution. If Saakashvili wants a new revolution he will have it, but it won't be a velvet revolution," Davitashvili added. Speaking earlier on March 25 in the eastern region of Kakheti, Saakashvili complained that although he has offered "many things to various political parties in order to satisfy everybody and to hold elections in a normal atmosphere," the radical opposition remains intent on "thwarting the elections," reported. Saakashvili affirmed that the May 21 ballot will be "very clear and transparent." Also on March 25, parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze, whose resignation some opposition parties were demanding, argued that the opposition should return to the negotiating table to try to "reach agreement on all those issues that will help us to hold democratic elections, which in turn would help us to make one more step toward NATO and toward the reunification of the country," reported. LF

According to a press release issued in Astana, a joint Kazakh-Russian operation on March 25 targeted an arms-trafficking network, according to Interfax-Kazakhstan. The operation involved units from the West Kazakhstan Oblast branch of the Interior Ministry, the Kazakh National Security Committee, and the Russian Saratov Oblast branch of the Interior Ministry and "liquidated an underground workshop and international channel for the illicit production, smuggling, and trade of military weapons in Uralsk," the administrative capital of West Kazakhstan Oblast. The release added that the operation also resulted in the arrests of an unspecified number of suspects in both Uralsk and Saratov. In a separate operation the same day, Kazakh police launched a sweep aimed at rounding up illegal labor migrants, arresting 135 laborers without legal work permits, 60 of whom were Uzbek citizens, 40 were from Kyrgyzstan, and another 35 were from Turkey. Kazakh police have conducted regular sweeps of major urban centers aimed at stemming the influx of illegal laborers, resulting in the deportation of 476 foreign workers since the beginning of the year. Meanwhile, Kazakh border guards in the South Kazakhstan Oblast on March 24 seized a shipment of nearly 3 tons of nonferrous and 8 tons of ferrous metal being smuggled from Uzbekistan into Kazakhstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Border guards also told reporters that the operation resulted in the arrest of two Kazakh citizens in the Maktaaral district of South Kazakhstan Oblast. RG

At a press conference in Bishkek, Kyrgyz Defense Minister Ismail Isakov reported on March 25 on the course of defense reform, asserting that the Defense Ministry has fulfilled all reform goals initially set in 2005, AKIpress reported. Providing a detailed list of the most significant accomplishments over the past three years of defense reform, Isakov pointed to demonstrable progress in the "moral and patriotic feeling" of soldiers and noted that the army adopted a 12-month term of active military service and shortened the term of alternative service to two years. He added that the armed forces are continuing the transition from the Russian language to using the Kyrgyz language, and that a new air-defense force has been established, and is currently deployed in the Osh, Batken, and Jalal-Abad regions. Advanced training programs have also been introduced, with an emphasis on mountain-warfare exercises and combat reconnaissance. Responding to a journalist's question about conscription, Isakov replied that with 190,000 conscripts, there is "no shortage" facing Kyrgyzstan, Kabar reported. According to Isakov, there are roughly 60,000 Kyrgyz citizens currently serving as active-duty military personnel and another 17,000 in two-year alternative service. Commenting on the next stage of military reform, he said that the country will establish a contract-based semi-professional army by 2025 and, pending parliamentary approval of new draft legislation, will also adopt a new military doctrine. Isakov also suggested that a new proposal is now under consideration that would impose an undetermined tax on citizens who do not serve in the army and are not eligible for alternative service. RG

At a press conference in Bishkek, opposition Ar-Namys (Dignity) party leader Feliks Kulov warned on March 25 that "there is a critical situation in the country," adding that there is an urgent need to find a "way out" of the economic crisis, AKIpress reported. Kulov, a former prime minister, accused government officials of failing to attribute adequate importance to what he asserted is a "deep economic crisis" and accused the leadership of not addressing serious environmental and energy concerns. Kulov further warned the government against "turning a blind eye" to developments in the south of the country, where he claimed they risk "losing control of the situation" in light of the systematic encroachment and assimilation of Kyrgyz territory, Interfax reported. He advocated relocating to the south such government agencies as the Emergency Situations and Economic Development and Trade ministries, the Border Protection Service, and the Agency for Religious Affairs. Kulov said that his party does not support other opposition parties' demands for an early presidential election, adding that "there are no legal grounds for President Kurmanbek Bakiev to resign," according to the website. But he did support calls to reduce the president's excessive "personal power." RG/LF

At the conclusion of a two-day summit in Dushanbe, the foreign ministers of Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and Iran signed on March 25 a joint 12-point communique pledging tripartite cooperation in the energy and transport sectors and vowing to expand economic cooperation, Avesta reported. The three hailed the meeting as an important step toward "economic integration" and greater regional cooperation, adding that they also agreed to establish a new Dushanbe-based Persian-language television channel to broadcast in each country. Addressing reporters following the signing, Tajik Foreign Minister Hamrokhon Zarifi added that they confirmed their readiness "to intensify economic and humanitarian cooperation," but stressed that the trilateral summit was not directed against any third party, according to ITAR-TASS. The trilateral summit was intended to bolster new efforts at "trilateral cooperation" and establishing a Tajik-Iranian-Afghan "economic council" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). Iran is actively engaged in developing several hydroelectric power plants in Tajikistan and is also working to complete construction of a planned Tajikistan-Afghanistan-Iran highway. A related project envisions the construction of a new railway link connecting Iran, Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and China, aimed at boosting trade, increasing exports, and easing transit costs in the region, as well as expanding passenger traffic. RG

Around 3,000 people took part in a March 25 rally in Minsk marking the 90th anniversary of the proclamation of Belarusian People's Republic, which pro-democratic Belarusians regard as a key event in the formation of Belarusian statehood in the 20th century, Belapan reported. The Minsk city authorities permitted demonstrators to march from the National Academy of Sciences to Bangalore Square on the outskirts of the city, but the organizers rejected that route, calling on the public to gather at Yakub Kolas Square in the downtown. The square was sealed off by riot police, who forced people to move toward the Academy of Sciences. Several hundred people attempted to march in the opposite direction, but the police blocked the way. Those who managed to push their way through the police cordons were dispersed from the main avenue to quieter streets, where some were beaten and detained. The rally took place in front of the Academy of Sciences, where Belarusian Popular Front leaders Lyavon Barshcheuski and Vintsuk Vyachorka delivered speeches. Vyachorka accused the Russian government of using its energy resources as a tool to incorporate Belarus. The gathering decided to disperse rather than to march to the square on the outskirts of the city. According to Ales Byalyatski, head of the Vyasna Human Rights Center, around 100 people were detained during the demonstration. AM

Belarusian Foreign Ministry spokesman Andrey Papou said on March 25 that if the United States really wants "a different relationship" with Belarus, it should lift its sanctions, Belapan reported. Papou was responding to a U.S. State Department statement that the United States wants "a different relationship with Belarus, but that can only happen when the government of Belarus shows commitment to respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms." Papou said that the State Department "misleads the international and American public, attempting to put the blame for the current situation in Belarusian-American relations on the Belarusian side." "Such attempts may be viewed as a manifestation of the moral and political weakness of the U.S. stance toward Belarus," Papou said. He said that it is Washington that should take the blame for the deterioration of the bilateral relationship and that the United States is seeking to "cause the Belarusian people and state as much damage as possible for the sake of subjecting our country to American interests." Minsk on March 7 recalled its ambassador to the United States, Mikhail Khvastou, for consultations as a response to the economic sanctions imposed in November 2007 by the U.S. Treasury Department against Belarus's largest petrochemical company, Belnaftakhim (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 18, 19, and 25, 2008). Minsk also insisted U.S. Ambassador Karen Stewart temporarily leave Belarus for the same reason, which she did on March 12. Belarusian television has also accused the U.S. Embassy of organizing a spy ring. The Belarusian Committee for State Security (KGB) detained U.S. lawyer Emanuel Zeltser in Minsk on March 12, but has yet to give any explanation for his arrest and continued detention. AM

The Belarusian KGB has confirmed a report aired on March 23 by Belarusian television that a U.S. spy ring was smashed in Belarus, Belapan reported on March 25. "Everything that was broadcast by First National Channel is true," KGB spokesman Valery Nadtachayeu told Belapan. The same day, KGB chief Yury Zhadobin said that no one was arrested in connection with the spy ring. "We are doing prevention work now. We are probing to what extent this or that article of law, this or that provision was violated," he said. "The fact that they are trying to dictate their rules to us on our own unacceptable," he added. According to the report, the U.S. diplomatic mission in Minsk organized a ring involving some 10 Belarusian citizens who passed to the United States information "for the use to the detriment of Belarus." The information was passed to "an FBI officer who worked at the U.S. Embassy," the report said. It also said that almost all members of the group were arrested on March 13 at a "secret address half a kilometer from the U.S. diplomatic mission." The report named U.S. Embassy officers Bernard Nixon and Curt Finley as being involved in the spy ring. Jonathan Moore, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, denied the report. "We have no spies operating in Belarus," Moore said. Moore also said that Nixon and Finley are part of the embassy's security service and had contacts with the Belarusian police as part of their duties. Moore added that Nixon left Belarus in July 2007 and Finley is expected to leave the country this week. AM

President Viktor Yushchenko said on March 25 that he has ordered the government to hold talks with Russian gas monopoly Gazprom by March 31 on the conclusion of long-term contracts regarding gas supplies to Ukraine and gas transit across Ukrainian territory, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. Yushchenko also said that Ukraine owes $2 billion to Gazprom for gas that has been delivered since January 1, and that the government has failed to clarify how it intends to repay this debt. Ukrainian gas operator Naftohaz Ukrayiny and Gazprom earlier this month signed an agreement on direct gas supplies starting from March 1. According to the agreement, Gazprom will supply Naftohaz by December 31 with at least 49.8 billion cubic meters of gas at $179.50 per 1,000 cubic meters. AM

Rescuers searching for 18 missing Ukrainian seamen who were on board a tugboat that sank near Hong Kong found late on March 25 the bodies of two of them, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The Ukrainian tugboat "Natohaz-97" sank on March 22 after colliding with a Chinese ship (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). The rescuers have not been able to get inside the tugboat, which is in water 35 meters deep, and are awaiting the arrival of a crane that will be able to lift the ship to the surface. AM

Kosova's Prime Minister Hashim Thaci said in Prishtina on March 25 that Belgrade's recent proposal, made to the UN, to partition Kosova along ethnic lines is unacceptable, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19 and 25, 2008). He stressed that "Kosova is an independent, sovereign, and democratic country. Belgrade has to understand this." President Fatmir Sejdiu said that Kosova is an "integral territory" and that others have no right to make "senseless" plans to divide it. On March 26, the Belgrade daily "Politika" suggested that the Serbian plan is based on the principle of ethnically based, rather than territorially based, partition. Kosova's Serbs live widely scattered throughout the territory. In northern Mitrovica on March 25, about 3,000 Serbs called on the Serbian Army and police to "enforce" the partition, AP reported. Local Serbian political leader Milan Ivanovic urged Belgrade to appeal to Russia to send troops to "protect" Kosova's Serbs. It is not clear against what he wants protection for the Serbian minority, which enjoys wide-ranging rights under the plan drawn up by UN envoy Martti Ahtisaari, on which Kosova's constitution is based (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2008). Reuters on March 25 quoted Kosovar Serb political leader Oliver Ivanovic as accusing Serbian Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica's Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS) of "playing politics" with the fate of Kosova's widely scattered Serbs by proposing partition. Ivanovic argued that "in the north it's easy to play the big Serb and score cheap points, but it will cost the Serbs of central Kosovo dearly. The feeling of being abandoned would be intolerable for them, and would inevitably increase the migration of Serbs from Kosovo." PM

Serbian Prime Minister Kostunica said in Belgrade on March 24 that Serbs should be prepared to wait "many, many years" for EU membership until the EU recognizes Kosova as part of Serbia, news agencies reported. He added that Norway and Switzerland "cooperate" with the EU but are not members of it. Reuters noted on March 25 that "Norway and Switzerland rank in the world's top 10 richest countries by GDP per capita. Serbia ranks 104th, and Serbs are impatient for the prosperity that EU membership would promote." German regional expert Stefan Wolff told Deutsche Welle on March 25 that "the sooner Serbs realize that Kosovo was lost some 20 years ago when its autonomy was revoked and [President Slobodan] Milosevic and his allies brutally asserted their control, the sooner they can move on with building a viable, democratic, European state." Kostunica's poll ratings in the run-up to the May 11 general elections stand at around 10 percent (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," February 13 and March 11, 2008). PM

Fierce clashes between radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, and government forces in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah have sparked concern that the situation could quickly spiral out of control.

The fighting initially broke out after the Iraqi government launched a major military operation, Sawlat al-Fursan (Attack of the Knights), in the city in an attempt to restore order. Al-Basrah has been mired in violence and thuggery for months -- since the pullout of British forces -- as rival militias and criminal gangs vie for control of the port city. While the major actors in the Al-Basrah power play are the Al-Fadilah Party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, (ISCI) and the Sadrists, reports suggest that the operation was focused primarily on the Sadrists.

Al-Sadr has responded with a call for nationwide acts of civil disobedience, and senior leaders within his group have issued veiled threats that continued targeting of Sadrists will lead to a "civil revolt." The violence in Al-Basrah has also spread northward to the towns of Al-Kut and Al-Hillah, well as to the Baghdad slum of Al-Sadr City.

The fighting in Al-Basrah and beyond might indicate an unraveling of the cease-fire called by al-Sadr in August that is credited with reducing the overall level of violence. If that is the case, then Iraq could be headed toward another bloody cycle of violence.

The operation in Al-Basrah looks like a bold display of force by the Iraqi government. It could signal the government's increasing assertiveness as it takes over greater security responsibilities from the British, who handed much of the governorate over last year. The operation was planned and carried out entirely by the Iraqi military -- aside from some air cover by multinational forces -- and it could provide a crucial test of the government's ability to stand on its own.

Success could hand Prime Minister al-Maliki and his beleaguered government a major political victory. Critics have maligned al-Maliki as a weak and ineffectual leader, and a decisive victory in Al-Basrah could strengthen his position in the eyes of Iraqis and the broader Arab world.

But the Al-Basrah campaign is also a calculated risk that could prove disastrous for the prime minister if it goes awry, particularly as al-Maliki is personally overseeing it. The perception could arise that he drastically overestimated the ability of his forces; if the operation becomes protracted and casualties mount, it could result in a severe public backlash.

Moreover, anything short of a relatively quick and decisive victory could indicate that Iraqi forces are still unprepared to assume responsibility for national security. Such a scenario has repercussions for the presence of British troops, who have been training Iraqi forces in Al-Basrah. With the handover of much of Al-Basrah to the Iraqi authorities, there has been considerable pressure in Britain to withdraw the remaining 4,100 British troops in the region. But the reduction of British troop numbers in Iraq is predicated on the assumption that Iraqi forces will be able to take over security operations in the region.

There appear to be several factors behind the timing of the al-Maliki government's launch of these Al-Basrah operations. First, Al-Basrah is vitally important to Iraq's economy and to its overall stability, and any significant volatility in that southern city would be keenly felt throughout the rest of country. The city is Iraq's only major port and oil hub, and insecurity there would endanger the export of Iraq's main commodity: oil. Al-Basrah is the departure point for nearly 90 percent of Iraq's oil exports to world markets.

Second, the security situation in Al-Basrah has deteriorated to the point where the Iraqi government had little choice but to act to restore order. Reports suggested that armed groups had taken over hospitals and universities in an effort to impose their brand of religion or political agendas.

Al-Basrah's female residents also came under increasing pressure, including threats and harassment for wearing what their accusers considered inappropriate attire. In a March 20 report in "Al-Azzam," residents were gripped by fear after the discovery around the city of several women's mutilated bodies. Police officials claimed they arrested an armed gang that eventually admitted to killing nine women, but local officials suggest that other similar gangs operate relatively unhindered in the city.

Finally, the deteriorating situation in the city might have created an ideal pretext for the preeminent Shi'ite party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), to remove or weaken its main political rival, the Sadrists. The ISCI has kept a wary eye on the growing influence of al-Sadr's political movement in southern Iraq.

The ISCI might also have been spurred to action by the Presidential Council's approval on March 19 of the governorates law, which should pave the way to provincial elections on October 1. There is a widely held belief that the Sadrists are poised for huge gains in the Shi'ite-dominated south in the October ballot. The ISCI, the single-most-powerful political entity in the ruling coalition, could use the chaos in Al-Basrah to press al-Maliki to move against al-Sadr's followers, the Al-Mahdi Army, in a bid to significantly weaken the group before the voting.

While the ISCI's militia (the Badr Organization) has been involved in the power struggle in Al-Basrah, most reports suggest that the main target has been the Al-Mahdi Army. That would lend credence to the argument that there are motives to the military operation beyond the reimposition of law and order in Al-Basrah.

Indeed, such a notion was underscored by Sheikh Ahmed al-Ali, a representative of al-Sadr's movement in Al-Basrah, in an interview with Al-Jazeera satellite television on March 25. Al-Ali alleged that while "this ongoing operation in Al-Basrah appears to be security-related,... in fact, it is a political one."

U.S. military officials have stressed repeatedly that one of the main reasons for the steep drop in violence during the U.S. troop surge is the cease-fire declared by al-Sadr in August. With the massive Iraqi military operation under way in Al-Basrah, that agreement clearly is in serious jeopardy.

The Sadrists accuse the U.S. and Iraqi forces of exploiting the truce to arbitrarily arrest al-Sadr sympathizers. The Al-Basrah operation could push al-Sadr to abandon the cease-fire and call on his militia to return to the streets in self-defense.

The collapse of the cease-fire could have disastrous consequences for Iraqi stability. The relative lull in assassinations, bombings, and kidnappings that accompanied it might end, wiping out some of the gains of the U.S. "surge" in Baghdad and its surrounding areas.

Continued instability in Al-Basrah and in the south might also force the United States to intervene. Already burdened with trying to root out Al-Qaeda in Iraq and stabilize the central regions, U.S. planners can ill afford to shift valuable resources to quell a major conflict in the south.

The Afghan Defense Ministry has dismissed a Taliban threat to expand its operations across the country this spring, and said on March 25 its security forces are now stronger than ever, AFP reported the same day. A ministry statement said the Afghan National Army is in an excellent position compared to a year ago, and it described the Taliban as fragile. Meanwhile, a Taliban representative called the media with a statement allegedly from one of the insurgent movement's most senior members, Mullah Bradar, to announce Operation Ebrat (Lesson). "This will be a new type of operation to expand operations countrywide and surround the enemy wherever they are and encounter them," the statement said. It said the Taliban's "holy jihad" will continue until the international troops leave Afghanistan and President Hamid Karzai's administration collapses. AT

According to a statement issued by the Afghan Defense Ministry on March 25, Afghan forces killed and wounded a number of Taliban militants after fighting off an ambush in southern Afghanistan, Reuters reported the same day. Taliban fighters ambushed an Afghan National Army patrol in the Misan district of Zabul Province on March 24. Defense Ministry spokesman Zahir Murad said, "The operation is still going on and we are assessing information about the precise figure of enemy casualties." AT

Taliban militants have killed an Afghan refugee in a Pakistani tribal area, accusing him of spying for the U.S. forces operating in Afghanistan, AFP reported on March 25. A note left on the body of Abdullah Jan read: "he met his fate because he was spying for the Americans," said an official in Miranshah, the main town in the North Waziristan tribal district. Militants have killed several tribesmen in recent months after accusing them of spying for the U.S.-led coalition forces across the border. The region is a known center of Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants who are accused by U.S. and Afghan governments of using the area to launch attacks into Afghanistan. AT

An Afghan parliamentary committee said on March 25 it wants security barriers blocking roads in the capital, including around a five-star hotel attacked by the Taliban in January, to be removed, AFP reported the same day. The committee said in a statement that after a meeting with the city mayor and police, officials decided that "Kabul municipality should take the necessary steps to remove the barriers and inform related organizations." Kabul traffic is often jammed because of barriers blocking off entire roads and large, concrete antiblast blocks positioned in main thoroughfares. The government in 2006 ordered the concrete barriers to be cleared. International groups objected and the decision was not fully implemented. AT

Vice President Dick Cheney told ABC television in an interview released on March 25 that Iran is "obviously" pursuing uranium-enrichment activities as part of a nuclear weapons-development program, AFP reported. Cheney, who has been on a tour of the Middle East, did not elaborate on his allegations. Iran insists it intends to produce nuclear fuel -- which includes the enrichment of uranium -- for use in civilian power stations. "Obviously they're...heavily involved in trying to develop nuclear weapons enrichment, the enrichment of uranium to weapons-grade levels," Cheney said. Separately, the U.S. Commerce Department sanctioned a British firm on March 21 for exporting three U.S. planes to Iran in breach of sanctions regulations, Reuters reported on March 24. Iran has had three separate UN sanctions resolutions imposed on it intended to force it to curb and clarify its nuclear program. The Commerce Department Bureau of Industry and Security suspended for 180 days the exporting privileges of the Balli Group in Britain, Blue Airways based in Armenia, and Mahan Airways, an Iranian firm. It cited evidence that the parties knowingly violated U.S. export regulations and lied about the destination of three planes sent to Iran. It was not immediately clear how the Armenian and Iranian firms were involved in the deal. Balli has refused to send the planes back to the United States in compliance with a Commerce Department request. U.S. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd (Democrat, Connecticut) welcomed the decision in Washington on March 24 as in line with efforts to block the transfer of sensitive technology to Iran, Reuters reported. VS

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki told reporters in Dushanbe on March 24 that Iran is ready and has asked to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a regional grouping that comprises Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and China, and that Tajikistan supports its bid, IRNA reported. Iran is presently an observer. Speaking after a meeting with Tajik President Emomali Rahmon, Mottaki said they discussed bilateral cooperation on energy, transportation, and communications, as well multilateral regional cooperation. A Russian presidential representative at the SCO, Leonid Moiseyev, told Interfax in Moscow on March 25 that the six SCO members would have to consider lifting a moratorium on the admission of new members before Iran could join, and they need to clarify to what extent Iran's request meets with their interests. He welcomed Iran's application as indicating the grouping's greater attraction for outside states. Mottaki also discussed cooperation between Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan with counterparts from those countries during his two-day trip in Dushanbe, IRNA reported. He said on March 25 before his return to Tehran that a committee consisting of deputy foreign ministers of the three countries will be formed to follow up agreements made in Dushanbe. VS

Some 200 people protested on March 23 and 24 outside the main prison in Sanandaj in western Iran over the continued detention of labor activist Mahmud Salehi, Radio Farda reported on March 25. Salehi, who apparently represents a bakers union, was arrested in April 2007 after local authorities summoned him for questioning (see "RFE/RL Newsline," April 13 and December 20, 2007). He reportedly began a hunger strike over a week ago. The protesters, including his relatives, have demanded his release and expressed concern over his health. One protester, Mahmud Abdipur, told Radio Farda on March 24 or 25 that Salehi has served his prison time and should have been released on March 23. He said the local judiciary refused to see Salehi's family on March 24, when the family went to ask why Salehi has not been released, and has promised to clarify Salehi's case or have him released on March 26. "They told us the head of the Kurdistan [Province] judiciary will clarify Mr. Salehi's case at the end of his holiday. But we are not counting on that promise and will continue...protests until Mahmud Salehi is released," Abdipur told Radio Farda. VS

Iran's police are to start a crackdown on bad driving across the country from March 26 in a bid to reduce traffic accidents (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). The traffic police issued a statement on March 25 informing the public of increased patrols and checks for at least a week, Fars news agency reported. This would include plainclothes inspectors or agents driving around or traveling as passengers in taxis or buses, and noting license plates and reporting violations to the police. Drivers will be sent fines to their home addresses, Fars reported. Separately, the national police commander Ismail Ahmadi-Moqaddam, said in Birjand, eastern Iran, on March 24 that the country is making progress in sealing its entire eastern frontier to prevent the entry of drug traffickers, criminals, and migrants, Fars reported. Ahmadi-Moqaddam said police have seized some 900 tons of drugs in the 12 months to late March 2008, which he said was a relative increase due in part to increased drug production in neighboring Afghanistan. He said he hopes there will be "relative" security on the eastern frontier by the end of the 2005-10 five-year plan, and a "satisfactory" level of security five years later, Fars reported. VS

Intense fighting broke out in the southern port city of Al-Basrah on March 25 between Iraqi forces and rival Shi'ite militias, leaving at least 30 people dead and more than 100 wounded, Iraqi and international media reported. The clashes erupted after the Iraqi government launched a major military operation in the city in a bid to restore order. The operation came a day after Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki visited the city and vowed to impose law and order (see End Note and "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). He is reportedly personally overseeing the operation and stressed to reporters that the situation in the city called for swift action. "Al-Basrah city is experiencing a brutal campaign from internal and external groups targeting its security and stability by killing scientific, social, and spiritual personalities as well as innocent men and women," al-Maliki said. Iraqi forces initially entered the Al-Tamiyah neighborhood, a stronghold of radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army. Numerous reports suggested that the focus of the operation is elements of al-Sadr's militia, but during an interview with Al-Arabiyah satellite television, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh denied this. "These operations are not targeting the Al-Sadr party. There is a campaign to disarm unauthorized weapons and there are no exceptions at this point," he said. SS

Muqtada al-Sadr called on March 25 for a nationwide campaign of civil disobedience to protest the targeting of Al-Mahdi Army fighters in Al-Basrah and throughout Iraq, "Al-Hayat" reported. A spokesman for al-Sadr's movement in Al-Diwaniyah, Sheikh Abu Zeinab al-Qarawi, said the group from March 25 "called for a campaign of civil disobedience in all Iraqi cities because of the government's continuing campaign of detention and elimination of Al-Sadr Trend members." A spokesman for al-Sadr's group said the cleric has called on all followers not to confront Iraqi soldiers, but instead to hand out copies of the Koran and olive branches. However, a senior al-Sadr aide read a statement that warned of a "civil revolt" if attacks by U.S. and Iraqi forces continued. The militia has kept a relatively low profile since al-Sadr called for a six-month cease-fire last year. U.S. military commanders credit the cease-fire with a sharp decline in violence. Sheikh Ahmad al-Ali, a representative of al-Sadr's movement in Al-Basrah, told Al-Jazeera satellite television that the Al-Basrah operation is politically motivated. "This ongoing operation in Al-Basrah appears to be security-related, while, in fact, it is a political one," he said. In the Baghdad Shi'ite slum of Al-Sadr City, Al-Mahdi Army fighters ordered Iraqi policemen out of the district, and forced shops and schools to close. Hundreds of followers marched in several districts demanding the release of detained militia members. SS

As Iraqi forces battled Shi'ite militias in the southern city of Al-Basrah, violence and unrest have spread to other regions of Iraq, Iraqi and international media reported. "The New York Times" reported serious clashes between Iraqi forces and Shi'ite militias in Al-Kut and Al-Hillah. Al-Sharqiyah television reported that the offices belonging to the Badr Organization, the armed wing of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), and the Al-Da'wah Party located in eastern Baghdad were set on fire. The ISCI is widely considered the chief rival of al-Sadr's movement. Al-Sharqiyah also quoted a senior Iraqi military official as saying that al-Sadr followers have seized several military vehicles in Al-Sadr City. "Voices of Iraq" reported that U.S. forces have surrounded Al-Sadr City and a curfew has been imposed. SS

Baghdad's Green Zone came under rocket fire on March 25, international media reported. An Iraqi security official said that at least four Katyusha rockets hit the heavily fortified area. U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo confirmed the attack and said there were "no deaths or major injuries." No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but U.S. military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Steven Stover said the rockets were fired from Al-Sadr City. It was unclear if the attack was related to the violence in Al-Basrah and Baghdad. It was the second attack on the Green Zone in three days. On March 23, the area was subjected to an intense barrage of rocket and mortar fire (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 25, 2008). That attack reportedly killed some 15 people when several rockets fell short of their intended target and landed outside the Green Zone. SS

Leading members of Iraq's awakening councils, coalitions of mostly Sunni tribesmen formed to fight Al-Qaeda in Iraq, have threatened to go on strike because they have not been paid regularly, "The Guardian" reported on March 24. The British daily said approximately 80,000 fighters will strike unless their salaries of $10 per day resume. Abu Abd al-Aziz, the head of the council in Abu Ghurayb, said nearly 500 of his fighters have quit and he accused U.S. forces of using the awakening councils and then abandoning them. "The Americans got what they wanted. We purged Al-Qaeda for them and now people are saying why should we have any more deaths for the Americans. They have given us nothing," al-Aziz said. Most awakening-council fighters rely on salaries provided by the U.S. military because the Iraqi government has provided jobs for only a few of them. SS

The Iraqi Oil Ministry said that it is exporting approximately 400,000 barrels per day (bpd) through its pipeline into neighboring Turkey, the highest volume since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, "Al-Azzam" reported on March 25. Before the invasion, Iraq pumped more than 800,000 bpd through the Ceyhan terminal. The ministry said that the increased volume has been sustained for about a week and is mainly due to the substantial drop in attacks on oil pipelines and acts of sabotage. "We are hoping to increase the production to 500,000 bpd," Oil Ministry spokesman Assam Jihad told UPI. SS