Accessibility links

Breaking News

Newsline - April 1, 2008

Russian Ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said on March 31 in his last statement as rotating chairman of the Security Council that a Middle East conference in Moscow this summer would "energize" efforts to achieve a peace settlement by the end of the year between Israel and the Palestinians, news agencies reported. President Vladimir Putin said recently that Russian officials are consulting with the United States and Middle Eastern countries about holding a conference on the Middle East in Moscow at an unspecified date (see "RFE/RL Newsline," January 17 and March 20 and 26, 2008). Also on March 31 at the UN, the Palestinian observer at that body, Riyad Mansour, said that a Moscow meeting is "extremely necessary and urgent" for reviving the peace process. He noted that recent discussion has focused on scheduling the conference for June. Israeli UN Ambassador Dan Gillerman made no mention of the proposed Moscow gathering in his public remarks. Israel is reportedly unenthusiastic about the proposal, which it sees as an attempt to divert attention from the Israeli-Palestinian dispute by bringing in issues involving Syria and Lebanon as well. Churkin also said on March 31 that Iran should drop its opposition to working with the United States, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany to ensure that its nuclear program is peaceful. He noted that Iran's recent "statements of a negative nature towards the negotiations are certainly not helpful and not constructive." He expressed the hope that Tehran will modify its position. In Moscow, Russian news agencies reported on March 31 that Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas will visit Moscow on April 18 to discuss preparations for the proposed conference. PM

In the run-up to the April 2-4 Bucharest NATO summit, at which Ukraine's future relationship with the alliance is expected to be one of many subjects under discussion, reported on April 1 that State Duma deputies are preparing four policy options for the Kremlin on the future of Russia's agreement on friendship, cooperation, and partnership with Ukraine, which expires on April 1, 2009. One of the options is for Russia to withdraw from the pact in the event that Ukraine accepts a NATO Membership Action Plan, which is the final stage on the road to full membership (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008). In a lengthy article in "Izvestia" on April, 1 Moscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov also raised the possibility of Russia's withdrawal from the treaty and of reopening territorial questions in southern Ukraine. PM

Gazprom announced on March 31 that the projected cost of the controversial Nord Stream pipeline has risen to 7.4 billion euros ($11.5 billion), which is nearly double the 2005 estimate of 4 billion euros, Interfax reported. Since 2005, the projected cost has periodically been revised upward. Construction has not yet begun on the pipeline, which will transport Russian gas to Germany via the floor of the Baltic Sea. Poland, Sweden, Finland, and the Baltic states all object to the project on political or environmental grounds or both. Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk recently called it the most expensive pipeline in history (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 7, 2008, and End Note, "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17, 2008). PM

State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov said on April 1 that the State Duma may examine and approve the candidacy of the next prime minister immediately after it is submitted to the lower parliamentary house, Prime-TASS reported. Gryzlov, who is also leader of the Unified Russia party, which holds an absolute majority in Duma, said it is no secret that Dmitry Medvedev's inauguration as president is set to take place on May 7 and that Medvedev will nominate Vladimir Putin as prime minister. Unified Russia will support that candidacy, Gryzlov said, adding that if it is submitted to the Duma for approval on the day of Medvedev's inauguration, then the Duma can take it up the following day, May 8. Prime-TASS noted that this will require a special session of the State Duma because its members will be visiting their respective districts that week. "Vedomosti" on April 1 quoted an unnamed source in Unified Russia as saying that the idea of confirming Medvedev's candidate for prime minister on May 8 emanated from the presidential administration, which is seeking a quick confirmation because a "suitcase mentality" has taken over within the government in expectation of the impending change of administrations and no one wants to work. Under Russia's constitution, a newly elected president must submit his candidate for prime minister to the Duma within two weeks of being inaugurated and the Duma has a week to consider the nomination. JB

The Russian military spring call-up campaign begins on April 1, and this year conscripts will face just one year of compulsory service. The term of compulsory service, which had been two years going back to the Soviet period, was reduced to 18 months last year as a transitional step. Colonel General Vasily Smirnov, who is deputy chief of the General Staff and the official responsible for military mobilization, said last week that the one-year term will make military service more attractive, "The Moscow Times" reported on April 1. "We hope this term will encourage citizens to be more conscientious about going to recruitment stations and preparing for service," Interfax quoted Smirnov as saying. According to "The Moscow Times," officials say the reduced term of service will help fix the problem of dedovshchina, the hazing of new recruits by older soldiers. However, the paper quoted Valentina Melnikova, head of the Union of Soldiers' Mothers Committees, as saying that the one-year term will do nothing to improve safety. "It is not always soldiers who beat each other," Melnikova said. "Half the time it is officers and sergeants." According to "The Moscow Times," others have warned that this spring's recruits may face an additional risk of hazing from resentful older soldiers who were drafted before the change took effect. Meanwhile, deferments from military service will no longer be given to fathers of children younger than 3, to husbands of women in the last trimester of pregnancy or to sons of pensioners and disabled people, unless they can submit proof that their parents need constant care. Melnikova called the cancellation of these deferments "simply criminal." Doctors and teachers working in rural areas, men employed in the defense industry, and students at vocational schools above the age of 20 can also be called up for duty now, "The Moscow Times" reported. JB

Colonel General Smirnov, the deputy chief of the General Staff who is responsible for military mobilization, said on March 31 that the Defense Ministry is unhappy about the physical condition of Russia's conscripts, with one-third of all draftees disqualified from military service because of poor health. "We are sending 8-10 percent of the young people from among those called up for additional medical check-ups," quoted Smirnov as saying. "More than 50 percent of those already called up have limitations due to their state of health, so we cannot send them to the military units of the VDV [airborne troops] or VMF [navy]." According to, Smirnov said that in addition to the period of compulsory service being reduced to one year, the period of alternative service has been reduced to 21 months (from 31.5 months), and to 18 months for those with higher education who choose to serve in "Defense Ministry structures." JB

A conference aimed at uniting Russia's fractured democrats will be held on in St. Petersburg on April 5, "Kommersant" reported on April 1. The daily quoted conference organizers as saying that the location of the conference is being kept secret in order to prevent the authorities from disrupting it. "Hopefully it will still take place," the daily quoted the head of the St. Petersburg chapter of the opposition United Civic Front, Olga Kurnosova, as saying. "We are now taking security measures, because the authorities do not always react appropriately to opposition activities." According to "Kommersant," 100-150 people are expected to participate in the conference, including United Civil Front leader Garry Kasparov, Soviet-era dissident Vladimir Bukovsky, Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) leader Nikita Belykh, former SPS member Boris Nemtsov, and the veteran human rights campaigners Lyov Ponomaryov and Sergei Kovalyov. Former Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who heads the opposition Popular Democratic Union, decided not to attend but will send his close associate Konstantin Merzlikin. Vladimir Ryzhkov, the former independent State Duma deputy and leader of the unregistered Republican Party, will also not attend, "Kommersant" reported. Meanwhile, reported on March 31 that Daniil Kotsyubinsky, a member of the board of the St. Petersburg chapter of Yabloko, announced that he is quitting the party after Yabloko press secretary Yevgeniya Dillendorf threatened to expel the head of the party's St. Petersburg chapter, Maksim Reznik, from Yabloko if he participates in the April 5 conference. Reznik was arrested earlier this month on charges of insulting and assaulting a police officer that Reznik and his allies say were trumped up and politically motivated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 12, 19, and 26, 2008). JB

President Putin signed into law on March 29 amendments to the existing legislation on the role and duties of heads of federation subjects that go someway toward reversing the restrictions on their powers introduced over the past eight years and endow them with a greater degree of both freedom and responsibility in economic issues, the daily "Kommersant" reported on April 1. Experts quoted by the paper predicted that the new asymmetric system will enable the federal center to adopt an individualized approach to different regions, taking into account huge discrepancies in the level of economic development. It may also, according to Aleksandr Kynev of the Fund for the Development of Information Policy, obviate the need to embark of the creation of mega-regions consisting of several federation subjects. At the same time, in light of their increased responsibility for economic issues, governors' performance will be monitored more stringently: Putin introduced last year a list of 43 criteria for doing so (see "RFE/RL Newsline," July 2, 2007). Moreover, governors will in future report not only to the president but also to the prime minister and, according to Institute for Social Systems Deputy Director Dmitry Badovsky, the government may in future even take over from the presidential envoys responsibility for proposing candidates to head federation subjects. LF

A delegation from the Council of Europe's so-called Ago Group that monitors the compliance of CE member states with their formal commitments met in Yerevan on March 30 with former President and defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian and on March 31 with senior government officials, including Foreign Minister Vartan Oskanian, Justice Minister Gevorg Danielian, and Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian, Noyan Tapan and RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Delegation head Ambassador Per Sjogren told journalists on March 31 that his group has put forward six proposals for resolving the post-presidential standoff between the authorities and Ter-Petrossian supporters. They include beginning a dialogue without preconditions between Ter-Petrossian and the authorities; the release of the estimated 102 people taken into custody for their suspected participation in the March 1-2 clashes between police and Ter-Petrossian supporters in Yerevan; and an independent inquiry in which international experts would participate into those clashes. Sjogren expressed regret at the amendments enacted by the Armenian parliament restricting the right to public rallies and demonstrations (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 18, 2008). He said the freedom of assembly is a right enshrined in the European Convention and thus not subject to bargaining. Oskanian implicitly endorsed the Ago Group's proposals, telling journalists that they are "aimed at improving the situation," but Danielian defended the restrictions on public meetings and ruled out the release of the detained opposition supporters, stressing that none of them was arrested for his or her political views. LF

Armenian Foreign Minister Oskanian on March 31 accused the Azerbaijani authorities of playing "a dirty game" aimed at discrediting the OSCE's Minsk Group that since 1992 has sought to mediate a solution to the Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported. Oskanian suggested that Baku's objective is to create a rationale for rejecting the draft peace proposal under discussion for the past two years. Oskanian further expressed regret that Baku has rejected the Minsk Group co-chairs' proposal that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev and Armenian President-elect Serzh Sarkisian should meet in Bucharest on the sidelines of the April 2-4 NATO summit. He stressed that the Karabakh conflict can be resolved solely by means of peaceful negotiations and that any solution must guarantee the right to self-determination of the population of the unrecognized republic of Nagorno-Karabakh, reported. At a round table discussion in Baku on March 31, the ruling Yeni Azerbaycan Party and several other smaller, mainly pro-government parties adopted a resolution criticizing the three countries -- France, Russia, and the United States -- that co-chair the Minsk Group for voting against a resolution submitted by Azerbaijan last month to the UN General Assembly "On the Situation In The Occupied Territories Of Azerbaijan," and calling on the co-chairs to act in accordance with international law, rather than defend Armenian "aggression," reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 17 and 25, 2008). On April 1, the online daily quoted U.S. Minsk Group co-chairman Matthew Bryza as saying that Washington believes it is time for Armenia and Azerbaijan to "move forward" and finalize the "Basic Principles" for resolving the conflict (see "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," June 22, 2007). LF

Mikheil Saakashvili reviewed on March 31 the government's progress in implementing the 50-day plan to alleviate poverty it adopted in late February, reported. That plan focused primarily on increasing pensions, allocating low-interest credits to small businesses to create new jobs and thus cut the unemployment rate, and providing material assistance to farmers. Saakashvili noted that the minimum monthly pension will rise from April 1 from 55 laris to 70 laris ($37.6 to $47.9), and that it will reach $100 by 2009; in February he pledged that the monthly pension would be increased on March 1, according to the "Messenger" on February 27. LF

Opposition Republican party leader David Usupashvili said on March 31 his party will nominate candidates to contest the 75 majoritarian seats in the May 21 parliamentary election only after consulting with the eight-party opposition National Council, in order to avoid splitting the opposition vote, reported. He listed five potential candidates to run in Tbilisi, including parliamentarians Ivliane Khaindrava, Levan Berdzenishvili, and David Zurabishvili. Also on March 31, Koba Davitashvili, who heads the People's Party, which is a National Council member, implied that the New Rightists will run on a joint ticket with the National Council. Meanwhile, President Saakashvili assured international diplomats on March 31 that he guarantees that the May 21 ballot will be free and fair, reported. LF

On an official visit to Kazakhstan, Pierre Morel, the European Union's special representative for Central Asia, met on March 31 with Kazakh State Secretary Kanat Saudabaev to review plans for the "further strengthening and expanding [of] Kazakh-European relations," Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Morel reviewed the status of the country's political reforms, with a focus on democratization and the rule of law, and discussed issues related to the trade, investment, and energy sectors, as well as education reform. After hailing the EU as his country's "natural strategic partner," Saudabaev presented an overview of Kazakhstan's efforts to bolster border security and combat drug trafficking. Morel also met separately with parliament speaker Aslan Musin and discussed plans for "developing interparliamentary relations," but warned Musin of the need to strengthen Kazakh political parties given the one-party nature of the Mazhilis. The visit by Morel, who was last in Kazakhstan in November 2007 (see "RFE/RL Newsline," November 20, 2007), is timed to coincide with a review of the 2007 "action plan" agreement laying out the parameters of the "new partnership" between the EU and Kazakhstan. The EU places a special priority on its relations with Kazakhstan beyond the country's role as an energy producer and regional actor, based on Kazakhstan's upcoming chairmanship of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2010. RG

Officials from Russia's Federal Space Agency (Roskosmos) conducted on March 31 a series of drills and exercises at the Russian-leased, Soviet-era Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The operation was part of a bilateral Russian-U.S. treaty on restricting strategic armaments, and also involved observers from the Kazakh and Russian Defense Ministries. The exercise was the first since Roskosmos assumed supervision of foreign inspections and visits of the facility in January 2008. The bilateral treaty also provides for on-site inspection of the facility. Russia has leased the Baikonur facility, one of the world's leading space facilities, since 1994. Baikonur is regularly used to launch commercial and military satellites, as well as supply missions for the International Space Station. RG

President Emomali Rahmon met on March 31 in Dushanbe with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Antonio Manuel de Oliveira Guterres to discuss the implementation of a project aimed at integrating Afghan refugees in Tajik society, the Avesta website reported. On the first day of a three-day official visit, Guterres briefed Rahmon on essential elements of the program, including strengthening Tajikistan's asylum system and fulfilling Tajik commitments for granting asylum and protecting refugees in accordance with international treaties and conventions. Although the UNHCR representation in Tajikistan was first established in early 1993, the agency has been increasingly active in recent years in managing the needs of a significant population of Afghan refugees there. RG

Tajik Justice Ministry official Davlat Sulaimonov announced on March 31 that an application by the pro-government Vahdat (Union) party for formal registration has been denied by the ministry, Asia-Plus reported. This is the sixth time the party has been denied registration for failing to meet certain unspecified legal requirements. Sulaimonov explained that the party could apply yet again if it resolves undetermined "shortcomings" in its previous applications. Led by Hikmatullo Saidov, who claimed to have some 3,000 supporters and an organizational presence in nearly all of the country's regions, the Vahdat party would have been the ninth political party in Tajikistan. The other parties are the ruling People's Democratic Party, the Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Islamic Revival Party, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, the Agrarian Party, and the Party of Economic Reforms. RG

In a special ceremony in Dushanbe presided over by U.S. Ambassador to Tajikistan Tracey Ann Jacobsen, the head of the Tajik Customs Service, General Gurez Zaripov, formally signed on March 31 an agreement to receive nearly $230,000 in U.S. aid to bolster border security, according to Asia-Plus. The aid, provided within the framework of the U.S. Export Control and Related Border Security Assistance (EXBS) Program, includes modern mobile x-ray detection equipment designed to conduct sensitive inspections of luggage, cargo containers, and other goods entering the country. The equipment is also capable of detecting radioactive and radiological sources. The United States has been engaged in supporting the Tajik authorities in enhancing border security and counterproliferation capabilities since late 2001. RG

Minsk has decided to reduce the number of diplomats at its embassy in Washington, and recommends that the United States do the same in Belarus, RFE/RL's Belarus Service and Belapan reported on March 31, quoting the Belarusian Foreign Ministry. A note informing the U.S. government about Minsk's move was handed to Jonathan Moore, the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Minsk, earlier the same day. The note reportedly explains that the decision was made because the U.S. government has "repeatedly refused to abolish additional restrictive measures of an economic nature" against Belarus's state petrochemical conglomerate Belnaftakhim, and because of the "U.S. administration's consistent policy aimed at scaling down contacts with the Belarusian side." "We consider these demands unwarranted and unjustified, and we are considering our response," U.S. State Department spokesman Gonzalo Gallegos told Reuters on March 31. Washington reduced its embassy's staff by half to 17 people last week at the request of the Belarusian authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2008). Meanwhile, the U.S. Embassy in Minsk has resumed issuing visas to Belarusian citizens "in limited quantities," Belapan reported. On March 19, the U.S. mission announced the suspension of its visa services because of the Belarusian government's urgent request for staff cuts. JM

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said at a joint conference with his U.S. counterpart, George W. Bush, in Kyiv on April 1 that Ukraine has the "full support" of the United States for Kyiv to begin the process of joining NATO, Ukrainian and international media reported. For his part, Bush reiterated his position that Washington supports offering NATO Membership Action Plans (MAPs) to both Ukraine and Georgia, adding that Russia, which objects to further NATO expansion, will have no influence over the process. Bush also stressed that there is no link between the Ukrainian and Georgian bids to begin the process of joining NATO and plans to deploy a U.S. missile-defense system in Europe. "That is a misperception. I strongly believe that Ukraine and Georgia should be given MAPs, and there's no tradeoffs. Period," Bush said. Meanwhile, French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said earlier the same day in Paris that France will not support Ukraine's and Georgia's bids to become NATO members. JM

Members of the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, and the Progressive Socialist Party pitched tents on Kyiv's Independence Square on March 31 to protest U.S. President Bush's visit to Ukraine, RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service reported. The protest is reportedly to continue until the conclusion of the NATO summit in Bucharest on April 4. Demonstrators played Soviet-era music, carried red flags, and chanted anti-United States and anti-NATO slogans. JM

Defense Minister Dragan Sutanovac said in an interview published by the Belgrade daily "Blic" on March 31 that the recent riots in Belgrade and Mitrovica were "coordinated and an agreement between Slobodan Samardzic [who is minister for Kosova] and the prime minister," namely Vojislav Kostunica, without the knowledge of the rest of the government. Samardzic and Kostunica belong to the Democratic Party of Serbia (DSS), whereas Sutanovac is a member of President Boris Tadic's Democratic Party. "Blic" on April 1 quoted an aide to Kostunica as saying that Sutanovac's comments constitute the first attack in Serbian history by a defense minister on his own government in the interests of foreign military powers, namely NATO. The February riots in Belgrade left one protester dead, and Serbian attackers killed one Ukrainian policeman in Mitrovica in March. NATO and UN said at the time that the Mitrovica riots were orchestrated (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 22, 25, and 26, and March 19, 2008). On April 1, the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade reopened its consulate, which was closed after being set on fire during the February riots, news agencies reported. The State Department also authorized the return of all staff and family members who were evacuated to Croatia following the riots. PM

In the latest of several attempts to try to establish its authority in Kosova, the Serbian government announced on March 31 that it will organize not only the May 11 Serbian parliamentary vote but also local elections on that date in Serbian-populated parts of Kosova, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 4, 10, 13, and 17, 2008). Minister Samardzic, who is responsible for Kosova, said in the ethnic-Serbian community of Laplje Selo that "Serbia will find a way to take over responsibilities that after the declaration of independence were left hanging. Serbs don't want to work for an Albanian false state, but for Serbia." Under the UN plan for Kosova, which will form the basis for the country's constitution, local Serbs are entitled to vote in Serbian parliamentary elections. The authorities in Prishtina stress, however, that local elections are a matter for Kosova itself. President Fatmir Sejdiu said in Prishtina on March 31 that "we want dual citizenship to be applied in the best possible way, but Kosova cannot be an electoral region" for any outside government. The UN civilian administration has not said whether it will allow the May vote to take place, but has not prevented local Serbs from voting in previous Serbian legislative elections. PM

Former French General Yves de Kermabon, who heads the EU's new rule-of-law mission in Kosova (EULEX), told journalists on March 31 in Prishtina that EULEX will be present in all parts of Kosova, regardless of the ethnic composition of the population, news agencies reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," February 21 and 29, and March 28, 2008). He stressed that "we have [the Kosova Police Service, KPS], and the KPS is a multiethnic police, and I'm happy to know that we have a lot of Serbian KPS officers still working in the KPS. This is the main aim and target for me to work with this multiethnic police. For the time being, I can insist on the fact that the intention of EULEX is to deploy Kosovo-wide." He added, however, that the deployment "will take time." In Madrid, the Spanish Foreign Ministry announced on March 31 that it will not dispatch police to serve with EULEX until the legal aspects of the transfer of authority from the current UN civilian administration in Kosova (UNMIK) to EULEX are clarified, Reuters reported. The police contingent from Spain, which does not recognize Kosova, is expected to number fewer than 20. The news agency noted that "EU diplomats say they expect the two missions to exist in parallel for some time, although some hope it may be possible to find a pragmatic way of handing over responsibility [now that] Moscow no longer chairs the [UN] Security Council." PM


A new security initiative launched by Afghan, U.S., and British officials seeks to give Afghans the power to guard their own communities against insurgents, "The Washington Post" reported on March 31. Under the multimillion-dollar program, which was approved by President Hamid Karzai, village and tribal elders will receive radios, phones, and cash, in exchange for their cooperation with government forces and commitment to deny refuge to militants. The program would also endorse reconciliation and the integration of former Taliban into civilian life. "Taliban commanders and their fighters have come over to us and say they want to work with the this is already happening," "The Washington Post" quoted a senior Western official as saying. The plan, called the Afghan Social Outreach Program, is part of a broader governance effort lead by Jelani Popal, head of the Independent Directorate of Local Governance, which reports to Karzai. Popal cited corruption, warlordism, and the drug trade as among the problems the program seeks to combat. The newspaper quoted British Ambassador Sherard Cowper-Coles as saying, "We've got to do it the Afghan empowering communities." AT

Two British soldiers were killed when an explosion struck their convoy on March 30 in Helmand Province, in southern Afghanistan, AP reported on March 31. Britain's Ministry of Defense said the two members of the Royal Marines were on a patrol near Kajaki when the blast occurred. In a separate incident on March 31, a Danish soldier was killed and two others were injured in fighting with Taliban militants near the town of Girishk in Helmand Province, the Danish military said. The fighting involved tanks, heavy artillery, and helicopter gunships. In neighboring Kandahar Province, three Afghan private security guards were killed in a roadside bombing in Zhabi district on March 31, according to district chief Niyaz Mohammad Sarhadi. AT

The UN's newly appointed special envoy to Afghanistan, Kai Eide, has arrived in Kabul to take up his new post, the BBC reported on March 28. Eide was selected as special envoy after the appointment of British politician Paddy Ashdown, who was expected to take the post, was blocked by President Karzai in January. "I am not Paddy Ashdown, but don't underestimate me," Eide told the BBC. Upon his arrival at Kabul International Airport, Eide spoke about bringing a new direction to the international efforts in Afghanistan, including providing more funds for projects backed by the government. "One of the issues that has been highlighted is the need for better coordination" with the government in Kabul, Eide said. "The Afghan government has asked for that for a very long time and we have to respond in a better way than we have managed so far." AT

Approximately 10,000 Afghan refugees have returned home over the past month with the support of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, its representative Salvatore Lombardo said on March 31. "About 10,000 refugees repatriated from Pakistan under the UN refugee agency's first month of assisted voluntary repatriation," news agencies quoted Lombardo as saying. The repatriation process will continue until the beginning of winter weather, in late October. More than 3.5 million Afghan refugees have returned home since the collapse of Taliban regime in late 2001, but some 2.5 million are still living in Pakistan and more than 1.5 million in Iran. Many refugees cite security concerns and unemployment as dissuading them from returning. AT

U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director Michael Hayden told NBC television in Washington on March 30 that he believes personally that Iran is pursuing a bid to develop nuclear weapons, in spite of the conclusion of several U.S. intelligence agencies late in 2007 that Tehran halted its suspected weapons program in 2003, AFP reported. He described his view as a "personal belief...this is not court-of law stuff." Hayden said Iran's defiance of UN Security Council resolutions demanding it halt nuclear fuel-making activities shows it has something to hide. He said Iran would not suffer sanctions "if they did not have at a minimum...the desire to keep the option open to develop a nuclear weapon" and produce "fissile material not under international supervision." Hayden said Iran has denied it has ever sought to make bombs, while U.S. intelligence agencies believe it had a weapons program before 2003, and that it is still continuing to work on "the development of delivery systems," or ballistic missiles, AFP reported. On March 25, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney told ABC television that Iran "obviously" has a nuclear weapons program (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 26, 2008). Iran insists it has a purely civilian and entirely lawful nuclear program. VS

The United States has asked Switzerland to show it a copy of a gas-exportation contract it recently signed with Iran, to see if it violates a U.S. sanctions law against Tehran, news agencies reported on March 31, citing the U.S. Embassy in Bern. A posting on the embassy's website raises the question of whether this could jeopardize Switzerland's role representing U.S. interests in Cuba and Iran, with which the United States has no formal diplomatic ties. The United States has expressed its dismay at the deal, signed in Tehran on March 17, and said it violates the spirit of UN Security Council sanctions intended to force Iran to stop producing nuclear fuel. Switzerland has defended the deal as a move to assure diverse energy supplies (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 18, 2008). VS

Iranian lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi told Radio Farda on March 31 that she doubts the March 14 parliamentary elections -- which assured a conservative majority in Iran's next parliament -- were free or fair. She was speaking for the Tehran-based Committee to Defend Free, Clean, and Fair Elections. Reformists have asked for recounts in some constituencies, while many withdrew from the race in protest at the authorities' strict vetting and disqualification of thousands of hopefuls deemed insufficiently loyal to the state or unfit for public service. Ebadi told Radio Farda the elections' conditions and procedures did not square with Iran's international commitments in line with its membership of the Interparliamentary Union. She pointed to flaws such as the absence of a "full observation" of the voting process and complaints about the handling of ballot boxes after voting. She said a random recount of some ballot boxes in Tehran, as demanded by reformist leaders, would be "enough to prove that voting was healthy" (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 20, 2008). VS

The Iraqi government announced on March 31 that the weeklong military operation in the southern city of Al-Basrah may end later this week, CNN reported. Major General Abd al-Aziz Muhammad, commander of operations at the Defense Ministry, said at a news conference that he hopes the mission will be brief and limited. However, he provided no specific timetable. The announcement came as radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced on March 30 that he has called on his militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army, to stand down and not confront Iraqi security forces (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 31, 2008). In an interview with state-run Al-Iraqiyah television, Interior Minister Jawad al-Bulani said the criminals and gangs in Al-Basrah are fleeing the city. "The armed, outlaw gangs have started to collapse. Some groups fled the battle scene and left these areas," al-Bulani said. Major General Muhammad Jawan al-Huwaydi, commander of the Iraqi Army's 14th Division, told Reuters that the situation in Al-Basrah is slowly stabilizing. "We have control of the towns around Al-Basrah and also inside the city. There are no clashes anywhere in Al-Basrah. Now we are dismantling roadside bombs," he said. Meanwhile, an Iraqi Interior Ministry source told Kuwait's KUNA news agency the same day that the clashes in the southern city left 210 people dead and 600 wounded, and 155 were arrested. SS

The Iraqi government announced on March 31 that the three-day curfew imposed on Baghdad has been partially lifted, state-run Al-Iraqiyah television reported. The curfew remains in force in the Sadrist strongholds of Al-Sadr City, Al-Shu'lah, and Al-Kadhimiyah. At a press conference, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said the decision to keep the curfew in place in those neighborhoods is meant to protect civilians. "Terrorist groups are trying to exploit the current situation, and target the residential compounds there," he said. "There is intelligence information that confirms terrorist groups are attempting to target the high-population residential compounds in Al-Sadr City.... Keeping a curfew on the movement of vehicles through Al-Sadr City and other Baghdad neighborhoods is a precautionary measure taken by security forces to protect people," he added. SS

Several rockets and mortars struck Baghdad's Green Zone again on March 31, international media reported. U.S. Embassy officials acknowledged the attack, but said no serious injuries were reported. The U.S. military said there were no reports of major damage. In the last week, the heavily fortified area has been repeatedly attacked, killing two Americans and wounding at least 14. The rise in attacks prompted the State Department to issue a memo urging all personnel at the U.S. Embassy compound not to leave reinforced structures due to incoming rocket fire (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 28, 2008). U.S. military officials have blamed the attacks on Iranian-backed "special groups," which are breakaway factions of Muqtada al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army that have refused to abide by a cease-fire declared by al-Sadr in August 2007. SS

Britain has forcibly returned 50 Iraqi refugees back to the northern city of Irbil, alarming human rights groups, "The Guardian" reported on March 30. The newspaper said that the refugees were deported to Iraq on March 27 from the Campsfield and Colnbrook detention centers in handcuffs, after their attempts to gain asylum were denied. Some of the asylum seekers were from Kirkuk and Mosul, and several rights groups have warned that sending them back to those cities would be dangerous. There have been reports that violence in Kirkuk and Mosul has been steadily rising, and the groups contend that sending refugees back there would endanger their lives. "Iraq cannot be considered a safe place," said Dr. Frank Arnold, a senior clinical medical adviser with the Medical Justice Network. "We demand that the government adequately monitors what happens to those returned. But they have constantly failed to do this." SS

The Iraqi government announced on March 31 that it has signed a $5.5 billion deal with the U.S. aircraft manufacturer Boeing to buy 40 new aircraft, with the option to purchase 15 more, AFP reported. Government spokesman al-Dabbagh added that the government also signed a $400 million contract with Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier to purchase 10 planes. He said the deals "will strengthen the Iraqi civil-aviation capacity and enable it to respond to the increasing demand for air transportation to and from Iraq." The deal will dramatically improve the Iraqi Airways fleet, which currently owns just two aircraft and leases several others. Iraq's national carrier resumed international flights in September 2004 with a Baghdad-Amman service. It now also flies to Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, and Dubai. Delivery of the aircraft will begin this year, with the final delivery expected at the end of 2019. SS

Sheikh Rashid al-Zaydan, leader of the Ninawah-based National Front of Iraqi Tribes, has been released by U.S. forces after being detained for 13 days, "Aswat al-Iraq" reported on March 31. On March 18, U.S. forces arrested al-Zaydan during a raid near Mosul (see "RFE/RL Newsline," March 19, 2008). The National Front of Iraqi Tribes, established in March 2004, is a coalition of tribal leaders, academics, and former military leaders. Several members of the movement have been arrested for alleged links to terrorists. Al-Zaydan said U.S. forces accused him of financing and arming Al-Qaeda in Iraq. SS