|Saturday, 8 August 2020|
RFE/RL Newsline, 04-09-01
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 GUNMEN SEIZE SCHOOL IN NORTH OSSETIAA group of some 17 unidentified militants stormed a secondary school in the North Ossetian town of Beslan on the morning of 1 September, the first day of the school year, killing at least three people, Russian media reported. Initial reports claimed the gunmen took hostage up to 400 students, parents, and teachers, whom they herded into the school's gymnasium; that figure was subsequently revised downwards to between 120-150, of whom the gunmen reportedly released 15 children. Some 50 students hid and managed to escape. The gunmen have reportedly threatened to blow up the building if police try to take it by storm. According to Reuters, the gunmen are demanding the release of militants arrested in neighboring Ingushetia on suspicion of participating in the 21-22 June raids into that republic in which up to 90 people were killed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 June 2004). The hostage takers refused to negotiate with Ruslan Valgatov, leader of the tiny Muslim community in the predominantly Christian republic, and demanded to speak to North Ossetian President Aleksandr Dzasokhov. ITAR-TASS reported that the hostage takers have demanded the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. LF
 NINE KILLED IN SUICIDE BOMBING NEAR MOSCOW SUBWAY ENTRANCE...Nine people were killed and about 50 wounded on the evening of 31 August by a suicide-bomb attack near the entrance to a Moscow subway station, Western and Russian media reported. Moscow Mayor Yurii Luzhkov told journalists at the scene that investigators believe that a female bomber strapped about a kilogram of TNT packed with bolts and nails to her body and attempted to enter the station. However, after noticing that police were conducting searches of passengers, she turned around and detonated the explosive in a crowd in front of a nearby department store, Ekho Moskvy and other Russian media reported. Interior Ministry spokesman Mikhail Gribakin said that the ministry and the Federal Security Service (FSB) are tightening security measures in the city's metro and at other heavily frequented sites in Moscow. Special attention is being paid to "lone women of Caucasian nationality," he said. VY
 ...AND GROUP SUSPECTED OF DOWNING AIRLINERS CLAIMS RESPONSIBILITYA little-known terrorist group calling itself the Al- Islambuli Brigades has claimed responsibility for the 31 August suicide bombing, AP and Reuters reported, citing a statement posted on the Internet. The statement reportedly said that the attack was carried out "in support of the Muslims of Chechnya." The organization, which claims to be part of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network, similarly claimed responsibility for the downing of two domestic passenger jets last week (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 27 August 2004). The FSB on 1 September dismissed as "pure invention" media reports that the perpetrator of the 31 August Moscow metro bombing might have been a sister of Aminat Nagaeva, a Chechen woman who is suspected of having carried out the bombing of one of the aircraft, ITAR-TASS reported. Rosa Nagaeva's whereabouts is unknown and she is being sought by authorities (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 August 2004). VY
 PUTIN AFFIRMS SUPPORT FOR CHECHEN PEACE TALKS, REJECTS CRITICISM OF ELECTIONSMeeting on 31 August at his summer residence near Sochi with French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, President Vladimir Putin affirmed his readiness "for constructive negotiations in all acceptable formats" with those forces interested in a political settlement of the Chechen conflict, Russian media reported. He stressed, however, that any solution must preserve Russia's territorial integrity. Putin said that Moscow will assist the Chechen authorities in organizing free and democratic parliamentary elections and in strengthening law and order. Putin further rejected international criticism of the 29 August Chechen election, arguing that it took place in strict compliance with Russian law and the Chechen Constitution, Interfax reported. He pointed out that "many observers...did not record any serious violations." In Grozny, Chechen Central Election Commission Chairman Abdul-Kerim Arsakhanov similarly rejected allegations of malpractice as "groundless," Interfax reported. LF
 PUTIN CITES AIR CRASHES AS EVIDENCE OF CHECHNYA-AL-QAEDA LINKPresident Putin said on 31 August following his informal summit in Sochi with French President Chirac and German Chancellor Schroeder that the crashes of two domestic passenger jets on 24 August "confirms a connection between destructive elements in Chechnya and international terrorism, as one of the organizations linked with Al-Qaeda [the Islambuli Brigades] took responsibility for these terrorist acts," ITAR-TASS reported. It was Putin's first comment on the crashes. Meanwhile, FSB spokesman Sergei Ignatchenko said that the probes of the two air crashes have been merged into a single investigation, and the crashes have been classified as acts of terrorism, Russian media reported on 31 August. He also said that the 24 August terrorist acts were committed by people whose boarding passing bore the names "Aminat Nagaeva and Satsita Dzhebirkhanova" and that the FSB is now checking into whether those individuals' identifications were falsely used by other individuals to board the planes. Putin returned to Moscow from his vacation in Sochi on 1 September and conferred at the airport with FSB Director Nikolai Patrushev, Interior Minister Rashid Nurgaliev, and other security officials. Putin also spoke by telephone with North Ossetian President Dzasokhov following word of the school takeover, and immediately afterward Patrushev and Nurgaliev flew to North Ossetia. VY
 DEFENSE MINISTER SAYS RUSSIA IS AT WARSergei Ivanov told journalists on 1 September that the 31 August suicide attack in Moscow "is not the first, and not the last terrorist act," RIA-Novosti reported. "War has been declared, a war in which the enemy is invisible and there is no front line," he said. Ivanov said not just Russia, but the entire world, faces the threat of terrorism, and he mentioned the two bus bombings in Israel on 31 August. Ivanov said Russia will fight terrorism using all possible means. Meanwhile, Justice Minister Yurii Chaika said on 1 September that the latest terrorist acts in Russia constitute a "well-planned and organized action," RIA-Novosti reported. VY
 MEDIA SPECULATE ON METHODOLOGY OF AIRLINER ATTACKSRTR reported on 29 August that some investigators believe that responsibility for the air catastrophes lies not with the two Chechen women who have been blamed for the attacks, but with ground-crew members who might have acted as accomplices by bringing the explosives aboard the planes. According to this theory, the explosives might have been planted in the aircraft while they were being serviced following previous flights. In this event, the roles of the Chechen women would have been reduced to only bringing detonators aboard, for which only an ordinary watch or cell-phone battery would be necessary. Somebody either asked them to plant the bombs in the restrooms or simply to leave packages there, keeping them in the dark about what would happen, RTR speculated. Meanwhile, "Russkii kurier" on 30 August expanded on this theory, writing that the official version of the cause of the explosions is completely wrong. The newspaper claimed that authorities are concealing information that the explosions occurred not within an interval of minutes, but just a few seconds. To achieve such coordination, the paper suggests, time bombs and not suicide bombers would likely have been employed. VY
 PUTIN PROMISES MORE ENERGY EXPORTS TO EUROPEDuring the three-country summit in Sochi on 31 August, President Putin told German Chancellor Schroeder and French President Chirac that the Russian government is working to increase energy exports to Europe by developing its pipeline network, ITAR-TASS reported. Putin briefed his counterparts on the development of the Baltic pipeline system and the northern natural-gas pipeline. Presidential foreign-policy adviser Sergei Prikhodko told journalists that "it was important for the German and French leaders to obtain information on [Moscow's] specific steps aimed at increasing the production and export of energy resources." Prikhodko said the three men also discussed the situation of ethnic Russians in the Baltic states and the conflicts in Nagorno-Karabakh, Georgia, and Transdniester. RC
 MERITBANK TAKEN UNDER TEMPORARY ADMINISTRATIONThe Central Bank on 1 September instituted temporary administration over Meritbank, RIA-Novosti and other Russian media reported. A Central Bank press release said that the bank's license has not been revoked and that the temporary administration will be in place for six months while a new management structure is put into place. Meritbank, which is one of Russia's 200 largest banks and which has assets of 3.1 billion rubles ($103.3 million), ceased making cash payments on 8 July. RC
 POWERFUL SIBERIAN GOVERNOR URGES MERGER OF THREE REGIONSKemerovo Oblast Governor Aman Tuleev on 27 August urged that the financial problems of his oblast and neighboring Tomsk Oblast and Altai Krai could best be solved by merging the three regions, "Gazeta" reported on 28 August. "These regions are united by geographic and climactic conditions and have a unified transport network," Tuleev said. "The process of integration will proceed painlessly and with minimal costs." He said that Altai Krai is currently wasting resources mining coal while good agricultural land lies fallow, while if the regions merged, Kemerovo Oblast could provide coal for the entire region and stop importing 1 million tons of grain each year from elsewhere in Russia. He said the main obstacle to such a merger is the "psychological barriers" of the heads of the regions, saying that "the federal authorities should provide guarantees for the heads of Russian Federation components being amalgamated, since each of them has his merits and they must not be thrown on the scrap heap." RC
 TWO PRESIDENTIAL COUNCILS FORMEDPresident Putin on 31 August signed a decree creating two new presidential councils, the council on culture and art and the council on science, technology, and education, ITAR-TASS reported. The main duty of the councils will be to make recommendations regarding state awards and honors in their respective areas. The council on science, technology, and education merges two previously separate councils on education and science, in parallel with a recent government restructuring that merged the former Education Ministry and with the science portion of the former Industry and Science Ministry. The composition of the new councils has not yet been reported. RC
 REGIONAL TELEVISION CHANNEL SHUT DOWN OVER POLITICAL PROGRAMThe TV-Tsentr television company has closed its regional affiliate TV-Tsentr-Tula, RIA-Novosti and Ekho Moskvy reported on 31 August, citing TV-Tsentr legal department head Igor Yeremin. "The form and the content of the program 'Polnyi abzats' regarding several politicians and political organizations was unacceptable, a gross violation of journalistic ethics," Yeremin told RIA-Novosti. He said that the program had been too subjective in its coverage of local legislative elections. "We are not against political criticism," Yeremin said. "But we have become firmly convinced that the authors of the program were acting not only incorrectly, but very selectively." M&K reported on 12 August that "Polnyi abzats" appeared on the channel recently and was hosted by Vadim Glazman, who is described as a "close friend" of Union of Rightist Forces (SPS) legislative candidate and Sverdlovsk Oblast legislator Anton Bakov. A similar program supported Bakov during his successful campaign for a legislative seat in Sverdlovsk Oblast. "Novye izvestiya" reported on 11 August that Bakov is simultaneously running for the governorship of Bryansk Oblast. RC
 TRAIN TICKETS BECOME CHEAPERThe Russian Railways Company reduced prices for long-distance passenger rail tickets by about 16 percent as of 1 September, ITAR-TASS reported, citing the company's press service. According to the press release, a basic ticket from Moscow to St. Petersburg now costs from 289 to 584 rubles ($9.63 to $19.47), and a ticket from Moscow to Vladivostok costs from 1,904 to 3,866 rubles. RC
 OLYMPIC ATHLETES ANTICIPATE PAYOUTSRussian athletes' haul of 92 medals in the Olympic Games in Athens -- 27 gold, 27 silver, and 38 bronze -- was second only to the United States' 103 medals, prompting President Putin to say that "they met our expectations," Interfax reported on 30 August. According to a government decision, the state will reward each gold medalist with $50,000, silver medalists with $20,000, and bronze medalists with $10,000. In addition, the Moskva-Nafta has pledged to provide $100,000 to gold-medal winners in judo -- Putin's own specialty -- and wrestling (no Russian received a gold medal in judo, though five wrestlers did). The oil company also plans to award $40,000 to Russian athletes who set world records. Only pole vaulter Yelena Isinbayeva set a world record. VY
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 ARMENIAN BY-ELECTION ANNULLEDThe outcome of a 29 August by-election in a district in central Armenia has been annulled after the two front-runners both alleged fraud, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reported on 31 August. Local election commission Chairman Grigor Arshakian said too many discrepancies have been discovered in figures received from the 31 polling stations. A repeat ballot will be held within three weeks. Initial returns showed Artak Sargsian of parliament speaker Artur Baghdasarian's Orinats Yerkir party leading by a margin of 32 votes ahead of Arayik Hayrapetian, who represents an organization led by Prosecutor-General Aghvan Hovsepian (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 August 2004). Both Baghdasarian and Hovsepian are considered possible candidates to succeed President Robert Kocharian when his second presidential term expires in 2008. Hayrapetian's campaign manager claimed that 2,000 ballots cast for Hayrapetian were declared invalid, and that "the godfathers of a certain party" had intervened to prevent a Hayrapetian victory. LF
 AZERBAIJANI PARLIAMENT SLAMS PROTEST VERDICTOn 1 September, the first day of the autumn parliament session, several pro-government deputies harshly criticized the prison sentences handed down by a Baku district court two days earlier to six members of the Karabakh Liberation Organization, Turan reported. The six men were sentenced to between three and five years' imprisonment for their participation in a protest against the presence at a NATO-sponsored conference in Baku of two Armenian military officers (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 23, 24, and 25 June, and 30 August 2004). Parties from across the political spectrum have condemned the verdicts as "unjust," including the Communist Party, the Azerbaijan National Independence Party, and the Our Azerbaijan bloc that unites some 20 opposition parties and groups. LF
 SOUTH OSSETIAN LEADER WANTS TALKS WITH GEORGIASpeaking to journalists in Tskhinvali on 31 August, Eduard Kokoity, president of the unrecognized Republic of South Ossetia, appealed to the Georgian leadership to begin negotiations on issues of equal concern to both the Georgian and Ossetian peoples, ITAR-TASS reported. Kokoity pledged that "we shall do out best to preserve the fragile peace that has been achieved," but went on to warn that South Ossetia will respond in kind if Georgia violates the cease-fire agreed on in mid-August. He said Georgia has not yet withdrawn all its troops from the conflict zone as required under that agreement. In Tbilisi, Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania said on 31 August that the only issue he is prepared to discuss with Kokoity is South Ossetia's future status within Georgia, Caucasus Press reported. LF
 GEORGIAN PARLIAMENTARIAN LOBBIES FOR RENUNCIATION OF SOUTH OSSETIA PEACE AGREEMENTZviad Dzidziguri, who has quit the National Movement-Democrats faction from which he was elected to parliament, told journalists on 31 August that he has begun collecting deputies' signatures to an appeal to the Georgian leadership to renounce the June 1992 Dagomys Agreement that ended 18 months of sporadic fighting in South Ossetia, Interfax and Georgian media reported. Dzidziguri argued that the agreement is disadvantageous to Georgia in that it preserves a situation in which the breakaway Republic of South Ossetia is no longer subordinate to the central Georgian government. Dzidziguri and Kakha Kukava, another defector from the National Movement-Democrats, also announced on 31 August their intention to appeal to Prosecutor-General Zurab Adeishvili to have the leaders of South Ossetia and the unrecognized Republic of Abkhazia, Kokoity and Vladislav Ardzinba, declared international terrorists, Caucasus Press reported. LF
 GEORGIAN PREMIER, DEFENSE MINISTER DENY RUMORS OF IMMINENT CABINET RESHUFFLEPrime Minister Zhvania told journalists in Tbilisi on 31 August that there is no truth to speculation in the Georgian media about an imminent cabinet reshuffle in which the defense and state security ministers will be replaced, Caucasus Press reported. Defense Minister Giorgi Baramidze likewise rejected such reports as part of an information war allegedly being waged against Georgia by foreign security services, Caucasus Press reported. LF
 KAZAKH PRESIDENT ADDRESSES FOREIGN POLICY, PATRIOTISMNursultan Nazarbaev chaired a Security Council meeting on 31 August to discuss the future development of Kazakhstan's foreign policy, Kazinform reported. Noting that current conditions allow Kazakhstan to pursue a more active foreign policy, President Nazarbaev called on government agencies to raise the country's profile in international organizations. He also said that religious extremism from abroad poses a threat to the country, and urged regional authorities to work against the spread of extremist ideas, Khabar TV reported. Nazarbaev also met with representatives of various cultural centers on 31 August, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. The president expressed support for the formation of a "Kazakhstani" national identity that will allow all of Kazakhstan's citizens to express their patriotism regardless of ethnic affiliation. Representatives of Kazakhstan's Russian, Uighur, and Daghestani communities voiced their approval for the idea. DK
 KAZAKH OPPOSITION BLOC HINTS AT POSSIBLE ELECTION BOYCOTTAsylbek Kozhakhmetov, co-chairman of the coordination council for the Communist Party of Kazakhstan and Democratic Choice of Kazakhstan's (DVK) election bloc, told a news conference on 31 August that the bloc has not ruled out boycotting 19 September parliamentary elections, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. Khozhakhmetov stressed that political parties can decide to boycott elections up to a week before voting begins without suffering legal or financial sanctions. He noted that the two parties, as well as the moderate opposition party Ak Zhol, have previously announced that they might boycott elections unless the government limited electronic voting to an experiment affecting no more than 2-3 percent of the population, released and exonerated imprisoned DVK leader Ghalymzhan Zhaqiyanov, and provided equal access to the media for all candidates in their election campaigns. DK
 KYRGYZ PRESIDENT HAILS COUNTRY'S ACHIEVEMENTSPresident Askar Akaev lauded his country's achievements at a 30 August ceremony in Bishkek on the eve of Kyrgyzstan's Independence Day, akipress.org reported on 31 August. "We live as free people in a free country and serve for the world as an example of the peaceful coexistence of dozens of ethnic groups, various cultures, and religions," Akaev said. He announced that his country's main achievement since gaining its independence on 31 August 1991 is that it has taken shape as an independent state and that its people have become a self-sufficient nation. Akaev also called attention to an ongoing social mobilization campaign to improve the rural infrastructure and reduce poverty, Kyrgyz TV reported. DK
 TURKMEN PRESIDENT PASSES ON SUMMIT, PLANS MEETING WITH UKRAINIAN COUNTERPARTSaparmurat Niyazov will not attend a 13-16 September summit of CIS leaders in Astana, Kazakhstan, but he has invited Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma to Ashgabat in late September to sign a gas accord between the two countries, Turkmen TV reported on 31 August. The signing of that accord, most recently scheduled for May 2004, has been repeatedly postponed (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 March 2004). Niyazov will not be able to go to the summit because he has a previously scheduled medical check-up with German doctors on 13-16 September, turkmenistan.ru reported. The two presidents agreed in a telephone conversation, however, that President Kuchma will visit Turkmenistan in late September to discuss energy cooperation, Novosti-Ukraina reported. DK/LF
 UZBEK PRESIDENT DECRIES 'EVIL FORCES'Speaking at a ceremony in Tashkent on 31 August to commemorate victims of Soviet-era repressions, President Islam Karimov noted the need to instill a "healthy ideology" in young people, Uzbek Radio reported. In an apparent reference to Islamist extremist movements, he also urged a fight against "evil forces brainwashing our children, setting them against their parents and trying to bring back medieval times." Describing globalization as the worldwide spread of information within minutes, President Karimov said that an "information assault" is "more dangerous than any military aggression." An address broadcast on Uzbek television on 31 August, the eve of Uzbekistan's 1 September Independence Day, highlighted similar themes. "In these complex and unsafe times, with such maladies as international terrorism, religious extremism, and drug trafficking posing a threat to humanity, I would hope that the clarion call 'Let us protect and defend our sacred land ourselves' will drive home to each citizen the need to be always watchful and vigilant," the president said. DK
 BELARUSIAN PRESIDENT SAYS OLYMPIC ATHLETES LOST TO PEASANTSAlyaksandr Lukashenka on 31 August expressed his dissatisfaction with the performance of Belarusian athletes at the 2004 Olympic Games in Greece, where they won 15 medals instead of the 25 prescribed by him, Belarusian Television reported. Earlier in August, Lukashenka announced a "competition" between Belarus's Olympic team and Belarusian peasants involved in the harvest (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 August 2004). "One needs to be honest and say that the athletes lost to the peasants," Lukashenka said on 31 August. "The peasants will crop 7 million [tons of grain] in the state-run sector plus some 800,000 tons in the private sector, while our athletes did not win 25 medals. Ten of them took fourth place. Could they come third? Without difficulty.... But in some cases they lost in a stupid, absurd way." JM
 BELARUSIAN STUDENTS GO TO PICK POTATOESThe Vitsebsk Oblast authorities have ordered some 6,000 students of state-run educational institutions to help peasants collect potatoes in the region from 3 September to the end of the month, RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on 31 August. Picking potatoes at state-run collective farms by Belarusian students in September is a compulsory tradition dating back to the Soviet era. Students are ordered to do so for meager remuneration or simply for food. JM
 GERMANY OFFERS SCHOLARSHIPS FOR STUDENTS OF CLOSED BELARUSIAN UNIVERSITYGermany has allocated 125,000 euros ($152,000) for 24 scholarships to final-year students of the private European Humanities University in Minsk, which was closed by the Belarusian Education Ministry earlier this year (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 18 and 25 August 2004), RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on 31 August, quoting the German Foreign Ministry. The scholarships are to be used at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt an der Oder. JM
 UKRAINIAN PREMIER, TOP RUSSIAN OFFICIAL OPEN 'RUSSIAN CLUB' IN KYIVUkrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych and Russian presidential administration head Dmitrii Medvedev on 31 August opened a "Russian Club" at the Premyer Palats hotel in Kyiv, the only five-star hotel in Ukraine, UNIAN reported. Medvedev said the club is a "new stage" for those wanting to develop relations between Ukraine and Russia. Yanukovych said the Russian Club will "have a whole set of functions, primarily humanitarian and, of course, economic." Yanukovych added that initiatives that will come out of this club will be supported at the level of the Russian and Ukrainian governments, and that he already has an agreement on this with the Russian government. JM
 UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT WARNS AGAINST 'REVOLUTIONARY CHANGE'President Leonid Kuchma visited three industrial companies in Crimea on 31 August, Ukrainian Television reported. "The country is on the right track just as these companies are," Kuchma said. "The main and most important thing that we need is stability. We need no revolutionary change because revolutions always lead to unpredictable circumstances. We have too many people who want drastic change but don't know what exactly." JM
 EBRD LOANS UKRAINE $120 MILLION TO MODERNIZE RAILWAYSThe European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) has allocated a $120 million loan for the Ukrzaliznytsya state railways to launch high-speed passenger railway services, Interfax reported on 31 August. In particular, the loan will be spent on purchasing carriages, buying equipment for railway track repairs, and renovating the Bezkydskyy railway tunnel. JM
 FORMER MACEDONIAN INTERIOR MINISTER DETAINED IN CROATIA...Croatian authorities detained hawkish former Macedonian Interior Minister Ljube Boskovski in Bale on 31 August, Macedonian media reported. Police questioned him in connection with the killing of six Pakistanis and one Indian national in Macedonia on 2 March 2002, to which the Macedonian authorities have linked him. A spokesman for the Croatian Interior Ministry said Boskovski was detained at the request of the Macedonian authorities. Croatian prosecutors must decide whether to formally charge Boskovski with murder and whether to keep him in custody. The former minister, who also holds a Croatian passport and runs a restaurant in Bale, fled to Croatia in May after the Macedonian parliament had lifted his immunity in connection with the murder case ("RFE/RL Newsline," 10 and 11 May 2004, and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 27 May 2004). In early August, prosecutors of the Hague-based international war crimes tribunal questioned high-ranking Macedonian Interior Ministry officials in connection with the killing of ethnic Albanian civilians by police forces in the village of Ljuboten during the 2001 interethnic conflict when Boskovski was interior minister (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 10 August 2004 and "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 20 August 2004). UB
 ...WHILE REMAINING DEFIANTHours before his detention, Boskovski told "Dnevnik" on 31 August that he is innocent. "My conscience is clear and, as is the duty of a patriot, I will endure everything," Boskovski said. "I have already been detained in Zagreb in [communist] times for publicly criticizing the regime. I would have surrendered to the Macedonian prosecuting authorities had the government not threatened me with physical liquidation, [which forced me] to flee to Croatia." Boskovski told the Bulgarian news agency BGNES recently that he was planning to return to Macedonia to form a new national movement, "Dnevnik" reported on 30 August. UB
 BOSNIAN ISLAMIC LEADER SLAMS ABDUCTION OF FRENCH JOURNALISTS IN IRAQReisu-l-ulema Mustafa Ceric, who heads Bosnia-Herzegovina's Islamic community, issued a statement in Sarajevo on 31 August condemning the recent kidnapping of two French journalists in Iraq, Hina reported. "Violence against European journalists in Iraq can only aggravate the position of European Muslims," Ceric said. He stressed that "the present crisis in Iraq and in the Near East in general cannot be resolved by force but only through patient dialogue, in which all participants fully respect one another" (see "RFE/RL Balkan Report," 23 April 2004). In related news, Ceric said that the sending of Bosnian mine-clearing experts to Iraq has become a "moral dilemma" and should not be turned into a domestic political issue for parties or individuals to "score cheap points," "Dnevni avaz" reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 19 and 23 August 2004). PM
 YET ANOTHER MASS GRAVE FOUND IN BOSNIAMurat Hurtic of Bosnia-Herzegovina's State Commission on Missing Persons said in Sarajevo on 1 September that forensics experts have discovered a mass grave containing at least 20 bodies near Bratunac in the Republika Srpska, just 50 meters from a mass grave from which over 110 bodies were exhumed in August, dpa reported (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 6 and 25 August 2004). Documents in the newly discovered grave indicate that at least some of the bodies are victims of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. The exhumation work is expected to last about one month. PM
 ROMANIAN OPPOSITION ACCUSES PREMIER OF CORRUPTIONThe Romanian Anticorruption Prosecution (PNA) office is investigating a case involving Prime Minister Adrian Nastase, who allegedly bought land in downtown Bucharest for a very low price, Mediafax reported on 31 August. The opposition Justice and Truth Alliance last week asked the PNA to investigate the relationship between Nastase's law firm's purchase of land from former Social Democratic Party (PSD) deputy Gabriel Bivolaru and Nastase's public support for Bivolaru, who was then being investigated on fraud charges. At that time, Nastase was PSD first deputy chairman and deputy chairman in parliament's lower chamber. The opposition has accused Nastase of buying the land for $11,000, "25 times below the land's true market value." According to press reports, the land is currently worth around $1 million. Responding to the accusations, Nastase said the PNA's investigation is "normal and natural." ZsM
 ROMANIAN PREMIER FORMALLY INVITES PRESIDENT TO TAKE OVER PSD CHAIRMANSHIPIn two separate letters sent to President Ion Iliescu on 31 August, ruling PSD Chairman and Prime Minister Nastase formally invited the former PSD chairman to return as PSD leader and to run for Senate after finishing his tenure as president, Romanian media reported. The PSD's congress approved Nastase's proposal on 27 August (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 30 August 2004). ZsM
 TRANSDNIESTRIAN LEADER PROPOSES CYPRUS MODELIgor Smirnov, the leader of the breakaway region of Transdniester, has proposed separate referendums in Moldova and Transdniester to decide the region's future, the BBC's website reported on 31 August. Invoking the example of Cyprus, he said that people should decide their own futures. He added that he is still ready to restart negotiations with Moldova, involving Russia too, but is skeptical about the potential of such negotiations. Smirnov spoke in Tiraspol at a press conference marking the 14th anniversary of Transdniester's "independence." Smirnov also said that due to "the danger of a military conflict," he has put the local army on high alert and asked Russia to lead a peacekeeping force in the region. Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin recently said that he refuses to hold talks with Tiraspol. ZsM
 TRANSDNIESTRIAN PUPILS TO ATTEND ROMANIAN SCHOOLSIn recent weeks some 70 pupils from Transdniester have applied to study in schools in the northwestern Romanian county of Iasi, Mediafax reported on 30 August. Iasi County school authorities said that all applicants will be given places. The Transdniestrian authorities have closed six of the eight schools in Transdniester teaching Moldovan (Romanian) in the Latin script in the last several weeks. ZsM
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 CIVILIANS KILLED IN U.S. AIR RAID IN NORTHEASTERN AFGHANISTANA disputed number of civilians were killed in a 30 August bombing raid by the U.S. Air Force in Dara-ye Paych District of Konar Province, international news agencies reported. According to Konar Governor Sayyed Fazel Akbar, after insurgents attacked a base used by coalition forces, U.S. planes "bombarded the surrounding areas where the enemy was hiding," killing five civilians, including a woman and two children, "The New York Times" reported on 1 September. Akbar blamed the neo-Taliban for the loss of civilian lives since they use "villages as bunkers." Gorm Pedersen, director of the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees, said on 31 August that, according to his staff working in the area, "there were eight dead villagers," AFP reported on 1 September. According to a U.S. military statement, coalition forces came under mortar fire from insurgents who also "fired indiscriminately at villagers," AP reported on 31 August. Mufti Latifullah Hakimi, purporting to speak on behalf of the neo-Taliban, claimed that 17 civilians were killed in the Konar raid, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran reported on 1 September. Pedersen said that his organization will stop its water-supply project in the area while it reassesses the security situation, AP reported. AT
 PRT PERSONNEL ATTACKED IN LAGHMAN PROVINCEThree soldiers -- two U.S. and one Afghan -- and one civilian were wounded in an attack on staff of the U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Laghman Province east of Kabul, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported on 31 August. An unidentified Afghan government official described the injuries of two of the soldiers as serious. Mufti Hakimi on 31 August told AIP that a member of the neo-Taliban "threw two grenades at a vehicle carrying Americans in the provincial capital of Laghman Province, Mehtarlam," wounding two passengers. According to Hakimi, the perpetrator managed to escape. AT
 NEO-TALIBAN CLAIMS TO HAVE KILLED SIX AFGHAN SOLDIERS IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTANHakimi told AIP over the telephone that on 31 August the neo-Taliban killed six soldiers in the Shorabak District of Kandahar Province, AIP reported the same day. AIP could not obtain a confirmation of the incident from Kandahar officials. AT
 AFGHAN LEADER APPOINTS NEW EDUCATION MINISTERAfghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai has appointed Ahmad Moshahed as the new education minister, Radio Afghanistan reported on 31 August. The previous education minister, Yunos Qanuni, stepped down in July to run in the October presidential election (see "RFE/RL Afghanistan Report," 31 July 2004). AT
 IRANIAN INTELLIGENCE MINISTER DEFENDS LEBANESE HIZBALLAHMinister of Intelligence and Security Hojatoleslam Ali Yunesi reiterated at a 31 August press conference the official Iranian position that Lebanese Hizballah is a liberation movement, IRNA and ISNA reported. The U.S. State Department classifies Hizballah as a foreign terrorist organization. Responding to a question about U.S. claims that Iran supports terrorism, Yunesi said, "If they mean Iran's support for Hizballah, they should know that Hizballah is a legal group that was created to fight Israel. It is a defense organization that was established in order to defend the Lebanese people and land," ISNA reported. Yunesi added that this is why many regional states support Hizballah. The State Department also asserts that Iran supports the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas, two other foreign terrorist organizations that are active in Israel. According to Yunesi, however, "We do not consider the Intifada [uprising] of the Palestinian people [to be] a terrorist movement," IRNA reported. "It is the right of the Palestinian people to defend themselves and all Muslim countries support them." BS
 REVIVED ALLEGATIONS OF SECTARIAN TENSION IN IRANIntelligence and Security Minister Yunesi was asked in a 31 August meeting with journalists about his warnings of ethnic strife in Iran, ISNA reported. He said spies are creating tension in some parts of the country. Iran is an ethnically diverse country, with large numbers of Baluchis in the southeast, Arabs in the southwest, Kurds along the borders with Turkey and Iraq, Azeris in the northwest, and Turkmen in the northeast, as well as many nomadic tribesmen. Although the constitution guarantees ethnic rights and the use of minority languages, government policies emphasize the Persian nature of the state and attempt to assimilate the minorities. Many of the minorities, furthermore, practice Sunni Islam, whereas Shi'a Islam is the state religion. "Recently, we have noticed the formation of a new sect in Tehran and other cities and some have been arrested for distributing provocative books," Yunesi added. Yasub-i Din Rastgari-Juybari was arrested on 26 April for writing a book that insulted the leading Shi'a clerics and raised "serious doubts about the foundations of the Sunni brethren's beliefs," IRNA reported. Distributors of the book were interrogated and copies of it were confiscated. BS
 TEHRAN ARRESTS ALLEGED NUCLEAR SPIESIntelligence and Security Minister Yunesi said in a 31 August meeting with journalists that several spies have been arrested for stealing information about Iran's nuclear program and sending it out of the country, IRNA reported. Yunesi did not provide any names but said members of the Mujahedin Khalq Organization (MKO) sent out most of the information about the nuclear program. BS
 TORONTO RIDICULES VALUE OF DIALOGUE WITH TEHRANCanadian Foreign Minister Pierre Pettigrew said on 31 August that Tehran has turned discussions about a Canadian photojournalist who was killed while in Iranian custody into a "farce," Reuters reported. Zahra Kazemi was arrested in June 2003 and within weeks she was dead of a head injury allegedly suffered at the hands of her captors. Tehran claims she died accidentally after bumping her head on the floor. "What we want is to know what has happened in that jail; we've asked for the body to be returned to Canada so that we could autopsy it. They say it's an accident, that she fell. Well, we'll know. When you have the body you know those things," Pettigrew said. The foreign minister said the human rights situation has not improved and criticized the European approach to this issue. "Europeans have been very engaged in the dialogue with Iran. I don't think it has improved in any way the situation of human rights in that country, so we are comparing notes at this time," he said. BS
 IRAQI NATIONAL CONGRESS HEAD ESCAPES ASSASSINATION ATTEMPTUnknown gunmen on 1 September opened fire on Iraqi National Congress (INC) head Ahmad Chalabi, Reuters and Arabic televisions channels reported. Two of Chalabi's associates were injured. Chalabi, a secular-oriented Shi'ite, is the founder of the INC, an Iraqi exile group that was supported by the Pentagon. INC spokesman Haydar al-Musawi told Al-Arabiyah that Chalabi was on his way to Baghdad from Al-Najaf where he held talks with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani and three other Shi'ite clerics on 31 August. Al-Musawi said that the gunmen shot from two stationary cars near the town of Al-Latifiyah, 40 kilometers south of Baghdad. Shi'ite cleric Bashir al-Jaza'iri and his driver were shot dead on 31 August in the same area. PK
 IRAQI PRIME MINISTER TALKS TO LEADERS IN VOLATILE SUNNI CITIESIraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has been holding talks with leaders from several volatile Sunni cities in the country, AP reported on 1 September. AP quoted an Al-Arabiyah interview with Allawi, in which he said that he had met with local leaders from Al-Fallujah, Al-Ramadi, and Samarra "in the past two to three weeks." Allawi said that he asked them about their political programs and warned them that the government will not hesitate to use force against hard-liners. Allawi insisted that the meetings were not negotiations, but attempts to persuade skeptics and to offer amnesty to radicals who had not directly participated in fatal attacks, "The Washington Post" reported on 30 August. Allawi has reportedly not reached agreement with any of the leaders, but said that some of the representatives are "changing horses and taking the amnesty seriously," "The Washington Post" reported. Earlier this week, aides to radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr announced his readiness to enter politics (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 August 2004). PK
 FRENCH POLITICIANS EXPRESS SOLIDARITY WITH KIDNAPPED JOURNALISTS IN IRAQ...Top French politicians took part in a gathering of the country's Muslim organizations in a Paris mosque on 31 August, international media reported. Participants stressed their nationwide solidarity with two French journalists held hostage in Iraq (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 31 August 2004). French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, speaking at the convention, stressed the principle of not interfering in any country's internal affairs, Al-Arabiyah reported. The kidnappers want the French government to revoke a law banning religious symbols in schools. PK
 ...AS MORE INTERNATIONAL VOICES CALL FOR JOURNALISTS' RELEASEFrench President Jacques Chirac, speaking at a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Sochi on 31 August, has expressed his hope of receiving diplomatic help from Russia and Germany over the kidnapped French journalists, Al-Arabiyah reported. Libyan leader Muammar Ghadaffi joined the international Muslim voices calling for the journalists to be released, AP reported on 31 August. Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamic Action Front in Jordan, and, in Iraq, radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr have all called for the journalists' release. PK
 AL-ARABIYAH BROADCASTS INTERVIEW WITH RELATIVE OF ONE OF THE CAPTIVESAl-Arabiyah on 31 August broadcast a telephone interview with Ali al-Mar'abi, the brother-in-law of Muhammad al-Jundi, the Syrian driver who is being held hostage with two French journalists. Al-Mar'abi said that a brother of the driver was "martyred in Palestine," while another has been a "fighter for the defense of Iraq." Al-Mar'abi stressed that French President Chirac, whom he claimed to know personally, has enjoyed good relations with Islamic countries. PK
 MACEDONIAN LEADERS TALK TO THE MEDIABy Ulrich Buechsenschuetz
In a tense political situation, three of Macedonia's most influential politicians decided to grant interviews to the media recently. While President Branko Crvenkovski talked to RFE/RL's Macedonian broadcasters on 29 August, Defense Minister Vlado Buckovski answered questions from the daily "Dnevnik" published on 28 August. That same day, "Utrinski vesnik" published an interview with Ali Ahmeti, who chairs the governing ethnic Albanian Democratic Union for Integration (BDI).
Since his election as president in April, Crvenkovski has been widely regarded as the gray eminence in Macedonian politics. Although he has little formal power and resigned as chairman of the governing Social Democratic Union (SDSM), he still wields great authority within his own party.
Buckovski, for his part, is one of Crvenkovski's possible successors as SDSM chairman.
Unlike Crvenkovski and Buckovski, Ahmeti does not hold any government position. As former leader of the Albanian National Liberation Army (UCK), which staged an uprising in early 2001, he is considered the most influential Albanian politician in Macedonia.
The interviews with Crvenkovski, Buckovski, and Ahmeti focused on the referendum against the government's redistricting plans as well as on relations among the coalition partners.
Ethnic Macedonian opposition parties succeeded in gathering the necessary 150,000 signatures for the referendum, and legal experts have made it clear that the parliament has no alternative but to call the referendum.
Crvenkovski stressed that a referendum is one of the most democratic ways for citizens to express their will, adding that, "from this point of view, it may not be bad that the citizens have the opportunity to express their opinion on such an important question [as the redistricting plans]." However, Crvenkovski also criticized the organizers of the referendum drive for offering only "catastrophic scenarios" instead of sound arguments.
The president said he supports the redistricting plans, arguing that a failed referendum will not lead to partition and a successful one will not produce a "new civil war."
Crvenkovski thereby alluded to a recent statement by Ahmeti, whom some Macedonian media quoted as saying that a successful referendum drive might lead to a civil war. In his interview with "Utrinski vesnik," Ahmeti said his statement to the Prishtina daily "Bota Sot" was misquoted. "This was not meant as a threat. I tried to express my concern about any step backwards that could endanger the future of Macedonia," Ahmeti said.
But the BDI chairman warned of the dangers posed by referendums backed by only one ethnic group. "We have to convince [all] citizens that this is our country [too]. Initiatives for referendums must be supported by all citizens. We have to explain that referendums supported by one nationality alone can cause conflicts," Ahmeti said. "However good an initiative may be, if it is started by Albanians [alone] it will cause dissatisfaction among the Macedonians, and vice versa."
The big question now is how the governing parties will deal with the referendum that will be held in late October or early November.
Crvenkovski stressed that he opposes it because it will not help Macedonia in its quest for NATO and EU membership. But he refrained from telling voters what to do. "I believe in the...maturity and responsibility of our citizens and am convinced that they [will] make the right decision," Crvenkovski said, adding that Macedonia is up to the challenge.
Buckovski, for his part, was more outspoken, and not only on the referendum. For him, the referendum is the democratic way "to channel the negative energy that resulted from the [discussion about the] Law on Territorial Organization." According to Buckovski, this negative energy also stems from the government's failure to address pressing issues such as the economic and social situation. "The way this [governing] coalition behaved gave the impression that [its only task was to] implement the [2001 Ohrid peace agreement]," Buckovski said, blaming Ahmeti's party for the situation.
But Buckovski also made it clear that the SDSM is considering boycotting the referendum and thereby causing it to fail because a successful referendum would mean the end of the Ohrid agreement. For the referendum to be valid more than half of all registered voters must take part. And only if a majority of the participants vote against the redistricting plans will the opposition succeed. "We all know that it will be a devilishly difficult trick to meet the threshold if the Albanians and the SDSM do not take part in the referendum," Buckovski said.