|Tuesday, 10 December 2019|
RFE/RL Newsline, 06-02-23
From: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty <http://www.rferl.org>
 AT LEAST 27 DEAD IN MARKET ROOF COLLAPSE IN MOSCOWAt least 27 people were killed on 23 February when the roof of a market collapsed in Moscow, Russian and international news agencies reported. The number of fatalities is expected to double and possibly even triple, according to Russian press reports citing rescuers and emergency officials. Mosnews.com cited Emergency Situations Ministry officials as saying that as many as 40 people could still be trapped under the wreckage. "There were very many people in the building," gazeta.ru reported. Rescue workers said the collapse was due to heavy snow on the roof of the market, located in eastern Moscow's Baumanskaya district. BW
 ...AS MOSCOW MAYOR QUESTIONS CAUSE OF COLLAPSEMoscow Mayor Yury Luzhkov on 23 February questioned the emerging explanation that snow was to blame for the collapse, RIA Novosti reported the same day. "The pressure on the roof was not excessive and there was sufficient water drainage," Luzhkov said. "Therefore, there is no point considering an excessive amount of snow as the cause," he added. Luzhkov said the snow on the market's roof was evenly spread over the surface and its depth did not exceed 40-45 centimeters. Moreover, the mayor said the market's drainage system had recently passed inspection. BW
 RUSSIAN PRESIDENT SAYS HE STILL HOPES FOR POSITIVE OUTCOME TO IRAN NUCLEAR TALKSSpeaking at a press conference in Baku on 22 February, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that despite ongoing complications, he hoped for a positive outcome in talks to resolve the crisis surrounding Iran's nuclear program, Interfax reported the same day. "The Moscow negotiations were difficult. However, we are optimistic that we will be able reach a positive decision," Putin said (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 14, 15, and 21 February 2006). "There is now a break in the negotiations to enable the Iranian delegation to consult with authorities, he added. Putin said the Russian proposal to enrich uranium for Iran on its territory "is acceptable for Iran and may be used to settle the issue." Iran's Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki told reporters in Jakarta on 23 February that Tehran was seriously considering the Russian offer but wanted further discussions, Reuters reported. BW
 RUSSIAN FOREIGN MINISTRY SAYS OSCE BIASED ABOUT BELARUS ELECTIONThe Foreign Ministry on 22 February accused the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) of displaying bias about Belarus's presidential election, RIA Novosti reported the same day. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mikhail Kamynin said the OSCE's Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has neither transparent nor comprehensible rules to follow in monitoring the 19 March vote. "As we already learned in the past, such a way of doing things gives grounds for biased conclusions," Kamynin said. He added that he believes OSCE observers have already decided that the Belarusian election will not be free and fair. BW
 MINISTER SAYS RUSSIA HAS 715,000 HOMELESS CHILDRENHealth and Social Development Minister Mikhail Zurabov said on 22 February that Russia has more than 715,000 homeless children, RIA Novosti reported the same day. Zurabov added, however, that the figure had decreased by 157,000, or 18 percent, over the past two years. "This is an encouraging tendency," he said. Zurabov said he is preparing predictions for Russia's demographic development until 2015, and will present his findings to the government in May. In remarks to the State Duma, Zurabov said he hopes to see Russia's fertility rate increase, its infant mortality rate decrease, and life expectancy to increase from the current 65.6 years to 70 years. BW
 PUTIN WARNS UN OFFICIAL NOT TO POLITICIZE RIGHTS ISSUESPresident Putin on 23 February cautioned United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour not to allow her agency to politicize rights issues, Interfax reported. "We believe that it is the state that bears primary responsibility for the observance of human rights, but we also attach great significance to cooperation on these issues in the international arena and to the activity of international organizations, above all the UN," Putin said. On 22 February, Arbour concluded a tour of the Caucasus region that included visits to Chechnya, Ingushetia, and North Ossetia, the site of the September 2004 school hostage crisis in the town of Beslan (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2006). BW
Transcaucasia And Central Asia
 RUSSIAN PRESIDENT OFFERS TO HELP MEDIATE BETWEEN ARMENIANS AND AZERBAIJANIS...Speaking at a Baku press conference during his official visit to Azerbaijan, Russian President Vladimir Putin offered on 22 February to assist in mediating talks between Azerbaijan and Armenia on the unresolved Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, RFE/RL's Armenian Service and ITAR-TASS reported. After a meeting with Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev, Putin announced that he intends to invite Armenian President Robert Kocharian to Moscow for discussions after a recent summit meeting near Paris between the Armenian and Azerbaijani leaders failed to reach any agreement (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 13 February 2006). A new bilateral agreement on military cooperation was also signed by Aliyev and Putin on 22 February. RG
 ...AND ACCUSES GEORGIA OF 'SEEKING EXTERNAL ENEMIES'In comments during the 22 February press conference in Baku, Putin accused Georgia of seeking "external enemies" to divert attention from Georgia's internal problems, RFE/RL and ITAR-TASS reported. He said that while "a large number" of Georgians "are experiencing serious difficulties," Georgian leaders "are on the wrong track" in attempting to divert "people's attention by looking for external enemies." The comments are not likely to improve already tense Georgian-Russian relations, which have only worsened since the Georgian parliament voted on 15 February to demand that Russian peacekeepers be replaced by an international peacekeeping force in the South Ossetian conflict zone (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2006 and "RFE/RL Caucasus Report," 17 February 2006). RG
 GEORGIAN SECURITY FORCES BREAK UP ETHNIC AZERBAIJANI PROTESTSGeorgian special security forces on 22 February forcibly dispersed ethnic Azerbaijani demonstrators protesting local land deals in the southern Georgian Marneuli region, "Baku Today" reported. Reporters from Azerbaijan's Lider and ANS-TV channels reportedly filmed security forces beating demonstrators, prompting local police to seize their videotapes. The Georgian Interior Ministry is to dispatch inspection officers to Marneuli to conduct an investigation. RG
 TBILISI PROTESTS RUSSIAN VIOLATION OF GEORGIAN AIRSPACEGeorgian Foreign Ministry officials issued a statement on 22 February demanding an explanation from Moscow for an alleged violation of Georgian airspace by Russian aircraft the previous day, Civil Georgia and Interfax reported. The statement, condemning the violation as a "gross violation of Georgian sovereignty," is in response to a reported incursion by a Russian Su-25 combat aircraft and an Mi-8 military helicopter, Caucasus Press reported. The incident coincided with comments by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili on 21 February criticizing Russia's move to postpone a planned visit this month by Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Noghaideli as "another inadequate step" by Moscow. RG
 OSCE CALLS FOR RETURN TO TALKS ON SOUTH OSSETIAThe OSCE chairman in office, Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht, issued a statement on 22 February urging all parties to return to failed negotiations over the South Ossetian conflict, Civil Georgia reported. The OSCE statement further called on all parties to "exercise restraint and refrain from any unilateral action that might worsen the situation," adding that there is an urgent need "to resume the dialogue." The announcement follows Russia's refusal to participate in the meeting of the Joint Control Commission originally set for 20-21 February in Vienna (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2006). RG
 UN ENVOY MEETS WITH ABKHAZ OFFICIALSAmbassador Heidi Tagliavini, who is UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special representative for the Abkhaz conflict, held talks in Sukhum on 21 February with Abkhaz Prime Minister Aleksandr Ankvab and Foreign Minister Sergei Shamba, Caucasus Press reported. Tagliavini told ApsnyPress the talks focused on the recent meeting in Geneva between the parties to the conflict and ambassadors from the so-called Friends of the UN Secretary-General group of countries; the situation in Abkhazia's southernmost Gali district; and the prospects for resolving the conflict. Tagliavini also urged Abkhazia to act on the UN's repeated calls to open a UN human rights office in Gali, to permit the deployment in the district of UN civilian police, and to provide education in the Georgian language at schools in Gali, where the majority of students are Georgian, not Abkhaz. LF
 HEAD OF KAZAKH SECURITY SERVICE STEPS DOWN...Nartai Dutbaev stepped down on 22 February as head of Kazakhstan's National Security Committee (KNB), the website of President Nursultan Nazarbaev (http://www.akorda.kz) reported. Dutbaev presented his resignation to Nazarbaev, who accepted it, after five members of an elite special-forces unit were arrested in connection with the killing of opposition leader Altynbek Sarsenbaev (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2006). Dutbaev told journalists that he lacked the "moral right" to head the KNB in light of the situation, the website reported. Dutbaev stressed that the existence of rogue elements in the KNB is not a "systemic phenomenon," but he faulted himself for failing to prevent the incident. Nazarbaev appointed KNB Deputy Chairman Vladimir Bozhko the acting head of the agency. Seitzhan Koibakov, the head of the Arystan unit in which the arrested individuals served, also submitted his resignation on 22 February, Interfax-Kazakhstan reported. DK
 ...AS POLICE ARREST OFFICIALPolice charged with investigating Sarsenbaev's murder arrested Erzhan Utembaev, head of the administration of Kazakhstan's Senate (upper chamber of parliament), on 22 February, "Kazakhstan Today" reported. Utembaev served as deputy prime minister in 1999-2000. In December 2000 he was appointed deputy director of the presidential administration. Police arrested him at a hospital in Astana. DK
 KAZAKH OPPOSITION PARTY SLAMS DENIAL OF REGISTRATIONIn a statement published by Navigator (http://www.mizinov.net) on 22 February, the opposition party Alga criticized the Justice Ministry's recent rejection of its registration (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2006). Calling the government's actions "anticonstitutional and antidemocratic," Alga described the denial of registration the "logical culmination of a process of constant pressure by the authorities on our party and its activists." The unregistered party argued that it complied with all requirements for registration. Alga closed its appeal with three demands, asking that the government register it, that Justice Minister Zagipa Balieva be dismissed, and that the authorities halt the "persecution of representatives of the united democratic opposition and begin full-fledged, constructive political dialogue on how to bring Kazakhstan out of political crisis and conduct far-reaching democratic reforms." DK
 UN SAYS MORE MUST BE DONE ON HIV/AIDS IN TAJIKISTANThe UN Development Program (UNDP) office in Tajikistan has issued a press release stating that donor nations and organizations see a need to step up the fight against HIV/AIDS in Tajikistan, Avesta reported on 22 February. UNDP called for greater efforts in rural areas and greater overall coordination. The press release noted that while Tajikistan has the lowest per capita infection rate in the region, HIV is spreading quickly. The press release stated: "If the number of HIV-infected people in Tajikistan reaches 1 percent of its population by 2008, it would mean the beginning of an HIV epidemic. Given all factors which contribute to the spread of the HIV infection, experts estimate that the number of HIV-infected in the country might increase from 4,000 in 2004 to 10,000 by the end of 2006. Taking into account the current pace [of infection], the number of HIV-infected could double every 13 months." DK
 BELARUSIAN WEEKLY PROSECUTED FOR MUHAMMAD CARTOONSBelarus's State Security Committee (KGB) has instigated criminal proceedings against the independent weekly "Zhoda" over an article on the Prophet Muhammad cartoon controversy, Belapan and RFE/RL's Belarus Service reported on 22 February. The article was printed in the 17 February issue of the weekly and featured some of the cartoons, which have sparked protests and violence in the Islamic world following their publication in a number of European newspapers. The KGB claims that the article and illustrations in "Zhoda" are punishable under an article in the Criminal Code that forbids the inciting of racial, national, or religious hatred. Abu-Bekir Shabanovich, leader of the Muslim Religious Association in Belarus, told journalists that the reprinted cartoons offend Muslims and are "a political provocation" in the run-up to the 19 March presidential vote. "Zhoda" is the first publication in Belarus to reprint any of the cartoons, which were first printed in the Danish daily "Jyllands-Posten." JM
 MINSK WARNS CZECH EMBASSY AGAINST DISTRIBUTING ALLEGED 'AGITPROP'The Belarusian Foreign Ministry on 22 February summoned Czech Charge d'Affaires Vladimir Ruml to express displeasure over the alleged distribution by the Czech Embassy in Minsk of "agitprop materials" in the run-up to Belarus's presidential election, Belapan reported. On its website, the ministry accused the Czech Embassy of "interference in internal affairs" and attempts to "destabilize the internal political situation" in Belarus. The embassy admitted on 20 February that the Czech Foreign Ministry had translated into Belarusian a UN resolution on human rights abuses in Belarus for distribution in that country. A Belarusian Television report aired 19 February showed the translated texts and accused the Czech Embassy of distributing pro-opposition election materials. "The booklets shown in the program are not subversive, as they carry a UN-approved official text," the embassy said in a statement in response to the broadcast. JM
 OPPOSITION PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE VOWS TO FREE BELARUS FROM FEAR...Alyaksandr Milinkevich, the united opposition candidate in the 19 March vote, pledged in a televised address to voters on 22 February to radically change the style of governance and free his country from the grip of fear. "Authorities in a future Belarus will be elected, not appointed," Milinkevich said. "The person will be given priority over the state. The government will not rule the person, but the person will determine the country's policies.... Freedom will give people an opportunity to lead a decent life." Milinkevich said the opposition is against staging a "colored revolution" in Belarus like those that followed elections in Georgia, Ukraine, and Kyrgyzstan. But he added that if the authorities rig the election, people will have the right to take to the streets to defend their votes. "If people take to the streets, we, on our part, will do everything so that this will be a peaceful demonstration as required by the constitution. And we hope very much that the authorities will act in the same manner and not use force," Milinkevich said. JM
 ...AS ANOTHER QUESTIONS INCUMBENT'S RIGHT TO RUN FOR PRESIDENT...Presidential candidate Alyaksandr Kazulin, whose prerecorded address to voters was aired by Belarusian Television immediately after that of Milinkevich, said incumbent President Alyaksandr Lukashenka has no right to be on the ballot for the 19 March presidential election. Kazulin stressed that Lukashenka violated the constitution by calling a referendum in 2004 to lift the constitutional two-term limit on the presidency in Belarus. Kazulin added that Lukashenka's decision to schedule the election for March, four months before the expiration of his current term, was also in violation of the constitution. JM
 ...AND BROACHES SOME DETAILS OF INCUMBENT'S MARITAL LIFEKazulin said in his address to voters that Belarusian Television did not allow him to show his wife, Iryna, together with him in the studio. According to Belapan, Kazulin was reacting to recent allegations by Belarusian Television that he is divorced and is lying when he tells the public that he is married. Kazulin went on in his address to allege that the nation has never seen the first lady, Halina Lukashenka, together with her husband over the entire course of his 12 years in office. Kazulin claimed Lukashenka lives with another woman -- whose mother is former Health Minister Lyudmila Pastayalka -- and has a son with her. JM
 POLISH-FUNDED RADIO RENEWS BROADCASTS TO BELARUSRadio Racja (Radio Reason) based in Bialystok, northeastern Poland, began its new operations on 22 February, PAP reported. The station will be funded by the Polish government, which reportedly pledged 1 million zlotys ($314,000) for its support. For the time being, Radio Racja will broadcast in Belarusian at 6 p.m. local time for one or two hours daily, on medium wave, from a transmitter near Katowice in southern Poland, and on 103.8 MHz from Lithuania, using the frequency and airtime of the Vilnius-based, Polish-language Radio znad Wilii. Within a few weeks, Radio Racja is to begin broadcasts from Poland on the frequency of 105.5 MHz that it used in 1999-2002, before it closed down due to lack of funding. JM
 UKRAINIAN MINISTER REPORTS ON CRIMINAL RECORD OF PARLIAMENTARY CANDIDATESInterior Minister Yuriy Lutsenko told journalists on 22 February that his ministry's check of party election lists registered for the 26 March parliamentary elections revealed that some candidates have criminal records, Interfax-Ukraine reported. Search warrants had been issued for 11 candidates, 37 candidates are involved in ongoing criminal proceedings, another 41 candidates have recently had their criminal cases sent to court, and 10 candidates have past convictions. JM
 HAGUE PROSECUTOR DENIES MLADIC ARREST RUMORS...Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia in The Hague, said on 22 February that reports of war crimes fugitive Ratko Mladic's imminent arrest were false, B92 reported the same day. Del Ponte also urged Belgrade to get serious about apprehending Mladic. "The reports that Ratko Mladic has been arrested are not true. He is still, unfortunately, free and has been in Serbia the entire time, since 1998, and within the reach of the Serbian government. He must be arrested and the government has to intensively work on getting this done," she said. "There have been no indicators that negotiations for his surrender are ongoing." Various media reports in Serbia and in Bosnia-Herzegovina's Republika Srpska said on 21 February that Mladic had either been arrested or was surrounded and negotiating his surrender (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2006). BW
 ...AS SPECULATION MOUNTS ABOUT REASON FOR MISINFORMATIONA survivor of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre accused Serbian authorities on 22 February of intentionally holding off on capturing Mladic, dpa reported the same day. "They all know where he is, but they wait for a good moment to use Mladic for some other interests," Munira Subasic of the Srebrenica Mothers Association told dpa. "Everyone knows that, the birds on the trees, little kids, everyone knows it is just a game, some strange policy that has been under way for more than 10 years," Subasic added. Serbian media, meanwhile, speculated that the authorities put out false information about Mladic's arrest to test reactions in Serbia and in Bosnia. "The radicals in Serbia will not remain calm if Mladic is arrested. The Serbs in the [Republika Srpska] would also protest, but I am sure possible protests in Serbia and Bosnia would not be as strong as they would have been maybe five years ago," Banja Luka-based political analyst Tanja Topic told dpa. BW
 FORMER SERBIAN PRIME MINISTER DIESFormer Serbian Prime Minister Mirko Marjanovic died during the night on 21 February at the Military Medical Academy in Belgrade, B92 and Beta reported the next day. Marjanovic was 68 years old. He served as prime minister from March 1994 until resigning in October 2000, after a popular uprising overthrew Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. BW
 EU ENVOY SAYS NO CHANGES TO MONTENEGRIN REFERENDUM PROPOSALMiroslav Lajcak, the European Union's envoy to Montenegro's independence referendum, said on 22 February that Brussels will not make any changes to its proposal for the vote, B92 reported. Lajcak has proposed that for the independence referendum to pass, at least 55 percent of those casting ballots must support it. Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic has called the proposal unrealistic (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2006). Lajcak, however, dismissed the possibility of making any changes. "I know that all 25 ministers of the EU will support the proposal, which has already been accepted by the EU ambassadors," he said. BW
 KOSOVAR PRESIDENT TALKS OF PLANS FOR NEW ARMYPresident Fatmir Sejdiu said on 22 February that the Kosova Protection Corps will soon be transformed into the Kosovar army, Hina reported the same day. Sejdiu made his comments after talks with Kosova Protection Corps commander General Agim Qeku. The two agreed that since they expect Kosova to be independent soon, then it is time to consider such a change. A senior NATO official, meanwhile, said the alliance has not received a formal request from any member state to downsize its contribution to the KFOR peacekeeping force in Kosova, dpa reported on 22 February. "There is no proposal by any nation to reduce the troops of KFOR," said James Pardew, an American diplomat serving in the NATO secretary-general's office. Earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he wanted to reduce U.S. troops in Kosova and to have NATO allies assume more responsibility in the province. BW
 MOLDOVAN PRESIDENT REJECTS KOSOVA MODEL FOR TRANSDNIESTERVladimir Voronin said on 22 February that the model for resolving Kosova's status cannot be applied to other regional conflicts, moldova.org reported the same day. "We cannot accept such an idea, as each conflict, from Transdniester, Abkhazia, and South Ossetia, has developed differently and we cannot accept application of the Kosovo model to other conflicts," Voronin said at a press conference after talks with Macedonian President Branko Crvenkovski. Voronin's comments appeared to be a response to Russian President Vladimir Putin's suggestion that if Kosova is granted independence, then such an option should be open to other breakaway regions in the region. BW
Southwestern Asia And The Middle East
 ISLAMABAD SAYS AFGHAN TERRORIST LIST EXISTSPakistani Interior Minister Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao said in Islamabad on 21 February that Pakistani law enforcement agencies have begun a search for 150 alleged terrorists whose names are on a list given to Pakistan by Afghanistan, the Karachi daily "Dawn" reported on 22 February. Afghan President Hamid Karzai and other officials have said that they handed over to Pakistan a list of suspected members of the neo-Taliban during Karzai's recent visit, though Pakistani Foreign Office spokeswoman Tasneen Aslam denied receiving such a list (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 17, 21, and 22 February 2006). Aslam mentioned that "the Interior Ministry also confirmed that it had not received any such list before the arrival" of Karzai or during his visit. "Yes, we have received a list of about 150 terrorists who are believed to be hiding in Pakistan," Sherpao told "Dawn," adding that such a list was a routine matter, because Pakistan and Afghanistan have in the past exchanged lists of alleged terrorists believed to be hiding in either country. The confusion over the list may stem from the fact that while Kabul has mentioned a list of alleged Taliban members, Pakistani officials have mentioned a list containing names of Al-Qaeda suspects. Neither Kabul nor Islamabad has made public any names on the list. AT
 TWO CIVILIANS KILLED IN ATTACK TARGETING GERMAN FORCES IN NORTHERN AFGHANISTANTwo Afghan children were reportedly killed and 13 other people, including a German soldier, were injured in an explosion in Konduz Province on 22 February, Peshawar-based Afghan Islamic Press (AIP) reported. The Germans are in Konduz as part of a Provincial Reconstruction Team under the command of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). According to an ISAF press release on 22 February, the German soldier was slightly injured and one military vehicle was heavily damaged by a suspected improvised explosive device. Purported neo-Taliban spokesman Mohammad Hanif claimed responsibility for the explosion in Konduz in a telephone interview with AIP on 22 February. Typically, Mohammad Hanif exaggerated the effect of the attack, saying that three "NATO soldiers were killed." AT
 AFGHAN PARLIAMENT TO RETROACTIVELY REVIEW DECREESMohammad Yunos Qanuni, the speaker of the Afghan National Assembly's People's Council (Wolesi Jirga), said on 21 February that legislators will get a chance to review decrees previously issued by President Karzai, Pajhwak Afghan News reported. The 18 newly established committees in the People's Council will review the decrees until 11 March, he added. In the absence of the National Assembly, Karzai has ruled by decree, which according to Article 161 of the Afghan Constitution are subject to review by parliament. The decrees include the appointment of members of the cabinet and the Supreme Court. AT
 AFGHANISTAN-PAKISTAN BUS SERVICE TO BE LAUNCHEDKabul and Islamabad have in principle agreed to begin bus service between Jalalabad and Peshawar in March, Islamabad-based PTV reported on 22 February. Pakistani Communication Ministry Joint Secretary Firdaus Alam made the announcement in Rawalpindi after talks with Afghan Deputy Transport Minister for Policy and Planning Mohammad Hashem Wahidzadah. According to Alam, there will be five buses per day. The two sides also discussed bus service between Kandahar and Quetta. AT
 TEHRAN PLEDGES FUNDING FOR PALESTINIANSThe visiting Hamas political bureau chief, Khalid Mish'al, met with Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani on 22 February and secured a pledge of financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority, international news agencies reported. Larijani said the United States has always ignored the fact that Hamas is a "genuine popular movement that has always pursued the objective of recovering the rights of the oppressed Palestinian people," ILNA reported. Washington's decision to withhold funding from a Palestinian Authority that includes Hamas, Larijani continued, demonstrates U.S. disinterest in Middle East democracy. The United States has made clear, since the Hamas election victory in late January, that it will not fund a Hamas-led government until the organization renounces the use of violence and recognizes Israel's right to exist. Larijani said Tehran notes Mish'al's request for help and "we shall definitely help them financially." Larijani did not disclose how much financial help will be forthcoming. Mish'al told reporters after the meeting that the Iranian support is praiseworthy, IRNA reported. He called on Islamic and Arab countries to also provide support. BS
 KURDISH ACTIVIST CONDEMNS SITUATION IN IRANThe Organization for the Defense of Human Rights in Kurdistan has released a statement noting the difficult situation that has existed for the last seven years, seven months, and seven days, RFE/RL's Radio Farda reported on 22 February. Organization head Mohammad Sadiq Kabudvand described the imprisonment and death sentences of Kurdish activists. He explained that a number of Kurdish activists were shot for an unknown reason in 1999, more of them were arrested in Kurdish towns over the last seven months, and in the last seven days in Maku and other towns state security forces were involved in the shooting of a number of locals. BS
 ENHANCED SECURITY MEASURES IN SOUTHWESTERN IRANThe deputy police chief for the southwestern province of Khuzestan announced on 21 February that an urban security plan is being implemented, Ahvaz television reported. This plan targets vice and "centers of corruption," as well as thugs and hooligans. The three phases of the plan, the unnamed official said, are "information dissemination, public education and documentary evidence, and maintaining security." The policeman said people can call a number to assist the police. Ahvaz has been the site of several bombings in the last nine months (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2006). BS
 IRANIAN SUPREME LEADER BLAMES 'ZIONISTS' FOR IRAQI MOSQUE BOMBING...Reacting to the 22 February bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the occupation forces and, in IRNA's words, "the Zionists deployed in Iraq," are responsible. He urged Shi'a not to attack Sunni mosques in retaliation, IRNA reported. Khamenei announced a week of mourning. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said, "This inhuman move was carried out by blind terrorist agents under circumstances that Iraq has been made insecure as a result of the presence of occupation forces in that country," IRNA reported. He said the bombing was meant to cause sectarian strife. BS
 ...AS IRANIAN RELIGIOUS COMMUNITY MOURNSThe Khuzestan Province office of the Qom Theological School, as well as the Khuzestan Province seminaries, condemned the bombing and announced that a related ceremony will be held at the Ahvaz Grand Mosque on 23 February, Ahvaz television reported. The Ahvaz Friday prayer leader, Ayatollah Mohammad Ali Musavi-Jazayeri, condemned the bombing and announced a day of mourning, Ahvaz television reported. Musavi-Jazayeri said the forces occupying Iraq are mainly responsible because they deal with the country's security, and he called for their departure. Hashem Husseini, described by IRNA as the manager of the Qom Seminary School, announced on 22 February that a special mourning ceremony will take place at the city's Azam Mosque on 23 February. In Isfahan, the head of the Isfahan Theological School, Ayatollah Hussein Mazaheri, condemned the bombing, provincial television reported. BS
 IRAQI INTERIOR, DEFENSE MINISTRIES DECLARE STATE OF ALERTThe Interior and Defense ministries announced a state of alert in Iraq in a joint statement on 22 February, Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. The alert went into effect at 6 a.m. on 23 February and requires all off-duty security forces' personnel to return to their posts. Extended curfew hours have also been put into place in Baghdad and other cities. The curfew will now run from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. rather than 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. KR
 IRAQI SHI'ITE LEADER CALLS FOR UNITYAbd al-Aziz al-Hakim, head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), called on Iraqis to unite in order to drive terrorism from the country in a 22 February press briefing in Baghdad, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. "There must be unity among Iraq, the Arab nation, the Islamic nation, the Islamic peoples, and Arab peoples to produce a unified bloc against terrorism, which is a dangerous disease in Iraq," he said. Asked if political dialogue will continue over the composition of the incoming government, he said: "Dialogues are supposed to continue. Of course, Sunnis, Shi'a, and political blocs are grief-stricken.... We cannot continue our dialogue in a normal manner while we suffer from this calamity." Al-Hakim also commented on remarks by U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad on 20 February calling on Shi'a to form a national unity government (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 21 February 2006). "The ambassador's remarks were not made responsibly.... These statements were a reason for more pressure and for giving a green light to terrorist groups. Consequently, [Khalilzad] shoulders part of the responsibility," al-Hakim said. KR
 IRAQ'S SUNNI LEADERS BOYCOTT TALKS WITH GOVERNMENT...The Sunni Arab Iraqi Accordance Front said it will not attend a 23 February meeting called by President Jalal Talabani to discuss an easing of tensions, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported. senior front official Iyad al-Samarra'i told Reuters that the front boycotted the meeting after the government failed to protect Sunni mosques in the violence that broke out across Iraq following the 22 February Samarra bombing (see "RFE/RL Newsline," 22 February 2006). At least 54 Sunnis, including three imams, have been killed in reprisal attacks by Shi'a across Iraq in the past 24 hours, Iraqi officials announced on 23 February. In Al-Basrah, gunmen wearing police uniforms stormed a prison and dragged out 11 Sunni Arab detainees who were all later found shot dead. Egyptian and Saudi nationals were among the detainees killed, Al-Jazeera television reported on 22 February. KR
 ...FOLLOWING ATTACKS ON SUNNIS...Tariq al-Hashimi, the head of the Iraqi Islamic Party and a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, told reporters at a 22 February press briefing in Baghdad that Sunni Arabs were under siege in Iraq after Shi'a launched retaliatory attacks in a number of cities, RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq reported the same day. Al-Hashimi said that more than 29 Sunni mosques were attacked across Iraq through armed aggression, arson, and occupation. "All types of weapons, including rockets and hand grenades, were used in the attacks," he said. The Al-Basrah office of the Iraqi Islamic Party was attacked by some 700 people, al-Hashimi said, adding that police aided the demonstrators in setting fire to the building. He said that the party's Baghdad office in Al-Rasafah was occupied by a mob and later burned to the ground. He blamed the government for failing to provide protection to Sunnis. "We told them: You are responsible for security in the country and the situation is getting out of control. Therefore, this crisis must be contained. Despite these appeals, attacks on mosques increased with time," he said. KR
 ...AS IRAQ'S NATIONAL DIALOGUE FRONT SAYS ATTACKERS HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH ISLAMThe Sunni-led Iraqi Front for National Dialogue, another party in the Iraqi Accordance Front, said in a 22 February statement read by Salih al-Mutlaq that the attack on the shrines of Imams Ali al-Hadi and Hasan al-Askari were carried out by parties that have "absolutely nothing in common with Islam and Muslims," Al-Sharqiyah television reported the same day. The front expressed its solidarity with all Iraqis. "We will not be divided by such criminal and spineless acts that seek to rattle Iraq's security and endanger the lives of innocent Iraqis," the statement added, and the front called on the people of Iraq and the Arab and Islamic world "to stand as one in the face of these vile conspiracies, whose only goal is to destroy the homeland and security of its people." KR
 IRAQ'S MUSLIM SCHOLARS DENOUNCES BOMBINGMuthanna Harith al-Dari, spokesman for the Muslim Scholars Association, told Al-Arabiyah television in a 22 February interview that the attack on the shrines of two Shi'ite imams in Samarra was an attack on Sunnis as well. "We think that [the imams] belong to the imams of Sunnis and therefore revering them is a must. Hence, this is a blow against us; namely, the [Sunni] people of Samarra who protected this mausoleum for 1,200 years." Al-Dari contended that the attack was "a plot by the occupation and some political groups," and pointed to an Internet statement that was circulated on 21 February calling for an uprising in the name of the Shi'a in order to change the political formula in the country. Baghdad Governor Husayn Muhammad Ali al-Tahhan dismissed al-Dari's comments, telling Al-Arabiyah, "Shi'a cannot demolish one of their sacred symbols and imams." KR
 THREE IRAQI JOURNALISTS KILLED IN SAMARRAThree journalists working for Al-Arabiyah television were kidnapped and killed after reporting from Samarra on 22 February, the satellite news channel reported on 23 February. A fourth employee escaped. Correspondent Atwar Bahjat, cameraman Adnan Abdallah, and sound engineer Khalid Muhsin all disappeared as they were leaving the city; their bodies were later found by police. The perpetrators of the attack are not known. Bahjat left Al-Jazeera in January after many years there to protest an episode of the "Opposite Direction" program, which she said had slandered Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. KR
 IS IRAQ ON THE BRINK OF CIVIL WAR?By Kathleen Ridolfo
Sectarian tensions in Iraq took a turn for the worse on 22 February when armed men detonated explosives inside the Golden Mosque in Samarra, home to a revered Shi'ite shrine, blowing the roof off the building. Iraqi leaders have scrambled to contain the ensuing retaliatory attacks by Shi'a, amid rising fears that the country could be on the brink of civil war. At least six Sunnis have been killed already in retaliatory attacks, and nearly 30 Sunni mosques attacked.
Two of the 12 Shi'ite imams -- Imam Ali al-Hadi, who died in 868 A.D., and his son, Imam Hasan al-Askari, who died in 874 A.D. -- are buried at the mosque. The complex also contains the shrine of the 12th imam, al-Mahdi, who is said to have gone into hiding through a cellar in the complex in 878, and is expected to return on Judgment Day.
Both the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army and the Mujahedin Shura Council -- an alliance of terrorist groups that includes Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda-affiliated group -- are suspected in the attack. Both groups have insurgents operating in Samarra, and have claimed responsibility for attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces there in recent weeks. Just like the assassination of revered Shi'ite Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim in Al-Najaf in 2003, no group has claimed responsibility for the Samarra attack.
Shi'ite Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani immediately called for seven days of mourning following the attack, and urged Shi'a to take to the streets in peaceful demonstrations protesting the attack. The cleric, who rarely appears in public, could be seen on Iraqi state television in a meeting with other leading ayatollahs.
The mass demonstrations -- tens of thousands took to the streets of Baghdad, Al-Najaf, Kut, Al-Kufah, and Samarra -- were accompanied by violence. Reprisal attacks against Sunnis were reported across the country.
More violence can be expected. Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who was in Lebanon as part of a regional tour, headed back to Iraq to join his supporters, who were already out in full force. Media reports have suggested that demonstrators in several cities cited the ongoing occupation as the cause of the attack.
Speaking to Al-Jazeera on 22 February, al-Sadr blamed all parties to the ongoing Iraq conflict for the attack. "It was not the Sunnis who attacked the shrine of Imam Al-Hadi...but rather the occupation; the Takfiris [those who accuse other Muslims of being infidels], Al-Nawasib [a derogatory reference to Sunnis referring to those who declare hostilities against others]...and the Ba'athists," he said. "We should not attack Sunni mosques. I ordered the [Imam] Al-Mahdi Army to protect the Shi'ite and Sunni shrines and to show a high sense of responsibility, something they actually did."
When the dust settles, more questions will come to light. For example, according to media reports, the attackers were dressed in Interior Ministry commando uniforms when they entered the mosque. Sunni Arab leaders have been blaming Interior Ministry forces for dozens of kidnappings and killings of Sunnis in recent months, claiming the ministry's Shi'ite forces use the cover of their uniforms to "arrest" Sunni Arabs who later end up dead on roadsides.
Sporadic media reports last year suggested that Sunni insurgents tied either to the Hussein regime or Al-Qaeda were disguising themselves as security forces to carry out attacks on Sunni Arabs in an attempt to instigate a sectarian war. The reports from Samarra suggest that such tactics may have been employed in this case.
As Shi'a took to the streets in mass protests across Iraq, government officials were quick to condemn the attack, calling a three-day period of mourning. Blaming Al-Qaeda-affiliated militants, officials called for calm, urging Iraqis to remember that the mosque was part of the unified national heritage, and was targeted by insurgents hoping to spark a civil war.
Remarks by President Jalal Talabani indicate the level of concern by government officials. Talabani told reporters at a 22 February press briefing in Baghdad that Iraqis should "strive to avoid any more tension and friction." Saying, "I am here for all Iraqis," Talabani said his door is open to all groups, including insurgents, for dialogue. Speaking about deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's family, Talabani said he offered shelter to Hussein's family when no one else would. "We are generous even with those who are against us."
Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad issued a statement saying the United States would contribute to the rebuilding of the mosque, calling the attack a crime against humanity.
Sunni Arab leaders also condemned the attack. Adnan al-Dulaymi, head of the Iraqi Accordance Front, told Al-Arabiyah television that the denunciation by groups such as the Sunni Waqf (Endowment) Office, the Iraqi Islamic Party, and the Muslim Scholars Association have been ignored by Shi'ite protesters. Al-Dulaymi demanded the government call a curfew to prevent attacks on Sunni mosques, and said mobs had already attacked mosques in Baghdad, Al-Basrah, and Al-Diwaniyah.
The government's ability to control the crisis in the coming days will be key to staving off a broader civil conflict. Tensions were already high in Iraq before the attack, as diverse groups faced off over the composition of the incoming cabinet. With the majority of Iraqis off work during the government-declared mourning period, violence could spread even further, especially following Friday prayers on 24 February, making it difficult for Iraqi and multinational forces to contain the situation in many of Iraq's multiconfessional cities this time.