Wednesday, 11 March 2009

13 March 2009 News Digest

Published in News Digest

By Alima Bissenova (3/11/2009 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Three British Troops Killed In South Afghanistan 26 February An explosion killed three British soldiers in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province, a spokesman for NATO-led forces has said, where U.S. troops are due to be sent to try to turn the tide against Taliban insurgents.

Three British Troops Killed In South Afghanistan 26 February An explosion killed three British soldiers in Afghanistan's southern Helmand Province, a spokesman for NATO-led forces has said, where U.S. troops are due to be sent to try to turn the tide against Taliban insurgents. President Barack Obama last week ordered 17,000 more U.S. troops to southern Afghanistan and many of them will be sent to Helmand, the world's biggest opium-producing region, where British troops clashes daily with Taliban insurgents. The blast happened while the troops were on an escort operation in the Girishk district of Helmand Province on February 25, the British Defense Ministry said. A helicopter was called in to evacuate the soldiers, but a doctor pronounced the men dead on the helicopter before they could reach hospital. Military commanders predict violence will rise further from last year's record levels as the extra U.S. troops enter the south and attempt to clear insurgent strongholds. (Reuters)


Afghans Protest Against Foreign Troops, Six Hurt 27 February Six people were hurt when Afghan police opened fire on demonstrators who claimed U.S. troops had desecrated a Koran during a raid on a mosque. The incident took place in Deh Khodaidad village in Ghazni, southwest of the capital, Kabul. Police said a government team had been sent to investigate claims that foreign troops had raided the mosque, rounded up worshippers, and tore apart copies of the Koran on the night of February 26. A spokesman for the U.S. military said he was aware of a "peaceful protest." Afghan police said any injuries had been caused by "saboteurs" in the crowd. Afghanistan has seen a series of violent protests in recent years over reports of insults to Islam. More than 74,000 foreign troops operate under NATO and U.S. military's command in Afghanistan, fighting the Al-Qaeda-backed Taliban. (Reuters)


Georgian Rebel Region Denies Expelling Villagers 27 February Georgia has said separatist forces in the Russian-backed breakaway region of Abkhazia had expelled dozens of Georgian families overnight, but the Abkhaz authorities dismissed the accusation. The Georgian Interior Ministry said around 50 families were forced from the village of Otobaia by Abkhaz forces searching for a resident of the village. "They went house-to-house and told them to leave and not to come back until they hand him over," Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said. Otobaia lies in Abkhazia's eastern Gali region, home to a large ethnic-Georgian community that complains of discrimination. Tensions over Georgia's breakaway, pro-Russian regions erupted in a five-day war last August in which Russian forces smashed a Georgian assault on another rebel province, South Ossetia. Russia has recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent states, and has thousands of troops in both regions. Utiashvili said the Georgian villagers had crossed the de facto border from Abkhazia and were unsure when they would be able to return. He said the man being searched for was in hospital in Georgia after being shot by Abkhaz forces. Asked about the accusations, the Abkhaz government's Gali representative Ruslan Kishmaria told Reuters: "It's rubbish. Nothing happened there." Unarmed European Union observers are monitoring a fragile cease-fire, but are denied access to both rebel regions. A spokeswoman for the mission said monitors were checking the reports. The Georgian Interior Ministry also accused Russian forces of sending heavy armor to the Gali region. Russia's Interfax news agency quoted an Abkhaz security official as saying a regular rotation of Russian forces was under way near the boundary line. (Reuters)



Tajik Officers Killed On Border With Afghanistan 2 March Two Tajik antidrug officers have been killed and three Tajik border guards injured near the Tajik-Afghan border. Local officials told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that some 30 gunmen attacked the border crossing at Sari Ghor in the Dashti Jam area of the southern Khatlon Province bordering Afghanistan on the night of February 27, killing the officers and injuring the Tajik border guards. Officials say the murders may have been a retribution attack by drug smugglers. Tajik border guards killed six Afghan drug smugglers and confiscated a large amount of drugs several weeks ago. But local officials said they have no idea who the attackers were because they left nothing behind and returned to Afghan side of the border.  (RFE/RL)


Tajik DCA releases report on drug campaign 3 March The Tajikistan Drug Control Agency is being praised for its release Tuesday of a report on efforts to combat the illicit trafficking of narcotics. Gen. Rustam Nazarov, head of the Tajik Drug Control Agency, released the report Tuesday detailing the ongoing campaign targeting transnational criminal groups trafficking drugs in Central Asia and the cooperation between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. The head of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe's Tajikistan office, Ambassador Vladimir Pryakhin, praised the report and called Tajikistan's efforts to target illicit drug-trafficking networks in Central Asia critical for the region, the OSCE reported. "The OSCE office in Tajikistan has repeatedly emphasized the importance of cooperation to combat the security challenges posed by the illegal drug trade," Pryakhin said in a statement. "We must make every effort in activities aimed at enhancing cooperation and intelligence-sharing in fighting illicit drug trafficking." (UPI)

Energy a focus of Economic Cooperation Organization meeting in Iran 4 March The Tehran meetings of the Economic Cooperation Organization represent a critical mass of decision makers, and as the development of the region's energy potential tops the meetings' agendas, the discussion on the Caspian seabed undoubtedly will be, to use diplomatic parlance, "frank and candid." Summit organizers nonetheless already are informing the media that the ECO sessions are expected to conclude by passing a "Tehran Declaration" delineating the progress achieved by the organization in various areas and enumerating potential future projects. Whether the Tehran Declaration will embody some genuine accomplishments or represent simply another photo-op at this point remains to be seen. The ECO was founded in 1985 by Iran, Pakistan and Turkey to promote economic, technical and cultural cooperation. Since then the ECO has grown to 10 members, as Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan joined the organization in 1992. The ECO is notable for the fact that all its member states are Muslim nations. The states range from major energy exporters Azerbaijan, Iran and Kazakhstan through the rising natural gas states of Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan to the consumer states of Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and Turkey. Religious solidarity aside, the economic disparity between the energy "haves" and "have nots" ranges from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, whose economies have flourished on a rising tide of petrodollars, to Afghanistan, still enmeshed in civil war after 30 years of conflict. Significant tensions exist beneath the veneer of cordiality, including rising energy rates from the former Soviet republics causing friction with their neighbors, varying approaches on foreign investment, and squabbles over transit routes and rights between producers and consumers. The global economic recession has affected all industries, including energy. Western hopes remain high, however, for staying a major player in the Caspian basin, the most intensively developed hydrocarbon region since the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which unexpectedly opened the area to foreign development. (UPI)

Azerbaijan's SOCAR boosts oil product exports 19% in Jan-Feb 4 March The State Oil Company of the Azerbaijani Republic  (SOCAR) exported 401,499 tonnes of petroleum products to world markets  in January-February 2009, up 18.9% from the first two months of 2008, the company told Interfax. SOCAR  exported  283,336 tonnes of diesel fuel in January-February, 33,609 tonnes  of  gasoline, 83,972 tonnes of jet fuel and 582 tonnes of fuel oil. The  company  exported  210,082  tonnes  of  petroleum  products in February, including 17,703 tonnes of gasoline, 154,574 tonnes of diesel, 37,223 tonnes of jet fuel and 582 tonnes of fuel oil. SOCAR  reduced  petroleum  product  exports  10.8% to 2.581 million tonnes in 2008. Azerbaijan's two oil refineries, Azerneftyag and Baku Oil Refinery, have capacity  to  refine  22  million  tonnes of oil per year. Both are owned by SOCAR. (Interfax)

Chechnya to declare birthday of Prophet Muhammad holiday 4 March Chechnya has completed preparations for large-scale  celebrations  of  the  Prophet Muhammad birthday due on March 8 - 9, the 12 day of Rabi al-awwal, the third month of the Islamic calendar, the Chechen presidential press service told Interfax. "The   organization   committee  approved  the  final  schedule  of preparations  for  the  Prophet Muhammad birthday. Chechnya's Council of Alims scrutinized the schedule and backed it," the press service said. Grozny  will  see a many-thousand youth march symbolizing the unity of the Chechen  people  on  the  day.  Chechen  students will march from People's  Friendship square to the central mosque, while Madrasah pupils will march there from the opposite direction, Minutka square, it said. The  central  mosque  will  then  see  a  service  at  which famous theologians  from  other  regions  of the Southern Federal District will deliver  sermons.  Fifteen  minutes before the morning prayer Grozny and other Chechen cities will enjoy festive fireworks, it said. The  Prophet Muhammad birthday will be decreed a day-off, the press service added. (Interfax)

Saakashvili Hails Ties with Turkey 5 March President Saakashvili hailed Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his personal contribution in boosting ties between the two countries and called him “my brother.” “We [Turkey and Georgia] have achieved much in recent years [in bilateral ties]; we have free trade agreement, [visa] free border movement, joint airport [in Batumi],” Saakashvili said. He was speaking at a ceremony of opening of a renovated border crossing point between Turkey and Georgia in Sarpi, Adjara Autonomous Republic, which was also attended by the Turkish PM Erdogan. The new border crossing point, renovated by the Turkish side, has three separate lanes – for vehicles, trucks and for foot-passengers. Saakashvili also said that Georgia wanted this border crossing point with Turkey “to be special” and offered a joint Turkish-Georgian administration that would reduce red tape while crossing the border by 70%. He said the joint administration would remove double border crossing and clearance procedures that passengers have to undergo now on the both sides of the border. He said that the decision has already been made on the matter and Turkey will also renovate the border crossing point on the Georgian side of the border and the crossing point will be jointly administered by the two sides. PM Erdogan welcomed the initiative and said “the border should not be an obstacle.” President Saakashvili said that Turkey had turned into Georgia’s major trade partner with “four-fold trade turnout increase in recent years.” Georgia’s trading volume with Turkey reached USD 1.2 billion in 2008, up by 33.7% over 2007, according to the Georgian Statistics Department. Trading volume with Turkey accounted for 15.9% (rose by 1.9%) of the total foreign trade turnover. (Civil Georgia) Russia Says Afghan Heroin Habit Threatens Security 6 March Russia has become the world's biggest heroin consumer and the flood of the drug from Afghanistan poses a threat to national security, Russia's drug enforcement chief has said. Viktor Ivanov said the international community's failure to uproot poppy plantations in Afghanistan, as envisaged by a 10-year U.N. plan adopted in 1998, had caused heroin to flood into Russia across Central Asia's porous borders. "In recent years Russia has not just become massively hooked on Afghan opiates, it has also become the world's absolute leader in the opiate trade and the number one heroin consumer," he said in a report made available to reporters. Ivanov, head of the Federal Drug Control Service, said 90 percent of Russian addicts now took Afghan heroin and the drug was partly to blame for rising crime and a fall in Russia's population. Russia would press for a tough action plan on Afghanistan at a high-level meeting of the U.N.-sponsored Commission on Narcotic Drugs to be held in Vienna on March 11-12, he said. "Our people are dying. Some 90 percent of drug addicts in Russia are on Afghan heroin," Ivanov said. "This is a threat to national security and to our country's society." "It is time the world community got serious about the Afghan drug problem," Ivanov said. Poppy crops should be sprayed with defoliants and farmers offered incentives to cease production. Ivanov, who did not say which country Russia had replaced as the top heroin user, estimated the addiction cost Russia 3 percent of its annual gross domestic product, which in 2008 totaled about $1.7 trillion. He said it was impossible to control Russia's 7,000-km border with Kazakhstan, through which drugs arrive. Some 3.5 tons of heroin were intercepted last year, a 17.5 percent rise on 2007. But in the first two months of this year, 400 kilos were seized, a 70-percent increase on the same year-ago period, he said. "It is real luck, if 20 percent [of total trafficked volumes] are intercepted," he admitted. "Usually it's 10 percent." "Drug trafficking has become a key negative factor for demography and a blow to our nation's gene pool," said Ivanov. "This is why the issue of output and heroin smuggling from Afghanistan must be seen today as a challenge to Russia's civilization." "Today's situation with Russia's intoxication by Afghan heroin is unprecedented for the last 100 years," Ivanov said. "It can only be compared to the situation in China at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries." (Reuters)

Flights Between Tajik, Uzbek Capitals To Be Restored 6 March The state airlines of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have agreed to restore flights between Dushanbe and Tashkent, which ended 17 years ago. Tajik Air spokeswoman Nazira Davlatova told RFE/RL's Tajik Service that flights are expected to begin this month. She added that in addition to Tashkent, the airlines want to restore flights to the Uzbek cities of Samarkand and Bukhara. Thousands of mixed Tajik-Uzbek families are hopeful for a cancellation of a strict visa regime introduced at the end of the 1990s when relations became tense after attacks by Islamists. The two countries agreed in 2000 to resume flights between Dushanbe and Tashkent, but Uzbekistan canceled the agreement after one flight.  (RFE/RL)

Four Killed As Violence Flares On Afghan-Pakistan Border 9 March Pakistani forces have killed four militants in a strategically important region on the Afghan border in the most serious incident in the area since militants declared a cease-fire two weeks ago. Pakistan is under international pressure to eliminate militant enclaves in lawless ethnic Pashtun areas on the Afghan border from where the Taliban orchestrate their insurgency in Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda plots violence. The heaviest fighting in recent months has been in the Bajaur region, opposite Afghanistan's Kunar Province. A Pakistani commander said late last month his forces had defeated militants in Bajaur after a six-month campaign. The hard-pressed militants led by an Al-Qaeda ally, Faqir Mohammad, declared a unilateral cease-fire in Bajaur on February 23. Although the military rejected a militant offer of talks, fighting petered out. But early on March 9, militants fired rocket-propelled grenades at a paramilitary force post near the town of Nawagai, a military official said. "Forces returned fire and killed four militants," the military official said. Residents of the area confirmed the clash. Bajaur has long been a major infiltration route into Afghanistan. (RFE/RL)


Protesters, Police Scuffle Outside Georgia Assembly 9 March Dozens of antigovernment protesters in Georgia briefly have scuffled with police outside parliament in the capital, Tbilisi, and one person was detained. Protest organizers said three or four people were lightly injured when police moved in to push back demonstrators threatening to block traffic on Tbilisi's main Rustaveli Avenue. "They wanted to block the road, so police stopped them," Interior Ministry spokesman Shota Utiashvili said. He said one person had been detained and would probably be fined and released. Several of Georgia's main opposition parties are set to protest on April 9 to demand President Mikheil Saakashvili to resign, in part over the country's five-day war with Russia in August 2008. Criticism of Saakashvili has sharpened since the conflict, when Russia sent in tanks and troops to repel a Georgian assault on breakaway South Ossetia. The pro-Western president was already under fire for a perceived authoritarian streak since coming to power on the back of the peaceful 2003 Rose Revolution. In November 2007, police used tear gas and water cannons to end days of opposition protests outside parliament in a crackdown criticized by Georgia's Western backers as heavy-handed.  (Reuters)


U.S. Troop Surge To Aid Afghan Police Trainers 10 March The arrival of thousands of new U.S. troops to Afghanistan this year will help meet a serious shortage of U.S. police trainers, who have so far coped with "less than ideal" circumstances, the U.S. military has said. The United States is to send 17,000 additional U.S. troops to the war-torn country to bolster some 70,000 foreign troops, including 38,000 U.S. soldiers, already on the ground battling a resurgent Taliban in the south and east. But military commanders have recognized any "surge" in foreign troops can ultimately only buy time to expand the Afghan National Army and police, which are seen as the long-term solution to Afghanistan's security. The United States, which took over as the primary trainer of the Afghan police in 2007, needs around 1,500 more soldiers to carry out its mentoring program, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released on March 9. "We expect a substantial portion of the shortage to be met [by the troop increase] so we will be able to continue our police mentoring mission," a spokesman for the force that trains the police (CSTC-A), U.S. Lieutenant Colonel Chris Kubik, said. Before Afghan and U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in late 2001, Afghanistan had little concept of police and while progress has been made in developing the fledgling force, it is usually seen as corrupt and lagging behind the more professional army. In many isolated outposts, the police are the only face of the Afghan government and are vulnerable to insurgent attacks, but they are also renowned for milking the populace for bribes. Kubik agreed that the U.S. military was 1,500 trainers short, but could not say exactly how many of these places would be filled by the incoming troops. To help meet the shortage, CSTC-A has had to shift some of its soldiers training the Afghan Army to training the police, the GAO said, a move that can only be seen as a short-term solution as the demand for Afghan army trainers increases. Afghanistan's Interior Ministry, which runs the police, is also seen as endemically corrupt and because of the lack of an accurate tracking system, cannot give an exact figure for the amount of police in the country, the GAO said. Some police chiefs had also inflated their personnel rosters, creating "ghost policemen" in order to collect additional salary payments for themselves, it said. (Reuters)

IMF Approves Major Loan To Armenia 10 March The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has officially approved a $540 million loan to Armenia, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports. The IMF will disburse $237 million of the loan immediately, with the remainder being transferred in nine installments subject to reviews. IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn announced the package on March 3 after the Armenian government and the Central Bank allowed the country's currency, the dram, to be devalued by 20 percent. The IMF said Armenian officials will cut back on nonpriority spending, increase social spending by 0.3 percent of GDP, and enhance bank supervision. The loan is repayable in 28 months. The IMF anticipates the Armenian economy will contract by 1.5 percent in 2009 after more than a decade of robust growth. (RFE/RL)

Russia respects decisions on Nabucco 10 March Moscow respects decisions by Azerbaijan to back the planned Nabucco pipeline to relieve dependency on Russian gas, Russia's foreign minister said. "Azerbaijan's decision to participate in energy projects is its sovereign right," Sergei Lavrov told the Trend News Agency. "We respect this. That also goes for the Nabucco pipeline." Lavrov said ahead of a meeting in the Azeri capital, Baku, that energy diversity was vital on several fronts, including economic and environmental issues. "We are against excessive politicization," he added. The European Union put energy diversification at the top of its agenda in the wake of a January conflict between Moscow and Kiev that left Europe starved for gas as 80 percent of its Russian gas travels through Ukraine. Nabucco would travel 2,051 miles to link Caspian and Middle Eastern suppliers to European markets through a route that bypasses Russia. Lavrov said, however, that Moscow recognizes the need to diversify the transit routes for energy resources in the region. "Russia shares a common understanding of the need to diversify supply routes to ensure European energy security," he said. (UPI)

Iran Urges Trade As ECO Summit Opens In Tehran 11 March Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, speaking in Tehran at a one-day summit of the Economic Cooperation Organization (ECO), called on member nations to turn the looming global economic crisis into "opportunities." Ahmadinejad characterized the present Western-inspired economic order as "irresponsible" and said that by increasing trade among themselves, the 10-nation ECO could find economic safety. The group was founded in 1985 by Iran, Pakistan and Turkey, and now includes Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan,  Kyrgyzstan, and Uzbekistan. He also said the region should think about developing a single currency. Although the summit's formal sessions are largely given over to economic themes, the real interest in the meeting lies in the rich mix of countries it brings together. Some of them are at the center of the world's political stage, such as Iran, with the international dispute over its nuclear intentions; Pakistan, with its struggle against Islamic extremism; and Afghanistan, with its long-running Taliban insurgency. The leaders of Iraq and Syria are also present as guests. With such a diverse cast, it would be surprising if the summit did not go beyond trade and economics. For instance, Turkish President Abdullah Gul has called on Iran to review its hard-line political stance toward the United States. Speaking before flying to Tehran, Gul said the arrival of U.S. President Barack Obama in the White House has changed everything, and other countries now need to review their policies to take account of this. Reports have said that Gul is personally delivering a message to Ahmadinejad from Obama. These reports are unconfirmed, but it's clear that the Obama administration is trying to build a new atmosphere around the question of contacts with Iran. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has just visited Ankara, indicated on March 6 that Iran would be invited to an international conference on Afghanistan to be held on March 31. Iranian Foreign Minister Manoucheher Mottaki says Iran is considering accepting the invitation. Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmoood Qureshi said in Tehran that his country would add its voice to those urging Iran to attend the conference. And Ahmadinejad has had the opportunity to talk over the matter directly with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who is also in Tehran for the ECO summit. (RFE/RL)


Nazarbayev suggests introduction of common payment unit within EurAsEC 11 March Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev has proposed  the  introduction  of  a  common  payment  unit within the Eurasian Economic Community (EurAsEC). "The  integration  association  (EurAsEC)  could  introduce its own common supranational cashless payment unit. Its exchange rate should not depend on  fluctuations of world currencies," Nazarbayev said at the 2nd Astana Economic  Forum  dealing  with  Eurasia's  economic security amid global risks on Wednesday. This  payment  unit  "could be called Euras or Eurasia," Nazarbayev said. EurAsEC   comprises   Belarus,   Kazakhstan,   Kyrgyzstan,  Russia, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. (Interfax)

Georgia Withdraws from Eurovision Song Contest 11 March Georgia has decided to pull out from the Moscow Eurovision Song Contest after the contest organizer, European Broadcasting Union, offered Georgia to either re-write its song lyrics, poking fun at Russia’s PM Putin, or to submit another song. The Georgian public broadcaster said on March 11 the decision was made not to do either and hence not to go to Moscow. EBU said that the song 'We Don't Wanna Put In' violates the rule, which reads: “The lyrics and/or performance of the songs shall not bring the Shows or the Eurovision Song Contest as such into disrepute. No lyrics, speeches, gestures of a political or similar nature shall be permitted during the Eurovision Song Contest.” (Civil Georgia)

Yerevan Upset over Saakashvili’s Armenia Remarks 11 March President Saakashvili’s statement that Armenia’s “economy has crashed completely” is “groundless” and not in the line with “political correctness,” Samvel Farmanyan, a spokesman for the Armenian President, said on March 10. “Description provided by the President of Georgia of the Armenia’s economy during opening of an amusement center is groundless. I do not think that making such descriptions is the best option for distracting the attention of his own people from numerous problems existing in Georgia,” Yerevan-based Novosti Armenia news agency quoted Farmanyan’s statement. He said that Armenian President had been asked number of times to comment on economic situation in neighboring states, but he had never made remarks on these problems “regardless of how attractive” that could have been. “He always leaves such type of comments up to analysts and political figures of the respective countries. Political correctness requires it,” Farmanyan added. President Saakashvili said on March 7: “You know that the Armenia’s economy has crashed completely; why? Because Armenia has been totally depended on the Russian market; the Russian market has collapsed and the Armenia’s economy has collapsed too. We are in the region where economies are experiencing difficulties; but Georgia will sustain, Georgia will survive even in the light of difficulties, in case of political stable situation,” he said. (Civil Georgia)







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