Wednesday, 17 February 2010

17 February 2010 News Digest

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By Alima Bissenova (2/17/2010 issue of the CACI Analyst)

Iran spends lavishly on gas infrastructure 3 February Tehran announced plans to spend roughly $9 billion to develop its domestic natural gas infrastructure as part of a five-year development plan, officials said. Javad Owji, the head of the National Iranian Gas Co., said there are plans to build thousands of miles of pipelines inside the country, the Petroenergy Information Network in Iran reports.

Iran spends lavishly on gas infrastructure 3 February Tehran announced plans to spend roughly $9 billion to develop its domestic natural gas infrastructure as part of a five-year development plan, officials said. Javad Owji, the head of the National Iranian Gas Co., said there are plans to build thousands of miles of pipelines inside the country, the Petroenergy Information Network in Iran reports. "Construction of 3,000-3,700 miles of gas pipelines and 20-22 pressure control stations is included in the development plan for 2010-2015," he said. Iran sits on some of the largest natural gas deposits in the world, hosting the giant South Pars gas complex in the Persian Gulf. A weak domestic capacity and pressure from economic sanctions over its controversial nuclear program prevents the Islamic republic from realizing its full capacity, however. Nevertheless, Iran has made some progress in expanding its client base, reaching deals with Azerbaijan for natural gas exports through northern arteries. Tehran points to its lucrative gas reserves to make the case for a role in Europe's Nabucco pipeline, though Western powers have said Iran will play no part in the project. Islamabad and Tehran, meanwhile, expect to sign off on a long-delayed pipeline from South Pars as early as next week. (UPI)

Afghan blast kills two, wounds 26 5 February A bomb planted in a motorcycle in southern Afghanistan's most dangerous province has killed two people and wounded at least 26, provincial officials said. The blast took place near a dog fighting match, a traditional pastime where groups of men congregate, in Lashkar Gah, capital of Helmand province, said Kamaluddin, a senior provincial police officer who goes only by one name. Earlier, Ahmad Nabi, another senior police official at the scene of the blast, told Reuters two people had been killed and 12 others, including children, were wounded. Violence in Afghanistan is at its highest level since the Taliban were ousted in 2001. U.S. and British troops in the province are gearing up for a major offensive on the western outskirts of Lashkar Gah. Last year was the deadliest year for both Afghan civilians and foreign troops. Some 2,400 civilians were killed in 2009 as a result of Taliban attacks and Afghan and Western forces operations, according to the United Nations. More than twice as many U.S. and British troops died in 2009 compared to the previous year. While Taliban insurgents normally target Afghan and foreign troops with suicide and roadside bombs in an attempt to overthrow the government and drive international troops out of the country, most of the victims are ordinary Afghans. There are some 115,000 foreign troops in Afghanistan battling a strengthening Taliban insurgency and Washington has begun sending 30,000 more in a bid to turn the tide. (Reuters)

Afghan police kill seven boys collecting firewood 6 February Seven Afghan boys were shot dead today by police who mistook them for insurgents, a provincial police official said. The boys were collecting firewood when police opened fire on them in the border town of Spin Boldak, southern Kandahar Province, Abdul Raziq, police commander for the town, said. The police had been detained and were being questioned, he said. Spin Boldak has been an entry point for Pakistani insurgents who infiltrate Afghanistan to stage attacks against the government and international forces. Last year, 2,400 Afghan civilians were killed in Taliban attacks and Afghan and NATO-led operations, according to the United Nations. The killing of civilians is a sensitive issue and President Hamid Karzai has repeatedly warned that civilian deaths sap support for his administration and for the presence of some 115,000 foreign troops in the country. (Reuters)

Armenian President Urges Turkey to act on historic protocols 9 February Armenian President Serzh Sarkisian today urged Turkey to act on its fence-mending agreements with Yerevan, warning that a continued delay could roll back the "historic" rapprochement between the two countries, RFE/RL's Armenian Service reports. In a message sent to Turkish President Abdullah Gul, Sarkisian said, "The time has come to manifest determination to take the next major step and leave to future generations a stable and secure region." Sarkisian was referring to the ratification by the Turkish parliament of the two protocols signed in October that commit Ankara and Yerevan to establish diplomatic relations and open the Turkish-Armenian border. The deal has the strong backing of the international community. Turkish leaders have repeatedly made the ratification conditional on a breakthrough in the protracted international efforts to settle the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. They also cite a recent Armenian Constitutional Court ruling that invoked the term "genocide" as an obstacle to implementation. Yerevan, in turn, has accused Turkey of seeking "artificial excuses" to avoid a normalization of bilateral ties. In his message to Turkey's Gul, Sarkisian wrote, "We can achieve results only if there is trust, resolve, and an unfaltering stance." He continued, "A situation when words are not supported by deeds gives rise to mistrust and skepticism, providing ample opportunities to those who oppose the process to act." Sarkisian had earlier threatened to walk away from the agreements if Turkey failed to ratify them within a "reasonable time frame." Some Armenian officials and pro-government politicians have suggested that if Turkey doesn't endorse the protocols by the end of March, Armenia may annul the deal. (RFE/RL)

Uzbek photographer convicted, amnestied for libel 10 February An Uzbek court has convicted an award-winning photographer for defaming Uzbekistan with her pictures about the daily struggles of ordinary people, but then immediately amnestied her. Umida Ahmedova, 54, was convicted of portraying people in Uzbekistan as backward and impoverished in a collection of photographs and a documentary film, both financed by the Swiss Embassy in Tashkent. The charges against her had carried a maximum sentence of two years in a labor camp or six months in jail. (RFE/RL)

International sanctions won’t affect Iran – ambassador 10 February Iran's Ambassador to Russia Saeed Mahmoud Reza Sadjadi said fresh sanctions against Iran over its decision to enrich uranium to a higher level on Tuesday would not affect the country's development. "Nothing awful will happen. We have lived quietly for 31 years and we will live well in the future, don't worry," the Iranian ambassador told reporters in Kazan, when asked by Interfax how Iran would respond if new sanctions were imposed on it. Iran has been under European and American sanctions ever since the victory of the Islamic Revolution, he said. "Precisely due to these sanctions we have become self-sufficient in many areas and achieved a great deal," he said. On Russia's position on sanctions, the ambassador said there is a difference between Russia and the West's positions. "Sanctions have to do exclusively with curbs on the development of Iran's nuclear industry. Precisely this is the difference in how the West and Russia see this problem," the ambassador said. The West, they want to use the issue to overthrow the Iranian Islamic system, he said. "Russia is aware of this and it says that sanctions must be limited to the nuclear program and apply exclusively to it." (Interfax)

Georgian Journalist seeks political asylum in Switzerland 10 February Georgian journalist Vakhtang Komakhidze has said he must leave the country because of "aggressive threats" from the authorities against him and his family and has therefore requested political asylum in Switzerland, RFE/RL's Georgian and Russian services report. Komakhidze said he faces political pressure because of a documentary he made about Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia. In December, Komakhidze and several other human rights activists visited the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali, and shot a documentary about life there. After his film was shown in Tbilisi, Komakhidze said he started receiving telephone threats that led him to contact the Swiss Embassy and eventually ask for political asylum. Komakhidze, who heads a video studio called Reporter, is well-known in Georgia for his investigative reports on the death of Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Zhvania and his friend Raul Yusupov in February 2005. Komakhidze made a documentary hinting that Zhvania did not die accidentally from carbon-monoxide poisoning, as was officially reported, but that he was assassinated. A Georgian Foreign Ministry spokesperson told RFE/RL that Komakhidze has no reason to request political asylum, but his desire to do so is his own business. (RFE/RL)

Kyrgyz activists demonstrate as opposition leader’s appeal begins 11 February About 1,000 protesters gathered in the southern Kyrgyz village of Gulcho to demand the release of former Defense Minister Ismail Isakov, RFE/RL's Kyrgyz Service reports. The demonstrators met at a local sports complex after local officials refused to allow the rally to gather at the village's administrative building. Outside the complex, dozens of young supporters of Isakov were on horses guarding the gathering. Isakov was found guilty of corruption and sentenced to eight years in prison last month. He pleaded not guilty and said that the case against him was politically motivated because of his work with the opposition. Several of his supporters -- including his 85-year-old mother -- have been on a rotating hunger strike for the past three weeks demanding his release from prison. The hunger strike was suspended on February 9. A Kyrgyz military court today began hearings into Isakov's appeal. The hunger strikers told RFE/RL that they stopped their action in order "not to be seen as trying to influence the court's decision" on the appeal. (RFE/RL)

Kazakhstan shuns Ukraine for oil export 11 February An oil transit company in Kazakhstan said undisclosed disputes with Kiev forced it to look to Poland as a transport corridor, a company spokesman said. A spokesman for oil transport company KazTransOil announced a decision to transport its oil to the Polish port of Gdansk, Russia's state-owned news agency RIA Novosti reports. "Supplies via Poland are also quite attractive," the spokesman added. KazTransOil said Ukraine broke off its agreement with the company Jan. 26. Ukrainian transport company Ukrtransnafta had pumped oil through the Druzhba oil pipeline, the longest in the world. The Kazakh company added it would move for a deal with Russia for oil exports. Ukraine's image as a transit nation was sullied in January 2009 when a dispute over gas debt to Moscow forced Russian gas monopoly Gazprom to cut supplies for weeks. That left Europe in the cold as much as 80 percent of all Russian gas bound for European customers travels through Soviet-era pipelines in Ukraine. KazTransOil said Ukrtransnafta did not provide a reason for walking away from the agreement, forcing the company to "look for alternative directions for Kazakh oil exports." (UPI)

Uzbekistan puts limits on Kyrgyz citizens’ visits 12 February Uzbek officials have introduced new regulations that limit the number of visits Kyrgyz citizens can make to Uzbekistan, RFE/RL's Uzbek and Kyrgyz services report. The new rule restricts citizens of neighboring Kyrgyzstan to only one visit to Uzbekistan per month. No explanation was given by Uzbek officials for the new regulation. The regulation will mainly affect the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Uzbeks with Kyrgyz passports who reside in southern Kyrgyzstan, particularly in the Osh region. Many of them have relatives on the other side of the border and travel to Uzbekistan on a regular basis. Kyrgyz border guards at the Dostuk (Friendship) checkpoint along the Kyrgyz-Uzbek border confirmed the new regulation adopted by Uzbekistan. Ethnic Uzbeks make up an estimated 15 percent of Kyrgyzstan's 5.5 million people. (RFE/RL)

Kazakhstan sends rice, oil to Tajikistan 12 February Kazakhstan has sent 17 railcars of rice and 36 railcars of vegetable oil as humanitarian aid to Tajikistan, the Kazakhstan Foreign Ministry said. The humanitarian aid was handed over in Dushanbe on Friday, the ministry said. "The humanitarian cargo consists of 1,000 tonnes of rice (17 railcars) and 1,500 tonnes of vegetable oil (36 railcars)," the ministry said. "Kazakhstan is one of the leading providers of humanitarian aid to the fraternal Tajik people," Kazakhstan's Ambassador to Tajikistan Abutalip Akhmetov said at the handover ceremony. Tajikistan thanked Kazakhstan for the timely provision of the aid. (Interfax)

Baku wants new gas pipeline to Iran 12 February The State Oil Co. of the Azerbaijan Republic said it would start construction this year of a 124-mile natural gas pipeline to Iran, gas officials said. Nazim Samadzade, the deputy chief at Azerigas PU, said SOCAR is set to build the Sangachal-Azadkend-Astara pipeline, Azerbaijan's Trend news agency reports. "It is expected that construction of the new pipeline will begin in 2010," he added. Samadzade said the decision was made to expand its pipeline options to Iran because current infrastructure was inadequate for increased gas exports. Iran said the mountainous terrain in its northern provinces prevents transits from energy-rich regions in the south of the country, forcing it to rely on imports. The 916-mile Kazi-Magmoed-Astara gas pipeline delivers 353 billion cubic feet of Azeri gas to northern Iran each year. Existing infrastructure would allow Iran to import more than 17 billion cubic feet of gas from Azerbaijan each year. Both countries hold some of the richest gas deposits in the world, though Iran lacks the infrastructure needed to make full use of its gas. Baku expressed concern recently that U.S. sanctions targeting the Iranian energy sector could undermine its trade relationship with Tehran. (UPI)

Ingushetia security action accidentally claims four lives – spokesman 13 February The president of Russia's Ingushetia republic, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, on Saturday visited the families of civilians accidentally killed in the course of a recent security operation in the republic that also claimed the lives of at least 14 militants, the presidential spokesman said. Yevkurov offered the civilian victims' families his condolences and promised them financial support, spokesman Kaloi Akhilgov told Interfax. Akhilgov said four villagers were killed and two others injured during the operation in Sunzha district. About 80 people were evacuated from the operation site. Yevkurov said all of them were picking ramsons, a wild relative of chives, when the operation started. Earlier on Saturday, seven of the slain militants were identified. On Friday, the Ingush president's office said 16 militants had died during the operation. (Interfax)

Marjah offensive puts Afghan civilians on the front line 15 February NATO and Afghan forces are pushing deep into the town of Marjah -- a major smuggling hub and Taliban stronghold -- on the third day of a large-scale offensive in Helmand Province. Residents are optimistic that Afghan and NATO troops will bring them security. But locals are also warning troops to do their utmost to avoid civilian casualties in their zeal to take control of the Taliban stronghold. "We want to see you, as you are claiming, bring stability to our region,” said one unidentified farmer, speaking to British troops. “We are happy [at the offensive], but we expect you not to harm us or pain and humiliate us. We expect this and will accept this and it will make us happy." The farmer's comments highlighted locals' rising concerns a day after 12 civilians were killed when NATO rockets struck a house in Marjah on February 14. The incident led NATO to issue an immediate apology and to promise an investigation, and prompted Afghan President Hamid Karzai to caution troops to avoid civilian casualties as they take on the Taliban in a populated area. Western and Afghan troops are claiming steady progress in the offensive dubbed "Moshtarak," or "Together." On February 14, a spokesman for Helmand's governor said 12 Taliban fighters were killed in overnight fighting in Marjah, close to the provincial capital Lashkar Gah. Approximately 100,000 people, most of whom remained home in the face of the assault, live in the Marjah and the surrounding area. Following the civilian deaths, the commander of the U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, General Stanly McChrystal, suspended the use of the artillery rocket system that caused the casualties. NATO, wary of angering civilians, acceded to their demands by banning house searches. (RFE/RL)

Kazakhstan turns to heating fuel as Uzbekistan cuts gas sales 15 February Kazakhstan, the biggest energy producer in Central Asia, boosted use of heating fuel to fire power generators after neighboring Uzbekistan cut gas supplies as the winter cold raised demand. Pressure has been low in the gas pipeline from Uzbekistan to Kazakhstan since Feb. 12, Baurzhan Boribek, a spokesman for Astana-based KazTransGaz, a gas-shipping unit of the nation’s energy company, said by phone today. “Uzbekistan usually decreases gas supply every year for a few days without giving notice, when it becomes colder in winter,” Boribek said. Authorities in southern Kazakh asked China National Petroleum Corp.’s PetroKazakhstan to load 5,000 tons of heating oil to supply local companies with energy, news service Kazakhstan Today reported citing Berik Ospanov, a deputy governor for southern region of Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan supplies its southern regions using Uzbek gas through swaps, shipping the same volume of its own gas to OAO Gazprom, Russia’s gas pipeline and export monopoly, across the northern border. Kazakhstan doesn’t plan to cut gas deliveries to Russia, Boribek said. “Uzbekistan makes all steps in accordance with contract obligations,” Elena Kim, a Tashkent-based spokeswoman for Uzbekistan’s energy company Uzbekneftegaz, said by e-mail today. She declined to elaborate. (Bloomberg)

Azerbaijan approves in general updated Karabakh settlement principles 15 February Baku mostly approves of the updated Karabakh settlement principles, Azeri Foreign Minister Elmar Mamedyarov told a Monday press briefing following negotiations with OSCE Chairman-in-Office, Kazakh State Secretary - Foreign Minister Kanat Saudabayev. "The updated settlement principles, which the OSCE Minsk Group co-chairmen put forward in Athens, are acceptable," he said. "We generally acknowledge these principles but there are certain aspects that require further coordination," Mamedyarov said. He said he had recently spoken to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov who said that Armenia had not commented on the updated principles yet. The status quo in the Karabakh settlement process is impermissible, Mamedyarov said. "The notions of 'ethnic cleansing' and 'occupied lands' are not acceptable if we develop a normal relationship within the OSCE framework," he said. (

Abkhazia doesn’t agree with return of Georgian refugees – Bagapsh 16 February Abkhazia will not agree with the return of Georgian refugees because that will lead to a war, Abkhaz President Sergei Bagapsh told MGIMO university professors and students in Moscow on Tuesday. “A total of 72 nationalities – Abkhazians, Armenians, Georgians, Russians, Estonians and others – live in Abkhazia now. We received about 55,000 refugees after the war with Georgia, while Georgia received only 5,000. These people are our citizens of full value. They take part in the republic’s life, including elections. The return of other refugees is problematic, and we cannot do it right now for fear of a possible war,” he said. Bagapsh recalled the Moscow agreement and said that Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili had seceded from that document. Abkhazia will not hold a dialog or cooperate with the incumbent Georgian administration, the president said. “We are open for a dialog with any state, but any dialog or contacts with the incumbent Georgian administration are out of the question,” he said. “One must tell the difference between the Georgian authorities and the people of Georgia. There are no bad peoples, but there are some bad authorities. We have negative feelings for these politicians because their hands are bloodstained and they must be tried by an international tribunal,” he said. “Abkhazia will negotiate if Georgia understands that the world has changed and new realities have taken shape,” Bagapsh said. “It is necessary to recognize Abkhazia and to develop normal relations. It is impossible to build a wall between peoples of Abkhazia and Georgia,” he said. Saakashvili “is not a serious politician,” Bagapsh said, expressing his sincere sympathy with the people of Georgia. Abkhazia is working on its recognition by a larger number of states, Bagapsh said. “Abkhazia is endlessly thankful to Russia for its courageous position in August 2008,” he said. “Abkhazia keeps working on its recognition by a larger number of states, and the Russian Foreign Ministry is helping us a lot,” Bagapsh noted. “At the same time, Abkhazia will beg no one for recognition. We will develop the domestic policy and economy in such a way that no one will have any recognition doubts. Obviously, this is not easy, but we are trying,” he said. (Itar-Tass)

Kazakhs sign up to Moscow-backed force 17 February Kazakhstan ratified an accord Wednesday committing it to a NATO-style rapid-reaction force drawn from the armies of former Soviet nations, the Kazakh presidential press office said in a statement. The force will operate under the auspices of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, a Russian-backed military bloc that also includes Armenia, Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan as members. Uzbekistan now remains the only organization member not to sign the rapid reaction force agreement. Uzbekistan, which regards itself as Central Asia's main military power broker, has traditionally been wary of Moscow's attempts to dominate security in the region. The force's stated aim is to combat threats of terrorism, extremism and drug trafficking, as well as helping to deal with the aftermath of natural and man-made disasters. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and the leaders of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan finalized the creation of the rapid-reaction force in June. Belarus resisted joining for several months amid a trade dispute with Russia, but eventually relented. More than 7,000 troops from five Collective Security Treaty Organization member countries assembled at a training ground in southern Kazakhstan in October for the force's first large-scale exercises. Russia's efforts to increase its clout in Central Asia are widely viewed as an attempt to outmaneuver the United States as it pushes for influence in the strategic region. Moscow clinched a tentative agreement last summer allowing it to significantly boost the number of troops it has deployed in Kyrgyzstan, where the United States also has an important air transit center helping ferry supplies to nearby Afghanistan. So far, no additional Russian troops have been deployed. U.S. forces have used bases in Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to support military operations in Afghanistan. (AP)

Federal forces blamed for civilians’ death 17 February A Russian regional human rights official said on Tuesday that federal forces killed innocent civilians during an operation to root out insurgents in the north Caucasus. Chechnya's rights ombudsman said four passers-by died along with 18 suspected Islamic militants in a bloody three-day shootout that ended on Saturday in the mountains of Ingushetia, along the border with Chechnya. Ombudsman Nurdi Nukhazhiyev said that he doubted the objectivity of an ongoing investigation by military prosecutors into the killings. 'Our doubts are based on the fact that dozens and hundreds of crimes committed by the (Russian) military against civilians in Chechnya have not been investigated,' Mr Nukhazhiyev said in a statement. Mr Nukhazhiyev heads Chechnya's human rights commission that answers to the region's Kremlin-backed leader, Ramzan Kadyrov. The panel rarely criticises the Chechen authorities and lambasts independent rights activists. The independent rights group Memorial Monday made similar allegations regarding the shootout. Rights activists said that four Chechen villagers were killed in the crossfire when they wandered across the Ingush border to gather wild garlic. Rights activists say widespread abuses against civilians by police, including abductions, torture and killings, have helped to swell the ranks of the militants. (AP)
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