Tajikistan’s most high-profile Islamic State fighter has threatened to kill his brother back home and dismissed rumors he is a government mole on a secret mission inside the so-called caliphate.
Police special forces (OMON) commander Gulmurod Halimov’s shock defection last month to the Islamic State caused panic in Dushanbe. Authorities quickly blocked access to social media carrying his video, in which he condemned authoritarian President Emomali Rahmon and vowed “we are coming to you with slaughter.”
On June 18, Halimov appeared in another video published online. Lounging between two Tajik militants, and sporting a bushier beard than in his first video, Halimov responds to criticism from his older brother by threatening to cut off his head.
Saidmurod Halimov had denounced his brother’s decision to join the Islamic State in an interview with Radio Ozodi.
The five-minute video lacks the high-tech editing and graphics seen in his first clip.
Moscow is driven by the principle of "parity" in its arms supplies to rivals Armenia and Azerbaijan, a senior Russian defense official has said, in comments that are likely to further erode Armenia's confidence in its ostenible military ally, Russia.
"I know that the sale of arms by Russian manufacturers is carried out by the decision of the Russian leadership taking into account the necessity of observing parity," Nikolay Bordyuzha, the secretary general of the Collective Security Treaty Organization, said at a press conference June 18. "In addition to the arms Azerbaijan buys, arms are delivered and sold to Armenia in quite large quantities. And that allows a sort of parity to be maintained."
Armenia is a member of the CSTO, a post-Soviet defense bloc, while Azerbaijan is not. The CSTO has been dogged by doubts about its effectiveness, but Armenia is the most loyal member, seeing the alliance as a instrument of Russian support against Azerbaijan.
Azerbaijan has been extravagantly rearming itself with the aim of retaking Nagorno Karabakh, its territory that it lost to Armenian forces in a war in the early 1990s. The fact that Azerbaijan has been making many of those purchases from Russia has been causing increasing discomfort in Yerevan. Earlier this year the scale of those sales was revealed for the first time, with Russia supplying a whopping 85 percent of Azerbaijan's total weapons acquisitions.
Belarus has announced that it tested its new rocket-launcher system in China, the latest sign of an increasing military partnership between the two countries. And Belarus's president Aleksandr Lukashenko took the opportunity to take swipes at both Russia and NATO countries, suggesting Minsk may be more comfortable with Beijing than with any of its neighbors in Europe.
The Polonez multiple-launch rocket system is Belarus's highest-profile defense industry innovation, and took the spotlight at the country's May 9 Victory Day parade this year. Many analysts have suggested that it bears traces of Chinese origin and may use rockets (which Belarus doesn't produce) from China. So the fact that it was tested in China certainly gives credence to that speculation.
But the press release announcing the test, which featured comments from Lukashenko, was unusually feisty for the genre. "Our ally, Russia, is not so active in supporting our aspirations. We will talk about that separately with the Russian president," Lukashenko said, without citing which aspirations were not being supported. "But we thank the People's Republic of China and its leadership for this support."
Lukashenko also took aim at NATO, though he was a bit more understanding to his western neighbors: "They constantly publicly demonstrate their activities, especially on our borders," he said. "This activity can not but alarm us. But this isn't really an issue. We understand the propaganda aspect of these acts. You need to keep your powder dry. We have always said this."
Amidst building controversy over a fatal attack by an escaped zoo tiger, the Georgian government has emphasized that it is not planning to arrest Tbilisi Zoo Director Zurab Gurielidze for the June 17 slaying.
Scores of protesters gathered outside the government chancellery on the evening of June 17, after the general prosecutor’s office opened a criminal case for negligence and summoned Gurielidze and two other zoo employees for questioning.
In a meeting the next day with members of the emergency council dealing with the flood’s aftermath, Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili emphasized that the notion of a witch-hunt after Gurielidze is “absurd.”
“A conversation about a concrete person’s guilt for what happened is absolutely unacceptable,” news outlets reported him as saying.
The prosecutor’s office “should also question members of the crisis council and interior ministry employees to exclude any speculation,” he said.
In an earlier televised meeting of the emergency council, Gharibahvili had asked the zoo director not to take the blame for the killing, and expressed respect for him. Gurielidze earlier had taken responsibility for information that had prompted the government to announce before the attack that escaped zoo animals no longer posed a risk.
Police special forces have "liquidated" the tiger, Georgian news outlets reported.
The morning-attack at the abandoned, downtown Laguna Vera swimming pool complex shocked the already stressed city. Another man had been reported to be in critical condition.
Interior Minister Vakhtang Gomelauri, who later appeared on the scene, told reporters that the man, a middle-aged worker, had died on the scene. Zoo Director Zurab Gurielidze, also present, did not respond to journalists' questions, Interpressnews reported.
The attack happened just next to the zoo where scores of volunteers are still cleaning up the flood debris. The flood killed 19 people.
Just the day before, government officials had assured citizens there was no risk of a predator attack, and that reports of stray animals were baseless. The zoo stated that a tiger, bear and hyena were still missing, but presumed dead.
In a controversial move, heavily armed special forces, fearing for public safety, had killed many escaped predators.
Astana places severe restrictions on civil liberties, including freedom of expression, conscience, and assembly, a United Nations rapporteur says in a report published following a visit to Kazakhstan earlier this year.
The country offers “very limited space for the expression of dissenting political views” and treats freedom of assembly “as a privilege or a favor rather than a right,” Maina Kiai, rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, said in a report being presented to the United Nations in Geneva on June 17.
“A web of policy, practice and perception contributes to a general environment where engaging in political activities is difficult, discouraging and sometimes dangerous,” Kiai found. “Dissent may be criminalized and critical political expression is often portrayed as threatening the stability of the state.”
He expressed concern about the case of Kazakhstan’s most prominent prisoner, Vladimir Kozlov, jailed on charges of fomenting fatal violence in western Kazakhstan in 2011.
The rapporteur, who met the opposition leader behind bars during his January visit, “is seriously concerned that Mr. Kozlov’s ordinary political speech and association activities were deemed criminal incitement of social hatred,” the report stated.
The case “seems emblematic of a more general trend to marginalize political leaders voicing dissent,” it added.
Georgia and France have finalized a blockbuster air defense deal that was the source of a major political crisis in Tbilisi last year, though many of the details of the deal and the crisis remain shrouded in mystery.
Defense Minister Tina Khidasheli on June 15 signed an agreement with the company ThalesRaytheonSystems in Paris on the purchase of “advanced” air defense systems that will “guarantee country’s air defense,” Khidasheli said, according to Georgian news website Civil.ge.
But that's about all that is known: the exact type of system, its price, or anything else is being kept secret. “I cannot speak about the details of the agreement we signed today. Information about such type of procurements, weapon should be top state secret, otherwise we can now continue our conversation in Russian and they will not even need to spend money on translation to learn information about this agreement,” Khidasheli told the Georgian state broadcaster.
The June 14 arrest and later search of the house of Aiuf Borchashvili led to tensions in Pankisi, a predominantly Muslim area, which has recently seen dozens of its members head off to join jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria.
The arrest and a string of detentions appear to signal that Georgian officials are now trying to push back more actively against the departure of Muslim Georgians for Syria.
Family and friends of Borchashvili, who was also the imam of the village of Jokola, staged a protest against his arrest, however, and some clerics warned that the detention is spelling trouble for the Georgian authorities.
The imam's lawyer, Gela Nikolaishvili, has rejected the charges as "absurd," Civil.ge reported.
As part of a broader swoop, police also detained Merab Batirashvili, the alleged cousin of ISIS commander Omar al-Shishani (Tarkhan Batirashvili), a Pankisi native, who some suspect could coordinate recruitment in Georgia. Batirashvili was later released.
On top of moving against alleged recruitment, police took another unprecedented step and detained in the Tbilisi airport three young men suspected of planning to travel to Syria to join ISIS. They, too, were later released.
Few places are as silent as a city of 1.2 million the day unknown numbers of wolves, lions, tigers and bears are reported to be at large. But now, one day after a June 13-14 flash-flood destroyed Tbilisi’s city zoo, killing some 13 people, and wiping out houses and a highway, into that silence has come a cacophony of questions.
Prime Minister Irakli Gharibashvili has announced that an investigation will be held into the reasons for the massive damage caused by the flood, touched off when heavy rain prompted a stream that runs through a gorge in the city center to overflow.
Questions have been raised, he noted, about the way the highway that bordered the zoo – the so-called New Road, built at the end of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s administration – was constructed.
If the construction is found to be faulty, the question of the responsibility of “those people, who, for years, did not pay attention to the situation,” has to be asked, he stressed, Internews reported.
Finance Minister Nodar Saduri announced that the initial damage estimate of 40 million laris (about $19 million) would not “be sufficient” to repair all the damage done, news agencies reported.
In an effort to allieve the strain on roads from the loss of the highway, Gharibashvili on June 15 asked Tbilisi residents not to use their cars except in cases of emergency. Gigantic potholes have appeared in two main thoroughfares not far from the flooded area – a possible sign of underground water.
Such developments appear to have prompted President Giorgi Margvelashvili to raise the question of urban planning. “The question of the cause of the flooding shouldn’t go to politicians, but to urban-designers, architects and city-development specialists,” he claimed, news outlets reported.
June 15 was declared an official day of mourning and a non-working day.
Qatar has brokered the release of four Tajikistani border guards who had been held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan since December.
The news came from the Qatari foreign ministry on June 14, but thus far the border guards haven't appeared in Tajikistan, nor has the Tajikistan government commented.
“Under the directives of HH the Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, Qatari mediation succeeded in the release of four soldiers from Tajikstan who were captured by Taliban in December on the Northern borders of Afghanistan,” the Qatari statement said. “Qatar is using all its resources and diplomacy to save lives."
The four guards were kidnapped while gathering firewood on the border with Afghanistan; their commanding officer was later sentenced to eight and a half years in prison for ordering the men to gather the firewood.
Within days after the kidnapping the Tajikistan government said that they knew where the four were being held and that they would be released imminently, but since then little information has come out.
The intriguing element of the reported release is the Qatari angle. It's not known what Qatar did to secure the guards' release, but the Taliban regularly kidnap foreigners for exorbitant ransoms.