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INTERNATIONAL DIGEST: Chavez strengthens alliance with Russia, Iran; …

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–While global media attention focused on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to the United States for talks with George Bush, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made a quieter tour of Russia and Iran.

In Russia, Chavez met Putin for talks on military cooperation and arms sales, as well as oil and gas production technologies, while his visit with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad focused on Iran’s need for gasoline, according to BBC News. Chavez wants Russia’s help in gaining a military advantage over his Latin American neighbors and constructing a gas pipeline from Venezuela to Argentina. Iran recently was forced to quell riots in several cities over rationing measures imposed because of a fuel shortage.

Chavez also is courting China, which he sees as a lucrative market for Venezuela’s oil exports. He calls Russia a “strategic partner” of Venezuela, and he calls his relationship with Iran an “axis of unity.” His overtures toward all three seem calculated to not only strengthen Venezuela’s failing economy but also his campaign to minimize American influence in Latin America.

IRAN-FRIENDLY MILITANTS CONTROLLING BASRA — Extremist militias influenced by Iran are gaining control over Iraq’s southern port city of Basra -– and that region’s rich oil reserves and refining capacities, according to a non-governmental organization that monitors deadly conflicts around the world.

A report from the International Crisis Group says militants loyal to Shiite Muslim leaders have effectively taken control of the city from the local government. Great Britain, which has responsibility for Basra as part of the multinational force occupying Iraq, has reduced troop levels in the country from 7,000 to 5,500.

Basra “is under the hegemony of militias who do not run its streets only but have imposed levies and taxes on oil output,” according to the Iraqi daily newspaper Azzaman. Border crossings and the city’s ports are now open to Iranian influence, the paper reported.

Negotiations broke down in Baghdad over how to regulate Iraq’s oil industry so Sunnis in oil-poor central Iraq can share oil revenues -– and the political power that goes with it -– with Shiites and Kurds in the oil-rich south and north.

RADICAL MOSQUE LEADER CAUGHT IN WOMEN’S CLOTHING — Pakistani security forces laid siege to a radical mosque in the country’s capital and captured its top cleric when he tried to sneak out disguised as a woman.

Abdul Aziz, leader of the Lal Masjid, or Red Mosque, was caught July 4 trying to sneak out among a group of 20 burqa-clad women, according to the Associated Press. The mosque’s leaders have led a bold campaign to impose Taliban-style Islamic law in Islamabad.

Government troops and police backed by armored personnel carriers and helicopters surrounded the mosque complex July 3. More than 1,000 fighters -– an estimated one-third of those holed up inside -– surrendered after their leader’s capture. Heavy fighting continued into the night, however, and the fighters remaining in the mosque declared they would not surrender, according to the AFP news service.

Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf had faced criticism over his failure to crack down on the mosque, the AFP reported. Red Mosque clerics have dispatched students in an anti-vice campaign that included kidnapping prostitutes and police officers.

ORTHODOX CHRISTIANS PROTEST ERITREAN PERSECUTION — The head of the Eritrean Orthodox Church has been imprisoned for objecting to government efforts to shut down a Bible-study group.

The government removed Patriarch Antonious from his position earlier this year because he criticized government interference in church activities, according to ChristianToday.com. Members of the British Orthodox Church gathered in London in late June to protest Antonious’ imprisonment by the socialist government.

Amnesty International has criticized Eritrea’s persecution of Christians and other religious groups. In 1994, Jehovah’s Witnesses were stripped of all rights, including citizenship because they refuse to serve in the military. Evangelical churches became the target of persecution in 2002. The Eritrean Orthodox Church claims 2 million members.

BAIL SET FOR PAKISTAN ‘SAME-SEX’ COUPLE — Pakistan’s high court has ordered bail for a woman who had a sex-change operation so she could marry her cousin.

Shumail Raj, 31, married Shahzina Tariq, 24, to protect her from being sold into marriage to pay off her uncle’s gambling debts, the BBC reported. The couple was arrested in June after the bride’s family discovered Raj was a woman.

A court ruled that Raj was a woman, despite the surgery, and sentenced the pair to three years in prison for lying about his gender. The country’s high court, however, set aside the verdict and ordered the couple released on bail, pending an appeal hearing.

Tariq’s family wants the marriage annulled, but she insists the couple is in love.

AZERI, ARMENIAN REFUGEES STILL LANGUISH IN CAMPS–As many as 1 million refugees in Azerbaijan and Armenia live in poverty and discrimination a decade after war in Nagorno-Karabakh drove them from their homes.

A new report from Amnesty International estimates more than 600,000 Azeris still live in the segregation of refugee camps or new settlements built in remote areas where little work is available, according to the BBC. Their isolation causes them to suffer more from poverty and makes them more vulnerable to illness.

Azerbaijan, which lost the struggle to Armenia, has one of the world’s worst refugee problems, in spite of a strong oil economy. In Armenia, many of the 400,000 people who fled their homes during the war also still live in desperate conditions.

    About the Author

  • Mark Kelly