Tue, Jan 24, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Row erupts over Russian gas pipeline blasts

DIPLOMATIC SPAT The Georgian president has accused Moscow of deliberately sabotaging its gas supply in an attempt to exert influence over its southern neighbor

AP , TBILISI

Demonstrators in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, hold up a caricature of a Hitler-like Russian President Vladimir Putin on Sunday. Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili accused Russia of cutting gas supplies to his country and triggering an energy crisis just as freezing weather hit the Caucasus state.

PHOTO: EPA

Azerbaijan has started supplying Russian natural gas to Georgia, the Georgian gas company said yesterday, helping compensate for a cutoff of gas caused by explosions in southern Russian pipelines that brought a new energy crisis to the Caucasus Mountains nation and set off a furious diplomatic row.

Georgian leaders kept up a barrage of accusations that the blasts -- which also cut supplies to Armenia -- were deliberate and part of a Russian policy to punish Tbilisi for its attempts to distance itself from Moscow.

Parliamentary speaker Nino Burdzhanadze told Ekho Moskvy radio late on Sunday that ``we have long been warned, including by some Russian politicians, that if we continue the independence policy we are pursuing, if we insist on the withdrawal of Russian peacekeepers and so on, then Georgia will remain without electricity or gas, which has in fact occurred.''

Russia has denied responsibility for Sunday's gas pipeline explosions in the North Ossetia region bordering Georgia as well as a blast at an electricity-transmission tower in another region, Karachayevo-Cherkessiya, that had supplied Georgia.

Russian prosecutors blamed sabotage for the pipeline blasts and Russian news reports said explosive residue was found near the blast sites.

Azerbaijan began pumping Russian gas to Georgia around late on Sunday, said Natiya Bandzeladze, a spokesman for the Georgian International Gas Corp.

Azerbaijan was to provide 3 million cubic meters a day -- close to half of the 7 million cubic meters Georgia usually receives from Russia. Bandzeladze said about half of Tbilisi's residents would be supplied normally while other consumers in the capital would have to wait two to three days.

Bandzeladze suggested consumers outside Tbilisi would have to wait even longer, and President Mikhail Saakashvili said there would be one to two-hour blackouts in some districts for the next few days.

Georgian Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said Georgia had starting importing electricity from Turkey, and Energy Minister Nika Gelauri was in Iran yesterday hoping to negotiate gas supplies there.

The pipeline shutdown hit Georgia, which has faced extreme energy shortages for more than a decade, with a fresh crisis as it headed into a cold snap.

Municipal heating systems in Georgia went out of service in the mid-1990s amid the country's post-Soviet economic collapse and many households rely on gas space heaters to stay warm.

The gas shutdown underlined Georgia's and Armenia's dependence on Russian energy supplies. Georgian officials often bristle at the dependence and what they say are Russian attempts to use it to interfere in the nation's politics.

``We categorically demand from the Russian leadership the resumption of energy supplies to Georgia as a matter of urgency and that Russia fulfill its obligations as provided for under contract as is provided for under civilized, international trade relations,'' Saakashvili told reporters in Tbilisi.

The blasts ``were done so that Georgia will break apart ... and fall into the hands of Russia,'' he said. North Ossetia, where the pipeline blasts occurred, borders the separatist Georgian region of South Ossetia which seeks union with Russia.

A Russian Foreign Ministry statement said in response that ``this hysteria is accompanied by continued provocations against Russian servicemen in Georgia,'' where Russian bases remain as a Soviet-era hangover.

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