RUSSIA - UKRAINE

Energy crisis talks underway in Brussels

Envoys from Russia and Ukraine are in Brussels on Thursday for emergency EU-brokered talks to resolve a bitter gas fight between the two ex-Soviet giants that has engulfed Europe in a major energy crisis.

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AFP - Key players in the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute held emergency talks in Brussels on Thursday amid signs of an easing in the tension which is putting many European countries into a winter energy crisis.

The talks will debate ways to set afoot an international monitoring mission at pumping stations near the Russian-Ukrainian border to ensure that natural gas flows back into Europe-bound pipelines.

As they got underway, the EU's Czech presidency expressed cautious optimism that a solution would be found on Thursday, as up to a dozen European nations faced heating cutbacks in bitter winter weather over the pricing dispute.

"I think we have some reasonable chance of a quick resolution of the most urgent need, and that is the rescue of the gas flow," Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra said in Prague. "We are working hard."

Russia is the world's biggest natural gas producer and provides about one-quarter of the gas used in the European Union, or about 40 percent of the gas the bloc imports. About 80 percent of those imports pass though Ukraine.

But with Kiev refusing to pay western European prices for its gas, Russia  cut off all supplies for Ukraine's domestic market on January 1 and then halted all supplies to the country, even those intended for Europe, on Wednesday.

The talks in Brussels got off to a bumpy start.

Senior EU officials held talks with Alexei Miller, the head of Russian energy monopoly Gazprom, but owing to flight delays caused by bad weather had to push back a meeting with Ukraine's Naftogaz chief Oleg Dubina.

The monitors will be tasked with checking how much gas is being piped from Russia to Ukraine at a pumping station "several hundred kilometres" from their common border, as well as at other points, a Czech presidency official said.

A European Commission official said the monitors could be sent in "a couple of days" if all the problems were ironed out during Thursday's talks.

Ahead of the talks, Miller and Dubina met face-to-face in Moscow overnight, but few details of their meeting filtered out. They last met on December 31 for talks that failed to find any agreement.

The organisation of the Brussels talks brought some badly-needed focus to a chaotic dispute that began as a commercial disagreement between Gazprom and Naftogaz and has mushroomed into a full-blown international crisis.

"It's possible that they may agree," Alexander Gudima, an advisor on energy to Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, told AFP on Wednesday, in comments that suggested there could be a deal.

While Russia and Ukraine have exchanged accusations of guilt, more than a dozen countries which rely heavily on Russian gas, most of them in the EU, have reported huge drops in gas supplies in the depths of a bitterly cold winter.

Slovakia and Romania have declared states of energy emergency, Bulgaria has ordered gas rationing for industry and Hungary and Croatia and Bosnia reported two days running of complete stoppage of Russian gas supply.

Gazprom ordered delivery of gas to Ukraine itself halted on New Year's Day after it failed to reach agreement with Naftogaz on payment of arrears for Russian gas already used by Ukraine and on prices for supply in 2009.

The move triggered a chain reaction: Russia accused Ukraine of "stealing" gas it was trying to ship further downstream to Europe and Ukraine countered that Russia had deliberately reduced supplies to provoke a crisis.

On the eve of the Brussels meeting, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev laid down a number of conditions for any resumption of Russian gas shipments via Ukraine.

They included a demand that Ukraine begin paying market prices for Russian gas immediately -- Russia has long sold gas to Ukraine at a discount -- and an independent EU monitoring plan.

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