Gazprom reopens lines, accuses Ukraine of blocking flow

Russia's Gazprom resumed the flow of gas through Ukraine Tuesday morning, but later accused Kiev of blocking European-bound fuel transiting on its soil. EU monitors in Ukraine said "little or no" gas was getting through to Europe.


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AFP - Russia's natural gas started flowing towards freezing Europe on Tuesday after the EU brokered a deal to end a row between Russia and Ukraine that has raised concern about Europe's energy security.

With factories closed and hundreds of thousands of homes without heating in some of the worst-hit central and eastern European areas, supplies from Russia could still take several days to get back to normal as only small quantities of gas were being pumped initially.

EU officials say it could take three days for supplies to return to normal.

Russian energy giant Gazprom also warned it would turn off the taps again if it caught Ukraine siphoning off gas -- an allegation at the core of a transit dispute that led Russia to halt supplies completely last Wednesday.

Ukraine has denied the claim and accuses Gazprom of provoking the crisis.

"They have started. The gas has already reached Ukraine," Gazprom spokesman Denis Ignatyev told AFP, following an order from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Monday to restart gas supplies for Europe at 0700 GMT.

Ukrainian state gas company Naftogaz confirmed the gas had reached Ukraine.

NTV television showed a Gazprom official in Moscow on the phone ordering gas to be pumped towards the Balkans, Turkey and Moldova, with a technician replying: "I have received the order. We are implementing it."

Following the resumption of supplies, Gazprom demanded that Ukraine pump the gas on to European consumers without delay, saying that a claim by Ukrainian officials that this would take 36 hours did not meet existing agreements.

The European Union earlier arranged a deal to end the bitter dispute by deploying teams of international monitors at gas measuring stations in Russia and Ukraine to verify the uninterrupted flow of gas from Russia to Europe.

"The commission welcomes the announcement from Russia that the gas flow is back in the pipes," Ferran Tarradellas, an energy spokesman for the European Commission, the EU's executive arm, said in Brussels.

"Our monitors are checking this on the ground," he added.

But the truce in what Russian media is calling a "gas war" remains fragile.

"In case of unsanctioned siphoning of gas we will decrease volumes delivered by the volume stolen per 24 hours. Russia's position on this has been conveyed to the European Commission," Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller said Monday.

Miller said Gazprom would initially pump "test" quantities of gas.

Gazprom's chief gas controller said Russia had begun by pumping gas at a rate of 76.6 million cubic metres per day, roughly one-fourth of what it sent to clients in Europe prior to the crisis.

That amount will quickly be raised to normal levels as soon as international monitors confirm that none of the Russian gas transiting Ukraine has gone missing, Russian officials said.

Russian newspapers voiced scepticism about a rapid end to the crisis.

"Moscow and Kiev lit up a pipe of peace, but both are getting ready for new gas wars," read the front-page headline in the Kommersant business daily.

Gazprom "threatens to once again stop transit if Ukraine continues to siphon off gas for technical needs, while Kiev does not hide its intent to do precisely that," it said.

In a dispute that still threatens to derail the EU agreement, Ukraine has insisted that Russia must provide additional "technical gas" used to maintain pipeline pressure while Moscow says that Kiev must pay for such gas.

The ex-Soviet neighbours have also not yet resolved the basic dispute that initially sparked the crisis on January 1, involving Ukraine's debts to Russia and a new price for gas in 2009.

European Commission spokesman Tarradellas urged Russia and Ukraine to resolve their dispute quickly "in order to find a permanent solution that would restore the stability in our energy relations with Russia and Ukraine."

The EU relies on Russian gas pumped via Ukraine for a fifth of its supplies.

Hundreds of thousands of people across Europe lost gas supplies in the crisis, affecting gas-powered central heating systems. Factories and schools were closed down as some countries declared energy emergencies.

At an emergency meeting in Brussels on Monday, EU energy ministers concluded that the 27-nation bloc needed to increase investment in energy infrastructure to reduce its dependence on Russia.

"Europe is totally short-sighted about its joint energy policy," lamented Italian Energy Minister Claudio Scajola. "It should not be dependent on people who can bring a country to its knees by turning off the taps."

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