Russian gas stays off amid wrangling
AFP - 18 minutes ago
MOSCOW (AFP) - - Wrangling over pipeline monitors delayed the restoration of Europe's shut-off gas supplies from Russia on Friday, with the EU pushing hard to end a crisis that has left thousands without heating.
As Friday came to a close, hopes that the gas might be flowing again from Russia into the pipeline system that crosses Ukraine and feeds European consumers faded despite promises from both sides.
The main obstacle blocking an agreement had been Ukrainian reluctance to let Russian observers take part in the monitoring of pipelines on Ukrainian territory.
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, spearheading European Union efforts to resolve the standoff, said this had now been resolved, but various technical details still had to be ironed out.
"The Ukrainian side is ready to respect the monitoring mission and a reciprocal exchange. We have the same promise from Russia," he said in Kiev before heading to Moscow for more talks.
"What remains to be done is to fine-tune the technical details and to agree on the signature of a trilateral agreement" allowing independent experts to verify gas flows from Russia to Europe through Ukraine, he said.
President Dmitry Medvedev said earlier Friday that Russia was ready to resume pumping gas through Ukraine to Europe immediately, but would do so only after Ukraine signed the agreement on independent flow verification.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko told reporters that Kiev was prepared to sign the deal and would do so "as soon as possible."
In Brussels, the European Commission said even once the two sides agreed to resume shipping gas to Europe it would take at least three days for deliveries to reach Europe.
Russia cut off gas for Ukraine's domestic market on New Year's Day after the two countries failed to reach an agreement on payment by Kiev of arrears and on new prices for 2009.
It followed a few days later by cutting off all gas transiting Ukraine for customers in Europe, saying it was forced to do so after Kiev shut all possible outlets for Russian gas to Europe and began "stealing" Russian gas.
Russia said it would try to compensate by sending extra gas through an alternative pipeline to Europe through Belarus.
Ukraine denied the theft charge and instead accused Russia of intentionally cutting supplies to provoke a crisis.
The idea of deploying monitors to check the pipeline system was proposed as a way of resolving the conflict because it would be clear if Russia was pumping gas destined for Europe and if Ukraine was using it for its own purposes.
A Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov told AFP that the firm was "still waiting" for Ukraine to sign the agreement setting up the international commission.
Russia has insisted that the monitoring commission include representatives from four parties: Ukraine's gas company Naftogaz, Russia's Gazprom, the gas firms of European consumer states and European Union gas experts.
Medvedev warned that the monitoring commission must be made up of qualified gas transport engineers only and called for the composition of the body to be made public.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko said Friday that Ukraine would allow Russian experts as part of the monitor team, removing a key obstacle.
"We are taking upon ourselves the obligation to allow representatives of the Russian side at entry and exit points" for the pipelines, Yushchenko told reporters.
In eastern Europe, the area most dependent on Russian gas and currently experiencing exceptionally low temperatures, scores of schools have been shut down and thousands of households left without heating and hot water.
Serbia secured a gas delivery from Germany and Hungary on Thursday and helped out Bosnia with a gas loan on Friday.
In the snow-blanketed Bosnian capital Sarajevo, about 72,000 households remained without heating for a fourth day due to the halt in Russian supplies.
In Bulgaria the government began rationing gas supplies to industries and temperatures in buildings plummeted. Seventy-five schools across the country were closed for lack of adequate heating.
Even after the dispute over the transit across Ukraine is resolved, Kiev and Moscow still have to solve their standoff over the gas Gazprom supplies to the domestic Ukrainian market.
Thousands of homes were left without hot water in southern Ukraine on Friday because of the gas crisis, as companies across the country were forced to reduce operations and schools were closed.
Miller told Medvedev on Friday that there had been "no progress" in the negotiations with Ukraine and Gazprom later said Ukraine now had to pay around 470 dollars per thousand cubic metres of gas in the first quarter of 2009.
Ukraine paid 179.5 dollars in 2008, far less than what EU states pay.
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A man fishes on the frozen Moskva river in central Moscow. Wrangling over pipeline monitors delayed the restoration of Europe's shut-off gas supplies from Russia on Friday, with the EU pushing hard to end a crisis that has left thousands without heating.
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