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Russia-Ukraine gas row escalates 
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A gas dispute between Russia and Ukraine worsened Tuesday after Russian energy giant Gazprom slashed gas supplies to countries in Europe, which gets about a fifth of its needs via pipelines through Ukraine.

Russian gas export monopoly Gazprom's headquarters is seen in Moscow, January 3, 2009. [Xinhua/Reuters]

Gazprom has cut gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine to around two-thirds of its normal flow, which would disrupt supplies to Europe, said Valentin Zemlyanski, a spokesman of Ukraine's state gas company Naftogaz.

"They have reduced deliveries to 92 million cubic meters per 24hours compared to the promised 221 million cubic meters without explanation. We do not understand how we will deliver gas to Europe," said Zemlyanski.

"This means that in a few hours Europe will face a problem with gas supplies," he added.

The gas supply reduction came a day after Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered Gazprom to start cutting supplies bound for Europe via Ukraine in retaliation for Ukraine's alleged "theft" of Russian gas.

Ukraine denied that it was siphoning off gas and has accused Russia of being behind the current gas supply crisis.

Just as Zemlyanski said, European countries quickly noticed the effects of the slash of Russian gas supplies.

Bulgaria, Macedonia, Greece and Croatia said flows of Russian gas via Ukraine have come to a halt, creating what Bulgaria calls a "crisis situation" in the middle of winter.

Austria and Romania also said deliveries were down 90 percent and 75 percent respectively.

"Gas supply crisis"

Bulgaria's natural gas consumption has been cut by two thirds since Tuesday morning as Russia cut off gas supplies, Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergei Stanishev said.

Speaking at a special press conference after an emergency meeting of the Council of Ministers convened over the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute, Stanishev said the country would have to rely only on its reserves at the Chiren storage facility, which has 570 million cubic meters of natural gas.

The reserves could fuel the Bulgarian economy with about 4.5 million cubic meters of gas daily, which was about one third of the country's normal daily consumption, he added.

The prime minister guaranteed that natural gas supplies for public establishments such as hospitals, schools, and kindergartens, and for central heating would be a priority for the government.

"We will do our best so that the people don't have to feel the results from the gas shortage and the effects of the emerging crisis," he said.

He added that Bulgaria had received no official prior warning of the termination of the supplies.

"It is not right to make Bulgaria a hostage in such a conflict," Stanishev said.

In Bucharest, the Romanian Economic Ministry said more than two thirds of Russian gas supplies to the country have been suspended and the flow through one of the two gas import stations has been cut totally.

Gazprom cut off natural gas supplies through the Isaccea station at 3:00 a.m. (0100 GMT) Tuesday, said the ministry.

In Bratislava, Slovakian Economy Minister Lubomir Jahnatek said at a press conference that his country would declare a state of emergency Tuesday after Russian gas supplies to the country fell by 70 percent overnight.

"Gas supplies to selected wholesale buyers may fall, but we will do our best to spare households, hospitals and schools," the minister said.

Slovakia, which depends for 98 percent on Russia for natural gas, "will send a protest to Russia and Ukraine, asking them to resolve their commercial dispute and not to take Europe hostage," said Jahnatek.

EU's call for early solution

The European Union (EU) described Russia's abrupt stoppage of gas supplies to the bloc via Ukraine as "completely unacceptable", and urged Moscow and Kiev to find a solution by the end of the week.

"Without prior warning and in clear contradiction with the reassurances given by the highest Russian and Ukrainian authorities to the EU, gas supplies to some member states have been substantially cut. This is completely unacceptable," the EU's Czech presidency said in a joint statement with the European Commission.

In the strongly worded statement, the EU demanded that gas supplies be immediately restored and Russia and Ukraine resume negotiations immediately with a view to a definitive settlement of their commercial dispute.

"In my opinion there must be an agreement between Moscow and Kiev this week," said Czech Deputy Prime Minister Alexandr Vondra, adding that the situation was worsening and could become a serious problem if it persisted for several days.

Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek also said the Czech Republic was considering the "extreme option" of a three-way EU-Russia-Ukraine summit.

"However this is not on the table yet because we insist the two sides must reach an agreement," he said.

(Xinhua News Agency January 7, 2009)

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