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Blasts Cut Gas to Georgia, Armenia

TBILISI, Georgia -- Explosions blamed on sabotage ripped through natural gas pipelines running through southern Russia early Sunday, cutting the supply to Georgia and Armenia as the countries suffered through a cold snap.

President Mikheil Saakashvili claimed the blasts were aimed at destabilizing Georgia and angrily demanded a quick response from Russia. The Russian Foreign Ministry said Saakashvili's comments "cannot be seen as anything other than hysteria."

Also Sunday, an explosion hit an electricity transmission tower in Russia, interrupting electricity supplies to Georgia. The Emergency Situations Ministry said the cause of that blast had not been determined.

Georgia and Armenia tapped into reserves to keep gas flowing during temperatures of about minus 10 Celsius, and electricity monopoly Unified Energy Systems said it was routing power to Georgia via an alternate line.

There were no immediate reports of deaths or widespread suffering in the two impoverished countries, but the troubles aggravated political tensions.

Deputy Prosecutor General Nikolai Shepel said investigators believed sabotage caused the pipeline blasts in North Ossetia, and Russian news reports said explosive residue was found near the site.

In recent years, pipelines in the turbulent North Caucasus region have occasionally been damaged in explosions that investigators have ruled as sabotage, but the blasts had not caused major supply disruptions. Criminal groups as well as militants with ties to Chechnya's separatist rebels have been suspected.

An Emergency Situations Ministry official in North Ossetia said it would take two to three days to complete repairs, Itar-Tass reported.

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 spell. 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 situation is very difficult. We have enough gas for just one day," said Teona Doliashvili, a spokeswoman for Georgia's Energy Ministry.

The gas shutdown underlined Georgia 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 politics of its one-time imperial subject, which is now pursuing pro-Western policies.

"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.

"Everyone should understand that Georgia is prepared for partnership and friendly relations, but I don't advise anyone to speak to any country with threats or blackmail, never mind our proud people," he said.

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 holdover.

Earlier this month, Russia doubled the price of its gas exports to Georgia and Armenia. It also announced drastic hikes in gas prices for Ukraine.

Many observers speculated that the gas price increases were punishment by Russia for Georgia and Ukraine over their efforts to move out from Russia's sphere of influence.

A spokesman for Gazprom, meanwhile, dismissed Saakashvili's complaints. "We consider any politicizing of this issue as unacceptable," he said, Interfax reported.

Meanwhile, Georgian officials headed to neighboring Azerbaijan to negotiate the start of gas supplies. RIA-Novosti reported that Georgia's main gas import company expected increased supplies from Azerbaijan would reach the country by evening.

Russian gas crosses Georgia to reach Armenia, which sends back some electricity to Georgia. Electricity supplies from Armenia were also cut Sunday because of the gas cutoff.

Shushan Sardaryan, a spokeswoman for Armenia's gas distributor, said officials had tapped the country's emergency gas reserves in an effort to keep supplies flowing. Officials had also told Armenians to cut back on electricity usage.

Armenian President Robert Kocharyan arrived in Moscow late Sunday for a previously scheduled Kremlin ceremony to kick off the Year of Armenia in Russia.


(The Moscow Times 23.i.06)

 
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