Georgian leader accuses Russia of sabotage after gas pipeline cut is cut

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The Independent Online

President Mikhail Saakashvili alleged 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 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 C (14 F) and Russia's electricity monopoly 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 Caucasus countries but the troubles aggravated political tensions. Nikolai Shepel, chief prosecutor for Russia's southern region, said investigators believed sabotage caused the pipeline blasts in the republic of North Ossetia and Russian news reports said explosive residue was found near the site. In recent years, pipelines in Russia's turbulent North Caucasus region have occasionally been damaged in explosions that investigators have ruled 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.

The ITAR-Tass news agency quoted an Emergency Situations Ministry official in North Ossetia as saying that it would take two to three days to complete repairs. 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 snap. 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," Teona Doliashvili, a spokeswoman for Georgia's Energy Ministry said. Georgian officials quickly moved to negotiate gas shipments from neighboring Azerbaijan. Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli said the Azeri shipments began late Sunday, ITAR-Tass reported. 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 onetime imperial subject, which now is 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 hangover.

A representative of South Ossetia's separatist government, Dmitry Medoyev, suggested that the blasts may have been set "by Georgian special services, trained by the American military," the RIA-Novosti news agency reported. 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 - another former Soviet republic whose government has also turned westward. Many observers speculated that the gas price increases were punishment by Russia for Georgia and Ukraine and their efforts to move out from under Russia's sphere of influence.

A spokesman for Gazprom, meanwhile, was quoted by saying by Interfax as dismissing Saakashvili's complaints: "We consider any politicizing of this issue as unacceptable." Russian gas transits Georgia to reach Armenia, which sends back some electricity to Georgia. Electricity supplies from Armenia were also cut Sunday in response to the gas cutoff. Shushan Sardarian, a spokeswoman for Armenia's gas distributor, told AP that 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. Neither Georgia nor Armenia produce significant amounts of gas domestically, relying on Russia for the overwhelming majority of their gas imports. Armenia hopes to reduce its dependence on Russia by building a pipeline to bring gas from Iran, but the first section of that project is not expected to be completed until 2007.