Thousands without heating as record cold grips Ukraine

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Ukraine and Georgia are facing an energy crisis as the coldest weather in a generation forces them to use record amounts of gas.

Ukraine's Health Ministry reported that 181 people had died of exposure in the past five days, many of them homeless, and more than 3,000 people had been taken to hospital. Temperatures in Ukraine have plunged as low as minus 25C and it was minus 13C yesterday in the capital Kiev.

The unusual Arctic conditions have prompted Ukraine to use record amounts of gas, which has prompted Russia, its chief gas supplier, to accuse it of stealing gas destined for freezing western Europe.

A large number of Ukrainian factories may have to be closed until the crisis passes and in the city of Alchevsk, more than 67,000 people have been without heating for six days.

But the situation appears worse in Georgia, which appears to have run down gas reserves and many people are without electricity. The Georgian President, Mikhail Saakashvili, cut short his visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, yesterday to deal with the crisis.

Just about everything that could have gone wrong in Georgia has gone wrong. First the main pipeline supplying the country with Russian gas was mysteriously blown up by saboteurs and has yet to be repaired because of the cold weather. And then the fierce cold ruptured power lines leading from one of the country's most important hydroelectric power stations.

Mr Saakashvili was quick to blame foul play by the Russians, accusing them of trying to punish his country for adopting a pro-Western line in recent years. Moscow dismisses this as paranoid nonsense.

Whatever the truth, it was minus 7C in the capital Tbilisi yesterday. Schools were shut and power was restricted to hospitals, bakeries and water pumping stations. Much of the city was plunged into darkness, public transport ground to a halt and 40 per cent of residents were reported to be without heating gas. People were seen cutting down trees for firewood.