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EU keeps up pressure after Russia-Ukraine gas deal falters

MOSCOW – EU leaders kept up pressure Wednesday on Russia and Ukraine to resolve their gas dispute after an attempt to resume transit supply failed to deliver gas to European consumers.

As hundreds of thousands of Europeans begin a second week with little or no heat in their homes, offices or schools, Bulgarian Prime Minister Sergey Stanishev and Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico were due in Moscow to meet with their Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin on the gas crisis.

Both countries are among those to have been badly hit by the gas crisis, which has continued despite EU efforts to broker a solution.

The Ukrainian government said in a statement that the two European prime ministers would also visit Kiev later Wednesday for talks with Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko.

Russia resumed natural gas supplies on Tuesday after international experts were placed along the pipeline route through Ukraine under an agreement reached with the EU, only to shut off them off again several hours later.

Gazprom accused Ukraine of blocking the gas, while Ukraine countered that the Russian energy giant had deliberately routed the gas in a way that made it impossible for Ukraine to pump it on to European consumers.

European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso expressed the "EU’s disappointment" in a phone conversation with Russian Prime Minister Putin after the EU reported "little or no gas" reaching Europe from Russia.

Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko accused Russia of trying to destabilise his country as energy officials explained they would have to cut domestic gas supplies in order to get Russian gas to Europe.

"This attack against Ukraine has the goal of provoking a revolt in the eastern regions," a heavily industrialised and pro-Russian part of the country that relies to a large degree on Russian gas supplies, said Yushchenko.

A spokesman for Ukraine’s state gas company Naftogaz said the transit route chosen by Gazprom "would have required us to stop supplying gas to eastern part of Ukraine," adding that Gazprom turned down an alternative route.

However Gazprom’s deputy chief executive Alexander Medvedev told journalists shortly after Russia announced supply had resumed that "Ukraine has blocked all our actions in respect of renewal of the transit of natural gas, which is unbelievable."

In Brussels, EU commission spokesman for energy issues Ferran Tarradellas said the international monitors had since been allowed into the control rooms where the gas flow monitoring screens are located.

"The Russians sent a small quantity of gas this morning at a single point, then the pressure fell and there was nothing after that," he said.

"Not a single molecule of gas has arrived at other entry points, according to our inspectors," he said.

Russia said it would initially pump only "test" amounts of gas Tuesday, which would however have been enough to restore full supplies to Bulgaria, Greece, Macedonia, Moldova, Romania and Turkey.

Russia initially cut off supplies for Ukraine on New Year’s Day after a dispute over late payments and a failure to agree on a price for 2009, but last week shut off all supplies after accusing Kiev of siphoning off gas transiting the country to Europe.

Ukraine has hotly contested accusations it has stolen gas, and the EU-brokered monitor deal was meant to overcome this issue.

The Russian daily Kommersant meanwhile said Moscow had won some support in Europe.

"Russia managed to secure two official allies," Italy and Romania, the paper said.

"The group of Russia’s supporters may increase" after the Slovak and Bulgarian prime minister meet Putin, it added.