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EU team heads to Ukraine over gas dispute

KIEV – The EU dispatched a delegation Monday to Kiev for talks on the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute as the Ukrainian government asked a court to invalidate its pledge to ensure transit of Russian gas to Europe.

Russia’s powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin meanwhile was to meet outside Moscow the head of state-controlled gas giant Gazprom after warning Ukraine would face "severe consequences" if it disputed Russian gas flows.

Officials in Europe and Ukraine announced that an EU team including the trade and industry minister of the Czech Republic, the current holder of the rotating EU presidency, was on its way to Kiev for talks on the crisis.

Officials in Brussels said the EU team would also meet with Gazprom on Tuesday. The location of that meeting was not yet clear.

Both Russia and Ukraine have been lobbying fiercely in recent days to win support from the European Union.

The EU in turn has publicly expressed reluctance to get involved despite the bloc’s heavy reliance on gas supplies from Russia, preferring to characterise the dispute as a commercial matter between two private companies.

Ukraine’s energy ministery meanwhile said it had asked a local court to invalidate agreements under which the ex-Soviet republic ensures transit of Russian gas to Europe.

"The Fuel and Energy Ministry has filed a lawsuit in a Kiev court requesting it to recognise as no longer valid agreements on the transit of Russian gas over Ukraine’s territory, which were in force until the end of 2010," the ministry said in a statement.

Speaking to journalists in Paris, Gazprom deputy chief executive Alexander Medvedev accused Ukraine of stealing 50 million cubic metres of gas and withholding deliveries to EU countries.

"The overall volume of… better to say it in black and white – stolen gas – is 50 million cubic metres. It’s a substantial amount," Medvedev said.

Gazprom’s Ukrainian counterpart, Naftogaz, has denied the accusations and accused the Russian company of "technical manipulation" resulting in the drop-off of supplies to Europe.

The two sides remained deadlocked Monday with no face-to-face negotiations expected as Croatia, an EU candidate country, joined the list of countries that have experienced drops in gas supplies due to the standoff.

EU members the Czech Republic, Romania, Poland and Bulgaria have reported shortfalls in supplies, although all say they have sufficient reserves to cope for the time being.

Meanwhile, many waited to hear what Putin had to say about the latest developments in the dispute.

Putin, who has bristled at Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko’s efforts to fortify relations with the United States, warned on New Year’s Eve that Kiev would face "severe consequences" if it impeded the flow of Russian gas.

Since then, Gazprom officials have on a daily basis accused Ukraine of doing exactly that.

Yushchenko, conspicuously absent from the public eye so far in the crisis, meanwhile had been scheduled to speak to reporters in western Ukraine. His press service however abruptly canceled the appearance without explanation.

Russia cut supplies to Ukraine on January 1 due to delays in payment for gas supplied in November and December that it put at 1.6 billion dollars, as well as a demand for more than half a billion dollars in late-payment fines.

Ukraine warned Saturday that the dispute could cause "serious problems" for the EU within 10 days if not resolved by then.

The country is the main route for Russian gas supplies to the EU, which relies on Russia for about a quarter of its gas needs.

Unlike a similar gas dispute in 2006, experts say EU states and Ukraine itself have accumulated sufficient gas reserves to cope without fresh Russian supplies for several weeks.