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Putin warns of new Ukraine gas crisis

Moscow — Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin warned on Thursday that Moscow would again cut off gas supplies to Ukraine and possibly Europe if Kiev does not pay off its latest debts by the weekend.

His comments came a day after armed Ukrainian security service agents burst into the headquarters of the Ukrainian state gas firm Naftogaz to conduct a search, in a dramatic display of the country’s internal tensions.

"On March 7, Ukraine has to make the next regular payment for Russian gas," Putin said in comments broadcast on state television. "If, as a result of the use of force this payment is not carried out, this will lead to a halt in supplies from our energy providers both for consumers in Ukraine and, perhaps, also for consumers in Europe."

The warning from Putin prompted an almost immediate reply from Naftogaz, which promised it would pay its bill to Russia "today." "We are going to pay by the end of today for all of the gas consumed in February," spokesman Valentin Zemlyansky told AFP.

But Putin, still the Russian strongman despite ceding the presidency in May, told the cabinet of his doubts over Kiev’s ability to pay Russian state-run energy giant Gazprom.

"Once again the question has been raised about the reliability of this country (Ukraine) in resolving energy problems," he added.

A dispute over unpaid Ukrainian debts and gas prices for the New Year caused Russia to cut off all its supplies to Kiev on January 1, which subsequently prompted a halt in supplies to European countries via Ukraine.

The cut prompted Europe’s worst gas crisis of modern times and angry EU protests that several of its members had been completely deprived of gas for two weeks amid a bitterly cold winter.

The dispute was eventually resolved with an agreement signed after talks in Moscow between Putin and Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, a pro-Western figure who nonetheless has good relations with Russia.

Her domestic rival — President Viktor Yushchenko who is targeting EU membership for his country — is despised by Russia for his support of Georgia in its August war with Moscow.

The Naftogaz raid, conducted by the SBU Ukrainian security service that answers to Yushchenko, was seen as the latest step in the poisonous feud between the two politicians.

The SBU agents had notably been seeking documents over the January gas deal with Russia brokered by Tymoshenko, which Yushchenko has denounced as a sell-out for his country.

Putin said that "we can only be extremely worried about the possible consequences" of the Naftogaz raid.

Bulgaria, one of the EU states worst hit by the halt in Russian gas deliveries via Ukraine in January, said Wednesday it was preparing a new gas rationing plan for the industry and bracing for possible new cuts.

"We have no reasons to believe that the crisis is inevitable but there is a problem and we are preparing," Economy and Energy Minister Petar Dimitrov told the national radio.

Stuart Williams/AFP/Expatica