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Hopes for breakthrough in Russia gas deal

MOSCOW – European states deprived of Russian gas amid freezing weather were Friday hoping for a resumption of deliveries after the European Union claimed a breakthrough in the crisis between Moscow and Kiev.

The standoff appeared stuck in stalemate after talks late Thursday in Brussels broke up in acrimony without any agreement on Russia resuming gas supplies to Europe that transit Ukraine.

However in a surprise late-night announcement hours later, the Czech EU presidency said that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had agreed on the key issue of deploying EU monitors to check gas supplies through Ukraine.

Scores of schools in Eastern Europe have been shut and thousands of households left without heating after supplies of Russian gas across Ukraine dried up earlier this week.

Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek and Putin agreed during a telephone conversation "on the conditions of deployment of the monitoring commission at all locations that are relevant for the flow of gas," the EU presidency statement said.

"This deployment should lead to the Russian supplies of gas to EU member states being restored," it said.

A dozen EU monitors were due to travel to Ukraine on Friday and their deployment is seen as key to prompting Russia to resume gas supplies.

On Friday morning, the spokesman for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Russia has a "full understanding" with the European Union on sending observers to monitor its gas dispute with Ukraine.

"Russia is ready to accept this mission as soon as possible. We do consider that this is imperative for resuming supplies to European customers as soon as possible," Dmitry Peskov told AFP.

"From our end there is a full understanding of the necessity" to get the monitors in place, he added, without confirming if any formal agreement had been signed between the parties.

The head of Russian energy giant Gazprom, Alexei Miller, had told journalists in Brussels Thursday that once monitors begin working gas shipments will resume.

But the talks in Brussels – which had at one point seemed closed to a formal agreement – broke up with Russia accusing Ukraine of torpedoing a deal and the EU expressing disappointment with the Russian position.

EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs said Moscow had refused to sign a deal to restore supplies at least in part because it wanted its own observers stationed in Ukraine.

"We are disappointed by this position of Russia," said Czech Industry Minister Martin Riman.

"We believe that the Russian side has no reason to refuse this proposal (for monitors) and not allow the resumption of supplies into Ukraine and EU countries."

But Miller pointed the finger at Kiev, saying it "ruined the signing of such a document" on the sending of a group of independent observers to monitor gas flows.

Russia is the world’s biggest natural gas producer and provides about one-quarter of the gas used in the European Union, or about 40 percent of the gas the bloc imports. About 80 percent of those imports pass though Ukraine.

The supply cuts mean thousands of people in eastern Europe have been left without gas at a time when many are facing temperatures below the freezing point.

Russia formally shut off supplies on Wednesday, insisting it had been forced to do so after Ukraine closed all conduits for shipping the gas to Europe and accusing Kiev of "stealing" the gas Russia was pumping.

However Kiev vehemently rejects charges of stealing gas and says Moscow had been progressively reducing supplies in transit across Ukraine ever since the crisis began.

In Bulgaria the government began rationing gas supplies to industries and temperatures in buildings plummeted. Seventy-five schools across the country closed until Friday for lack of adequate heating.

Serbia has switched 90 percent of its heating plants to crude oil after Russian gas deliveries were completely halted at midnight on Tuesday.

While in the snow-blanketed Bosnian capital Sarajevo, about 72,000 households remained without heating for a fourth day Friday due to a total halt in Russian gas supplies.

[AFP / Expatica]