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Russian gas deliveries to Georgia resume

Tbilisi complains pipeline repairs took too long

TBILISI, Georgia -- Russia resumed sending natural gas to Georgia yesterday after finishing repairs to a major pipeline damaged by mysterious blasts last week.

But Tbilisi accused Moscow of taking too long to fix the damage to punish the pro-Western policies of Georgia, which relies on Russia for its gas needs.

The US-allied state contended Russia was waging an energy blockade against it after two Jan. 22 explosions tore through the main pipeline that transports Russian gas to Georgia across the Caucasus Mountains. The blasts left millions of Georgians shivering in their homes in bitterly cold temperatures.

The situation was compounded by major electricity blackouts after severe winter weather downed power lines and a unit at a power station in Tbilisi shut off.

Prime Minister Zurab Nogaideli yesterday said Russian gas had begun flowing into Georgia and the first apartment buildings in the capital would start getting supplies later in the day.

But he repeated charges that Russia deliberately delayed repairs to the pipeline that runs through the Russian border region of North Ossetia.

''The moment it became clear that Georgia cannot be brought down on its knees, repairs to North Ossetia's trunk gas pipeline were finished. Repair work went on for too long," Nogaideli said in comments broadcast on Georgian television.

The Georgian national gas company said that it would take a couple of days for full supplies to be restored throughout the country.

In Moscow, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement yesterday accusing Tbilisi of cutting off gas to the Russian Embassy building in retaliation Saturday, describing it as ''yet another anti-Russian action."

The Russian ministry threatened to take ''appropriate measures" concerning heating supplies to the Georgian Embassy in Moscow. A few hours later, gas supplies resumed to the Russian Embassy, a duty officer said.

Tbilisi authorities had insisted the gas cutoff also affected other diplomatic posts, such as the US Embassy, which are located in the same district. But the Russian Foreign Ministry said an adjacent building had not had any interruption to its gas deliveries.

Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, has sought to throw off Russian influence and build a close alliance with Washington since he came to power in the 2003 ''Rose Revolution." The shift by Saakashvili, who was educated in the United States, has soured ties with Russia.

The energy crisis, the worst in the impoverished country for years, provoked assertions that Moscow was striking back for Georgia's pro-Western stance.

Russian officials blamed the explosion on sabotage and angrily denied the Georgian accusations.

The gas and electricity crisis forced desperate Georgians to line up for kerosene and firewood to heat their homes amid the largest snowfall in years.

In a bid to find alternative energy sources, Georgian officials announced a deal on Friday for Iran to supply gas through Azerbaijan.

The contract for a daily delivery of 71 million cubic feet will run for 30 days. But Georgia hopes to agree on a long-term arrangement to reduce its dependence on Russia.

The Georgian energy minister said the Iranian deliveries should start within days and meet 80 percent to 90 percent of the capital's energy needs.

Armenia, a Russian ally, gets its gas from Russia through Georgia and also suffered a cutoff of deliveries.

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