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Snow, severe cold exacerbate energy crisis in nation of Georgia

TBILISI, Georgia -- Snow and freezing temperatures yesterday deepened the misery in Georgia, where millions were without power and a natural gas shortage forced people to chop wood for heat.

With the Caucasus Mountain nation suffering its worst energy crisis in years, President Mikhail Saakashvili cut short his trip to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland to try to assuage anxiety that sent residents into long lines to fill kerosene canisters for portable heaters.

Some people brought jewelry and other valuables to pawn shops to scrape together enough money to buy heaters and kerosene, which sharply jumped in price. Others could be seen cutting down trees and branches in the capital to burn in wood stoves.

''The situation is horrible," said Georgy Kiknadze, 60, a taxi driver. ''Prices for kerosene and firewood have soared, and we have to find a way out of the crisis. My fares also have increased. What can I do?"

The 1991 Soviet collapse followed by several years of civil war left much of Georgia's energy infrastructure decrepit and in desperate need of repair, forcing many to rely on generators and wood- and gas-fired heaters and stoves.

In recent years, the situation had stabilized, with fewer outages. Saakashvili, who came to power in the 2003 Rose Revolution, had renewed optimism in many Georgians. Over the weekend, however, an explosion on a major gas pipeline that runs through the Russian border region of North Ossetia cut supplies to Georgia, forcing many to turn to electric heaters. Russian authorities attributed the blasts to saboteurs. Fierce weather in western Georgia ruptured power lines from the Inguri hydroelectric station to eastern regions, leaving about 3 million people in the dark, Deputy Energy Minister Alexander Khetaguri said.

Then a gas-powered unit of a Tbilisi power station shut down because of malfunctions, leaving most of the capital's 1.5 million residents to scrounge for other heating options. Saakashvili has taken issue with the slow pace of repairs to the pipeline and hinted that Russia was stalling to punish the country and its pro-Western policies of recent years.

''We are dealing with very dubious circumstances," he said before leaving the forum.

''And I think the world should wake up to this threat. . . . Tomorrow can be any other European country that's dependent on this irresponsible and unpredictable supplier."

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