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By Atom Markarian
Authorities in Armenia urged citizens to use natural gas more sparingly and suspended electricity exports to Georgia following weekend pipeline explosions in southern Russia that cut off gas deliveries to the two South Caucasus countries highly dependent on Russian energy resources.

The national gas operator, ArmRosGazprom (ARG), was tapping its underground emergency reserves Monday to keep up gas supplies to hundreds of thousands of Armenian households. Officials there said they expect the Russian pipeline to be repaired this week.

A section of that pipeline running through the Russian republic of North Ossetia was ripped apart by two explosions early on Sunday which Moscow blamed on local pro-Chechen insurgents. Georgia dismissed the official explanation, accusing Russia of committing an act of sabotage.

“Everything is being done to keep gas supplies to the population unaffected by this emergency,” the ARG spokeswoman, Shushan Sardarian, told RFE/RL. She said Armenians should nonetheless cut back on gas consumption until the situation returns to normal.

The individual consumers were receiving gas from ARG’s underground facility north of Yerevan which has the capacity to store 80 million cubic meters of gas. Armenia’s normal rate of gas consumption is 6.7 million cubic meters a day, suggesting that its reserves should suffice for a few days. The landlocked country successfully coped for eight days with a similar disruption that took place in 2003. However, household use of the fuel was considerbaly lower at the time.

The Russian Interfax news agency quoted pipeline experts as saying that the damage from the blasts could be repaired by Wednesday, while Sardarian said the pipeline may be restored as early as Tuesday. Still, ARG, in which Russian energy companies hold a 55 percent stake, decided not to take any chances, reducing gas supplies to the Hrazdan power plant which exported electricity to Georgia until Sunday.

Russian gas helps to meet more than one third of Armenia’s electricity needs and is the main source of winter heating for a large part of its population. It is also used in liquefied form by many local motorists, especially in the public transportation sector, as a cheaper alternative to gasoline. According to Sardarian, ARG will have to introduce liquefied gas rationing if the situation does not improve in the next few days.

The situation was reportedly more difficult in Georgia which did not store substantial amounts of gas and is dependent on electricity imports from Russia and Armenia. The power transmission line feeding the country from Russia was also knocked out in a separate explosion reported in another Russian region, Karachayevo-Cherkessia.

Georgia’s pro-Western President Mikhail Saakashvili on Sunday called the energy supply cuts an "outrageous blackmail" aimed at bringing his country to its knees. "It was a deliberate action against Georgia," Georgian parliament speaker Nino Burjanadze charged for her part.

Moscow rejected the Georgian accusations "What we see is a mixture of parasitic attitude, hypocrisy ... based on hopes to find Western patrons for their anti-Russian course,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement, according to Reuters.

The North Caucasus blasts came on the heels of Russia’s controversial decision to double the price of its gas delivered to Georgia and Armenia. While the authorities in Tbilisi reluctantly accepted the new tariff, Armenian leaders still hope that the Russians will agree to reverse or at least scale down the price hike.

(Itar-Tass-Photolur photo: Part of the Mozdok-Tbilisi pipeline twisted by a blast near the village of Nizhni Lars in North Ossetia.)
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