By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) — Russia's state-controlled Gazprom natural gas giant acknowledged for the first time Saturday that it had briefly reduced gas supplies to Europe amid a spell of extreme cold.
Gazprom deputy chief Andrey Kruglov reported to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that the cuts lasted for several days and reached up to 10 percent, but supplies are currently back to normal. Officials in Austria and France, however, have reported cuts of as much as 30 percent, and Italy said supplies were down by 24 percent Thursday.
Russia previously had blamed Ukraine for the shortages, saying Kiev is siphoning off more than its share. Authorities in Ukraine have denied the accusations.
The mutual rebukes echoed the previous gas crises, when Gazprom supplies to Europe were cut over price arguments between Russia and Ukraine, the conduit for the biggest export pipeline for Russian gas to reach Europe.
The European Commission put its gas coordination committee on alert Friday, but insisted the situation had not yet reached an emergency level as nations have pledged to help each other if needed and storage facilities have been upgraded.
Putin on Saturday tried to use the situation to emphasize the need for alternative supply routes bypassing Ukraine, including the Nord Stream pipeline under the Baltic Sea, the first line of which was inaugurated in November.
Another Russian pipeline, the South Stream, is expected to go online in 2015 to transport Russian gas to Europe under the Black Sea.
Putin said the current high demand for Russian gas underscores the need for the new pipelines. Europe gets about 25 percent of its natural gas from Russia, which has the world's largest reserves.
"It's obvious today that there is a strong demand for these projects, which both we and our partners," Putin said.
He ordered Gazprom to try to meet an increased demand for the Russian gas in Europe, but added that the company's priority should be to satisfy the local demand.
Seeking to reduce its dependence on Russia, the EU strongly backs the rival Nabucco pipeline — slated to ship gas from the Caspian region through southern Europe to Austria, but there have remained doubts that enough suppliers can be found to fill it.
Putin scoffed at the EU's hopes to fill a higher demand for gas
Mansur Mirovalev contributed to this report.
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