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Putin to meet Gazprom chief

MOSCOW, January 5 – Russia\’s powerful Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was to meet the head of state-controlled gas giant Gazprom on Monday to discuss a standoff with Ukraine that has reduced supplies to the European Union.

Putin was to meet Gazprom chief executive Alexei Miller at 1030 GMT to talk about the dispute, in which the company cut supplies to Ukraine on New Year\’s Day saying it was owed more than two billion dollars.

Putin warned on New Year\’s Eve prior to the gas cutoff that Ukraine would face "severe consequences" if it disrupted gas supplies to Europe. Gazprom has now repeatedly accused Ukraine of doing just that.

The two ex-Soviet states remain deadlocked on Monday after trading accusations of manipulation and theft and after several EU countries reported drops in supplies. No face-to-face negotiations were expected.

On Sunday, Gazprom spokesman Kupriyanov said Ukraine had stolen 25 million cubic metres of gas over a 24-hour period and announced that Russia has asked the EU to provide monitoring of Ukraine\’s gas transit system.

The "independent monitoring" was needed after Gazprom\’s own monitors were not allowed to work in Ukraine, Kupriyanov said.

But the 27-member European bloc has been reluctant to get involved, with a spokesman for the European Commission telling AFP that the dispute was a "bilateral problem."

In Kiev meanwhile Ukraine\’s state-run gas company Naftogaz accused Gazprom of "technical manipulation" that had led to the reduction of gas supplies to Europe.

The Russian firm has insisted however that it is under no obligation to provide Ukraine with the "technical gas" needed to maintain pipeline pressure at necessary levels.

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Each side has threatened lawsuits against the other and blamed the other for the breakdown in negotiations.

Russia cut supplies to Ukraine on January 1 due to delays in payment for gas supplied in November and December that it put at 1.6 billion dollars, as well as a demand for more than half a billion dollars in late-payment fines.

Several central European countries have reported shortfalls in supplies, although all say they have sufficient reserves to cope for the time being.

On Sunday, the Czech Republic said its supplies from Russia had dropped by five percent.

Earlier Romania said its supplies from Russia were 30 percent below normal, Poland said its supplies were down by 11 percent and Bulgaria said deliveries were down by between 10 and 15 percent.

Ukraine is the main route for Russian gas supplies to the EU, which relies on Russia for about a quarter of its gas needs.

Unlike a similar gas dispute in 2006, experts say EU states and Ukraine itself have accumulated sufficient gas reserves to cope without fresh Russian supplies for several weeks.

Some analysts have tied the dispute to Moscow\’s anger at Kiev\’s pro-Western government for seeking to join the NATO military alliance and for its support of Georgia during the Russian-Georgian war in August.

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