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Russia, Ukraine strike gas deal

MOSCOW, January 18 – Russia and Ukraine on Saturday prepared for gas crisis talks that the European Union says are the "last and best chance" to end their dispute as Europe struggles through winter without crucial gas supplies.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko left for Moscow for talks with her Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as EU officials were due in the Kremlin for what Moscow has dubbed a "summit" but which has failed to attract key players.

Europe warned Friday that it would be forced to review relations with Russia and Ukraine if they did not renew the flow of gas to Europe over the weekend.

EU Commission spokesman Johannes Laitenberger said the bloc would determine next week whether to continue "business as usual" with Moscow and Kiev if the weekend talks failed.

"The commission believes that the meetings in the coming days offer the last and best chance for Russia and Ukraine to demonstrate that they are serious about resolving this dispute," he told reporters in Brussels.

But Putin in turn blasted the European Union for its "de facto" support for Kiev in the crisis, which has left millions of Europeans with little or no heating amid freezing temperatures.

"The position of the European Union, which is putting Russia and Ukraine on a par, constitutes de facto support of Ukraine, which is violating its transit obligations," he said in Berlin after meeting German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Putin\’s meeting with Tymoshenko on Saturday was to be the first high-level direct contact between the Russian and Ukrainian governments since the start of the gas supply crisis on New Year\’s Day.

But in a sign that disunity in Ukraine could disrupt the talks, Tymoshenko warned about getting "a knife in the back" in apparent reference to her rival, President Viktor Yuschenko, who has taken a harder line on Russia than she has.

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"I need two things: for nobody to thrust a stick in the wheel and a knife in the back," she said in a statement on Friday.

The Ukrainian government\’s press service announced Saturday morning that "Tymoshenko has left on a working visit to Moscow for negotiations on the reliable transit of gas to Europe and supplies of gas to Ukraine."

Meanwhile the Kremlin\’s planned summit appeared to be floundering.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had invited all heads of state and government from countries that buy Russian gas or carry it through their territory, but few had accepted his invitation.

EU Energy Commissioner Andries Pielbags and Czech Industry and Commerce Minister Martin Rima, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency, were expected to attend on behalf of Brussels.

But Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek said an "exhausted" EU was trying to avoid "European delegations travelling to Moscow as hostages or supplicants" while France said gas needed to start flowing again before any such summit.

Ministers and energy officials from Serbia, Croatia and Turkey were expected to attend the Kremlin meeting.

The only foreign head of state confirmed to be in attendance was President Serzh Sarkisyan of Armenia, a close ally of Russia. Sarkisyan\’s press service confirmed he would be going, the RIA Novosti news agency reported Saturday.

Moscow has been pushing a plan that involves forming a consortium of European companies to help Ukraine export Russian gas to Europe. Putin\’s trip to Germany on Friday was partly aimed at winning support for the consortium.

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The gas crisis has cost EU states hundreds of millions of dollars (euros) and has meant no gas in a swathe of countries in southeastern Europe.

It began on January 1 with Russia halting supplies to Ukraine over a payment dispute and later escalated with a complete cutoff of gas transiting through Ukraine to Europe.

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