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Gas flowing to crisis-hit Georgia



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MOSCOW, Russia (CNN) -- Gas has started flowing to Georgia after an explosion shut off supplies from Russia, which was accused by Georgian officials of deliberately triggering an energy crisis in its small ex-Soviet neighbor.

Two explosions in Russia's North Ossetia province on Sunday knocked out the main pipeline that exports gas across the border to Georgia which is experiencing an unusually cold winter.

Russian gas giant Gazprom said it was pumping extra gas to Azerbaijan so that more could be sent to Georgia via different pipelines.

"This morning, partial supplies of gas to Tbilisi resumed," Georgian presidential chief of staff Georgy Arveladze said in remarks quoted by Reuters. "It will take several days to resume gas supplies nationwide."

Georgia and Armenia had tapped into natural gas reserves by Monday, a day after the explosions struck the pipelines in southern Russia that supply the two post-Soviet republics.

Russian officials blamed a "criminal element" for the explosions, but Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili indicated Sunday that he believed otherwise.

"They hit us at exactly the right moment," he told CNN. "I'm not accusing anybody. I'm just asking questions. It looks dubious at the very least."

Saakashvili said Russian officials have tendered veiled threats in the past, and given the natural gas crisis created in Ukraine earlier this month when Russia temporarily shut off the flow, the president said it "just looks fishy."

"The people who selected the time, it was very precise timing," Saakashvili said. "We've been trying to reach Russian officials all day with very little success."

The rupture in gas and electricity service came during one of the coldest winters on record in the Caucasus nation.

In Moscow, as many as 135 people have died as a result of the freezing temperatures, the Russian news agency Interfax reported. Temperatures Monday in the Russian capital will only reach a high of -17 C, or 1 degree Fahrenheit. (Full story)

Russia was investigating the explosions in the pipelines as a criminal act, according to Viktor Beltsov, a spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry.

Gazprom cautioned against politicizing the issue, insisting the explosions were a criminal act. Either way, Saakashvili said, Georgia was suffering.

"We are out of gas," he said. "We don't even have one day supply. Gas is no longer being supplied to our households."

Saakashvili said Georgia was negotiating for alternative sources of natural gas with neighboring Azerbaijan and Turkey. Electricity is less of an immediate concern, since only a quarter of Georgia's electricity comes from Russia.

The Georgian government is providing other alternatives, such as propane, to schools and hospitals for heating.

"We'll find a way," Saakashvili said. "We've seen worse times in the past. Russia has never been a terribly reliable neighbor anyway."

Gas service to Armenia was also severed by the gas pipeline blast, said Beltsov. Two blasts struck the pipeline in the North Ossetia region near the Georgian border. The first, he said, was at 2:30 a.m. Sunday and the second 20 minutes later.

Interfax reported two explosive devices used to blow up the gas pipeline were equivalent to 700 to 800 grams (1.5 to 1.7 pounds) of dynamite. Interfax reported a criminal investigation had been launched.

The Emergency Situations Ministry estimated the damage will take two to three days to repair, Beltsov said. A temporary road to access the site was being built.

Saakashvili said a more realistic estimate was "several weeks."

About nine hours after the gas pipeline blasts, a pylon carrying a high-voltage electric power line supplying electricity to Georgia was blown up outside Karachayevsk in Russia's internal republic of Karacheyevo-Cherkessia, Interfax reported. Repair work has begun, the news agency said.

Saakashvili said Georgia had been working toward becoming less dependent on Russia for natural gas and had expected to complete negotiations in that regard by fall.

The president also said thousands of Georgians protested Sunday in front of the Russian embassy.

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