Power outages plague Crimea as Russia threatens to cut Ukraine gas

Simferopol (AFP) - Power cuts in Crimea affected nearly 940,000 people on Tuesday as tensions raged between Kiev and Moscow over the annexed peninsula and Russia threatened to cut off gas supplies to Ukraine.

The Black Sea peninsula has been hit by power cuts after unknown attackers blew up pylons at the weekend, cutting power lines from Ukraine, which supplies most of its electricity.

The energy ministry in Moscow said that some 938,000 residents of Crimea remained without electricity and Russia was sending 300 mobile generators to the peninsula.

Energy minister Alexander Novak said Russia may shortly cut natural gas supplies to Ukraine because Kiev had not made an upfront payment and suggested Moscow could also cut coal deliveries.

"Supplies of gas will be halted today or tomorrow in the absence of a prepayment," Novak said on radio Vesti FM.

Russia supplies around a third of Europe's gas, with roughly half of it flowing via Ukraine and has been involved in a festering pricing dispute with Kiev.

Novak and Russian Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov were expected to visit Crimea later Tuesday.

Ukraine on Monday halted the movement of goods to Crimea, ratcheting up tensions with Moscow amid a relative lull in fighting in separatist eastern Ukraine that has claimed more than 8,000 lives since April 2014.

Tensions have spiked as Kiev's landmark free-trade agreement with the European Union is set to come into force on January 1, 2016.

Russia has vehemently opposed the agreement at the heart of the Ukraine conflict, saying it would damage its economic interests and threatening to respond by banning food imports from Ukraine.

Kiev vowed on Monday to respond in kind.

Ukraine's interior minister even suggested that Kiev cut power supplies to Crimea altogether.

Crimea declared a state of emergency after an explosion Saturday in Ukraine's Kherson region bordering the peninsula cut the two working power lines heading to the territory, leaving some 1.6 million people without electricity.

The authorities in Crimea, which depends on Kiev for most of its power supplies, have suggested Ukraine was involved in the blast.

The Russian energy minister accused Kiev of failing to take measures to repair the power lines.

"Not only is Crimea suffering, but the Kherson region is also suffering, Ukraine's energy industry is suffering," Novak said.

In Kiev, Ukraine's state-run energy company Ukrenergo said it would install a new pylon in the Kherson region to restore power supplies.

- Power cuts hit zoo -

In Crimea, authorities enforced electricity rationing and regional leader, Sergei Aksyonov, sacked his top energy official.

The blackout caused major disruptions, affecting water supplies to high-rise buildings, cable and Internet and plunging streets into darkness.

Staff at a zoo outside Simferopol, the peninsula's main city, were struggling to keep animals including lion and tiger cubs warm.

"The situation is difficult," Oleg Zubkov, head of the Taigan wildlife park, told AFP.

"We are trying to use generators but they cannot cover our needs," he said, adding that marine animals like sea turtles were especially vulnerable.

"I am afraid we won't be able to avoid major losses."

Crimea head Aksyonov has urged the residents to "prepare for the worst," saying the power blackout could well last until late December.

Russia is laying undersea cables to Crimea to ease dependence on Kiev and is also planning to build gas-powered power stations which would burn gas piped from the mainland.

Economic ties between Russia and Ukraine collapsed after a popular uprising in Kiev ousted Kremlin-backed leader Viktor Yanukovych last year, with Russia then annexing Crimea and supporting Russian-speaking insurgents in the east.

On December 1, the European Union, Russia and Ukraine will hold a three-way meeting as Brussels and Kiev seek to allay Moscow's fears over the effects of the trade deal.

Brussels said it was ready to continue to seek ways to "achieve practical solutions to Russia's concerns."

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