KIEV, Ukraine — Russia's Gazprom said it could restart gas shipments to Europe on Friday if an agreement can be signed allowing an EU-led monitoring mission to track gas flows through Ukrainian pipelines.
EU monitors arrived Friday in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, but Gazprom CEO Alexei Miller said a final agreement on their deployment has yet to be signed.
Gazprom halted all natural gas shipments through Ukraine on Wednesday, ending or reducing gas supplies to more than a dozen European nations, amid a pricing dispute with Kiev.
On Friday, Miller pledged Gazprom would resume shipments to Europe once EU and Russian monitors were in place at pipeline pumping stations across Ukraine — a country roughly the size of South Africa or Texas. The EU said it could then take days for the shipments to reach western Europe.
But as Russian and Ukrainian officials traded new accusations Friday, doubts emerged about whether the monitoring deal could be inked quickly.
Miller accused Ukraine of creating obstacles to the deal, saying "Ukraine is afraid of creating such a (monitoring) mechanism."
"If it's created, our Ukrainian colleagues will have to work in an open and transparent way, and they very much dislike it," Miller said during a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in the southern Russian city of Sochi.
Ukraine's state company Naftogaz spokesman Valentyn Zemlyansky said Russia was the one dragging its feet on the deal.
"They are just wasting time, trying to make this process as long as possible," Zemlyansky told The Associated Press.
Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek, whose country holds the EU presidency, was traveling in Kiev to help wrap up the monitoring deal.
"The mission is sensitive. Both sides want to save face," Topolanek said before departing from Prague. "I'm a bit optimistic, but don't expect me to give any assurance that it will be definitely solved today."
Russia had insisted its representatives be included in the EU monitoring mission, and Ukraine agreed on Friday, officials from the EU and Ukraine said.
"It is now imperative that the gas starts to flow," the EU said in a statement.
Once gas shipments resume, it "will take at least three days" for the first gas to reach European consumers, EU spokesman Ferran Terradellas said.
The halt in gas supplies has left European nations struggling to cope during a harsh winter. At least 11 people have frozen to death this week in Europe, including 10 in Poland, where temperatures have sunk to -13 F (-25 C).
Fifteen countries — Austria, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Macedonia, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, Slovenia and Turkey — said their Russian supplies ceased Wednesday. Germany and Poland also reported substantial drops in supplies.
Criticisms for both sides
EU governments have criticized both Russia and Ukraine for the gas crisis, saying it was unacceptable to see homes unheated, businesses closed and schools shut down in the middle of winter because of the commercial squabble.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon urged a unified European response "so as not to be held hostage to the Russian-Ukrainian energy crisis."
"I solemnly call on the two parties to scrupulously respect their obligations with us," he told a capitalism conference in Paris.
The two former Soviet republics are locked in tense negotiations over future prices and debt.
Russia said it was forced to halt supplies because Ukraine was siphoning gas being pumped through Ukrainian pipelines for European customers, after Gazprom stopped shipments of gas intended for Ukraine on Jan. 1.
Ukraine denies the accusation, saying it only diverted enough gas to keep the pipelines functioning properly. Russia said its transit contract obliges Kiev to use its own gas for that purpose.
Ukraine's Naftogaz promised the first gas supplies would go to Bulgaria, where thousands of homes are without heating and factories have been shut.
The Sofia Zoo in the Bulgarian capital declared an emergency Friday after being left with no central heating. The zoo was using electric heaters for its 1,300 animals, some of which needed temperatures of at least 68 F (20 C), director Ivan Ivanov said.