CEOL - Freezing Serb homes face gas rationing

BELGRADE, Dec 23, 1999 -- (Reuters) Serbs face possible natural gas rationing as Russian supplies prove insufficient to fend off plummeting temperatures, an official at the Serbian oil and gas monopoly NIS said on Wednesday.

The NIS source, who declined to be named, said the situation will be critical on Thursday when temperatures in snow-bound Belgrade were expected to fall to 11 degrees Celsius below zero.

"It could mean eight hours a day without gas," the source said.

Serbia agreed a supply deal in September with Russia's Gazprom gas monopoly for humanitarian deliveries of 250,000 cubic meters of gas per hour, pumped through Hungary.

Serbia is subject to a Western-sponsored international oil embargo which does not include gas.

Neighboring countries, particularly Hungary, strictly comply with the embargo and frequently make problems with gas deliveries, local gas industry sources said.

"These quantities of gas are sufficient at outside temperatures of plus five degrees Celsius. We've had much lower temperatures for days now. And tomorrow the situation will be even worse," the NIS source said.

"Belgrade alone needs 110,000 cubic meters of gas per hour. At present, the deliveries are 30 percent lower."

"Each degree of Celsius below five means an additional requirement of 50,000 cubic meters of gas," the source said. "The gas is delivered to priority consumers, to homes, food industry, hospitals."

Industry sources said Serbia already faced a gas supply shortfall with between 600,000 and 650,000 cubic meters of gas per hour needed to keep homes warm and industries running.

Gas is the main source for heating in Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina and its 155,000 homes, and for central heating plants in Belgrade, Kragujevac, Kraljevo and Loznica.

More Gas Requested

Both NIS and the Serbian Chamber of Commerce said Belgrade asked Russia two weeks ago to increase gas supplies by 100,000 cubic meters per hour. Both cited problems with Hungary over unpaid gas transportation debt.

"There's been no response yet. We've been told that Prime Minister (Vladimir) Putin is supposed to sign a decree allowing extra deliveries. There are always problems when you have a political, not a commercial deal," an industry source said.

Yugoslavia, or rather its dominant part Serbia, has turned east for aid after NATO's three month air war earlier this year, as the West has declined to provide assistance as long as President Slobodan Milosevic stayed in power.

Milosevic's government was hoping for a strong victory for Russia's communists at the Sunday's parliamentary election, seen as a lifeline for the government in Belgrade, which has faced growing pressure and calls to step down after the bombing ended.

The European Union has so far delivered a weekly requirement in mazut (heavy fuel oil) and heating fuel to two Serbian opposition-run towns of Pirot and Nis, as part of its Energy for Democracy scheme aimed at boosting local democratic opposition authorities while helping ordinary Serbs through a harsh Balkan winter.

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