Fire leaves Kosovo with big electricity shortages

PRISTINA, Jan 12, 2000 -- (Reuters) Kosovo was facing days of major electricity shortages on Tuesday after a fire put its main power station out of action, international authorities said.

Officials said a fire at the Kosovo B power plant, near the capital city Pristina, meant one of the station's two generating units was likely to be out of action for at least a week.

The other unit was already under repair and engineers were working round the clock in an attempt to get it running again by this weekend, a spokeswoman for the province's United Nations-led administration said.

Imported electricity and power from one generating unit at an older plant, Kosovo A, were providing about 220 megawatts of electricity - less than half Kosovo's average electricity needs.

Frequent power cuts and an erratic electricity supply have plagued Kosovo through the winter months. Temperatures have plunged below freezing point in the province, where many people are living in war-damaged and dilapidated housing.

"It's a power crisis but not yet a humanitarian crisis," said Peter Kessler, a spokesman for the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR. "But we are establishing contingency measures should the situation dramatically worsen."

Kessler said UNHCR had 30,000 blankets in stock and had ordered another 100,000 as well as more than 60,000 sleeping bags. The agency also had thousands of special "winterization kits" in storage which include wood-burning stoves, he said.

The fire broke out at the power plant late on Monday evening and started in underground cables, the U.N. said. Experts spent Tuesday carrying out a preliminary assessment of the damage.

The U.N. said electricity supply would be rationed around different regions, with each on a rotation of two hours of power followed by four hours without.

Street lamps and lights in homes and businesses were out across Pristina on Tuesday night.

Officials say years of underinvestment and neglect by Serbian authorities have left Kosovo's power system in a parlous state and they are working hard to repair the damage.

"You have to understand that ... this is the lack of maintenance of the system which leads to an unpredictable situation," Bernard Kouchner, the French head of the U.N. mission in Kosovo, told reporters.

Officials say NATO's 11-week bombing of Yugoslavia did not cause great damage to the system but landmines left over from the conflict between Serbs and ethnic Albanians have prevented the speedy repair of important high-voltage supply lines.

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