Serbia faces Big Chill as temperatures plunge to minus 20

BELGRADE, Jan 25, 2000 -- (Reuters) Snow-bound Serbia introduced on Tuesday sporadic power cuts and urged the nation to cut energy consumption to avoid a collapse of its strained grid as outside temperatures sank to -20 degrees Celsius.

The freezing spell came only two days after blizzards swept across the country blocking roads and cutting off many villages.

Serbian capital Belgrade woke up at 18 degrees below zero, and second city Novi Sad in the north at -20, the National Weather Service said.

Many Belgraders walked to their offices as the city transport, facing the snow amid fuel and spare part shortages provided barely 500 buses and trams, half of what the city needs.

Freezing weather also hit adjoining Yugoslav republic Montenegro where temperatures stood at four below zero in Podgorica and minus three in Ulcinj, the southernmost point on the coast bordering Albania.

The Novi Sad electricity distributor introduced two-hour power cuts on Tuesday. In Belgrade, the power company cautioned consumption was exceeding its capacity.

"The power system is strained, with most frequent failures in suburban areas," the company said.

The capital alone consumed 32.6 million kilowatt hours (kWh) on Monday, while the rest of Serbia consumed 100 million kWh.

"Consumption substantially exceeds average daily production of 110-125 million kWh produced by hydroelectric and thermal power plants," Serbian power company Elektroprivreda Srbije (EPS) said.

A third of Serbia's power grid, mainly transmission lines, was damaged or destroyed in NATO's three-month bombing campaign of Yugoslavia last year.

State Tanjug news agency said EPS was spending $160,000 a day on energy imports from neighboring grids.

The oil company said disposable quantities of natural gas, the main source of heating in many towns, were too low to keep households warm and the food industry running.

Yugoslavia, subject to an embargo by the European Union and United States which bans imports of crude and oil products, has had regular heating problems since the first cold arrived in November.

Belgrade had hoped that Russia would provide enough gas to heat it through the winter, but Russian gas monopoly Gazprom has delivered barely half of Serbia's needs.

Serbia lacks gas

"There are no fuel reserves. We can only pray the skies have mercy on us," a senior official at Serbian oil company NIS, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

Serbia lacked on Tuesday some 100,000 cubic meters of natural gas per hour, the NIS source said.

"We currently feed the system with 370,000 cubic meters of gas. That is enough for the temperatures around zero," he said. "On a day like this we need 470,000 cubic meters per hour."

Low pressure in the pipeline of around 10 bars compared to 30 required, kept households cold with temperatures of below 15 degrees. The heating situation was critical in the central Serbian towns of Kragujevac and Kraljevo.

The European Union has sent heating oil to two opposition-held Serbian towns, Nis and Pirot, under its Energy for Democracy programme.

Some EU members want to extend the aid to towns which are not opposed to Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, a view supported by opposition leaders.

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