Millions without power in Georgia

Strong winds and heavy snows downed power lines in western Georgia overnight, an energy official said Thursday, cutting power to millions of Georgians, many of whom are already suffering without heating because of a natural gas shortage. Long lines appeared in the capital Tbilisi as people queued up to fill kerosene canisters for portable heaters and people were selling jewelry and other valuable at pawn shops to buy new heaters and fuel.

Deputy Energy Minister Alexander Khetaguri told The Associated Press that fierce weather in western Georgia ruptured power lines leading from the Inguri hydroelectric station to eastern regions, leaving about 3 million people in the dark.

One gas-powered unit of a Tbilisi power station also shut down because of malfunctions, he said.

Only about 40 percent of the capital's residents had natural gas for heating, a shortage caused by Russia pipeline that was destroyed by suspicious explosions over the weekend.

On Wednesday, President Mikhail Saakashvili complained about the continued delay in repairing the pipeline in the Russian border region of North Ossetia. Saakashvili, who had previously accused Moscow of deliberately blowing up the pipeline to put pressure on his pro-Western government, hinted that Russia was deliberately slowing down the repair work.

"It is taking suspiciously long to put this gas pipeline back into service," he said in televised remarks. Neighboring Azerbaijan has stepped up supplies of gas, but had to cut back in the past day due to technical reasons.

With demand spiking for kerosene, prices have skyrocketed with 1 liter now costs around US$1.50 (Ђ1.22) a sizable sum in the Caucasus Mountain country where average monthly pensions are US$22 (Ђ18) and average monthly salaries are US$25 (Ђ20).

Temperature are hovered just below freezing in Tbilisi, and were markedly colder in the mountainous regions, as Georgia suffers through its worst energy crisis in years. The 1991 Soviet collapse, and several years of civil war in the early 1990s, left much of Georgia's energy infrastructure decrepit and in desperate need of repairs, forcing many to rely on generators and wood- and gas-fired heaters and stoves, reports the AP. N.U.

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