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The gas crisis that has hit Europe is getting worse despite intensive efforts to resolve it quickly, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Saturday after talks with Czech Prime Minister Mirek Topolanek.
The EU has urged Russia immediately to restore gas supplies to Europe
"Despite all the efforts that have been made, the crisis is worsening," Putin said as he began talks withTopolanek, whose country represents the European Union. "It is the Ukrainian leadership that is making it worse," Putin added.
Putin, flanked by top Russian officials including Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin, Alexei Miller, head of gas giant Gazprom, and Energy Minister Sergei Shmatko, said Kiev had brought about a "gas blockade" of Europe.
"Nonetheless we will try" to resolve the crisis, he said.
Russia cut off gas to Ukraine on January 1 over a contractual dispute. It later accused Ukraine of "stealing" transit gas intended for clients in Europe, a charge Ukraine denied.
Russia cut off all gas through the network a week later, saying it was forced to do so after Ukraine closed all routes in its territory for transport of Russian gas to Europe.
"We hope you can convince the Ukrainian party to sign the document" that sets terms for sending international, independent monitors to key gas pipeline sites to verify flows of Russian gas through Ukrainian territory.
Topolanek indicated that the uneasy relationship between Ukraine's president, Viktor Yushchenko, and its prime minister, Julia Timoshenko, was playing a role in the gas crisis, but claimed to have solved the problem.
"We have managed to overcome the rift between the Ukrainian president and the prime minister," Topolanek said as he was greeted by Putin at the Russian prime minister's country home.
Putin replied: "You have done the impossible."
The Czech prime minister also said he would not leave the region until Russian gas again began to flow through Ukraine to customers in Europe.
"I have sent a signal to Ukrainian leaders that I will stay in the region until we get the gas flowing," Topolanek said at the meeting with Putin.
Topolanek already had talks late Friday with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and Prime Minister Julia Timoshenko.
The two Ukrainian leaders, in a rare show of public solidarity, jointly met Toplanek to discuss an EU observer mission sent to Ukraine to assist in resolving the stand-off.
The EU has urged Russia immediately to restore gas supplies to Europe after satisfying one of Moscow's key demands in the gas dispute by sending a team of observers to Ukraine.
But the taps remained shut as representatives of the two countries' state-owned monopolies, Gazprom and Naftogaz, worked to hammer out details on the observers' mission, while publicly exchanging accusations that the other was causing more delays.
A deal brokered by the EU on Thursday and Friday still hung in the balance as Gazprom and Naftogaz failed to reach a written agreement on the deployment of additional Russian and Ukrainian observers to each other's territory.
EU observers in place
Putin's demands have been met now the EU wants its gas
The EU mission, initially consisting of 18 senior EU officials and experts from the European gas industry, is tasked with verifying that no Russian gas is siphoned off by Ukraine while on its way to European customers.
An advance team of eight EU technicians, led by Filip Cornelius, a senior European Commission official, was on the ground in Kyiv.
Cornelius made clear restoration of gas supplies to Europe would take time, and - equally importantly - political will on the part of Russia and Ukraine.
The EU observers could technically begin trips to pipelines as early as Saturday, but a large number of "organizational issues" remained to be resolved before gas could flow, he said.
The EU observers are to act as independent monitors at the six main natural-gas pipeline crossing points from Russia to Ukraine, and at the Naftogaz headquarters.
Czech PM wants the gas to flow as soon as possible
Topolanek hoped to get the taps turned on as Europe shivers
EU member states in central and southern Europe continued to be hard hit by Russia's shut-off of all gas supplies through Ukraine, with Slovakia relying on gas supplies from Poland and EU neighbor Serbia seeking emergency help from Germany, Austria and Hungary.
By far the most critical situation, though, is faced by non-EU members Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia and Moldova, which have no reserves left.
Other seriously affected EU countries such as Greece, Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Hungary, Poland and Romania, either have reserves that can last several weeks or have been able to resort to alternative sources of energy, EU officials said in a statement.
About a quarter of the EU's gas needs are met by Russian gas, 80 per cent of which reaches European clients via Ukraine.