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Chechen Attacks Threaten Transneft Pipeline Plan

Prague, March 13 (RFE/RL) -- Chechen separatists are targeting the gas and oil industry's infrastructure in their battle for independence from Moscow.

Twice in the past month, explosions ripped holes in gas pipelines that run through Chechnya. On Sunday, as firefighters tried to control blazes that had been burning at a Grozny oil refinery since last week's battle for the city, another explosion ripped through a gas pipeline in the Derbent region of neighboring Dagestan. That pipeline linked Mozdok in North Ossetia with Azerbaijan.

Moscow has N-O-T attributed the Dagestan explosion to Chechen separatists or their sympathizers. But the chairman of Chechnya's pro-Russian Constitutional Court, Ikhvan Gerikhanov, says Russia C-A-N-N-O-T rule out any such attacks until Moscow negotiates a future status for Chechnya.

The issue has serious implications for Moscow and a group of western companies looking to develop the rich oil fields of the Caspian Sea region. The international consortium plans to transport 32 million tonnes of oil from Azerbaijan's off shore Caspian Sea fields through two yet-to-be completed pipelines.

One pipeline would by-pass Russia altogether and stretch from Baku to the new Georgian terminal of Supsa. The other, the nearly-completed Transneft pipeline, would link the oil terminals at Baku and Russia's Black Sea port at Novorossisk.

But about 70 kilometers of the Transneft pipeline runs across northern Chechnya. It passes directly through Gudermes, as well as Kizlar in Dagestan. Both towns have seen heavy fighting between Chechen separatists and Russian forces in the past three months.

Gerikhanov has dismissed proposals that Russia should build a pipeline branch by-passing Chechnya. He says such a project would be too expensive.

While some Russian experts say the cost would N-O-T be more than 200 million dollars, Transneft president Valery Chernyayev has given repeated assurance that his company can guarantee safe transport through Chechnya.

Roger W. Robinson Jr., president of the Washington-based consulting firm RWR Inc., predicts that the Caspian region could be a major oil source for industrialized democracies in the 21st century. Taken together, he says, the Caspian Sea reserves and the Tenghiz fields in Kazakhstan are larger than the combined deposits of the North Sea and Alaska's North Slope.

Robinson, who was Senior Director for International Economic Affairs in President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council, says Moscow's desire to control the entire route of the Transneft pipeline partly explains the Russian military action against Grozny two years ago.

Lack of a reliable export route also has delayed development of Kazakhstan's Tenghiz fields for more than three years.

Chevron, a western oil company, estimates that its joint venture to develop the Tenghiz fields could already be producing 700,000 barrels of crude oil per day and bring in an eventual 20,000 million dollars in investment. But without a method to transport the oil to the international market, Chevron has cut daily production to about 60,000 barrels a day -- less than 10 percent of the projected output.

The Caspian Pipeline Consortium of Russia, Kazakhstan and Oman finally agreed this week to invite outside investment for the construction of a pipeline that would link the Caspian port of Komsomol to Novorossisk.

That agreement, after three years of bickering, could allow for Chevron and other oil companies to join the three countries in building the 750 kilometer stretch needed to complete a link from the Tenghiz fields to Novorossisk.

The shortest route to already existing pipeline would be a link to the Transneft line in Chechnya. But a map published in the Financial Times (March 11) shows much longer proposed route to the north of the troubled republic . It would first pass due west from Komsomol to Tikhoretsk before turning south to the Black Sea port.