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Turkmenistan Says Needs Europe Too For Gas Sales

Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov told conference participants he wants more cooperation.
ASHGABAT (Reuters) -- Turkmenistan has told the West it sought to find new ways of diversifying its gas exports, in a snub to Russia, which wants to keep the energy-rich former Soviet republic on a tight leash.

Relations between Turkmenistan, which sells most of its natural gas to Russia, and Moscow deteriorated sharply this month following a gas explosion on a key pipeline that Turkmenistan blamed on Russia.

The accident reinforced the West's resolve to convince Turkmenistan to work more closely with Europe.

On April 23, Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhammedov told foreign energy chiefs gathered in Ashgabat to attend an energy conference that he wanted more cooperation.

"Turkmenistan needs to create a new system of ties with Europe," he told a packed hall of U.S., European, and Russian officials.

"In the current environment diversification of energy flows and inclusion of new countries into the geography of export routes can help the global economy gain stability."

Worried that Turkmenistan may roll out of its traditional sphere of interest, Moscow has sent Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's powerful deputy prime minister, Igor Sechin, to counter Western efforts on the sidelines of the two-day conference.

From the Western camp, U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Krol, a senior United Nations official, the secretary-general of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, and heads of global energy companies were also present.

Bilateral meetings were held behind closed doors and officials were tight-lipped on their outcome of talks. In his only remarks to reporters, Sechin played down any problems between Russia and Turkmenistan following the explosion.

"Such accidents will never lead to accidents in diplomatic relations with Turkmenistan," he said. "Everything will be okay."

Turkmenistan says the April 9 explosion was caused by Russia's abrupt reduction of imports. It fully halted imports from Turkmenistan after the blast.

Russia's Gazprom has not commented on the Turkmen allegations. The accident happened at a time when Russia, hit hard by falling gas demand in Europe, was forced to cut gas output by a quarter.

Europe has courted Central Asia's biggest gas producer because it sees it as a potential supplier for the planned Nabucco gas pipeline, at the centre of its plans to reduce its energy dependence on Russia.

"We have to make sure that there are no disruptions in energy supplies," Sha Zukang, UN undersecretary-general for economic and social affairs, said through an interpreter. "We have to reduce uncertainty surrounding energy supplies."

Turkmenistan produces about 75 billion cubic meters (bcm) of gas a year and sells about 50 bcm to Gazprom. As part of its diversification, it is building a separate pipeline to China.

The EU Nabucco pipeline was also at the center of talks in Ashgabat this week, but analysts say the project may be headed for failure unless the EU commits to buying Caspian gas quickly.

"Turkmenistan is a very important country in the energy sector," Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler said. "And there is a chance that Turkmenistan will join international projects."