KIEV, Ukraine -- A major natural gas pipeline exploded in central Ukraine on Tuesday, a day after the Russian energy behemoth Gazprom said that it was cutting off supplies to Ukraine in a dispute over pricing, and officials immediately labeled it a possible act of sabotage.
Utility officials said that natural gas deliveries were not interrupted and that supplies to Ukrainian customers and other European countries were flowing through alternative pipes.
The blast occurred in a sparsely populated area of the Poltava region, which lies between Kiev, the capital, and the embattled regions of eastern Ukraine where a civil war is effectively underway between pro-Russian separatists and the Ukrainian military.
Video from the scene showed a huge plume of fire shooting hundreds of feet into the sky.
The explosion destroyed a section of the Urengoy-Pomary-Uzhgorod pipeline, which runs more than 1,800 miles from Russia’s Arctic north through Ukraine to the border of Slovakia.
Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, issued a statement saying investigators’ leading theory was that the attack was deliberate.
“The Interior Ministry is conducting a probe to determine the reason for the explosion,” Mr. Avakov said in a statement.
“Several versions are being considered, including a key version: a terrorist attack.
According to local residents, they heard two loud pops right before the fire started, which might be evidence of intentional explosions.”
The damaged pipeline, which runs about six feet underground, carries Russian gas that is destined for Ukraine, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, France, Switzerland, Slovenia and Italy.
It has a capacity of carrying 28 billion cubic meters a year.
Gazprom’s decision to cut off supplies to Ukraine, as well as demand that Ukraine pay for all gas in advance, was a sharp escalation of the fight over pricing.
Russia has complained that Ukraine has failed to pay billions of dollars in debts for previous gas supplies, while the Ukrainian government insists that Russia, which owns a controlling interest in Gazprom, is demanding exorbitantly high rates and is using energy tariffs as a lever in the wider political dispute between the countries.
Fighting continued Tuesday in eastern Ukraine, including mortar fire near the city of Luhansk that killed a Russian television journalist, Igor Kornelyuk, and a sound engineer, Anton Voloshin, who were working for the state-controlled Rossiya channel.
Their deaths drew a sharp condemnation from the Russian foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, who blamed the government in Kiev for its continuing military operation aimed at cracking down on separatist rebels.
Mr. Lavrov, responding to a reporter’s question in Baku, Azerbaijan, where he was on an official visit, also had pointed words for the West.
“This case sends a strong signal for the Western patrons of Kiev to stop their reckless support for violent action and to make the Kiev authorities fulfill the promise of President Petro O. Poroshenko — to start true a national dialogue involving all regions about the future of the country,” Mr. Lavrov said.
Ukraine’s state-operated pipeline company, Ukrtransgaz, said in a statement that the explosion occurred at 2:20 p.m. and that the fire was under control and the damage contained in about an hour.
“Thanks to the design features of the Ukraine gas transport system and the adherence to response protocols, Ukrtransgaz effectively coped with the emergency situation and continues to provide an uninterrupted supply of gas to consumers in Ukraine as well as transit to Europe,” the company said, adding, “The localization of damage is further confirmation of the reliability of the Ukrainian gas transport system.”
Mr. Avakov, the interior minister, noted that the Ukrainian government had thwarted two previous attempts to attack natural gas pipelines before the country’s presidential election on May 25, in the western region of Ivano-Frankivsk.
Ukrainian officials blamed those attempts on pro-Russian activists seeking to cast doubt on the reliability of Ukraine’s pipeline system.
Source: The New York Times