(Adds Putin, quotes, confirmation of sabotage)
MOSCOW/KIEV, Dec 31 (Reuters) - Crimea has lost at least one quarter of its power after Ukraine halted supplies, officials in the contested peninsula said on Thursday, a situation Ukrainian police blamed on unidentified saboteurs blowing up an electricity pylon.
Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine in March last year, has suffered repeated power cuts since the annexation, underlining its reliance on Ukraine for electricity and fuelling a downwards spiral in relations between Moscow and Kiev.
Police in Ukraine’s Kherson region, which borders Crimea, said power supplies had been cut off by a blast, but gave no details of who was responsible. Ukrainian electricity company Ukrenergo said it would fix the pylon by the end of the day.
The cut-off coincides with the expiry of a power supply contract between the company and Crimea. It is unclear when and if a new contract will be signed.
The subject is politically charged. Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak said Kiev was insisting that future contracts must refer to Crimea as “a territory of Ukraine”, something Moscow is unlikely to accept.
He said President Vladimir Putin had ordered an opinion poll to be conducted among Crimeans asking if they agreed to be considered part of Ukraine or would accept “temporary difficulties” for three or four months if a new contract with Ukraine were not signed.
Crimea, which before the annexation relied on Ukraine for at least 70 percent of its electricity, suffered a severe blackout at the end of November after unidentified saboteurs blew up pylons supplying it with power in southern Ukraine.
Russia then boosted its own supplies to the region and flew in emergency generators, while power from Ukraine was partially restored only after just over two weeks.
“Ukraine has for a long time disrespected the contract for power supplies to Crimea,” Novak said. “We have seen electricity pylons blown up, some armed mavericks who allegedly did not allow repairs to them, and lots of other nonsense.”
Crimea’s fuel and power minister Svetlana Borodulina said the peninsula had lost at least one quarter of its power because of the latest cut-off.
The region, home to 2 million people, was now running on just 700 megawatts of electricity per day compared with between 950 and 1,000 megawatts per day before the outage, Russia’s Interfax news agency quoted her as saying.
Another local official had previously said lines carried by the downed pylon had been supplying Crimea with around 250 megawatts a day. After the previous outage, Russia boosted supplies to the region to 400 megawatts per day.
Officials and local residents said the problems caused by the incident were so far relatively minor.
However, Borodulina advised Crimean residents to economise on electricity and take precautions such as charging phones and preparing meals for New Year celebrations early, as intermittent power cuts were expected, RIA news agency reported.
A Reuters reporter in Sevastopol, Crimea’s largest city, said problems appeared to be fairly minor compared with those experienced a month ago, saying that most electrical devices were still working.
Ukraine’s energy ministry said on Thursday it will investigate a suspected computer malware attack on its energy grid, an incident that the country’s secret service has blamed on Russia. Moscow has not commented so far on the allegation. (Additional reporting by Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Editing by Andrew Osborn and David Stamp)
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