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EU antitrust chief seeks to insulate Gazprom probe from Crimea

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[March 28, 2014]  WASHINGTON (Reuters)  The European Union is seeking to insulate its probe of Russia's gas export monopoly, Gazprom, which is suspected of anti-competitive behavior, from larger concerns about Russia's seizure of Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, Europe's top antitrust enforcer said on Friday.

Gazprom, the world's top gas producer and supplier of around 30 percent of Europe's gas needs, has been under EU investigation since September 2012 for suspected anti-competitive behavior, including overcharging customers and blocking rival suppliers.

Russia ships around half of its gas to Europe through Ukraine.

European Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia, speaking in English, said he wanted to see antitrust issues separated from other disputes but he acknowledged the difficulty inherent in accomplishing that given Russia's controversial move into Crimea.

"These days are not the most adequate ones to have a quiet discussion on the question related with Russian gas and how the Russian gas arrives to the territory and to the markets of the EU," Almunia told reporters in Washington. "(But) antitrust investigations should be protected from any kind of external influences."

There have been perennial gas price disputes between Russia and Ukraine, which caused shortages in the winter of 2009. Gazprom has offered the EU pricing concessions but has not unveiled any details and may have to sweeten its offer to ward off a possible fine of as much as $14.3 billion or 10 percent of its 2012 turnover.

(Reporting by Diane Bartz; editing by Stephen Powell)

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