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Russia to keep gas pipeline monopoly

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(MOSCOW) - Prime Minister Vladimir Putin said Thursday that Russia had no immediate plans to break up its natural gas export monopoly despite growing pressure from the European Union.

Putin's comments at a Moscow investment forum came one week after EU officials searched the office of Russia's natural gas monopoly Gazprom as part of an unprecedented anti-trust probe.

The Russian premier and overwhelming frontrunner in March presidential elections accused the European Union of using the raids to put further pressure on Russia to break up Gazprom's natural gas pipeline monopoly.

But Putin stressed that he will only let other companies use Gazprom's links to Europe when open competition could ensure strong revenues for the state-held firm.

"We cannot exclude that in the future, we will also liberalise exports," said Putin after describing other recent industry reforms.

"But we are not doing that yet, for obvious reasons -- so as not to ruin the market," Putin said in reference to Gazprom's vast export revenues.

"At a certain stage, we do not exclude it -- this is what our European friends and partners urge us to do by conducting endless searches in Gazprom offices in European countries," Putin added without providing a time frame.

The European Union buys nearly a third of its gas from Gazprom at what a growing chorus of clients have been complaining are inflated prices.

The EU has recently passed legislation requiring Gazprom to give up control of its European pipelines through which it distributes gas and is pushing for other measures aimed at lowering Russian prices.

But Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev -- a former Gazprom chairman -- have treated the company as a national treasure whose breakup could impact the country's national security.

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