Beslan Faces Cutoff Of Electricity Supply

An unpaid bill for street lighting could plunge Beslan, the North Ossetian town that suffered the country's worst-ever terrorist attack, into darkness if the local government doesn't pay up.

The town's 37,000 residents could have their electricity cut off May 12 if a local electricity retail company fails to pay a debt of more than 25 million rubles ($1.05 million), the regional power distributor said Sunday.

The threat of a cutoff angered residents in Beslan, where 331 people, 186 of them children, died in September 2004 after Chechen separatists attacked the town's biggest school and held hundreds hostage. The town has since struggled to come to terms with the traumatic attack, and, like the rest of the region, it suffers from some of the country's worst poverty and unemployment rates.

The administration of the Pravoberezhny district, which includes Beslan, averted a cutoff Sunday by paying 2.3 million rubles and promising to pay off the rest of the debt by Thursday.

On Sunday, the electricity companies involved blamed local government officials for the debt, while the administration insisted that there was no problem.

Such disputes among generation, distribution and sales companies, often caused by mismanagement, are not as common now as they were a few years ago, but still occur, said Tatyana Milyayeva, a spokeswoman for state-run utility Unified Energy System.

The utility is in the process of winding itself up and passing its assets on to successor companies in a huge program of sell-offs aimed at raising investments to upgrade the country's aging electricity network. The reform, which started with the breakup of UES into generation, distribution and sales companies, will see the former state monopoly ceasing to exist as of July 1.

The local retail company, Beslan Electricity Networks, said Sunday that it was not to blame for the debt, as it had not been paid by the local administration. "Of the debt of 16 million rubles [for the last three months], 11 million has not been paid by the district administration for lighting and other municipal services," the company's deputy director, Aslan Frayev, said by telephone.

Zalina Alborova, a spokeswoman for power distributor Sevkavkazenergo, warned that the debt could endanger power supplies in the entire North Caucasus, as generating companies might refuse to work with the distributor after the payment delays.

"We need some money to buy the electricity on the wholesale generation market, and now we lack 25.7 million rubles," Alborova said by telephone Sunday.

The company is one of the main electricity distributors in North Ossetia.

Lyudmila Pliyeva, head of the Pravoberezhny district administration, said tersely by telephone Sunday that there was "enough money in the budget to pay the debt." She hung up, without elaborating.

Beslan resident Yelena Uvarova, whose daughter Kristina was held hostage and seriously injured in the 2004 attack, said Sunday she had heard nothing about the possible cutoffs. "We always pay our electricity bills," she said. "The whole town shouldn't suffer from the negligence of officials."