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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Russia Cuts Off Power to Georgia's Capital

TBILISI, Georgia - Russia's gas and electricity supplies to Georgia's capital Tbilisi were cut off Saturday, apparently over debt disputes, leaving the city of 1.2 million dark and without heat for several hours, officials said.

The cutoff surprised and panicked Georgian officials, and struck another blow to the capital's residents, who have long suffered sporadic energy supplies because of the government's financial woes.

Fuel and Energy Minister David Mirtskhulava said Georgian energy officials called Russia's electricity utility Unified Energy Systems and negotiated a resumption of supplies. By Saturday evening electricity had returned in a few districts.

Tbilisi hasn't had regular heating supplies for eight years, and most residents rely on portable gas or electric heaters. Temperatures were 10 degrees C Saturday and were forecast to drop to 2 degrees C overnight.

Mirtskhulava told The Associated Press that Georgia had worked out agreements last month with UES and Russia's Gazprom on settling debts. He said it remained unclear what prompted the cutoff, suggesting it could have been linked to the overall debt dispute or to payment problems between local energy suppliers and Russian customs officials.

Gazprom and UES could not be reached for comment. Russia's utilities are bogged down in debt from customers and are increasingly trying to crack down on nonpayments.

Already, Tbilisi has been rationing energy for years and most stores and restaurants rely on individual generators. Since Nov. 1, electricity has been officially supplied only for two hours in the evening and four hours in the evening, but residents say it is usually less.

The dispute comes amid heightened tensions between the two neighboring former Soviet states over a new requirement that Georgians obtain visas to visit Russia.

Russia's Foreign Ministry on Saturday issued a strong protest about a rally in front of the Russian Embassy in Georgia slamming the visa regime, which is to take effect Tuesday.

Moscow says it is trying to stop the flow of rebel fighters and weapons from Georgia into Russia's breakaway republic of Chechnya. Georgia has repeatedly denied it harbors Chechen rebels or allows them across the border.

The visa regime will make life harder and more expensive for the numerous Georgians who either reside or travel to Russia for business or to visit family. Russia President Vladimir Putin on Friday said the requirement would be temporary, suggesting it could end when the Chechnya war is over.