SUMMARY 1-Europe denounces ‘gas blackmail’ as sanctions hit Russian economy

* Ukraine says Europe should stop depending on Russia

* France to host EU energy ministers on May 2

* Russia denies energy blackmail

* Canada declares Russian attacks war crimes

By Marek Strzelecki, Tsvetelia Tsolova and Pavel Polityuk

WARSAW/SOFIA/kyiv, April 28 (Reuters) – European leaders have denounced Russia’s attempt to “blackmail” Ukraine’s allies over gas supplies as Western sanctions hit the Russian economy already grappling with its worst crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Ukraine has said Europe should stop depending on Russia for trade after cutting off gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland for not paying in rubles as the shutdown on Wednesday exposed weaknesses and the divisions of the continent.

Germany, the biggest buyer of Russian energy, hopes to stop importing Russian oil within days, but has warned that a Russian embargo or blockade on energy would tip the biggest economy of Europe in recession.

A document from Russia’s economy ministry said Russia’s economy could shrink by up to 12.4% this year, further proof that foreign sanctions were taking a heavy toll.

Foreign sanctions froze about $300 billion of the roughly $640 billion Russia had in its gold and currency reserves when it invaded Ukraine. Russia is also grappling with runaway inflation and capital flight, while grappling with a possible default on payments due to sanctions.

Gazprom, Russia’s gas export monopoly, suspended gas supplies to Bulgaria and Poland on Wednesday for not paying in rubles, as stipulated in a decree by Russian President Vladimir Putin aimed at mitigating the impact of the penalties.

“The sooner everyone in Europe recognizes that they cannot depend on Russia for trade, the sooner it will be possible to guarantee the stability of European markets,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Wednesday.

While the President of the European Commission said that the suspension of Gazprom was “another attempt by Russia to use gas as an instrument of blackmail”, the ambassadors of EU member states asked for clearer indications on whether sending euros violated the sanctions.

France will host a meeting of European energy ministers on May 2.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia remained a reliable energy supplier and denied it was blackmailing.

He declined to say how many countries had agreed to pay for gas in roubles, but other European customers said gas supplies were proceeding normally.

‘WAR CRIMES’

Canadian lawmakers voted unanimously on Wednesday to label Russian attacks in Ukraine as ‘genocide’, with MPs saying there was ‘ample evidence of systemic and massive war crimes against humanity’ committed by Russia .

The Canadian Parliament has declared in a motion that war crimes committed by Russia include mass atrocities, deliberate murder of civilians, desecration of corpses, forcible transfer of children, torture, physical and mental harm and the rape.

The invasion of Ukraine that began on February 24 has reduced cities to rubble and forced more than 5 million people to flee abroad in a conflict that raises fears of a wider conflict in the West, unthinkable for decades. .

Russia calls it a “special operation” to disarm Ukraine and denies targeting civilians. Ukraine and its allies call the war an act of unprovoked aggression.

Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney has urged UN members to focus on international justice for war crimes in Ukraine so evidence doesn’t sit in the dumps – as has been the case for victims of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

Since the Russian invasion force was pushed back to the outskirts of kyiv last month, Moscow has refocused its operations on eastern Ukraine, launching a new offensive to entirely capture two provinces known as Donbass.

Ukraine said Russian forces used tear gas and stun grenades to disperse a pro-Ukrainian rally in Kherson, the first major city it seized. A series of powerful explosions caused by rockets hit the center of Kherson on Wednesday evening, Ria News reported.

Explosions were heard earlier Wednesday in three Russian provinces bordering Ukraine, authorities said, and an ammunition depot in Belgorod province caught fire.

Kyiv did not confirm responsibility for these and other incidents, but described them as revenge. “Karma is a cruel thing,” presidential adviser Mikhaylo Podolyak wrote on social media.

An aide to the mayor of the ruined port city of Mariupol said Russian forces have renewed their attacks on the Azovstal steel plant, where fighters and civilians remain locked up.

Concern has grown over the prospect of the conflict spreading to neighboring Moldova, where pro-Russian separatists have accused Ukraine of reporting attacks this week in their region, which has been occupied since the 1990s by Russian troops.

(Additional reporting by Reuters reporters; Writing by Michael Perry; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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