Ukrainian and Russian negotiators worked feverishly yesterday to iron out differences in a deal on supplying gas to Kiev at sharply increased prices after the planned signature of the accord was delayed for a second time.

With Ukraine - and much of Europe - gripped by a severe cold snap, Russia's energy minister issued a new warning to Kiev to take measures to reduce record gas consumption levels.

Russian gas giant Gazprom briefly cut supplies to Ukraine in the New Year during a tense contract dispute, affecting shipments to anxious customers throughout Europe.

The deal, pushing from $50 to $95 the price of 1,000 cubic metres, ended the confrontation, but plunged Ukraine into crisis as Parliament sacked the government ahead of a March election.

And legal issues and questions on pricing mechanisms have twice prevented formal signature.

"It looks today as if the agreements will not be signed. Experts are continuing to work on this, Russian experts are here and working," Ukraine's Prime Minister Yuri Yekhanurov told a Cabinet meeting.

"Unfortunately, we are not yet going ahead with the signature. Consultations with Gazprom are proceeding."

He later told reporters negotiators were holding sessions every two hours, with the main issue concerning the legal status of the group to be set up to oversee gas supplies.

He also called for creation of a trade mechanism "so that all those participating in the current scheme will abide by the scheme for using gas during this transition period."

The Kremlin makes no secret of its dislike of the West-leaning stand of Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko who rose to power a year ago after mass protests forced a rerun of an election initially won by a Moscow-backed candidate.

In Moscow, Russian Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko urged Ukraine again to take "adequate and strict measures" to cut gas usage down to remain within contractual limits.

"If even we - the country supplying the gas - are forced to restrict demand because of the cold weather, then God knows Ukraine - the buyer - should bring in limits as well," Interfax news agency quoted him as saying in St Petersburg.

"You can't solve your problems by putting them onto your neighbours, especially your near and dear Poland, which is freezing."

The weather and uncertainty over the deal have affected distant European customers.

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