- - Thursday, May 3, 2012

BISHKEK, KYRGYZSTAN — Residents of this Central Asian city are concerned about how long their “eternal flame” will burn since it was extinguished briefly last week because of an unpaid gas bill.

“The eternal flame must be eternal. It must burn day and night and remind us of our sacrifice for victory,” said Bishkek poet Sooronbay Jusuyev, 87, a veteran of World War II.

“We should be ashamed in front of our neighbors that we let the fire go out,” he said. “The government must find means to keep it on all the time.”

A tribute to Soviet soldiers who died in World War II, the eternal flame burns in Bishkek’s Victory Square in front a statue of a woman representing those who waited for loved ones to return from the war.

Built by the government in 1984, the gas-fueled flame was snuffed out April 24 – just two weeks before the 67th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s surrender to the Soviet Union in Berlin.

The gas supply was restarted five hours later, but the damage had been done.

Yevgeniy Orlenko, deputy director of state-owned energy supplier KyrgyzGaz, at first said the gas supply was cut off because of $9,400 in unpaid bills owed <t-2>by the local government.

KyrgyzGaz representatives retracted the statement after the incident drew international media attention. It said the eternal flame had been turned off for maintenance in the lead up to Victory Day on May 9, a holiday still celebrated in post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan.

“The municipality has a big debt for using gas, but the flame was not cut off because of [unpaid] debts,” said Taalay Dalbayev, who is in charge of Bishkek gas supplies for KyrgyzGaz.

Mr. Dalbayev said the media had “made a mountain out of a molehill,” but admitted the incident was a handy opportunity to remind local authorities of their outstanding bills.

Ryspek Sarpashev, head of the municipal department dealing with maintenance of government buildings, admitted that his office had received a letter about outstanding gas bills.

But he insisted that KyrgyzGaz is responsible not only for supplying gas to the eternal flame but also covering its expenses.

“In 2008, the city administration issued a resolution stating that KyrgyzGaz must cover gas expenses at the eternal flame,” Mr. Sarpashev said. “When we received a letter about gas debt in January, we sent them the copy of the resolution.”

Mr. Sarpashev added that the local municipality and KyrgyzGaz are cooperating to resolve the issue.

Wherever the responsibility lies, residents are eager to ensure the incident doesn’t happen again.

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