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Germany's Merkel criticizes US gas pipeline sanctions threat

BERLIN – German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday criticized a U.S. move to impose sanctions related to a new Russian-German gas pipeline, signaling that she wants discussions with Washington but declining to threaten retaliation.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman said that the U.S. government's move violates international law and that the project will be completed regardless of the sanctions.

The U.S. has been an outspoken opponent of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will transport natural gas about 1,200 kilometers (750 miles) under the Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany. Along with eastern European countries that also oppose the project, the U.S. government argues that it will increase Europe's dependence on Russia for energy.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill last week that provides for sanctions against foreigners involved with ships laying sections of the pipeline. The Senate approved the bill Tuesday and it's now up to President Donald Trump to sign it.

“We are against extraterritorial sanctions, and not just since this decision yesterday — we also have this problem with a view to Iran,” Merkel told German lawmakers, referring to the Trump administration's withdrawal from a deal between world powers and Iran meant to curb concerns over Tehran's nuclear program and the imposition of new sanctions.

“I see no alternative to conducting talks, though very firm talks, (to show that) we do not approve of this practice,” Merkel said during a regular question-and-answer session in parliament. “We will see how things go with Nord Stream.”

She noted that talks are under way on a new gas contract between Russia and Ukraine, which fears being frozen out as a gas transit country as a result of Nord Stream 2's construction. Those talks are “relatively hopeful,” and “it would be very inopportune if Ukraine lost transit fees” because of the negotiations being complicated by the dispute about the pipeline, she added.

A lawmaker from the far-right Alternative for Germany party prodded Merkel for a stronger response. Merkel rejected his charge that she had failed to defend herself in the past against Washington when it emerged that the National Security Agency had snooped on her cellphone.

“We didn't back off on the NSA and we don't intend to do so here, either,” Merkel replied.

Construction of the pipeline is well advanced. Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said: “We assume that the project will be completed.”

“Such actions represent a direct violation of international law," Peskov said of the U.S. move in a conference call with reporters.

"They are a perfect example of unfair competition, an attempt to artificially secure its dominance in the European markets by imposing more expensive and uncompetitive products - more expensive natural gas - on European consumers.”

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Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow contributed to this report.