Turkmenistan on Thursday defended its "sovereign" right to diversify gas export routes, as the West seeks to loosen Moscow's grip on this energy-rich but reclusive Central Asian nation.
Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov told foreign energy bosses at a major conference in the nation's flamboyant capital that Turkmenistan, like any energy producer, had every right to look for new customers.
"Today we are looking for conditions to diversify energy routes and the inclusion of new countries and regions into geography of routes," he said, in an apparent snub to Russia which has a near-monopoly on Turkmen gas exports.
"A key component of securing the reliability of international energy deliveries is the diversification of routes, the creation of multi-branched infrastructure for delivery to consumers," he said.
"The diversification of alternative routes today is more than just a beneficial project," he told the packed conference hall.
His comments came after relations between Russia and Turkmenistan soured dramatically in recent weeks.
Earlier this month, Ashgabat, in a rare outburst of emotion, blamed Russian gas giant Gazprom for causing an explosion on a Turkmen pipeline by unexpectedly cutting its imports of natural gas, causing a pressure build-up.
Russia sent Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's influential deputy Igor Sechin to the Ashgabat conference in an apparent effort to contain the fallout.
The United States and European Union, keen to gain access to Turkmenistan's huge gas reserves, also sent their top officials to the gathering.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso praised growing energy ties with Turkmenistan, which has begun opening up to the West since the 2006 death of longtime dictator Saparmurat Niyazov.
"Cooperation in the energy sphere is now well in hand," he said via video link to the conference.
"Our plan is to link up Turkmenistan with the European market through the South Caucasus," he said, adding he hoped to pay the nation a visit in the coming months.
The EU wants to diversify its gas imports and has placed high hopes on the Nabucco pipeline project, which is supposed to supply the bloc with gas from the Caspian Sea region by 2012-2013 while bypassing Russia.
The Kremlin has repeatedly cast doubt on the project.
Some officials at the conference saw signs that Turkmenistan was in favour of Nabucco, including Turkish Energy Minister Hilmi Guler, whose country lies on the route of the planned pipeline.
"There is a chance that Turkmenistan will join Nabucco," said Guler.
The head of Austrian oil and gas giant OMV, Wolfgang Ruttenstorfer, sounded a similar note: "Turkmenistan is expressing support of Nabucco."
Meanwhile Russia's Sechin downplayed any possible rift between Moscow and Ashgabat following the pipeline explosion in Turkmenistan.
"No accident will lead to an accident in relations with Turkmenistan," he said in his only comments to reporters.
Russia earlier this week presented new proposals for energy cooperation that could replace the 1991 Energy Charter, which it considers obsolete.
Secretary General of the Energy Charter Secretariat Andre Mernier defended the treaty at the conference, saying it had the necessary mechanisms to prevent transit disputes such as the Russia-Ukraine gas conflict in January.
Turkmenistan -- an ex-Soviet republic which lies between the Caspian Sea, Afghanistan, Iran, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan -- is believed to have huge gas reserves beneath its mainly desert territory.
Those reserves languished mostly unexplored during the nearly two-decade rule of Niyazov, or Turkmenbashi as he preferred to be called.
But his successor Berdymukhamedov has shown signs of opening his country up to foreign investment and exploration.
US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Krol was scheduled to address the conference Friday.
The latest Jamestown Foundation reports on Central Asia, Russia and Energy Games