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VARNA, Bulgaria (Reuters) - Bulgaria pledged to make up for delays in connecting its gas network with neighboring Balkan countries and hopes to have links with neighboring Greece and Turkey by the end of next year, the economy and energy minister said on Sunday.
A new gas development plan of the state network operator Bulgartransgaz earlier on Sunday revealed it expected a one year delay in the project until the end of 2014, but Dobrev said the operator was being too conservative.
"Bulgartransgaz presented only a plan. We are however working to speed up the interconnector links and have them operational by the end of 2013," Dobrev told Reuters.
Technical hurdles with Greece and slow negotiations with Turkey have held up Bulgaria's effort to reduce its almost total reliance on Russian gas supplies.
The Greek and Turkish pipeline links would allow Bulgaria to import Azeri gas, or gas from LNG (liquefied natural gas) terminals from the two countries.
The European Union's poorest member state meets 85 percent of its gas needs with imports from Russia's Gazprom (GAZP.MM) via only one gas pipeline.
Network operator Bulgartransgaz will use 117 million euros ($150.52 million) of its own funds on top of European Union grants to pay for the Bulgarian sections of interconnector links with Romania, Greece, Turkey and Serbia, its chief executive Kiril Temelkov said.
"Bulgaria will have a real, competitive gas market and cheaper prices for consumers only when it builds operational gas pipelines with its neighbors and ensures it has different gas routes and suppliers," he told reporters while presenting the new plan.
Difficulties in picking the route for a 180 km (112 mile) interconnector with Greece, which would carry up to 5 billion cubic meters per year, have delayed the project, Temelkov said.
Bulgartransgaz has yet to agree the building of a pipeline with Ankara and is holding talks with Turkey's gas company Botas, but is also open to include other private companies as investors for the planned 205 km link.
The Bulgarian section of the pipeline may also become the starting point of the EU-backed Nabucco West project, which aims to transport Caspian gas into Europe through Bulgaria to Austria, he said.
Bulgaria started building a 25 km link with Romania under the river Danube this August, which it expects to be operational next May.
A pipeline link with Serbia is expected to be ready in 2015. ($1 = 0.7773 euros)
Reporting by Tsvetelia Tsolova; Editing by Patrick Graham