Russia will be closely monitoring an anti-trust probe against its powerful natural gas monopoly Gazprom launched with searches of offices in trading partners and subsidiaries last week, said prime minister Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s questions to Gazprom chief Alexei Miller about the raids were also televised in Russia, including Putin’s response “Thank God” to hearing that no Gazprom officials had been arrested.

The EU antitrust probe is part of a drive to open up gas markets. Surprise raids were conducted on 20 sites across ten countries in central and eastern Europe, including Gazprom operations in Germany and the Czech Republic.

“The investigation focuses on the upstream supply level, where, unilaterally or through agreements, competition may be hampered or delayed,” said the European Commission.

“The Commission suspects exclusionary behaviour, such as market partitioning, obstacles to network access, barriers to supply diversification, as well as possible exploitative behaviour, such as excessive pricing.”

RWE confirmed that premises in Essen and Prague were searched, while E.ON said the Essen offices of its gas-supply unit Eon Ruhrgas were raided. “We welcome this inquiry and are co-operating fully with EU authorities,” RWE told the Financial Times. Premises of the Austrian group OMV were also searched.

Gazprom sources suggested to EurActiv that the probe was linked to progress on its South Stream pipeline project, a rival to the EU-backed Nabucco link that would bring Caspian region to Europe while bypassing Russia.

Gazprom is looking to increase its gas supplies to Europe this year by 12 per cent to 155 billion cubic metres. It also aims to win a 30 per cent share of the European gas market over coming years, up from about 25 per cent now.

For more market intelligence news click here