US Condemns Eastern Ukraine Elections as Illegal
The US and EU have condemned the Russian-backed elections in eastern Ukraine

The European Union has delayed a decision on whether to permit Russia's top gas company increased access to the Opal gas pipeline that runs across Germany.

The EU had set a deadline of the end of October for a definitive decision but the bloc won't have to make a final call until the end of January.

The move comes amid heightened tensions between the EU and Russia after Moscow endorsed elections held by pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine.

The rogue ballots, held in Donetsk and Luhansk, have been strongly condemned by Ukraine's President, as well as the US and the EU.

The rebel leader, Alexander Zakharchenko, was sworn in as head of the self-proclaimed people's republic of Donetsk on Tuesday.

Russia's state-run gas company Gazprom is currently permitted limited access to the pipeline under EU competition laws that are designed to prevent energy suppliers monopolising infrastructure.

However, the trans-German Opal pipeline which links Russia's Nord Stream with Germany and the Czech Republic, has spare capacity.

"The Commission agreed with the German Federal Network Agency (Bundesnetzagentur) to prolong the deadline for issuing a decision on Opal. The reason ... is that certain technical aspects require further attention," a Commission official said, as quoted by Reuters news agency.

A decision has been delayed several times on whether to allow Gazprom greater access to the pipeline.

The EU has sought to expedite its withdrawal from its dependency on Russian energy supplies after the Kremlin annexed the Crimea peninsula from Ukraine and Gazprom cut off energy supplies to Kiev amid heightened political tensions.

The bloc currently relies on Russia for around a third of its gas needs, about half of which travel via Ukraine.

While Russia, Ukraine and The EU signed a deal on October 30 that will see gas deliveries to Ukraine resume, Moscow's endorsement of the separatist votes in eastern Ukraine has irked the EU and looks set to hamper relations.