SOFIA, Bulgaria (AFP)

Bulgaria's parliament ratified Friday a deal with Russia to build the South Stream gas pipeline to carry Russian gas to Europe, the parliament announced.

A total of 140 deputies voted for the ratification following hours of heated discussion. Forty-seven were against and there were two abstentions.

"It is extremely important for Bulgaria to have alternative routes for gas supply," Economy and Energy Minister Petar Dimitrov said.

But the right-wing opposition Democrats for A Strong Bulgaria party lashed out against the deal, saying it was strengthening Russia's grip on Bulgaria and jeopardizing European Union plans to wean itself off Russian supplies by building another major gas pipeline, Nabucco. Bulgaria has always said it would support both pipelines.

The EUR10 billion South Stream deal was signed by the government in January but it had to pass through parliament in order to enter into force.

The pipeline, which will transport up to 31 billion cubic meters of gas, is planned to first cross the Black Sea from Russia into Bulgaria and then split into two arms, one going northwest to Austria and the other south to Greece and then west to southern Italy. It is being built by Russian gas giant OAO Gazprom (GAZP.RS) and Eni SpA (E) of Italy.

The pipeline is expected to come into operation by 2013-2014.

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