A new $2.5 billion pipeline stretching from Kazakhstan to Russia was officially opened yesterday just as signs of a shift in U.S.-Russian pipeline diplomacy are emerging.

Representatives of the Caspian Pipeline Consortium (CPC), including the governments of Russia, the United States, Kazakhstan and Oman, said the line was a new export route but that it would not increase export volumes hitting markets.

"Today we are opening a new route for Caspian oil to reach world markets " said CPC general director Sergei Gnatch-enko.

The CPC began loading the first oil into the line in October after four months of delay. It will be able to export 20 million tonnes of oil a year by 2002, and will have shipped one million tonnes by the end of this year.

President of Russia's biggest oil company Lukoil, Vagit Alekperov, said the new line would not increase volumes of Russian and Kazakh oil on the markets.

"We are just optimising routes," he said.

Russia's big oil producers on Friday said they would cut exports by 50,000 barrels a day to help Opec shore up prices, much less than the group had wanted.

The 1,580 km line, operated by CPC, is the first to be completed since the fall of the Soviet Union a decade ago to ship oil to Western markets from the Caspian Sea, where reserves are estimated to be similar to those in the North Sea.

CPC, led by Chevron and involving Russia, Kazakhstan and other multi-national firms. was originally intended to open in June but customs problems and technical hitches caused delays.

As well as Chevron, Russia and Kazakhstan, CPC involves Gulf state Oman and oil firms LukArco, Rosneft-Shell Caspian Ventures and the Kazakhstan Pipeline Venture LLC Mobil Caspian Pipeline Co.

"The opening of CPC changes the structure of transport routes in the region and the main task of the participants in the project is clear - to provide for the output and transit of large reserves of Caspian oil."

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham was supposed to attend the ceremony, but stayed in Moscow instead of flying to Novorossiisk because of bad weather, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Moscow said.

Abraham arrived Moscow as a spirit of new collaboration between Russia and the U.S. in the wake of the September 11 attacks is promising to end traditional rivalries over how to pipe Caspian oil to markets.

The United States had been promoting routes west which avoided Russia.

The main one to receive its backing was a pipeline costing around $3 billion from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

Abraham is planning to meet Russia's Energy Minister Igor Yusufov, Deputy Prime Minister Viktor Khristenko and Atomic Energy Minister Aleksander Rumyantsev during his visit, which lasts until Thursday evening, the embassy spokes-man said.

He said there was also a possibility that Abraham would meet Kazakhstan's President Nursultan Nazarbayev in Moscow.