ISLAMABAD - Faced with public anger over severe petrol shortages, the government expressed its shame and promised on Monday the crisis, which has led to long queues outside petrol stations, will be solved within a week.

The anger over the government’s handling of the crisis has added to the list of problems facing Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, his authority already weakened by months of opposition protests last year.

Already frustrated by crippling electricity and gas shortages, the people have accused the government of gross mismanagement, ignorance and failure to preempt a decrease in domestic fuel supplies at a time of falling global oil prices.

Some ambulance services were forced to suspend their work because of fuel shortages, media reported. On the streets, disgruntled motorists said they were running out of patience.

The crisis started this month when the cash-starved state fuel importer –the Pakistan State Oil – slashed petrol imports by half and skipped overseas fuel oil purchases altogether, worsening power cuts and leading to petrol shortages around the country this week.

At a meeting chaired by PM Sharif on Monday, the government decided to buy additional petrol to defuse the crisis. “From today we have started buying 15,000 metric tonnes of petrol and in the next 5-6 days it will be much easier to buy petrol,” said Petroleum Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.

The prime minister had suspended top four bureaucrats who were supposed to ensure supplies, sparing their political boss, Abbasi, who has come to be seen as an ignorant and irresponsible minister.

Petroleum Minister Abbasi however told a press conference on Monday he was ‘ashamed’ on behalf of the government that the crisis has been allowed to continue. When asked why he was still working when his top subordinates have been suspended, he remarked, “Yes we are ashamed and we apologise, and I feel that there is a responsibility on me.” But he said he was not going to resign.

The minister said that government’s predicated demand for petrol was 12,000 tonnes a day but the actual demand rose to 15,000 tonnes. Nobody could project such sharp increase in the fuel demand, he held. He once again shifted the burden of responsibility to Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority and said that Ogra was responsible to enforce licensing agreements of OMCs.

Abbasi claimed that oil supply has been increased by 30 per cent throughout the country. “Supply has increased by 50 per cent in Islamabad and Rawalpindi and 100 per cent in Lahore,” Abassi said during his briefing. “CNG supply has been restored in Lahore and Karachi so that pressure can be removed from petrol stations,” he said. In an effort to appease the public, the minister also said that the petrol price would reduce by more than Rs5 starting from February 1.

The PSO says it buys up to 90 percent of fuel oil and petrol abroad, but this month it was forced to cut purchases because it had not been paid by its customers on time, refuting claim of the minister who on Monday again blamed increased demand for the shortages to save his own and others’ skin.

The government subsidises electricity, but rarely pays the subsidies to power companies on time. They, in turn, cannot pay for their fuel imports, leading to a buildup of unpaid bills referred to as “circular debt”. Feeling gravity of the situation, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar on Monday also took to clearing himself of the situation by telling a press conference that his hands were clean and his ministry had not stopped funds to the PSO and the power ministry.

Earlier in the day, Abbasi and other high-ranking officials participated in a meeting on petroleum crisis at the PM House. Besides Abbasi, Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif, Minister for Finance Ishaq Dar and Minister for Defence Khawaja Asif also attended the meeting.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif chairing the meeting expressed strong displeasure over the crisis and directed the officials to fix the matter. He admonished his team for letting the fuel shortage aggravate which has brought sharp criticism. The prime minister also directed water and power ministry to immediately work to reduce line losses and recover outstanding amount of over 500 billion rupees in order to clear the amounts due to PSO and other liabilities.

The prime minister has also constituted a two-member committee to probe the matter and submit report to him. The committee comprising IGDCL Chairman Zahid Muzaffar and Finance Manager Zafar Masood would identify the responsible so that action could be taken against them.