Belarus orders shutdown of Europe-bound Russian gas

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Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko ordered the shutdown of transit of Russian gas to Europe Tuesday, escalating a new "gas war" after Moscow slashed supplies to Minsk in a debt dispute.

The maverick leader said he had found the money to pay his country's debt to Russian gas giant Gazprom, but insisted Russia also owed money to Belarus and said he would not tolerate humiliation by Belarus' former Soviet overlords.

"I have now ordered the government to shut down transit through Belarus until Gazprom pays for transit," Lukashenko said during a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in televised remarks.

He also slammed Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, who said Monday after Belarus offered to foot the bill with machinery and equipment that Russia could accept "neither pies nor butter not cheese nor pancakes".

"The Russian leadership's statement humiliates the Belarussian people," Lukashenko told Lavrov.

"I am sorry, when they start humiliating us with either cutlets or sausages or butter or pancakes, we perceive this as an offence to the Belarussian people."

Russia earlier in the day announced that it was reducing supplies to Belarus by 30 percent of normal daily volume after Minsk had taken no steps to resolve a debt to Gazprom of nearly 200 million dollars (163 million euros).

Belarus for its part says Gazprom owes it more than 200 million dollars in transit fees.

Lukashenko said he had borrowed from "friends" to pay the debt, but did not elaborate, and expressed regret that Russia had refused to accept an offer from Belarus to pay the debt within two weeks.

"We will give you this money shortly," Lukashenko was quoted as saying by his office.

Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said the move to cut supplies to Europe would make no difference to the company's demand for payment.

"Your decision to shut down transit is not an excuse not to pay your debt," he said in televised remarks.

The Belarussian government said earlier Tuesday that Gazprom owes Belarus 217 million dollars in transit fees, though Lukashenko later set the figure at 260 million dollars.

Belarus had also threatened to siphon off natural gas bound for Europe if Russia continued cutting gas supplies as threatened.

Gazprom said it had an action plan in case Belarus starts removing gas meant for European customers. Russia has said it would cut gas in proportion to Belarus's outstanding debt and those cuts could reach 85 percent of the normal volume.

The dispute prompted Europe to activate crisis planning measures and raised fears of a new "gas war" between Russia and one of its ex-Soviet neighbours.

The EU Commission on Tuesday called on Belarus and Moscow to respect their "contractual obligations."

Russia earlier said it could reroute Europe-bound supplies in Belarus through Ukraine, through which most of Russia's gas to Europe transits.

The latest energy row raised the spectre of a 2009 dispute between Russia and Ukraine, when supplies to European customers were cut off for two weeks in the dead of winter.

But analysts said the impact of any potential disruptions would not be as serious this time because of lower gas demand in the summer.

Analysts have said the dispute is politically motivated and triggered by Lukashenko turning away from Moscow and towards the European Union.

In recent months Russia and Belarus have often been at loggerheads over energy prices and trade issues.

In Belarus, a senior official with the presidential administration accused Russia of seeking political revenge.

"They are trying to humiliate Belarus and settle accounts with it for its political position," the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP.

© 2010 AFP

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