EU activates Russia gas flow crisis planning

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Europe on Monday activated crisis planning measures after a payment dispute between Moscow and Belarus left Lithuania, Poland and Germany first in line for reduced Russian gas supplies.

Russia's deputy prime minister Igor Sechin wrote to EU Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger to announce a reduction in natural gas supplies to Belarus after Minsk failed to settle a 200-million-dollar (160-million-euro) debt.

It was the second time a so-called "early-warning system" had been invoked, with analysts warning of a new gas war triggered by maverick Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko turning away from Moscow and towards the European Union.

"We expect that the gas transit flows to the European Union from Russia through Belarus will not be affected by the dispute," said Marlene Holzner, Oettinger's spokeswoman.

She later told AFP that energy experts from the Russian embassy told counterparts at the commission that the Russians said they "would be able to deliver gas through Ukraine" in the "worst-case scenario."

Moscow "will do everything possible so this interruption will not affect the EU," she cited them as saying.

If Belarus cuts supplies to Europe, the main country affected would be the Baltic former Soviet republic of Lithuania, which gets its gas directly through Belarussian channels and not through the huge Yamal pipeline which serves most of Europe's delivery needs.

Holzner said that Poland and Germany could also end up affected, but "only in an indirect way."

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev told the chief of Russian gas giant Gazprom, Alexei Miller, to close the tap, with Miller warning that the gas cuts would be increased from 15 percent of capacity to 85 percent in the coming days if a solution to the conflict is not found.

Belarus said it would settle the debt within two weeks.

The EU closely watches gas disputes between Russia and its ex-Soviet neighbours after a row between Moscow and Kiev led to supplies of Russian gas to Europe via Ukraine being cut off for two weeks early last year.

Belarus transports about 20 percent of Russia's western-bound gas exports.

© 2010 AFP

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