EU activates 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 formally wrote to European Union Energy Commissioner Guenther Oettinger to announce that it had reduced natural gas supplies to Belarus after Minsk failed to settle a 200-million-dollar (160-million-euro) debt.

It was the second time that 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 a European Commission spokeswoman in Brussels.

However, she also said that energy experts from the commission and the Russian embassy were meeting on Monday afternoon, in a bid to "assess whether or not it has an impact on us."

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.

The Lithuanians "depend 100 percent on Russian gas transited through Belarus and that's through one single entry point," the spokeswoman said.

If Lithuania's supply is hit, "Latvia is able to deliver the gas," she added.

"The second country which might be affected is Poland and the third is Germany, but only in an indirect way," she added.

Gas intended for these destinations is normally taken into storage in submarines, she said, and "if there is less gas... they might not be able to store as much."

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.

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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