About a quarter of Russia's gas exports to Western Europe go through Belarus [EPA]
Belarus has threatened to begin siphoning off Europe-bound natural gas if Russia continues to cut the flow of gas supplies to its neighbour in a dispute over debt payments.
Officials from the Russian energy giant Gazprom said on Tuesday that the company had received a message from Belarus vowing to remove energy supplies bound for Eruope if the dispute continues.
The move came after Russia reduced natural gas supplies to Belarus by 30 per cent after it failed to settle an outstanding gas debt.
"We have received a letter from Belarus's first deputy prime minister Vladimir Semashko," Sergei Kupriyanov, a company spokesman, said.
"The letter ends essentially in a threat that in the event of further cuts of gas supply to Belarus they will undertake activities related to the removal of gas from the transit system," he said in comments posted on the website of the Vesti-24 television channel.
Belarus confirmed it had sent a letter to the Russian energy company.
In the letter signed off by Semashko, the government said it had offered to cover a May gas bill by Wednesday, while demanding that Russia "immediately" pay Belarus $217m in gas transit fees.
Belarus would then pay Russia $187m by July 5 to cover January-April supplies, the government said in a statement, asking Moscow to refrain from further energy cuts "until mutual obligations are fully implemented".
"Otherwise Gazprom will force the removal of gas from the gas transit system so that the needs of the Belarussian national economy and population can be satisfied," it said.
Gazprom has said Belarus so far owes it $192m in arrears.
Igor Sechin, Russia's deputy in charge of energy, said on Monday that Belarus would have to make a new payment, bringing the total amount to $270m, by Friday.
Analysts warned of "a new gas war" after supplies were cut and said the Kremlin move was aimed at punishing the government of Alexander Lukashenko.
The president of Belarus has recently irritated Moscow by dropping his normally dependable loyalty in favour of a quest for closer ties with the European Union.
Russia supplies a quarter of Europe's gas needs and uses Belarus, which borders EU member Poland, as one of two key transit routes of oil and gas to the continent.
Gazprom said the ban would not affect its European customers because it will channel alternative supplies via another pipeline through Ukraine from where most gas flows into Europe.
Relations between Russia and Belarus have soured since they failed to agree unified customs rules and Belarus gave refuge to Kurmanbek Bakiyev, the ousted Kyrgyz president, despite Russia's support for the new Kyrgyz leadership.
Previous pricing disputes with Belarus have led to oil supply cuts, with Poland and Germany being most affected.
A similar standoff halted the much larger Russian gas supplies across Ukraine for almost two weeks in January 2009, leaving many Europeans without fuel during a cold snap.