MOSCOW (AP) - Russia on Wednesday further reduced natural gas supplies to ex-Soviet neighbor Belarus over what it claims is a debt of nearly US$200 million.
Alexei Miller, the chief of Russia's state-controlled natural gas monopoly Gazprom, said the company cut supplies to Belarus by 60 percent starting Wednesday.
Gazprom initially reduced supplies by 15 percent on Monday and cut them by another 15 percent Tuesday. It warned Belarus it would eventually cut the deliveries by 85 percent if Belarus refuses to pay off its debt.
Belarus' Energy Ministry has warned in a letter to the European Commission that cuts of more than 15 percent could lead to transit shortages.
Miller said Wednesday that transit of Russian gas to European customers has so far continued uninterrupted despite the Belarusian threat.
Gazprom has insisted that European customers will not be affected by the shut-off as the company can reroute gas supplies through another transit pipeline crossing Ukraine. About 80 percent of Russian gas exported to Europe normally goes through Ukraine, while the rest is carried via Belarusian pipelines.
Russia has cut gas supplies to both Ukraine and Belarus several times in recent years due to payment disputes, and many European consumers have suffered amid freezing winter temperatures.
Russia is Belarus' main ally and sponsor, but relations between the two former Soviet countries have been strained by financial arguments. Belarus has insisted that Russia should provide cheaper oil and gas as part of the customs union deal that is to come into force next month, but Russia has refused.
Belarus has refused to pay a higher gas price this year and insisted that Russia owes it $260 million in transit fees.