KIEV, June 22 - Belarus on Tuesday threatened to shut down Russian natural gas supplies to Europe after accusing Moscow of waging a "gas war" against the country as debt dispute between the two escalated.
Russia reduced gas supplies to Belarus by 30% and threatened to cut more within days unless the country's government clears its alleged $192 million gas debt.
"Gazprom is waging a gas war against Belarus," Alexander Lukashenka, the president of Belarus, said after a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, according to Interfax.
Ukraine, which moves up to 80% of Russia's Europe-bound gas exports, said this week it would be able to ship extra amounts of gas to make sure European supplies are not affected by the dispute.
Belarus moves about 20% of Russia's Europe-bound gas exports.
Lukashenka said Gazprom owed Belarus $260 million in transit fees for moving its gas to Europe, and said the delayed settlement has been causing problems.
But Lukashenka also said that unidentified "friends" have lent him enough money so that Belarus could pay the gas debt.
"Today I borrowed this money from my friends, and we will pay that debt in the near future," Lukashenka said.
Prime Minister Mykola Azarov said Tuesday Ukraine had enough capacity to move extra up to 30 billion cubic meters of gas per year, which would be enough to compensate possible disruption of gas supplies via Belarus.
"We have the capacity," Azarov said at a press conference. "If the need be, the Ukrainian gas transportation system will execute the agreement on gas supplies to Europe."
Germany, Lithuania and Poland are receiving Russian gas through a pipeline that goes through Belarus, but re-routing of gas supplies through Ukraine would help prevent supply disruptions.
Russia and the European Union had a crisis meeting on Monday in Brussels to discuss the escalation of tensions between Belarus and Russia.
Meanwhile, Ukraine has taken steps on Tuesday to assure Belarus that the plan to ship extra gas is an economic decision, not a political move aimed at weakening Minsk in talks with Moscow.
"At the political level, Ukraine is absolutely neutral in this situation," Oleh Voloshyn, a spokesman at the foreign ministry, said Tuesday. "We are in no way trying to get involved in business disputes, and this conflict is a business dispute." (sb/ez)