Belarus wants Azerbaijani oil

MINSK, Belarus (AP) - Belarus wants a share in the development of Azerbaijan's rich Caspian Sea oil and gas resources, President Alexander Lukashenko said Tuesday, a statement that reflected his energy hungry nation's desperate search for alternative energy resources amid a growing dispute with Russia.

Lukashenko said that Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev had promised to support Belarus' push for a share in the Caspian energy exploration during their talks in Minsk on Tuesday.

"Azerbaijan's rich oil and gas deposits and Belarus' powerful petrochemical industries create a foundation for a mutually beneficial development of our energy relations," he said.

Belarus is currently locked in tense negotiations with Moscow over efforts by Russia's state-controlled gas monopoly OAO Gazprom to increase gas prices fourfold. Gazprom has offered to offset the price increase by taking a controlling stake in Belarus national gas transport company, but Lukashenko has complained that the Russian gas monopoly was offering an unfairly low price for the company.

Belarus is a key transit route for Russian gas supplies heading to Europe. Lukashenko, an authoritarian leader who has ruled this country of 10 million people with an iron fist since 1994, has been dubbed "Europe's last dictator" and become a pariah in the West. His country's Soviet-style economy depends on cheap energy supplies from Russia, and Lukashenko has recently denounced Russia's push for gas prices' increase as a "clear break in all relations." Lukashenko also said Tuesday that Belarus would like to see more Caspian oil shipments through its pipeline system.

"We are ready to offer our pipeline infrastructure for the transit of Caspian oil to the Baltics and Poland," he said. It remains unclear, however, how Belarus could become a transit nation for Azerbaijani oil. Belarus' major, long-range pipelines run from Russia, which is competing with Azerbaijan - and the West - over pipeline routes for exports.

The Caspian Sea fields are estimated to hold the world's third-largest reserves of oil and gas.