MOSCOW, Jun 22 (PRIME-TASS) -- Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has ordered his government to stop the transit of Russian natural gas through Belarus to Europe, ITAR-TASS reported Tuesday.
"I've ordered the government to stop the transit of Russian gas via the territory of Belarus until (Russian gas giant) Gazprom repays its debt for transit," Lukashenko said at a meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Gazprom owes Belarus U.S. $260 million for gas transit, Lukashenko said, adding that the debt accrued in the first half of 2010. Lukashenko also confirmed that Belarus owes Russia $192 million for gas supplied in January-April. He proposed settling the dispute by having Gazprom repay $70 million to Belarus.
Lukashenko also said that Belarus' gas row with Gazprom was escalating into a "gas war."
Russia started cutting gas supplies to Belarus by 15% on Monday because of the outstanding debt and increased the reduction to 30% on Tuesday. Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said earlier Tuesday that the restrictions would remain in place unless Belarus started paying for gas. Belarus announced earlier on Tuesday that it could take Gazprom's gas without authorization if the company kept restrictions on gas supplies to the country.
A reduction of gas supplies to Belarus is not expected to affect European consumers, but could negatively impact Gazprom's image, Kupriyanov said earlier in the day in an interview with Russia Today television channel. Answering a question about Gazprom's debt for transit, Kupriyanov said it was a technical issue that is not connected with gas supplies.
Belarusian media reported later in the day, citing the country's energy ministry, that Belarus had fully repaid Gazprom for gas supplied in May.