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Belarus Says It Has Paid Gas Debt to Russia

Belarus says it has paid its gas debt to Russia and is warning it will block the flow of Russian gas to Europe if Moscow fails to pay off its transit bill. Belarus' First Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashko said Wednesday that his country had borrowed $200 million and used it to pay off - in full - its debt to Gazprom, Russia's natural gas monopoly.

Semashko warned that Belarus will halt the transit of Russian gas to Europe if it does not receive $260 million by Thursday morning, which it says Russia owes in transit fees.

However, Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kupriyanov said Wednesday that the company could not confirm it had received the money Belarus owed it. Russia further reduced gas supplies to Belarus on Wednesday, as the payment feud between the two countries enters its third day. Gazprom's chief executive, Alexei Miller, said supplies to Belarus were being cut by 60 percent.

Meanwhile, Lithuania said Wednesday that its supplies of Russian gas, which transit through Belarus, had been cut by 30 percent. The Baltic country is the first European Union member to be affected by this latest dispute over Russian natural gas exports.

Russia doubled its gas-supply cuts to neighboring Belarus to 30 percent of normal volume on Tuesday, from 15 percent Monday, in a bid to force Minsk to pay what Moscow says is a nearly $200 million debt.

Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko said Tuesday that Minsk was cutting all gas flow to western Europe, after holding talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Mr. Lukashenko said the dispute is turning into a full-blown "gas war."

Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov says his country is prepared to boost Russian gas flow to Europe, to offset any shortages to the West from the dispute.

The two sides failed to reconcile their differences in talks Saturday, prompting Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin to say the dispute likely will be resolved in court.

Russia has temporarily cut gas supplies to both Ukraine and Belarus several times in recent years because of pricing and payment disputes. In January 2009, a similar dispute with Ukraine left consumers in much of southeastern Europe without heat or power during 13 days of bitterly cold temperatures.

Some information for this report was provided by AFP.