Gazprom, Russia's state-owned gas monopoly, has announced a 45 percent reduction of natural gas supplies to neighboring Belarus.  About 20 percent of the gas Russia delivers to other European countries transits through Belarus, which raises concerns about the reliability of Gazprom as a supplier.  VOA Correspondent Peter Fedynsky has this report from Moscow.

The Russian state-owned gas monopoly, Gazprom, says the 45 percent reduction of natural gas deliveries to Belarus goes into effect Friday.  Gazprom says Belarus missed a payment last week. 

Gazprom and Belarus signed a last-minute contract on December 31 last year, which more than doubled the price of gas for Minsk.  To soften the economic blow, Belarus was allowed to defer 45 percent of its natural gas payments for the first half of this year. 

Gazprom spokesman Sergei Kuprianov says the balance was to have been paid by July 23.

Kuprianov says it is already August 1, and there is no payment on the debt, which currently amounts to $456 million, nor is there any guarantee the balance will be paid.

The reduction means the economy of Belarus will lose about 21 million cubic meters of gas each day.  At the same time, 20 percent of the gas Russia delivers to other European countries transits via pipelines through Belarus. 

Gazprom spokesman Kiprianov says the volume of gas transiting through the territory of Belarus to consumers in other countries will be maintained in full.

The company's European clients suffered gas shortages in January 2006, when Ukraine, also a transit country, skimmed supplies after Gazprom reduced deliveries to that country to enforce a sharp price hike.

The Ukrainian gas dispute sparked widespread discussions about the need for alternative energy sources in countries that rely heavily on Russian gas.