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Minsk sends team to Moscow for crisis gas talks

By Andrei Makhovsky

MINSK (Reuters) - Belarus said it was sending a delegation to Moscow on Sunday for eleventh-hour emergency talks with Russian gas giant Gazprom after Gazprom threatened to cut supplies over an unresolved price row. Russia has said it will cut 85 percent of gas supplies from Monday to Belarus if its ex-Soviet neighbor fails to pay $192 million in debts to Gazprom --- money Belarus denies it owes.

The prospect of cuts to Belarus has raised the specter of a repeat of supply cuts to Western Europe, which occurred in 2009 when Moscow cut supplies to Ukraine.

However, Gazprom says it does not believe there will be any significant disruption in supply to Western Europe because only about a fifth of its European exports transit through Belarus and demand in June is seasonally low.

Cuts could nonetheless further hurt Russia's reputation as a reliable exporter at a time when it faces falling demand from crisis-hit Europe and competition from U.S.-produced shale gas.

"The delegation leaves tonight for talks on Monday ... the issue of debt will be discussed," Belarussian Deputy Energy Minister Eduard Tovpenets told Reuters.

Tovpenets later told Interfax news agency that talks would begin at 0700 local time (0300 GMT). Russian officials did not comment on the delegation's last-minute decision to jet in for talks, nor have they given a time for the Monday cut-off.

A source in the Belarussian government, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said European gas deliveries could be affected. The threatened cut of more than 80 percent to Belarus "is a substantial reduction and of course it can affect transport issues," he told Reuters.

However, Gazprom chief Alexei Miller said on Saturday that supply to Western Europe "should be viewed very calmly" because the company had spare capacity in other pipelines and demand has fallen as the weather has warmed.

Russia's gas price disputes with its neighbors became a worry for Europe when its supplies were interrupted for almost two weeks in the dead of winter in early 2009 while Moscow argued over prices and transit terms with Ukraine.

Eighty percent of Russian gas to Western Europe goes through Ukraine and 20 percent goes through Belarus.

Tovpenets added that the delegation for Monday's talks would include the head of the state transport firm Beltransgaz and representatives of the energy and economy ministries.

(Writing by Amie Ferris-Rotman; editing by Peter Graff)

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