Nevertheless, the disruption in Russian oil supplies to Europe once again highlighted concerns about European energy reliance on Russia a year after its pricing dispute with Ukraine briefly affected EU imports of Russian natural gas.

 

Andrei Sharonov, Russia's deputy trade and economic development minister, said that Moscow had been forced to suspend oil exports via the Druzhba, or Friendship, pipeline after disruptions he blamed on Minsk.

 

"We view this situation as force majeure," he said in an interview with Russian news channel Vesti, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.

 

Belarus blamed

 

Germany and Poland said earlier on Monday that Russian oil supplies through Belarus had halted, and Russia accused its neighbour of siphoning off oil destined for Europe since the weekend.

 

The 4,000km-long pipeline has the capacity to ship over 1.2m barrels a day to eastern and central Europe and generally works at or close to its full capacity.

 

The pipeline has two branches, one of which runs to Poland and Germany, and the other to Ukraine, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

 

A Belarusian delegation left on Monday evening for urgent talks in Moscow.

 

'Oil diverted'

 

Simon Vainshtok, the head of the Russian state pipeline operator Transneft, said that Belarus, which is furious that Russia is demanding it pay new oil duties, had diverted 79,000 tonnes of oil so far.

 

Belneftekhim, a state Belarusian industrial and energy holding company, ordered the suspension of the transit of oil to Germany, Poland and Ukraine, the Interfax and ITAR-Tass news agencies quoted unidentified officials from the pipeline's Belarusian section as saying.

 

Official denial

 

But Alexei Kostyuchenko, head of the pipeline operator Gomeltransneft-Druzhba, denied this.

 

"The responsibility for the stoppage [in oil pumping] lies on the Russian side. Belarus never stopped pumping. All questions - to the Russians," he told The Associated Press.


The Belarusian foreign ministry also denied blocking the transit of Russian oil, saying that Belarus was not responsible for a decrease of pressure in the pipeline.