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Talks on oil dispute with Belarus under way in Moscow

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Talks between Russia and Belarus, expected to focus on an oil dispute between the ex-Soviet neighbors, have started at the Russian economics ministry, the ministry's press service said Wednesday.
MOSCOW, January 10 (RIA Novosti) - Talks between Russia and Belarus, expected to focus on an oil dispute between the ex-Soviet neighbors, have started at the Russian economics ministry, the ministry's press service said Wednesday.

Russian Economic Development and Trade Minister German Gref and Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Andrei Kobyakov are leading the countries' delegations at the talks.

The current standoff, which has caused a halt in supplies of Europe-bound Russian oil pumped via Belarusian pipelines, began when Moscow doubled the natural gas price for Belarus to $100 per 1,000 cubic meters as of January 1, and imposed an oil export duty of $180.7 per metric ton. The charges could deal a heavy blow to the economy of Belarus, which is building a political union with Russia.

In a retaliatory move, Belarus introduced a transit levy of $45 per metric ton for Russian crude transit. Russia then froze oil supplies via the Druzhba (Friendship) pipeline which passes through Belarus, accusing Minsk of tapping oil destined for Europe.

The interruption of supplies has affected Germany, Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and further damaged Russia's reputation as a core energy supplier to Europe, following a similar energy row with Ukraine involving natural gas this time last year.

Belarus's Prime Minister Sergei Sidorsky said earlier on Wednesday his country had lifted its transit levy, meeting Russia's condition for the continuation of talks on the dispute.

"The Belarusian government declares void the state tax on oil transit via Belarus imposed by the council of ministers," Sidorsky said.

The premier said he would go to Russia on Thursday for two days of talks with his Russian counterpart, Mikhail Fradkov.

"I hope that within two days we will settle all differences and clear all claims relating to Russian oil supplies to Western countries, and to Russian oil companies' supplies to refineries in Belarus," the premier said.

Deputy Economic Development and Trade Minister Andrei Sharonov said earlier that as well as Russia's use of export duties on oil bound to Belarus, the current talks would address the protection of all categories of Russian goods and their transit via Belarus.

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