Lukashenko 'bluffing' on EU gas threat: Belarus opposition leader

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Tikhanovskaya is urging the EU to stand firm in its policy to shun Lukashenko (AFP/John MACDOUGALL)
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Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya on Thursday said strongman Alexander Lukashenko would not follow through on threats to cut off gas supplies to Europe over an escalating conflict with the EU.

"It would be more harmful for him, for Belarus, than for the European Union and I can suppose it's bluffing," Tikhanovskaya told AFP, urging European countries to hold firm and not communicate directly with the "illegitimate" leader.

Lukashenko had vowed Thursday to respond to any new sanctions imposed over the migrant crisis on his country's border with Poland, including by potentially cutting off the transit of natural gas to Europe.

Pressure is building to address the plight of hundreds of migrants, mainly Kurds from the Middle East, who are stuck at the Belarus-Poland border in freezing weather.

The West accuses Lukashenko of luring the migrants to Belarus to send them across the border, in revenge for sanctions imposed last year after a heavy crackdown on the opposition.

In a second phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in two days on Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the EU should start talking to Belarus again if it wants to resolve the migrant crisis, the Kremlin said.

But Tikhanovskaya urged the EU to stand firm in its policy to shun Lukashenko.

"We are grateful for the principled position of European countries that they are not going to communicate with (an) illegitimate person in the country, with a criminal who committed so many tortures in Belarus," Tikhanovskaya said.

- 'Overdue' -

The 39-year-old had earlier on Thursday met President Frank-Walter Steinmeier in Berlin and attended a session in parliament to discuss the migrant crisis, where she received a standing ovation from MPs.

During the parliamentary sitting, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said consequences for Belarus were "overdue".

EU officials say they expect to approve new sanctions over the crisis next week.

Backing the planned sanctions, Tikhanovskaya said: "I hope that the European Union considers that the hit, impact should be first of all on state organisations, state enterprises that were monopolised by Lukashenko."

The opposition leader, who claimed victory in a disputed election last year, fled Belarus soon afterwards and has sought to rally international pressure on the Minsk regime.

Tikhanovskaya only joined the political fray after her husband Sergei -- a popular blogger -- was barred from registering as a presidential candidate and arrested for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.

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