Russian peacekeepers on alert in Moldovan separatist region

Russia has placed its peacekeeping troops in Moldova's separatist region of Trans-Dniester on alert before Sunday's parliamentary elections in the former Soviet republic, the Interfax news agency quoted a Russian military source as saying Saturday.

In another sign of the growing tension between Russia and Moldova, Interfax reported that about 100 Russians heading for Moldova to observe the elections were stopped at the border and expected to be sent away.

Ties between Moldova and Russia have soured over Trans-Dniester region and the vote, and Moscow fears it is losing influence in the former Soviet Union after the election of pro-Western leaders in Georgia and Ukraine last year.

On Friday, Russian lawmakers urged the Cabinet to impose economic sanctions on Moldova in response to what they described as its efforts to blockade Trans-Dniester, a Russian-speaking sliver of land on Moldova's eastern border.

The official at the Russian peacekeepers' headquarters, who spoke to Interfax on condition of anonymity, said the Russian force would not interfere in Moldova's internal political situation.

About 1,800 Russian troops remain in Trans-Dniester as peacekeepers and to guard stockpiles of weapons and ammunition left by the Soviet army. Moldova's Communist government, which is expected to remain in power following the election, has called them "an illegal occupation force" and demanded their withdrawal.

Moldova's relations with Trans-Dniester leaders are strained, and Moldovan officials have accused the enclave of harboring international criminal groups. Residents of the separatist region will not vote Sunday.

Against the backdrop of political change in Ukraine and Georgia, Moldova's elections have also raised tension with Russia.

Last month, Moldova's secret service claimed that 21 Russians expelled or detained in the previous weeks had traveled there to spy on the president and politicians ahead of the elections. It said the Russians had been posing falsely as rights activists, electoral consultants and political observers.

On Saturday, Interfax quoted the head of the temporary Moldovan mission of a Russian-based nongovernment organization that monitors elections in former Soviet republics as saying about 100 Russians had been halted at the border while traveling to Moldova by train.

The cars the Russians were in were unhitched from their train and shunted to a siding near the border, Alexei Kochetkov said, according to Interfax. He said the Russians were not allowed off the train, their documents were taken and they were told they would be deported. Associated Press

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