Moldova Grapples With Ethnic Strife, Breakaway Republic

OFFICIALS say recent ethnic fighting in Moldova, in which at least 12 people were killed and dozens more wounded, increases the chances of a Yugoslav-style civil war engulfing the republic.

Moldovan authorities reportedly agreed on a cease-fire late Wednesday with representatives of the self-proclaimed Dnestr Republic, a separatist region in eastern Moldova inhabited mainly by Russians and Ukrainians. The two sides pledged to hold further talks, but Dnestr Republic leaders say a peaceful resolution to the conflict will be difficult to achieve.

"There is a very real danger that the Dnestr region may become a Moldovan variant of Yugoslavia," said Alexander Karaman, the nominal vice president of the Dnestr Republic, at a Moscow news conference.

Moldova has been the scene of repeated ethnic violence during the past 18 months. Moldovans, who have strong cultural ties to neighboring Romania, comprise about 65 percent of the republic's population. Sizable numbers of Russians, Ukrainians, and Gagauz, a Turkish people, also live in Moldova.

Militant Russians have bitterly complained of growing discrimination by Moldovans, and, in a move they say was aimed at protecting their rights, proclaimed the Dnestr Republic's independence in 1990. They also established a 1,200-member defense force. Moldovan authorities in Kishinev refuse to recognize the renegade republic.

The current crisis began Monday when at least two people died in a gun battle involving Moldovan police and a combined force of Russian militants and Cossacks. The incident took place in the predominantly Russian city of Dubossary, about 30 miles northeast of the capital Kishinev.

About 80 Moldovan militants later Monday stormed a military installation of the Commonwealth of Independent States not far from Dubossary, seizing arms and ammunition. That prompted renewed fighting in the nearby town of Kochiery on Tuesday between Moldovan nationalists and Russians. Official sources said four Moldovans and six Dnestr Republic loyalists were killed in the clash.

N response to the latest fighting, Igor Smirnov, the president of the self-proclaimed Dnestr Republic, called for the mobilization of all men between the ages of 18 and 45, according to radio reports from Tiraspol, the breakaway region's capital. All roads into the Dnestr region were barricaded Wednesday, news reports said.

In Kishinev, meanwhile, hundreds of Moldovan nationalists demonstrated, calling on the government to crack down on the separatist-minded Russian minority. Moldovan President Mircea Snegur has called for moderation, warning that the region could turn into "a second Nagorno-Karabakh," a reference to the mountainous enclave now the scene of fierce battles between Armenian and Azeri forces.

The Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement that said a worsening of the Moldovan situation would threaten the stability of the entire commonwealth.

The biggest fear among Dnestr Republic officials is Moldova's agitation for unification with Romania. Portions of Moldova, not including the Dnestr region, were part of Romania before annexation by the Soviet Union in 1940. The republic's government faces strong pressure from Moldovan nationalists for incorporation into Romania.

The only way to defuse tension would be to create a confederated republic in which Moldovans, Russians, and Gagauz all had autonomous regions, says Mr. Karaman, the Dnestr vice president. "We want to have a guarantee that Moldova won't disappear from the political map of the world shortly," Karaman said.

President Snegur has offered to give the Russian-populated region a special economic status, but rejects the concept of an independent Dnestr Republic.

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