Moldova smashes pro-Moscow subversion ring

Moldovan police said Sunday they had arrested members of a network they suspected of being orchestrated by Moscow in a bid to destabilise the small ex-Soviet nation as an anti-government protest kicked off.

After searches on Saturday night, 25 men were questioned and seven of them detained, police chief Viorel Cernauteanu told media.

An agent managed to infiltrate the group led by a Moldovan-Russian, he said, adding that the prosecution had recorded 10 hours of video and audio.

"People came from Russia with a very specific training role," the official added.

The Moldovan authorities said they acted after "receiving information on the organisation by Russian special services of destabilising actions on our territory via demonstrations".

The party of fugitive pro-Russian oligarch Ilhan Shor has again mobilised people in recent weeks against the pro-European government, amid heightened tensions between Moscow and Chisinau.

He has organised several rallies for which he is suspected of paying participants.

- 'We came peacefully' -

Scuffles broke out at the protest in Chisinau on Sunday afternoon.

The demonstrators gathered in front of parliament and tried to reach the seat of government a few hundred metres away, but police stopped them.

Police said they held 54 protesters, including 21 minors, "with suspicious behaviour and prohibited items" for identification and checks.

Bomb scares caused disruption at Chisinau airport in the morning, while border controls had been tightened ahead of the rally.

A total of 182 foreigners were banned from entering the country during the week, including "a possible member" of the Russian paramilitary group Wagner, the police said.

The slogan of the protest was "We ask the government to pay our bills".

Participants spoke of the high cost of living and blamed the government and President Maia Sandu for not doing enough to help them or listening to their complaints.

"Do you know how many times police stopped us on the way here? We're supposed to be a democracy. We came here peacefully, we don't have knives and bombs", one protester told AFP.

- 'Russian plans' -

People shouted "Down with the dictatorship" and "Down with Maia Sandu".

The organisers also accused Sandu of trying to drag Moldova into the war in Ukraine.

The White House on Friday accused Russia of seeking to destabilise the Romanian-speaking country of 2.6 million people bordering Ukraine in order to install a pro-Russian government.

The United States said it had stepped up information sharing with Moldovan leaders "so they can investigate further" and "thwart Russian plans".

Moldova, formerly part of Russia's sphere of influence, is now governed by authorities who are firmly focused on European integration.

However, Chisinau has to deal with the separatist region of Transnistria, where the authorities called Thursday on the United Nations to investigate a plan to attack several top officials blamed on Kyiv.

Ukraine's SBU security service immediately denounced the allegations as a "provocation orchestrated by the Kremlin".