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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Separatist Moldovan region calls Sept referendum

CHISINAU, July 12 (Reuters) - Moldova's separatist Dnestr region said on Wednesday it would hold a referendum in September to confirm its independence, unrecognised internationally for 16 years, and to consider becoming part of Russia.

Dnestr's Slav leaders declared independence from Moldova in communist times on the grounds that the Soviet republic's majority ethnic Romanian population might join Romania.

That never happened. But all attempts at mediation have failed and talks on the row, one of several "frozen conflicts" in the former Soviet Union, have bogged down in recent months.

"A referendum on the question of relations between Russia and Moldova will take place in Dnestr on September 17," the region's Olvia-press news agency said.

Voters would be asked two questions -- whether they backed policies upholding independence "and subsequent free attachment to the Russian Federation" and whether they considered rejecting independence and "subsequent integration in Moldova".

Dnestr's leaders, who have close links with conservative politicians in Moscow, have long planned the referendum.

They have also been watching talks on the future of Kosovo and suggesting that granting independence to Serbia's Albanian-dominated province, as diplomats say may happen this year, would set a precedent for their separatist cause.

Moldovan President Vladimir Voronin this week said a Dnestr referendum would have no legal force. Western states -- and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe which leads mediation efforts -- have ignored previous elections in Dnestr.

"The OSCE and other international organisations have said in advance that no one will recognise the results. And no one will go there," Voronin told reporters in Chisinau.

Dnestr's veteran leader, Igor Smirnov, told his legislature that "the final carve-up of former Soviet territory is now proceeding. It is therefore important to set out the framework of Dnestr's development, based on the will of the people".

Quoted by local media, he said leaders had discussed the referendum with Russia's foreign ministry.

Russian President Vladimir Putin gave new hope to rebel leaders like Smirnov this week by saying the frozen conflicts needed to be resolved bearing in mind the rights of nations "to resolve their own futures".

Dnestr fought a war with Moldova in 1992 after Soviet rule collapsed. Russian troops separated the sides and 1,200 remain despite Kremlin promises of withdrawal.

Moldova says it will offer Dnestr broad autonomy and decries the Russian presence as the main obstacle to a settlement.

Russia, wary of calls for Chechen independence, says it recognises any state's territorial integrity. But it also calls for the self-determination of nations to be upheld in conflicts.
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