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Moldova: Transdniester Officials Block Russian Arms Withdrawal, Prevent OSCE Inspection

The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says authorities in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region yesterday prevented international monitors from inspecting a new round of Russian arms withdrawals. Russia has pledged to complete the withdrawal of its more than 2,000 troops and 40,000 tons of armaments from former Soviet Moldova by the end of this year and has already moved three trainloads of Russian weapons from the region. But Transdniester police yesterday stopped an OSCE team from inspecting a fourth consignment.

Prague, 22 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Officials in Moldova's breakaway Transdniester region have blocked Russia's arms pullout from the territory they control and prevented a team of international observers from visiting a Russian army ammunitions depot in the region.

The OSCE says Transdniester border guards yesterday refused to allow its inspectors to visit the ammunitions depot in Colbasna -- one of the three sites where huge quantities of Soviet-era arms and munitions are stockpiled.

Matti Sidoroff, spokesman for the OSCE mission in Moldova, told RFE/RL today that the OSCE's military monitors had been invited by the Russian army to inspect a new round of arms withdrawals. But Sidoroff said the team was stopped even though it had written permission from Transdniester leader Igor Smirnov to travel freely within the breakaway region's territory.

"In principle, the OSCE mission and the mission members have the right to move freely on the territory of Moldova, including Transdniester. We have a paper about this signed by [Transdniestrian leader] Mr. [Igor] Smirnov himself, and in our opinion this agreement should be respected."

Russian-speaking Transdniester -- a narrow stretch of land situated along the Dniester River between Moldova proper and Ukraine -- broke away from Moldova in 1990 over fears the Soviet republic would seek reunification with neighboring Romania. In 1992, Moldova and Transdniester fought a short war that ended with a Russia-mediated settlement enforced by Russian troops already stationed in the region.

No country has recognized the self-proclaimed Transdniester Republic.

The Russian arsenal in Transdniester belongs to the former 14th Soviet Army -- later the Russian Army -- which has been deployed in the region for decades. The 14th Army -- which several years ago changed its name to the Transdniester Operative Group of Russian Troops -- still has some 2,500 soldiers in the region, which Moscow says are necessary to guard the weapons and ammunition depots.

Under growing international pressure, Russia at a 1999 OSCE summit in Istanbul signed the adapted Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe, under which it pledged to withdraw all its troops and military equipment -- estimated at 50,000 weapons and more than 40,000 tons of ammunition -- from Transdniester by 2002. Much of the armaments, as well as the ammunition, were produced before World War II.

The breakaway region's leadership has constantly opposed the withdrawal of Russian troops and the destruction of the arms and munitions, which it says belong to the people of Transdniester.

Separatist leader Igor Smirnov's family and his associates control most of the region's economy, which is believed to be based mainly on arms and drugs smuggling. Analysts believe arms depots in Transdniester are an important source for international arms-smuggling rings.

But in July of last year, Russia finally began the long-delayed armament withdrawal from the region. The first three trainloads -- carrying some 3,000 tons of munitions from the more than 40,000 tons kept in the largest depot near the village of Colbasna -- left for Russia in December. The fourth trainload also was scheduled to leave Transdniester last month but has since been blocked by the separatist authorities.

Last month, Moscow also announced the evacuation of more than 12,000 tons of munitions from eastern Moldova by June, with the remaining 25,000 tons scheduled for destruction locally in Transdniester. Moreover, Russia said it will soon withdraw some 1,000 troops from the region.

Transdniester officials agreed with the withdrawal after Moscow reportedly accepted as compensation a $100-million reduction in the region's natural gas debt.

But over the weekend separatist forces blocked access routes to Colbasna, building concrete barriers and dismantling the railways in order to prevent the long-delayed departure of the fourth trainload of ammunition.

Vyacheslav Sapronov, head of Transdniester's industrial-military department, was quoted by Interfax as saying the disruption of the arms withdrawal process is a result of what he called "Russia's failure to respect its commitments by leaving a part of the military hardware to Transdniester."

Another top Transdniester official, General Vladimir Atamaniuc, who is in charge of the region's armed forces, yesterday said the OSCE delegation was denied access because it lacked proper clearance from the republic's leadership.

Atamaniuc said after the September attacks in the United States, the Transdniester, like all others, has stepped up security measures, especially in the area where the ammunition depots are located.

But OSCE spokesman Sidoroff remains optimistic that the Russian withdrawal will continue despite the current obstacles. Sidoroff says the OSCE is monitoring the process and doing everything possible to ensure that the deadline is met.

Sidoroff tells RFE/RL that the OSCE has created a fund to help cover the cost of the operation:

"One of the main things we have done is that we have created a voluntary fund to which several members states of the OSCE have contributed considerable amounts of money from which this evacuation of arms and ammunitions can be financed, or if not financed totally, anyway, supported considerably."

Sidoroff says one of the most important projects that will be financed by the voluntary fund is the construction of a $14-million facility in Transdniester that will allow the destruction of outdated ammunition and equipment on the spot.

But whether or not the arms destruction will be completed by the deadline largely depends on Russia's determination to fulfill its international commitments and at the same time rein in the Transdniester leadership's attempts to obstruct the process.