Bomb threats make tiny Moldova, Ukraine’s neighbor, nervous

CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) — For tiny Moldova, an impoverished, landlocked nation that borders war-torn Ukraine but is not part of the European Union or NATO, it has been another week plagued by threats of bomb.

On a cloudy day outside the international airport serving Moldova’s capital Chisinau, hundreds of people lined up this week as bomb-sniffing dogs surveyed the surroundings. That is now a common scene in Europe’s poorest nation as it battles what observers believe are attempts to destabilize the former Soviet republic amid Russia’s war in Ukraine..

Since the beginning of July, Moldova has received nearly 60 bomb threats, with more than 15 reported so far this week, at locations ranging from the capital’s city hall to the airport, the supreme court, shopping malls and hospitals.

While no one has yet been charged in the bomb threats, most of which came via email and all of which turned out to be false, officials say they have traced the addresses of the computers to Russia, Ukraine and Belarus.

“It is part of the disinformation war against Moldova, which is ongoing,” said Valeriu Pasa, an analyst at the Chisinau watchdog.md think tank. “It could be part of the Russian effort to destabilize Moldova, as they use many different methods to do so.”

Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on February 24, Moldova, which has a population of 2.6 million people, has faced a multitude of crises. It has received more Ukrainian refugees. per capita than any other country; tensions have soared in the country’s breakaway region backed by Russia; faces an acute energy crisis; and like much of Europe, it is struggling with skyrocketing inflation.

Frequent bomb threats only add to the pressure on the country’s already overburdened authorities.

“It blocks many of the resources: police, investigators, technical services; it is a kind of intimidation, I would say, or harassment, of the Moldovan state systems and public services,” Pasa said.

Maxim Motinga, a prosecutor with Moldova’s Office for Fighting Organized Crime, told The Associated Press that since the bomb threats began, “practically every day we open criminal cases.”

“Right now, all criminal investigations are ongoing,” he said, adding that requests for official assistance from Russia and Ukraine have been made if “certain leads leading to the respective countries were established.”

“I hope we get some responses from those countries,” he said.

For Veaceslav Belbas, a 43-year-old Moldovan businessman returning from Turkey to Chisinau on Monday, a bomb threat scared him as his plane circled the capital’s airport for 30 minutes. After that, the plane made a U-turn and returned to Turkey.

“We prayed a lot and we finally landed,” he said. “For me, it was such a shock that I told my wife that this is my last flight.”

Tensions in Moldova soared in April after a series of real-world explosions occurred in the Russian-backed breakaway region of Transnistria, where Russia has a base of around 1,500 soldiers in a so-called frozen conflict zone. Fears grew that Moldova, which is not a NATO member and is militarily neutral, could be drawn into Russia’s wartime orbit. At least one Russian official has openly talked about grabbing enough land in southern Ukraine to link Russian-held areas from the mainland to Transnistria.

Observers noted that the explosions came as Moldova, which historically has close ties to Moscow, showed an increasing Western orientation and after it had applied to join the EU, which it did shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine. She was granted EU candidate status in late June, shortly before the bomb threats began.

Since Moldova gained its independence in 1991, it has been plagued by organized crime and official corruption. After the 2019 elections, a local oligarch attempted to seize power, sparking mass protests before fleeing the country. In 2014, several politicians and oligarchs had suspected ties to a scam in which $1 billion disappeared from local banks. No one has yet been convicted in that case.

Galina Gheorghes was returning to England from Moldova last month after attending a family reunion when a bomb threat canceled her flight. She says that she is mad because no one has been caught yet.

“It is very bad what is happening… unfortunately, ordinary people are suffering,” said Gheorghes, 35.

Amid a seemingly endless pattern of disruptive and costly threats, Moldova’s Interior Ministry said it wants to toughen punishments for anyone convicted of false bomb alerts by increasing fines and handing out longer prison sentences.

Chisinau airport has been hit by dozens of bomb threats since July and has tightened security in response. Radu Zanoaga, head of border police at the airport, says a specialized unit has been set up to save security officials the hassle of traveling from the city center whenever a bomb threat is made.

“At the moment, we are dealing with the situation in cooperation with other (state) agencies and institutions that operate within the airport,” he said. “There have been bomb alerts before, but not as many or as frequent as now.”

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Stephen McGrath reported from Sighisoara, Romania.

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Follow AP’s coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine

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